What Is the True Self?

The Buddha's Teaching in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra

In Chapter 12 of the great Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the last teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, He expounds the True Self as compared with the false (i.e. "unholy") self, dispelling the misunderstanding among so many in the Sangha who in his day thought - and to this day who still think - that we're trying to get to a state of "no self" consciousness. He explains the skillfulness of first teaching "no-self" then revealing the "true Self" or Buddha-nature inherent in all beings.

The passage below also is a good example of the teaching method of Shakyamuni Buddha, who often taught in parables. It is a model for Listening Deeply, as He hears and answers questions and doubts raised by his follower Kasyapa.

Let's follow along as Shakyamuni expounds the doctrine of the True Self, the Buddha-Nature:

Chapter Twelve: On the Nature of the Tathagata

Kasyapa said to the Buddha:

O World-Honoured One! Is there Self in the 25 existences or not?
The Buddha said:

O good man! Self means Tathagatagarbha [Buddha-Womb, Buddha-Embryo, Buddha-Nature]. Every being has Buddha-Nature. This is 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 overspread 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, and the poor woman is all the innumerable beings, and the cask of true gold is the Buddha-Nature.

Also, next, O good man! As an example: a woman has a child who, while yet very young, is seized by illness. Worried by this, the woman seeks out a good doctor. The good doctor comes and compounds three medicines, which are butter, milk, and rock candy. This he gives her, to have it taken by the child. Then he says to the woman:

"When the child has taken the medicine, do not give any milk to the child for some time. When the medicine has worked its way out, you may then give milk."

Then the woman applies a bitter substance to her nipple and says to the child:

"Do not touch it [i.e. her nipple]. My nipple is poisonous."

The child is dying for the milk and wants to have it. [But] on hearing of the poison, it runs away. After the medicine has done its work, the mother washes her nipple, calls in her child and gives it [her nipple]. Although hungry, the child, having heard about the poison, will not come to it.

The mother then says:

"I only put poison on my nipple so as to give you the medicine. As you have already taken the medicine, I have washed the poison off. Come! Take my nipple. It is not bitter any more."

On hearing this, the child slowly comes back and takes it.

O good man! 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 [cast of] mind that clings to self and 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 adhere to self, that what obtains in the world is all false and not true, and to make them practise non-Self and purify themselves.

This is similar to the woman’s applying a bitter substance to her nipple out of love for her child. It is the same with the Tathagata. For practising the Void, I say that all do not have the Self. This is like the woman’s cleaning her nipple and calling for her child to partake of her milk. The case is the same with me, too: I speak of the Tathagatagarbha. For this reason, the bhiksus do not entertain fear. It is analogous to the child who hears its mother, slowly comes back and takes the milk. The situation is the same with the bhiksus. They should know well that the Tathagata hides nothing.

Bodhisattva Kasyapa said to the Buddha:

O World-Honoured One! Really, there cannot be any case in which there is Self. Why not? When a child is born, it knows nothing. If there is a Self, the child would have to have knowledge when it is born into the world. Hence we can know that there is no Self. If a Self definitely existed, there could not be any loss of knowing. If it were true that all beings eternally possessed Buddha-Nature, there could be no breaking away. If there is no destruction, how can there be the differences of Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya, Sudra, candala, and animals?

Now, the effects of karma are various, and differences exist in life. If there definitely is a Self, there cannot be any victory or defeat with beings. From this, we can definitely know that the Buddha-Nature is eternal Dharma. If the Buddha-Nature is definitely eternal, why do we say speak of such things as killing, stealing, lust, forked tongue, ill-speaking, lying, flattering, greed, hatred, and wrong views? If there really is eternally the nature of Self, why is it that a person becomes intoxicated or mad?

If the nature of Self is eternal, the blind should be able to see, the deaf hear, the dumb talk, and the lame walk. If the Self is eternal, fire, great floods of water, poison, swords, evil persons and animals cannot [need not] be avoided. If the Self is eternal, what has basically changed cannot be forgotten or lost. If forgotten, how can a person say: I have seen this person somewhere [before]? If the Self is eternal, there cannot be old age or youth, no ups or downs, no remembering of what has passed away.

If the Self is eternal, where does it abide or live? Is it the case that tears, spittle, blue, yellow, red, and white are to remain in all things? If the Self is eternal, it will fill the body as in the case of sesame seed, in which there is no space left in between. When the body is cut up into small pieces, the Self, too, would have to be cut up
The Buddha said to Kasyapa:

O good man! As an analogy: there is in the household of a king a great wrestler. He has an adamantine bead on his brow. This man wrestles with other wrestlers. When [once] the head of another person touches his brow, the bead goes into the wrestler’s flesh, and there is no knowing where it is. A boil comes up there. A good doctor is called in to cure it. At that time, there is a good doctor with a bright mind. He knows well how to diagnose and prescribe medicine. Now, he sees that this boil has appeared due to the bead’s having got into the wrestler’s body. He realises that this bead has entered the flesh and remains there. Then, the good doctor asks the wrestler:

"Where is that bead that was on your brow?"

The wrestler is surprised and answers:

"O great teacher and doctor! Has not the bead on my brow got lost? Where could the bead be now? Is this not a miracle [that you know about it]?"

