Stephen Hodge Translates Key Parts of the Nirvana Sutra

Over the nearly 10 years of my working together with the Buddhist scholar and expert translator, Stephen Hodge, I commissioned various translations from Stephen of diverse parts of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Stephen’s translations are immensely valuable, and so I plan to include many of them here, in random order. It should be noted that Stephen is currently working on a full translation of the MPNS in its three main versions, so there may well be enhancements of his translation when those definitive renderings into English are eventually published.

Unfortunately, I do not currently possess the necessary diacritics for the Sanskrit terms (terms which Stephen gave in their perfect written Sanskrit forms), so I ask the reader to excuse this lapse. Comments added in square brackets are my own, unless otherwise stated, and the capitalisation of such words as  ‘Self’ and ‘Liberation’ is mine rather than Stephen’s.

The following passages, taken from various parts of the Dharmakshema MPNS (Mahaparinirvana Sutra), all constitute words spoken by the Buddha within the Sutra:

1). ‘The wise ones are freed from the five constituents [skandhas] by way of skilful means. “Skilful means” refers to the eightfold noble path, the six perfections and the four immeasurables. They will be freed by way of such means for their bodies and minds will not be harmed by the constituents [skandhas]. Why is that? Because their bodies are like vajra [= diamond, adamantine] and their minds like space [akasha]. For that reason, their bodies and minds are very difficult to destroy.’

2) ‘Moreover, noble son, none of the wholesome qualities will be acquired apart from having pondered [on matters previously mentioned]. Why is that? Even if somebody listened to the Dharma with one-pointed attention, they will never attain supreme and perfect awakening without having pondered upon it.’ [Note from Stephen Hodge: I would not give the term ‘ponder’ (cintaa) too much weight since it is used as a synonym throughout this section with mindfulness (smrti) and focus (manasikara)].

3). ‘How does a Bodhisattva know the attributes of the Tathagata? Herein, “Tathagata” can be viewed as having the attribute of “awakening”, the attribute of “wholesomeness”, of “permanence”, “bliss”, “purity”, “liberation” (vimukti), “truth” (satya), “the real / actual”, “the teacher of the path” [or: ‘Tathagata’ has the attribute of awakening and the attribute of wholesomeness, and he can be viewed as permanence, bliss, purity, liberation, truth, the real /actual, the teacher of the path.’]

4). ‘Noble son, there is “Nirvana” but that is not Maha-nirvana [‘Great Nirvana’]. Why is Nirvana not Maha-nirvana? The elimination of the afflictions [kleshas] without having seen Buddha-dhatu is called “nirvana” and not Maha-nirvana. Thus, because one has not seen the Buddha-dhatu there is no permanence, nor Self, though there is bliss and utter purity. Hence, even though the afflictions have been eliminated, it should not be called “Maha-nirvana”. When one has seen the Buddha-dhatu and eliminated the afflictions, that is called “Maha-parinirvana”. Because of having seen the Buddha-dhatu, it is said to be permanent, Self, blissful and utterly pure and therefore that elimination of the afflictions is said to be Maha-parinirvana.’

5). ‘The Tathagata’s physical and mental insight [i.e. body and jnana] [Stephen’s alternate translation: the body and mind-insight of the Tathagata] is unimpeded even by measureless, countless, infinite world-systems, and so it is said to be “space”. The Tathagata abides permanently (nityam), neither changing nor transmigrating. This is called the “attribute of the real / the actual.” ‘

6). ‘Non-existence [i.e. non-samsaric, changeful existence] is called “non-arising”, non-arising is called “non-dying”, non-dying” is called “without attributes” [alakshana / animitta – without external characteristics or signs], without attributes is called “unfettered”, unfettered is called “non-attachment”, non-attachment is called “untainted” (anasrava – without blemishes), untainted is called “wholesome”, wholesome is called “uncompounded” (asamskrta), uncompounded is the constancy / unchangingness [nitya – eternality] of great Nirvana, the constancy of great Nirvana is the Self, the Self is pure, the pure is bliss. The unchanging, blissful, Self and pure are the Tathagata.

7). ‘Tenth, he [i.e. a very high-level Bodhisattva] is endowed with perfect awareness. Awareness is to perceive permanence, bliss, Self and purity in the Tathagata and that all beings are endowed with Buddha-nature (buddha-dhatu). He sees / perceives the two attributes / aspects of phenomena (dharma): emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, bliss and non-bliss, Self and non-Self, purity and impurity: contrary phenomena / qualities (dharma) 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 conditions, contrary phenomena that do not mature from causal conditions. This is called “endowed with perfect awareness”. Noble son, this is called “a bodhisattva’s endowment with ten qualities” which allows him to clearly perceive the absence of attributes [lakshana / nimitta – i.e. absence of external features] of Nirvana.’

8). ‘Secondly, 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 (samsarga). Because it is great peace, it is called “Great Nirvana”. Thirdly, because it is omniscience (sarvajna), it is called “great bliss”. That which is not omniscience is not called “great bliss”. Because the Buddha Tathagatas are omniscient, it is called “great bliss”. Because it is great bliss, it is called “Great Nirvana”. [Note from Stephen Hodge: 1) “worldly bustle” could also be just “agitation”. The best fit for the Sanskrit is probably samsarga, which refers to the bustle and business of society. 2) “Omniscience”: It is not definite that the Chinese / Tibetan here can be reconstructed as sarvajna; it could also be ajna, in which case it would just be something like “total knowledge”. BTW, I am not entirely happy with “omniscience” for sarvajna, because it can have the wrong connotations].

9). ‘Five things are attained in reliance upon this Mahaparinirvana-Sutra: stability [dhruva – unshakeable firmness and steadiness], permanence [nitya – eternality], purity [parivisuddhi – complete pureness], excellence (parama) and distinction (anyatha) and the absence of taints [anasrava], for it brings about benefit, happiness and kindness (anumampa) for all beings.’

[Notes by Stephen Hodge: 1) I have changed ‘superiority’ to ‘excellence’, although the former is what the Chinese suggests. Actually, there is no problem with ‘superiority’ – Asanga talks about superior this and that all the time. 2) ‘Distinction’ is in the sense of ‘not like the others’ – literally ‘otherness’.]

10). ‘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 – the cessation of suffering], wholesomeness (subha), truth (satya), reality (bhuta / tattva), unchangingness [nityata – eternity], bliss (sukha), Self (atman) and purity [parisuddhi – utter purity]: that is Nirvana.’

11). ‘The Tathagata’s Body is not causally conditioned. Because it is not causally conditioned, it is said to have a Self; if it has a Self, then it is also permanent, blissful and pure.’

12). ‘If any bhiksu teaches that beings all have Buddha-nature, can acquire an adamantine body which is free from limitations, permanent, blissful, Self, and pure, unimpeded in body and mind, endowed with the eight types of sovereignty / mastery, then such a bhiksu will adorn the twin sala trees [i.e. the holy place where the Buddha lay before his physical passing and where he delivered the Nirvana Sutra to his listeners].’ Simhanada [Lion’s Roar] said, ‘Bhagavat [Lord]! In that case, there is only the Tathagata who is that person. Why? The Tathagata’s Body is adamantine [i.e. the hardest substance known to man], unimpeded, free from limitations, permanent, blissful, Self, and pure, unimpeded in body and mind, endowed with the eight types of sovereignty / mastery [such as being present in all places, and having control over all dharmas]. Bhagavat: It is only the Tathagata who can adorn the twin sala trees!’

