When the Buddha was dying, he said to his followers: "Just as the earth has hills and grass, healing herbs and nourishing grains for all beings to use, the truth that I have taught is also so. It produces the flavor of wonder and is the healing medicine for the ailments of humankind. I have brought you to abide peacefully in this great treasure. But if you have any doubts, you must ask about them now. Whatever your doubts are, I will try to answer them."
"Honored One, we understand the ideas of no self, of no permanent state, and of the suffering caused to the person by the belief that he has a self and is permanent. He is like one who is drunk and sees the hills and rivers, moon and stars wheeling dizzily about him. Such a one will never understand selflessness and will wander on endlessly in a miserable state. It is because of such a miserable state that we cultivate the idea of no self."
Then the Buddha was roused from the calm of coming death and said, "Listen closely! You have used the metaphor of a drunken person but you know only the words and not the meaning! The drunk believes the world is spinning when it is not. You still think the self is a something if you believe you should be selfless in order to save yourselves. You believe you should see the eternal as impermanent, the pure as impure, happiness as suffering. But these are concepts and you have not penetrated the meaning. The meaning is that the real self is truth. The eternal is existence. Happiness is nirvana, and the pure is things as they are.
"You should not practice ideas of impermanence, suffering, impurity, and selflessness as though they are real objects like stones or rocks but look instead for the meaning. You should use expedient means in every place and cultivate the ideas of permanence, happiness, and purity for the sake of all beings. If you do this, you will be like one who sees a gem in the muddied water among the stones and rocks and waits for the water to settle before he skillfully plucks it out. It is the same with cultivating the idea of the self as with permanence, happiness, and purity.
The followers were taken aback. They said, "Honored One, according to all you have taught and spoken, we have been asked to cultivate selflessness, leading to the dropping of the idea of a self. But now you tell us we should cultivate the idea of a self --what is the meaning of this?"
"Good," replied the Buddha. "You are now asking about meaning. You should know that, like a doctor, you should find the right medicine for an illness. It is as a doctor that I observed the ailments of the world. I saw that ordinary people believe they have a self and that whoever they meet has a self. They think of the self as within the body. But it is not like that. Because it is not like that, I have shown the fallacy of all the ideas of self and shown that the self is not there in the way it is thought to be. In everything I have said I have shown that the self is not as people think of it, for this is expedient means, the right medicine.
"But that does not mean that there is no self. What is the self? If something is true, is real, is constant, is a foundation of a nature that is unchanging, this can be called the self. For the sake of sentient beings, in all the truths I have taught, there is such a self. This is for you to cultivate."