Posted by: Soh
Someone wrote:

"Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is one of the most famous text of Mahāyāna Buddhism devoted to the positive affirmation of the eternal Self (or True Self) as opposed to impermanent nonself.

Buddha gives the following characteristics to the notion of Self:
“The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva),
the Self is permanent (nitya),

the Self is virtue (guna),
the Self is eternal (śāśvatā),
the Self is stable (dhruva),
the Self is peace (siva)”"

I replied:

"
Did the historical Buddha teach the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra? Certainly not. It developed several hundred years after the first suttas appeared. But Buddhism as a whole is clearly an evolutionary/evolving thing, in the same way as everything in the world - biology, religion, worldviews, politics, economy, art, culture, you name it, it has grown and evolved over time. Something that is alive and living is evolving and growing and progressing, otherwise it's dead. From the Pali suttas, to the Abdhidharma, to Mahayana - Tathagatagarbha, Prajnaparamita, Yogacara, Madhyamika, etc... from Theravada, to Mahayana, to Vajrayana, (and even within Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, there were many evolutionary offshoots) etc.

Mahaparinirvana Sutra should be seen in that light. It arose as an evolutionary reaction to the environment, the times. In particular as a reaction to the growing influence of Hinduism. But something evolutionary would by definition include its preceding doctrines, but 'transcend' it by adding 'new features' or a 'new presentation' of it. However, it cannot be something that fundamentally contradicts the preceding teachings by completely replacing it with something else (then that would not be 'transcend and include'), such as replacing the non-substantialist Prajnaparamita tenets with a diametrically contradicting tenet such as a substantialist/essentialist or Vedantic vision of reality.

So we cannot understand Tathagatagarbha Sutra without first understanding the fundamental teachings of Prajnaparamita, Abhidharma, and Pali Suttas, since the evolutionary edge always includes but transcends its predecessors.

And we know this from the Mahayana sutras that dealt with the Tathagatagarbha doctrines. We know that Nirvana Sutra "transcends and includes" its preceding doctrines.

Nirvana Sutra: "If selflessness is demonstrated, the immature grasp to the explanation thinking there is no self. The intelligent on the other hand think "The [self] exists conventionally, there is no doubt."

-- The conventional nature of self is taught even in the Pali Suttas, such as Vajira Sutta.

Nirvana Sutra: "One must know that the teaching of the Buddha is "this is the middle way." The Bhagavān Buddha teaches the path as the middle way that is free from the extremes of permanence and annihilation. Some fools however, confused about the Buddha's teaching, like those with weak digestive heat who consume butter, quickly come to have views about the two extremes. Though existence is not established, also nonexistence is not established."

Malcolm:

This passage merely indicates that sometimes Buddha taught there is no self, other times he taught there was a self, as an antidote to different extremes. It is not the case however that this passage is claiming there is an actual self that is real, permanent, and so on. The Nirvana sutra states, as mentioned before:

When it is explained that the tathāgatgarbha is empty, the immature cultivate an incorrect fear; the intelligent know permanence, stability and immutability to be illusory.

Also the idea that tathāgatagarbha is full-fledged buddhahood is contradicted by this passage:

The seed existing in oneself that turns into buddhahood is called "tathāgatgarbha," the buddhahood which one will obtain.

Or:

When the Tathāgata explains to the bhikṣus and bhikṣunis that his body is afflicted with a limitless great illness, at that time it should be understood that absence of self is being explained, and one should cultivate the meditation of selflessness. When the Tathāgata explains liberation is signless, empty and nothing at all, at that time one should understand the explanation that liberation is free from the 25 existences, and therefore it is called emptiness. Why?, since there is no suffering, there isn't any suffering at all, it is supreme bliss and signless. Why?, since that [suffering] is not permanent, not stable and not immutable, and because the nature of peace is not nonexistent, therefore, liberation is permanent, stable, immutable and peaceful, that is the Tathāgata. When the Tathāgata explains that the tathāgatagarbha exists sentient beings, at that time, one must correctly cultivate the meditation of permanence.