13). ‘ “Abiding” is an empty entity (shunya-dharma). The Tathagata has cut off / eliminated such empty entities, therefore he has attained permanence [nityata – eternity], bliss, Self and purity.’

14). ‘Moreover, “non-abiding” is without beginning and end. The nature of the Tathagata is devoid of beginning and end, so how can one speak of “abiding” [i.e. being fixed to one limited spot in space and time]? Furthermore, “non-abiding” is the boundless dharmadhatu [Realm of Truth]. The boundless dharmadhatu is the Tathagata, so how can one speak of “abiding”?’

15). ‘Noble son: A Bodhisattva-mahasattva is also like that – he appears in the world and expounds the true nature of the Self. After he has expounded it, he departs, like for example the prince who takes the wondrous sword and flees to another country [the reference is to a parable which the Buddha tells regarding a prince who leaves his land, taking with him a brilliant, secret and wondrous sword – but which hardly anyone else has ever seen; it thus gets wrongly described by the ignorant in all manner of erroneous ways]. Foolish ordinary people say “Everybody has a self! Everybody has a self”, like the poor man, who lodging at another’s house [and in the midst of a dream], cries out, “The sword! The sword!” Sravakas and pratyekabuddhas ask people, “What attributes does the Self have?”, to which they reply, “I have seen the attributes of the Self [which in fact they have not!] – it is the size of a thumb” or they say, “It is like [a grain of] rice” or “It is like [a grain of] millet”, or there are some who say, “It is the Self’s attribute to abide within the heart, burning like the sun.” In this manner people do not know the nature of the Self, as, for example, the various ministers [of the prince, who have not seen his wondrous sword] do not know the nature of the sword. While a bodhisattva discourses thus about the quality of the Self, ordinary people do but impute various false concepts to the Self, just as when asked about the attributes of the sword the [ministers] reply that it is like the horn of a ram [which in fact it is not!]. These ordinary people generate false views on in succession, from one to the other. In order to eliminate such false views, the Tathagata reveals and discourses upon the non-existence of a Self, just as when the prince tells his various ministers that there is no such sword in his treasury [although there really is such a wondrous sword]. Noble son, the true Self that the Tathagata expounds today is called Buddha-nature (Buddha-dhatu). This manner of Buddha-nature is shown in the Buddha-Dharma with the example of the real sword. Noble son, should there be any ordinary person who is able well to expound this, then he [speaks] in accordance with the unsurpassed Buddha-Dharma. Should there be anyone who is well able to distinguish this in accordance with what has been expounded about it, then you should know that he has the nature of a bodhisattva.’

16). ‘Noble son, although bodhisattvas dwelling on the tenth level [the tenth bhumi – i.e. the very higest level of spiritual development, just below that of a Buddha] do perceive Buddha-dhatu, it is not clear to them. Noble son, you might ask with what eye do bodhisattvas dwelling on the tenth level perceive Buddha-dhatu, though it is not clear to them, with what eye do the 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 full Buddhahood has been attained and one is no longer a trainee Buddha]. Though they perceive it because they dwell on the tenth level, it is not clear to them, whereas it is clear to those who do not dwell or proceed [along the preparatory levels]. What bodhisattva-mahasattvas perceive with insight [prajna] is not clear, whereas the blessed Buddhas perceive it clearly because they have eradicated (literally: severed) causes and effects. All-Knowing (sarvajna) is said to be the Buddha-dhatu, whereas tenth-level bodhisattvas are not said to be All-Knowing and so although they perceive it [i.e. the Buddha Nature], it is not clear to them.’

17). Then the Bhagavat [Lord – note that the word ‘Bhagavat/ Bhagavan’ is a term traditionally associated in India with God] said to the Bodhisattva-mahasattva King of All-illuminating Superior Virtues, ‘It is not the case that the inherent nature [possibly prakriti] of Nirvana did not primordially exist but now exists. If the inherent nature of Nirvana did not primordially exist but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints [asrava], nor would it be permanently [nitya] present in nature. Regardless of whether there are Buddhas or not, its intrinsic nature and attributes are permanently present [emphasis added]. Because beings are enveloped by the afflictions (kleshas), they do not perceive it and they say that Nirvana does not exist. Bodhisattva-mahasattvas, who train their minds with morality, insight and meditative concentration, eradicate the afflictions and then come to perceive it. Hence, they know that Nirvana is permanently present by nature and is not something which did not exist primordially but now does exist. Therefore, they deem it to be permanent. For example, noble son, suppose there was a well containing the seven kinds of treasures in a dark room. People might know that they are there but are unable to see them, because of the darkness. Then a wise person, skilled in means, came bearing a large, bright lamp and illumined things so that everybody could see them. This person did not think to himself that originally there was no water or the seven kinds of treasure there but now there is. Nirvana too is like that: it is primordially existent and does not just come into existence in the present [emphasis added]. Because of the obscuring darkness of the afflictions, beings do not see it. The Tathagata, endowed with all-knowing awareness (sarvajna-jnana) lights the lamp of insight with his skill in means (upaya-kausalya) and causes bodhisattvas to perceive the permanence, the bliss, the Self, and the purity of Nirvana. Therefore, the wise will not say that this Nirvana did not exist primordially but now exists.

‘Noble son, it is not fitting for you to say that the Nirvana which is attained is impermanent because of its adornments. Why is that? Noble son, the inherent nature of Nirvana is not born, not arisen, not real [in a samsaric, worldly sense], not false, not generated by karmic actions and not tainted or conditioned in nature; it is neither heard nor seen, it is not a descent nor is it death, it neither has diverse attributes nor does it have a sole attribute, it neither goes forth nor does it return, it is not past, present or future, it is neither one nor is it many, it is neither long nor short, it is neither round nor square, it is neither vertical nor horizontal, it neither has attributes nor does not have attributes, it is neither name nor form (nama-rupa), it is neither a cause nor a result, it is not a self nor what appertains to a self [i.e. not the worldly ego – the samsaric self]. For this reason, Nirvana is permanent and unchanging. Hence, it finally becomes visible when it has been adorned through the cultivation and accomplishment of wholesome qualities (kusala-dharma) over countless immeasurable aeons [note that it is a question of Nirvana’s becoming visible to the Bodhisattva’s eyes – not a question of its gradually or suddenly springing into existence].

‘For example, noble son, suppose there is water endowed with the eight tastes below the ground but nobody is able to reach it. Then some wise person sets to work and digs down until he reaches it. Nirvana is like that. Or else, suppose there is a blind man who cannot see the sun or moon. A skilled doctor might cure him so that he becomes able to see them, though it is not the case that the sun and moon did not originally exist but now do. Nirvana is like that – it has existed primordially and not just come into being in the present.’

18). ‘By not being contrary / inverted [in one’s views], one will know [both] the letter and the meaning [of the Dharma]. If one desires to be freed /distanced from the four perverse views [catur-viparita-drsti – i.e. seeing non-Self as Self and the Self as non-Self, the impermanent as Eternal and the Eternal as impermanent, the impure as pure and the pure as impure, the suffering-filled as blissful and the blissful as suffering-filled], one should know [= understand, comprehend, be aware of] the unchanging, blissful, Self and pure in this manner.’ [Equivalent passage found in my Yamamoto/Page edition of the MPNS, Vol, 1, p. 42].

19). ‘Even though he [the Buddha] has said that all phenomena (dharmas) are devoid of Self, it is not that they are completely / truly devoid of Self. What is this Self? Any phenomenon (dharma) that is true (satya), real (tattva), permanent (nitya), controlling [aisvarya – autonomous, sovereign], and whose foundation / ground is unchanging (asraya-aviparinama) is termed the “Self” .’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 1, p. 46].

