From this site, I found the following saying of Buddha:

"You, monks, should not thus cultivate the  notion (samjna) of impermanence, suffering and non-Self, the notion of impurity and so forth, deeming them to be the true meaning [of the Dharma], as those people [searching in a pool for a radiant gem but foolishly grabbing hold of useless pebbles, mistaken for priceless treasure] did, each thinking that bits of brick, stones, grass and gravel were the jewel. You should train yourselves well in efficacious means. In every situation, constantly meditate upon [bhavana] the idea [samjna] of the Self, the idea of the Eternal, Bliss, and the Pure ... Those who, desirous of attaining Reality [tattva], meditatatively cultivate these ideas, namely, the ideas of the Self [atman], the Eternal, Bliss, and the Pure, will skilfully bring forth the jewel, just like that wise person [who obtained the genuine, priceless gem, rather than worthless detritus misperceived as the real thing.]
- The Buddha, Chapter Three, "Grief",The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra

Now, as I know this saying is exactly monistic & found in some hindu philosophies like Advait Vedanta & Kashmiri Shaivism. This practice in Advait Vedanta is called manana; and in KS, Shuddha Bhāvna/Vikalpa under Sāktopāye - Herein you practice not to identify yourself with something (body, mind etc) which you are not. In other words I think it seems to teach the same as,

It is not with the body identification that you should sit for meditation. It is the knowledge "I am" that is meditating on itself.

  • Nisargadatta Maharaj

My question is why Gautam Buddha talked about "self" (that it is eternal, blissful, etc.)? I may not be getting context, so what's the context and explanation?

  • 2
    You have quoted from the "The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra", compare this with the Theravada Mahaparinibbana Sutta. You will find some stark differences. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 9:46
  • I added the mahayana tag. It would be good to have an answer from a Mahayana perspective.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 12:16
  • There's another topic about "self" and "Advaita Vedanta": Buddhism vs Advaita Vedanta
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 14:54
  • Note the upper-case 'S' of Self. He is not talking about what we usually call self. He would be talking about the 'I' of 'I Am'. Meditation would be the 'I Am' meditating upon itself, hence the teaching that meditation is enlightenment.
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 12:03

5 Answers 5


The Buddha would have spoken about self as reference point. This is using conventional language and terms to explain something. Without using conventional language as medium you cannot communicate and when using conventional languages you end up using conventional terms. It is very had to have a vocabulary in terms of ultimate realities since only few have experienced it any terms coined will not have bearing on people who has not experienced it. Since the Dhamma is taught for people who has not experienced the ultimate realities it should be in conventional terms.

Having said that any conception that there is a self or there is not self is an extreme view and also conceptual construction.

The second mistaken inference is that, given the thoroughness with which the Buddha teaches not-self, one should draw the inference that there is no self. This inference is treated less explicitly in this discourse, although it is touched upon briefly in terms of what the Buddha teaches here and how he teaches.

Alagaddupama Sutta - Translator's Introduction by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Also see: Sutta references which Discuss Self and Not Self under Different Contexts

  • 1
    It appears certain answers by default will gather so certain many numbers of upvotes. I've read this answer twice, even thrice, I still couldn't comprehend if the OP did of course ask about conventional truth/ ultimate reality whilst this answer unmistakenly was speaking with regal authority... alas... Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 5:26
  • I think this answer (and upvotes) are inferring an answer based on knowledge of the Pali canon. I think it's saying "If the Buddha mentioned 'self' then he must have been using 'conventional' language" -- because that's one of the tenets of "early Buddhism" e.g. the simile of the chariot. I think this answer was posted before someone pointed out that this is a question about a specific Mahayana text/translation, and that it would be good to answer it from that perspective..
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 10:33
  • ChrisW: didn't the title write: What Gautam Buddha said about “self”, in Chapter Three of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra? Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 11:05
  • @Bhumishu米殊 The title did write that, yes, and Kaveenga pointed that out in a comment. And I added the mahayana tag, to emphasize that. A site policy is that questions with a mahayana tag are asking for answers from a Mahayana perspective. Suminda posted this answer before I added that tag though ... you might (or might not) think this answer isn't very relevant to the question, but it's not our policy to delete an answer which misses the mark (I'd delete it if it criticized the question, if it said that a Mahayana question shouldn't be asked ... but that's not the case here).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 11:27

Very superficially (from a high level, non-detailed, view) you may be asking whether a Buddhist negative (e.g. anatman or sunyata), or dichotomy, is related to an Advaita Vedanta negative (e.g. neti neti).

