Mahākāśyapabodhisattva asked the Buddha to speak: "Lord! I from today start in obtaining samyagdṛṣṭi (right view). Lord! Until now, we all entirely abided in mithyādṛṣṭi (wrong view). Lord! In the twenty five existences, is there no ātman definitely?"
The Buddha said: "Noble son! Ātman, prompt and exact, is Tathāgatagarbha in meaning. All sentient beings all have a Buddha element, prompt and exact, Ātman is it's meaning. Thus so, ātman's meaning is, from root proceeding onwards, constantly under afflictive emotion, without limit, covered, therefore sentient beings cannot obtain sight of it.
(T374.407b6, Mahāparinirvāṇa-nāma-mahāyānasūtra, Tathāgatadhātuparivarta: 迦葉菩薩白佛言：「世尊！我從今日始得正見。世尊！自是之前，我等悉名邪見之人。 世尊！二十五有，有我不耶？」佛言：「善男子！我者即是如來藏義。一切眾生悉有佛性，即是我義。 如是我義，從本已來，常為無量煩惱所覆，是故眾生不能得見。 )
The Buddha's nature is eternal, pure, blissful, and the self. Why? Because the four marks of the dharmakāya is eternity, purity, bliss, and identity. Why are these the four marks of the dharmakāya? Because the four marks of saṃsāra are impermanence, impurity, suffering, and selflessness.
The self? What is that doing there. We are Buddhists, we believe in anātman, the opposite.
We need to contextualize this:
All Buddhas either speak of self or speak of no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect, within this, there is neither self nor no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect is defined as mental activity’s and spoken language’s ending.
There is no arising and no cessation, there is calm extinction, such is nirvāṇa.
All is real, all is unreal, all is both real and unreal,
all is neither real nor unreal: this is called all Buddhas’ dharma.
(T1564.23c16 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Ātmaparīkṣā: 諸佛或說我, 或說於無我, 諸法實相中, 無我無非我, 諸法實相者, 心行言語斷, 無生亦無滅, 寂滅如涅槃, 一切實非實, 亦實亦非實, 非實非非實, 是名諸佛法)
"All Buddhas either speak of self or speak of no self." <---
Let us look at next Venerable Candrakīrti's Mūlamadhyamakavṛttiprasannapadā:
To quote: "Whatever is most familiar to one is most effective for him naturally. If one is bewildered how can one receive the truth? As it is not possible to make a foreigner understand by a language not his own, so the unenlightened person (loka) cannot be made to comprehend except by means of the everyday."
As the illustrious one said: "The unenlightened person is at variance with me; I am not at variance with the unenlightened person. What is accepted by the unenlightened is accepted by me; what is not accepted by the unenlightened is not accepted by me." Thus the scripture. The illustrious one always treated the elements of personal existence, the senses and their objects, and the types of consciousness as "real" (tathyam). These are thought to be real when perceived by those who are to be guided - those suffering from the optical defect of primal ignorance — in whom has been aroused the desire to learn about the various natures of the things generally accepted as real. And this with an eye on the higher truth and with a view to arousing the faith of the ordinary man in himself.
"This holy man is aware of every last happening in the world, he is omniscient and all-seeing; he possesses the knowledge of the inanimate world from the infinity of space to the coursing of the winds and he knows the uttermost limits of the world of beings; he knows incontrovertibly the many kinds of origin, existence and end, what is cause, what is effect, what is pleasurable, what is painful."
So, after those who are to be guided have realized the omniscience of the illustrious one, at a later time it is explained that everything is not real (na tathyam) as naively taken. At this point what is real is what does not change. But all compounded things change in fact because they perish by the moment. Therefore, because of this fact of change, they are not real either. The word „or‟ means „and‟; it is to be taken as joining the two views. That is: „Everything in this world can be taken as real and as not real.‟
For some it is explained that everything in the world is both real and not real at the same time. For the unenlightened everything in the world is real; for those who have started on the way everything is false because not perceived in its naive reality (evam anupalambha).
There are those however who, from long practice, see things the way they really are, who have eradicated the obstructions (avarana) virtually completely like the roots of a tree; for them it is explained that everything in the world is neither real nor not real. In order to remove what remains of the obstructions, both alternatives are rejected even as one rejects predicates like black and white for the son of a barren woman.
This is the teaching of the illustrious Buddhas. It leads men from byways and establishes them on the right way. In the interests of gradual instruction and of adapting to those who are to be led, the teaching is flexible.
All the teachings of the illustrious Buddhas, who are possessed of universal compassion, ultimate insight and practical wisdom, are intended to be a means of penetrating (avatara) to the eternal way of things (tattvamrta). The perfectly realized ones have not uttered one word which was not in fact a means of penetrating to the eternal way of things. They administer medicine suited to the illness. They have the urge to succour those who need guidance and they teach the truth accordingly. To quote from the Four Hundred Verses: "Things are real, things are not real, things are both real and not real: all this is said variously. Indeed all cures as such are cures for a specific desire."