20). The Bhagavat said, ‘Nobly-born One, I have never taught that the six inner and outer ayatanas and the six consciousnesses [i.e. the ordinary mind and its senses] are permanent, 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 permanent. Because that is permanent, it is the Self. Because there is permanence and the Self, it is termed blissful. Because it is permanent, the Self and blissful, it is termed pure. Nobly-born One, 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 permanent, the Self, the blissful and the pure.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 11, p. 45].

21). The Bhagavat said, ‘Nobly-born One, the entire world possesses great pride 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 and attain [the] permanent, blissful, the Self and the pure.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol 11, p. 46].

22). ‘As a result of this, on the morning of Buddhahood, he acquires the sovereign Self [aisvarya-atman]’ [the reference is to any highest-level bodhisattva who, through constant giving of food, happiness (and Dharma) to others, attains the autonomous Buddha Self , which is possessed of total freedom and mastery] [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 5, p. 60].

23). ‘Fourthly, because of sovereignty, sovereignty is acquired. What is sovereignty? The Tathagata abides [calmly] with one-pointedness of mind without wavering. [Yet] he is able to manifest countless kinds of forms and endows each of them with a mind. On some occasions, the Tathagata might create a single phenomenon and bring about the needs of each being. Though the Tathagata’s body abides in a single land, he causes all those in other lands to behold him. That manner of sovereignty is called the “great Self”.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 7, p. 29]

24). ‘Sixthly, because of sovereignty, [the Buddha] acquires all dharmas, and yet there is no concept of attainment in the Tathagata’s mind. Why is that? Because there is nothing to be acquired [nothing to be gained that is not already possessed deep within]. If there were something [to be acquired], then one could call it “acquiring”, but because there is nothing actually to be acquired, how can it be called “acquirement”? If one were to supose that the Tathagata had the notion of acquiring, then Buddhas would not acquire Nirvana. Since there is [no notion of] acquiring, one can say that they acquire Nirvana. Because of sovereignty, he acquires all dharmas. Because he attains dharmas, it is called “the great Self”.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 7, p. 30].

25). ‘Eighthly, 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 his sovereignty. Such sovereignty is termed “the great Self”. That great Self is termed “great Nirvana”. Moreover, Noble Son, a thing which is unbounded is called “great”. Since Nirvana is also unbounded, it is termed “great”.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 7, p. 30].

26). ‘The Tathagata also teaches, for the sake of all beings, that in truth there is a Self in all phenomena [dharmas)’. [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 1, p. 46].

27). ‘There is the true Self in the midst of the non-Self Dharma.’ [Bodhisattva Kasyapa’s words – spoken to, and uncontradicted by, the Buddha. Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 11, p. 25].

28). “When I have taught no-self, fools uphold the teaching that there is no self.  The wise know that such is conventional speech (vyavahāra-vat) and they are free from doubts.

‘When I have taught that the Tathagata-garbha is empty, fools consider that it is extinction [uccheda] and destructible. Those who have insight know that it is unchanging, stable and eternal. When I have taught about liberation that it exists merely as a magical display/upaya, fools maintain that Buddhas become non-existent when they have attained liberation. Those with insight know that there is the coming and departing of Buddhas and say that he comes like a lion.’

29). ‘The Tathagata-garbha is called true life [jiva]’ [Faxian]

       ‘The essence of the Self is the subtle Tathagata-garbha’ [Dharmakshema]

       ‘Therein, jiva [the life-essence] is the Tathagata-garbha …’ [Tibetan]. [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 3, p. 4].

30). ‘The Buddha-dhatu of beings inheres / abides within the five skandhas.’ [Yamamoto/ Page edition, Vol, 3, p. 5].

31). ‘Buddha-nature is the true Self and like, for example, a diamond, it cannot be destroyed.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 3, p. 5].

32). ‘When in the past I turned the Wheel of the Dharma in the town of Varanasi, I taught anitya [impermanence], duhkha [suffering], sunyata [emptiness] and anatman [non-Self]. Now I turn the Wheel of the Dharma in this here town of Kushinagara [i.e. the venue of his final teachings], I teach nitya [eternality], sukha [bliss], atman [the Self]and suddha [purity].’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 4, p. 61].

33). ‘Noble son, if somebody sees [i.e. only sees / thinks merely to see] that all phenomena [sarva-dharma] are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure and if he also sees that non-all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure, then that person does not see Buddha-nature [Buddha-dhatu]. “All” denotes Samsara; “non-all” denotes the Three Jewels. Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas [i.e. relatively advanced listeners to the Dharma and ‘solitary Buddhas’, not as great as fully Awakened Buddhas] see that all phenomena [sarva-dharma] are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure and they also see that non-all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure. For that reason they do not see Buddha-nature. A Bodhisattva of the ten levels [i.e. a Bodhisattva who has reached the tenth and highest bhumi or stage of spiritual attainment, just prior to becoming a Buddha] sees that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure, [and partially] sees that non-all phenomena are permanent, Self, blissful and pure. Because of that, they are able to see one tenth [of the Buddha-dhatu]. The Buddha-Bhagavats see that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure and they also see that non-all phenomena are permanent, Self, blissful and pure. For this reason they see Buddha-nature as though it were a mango lying in the palm of their hand. For this reason, the surangama samadhi [i.e. the highest level of meditative absorption] is said to be the ultimate culmination.’

34). ‘It [i.e. Liberation – moksha] transcends the skandhas, transcends all unwholesome phenomena, and establishes Liberation. That Liberation is the Tathagata. It is separated from mastery / independence, separated from the various selves and mundane not-selves. The true non-self [i.e. not an ego, not a skandhaic self] is the manifestation of the Buddha-dhatu. This Liberation is the Tathagata. (Faxian version).

‘Moreover, Liberation is termed that which severs all conditioned phenomena [samskrta-dharma – i.e. compounded and fabricated phenomena], gives rise to all untainted [anasrava] wholesome qualities / phenomena 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 views about the Self [atma-drsti – literally, ‘view of the Self, seeing the Self, vision of the Self’]. Atma-drsti [i.e. seeing the Self] is termed Buddha-dhatuBuddha-dhatu is true Liberation and true Liberation is the Tathagata.’ (Dharmakshema version; Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 2, p. 30).

35). ‘Thus, Kashyapa, you should know that the refuge of fearless Bodhisattvas is the dharmata [essential nature] of the Tathagata. Its intrinsic nature [svabhava] and my instrinsic nature are both of the same flavour.'[Then] he uttered this verse for Kashyapa [i.e. this is what Kashyapa should think and recite to himself]:

‘I now take refuge in the Three Jewels,

 The profound nature of the Tathagata;

 My body is / has the tathagata-garbha.

 The three – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha –

 Such a refuge as these

 Is called the supreme support / refuge.’ (Faxian version)

‘Kashyapa, you should now analyse the three refuges:

 Just as the intrinsic nature [svabhava] of the three refuges,

 so indeed is my intrinsic nature

 If one is able truly to discern

 that one’s intrinsic nature possesses Buddha-dhatu,

 then you should know that such a person

 will enter into the secret matrix [i.e. the Tathagata-garbha].

 That person who knows the Self [atman] and what belongs to the Self [atmiya]

 has already transcended the mundane world. [Note by Dr. Tony Page: this refers to knowing the True Self – which transcends the samsaric world]

 The nature of the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma [and the Sangha] –

 is supreme and most worthy of respect.’ [Dharmakshema version; Yamamoto/ Page edition, Vol. 3, p.6]

‘Knowing thus, Kâsyapa,

those fearless Bodhisattvas,

excellent heroic people,

are released by the Mahâyâna.

