Chapter Seven is a vast potpourri covering more ethical and proper propriety (right choice of meat and wine) issues for both monks and laity, but the real meat of this interval revolves around the Nature of the Tathagata, in particular in terms of permanency, spectacular prowess at transformational abilities, and how nirvanic Tathagatahood constitutes liberation. The Yamamoto-Page translation lumps them altogether as one-chapter, whereas the Blum translation (wisely so) bifurcates them into separate bodies. We have chosen the course of the latter and will subdivide the seventh chapter into two parts.
Chapter Seven: Part One
(Mark L. Blum translation):
On the issue of permanency:
The Buddha assures Kāśyapa that “because the dharma is permanent, the buddhas are also permanent.” Kāśyapa continues to suggest that as the elements themselves are impermanent, then the Tathagata likewise must be so.
Kāśyapa then asked the Buddha:
[To that way of thinking,] if the flame of the defilements disappears and the tathāgatas also disappear, then the tathāgatas have no place to abide permanently. Like the fact that when sparks fly and disappear in the process of forging iron and no one knows where their red color goes, when the defilements of a tathāgata disappear there is similarly no “place” they have perished to. Or one could say that like the heat and red color of the hot iron, when these have disappeared they simply no longer exist. Tathāgatas must be like this: after disappearing they are impermanent, for when they destroy the fire of the defilements they immediately enter nirvāṇa. We should understand, then, that tathāgatas are impermanent.
The Buddha replied,
Good man, this iron you speak of refers to ordinary people. An ordinary person, even after destroying the defilements, is reborn after the cessation of his existence. Therefore I call [that existence] impermanent. But a tathāgata is not like that, for he is not born again after the cessation of his existence. Therefore I call [this existence] permanent…
Now Kāśyapa, you should not make such a statement, saying that the Tathāgata is impermanent. Why? Because the Tathāgata is permanent. Good man, it is like this: when you burn wood, after it is extinguished there will be ash; after the defilements are extinguished, there will be nirvāṇa. Tearing a garment, cutting off someone’s head, or smashing a jar all work metaphorically in the same say. Each one of these things has its own appellation, we call them forth by saying, “tearing a garment,” “cutting off a head,” or “smashing a jar.”
Kāśyapa, after the iron cools it can be heated again. But the Tathāgata is not like that. Having cut cut off the defilements in himself, he is absolutely cool. For when the defilements have been burned away [in a buddha] they do not arise again. Kāśyapa, you should understand that there are countless numbers of living beings whose situation is like the metaphor of iron here; I use the blaze of my untainted wisdom to burn off the constraints of their defilements.
Kāśyapa continues to be obstinate in questioning the Tathagata’s apparent transiency:
The Buddha has said, “I have long since crossed over the ocean of the defilements.” But if the Buddha has already crossed over the ocean of the defilements, why would he join with [his wife] Yaśodharā and produce the child Rāhula? What are the circumstances by which we can understand that the Tathāgata has not yet crossed to the shore beyond the binding ocean of his defilements?
The Tathagata replied,
Good man, this Mahāparinirvāṇa[-sūtra] establishes the Great Meaning. You must all pay attention and listen very carefully to what I will now expound in a rather expansive way. Do not be frightened by what you hear.
Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas who abide in mahāparinirvāṇa are like rulers of Mount Sumeru: they can take something as vast as that mountain and make it fit inside a pouch of mustard seeds. The living beings living on the Sumeru continent would not feel constricted by such activity, for they would have no notion that anything had either come or gone—as far as they would know, their continent would be no different from what it had been before. Only one who is crossing to the other shore would see the bodhisattva put Mount Sumeru into the mustard- seed pouch and then gently return it to where it was originally.
Good man, there are also bodhisattva-mahāsattvas abiding in mahāparinirvāṇa who can put the great trichiliocosm of the universe into a mustard-seed pouch…
Only those who will cross over to the other shore will see a bodhisattva thus put the great trichiliocosm into a mustard-seed pouch and then gently return them to where they were originally.
Good man, there are also bodhisattva-mahāsattvas abiding in mahāparinirvāṇa who, in much the same way, can take the great trichiliocosm and put it inside the space of one hair and then return it to its original location.
The Blessed one is conveying to Kāśyapa the difference in perception between ordinary folk and those who have “crossed over to the farther shore” of Immaculate Self-Realization. There are many such descriptions in the Mahayana canon of these marvelous spatial-transference abilities, like taking “the great trichiliocosm and put it inside the space of one hair and then return it to its original location.” Even our own Tathāgatagarbhatārā Tantra provides one such miraculous ability:
The former Singular, Motionless and Immutable Source, took great joy in witnessing Itself in the Sambhogakayic guise as the great Holder of the Diamond. From the tip of his Vajra, he scooped up the entire assembly and gently placed them in one of the pores on his luminous skin.
