The mahaparinirvana sutra seems to claim that there is an eternal blissful and pure self

'Self' appears in the positive very many times in that sutra, e.g. here (Chapter 33) ,,,

Knowledge ["jnana"] sees the Void and the non-Void, the Eternal and the non-Eternal, Suffering and Bliss, the Self and the non-Self. The Void refers to all births and deaths. The Non-Void refers to Great Nirvana. And the non-Self is nothing but birth and death. The Self refers to Great Nirvana.

or here (Chapter 37) ...

""The Eternal of Great Nirvana is the Self.
"The Self is the Pure.
"The Pure is Bliss.
"The Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure are the Tathagata.

"O good man! For example, space is not the east, nor is it the south, nor the west, nor the north, nor the four directions, nor up or down. It is the same with the Tathagata

etc. e.g. here (Chapter 23) ...

The Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha truly exist, and the Tathagata always expounds the essentials of all laws [Dharma]

Did any Buddhist philosophers try to prove that nirvana is a self, or that a self exists?


Did any Buddhist philosophers try to prove that nirvana is a self, or that a self exists?

I might start by saying that I don't know how a philosopher can prove anything.

  • A mathematician proves theories by defining axioms and showing that the theories derive from axioms
  • A physicist proves laws by defining laws and showing that the laws predict observed physical behaviour

This topic about 'proofs' in philosophy says,

  • [Except in "formal logic"] the best you get is an analytically-reasoned argument.
  • If I can show that a given position is self-contradictory then I have proven the position false. In terms of positive proof for a position, then it does not seem that there is anything available quite equivalent to mathematical proof in either rigour or epistemic certainty.

So I don't understand the question as-asked. But (instead of answering the question) perhaps analysing the text and looking at definitions of the words will be a partial answer instead.

I just read Chapter 37 (only).

It's translated from Chinese, which is difficult -- I must read an English translation.

I do't entirely trust that because I think that word-for-word translation are inevitably inaccurate -- e.g. the Pali word dukkha has various translations, like "suffering", "unsatisfactoriness" etc. -- or Pali has three words for different aspects of "mind" -- but anyway I'll try what I can with the English translation.

To start I note it starts with orthodox/standard doctrine ...

Because of this, know that Sramana Gautama has no father and no mother. If he has, how can he say:

"All things are non-eternal, suffering, void; and all have no self, no doing, no feeling?"

... i.e. it says that the Buddha's doctrine is as quoted above (e.g. "all things have no self").

I'm not sure what "have no self" would be a translation of, if the original were in Pali -- I think it could be anatta or sunyata -- but the previous clause said "void" which I take it was a translation of "empty" or sunyata so I guess that "have no self" is a reference to anatta.

Incidentally the Pali phrase or doctrine is something like sabbe sankhara anatta (i.e. "all things are non-self") -- but "things" there isn't a great translation of sankhara, a better translation might be "compound things" (or "things put together from other things" or "things which depend on other things"), and perhaps specifically in contrast to nibbana which is called a dhamma and not a sankhara.

Anyway I think the word "self" (in common English and in English translations of buddhist texts) might be ambiguous and depending on context it could refer to different things:

  • Something eternal (a soul, a god, perhaps something "space" or "light" or "time")
  • Something unconditioned, which exists independently of other things
  • Something in the I/me/mine kind of realm, e.g. "my soul" or "my consciousness" etc. -- or conversely that the Self is the possessor not the possessed, etc.

The first mention of "Self" seems to be here:

That is to say that all things are non-eternal, suffering, non-Self, and non-Pure, and that only the Tathagata is the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure.

I have to guess at what "non-self" and "non-pure" mean; but the Wikipedia article you quoted says some things about that.

The "six masters" then say something like, "Well if you have Self then so have we. For example maybe Seeing is Self (and we see)", and the Buddha replies that seeing isn't Self. Here is the Buddha's argument:

The Buddha said to the six masters: "If seeing is the Self, you are wrong. Why? You take up the analogy of an object and say that we see by it. Now, man uses together the six sense-organs to one object. If there surely is the Self and we see unfailingly by (means of) the eye, why is it that we do not cognise all objects with that one sense-organ? If one does not meet with the six sense-fields, know that there is no Self to talk of. If things are thus with the sense-organ of sight, there will be no change even if years pass and the sense-organs become ripened. As "man" and "object" are different, one sees one's own self and the other. If it is thus with the sense-organ of sight, there must be the seeing of one's own self and the other at (one and the same) time. If not seen, how can we say that there is the Self?

