Something Rare

Chapter Three: Lamentations

(Charles Patton translation):

For a moment not long after Cunda had gone, the ground then shook and quaked in six ways. And on up to the Brahma realms. It was also again so. There were two earthquakes. One was an earthquake, and the other was a great earthquake. The smaller quake was called an earthquake. The greater quake was called a great earthquake. There was a smaller sound called an earthquake and there was a greater sound called a great earthquake. Where only the ground shook, that was called the earthquake. Where the mountains, trees, and the waters of the sea all shook, that was called the great earthquake. Where it shook to one side, that was called an earthquake. Where it shook everywhere and all around, that was called a great earthquake. When it shook and could lead the minds of sentient beings to shake, that was called a great earthquake. When the bodhisattvas from the Tusita heavens down to Jampudvipa first took notice, it was called a great earthquake. And when the first born left the households life to achieve the supremely unexcelled bodhi, to turn the dharmawheel, and to enter parinirvana, it was called a great earthquake.

This passage is based upon what the Blessed One once taught Ānanda about the Eight causes of earthquakes in light of the Dharma:

1) This great Earth, Ānanda, stands in the water, the water stands in the atmosphere, the atmosphere stands in space. There comes a time, Ānanda, when great winds blow, with the great winds blowing, the waters move, the waters having moved, the Earth moves. This is the first reason, the first cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

2) Furthermore, Ānanda, when an ascetic or a brahmin or a Divinity, one of great power, one of great majesty, has, through spiritual power, attained complete mastery of the mind, and has then developed even a trifling perception of the Earth, or an unlimited perception of water, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the second reason, the second cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

3) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Buddha-to-be falls away from the Tusita hosts, and mindfully, with full awareness, enters his mother’s womb, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the third reason, the third cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

4) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Buddha-to-be mindfully, with full awareness, exits his mother’s womb, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the fourth reason, the fourth cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

5) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Realised One perfectly awakens to the unsurpassed and Perfect Awakening, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the fifth reason, the fifth cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

6) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Realised One sets the unsurpassed wheel of the Teaching rolling, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the sixth reason, the sixth cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

7) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Realised One mindfully, with full awareness gives up the life-process, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the seventh reason, the seventh cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. 

8) Furthermore, Ānanda, when the Realised One is Finally Emancipated in the Emancipation-element which has no basis for attachment remaining, this Earth moves, wavers, flutters, and shakes. This is the eighth reason, the eighth cause for the occurrence of a great earthquake. These are the eight reasons, the eight causes, Ānanda, for the occurrence of a great earthquake.

(Long Discourses Mahāparinibbānasutta: 16. The Discourse about the Great Emancipation)

Hence, this truly was an auspicious moment when the Tathāgata was about to renounce his own life force.

(Mark L. Blum translation):

At that time devas, nāgas, gandharvas, asuras, garuḍas, kiṃnaras, maho-ragas, humans and nonhumans alike, upon hearing the words [exchanged between the Buddha and Cunda] felt their own hair stand on end. Sadly crying in unison, they uttered these verses:

Bow down in reverence to the Protector!
We now beseech you most earnestly,
For, apart from the Great Saint of mankind,
We will be helpless forever.
To observe the Buddha’s impending nirvāṇa
Is for us to sink into a sea of despair.
Forlorn, disturbed, overcome with a dismal anguish,
Like a calf that has lost its mother,
Poor and helpless,
We are like someone seized by illness
Who, without a physician, follows his own will,
And eats what he should not.
Living beings, sick with the defilements,
Constantly victimized by their own opinions,
Apart from the Physician of the Dharma
They take harmful, poisonous medicines.
For this reason, Buddha, World-Honored One,
We should not be abandoned!
Like a nation without a sovereign,
The people will all starve.
We, too, are up against it,
Losing our shade and our dharma elixir.
Hearing now of the Buddha’s nirvāṇa,
Our hearts are panic-stricken,
Like a major earthquake
That causes people to lose their way.
When the Great Saint enters nirvāṇa,
The Buddha Sun will have fallen beyond the horizon,
The waters of the dharma will have dried up,
And we will surely die.
The parinirvāṇa of a tathāgata
Is the most distressing moment for a living being.
Like the son of a powerful family
Who has just lost his mother and father.
The Tathāgata enters nirvāṇa,
And if he does not return,
We and the other living beings—
None of us will be saved.
The Tathāgata enters nirvāṇa,
And even the animals
Will all be gripped with fear,
Anxiety scorching their hearts.
For us on this day,
How could we not be in anguish?
We are cast aside by the Tathāgata,
As one expectorates mucus or saliva.
Just as when the sun first rises,
Shining with a flame so radiant,
It comes back to illuminate itself,
While destroying all darkness.
Let the light of the Tathāgata’s spiritual powers
Effectively remove our sufferings—
Reside here within this mass of living beings,
Like Mount Sumeru!