I suppose that even if the practice were similar, according to Wikipedia it's also similar to the Western "via negativa", or to the everyday practice of removing whatever is superfluous to expose what may be essential -- maybe the similarity is superficial, who knows.

If you intended this as a question, perhaps you won't find people on this site who can give an objective description of the differences between the two.

I think that comparative religion questions are often confusing or a symptom of one's own confusion: that it's better to understand a statement in its own context/framework/history (as Bhumishu's answer seems to me to have attempted), instead of or without trying to compare it with other beliefs.

Sorry if this "answer" seems like a criticism: it's too long for a comment ... it's difficult to ask good questions and I wanted to say that "comparative religion" questions are more-or-less permitted but I think our experience on this site is that you should maybe try to avoid them because they don't get the best answers ... you're unlikely to find people (on this site) who are expert in both topics and able to answer well.

  • Thanks. Understood. But I was finding exactly what Tathagata meant by Self.
    – user10804
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 18:19

Yes, the blessed one Gautam Buddha talked about permanent self repeatedly as per the story goes like this in the Chapter 3 here. ( I recommend to read the complete chapter. ).

Then the Buddha said to all the bhiksus: "Do not say this. I now leave all the unsurpassed Dharma in the hands of Mahakasyapa. This Kasyapa will henceforth be the one upon whom you may rely. This is as in the case where the Tathagata becomes the one to whom all beings can turn. The same is the case with Mahakasyapa. He will now become your refuge. This is as in the case of a king who has many territories and who goes on a tour of inspection, leaving all affairs of state in the hands of his minister. The same with the Tathagata. All right teachings are left in the hands of Mahakasyapa. Know that all that you have learned up to now about the non-eternal and suffering is not true. In spring, for example, people go bathing in a big pond. They are enjoying themselves, sailing in a boat, when they drop a gem of beryl into the depths of the water, after which it can no longer be seen. Then they all get into the water and search for this gem. They competitively scoop up all such rubbish as tiles, stones, bits of wood, and gravel, and say that they have the beryl. They are glad and take the things out, and see that what they hold in their hands is not true. The gem is still in the water. By the power of the gem itself, the water becomes clear and transparent. As a result, the people see that the gemis still in the water, as clearly as when they look up and see the form of the moon in the sky. At that time, there is a wise man there who, working out a power, slowly gets into the water and gains the gem. O you Bhiksus! Do not abide in the thought of the non-Eternal, Suffering, non-Self, and the not-Pure and be in the situation of those people who take stones, bits of wood, and gravel to be the true gem. You must study well the Way, how to act, wherever you go, and “meditate on the Self, the Eternal, Bliss, and thePure”. Know that the outer forms of the four items which you have learnt up to now are inversions and that anyone who desires to practise the Way should act like the wise man who deftly gets hold of thegem. This refers to the so-called thought of Self, and that of the Eternal, Bliss, and Pure."

So, Gautam Buddha talked about the permanent, blissful self. But with this sayings Bhikkus became astonished as earlier they were taught the doctrine of non self. It goes like this.

Then all the bhiksus said to the Buddha: "O World-Honoured One! You, the Buddha, said before that all things have no Self, that we should practise this and that, when practised, the thought of Self goes away, and that once the thought of Self is done away with, one does away with arrogance and that, arrogance once done away with, one gains Nirvana. Thus did you say "How might we understand this?"

Then Gautam Buddha started explaining using an analogy of King, doctor & milk to explain.

