The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (Nirvana Sutra)

While not as profound as the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, or philosophically erudite as, let us say, our recent series on the  Ratnagotravibhāgaśāstra, but certainly the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is the most intimate in terms of its exposition of the Buddha’s final days with his much-loved multitude of devotees; in particular with how he wanted his beloved Dharma to be understood. Dr. Tony Page says that “the sutra can be said to eclipse all others in its authority on the question of the Buddha-dhatu and Tathagatagarbha.” Before commencing to the sutra proper, this blog will focus on key elements within the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, most notably buddhadhātu, the Buddha-Matrix, or Tathagatagarbha, and the “True-Self”.

What needs to be stated before proceeding further is that, unquestionably, Dr. Tony Page with his tireless efforts in bringing this sutra into the mainstream of Buddhic Study is unsurpassed with his analysis on the Nature of the True-Self.

Our focus will be on the Sutra as a whole and so, at this junction, we have chosen to highlight in this particular blog an overview of the aforementioned key-elements.

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

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

“The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitya), the Self is virtue (gu•a), the Self is eternal (•ā•vatā), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).” (Chapter Four, “Grief”).

So the True Self is revealed by the Buddha in this important excursus on genuine Selfhood to be that totally self-governing, sovereign foundation or ground of Reality which is untrammelled by change and unmarked by mutation and which endures eternally, utterly unassailable by death. The sūtra also (in its somewhat later chapters) intimately links this Buddhic Reality to the Tathāgata-dhātu, Buddha-dhātu, or Tathāgata-garbha, as it is variously named. (Dr. Tony Page)


The second key teaching of this sutra is the doctrine of the concealed presence within all beings of the “Buddha-dhatu” (“Buddha-Element”, “Buddha-Principle”, “Buddha-Sphere”). This term has long been (mis)translated as “Buddha-nature” and is now well known as such; but it is perhaps advisable henceforth to use the correct expression, Buddha-dhatu, to avoid the impression that what is being spoken of here is the Buddha’s “temperament” or “character” or “disposition” within us. This is not quite the meaning ascribed to it in the Nirvana Sutra. The Buddha-dhatu has more of the sense of “Buddha Factor” or “Buddha Principle” than “nature”.

What is the Buddhadhātu?

It is the uncreated, utterly pure, unconditioned, inviolable, indestructible, firm and unshakeable, eternal Buddhic Essence (svabhava) of all sentient beings. It is the life-force (jivaka), the nurturing power within the being which sustains him or her and which, when fully seen and known, transforms that being into a Buddha. It is the “True Self” (satyatman) or the “Great Self” (mahatman) of the Buddha himself, and is all-knowing (sarvajna). It is nothing less than Reality (not just a metaphor pointing to some future potential). It is present within us, right here, right now.

As the Sutra states, “The Buddha-dhatu is the True Self and, like a diamond, for example, it cannot be destroyed”. (Dr. Tony Page)


Another name for this Buddha-dhatu is Tathagata-garbha. The literal meaning of this expression is “Buddha-Womb” or “Buddha-Embryo”. The term implies that it is needful for the Buddhist practitioner to enter into the Buddhic Womb deep inside him/herself in order to be re-born as a new Buddha. And that Buddha-Womb inheres in the very depths of the Buddha’s ultimate being itself, in his Dharmakaya (primordial true being). The Buddha is thus seen as the generative and sustaining source of everlasting life. He likens himself to a great lake which gives rise to all the life-streams of the gods and humans and to a great ocean upon which they all converge in the longest-lasting life of all – that of the Buddha himself. (Dr. Tony Page)

Another contemporary scholar is Dr. Chris Jones of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Jones also highlights the significance of the True-Self within the Sutra:

The MPMS is the text most associated with teaching that the tathāgatagarbha is the ‘true self’ of sentient beings. Discrete forms of the text, all of which are considered here, are one Tibetan and two Chinese versions, together with several Sanskrit fragments. Following the work of Shimoda Masahiro, I address what may be the earlier stratum of the text’s composition, which states that the Buddha himself can be called ātman. Later contributions to the text explain how the tathāgatagarbha – also here buddhadhātu – is in fact the ātman, and defend this position against objections that are likely to have been voiced by skeptical audiences. Ultimately the MPMS teaches that the doctrine of anātman was intended to undermine false notions of selfhood, and reveals that the tathāgatagarbha is the self that is manifested at awakening. (Dr. Chris Jones, Summary of Doctoral Thesis: The use of, and controversy surrounding, the term ātman in the Indian Buddhist tathāgatagarbha literature.)