They take refuge here today

in that dhâtu sphere, the unchanging nectar;

that excellent nectar dhâtu

is my dhâtu, the dhâtu of beings (sattva-dhâtu).

If you always take refuge in me,

the three refuges will become your dhâtu;

since the dhâtu inheres in my body,

you should enter into this Self (âtman).

The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

are my dhâtu in their intrinsic nature,

the Three are the most excellent Jewels.’ [Tibetan version; Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 3, p. 6].

© Dr Tony Page 2004

Stephen Hodge Translates from the Nirvana Sutra – Continued

We continue with extracts from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, translated by Stephen Hodge. Again, the reader must note that the lack of diacritics is due to my own lack of such a program on this computer (diacritics are correctly given in Stephen Hodge’s originals), and that I capitalise words such as ‘Self’, ‘Real Truth’, and ‘One’, where Stephen does not. Comments in square brackets are from myself (Dr. Tony Page).

1) On the nature of the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha Essence, Buddha Principle, Buddha Nature]:

‘How is it material? Because of the vajra-like body [i.e. its body is like diamond or adamantine – the hardest substance known to man]. How is it not material? Because of the eighteen uncommon qualities which are not material. How is it neither material nor not material? Because it is devoid of fixed attributes [lakshana] of being material and not material. How does it have attributes? Because of the thirty-two attributes [of the Buddha]. How does it not have attributes? Because its attributes are not directly apparent in all beings [i.e. the Buddha Principle is buried so deeply within most beings, that its qualities are not readily manifest or apparent]. How does it neither have attributes nor not have attributes? Because its attributes and absence of attributes is not fixed [i.e. theBuddha-dhatu is not imprisoned within,  or confined to, one sole modality or fixed form]. How is it One? Because it is the single Way [yana] of all beings. How is it not One? Because it explicates the three Ways [i.e. the Ways of the sravaka, the pratyekabuddha, and the fully Awakened Buddha]. How is it neither One nor not One? Because its qualities are uncountable [or: because its teachings – dharmas – are uncountable]. How is it subject to change [anitya – i.e. seemingly impermanent]? Because it is seen through conditions [i.e. the sentient being, growing purer in his vision and thus ‘changing’, eventually comes to see the Buddha-dhatu, although it itself is unchanging in an ultimate sense]. How is it not annihilation? Because it is divorced from false views of annihilation. How is it neither changing nor annihilation? Because it lacks the boundaries of a beginning and an end [i.e. it is infinite in time and space and beyond – without any limits to it]. How is it existent? Because of the existence of all beings [note: the reality of beings is not denied but affirmed here: beings are bearers of the Buddha Principle and thus extremely sacred; in one of the Pali suttas, too, the Buddha says that he ‘does not teach the destruction of the existing being’ – the sato sattassa]. How is it [i.e. the Buddha-dhatu] non-existent? Because it is seen through skilful means [i.e. it does not seem to exist to us, does not appear to us, until we apply the right means to see it]. How is it neither existent nor non-existent? Because it has the attributes of space. How is it eradication? Because of the acquisition of the strength of the surangama samadhi [i.e. the highest mode of meditation]. How is it not eradication? Because it is unchanging [anitya – eternal]. How is it neither eradication nor not eradication? Because it is divorced from the attributes of eradication of all things. How is it a cause [hetu]? Because of the understanding of causes. How is it a result [phala]? Because of the infallibility of results. How is it neither a cause nor a result? Because it is unchanging [nitya – i.e. eternal]. How does it have meaning [artha]? Because it comprises all meaning without obstruction. How does it not have meaning? Because it cannot be explained [note: ultimately, the Buddha-dhatu is beyond the reach and range of our worldly minds]. How does it neither have meaning nor not have meaning? Because it is ultimately empty [atyanta-sunya – i.e. infinitely spacious, not fixed or tied to any one form, body or mode – it is open and free]. How does it have words? Because names can be applied to it? How does it not have words? Because names cannot be applied to it [i.e. it is beyond all labels and names – it cannot be captured or fully expressed by them]. How does it neither have words nor not have words? Because it is divorced from all words. How is it neither suffering nor happiness? Because it is separated from all sensations [vedana – the feelings pertaining to the physical, samsaric body]. Why is it not-Self? Because it is not endowed with the eight masteries. How is it not not-Self? Because it is unchanging [nitya – eternal]. How is it neither Self nor not not-Self? Because it is neither created nor appropriated. How is it empty? Because it is ultimate emptiness [paramartha-sunyata – which is elsewhere in the Sutra explained to be the jnana – Awareness – of a Buddha]. How is it not empty? Because it is unchanging [nitya – eternal; the reader should not that the epithet which occurs most frequently in this passage on the nature of the Buddha-dhatu is its eternality – i.e. it is not entrapped within the cycles of causes and conditions which engender constant samsaric change]. How is it neither empty nor not empty? Because it functions as the seed of wholesome qualities [kusala-dharma; the Tibetan version here has: ‘because it results in wholesome qualities’ – i.e. it stimulates or arouses positive qualities within sentient beings]. Noble son, you should know that if anybody thinks upon and understands these topics of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, they will perceive theBuddha-dhatu. Because the Buddha-dhatu is inconceivable, it appertains to the sphere [visaya] of the blessed Buddhas, but it is not to be known by sravakas andpratyekabuddhas.’

2) The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjusri said to the Buddha, ‘What is the meaning of this “Real Truth” that you have mentioned?’ [Note: even the Bodhisattva of supreme dharmic Insight, Manjushri, is in this sutra being tutored by the Buddha – for the benefit of all beings; this indicates that this sutra is of the very highest level of dharmic transmission – not a ‘provisional’ teaching, as the Gelukpas of Tibet like to pretend!].

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 [such as seeing the non-Self as the Self and the Self as non-Self]. 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 Mahayana. That which is not 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 spoken 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 Permanence, Bliss, the Self and Purity is said to be [i.e. is stated by the Buddha to be] the meaning of the “Real Truth”.

The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjusri said to the Buddha, ‘Bhagavat [Lord – a term in India traditionally applied to the Divine], 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 Manjusri: ‘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 [i.e. not a dictum or statement of truth – not a verbal formulation of truth], but is the Real. Space is not suffering, not a truth, but is real [for samsaric beings]. Buddha-dhatu is not suffering, not a truth, but is Real.

‘Manjusri, “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 fiveskandhas, 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 cessaton of the afflictions [kleshas], and is both permanent and impermanent. That which is attained through the two lower Ways 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 intrinsic nature of the Tathagata is not said to be cessation nor the cessation of the afflictions, it is neither permanent nor impermanent [in certain senses], 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.

‘The Path eliminates the afflictions, 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 afflictions can be eliminated, he is neither permanent nor impermanent [because he can appear as an impermanent body upon this earth, and yet is the eternal Dharmakaya], he is not a phenomenon which can be cultivated [i.e. he is not something growing and developing, but is already ‘there’ and perfect], but abides permanently and immutably, hence 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 [note that ultimate Reality is a person – the Buddha- although a person beyond all our conception]; the Real is space, space is the Real; and the Real is the Buddha-dhatu, the Buddha-dhatuis the Real. Manjusri, 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-dhatuare similar to this. Suffering is conditioned, tainted and devoid of bliss. The Tathagata is not conditioned and not tainted, but utterly blissful: this is the Real and not a truth.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition: Vol. 4, pp. 47 – 49].

