Number Twelve is the flagship chapter for the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra; it further details the True Nature of the Self and then highlights its salvific context as, “After hearing this sutra one thereupon understands that all living beings possess Buddha-nature, and this is the reason why I expound the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra.”
Chapter 12: On the Nature of the Tathagata
Kasyapa said to the Buddha: “O World-Honoured One! Is there Self in the 25 existences or not?” The Buddha said: “O good man! “Self” means “Tathagatagarbha” [Buddha-Womb, Buddha-Embryo, Buddha-Nature]. Every being has Buddha-Nature. This is the Self. Such Self has, from the very beginning, been under cover of innumerable defilements. That is why man cannot see it.
There we have it, the premier statement we’ve been waiting for throughout this series: “Self” means Tathagatagarbha, the Supreme Dharma-womb that houses the seed of one’s genuine and undefiled nature. The sutra then relays “Five Parables on Buddha-nature.” We shall present the first one in full, and then focus on the Tathagatagarbha-Doctrine that is expounded in each.
O good man! [Imagine that] there is a poor woman here. She has true gold concealed in her house. But none of the people of her house, whether big or small, know of it.
But there is a stranger, who, through expediency, says to the poor woman: “I shall employ you. You must now go and weed the land!” The woman answers: “I cannot do this now. If you let my son see where the gold is hidden, I will soon work for you.” The man says: “I know the way. I shall point it out to your son.” The woman further says: “Nobody of my house, whether big or small, knows [of this]. How can you?” The man says: “I shall now make it clear.” The woman says further: “I desire to see. Pray let me.” The man digs out the gold that had lain hidden. The woman sees it, is gladdened, and begins to respect that person. O good man!
The case is the same with the Buddha-Nature which man has. Nobody can see it. This is analogous to the gold which the poor woman possessed and yet could not see. O good man! I now let persons see the Buddha-Nature that they possess, which is overspread by defilements. This is analogous to the poor woman who cannot see the gold, even though she possesses it. The Tathagata now reveals to all beings the storehouse of Enlightenment, which is the Buddha-Nature, as it is called. If all beings see this, they are gladdened and will take refuge in the Tathagata. The good expedient is the Tathagata, and the poor woman is all the innumerable beings, and the cask of true gold is the Buddha-Nature.
We truly hold a treasure, not made of gold but hidden within the fleshy-substance of our mortal carcass. Our own Buddha-nature is the very Heart of our being, a nature worth more than its weight in gold. How few of us recognize IT and take to heart IT’s storehouse of salvific grace—the very Bodhi-seed that if properly nurtured, will become one’s sole single-minded impetus for living out the remainder of this heavy-laden samsaric-cruise.
(Mark L. Blum translation):
It was for the sake of saving everyone that I [previously] taught living beings to cultivate [their understanding] of nonself in all dharmas (sarvadharma anātman), [explaining that] after they had practiced in this manner they will have forsaken their egotism (ahaṃkāra) forever and [thereby] attain nirvāṇa. [I taught the nonexistence of self (nairātmabhāva)] in order to dispel erroneous views circulating in the mundane world and reveal a supramundane dharma [to replace it]. In addition, I showed that worldly presumptions of self (laukikātman) are fallacious and not real. [In this context] cultivating the dharma of nonself is therefore meant to cleanse one’s identity.
The Tathagata clearly pinpoints in this passage the real meaning behind the non-self doctrine, something that has confused Buddhists who stress that anātman is the Buddha’s final say on the nature of “self”. The message here is to downplay the [Ego]-self, NOT the True Nirvanic-Selfhood. It’s saying to drive out the skandhic-demon of Egohood (as manifested through the Five Skandhas) in order for the True Self to claim its rightful inheritance.
[On the Importance of finding an authentic-teacher of the Buddhadharma]:
The case is the same with all beings. They do not come near to a good teacher of the Way. So, they cannot see the Buddha-Nature which is within, even though they possess it. And they are reigned over by greed, lust, anger, and ignorance. So they fall into the realms of hell, animals, hungry ghosts, asuras, candalas, and get born in such various houses as Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya and Sudra. The karma generated by the mind leads a person, though born a human, into such lives as a cripple, lame, deaf, blind or dumb person, and to the 25 existences, where such as greed, lust, anger and ignorance reign over the mind, and the person is unable to know of the presence of the Buddha-Nature.
Not having come into contact with a good teacher of the Way, they do not know the Tathagata’s hidden treasure and do not study selflessness. For example, even when a person is told of the unholy self, he cannot know the true quality of the Self. The same is true of my disciples. As they do not befriend a good teacher of the Way, they practise non-Self and do not know where it [Self] is. They do not know the true nature of selflessness. How, then, could they know the true nature of the Self itself? Thus, O good man, the Tathagata says that all beings possess the Buddha-Nature.
How rare it is these days to come into contact with a True Teacher of the Way, who will point out the errors in an adept’s development and enlighten them to discern the true from the false light of Mara. Once again, this passage clearly distinguishes the “unholy self” from the One and ONLY [Self].
“The Buddha-Nature is strong and vigorous. It is hard to destroy. Therefore, there is nothing that can kill it. If there were something that could indeed kill it, Buddha-Nature would die. [But] nothing can ever destroy such Buddha-Nature. Nothing of this nature can ever be cut. “The nature of Self is nothing other than the hidden storehouse of the Tathagata”. Such a storehouse can never be smashed, set on fire, or done away with.”
