Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts (1i)


When we turn to the parable of the king's wrestler and his lost jewel, we encounter some very interesting facts. Firstly, the wrestler's jewel (as with the poor man's treasure in the preceding parable) is said to be "precious". It is salutary to remember this when scholars -  as some do -  attempt to "rubbish" the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha or play down its importance. Moreover, the wrestler's jewel is a panacea -  it can eliminate all infections. This refers to the poisonings which beings inflict upon themselves through indulgence in the kleshas (especially desire, hatred, delusion, and pride of self). The jewel that is the Buddha-dhatu can purge these poisons, these infectious diseases, from the being's system. Next we note that the jewel gets displaced through acts of violence: it is during a bout with a rival that the wrestler's gem gets dislodged from his head and penetrates into his flesh. This is clearly symbolic: we lose contact with our true nature when we give way to acts of aggression, anger and harmfulness. Such emotions cover over our pristine essence, and submerge it in the "flesh" -  the desires and drives of the body. The jewel of the Buddha-dhatu seems, from our worldly perspective, to be nowhere to be found -  even when we search for it. The vital point is to seek it with the right attitude of mind! The wrestler is a sceptic: he believes that the jewel is irretrievably lost and can never be found; worse, he even deplores what he views as the impermanent, insubstantial nature of that jewel -   it is like a phantom, he says, "quick to arise and quick to perish", and he castigates the doctor (the Buddha) for speaking mere "empty words" when the latter tells him that the jewel is actually within. This part of the parable is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the Buddha's intent in relating this story: the wrestler is emblematic of the type of person who does not believe that the Tathagata-dhatu is truly present within the being and that it can be found. Such a person labours under the grievous misapprehension that the gem (the Dhatu) is "impermanent, phantom-like, arising and perishing". If ever there is a "heresy" within Tathagata-garbha Buddhism, then it is this one! Yet to this day one encounters Buddhists and scholars who claim that the Buddha-dhatu is something without genuine reality -  that it is merely a teaching device and refers to the potential for development of one's mind through practice. If the Dhatu does exist at all, they say, then it is "empty" like everything else. This relativising, sceptical, dismissive approach to the Buddha-dhatu is a very serious deviation from Buddha-Dharma. Although the Buddha-dhatu is indeed ultimate Emptiness in a positive sense (ungraspable, unsubstantial, yet real -  and free from all impermanence and suffering), it is specifically characterised as "not-empty" by the Buddha later in the sutra. The Fa-xian version records the Buddha as saying this: "If you meditate upon the Tathagata-dhatu and treat it as Emptiness (sunyata) and non-Self (anatman), you should know that you will be like a moth falling into a flame." In other words, you will be committing a form of spiritual suicide! The wrestler is in danger of succumbing to this false view that his jewel - his true nature - is like all other objects - a transient, passing, conditioned thing that is created and eventually gets lost and destroyed. But the Buddha-dhatu is the very opposite of that. As the Buddha says a little later: "The Tathagata-dhatu cannot be killed. Those who die are said to be short-lived, while the Tathagata-dhatu is said to be true life. It cannot be cut off or destroyed ..." This is the lesson which the wrestler -  and we present-day followers of the Buddha's Truth -  can valuably learn and take to heart. To reject the ever-present Buddha-dhatu as impermanent, empty and non-Self is a spiritual "perversity" (so the Buddha declares), which can only generate suffering. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra such a view is even said to be inspired by the demon, Mara! Clearly, the wrestler (and his spiritual kindred) need to recognise that when the Buddha speaks of "non-Self" and Emptiness (shunyata) in connection with living beings, he is referring to "the mundane / conventional self", not to what might be termed the "Buddha-Self". If beings fail to make the necessary distinction between these two, they will be "unable to know the True Self". And in the world of the Nirvana Sutra, that is the ultimate tragedy. For the True Self is none other than the Buddha himself, and fully seeing the Buddha (or more precisely, the Buddha-dhatu, which inheres in the depths of the Buddha's kaya, or being) is the very gateway to Liberation itself.


     Now let's give our attention to the parable of the sickly infant and the bitter herbs which are applied to his mother's breasts. The story is pregnant with meaning (if you will forgive the pun!). Firstly, we note that the child is sickly from the very start. This symbolises the human condition: we take birth precisely due to our pre-existing spiritual malaise -  that of craving and ignorance. There was (according to the Buddha's teachings) no time when sentient beings were once in perfect spiritual health but then lapsed and "became" ignorant and desire-ridden: they always were thus, from the beginningless beginning. But equally, they have always had potential access to the life-giving milk of the Buddha-dhatu, which has never been far away from them (just as the mother is always tending her child). We are told in Fa-xian that the Tathagata-dhatu "nurtures /  sustains" each person -  analogous to the way in which the caring mother nurtures her infant. The metaphysical world painted by this parable is thus one in which all mundane beings are ill and ignorant (the baby symbolises nescience - ignorance), yes, but that they have the requisite curative medicine right at hand. But first, certain steps need to be taken.


