Selected Extracts from the ‘Nirvana Sutra’

Selected passages from the “Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra”

The great value of this “Selected Extracts” section is that it offers brand-new and reliable translations of important passages of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (from its three main versions) by Buddhist scholar and translator, Stephen Hodge. Please note, however, that I have taken the liberty of changing Stephen’s “permanent” (Sanskrit, nitya) to “eternal” (in the sense of enduring through all time and beyond), as I believe this better fits the supra-mundane meaning of the text at the relevant points.

1) On the definitive nature of the teachings of the Nirvana Sutra.

The narrator of the sutra opens the text with the following words:

     Thus have I heard. At one time, the Blessed One was staying in the forest of the twin sal trees located in the territory of the Mallas on the banks of the Hiranyavati River in Kusinagara …

     When it was dawn on the day of the full moon in the month of Vaisakha, the time for passing into Parinirvana [ultimate Nirvana at the time of death] approaching, the Blessed One communicated to all beings, from the pinnacle of existence (bhavagra) downwards, in the languages of each of those regions, with words which expressed his meaning with exhaustive thoroughness … He also spoke in that manner regarding the final explanation he would give to the questions of all beings. (Tibetan version).

We have to note here that the Buddha is giving, in this Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the final, definitive presentation of his Doctrine (Dharma). This sutra effectively constitutes the Buddha’s “last will and testament” regarding how he wants his Dharma to be understood. This is not a provisional or superficial formulation of his teachings, but the ultimate statement of the intended meanings (sandha-vacana) of Buddha-Dharma in the most thoroughgoing manner possible.

     In fact, the Nirvana Sutra is stated by the Buddha to be the unique culmination of all his teachings. He tells his follower, Mahakasyapa, of its greatness thus:

     “This sutra is called the Mahaparinirvana. It is auspicious in the beginning, auspicious in the middle, and auspicious in the end; it is meaningful, skilfully phrased, unique, perfect, pure, a holy way of living (brahma-carya), great, a diamond-like treasury, and highly renowned.

     “For example, noble son: just as the eight great rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna, and so on – flow into the great ocean, in the same way, those who are victorious over all the Maras [demons] … abandon their body at death and merge [anugacchanti] into this same Mahaparinirvana [Great Complete Nirvana]. Therefore it is called Mahaparinirvana.

     “Again, for example, the various sciences, such as medicine and the three sciences, are gathered up (samavasaranam gacchanti) in their respective higher teachings (uttara-tantra); similarly, all the various secret [guhya] Dharma gates, the intended meaning of the words [sandha-vacana] uttered by the Tathagatas, are gathered up in this Mahaparinirvana [Sutra]. Therefore, it is called the Mahaparinirvana [Sutra].

     “For example, a farmer tends his fields with a great plough and plants seeds during the summer, hoping that they will ripen. When they do ripen, then there is a successful conclusion to everything and his hopes are fulfilled. Similarly, even though they have cultivated every samadhi [deep meditation] in the sutras, people still want the quintessence [rasa] of those other sutras; but the quintessence of this sutra is the all-fulfilling conclusion [sarva-nispatti-nistha]. All beings will cross beyond all modes of [worldly, samsaric] existence by means of it.

     “Again, noble son: for example, all footprints of no matter what creature are encompassed by an elephant’s footprint. The elephant’s footprint is said to be the best of all those, the most excellent, the foremost. Similarly, noble son, no matter which of those samadhis [meditative absorptions] in those sutras –  they are all encompassed by this Mahaparinirvana [Sutra]. This Mahaparinirvana Sutra is said to be the best, the most excellent, the foremost of all those samadhis in those sutras.” (Tibetan version, Chapter Seven: “The Name and Virtues of the Sutra”).

     In Chapter Fourteen of the Tibetan Nirvana Sutra – entitled “The Letters” – the Buddha indicates how this sutra is of the most eminent value, containing the highest level of teachings, which can transform the follower into a great Bodhisattva. The sutra is nothing less than the summation and culmination of the entire Dharma. The Buddha says:

     “… the very ultimate (uttarottara) of the meaning of all sutras is taught by this sutra. Not one single syllable or tittle has been taught that has previously been heard by any sravaka [follower of the Buddha] or pratyekabuddha [solitary, self-taught Buddha]. This sutra is supremely excellent (varottama). For example, just as the people of Uttarakuru in the north are virtuous, likewise, those who have listened to this great sutra have become supramundane; you should know that they are Bodhisattva-mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas]. Therefore, this signifies that [this sutra] is a great uttara-tantra [culminational teaching] … [this sutra is] the uttarottara [absolutely supreme] of all Mahayana discourses …”

Thus, the student of Buddhism should be wary of the claim (made by some) that this sutra contains merely provisional, rather than ultimate, teachings. Such a claim finds no support in the sutra itself;  indeed, it is directly and repeatedly contradicted and denied by the ultimate authority within the whole of Buddhism – the Buddha himself. Nor do any other sutras teach that the Nirvana Sutra constitutes a lesser level of doctrine. Such a view would seem, therefore, to be based on ignorance of the text (a very widespread phenomenon!) and on a probable misplaced uneasiness over the Nirvana Sutra’s affirmative teachings on the reality of the supramundane Self.

