In the third chapter of the Mahayana Mahaparininirvana Sutra, Buddha calls the Self real and permanent:

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."

Now, as far, as I know, Buddhists believe in the concept of "Anatta" i.e. No-Self which seems to contradict the above passage. So how Buddhists reconcile the third chapter of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra with the concept of "Anatta"?

  • How is this a duplicate? That question was about what Buddha said. This one is how Buddhists intepret it. @ChrisW
    – user11522
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 8:49
  • You're saying that "What the Buddha said" and "How Buddhists interpret it" aren't the same question? I thought that the answer[s] to the other question were also an answer to this one (i.e. that this question is already answered by the answers to the other question).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 9:33
  • @ChrisW I don't see any satisfying answers there.
    – user11522
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 9:58
  • 1
    I hope you find a better answer here, then. One of the answers there was edited, I don't know why, I thought the previous version was better -- see the older version of the answer here.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 10:06
  • Where is the link to the quotation? Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 11:03

4 Answers 4


I am not an expert on Mahayana Buddhism, but I will try to answer this question.

I found another translation here.

For the same section quoted by OP, this other translation states:

Bhikṣus, thus you should not cultivate your ideas of impermanence, suffering, nonself, impurity, and so forth as if they were the true meaning [of the human condition]. Just like those people who took rocks, vegetation, or gravel to be the jeweled necklace they were looking for, you must carefully learn about expedient means so that wherever you are, you can continually cultivate your perception of self as well as your perceptions of permanence, bliss, and purity.

Later on, the text says:

And out of my desire to subdue the non-Buddhist paths I therefore declared: “There is no self,there is no person or [individual] living being, life span, personality, observer, actor, or experiencer.” Monks, the heterodox paths affirm a “self” in the same manner as [some infer literacy in] the shapes of letters incised into wood accidentally by insects. This is why the Tathāgata proclaims “nonself” as part of his buddha-dharma. It is because I need to straighten out [the thinking] of living beings—because I am aware of their situation—that I expound the absence of self. .... But what I am speaking of is not what ordinary people imagine the self to be. Ordinary people or ignorant people suppose the self to be the size of a thumb, or perhaps a mustard seed, or a speck of dust. What the Tathāgata explains the self to be is nothing like that. Therefore when I preach “dharmas are without self,” in truth they are not without self. So what is this self [of which I now speak]? If a dharma is true, real, permanent, autonomous, a basis, and its nature is immutable, then that is what I call self.

The term "dharma" above means "thing". So "self" is a thing which is true, real, permanent, autonomous, a basis and is immutable.

Then it continues:

[Kāśyapa continued:] “World-Honored One, is there a self or not in any of the twenty-five forms of existence?”

The Buddha said: Good man, “self” is precisely what tathāgatagarbha means. All living beings have buddha-nature, and this is what is meant by this notion of self. However, the significance of “self” understood in this way has been continuously covered over by an uncountable number of the defilements since the beginning [of any given individual’s existence], and that is why living beings have been unable to perceive it.

So, the "self" in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra refers to the tathagatha-garbha or Buddha-nature.

It must be noted that tathagatha-garbha or Buddha-nature is not the same as the concept of Atman in Hinduism, as can be seen by the following excerpt from the same text Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

Good man, if people have never heard of the profound, hidden tathā- gata treasury, how could they be aware of the existence of buddha-nature? What is it that I am calling “a hidden treasury”? I am talking about the well-balanced Mahāyāna scriptures themselves. Good man, there are other paths: some expound a self that is permanent, some expound a self that is cut off permanently [at death]. The Tathāgata is not like them. In affirming both self and nonself, I call it “the middle path.” One way of explaining this is that the Buddha expounds a middle path in which all living beings possess buddha-nature, but because it is obscured by the defilements they do not understand it and do not see it. Therefore you must diligently cultivate whatever expedient means you can in order to destroy those defilements.

