At that time the Buddha said to the bodhisattvas and all the great assembly: "Believe and discern, all you good sons, the veracious word of the Tathagata." Again he said to the great assembly: "Believe and discern the veracious word of the Tathagata." And again he said to all the great assembly: "Believe and discern the veracious word of the Tathagata." Then the great host of bodhisattvas, Maitreya at their head, folded their hands and said to the Buddha: "World-honored One! Be pleased to expound the matter, and we will believingly receive the Buddha's words." Thus they spoke three times, repeating the words: "Be pleased to expound the matter, and we will believingly receive the Buddha's words."
Then the World-honored One, perceiving that the bodhisattvas thrice without ceasing repeated their request, addressed them, saying: "Listen then all of you attentively to the secret, mysterious, and supernaturally pervading power1 of the Tathagata. All the worlds of gods, men, and asuras consider: 'Now has Shakyamuni Buddha come forth from the palace of the Shakya clan, and seated at the training place of enlightenment, not far from the city of Gaya, has attained Perfect Enlightenment.' But, my good sons, since I veritably became Buddha [there have passed] infinite, boundless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of kalpas. For instance, suppose there were five hundred thousand myriad kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya three thousand-great-thousandfold worlds; let someone grind them to atoms, pass eastward through five hundred thousand myriad kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya countries, and then drop one of those atoms; suppose he thus proceeded eastward till he had finished those atoms - what do you think, my good sons, is it possible to imagine and calculate all those worlds so as to know their number?" Maitreya Bodhisattva and the others all said to the Buddha: "World-honored One! Those worlds are infinite, boundless, beyond the knowledge of reckoning and beyond the reach of thought. Not all the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, with their faultless wisdom, would be able to imagine and know the bounds of those numbers. And to us also, who are dwelling in the stage of avaivartika, these matters are beyond apprehension. World-honored One! All such worlds as these are measureless and boundless."
Thereupon the Buddha addressed all those bodhisattva-mahasattvas: "Good sons! Now I must clearly announce and declare to you. Suppose you take as atomized all those worlds where an atom has been deposited or where it has not been deposited, and [count] an atom as a kalpa, [the time] since I became Buddha still surpasses these by hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya kalpas. From that time forward I have constantly been preaching and teaching in this saha-world, and also leading and benefiting all living beings in other places in hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya domains. Good sons! During this time I have ever spoken of myself as the Buddha Burning Light and other [buddhas], and also have told of their entering into nirvana. Thus have I tactfully described them all. Good sons! Whenever living beings come to me, I behold with a buddha's eyes all the faculties, keen or dull, of their faith and so on. And I explain to them, in stage after stage, according to their capacity and degree of salvation, my different names and the length of my lives, and moreover plainly state that I must enter nirvana. I also, in various tactful ways, preach the Wonderful Law which is able to cause all the living to beget a joyful heart. Good sons! Beholding the propensities of all the living toward lower things, so that they have little virtue and much vileness, to these men the Tathagata declares: 'In my youth I left home and attained Perfect Enlightenment.' But since I verily became Buddha, thus have I ever been, and thus have I made declaration, only by my tactful methods to teach and transform all living beings, so that they may enter the Way of the Buddha. Good sons! All the sutras which the Tathagata preaches are for the deliverance of the living. Whether speaking of himself or speaking of others, whether indicating himself or indicating others, and whether indicating his own affairs or the affairs of others,2 whatever he says is all real and not empty air. Wherefore? [Because] the Tathagata knows and sees the character of the triple world as it really is: [to him] there is neither birth nor death, or going away or coming forth; neither living nor dead; neither reality nor unreality; neither thus nor otherwise.3 Unlike [the way] the triple world beholds the triple world, the Tathagata clearly sees such things as these without mistake. Because all the living have various natures, various desires, various activities, various ideas and reasonings, [so] desiring to cause them to produce the roots of goodness, [the Tathagata] by so many reasonings, parables, and discourses has preached his various truths. The Buddha-deeds which he does have never failed for a moment. Thus it is, since I became Buddha in the very far distant past, [that my] lifetime is of infinite asamkhyeya kalpas, forever existing and immortal. Good sons! The lifetime which I attained by pursuing the bodhisattva-way is not even yet accomplished but will still be twice the previous number [of kalpas]. But now, in this unreal nirvana, I announce that I must enter the [real] nirvana. In this tactful way the Tathagata teaches all living beings. Wherefore? If the Buddha abides long in the world, men of little virtue who do not cultivate the roots of goodness and are [spiritually] poor and mean, greedily attached to the five desires, and are caught in the net of [wrong] reflection and false views--if they see the Tathagata constantly present and not extinct, [they] will then become puffed up and lazy, and unable to conceive the idea that it is hard to meet [the Buddha] or a mind of reverence [for him]. Therefore the Tathagata tactfully teaches: 'Know, bhikshus, the appearance of buddhas in the world is a rare occurrence.' Wherefore? In the course of countless hundreds of thousands of myriad kotis of kalpas, some men of little virtue may happen to see a buddha or none may see him. For this reason I say: 'Bhikshus! A tathagata may rarely be seen!' All these living beings, hearing such a statement, must certainly realize the thought of the difficulty of meeting a buddha and cherish a longing and a thirst for him; then will they cultivate the roots of goodness. Therefore the Tathagata, though he does not in reality become extinct, yet announces [his] extinction. Again, good sons! The method of all buddha-tathagatas is always like this in order to save all the living, and it is altogether real and not false.