3) The Bhagavat replied, ‘The eight great rivers and the various streams of Jambudvipa [i.e. the realm where humans live on this earth] all return to / converge on [note from Stephen Hodge: the Chinese also has a sense of ‘return home / return to an original abode’] the ocean without any diminution – you should know that the ocean is the receptacle of the streams. The Tathagata is also likewise. All the lives of gods and humans, they all return to / converge on the Tathagata’s great ocean of life [as in ‘long lifespan / great duration of life’ – not ‘Life’ as a vital principle]. For that reason, you should know that this life of the Tathagata is immeasurable.

‘Moreover, Kashyapa, just as, for example, space ever abides, without change, the Tathagata also ever abides like that. Again, just as the cooling / soothing medicine of ghee can remove fevers, the Tathagata-Arhat-Samyak-Sambuddha [i.e. utterly Awakened Buddha] always assuages the afflictions of sentient beings in general with the cooling ghee-Dharma medicine. Hence, the Tathagata ever abides, cool without any afflictions.’ [Faxian version].

The Bhagavat replied, ‘Just as the eight great rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna, Sarayu, Aciravati, Mahi, Sindhu, Bohjya and Sida – these eight great rivers and the various lesser rivers all enter into the ocean, Kashyapa, similarly the great river of life [as in ‘lives’ – ‘lifespans’ – not jiva, the principle of Life] of all humans and gods on the earth, in the sky above and in space [ = the 3 realms] all enter the Tathagata’s ocean of life [ayuh =lifespan, long life]. Hence, the life of the Tathagata is immeasurable.

‘Moreover, Kashyapa, for example, just as Lake Anavatapta puts forth the four great rivers, so also does the Tathagata put forth all lives [note from Stephen Hodge: Chinese ‘chu’ = put forth, produce, beget, cause to appear / manifest] [Note from Dr. Tony Page: there is a striking implication here that the Buddha is the propagator or emanator of beings – a view later made explicit in tantras such as the All-Creating King Tantra].

‘Kashyapa, just as, for example, space is foremost amongst everything that is ever present, the Tathagata is also thus, he is the most foremost amongst permanent things.

‘Kashyapa, just as, for example, ghee is the foremost of medicines, the Tathagata is also likewise: his life is the foremost amongst sentient beings.’ [Dharmakshema version].

4) ‘I say that whatever is endowed with carelessness [lacking in diligence – not being attentively aware] is a conditioned / compounded thing and is most unpleasant [characterised by duhkha]. Nirvana is devoid of death [i.e. is immortality]. Those who are endowed with carelessness are conditioned and they will suffer very greatly. Those who have nirvana-ed are deathless. I say that anybody who is endowed with carefulness / diligence is not conditioned and, even though they engage in conditioned things, they do not age, they do not die, they do not perish [Note from Dr. Tony Page: much of the brunt of the Dharma is in fact about showing mortal beings the Way to acquire immortality – a body-and-mind unassailable by death and misery].

‘Now, who are those endowed with carelessness and who are those endowed with carefulness? Mundane beings are endowed with carelessness, for it is like death. Supramundane beings do not age and do not die. Those who are endowed with carefulness will attain the most excellent bliss that is Nirvana. Therefore I have taught that some phenomena [dharmas] are suffering and some phenomena [dharmas] are bliss.

‘For that reason, as it is said:

“A wise person on the summit of a mountain

“can see the foolish people on the ground below:

One who dwells on top of the Palace of Insight [prajna]

can see the misery of beings, though he is devoid of misery.”

‘In that way, a wise person who dwells on a mountain peak, having eradicated afflictions, gazes upon foolish people who are associated with afflictions.’

[The Bodhisattva Kashyapa] asked, ‘Who are those who are on top of the Palace of Insight? Are they unhappy? How can they dwell on top of the Palace of Insight? It is possible for a man [to be] on the summit of a mountain and it is possible for him to see [the beings below], yet how does one who has totally nirvana-ed see [beings]?’

[The Tathagata] replied, ‘ “The Palace of Insight” is Nirvana. The one who “is devoid of misery” is the Tathagata, while those who have a lot of misery are [ordinary] creatures, for the Tathagata is devoid of misery, while they have misery. The “mountain” is Liberation, because it is firm / stable [dhruva – unshakeable] like [Mount] Sumeru. The “ground” is conditioned things, and all foolish people are those arrayed upon the ground. The “wise person” signifies the perfect Buddha, because the Tathagata is devoid of misery and is firm / stable [unshakeable]. Though the Buddha dwells in the midst of misery, he is devoid of misery and he draws out the thorn of misery from beings.’

‘If the Tathagata has transcended misery, why does he now nirvana? Why is he called a perfect Buddha?’

‘There is a reason: wherever there are beings who need to be trained, then the perfect Buddha appears there and reveals himself as though one born [although in fact he is unbegotten]. Therefore, the Tathagata is unchanging and enlightened …’ [Tibetan version; Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 3, p. 26].

5) ‘The Buddha-nature [Tathagata-garbha] of the Tathagata has two aspects: one is presence [i.e. existence] and the second absence [i.e. non-existence]. [As regards] presence, that is the thirty-two signs of a superman, the ten powers, the four fearlessnesses, the three bases of recollection, great compassion and loving-kindness, countless samadhis [meditative absorptions]  such as the Shurangama, countless samadhis such as the Vajra-like [i.e. diamond-like] samadhi. As for absence [non-existence], that is the causal and resultant aspects of the Tathagata’s past wholesome, unwholesome and neutral karma, the kleshas [i.e. negative moral  and mental traits], the five skandhas, and twelvefold interdependent arising.’

[Note from Dr. Tony Page: two vital things emerge from the above statement by the Buddha: 1) the Buddha himself possesses the Tathagata-garbha; therefore, it cannot possibly be – as some commentators wrongly claim – merely a ‘potential’ for Awakening, for becoming a Buddha. What sense would it make to say that the Buddha has the ‘potential’ to become a Buddha? He already is one! Rather, the Tathagata-garbha is the very Buddhic core or essence of our being, which remains present when all the transitory elements of samsara have been transcended;  2) contrary to the wrong-headed views of certain commentators, the Tathagata-garbha is not twelvefold interdependent arising / origination. The Buddha clearly states that such is absent (non-existent) in this Tathagata-garbha. The chief reason some Buddhists commit this serious blunder of misinterpretation is that that they misconstrue the image of theTathagata-garbha as a growing, evolving foetus, whereas the prevailing image throughout the Tathagata-garbha sutras is rather that of something priceless and precious hidden deep within a  person, located beyond human sight – just as a baby is hidden deep in the centre of a pregnant woman’s womb. It is there, but concealed from view by the ‘flesh’ – the enveloping forms and forces of samsara. That is the real meaning of the Tathagata-garbha – not the idea of some expanding foetus].

6) ‘I speak of change / impermanence when the mass of sufferings [of beings] is eliminated and of unchanging / permanence when bliss is experienced. Therefore I say that the totality of beings are enveloped by kleshas [negative traits of mind and behaviour] and do not perceive the Buddha-nature [Buddha-dhatu]. Because they do not see the Buddha-nature, they do not attain Nirvana.’

[Note from Dr. Tony Page: it is important to register the frequent salvific thrust found in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and other Tathagata-garbha sutras of seeing the Buddha Nature (Buddha-dhatu). It is not that the Buddha-dhatu / Tathagata-garbha grows, matures and develops within us, but that we have to purify our vision in order to be able to see it. Once our vision is thus purified and we perceive what has always secretly lain deep within us, we are enabled to enter into the deathless bliss of Nirvana].

