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The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra equates the term tathāgatagarbha with "buddha element" (buddhadhātu; the same is done in the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra, Mahābherīsūtra, Uttaratantra, and RGVV) as well as with the single yāna, and says that buddha nature is an equivalent of buddhahood or perfect awakening. Buddha nature is eternal, pure, real, virtuous, and will be realized by everyone in the future. Similar to the Śrīmālādevīsūtra, this resultant buddha nature—the dharmakāya—is said to consist of the four pāramitās of permanence, bliss, purity, and a self. Buddha nature itself is also equated with the notion of a self, but there is a clear warning of confusing this "correct" self with the notion of ātman in its ordinary sense. Furthermore, buddha nature as a result (buddhahood) is endowed with a perfect buddha’s ten powers, four fearlessnesses, eighteen unique qualities, major and minor marks, and so on. What it lacks or is free from are all kinds of karmas and their results, afflictions, the skandhas, and the twelve links of dependent origination.
In this sūtra, the statement "all sentient beings possess buddha nature" is repeatedly explained to mean that they will possess perfect awakening in the future but do not possess the major and minor marks of a buddha right now. In order for this awakening to happen, sentient beings (the direct or primary cause) must practice the six pāramitās (the auxiliary causes), just as milk is made into cream or butter through additional other conditions. Consequently, the sūtra vehemently criticizes people who misinterpret the teachings on buddha nature to mean that all beings have already attained buddhahood and that there is thus no need for the practices of a bodhisattva. Rather, beings can perceive their buddha nature only if they make efforts in the Buddhist path. The sūtra even says that if one regards the expression "possessing buddha nature" to mean "possessing it at present," it must then be said that sentient beings do not possess buddha nature. That buddha nature is both nonexistent at present and existent in the future is presented as an expression of the Buddhist middle path. Similarly, the sūtra says that if one sees everything to be empty but fails to see what is not empty, this is not called "the middle path." Likewise, if one sees everything as the lack of a self but fails to see what is the self, this is not called "the middle path." What is called "the middle path" is the buddha element (that is, tathāgatagarbha).
In the same vein, the sūtra also frequently refers to the tathāgata heart as being a seed and illustrates it through the examples of flowers’ growing out of elephant tusks when it rains and butter’s being made from milk. In those cases, buddha nature is obviously regarded as a potential that becomes fully developed only later.
On the other hand, the sūtra’s examples of a pearl embedded in the forehead of a strong man, a treasure beneath the earth, and a gold mine suggest that buddha nature is immanent in sentient beings and only needs to be revealed. The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra explicitly refers to the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and attributes the statement that the buddhadhātu is present in all sentient beings to this sūtra (this could also mean that the examples of a hidden treasure and a gold mine, though different in details, may have been inspired by the similar examples in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra). In that vein, the sūtra also states that buddha nature is not newly created but only prevented from being seen by adventitious stains. Furthermore, the text says, just as an empty bottle is empty only of liquid but not of its own color and shape, liberation is empty only of afflictions and suffering but is not empty in the sense of being nonexistent. By contrast, the sūtra declares elsewhere that buddha nature abides nowhere and thus is also not in sentient beings, just as sound does not abide in any part of a lute.
In sum, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra discusses three very different meanings of all sentient beings’ possessing buddha nature—(1) all are endowed with an intrinsic pure nature of which they will become fully aware once what obscures it has been removed, (2) all possess a seed or potential for buddhahood, which will grow into its full fruition in the future once all necessary conditions are present, and (3) the mahāyāna path to buddhahood is open for all, and its result is definite if one follows this path.
Among these three positions, the third is probably the one that has the most support in this sūtra for several reasons. The sūtra repeatedly encourages its audience to avoid metaphysical speculations as in (1) and (2) and to focus on the practices that actually lead to buddhahood. Also, it contains several passages that strongly deny buddha nature to be an entity that is inherent in sentient beings, such as, "If some hold that all sentient beings definitely possess the tathāgata heart, which is permanent, blissful, a self, and pure, and that it is neither produced nor born but is not perceived by sentient beings due to the existence of stains, it should be understood that they slander the Buddha, the dharma, and the saṃgha." Besides the above example of the lute, the sūtra contains further passages that greatly oppose the notion of future buddhahood’s being based on some dormant potential that exists at present, such as saying that if milk already had the nature of butter, it would not need any other conditions to become butter. Likewise, sentient beings are said not to have the nature of buddhas intrinsically but need to rely on the conditions of practicing the pāramitās and so on. In addition, ultimately, no phenomenon has any definite nature whatsoever. Furthermore, the sūtra explains that sentient beings are said to possess buddha nature in contrast to inanimate things because they, unlike stones and so on, are able to attain buddhahood. In general, the sūtra often emphasizes the practical implications of the teachings on buddha nature, such as its being praised by bodhisattvas in order to encourage sentient beings to give rise to bodhicitta. The Buddha also says that buddha nature is in fact not a self but is only described as a self for the sake of guiding certain beings.