The Buddha said to all the bhiksus: "Well said, well said! You ask this question and intend to dispel your doubt. 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 may be versed in the medicine of milk, but for him there exists no difference between a cold and a fever. He prescribes milk for all illnesses. This King was unaware that this doctor was ignorant of the pleasing and non-pleasing, the good and bad aspects of milk. But there was a Doctor who knew eight different treatments for illnesses and who was able to cure all diseases. This Doctor was versed in prescription and medicines and had come from a far-off place. And the King's doctor did not know how to ask and learn. He was rash and haughty. So the learned Doctor cordially invited the King's doctor and looked up to him [as an expedient] as his master and asked of him the secret of treatment. He said to the King's doctor: "I now invite you and make you my teacher. Please be good enough to teach me." The King's doctor said: "If you serve me for 48 years, I will teach you the art of medicine. "Then, at these words, the learned Doctor said: "I shall do as you tell me. I shall do my best and run errands." Then the King's doctor, taking 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. He said: "Please know, O great King! Know well! This Dharma is like this and you will well cure illnesses." On hearing this, the King recognised the ignorance and lack of knowledge of his own doctor. He 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: "O great King! If you truly love me, please make me a promise!" The King replied: "I shall give you, should you desire it, even my right hand or any part of my body." The new Doctor said: "You may give me all statuses, but 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 henceforth they are not to use the milk medicine, which the former doctor told them to use. Why not? Because much harm and poisonous results arise [from it]. Any person who still takes this medicine should be beheaded. If the milk medicine is not used, there will be no untimely deaths; all will go in peace. That is why I ask this of you." 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. Any person who does will be beheaded." 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. What I said before about the milk medicine was not true. If you take it now, you will be cured. You are now suffering from a fever. It is right that you should take milk." Then the King said to the Doctor: "Are you mad? Is it a fever? And you say that if I take milk, it will cure me? Before, you said it was poison. Now you tell me to take it. How is this? Do you mean to cheat me? What the former doctor said was good, [yet] you despised it and said that it was poison, and you made me drive him away. Now you say that it well cures illness. From you you say, the former doctor ought to excel you."

"Then the learned Doctor said to the King: "O King! Do not say this, please. A worm eats on [a piece of] wood and [the shape of] a letter comes out. This worm does not know anything of letters. A wise person sees this. But he does not say that this worm understands letters. And he is not overcome by surprise. O great King! Please know: so was it also with the former doctor. To all illnesses he gave medicine made from milk. This is as in the case of the worm that eats on wood, as a result of which a form like a letter emerges. The former doctor did not know how to distinguish between the pleasing and non-pleasing aspects, the good and the bad." Then the King wanted to know: "What do you mean he did not know?" The guest Doctor answered the King: "This milk medicine is harmful, but it is also a manna." "How can you say that this milk is manna?" "If you milking cow has not taken the lees, the slippery grass and the wheat refuse, and if the calf fares well, and if the cow was not grazed too high up on the land or in a low and wet place, if the cow is given pure water and not made to run or made to live among the bulls, and if feeding is done regularly, and if the place it lives in is fit, the milk gained from such a cow well does away with all illnesses. This can well be called the manna of medicine. Any other milk is poison."

"On hearing this, the King praised the great Doctor: "Well said, well said, O great Doctor! Today, for the first time in my life, I know of the pleasing and non-pleasing, that which is good and not good in the milk medicine. Taking this, I am now well. I shall at once proclaim to the people that they may well take the milk medicine." On hearing this, the people of the country, angry and resentful, said: "The great King is now caught by a devil. Is he mad? He cheats us and makes us take milk." All the people, angry and resentful, came to the King. The King said to them: "Be not angry, and have no resentment. To take milk or not to take it all comes from the science of medicine. I am not to blame." At this, the great King and the people all jumped for joy. They all the more respected and honoured the Doctor, and made offerings to him. That is how all the people took the milk medicine and regained their health.

