Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts (1j)


4. Emptiness (shunyata)


     One of the most important revelations of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra is that Great Nirvana is not empty of its own enduring Reality. Contrary to what some Buddhists teach and believe, the Buddha here declares that nirvanic Liberation actually has its own "form" (although this is imperceptible to contaminated worldly eyes) and is empty only in the sense of being free of suffering and of the 25 categories of painful existence into which beings get born while still trapped in samsara. In other words, Nirvana,which is equal to Liberation (moksha), the Buddha, and the Self, is not a zone of total nothingness or dreary blankness. For those who dwell within Great Nirvana (the abode of the Buddhas), it has its own manifest colourful and cool delights. Here is what the Buddha says on the question of Emptiness and Liberation:


     "Emptiness [shunyata] means that one can find nothing even after having sought it. Although the Nirgranthas [Jains] also have a 'nothing', Liberation is not like that. Emptiness is like this: concerning a honey jar, a butter jar, an oil jar, a water jar, or a yoghurt jar, no matter whether there is any yoghurt in the jar or not, it is still called a 'yoghurt jar', and similarly no matter whether there is any honey or water there or not, one still calls them a honey jar or a water jar. How can one then say that the jar is empty or that the jar is intrinsically empty in the absence of that [yoghurt and so forth]? If it has both form and colour, how is it empty? Liberation is not that sort of [utter] emptiness, for Liberation also has a perfection of shape and colour and thus, just as one says that a yoghurt pot is empty because there is no yoghurt in it, even though one perceives that it is not empty, one says that Liberation is empty, while it is not [actually] empty. How can one say that it is empty while it has form [rupa]? The term, 'empty', is applied to Liberation because it is devoid of the various aspects of the kleshas [mental afflictions], the 25 conventional modes of existence, suffering, mundane teachings, observances and arising perceptual domains, just as the yoghurt jar is devoid of yoghurt. Just as the form of the jar itself remains immutably, there is regarding [Liberation] utter Bliss, Joy, Permanence [nitya], Stability / Unshakeability [dhruva], Eternity [sasvata], supramundane Dharma, observances and perceptual domains. Like the form of the jar, Liberation is Permanent, Stable and Eternal; but the jar will [eventually] get broken, becaue it is merely established through causal circumstances. Because Liberation [moksha] is not created [akrta], it will not perish. That which is Liberation is an unfabricated Dhatu [Element], and that is the Tathagata (emphasis added)." (Tibetan version).


So-called "Emptiness", which is an absolutely key concept of Mahayana Buddhism, reveals itself here to be only empty of what is changing, afflicted and worldly -  not of the changeless and positive attributes of total Bliss, Joy, Imperturbability and Eternity. The "Emptiness" of nirvanic Liberation is something that was never constructed or put together and so can never die. And it is integrally linked to a knowing being -  the Buddha himself. That Buddha, we learn later in Dharmakshema's version of the sutra, is far from empty nothingness: he is, we are told, "the boundless Dharmadhatu [unbounded Realm of Truth/ the totality of all things]".


     Thus, we should never conceive of shunyata as something depressing or negative when applied to Great Nirvana and the Buddha. It is the very opposite of that. It is the open and spacious perfection of all good qualities -  the ungraspable (yet ever-present) sphere of unending highest happiness (param-sukha).




5. Miscellaneous Quotations from the Nirvana Sutra


The Buddha states:


     "Non-existence [ = non-samsaric existence] is called 'non-arising'; non-arising is called 'non-dying'; non-dying is called 'without attributes' [alakshana / animitta]; without attributes is called 'unfettered'; unfettered is called 'non-attachment'; non-attachment is called 'untainted' [anasrava]; untainted is called 'wholesome'; wholesome is called 'uncompounded' [asamskrta]; uncompounded is the eternity / constancy [nitya] of Great Nirvana; the eternity / constancy of Great Nirvana is the Self. The Self is pure, the pure is bliss. The Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure are the Tathagata." (Dharmakshema)





