As a brief introduction to the following excerpts from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a scripture of Mahayana Buddhism, it would be useful to be aware of the Mahayana concept of Gautama Buddha having made “three turnings of the wheel of Dharma” during his life.
It was the Yogacharya School of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, founded by Aryasangha, which first presented the concept of the “three turnings.” The first turning of Buddha’s Dharma Wheel was when he gave those teachings which are now known as Theravada Buddhism. The second was when he gave out the teachings about the Bodhisattva Path and related concepts; these subsequently formed the essence of all Mahayana Buddhism.
The Yogacharyas said that the third turning was when Buddha gave out the teachings – sadly little known today – which affirm and explain that in spite of what he said during the “first turning” there is actually an Eternal Self within everyone, which is the Atman, the essential Buddha Nature of all, and this is one and the same as the Absolute Primordial Wisdom (Adi-Buddhi) which is the Source, Cause, and underlying Essence of all manifestation and which is not an “empty emptiness” as the Madhyamikas say but rather an Infinite Fullness which is “empty” or “void” of anything conditioned or relative.
These principles were expressed in the Yogacharya and Tathagatagarbha (literally “Buddha Nature”) scriptures, one of the longest of which is this Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which makes the claim of relating the teachings given by Buddha to his disciples on the eve of his physical death.
The teachings which characterise the third turning of the wheel of the Buddhadharma have not been well accepted in Buddhism. The Yogacharya School – at least the publicly known and exoteric School of that name – faded out and is now long defunct. In Theravada Buddhism the teaching is that human beings do not even have an individual soul, let alone a universal Higher Self, whilst in Tibetan Buddhism, the most popular expression of Mahayana, the concept of an individual soul is almost grudgingly accepted but generally avoided, and the idea of a universal Higher Self is shunned and ardently denied by some (the Gelugpas in particular, who are rigid Madhyamikas) and only vaguely accepted by some others.
Hence why most people, including many Buddhists themselves, are completely unaware that there is an ancient tradition and system in Mahayana Buddhism which revolves around a doctrine which is largely identical in its message with the Atman=Brahman doctrine of Hinduism’s Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta philosophy. And hence why many have been taught that such notions are completely foreign to the whole of Buddhism, whereas that is not the case. It may be very much the case now but it was not always so.
Some students as well as critics of Theosophy have questioned how H. P. Blavatsky’s Adept Teachers – the Masters of a Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood – could be described, and also describe Themselves, as “Esoteric Buddhists” whilst at the same time accepting and teaching an Atman as well as an individual Ego-Soul in addition to an Absolute Divine Principle. “There’s no basis for any of that in Buddhism,” people have said; “Buddhism’s all about anatta or no-self; those ideas are only from Hinduism.” But they are wrong, as we have explained and as will be seen in just a moment.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra seems to be well regarded by the aforementioned Trans-Himalayan Buddhist Brotherhood. The Mahatmas K.H. and M. quoted from it in letters to A. P. Sinnett and HPB also refers to it (although not by name) in an explanatory note in “The Voice of the Silence” where she says (p. 79, original 1889 edition) “The △ is the sign of the high chelas, while another kind of triangle is that of high Initiates. It is the symbol “I” discoursed upon by Buddha and used by him as a symbol of the embodied form of Tathagata when released from the three methods of the Prajna.” Such a discourse can be found in Chapter 13 of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
We encourage those who are interested to also read the article The REAL Esoteric Buddhism, which is an extract from the lengthy Gelugpas, Tantra, and Theosophy: Resolving a Complex Puzzle. They will be found to explain many things, including about the oft-mentioned but little understood Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood.
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(Quoted from verses 415, 417, 419, 425, 427, 428-431, 443, which are in Chapter 11 “On The Four Inversions” and Chapter 12 “On The Tathagata-Dhatu.”)
The Buddha said to (his disciple) Kashyapa: . . . The people of the world say that there is Self, and within Buddhism, too, we say that there is Self. The people of the word say that there is Self but that there is no Buddha Nature. This is having the idea of Self in what is non-Self. This is an inversion. The Self spoken of in Buddhism is the Buddha Nature. The people of the world say that there is no Self in Buddhism. This is the idea of the non-Self in the Self. “It is definite that there is no Self in the Buddhist teaching. That is why the Tathagata (the Buddha) tells his disciples to practise selflessness.” If such is said, this is an inversion. . . .
