Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra
The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (Sanskrit; traditional Chinese: 大般涅槃經; pinyin: Dàbānnièpán-jīng; Japanese: Daihatsunehan-gyō, Tibetan: མྱང་འདས་ཀྱི་མདོ་) or Nirvana Sutra is Mahāyāna Buddhist sutra of the Buddha-nature genre.[note 1] Its precise date of origin is uncertain, but its early form may have developed in or by the second century CE. The original Sanskrit text is not extant except for a small number of fragments, but it survives in Chinese and Tibetan translation.
The Nirvana sutra was translated into Chinese twice from two apparently substantially different source texts, with the 421 CE translation of Dharmakṣema being about four times longer than the 416 translation of Faxian (as well as the later Tibetan version). The two versions also differ in their teachings on Buddha-nature: Dharmakṣema's indicates all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood, but Faxian's states some will never attain Buddhahood. Ultimately, Dharmakṣema's version was far more popular in East Asia and his version of the text had a strong impact on East Asian Buddhism.
This sutra should not be confused with the early Buddhist Mahaparinibbana sutta.
The text of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra in the original Sanskrit has survived only in a number of fragments, which were discovered in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Japan. It exists in Chinese and Tibetan versions of varying lengths. There are four extant versions of the sūtra, each translated from various Sanskrit editions:
- The "six fascicle text",[note 2] the translation into Chinese by Faxian and Buddhabhadra, translated during the Jin dynasty (266–420) between 416 and 418, containing six fascicles, which is the shortest and earliest version;
- The "northern text", with 40 fascicles,[note 3] translated by Dharmakṣema between 421 and 430 in the Northern Liang kingdom, containing forty fascicles. This version was also translated into Classical Tibetan from the Chinese. According to C. V. Jones, this version of the text is "around four times the length" of the Faxian version and the later Tibetan translation.
- The "southern text",[note 4] with 36 fascicles, edited in approximately 453 by Huiguan and Huiyan during the Liu Song dynasty, integrated and amended the translations of Faxian and Dharmakṣema into a single edition of thirty-six fascicles;
- The Tibetan version (translated in the early ninth century) by Jinamitra, Jñānagarbha, and Devacandra;
According to Hodge, some other versions have also existed:
- a secondary Chinese version of Dharmakṣema's translation, completed in 453 CE. This was produced "by polishing the style and adding new section headings";
- Chinese catalogues of translations mention two other Chinese translations, slightly earlier than Faxian, which are no longer extant.
Origins and development
According to Shimoda Masahiro, the authors of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra were leaders and advocates of stupa-worship. The term buddhadhātu originally referred to śarīra or physical relics of the Buddha. The authors of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra used the teachings of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra to reshape the worship of the śarīra into worship of the inner Buddha as a principle of salvation: the Buddha-nature. "Buddhadhātu" came to be used in place of tathagatagarbha, referring to a concrete entity existing inside the person. Sasaki, in a review of Shimoda, conveys a key premise of Shimoda's work, namely, that the origins of Mahayana Buddhism and the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra are entwined.
The Indian version of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra underwent a number of stages in its composition. Masahiro Shimoda discerns two versions:
- a short proto-Nirvāṇa Sūtra, which was, he argues, probably not distinctively Mahāyāna, but quasi-Mahāsāṃghika in origin and would date to 100 CE, if not even earlier;
- an expanded version of this core text was then developed and would have comprised chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the Faxian and Tibetan versions, though it is believed that in their present state there is a degree of editorial addition in them from the later phases of development.
Scholars believe that the compilation of the core portion (corresponding to the Faxian and Tibetan translations) must have occurred at an early date, during or prior to the 2nd century CE, based internal evidence and on Chinese canonical catalogs.
Using textual evidence in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and related texts, Stephen Hodge estimates a compilation period between 100 CE and 220 CE for the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. Hodge summarizes his findings as follows:
[T]here are strong grounds based on textual evidence that the MPNS (Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra), or a major portion of it, together with related texts were compiled in the Deccan during the second half of the 2nd century CE, in a Mahāsāṃghika environment, probably in one of their centres along the western coastal region such as Karli, or perhaps, though less likely, the Amaravatī-Dhanyakaṭaka region.