     The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is actually a great bestower of kindness and happiness upon all those who engage with it. The Buddha says:

     “Five things are attained in reliance upon this Mahaparinirvana Sutra: firm-stability [dhruva], eternity [nitya], purity [parivishuddhi], superiority / excellence [parama], and distinction / otherness / not like others [anyatha] and the absence of taints [anasrava], for it brings about benefit, happiness and kindness [anukampa] for all beings.” (Dharmakshema).

2. The Teaching on the Self

     In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha upholds his earlier teaching that what the ordinary person regards as his or her “self” is in fact “not the Self” (anatman). That is to say, the five skandhas (constituent elements) which make up our “mundane ego” are not the essence of what we are. What are these skandhas? They are: 1) form/ matter;  2) feeling;  3) ideation/perception;  4) intention-related impulses;  5) consciousness. None of these, whether taken singly or together, constitutes our Self (atman).

     However, according to the Buddha’s final Mahayana teachings, as embodied in this Mahaparinirvana Sutra, there does exist a “true Self”. This is equated with the Buddhic Element (Buddha-dhatu) which resides deep within all beings, beneath the coverings of negative states of mind and character which have, since beginningless time, concealed this Supramundane essence from view.

     Here follows a discussion from Chapter Four of our sutra (Tibetan version) between the Buddha’s monks, who have long been meditating on (“cultivating”) the notion of impermanence, suffering, and non-Self, and the Buddha, who now teaches them to balance their practice with the recognition that there is a Self, and that it is eternal and unchanging:

     … when those monks heard that the Tathagata [Buddha] was going to pass into Parinirvana [Complete Nirvana, at death] , they became downhearted. Murmuring “How terrible!”, their eyes brimming with tears, they bowed their heads at the Tathagata’s feet and circumambulated him many times. Then they said this to the Blessed One [Bhagavat]: “Blessed One, you have related to us your teaching that suffering, impermanence, and non-Self is most excellent [just as] the footprint of an elephant is the greatest of all footprints. Thus, we shall eradicate our attachment to [the Realm of ] Desire, eradicate our attachment to [the Realm of ] Form, eradicate our attachment to the Formless [Realm],  if we repeatedly cleave to, and cultivate, the idea of impermanence; all ignorance will be eradicated; all arrogance will be totally eliminated. 

     “… Blessed One, for example, a person might drink wine and become intoxicated, not even knowing who he is himself, unable to distinguish right and wrong, unable to recognise his mother, his sisters or his daughters; he falls head over heels and soils his whole body with urine and excrement; later he becomes sober and learns for some reason what befell him and reflects how useless alcohol is and decides to rid himself of all his sins. Then he thoroughly trains himself to regard the drinking of alcohol as utterly useless, and gives it up. Likewise, Blessed One, this world of living beings has spun around from time without beginning like a dancer. Whirling around, completely confused, they are unable to recognise their mothers, sisters or daughters, and so get lustful thoughts towards their mothers, sisters or daughters, and like those inebriated by alcohol, they experience suffering. Then those people who have a sense of shame, just like a drunk becoming sober, train themselves thoroughly to regard the world as useless and then totally leave behind its miseries.

     “Moreover, just as a castor-oil shrub (eranda) does not have a core, likewise this body does not have a self (atman), a being (sattva), a life-essence (jiva), an individual (pudgala), manavanara or an acting agent (kartr). In that way, we repeatedly cultivate the idea that a self does not exist. For example, just as it is pointless to plant even ten million (koti) dry husks, likewise is this body, which is devoid of a Self. For example, just as the flowers of wheat (valla-puspa) have no fragrance, likewise this body is devoid of a Self. In that manner do we cultivate repeatedly the idea that this body is devoid of a Self.

     “The Blessed One has instructed us [in this way]: ‘Monks, all phenomena [dharma] are devoid of a Self. Practise thus! Those who practise thus will eliminate clinging to self (atma-graha). When clinging to self has been utterly eliminated, Nirvana will be attained.’ Blessed One, since all phenomena are thus devoid of a Self, we repeatedly cultivate the idea that a Self does not exist. Moreover, just as a bird leaves no tracks in the sky, so we shall detach ourselves from all types of [false] views when we have cultivated the idea that there is no Self.”

     The Blessed One asked, “Do you know how to cultivate that kind of meditation?”

     The monks replied, “Blessed One, if we were to cultivate anything contrary to the idea of suffering, impermanence and non-Self, we would be like a staggering drunk who sees the heavens, mountain peaks, the ground, the sun, the moon, trees and hills whirling around, though they are not moving; for those worldly beings who do not cultivate the idea of suffering, impermanence, and non-Self are just like drunks. [For this reason], Blessed One, we have cultivated it properly.”

The Blessed One said, “Monks, I shall explain the meaning of this example. With regard to the meaning of this verse, you do not clearly understand, ‘this is the meaning, this is the letter’. Just as a staggering drunk sees the heavens, mountain peaks, the ground, the sun, the moon, trees and hills whirling around, though they are not moving, in the same way do those who are utterly confused, ensnared by numerous kinds of distorted notions, adopt the idea that they are a Self, eternal, happy and pure.

     “Herein, ‘Self’ signifies the Buddha; ‘eternal’ signifies the Dharma-kaya [Body of Truth; quintessential being]; ‘happiness’ signifies Nirvana, and ‘pure’ is a synonym for the Dharma. Monks, you should not pride yourselves, arrogantly and haughtily saying, ‘We have cultivated the idea of suffering, impermanence, and non-Self’. When you engage thus in those three kinds of meditative cultivation, then for you to have cultivated that threefold meditative cultivation in the context of my Dharma is a worthless cultivation. These three types of meditative cultivation of suffering and so forth are contingent, most contingent [visista].

