Wednesday, December 01, 2010


I’ve said many times that awakening—also called enlightenment—is Zen. I’ve also said that awakening—also called satori—is not some sort of goal. Awakening is not an end product.

Zen doesn’t have goals. Sometimes when I say that, listener’s jaws drop. People are crestfallen. They wonder why they should become involved in something that doesn’t lead them to an objective.

If we direct our lives toward a goal we shift from living right now to living in the future. We spend a lot of time thinking about what might be—such as retirement, or graduation, or a long vacation lolling on a tropical beach.

That sort of thinking is human, and it’s natural. But to reach too far ahead into a nebulous future can lead to attachments, and attachments can diminish the present.

To make this sound like a syllogism:

Zen is the present.
Zen is meditation.
Meditation leads to awakening.
Awakening results in Nirvana.

Nirvana. That’s a word used occasionally in Zen Buddhism but rarely in Zen. Still, it’s a word worth looking at. And I’m not talking about the rock band.

Nirvana is a state in which there are no attachments, no cravings for things to be different from the way they are. It’s not death. It’s a total experience of life.

Nirvana is the state of one’s mind when that mind is liberated from conditionings, attachments, and ambitions.

You might ask if Nirvana and Buddhahood are the same, and the answer is “more or less.” The word Nirvana is often used in Buddhism, but it seldom appears in Zen because of its connection, in many people’s minds, with a better place and a better time.

It has a similar connotation as paradise, or Heaven, or the Garden of Eden.

That sort of thinking is way off base because Nirvana is now and it’s here, and things don’t get any better than this.

Nirvana is sometimes referred to as extinction, or a blotting out of the ego. The Belgian Zen scholar, Robert Linssen, refers to Nirvana (Living Zen, page 139) as that point where our mind is stripped of all its false accumulations.

The annihilation of a person doesn’t mean he or she is reduced to nothingness. It means the absolute realization of the life force that is around one and is part of one. There is no longer the observer and the observed. Both have become one.

Rather, all has become one.

A couple of dictionary definitions are worth repeating. In the literary sense, Nirvana is an ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, or joy. In Hinduism it relates to freedom from ignorance and the wiping out of attachments. In Buddhism it is the ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion.

As good as the concept seems Zen cautions against being attached to the notion of Nirvana. If individuals are fixed on Nirvana, they are tied to the notion.

To attain Nirvana is to go beyond awakening.

Attaining Nirvana isn’t an ending. It’s the beginning of a complete life in which you involve yourself completely. You are altogether perceptive and compassionate.

Nirvana has been called full consciousness without self-consciousness.

You probably won’t go around looking zonked out. But you will be different, and you will be aware.


Anonymous Michael said...

Hi I'm a high school senior writing a research paper about how different cultures and religions view time, and your post was very helpful. I especially liked the part about how goals shift us towards living in the future. I was wondering if you could recommend any other books on this kind of Buddhist Zen thinking? Or if you have any other insight onto how one who reaches Nirvana's view on time if different from most people's view on time being linear, with a beginning, middle, and end? Thank a lot.

Thursday, February 24, 2011 8:56:00 AM  

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