Then Gautam Buddha concludes finally:

"Know, O you Bhiksus! The same is the case with the Tathagata, the Alms-deserving, the All-Enlightened-One, the Unsurpassed Best Trainer, the Teacher-of-Heaven-and-Earth, the Buddha-World-Honoured One. He comes as a great Doctor and subdues all tirthikas and bad doctors. In the presence of kings and all people, he says: "I shall become the King of doctors and subdue tirthikas." Thus we say: "There is no self, no man, no being, no life, no nurturing, no knowing, none that does, and none that receives." O Bhiksus! Know that what the tirthikas say is like the case of a worm that eats upon [a piece of] wood, from which, by chance, there appears what looks like a letter. Because of this, the Tathagata teaches and says no-self. This is to adjust beings and because he is aware of the occasion. Such non-self is, as occasion arises, spoken of, and it is [also] said that there is the Self. This is as in the case of the learned Doctor, who knows well the medicinal and non-medicinal qualities of milk. It is not as with common mortals, who might measure the size of their own self. Common mortals and the ignorant may measure the size of their ownself and say, 'It is like the size of a thumb, like a mustard seed, or like the size of a mote.' When the Tathagata speaks of Self, in no case are things thus. That is why he says: 'All things have no Self.'

Most importantly, at last he explains what is Self. -

Even though he has said that all phenomena (dharmas) are devoid of the Self, it is not that they are completely/ truly devoid of the Self. What is this Self? Any phenomenon (dharma) that is true (satya), real (tattva), eternal (nitya), sovereign/ autonomous/ self-governing [aisvarya], and whose ground/ foundation is unchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed 'the Self' (atman). This is as in the case of the great Doctor who well understands the milkmedicine. The same is the case with the Tathagata. For the sake of beings, he says "there is the Self in all things" O you the four classes! Learn Dharma thus!"

Therefore, Gautam Buddha criticised who believed in invidual Ātma (thumb like etc) like explained by Dualists. But he talked about self as common substrata, permanent etc as what Non Dualists say. - at least what we get from this narration.

Translator information: Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973 from Dharmakshema's Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374)

  • Which translator you based on? The translation is incorrect and littered with erroneous assumptions. For instance, your "...Know that what the tirthikas (?) say is like the case of a worm that eats upon [a piece of] wood, from which, by chance, there appears what looks like a letter. Because of this, the Tathagata teaches and says no-self..." (比丘當知。是諸外道。所言我者。如虫食木偶成字耳。是故如來於佛法中唱是無我。為調眾生故。) Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 4:54
  • It in fact translates as: ... those heretics, talking about the Self, is like that worm biting a piece of wood, by sheer chance formed the letter, thus the Tathagata proclaimed non-Self, to cure the students [wrong view of Self, heretics' Self]. I suggest Charles Patton's translation, I didn't really read but working on this post I scanned his and Kosho Yamamoto (Dr. Tony P.?), Patton is more trustful. All and all this Sutra is very deep I don't think one will simply get it by the words on surfaces; of import, those words many are incorrect. Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 4:59
  • To further make this clear, the preceding paragraph reads: (如虫食木有成字者。此虫不知是字非字。智人見之終不唱言。是虫解字。亦不驚怪。大王當知。舊醫亦爾。不別諸病悉與乳藥。如彼虫道偶成於字。) for instance, a worming biting the wood happened to form a letter, this worm doesn't know the letter, the wise one saw this will never proclaim, "the worm knows language!"... Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 5:06
  • @Bhumishu Translator information: Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973 from Dharmakshema's Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374)
    – user10804
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 18:13

you ask:

My question is why Gautam Buddha talked about "self" (that it is eternal, blissful, etc.)? I may not be getting context, so what's the context and explanation?

I've tried to give the explanation according to my tradition - the Gelug branch of Prasangika-Madhyamaka in this thread.

The summary is that these Sutras are from the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma whose motivation is said to allay the fears of those who heard the Second Turning teachings and came away with an incorrect nihilist understanding. Thus, these Sutras have an essentialist sheen and are thus provisional and require interpretation from the wisdom realizing emptiness.

  • Oh. From where can I understand this wheel concept?
    – user10804
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 16:13
  • But can you provide some interpretations? And what you conclude?
    – user10804
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 16:27
  • 1
    Hi, I have posted this question/answer that will hopefully help: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/26117/… You can find in the answer links to various resources that explain things much better than I can.
    – user13375
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 17:41
  • @Rohith. See the above for question/answer re: three turnings
    – user13375
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 2:57

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 ‘together-ness’.

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 self.

‘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 cannot act.

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 activities.

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 extinction solely.

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 dharmas.

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’.

(T1564.24a15 Madhyāmikaśāstra)

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