The Moon Parable

The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra makes excellent use of parables in order to construct analogies as to the True Buddha Nature. The Moon Parable stands out in analogizing how the cycles of the Moon reflect the perennial nature of the Tathagata.

Chapter 15: The Moon Parable

(Charles Patton translation):

The Buddha told Kasyapa, “It is just like when people see the moon not appear and say ‘The moon has disappeared!’ and think that it has disappeared. Yet, the moon’s nature really has not disappeared. It cyclically appears in places in other directions, and the sentient beings there say ‘The moon has appeared’. Yet, the moon’s nature really has not appeared. And why? It is because it is blocked from view by Mount Sumeru that it disappears. The moon’s nature of constantly arising has not appeared or disappeared. The Tathagata, the Arhat, the one of perfect knowledge, is also again so. He appears in the trichiliocosm, or manifests in Jambudvipa having a father and mother. Sentient beings say that he is born in Jambudvipa, or in Jambuvipa he displays Nirvana. But, the nature of the Tathagata really has no Nirvana. Yet, the sentient beings all say the Tathagata really enters Parinirvana.

The moon’s real nature is as it is, with no-thing arising nor cessating. It only appears to cyclically change in shape. It is the same with the Tathagata. He only appears to have taken on human form and manifested as such. In terms of the Dharmadhatu, he has no size or shape but is still at the same time transcendentally and immanently present.

“Take the example of the moon disappearing. Good son, the nature of the Tathagata is really without any birth or death. It is for the sake of transforming sentient beings that he makes a show of being born or dying. Good son, it is just as the full moon is seen in another direction as half, and the half-moon in other directions is seen as full by people in Jambudvipa, or other people see the moon as new. They all say that on the first day the moon rises anew. And when they see the moon completely full they say on the fifteenth day it rises completely full.

Yet, the moon’s nature is without waning or waxing. The cause is Mount Sumeru, then, that it increases or decreases. Good son, the Tathagata is also so in Jambudvipa, whether appearing to be newly born or displaying Nirvana. When he appears as a newborn, he is just like the new moon. Everyone says that the infant child at birth walked seven paces. As on the second day of the moon, again he appears to enter the academy. Like the third day of the moon, he appears to renounce the household life. Like the eighth day of the moon, he emits the great wisdom’s fine and wonderous light which is capable of destroying the infinite maras of sentient beings. Like the fifteenth day of the completely full moon, he displays the thirty-two signs and eighty kinds of excellencies that adorn him. And his show of Parinirvana is just like the lunar eclipse. Thus, sentient beings see him unequally, as they see the half moon, or the full moon, or the lunar eclipse. Yet, the moon’s nature really is without increase or decrease, there is no loss or eclipse of it. Always it is a full moon. The body of the Tathagata is also so. This is why it is said to be constantly abiding and unchanging.”

The Tathagatas apparent life is likened onto the [real nature behind] the apparent cycles of the moon. Constantly abiding and unchanging. His spirit may even be likened unto the new moon–neither visibly present in the sky or in the heavens, but everywhere for those who can behold it with imageless eyes.

“Furthermore, good son, take for example the full moon appearing in its entirety. In every place among the cities, villages, and hamlets; the mountains, in the rivers, or wells, or ponds, and in containers of water; in all these its reflection appears. There are sentient beings who walk a hundred yojanas or a hundred thousand yojanas, and they see the moon always following them. An ordinary foolish person might mistakenly give rise to a regretful thought, saying, ‘In the past I was in cities, villages, and homes and there saw the moon. Now, again, in these empty pools of water I see it again. Is this that past moon or it is a different moon than the one in the past?’ Each think to themselves, ‘The moon’s image is larger or smaller’ or they say, ‘it is like a silver mouth’, or they say ‘it is like a cart wheel’, or they say ‘it is like forty nine yojanas in size’. All of them see the light of the moon, or they see it perfectly round just like the golden disc of the sun. The moon’s nature is [singular], but the variety of sentient beings each see differing aspects of it.

