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In this Wikipedia article on Arhat in Mahayana Buddhism, it is written:

Instead of aspiring for arhatship, Mahayanins are urged to instead take up the path of the bodhisattva and to not fall back to the level of arhats and śrāvakas. Therefore, it is taught that an arhat must go on to become a bodhisattva eventually. If they fail to do so in the lifetime in which they reach the attainment, they will fall into a deep samādhi of emptiness, thence to be roused and taught the bodhisattva path, presumably when ready. According to the Lotus Sutra, any true arhat will eventually accept the Mahāyāna path.

In this Wikipedia article on the Eternal Buddha, it is written:

In east-Asian Buddhism, the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is regarded as the eternal Buddha. "The Tathagata´s Lifespan" chapter (ch 16) of the Lotus Sutra portrays the Buddha as indicating that he became awakened countless aeons ("kalpas") ago. The sutra itself, however, does not directly employ the phrase "eternal Buddha".

In China the Lotus Sutra was associated with the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which propagates the tathagatagarbha-doctrine, and with the Awakening of Faith. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra presents the Buddha as eternal, and equates him with the Dharmakaya.

If the Arahant in Mahayana Buddhism goes into a deep samadhi after death, till he wakes up and continues the path towards Buddhahood, and if after becoming a Buddha, his personality can persist as an Eternal Buddha, then this shows eternalism in Mahayana teachings.

An Arahant who can go into deep samadhi after death (without a body) only to reanimate later implies the existence of a soul.

Furthermore, the story of Buddha Prabhutaratna from Wikipedia also has elements of eternalism:

"Great-Eloquence Bodhisattva" wants to see the Buddha in the stupa but Prabhūtaratna's vow makes it a prerequisite for showing his body that the Buddha who proclaims the Lotus teaching collects all his manifestations. At this point Shakyamuni summons from around the universe countless Buddhas who are his emanations, lifts the entire assembly into the air, and opens the stupa. Prabhūtaratna praises Shakyamuni and invites him to sit next to him. Shakyamuni then continues to preach the Dharma. In the 22nd "Entrustment" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Prabhūtaratna and his stupa return to under the earth.

Eternalism (sāśvata-dṛṣṭi in Sanskrit) was rejected by the Buddha's original teachings on the Middle Path, as described by Ven. Dhammananda Mahathera's article (from here) excerpt below:

Why did the Buddha deny the teaching of eternalism? Because when we understand the things of this world as they truly are, we cannot find anything which is permanent or which exists forever. Things change and continue to do so according to the changing conditions on which they depend. When we analyse things into their elements or into reality, we cannot find any abiding entity, any everlasting thing. This is why the eternalist view is considered wrong or false.

My question is:

Does Mahayana Buddhism teach eternalism? If this is not the case, then what is the right interpretation of the Mahayana teachings on Arahant and the Eternal Buddha above?

In the question above, when I wrote "Mahayana Buddhism", I mean particularly in the context of the Lotus Sutra and the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

  • Does Buddhism require a Moggaliputta-Tissa or Nagarjuna, is what I currently wonder! :) – Ilya Grushevskiy Jan 14 '18 at 18:55
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Several thoughts...

Mahayana is not a homomorphous teaching. It's a bunch of different schools, the only common theme of which is attempting to express The Truth in whatever crazy language that the recipient can understand. So you will see some Mahayana schools speaking about Eternal Buddha, or about Buddha Law, or about "True I", or a number of other topics that have some meaning for someone, and can turn into practice that will increasingly approximate "It", until they hopefully break through. All these different metaphors approach the truth in one way or another, they all have some sense in one way, and are false in another way. That's just the way with language unfortunately - any conceptual construct is always limited and onesided.

Another thought. Eternalism is a bad translation imho. I think a better term would be "transcendental substantionalism", as in, assuming that there is some magic substance or essence separate from the aggregates that lives on from one life to another.

If we assume, in modern terms, that material world, the world of energy transformation, and the world of information - are three ways to see the same world, and that as material forms arise and perish, energy and information transforms and fluctuates -- we can see that energy/information does not really "die" but it's not like it is "eternal" either. Then we can see how all these different metaphors were trying to point us to this truth, using whatever expressive means at their disposal, in the absence of better language we have today, like "information". Again, this is just yet another explanation, limited and onesided in its own way.

So when Lotus Sutra or Nirvana Sutra is speaking about Eternal Buddha - they just mean the Dharmakaya -- meaning, the information about Dharma latent in the world and spread around in little pieces, both as formal Dharma, as well as other sorts of hints and wisdoms. When this information accumulates in a single being in sufficient amount, and manifests itself as their way of living, we call that being a (Nirmanakaya) Buddha, and for the sake of explaining the nature of the phenomena we may employ the language of this being a reincarnation/manifestation of Eternal Buddha, and this can be useful to some people and confusing to others - but as long as we know what we are talking about, we will not be confused.