"[The perfected Bodhisattva] is endowed with perfect Knowing [jnana]. Knowing is perceiving Eternity, Bliss, the Self, and Purity in the Tathagata and that all beings are endowed with the Buddha-dhatu. He sees the two attributes / aspects of dharmas [phenomena]: emptiness and non-emptiness; eternity and impermanence; bliss and non-bliss; the Self and the non-Self; purity and impurity; contrary phenomena / qualities [dharmas] that can be eliminated and contrary phenomena that cannot be eliminated; contrary phenomena that arise from causal conditions, contrary phenomena that are seen through causal conditions, contrary phenomena that mature from causal conditons, contrary phenomena that do not mature from causal conditions. This is called [being] 'endowed with perfect Knowing'. Noble son, this is called 'a Bodhisattva's endowment with ten qualities' [which includes others not quoted here], which allows him to clearly perceive the absence of attributes [lakshana / nimitta] of Nirvana." (Dharmakshema).




The Buddha speaks of the Bodhisattva's understanding of Dharma (underlying, undying cosmic Truth):


     "How does a Bodhisattva-mahasattva recollect [anusmrti] Dharma? Noble son, a Bodhisattva-mahasattva reflects thus: 'The Dharma which the Buddhas have taught is most excellent and superlative. Because of this Dharma, even ordinary beings are able to attain the result in the present. This authentic Dharma alone has no time or season. If it is only seen with the Dharma-eye and not with the physical eye, no simile can serve as an analogy for it. It is unborn, unarisen, unabiding, not perishing, without beginning, without end, uncompounded [asmaskrta] and immeasurable. It provides a dwelling for those who are homeless, a refuge for those without a refuge, light for those without light, it enables those who have not reached the far shore to reach it, it is unimpeded fragrance for places without fragrance; it displays what cannot be seen; it is unwavering / imperturbable, it does not change; it is not long, it is not short. Although it is utterly divorced from happiness [sukha], it is the ultimate, subtle bliss [sukha] of security. Separated from matter / form [rupa], it is not matter, and yet it is matter. And so forth [regarding the other skandhas] down to separated from consciousness, it is not consciousness, and yet it is consciousness. Separated from karmic action, it is not karmic action; separated from the fetters [samyojana], it is not a fetter; separated from substantial things [vastu], it is not a substantial thing, and yet it is a substantial thing. Separated from perceptual bases [dhatu], it is not a perceptual base, and yet it is a perceptual base. Separated from existents [bhava], it is not an existent, and yet it is an existent. Separated from perceptual spheres [ayatana], it is not a perceptual sphere, and yet it is a perceptual sphere. Separated from causes, it is not a cause, and yet it is a cause. Separated from results, it is not a result, and yet it is a result. It is not false, and it is not real / true [satya]. Though it is separated from all that is real, yet it is real. It does not arise and it does not cease. Though utterly separated from arising and ceasing, yet it is cessation. It does not have attributes, yet it does have attributes. It is not teaching nor is it not teaching, and yet it is a teacher. It is not fearful anxiety, nor is it security, but separated from all fearful anxiety, it is security. It is not patient acceptance / endurance [ksanti] nor is it not patient acceptance / endurance, but utterly separated from what is not patient acceptance / endurance, it is patient acceptance / endurance. It is not transquillity [shamatha], nor is it not tranquillity, but separated from all tranquillity, it is tranquillity - the pinnacle of all dharmas. It can utterly eradicate all kleshas [mental afflictions], it is totally pure [vyavadana], it is devoid of perceptual attributes [nimitta], and it is liberated from perceptual attributes. It is the ultimate dwelling-place of countless beings; it extinguishes all the fires of Samsara; it is the abode where the Buddhas disport themselves; it is Eternal [nitya] and Unchanging [aviparinama].' (Emphasis added). This is how a Bodhisattva recollects Dharma." (Dharmakshema).