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Introduction

The Mahayana text called The Nirvana Sutra and Mahaparinirvana Sutra has a counterpart in the Pali Canon's ◦Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Buddha's Last Days).

Twig

Naropa
Naropa, disciple of Tilopa, well known for his six yogas
Nirvana Sutra is one of the major texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Nirvana Sutra underwent several stages in its composition. There may have existed a short proto-Nirvana Sutra around 100 CE or earlier, a Sutra that was expanded on as time went by. There are three extant versions of Mahayana's Mahaparinirvana Sutra, each translated from various Sanskrit editions. A complete version of the entire text in Sanskrit has not yet been discovered, but some fragments of original Sanskrit versions have been found in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Japan. It exists in Chinese and Tibetan versions of varying lengths. There are four extant versions in all, three of them from ca. 420 CE, and one from the 700s CE.

The Mahayana ◦Mahaparinirvana Sutra has been translated into English in 12 volumes by Kosho Yamamoto, edited by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London 1999-2000). Mahaparinirvana Sutra is allegedly proclaimed by the Buddha as "unique, perfect, pure . . . the most excellent, the foremost of all sutras". The scripture presents itself as providing the correct understanding of earlier Buddhist teachings, such as those on non-Self and Emptiness:

"Non-Self" in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra refers to the impermanent, mundane, constructed ego, in contrast to the true supramundane Selfhood of the Buddha. "Emptiness" (sunyata) is explicated as lacking in fullness of Existence.

Buddha, in the Faxian version of the text, points out that worldly beings who misapprehend the authentic Buddhist Doctrine "have the notion that there is no Self, and are unable to know the True Self." This True Self is not the suffering-prone and hapless clinging ego that most persons clutch at as their identity, but the Self-which-signifies-Buddha: all-knowing and all-pure Ultimate Reality, unconstrained by the limitations and illusions of the world (samsara). This Self of the Buddha is the source of ever-enduring life. The Buddha is likened to a great sea, whose expanse and longevity cannot be measured.

The Nirvana Sutra is a very important scripture because of its influence on Zen Buddhism. It is striking for its teachings on the eternal, unchanging, blissful, pure, inviolate and deathless "Self" (atman) of the Buddha in the interiority of Nirvana: "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 anthing that is impure, what there is must be the Pure".

Buddha declares that "in truth there is Self (Atman) in all dharmas". That Self is "indestructible like a diamond". Buddha is your immortal Self, thus.

"Those who cannot accept that the Tathagata is eternal [nitya] cause misery." In contrast, meditating upon the eternality of the Buddha is said to bring happiness and protection.

The "True Self" or "Great Self" of the nirvanic realm is said to be sovereign, to be attained on the morning of Buddhahhood, and the Buddha-sphere (Buddha-dhatu, visaya) can then be consciously "entered into" and thereby Nirvana is attained.

One's "true spirit", or true "jiva" is likened to a "precious jewel", like a diamond. Nirvana is termed "Eternal (nitya), Blissful (sukha), the Self (atman) and Pure (subha)". This state of great awareness and knowing (jnana), is accessible to very awakened Buddhas.

Buddha teaches in it that the "worldly self" ultimately does not exist eternally, but rather obscures the essential or true Self, which is unchanging, stable and eternal, real and enduring.

Buddha states that when a person has not seen the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Principle), there is [for that person] no eternity nor Self, although there is bliss and utter purity.

Nirvana is primordially existent and does not just come into existence in the present. Many beings do not see it, though.

I hope these preliminary points will suffice for an overview. Mahayana teachings of this long text differ from those of Hinayana teachings.

Now follows extracts and renditions of the Nirvana Sutras. They follow suit with the chapters of ◦The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 volumes, translated by Kosho Yamamoto and edited by Dr. Tony Page (Nirvana Publications, London, 1999 - 2000). If you compare with those very wordy chapters, you may find the foundation of the following extracts in the chapters they appear.

My aim has been to take up the essential points and leave the rest behind. - TK

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Nirvana Sutra Chapters

1. Introductory

The sun had just risen when Buddha was about to enter Nirvana. He spoke in a voice which reached the highest of the heavens, saying: "Today, the Tathagata [Buddha] protects beings as he does his son Rahula. Now I am leaving, though."

At that time there were great Bodhisattvas around. They came to pay him homage, along with many others. Some of them took their seats on one side of Buddha. They and others loved to listen to this compassionate heart towards all beings, with their minds were bent upon the unsurpassed, pure Enlightenment mind (Bodhi-mind).

They said to themselves: "The Tathagata will enter Nirvana."

