Sanskrit specialist, Dr Christian Lindtner, Ph.D., makes the distinction between the skandhas (not self) vs Nirvana (which the Buddha never said is not-self):
‘It is also obvious why “everything”, namely the skandhas etc., is said to be “on fire”, and why the skandhas are considered impermanent and without a self.It is not that the Buddha denied an atman in the sense of Brahman. Brahman, or nirvana, is never (or only rhetorically) said to lack any atman.
It is only everything that is manifest that lacks any atman, being, of course subject to the law of pratityasamutpada.”
Source: p239 Christian Lindtner PhD – Indologica Vol 23-24 article 16 Buddhism as Brahmanism,
So the Buddha observes that “Everything” is on fire, “All” is on fire.
What is this “Everything” that the Buddha is talking about? It is the everything world of sensory experience (called all phenomena/sabbe dhamma, also known as the world of the 5 skandhas/6 senses) that is burning.
Burning with what? Burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion (the 3 poisons). This was taught in his Fire Sermon.
In contrast, Nirvana is coolness – like when a fire is put out.
- If “Everything” is burning with the 3 poisons
- And Nirvana is free from the 3 poisons (by definition)
Then obviously, Nirvana isn’t burning with the 3 poisons.
And therefore, Nirvana is excluded from this “All/Everything” known to sensory experience that is on fire. Nirvana is excluded from sabbe dhamma/Sabba.
- The Buddha never denied a Self.
- The Buddha never says that Nirvana is not-self.
In other words, Nirvana is NOT anatta.
And so, if something is not not-self – the 2 negations cancel each other out:
- Remember not-self is a negation of Self. Now if the negation is negated – as in not not-self – then what is left is the original self asserted before the negation.
- It’s like saying all other things are not an apple (like how the Buddha said sabbe dhamma anatta). Now if you have something that is not not-apple, then it must be an apple!
And indeed, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and other Tathagatagarbha Sutras, the Buddha does explicitly come out saying this:
“ … the eternity [nitya] of Great Nirvana is the Self. The Self is pure, the pure is bliss. The Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure are the Tathagata.”
Source: Dharmakshema version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, http://www.nirvanasutra.net/buddhanaturenotupaya.htm