Place of origin and Indian dissemination
The history of the text is extremely complex, but the consensus view is that the core portion of this sutra[note 5] was compiled in the Indian subcontinent, possibly in Andhra, South India.
The language used in the sūtra and related texts seems to indicate a region in southern India during the time of the Śātavāhana dynasty. The Śātavāhana rulers gave rich patronage to Buddhism, and were involved with the development of the cave temples at Karla and Ajaṇṭā, and also with the Great Stūpa at Amarāvati. During this time, the Śātavāhana dynasty also maintained extensive links with the Kuṣāṇa Empire.
According to Stephen Hodge, internal textual evidence in the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, Mahābherihāraka Parivarta Sūtra, and the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra indicates that these texts were first circulated in South India and they then gradually propagated up to the northwest, with Kashmir being the other major center. The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra gives a more detailed account by mentioning the points of distribution as including South India, the Vindhya Range, Bharuch, and Kashmir.
- Earliest translations
According to early Chinese sutra catalogues such as the Lidai Sanbao ji (歷代三寶紀), a part of the core portion of the sutra was translated previously into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa (fl. c260-280), though this version is now lost.:124
Though the translation of the "six fascicle" version is conventionally ascribed to Faxian (法顯), this attribution is probably inaccurate. According to Faxian's own account, the manuscript copy forming the basis of the six juan Chinese version was obtained by him in Pāṭaliputra from the house of a layman known as Kālasena, during his travels in India. The earliest surviving Chinese sutra catalogue, Sengyou's Chu Sanzang Jiji (出三藏記集), which was written less than 100 years after the date of this translation, makes no mention of Faxian. Instead it states that the translation was done by Buddhabhadra and his assistant Baoyun (寶雲), quoting earlier catalogues to corroborate this attribution. The idea that Faxian was involved in the translation only emerges in later catalogues, compiled several hundred years after the event.
Chinese canonical records also mention that a now lost translation was made by the Chinese monk Zhimeng who studied in India from 404-424 CE. According to Zhimeng's own account, he also obtained his manuscript from the same layman in Pataliputra as Faxian did some years earlier.:231
The translation done by Dharmakṣema from 421 CE onwards may for a large part be based on a non-Indian text.
The first ten fascicles may be based on a birch-bark manuscript of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra from North-Western India that Dharmakṣema brought with him, which he used for the initial translation work of his version. This version corresponds overall in content to the "six fascicle" version and the Tibetan version.:157:104
Dharmakṣema's translation of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra extends for a further thirty fascicles, beyond the first ten fascicles of this sutra. Many scholars doubt if these thirty fascicles are based on an Indian Sanskrit text. The chief reasons for this skepticism are these::12–13
- no traces of an extended Sanskrit text has ever been found, while Sanskrit manuscript fragments of twenty four separate pages distributed right across the core portion of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra have been found over the past hundred years in various parts of Asia;:12–13
- no quotations are known from this latter portion in any Indian commentaries or sutra anthologies;
- no other translator in China or Tibet ever found Sanskrit copies of this portion.
- In addition, these doubts correspond with an account from the Chinese monk-translator Yijing,[note 6] who mentions that he searched for a copy of the enlarged Mahaparinirvāṇa-sūtra through all that time, but only found manuscripts corresponding to the core portion of this work.
For these reasons, textual scholars generally regard the authenticity of the latter portion as dubious. It may have been a local Central Asian composition at best, or else written by Dharmakṣema himself, who had both the ability and the motive for doing so.:124–5 On the strength of their investigations, certain specialist scholars have formulated and expressed a theory in which they suggest that this latter portion of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra translated by Dharmakṣema may not represent a definitive source, for scholars, for the history of the development, in India, of the Buddha-nature concept and related doctrines.
- Yamamoto, Kosho, trans. (1973-1975). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, 3 Volumes, Karinbunko, Ube City, Japan.[note 7] Limited to 500 copies.
- Blum, Mark, trans. (2013). The Nirvana Sutra: Volume 1 (of a projected 4), Berkeley, Calif. : BDK America (distr.: Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press). ISBN 978-1-886439-46-7.
- Kato, Yasunari, trans. (2014). Daihatsunehankyou Vol.2: Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra Vol.2, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781499284355 This is a Japanese translation, not English.