But, you ask, what is the nature of "the way things really are" which the teachings of the revered ones are intended to penetrate to? This is explained in the verse "When the object of thought is no more, there is nothing for language to refer to." When this obtains what further questions can there be? Though this is so, none the less the way things are really must be spoken of. This is done by speaking in a second sense (samaropatah). One accepts the everyday (laukika) terms "real", "not real" and so on which are drawn from the world of transactional discourse (vyavaharasatya).
Nagarjuna expresses it this way.
(Darbhaga 1960, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 10: tatra - yadyadyasya priyaṃ pūrvaṃ tattattasya samācaret na hi pratihataḥ pātraṃ saddharmasya kathaṃcana iti tathā ca bhagavatoktam - loko mayā sārdhaṃ vivadati nāhaṃ lokena sārdhaṃ vivadāmi yalloke'sti saṃmatam, tanmamāpyasti saṃmatam yalloke nāsti saṃmatam, mamāpi tannāsti saṃmatam [etc.])
Something that struck me as very interesting was how Ven Candrakīrti interprets the Pupphasutta in the above example, which we can find at SN 22.94 in the Pāli Canon:
Pāli: nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, lokena vivadāmi, lokova mayā vivadati
Candrakīrti: loko mayā sārdhaṃ vivadati nāhaṃ lokena sārdhaṃ vivadāmi
English (after Ven Sujāto): I don’t argue with the world; it’s the world that argues with me.
Along with that, on the above quote from the MMK, we have the commentary of Venerable Vimalākṣa:
Some people teach that there is a soul, in which case it must be of
two kinds. Either the five skandhas are themselves the soul, or the
soul exists apart from the five skandhas.
If the five skandhas are the soul, then the soul will have the
characteristics of arising and ceasing. Thus it says in the verse ‘if
the soul is the five skandhas it will have the characteristics of
arising and ceasing’, and why? Becuase once arisen, it will perish.
Because they have the characteristics of arising and ceasing, the five
skandhas have no permanence, and just as the five skandhas have no
permanence, the two dharmas of arising and ceasing likewise have no
permanence. Why is this? Because arising and ceasing also perish after
they have arisen and hence are impermanent. If the soul were the five
skandhas, then, since the five skandhas are impermanent, the soul
would also be impermanent and would have the characteristics of
arising and ceasing, but this is not correct
If the soul existed apart from the five skandhas, the soul would not
have the characteristics of the five skandhas. As it says in the
verse: ‘if the soul is different from the five skandhas, then it will
not have the characteristics of the five skandhas’. Yet no other
dharma exists apart from the five skandhas. If there were any such
dharma apart from the five skandhas, by virtue of what
characteristics, or what dharmas, would it exist? If you say that the
soul is like empty space, separate from the five skandhas yet
existent, this is also wrong, and why? We have already refuted empty
space in the chapter on refuting the six elements. No dhama called
‘empty space’ exists.
If you assert that a soul exists because belief in it exists, this is
not correct, and why? Belief is of four kinds; the first is belief in
a manifest thing, the second is belief in something known through this
manifest thing as when seeing smoke, we know that there is a fire. The
third is belief by analogy as when, in a country with no copper, one
uses the example of it being like gold. The fourth is belief in what
is taught by saints and sages, as when they say that there are hells,
heavens and uttarakuru. Without seeing anything, we believe the words
of the holy men and thus know about them.
Such a ‘soul’ cannot be found amongst these beliefs. It is not found
in belief in manifest things, nor in inferential belief, and why?
Inferential knowledge means that having previously seen something, you
thenceforth know (about) this kind of thing, as for example a man who
has previously seen that where there is fire there is smoke,
subsequently, seeing only smoke, knows that there is fire. The concept
of ‘soul’ is not like this, for who could first have seen the soul in
the combination of the five skandhas, such that afterwards, seeing the
five skandhas, he knows that there is a soul?
Suppose you say that there are three kinds of inferential knowledge,
the first being ‘like the original’, the second being ‘like the
remainder’, the third ‘seeing together’. ‘Like the original’ means
previously having seen that fire has smoke, seeing smoke now, you know
that it is like the original which had fire. ‘Like the remainder’
means, for example, that when one grain of rice is cooked, you know
that the remaining ones are all cooked. ‘Seeing together’ means, for
example, that when you see with your eyes a person going from hereto
another place, you also see his going. The sun is like this. It
emerges from the east and goes to the west. Although you do not see it
going, because a man has the characteristic of going, you know that
the sun also has going. In the same way suffering, pleasure, hate,
desire, and insight, etc. must also have whatever goes with them. For
example, seeing subjects you know that they must rely on some king.
But these are all incorrect, and why?