He is worried and weeps. Then, the doctor pacifies the wrestler:

"Do not be over-concerned. When you fought, the gem entered your body. It is now under your skin and can be seen, looming up. As you fought, the poison of anger so burned that the gem got into your body and you did not feel it."

But the wrestler does not believe the doctor’s words.

"If it is under my skin, how is it that it does not come out because of the impure pus and blood? If it is in my sinews, we cannot possibly see it. Why do you mean to cheat me?"

Then, the doctor takes up a mirror and holds it in front of the wrestler’s face. The gem appears clearly in the mirror. The wrestler sees it, is surprised and is all wonder. It is like that. O good man! The case is the same with all beings. They do not come near to a good teacher of the Way. So, they cannot see the Buddha-Nature which is within, even though they possess it. And they are reigned over by greed, lust, anger, and ignorance. So they fall into the realms of hell, animals, hungry ghosts, asuras, candalas, and get born in such various houses as Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya and Sudra.

The karma generated by the mind leads a person, though born a human, into such lives as a cripple, lame, deaf, blind or dumb person, and to the 25 existences, where such as greed, lust, anger and ignorance reign over the mind, and the person is unable to know of the presence of the Buddha-Nature. The wrestler says that the gem has gone away, even though it is [actually] in his body. The same with beings, too. Not having come into contact with a good teacher of the Way, they do not know the Tathagata’s hidden treasure and do not study selflessness.

For example, even when a person is told of the unholy self, he cannot know the true quality of the 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 it [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. This is like the good doctor’s making the wrestler see where the adamantine jewel rests. All these beings are reigned over by innumerable defilements and thus do not know the whereabouts of the Buddha-Nature. When illusion is dispelled, there arises knowledge and brightness. This is like the wrestler’s seeing the gem in the mirror. O good man! It is thus the case that what rests undisclosed [latent] in the Tathagata is innumerable and is difficult for beings to think about.

Also, O good man! As an example, there is a medicine in the Himalayas called pleasing taste. It tastes very sweet. It grows hidden under a deep growth of plants, and we cannot easily see it. But from its scent, one can come to know the whereabouts of this medicine. In days gone by, there was a chakravartin who, placing wooden tubes here and there in the Himalayas, collected this medicine. When it had ripened, it flowed out and entered the tubes. It tasted truly right.

When the king died, this medicine became sour, salty, sweet, bitter, or hot, or light. Thus, what is one, tastes differently according to the different places. The true taste of the medicine remains in the mountains; it is like the full moon. Any common mortal, sterile in virtue, may work hard, dig, and try, but cannot get it. Only a chakravartin, high in virtue, appearing in the world can arrive at the true value of this medicine because of happy circumstantial concatenations.

The same is the case [here]. O good man! The taste of the hidden store of the Tathagata is also like this. Overspread by all the growths of defilement, the beings clad in ignorance cannot hope to see it. We speak of the one taste. This applies, for instance, to the Buddha-Nature. On account of the presence of defilement, several tastes appear, such as the realms of hell, animals, hungry pretas, devas, human beings, men, women, non-men, non-women, Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya and Sudra.

The Buddha-Nature is strong and vigorous. It is hard to destroy. Therefore, there is nothing that can kill it. If there were something that could indeed kill it, Buddha-Nature would die. [But] nothing can ever destroy such Buddha-Nature. Nothing of this nature can ever be cut. “The nature of Self is nothing other than the hidden storehouse of the Tathagata”. Such a storehouse can never be smashed, set on fire, or done away with. Although it is not possible to destroy or see it, one can know of it when one attains unsurpassed Enlightenment. Hence, there is indeed nothing that can kill it.

Bodhisattva Kasyapa said to the Buddha:

If nothing can kill it, no karmic consequences would ensue from evil actions.

The Buddha said to Kasyapa:

There truly is [such a thing as] killing. How? O good man! The Buddha-Nature of beings rests within the five skandhas. If the five skandhas are destroyed, this is killing [of those skandhas]. If one harms a living thing, one gains the unfortunate realms. Through the working of karma, one transmigrates through such realms as Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya, Sudra, candala, or man, woman, non-man, non-woman, and the 25 variegated existences.

A person who has not reached the holy stage of a sage is waywardly bound up by attachment to self. All such phases [modes] of existence, whether big or small, are like barnyard grass, like rice or a bean, or like the thumb. Thus do they [i.e. ignorant beings] loosely imagine things. There can be no true shape in wild fancies. The shape of Self that seeks to flee from the world is Buddha-Nature. This is the best way of conceiving of the Self.

And next, O good man! As an analogy: there is a man here who knows well what is hidden [under the ground]. He takes a sharp hoe, digs into the ground and hits upon such things as stones and gravel. All goes through and nothing hinders [i.e. the hoe digs through everything, without being obstructed]. Only when the diamond comes in its way, can the hoe not dig through. Now, no sword or hatchet can destroy a diamond.

O good man! The Buddha-Nature of beings is like this. It is something that all those people who discuss things, Marapapiyas, all men and devas cannot destroy. What characterises the five skandhas is [the phenomenon of] what occurs and what is done. Whatever occurs and is done can certainly be destroyed, like stones and sand. “The True Self of the Buddha-Nature is like the diamond, which cannot be crushed”. Hence, we call the destroying of the five skandhas the killing of life. O good man! Know well most definitely that the Buddhist teaching is not within the boundaries of conceiving.