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'phags pa rnga bo che chen po'i le'u zhes bya ba theg pa chen po'i mdo
Dà fǎ gǔ jīng
D222   ·  T270

One of the so-called tathāgatagarbha sūtras that features teachings on buddha-nature. In this text buddha-nature is possessed by all sentient beings and is described as luminous and pure. It is also attributed characteristics, such as being permanent, eternal, everlasting, peaceful, and a self, that echo the four perfect qualities (guṇapāramitās) often ascribed to the dharmakāya when it is treated as a synonym for buddha-nature. It also connects tathāgatagarbha to the notion of a single vehicle and asserts the definitive nature of the buddha-nature teachings in general and within this sūtra in particular.

Scholarly notes

The *Mahābherīhārakasūtra (Scripture on the Beater of the Great Kettledrum) is extant in two versions:
  1. the Da fagu jing (大法鼓經; T. 270), translated by Guṇabhadra; and
  2. the Rnga bo che chen po’i le’u (D 222/Q 888), translated by Vidyākaraprabha, Dpal gyi lhun po, and Dpal brtsegs (9th cent. ce).
Apart from Takasaki Jidikō (1974, 234–253), the main studies are by Suzuki Takayasu (1996a; 1997; 2000; 2002), who suggests that the *Mahābherīhārakasūtra is linked to the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra (see below), because of the reference to its preachers as *hitopadeṣṭṛ (Chn. anweishuozhe [安慰說者]; Tib. phan par ston pa, “those who teach what is beneficial [for sentient beings]”).
      King Prasenajit goes to hear the Buddha preaching the dharma, accompanied by a great fanfare of beating drums and blasting conches. In response, the Buddha “beats the great kettledrum of the dharma” (hence the title) and “blasts the great conch of the dharma” (T. 270 [IX] 290c15, 291c14–15). Later, we learn that Prasenajit smears his war drum with a magical ointment, and when the drum is beaten, poisoned arrows fall from his soldiers’ wounds; similarly, the *Mahābherīhārakasūtra has the power to extract the arrows of the so-called three poisons (i.e. lust, hatred, and delusion), the elements which, according to Buddhist doctrine, cause the entire wheel of transmigration to revolve and bind beings to saṃsāra.
      The *Mahābherīhārakasūtra proposes that existence (*bhava) is at the root of all pleasure and pain (*sukhaduḥkha), so that nirvāṇa, which is freedom from the very conditions of existence, is the supreme bliss. This apparently simple teaching (which echoes the bliss of the four inversions) is not known to all tathāgatas, and bodhisattvas from other buddha worlds come to hear it taught by Śākyamuni. This teaching is thus a “secret dharma store of the tathāgatas,” a “concealed teaching” (T. 270 [IX] 291a13–14, 291a26–29). After the (apparent) parinirvāṇa, this secret is to be entrusted to the bodhisattva Mahākāśyapa, whom the Buddha likens to King Prasenajit, beating his drums and sounding his conches, defeating enemies, and bringing peace.
      However, toward the end of the text, it is dramatically revealed that various phantoms created by Māra, the embodiment of evil, are hidden among the congregation. A series of powerful disciples and bodhisattvas – including Mahākāśyapa – prove incapable of rooting them out. This sets the scene for *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana, despite histrionic protest that he is a mere layman, to best even Mahākāśyapa by unmasking and capturing Māra’s minions. The Buddha reveals that *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana only gives the appearance of being a common person (pṛthagjana). In fact, his true level of spiritual development is more advanced; in the end-times, he will be reborn as a monk “bearing the same name as myself ” (i.e. as the Buddha, who is speaking; T. 270 [IX] 299a17–18), the main proponent of the true teachings (of the Mahābherīhārakasūtra); and in the very remote future, *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana will become a buddha.
      The heart of the teaching of the *Mahābherīhārakasūtra is twofold. First, the Buddha is truly eternal and does not really enter parinirvāṇa. Second, all sentient beings have tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature – clearly and explicitly identified with the self (wo [我]; ātman). The fact that sentient beings at first do not perceive this pure essence within themselves, but can nonetheless realize it with practice, is explained by the metaphor of gold tainted by impurities and then refined. The *Mahābherīhārakasūtra also uses other metaphors, later commonplace, like the moon obscured by clouds, or the eye obscured by cataracts, and speaks explicitly of the covering of the tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature/ātman by adventitious defilements (*āgantukakleśa).
      The *Mahābherīhārakasūtra shares a number of themes with other texts in the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra group: the eternity of the Tathāgata; the docetic parinirvāṇa secret teachings; the identification of the Tathāgata with ātman; deprecation of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas; the identification of Mahākāśyapa as the true heritor of the dharma; and end-times prophecies. It speaks of “the great rain of the dharma” (e.g. T. 270, [IX] 299c9; comp. also the Mahāmeghasūtra). The *Mahābherīhārakasūtra also includes a version of the parable, better known from the Lotus Sūtra, of the phantom city conjured up by a guide to encourage travelers to continue a long and arduous journey, used as a figure for the Buddha’s teaching of intermediate “vehicles” (yāna) as way stations on the path to the Mahāyāna as the “one” (true) vehicle.