The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra 's position on the notion of "those with great desire" (icchantika) is as ambiguous as its position on buddha nature. "Those with great desire" are consistently portrayed in this sūtra as possessing all the major flaws described in Buddhism (such as enjoying evil deeds, putting down the mahāyāna dharma, and committing the five actions of immediate consequence), and they are said to be incurable. Consequently, the first part of the sūtra denies that those with great desire, who are like a scorched seed, possess buddha nature and that they ever attain buddha- hood (which of course stands in direct opposition to the sūtra’s passages that state that all sentient beings possess buddha nature). By contrast, later passages affirm that those with great desire possess buddha nature, can definitely attain buddhahood, and only temporarily lack roots of virtue. Despite these extensive discussions of the notion of icchantika, the sūtra never uses the terms "disposition" (gotra) or "those who lack the disposition" (agotraka).
In sum, these very different and even contradictory positions on buddha nature and the notion of icchantika in the same sūtra suggest that the versions of this sūtra that we have now were compiled from different sources (as is the case with other mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Laṅkāvatārasūtra). (pp. 17-20)
- Dīgha Nikāya 16.
- There are several Sanskrit fragments of this sūtra, three that were found earlier (see Takasaki 1971, 1024–23) and several others that were edited by M. Allon and R. Salomon in Buddhist Manuscripts I (Oslo: Hermes Publishing, 2000), 243–73. Otherwise, this sūtra is preserved in two Tibetan (D119, 339 folios; D120, 151 folios) and four Chinese translations (Taishō 374–377; 377 is an addition to the actual sūtra). Note that the longer Tibetan version D119 is a combination of Taishō 374 and 377, while the shorter version D120 is a direct translation of the Indian source and corresponds in its contents to Taishō 376. As already mentioned, Dölpopa appears to refer to D119 and D120 as the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra and the Parinirvānasūtra, respectively. The Kangyur also contains a third very short text called Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (D121, two folios), which however consists only of a number of prophecies of the Buddha about what will happen to his teachings after certain numbers of years after his death have passed. There are two English translations of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra from the Chinese by Kosho Yamamoto (3 vols., Karinbunko, 1973–75 and 12 vols., London 1999–2000) as well as an unpublished translation from the Tibetan by Stephen Hodge. For details on the treatment of tathāgatagarbha in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, see Takasaki 1971, Ming-Wood 1982 and 1984, and Page 2003.
- Note that the assertion that buddha nature and ultimate reality are free from, or beyond, dependent origination is one of Dölpopa’s key positions.
- Lit. "the five without interval" (often translated as the "five heinous crimes"). They consist of killing one’s father, one’s mother, or an arhat, creating a schism in the saṃgha, and intentionally causing blood to flow from the body of a buddha. They are called "with immediate consequence" or "without interval" because their result is rebirth in a hell realm immediately after death, without the interval of an intermediate state (bardo) before this next rebirth.
- This contrast is even more striking in the longer version of the sūtra (D119 and Taishō 374), in which chapters 1 to 5 deny that those with great desire possess buddha nature and attain buddhahood. Chapters 6 to 9 are somewhat ambiguous on this issue, continuing to utterly despise those with great desire but also saying that there are two types of them—those who possess roots of virtue at present and those who will have roots of virtue in the future. Finally, chapters 10 to 13 are very emphatic about those with great desire possessing buddha nature and having the definite capacity for future buddhahood once they abandon their evil ways and accumulate the roots of virtue that they lack only temporarily. This section also says that buddha nature cannot be cut off because it is neither past, present, or future.
About the text
The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra and the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra are the likeliest candidates for the earliest surviving instance of the term tathāgatagarbha used in the sense that it has come down to us. Michael Radich dates the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra to as early as the second century CE and claims that it is the earliest of the group, while Michael Zimmermann dates the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra to the third century; he once argued that this sūtra was the earliest of the group but has since backed away from that assertion in light of Radich’s findings. The debate is ongoing, as Zimmermann has also suggested that the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra could represent a collection of early metaphors that had circulated separately, and to which the term tathāgatagarbha was later added.