"Suppose, for instance, a good physician, who is wise and perspicacious, conversant with medical art, and skillful in healing all sorts of diseases. He has many sons, say ten, twenty, even up to a hundred. Because of some matter he goes abroad to a distant country. After his departure, his sons drink his other poisonous medicines, which send them into a delirium, and they lie rolling on the ground. At this moment their father comes back to his home. Of the sons who drank the poison, some have lost their senses, others are [still] sensible, but on seeing their father [approaching] in the distance they are all greatly delighted, and kneeling, salute him, asking; 'How good it is that you are returned in safety! We, in our foolishness, have mistakenly dosed ourselves with poison. We beg that you will heal us and give us back our lives.' The father, seeing his sons in such distress, in accordance with his prescriptions seeks for good herbs altogether perfect in color, scent, and fine flavor, and then pounds, sifts, and mixes them and gives them to his sons to take, speaking thus: 'This excellent medicine, with color, scent, and fine flavor altogether perfect, you may [now] take, and it will at once rid you of your distress so that you will have no more suffering.' Those amongst the sons who are sensible, seeing this excellent medicine with color and scent both good, take it immediately and are totally delivered from their illness. The others, who have lost their senses, seeing their father come, though they are also delighted, salute him, and ask him to heal their illness, yet when he offers them the medicine, they are unwilling to take it. Wherefore? Because the poison has entered deeply, they have lost their senses, and [even] in regard to this medicine of excellent color and scent they acknowledge that it is not good. The father reflects thus: 'Alas for these sons, afflicted by this poison, and their minds all unbalanced. Though they are glad to see me and implore to be healed, yet they are unwilling to take such excellent medicine as this. Now I must arrange an expedient plan so that they will take this medicine.' Then he says to them: 'You should know that I am now worn out with old age and the time of my death has now arrived. This excellent medicine I now leave here. You may take it and have no fear of not being better.' After thus admonishing them, he departs again for another country and sends a messenger back to inform them: 'Your father is dead.' And now, when those sons hear that their father is dead, their minds are greatly distressed and they thus reflect: 'If our father were alive he would have pity on us, and we should be saved and preserved. But now he has left us and died in a distant country. [Now] we feel we are orphans and have no one to rely on.' Continuous grief brings them to their senses, and they recognize the color, scent, and excellent flavor of the medicine and thereupon take it, their poisoning being entirely relieved. The father, hearing that the sons are all recovered, seeks an opportunity and returns so that they all see him. All my good sons! What is your opinion? Are there any who could say that this good physician had committed the sin of falsehood?"
"No, World-honored One!"
The Buddha [then] said; "I also am like this. Since I became Buddha, infinite boundless hundred thousand myriad kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya kalpas ago, for the sake of all living beings, by my tactful power, I have declared that I must enter nirvana, yet there is none who can lawfully accuse me of the error of falsehood."
At that time the World-honored One, desiring to proclaim this teaching over again, spoke thus in verse:
"Since I attained buddhahood,
The kalpas through which I have passed
Are infinite thousands of myriads
Of kotis of asamkhyeya years.
