Although the Nirvana Sutra mentions some of the well-known episodes in the final months of the life of the Buddha, the sutra uses these narratives merely as a convenient springboard for the expression of standard Mahayana ideals. Both in style and in content, the Nirvana Sutra displays a disregard for historic particulars and a fascination with the supernatural and the ideals which characterize Mahayana writings in general. As a Mahayana Sutra, it is of rather late date (after the second century AD).
There are three extant versions of the Mahāyāna-mahāparinirvāna-sūtra, each translated from various Sanskrit editions: the shortest and earliest is the translation into Chinese by Faxian and Buddhabhadra in six juan (418CE), the next in terms of development is the Tibetan version (c790CE) by Jinamitra, Jnanagarbha, and Devacandra, and the extended version in 40 juan by Dharmakshema (422) which was also translated into Tibetan from the Chinese. There also exists a secondary Chinese version in 36 juan of Dharmakshema's translation, produced by polishing the style and adding new section headings and completed in 453CE. It is also known from Chinese catalogues of translations that at least two other Chinese translations were done, slightly earlier than Faxian, but these are no longer extant. Though a complete version of the entire text in Sanskrit has not yet been discovered, some fragments of original Sanskrit versions have been discovered in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Japan.
The text of the Nirvana Sutra in the original Sanskrit has survived only in a number of fragments, which were discovered in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Japan. It does exist in Chinese and Tibetan versions of varying lengths. Faxian, the monk who initially brought the text to China from India, prepared a brief translation containing six fascicles, but slightly later translation had forty fascicles. Still later, Huiguan, Huiyan, Xie Lingyun, and others during the Liu Song dynasty integrated and amended the translations of Faxian and into a single edition of thirty-six fascicles. That version is called the "southern text" of the Nirvana Sutra, while version is called the "northern text." There is also a Tibetan translation, compiled in about 790 by the Indian panditas Jinamitra, Jnanagarbha and the Tibetan scholar-monk Devacandra, which is comparable in length to Faxian's translation. Thus, there are four extant versions:
It is also known from Chinese catalogues of translations that at least two other Chinese translations were done, slightly earlier than Faxian, but these are no longer extant.
The scripture further presents itself as providing the correct understanding of earlier Buddhist teachings, such as those on non-Self and Emptiness: "non-Self" in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra refers to the impermanent, mundane, skandha-constructed ego, whose seeming reality is called by the Buddha "a lie" (in contrast to the true supramundane Selfhood of the Buddha), while "Emptiness" (shunyata) is explicated as meaning empty of that which is compounded, painful, and impermanent (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit., Vol. 2, pp. 30-31; Buddha-Self by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2003, Vol. 2, p. 70). The Buddha, in the Fa-xian version of the text, points out that worldly beings who misapprehend the authentic Buddhist Doctrine "... have the notion that there is no Self, and are unable to know the True Self." (Buddha-Self, op.cit. Vol. 1, p. 53). This True Self, of course, is not the suffering-prone and hapless clinging ego - not the conditioned and transitory "self" which unawakened persons clutch at as their identity - but the Self-which-signifies-Buddha: all-knowing and all-pure Ultimate Reality, unconstrained by the limitations and illusions of samsara. This Self of the Buddha is the source of ever-enduring life. The Buddha is likened to a great sea, whose expanse and longevity cannot be measured: "All the great rivers of life of all people, of the gods, the earth and the sky drain into the Tathagata's sea of life. Hence, the length of life of the Tathagata is uncountable." (Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra by Kosho Yamamoto, The Karinbunko, Tokyo, 1975, p. 61).
