Mahamati Bodhisattva addressed the Buddha, “As for entering nirvana, Bhagavan, what is meant by ‘nirvana?'”
The Buddha replied, “Witnessing the transformation of the habit-energy of self-existence of the repository consciousness, the will, and the conceptural consciousness, this is what is meant by nirvana. The nirvana of other buddhas and myself is the realm that is empty of self-existence.
“Moreover, Mahamati, nirvana is the realm of the personal realization of buddha knowledge. It is free from the existence or nonexistence of projections of permanence or impermanence. And why is it not permanent? Because projections of individual or shared characteristics are impermanent. Therefore it is not permanent. And why is it not impermanent? Because it is the personal realization attained by all sages of the past, the present, and the future. Therefore it is not impermanent.
“Mahamati, nirvana is not annihilation or death. If nirvana were death, there would be the continuity of something reborn. And if nirvana were annihilation, it could be characterized as something created. Therefore, nirvana is free from annihilation and free from death. This is why it is the refuge of practitioners.
“Moreover, Mahamati, nirvana isn’t lost, and it isn’t found. It isn’t impermanent, and it isn’t permanent. It doesn’t have one meaning, and it doesn’t have multiple meanings. This is what is meant by nirvana.
“Furthermore, Mahamati, the nirvana of shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas consists in an awareness of individual and shared characteristics, in avoiding contact, in an end to delusions, and in not giving rise to projections. This is their idea of nirvana.
Moreover, Mahamati, there are two kinds of self-existence. And what are they? Attachment to the self-existence of words and attachment to the self-existence of objects. Attachment to the self-existence of words comes from the attachment to the habit-energy of word projections without beginning. Attachment to the self-existence of objects comes from not realizing that the distinctions that arise are perceptions of one’s own mind.
Mahamati once more asked the Buddha, “Bhavagan, is it not because words exist that things exist? If nothing existed, words would not arise. Therefore, Bhavagan, it is because words exist that things exist.”
The Buddha told Mahamati, “Words are created even when things don’t exist. Among the words that appear nowadays are ‘rabbit horns’ and ‘tortoise hair.’ Mahamati, these do not exist and do not not exist. They are merely words. Your contention that because words exists things exist is faulty.
“Nor, Mahamati, do words exist in every world. Words are simply fabrications. In other buddhalands, the Dharma is expressed by staring or by facial expressions, or lifting the eyebrows, or by blinking the eyes, or by smiling, or by opening the mouth, or by clearing the throat, or by thinking about something, or by nodding.
“For example, Mahamati, in the worlds of Unblinking Eyes or Gathered Fragrances or in the land of Samantabhadra Tathagata, a simple stare enables bodhisattvas to attain the forbearance of non-arising and incomparable samadhis. Therefore, the existence of words does not mean the existence of things. Mahamati, in this world such creatures as mosquitoes and gnats and ants and bugs all conduct their lives without words.”
Mahamati once more asked the Buddha, “Bhavagan, please tell us about a buddha’s awareness. What constitutes a buddha’s awareness?”
The Buddha told Mahamati, “It consists in realizing that there is no self in beings or things, in understanding the two obstructions, in transcending the two kinds of death, and in putting an end to the two kinds of affliction. This is what is meant by the awareness of a buddha. Those shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas capable of this are also called buddhas. This is the reason I teach one path.”
“The Bhagavan has said, ‘From the night I attained perfect enlightenment until the night I enter nirvana, between the two, I do not speak, nor have I spoken, nor will I speak a single word, for not speaking is how a buddha speaks.’ Bhagavan, why does the Tathagata say ‘not speaking is how a buddha speaks’?”
The Buddha told Mahamati, “It is because of two truths that I make such a statement as this. And which two? They are the truth that depends on personal realization and the ever-present truth. These are the two truths. It is because of these two truths that I make such a statement.
“And what do I mean by the truth that depends on personal realization? Whatever other tathagatas realize, I also realize, nothing more, nothing less. But the ultimate realm of the truth that depends on personal realization is beyond explanation or distinctions and beyond dualistic terms.
“And what do I mean by ever-present truth? This refers to the way of the ancient sages. The Dharma Realm is ever-present, like the nature of gold or silver. Whether a tathagata appears in the world or does not appear in the world, the Dharma Realm is ever-present. It is like a road that leads to a city. Imagine a man walking in the wilderness who sees this straight and level road leading toward an ancient city and follows it to that city, where he enjoys whatever he desires. Mahamati, what do you think? Did he make the road or that city’s delights?”
Mahamati answered, “No.”
The Buddha told Mahamati, “The ever-present Dharma Realm of myself and all buddhas of the past is also like this. This is the reason I say that from the night of my enlightenment until I enter nirvana, between the two, I do not speak, nor have I spoken, nor will I speak a single word.”
— The Buddha and Bodhisattva Mahamati
While the sutras are numerous and many have never been translated, what we do have access to can be challenging to understand. The lore surrounding the Lankavatara Sutra is that when Bodhidharma chose his successor Hui-k'o, he gave him a copy of the Lanka sutra and told him all he needed to know was in it.
Since the sutras are the first recorded teachings of Buddha, they are like going to the source for instruction rather than relying on commentaries or interpretations that teachers provide, as valuable as they are in themselves. And what is the connection with this sutra and Zen? Within the reading above are several direct references…
“What constitutes a buddha's awareness?”
The Buddha told Mahamati, “It consists in realizing that there is no self in beings or things…”
“nirvana is the realm of the personal realization of buddha knowledge”
One of the most persistant and pervasive aspects of experience is the sense of a “self,” so tenacious, so palpable, so…. what IS this that seems to be present over a lifetime? And knowing that Zen is based on direct experience rather than mental constructs or understanding…..the same question comes up, who or what is having a breakthrough or “direct experience?”
Even the Buddha, long before the idea of a koan had been born, presents one to his listeners…
“From the night I attained perfect enlightenment until the night I enter nirvana, between the two, I do not speak, nor have I spoken, nor will I speak a single word, for not speaking is how a buddha speaks.”
Like everything deep and true in practice, we return again and again to the source to drink deeply and nourish the mind that seeks the Way.
May our way be clear,