- Yamamoto & Page, Dr. Tony, trans. (2015). Nirvana Sutra: A Translation of Dharmakshema's Northern version, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1517631727 Dr. Tony Page's re-editing of Yamamoto's original.
This section contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (May 2016)
According to Sallie B. King, the sutra does not represent a major innovation, and is rather unsystematic, which made it "a fruitful one for later students and commentators, who were obliged to create their own order and bring it to the text". According to King, its most important innovation is the linking of the term buddhadhātu[note 8] with tathagatagarbha. The "nature of the Buddha" is presented as a timeless, eternal "Self", which is akin to the tathagatagarbha, the innate possibility in every sentient being to attain Buddha-hood and manifest this timeless Buddha-nature. "[I]t is obvious that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra does not consider it impossible for a Buddhist to affirm an atman provided it is clear what the correct understanding of this concept is, and indeed the sutra clearly sees certain advantages in doing so."
The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṅa Sūtra, especially influential in East Asian Buddhist thought, goes so far as to speak of it as our true self (ātman). Its precise metaphysical and ontological status is, however, open to interpretation in the terms of different Mahāyāna philosophical schools; for the Madhyamikas it must be empty of its own existence like everything else; for the Yogacarins, following the Laṅkāvatāra, it can be identified with store consciousness, as the receptacle of the seeds of awakening.
The Nirvana Sutra is an eschatological text. Its core was written in India in a time which was perceived as the age in which the Buddha-dharma would perish, and all the Mahayana sutras disappear. The sutra responds to this awaited end with the proclamation of the tathagatagarbha, the innate Buddhahood present in all man:
[T]he tathâgata-garbha doctrine was promoted precisely as a means to save as many people as possible in a short time. Put simply, this doctrine teaches that Buddhahood already lies within all beings as an innate spiritual nature. This spiritual nature is concealed by ignorance and multitudes of afflictive factors – the kleśas – and needs to be awakened and revealed. The presence of this nature implies that all beings, in theory, may awaken to Buddhahood quite rapidly, if only they would recognize the presence of that nature within themselves. The role of the MPNS itself is not only to inform people about this innate spiritual nature, but also to act as a trigger which engenders the necessary willingness in people to uncover their inherent Buddhahood, provided they listen to the sûtra with open-mindedness, faith and confidence in its veracity [...] the MPNS itself claims to have a salvific role due to its own numinous power as the last teachings of the Buddha before his parinirvâna.
The existence of the tathagatagarbha must be taken on faith:
Essentially the Buddha asks his audience to accept the existence of buddha-nature [tathagatagarbha] on faith [...] the importance of faith in the teachings of the Nirvana Sutra as a whole must not be overlooked.
A central focus of the Nirvana Sutra is the Buddha-nature,[note 8] "the nature of the Buddha", that which constitutes a Buddha. According to Sally King, the sutra speaks about Buddha-nature in so many different ways, that Chinese scholars created a list of types of Buddha-nature that could be found in the text.
Buddha-nature, "true Self" and Emptiness
What the Buddha says here is that he spoke thus to meet the occasion. But now the thought is established [of non-Self], he means to say what is true, which is about the inner content of nirvana itself [...] If there is no more any non-Self, what there exists must be the Self.'
According to Dharmakṣema's extended version of the sutra, this "true Self" is eternal, unchanging, blissful, pure, inviolate and deathless:
... if the non-eternal is made away with [in Nirvana], what there remains must be the Eternal; if there is no more any sorrow, what there remains must be Bliss; if there is no more any non-Self, what exists there must be the Self; if there is no longer anything that is impure, what there is must be the Pure.
Paul Williams comments:
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra teaches a really existing, permanent element (Tibetan: yang dag khams) in sentient beings. It is this element which enables sentient beings to become Buddhas. It is beyond egoistic self-grasping – indeed the very opposite of self-grasping – but it otherwise fulfils several of the requirements of a Self in the Indian tradition. Whether this is called the Real, True, Transcendental Self or not is as such immaterial, but what is historically interesting is that this sutra in particular (although joined by some other Tathagatagarbha sutras) is prepared to use the word ‘Self’ (atman) for this element. However one looks at it, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is quite self-consciously modifying or criticizing the not-Self traditions of Buddhism ...