One can see from the recital of this gatha that the Buddha’s Parinirvāna was like a great cataclysmic event—yea, all of creation, men, beasts, and nature herself is torn asunder and weeps vehementaly. Something profound is about to happen that will forever change the natural order of things.

It should be mentioned at this junction that unlike Chapter Two, which was concerned primarily lay-disciples, the Blessed One is primarily addressing the monks (Bhikṣus):

At that time the World-Honored One addressed the assembly of monks:

Bhikṣus! Do not be like the ordinary people, or the gods for that matter, who cry out in sorrow. You must be diligent, your minds concentrated, and your thoughts upright.

He’s informing them not to forsake their monastic vows but to embrace all of them wholeheartedly.

Then, having heard what the Buddha had said, the gods, humans, asuras,and the others stopped their weeping, much like someone who mourns the loss of a child has reached a point where he can cry no more. At that point the World-Honored One uttered these verses for all to hear:

You should all open your minds, You must avoid this great depression!

The natures of buddhas are all like this, So quiet down. Rejoice in your assiduous practice, Guard your thoughts, direct your attention properly, Distance yourself from all impropriety,And take comfort in the joy you get [from that].

Put on the Unborn Mind and remain resilient in your Recollective Resolve!

The next passage is of utmost importance (along with the true-nature of the Self soon to follow) for an aspiring adept of the Buddhadharma; indeed as the title of today’s blog indicates, [something rare] and not to be glossed-over as something insignificant, because without encountering a Buddha and wholeheartedly digesting the Buddhadharma, all else is vain and empty.

Bhikṣus, it is extraordinary for a buddha to appear in the world. It is rare to obtain a human body. For you to meet a buddha and arouse faith [in his teachings]—such things are even more rare. To be able to endure what is difficult to endure, this is also rare. To be able to fulfill the requirements of the rules of discipline perfectly without any lapses, to attain the fruit of arhatship, these things are also rare, like searching for gold dust or an udumbara flower.

It also needs to be noted that today’s adept can best encounter the Living Buddha in the Sutras. What is being revealed in these passages are the salvific Words of the Tathagata and are Real now as when they were first written. It is indeed the rare adept who diligently strives to endure the obstacles that Mara places on the path to Bodhisattvahood.

Bhikṣus, it is highly unusual that you have managed to avoid the difficult conditions of the eight inopportune births, enabling you to obtain a human body [in which you can now hear the dharma from me]. That you have encountered me should not be dismissed as insignificant. Over a long time I have performed a variety of ascetic practices such that I have now obtained unsurpassed skillfulness in expedient means. It is thus for your sake that in the course [of many lives] over innumerable kalpas I have tossed away my body, my hands, my feet, my head, my eyes, and even my brain. For that reason you must not be lazy.

the eight inopportune births:

The eight inopportune births, or akṣana, are a list of eight forms of birth in existential or saṃsāric conditions that make it extremely difficult to see a buddha or hear his teachings. These are: 1) to be born in a hell realm, 2) to be born in the hungry ghost realm, 3) to be born in the animal realm, 4) to be born in a heaven where life is long and pleasurable, 5) to be born in the Uttarakuru region (where there is similarly too much pleasure), 6) to be born human but with sensory impairment, 7) to be born as a philosopher wedded to the ways of the world, or 8) to be born in a time between buddhas. (Blum’s footnote)

The Blessed One indicates, which in a sense parallels the mission of Jesus the Christ, that he by and large has already done the hard part for you. He has endured the agony of excessive ascetic practices and has offered many lifetimes of the samaric-struggle in order to point the direction for salvific freedom. Yet, that does not mean that the adept can become complacent, but must also “put on the Spiritual Armor” of the Tathagata and continue to always be diligent in their practice.