As they thought this, all their hair stood on end. Tears filled their eyes. They touched the feet of Buddha, crying aloud, while the fragrance of incense blew away all bad human smells.

Very many female lay followers were there too. They were observant of the prohibitions. Some of them thought, "Carnal castle is what the Blessed One abandons and what common mortals and the ignorant always love and cling to."

The Tathagata, aware of the occasion, kept silent.

There were also monks, but for Mahakasyapa and Ananda, and there were mythical birds, kings, celestial singers and dancers and many other kinds of beings, including seers, gods and devis, birds, animals and insects.

At this time, the forest of sal trees of Kusinagara changed colour and looked like white cranes. In the sky, a hall of seven treasures spontaneously appeared. The four guardian angels of the earth and Sakrodevendra said to one another: "See! devas and human beings make their final offerings to the Tathagata. We, too shall do the same." They came to where Buddha was with flowers in their hands and touched his feet with their heads. The Tathagata, aware of the occasion, was still silent.

At that time, Great Brahma put forth light which shone over the four lands. He came to where Buddha was, touched his feet, he too. The Tathagata, aware of the occasion, was silent

Now Marapapiyas [the Devil] with his kindred and retinue came to where Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, saying, "Accept our last offerings."

Then, Buddha said to Marapapiyas: "I do not accept your offerings." So saying, Buddha fell into silence.

Still other beings from the beyond appeared, and some said, "We could indeed offer you incense, flowers, mask dances, banners, and parasols and the like, but these are still not worthy of mention. Still, accept our petty offerings."

At that time, Buddha spoke to his foremost great disciple:

"Go now to the land in the west, the land of Saha, endurance or hardship. There is someone in that land who will enter Parinirvana before long.

"To the east there is a land called Easy-in-Mind-and-Beautiful-in-Sound. Gladden yourselves; do not fear (all the time)."

2. Cunda

Cunda was the son of anartisan of the fortress town of Kusinagara. He was there with fifteen comrades. He said, "It is hard to be born as a man; harder still is it to encounter Buddha when he appears in the world. The Buddha-Wisdom dispels gloom."

Buddha said to Cunda: "It is thus. Be glad. Do not ask Buddha to remain long in life. Whatever is born must die.

Life looks long, but by nature an end there must be.

Met, one must part.

The prime of manhood is not long.

The wheel of living turns and turns.

Age, illness, death and decline cause worry.

The same applies even to the heavenly ones.

One is to meditate well and gain Nirvana, by passing over to the other shore above all sorrows, into superb Bliss."

Then Cunda said, "Yet, please stay long in life and not enter Nirvana." Then Manjushri said to Cunda: "Cunda! Now, do not speak in this way."

Cunda said to him, "The Tathagata subdues the Mara of illusion, the Mara of heaven, and the Mara of death. What the Tathagata speaks about is true Dharma. Any good man who desires to guard Wonderful Dharma should think: "I am but ignorant as long as I do not have the eye of Wisdom." What it is right to recognise that good arises out of the compassionate heart.

"A person may be going on a long journey. On the way, he becomes very tired. While he is asleep, a great fire breaks out. At once he dies." Life is repeated, and he is born in several places."

Then Manjushri praised Cunda: "Well spoken, good man! That is how things will go with you. There will always be an eternal flow of peace and happiness after you awaken in the light."

Cunda said, "I know that the Tathagata is the Dharma-Body."

Buddha said to Manjushri: "It is thus. Well said, Cunda!"

Cunda went on, "A Buddha sees all equally. Deep inside he sees beings just as one sees visible forms in a mirror."

Manjushri said to Cunda: "It is as you say. And know that it is not without reason that the Tathagata lets shine a light of various colours."

Buddha said to Cunda: "It is now time for you to give offerings to Buddha and congregation."

Cunda said again to Buddha: "The Tathagata does not wish to stay long in life. How can we not weep?

Buddha said to Cunda: "All Buddhas say: "The law of what is created is by nature non-eternal. Extinction is bliss."

Cunda said, "I cannot help being sad."

Buddha: "The Tathagata is just or expedient in that he does not cling."

Then Cunda and his relatives all wept sorrowfully.

3. On Grief

Beings are caught in Illusion and hindered by views of life.

Some take drugs that are poisonous.

It is certain that we will die.

Make effort, be mindful, and abide in right thought.

Keep silence. Try not to be indolent.

Guard your mind, abide in right thought.

Be happy.

Do not go away empty-handed. Adorn your own selves with various virtues and rare gems, protected by the bulwarks and moats of the precepts [shila], meditation [dhyana] and Wisdom [prajna] - this castle of Buddhist teaching.