Ceaselessly preached I the Law and taught
Countless kotis of creatures
To enter the Way of the Buddha;
Since then are unmeasured kalpas.
In order to save all creatures,
By tactful methods I reveal nirvana,
Yet truly I am not [yet] extinct
But forever here preaching the Law.
I forever remain in this [world],
Using all my spiritual powers
So that all perverted creatures,
Though I am near, yet fail to see me.
All looking on me as extinct
Everywhere worship my relics,
All cherishing longing desires,
And beget thirsting hearts of hope.
[When] all creatures have believed and obeyed,
In [character] upright, in mind gentle,
Wholeheartedly wishing to see the Buddha,
Not caring for their own lives,
Then I with all the Samgha
Appear together on the Divine Vulture Peak.
And then I tell all creatures
That I exist forever in this [world],
By the power of tactful methods
Revealing [myself] extinct and not extinct.
[If] in other regions there are beings
Reverent and with faith aspiring,
Again I am in their midst
To preach the supreme Law.
You, not hearing of this,
Only say I am extinct.
I behold all living creatures
Sunk in the sea of suffering,
Hence I do not reveal myself
But set them all aspiring,
Till, when their hearts are longing,
I appear to preach the Law.
In such supernaturally pervading power,
Throughout asamkhyeya kalpas
[I am] always on the Divine Vulture Peak
And in every other dwelling place.
When all the living see, at the kalpa's end,
The conflagration when it is burning,
Tranquil is this realm of mine,
Ever filled with heavenly beings,
Parks, and many palaces
With every kind of gem adorned,
Precious trees full of blossoms and fruits,
Where all creatures take their pleasure;
All the gods strike the heavenly drums
And evermore make music,
Showering mandarava flowers
On the Buddha and his great assembly.
My Pure Land will never be destroyed,
Yet all view it as being burned up,
And grief and horror and distress
Fill them all like this.
All those sinful creatures,
By reason of their evil karma,
Throughout asamkhyeya kalpas,
Hear not the name of the Precious Three.
But all who perform virtuous deeds
And are gentle and of upright nature,
These all see that I exist
And am here expounding the Law.
At times for all this throng
I preach the Buddha's life is eternal;
To those who at length see the Buddha
I preach that a buddha is rarely met.
My intelligence-power is such,
My wisdom-light shines infinitely,
My life is of countless kalpas,
From long-cultivated karma obtained.
You who have intelligence,
Do not in regard to this beget doubt
But bring it forever to an end,
For the Buddha's words are true, not false.
Like the physician who with clever device,
In order to cure his demented sons,
Though indeed alive announces [his own] death,
[Yet] cannot be charged with falsehood,
I, too, being father of this world,
Who heals all misery and affliction,
For the sake of the perverted people,
Though truly alive, say [I am] extinct;
[Lest,] because always seeing me,
They should beget arrogant minds,
Be dissolute and set in their five desires,
And fall into evil paths.
I, ever knowing all beings,
Those who walk or walk not in the Way,
According to the right principles of salvation
Expound their every Law,
Ever making this my thought:
'How shall I cause all the living
To enter the Way supreme
And speedily accomplish their buddhahood?'"*
According to Chih-i, by "secret" is meant that the one body of the Buddha is three bodies, and by "mysterious" that the three bodies are in the one. Spiritually or supernaturally pervading power, or power of spiritual or supernatural pervasion, or ubiquity, is the function of the three bodies, or trikaya:
(truth-body or Law-body), the sambhogakaya
(reward-body or bliss-body), and the nirmanakaya
(mutation-body or response-body). Dharmakaya
indicates the buddhahood in its universality, nirmanakaya
the buddhahood embodied or personalized, and sambhogakaya
the buddhahood as spiritualized. Chih-i attributes the revelation of the trikaya
in this form to this passage and emphasizes the unity of the trinity as constituting the only correct doctrine of the Buddha's person and reality.
The Chinese text accords with Burnouf's translation. Kern has "either under his own appearance or another's, either on his own authority or under the mask of another" (SBE vol. 21, p. 301).
This can also be read: "it is neither born nor dies, or disappears or comes forth; it has no secular existence and no extinction; it is neither real nor unreal, neither thus nor otherwise."
The revelation of the eternal life of the Buddha in this chapter is among the most essential of the Buddha's teachings.