The Treasury of Esoterica

(Charles Patton translation):

“Bhiksus, just as the Earth has hills, herbs, and grasses for sentient beings to use, my Dharma is also so. It produces the wondrously good and sweet Dharma flavor and is the healer’s medicine for the various ailments of sentient beings. I shall now lead all the sentient beings and fourfold assemblies of my disciples to peacefully abide within this esoteric treasury. And I also shall peacefully abide without this and enter Nirvana. What is called the treasury of esoterica? It is just like the character ii [2] of three parts. When [the parts] are combined, it is not a complete character and when they are separated it is still not complete. As Mahesvara has above his face three eyes, therefore so can ii be complete. But if the three parts are separated, it cannot be complete. I am also so. The Dharma of liberation is not Nirvana. The body of the Tathagata is not Nirvana. And the Great Wisdom (Mahaprajna) is not Nirvana. These three Dharmas, each being different, are also not Nirvana. Since I now peacefully abide thus in these three Dharmas for sentient beings, it is called entering Nirvana like that mundane character ii [is complete].”

*Patton’s endnote: This is a reference to a Sanskrit character that is composed of three equal parts. It is used as a metaphor for something that is neither unified or differentiated, with neither a fixed start or end. The Nirvana Sutra, as here, uses the character as an example of how the essential body (dharmakaya), wisdom (prajna), and liberation (vimoksha) are three equal components of, but all necessary to complete, the whole of the Tathagata’s Nirvana.

Maheśvara: These definitions were all found within A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, William Edward Soothill, Lewis Hodous. Most fascinating:

Maheśvara (Skt., ‘Great Lord’). Epithet of Śiva (also sometimes of Viṣṇu). He is the source of knowledge (jñāna), will (iccha), and action (kriya).

Maheśvara, 摩醯首濕伐羅 or Śiva, lord of the present chiliocosm, or universe; he is described under two forms, one as the prince of demons, the other as divine, i.e. 毘舍闍 Piśācamaheśvara and 淨居 Śuddhāvāsa- or Śuddhodanamaheśvara. As Piśāca, head of the demons, he is represented with three eyes and eight arms, and riding on a white bull; a bull or a linga being his symbol.


The great deva king, Mahākāla, the great black one, (1) title of Maheśvara, i.e. Śiva; (2) a guardian of monasteries, with black face, in the dining hall; he is said to have been a disciple of Mahādeva, a former incarnation of Śākyamuni.


The middle upstanding eye in Maheśvara’s forehead.


The three-eyed, a term for Śiva, i.e Maheśvara; simile for the dharmakāya, or spiritual body, prajñā, or wisdom, and nirvāṇa emancipation. Buddhists define Mahābrahma’s dharmakāya as Maheśvara (Śiva).

The latter two definitions are the closest to what is represented in this passage. If the three symbols representing Maheśvara’s forehead are not placed in the proper position or are written separately, then Maheśvara’s third eye remains dormant. Likewise if the Dharma of the Tathagata is broken down into three [separate] ideations, then they are divided and thus not constituting the Nirvanic-Self. Whereas when the three, Dharma of liberation, the Dharma-Body proper, and Great Wisdom (Mahaprajna) are united and thus undivided within the Tathagata Himself, then the [Third Eye] of Dharma-gnosis is fully activated as the Nirvanic Self is Self-Actualized. Our study of the Ratnagotravibhāgaśāstra reinforced that seven-vajra points [the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṃgha), the element (dhātu, which is equivalent to tathāgatagarbha), awakening (bodhi), the Buddha qualities (guṇa), and activity (kriyā–karma)] need to be acting in unison for the Dharma element, the Buddhadhatū, to be fully Self-actuated. Standing apart they are undivided and useless to the esoteric treasury that is constitutive of all seven.