     “To think of suffering as happiness is perverse, to think of happiness as suffering is perverse; to think of the impermanent as eternal [nitya] is perverse, to think of the eternal as impermanent is perverse; to think of the non-Self as the Self is perverse, to think of the Self as non-Self is perverse; to think of the impure as pure is perverse, to think of the pure as impure is perverse.

     “You repeatedly cultivate these objects of cultivation without properly knowing these four perversities. You engage in meditative cultivation [treating] the eternal as though it were impermanent, that which has Self as though it lacked Self, and the pure as though it were impure. [Pronouncements regarding] happiness, the Self, eternity, and purity are found both amongst mundane people and amongst supramundane people, but these are each different. The letters [ = words] are mundane designations, while the meaning is supramundane Knowing [lokottara-jnana].”

     Then the monks said this to the Blessed One, “Blessed One, since we have for a very long time repeatedly seen and repeatedly cultivated various cognitive distortions, such as these four ideas which the Tathagata has established in the correct manner, we now entreat you to tell us how we are to proceed …”

     “Monks, you ask me how you are to cultivate the ideas of suffering, impermanence, non-Self, and impurity? Monks, as an example: at the height of summer, some people dam a stream in the woods and, each bringing their bathing things, play in the water. One of them puts a genuine beryl gem [into the water] and then, because they all want to have that beryl, everybody puts aside their bathing things and climbs into the water. Thinking that a pebble or a piece of gravel is the gem, they grab it and cry out, ‘I’ve got the gem! I’ve got the gem!’, each holding it aloft. But when they get to the banks of the pool, they realise that it is not the gem after all. Then the very water of that pool gleams beautifully, as though with moonlight, by the glinting light of that gem. Seeing that beautiful gleaming, they say, ‘Ah! There’s the real gem!’, and realise how magnificent it is. Then, somebody in their midst who is skilled in means and intelligent is actually able to get that gem. In the same way, monks, you have latched onto such extremes as ‘everything is suffering’, ‘everything is without a Self’, ‘everything is impermanent’, everything is impure’ and repeatedly cultivate that. All of that is mistaken and worthless –  just like the pebbles and gravel in the pond. Be like the person who is skilled in means! I declare that there is happiness, the Self, eternity, and purity in whatever you meditatively cultivate of all those extremes which you have latched onto; those four [extreme views] are perverse! Therefore, cultivate the idea that the reality [tattva] of the Dharma is eternal, like that gem. …the Tathagata-Arhat-Samyaksambuddha [utter and total Buddha] … the Supreme, the Teacher of Gods and Men, the Blessed Buddha appears in the world … and then takes himself to all the heterodox teachers [tirthika] … He utterly quells them all, utterly destroys them, and delights many kings. In order to curb [nigraha] the heterodox teachers, he says that there is no Self, no sattva [being], no jiva [life-essence], and no pudgala [individual]. The teachings about the Self by the heterodox teachers are like the letters bored [by chance, without understanding] by worms, and therefore I made known the teachings that all beings are devoid of a Self. Having proclaimed that the absence of Self is the word of the Buddha … I also teach that there is a Self, after I have taught that all dharmas [phenomena] are devoid of Self, taking the occasion into consideration with regard to those who need to be trained and in order to benefit beings.

     “The Self of the worldly, which they say is the size of a thumb or a mustard seed, is not like that. The concept of the Self of the worldly is also not like that. In this instance, it is said that all dharmas [things, phenomena] are devoid of Self. [But actually] it is not true to say that all dharmas are devoid of the Self. The Self is Reality [tattva], the Self is unchanging [nitya], the Self is virtue [guna], the Self is eternal [sasvata], the Self is unshakeable/ firm [dhruva], the Self is peace [siva];  … the Tathagata teaches what is true. Let the four divisions of the assembly strive meditatively to cultivate this.” (Tibetan version)

The advanced practitioner of Buddha-Dharma, then, should exert considerable effort in the practice of cultivating meditative awareness of the Self, which is the constant presence of the Buddha-Essence within each being. This Self is embodied, as it were (according to the Dharmakshema sutra), in the “extremely profound sphere / domain / realm [gambhira vishaya ] of the Tathagata, the eternal, untransforming Dharmakaya”, which is the “abode of the unsurpassed Dharma Lord, the Holy King [i.e. Buddha]”. To deny that this Buddhic Self is a Reality, and to insist that impermanence alone reigns supreme even here,  is to distort Dharma and seriously to misunderstand its implicit and explicit doctrines. The Buddha says so in the following extracts from the sutra:

     “The constant presence / abiding of the Tathagata is called ‘the Self’ [atman]. The Dharmakaya [essential being of the Buddha] is unbounded, unimpeded, neither arising nor perishing, and endowed with the eight masteries / sovereignties [aishvarya – such as being able to project countless mind-endowed forms, to acquire all dharmas, and to pervade all places like space]. This is called ‘the Self’. (Dharmakshema version).

