Monday, April 02, 2018



I’ve said many times that enlightenment is Zen. I’ve also said enlightenment—also known as satori—is not some sort of goal. Enlightenment isn’t 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—retiring, or graduating, or taking a long vacation.

          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 enlightenment.

          Enlightenment 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.

          Nirvana is a state in which there are no attachments, no cravings for things to be different from the way they are. It’s a total experience of life.

            Nirvana is the state of one’s mind when that mind is liberated from conditioning, 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 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 extinction of all attachment. In Buddhism it is the inexpressible ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion.

          Zen cautions against being attached to the notion of Nirvana. If individuals are fixed on Nirvana, they are attached to Nirvana. Remember, to see one’s own true face there must be no attachments to anything.

          To attain Nirvana is to go beyond enlightenment.

          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.

          Newcomers to Zen want to know what all this meditation, maybe enlightenment, and possible Nirvana will do for them. What does one gain from the effort of sitting still and not thinking about anything?

          What’s the payback?

          Zen people avoid talking about fringe benefits because naming them makes them seem like rewards.

          Zen doesn’t offer rewards. There are no prizes.

          However, there are some naturally occurring processes. Here are a few possible effects of meditation, in no special order.

1.     Mental control. You learn to use your brain power effectively so your thoughts aren’t running around like a wild horse.

2.    Stress reduction. By letting go of unruly thoughts, and by merely sitting still for a period each day, anxiety and worry diminish.

3.    Exclusion of judgments. You perceive life as it really is. Preconceptions and misleading opinions go away.

4.    Awareness. You live in the present, experiencing each moment for what it is.

5.    Compassion. Compassion is a key word in Buddhism and in Zen. It means you understand and are empathetic toward all things, not just human beings.

6.    Intuitive behavior. You act in response to whatever occurs, whether it’s a flat tire on your car or a tornado.

7.    Recognition. You realize that all existence is interrelated.

8.    Relaxation. By not clinging to things, you loosen up and lighten up, mentally as well as physically. This relates back to stress reduction.

9.    Appreciation. You comprehend seemingly insignificant things. A stone, a flower blossom, a human smile.

10. Self-reliance. You learn to trust yourself. Doubts about your capabilities go away.

Will Nirvana make you a more prosperous individual? Will it make you a good student, or a first-rate spouse, or a better expert at what you are already good at?

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly.

Again, there are no promises. There are no guarantees.

Nirvana opens the way. The rest is up to you.