The bhikṣus then spoke thus to the Blessed One:

“World Honored One, it is just as a drunken person who is not himself enlightened, not familiar with his parents, and is estranged from his mother, daughter, elder and younger sisters. Confused, reckless, lustful, and disturbed, he goes to extremes in speech and lies down in the impure. Then there is an excellent teacher who administers a medicine, directing him to drink it. Once he drinks it, he then spits it up and goes back to what is familiar to him. At heart he is ashamed deeply at his having defeated the correction [of his behavior]. Wine is unwholesome, the root of many evils. If one is able to be rid of it, then one will be distanced from many evil deeds.

“World Honored One, we are also so. Having travelled from the distant past on the turning wheel of birth and death (samsara), and being drunken on sensations and forms, we have craved the five desires. We have no mother or concept of a mother, no elder sister or concept of a sister, no daughter or concept of a daughter, and no sentient beings or concept of sentient beings. This is why the wheel turns and brings the afflictions of birth and death, like that drunken person who lies within the impure. The Tathagata now must give us the Dharma medicine and direct us to spit out the wine of affliction and evil. But we have not yet attained the mind of awakening. How can the Tathagata so easily wish to go and leave us to enter into Nirvana?”

(Yamamoto-Page translation):

Then the Buddha said to all the bhiksus: “Hear me well, hear me well! Now, you mention the case of an intoxicated person. This refers to knowledge, but not the signification. What do I mean by signification? The intoxicated person sees the sun and moon, which do not move, but he thinks they do. The same is the case with beings. As all illusion and ignorance overhang [the mind], the mind turns upside down and takes Self for non-Self, Eternal for non-Eternal, Purity as non-Pure, and Bliss as sorrow. Overhung by illusion, this thought arises. Though this though arises, the meaning is not gained [realised]. This is as in the case of the intoxicated person who takes what does not move as moving. The Self ‘signifies the Buddha; ’the Eternal’ signifies the Dharmakaya; ’Bliss’ signifies Nirvana, and ’the Pure’ signifies Dharma. Bhiksus, why is it said that one who has the idea of a Self is arrogant and haughty, traversing round Samsara? Bhiksus, although you might say, ’We also cultivate impermanence, suffering, and non-Self, these three kinds of cultivation have no real value/ meaning. I shall now explain the excellent three ways of cultivating Dharma. To think of suffering as Bliss and to think of Bliss is perverse Dharma; to think of the impermanent as the Eternal and to think of the Eternal as impermanent is perverse Dharma; to think of the non-Self [anatman]as the Self [atman] and to think of the Self [atman] as non-Self [anatman] is perverse Dharma; to think of the impure as the Pure and to think of the Pure as impure is perverse Dharma. Whoever has these four kinds of perversion, that person does not know the correct cultivation of dharmas. Bhiksus, you give rise to the idea of Bliss with regard to phenomena associated with suffering; the idea of Eternity with regard to phenomena associated with impermanence; the idea of the Self with regard to phenomena without Self; and the idea of Purity with regard to phenomena that are impure. Both the mundane and also the supramundane have the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and Purity. Mundane teachings [dharmas] have letters and are without meaning [referents]; the Supramundane [teachings] have letters and meaning. Why? Because mundane people have these four perversions, they are unacquainted with the [true] meaning/ referents. Why? Having these perverse ideas, their minds and vision are distorted. Through these three perversions, mundane people see suffering in Bliss, impermanence in the Eternal, non-Self in the Self, and impurity in the Pure. These are called perversions/ inversions. Because of these perversions/inversions, mundane people know the letters but not the meaning [referents]. What is the meaning/referent? Non-Self is Samsara, the Self is the Tathagata; impermanence is the sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, the Eternal is the Tathagata’s Dharmakaya; suffering is all tirthikas, Bliss is Nirvana; the impure is all compounded [samskrta] dharmas , the Pure is the true Dharma that the Buddha and Bodhisattvas have. This is called non-perversion/ non-inversion. By not being inverted [in one’s views], one will know [both] the letter and the meaning. If one desires to be freed from the four perverse/ inverted [views – catur-viparita-drsti], one should know the Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure in this manner.”

Wonderful Buddhadharma conveying the difference between illusions (no-self) and what constitutes the True Self. Yea, perhaps the finest teaching on anatman/atman within the whole of the Mahayana corpus. Do-not confuse one for the other, yea in doing so one is speaking perverse Dharma. The skandhic-aparatus (the anatman variable) does not come anywhere near the Real-Stuff of the [Ātman], and must never be misconstrued as such as most modern Buddhists do. Just remember as this passage conveys, Non-Self is Samsara, whereas the True Self is the Tathagata, or the Tathagata’s Eternal dominion of the Dharmakaya—Nirvanic Selfhood.