    “The idea that treats the impermanent (anitya) as permanent/ eternal (nitya) is a cognitive distortion. The idea that treats the permanent/ eternal as impermanent is a cognitive distortion …

     “The idea which treats that which lacks the Self as having the Self is a cognitive distortion. The idea which treats that which has the Self as that which lacks the Self is a cognitive distortion. ‘Mundane people say that there is a Self, but there is no Self in the Buddha’s teaching, contrary to the mundane view, and the Tathagata-garbha is not even mentioned’ – this cultivation of non-Self is [a] cognitive distortion.” (Tibetan version)

     “When I have taught non-Self, fools uphold the teaching that there is no Self. The wise know that such is conventional speech [vyavahara-vat] and they are free from doubts.” (Tibetan version)

     “… on the morning of Buddhahood, he [i.e. the perfected Bodhisattva] acquires the sovereign Self [aishvarya-atman]”.

3. The Buddha-dhatu/ Tathagatagarbha

In a conversation with the great Bodhisattva, Mahakasyapa, the Buddha teaches that the Self is the “Tathagatagarbha” or “Tathagata-dhatu“. All beings have this Buddha-dhatu (“Buddha-Principle”, “Buddha Realm”, “Buddha Sphere”) inside them, but it is obscured by masses of mental and moral afflictions. These afflictions are called the kleshas and include sensuous desire, hatred, delusion, burning worry, jealousy, stinginess, cheating, flattery, not experiencing a sense of shame when wrong has been committed, pride, arrogance, lack of diligence, self-importance, quarrelsomeness, lack of respect, and association with bad friends (those whose life-styles are antipathetic to Dharma).

The Buddha-dhatu is truly present within the body-and-mind complex, the being (the kaya), of each individual –  regardless of whether that person be a god, human, animal, ghost, demon, or occupant of Hell. But it is covered over by masses of negative character traits such as those listed above. The Buddha-dhatu is like a cache of hidden gold buried beneath the house of a poverty-stricken person – awaiting discovery. The Buddha is the guide who points out where that treasure-trove is, and how we can reach it.

In a parable rich in symbolic suggestiveness, the Buddha also speaks of the Tathagatagarbha as being like a distinctive nectar or fragrance emanating from a special tree in the Himalayas. This is what he says:

“… for example, there is an elixir-producing [rasa-dhatu]  tree in the Himalayas called ‘bees’ nectar’. Even though it stands entangled with the dense thickets of the forest, it is apparent by its fragrance. Once, a chakravartin [supreme, righteous emperor of the world] inserted pipes [into the tree] from each side to get it, and then sour juice flowed out of the mouths of some of those pipes from that elixir tree; from some there flowed salty juice; from some there flowed sweet juice; from some there flowed pungent juice; from some there flowed bitter juice; and from some there flowed astringent juice. That elixir wafted to the sky in the forest. From the single taste of that elixir, many different tastes emerged, and each one of those tastes did not become mixed together. Moreover, like the disc of the moon, that elixir was ubiquitous. Even though it was present thus, other people went into that forest of dense thickets, but, though they dug with hoes, people with few blessings were unable to get any of it, while, by virtue of his merit, the chakravartin was able to do so.

“In the same way … the Tathagatagarbha is like the elixir: it remains concealed by the various kleshas. Even though it has just a single taste – as the cause of becoming a Buddha – it is transformed into many different tastes by the maturation of the karmic actions of people, who then arise as men, women, or hermaphrodites. The Tathagata-dhatu is the intrinsic nature [svabhava/prakriti] of beings. Therefore, it cannot be killed by having its life severed. If it could be killed, then the life-force [jivaka] could be annihilated; but it is not possible for the life-force to be annihilated. In this instance, the life-force refers to the Tathagatagarbha. That Dhatu [Element, Principle] cannot be destroyed, killed or annihilated; but also it cannot be seen very clearly as long as Buddhahood has not been attained.” (Tibetan version).

Before analysing the above parable, let us quote some analogous passages from Fa-xian’s version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (translated here for the first time by Stephen Hodge). The advanced Bodhisattva, Kasyapa, comments to the Buddha that the Buddha himself possesses the Self or Soul [atman], but asks whether the 25 levels of samsaric existence (this includes the incarnational forms of humans, animal, ghosts, the various types of god …) also have the Self. The Buddha replies:

     “The True Self is the Tathagata-dhatu [emphasis added]. You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable kleshas [mental afflictions]. It is, for example, like a cache of precious treasure that exists within an impoverished dwelling, though unknown. Then, somebody who is skilled in the characteristics of treasure said to the poor man, “Do some work for me, and I’ll give you wealth and treasure.” The poor man replied, “I can’t come. Why not? Because there is a cache of treasure within my old home, and I can’t abandon it.” The man said, “You are foolish, for you do not know the location of the treasure. Work for me and I’ll give you the precious treasure, which you will be able to use without its ever becoming exhausted.” After he had said this, that person then removed the precious treasure from that house and  gave it to him. The poor man was delighted and amazed, knowing that that person was truly reliable. All beings are also like that, for each one of them has the Tathagata-dhatu, but they are unaware of that because it is enveloped and submerged beneath immeasurable kleshas. The Tathagata skilfully encourages them and reveals it, causing them to know that the Tathagata-dhatu exists within their bodies and accept this with confidence.”

