Nirva?a Sutra

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The core text of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra was completed in Kashmir around 300 c.e., but over the next century additional material enlarged it to three or four times its original length. Today only fragments remain of the original Sanskrit text, but we have a complete Chinese translation of the extended sūtra by Dharmakṣema. Finished in 421, it became one of the most influential religious texts in East Asia. Tibetan translations appeared later (P. 788,D. 120), but this scripture had relatively little impact in Tibet.

Echoing and at one point even citing the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra), the Nirvāṇa Sūtra affirms that the Buddha's death or parinirvāṇa did not mean his destruction, but occurred to illustrate that the true body of a buddha (buddhakāya) is uncreated (asaṃskṛta) and eternal, and to provide relics for veneration. Arguing against the Yogācāra categorization of sentient beings by their differing spiritual potentials, the Nirvāṇa Sūtra asserts that all sentient beings equally possess the same potential for buddhahood. Rendered in Chinese as buddha-nature, this far-reaching doctrine implies that the core nature of each individual is that of a buddha, but mental afflictions (kléṣa) prevent most from realizing it.

Although earlier Buddhist literature described sentient beings as plagued by anitya (impermanence), duṂkha (suffering), nonself, and impurity, in this sūtra, buddha, nirvĀṆa, and by extension the buddha-nature within everyone are all characterized by permanence, joy, self, and purity. Despite our experience, there is thus another "great self" within us, and the sūtra even uses the term true ātman.

East Asian Buddhism was also profoundly affected by the Nirvāṇa Sūtra's advocacy of vegetarianism and its overt inclusion of the icchantika in its doctrine of universal salvation. Icchantika are individuals devoid of faith or morality, some of whom even slander the dharma. Like most other sūtras, the first part of the Nirvāṇa Sūtra excludes them, but beginning with chapter nine, the Nirvāṇa Sūtra repeatedly asserts that icchantika also have the buddha-nature.


de Jong, J. W. "Review of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra Translated by Kosho Yamamoto." Eastern Buddhist, Vol. 9 (new series), no. 2 (1976): 134–136.

Matsuda Kazunobu. "New Sanskrit Fragments of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra in the Stein/Hoernle Collection: A Preliminary Report." Eastern Buddhist, Vol. 20 (new series), no. 2 (1987): 105–114.

Ming-Wood, Liu. "The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (Wisconsin), Vol. 5 (1982): 63–94.

Yamamoto Kosho, trans. The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra: A Complete Translation from the Chinese Classical Language in 3 volumes. Oyama, Japan: Karinbunko, 1973.

Mark L. Blum