Then, all the bhiksus said to the Buddha: “O World-Honoured One! As you say, if we segregate ourselves from the four inversions, we shall know the Eternal, Bliss, Self, and the Pure. As you have eternally cut off the four inversions, you know well the Eternal, Bliss, Self, and the Pure. If you know well the Eternal, Bliss, Self, and the Pure, why not stay here a kalpa or half a kalpa, and teach us and turn us away from the inversions? And yet you abandon us and desire to enter Nirvana. If you look back at us and teach us, we shall surely listen and practise the Way with all attention. If the Tathagata must at all costs enter Nirvana, how would we be able to remain with this poisoned body and carry out the actions of the Way? We would also follow the Buddha-World-Honoured One and enter Nirvana.”

Then the Buddha said to all the bhiksus: “Do not say this. I now leave all the unsurpassed Dharma in the hands of Mahakasyapa. This Kasyapa will  henceforth be the one upon whom you may rely. This is as in the case where the Tathagata becomes the one to whom all beings can turn. The same is the case with Mahakasyapa. He will now become your refuge. This is as in the case of a king who has many territories and who goes on a tour of inspection, leaving all affairs of state in the hands of his minister. The same with the Tathagata. All right teachings are left in the hands of Mahakasyapa. Know that all that you have learned up to now about the non-eternal and suffering is not true. In spring, for example, people go bathing in a big pond. They are enjoying themselves, sailing in a boat, when they drop a gem of beryl into the depths of the water, after which it can no longer be seen. Then they all get into the water and search for this gem. They competitively scoop up all such rubbish as tiles, stones, bits of wood, and gravel, and say that they have the beryl. They are glad and take the things out, and see that what they hold in their hands is not true. The gem is still in the water. By the power of the gem itself, the water becomes clear and transparent. As a result, the people see that the gem is still in the water, as clearly as when they look up and see the form of the moon in the sky. At that time, there is a wise man there who, working out a power, slowly gets into the water and gains the gem. O you Bhiksus! Do not abide in the thought of the non-Eternal, Suffering, non-Self, and the not-Pure and be in the situation of those people who take stones, bits of wood, and gravel to be the true gem. You must study well the Way, how to act, wherever you go, and “meditate on the Self, the Eternal, Bliss, and the Pure”. Know that the outer forms of the four items which you have learnt up to now are inversions and that anyone who desires to practise the Way should act like the wise man who deftly gets hold of the gem. This refers to the so-called thought of Self, and that of the Eternal, Bliss, and Pure.”

Mahakasyapa: Sanskrit name of one of the Buddha’s leading disciples, regarded as foremost in the observance of ascetic practices. Mahākassapa possessed great supranormal powers (P. iddhi; S. ṚDDHI) and was second only to the Buddha in his mastery of meditative absorption (P. JHĀNA; S. DHYĀNA). His body was said to be adorned with seven of the thirty-two marks of a superman (MAHĀ-PURUṢALAKṢAṆA). So revered by the gods was he, that at the Buddha’s funeral, the divinities would not allow the funeral pyre to be lit until Mahākassapa arrived and had one last chance to worship the Buddha’s body.

Mahākāśyapa is a central figure in the CHAN schools of East Asia. In the famous Chan story in which the Buddha conveys his enlightenment by simply holding up a flower before the congregation and smiling subtly, it is only Mahākāśyapa who understands the Buddha’s intent, making him the first recipient of the Buddha’s “mind-to-mind” transmission (YIXIN CHUANXIN). He is thus considered the first patriarch (ZUSHI) of the Chan school.

(Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Interesting how the Buddha informs the monks that after his passage they must take “refuge in Mahākāśyapa”. This is the beginning of a long lineage of Enlightened Masters as portrayed in Zen Master Keizan’s Transmission of Light. In that marvelous work the Buddha proclaims, “I have the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of nirvana (italics mine). These I entrust to Kasyapa.” The Trasmission of Light also states that, “once you come to know the inner-self, you will find that Kaspaya can wriggle his toes in your shoes.” Have always loved that passage and what it entails. From the hyperlink:

Once you become conscious of the LORD OF THE HOUSE then, to be sure, Mahākāśyapa will be able to wriggle his toes in your shoes. Do you not know that Gautama completely vanished at the very moment when ‘Gautama raised His eyebrows and blinked His eyes’ and that Mahākāśyapa realized his TRUE SELF at the very moment when Mahākāśyapa’s face broke out in a smile’? This is not the delusion of a personal substantive self! To the contrary, the EYE AND TREASURY OF THE TRUE LAW has been completely entrusted to you yourself; therefore, whatever name you give IT, do not call IT Mahākāśyapa’s or Shakyamuni’s.

 There is no Dharma to impart to another nor any to receive from another—this is what I call the TRUE DHARMA. To express this Shakyamuni held the flower aloft to let it be known that IT was, is and will be immutable and indestructible whilst Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile to let it be known that IT was, is and will be beyond beginning or end; in this way Master and disciple met face to face and their life-lines flowed into each other. Their perfectly pure, bright, full understanding has nothing to do with ‘thinking in the mind’.

The “Lord of the House” is the Inner-Dharma Master—an Unborn Spirit imbued with Nirvanic Light Itself. Before you blink in consternation at this realization, IT has already moved the blossoming Lotus Flower before your Mind’s Eye. IT is the Dharma-Eye—the Inner-Lord and Guardian of the True Buddhadharma. IT does not belong to you or Mahākāśyapa or Buddha Gautama; IT is the Sacred Reliquary THAT reveals your True Lord and Master. When your smile and Mahākāśyapa’s become As One, then you will be entrusted with the TRUE DHARMA SEAL: Recollection of the Self-Same Singular Smile of the Dharmakaya ITself.

Then all the bhiksus said to the Buddha: “O World-Honoured One! You, the Buddha, said before that all things have no Self, that we should practise this and that, when practised, the thought of Self goes away, and that once the thought of Self is done away with, one does away with arrogance and that, arrogance once done away with, one gains Nirvana. Thus did you say “How might we understand this?”

The Blessed One responds with a little parable. The following is an abridged version:

Imagine there is a king who is dull-witted. He has little wisdom. And there is a doctor who is obstinate. But the king does not know this and pays him a salary. This doctor uses the products of milk to cure all illnesses. Also, he does not know where the illnesses come from. He prescribes milk for all illnesses. The king is unaware of that lack of knowledge in his doctor. 

But there is another doctor who knows of different treatments for illnesses and who is able to cure many diseases. He has come from a far-off place and cordially invited the king’s doctor to him. 

The king’s doctor said to him on visiting him: “If you serve me for 48 years, I will teach you the art of medicine.” 

The learned doctor said: “I shall do my best and run errands.” 

Then the king’s doctor took the learned doctor along with him, went to see the king. At this, the visiting doctor explained to the king the various ways of treatment and even other things. The king managed to recognise the ignorance and lack of knowledge of his own doctor and at once drove him out of the country. And he respected the new doctor all the more. 

Then the new doctor said to himself: “It is now time to teach the king.” He said to the king: “Great King! I myself do not wish to have much. What I desire you to do for me is to proclaim to the people of every corner of your land that from now on they are not to use milk as medicine. If milk is not resorted to as medicine for all, there will be fewer untimely deaths.” 

Then the king said: “What you ask me to do is a trifle. I shall at once issue an order and see to it that anyone who is ill does no take milk as a medicine.” At this, the learned doctor made several kinds of medicine, which tasted pungent, butter, salty, sweet, and sour. With these, treatment was given, and there was no case in which illness could not be cured. 

After some time, the king himself became ill, and the doctor was called in. The king said: “I am now ill. How am I to be cured?” 

The Doctor thought about the illness of the king and saw that the milk medicine was good here. So he said to the king: “What you are now suffering from can very well be cured by milk. If you take it now, you will be cured.” 

Then the king said to the doctor: “Do you mean to cheat me? What the former doctor said was good, yet you said it was no good cure-all. You made me drive him away, and now you say that milk cures illness.” 