“Moreover, noble son, it is like, for example, the new-born child of some woman which is small and sickly. A doctor skilfully mixes a good medicine with ghee and sugar and administers it to the child. He advises the mother that she should not give any milk to the child, to allow the child to digest the medicine, after which she can give milk. He also mixes some bitter herbs and smears them on her breasts. When the child wanted to suckle milk, he tasted the bitter flavour and turned away [from her breast]. After the mother knew that the medicine had been digested, she washed her breasts and let the child drink milk from them. In the same way, noble son, the Tathagata first taught people to cultivate the notion that all phenomena are devoid of a Self, in order to encourage and train them. When they have cultivated non-Self, they eliminate the false view of the Self. Having eliminated the false view of the Self, they enter Nirvana. I have taught non-Self in order to eradicate the mundane/ conventional self. Subsequently, I teach the Tathagata-dhatu with skilful words of implicit intent. This is called the True Self, which is divorced from the mundane …

     “It is, for example, like this: a certain king had a great wrestler, who has fixed to the top of his head a precious jewel which can purge all infections. He had a bout with someone from a rival country which caused the jewel he was wearing to be forced into his body. Blood, flesh and skin covered it over and the jewel seemed to have disappeared. Though the wrestler searched for it, he could not find it and thought that he had lost it. Now, there was a skilful doctor, who had come to treat the injury. Consequently, the wrestler said to the doctor, ‘I had a jewel, but I seem to have lost it. I have searched in various places for it, but I don’t know where it is. You should know that a precious jewel is an impermanent thing, just like froth on water – quick to arise and quick to perish, elusive like a phantom.’ In that manner, he thought he had lost his jewel forever. The doctor replied, ‘The jewel is not lost – don’t think that you have lost it! When you were fighting, the jewel entered into your body. It is not visible because it is concealed by your blood, flesh and skin.’ The wrestler did not believe the doctor and said to him, ‘Whereabouts is the jewel in my blood and flesh? You are just speaking empty words!’ Then the skilled doctor extracted the jewel. Having got his jewel, the wrestler then believed the good doctor and was amazed at his knowledge.

     “All beings are also like this. Each one of them has the Tathagata-dhatu, but, through having recourse to evil acquaintances, they give rise to attachment, hatred and delusion and fall into the three miserable states and so forth, adopting various kinds of bodies throughout the 25 modes of existence. The precious jewel that is the Tathagata-dhatu is buried within the wound of the kleshas of attachment, hatred and delusion, so that they are unaware of its presence there. Engaging in the notion that there is no Self as regards the mundane/ conventional self, they do not understand the skilful words of implicit intent of the Tathagata, who is like the good doctor. They have the notion that there is no Self and are unable to know the True Self. Regarding this, the Tathagata again utilises skilful means: he causes them to extinguish the raging fires of the countless kleshas, revealing and elucidating the Tathagata-dhatu to them.

     “Moreover, noble son, it is, for example, like this: there is a very sweet medicinal herb in the Himalayas called ‘superior taste’, which remains hidden and invisible as long as there is no chakravartin [supreme and righteous emperor] in the world. Sick people went to the location of the medicine and, digging into the ground, they buried pipes to draw off the medicinal sap. They obtained sap with a sweet taste, a bitter taste, a pungent taste, a sour taste, a salty taste, or an astringent taste. Though the sick people got these various tastes, they were unable to get the medicine with the true superior taste, because they did not dig the ground deeply enough and because their merits were slight. Because of the power of a chakravartin’s merit, he is able to obtain the medicine with the true superior taste when he appears in the world. Similarly, noble son, the Tathagata-dhatu is hidden by a multitude of different tastes, the countless kleshas [arising from] delusion. Hence, beings are unable to obtain the superior taste of the Tathagata-dhatu, and, engaging in various kinds of actions, they come to be born in different places.

     “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, right up to the attainment of Buddhahood. The Tathagata-dhatu can neither be harmed nor killed, but only nurtures/ sustains the person, while those who can be harmed or killed, like those sick people, engage in a mass of perverse actions and encounter various kinds of fruitional recompense as ksatriyas, Brahmins and so forth, being born and dying in the 25 modes of existence, because they cannot obtain the true Tathagata-dhatu.

     “Furthermore, noble son, it is like a person who digs the earth searching for diamonds. Holding a sharp pickaxe in his hands, he digs into the ground and rocks, able to pulversie them all. Diamonds alone he cannot shatter. The Tathagata-garbha is like this, for it cannot be harmed by the sharp weapons of the gods and demons. It only nurtures/ sustains the person, and anything that can be harmed or damaged is not the Tathagata-dhatu. Hence, you should know that the Tathagata-dhatu cannot be harmed or killed. This means that the vaipulya [extensive] sutras, the Tathagata’s definitive teachings, are both elixir and poison.”

Firstly, we need to understand what is meant by the Buddha’s saying that his long, profound sutras (the vaipulya sutras) are both an elixir and a poison: such sutras as the “prajnaparamita” sutras, which emphasise Emptiness (shunyata –  or open spaciousness) and the lack of a particularised inherent nature in every phenomenon, can easily be misunderstood as proclaiming a form of nihilism and thus can have a depressing, poisonous effect upon the listener, if the true meaning (that of limitless freedom and innermost stillness and tranquility within each phenomenon) is not grasped. Equally, if sutras such as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra are taken as preaching the existence of a giant, worldly form of Ego, then that too is a poison to one’s spirit, leading one to become even more attached to one’s personal “self”, with all its limitations, sufferings and selfishness: the correct understanding, in contrast, is that the Buddha-dhatu or Tathagata-garbha is the immortal essence of the ego-free Buddha within each being –  there is no craving, grasping or clinging with this Buddha-dhatu. There is only utmost purity, eternity and happiness. That ever-enduring, ego-less, omniscient Awareness or Knowingness is the True Self.