“Good son, the Tathagata is also so. He appears in the world and there are some humans or Gods who think, ‘The Tathagata now abides before me’. Or there are some who are deaf and mute who also see the Tathagata as having the characteristic of being deaf and mute. The sentient beings in their various species and languages each differ, but all say the Tathagata speaks the same language as they. And, also, each gives rise to the thought, ‘He stays in my household and receives my offerings’. Some sentient beings see the Tathagata’s body as vast, huge, and infinite and some see it as minutely small. Some see the Buddha with the appearance of a shravaka, some see him with the appearance of the pratyeka-buddha, and those of other paths again each think, ‘The Tathagata now rests in my Dharma and leaves the household to study the way.’ There are some sentient beings who again think, ‘The Tathagata appears in the world in order to come into contact with me.’ The Tathagata’s real nature is like that of the moon.

And so the essential body (dharma-kaya) is an unarisen body. The body of skillful means conforms to the world, displaying of infinite roots of karmic circumstances. In every place, he makes a show of being born, just as does the moon. What is the meaning of this? The Tathagata constantly abides, devoid of any change or difference.

Just like the moon’s [Real Nature], just so is the [singular] Essence of the Tathagata. But also like the Moon appears in different phases, expediently for different folk and their various perceptions and needs. Blum’s translation reads:

The true nature of the Tathāgata may thus be compared to the moon in that his body is a dharma body rather than a body that is born into existence. It is a body of expediency that becomes visible in conformity with the world. As the result of innumerable causal forces set in motion in the distant past, the Buddha thus becomes visible much like the moon does, appearing to those who are in this or that locale as if he is being born where they are. It is in this sense that I speak of the Tathāgata as abiding permanently and immutable.

“Furthermore, Good son, it is just as when Ruhula the Asura king blocks the moon with his hand and the people of the world all claim that the moon has been eaten. The Asura king, however, in reality cannot eat the moon. It is simply that the Asura king has obstructed its light. The moon is perfectly round and full and does not wane and become smaller. It is only because of the obstructing hand that it does not appear so. And when he retracts his hand, the worldly people all claim that the moon is again reborn. Their claims that the moon has suffered numerous injuries is a convention. One hundred thousand Asura kings could not harm it.

“The Tathagata is also so. Appearing to be a sentient being, the beings of coarse and wicked minds regard the Tathagata as a produced Buddha body, their blood rising to the five wicked deeds and becoming icchantikas.

Because of these sentient beings’ future lives, there thus will be displayed the destruction of the sangha and end of the Dharma, and putting a stop to this will be difficult. It is the case, however, that the infinite hundeds of thousands of kotis of maras are unable to harm the production of body or blood of the Tathagata. And why is that? The Tathagata’s body has no blood, flesh, muscle, veins, bone, or marrow. The Tathagata in reality really is invulnerable.

There are sentient beings who say that the Dharma and Sangha is harmed or destroyed and the Tathagata dead. However, the Tathagata’s nature in reality is changeless and indestructible. It is in conformance to the worldly that he thus is displayed.”

This is one of the passages in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra that casts the icchantikas in a negative light. Indeed as we have seen, different parts of the sutra portray diverse opinions on the subject—this strongly suggests that the sutra is not the result of a single writer, but is comprised of different material originating from various schools of thought on the matter. When push comes to shove, though, in terms of incorrigibility the following list reveals the icchantikas true colors:

Good sons! For six reasons, the icchantika and his kind are bound to the three evil ways and cannot be set free. What are these six?
i. Because they are intense in their evil thoughts.
ii. Because they do not believe in after-life.
iii. Because they enjoy practicing defiled [deeds].
iv. Because they are far removed from good roots.
v. Because they are obstructed by evil karma.
vi. Because they seek the company of bad friends.
Again, for five [kinds of mis-]conduct, they are bound to
the three evil ways. What are these five?
i. Because they misbehave in relation to monks.
ii. Because they misbehave in relation to nuns.
iii. Because they misappropriate the properties of the
sangha.
iv. Because they misbehave in relation to womankind,
v. Because they instigate disputes among the five groups
in the sangha.
Again, for five [kinds of mis-]conduct, they are bound to
the three evil ways. What are these five?
i. Because they often declare that there are neither good
nor bad fruits.
ii. Because they kill sentient beings in whom the thought
of enlightenment has arisen.
iii. Because they like to talk about the shortcomings of
their teachers.
iv. Because they call the true untrue, and the untrue true.
v. Because they listen to and receive the Dharma only to
find fault with it.
Again, for three [kinds of mis-]conducts, they are bound to
the three evil ways:
i. They maintain that the Tathagata is impermanent and
is annihilated forever [at death].
ii. They maintain that the true Dharma is impermanent
and mutable.
iii. They maintain that the sangha, [the third of the three]
jewels, can be destroyed.
As a consequence, they are forever bound to the three evil
ways.
(The Problem of the Icchantika in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, article by by Ming-Wood Liu)