According to this article:

Tathagatagarbha, or Tathagata-garbha, means "womb" (garbha) of Buddha (Tathagata). This refers to a Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that Buddha Nature is within all beings. Because this is so, all beings may realize enlightenment. Tathagatagarbha often is described as a seed, embryo or potentiality within each individual to be developed.

And it discusses further:

In the religions of the Buddha's day that were the forerunners of today's Hinduism, one of the central beliefs as (and is) the doctrine of atman. Atman means "breath" or "spirit," and it refers to a soul or individual essence of self. Another is the teaching of Brahman, which is understood as something like the absolute reality or the ground of being. In the several traditions of Hinduism, the precise relationship of atman to Brahman varies, but they could be understood as the small, individual self and the big, universal self.

However, the Buddha specifically rejected this teaching. The doctrine of anatman, which he articulated many times, is a direct refutation of atman.

Through the centuries many have accused the Tathagatagarbha doctrine of being an attempt to sneak an atman back into Buddhism by another name.

In this case, the potentiality or Buddha-seed within each being is compared to atman, and Buddha Nature -- which is sometimes identified with the dharmakaya -- is compared to Brahman.

You can find many Buddhist teachers speaking of small mind and big mind, or small self and big self. What they mean may not be exactly like the atman and Brahman of Vedanta, but it's common for people to understand them that way. Understanding Tathagatagarbha this way, however, would violate basic Buddhist teaching.

Another article here tries to point the origins of tathagatha-garbha or Buddha-nature to the Luminous Mind in the Pali Canon (which according to Theravada Buddhism, is not permanent or eternal, but is dependently arising - see this answer):

The term "'tathagatagarbha'" is generally taken as to mean that the "garbha" (womb or potential) of a 'Tathagata' exists in all sentient beings without exception, and though temporarily contaminated by adventitious defilement ('agantukaklesa'), it is the cause which eventually leads sentient beings to enlightenment. The notion of the 'tathagatagarbha' can be traced to a luminous¡A inherently pure mind (pabhassar citta) found in the 'Anguttara-nikaya' (1:5):

Oh! 'Bhiksus'. The mind is pure! It is defiled by the adventitious defilement. Oh! 'Bhiksus'. The mind is pure! it obtains liberation through the adventitious defilement.

When the original pure mind came to be regarded as something capable of growing into Buddhahood, there was the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine. Although the concept of an intrinsically pure mind exists in the Nikaya Buddhism, many Buddhologists, such as Wayman (1), Paul (2), Yin-shun (3) think that the 'tathagatagarbha' thought was originated from the 'Mahasamgika', but was rejected by the 'Theravada'. This theory is also held by Mizuno who points out that the pure mind ('pabhassarcitta') articulated in the Nikaya Buddhism is not totally identical with the original pure mind ('prakrtivisuddhi-citta') articulated in the 'Tathagatagarbha' doctrine, for Mizuno asserts that the former is static whereas the latter is dynamic in that it is capable of eradicating defilement.(4) At any rate, the relationship between pure mind and the adventitious defilement appears to have been wholly adopted by the 'Mahasamghika' and later by the 'Mahayana'.

It also comments in its conclusion:

In conclusion, when we try to interpret the thought of the 'tathagatagarbha', we should keep several points in mind:

1) The 'tathagatagarbha' symbolizes the potential for enlightenment (a principle) rather than a material "essence" of ultimate truth,

2) the 'tathagatagarbha' is based on the framework of the 'Mahayana' doctrine of 'sunyata-pratitya-samutpada'.

3) The development of the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine signifies the ability of a religious tradition to meet the spiritual needs of the masses aiming at a given time.

That is to say the 'tathagatagarbha' thought was formed as an positive soterio-logical approach to counteract the "'sunyam sarvam'" (all is empty) view. The 'tathagatagarbha' which strongly articulates a devotional and experiential approach to salvation provides much to the hope and aspiration of the people at large. It is this positive aspect that was taken up and strongly emphasized in Chinese Buddhism.