The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, like the Hīnayāna sūtra of the same name, is ostensibly a narrative about the final days of the Buddha, but this one extends into a discourse of Mahāyāna doctrine. The Buddha is depicted not as dying but as entering a nirvāṇa that is an enduring presence rather than an extinction. This seems to be the main thrust of the sūtra: to proclaim that the Buddha is ever-present and to equate parinirvāṇa with the eternal and all-pervading dharmakāya, which eventually came to be equated in the sūtra with tathāgatagarbha. The sūtra in fact inverts what are known as the four viparyāsas, or wrong views: that any phenomenon can be described as being free from suffering, permanent, pure, or endowed with a self. The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra instead states that the Buddha, his enlightenment, and the buddhadhātu should all be properly described as blissful, permanent, pure, and endowed with a self. That permanent buddhahood, which is only masked by temporary stains, is tathāgatagarbha. (In typical parochial Mahāyāna fashion, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra reserves complete enlightenment for only those who have completed the Mahāyāna path; the nirvāṇa of the arhat is merely free of the stains, lacking the awareness of the buddhadhātu and bliss.)
The Mahāparnirvāṇa’s liberal use of the term self (ātman) to describe tathāgatagarbha was controversial, flying in the face of one of the central doctrines of Buddhism, that of no-self, or anātman. As Christopher Jones points out, two additional tathāgatagarbha sūtras do the same, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra and the *Mahābherīsūtra, leading him to classify the three together as the earliest strata of tathāgatagarbha scripture, and to speculate that opposition to these sūtras from within Buddhist communities was the reason what he classifies as later tathāgatagarbha sūtras dropped the use of the term ātman.
In his study of the scripture Radich argues that the term tathāgatagarbha, which he glosses as “womb of a buddha,” was used to explain how a perfectly pure being such as a buddha could arise out of a polluted and degraded human being; how, in other words, the conditioned could give rise to the unconditioned. This line of argument remains one of the more popular defenses against the claim that buddha-nature theory is non-Buddhist; if sentient beings and buddhas do not share the same nature, defenders assert, the attainment of enlightenment cannot be explained. (The misogyny in the metaphor is not hard to miss, however; one need only substitute "woman" for "womb.") Either saṃsāra must be wiped away to reveal what is already present, or a spark of enlightenment that is part of a saṃsāric being’s essence is brought to fruition. Otherwise nirvāṇa is the result of some action and therefore determined by causes and conditions, a view that is abhorrent to any Buddhist; nirvāṇa is precisely the absence of any conditioning.
As Brunnhölzl describes it, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra offers an ambiguous definition of tathāgatagarbha: it is an intrinsic pure nature that all sentient beings possess and of which they will become aware once obscurations are removed, and it is a seed or potential that will ripen into buddhahood once all conditions are present. Buddha-nature, it would seem, was from the very early days a doctrine that contained both an ontological and a soteriological assertion. In the first case it is a statement about the nature of reality: sentient beings are by nature perfect, but that perfection is obscured by stains that nevertheless do not impact its essence; that perfection is moreover equated with the nature of reality itself, and therefore buddha-nature becomes the basis for both saṁsāra and nirvāṇa. In the second case it is an ethical proposal relating to salvation: the potential for perfection is present in all sentient beings, but they must each strive to actualize it. This bifurcated definition would continue through all presentations, to the delight or consternation of many commentators.
The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra appears to have been compiled in at least three stages. As described by Liu Ming-Wood and also by Takasaki, the earliest section comprises the first five chapters, which read as a complete text and end with the final days of the Buddha.The first five chapters were also translated independently (see below). Chapters 6 through 9 clarify points made in the first, a commentary of sorts in the guise of a continuation, and the final section, chapters 10 through 13, add further explanation. As Christopher Jones explained, Japanese scholar Shimoda Masahiro suggested that the earliest core of the text was concerned with the Buddha’s permanent existence; rather than vanishing into nirvāṇa, here the buddha is permanent and omnipresent. The accretion of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine represents a transition of the Buddha’s body into that of sentient beings, the Buddha’s presence becoming the true self of ordinary beings. This suggests an interesting link between the early Buddhist concern with the relics—and lasting presence—of the Buddha with the doctrine of buddha-nature. In any case, the sūtra teaches, this innate buddha-body of sentient beings, which came to be called tathāgatagarbha, represents their true self.
