The Nirvana Sutra (full name: Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra) is especially emblematic of the trend within Mahayana thought to identify the Buddha who walked the Earth 2,500 years ago as a manifestation of a cosmic principle. The Flower Ornament Scripture similarly sidelines the social mores of ancient India and the relative merit of various types of enlightenment in favor of exploring the idea of the enduring Buddha-principle. The term used in the Nirvana Sutra is Buddhadhatu. Like the Dharma Realm and Buddha-Nature concepts, the Buddhadhatu is a transcendent, enduring aspect of reality.
The Buddha-Nature of the Nirvana Sutra stands as an existing, permanent thing1, which stands in stark contrast to the twin concepts of Non-Self and Emptiness, and to the theory of becoming underlying them. The eternal wellspring of Buddha-hood found in the Nirvana Sutra represents an enduring seed of the dharma which will survive the present “dharma-ending” age. In this way, the text promises both an end to the present age of dharma and a re-emergence of the dharma by way of the seed of Buddha-hood within all sentient beings. It is both a pessimistic and hopeful text; even though the dharma will disappear because of humanity’s collective ignorance, it will arise again.
The sutra explores the eternal, unchanging nature of the Buddha, referred in the sutra as the “Self.” This problematic term could have been employed to appeal to non-Buddhists.2 However, the self as a valid concept is not completely absent from Buddhist history. The Pugdalavadins, an extinct sect from the early years of Buddhism, posited a kind of self. The self of the Nirvana sutra, however, is a more wide-ranging postulate.
Sanskrit: Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra
1Williams, 1989, 108-109.
2Williams, 1989, 99.