(Source: Radich, Michael. "Tathāgatagarbha Scriptures." In Vol. 1, Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism: Literature and Languages, edited by Jonathan A. Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, and Vincent Eltschinger, 267-68. Leiden: Brill, 2015.))

Description from When the Clouds Part

Similar to some of the above sūtras, this text also states that the Buddha as well as the tathāgata heart are permanent, eternal, everlasting, peaceful, and a self.[1] Śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas who have newly entered the mahāyāna are incapable of realizing the parinirvāṇa of the buddhas as permanent, eternal, everlasting, and peaceful. It is only bodhisattva mahāsattvas who understand the eternal character of the Tathāgata as well as the existence of the tathāgata heart, without abandoning the two-fold identitylessness of persons and phenomena. Those bodhisattvas are able to distinguish teachings of expedient meaning and definitive meaning. Among other positive activities, they will preserve the tathāgatagarbha sūtras and teach their benefit.

      Similar to the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Mahābherīsūtra uses the example of the progressive refinement of milk into butter and ghee (clarified butter) for the progressive manifestation of the pure essence of buddha nature. Ordinary beings with wrong views are said to be like an impure mixture of milk and blood, while those who have taken refuge in the three jewels resemble pure milk. Those who pursue the dharma out of faith and new bodhisattvas are similar to cream. Śrāvakas and bodhisattvas on the first seven bhūmis are like fresh butter. Śrāvaka and pratyekabuddhas arhats as well as bodhisattvas on the ninth and tenth bhūmis resemble melted butter, while tathāgatas are similar to ghee.

      In this sūtra, the Buddha uses the terms tathāgatagarbha, tathāgatadhātu, and buddhadhātu interchangeably. He also links tathāgatagarbha, which is said to be infinitely luminous and pure, with the notions of the single dhātu and the single yāna. The wisdoms of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas as well as the sūtras on emptiness are like a city conjured up by the leader of a travel party for the weary travelers to rest for a while, whereas buddhahood resembles the actual final destination of this party, a marvelous and real huge city with a great abundance of everything. Thus, the teachings on the three yānas and the three nirvāṇas are of expedient meaning and have only a temporary purpose. The Buddha even proclaims that those who say that sūtras such as the Mahābherīsūtra do not exist are not his students and he is not their teacher.

      Any sūtras that teach on emptiness should be understood to entail a certain intention behind them, whereas unsurpassable sūtras like the Mahābherīsūtra do not bear any intention behind them. Those who are lazy, have corrupt discipline, and whose body, speech, and mind are not under control will cast away the sūtras that teach on the permanence of the Buddha and the tathāgata heart and will instead train in the sūtras on emptiness. Similar to Aṅgulimāla above, the Buddha also says that the sūtras on emptiness are only of expedient meaning and that those who do not understand the meaning of emptiness and identitylessness properly are ruined. For emptiness and identitylessness apply only to the obscuring afflictions, while their basis—great nirvāṇa—is eternal and peaceful.[2] Furthermore, according to the Buddha, he teaches the notion of no-self only in order to overcome the worldly notion of a self. The notion of no-self amazes people and so they become curious to hear the dharma. Once they have entered the teachings and their faith has grown, they diligently train in the dharma of emptiness. Thereafter, the Buddha says, I teach them that liberation is existent, eternal, peaceful, and has form. The existence of such liberation shows that there exists the true self—the tathāgata heart—in sentient beings, just as smoke shows the existence of fire. However, this true self, which is like gold covered by ore,[3] or a precious jewel inside a mountain, is not like the worldly views about a self, or like any views about permanence and extinction.