Dr. Jones also is noted for his fine lecture entitled, Shadows of a former Self: the ‘True Self’ taught by the Tathāgatagarbha Literature. Unfortunately the lecture is not yet available in text format but does exist in audio-format. The following audio tract consists of his lecture. Although the pace of his lecture is articulated in a rapid-fire dictum, the tract is filled with a wealth of information concerning the subject matter and is well-worth repeated plays.


Dr. Jones is in league with others who support a fascinating twist on the nature of buddhadhātu in context of the Sutra:

The earliest surviving text to equate the tathāgatagarbha with a buddhadhātu, an entity within sentient beings, is the Mahāparinirvāṇa Mahāsūtra (MPNMS).
This text was studied in detail by Shimoda Masahiro, who argued that the earliest content of this sūtra is not that concerned with the tathāgatagarbha /buddhadhātu at all, but rather material which upholds the enduring existence of the Buddha after his apparent departure from the world. Shimoda holds that in a later stage of the text’s composition, veneration of the indestructible relic (dhātu) of a Buddha, thought commonly to reside in stūpas, was redirected to a similarly enduring element or nature (also dhātu) of a Buddha, now within sentient beings and also called their tathāgatagarbha. This dhātu-oriented form of tathāgatagarbha doctrine is shared and developed by two more texts showing clear evidence of influence by the MPNMS, namely the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra (AMS) and the Mahābheri Sūtra (MBhS), which both belong to the so-called ‘MPNMS-group’ of sūtras. All three of these texts declare that the tathāgatagarbha can be thought of as a permanent self (ātman) resident in any sentient being – an idea clearly at odds with wider Indian Buddhism’s ancient and enduring rejection of just such a category. (Dr. Chris Jones, Beings, Non-Beings, and Buddhas: Contrasting Notions of tathāgatagarbha in the  Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta and Mahābherī Sūtra.

The twist of course is Shimoda Masahiro’s analysis of the text. Takasaki Jikidō also writes in this vein:

Recently Shimoda Masahiro has published a mammoth work entitled “A study of the Mahāparinirvāna-sutra, with a focus on the methodology of the study of Mahayana sutras”, (1997) investigating how and why the term buddhadhatu, which originally referred to the relics (sanradhatu), came to be used in the Mahāparinirvāna-sutra in place of the concept of tathagatagarbha. He concludes that the author (or authors) of the Mahāparinirvāna-sutra were originally leaders and advocates of stupa worship. Wishing to reform their religious group into a more morally rigorous community, and armed with doctrine suitable to their purpose, they introduced or accepted the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha-sutra and reshaped the significance of dhātu worship from that of the physical relics of the Buddha to that of the inner Buddha as a principle of salvation.

Shimoda attempts to prove this process through an examination of the textual formation of the Mahāparinirvāna-sutra. He shows that the early or basic sections are equivalent to the first Chinese translation in 6 volumes (T #376) translated by Fa chien in 418. He divides the text into two diachronic stages, the first stage including chapters 1-4, 6 and 7 of the sutra, and the second stage including chapters 5 and  8-18,the latter being divided again into chapters 8 and 9-18. Of these, the first expresses faith in the body of the Buddha as the eternal dharmakāya, instead of the physical body, while the second part expresses mainly the tathagatagarbha theory in which it is taught that the Buddha within the body of each sattva is the eternal atman. The first portion of the second part shows a transitional stage in teaching and in the formation of a new order. Shimoda characterizes this transition as a shift from the worship of the outer stupa to that of the inner stupa.

In light of Shimoda’s work, it can be said that Tathagatagarbha theory is an expression of this rather emotional prayer of all Buddhists necessary for Buddhism as a religion, in addition to the hermeneutics of doctrine based on the confidence in the eternity of the Dharma.

Shimoda’s work also suggests further questions: if the Tathagatagarbha theory was imposed on the Mahāparinirvāna-sutra from the outside, how should we consider the formation of the Tathagatagarbha theory itself? Can we connect the concept of the rise of the Buddha from the lotus in the Tathagatagarbha-sutra to the concept of the stupa of Prabhūtaratna rising up out of the earth in the Lotus Sutra? Again, these are issues in need of further consideration.