     But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Let us return to the extracts from the sutra given above. We shall start with the Tibetan version of the parable of the concealed elixir-producing tree.

     The first thing which we need to note regarding the “elixir-producing tree” is that its home is in the Himalayas: this symbolises the fact that the Buddha-dhatu is exalted and difficult of access. Yet it is not completely impossible to attain –  not like the summit of some Everestian peak seemingly beyond human reach (Mount Everest had not been climbed at the time of the Buddha –  as far as one knows!): the elixir tree is native to the forest areas of the mountains (i.e. not at their summit), so it can be reached, albeit with difficulty. Crucially, the tree itself produces a special elixir known as “bees’ nectar”. Nectar is, of course, the sweet fluid from which bees make honey – their sustaining food. Likewise, the Buddha-dhatu is the sweet, sustaining nutriment of all beings’ Awakening (bodhi), that which gives true life to all beings. And like nectar, it has an attractive fragrance which draws beings to it –  even though it finds itself concealed within masses of entangled foliage. These tangled thickets represent the negative mental states or kleshas (e.g. greed, hatred, delusion, arrogance, stinginess, scepticism about Dharma, lack of conscience, indolence  …) which block the Buddha-dhatu from view. Yet it is there all the while. And its inner presence calls us through the sweet scent of its promise.

     The parable makes clear that it is only a person of immense virtue –  a veritable emperor of righteousness (a chakravartin) – who is enabled to attain the apian nectar of the Buddha-dhatu. All other types of person –  even though they climb up into the mountain forests in quest of that spiritual elixir, digging here and there to get it  – do not possess the power to secure it. They are “sterile in virtue” (as the Dharmakshema version of our text has it). This is important for the practitioner to realise: simply practising meditation, watching the mind, even working hard at such practices is not sufficient to disclose the Buddha-dhatu. It requires the cultivation of virtue if we are to succeed. What virtue? Compassion, lack of selfishness, and elimination of ego-centred desire. Above all, kindliness and friendliness ( “maitri”, whichis uniquely presented by the Nirvana Sutra as the supreme Buddhist virtue) are indispensable prerequisites. It also requires abstention from the harming (“ahimsa”) of any creature (including deliberately harming ants and insects). Equally, it demands non-attachment to “me and mine” –  to the ego, the false self, and its manifold cravings. Paradoxically, it is seeing what is “not the Self” (anatman) which constitutes one of the gateways to Self (atman). All of these virtues spring from the cutting away of the entangling kleshas in the forest of our mind.

     But there is further important metaphysical matter in this parable, too. We learn that as long as the elixir remains in its home, the tree, it has solely one flavour to it. It is only when it is coaxed out of its resting-place and channelled down differently positioned tubes that it appears to take on a variety of flavours. This represents the straying of beings from their inherent pristine constitution –  the quiescent Buddha-dhatu –  and the tarnishing of their inner “flavour” through karmically unwholesome actions. This causes them to reincarnate as males, females, hermaphrodites, birds, animals, etc., and to appear as separate individuals who each “taste” differently. Their bodily forms are indeed like the different “tastes” of the elixir, having been influenced by the diverse channels of karmic action down which they have flowed from one life to the next. Yet in essence, these beings possess the same core taste, which is the tathagatagarbha, the inner transformative potency of Buddhahood. Their essence (svabhava / prakrti) is universally ONE.

     This Buddha-potency of the tathagatagarbha is, we learn, present everywhere, yet hidden by negative mental proclivities, and is the life-force which animates each being. One can kill the “outer” being –  the assemblage of skandhas – but one cannot annihilate or kill the indwelling, animating and (we learn from Fa-xian) nurturing Buddha-dhatu. That is indestructible. So we see that in these ultimate teachings, the Buddha reveals that the being is not just the five elements of the ordinary body and mind (the five skandhas) – indeed, that these things are epiphenomena, not the core reality –  but that what the being truly is at heart is the Buddha-power of the tathagatagarbha. As the Buddha says in the Dharmakshema version of the Nirvana Sutra, “the being is the Buddha-dhatu and the Buddha-dhatu is the being”.

     It is important to remember this in the face of the claims made by some Buddhists that all there is to the being is the five skandhas and nothing else beyond that. The Buddha indicates otherwise. True, the essential Self of each being –  the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu, with its shared savour of Buddha-potency –  is not like some tangible, measurable little man sitting within the being, the size of a grain of rice or of one’s thumb (as taught in the Katha Upanishad: “A person the size of the thumb in the Atman always resides within the hearts of men.”). But that is not to say that there is no immortal core whatsoever to the being. There is such an irreducible and indestructible core, and it is the omnipresent Buddha-dhatu.