Such is the singular Sambhogakayic setting employed in many different sutra-motifs. Yea, most sutras in the Mahayana take place exclusively on the astounding plane of the Sambhogakaya. If such spatial transferences occur, then why not producing a child, such as Rāhula? In light of the Dharmadhātu, however, the Tathagata is above and beyond such sexual functions:
A great many people think Rāhula is my son, King Śuddhodana is my father, Lady Māyā is my mother, and when I was in the world I enjoyed myself with worldly pleasures and then walked away from such things when I left home to pursue the Way. Many people have also said, the surname of this crown prince is Gautama. He freed himself from the pleasures of the world, seeking the supramundane dharma. But I have long since separated myself from the sexual desires of this world; such things have all been mere displays on my part. All living beings think of me as a person but in fact I am not…
Good man, mahāparinirvāṇa itself is none other than the dharma realm (dharmadhātu) of the buddha tathāgatas.
On transformational abilities:
The Blessed One next catalogs the many and diverse transformational abilities of the Tathagata:
Appearing in Jambudvīpa as a monk…
Even appearing as an icchantika:
I have also appeared in Jambudvīpa as an icchantika. The many people who saw this all recognized me as an icchantika but in fact I was not an icchantika. How could an icchantika have attained unsurpassed perfect enlightenment?
In Jambudvīpa I also displayed having pierced ears. In truth, among all living beings there is no one who can pierce my ears. I manifested this behavior in order to conform to the world. I also took various jewels and constructed a “lion’s earring” with which I adorned my ears, though in fact over innumerable kalpas I had long since abandoned wearing any such adornments. It was in order to comply with the ways of the world that I produced this display.
Appearing as one to break-up the sangha, *saṃghabheda*.
*In Sanskrit, “splitting the community”; the act of causing a schism in the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (SAṂGHA). Technically, a schism occurs when nine or more fully ordained monks separate themselves from the order; a faction of less than nine monks constitutes a “dissension” (saṃgharāji) rather than a schism. These schisms may occur over disagreements in the teachings (DHARMA) or details of monastic life (VINAYA). The ABHIDHARMAMAHĀVIBHĀṢĀ distinguishes two different types of saṃghabheda, one in which there are two separate saṃghas established within a single SĪMĀ boundary, the second in which a group attempts to establish a new dispensation with a different teacher. The first and most infamous example of this latter type of schism is the one caused by Buddha’s cousin DEVADATTA, who declared that he, and not GAUTAMA, was the real master and that his five practices were the correct dispensation.
Buswell Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 56725-56736). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Also appearing for the purpose of supporting efforts to preserve the dharma.
Appearing as the evil Māra Pāpīyas:
I also manifested myself in Jambudvīpa as the evil Māra Pāpīyas, and the many people who saw me [in this guise] all thought I was Pāpīyas.
But over innumerable kalpas I have long been free of the affairs of Māra, having remained pure, without stain, like a lotus blossom.
Appearing as a woman who has attained Buddhahood.
Appearing in Jambudvīpa as one born into the four [unfortunate] modes of existence.
Assuming the form of the deity Brahmā.
Appearing as one visiting houses of ill-repute.
Appearing as an alcoholic and gambler.
I have also manifested myself for some time among the cremation mounds of a charnel ground.
Appearing as a medical technician.
Appearing as a Civil Servant.
Appearing as a mendicant peaching the sublime Dharma-medicine.
I manifested my birth from my mother Māyā in the Lumbinī Grove in Jambudvīpa. Following my birth, I was able to immediately take seven steps to the east and roar out the words, “I am the most revered, the highest, among humans, gods, and asuras.”
The Tathagata even states that his sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree was in order to emancipate living beings that I sat down [to meditate] at the “site of awakening” under the bodhi tree, making a seat out of grass, and subdued the bands of Māra demons that came at me. Everyone thought I first overcame the minions of Māra at that so-called “site of awakening” under the bodhi tree but, on the contrary, I had long since prevailed in that struggle, in fact innumerable kalpas ago. It was only in order to prevail over [the resistance of] stubborn living beings that I displayed this transformation.
He even states that he “manifested” bodily functions like excrement:
I have also manifested such things as liquid and solid defecation, and inhaling and exhaling. Those around me expected me to have liquid and solid defecation and inhaling and exhaling; however, what has been attained in this body is a state entirely without such things as defecation or breathing. I was only displaying this behavior because it was in accordance with the ways of the world… The body of a tathāgata is none other than a dharma body; it is not constructed of flesh, blood, tendons, veins, bones, and marrow.
He even goes so far to say that he will not really enter into Nirvana:
Good man, although I have repeatedly displayed myself to be entering nirvāṇa while here in Jambudvīpa, in truth I have never entered into an absolute nirvāṇa. So while all living beings may think the Tathāgata has truly perished, the tathāgata-nature in fact will never cease to exist. That is why it should be understood that this is a permanently abiding dharma that is immutable as well.
This first portion of the chapter concludes by indicating the importance of not associating the Mahāparinirvāṇa with some form of extinction:
Moreover, good man, when I say the lamp is extinguished, this refers to the nirvāṇa realized by arhats. Because arhats extinguish craving and the other defilements, I use the metaphor of an extinguished lamp…
But mahā [pari]-nirvāṇa is not the same as what happens in the case of an extinguished lamp.
This should permanently settle the age-old argument that [pari]-nirvāṇa somehow constitutes “extinction”. It does not. It rather means crossing-over into the Nirvanic Kingdom of Self.