     First of all, the being needs to be put under the charge of a doctor -  the Buddha, the spiritual doctor of all beings. He administers the medicine of "non-Self"; and while that medicine is being digested (spiritually absorbed), the being must keep away from all religious teachings of eternal Soul or Self (the "milk"), as the being is not yet in a fit state to receive such doctrines and successfully digest them. To prevent the being from lapping up such teachings, the doctor also applies bitter herbs onto the mother's breasts. Now, in the Tibetan version of this parable, the smearing of the bitter substance onto the mother's breasts is equated with the teaching of "Emptiness". This is an even more radical teaching than that of "non-Self", since every single phenomenon (whether inner or outer) is not just "not a Self", but is completely without any individual nature or essence of its own. However, the key point to note is that once this dual doctrine of non-Self and Emptiness has kept the being away from all ideas of a permanent Soul for a sufficiently long interval, then those bitter teachings can be "wiped away" (wiped from the mother's breasts) and the truly life-giving milk of the Tathagata-dhatu can be freely dispensed. The child must not any longer blindly fear the milk which had previously been withheld from him/ her. This means that the being must not go on clinging to the doctrine of non-Self and Emptiness and feel afraid of the "True Self" teaching, once the being has been purged of all unhealthy and distorted concepts of a permanent personal and egoistic Self. That teaching of "non-Self" and "Emptiness" (as absolutely central doctrines, dominating all else) had their time and their fitness. But now that time has passed. It is time to move on to a higher stage. In fact, the being now needs to drink his or her fill of the highly nutritious milk of the Tathagata-dhatu, which is the best food the being could ever imbibe, once he or she is ready to digest it. The non-Self and Emptiness teachings are not totally rejected, but are now vitally balanced by the culminational doctrine of the Buddha-dhatu.


     This parable is of signal importance for placing the non-Self / Emptiness ideas into their correct context and perspective. They should be seen as a practical medicine, the benefits of which are enormous. But they should not become the sole staple spiritual food of the being once the being is on the road to spiritual health and well-being (once the "mundane ego" has been seen through for the illusion that it really is). Now that the remedial medicine has been ingested and absorbed, the life-giving Buddha-dhatu becomes the appropriate nutriment that can cause the child (the spiritually thirsting being) to grow into vigorous, spiritual adulthood ...



     Some further highly significant statements by the Buddha on the Tathagata-garbha / Buddha-dhatu include the following (these are from Dharmakshema, and are translated here by Stephen Hodge). We note how the Nirvana Sutra does not totally cast aside the notion of Emptiness, but reveals it to be the Knowingness (jnana) that is characteristic of the genuine Middle Way, a Knowingness which sees both the non-Self and the eternal Self:


     "The essence of the Self [atman] is the subtle Tathagata-garbha ..."


     "The Buddha-dhatu of beings inheres / abides within the five skandhas."


     "The Buddha-dhatu is the True Self and, like a diamond, for example, it cannot be destroyed".


     "You have asked what the Buddha-dhatu is, so listen with sincerity, listen with sincerity. I shall analyse and elucidate it for your sake. Nobly-born one, the Buddha-dhatu is termed 'Ultimate Emptiness' [paramartha-shunyata], and Ultimate Emptiness is termed "Awareness / Knowingness" [jnana]. So-called 'Emptiness' is neither viewed as Emptiness nor as non-Emptiness. The wise perceive Emptiness and non-Emptiness, the Eternal [nitya] and the Impermanent [anitya], Suffering [duhkha] and Bliss [sukha], Self [atman] and non-Self [anatman]. The Empty is the totality of samsara, and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana; non-Self is samsara, and the Self is Great Nirvana [maha-nirvana]. To perceive the Emptiness of everything and not to perceive non-Emptiness is not termed the Middle Way; to perceive the non-Self of everything and not to perceive the Self is not termed the Middle Way. The Middle Way is termed the Buddha-dhatu. For this reason, the Buddha-dhatu is eternal and unchanging. Because beings are enveloped in ignorance, they are unable to perceive it. Sravakas [less advanced followers of the Buddha] and Pratyekabuddhas [solitary Buddhas who generally do not teach] perceive the Emptiness of everything, but do not perceive the non-Emptiness; they perceive the absence of Self in all things but do not perceive the Self. For this reason, they do not attain the Ultimate Emptiness. Because they do not attain the Supreme Emptiness, they do not walk the Middle Way. Because they lack the Middle Way, they do not perceive the Buddha-dhatu." (Dharmakshema).



It is noteworthy that only seeing Emptiness and non-Self in every dharma  (phenomenon) is not the way to Buddhic Knowledge (jnana - the Knowingness which is empty of suffering and of tangible graspability). It is only when one also sees the counterbalancing reality of non-Emptiness and Self (atman) - the realm of Great Nirvana - that one penetrates through to Supreme Emptiness and thence has a vision of the Buddha-dhatu. It is instructive to bear this teaching in mind, when Buddhist teachers of other traditions assert that one has to see absolutely everything as empty and nowhere and nowhen see non-Emptiness or Self. The Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra differentiates between the emptiness of vain worldly phenomena (vain because they are always changing and thus lack true Selfhood in their constantly shifting modality) and the full (although conceptually and physically ungraspable) immanent-transcendent sphere of Great Nirvana. It is part of the vision of a Buddha, it would seem, to be able to perceive what is impermanent and what is Eternal; what is not-the-Self and what truly is the Self. This is the genuine Middle Path between one-sided, unbalanced extremes.