4) The 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine is employed as a skill-in-means ('upaya'). This does not necessarily mean that the theory of the 'tathagatagarbha' is neyartha, a teaching requiring further qualifications -- rather, it is a skill-in-means in that it is taught to suit the needs of a certain kind of people and circumstances. This is why it is said in the 'sutra' that in order to teach the emptiness of all dharmas, the Buddhas preach sometimes by the doctrine of the 'tathagatagarbha', and sometimes by that of emptiness. Thus it is better to take the 'tathagatagarbha / Buddha nature' as representing "profound existence" derived from "true emptiness" rather than as a monistic self.


The following is the answer I believe that my tradition gives. In other words, this answer is from the perspective of the Gelug tradition of Prasangika-Madhyamaka as founded by Je Tsongkhapa as I understand it. I may be wrong :)

The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is a Tathāgatagarbha Sutra and thus belongs to the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Je Tsongkhapa lays out in the lam rim how the Sutras from the three turnings should be interpreted. The first turning Sutras are said to be provisional in meaning. The second turning Sutras are said to be definitive in meaning. The third turning Sutras are said to have been given to allay the fears of those who have heard the second turning Sutras and adopted a view of nihilism: that the Prajnaparamita Sutras essentially mean that nothing exists and that karma does not exist, etc, etc.

In other words, the Buddha gave the teachings of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma as a skillful means to stop some individuals who had heard the Second Turning teachings and understanding them incorrectly were going down the road to nihilism and thus the avici hell. Thus the Third Turning teachings have an essentialist sheen in order to arrest the nihilist tendency in these individuals.

That is how I have understood it at least. If you wish me to or you think it would be helpful I can provide quotes from the relevant works of Chandrakirti, Je Tsongkhapa and other prominent teachers from the Gelug branch of Prasangika-Madhyamaka. For now, here is the wikipedia page ;)

In the Tibetan tradition, the Gelug school considers the second turning definitive, as do some scholars in other schools.

I hope and believe this answer might be useful for sentient beings.


Namo Buddhaya. I will give a logical answer. Logically there is no self(no self which is permanent, unchanging and blissful). I am different from what I was 10 years ago and I will be different from what I am today. However my past is connected with the present and the present is connected with the future through Karma. It is like, I started off as milk then I became curd then I became Ghee and so on... I am different in many ways and similar in many ways with the past. But there is no permanent identity which can be called as ME. And there is no unchanging identify which can be called as ME. The sense of Self which gets generated is due to craving. Craving for the five aggregates.If you stop clinging to the five aggregates the sense of self will disappear and also will the suffering. The self which you think exists is nothing more than illusion. The reality is that there is nothing worth clinging to in terms of form, feelings ,perceptions, consciousness and volitional formations because they are not permanent, unchanging and blissful. This fact remains undisputed whether Buddha arises or not. Whether you are a Buddhist or not. Anatta remains true. In my opinion we need to support the long story from Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra with more examples. Buddha would have explained that in many other ways as he was Great Teacher.


From the Tibetan Gelug viewpoint, the perfection of self posited in the Nirvana Sutra is not what you would translate as 'atman'. Therefore, there is no contradiction.

The self that is asserted in the Nirvana Sutra has nothing to do with the atman that we negate.

As it says in Gyaltsab Je's commentary to Maitreya/Asanga's Sublime Continuum:

The perfection of the highest self refers to the final nature, the emptiness of the self, that is, the emptiness of true existence of the self.


The highest self or holy self refers to selflessness or no-self, as translated here, which is the result of the development of the perfection of wisdom

In addition, the perfection of permanence in this context does not refer to the entity of permanence, but to the deeds of a buddha being uninterrupted.

  • I think this answer is in accord with my answer in that this sutra when interpreted with the viewpoint of emptiness leads to no contradiction.
    – user13375
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 18:44
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    I think so too. However, you didn't specify what we understand this self to be. Here, what I mean is not so much "Buddha taught a self to people afraid of no-self" but rather "This self Buddha speaks of is not the self that you think of and that Buddha indeed negated. In fact it's called self but it has nothing to do with self." Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 18:58

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