(Mark L. Blum translation):
Good man, buddha-nature in living beings is just like this. It cannot be destroyed by any theory, by the deity Māra Pāpīyas or any other person or deity. As a feature of the five aggregates, when they come into being, it does as well. But a characteristic of the functioning five aggregates is that, like rocks and sand, they can be fractured and even destroyed. Yet buddha-nature is like a diamond in that it is impossible to destroy or even damage it. This is why I say that destroying the five aggregates I do call “killing a living being,” but, good man, you must also understand that the Buddha’s dharma is thus inconceivable [regarding the buddha-nature].
This passage on the Five Aggregates as contrasted with Buddha-nature is reminiscent of lines from the Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn:
Five need to be struck down
(selfishness, doubt, unhealthy
spiritualities, concupiscence, and
rage) and five obliviated (desire for
sensate form and for formlessness,
pride, mental anxiety, and avidya).
Five are to be fostered (faith and
logos, Recollective Vigilance,
Antecedent Technique [the “turn
about”], and prajna).
When the Five Skandhas (form,
sensation, thought, motion, mortal
consciousness) are relinquished the
splendor of the Other Shore is revealed.
The Immaculate Self is the storehouse of the Tathagatagarbha that is housed with the Garbha-child bestowing Blessings untold, as contrasted with the Alaya-storehouse that is filled with soiled skandhic seeds since time immemorial.
When someone critically observes
That self-nature contains buddha-nature,
You will know that a person such as that
Is able to enter this hidden treasury.
One who understands self and what pertains to self
Has already passed beyond this world.
If it were asserted that self is an abiding entity, then it would be a permanent dharma and there would be no separation from suffering. If one were to cultivate pure practice on the basis of nonself, it would not yield any benefits. If it were asserted that all dharmas are without self, that would constitute the [annihilationist] doctrine, and if it were asserted that self is an abiding entity [in all dharmas], that would constitute the [eternalist] doctrine. If it were asserted that that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, that would be the annihilationist view; and if all composite things were permanent, then that would again be an eternalist view. If one asserts [existence as] suffering, that would be annihilationist; if one asserts [existence as] bliss, that would be eternalist.
To cultivate the notion that all dharmas are permanent is to fall into the error of the annihilationist view. To cultivate the notion that all dharmas are destroyed is to fall into the error of the eternalist view. It is like an inchworm whose hind legs move whenever his forelegs do. The cultivation of eternalism and annihilationism are always like this, for each one calls forth the other.
This passage highlights the dangers of nihilism and eternalism. The first claims that the Self is Not Real, while the latter places phenomenal worlds (including the nature of some light heavens) above and beyond what constitutes the Real plane of the Dharmadātu.
Thus, the Yamamoto-Page translation states, “Know that the Middle Path of the Buddha negates the two planes and tells of true Dharma.”
Focusing your practice on nonself in other dharmas is to limit yourself to concern with the defilements, while focusing your practice on permanence in other dharmas brings you to what I call the hidden tathāgatagarbha.
The nirvāṇa I speak of has no abode. It would indeed be of some value to pursue your [understanding] of other dharmas that are impermanent, but by cultivating your [understanding] of dharmas that are permanent you will be looking at the buddha, dharma, and sangha, as well as liberation proper. You should understand that this sense of a “middle way” in the Buddha’s dharma expresses the true-dharma, a perspective that distances itself from either extreme.
But if one could only hear this subtle Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, he would then see his buddha-nature, and it would be like seeing flowers on an elephant tusk. And although you may hear about all the different samādhis discussed in other sutras, if you have not heard this sutra then you will not understand this subtle aspect of the Tathāgata, just like in the absence of thunder the flowers on the elephant tusks cannot be seen. It is only after hearing this sutra that one thereby understands the hidden treasury buddha-nature that is expounded by all tathāgatas, as in the metaphor of seeing flowers on elephant tusks when there is thunder. After hearing this sutra one thereupon understands that all living beings possess buddha-nature, and this is the reason why I expound the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra. I [also] call it “the hidden treasury that is a tathāgata,” extending the dharmakāya-like flowers on elephant tusks when it thunders. By nurturing something of such significance, one thus attains what is known as mahāparinirvāṇa. If a good man or good woman carefully studies and practices what is in this Subtle Sutra of the Great Nirvana, know that this will be a person who repays their debt to the Buddha and is truly a disciple of the Buddha.
The Tathagata expounds upon the necessity of taking the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra [exclusively] to heart. There is no finer way of expressing the full Dharma-treasury that houses the salvific import of the Tathagatagarbha. It is only in such fashion that one can follow the Buddha into mahāparinirvāṇa. This Nirvanic-Kingdom of Self is what constitutes the Buddhadhātu—the very Dharma-realm of the Buddhas.
The Yamamoto-Page translation marvelously sums this up:
Noble Son, the True Self that the Tathagata expounds today is called the Buddhadhatu [Buddha-Nature]. Noble Son, should there be any ordinary person who is able well to expound this, then he [speaks] in accordance with unsurpassed Buddha-Dharma. Should there be anyone who is well able to distinguish this in accordance with what has been expounded regarding it, then you should know that he has the nature of a Bodhisattva.