So really, it is not necessary reify liberation as a self, though some people may find it temporarily useful. But in the above statement there is no reason to reify an entity. Being free from the 25 or three realms does not mean that there is some entity outside of or apart from the three realms. A self either a) exists in the three realms, b) or it does not exist at all, or c) is just a philosophical abstraction used to describe the permanence of liberation when it is attained, and the permanent potential one has to be liberated.
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Malcolm:

Here, the Nirvana sutra clearly and precisely states that buddha-svabhaava, the "nature of a Buddha" refers not to an actual nature but a potential. Why, it continues:

"Child of the lineage, I have said that ‘curd exists in milk’, because curd is produced from milk, it is called ‘curd’.

Child of lineage, at the time of milk, there is no curd, also there is no butter, ghee or ma.n.da, because the curd arises from milk with the conditions of heat, impurities, etc., milk is said to have the ‘curd-nature’."

So one must be quite careful not to make an error. The Lanka states unequivocably that the tathagatagarbha doctrine is merely a device to lead those who grasp at a true self the inner meaning of the Dharma, non-arising, the two selflessnesses and so on, and explains the meaning of the literal examples some people constantly err about:

"Similarly, that tathaagatagarbha taught in the suutras spoken by the Bhagavan, since the completely pure luminous clear nature is completely pure from the beginning, possessing the thirty two marks, the Bhagavan said it exists inside of the bodies of sentient beings.

When the Bhagavan described that– like an extremely valuable jewel thoroughly wrapped in a soiled cloth, is thoroughly wrapped by cloth of the aggregates, aayatanas and elements, becoming impure by the conceptuality of the thorough conceptuality suppressed by the passion, anger and ignorance – as permanent, stable and eternal, how is the Bhagavan’s teaching this as the tathaagatagarbha is not similar with as the assertion of self of the non-Buddhists?

Bhagavan, the non-Buddhists make assertion a Self as “A permanent creator, without qualities, pervasive and imperishable”.

The Bhagavan replied:

“Mahaamati, my teaching of tathaagatagarbha is not equivalent with the assertion of the Self of the non-Buddhists.

Mahaamati, the Tathaagata, Arhat, Samyak Sambuddhas, having demonstrated the meaning of the words "emptiness, reality limit, nirvana, non-arisen, signless", etc. as tathaagatagarbha for the purpose of the immature complete forsaking the perishable abodes, demonstrate the expertiential range of the non-appearing abode of complete non-conceptuality by demonstrating the door of tathaagatagarbha.

Mahaamati, a self should not be perceived as real by Bodhisattva Mahaasattvas enlightened in the future or presently.

Mahaamati, for example, a potter, makes one mass of atoms of clay into various kinds containers from his hands, craft, a stick, thread and effort.

Mahaamati, similarly, although Tathaagatas avoid the nature of conceptual selflessness in dharmas, they also appropriately demonstrate tathaagatagarbha or demonstrate emptiness by various kinds [of demonstrations] possessing prajñaa and skillful means; like a potter, they demonstrate with various enumerations of words and letters. As such, because of that,

Mahaamati, the demonstration of Tathaagatagarbha is not similar with the Self demonstrated by the non-Buddhists.

Mahaamati, the Tathaagatas as such, in order to guide those grasping to assertions of the Self of the Non-Buddhists, will demonstrate tathaagatagarbha with the demonstration of tathaagatagarbha. How else will the sentient beings who have fallen into a conceptual view of a True Self, possess the thought to abide in the three liberations and quickly attain the complete manifestation of Buddha in unsurpassed perfect, complete enlightenment?"

Lankavatara Sutra then states:
"O Mahāmati, with a view to casting aside the heterodox theory, you must treat the tathāgatagarbha as not self (anātman).
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