7) In the following excerpts from a lengthy passage, the Buddha explains how, in different regards and under different aspects, he both is and is not a certain thing:

‘… the Tathagata is not a god [deva – a kind of heavenly being or angel, still caught up in the reincarnational round of samsara]. Nevertheless, beings call the Buddha the god amongst the gods /  supreme god [atideva]; hence the Tathagata is not a god nor is he not a god; he is not human nor not human …

‘The Tathagta is not human [note from Dr. Tony Page: this accords with the Pali Dona Sutta, where the Buddha also says that he is not human, but a Buddha – a much higher category of being]: because the Tathagata has abandoned human existence for a long time over countless kalpas [aeons], he is not human. He is not not human: because he was born [as Prince Siddhartha] in the city of Kapilavastu, he is not not human…

‘He is also not a sentient being: because he has abandoned the nature of a sentient being for a long time, the Tathagata is not a sentient being. He is also not not a sentient being: because he has spoken of/ with the attributes of sentient beings on some occasions, the Tathagata is not not a sentient being.

‘The Tathagata is not a phenomenon [dharma – thing]: because the various phenomena each have distinct and different attributes, while the Tathagata is not thus but has only one attribute. He is not not a phenomenon: because the Tathagata is the continuum of phenomena [dharmadhatu – the totality of all that exists, both seen and unseen], he is not not a phenomenon …

‘The Tathagata is not a mind: because he is / has the attribute of space, he is not a mind. He is not not a mind: because he is endowed with the mental qualities of the ten strengths and the knowledge of the minds of other beings, he is not not a mind.

‘The Tathagata is not compounded [as the Dharmakaya]: because he is permanent, Self, blissful and utterly pure, he is not compounded. He is not not compounded [as a physical human being]: because he comes, goes, sits and lies down and also displays [the process of attaining] Nirvana, he is not not compounded …

‘The Tathagata [as a human being] is not permanent: because his body has limbs / parts, he is not permanent …

‘Yet he is also not not permanent. Why? Because he has severed birth / arising forever. Phenomena endowed with birth / arising are not permanent, whereas phenomena devoid of birth / arising are permanent. The Tathagata is devoid of birth / arising, so he is permanent … The Tathagata is devoid of birth / arising and lineage [note: the Chinese says ‘intrinsic nature’, but that Chinese character also closely resembles one for ‘lineage’; the Tibetan text does in fact have ‘lineage’]. Because he is devoid of birth / arising and lineage, he is permanent [i.e. he is not begotten by father or previous ancestors – he is not a generated being, but one eternally existent and present].

‘Phenomena associated with permanence pervade all places, just as there is no place where there is no space. The Tathagta also is thus and pervades all places, therefore he is permanent.

‘Phenomena which are not permanent are said to exist here and not exist there, but the Tathagata is not like that for it is not possible to say that he either exists [ = is present] in one place and does not exist [ = is not present] in another. Therefore he is permanent.

‘Phenomena which are associated with impermanence exist on some occasions and do not exist on other occasions, but the Tathagata is not thus, existing sometimes and not existing at other times, hence he is permanent …

‘Phenomena which permanently abide are disassociated from the three times [i.e. past, present and future]. The Tathagata is also thus, disassociated from the three times, and thus is permanent [i.e. he is eternal, beyond the constrictions of temporality].

‘The Tathagata is not a magical display [maya – a magical conjuration]. Why? Because he has severed all thoughts of deception for all time, and thus he is not a magical display [a conjured-up illusion]. He is also not not a magical display? Why? Because he sometimes divides this single body into countless bodies and at other times makes countless bodies into one single body. He is able to pass directly through cliffs without any impediment, he can traverse water as though it were land, he can enter the ground as though it were space, he can move in space as though it were the ground, he can emit flames from his body as though it were a great conflagration; he can make the clouds and thunder rumble with a fearful sound, he can produce towns, villages, houses, mountains, rivers and trees, or else he can make his body large or small, he can take on the body of a male, female, boy or girl. Therefore, the Tathagata is not not a magical display.

‘The Tathagata is not fixed. Why? Because the Tathagata manifests himself entering into Parinirvana [total Nirvana] between two sala trees here at Kushinagara. Therefore he is not fixed. Again, he is not not fixed. Why? Because he is permanent, blissful, the Self, and utterly pure.’

We continue with further translations by Stephen Hodge of various statements by the Buddha in theMahaparinirvana Sutra. Note that I capitalise the word, ‘Self’, where Stephen does not, and also supply the term ‘Self’ (atman) on occasion with the definite article (‘the’). I also italicise Sanskrit words which here do not contain their proper diacritics (due to my not having those diacritics to hand), although it is not correct scholarly practice to do so (I use italics here to help those words stand out before the reader’s eye).

In what follows, the Buddha speaks of an inverted (upside-down or perverse) way of viewing things, and of the hidden nature of the True Self.

1) ‘Again the Buddha spoke to Kashyapa, ‘There are the so-called perversities [‘upside-down’ views or inverted views]. To think that what is suffering [duhkha] is happiness [sukha]: the Tathagata is impermanent and is extinguished in Nirvana just as fire is extinguished when its fuel is exhausted is [a cause of] great suffering. To think that the Tathagata is impermanent is a perversity. To think that suffering [duhkha] is happiness [sukha] : To attribute the view [drsti] of an [ordinary person] to the Tathagata’s longevity is a perversity. To think that the three realms, which are suffering, are happiness, is a perversity. This is the first perversity.

‘It is perverse to think that what is impermanent is permanent, and it is a perversity to think that what is permanent [nitya – constant, eternal] is impermanent. To think that the Tathagata’s Nirvana is [the result of] cultivating utter emptiness – is a perversity. It is a perversity to think that a short life-span of a being will be lengthened by having [meditatively] cultivated utter emptiness since the result of that [meditative] cultivation is the quality [dharma] of permanent being. This is the second perversity.

‘It is perverse to think that that which is not the Self is the Self, and it is perverse to think that that which is the Self is not the Self. One [i.e. a person, some commentator other than the Buddha] might say that all mundane [people] posit a Self and that it is a perversity to maintain that the Buddha taught that the Tathagata-garbha is the True Self, and [that therefore we need] to engage in the [meditative] cultivation of not-Self because of that: this is the third perversity. 

[Note by Dr. Tony Page: most Buddhists who try to teach the Dharma only speak about the first statement – that we should not regard what is non-Self as Self – but remain perversely and stubbornly silent about the second injunction – that we should not regard the Self as non-Self. Is this not an indication and indictment of the way Buddhism is taught these days? The words ‘biased’ and  ‘unbalanced’ perhaps spring to mind …]

‘It is perverse to think that that which is pure is impure and it is a perversity to think that that which is impure is pure. It is a perversity to say that the Tathagata, who permanently abides and whose body is not food-produced with fleshly organs, has a body that is food-produced and impure; that the Dharma and the Sangha are also extinguished upon Liberation. The foolish consider their impure bodies which lack the slightest element of purity and come to think that [they are] pure. This is the fourth perversity.’ [Faxian version]

2) ‘[Kashyapa asked the Buddha,] ‘Bhagavat [= Lord, ‘Auspicious One’], is there or is there not a Self in the twenty-five levels of existence?’