The Nirvana Sutra is an enormously important scripture, not least because of its influence on Zen Buddhism and in view of its traditional status as the final Mahayana pronouncements of the Buddha on the eve of his physical death. It is striking for its teachings on the eternal, unchanging, blissful, pure, inviolate and deathless "Self" (ātman) of the Buddha in the interiority of Nirvana: "... if the non-eternal is made away with [in Nirvana], what there remains must be the Eternal; if there is no more any sorrow, what there remains must be Bliss; if there is no more any non-Self, what exists there must be the Self; if there is no longer anthing that is impure, what there is must be the Pure" (Kosho Yamamoto, Mahayanism: A Criticla Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, The Karinbunko, Tokyo, 1975, pp. 107-108). Here the sutra controverts the familiar Buddhist dictum that "all dharmas [phenomena] are non-Self", and in the Dharmakshema version the Buddha even declares that "in truth there is Self (Atman) in all dharmas". That Self is "indestructible like a diamond" (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit., Vol. 3, p.6), and yet can assume all manner of forms, including those of the gods Shiva and Vishnu (Buddhist Thought, Professor Paul Williams, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 243). Any idea that the Buddha (who is the immortal Self – Mahayanism, op. cit., pp. 61-62) is impermanent is vigorously rejected by the Buddha in this sutra, and those who teach otherwise are severely criticised. He insists: "Those who cannot accept that the Tathāgata is eternal [nitya] cause misery." (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 16). In contrast, meditating upon the eternality of the Buddha is said to bring happiness and protection from rebirth in evil realms. The eternal being of the Buddha should be likened - the sutra says - to indelible letters carved upon stone. Furthermore, protecting and promoting this teaching of the Buddha's eternity is said to bring innumerable and inconceivable blessings to its votaries (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., passim).
Much of the central focus of the Nirvana Sutra falls on the existence of the salvific Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature, Buddha element, or Buddha principle), also called the Tathagatagarbha ("Buddha-matrix" or "Buddha embryo"), in every sentient being (animals included - hence the Buddha's strong support for vegetarianism in this sutra), the full seeing of which ushers in Liberation from all suffering and effects final deliverance into the realm of Great Nirvana (maha-nirvana). This "True Self" or "Great Self" of the nirvanic realm is said to be sovereign, to be attained on the morning of Buddhahhood, and to pervade all places like space (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit. Vol. 5, p.60). The Buddha-dhatu is always present, in all times and in all beings, but is obscured from worldly vision by the screening effect of tenacious negative mental afflictions (kleshas) within each being (the most notable of which are greed, hatred, delusion, and pride). Once these negative mental states have been eliminated, however, the Buddha-dhatu is said to shine forth unimpededly and the Buddha-sphere (Buddha-dhatu/ visaya) can then be consciously "entered into", and therewith deathless Nirvana attained (Mahayanism, op.cit., pp. 94-96).
The Tathagatagarbha is presented by the Nirvana Sutra as a wholly positive, liberational power, and is stated by the Buddha, in the earliest extant version of the sutra (the "six fascicle text" of Fa-xian, q.v.), to "nurture/sustain the person". It is further called "true life" (true "jiva"), and said to be utterly invulnerable to all harm. It is likened to a "precious jewel" and is described as being "indestructible like a diamond" (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 3, p.5) - the hardest substance known to mankind.
The highest form of Nirvana — Mahaparinirvana — is also discussed in very positive, "cataphatic" terms in the Nirvana Sutra. Mahaparinirvana is characterized as being that which is "Eternal (nitya), Blissful (sukha), the Self (atman) and Pure (subha)" (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit., passim). This state or sphere (visaya) of ultimate awareness and Knowing (jnana), however, is said to be accessible only to those who have become fully awakened Buddhas. Even 10th-level Bodhisattvas (i.e. the very highest level of Bodhisattva) are not able clearly to perceive the Buddha-dhatu, and they further fail to see with clarity that the immutable, unfabricated Dhatu dwells indestructibly within all beings (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 8, p.67). The longer versions of the Nirvana Sutra additionally give expession to the new claim (not found in the shorter Chinese and Tibetan versions) that, because of the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-principle/ Buddha-nature), absolutely all beings without exception, even icchantikas (the most incorrigible and spiritually base of beings), will eventually attain Liberation and become Buddhas (Mahayanism, op.cit., pp. 153-154).