Mark Blum speaks both of the fictitious discursive self and the real Self of the Buddha-nature. Commenting both on the non-Self and Emptiness teachings of the Nirvana Sutra, he states:
For the Nirvana Sutra, nonself is treated like another negative expression of truth, emptiness. That is, nonself is a very important doctrine to be expounded when the listener is attached to his or her notion of selfhood or personality, because it deconstructs that object of attachment, revealing its nature as a fantasy. Emptiness likewise performs the function of deconstructing attachments to notions of identity in things or ideas. But both are merely tools, or upaya (skillful means) and not final truths in and of themselves. Regarding emptiness, we find a strong assertion of the sacred nature of nonemptiness ... [and] although the discursive, evaluating self is fiction, there does exist a genuine self and that, according to the sutra, is precisely the buddha-nature.
"Self" as skillful means
Paul Williams also notes that while we can speak of the tathāgatagarbha as Self "actually it is not at all a Self, and those who have such Self-notions cannot perceive the tathagatagarbha and thus become enlightened."
Of course, this Self is not a Self in the worldly sense taught by non-Buddhist thinkers, or maintained to exist by the much-maligned ‘man in the street’. The Buddha taught the not-Self doctrine in order to overcome the egoistic Self which is the basis for attachment and grasping (see the translation in Ruegg 1973: 81–2). Elsewhere in the large and heterogeneous Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha seems rather to portray his teaching of the tathāgatagarbha as being or entailing a Self as a strategy to convert non-Buddhists. It is said that some non-Buddhist ascetics see the Buddha and would follow him were he not a nihilist who taught not-Self. The Buddha knows their thoughts: ‘I do not say that all sentient beings lack a Self. I always say that sentient beings have the Buddha-nature (svabhāva). Is not that very Buddha-nature a Self? So I do not teach a nihilistic doctrine.’ The Buddha adds that it is because all sentient beings do not see the Buddha-nature that he teaches the four signs of impermanence, not-Self, suffering, and impurity. It is this that is thought to be a nihilistic doctrine. He has taught Self where there is really not-Self, and not-Self where there is really Self. This is not false but the Buddha’s skill-in-means, his cleverness in applying helpful stratagems. Here the Buddha-nature is really not-Self, but it is said to be a Self in a manner of speaking.
Mark Blum stresses the fact that the Buddha in this sutra is presented, on the eve of his Great Nirvana, as one who is not subject to the processes of birth and death, but abides undying forever:
He [the Buddha] makes it clear that while he will disappear from their [i.e. beings'] sight, he is not going to die, because in fact he was never born in the first place. In other words, buddhas are not created phenomena and therefore have no beginning and no end.
The Buddha is presented as (an) eternal Being, transcending normal human limitations:
What is the Tathagata [Buddha]? [...] He is one who is eternal and unchanging. He is beyond the human notion of "is" or "is-not". He is Thusness [tathata], which is both phenomenon and noumenon, put together. Here, the carnal notion of man is sublimated and explained from the macrocosmic standpoint of existence of all and all. And this Dharmakaya is at once Wisdom and Emancipation [moksha]. In this ontological enlargement of the concept of existence of the Buddha Body [buddhakaya], this sutra and, consequently, Mahayana, differs from the Buddha of Primitive Buddhism.
Kosho Yamamoto gives a series of equations:
Thus, there comes about the equation of: Buddha Body = Dharmakaya = eternal body = eternal Buddha = Eternity.
The Buddha-nature is equated with the Tathagatagarbha. According to Sally King, the term tathāgatagarbha may be understood in two ways:
- "embryonic tathāgata", the incipient Buddha, the cause of the Tathāgata,
- "womb of the tathāgata", the fruit of Tathāgata.
The Chinese translated the term tathāgata in its meaning as "womb", c.q. "fruit". It was translated as Chinese: 如來藏; pinyin: rúlái zàng, "tathāgata storehouse"  "Buddha-matrix", or "Buddha embryo", the innate possibility of every sentient being to attain awakening in every sentient being. According to Mark Blum, Dharmaksema translates tathāgatagārbha as Chinese: 如來密藏; pinyin: rúlái mìzàng or simply mìzàng, "tathagata's hidden treasury". He notes that the two major Chinese versions of the sutra don't use the literal Chinese term for embryo or womb, but speak of the "wondrous interior treasure-house of the Buddha" found in all beings. "We never see a word that specifically means embryo or womb used for garbha in either Chinese translation of this sutra."