The Buddha replied, ‘ “Self” signifies the Tathagata-garbha. All beings have the Buddha-dhatu – which signifies the Self – but although that which signifies the Self is unchanging [nitya – eternal, permanent] from the very beginning, it is concealed by a mass of countless afflictions [kleshas] and so beings are unable to get sight of it. Noble son, it is just like a poor woman who had a hidden treasure of much gold within her house, but there was nobody, large or small, in the house who knew of this. Then a certain stranger, skilled in expedient methods, spoke with that poor woman, “I will employ you now – you can come and work for me, clearing weeds.” She replied, “I can’t, but if you can show my son the hidden gold, then I will come straight away and do your work.” He said to her, “I know certain methods; I’ll show your son.” She replied, “nobody in the house, large or small, even myself, knows [where the hidden gold is], so how can you know?” He said, “I am quite capable.” She replied, “I want to see it – can you show it to me?” Then that man dug out the hidden gold from her house. When the woman saw it, she was delighted, and in amazement she revered that person. Noble son, the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha Principle, Buddha Essence, Buddha Nature] of beings is like that. All beings are unable to see it for, like that hidden treasure of which the poor woman was ignorant, they do not know this. I now reveal the Buddha-dhatu that all beings possess which is concealed by afflictions [kleshas – negative thoughts, feelings and actions] and cannot be seen, like the gold treasure that the poor woman did not know she had. The Tathagata will today reveal to beings the hidden treasure of the Enlightened Ones – the Buddha-dhatu. When beings see this, they will become joyful and take refuge in the Tathagata. The person who is skilled in expedient methods is the Tathagata; the poor woman is all beings beyond count; and the gold treasure is the Buddha-dhatu.’ [Comment by Dr. Tony Page: note that the ‘expedient means’ referred to here is not the Buddha-dhatu itself – as some commentators would have us falsely believe – but merely the means or method of discovering that Buddha Principle within us]. 

3) ‘[As regards] the truth of the cessation of suffering: if one [meditatively] cultivates Emptiness, everything will be eliminated, and one will [conceptually] destroy the Buddha-dhatu. If one calls the cultivation of Emptiness the truth of cessation [of suffering], then do not the heterodox with their irrational [Emptiness] also attain the truth of cessation through their cultivation of Emptiness? You should know that everybody has the constantly present Tathagata-nature; when you eradicate the fetters, the afflictions [kleshas] will be eliminated forever and the constantly present Tathagata-nature will be manifested. When you have generated a single thought, you will attain wondrous results: you will have constant and blissful mastery called [the state of] Dharmesvara-raja [King of Dharmic Mastery]. This is deemed the cultivation of the truth of the cessation of suffering. Moreover, when you [meditatively] cultivate the Tathagata-nature and treat it as Emptiness and non-Self, you should know that you will be like a moth falling into a flame. What I term the truth of cessation [of suffering] is the Tathagata-nature, the reality of the Tathagata, the elimination of all innumerable afflictions. Why is that? Because of the Tathagata-nature; those who know that will know the truth of cessation on a level with the Tathagata. Anything other than this is not called cessation.’ [Faxian version] [Comment by Dr. Tony Page: This is one of the most important passages in the entirety of the Nirvana Sutra: it proves once and for all that not only is it contrary to true Dharma to apply the notion of non-Self to the nirvanic realm (i.e., the Buddha Essence – the Buddha-nature), but that it is positively dangerous so to do. To regard the Buddha Essence as non-Self and empty in one’s meditations is tantamount to committing self-immolation – a form of fiery spiritual suicide. The Buddha could scarcely have made the point more graphically than this].

In the following quotes, the Buddha speaks of the nature of the Buddha in the realm of nirvanic Liberation (moksha) and how this is not the blotting out or ending of the Buddha – but constitutes his entry into an eternal, immutable, supremely peaceful state (Nirvana).

First, however, the Buddha speaks of the mysterious ‘Dharma’ – Truth – which is the incomprehensible Reality within which Buddhas live and have their being. The qualities of Dharma seem paradoxical, but that is because the Buddha here is speaking about Dharma from different angles and perspectives:

1) ‘How does a bodhisattva-mahasattva [i.e. great Bodhisattva] recollect [anusmrti – i.e. think of, remember, recall] the 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, unconditioned [asamskrta – uncompounded, not assembled from constituent parts] 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 [of Nirvana] 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 [i.e. worldly, samsaric, sense-based happiness], it is the ultimate, subtle bliss of security. Separated from matter [rupa – the physical body or physical form], 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 – i.e. things which exist samsarically, gripped by change and eventual death], 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 [satya]. Though it is separated from all that is real [in a worldly sense], 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 nor does it not have attributes. Though separated from all 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 [ksanti – patient endurance] nor is it not patience acceptance, but utterly separated from what is not patient acceptance, it is patient acceptance. It is not tranquility [samatha] nor is it not tranquility, but separated from all tranquility, it is tranquility, the pinnacle of all dharmas. It can utterly eradicate all afflictions [the kleshas – negative states of mind and behaviour]; it is totally pure [vyavadana]; it is devoid of perceptual attributes [nimitta – i.e. generally, outward signs, characteristics or features], 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 permanent [nitya – eternal] and unchanging [aviparinama]. This is how a bodhisattva recollects the Dharma.’

2) ‘For example, just as when heated iron is struck and sparks fly out,

they scatter and soon disappear, nobody knows where;

One who has attained full Liberation is also thus,

having crossed over desire, the mire of samsaric existence,

he attains the unmoving state: nobody knows where he has gone.

How is the Tathagata deemed to be a permanently abiding entity / element [dharma]?Any such objection that somebody may raise is a perverse objection. Kashyapa, you should not give rise to this idea, namely that the nature of the Tathagata perishes. Kashyapa, the extinction of the afflictions is not termed “a material thing” [vastu dravya substance]. Why is that? Because it is eternal and hence is permanent. The peace of this state is supreme; it extinguishes [all] perceptual attributes [nimitta] without remainder. The purity of this state is permanently abiding, without retrogression. Therefore Nirvana is said to be [i.e. is stated by the Buddha to be] permanently abiding. The Tathagata is also thus, permanently abiding without change. “Sparks fly out” signifies the afflictions [klesha]. “They scatter and soon disappear, nobody knows where” signifies that the Tathagatas have extinguished the afflictions and do not dwell in any of the five modes of [samsaric] existence [gati]. Therefore, the Tathagata is a permanently abiding element / entity, without any alteration / mutation. Moreover, Kashyapa, that which the Buddhas treat as their teacher is the Dharma, therefore the Tathagata should be honoured and worshipped. Since the Dharma is permanent, the Buddhas are also permanent.’

3) The Buddha said to Kashyapa, ‘You should not now say that the Tathagata is impermanent. Why? The Tathagata is permanent. Noble son, just as there is ash when burning wood has been consumed, when the afflictions [klesha] have been extinguished, there is Nirvana. Such examples as shredded cloth, a severed head, a smashed jar are also similar. Such things each have a name: “shredded cloth”, “severed head” and “smashed jar”. Kashyapa, though the iron which has been cooled can be reheated; the Tathagata is not thus, for once he has severed the afflictions, he is utterly calmed [shita = cool]; the burning fire of the afflictions will not again arise. Kashyapa, you should know that the countless beings are like that iron. I burn away all the afflictions of those beings with the burning fire of unsullied Awareness [jnana – gnosis].

Kashyapa spoke again, ‘Excellent, excellent! I now truly understand what the Tathagata has explained regarding the permanence of Buddhas.’

