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."


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.


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.


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?"

Thus, the Lanka says:

All yaanas are included
in five dharmas, three natures,
eight consciousnesses,
and two selflessnesses

It does not add anything about a true self and so on.

If one accepts that tathaagatagarbha is the aalayavij~naana, and one must since it is identified as such, then one is accepting that it is conditioned and afflicted and evolves, thus the Lanka states:

Tathaagatagarbha, known as ‘the all-base consciousness’, is to be completely purified.

Mahaamati, if what is called the all-base consciousness were (37/a) not connected to the tathaagatagarbha, because the tathaagatagarbha would not be ‘the all-base consciousness’, although it would be not be engaged, it also would not evolve; Mahaamati, it is engaged by both the childish and Aaryas, that also evolves.

Because great yogins, the ones not abandoning effort, abide with blissful conduct in this at the time of personally knowing for themselves…the tathaagatagarbha-all basis consciousness is the sphere of the Tathaagatas; it is the object which also is the sphere of teachers, [those] of detailed and learned inclinations like you, and Bodhisattva Mahaasattvas of analytic intellect.


Although tathaagatagarbha
possesses seven consciousnesses;
always engaged with dualistic apprehensions
[it] will evolve with thorough understanding.

If one accepts that the tathaagatagarbha is unconditioned and so on, and one must, since it is identified as such other sutras state:

"`Saariputra, the element of sentient beings denotes the word tathaagatagarbha.
`Saariputra, that wordtathaagatagarbha’ denotes Dharmakaaya.


`Saariputra, because of that, also the element of sentient beings is not one thing and the Dharmakaaya another; the element of sentient beings itself is Dharmakaaya; Dharmakaaya itself is the element of sentient beings.

Then one cannot accept it as the aalayavij~naana-- or worse, one must somehow imagine that something conditioned somehow becomes conditioned.

Other sutras state that tathaagatagarbha is the citta, as the Angulimaala suutra does here:

"Although in the `Sraavakayaana it is shown as ‘mind’, the meaning of the teaching is ‘tathaagatagarbha’; whatever mind is naturally pure, that is called ‘tathaagatagarbha’.

So, one must understand that these sutras are provisional and definitive, each giving different accounts of the tathaagatagarbha for different students, but they are not defintive. Understood improperly, they lead one into a non-Buddhist extremes. Understood and explained properly, they lead those afraid of the profound Praj~naapaaramitaa to understanding it's sublime truth. In other words, the Buddha nature teaching is just a skillful means as the Nirvana sutra states

"Child of the lineage, buddha-nature is like this; although the ten powers and the four fearlessnesses, compassion, and the three foundations of mindfulness are the three aspects existing in sentient beings; [those] will be newly seen when defilements are thoroughly conquered. The possessors of perversion will newly attain the ten powers (44/b) and four fearlessness, great compassion and three foundations of mindfulness having thoroughly conquered perversion.

Because that is the purpose as such, I teach buddha-nature always exists in all sentient beings.

When one can compare and contrast all of these citations, and many more side by side, with the proper reading of the Uttataratantra, one will see the propositions about these doctrines by the Dark Zen fools and others of their ilk are dimmed like stars at noon.

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


Arcaya Malcolm:

The Uttaratantra states:
  • Unconditioned, effortless,
    not realized through other conditions,
    endowed with wisdom, compassion and power,
    buddhahood is endowed with two benefits.
But what does this really all mean?

When we examine Asanga's comments on this, he states:
  • When these are summarized, buddhahood is described with eight qualties. If it is asked what those eight qualities are, they are unconditioned, effortless, not realized through other conditions, wisdom, compassion, power, the abundance of one's own benefit and the abundance of others' benefit. [Buddhahood] is unconditioned because it is the nature of lacking a beginning, middle and end. It is called "effortless" because peace is endowed with the dharmakāya. It is not realized through other conditions because each person must realize it for themselves. It is wisdom because those three things are realized. [Buddhahood] is compassionate because [the Buddha] shows the path. It is powerful because it is free from suffering and affliction. The former three [unconditioned, effortless and not realized through other conditions] are for one's own benefit; the latter three [wisdom, compassion and power] are for others' benefit.

    In that regard, the conditioned is fully understood as arising somewhere, and also understood as abiding and perishing. Because those do not exist [arising, abiding and perishing], buddhahood itself is unconditioned without a beginning, middle and an end. This is seen as a differentiation made through the dharmakāya. Because all proliferation and concepts are pacified, [buddhahood] is effortless [lhun gyis grub]. Buddhahood is not realized through other conditions because it is realized through wisdom oneself produced. Here, udayo [to produce] is not the arising of a desire for realization. As such, the tathāgata is unconditioned due to the truth, out of the characteristics of non-engagement, all the activities of the buddha effortlessly engaged in without impediment and without interruption for as long as samsara exists
So let us parse this out a little bit.