  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.             *****************************************************

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.           ******************************************************                  

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).        *****************************************************

The Buddha on how the eternal Self is realised once prideful projections [mana] onto reality and the operation of sense-based consciousness have been brought to cessation:

     “Noble son, I have never taught that the six inner and outer ayatanas [sense spheres] and the six consciousnesses are eternal, blissful, the Self or pure, but I declare that the cessation of the six inner and outer ayatanas and the six consciousnesses arising from them is termed the Eternal. Because that is Eternal, it is the Self. Because there is the Eternal and the Self, it is termed Blissful. Because it is Eternal, the Self and Blissful, it is termed Pure. Noble son, ordinary people abhor suffering, and by eliminating the cause of suffering, they may freely / spontaneously distance themselves from it. This is termed ‘the Self’. Therefore, I have spoken of the Eternal, the Self, the Blissful and the Pure … Noble son, the entire world possesses great pride [mana = projecting false mental constructs] from the very beginning, which augments pride and also functions as the cause for [further] pride and proud actions. Therefore, beings now experience the results of pride and are not able to eliminate all the kleshas [mental afflictions] and attain / arrive at the Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure.” (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha as the omnipresent Great Self or Great Nirvana:

     “… the Tathagata pervades all places, just like space. The nature of space cannot be seen; similarly, the Tathagata cannot really be seen, and yet he causes all to see him by [means of] his sovereignty. Such sovereignty is termed ‘the Great Self’. That Great Self is termed ‘Great Nirvana’. In this sense it is termed ‘Great Nirvana’.

     “Moreover, noble son, a treasury, for example, contains many different kinds of rare things and is thus called a great treasury. The extremely profound treasury of the Buddha-Tathagatas is like that: since it contains Wondrous, without any deficiency, it is termed ‘Great Nirvana’.

     “Moreover, noble son: a thing which is unbounded is called ‘Great’. Since Nirvana is also unbounded, it is termed ‘Great’. (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha on the nature of Liberation:

     “… Liberation [moksha] is termed that which severs all conditioned phenomena [samskrta-dharmas], gives rise to all untainted [anasrava], wholesome phenomena / qualities, and eliminates the various paths / approaches, that is to say, self, non-self, not self and not non-self. It merely severs attachment, and does not sever the view of the Self / seeing of the Self / vision of the Self [atma-drsti]. The view of the Self is termed the ‘Buddha-dhatu’. The Buddha-dhatu is true Liberation, and true Liberation is the Tathagata.” (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha tells of how the Buddha-dhatu is not confined within past, present and future (it is free from the constraints of time) and he further mentions how the qualities of the Buddha-dhatu are everlasting and immutable:

“As the Buddha-dhatu is eternal [nitya], it is not governed by / not constrained by the three times [of past, present and future]. When the Tathagata has gained unsurpassed Awakening, all the Buddha-dharmas that the Buddha-dhatu has are eternal [nitya] and unchanging [aviparinama].” (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha on the great peace and happiness of Nirvana, and its attributes:

     “… because it is Great Peace [maha-santi], it is called ‘Great Bliss’ [maha-sukha], for the intrinsic nature of Nirvana is Great Peace. Why is that? Because it is divorced from all worldly bustle / agitation. Because it is Great Peace, it is called ‘Great Nirvana’… because it is Total Knowing [sarvajna / ajna], it is called ‘Great Bliss’. That which is not Total Knowing is not called ‘Great Bliss’. Because the Buddha-Tathagatas are totally Knowing, it is called ‘Great Bliss’. Because it is Great Bliss, it is called ‘Great Nirvana’.” (Dharmakshema)

     “What is the Real [tattva]? Knowledge of the true attributes of Nirvana, the Buddha-dhatu, the Tathagata, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the attributes of space and so forth is the Real. What is knowledge of the attributes of Nirvana? The attributes of Nirvana are eightfold. What are these eight? Cessation [nirodha], Wholesomeness / Loveliness [shubha], Truth [satya], Reality [bhuta / tattva], Eternity [nitya], Bliss [sukha], the Self [atman], and Purity [parishuddhi]: that is Nirvana.” (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha on what the kleshas (mental and moral afflictions) are –  those things which need to be eliminated from our character, as they obscure our vision of the Buddha-dhatu. Note that various forms of pride/arrogance/ haughtiness are listed no fewer than 8 times! These kleshas are the ego’s fabrications, which constantly keep the Tathagata-dhatu from our sight:

     “The obscurations of the kleshas [klesha-avarana] are the kleshas of the encumbrances [paryavasthana] of the kleshas of attachment, aversion and stupidity, as well as jealousy, avarice, guile, deceit, shamelessness, indecorum, pride, excessive pride, overwhelming pride, egotistical pride, perverse pride, arrogant pride, self-deprecating pride, carelessness, haughtiness, ill-will, quarrelsomeness, wrong livelihood, dissimulation by deceit, seeking gain with gain, seeking with the immoral, seeking too much, disrespect, not acting in accordance with what has been taught, consorting with immoral friends, a lack of disillusion through attachment to profit, difficulty in gaining freedom because of being bound by the fetters, attachment to pernicious objects of desire, false views concerning the reality of the individual, false views concerning existence, false views concerning non-existence, attachment to stretching and flexing, to pleasure, to sleep, to yawning, to displeasure, to eating and to drinking, mental confusion, desultoriness, attention to the unwholesome, pernicious physical and mental behaviour, delighting in excessive talking, dull faculties, uttering lies, and envelopment by thoughts of attachment, aversion and harm. These are the obscurations of the kleshas. (Dharmakshema)


The Buddha on the meaning of “real Truth”:

     The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjushri said to the Buddha, “What is the meaning of this ‘real Truth’ that you have mentioned?”