The Buddha said to Kashyapa, ‘It is like, for example, a sacred king who dwells in the inner palace who may on one occasion dwell in a rear garden, enjoying himself. Although the king is not there amongst his concubines, one does not say that the king has died. Noble son, the Tathagata is also like this. Although he is not visible in the realm of Jambudvipa [i.e. our terrestrial world], having entered Nirvana, one does not say that he is impermanent. The Tathagata has extricated himself from the countless afflictions and entered into Nirvana, the abode of bliss, wandering among the flowers of Enlightenment, disporting and enjoying the pleasures.’

[Comment by Dr. Tony Page: here the lie is given to the idea that a Buddha in Nirvana is merely nothingness or a mental, vacuous blank. In fact, Nirvana is both inner Reality and ‘outer’ realm [the ‘abode of bliss’], wherein Buddhas can ‘disport and enjoy the pleasures’. This is far from being a nihilistic teaching!].

4) ‘That which is Liberation is ungenerated (ajâta) and hence it is utterly separated from all bonds. It is not generated in the way that a child is generated from the union of his parents, for Liberation abides in its own domain (viṣaya).  ‘Ungenerated’ is thus: just as the quintessence of ghee naturally abides in its own intrinsic state so also does the Tathâgata not arise from the sexual union of his parents, though the Tathâgata displays [birth from] his parents for the sake of those to be trained. That which is Liberation is the Tathâgata, because he arises without arising.  For example, if we plant the seeds of lentils (mudga) or beans (mâṣa) in February, the summer months or October, they give forth sprouts, but Liberation is not like that.  That which does not arise is Liberation.  That which is Liberation is the Tathâgata and unarisen.  The Tathâgata is entirely non-arisen and one cannot discern any coming into being and ceasing to be as with sprouts.  The Tathâgata is intrinsically non-arisen.’ [From the chapter, ‘The Four Methods of Teaching’, of the Tibetan version of the MPNS].

[Note from Dr. Tony Page: It is key to an understanding of the nature of Nirvana (i.e., Liberation and the Buddha, which are one) that it is not begotten or generated. It is not the final result of myriads of causes. It is not like a seed that puts out buds and grows into a plant: that is specifically denied here – although numerous latter-day commentators on Buddhism will wrong-headedly claim precisely the opposite to what the Buddha declares. Liberation dwells in its own realm. That realm already exists, but it is a world as yet unknown to us. It is not created – it is already here (within us). It is like the ghee which is deemed to be an essence already present, but unseen, within the milk. It is merely a question of recognising that hidden Reality and entering into it. Once that has been accomplished, there is no end to such Liberation. It is eternal. And it is always linked in to a person– the true personhood of Buddha: not an ego, not a bundle of shifting skandhas, but the mysterious THAT-ness (tathata) underlying all existence].

5) ‘Kaundinya, rupa [form, body, matter] is suffering, but through the elimination of this rupa one attains Liberation, the rupa [body, form] of tranquil bliss. Vedana [feeling], samjna [perception, ideation], samskara [mental activities, including volition] and vijnana [consciousness] are also likewise. Kaundinya, rupa is empty, but through the elimination of empty rupa, one attains Liberation, non-empty rupa [form, body]. Vedanasamjnasamskara, and vijnana are also likewise. Kaundinya, rupa is anatman [not-Self], but through the elimination of this rupa, one attains Liberation, the rupa [form, body] of the True Self. Vedanasamjnasamskara and vijnanaare also likewise.’ [Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 11, p. 28].

[Comment by Dr. Tony Page: This is an extremely significant passage, yet (as far as I am aware) as good as never quoted in Western books on Buddhism. It reveals that the Buddha himself in Liberation does possess skandhas, but that these are transcendental ones (lokottara – beyond the world). These are not samsaric skandhas, which are conducive to pain and suffering, but are instead liberated and liberating Buddhic skandhas. Very few Western Buddhists are aware of this fact – because it has been systematically withheld from them by a Buddhist orthodoxy which wishes to promulgate the notion that Nirvana is total and utter ‘non-Self’.

Why does this revelation of the Buddha’s skandhas instil so much fear in Buddhist nihilists? The reason is that it indicates that personhood continues in Nirvana – albeit of an order, nature and magnitude which our worldly minds cannot conceive. That is why Buddhas can converse with each other – as in the Lotus Sutra – and that is why the Nirvana Sutra, again and again, stresses that the wondrous qualities associated with Parinirvana inhere in the person and being of the Buddha. They are not free-floating. They are embodied in a transcendental being].

[Tentative note from Stephen Hodge: ‘the wording here [in the quote] is very similar in parts to theHeart Sutra – a deliberate allusion, I think, with a corrective intention’].

6) The Buddha gives an important explanation of the Buddha Nature:

 ‘You have asked what the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha Nature, Buddha Essence] is, so listen with sincerity, listen with sincerity, I shall analyse and elucidate it for your sake. Nobly-born son, theBuddha-dhatu is termed “ultimate emptiness” [paramartha-sunyata], and ultimate emptiness is termed Awareness [jnana – gnosis]. So-called emptiness is neither viewed as emptiness nor as non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, the permanent and the impermanent, suffering and bliss, Self and non-Self. The empty is the totality of samsara and the non-empty is Great Nirvana [and so forth down to], non-Self is samsara, and the Self is Great Nirvana. To perceive the emptiness of everything and not to perceive non-emptiness is not termed the Middle Way [and so forth down to], 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, theBuddha-dhatu is eternal and unchanging. Because beings are enveloped in ignorance, they are unable to perceive it. Sravakas and pratyekabuddhas [i.e. relatively high-level spiritual aspirants, but lower than full Buddhas] perceive the emptiness of everything, but do not perceive the non-emptiness [and so forth down to], they perceive the absence of self [i.e. non-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.’

[Notes from Dr. Tony Page: this is one of the most important passages in the wholeMahaparinirvana Sutra. It is often quoted by nihilistically inclined commentators – but in radically truncated form. They usually give their readers only the first part: ‘The Buddha-dhatu is ultimate emptiness’. They then generally excise all that follows. What are they frightened of? What are they trying to suppress and censor? They are frightened of the fact that emptiness is here clearly defined – but not defined as ’causes and conditions’, ‘conditionality’, pratitya-samutpada, or ‘lack of inherent existence’, which are so beloved of nihilistic commentators. Instead, emptiness is defined as Awareness, or Gnosis, or Knowing (jnana) – and for there to be Knowing, there must be a Knower (gnosis is not some free-floating blankness drifting around space). Who is that Knower? The Buddha. The term ‘Budd-ha’ actually means: ‘The One who Knows / The One who is Awake’. This terrifies nihilists, because it brings personhood (of an incomprehensible, supernal kind) back into the equation – and personhood is something the nihilists cannot brook for one second.

The second reason the nihilists erase the balance of the quote is that it contains the damning (for them) declaration that, not only is there Self (which the entire sutra unequivocally teaches to be the Eternal Buddha), but that if one only sees non-Self and impermanence in everything, one is not traversing the Middle Path and will consequently not gain the liberatory vision of the Buddha-dhatu– and therewith secure entry into Great Nirvana. What is Great Nirvana? It is the Self. What is the Self? It is the Buddha – unbegotten, unblemished, unharmed, unaging, and undying: highest transcendental Reality. This message is poison to the nihilists – but to sincere, Buddha-respecting and open-hearted spiritual seekers after Truth, it is the most delicious spiritual nutriment. It is ambrosia (as the Buddha elsewhere in the sutra terms it). It is nothing less than the True Dharma.]