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Buddha and God

Buddha and God

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Published by: a-c-t-i-o-n_acio on Jan 29, 2010
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The celebrated Beethoven interpreter and avant-garde composer, Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), once famously quipped: “Tradition too often means a collection of bad habits.” (“MyLife and Music”, Artur Schnabel). This applies not only to traditions of music-making, butequally, I would contend, sometimes to traditions of scholarship.If one were to ask most students and scholars of Buddhism what the Buddha’s teachings onthe Self or Soul were, I think it likely that one would almost certainly receive back the stock,unqualified reply: “The Buddha denied the Self or Soul (the
ā
tman) and any kind of enduringessence (svabh
ā
va). He utterly rejected and refuted all notions of a permanent Self or Soul,both in the P
ā
li suttas and in the Mah
ā
y
ā
na scriptures.”This stance towards the Self in the Buddha’s doctrines is now effectively the “receivedwisdom” amongst the bulk of Buddhist scholars and Buddhist practitioners – it has becomethe habit of Tradition and is rarely questioned. But is it – to quote Schnabel – a “bad habit”? Isthe absolutist and almost autonomic cry of “no Self, no Self” in fact uttered as enthusiastically,unconditionally and universally by the purported Mah
ā
y
ā
na Buddha as by large numbers of his followers?I suggest that it is not. And to examine how we can perhaps break our possible bad habit of an all-but blanket denial of affirmative teachings by the Buddha on the reality of an eternalSelf, we might profitably give our attention to the famed – yet in the West surprisingly littlestudied – Mah
ā
y
ā
na Mah
ā
parinirv
āṇ
a S
ū
tra.As you will know, this s
ū
tra presents itself as the final Mah
ā
y
ā
na teachings of the Buddha,delivered on the last day and night of his physical life upon earth.The s
ū
tra survives in its Sanskrit form only in some ten fragmentary pages. Fortunately for us,the s
ū
tra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese. The world’s leading authority on theevolution of this text in its early and middle-period forms is without doubt Professor MasahiroShimoda, who is, as you know, giving a series of lectures and seminars on the growth of thetext and related matters this term, so I shall not say anything on that area of study here today,except to mention the main translations of the text which have come down to us. The shortestand earliest extant translated version is the translation into Chinese by Faxian andBuddhabhadra in six juan (418CE); the next in terms of scriptural development is the Tibetanversion (c790CE) by Jinamitra, Jñ
ā
nagarbha and Devacandra; and the lengthiest version of all is what is known as the “Northern version” in 40 juan carried out by Dharmak
ema(422CE). I shall quote from all three versions in this lecture, using English translations by myfriend and colleague, Stephen Hodge, as well as Stephen’s proposed original Sanskrit termsfor certain key phrases. Needless to say, I am indebted to Stephen for his invaluable work.Early in the s
ū
tra (Tibetan version), in a section which Professor Shimoda has identified asbelonging to an early stratum of the s
ū
tra’s genesis, the Buddha is confronted by a number of zealous Buddhist monks who are keen practitioners of what we might term “absolutist non-Self Buddhism” - namely, the frequent meditative cultivation of the notion that absolutelyeverything is impermanent, marked by suffering, and is not-Self (an
ā
tman). To our surprise,the Buddha does not praise his enthusiastic monastic followers for their unremittingdedication to the non-Self doctrine and its meditative cultivation, but actually castigates themfor having fallen into “extremes”. He even dismisses as “mistaken and worthless” the rather 
 
proud mode of non-Self meditation which those monks practise and chides them for notunderstanding that his teaching of the meditation upon impermanence, suffering and non-Self is highly contingent and needs to be safeguarded from one-sided distortion andmisinterpretation.According to the Buddha, the monks have grasped merely the outer letters of his doctrine, butnot its essential meaning. They have fallen victim to an extreme and inverted form of meditative practice in which they view that which is truly Eternal as something impermanent,that which is truly the Self as what is non-Self, that which is truly Blissful as suffering, and thatwhich is truly Pure as something impure. They have failed to distinguish between what is of Samsara and what is of Great Nirv
āṇ
a (mah
ā
-nirv
āṇ
a or mah
ā
-parinirv
āṇ
a). Sa
s
ā
ra is non-Self – thus far the monks are correct. But they have committed a serious metaphysicalmiscalculation – the Buddha indicates - by ascribing samsaric qualities and characteristics tothe non-samsaric, to Nirvana, indeed to the Buddha himself. For while everything that issamsaric is rightly labelled as non-Self, the Buddha reveals in the course of the s
ū
tra that he,as the Dharmak
ā
ya, is nothing less than the eternal Self (atman) itself.In a striking reversal of the usual Buddhist dictum that “all dharmas – phenomena – are non-Self”, the Buddha declares that it is in fact untrue to say that absolutely all dharmas are non-Self, and, in the Dharmak
ema translation, he goes so far as to declare that “in truth there isthe Self [
ā
tman] in all dharmas [phenomena]”. Offering a rare (and seldom quoted)characterisation of what in fact this Self is, the Buddha asserts (in the Tibetan version):“The Self (
ā
tman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitya), the Self is virtue (gu
a), theSelf is eternal (
śāś
vat
ā
), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).” (Chapter Four,“Grief”).In the Faxian and Dharmak
ema versions, another quality is found listed here: that the Self is“sovereign”, “self-governing” or “autonomous” (ai
ś
varya). Furthermore, Faxian includes theadjective “unchanging”, “untransforming” (avipari
ṇā
ma), while Dharmak
ema also adds thatthe Self is “true” (satya).It is sometimes claimed by scholars who comment on the doctrine of the Self in the Nirv
āṇ
aS
ū
tra that when the Buddha speaks of the
ā
tman, he is only doing so in a concessionarymanner, in a provisional, tactical manoeuvre for those of his students who are not yet ready toface up to the frightening enormity of the non-Self and Emptiness doctrines, and that what hereally wishes to say is that there actually exists no Self at all. We shall come back to thequestion of whether this text views itself as provisional or ultimate in its doctrines a little later,but for now, it needs to be emphasised that for the Buddha to assert something to be satyaand tattva (both adjectives appear alongside one another in the Dharmak
ema text) istantamount to his insisting that it truly is Real - not just seemingly real or deceptivelyauthentic. The term, tattva, embedded in such a metaphysical verbal environment as thepresent context - where rectification of a misapprehended non-Self doctrine is centre-stage of discussion - really does betoken ultimate Reality itself, rather than some provisional,metaphorical notion or accommodating make-shift simile of Truth. When the Buddha in theMah
ā
parinirv
āṇ
a S
ū
tra states that the Self is real and true – he means what he says(shocking as this might seem!).
 