      In answer to Kāśyapa’s question, "If there is such a true self, why is it not seen?" the Buddha teaches four examples as reasons for the existence of the tathāgata heart in all sentient beings and its being obscured only by adventitious stains.[4] This tathāgata heart, he says, is adorned with infinite major and minor marks, and through it, sentient beings will attain nirvāṇa. For example, a film over our eyes makes us blind for as long as we do not obtain some medicine, but we will regain our eyesight once we have taken that medicine. Likewise, the cocoon of billions of afflictions covers the basic element of beings, which is like an eye. It is not seen by śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas but only by those who delight in the Buddha. The remaining three examples are the moon covered by clouds, someone’s digging a well and eventually finding water under many layers of earth, and a lamp within a vase. Just as this lamp, the tathāgata heart within the vase of saṃsāric afflictions does not shine upon and promote the welfare of beings until this vase of saṃsāra is broken. (pp. 23-24)

  1. D222 (forty-three folios) and Taishō 270. There exists an anonymous English translation from the Chinese (http://www.sūūtra19.html). The Nālandā Translation Committee is currently working on an English translation from the Tibetan and Chinese (available in 2016 in the Reading Room of the 84,000 Project).
  2. The Jñānamudrāsamādhisūtra also says that there will be some people in the future who do not seek the dharma but material gain, do not control their body and mind, claim to train in awakening, like to talk, and say that everything is empty. They do not understand emptiness as it is. Those who, by focusing on emptiness as being unarisen, not being created by anyone, being invisible, and being without coming and going say that they are training well in emptiness are thieves of the dharma. However, this sūtra does not link these statements to what the Mahābherīsūtra says here otherwise, but they seem to refer to people for whom emptiness is just lip service or who fixate on emptiness as being such and such (Mipham Rinpoche’s Synopsis of the Sugata Heart quotes the Jñānamudrāsamādhisūtra in support of not misunderstanding buddha nature as emptiness in a nihilistic sense or as a nonimplicative negation).
  3. Compare the example in the Saṃyuktāgama (Taishō 1246, 341b–42a) of a goldsmith’s washing away layers of gravel, sand, and dirt to reveal gold in gold ore, just as it is, in its perfect color and luster.
  4. D222, fols. 110a.7–111a.4.

Philosophical positions of this text

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About the text

The Mahābherīsūtra, another tathāgatagarbha sūtra that like the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta is concerned with the issue of whether the sum total of sentient beings can increase or decrease, also makes extensive use of the term ātman. The sūtra was translated into Chinese in the fifth century by Guṇabhadra and was influenced by the Lotus Sūtra, which it mentions by name.       Christopher Jones proposed that because the presentation of the issues in the Mahābherīsūtra is less sophisticated than in the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta, it should be considered to have been composed earlier. Jones also argues that with the Mahābherīsūtra and the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta came an important expansion of the meaning of tathāgatagarbha: earlier scriptures posited that all beings have buddha-nature in them and that they had the potential to become a buddha. Jones writes that these two sūtras were responsible for equating tathāgatagarbha with dharmakāya (as we saw above), the all-pervading true nature of all reality. Buddha-nature in this way is no longer just a potential or nature of the individual; it is the fundamental nature of reality shared by all beings.[1]

      The Mahābherīsūtra was translated by Guṇabhadra, circa 435–436, as Dafa gu jing 大法鼓經 (T270),[2] It was translated as ’Phags pa rnga bo che chen po’i le’u zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (D222) in the ninth century by Vidyākaraprabha and Pelgyi Lhunpo. Christopher Jones writes that the Tibetan is longer than the Chinese version (T270) and is altered in ways that suggest to Jones that the translators sought to make sense of difficult passages.[3]

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  1. Jones, “Beings, Non-Beings, and Buddhas,” 61–63.
  2. Jones, “Beings, Non-Beings, and Buddhas,” 63.
  3. Jones, “Beings, Non-Beings, and Buddhas,” 63–64.