Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts (1h)


  Let us now return to the several fables in the Fa-xian version which front the chapter on "The Tathagatagarbha" and which are quoted above. We shall start with the introductory comments to the story of the impoverished man and the cache of hidden treasure within his house.


     The Buddha is asked by Kashyapa whether, like the Buddha, the beings of the 25 categories of existence also have a Self. The Buddha replies that the "True Self is the Tathagata-dhatu". Kashyapa had not mentioned the word, "true", so this addition by the Buddha is significant: it implicitly draws a distinction between what people wrongly think of as their self -  what in this study we shall call the "ego", the construct of the five grasping skandhas  -  and what is truly the Self. Furthermore, that Self (defined as the Tathagatagarbha) is already present inside each being; it is already there within, but fails to be seen. This is a vital point to bear in mind, since there are many Buddhists and scholars who contend that the Tathagatagarbha/dhatu is nothing more than a metaphor, a figure of speech conveying the idea of the mere potential for becoming a Buddha, and that there is actually nothing real that corresponds to this "Tathagatagarbha" inside the being at all. It is just a verbal symbol for something that can be developed and cultivated through hard practice, they say - just a phantom concept, a device to encourage people to practise Dharma, but not in any way real, still less any kind of Self. Well, the Buddha here clearly annuls this argument. By voluntarily using the adjective "true", he is automatically declaring that what he is speaking of is no fiction, no fantasy, no mere "figure of speech" -  it is actual, living, genuine Reality. There are numerous instances in the Nirvana Sutra, in all its versions, where the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the Buddha-dhatu or the Self (which is the Buddha) is very real indeed; in fact, it is the only dharma (phenomenon) which is truly real, since it is characterised by non-conditionality and eternality, and is non-different from eternal Dharma and Nirvana. At a certain point in the Dharmakshema sutra, the Buddha says of the Buddha's being (kaya) that because it is free from causal conditioning, it is indeed possessed of the Self, and that because this is the Self, it is unchanging / eternal (nitya), blissful (sukha) and pure (subha). That is precisely the key, the intrinsic quality of the authentic Self - its changeless, unconditioned everlastingness. Now, if the Tathagata-dhatu were merely a potential, it would have to grow, develop and mature. But it does none of these things. It is already perfect, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. But we do not see it. It is we who have spiritually to grow, develop and mature towards a vision of the True Self -  not the Self that has to grow big enough for us to be able to discern it!


     At this point, we might reflect upon what the term Dhatu (as in Buddha-dhatu / Tathagata-dhatu) actually means. It has the fundamental denotation of "element", and connotes a primary, principal constituent. It also has the sense of a "sphere" or "state of existence". So the Buddha-dhatu is that Awakened Element or sphere within us, into which we can enter when we have cleared away all the mental and moral obstacles which block ingress and which make us outsiders to our true nature.


     But let us look at the Buddha's first little parable on this matter. He tells of a "cache of precious treasure" that is buried within a pauper's home. Now, the implications of the imagery are important: the hoard of treasure really is there, hidden, but real. It is not just a "potential" -  it is solid and present. True, the poor man has the "potential" to unearth that treasure, but the treasure itself is actually existent. Moreover, it is "precious" - not some obsolete collection of coins of outdated value, or some artefacts of past glory; it is precious NOW. 


     The irony, of course, is that the occupant of the house is living in abject poverty, even though there is this hoard of priceless treasure at his very feet. The poverty-stricken house stands for the five skandhas - the physical form, feelings, thoughts, volitions, and passing quanta of consciousness of the being's ordinary body and mind. The mass of treasure symbolises the bliss of Nirvana and the Awakenedness (bodhi) of our true nature. Yet each of us lives within this pitiful mundane body-mind construct without realising that we are subsisting in a state of spiritual poverty while untold riches are lying right within our reach.


     The poor man of the parable is not unaware of the existence of the treasure: he has heard of it from some source or other, and that is why he is reluctant to leave his home. But he has no idea where the treasure actually is. This is his folly. He clings to the house, but does not dig and search for the treause. He remains attached to the surface of things, but does not delve into the depths of his inner "home" (his embodied being).


     It is the function of the "skilled treasure expert" -  the Buddha  -  to point out where the hidden treasure of our Soul (atman) lies hidden and how to reach it. He is the trustworthy guide who encourages us to work in Dharma ("do some work for me and I'll give you wealth and treasure") and to "accept with confidence" the reality of the indwelling Tathagata-dhatu. If we do so, we shall discover that he has not misled us: the Buddha will truly "produce the goods", and we shall stand there in delight and wonderment as we perceive the "precious" inexhaustible Soul ("true Self") within our body's being.