"The Buddha-Tathagatas are not eternally extinguished in Nirvana like the heat of an iron ball that is quickly extinguished when cast into water. Moreover, it is thus: just as the heat of an iron ball is extinguished when thrown into water, the Tathagata is likewise; when the immeasurable mental afflictions have been extinguished, it is similar to when an iron ball is cast into water - although the heat is extinguished, the substance / nature of the iron remains. In that way, when the Tathagata has completely extinguished the fire of the mental afflictions that have been accumulated over countless aeons, the nature of the diamond Tathagata permanently endures - not transforming and not diminishing." (Fa-xian version, tr. by Stephen Hodge, quoted in Buddha-Self, op.cit., p. 92).
On his teaching of "non-Self" (the "worldly self", which ultimately does not exist eternally, but obscures the True Self) and the tathagata-garbha: "When I have taught non-Self, fools uphold the teaching that there is no Self. The wise know that such is conventional speech, and they are free from doubts. "When I have taught that the tathagata-garbha is empty, fools meditatively cultivate [the notion] that it is extinction [uccheda], subject to destruction and imperfect. The wise know that it is [actually] unchanging, stable and eternal." " ... just as cow's milk is delicious, so too is the taste of this [Nirvana] Sutra similar to that. Those who abandon the teaching given in this sutra concerning the tathagata-garbha are just like cattle. For example, just as people who intend to commit suicide will cause themselves extreme misery, similarly you should know that those ungrateful people who reject the tathagata-garbha and teach non-Self cause themselves extreme misery." (Tibetan version, tr. by Stephen Hodge, quoted in Buddha-Self, op. cit., p. 108).
In contrast to the illusory, conditioned, worldly self, the Self of the Buddha is real and enduring: "The Tathagata's Body is not causally conditioned. Because it is not causally conditioned, it is said to have the Self; if it has the Self, then it is also Eternal, Blissful and Pure." (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op.cit., Vol. 7, p.71).
"The Tathagata also teaches, for the sake of all beings, that, truly, there is the Self in all phenomena." (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 1, p.46).
"Noble son, there is 'Nirvana', but that is not Maha-nirvana [i.e. Great Nirvana]. Why is Nirvana not Maha-nirvana? The elimination of the mental afflictions [kleshas] without having seen the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha-principle, Buddha-nature] is called 'Nirvana' and not Maha-nirvana. Thus, because [= when] a person has not seen the Buddha-dhatu, there is [for that person] no eternity nor Self, although there is bliss and utter purity. Hence, even though the mental afflictions have been eliminated, it should not be called 'Maha-nirvana'. When one has seen the Buddha-dhatu and eliminated the mental afflictions, that is called 'Maha-parinirvana'. Because of having seen the Buddha-dhatu [i.e. the dharmakaya or dhammakaya], it is said to be Eternal, the Self, Blissful and utterly Pure, and therefore that elimination of the mental afflictions is said to be Maha-parinirvana." (Dharmaksema version, tr. by Stephen Hodge, quoted in Buddha-Self, op.cit. pp.39-40).
"It is not the case that the inherent nature of Nirvana did not primordially exist, but now exists. If the inherent nature of Nirvana did not primordially exist, but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints, nor would it be eternally [nitya] present in nature ... [Nirvana] is primordially existent and does not just come into existence in the present. Because of the obscuring darkness of the mental afflictions, beings do not see it. The Tathagata, endowed with omniscient awareness [sarvajna-jnana], lights the lamp of insight with his skill-in-means and causes bodhisattvas to perceive the Eternal, the Bliss, the Self and the Purity of Nirvana." (Dharmaksema version, tr. by Stephen Hodge, quoted in Buddha-Self, op.cit., Vol. 2, p. 59).