This "hidden treasury" is present in all sentient beings: "[the Buddha] expounds the doctrine that this quality [of the hidden interior, wondrous treasury] is not only common to buddhas but to all living beings as well." The Buddha-nature is always present, in all times and in all beings. According to Liu, this does not mean that sentient beings are at present endowed with the qualities of a Buddha, but that they will have those qualities in the future. It is obscured from worldly vision by the screening effect of tenacious negative mental afflictions within each being. Once these negative mental states have been eliminated, however, the buddhadhātu is said to shine forth unimpededly and can then be consciously "entered into", and therewith deathless Nirvana attained:
[T]he tathagatagarbha is none but Thusness or the Buddha Nature, and is the originally untainted pure mind which lies overspread by, and exists in, the mind of greed and anger of all beings. This bespeaks a Buddha Body that exists in a state of bondage.
[A]ny person, no matter whether they are a monk, a nun, a lay-man or lay-woman, who rejects this sûtra with abusive words, and does not even ask for forgiveness afterwards, has entered the icchantika path.
The longer versions of the Nirvana Sutra additionally give expression to the new claim (not found in the shorter Chinese and Tibetan versions) that, because of the Buddha-dhatu, absolutely all beings without exception, even icchantikas (the most incorrigible and spiritually base of beings), will eventually attain liberation and become Buddhas.
The Nirvana Sutra in Mahayana Schools
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of [the] Nirvana Sutra in East Asian Buddhism. Not only did it inspire numerous commentaries on the sutra itself in China, Korea, and Japan, it is cited extensively in the works of untold numbers of Buddhist writers and frequently appears in 'secular' literature as well [...] the very idea of Chan [Buddhism] without the concept of buddha-nature is unthinkable.
There is one story in the Nirvana Sutra about a blind man feeling an elephant (Chinese: 盲人摸象; Jyutping: maang4yaan4mok3cheung6). The elephant in this tale symbolizes the "Buddha nature". A group of blind men reach touch a different part of the elephant—one feels the tusk and thinks it is a carrot, another mistakes the elephant's belly for an urn, and so on. The king seeks that Shakyamuni illuminate their limited perception (symbolized by blindness in the parable) that permits only partial truths.
In Nichiren Buddhism the Nirvana Sutra, with the Lotus Sutra, make up what Tiantai called the Fifth of the Five Periods of Teaching. The Nirvana Sutra is seen as inferior to the Lotus Sutra however, based on the passage in Nichiren´s writings that reads:
When this sutra was preached . . . the prediction had already been made in the Lotus Sutra that the eight thousand voice-hearers would attain Buddhahood, a prediction that was like a great harvest. Thus, the autumn harvest was over and the crop had been stored away for winter [when the Nirvana Sutra was expounded], and there was nothing left for it [but a few gleanings]."
The Nirvana Sutra is among the most important sources and influences on Shinran's magnum opus, Kyogyoshinsho, which is the foundational text of the Japanese Jōdo Shinshū Pure Land School. Shinran relies on crucial passages from the Nirvana Sutra for the more theoretical elaboration of the meaning of shinjin. The Nirvana Sutra and the Pure Land Sutras are quoted extensively in the Kyogyoshinsho.
- It shares its title with another well-known Buddhist scripture, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pāli Canon, but is quite different in form and content. It is therefore generally referred to by its full Sanskrit title, Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, or more commonly simply the Nirvāṇa Sūtra.
- T 376.12.853-899
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- Corresponding to the Tibetan translation, the six juan Chinese translation attributed to Faxian, and the first ten juan of the Dharmakṣema Chinese translation.
- In his account of Eminent Monks who Went West in Search of the Dharma, 大唐西域求法高僧傳 T2066. He travelled widely through India and parts of Southeast Asia over a 25-year period.
- Qualified by Stephen Hodge as a "sadly unreliable, though pioneering, attempt".
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- Radich, Michael (2015). The Mahāparinivāṇa-mahasūtra and the Emergence of Tathagatagarba Doctrine, Hamburg Buddhist Studies Vol. 5, Hamburg University Press
- Yuyama, Akira (1981). Sanskrit fragments of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinivāṇa-sūtra: Koyasan manuscript, The Reiyukai Library.
- Tony Page's Nirvana Sutra website
- Revised translation of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
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