(Mark L. Blum translation):

In addition, good man, it is like two people sparring with swords or lances who cut each other and draw blood; even if the injuries to one of them is so grave as to cause death, it would not come from any intention to kill. The karmic impact in a case like this would be light rather than heavy. For one who comes to where the Tathāgata is with no thoughts of killing, even if that person were to cause the Tathāgata to bleed, the karmic effect would be similarly light rather than heavy. In this way the Tathāgata has brought forth the doctrine of karmic retribution but only for the purpose of spiritually transforming living beings in the future.

This passage appears to foreshadow our forthcoming January series on Karma. The emphasis here is on karmic [intent] rather than any spontaneous action bringing harm haphazardly. Indeed, the Buddhist Doctrine on Karma centers on “spiritual transformation” i.e. making light of [inadvertent actions] whilst at the same time stressing the need to always [be aware] how subsequent [intentional] actions could well affect one’s future karmic-spin.

In addition, good man, this is like the highly skilled physician who enthusiastically taught his son the basic principles of medicine…

The Tathāgata is just like this. In order to spiritually transform living beings he has brought forth restrictive precepts that must be observed without violation. There will be individuals in the future who may commit one of the five heinous crimes, who may denigrate the true-dharma, or who may be icchantikas, and this is why I have made plain [this system of precepts]. After the Buddha’s disappearance I want the bhikṣus to create an understanding of the profound meaning in this sutra, the degree of seriousness in [each of] the precepts, and the analytic statements about the dharma in the Abhidharma in the same way that the physician’s son [worked to create his own understanding].

A prime verse that stresses the vital importance of remaining [true to the precepts], lest one reflect the behavior of an icchantika.

(Charles Patton translation):

“Furthermore, good son, it is as when someone watches the moon for six months and sees it eaten once, yet above in the heavens it is watched for but a moment and the moon is eclipsed. And why? Because a day in heaven to ancient beings is brief. Good son, the Tathagata is also so. Gods and men all say that the Tathagata’s lifespan is brief, like that God who for a moment watches and the moon is eclipsed. The Tathagata also is among them for but a moment, showing Nirvana to the hundreds of thousands of nayutas of kotis [of beings]. He ends the mara of affliction, the mara of skandhas, and the mara of death. This is why the hundreds of thousands of nayutas of kotis of heavenly maras all know that the Tathagata has entered Parinirvana. And also that he appears due to hundreds of thousands of former karmic causes and conditions. Because he conforms to the various dispositions of the worldly, he displays thusly the infinite, limitless, and inconceivable. This is why the Tathagata is eternally abiding and unchanging.”

Both [gods and humans] alike perceive that the Tathagata’s lifespan is brief when in reality, like the twinkling of an eye across great cosmic vistas and hundreds of thousands of millenniums, the Tathagata continues to act foiling the [family of Maras] and engages in karmic-regression for the sake of sentient beings—all the while “eternally abiding and unchanging” [in essence].

(Mark L. Blum translation):

In addition, good man, this is analogous to a bright moon that living beings view with pleasure, which is why they call the moon a “joyful sight.” If living beings are plagued by greed, anger, or stupidity, they will not be inclined to admire the moon and call it a “joyful sight,” however. But nothing is more admired as a joyful sight than the Tathāgata, whose nature is invariably good, pure, and without even a trace of defilement. Living beings that take joy in the dharma look upon him in this way without enmity, but those with malicious intent look at him with displeasure. It is in this sense that the Tathāgata is analogous to a bright moon.

The Tathagata’s Light is a Luminous one, bringing joy and luminosity to the faithful, whilst the icchantikas turn-away and would prefer to wallow in the Dark-Side of the Moon.

