The Eternal Self of the Buddha

As a follow up to my Advaita and Buddhism article, I must inform the medhavis that perhaps my ego or some other (unlikely) compulsion led to me engage in further debates with some “Buddhists” on the website http://www.thetaobums.com

Here’s the latest episode of the debate (I must disclaim there is some colorful language in use there…no offense intended towards any one):

 http://www.thetaobums.com/The-Eternal-Self-of-the-Buddha-t10981.html

Here’s the gist of what has been happening:

 The Buddhists are vehemently  opposed to the concept of The Self (Atman) and tend to jump through hoops in attempts to prove/disprove it’s existence.

But then I discovered the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (also called the Tathagatagarbha Sutra) in which the Self is clearly expounded and the fact is even driven home (purportedly taught by Shakyamuni) that there is indeed an Ultimate Reality, The Tathagata Garbha within every sentient being and that it is Buddha-dhatu (or Buddha element). This Buddha-dhatu is obscured from the sentient being due to kleshas.

This does not in any sense seem to be different from Atman, the eternal Pure Subject. The terms are different but not the purport of the position.

Reality in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras

Prior to the period of the Tathagatagarbha Sutras, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.[8]

Contrasting with some forms of Buddhism, the Buddha’s teaching on ‘reality’ in the Tathagatagarbha Mahayana scriptures – which the Buddha states constitute the ultimate manifestation of the Mahayana Dharma (other Mahayana sutras make similar claims about their own teachings) – insists that there truly is a sphere or realm of ultimate truth – not just a repetitious cycle of interconnected elements, each dependent on the others. That suffering-filled cycle of x-generating-y-and-y-generating-z-and-z-generating-a, etc., is Samsara, the prison-house of the reincarnating non-self; whereas liberation from dependency, enforced rebirth and bondage is nirvana or reality / spiritual essence (tattva / dharmata). This sphere also bears the name Tathagatagarbha (Buddha matrix). It is the deathless realm where dependent origination holds no sway, where non-self is supplanted by the everlasting, sovereign (aishvarya) self (atman) (as a trans-historical, unconditioned, ultimate, liberating, supra-worldly yet boundless and immanent awakened mind). Of this real truth, called nirvana – which, while salvationally infused into samsara, is not bound or imprisoned in it – the Buddha states in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

“What is the Real (tattva)? Knowledge of the true attributes of Nirvana; the Tathagata, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the attributes of space … is the Real. What is knowledge of the attributes of Nirvana? The attributes of Nirvana are eightfold. What are these eight? Cessation [of ignorance and suffering]; loveliness/ wholesomeness; Truth; Reality; Eternity, Bliss, the Self [atman], and complete Purity: that is Nirvana.”

He further comments: ” … that which is endowed with the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and Purity is stated to be the meaning of ‘Real Truth’ … Moreover, the Real is the Tathagata [i.e., the Buddha]; the Tathagata is the Real … The Tathagata is not conditioned and not tainted, but utterly blissful: this is the Real …”.

Thus, in such doctrines, a very positive goal is envisioned, which is said to lie beyond the grasp of the five senses and the ordinary, restless mind, and only attainable through direct meditative perception and when all inner pollutants (twisted modes of view, and all moral contaminants) are purged, and the inherently deathless, spotless, radiantly shining mind of Buddha stands revealed. This is the realm of the Buddha-dhatu (popularly known as buddha nature) – inconceivable, beginning-less, endless, omniscient truth, the Dharmakaya (quintessential body-and-mind) of the Buddha. This reality is empty of all falsehood, impermanence, ignorance, afflictions, and pain, but filled with enduring happiness, purity, knowingness (jnana), and omni-radiant loving-kindness (maitri).

Reality in Buddhism

QUOTE
The Nirvana Sutra is an enormously important scripture, not least because of its influence on Zen Buddhism and in view of its traditional status as the final Mahayana pronouncements of the Buddha on the eve of his physical death. It is striking for its teachings on the eternal, unchanging, blissful, pure, inviolate and deathless “Self” (ātman) 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” (Kosho Yamamoto, Mahayanism: A Criticla Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, The Karinbunko, Tokyo, 1975, pp. 107–108). Here the sutra controverts the familiar Buddhist dictum that “all dharmas [phenomena] are non-Self”, and in the Dharmakshema version the Buddha even declares that “in truth there is Self (Atman) in all dharmas”. That Self is “indestructible like a diamond” (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit., Vol. 3, p.6), and yet can assume all manner of forms, including those of the gods Shiva and Vishnu (Buddhist Thought, Professor Paul Williams, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 243). Any idea that the Buddha (who is the immortal Self – Mahayanism, op. cit., pp. 61–62) is impermanent is vigorously rejected by the Buddha in this sutra, and those who teach otherwise are severely criticised. He insists: “Those who cannot accept that the Tathāgata is eternal [nitya] cause misery.” (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 16). In contrast, meditating upon the eternality of the Buddha is said to bring happiness and protection from rebirth in evil realms. The eternal being of the Buddha should be likened – the sutra says – to indelible letters carved upon stone. Furthermore, protecting and promoting this teaching of the Buddha’s eternity is said to bring innumerable and inconceivable blessings to its votaries (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., passim).

Let us highlight the important part here —

Any idea that the Buddha (who is the immortal Self – Mahayanism, op. cit., pp. 61–62) is impermanent is vigorously rejected by the Buddha in this sutra, and those who teach otherwise are severely criticised. He insists: “Those who cannot accept that the Tathāgata is eternal [nitya] cause misery.” (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 16). In contrast, meditating upon the eternality of the Buddha is said to bring happiness and protection from rebirth in evil realms. The eternal being of the Buddha should be likened – the sutra says – to indelible letters carved upon stone. Furthermore, protecting and promoting this teaching of the Buddha’s eternity is said to bring innumerable and inconceivable blessings to its votaries (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., passim).

Further more:

‘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 … And what is the Dharmakaya? It is a body founded on Dharma. And what is Dharma? It is dharmata[Thusness – the true nature of all things], which is eternal and which changes not …Thus, there comes about the equation of: Buddha Body = Dharmakaya = eternal body = eternal Buddha = Eternity. … What is Nirvana? [Dwelling upon the nature of Nirvana], the Buddha explains its positive aspects and says that Nirvana has four attributes, which are the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure’.

 I would request all Medhavis to help me figure out whether Buddha-dhatu is indeed The Atman or is it simply an epistemic construct without ontological basis.

 

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