(Takasaki Jikidō, The Tathagatagarbha Theory Reconsidered, Reflections on Some Recent Issues in Japanese Buddhist Studies, 2000)

One further reflection on Shimoda’s hypothesis comes from Sasaki Shizuka in his article entitled, The Mahāparinirvāna and the Origins of Mahāyāna Buddhism:

The preeminent contribution of Shimoda’s research is that he perceived the organic continuity between these numerous layers and logically explains the theoretical development of the Mahāyāna followers who upheld and preserved the Nirvāna Sūtra. The chapters in section two are the results of Shimoda’s work in this area. There are many important conclusions that are drawn from this work, but the following three are the most important.

  1. When the oldest layer of the Nirvāna Sūtra appeared, the producers of this work were called dharma-kathika (“Dharma masters”; Jpn. hõshi). This fact contradicts the commonly-accepted idea that the upholders of Mahāyāna were called bodhisattvas. The importance of the notion of dharma-kathika has already been pointed out by SHIZUTANI Masao (1974), but until now no one realized that materials were available that tell so concretely of the dharma-kathika’s existence. This is a very important discovery. But, as Shimoda himself says, just because the oldest layers of the Nirvāna Sūtra were produced by dharma-kathikas rather than bodhisattvas does not necessarily mean that the creators of Mahāyāna were the dharma-kathikas. At the very least, however, it has been proven as a fact that the dharma-kathikas were deeply involved in the establishment of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
  1. Shimoda clarifes the process whereby the dharma-kathikas at first rejected stūpa worship, and then later reaffirmed it in a different form through the worship of “Buddha nature,” that is, “the Buddha-stūpa immanent in sentient beings.” This is a momentous discovery that overturns previous theories that characterized all of Mahāyāna Buddhism in terms of the single phenomenon of the centrality of stūpa worship.
  1. In connection with the above point, Shimoda clearly outlines the process whereby the gradual internalization of the Buddha developed so that in spiritual terms it was expressed as the Buddha nature, and externally this was expressed through the creation of a sutra, resulting finally in the Nirvāna Sūtra and its tathāgatagarbha philosophy.

I find this hypothesis of an early “stupa”-focused community gravitating to a more “sutra”-oriented one fascinating. Also the significance of the outward-stūpa shifting to a more inward identification as one’s own Buddha-nature. It seems only certain here that this transformation was sparked by the early dharma-kathika (Dharma masters). During our exegesis of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra hopefully some pertinent passages will affirm this assertion. It’s unfortunate that Shimoda’s work is only available in Japanese. Would be grateful if someone else could find this in English translation.

Returning now to the notion of Self (Ātman), David Seyfort Ruegg provides analysis through a wide-angle lens:

The Buddhist texts themselves have much of interest to say on the subject of parallels between Buddhist and Brahmanical thought. One important Sutra, the Mahayanist, Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra alludes to the problem of the interrelation of the Buddhist and Brahmanical notions of the atman and absolute reality in the following passage: [from Tibetan version of the text)

The six [Tirthika]-masters asked: ‘Gautama, if the self (atman) does not exist, who will do good and evil?’ – Bhagavat replied: ‘If what is called “self” does [it], can one say [of this “self”, as the Tlrthikas do] that it is “permanent” (nitya)? And if it is permanent, does it sometimes do good and sometimes evil? If there is a moment when it does both good and evil, will it be said that the self is “infinite”? If it is the self that acts, why does it do something evil? If it is the self that acts, and if [this self] is knowledge, how is it that doubt arises in a being about the non-existence of the self? Hence, as concerns the Tirthika doctrine, the self certainly does not exist.

The Sutra then explains:

‘What is called “self” is the tathāgata, Why is this so? The [Buddha-]Body (sku) being infinite is free from the blemish of doubt, and it neither acts nor grasps, so that it is said to be “permanent”. In virtue of non-production and non-cessation (anutpāda, aniradha) it is said to be “blissful” (sukha). In virtue of the absence of the impurities of klesa it is said to be “very pure” (parisuddha, visuddha). In virtue of the absence of ten marks, it is said to be “Empty” (Siinya). Consequently, the tathāgata is permanent, blissful, self, very pure, Empty and without marks. – The Tirthikas [then] said: “If the tathāgata is Empty because he/it is permanent, blissful, self, very pure, and without marks, this is indeed so! And knowing that the dharma taught by Gautama is also not Empty (stan pa ma yin pa), we accept and retain it.” Many Tirthikas then took to religion in the Teaching of the Buddha with their minds full of faith.