(Charles Patton translation):

“Furthermore, good son, it is just as how the day has three periods that are different [in length]. The winter days are brief, the spring days are average, and the summer days are the very longest. The Tathagata is also so. In this trichiliocosm his lifespan is brief, and the voice hearer’s display also a brief lifespan. These having been seen, all say that the Tathagata’s lifespan is brief, like the winter day. The bodhisattvas show average-length lifespans, whether for a kalpa or a partial kalpa, like the spring day. Only the Buddha sees the Buddha’s own lifespan to be infinite, just like the summer day. Good son, the Tathagata has said that the methods of the Mahayana teaching are subtle and esoteric. It appears in the world, raining the great Dharma rain. In future lives, if a person is able to protect and uphold the canon, to them will be revealed and discerned the blessing to sentient beings. It should be known that this comrade is a true bodhisattva. Just like the abundance of the summer, the heavens give up the sweet rain. If there are shravakas or pratyeka-buddhas who hear the Buddha’s, the Tathagata’s, subtle and esoteric teaching, then it would be just as during the winter days are numerously encountered ice and illnesses. If a bodhisattva hears thus the subtle and esoteric teaching and is instructed that the Tathagata is of a constantly abiding nature and unchanging, it would be as during the spring days that antlers sprout and spread out.

Yet the Tathagata’s nature is really neither long nor short. It is for the worldly that it appears thus. This then is Buddhas’ true underlying reality (dharmata).”

Wonderful analogy depicting how the Tathagata is perceived through three diverse channels. For the shravakas or pratyeka-buddhas who have limited discerning faculties, the message of the Tathagata does not linger long and is likened unto the brevity of an icy-wintry day. Young Bodhisattva’s discernment is more mature, likened unto the rich and increasingly vibrant soil of springtime; yet for both their discernment is only “partial”—not complete like the underlying [reality of the dharmata] that lingers long like a golden summer-day.

“Furthermore, good son, it is just as when the myriad stars at noontime do not appear. And so people say that at noontime the stars perish and disappear. But really, though, they do not disappear. It is because the sunlight conceals them that they do not appear. The Tathagata is also so. The shravaka and pratyeka-buddha are unable to see him, just as the worldly person cannot see the stars at noon.

“Furthermore, good son, it is just like when the overcast sky causes the moon and sun to not appear and the foolish person says that the sun and moon are lost and have disappeared. Yet the sun and moon really have not been lost or have disappeared. When the Tathagata’s true Dharma has passed away, the three jewels will appear to disappear and also again will not be forever ceased. This is why it should be known that the Tathagata is eternally abiding and without any change. And why? Because the real nature of the three jewels does not become stained by defilements.

“Furthermore, good son, it is just as when the moon is dark and the night sky is swept with stars. Their light shines and blazes for a time and then disappear again. Sentient beings seeing this think it an ill omen. The pratyeka-buddhas are also so when they appear in a world without a Buddha. The sentient beings who see this say that the Tathagata really has perished and there arises in them sorrow and grief. However, the Tathagata’s body really is indestructible, like the sun and moon are without any cessation or disappearance.

“Furthermore, good son, it is just as when the sun goes behind a mist and becomes completely hidden. This great Nirvana that is a subtle and wondrous Sutra is also again so, being produced in the world. If there are sentient beings who have an ear for the Sutra, they would be capable of putting to rest all evils and not longer be amidst wicked karma. This great Nirvana is profound and deep, its perspective inconceivable. Skillfully speaking of the nature of the Tathagata as subtle and esoteric. What does this mean? Good sons and good daughters should regard the Tathagata as bringing forth the thought of his being constantly abiding, devoid of any change, the true Dharma that is unending, and the sangha imperishable. This is why one should cultivate numerous skillful means and endeavor to study this text. It would not be long for such a person to attain the supremely unexcelled enlightenment. This is why this Sutra is called the completion of infinite virtue. It is also called the enlightenment that is invulnerable. Because it is invulnerable is the reason that it has obtained the title ‘Great Parinirvana’. Because it possesses the good light, is it like the summer days. Because the body is limitless, it is called the Great Nirvana.”

The Tathagatas are always present, although the lesser-able are not yet ready to discern them. Due to these eternally-abiding “Shining Ones”, the Light of the Buddhadharma will never go out, yet it does become eclipsed during the particular and incidental status of any given age. Hence, the best purview of the dharmatic-light is best accomplished by the diligent ones who take to heart and study well the message of this sacred text empowering them to experience “An Awakening that Cannot be Exhausted” (Blum). Thus so is the stellar marvel of the Mahāparinirvāṇa, that likened unto a magnificent summer day extends far into the glowing embers of the [Great Nirvana].

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