The Buddha said: “O good man! “Self” means “Tathagatagarbha.” Every being has this Buddha Nature. The Buddha Nature is the Atman, the Self. Such Self has, from the very beginning, been under cover of innumerable defilements. That is why man cannot see it. O good man! Imagine that there is a poor woman here. She has true gold concealed in her house. But none of the people of her house, whether big or small, know of it. But there is a stranger, who, through expediency, says to the poor woman: “I shall employ you. You must now go and weed the land!” The woman answers: “I cannot do this now. If you let my son see where the gold is hidden, I will soon work for you.” The man says: “I know the way. I shall point it out to your son.” The woman further says: “Nobody of my house, whether big or small, knows of this. How can you?” The man says: “I shall now make it clear.” The woman says further: “I desire to see. Pray let me.” The man digs out the gold that had lain hidden. The woman sees it, is gladdened, and begins to respect that person. O good man! The case is the same with the Buddha Nature which man has. Nobody can see it. This is analogous to the gold which the poor woman possessed and yet could not see. O good man! I now let persons see the Buddha Nature that they possess, which is spread over by defilements. This is analogous to the poor woman who cannot see the gold, even though she possesses it. The Tathagata now reveals to all beings the storehouse of Enlightenment, which is the Buddha Nature, as it is called. If all beings see this, they are gladdened and will take refuge in the Tathagata. The good expedient is the Tathagata, the poor woman is all the innumerable beings, and the cask of true gold is the Buddha Nature. . . .
The case is the same with the Tathagata. In order to save beings, he gives them the teaching of non-Self. Having practised the Way thus, beings do away with the state of mind that clings to the lower self and they gain Nirvana. All of this is to do away with people’s wrong concepts, to show them the Way, and cause them to stand above, to show them that they have been adhering merely to self, that what obtains in the world is all false and not true, and to make them practise non-Self and purify themselves. . . .
Even when a person is told of the unholy self, he cannot know the true quality of the real Self. The same is true of my disciples. As they do not befriend a good teacher of the Way, they practise non-Self and do not know where the Self is. They do not know the true nature of selflessness. How, then, could they know the true nature of the Self itself? Thus, O good man, the Tathagata says that all beings possess the Buddha Nature. . . .
The nature of Self is nothing other than the hidden storehouse of the Tathagata. . . . The Buddha Nature of beings rests within the five skandhas (the psychophysical personality aggregates). . . . The true Self of the Buddha Nature is like the diamond, which cannot be crushed. . . .
Then the Tathagata said in a verse:
There is a person who takes amrita (nectar or ambrosia), harms life, and dies early,
Or another, who takes amrita and gains a long life,
Or one who takes poison and gains life,
Or another who takes poison and dies.
The unhindered, unobstructed Wisdom, which is amrita,
Is none other than the Mahayana sutras.
And such Mahayana sutras are what also contain poison.
It is like sarpirmanda (the hard scum of melted butter),
Which, when taken and digested, acts as medicine.
If not digested, then they are nothing but poison.
It is the same with the Mahayana sutras.
The wise make of them amrita, and the ignorant, not knowing
The value of the Buddha Nature, make of them poison.
Shravakas (elementary hearers of the teachings) and Pratyeka Buddhas (solitary realisers) make of the Mahayana amrita.
This is like milk, which is foremost in taste.
Those who work thus and make progress
Ride in the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, reach the shore of Nirvana, and become wisdom-kings of men. Such beings know of the Buddha Nature, as with Kashyapa.
Thus superb amrita is birthlessness and deathlessness. O Kashyapa!
You should now analyse the Three Refuges:
Just as is the svabhava (intrinsic being) of the Three Refuges,
So indeed is my svabhava.
If a person is able truly to discern
That his or her intrinsic being possesses the Buddha Nature,
Then you should know that such a person
Will enter into the Secret Womb, the Secret Essence.
That person who knows the Self and what belongs to the Self
Has already transcended the mundane world.
The nature of the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – is supreme and most worthy of respect;
As in the verse which I have uttered,
The meaning of its nature is thus. . . .
When non-Self is talked about, common mortals say that there cannot be Self in the Buddhist teaching. One who is wise should know that the non-Self is a temporary existence and is unreal. Knowing thus, one should not have any doubt. When the hidden Buddha Nature is stated as being empty and silent, common mortals will think of cessation and extinction. But one who is wise knows that the Tathagata is eternal and unchanging. If emancipation is stated to be something like a phantom, common mortals say that the person who attains emancipation is one who fades away to nothingness, whilst a person with Wisdom thinks that he is a human-lion and that, although he comes and goes, he is eternal and does not change.
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“The “heel of Achilles” of orthodox Brahmanism is the Adwaita philosophy, whose followers are called by the pious “Buddhists in disguise”; as that of orthodox Buddhism is Northern mysticism, as represented by the disciples of the philosophies of Aryasanga (the Yogacharya School) and Mahayana, who are twitted in their turn by their correligionists as “Vedantins in disguise.” The esoteric philosophy of both these can be but one if carefully analysed and compared, as Gautama Buddha and Shankaracharya are most closely connected, if one believes tradition and certain esoteric teachings. Thus every difference between the two will be found one of form rather than of substance.”
(H. P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 637 – see also The Life & Times of Adi Shankaracharya, who in Theosophy is said to have been Buddha’s first “reincarnation” after his life as Gautama.)
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