Let us consider a number of the other epithets applied to the True Self in the passage justquoted. Firstly and perhaps most importantly - for this is arguably the core concern anddominant assertion of the entire Mah
ā
parinirv
āṇ
a S
ū
tra in its earliest extant manifestation – isthe notion of the “eternity” or “permanence” of the Buddha (who is, we must remember, theTrue Self, according to this scripture). The Sanskrit term, nitya, is usually translated byBuddhist scholars as “permanent”, but I feel that this fails to do justice to the sense of never-endingness or ever-enduringness that the word connotes in the Nirv
āṇ
a S
ū
tra. The Englishadjective “permanent” is usually applied to something that lasts indefinitely, yes - but notforever. For example, a person may be given a “permanent post” in the company for which heor she works. But that particular situation will of course only last for as long as the companysurvives. No one expects that the company will last forever. And nor will it: being part of Sa
s
ā
ra, it will eventually decline, collapse and die – as will that employee him or herself. Butwhen the Buddha applies the epithet, nitya, to himself or Nirv
āṇ
a, he wishes to express veryforcefully the idea of eternal continuance and perpetual persistence throughout all time andbeyond. The Self that is nitya is not just real for a million years or even a million kalpas(aeons). It is real and lasting forever.So central is this concept of the nityat
ā
or eternal continuance of the Buddha in theMah
ā
parinirv
āṇ
a S
ū
tra that the Buddha at one point refers to this scripture as “the great s
ū
traof the Buddha’s eternity” (nityat
ā
). Perpetual Buddhic Reality would seem to lie at the heart of the message which this s
ū
tra seeks to communicate, as an antidote to the prevalent Buddhistnotion of universal change, decay, flux and death. The Buddha actually says so in terms. TheBuddha’s physical form will die, that is true; but that nirm
āṇ
a body (physically manifestedbody) is in any case deceptive and impermanent, the Buddha insists. He himself, in contrast,as the True Self will not reach any end or cessation.Closely linked to the concept of nityata are the ideas of immovable, unshakeable fixedness or firmness (dhruva) and “unchangingness” (avipari
ṇā
ma). The notion of avipari
ṇā
ma is found inboth Faxian and Dharmak
ema in the passage that we are considering. Whereas Faxianuses it in its naked and unmodified form, however, the Dharmak
ema text combines it withthe term,
āś
raya (“basis” “ground”, “body” or “foundation”), to create the compound,
āś
raya-avipari
ṇā
ma. Thus the “foundational body” which is the Self is here asserted to be changeless – in other words, the opposite of virtually every other thing known to humankind, which issubject to modification and mutation. The atman never transforms. It is present within alldharmas (so Dharmak
ema) - a base which never transmutes into something else. Self is -we might say – always and unchangingly itself. It is the irreducible, untransforming foundationor essence of Reality.If the Self never mutates or transforms, then it is impossible for it to be killed, since it cannotundergo the transformation inevitably wrought by death. Accordingly, in the Faxian version of the s
ū
tra, we find the expressive epithet “un-rubbed-out” used of the
ā
tman. The likelySanskrit term underlying this is aparimardana, which means “not rubbed out”, not obliterated,not broken up or destroyed. We are perhaps reminded here of the colloquial Englishexpression of “wiping someone out” or “rubbing someone out” to convey the idea of killingthem. But unlike what the Buddha calls the “lie” of the worldly ego, made up of its fivetransforming and transient skandhas, all doomed to death, the true
ā
tman can never be“rubbed out” or erased. It endures, unperishing, forever.Finally in this section, let us consider an adjective found both in Faxian and Dharmak
ema tocharacterise the Self: “sovereign” or “autonomous” (ai
ś
varya in Sanskrit). Not only do weencounter the term in the present passage, but also scattered across the Dharmak
ema textas a whole. For example, we read that “… on the morning of Buddhahood, he [the

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