"Do not accept or go for what is false.

Do not be satisfied with a low mind.

Shave your hair, [monks,] but the main effort has to be to shave off the bond of illusion.

The Dharma of emancipation is by itself not Nirvana. Great Wisdom neither [so defined here] - Progress so as to enter Nirvana."

One is to cultivate Dharma. Know the correct cultivation of dharmas.

"Both the mundane and the supramundane have the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and Purity.

"Be acquainted with true meanings or referents. The Self is the Tathagata; the Eternal is the Tathagata's Dharmakaya; Bliss is Nirvana.

Pure is the true Dharma. Also, one should know the Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure."

To Buddha: "Blessed One! We shall know the Eternal, Bliss, Self, and the Pure."

Do not abide in the thought of the non-Eternal, Suffering, non-Self, and the not-Pure. Study well the Way instead, how to act wherever you go, and "meditate on the Self, the Eternal, Bliss, and the Pure". Anyone who desires to practise the Way should act like the wise man who deftly gets hold of [a] gem. This refers to the so-called thought of Self, and that of the Eternal, Bliss, and Pure."

A visiting doctor

Imagine there is a king who is dull-witted. He has little wisdom. And there is a doctor who is obstinate. But the king does not know this and pays him a salary. This doctor uses the products of milk to cure all illnesses. Also, he does not know where the illnesses come from. He prescribes milk for all illnesses. The king is unaware of that lack of knowledge in his doctor.

But there is another doctor who knows of different treatments for illnesses and who is able to cure many diseases. He has come from a far-off place and cordially invited the king's doctor to him.

The king's doctor said to him on visiting him: "If you serve me for 48 years, I will teach you the art of medicine."

The learned doctor said: "I shall do my best and run errands."

Then the king's doctor took the learned doctor along with him, went to see the king. At this, the visiting doctor explained to the king the various ways of treatment and even other things. The king managed to recognise the ignorance and lack of knowledge of his own doctor and at once drove him out of the country. And he respected the new doctor all the more.

Then the new doctor said to himself: "It is now time to teach the king." He said to the king: "Great King! I myself do not wish to have much. What I desire you to do for me is to proclaim to the people of every corner of your land that from now on they are not to use milk as medicine. If milk is not resorted to as medicine for all, there will be fewer untimely deaths."

Then the king said: "What you ask me to do is a trifle. I shall at once issue an order and see to it that anyone who is ill does no take milk as a medicine." At this, the learned doctor made several kinds of medicine, which tasted pungent, butter, salty, sweet, and sour. With these, treatment was given, and there was no case in which illness could not be cured.

After some time, the king himself became ill, and the doctor was called in. The king said: "I am now ill. How am I to be cured?"

The Doctor thought about the illness of the king and saw that the milk medicine was good here. So he said to the king: "What you are now suffering from can very well be cured by milk. If you take it now, you will be cured."

Then the king said to the doctor: "Do you mean to cheat me? What the former doctor said was good, yet you said it was no good cure-all. You made me drive him away, and now you say that milk cures illness."

The learned doctor said to the king: "King! The former doctor gave medicine made from milk, but did not know much apart from that."

Then the king wanted to know: "What do you mean he did not know?"

The guest doctor answered the king: "Milk from happy cows is best. This can well be called the manna of life."

On hearing this, the king praised the doctor: "Well said! I shall at once proclaim to the people that they may well take milk medicine too, when it fits."

On hearing this, the people of the country, angry and resentful, said: "Is the king mad? He cheats us and makes us take milk."

The king said to them: "Be not angry, and have no resentment. I am not to blame. Sometimes milk fits, at other times not."

Afterwards the king and the people respected and honoured the doctor.

"Know, bhiksus, that the same is the case with the Tathagata. He comes as a great Doctor and subdues bad doctors. In the presence of kings and all people, he says: "The Tathagata teaches and says no-self. This is to adjust beings on occasion.

When the Tathagata speaks of Self, he says: 'Even though he has been taken to mean that all phenomena [dharmas] are devoid of the Self, it is not exactly so. Any phenomenon [dharma] that is true [satya]; real [tattva]; eternal [nitya]; sovereign, autonomous, and self-governing [aisvarya];, and whose foundation is unchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed 'Self' [atman]. Learn Dharma thus!"

MAHAYANA COLLECTION
Nirvana Sutra, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Mahayana, END MATTER

Nirvana Sutra, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Mahayana, LITERATURE  

Mms: Kosho Yamamoto, tr, and Tony Page, ed. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. 12 vols. London: Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000.

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