Tuesday, June 02, 2009


A recent talk was about nirvana. Now I’m going to flog a dead horse and say some more about the subject.

Just for the fun of it, I looked up nirvana in the American Heritage Dictionary. There, the word is related to Buddhism, and is defined as the ineffable ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. Some synonyms are bliss, cloud nine, utopia, dreamland.

Nirvana is a Sanskrit word that is sometimes printed as nibbana. It is supposedly the goal of Buddhist life.

But this implies a contradiction.

Buddhism, and in particular, Zen, does not have a goal. Rather than striving to attain an objective, Zen is being.

For another definition, nirvana is a mental, physical, and spiritual state that lies beyond the normal range of perception. That sounds pretty spooky to most Westerners. As I said earlier, the word is Sanskrit, and it literally means “to blow out,” as to blow out a candle flame.

This is where Western thinking goes awry. To blow out a candle flame is to extinguish it. To extinguish is to make an end to life, to expire, even to go to the so-called abode of righteous souls after death: Heaven with a capital “H.”

But nirvana is not Heaven. Nirvana is not a place but a state.

A principle of Buddhism says that all life is suffering. Suffering involves the flames of hatred, craving, greed, and ignorance. Only in nirvana are these flames snuffed out.

Within Western scholarship, debates go on over whether nirvana involves total annihilation or eternal bliss. Trying to settle this is like trying to resolve that medieval conundrum that occupied church authorities for centuries as to how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Who cares?

What does it matter?

Nirvana is indescribable and can be known only directly. It is not an external goal but one’s innermost nature.

But isn’t that the same as enlightenment? Awakening?

To answer myself, yes.

I dislike introducing another Sanskrit word, but it’s a word that often pops up in conjunction with nirvana, so it should be mentioned. The word is samsara. In simplest terms it means the course of life, involving birth, suffering, death, and, in Hinduism, rebirth.

In Buddhist terms, when one overcomes samsara, nirvana is achieved.

What is important is not to become attached to either samsara or nirvana because neither is a big deal. Nirvana is ultimate reality, but neither it nor samsara is a person, place, or thing. Becoming all wrapped up in the inevitable ups and downs of life is as undesirable as becoming attached to the ending of those ups and downs.

Remember the Beatle’s song “Let It Be.” Whatever it is, let it be.

Masao Abe, professor of Buddhism and Japanese Philosophy, said (Zen and Comparative Studies) “Nirvana is the real source of prajna (wisdom) because it is entirely free from the discriminating mind and thus is able to see everything in its uniqueness and distinctiveness without any sense of attachment."

Because nirvana is ultimate reality, attaining nirvana means gaining liberation from all duality.

Remember the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha, kill him.” This means not getting stuck in nirvana or in anything else that has the stink of religion.

When Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma “What is the ultimate principle of holy truth, Bodhidharma answered, “Emptiness, no holiness.”

Supposedly the Buddha was once asked about one’s existence after death. Because this was a highly abstract, theoretical question the Buddha didn’t bother to answer. Answers to such questions are of no value to awakening. Besides, words can’t make satisfactory statements about what lies beyond life, if anything lies beyond life.

Some scholars claim that enlightenment and nirvana are the same. Other scholars say they are different. Still others say nirvana and enlightenment are both the same and different, which is one of those fascinating Zen paradoxes that can keep you awake all night if you put your mind to it.

As Gary McClain and Eve Adamson say in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, “Wanting nirvana means you don’t have it, can’t have it. Having it means it doesn’t even occur to you to want it.”

When you are awakened, there’s no such thing as being enlightened.

For a lame analogy, let’s liken enlightenment, or nirvana, to a thing, say, a fresh peach. You get a glimpse of a peach, you think about the peach, you imagine how tasty the peach might be. You imagine the texture, the juiciness, and the flavor.

You eat the peach, and it is delicious.

Then the peach is gone. There’s no such thing any more than the peach. It has become a part of you, but you aren’t aware of that.

When you are awakened, there’s no such thing as being awakened.

Again quoting McClain and Adamson (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living), “Nirvana isn’t the end. It begins a gradual evolution of awakening throughout your life . . . .”

Remember the story and pictures of the classical Zen lesson of “The Ten Bulls,” also called “The Oxherding Pictures”? The final picture of the series is called “Entering the Marketplace,” and it denotes not removal from the world but being an integral part of it.

With awakening, or nirvana, you are more you than you were before. You have seen your face before you were born. You have become self-realization.

You are in the world but no longer of the world.


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