The learned doctor said to the king: “King! The former doctor gave medicine made from milk, but did not know much apart from that.” 

Then the king wanted to know: “What do you mean he did not know?” 

The guest doctor answered the king: “Milk from happy cows is best. This can well be called the manna of life.” 

On hearing this, the king praised the doctor: “Well said! I shall at once proclaim to the people that they may well take milk medicine too, when it fits.” 

On hearing this, the people of the country, angry and resentful, said: “Is the king mad? He cheats us and makes us take milk.” 

The king said to them: “Be not angry, and have no resentment. I am not to blame. Sometimes milk fits, at other times not.” 

Afterwards the king and the people respected and honoured the doctor. 

“Know, bhiksus, that the same is the case with the Tathagata. He comes as a great Doctor and subdues bad doctors. In the presence of kings and all people, he says: “The Tathagata teaches and says no-self. This is to adjust beings on occasion. 

When the Tathagata speaks of Self, he says: ‘Even though he has been taken to mean that all phenomena [dharmas] are devoid of the Self, it is not exactly so. Any phenomenon [dharma] that is true [satya]; real [tattva]; eternal [nitya]; sovereign, autonomous, and self-governing [aisvarya];, and whose foundation is unchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed ‘Self’ [atman]. Learn Dharma thus!”

“Know, O you Bhiksus! The same is the case with the Tathagata, the Alms-deserving, the All-Enlightened-One, the Unsurpassed Best Trainer, the Teacher-of-Heaven-and-Earth, the Buddha-World-Honoured One. He comes as a great Doctor and subdues all tirthikas and bad doctors. In the presence of kings and all people, he says: “I shall become the King of doctors and subdue tirthikas.” Thus we say: “There is no self, no man, no being, no life, no nurturing, no knowing, none that does, and none that receives.” O Bhiksus! Know that what the tirthikas say is like the case of a worm that eats upon [a piece of] wood, from which, by chance, there appears what looks like a letter. Because of this, the Tathagata teaches and says no-self. This is to adjust beings and because he is aware of the occasion. Such non-self is, as occasion arises, spoken of, and it is [also] said that there is the Self. This is as in the case of the learned Doctor, who knows well the medicinal and non-medicinal qualities of milk. It is not as with common mortals, who might measure the size of their own self. Common mortals and the ignorant may measure the size of their own self and say, ’It is like the size of a thumb, like a mustard seed, or like the size of a mote.’ When the Tathagata speaks of Self, in no case are things thus. That is why he says: ’All things have no Self.’

A contemporary scholar makes the following observation given the above passage:

Having already established the proper notion of self and the notion of non-self as skilful means, MPNS goes on to elaborate on the misapprehension of the true self by non-Buddhists. Again it is said that Buddha expounded the doctrine of anātman in order to wean people away from the mistaken teachings of the tīrthikas (waidao 外道) (non-Buddhist thinkers), who accepted the wrong notions of a mundane self (ātman, sattva, jīva) (T376_12:863a7–9). In a parable, the behaviour of tīrthikas is likened to that of a woodworm accidentally leaving a trail which resembles real letters (862c15–17). Those who posit an erroneous notion of self are like that worm. By accident they stumbled upon something valuable – the buddha nature, a proper self, but mistook it for something else, i.e. the notion of ātman.

The experience of selfhood is available only for those who attain enlightenment. For that reason, i.e. to guide worldly beings to nirvāṇa and make them discard all ideas of a mundane self, Buddha taught the doctrine of anātman as a skill-in-means. (Jarosław Zapart: The Buddha as I: Selfhood and Identity in Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda-sūtra)

Even though he has said that all phenomena [dharmas] are devoid of the Self, it is not that they are completely/ truly devoid of the Self. What is this Self? Any phenomenon [dharma] that is true [satya], real [tattva], eternal [nitya], sovereign/ autonomous/ self-governing [aisvarya], and whose ground/ foundation is unchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed ’the Self’ [atman]. This is as in the case of the great Doctor who well understands the milk medicine. The same is the case with the Tathagata. For the sake of beings, he says “there is the Self in all things” O you the four classes! Learn Dharma thus!”

In summation on this chapter, it is well-worth repeating a quote from David Seyfort Ruegg that was imparted in the first blog of this series:

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)

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