‘If only Gautama did not teach a nihilistic view, we would accept instruction and the discipline (fila) from him.’ – [The Buddha thereupon observes:] ‘I then knew the thoughts of these wandering ascetics… I said to them: “Why do you think that I teach a nihilistic view?'” – The wandering ascetics answered: ‘Gautama, in all the Sutras you have said that there is no self in all living beings. If you thus say that no self exists, how can that not be a nihilistic view? If no self exists, who will bind himself by discipline and who will infringe it? – Bhagavat replied: I have not said that no self exists in all living beings. If I have always said that the Buddha-nature exists in all living beings, is this very Buddha-nature then not self? Thus I do not teach a nihilistic theory. If, because one does not see the Buddha-nature of all sentient beings, one asserts the not permanent, the not self, the not blissful, and the not very pure, it is said that one teaches nihilism.’

Then, after the ascetics had heard the explanation that this Buddha-nature is self, they all produced the thought (citta) directed toward supreme and perfect Awakening (anuttarasamyaksambodhi). And having at that moment entered religious life (pravraj-), they exerted themselves on the path of Awakening (bodhimarga).’

But the Sutra nevertheless continues:

This Buddha-nature is not in reality ātman, and it is for the sake of sentient beings that a self is spoken of. Whereas in virtue of the existence of causes and conditions the Tathagata has spoken of not-self (bdag med pa) as self, in reality there is no self. Though he has spoken thus, this was no untruth either. It is because of the existence of causes and conditions that it is said that the self is not-self. Whereas self exists in reality, it is with a view to the world of living beings (loka) that it has been said that there is no self. But that was no untruth. The Buddha-nature is not-self (bdag med de); and if the Tathagata has spoken of ‘self’, this is because a designation has been employed.

Elsewhere the same Sutra explains:

If what is called ‘self’ were an eternally permanent (kūasthanitya) dharma, there would be no freedom from suffering (duhkha). And if what is called ‘self’ did not exist, pure religious conduct (brahmacarya) would be of no avail … It is to be known that the Buddha-nature is the Middle Way (madhyamā pratipat) altogether free from the two extremes (antadvaya) … Non-duality is reality: by nature self and not-self are without duality. The Lord Buddha has thus affirmed that the meaning of the tathagatagarbha is un-fathomable … In the Prajnaparamita-Sutra also I have already taught that self and not-self are without duality by characteristic.

(David Seyfort Ruegg, Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective, On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet.)

Ruegg’s final quote here is essential to keep in mind during our series on the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra. It prevents one from being hemmed in by the two iron giants of nihilism and eternalism (i.e. an eternal “I”)

In these passages the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is evidently making use of paradoxical and antiphrastic expressions to emphasize the difficulty of understanding – the unfathomability – of absolute reality, and also, perhaps, to show that the sense of a given statement depends on the pragmatic situations in which it is uttered and on exactly what is meant by the terms used in it. It is, moreover, to be remembered that any statement carries along with it and evokes, in the discursus of linguistic usage, a counterstatement.

Thus, while the Sutra certainly does not seek to defend any heterodox theory of the atman, it still does not reject out of hand an absolute which may, at least provisionally and conventionally, be designated by the name ‘atman’, etc. (Ruegg)

Concluding this introductory blog to the series, let us return again to another brief quote by Dr. Chris Jones,

[In his work, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra and the Emergence of Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine] Radich argues that the MPNMS may reflect the earliest account of tathāgatagarbha doctrine available to us (emphasis mine). He suggests that the buddhadhātu doctrine may well have originated in the manner hypothesized by Shimoda, and given rise to the idea of a chamber (garbha) for a Buddha/tathāgata, akin to that found within a stūpa, which exists in the bodies of all sentient beings. (Dr. Chris Jones)

Radich is most likely familiar to readers through our series, A Docetic Assessment. We will return again to him during our exegesis of the Chapter on the Adamantine Body. Looking forward to presenting this series!

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2 Responses to The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (Nirvana Sutra)

  1. n. yeti says:


    Thank you once again for your heroic effort to guide beings to salvation. This inclusion of the Nirvana Sutra is true adornment to the “labor of love” you have put into this most excellent virtual space, which I am certain brings measureless benefit to many.

    Regarding Dr. Tony Page, I would like to mention that it is recorded in Buddhist scripture, upon entrance to the age in which we find ourselves, one of increasing difficulty in attaining the soteriological truths of Buddhism (“the Dharma Ending Age”), great Bodhisattvas will be born into our world to instruct humanity in ways appropriate for our times.

    I believe, and have believed since first encountering Dr. Page’s most excellent work on this important scripture, that he is one such Bodhisattva. My gratitude to him, to you, and to all who have given so much of their lives for the spiritual benefit of others is beyond measure.

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