Can we call Dharmakaya eternal? Well in one sense, sure, it is not destroyed by individual deaths, and because it has its roots in the very nature of things, after all it's a teaching about how things work, it's inevitably "built-in" and is being discovered piecemeal by people in all times, even if formal Teaching is lost. In another sense, it's just a bunch of fragments, plus a potential to discover more fragments, so it's not even a "thing" to speak about, just a principle.

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Here's what I have learned since asking this question ...

Some Theravadins accuse Mahayana Buddhism of eternalism or introducing God or Soul into Buddhism, where there is none.

Interestingly, some Hindu scholars have tried to use concepts that seem like eternalism in Mahayana Buddhism, to say that Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism is the same, and therefore, Buddhism is just a sect of Hinduism. In his book "Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey" on page 63, Professor Chandradhar Sharma wrote about Mahayana Buddhism:

Buddha is here transformed into God and worshipped as such. He is identified with transcendental reality and is said to possess the power of reincarnation. The Buddha is the Absolute Self running through all the so-called individual selves. He is the Noumenon behind all phenomena.

On the other hand, another researcher, Indian Studies Professor Helmuth von Glasenapp wrote in "Vedanta and Buddhism: A Comparative Study" that all Buddhist schools without exception uphold Anatta:

In the light of these researches, all attempts to give to the Atman a place in the Buddhist doctrine, appear to be quite antiquated. We know now that all Hinayana (sic) and Mahayana schools are based on the anatma-dharma theory. ... Nirvana being a dharma, is likewise anatta, just as the transitory, conditioned dharmas ... Nirvana is no individual entity which could act independently. For it is the basic idea of the entire system that all dharmas are devoid of Atman, and without cogent reasons we cannot assume that the Buddha himself has thought something different from that which since more than 2000 years, his followers have considered to be the quintessence of their doctrine.

If we look at the Wikipedia articles, we find that all major Mahayana concepts do not contain a Self (the definition of which can be found in Glasenapp's essay). The Wikipedia statements below come with citations.

On the Eternal Buddha:

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra presents the Buddha as eternal, and equates him with the Dharmakaya.

Then if we look at Dharmakāya or "Dharma Body":

First, the dharmakaya is the collection of teachings ... Second, it is the collection of pure dharmas possessed by the Buddha, specifically pure mental dharmas cognizing emptiness. And third, it comes to refer to emptiness itself, the true nature of things.

Next on the Ādi Buddha or First Buddha or Primordial Buddha:

Ādi means “primordial,” not referring to a person but to an innate wisdom that is present in all sentient beings.

On Buddha nature or tathāgatagarbha:

The terms refer to the notion that the luminous mind of the Buddhas is inherently present in every sentient being, and will shine forth when it is cleansed of the defilements, c.q. when the nature of mind is recognised for what it is.

The idea of the tathagatagarbha is grounded on sayings by the Buddha that there is an innately pure luminous mind (prabhasvara citta), "which is only adventitiously covered over by defilements (agantukaklesa)" This luminous mind is being mentioned in the Anguttara Nikaya: "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements."

Next if we look at Luminous mind or prabhāsvara-citta:

Luminous mind (also, "brightly shining mind," "brightly shining citta") (Sanskrit prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta, Pali pabhassara citta) is a term attributed to the Buddha in the Nikayas. The mind (Citta) is said to be "luminous" whether or not it is tainted by mental defilements.

The statement is given no direct doctrinal explanation in the Pali discourses, but later Buddhist schools explained it using various concepts developed by them. The Theravada school identifies the "luminous mind" with the bhavanga, a concept first proposed in the Theravada Abhidhamma. The later schools of the Mahayana identify it with both the Mahayana concepts of bodhicitta and tathagatagarbha. The idea is also connected with features of Dzogchen thought.

Based on the above, we can see that although superficially, Mahayana Buddhism seems to promote eternalism, but an in-depth analysis shows that all the grandiose literary extrapolations in Mahayana writings ultimately boil down to the simple concepts of the body of teachings (Dharmakāya), mind without defilements (luminous mind) and the potential for all sentient beings to become enlightened (Buddha nature). All these concepts do not have any eternal Self in them.

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I'm not sure this is true:

Eternalism (sāśvata-dṛṣṭi in Sanskrit) was rejected by the Buddha's original teachings on the Middle Path, as described by Ven. Dhammananda Mahathera's article.

... or maybe it's not complete, i.e. the whole truth.

Because a counter-argument to that might be:

  • The "range" of a Buddha, and the existence or non-existence of a Buddha after death, are among the unanswered questions
  • The Buddha is associated with the Dhamma
  • The Dhamma is said to be akaliko (perhaps like, in the Pali canon, Nibanna is not anicca)

The Buddha's being associated with the Dhamma begins in the Pali suttas, and perhaps it's more explicit in the later trikaya doctrine.

I think it's the Dharmakāya that's viewed as eternal (or timeless) -- and I'm not sure it's wrong to say that, no more wrong than any of the other 6 qualities of the Dhamma.

This (above) may not be an orthodox view, it's just what I understand of it at the moment.

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