     The Buddha replied, “Noble son, the real Truth is the true Dharma. Noble son, if the Dharma is not true, then it cannot be called the ‘real Truth’. Noble son, the real Truth is devoid of cognitive distortions. That which is devoid of cognitive distortions is called the ‘real Truth’. Noble son, the real Truth is free from falsity. If it were not free from falsity, it would not be called the ‘real Truth’. Noble son, the real Truth is called the Mahayana. That which is not the Mahayana is not called the ‘real Truth’. Noble son, the real Truth is what is spoken by the Buddha and not what is spoken by Mara. If it were spolen by Mara and not the Buddha, it would not be called the ‘real Truth’. Noble son, the real Truth is the sole path of purity –  there is no second one. Noble son, that which is endowed with the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and the Pure is said to be the meaning of the ‘real Truth’.”

     The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjushri said to the Buddha, “Bhagavat, if what is true is deemed to be the ‘real Truth’, then the true Dharma is the Tathagata, space and the Buddha-dhatu. In that case, there is no difference between the Tathagata, space and the Buddha-dhatu.”

     The Buddha said to Manjushri, “If there is suffering, then there is the truth and there is the real; if there is the origination of suffering, then there is the truth and there is the real; if there is its cessation, then there is the truth and there is the real; and if there is the Path, then there is the truth and there is the real. Noble son, the Tathagata is not suffering, not a truth but is the real. Space is not suffering, not a truth, but is real. The Buddha-dhatu is not suffering, not a truth, but is real.

     “Manjushri, ‘suffering’ is characterised by impermanence and it can be eliminated by its nature, hence it is not a real truth. The intrinsic nature of the Tathagata is not suffering, not impermanence and cannot be eliminated, hence it is real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

     “Moreover, noble son, the origination of suffering is called ‘suffering’, ‘impermanence’ and can be eliminated, because it brings about the conjoining and arising of the five skandhas, hence it is not a real truth. Noble son, the Tathagata is not origination [of suffering] in nature, not a cause of the skandhas and cannot be eliminated, hence he is real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

     “Noble son, ‘cessation’ is called the cessation of the kleshas, and is both permanent and impermanent. That which is attained through the two lower Ways [i.e. the shravaka-yana and the pratyekabuddha-yana] is said to be impermanent, while that which is attained by the Buddhas is said to be permanent and it is also said to be the directly realised Dharma [adhigama-dharma], hence it is a real Truth. Noble son, the intrinsice nature of the Tathagata is not said to be cessation nor the cessation of the kleshas; it is neither permanent nor impermanent; it is not direct realisation, but it abides permanently and immutably, hence it is said to be real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

     “Noble son, the Path eliminates the kleshas, and is both permanent and impermanent. It is a phenomenon which can be cultivated, hence it is not a real Truth. The Tathagata does not constitute a Path through which the kleshas can be eliminated; he is neither permanent nor impermanent; he is not a phenomenon which can be cultivated, but abides permanently and immutably, hence he is said to be real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

     “Moreover, noble son, the Real is the Tathagata, the Tathagata is the Real; the Real is space, space is the Real; and the Real is the Buddha-dhatu, the Buddha-dhatu is the Real. Manjushri, where there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, a cessation of suffering and an antidote to suffering. The Tathagata is not suffering and so forth down to an antidote to suffering, hence he is real but not a ‘truth’. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this. Suffering is conditioned, tainted and devoid of bliss. The Tathagata is is not conditioned and not tainted, but utterly blissful: this is the Real and not a ‘truth’. (Dharmakshema).


The Buddha tells of how even the highest-level (10th-level) Bodhisattvas can see the Buddha-dhatu but dimlyIt belongs to the perceptual sphere of a perfect Buddha to see the Buddha-dhatu with full clarity. Note that even with the eye of prajna, a non-Buddha cannot see the Buddha-dhatu clearly. This perhaps accounts for why there is so much lack of comprehension of the Buddha-dhatu (even opposition to it) amongst many Buddhists: it is simply not clearly perceivable to those who are not yet Buddhas. Here are the Buddha’s words:

     “Noble son, although Bodhisattvas dwelling on the 10th level [bhumi] do perceive the Buddha-dhatu, it is not clear to them. Noble son, you might ask: with what eye do Bodhisattvas dwelling on the 10th level perceive the Buddha-dhatu, though it is not clear to them, with what eye do the Buddha-Bhagavats [ = Blessed Buddhas] clearly perceive it? Noble son, that seen with the eye of insight [prajna-caksus] is not clear, while that seen with the Buddha-eye is clear. It is not clear while engaging in the practice of a Bodhisattva, but it is clear when no longer engaging in the practice [i.e. when one has completed one’s Buddhic training and has reached full Buddhahood]. Though they perceive it because they dwell on the 10th level, it is not clear to them, whereas it is clear to those who do not dwell or proceed [along the 10 levels leading to Buddhahood]. What Bodhisattva-mahasattvas perceive with insight [prajna] is not clear, whereas the Buddha-Bhagavats perceive it clearly because they have cut off causes and effects. All-knowing [sarvajna] is said to be the Buddha-dhatu, whereas 10th-level Bodhisattvas are not said to be all-knowing, and so, although they perceive it, it is not clear to them.” (Dharmakshema).


© Dr Tony Page 2004