I think that's saying:

  • Seeing isn't Self because we cognise sense-objects with several senses (not just seeing)
  • Seeing is dependent on contact (with the sense-fields), if there's no contact then is there no "Self"?
  • Sense organs (e.g. the eye) change with time
  • Another argument I don't understand

I wanted to analyse the argument in order to understand (or reverse-engineer) the definition of "Self" that's being used.

I think the first bit of the argument is that if something (e.g. seeing) is Self then there can't be something else (e.g. hearing) that's also self.

And so on. If you analyze subsequent paragraphs in a similar way you derive different characteristics or definition of Self, for eample:

  • If one cannot do as one wills, know that this indicates that assuredly no Self is there.
  • The body of the Tathagata is not based on causal relations. Because there are no causal relations, we say that there is the Self.
  • If the Self does (i.e. performs actions), how can we say (it is) Eternal? If it is Eternal, how can a person do good at one time and evil at another?

I think this is more-or-less the conclusion:

The Buddha said: "If the Self does (i.e. performs actions), how can we say (it is) Eternal? If it is Eternal, how can a person do good at one time and evil at another? If a person does good or evil at (different) times, how can we say that the Self is boundless? If the Self does, why would one practise evil things? If the Self is the doer and if it is the wise, how can one doubt about the selflessness of the being? So, we can say that there can definitely be no Self in the doctrine of the tirthikas. The Self is none other than the Tathagata. Why? Because his body is boundless and there exists no doubt. On account of non-doing and non-receiving (of karmic consequences), we say Eternal. On account of birthlessness and deathlessness, we say Bliss. As there exists no defilement of illusion, we say Pure. As he does not have the ten aspects of existence, we say Void (i.e. void of all that causes suffering). Hence, the Tathagata is none other than the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure, and the Void, and there is no other aspect to speak of.

I think that's not a clear (or it's a difficult) explanation of why "the Self is the Tathagata" -- I think the reasoning is that it's consistent with the definitions or properties of "Self" -- e.g. (I paraphrase) "seeing can't be self because it's limited, light can't be Self because it's caused by (dependently originated from) a lamp, but the Tathagata is unbounded".

You might like to see also Why is the Buddha described as trackless? -- because I think that's an example of the Tathagata's being called unbounded in the Pali suttas.

I'm not sure what the point is, what the benefit is, for having this kind of doctrine abut Self. It's unusual, the Wikipedia article Ātman (Buddhism) which you quoted says,

Most scholars consider the Tathagatagarbha doctrine in Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra asserting an 'essential nature' in every living being is equivalent to 'Self', and it contradicts the Anatta doctrines in a vast majority of Buddhist texts, leading scholars to posit that the Tathagatagarbha Sutras were written to promote Buddhism to non-Buddhists.

So if the Brahmins are teaching about the Self, then the Buddha has two ways to contradict them:

  1. "There is no Self"
  2. "The Self is the Tathagata"

Another theory is that it might be intended to contradict the Three marks of existence -- i.e. if things are "negative" (unsatisfactory and non-self) maybe there's something else that's "positive" ... even attractive.

Finally I note there's something else in that same Wikipedia article:

According to Paul Wiliams, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra uses the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics. He quotes from the sutra:

The Buddha-nature is in fact not the self. For the sake of [guiding] sentient beings, I describe it as the self.

In the later Lankāvatāra Sūtra it is said that the tathāgatagarbha might be mistaken for a self, which it is not.

I haven't tried to find the location in the sutra where it says that, you might find it interesting to do that.


If I may try and risk answering based on my personal intuition (unlike most of my answers which are elaborations of standard/official doctrines)...

Some Mahayana authors evidently enjoyed being controversial. It seemed like prajna-paramita was popular and very well understood at the time, and so authors almost competed, who would break the stereotypes in a more creatively shocking way. This sutra seems to belong to that category.

You see, once you really get prajna-paramita, you clearly realize that all descriptions have no inherent meaning, that their meanings are acquired through relating them positionally against one another. Therefore, such concepts as "Self", "Permanent", "Void", "Pure", "Bliss" etc. are not some hard truths that have (or can ever have) precise definitions. Instead, the true ontological reality may be described in a seemingly controversial ways, if the same words are used in a different sense, if things are described at a different angle so to speak.

So this sutra seems to attempt to lead the reader to this understanding by playing with stereotypical definitions of words as used in Buddhism and redefining them to speak in a different sense.

It is not like the author seems to be seriously stuck on that framework, it seems pretty obvious that he or she is just messing with us in order to illustrate the limit of descriptions.

  • 1
    i agree they don't mean that there is the self that the buddha ruled out, but the sutra says as much, so i don't think it's willful difficulty either – user3293056 Feb 23 at 15:31

Mahayana authors are more poetic and they employ a lot of reification, perhaps trying to creatively convey the same meaning of the words that have been inherited (almost) verbatim in the Pali Suttas.

