Basic Teachings of the Nirvana Sutra

Basic Teachings of the “Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra”, by Dr. Tony Page

     The living heart of the message delivered by the Buddha in the Nirvana Sutra is that the Buddha never, ever, truly dies or becomes destroyed. Obliteration or extinction of his innermost being is an utter impossibility. Only his physical form passes away, but that physical form is in any case an impermanent Buddhic projection or conjuration –  not the ultimate Buddha who lies beyond it, the Buddha who knows no beginning in time or space and equally knows no end. The Buddha is not a being of flesh, sinews, blood and bones, but is the eternal Dharmakaya (“Body of Truth”), which is unfabricated, unconditioned, without bounds, ungraspable, invisible, and deathless.

     The second key teaching of this sutra is the doctrine of the concealed presence within all beings of the “Buddhadhatu” (“Buddha-Element”, “Buddha-Principle”, “Buddha-Sphere”). This term has long been (mis)translated as “Buddha-nature” and is now well known as such; but it is perhaps advisable henceforth to use the correct expression, Buddha-dhatu, to avoid the impression that what is being spoken of here is the Buddha’s “temperament” or “character” or “disposition” within us. This is not quite the meaning ascribed to it in the Nirvana Sutra. The Buddha-dhatu has more of the sense of “Buddha Factor” or “Buddha Principle” than “nature”. 

What is the Buddha-dhatu?

     It is the uncreated, unbegotten, utterly pure, unconditioned, inviolate, indestructible, steadfast and unshakeable, eternal Buddhic Essence (svabhava) of all sentient beings. It is the life-force (jivaka), the nurturing power within the being which sustains him or her and which, when fully seen and known, transforms that being into a Buddha. It is the “True Self” (satyatman) or the “Great Self” (mahatman) of the Buddha himself, and is all-knowing (sarvajna)Even in the Pali suttas, the Buddha never, ever, states that he, the Tathagata, is “non-Self”, just as he never, ever, states that Nirvana is non-Self. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, this is highly significant. The Buddha is Nirvana and is the only Real Self that exists in the cosmos. Another term for this is the ‘Buddha-dhatu’. This is nothing less than Reality (not just a metaphor pointing to some future potential). It is present within us, right here, right now. And it is not just another way of speaking of “Emptiness” or merely a “skilful means” or clever tactic –  without any existing Reality to it –  as is popularly claimed by secular Buddhist scholars and other nihilistically inclined commentators. The Buddha-dhatu is the immortal Ever-Real itself.

     Another name for this Buddha-dhatu is Tathagata-garbha. The literal meaning of this expression is “Buddha-Womb” or “Buddha-Embryo”. The term implies that it is needful for the Buddhist practitioner to enter into the Buddhic Womb deep inside him/herself in order to be re-born as a new Buddha. And that Buddha-Womb inheres in the very depths of the Buddha’s ultimate being itself, in his Dharmakaya (primordial true being). The Buddha is thus seen as the generative and sustaining source of everlasting life. He likens himself to a great lake which gives rise to all the life-streams of the gods and humans and to a great ocean upon which they all converge in the longest-lasting life of all – that of the Buddha himself. 

     Although the term, Tathagata-garbha, does include the connotation of “embryo”, the Tathagata-garbha should not be viewed as something which is itself growing, developing or maturing into perfection. It is already perfect, pure and replete with all virtuous, inconceivable Buddha-qualities.  One needs to think of the Tathagata-garbha in this connection in association with how the Buddha was in the womb of his own mother, Queen Maya: he entered into her womb (as told in the Lalita Vistara Sutra) radiant, complete, perfect, totally aware, and dwelt there full of light, in the lotus posture dispensing teachings to those who could see him. In that great Lalita Vistara Sutra we read of how the “embryonic” Buddha in his mother’s womb was: “luminous, glorious, gracious, beautiful to see, seated with his legs crossed … [and] shone like pure gold …” (Voice of Buddha, Dharma Publishing, p. 109). In analogous fashion, the Tathagata-garbha (the immanent Buddha-Self) is perfect, of gold-like radiance and value, and complete within every being –  but is hidden deep inside, removed from worldly sight. What is necessary is simply that the worldly being should inwardly advance ever closer to realisation –  that is, perception – of the inner Tathagata-garbha, by clearing away all the kleshas (negative mental states and tendencies, such as greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and jealousy), which conceal it from view. The eradication of such moral and emotional afflictions allows the Buddha-dhatu or Tathagata-garbha to stand revealed in all its shining splendour; but the Tathagata-garbha itself remains forever unchangeable, firm and immovable (dhruva) as the quintessence and cause of Buddhahood.

     Because of the presence of the sacred Buddha-dhatu within the depths of each being’s mind, all beings should be treated with kindness, compassion and an attitude of equality: one should not kill any living person or creature, and one should desist from eating meat, as flesh consumption “destroys great loving-kindness” and causes fear to arise in numerous animals, great and small. The Bodhisattva (trainee Buddha) should never inflict harm on any being and should instead be intent on bestowing “eternal life” upon each person and creature, by leading that being –  through the use of skilful means (kausalya-upaya) – into the sanctuary of Nirvana: highest, everlasting peace and happiness.

     Should one renounce Nirvana oneself, in order to help others towards it first? According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the answer is “no”: one should first attain Awakening (bodhi) and Nirvana for oneself, and then one will best be placed to lead others to it too. Yet while one is seeking Awakening for oneself, one should act for the benefit of others also. The motivation for reaching Awakening should be the dual one of finding enduring happiness for oneself and of pointing the way to such happiness for others as well.

     What constitutes the Path to Awakening and Nirvana? The chief route advocated by this sutra is the extirpation of the negative mental states and immoral modes of behaviour (including selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, avarice, and wrong livelihood –  such as being a soldier or killer of animals), the cultivation of the paramitas (moral perfections, such as generosity, and meditation), the leading of a pure and harmless life, faithful study, practice and veneration of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, and the constant meditative cultivation of the idea of the Buddha’s eternity, unchangeability and indestructibility. The Buddha states: “The Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] will reside in the homes of those who constantly think that the Tathagata is eternal [nitya], unshakeable[dhruva] and everlasting [sasvata].” (Tibetan version, Chapter Eight, “The Four Methods of Teaching”). Worship of, and the making of offerings (e.g. incense) to, the Nirvana Sutra, are also positive acts which generate wholesome karma and bring one closer to Nirvana.

I recommend that all serious students and practitioners of “Nirvana Sutra Buddhism” study and absorb the teachings of other Tathagatagarbha sutras too (such as the Angulimaliya Sutra and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra): they are enormously important and tremendously positive. The student of “Nirvana Sutra Buddhism” is also strongly urged to read and absorb the magnificently inspirational teachings of the Buddhist Tantra called the All-Creating King (Kunjed Gyalpo), which has the supreme, primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra (Awakened Mind itself), teach how he “is everything” and that all things are “One Self” – the utterly pure Mind of Buddha.


–  Dr. Tony Page

© Dr Tony Page 2004