A primary divergence between the first and later sections of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is in their positions on buddha-nature and the icchantikas, the class of beings who are beset with the gravest of flaws such that they can never become enlightened; by definition they are devoid of buddha-nature. The first section of the sūtra is adamant that the icchantikas do not have buddha-nature and can never become enlightened; they are a scorched seed that can never sprout. The second section is ambiguous on the subject, and the third states unequivocally that icchantikas do have buddha-nature and therefore do have the potential to become enlightened. By bestowing buddha-nature on the icchantika the additions brought the sūtra into full conformity with the Single Vehicle (Ekayāna) teachings of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra—the Lotus Sutra—which influenced it and other early tathāgatagarbha sūtras, and concurrently into contradiction with fundamental Yogācāra doctrine of the three natures.
Testifying to its popularity—and the availability of Sanskrit manuscripts—forty-one Sanskrit fragments of the Mahāparinirvāṇa have been found in Central Asia, a primary region through which Buddhism was brought from India to China. Dunhuang in particular, it is believed, was a hub of buddha-nature transmission in China. There are three recensions of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, although only two are technically translations. The first, the Dabannihuan jing 大般泥洹經 (T376), was translated into Chinese in the southern capital of Jiankang 建康 around 416–418 by Buddhabhadra and Faxian 法顯. This consists of only the first five chapters (said to be the original core) of the sūtra. The second is the Dabanniepan jing 大般涅槃經 (T374), done around 421–432 by Dharmakṣema in the northern kingdom of Beiliang 北涼. This was revised in the 430s as Dabanniepan jing 大般涅槃經 (T375), also known as the “Southern Version,” produced in Liu Song 劉宋 by Huiyan 慧嚴, Huiguan 慧觀, Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (385–433), and others. This is not technically a translation, as they did not consult a Sanskrit original. According to Diana Paul the prolific translator Guṇabhadra also later corrected Dharmakṣema’s translation.
The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra was translated into Tibetan in two different versions, one of which was from Chinese. This is the ’Phags pa yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po’i mdo (D119), translated by a Chinese man whose name was Tibetanized as Wangpabzhun (wang phab zhun) together with Gewai Lodro and Gyatso De, none of whose dates are known. They possibly worked from T374, as Radich states that the two correspond. A second translation, ’Phags pa yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po theg pa chen po’i mdo (D120) was done in the early ninth century by Jinamitra, Jñānagarbha, and Devacandra. This translation corresponds to T376. A third text with the title ’Phags pa yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po'i mdo (D121) was done later, at the start of the second diffusion period, by Kamalagupta and Rinchen Zangpo.
Several English translations of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra are available. The earliest appears to have been done by Japanese scholar Yamamoto Kosho, published first in 1973 and again in 1999 and 2015, with additional assistance from Tony Page. Stephen Hodge's translation is available online. Mark Blum's partial translation is The Nirvana Sutra Volume I.
- Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 99.
- Zimmermann, “The Process of Awakening,” 514. Radich (The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 85) argues for no earlier than 250 and as late as the mid-fourth century.
- On the history of the concept of the dharmakāya, see Harrison, “Is the Dharma-kaya the Real ‘Phantom Body’ of the Buddha?” Harrison argues that in most early Mahāyāna scripture dharmakāya ought to be read as an adjective, meaning “the body of the buddha as the dharma,” and not as some ontological universal principle.
- Jones, “A Self-Aggrandizing Vehicle,” 121.
- Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part, 18. The same can be said about the ''Tathāgatagarbhasūtra''’s similes.
- Liu, “The Problem of the Icchantika;” Takasaki, “Tathāgatagarbha theory in the Mahāparnirvāṇa.”
- Jones, “A Self-Aggrandizing Vehicle,” 124.
- It is important to note that a slightly later translation by Dharmakṣema altered the icchantika passages in the first five chapters in order to bring them into line with the rest of the text. Faxian, who was a committed Yogācārin, did not.
- Jones, “A Self-Aggrandizing Vehicle.”
- Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 21.
- Buddhabhadra lived from 359 to 429. His name is transliterated as Fo tuo ba tuo luo 佛陀跋陀羅.
- Faxian’s dates are estimated as between 320 and 420. Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 20–21; Liu, “The Doctrine of the Buddha-Nature,” 64.
- Dharmakṣema lived from 385 to 433. His name was transliterated as Tan wu chen 曇無讖.
- Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 20–21.
- Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 21; Liu, “The Doctrine of the Buddha-Nature,” 64.
- Guṇabhadra lived from 394 to 468. His name was transliterated (in contemporary Chinese pronunciation) as Qiu na ba tuo luo 求那跋陀羅.
- Paul, The Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 18. Paul names Dharmakṣema’s translation as the first but does not give dates of translation.
- Dge ba’i blos gros.
- Rgya mtsho’i sde.
- Radich, Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 20–21.
- Rin chen bzang po, 958–1055 is not related to buddha-nature.