Nirvāṇa school

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An early school of Chinese Buddhism that focused its attention and study on the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, translated into Chinese in the early 5th century (earlier versions are now all lost). Three translations of this sūtra exist in the Chinese canon, and controversies surrounding the first and second of these played an integral role in the establishment of this school. The first, translated by Fa-hsien (4th–5th centuries ce) and Buddhabhadra (359–429) in 418, consisted of six fascicles, and included material that appeared to indicate support for the view that a class of beings called icchantikas lack Buddha-nature.or the potential to achieve Buddhahood, and thus were eternally doomed to course through saṃsāra. A prominent monk named Tao-sheng (360–434), who had been working with the great translator Kumarājīva (343–413) in the capital Ch'ang-an.felt strongly that such a teaching violated the basic spirit of Mahāyāna Buddhism and publicly declared that the Fa-hsien/Buddhabhadra translation must be incomplete. For daring to contradict scripture, he was denounced and left the capital, convinced that he would be vindicated. In 422, another translation by Dharmakṣema (385–433) appeared in 40 fascicles that showed the earlier translation to be incomplete and provided clear statements of the universality of Buddha-nature. Tao-sheng returned to his teaching post with renewed prestige.

The Nirvāṇa school that centred on this text stressed what it took to be the scripture's central teachings: (1) that (final) nirvāṇa is not annihilation but an eternal and joyous state; (2) that all beings have Buddha-nature and are capable of attaining salvation; (3) that this Buddha-nature is not only the potential for Buddhahood, but identical with the final nature of reality, or emptiness (śūnyatā), thus removing some of the negative connotations of the latter term and making more of a positive vision of the truth of things; (4) that, since the ultimate nature of things is undivided and without characteristics that one could grasp, then the wisdom that realizes the ultimate nature of things must arise and comprehend it all at once; and (5) that even though living beings have no self (ātman) that travels through saṃsāra and is the subject of suffering, this does not mean that there is no self that realizes wisdom and nirvāṇa; rather, wisdom reveals Buddha-nature as the true self beyond all the transitoriness and delusion of the present world. These teachings gave a positive cast to doctrines that had previously seemed pessimistic and nihilistic by asserting that the removal of illusion reveals the real state of things, such that the discovery of transcendent reality lay at the end of the process of denying falsehoods. Aside from this fact, this text became more and more a popular subject of study and lecture because of the controversy surrounding Tao-sheng and the issues it raised, and because of Dharmarakṣa's own efforts in promoting his translation. His student Tao-lang composed a commentary explaining further the identity between Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (madhyamā-pratipad) that realizes emptiness, thus helping spread the notion of truth as an active force at work in the world as it is expressed in the nature of living beings, as opposed to prior notions of emptiness which saw the nature of reality as static. Because of this interest, a monk named Tao-p'u attempted a journey to India to recover other Sanskrit versions of the scripture, but failed in the attempt. Another group of monks and laymen, acting under orders of King Wen of the Liu-Sung dynasty (r. 424–453) took the previous two translations and collated their contents, adding polish to the text and rationalizing its section headings to produce the so-called Southern Text in 36 fascicles.


Subjects: Buddhism.

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