In belief through the characteristic of together-ness, having first
seen a person combined with a dharma of ‘going’ who reaches some other
place, when you subsequently see the sun reach another place you know
that there is the dharma of ‘going’. But there is no prior seeing of
the five skandhas combined with a soul, such that subsequently seeing
the five skandhas you know that there is a soul. Therefore, no
existence of a soul can be established by inferential knowledge of
There is no soul to be found within the teachings of the saints
either, and why? In the teaching of the saints, what they first see
with their eyes, they subsequently expound. And since the saints teach
other things which can be believed, we should know that when they
speak of the hells, etc., these can be believed in, but it is not so
with the soul, for there is no-one who, having previously seen a soul,
subsequently speaks of it.
Therefore, you may seek for a soul within all beliefs such as these
four types of belief, but you will not be able to find it. Since you
cannot find a soul even though you seek for it, no distinct soul
exists separate from the five skandhas.
Further, because of the refutation of seeing, seer and seen in the
chapter refuting the six sense faculties, the soul is to be refuted in
the same way. For if even an eye seeing coarse dharmas cannot be
found, how much less can we find a soul by empty delusions,
imagination and so forth? For these reasons, we know that there is no
‘Mine’ exists because ‘I’ exists. If there is no I, then there is no
mine. Through putting into practice the holy eight-fold path and
extinguishing the causes of I and mine, one attains the firm insight
of no I and no mine.
Question: Even though non-self is the truth, what is wrong with
teaching, merely as a convention, that there is a self?
Reply: Non-self exists by virtue of the negation of the dharma of
self. No fixed self can be found, so how could there be non-self? If
there were a fixed non-self, then annihilation of if would give rise
to attachment and craving. As it says in the Prajñāpāramitā, if a
bodhisattva has a self, he cannot act, and if he has no self, he
Question: If it teaches neither self nor non-self, neither emptiness
nor non-emptiness, what does the Buddha-dharma teach?
Reply: The Buddha teaches the true character of all dharmas, and
within that true character there is no path for verbal expressions,
for it extinguishes all mental activity. Mind arises because of the
characteristic of grasping, exists because of the rewards and
retribution of karma in a previous world, and cannot therefore see the
true character of dharmas. The Buddha teaches the cessation of mental
Question: Even though an unenlightened person’s mind cannot see the
reality, surely a saint’s mind can see the reality? Why does he teach
the cessation of all mental activities?
Reply: The true character of dharmas is nirvana, and cessation means
nirvana. It is in order to point towards nirvana, that cessation is
also termed cessation. If one’s mind were real, what use would be such
ways to liberation as emptiness, etc? Why, amongst all the samadhis
would the samadhi of cessation be regarded as the highest, and why
ultimately reach nirvana without residue?
Therefore we should know that all mental activities are empty
deceptions, and as empty deceptions, should cease. The true character
of all dharmas surpasses all dharmas of mental phenomena, has no
arising and no ceasing, and has the characteristic of calming and
Question: In the sutras it says that all dharmas, having from the
beginning the characteristic of calm extinction are themselves
nirvana. Why do you say that they are like nirvana?
Reply: Those who are attached to dharmas classify dharmas into two
kinds, some being worldly, some being of nirvana. They say that the
nirvana dharmas are calm and extinct, but do not say that the worldly
dharmas are calm and extinct. In this treatise it is taught that all
dharmas are empty in nature and have the characteristic of calm
extinction. Since those who are attached to dharmas do not understand
this, nirvana is used as an example. Just as with your assertion that
the characteristic of nirvana is emptiness, with no characteristics,
calm extinction, and no vain thoughts, so it is with all worldly
Question: If the Buddhas do not teach self, non-self, and the
cessation of all mental activities and the cutting-off of ways of
verbal expression, how do they make people understand the real
character of dharmas?
Reply: All the Buddhas have unlimited powers of skilful means, and
dharmas have no fixed characteristics. In order to save all living
beings, they may teach that everything is real, or they may teach that
everything is unreal, or that everything is both real and unreal or
that everything is neither unreal nor not unreal. If you search for a
real nature of dharmas, you will find that they all enter into the
ultimate meaning and become equal, with identical characteristics,
which is to say no characteristics, just like streams of different
colour and different tastes entering into a great ocean of one colour
and one taste, which is to say no taste. At the time when one has not
yet penetrated into the true character of dharmas, each one can be
contemplated separately as unreal, existing merely by the combinations
of conditions. There are three levels of living beings; superior,
average and inferior. The superior person sees that the characteristic
of dharmas is that they are neither real nor unreal. The average
person sees the characteristics of dharmas as either all real, or all
unreal. The inferior man, since his powers of perception are limited,
sees the characteristics of dharmas as a little real, and a little
unreal, regarding nirvana, because it is an inactive dharma and does
not perish as real, and regarding samsara, because it is an active
dharma, empty and false, as unreal. Neither unreal nor not unreal is
taught in order to negate ‘both real and unreal’.