Asanga states in his commentary on the Uttaratantra:
  • ...the conditioned is understood as arising somewhere, and also understood as abiding and perishing. Because those do not exist [arising, abiding and perishing], buddhahood itself is unconditioned without a beginning, middle and an end.
Buddhahood is unconditioned because the trio of arising, abiding and perishing are false. Not because in contrast to things that arise, abide and perish, buddhahood does not arise, abide and perish.

Buddhahood however has a cause, as he writes:
  • Buddhahood is not realized through other conditions because it is realized through wisdom oneself produced.
Buddhahood is also effortless, because, as he writes:
  • ...all proliferation and concepts are pacified, [buddhahood] is effortless [lhun gyis grub]...As such, the tathāgata is unconditioned due to the truth; and from the characteristics of non-engagement, all the activities of the buddha are engaged in effortlessly [lhun grub], without impediment and without interruption for as long as samsara exists
As for tathāgatagarbha always existing in the continuums of sentient beings; if you think somehow tathāgatagarba is something other than or different than a sentient beings mind, there there is a fallacy of the tathāgatagarbha being something like an atman. But there is no atman in the tathāgatagarbha theory, not really. the supreme self, (paramātma) is explained very clearly in the Uttaratantra:
  • The supreme self is the pacification of the proliferations of self and and nonself.
But what does this mean? Asanga adds:
  • The perfection of self (ātmapāramitā) is known through two reasons: due to being free from proliferation of a self because of being free from the extreme of the non-buddhists and due to being free from the proliferation of nonself because of giving up the extreme of the śrāvakas.
He explains further:
  • From cultivating prajñāpāramita in order to turn away from seeing the five addictive aggregates as self, the non-existent self in which the others, the nonbuddhists, delight, one attains the result, the perfection of self. In this way all the others, the nonbuddhists, accept natureless things such as matter and so on as a self due to their being deceived by a characteristic of a self according to how those things are being apprehended, but that self never existed.

    The Tathāgata, on the other hand, has attained the supreme perfection of the selflessness of all phenomena through the wisdom that is in accord with just how things truly are, and though there is no self according to how he sees things, he asserts a self all the time because he is never deceived by the characteristic of a self that does not exist. Making the selfless into a self is like saying "abiding through the mode of nonabiding.
There are some people who, ignoring the Nirvana Sutra's admonition to rely on the meaning rather than on the words, fall headlong into eternalism, unable to parse the Buddha's profound meaning through addiction to naive literalism.

Tathagatagarbha is just a potential to become a buddha. When we say it is has infinite qualities, this is nothing more nor less than when the Vajrapañjara praises the so called "jewel-like mind":
  • The jewel-like mind is tainted with
    evil conceptual imputations;
    but when the mind is purified it becomes pure.
    Just as space cannot be destroyed,
    just as is space, so too is the mind.
    By activating the jewel-like mind
    and meditating on the mind itself, there is the stage of buddhahood,
    and in this life there will be sublime buddhahood.
    There is no buddha nor a person
    outside of the jewel-like mind,
    the abode of consciousness is ultimate,
    outside of which there isn't the slightest thing.
    All buddhahood is through the mind...
    Matter, sensation, perception
    formations and consciousness
    these all arise from the mind,
    these [five] munis are not anything else.
    Like a great wishfulfilling gem,
    granting the results of desires and goals,
    the pure original nature of the true state of the mind
    bestows the result, Buddha's awakening
There is no other basis apart from this natural purity of the mind that is inseparable clarity and emptiness. We can call it whatever we want, but still this fact remains. The Lankāvatara rightly observes that tathāgatagarbha is just a name for emptiness and the ālayavijñāna for those afraid of emptiness. Jayānanda writes that ālayavijñāna is the mind that comprehends the basis, i.e. emptiness. How else can the mind be purified of evil conceptual imputations other than by realizing emptiness? Emptiness free from all extremes is the pure original nature of the true state of the mind, so why bother confusing oneself with all kinds of rhetoric? The mind itself has two aspects, emptiness and clarity, ka dag and lhun grub, and these are inseparable. This inseparable clarity and emptiness is call the ālaya in gsar ma and the basis in Nyingma. This also known as tathagatagarbha when it encased in afflictions, the dharmadhātu from its ultimate side, the ālayavijñāna from its relative side and so on. It really is not that complicated.
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