The downside however, is that they may get carried away by reification and some Mahayana Buddhists may have forgotten the original meaning.

For example, from the Vakkali Sutta, there is the statement from the Buddha, "Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dharma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dharma. Truly seeing Dharma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dharma." Dharma here means the teachings of the Buddha.

@PeterJ pointed out that Dharma is also translated as Truth in Mahayana Buddhism. So, this I speculate is one level of reification, since the teachings are true, so, Dharma = teachings = Truth.

From here, I speculate that there was the first stage reification in Mahayana to convert this concept ("truly seeing Dharma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dharma") into the Dharmakaya or the Dharma-body of the Buddha vs. his physical body. From the Buddha's teachings-body, this becomes the Buddha's Truth-body. There is nothing wrong with this if one remembers the original meaning.

Then I speculate that there came the second stage reification in Mahayana to convert this Dharmakaya concept into the Eternal Buddha. There is nothing wrong with this if one remembers the original meaning.

As a second example, I will use the example of the Buddha Nature.

In this answer, we can see that the Buddha said anyone can achieve Nirvana, regardless of their caste or origin (Gihi Sutta). And in this question and this question, we see the teaching on the luminous mind (Pabhassara Sutta).

Form here, I speculate that there came the first stage of reification in Mahayana that this was converted into the Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) that everyone has.

Then I speculate that there came the second stage of reification in Mahayana that this Buddha Nature became "The Eternal of Great Nirvana is the Self. The Self is the Pure. The Pure is Bliss. The Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure are the Tathagata."

The problem comes when some Mahayana Buddhists forget the original meaning and say that the Eternal Buddha is the Buddha as the person existing after death, or that the Buddha Nature is the Eternal Self (a real self) of everyone. Spices and condiments are used to enhance the flavour of food, but if spices are overused, then the original flavour of the food is masked and forgotten.

And then the Hindu scholars will take advantage of this and say, that the Eternal Buddha and the Eternal Brahman are the same, or that the Buddha Nature and Supreme Self (Paramatma) of Hinduism are the same (as what Prof. Chandradhar Sharma has done in this answer). Centuries ago, Hindu scholars may have used this argument to convert Indian Buddhists to Hinduism.

There is another possibility (speculated by me) that Indian Mahayana authors were trying to attract the attention of Indian Hindus centuries ago to Buddhism by reifying Buddhist concepts to sound like Hindu concepts. If this were the case, then it has certainly backfired.

In my opinion, Mahayana Buddhism is not a different religion from Theravada Buddhism. If you trace the reification backward towards their original meaning, I think they are quite the same. In fact, Mahayana Buddhism probably even stretches one's imagination to look at the same thing with different viewpoints. For e.g. if you say Nirvana is unconditioned and unborn and undying, do you mean the actual Nirvana, or the concept of Nirvana conceived by your mind? The reified concept of Nirvana conceived by your mind as a papanca, is certainly "empty" (thank you, Nagarjuna).

  • it's not a different religion, but it has different tenets. not sure why i would mean nirvana conceived of by my mind... when i say "that's a big fish" surely i am talking about the actual fish? – user3293056 Feb 23 at 15:32
  • One person might say big fish and imagine a shark while another person might say big fish and imagine a whale. – ruben2020 Feb 23 at 15:37
  • sure, but that doesn't mean there's no fish? – user3293056 Feb 23 at 15:38
  • Yes. I don't think Nagarjuna's emptiness is literally "empty of essence". I think it means empty of mentally reified essence – ruben2020 Feb 23 at 15:49
  • reified is a good word, wouldn't want anyone to reify the idea of nirvana... that's what i meant in the conclusion of my answer: how can i envision nirvana without phenomena? – user3293056 Feb 23 at 15:54

Did any Buddhist philosophers try to prove that nirvana is a self

I'm also going to answer based on intuition more than anything. What would it mean to say that nirvana is a self? I think, that parinirvana neither has Being nor non-Being: the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism.

I've seen the Buddhanature defined as "awareness" by e.g. the son Buddhist Chinul. Does "awareness" (we probably have some idea of what that means even without studying Buddhism) exist? It is not part of the body or mind, and not the body considered as a whole either, and these are all there are to call a person. But I seem to have awareness nonetheless. So my own answer is that you can't infer that the Buddhanature exists, only directly see that it does. It only exists non-inferentially.

I've seen a few attempts to prove that nirvana is an indestructible self. e.g. the surangama sutra (I'll find a quote later). What I don't understand is how nirvana can occur without phenomena, and phenomena are all impermanent and die. But then I have neither died nor attained nirvana.

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