Nirvana in plain language

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In the teaching of Buddhism, most dharma teachers run into a dilemma — they wonder if they should teach about Nirvana.

In the mid-90s, I was privileged to be appointed as the lecturer of Buddhism at a Buddhist temple in Manhattan’s Chinatown. That was my first teaching job ever. I told the abbot what I wanted to cover. I said all I will be teaching is foundational Buddhism — the basic ideas such as the Four Noble Truth. I used Walpola Rahula’s book, What the Buddha Taught, as reference material to base my lectures on. I also used Master Yinshun’s book, An Outline of Buddhism. As it turned out, teaching basic Buddhism is by no means easy. Teaching the First Noble Truth is manageable. Teaching the Second Noble Truth is manageable. Teaching the Fourth Noble Truth is not too difficult either. But I was stuck when I got to the Third Noble Truth, which is about Nirvana. It is commonly believed that Nirvana cannot be talked about. There is nothing “basic” in Buddhism. I ended up spending every Saturday preparing my lecture so that I would have something reasonable to present on Sunday, which was when the Buddhism class met. My audience were all adults. While most of them were common folks, there were occasionally wise elders who asked challenging questions. I remember there was someone who was a martial arts master who asked me what “Right View” is and whether there is an objective standard for it.

Perhaps the teaching of Nirvana would not be so difficult if there were not so much mystification and obfuscation. In Buddhist circles, all kinds of tall tales have been told about Nirvana and the experience of it. Essentially, Nirvana has been mythologized. World-renounced Thai monk and reformer, Buddhadasa, wrote an article titled “Nirvana for Everyone.” He began his article with the following observation about the hype around Nirvana:

People in general believe that nirvana is a special place where there is no suffering, only happiness, the place usually being reached after death by those who have already achieved perfection in thousands of incarnations. … Old monks [in Thailand] sometimes say that nirvana can no longer occur today. Nirvana has become a mystery which no one pays any attention to, and the subject has become sterilized in the Buddhist scriptures, only to be mentioned at times without understanding. The truth is, however, that without nirvana, Buddhism cannot exist. If we are not interested in ­nirvana, then we are not interested in Buddhism. I believe that the time has come to pay attention to nirvana and to match the practice with the meaning of it as the supreme ennobling virtue, or the highest objective of living things.

I agree wholeheartedly with Buddhadasa. In a sense, Nirvana is Buddhism’s central point. Hence, it is important for all dharma teachers to talk about Nirvana. The question is how. In Buddhist literature, there are teachings that are helpful and there are teachings that belong to the category of myths and legends. How can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

First, let us tackle the various misconceptions and fallacies about Nirvana. There are two common beliefs about Nirvana that can be ruled out as mere myths. One is that it is a state of perpetual bliss that once a practitioner has entered, then there is no leaving that state. Another one is the notion that once someone has realized Nirvana, thus becoming an arahant, then there will be no more rebirth for such a person. He or she will forever leave the cycle of Samsara. Both these claims can be rejected as false, based on the Three Marks of Existence, which are universally accepted as the litmus test for whether certain teaching is genuine Buddhist teaching. The Three Marks are:

1. All conditioned things are impermanent.

2. All conditioned things are dukkha (unsatisfactory, causing stress and anxiety)

3. All dhammas (i.e. both conditioned things and unconditioned things) are without self(thus lacking independent existence).

We will refute these false claims as follows. First, because all human beings are “conditioned things,” they cannot live in a state of permanent bliss. This is from the law of impermanence. Second, to say that a realized one (an Arhant) will no longer go through the circles of birth and death (Samsara) would contradict Buddha’s teaching of Anatta — the doctrine of no-self and no soul. Few Buddhists realize this, but the unique and uncompromising Buddhist teaching of no soul invalidates the notion of reincarnation. If there is no soul, then what could be the entity that is reincarnated or rebirthed? Yes, reincarnation is still taught in many of the Buddhist schools, probably because it is a deep-rooted idea that predates Buddha. But it contradicts the third mark of existence. The core of Buddhist teaching is no soul. Not only there is no soul after death, but there is no soul as we are living right now. Buddha taught that our feeling that there is a self is an illusion.

Another common fallacy about Nirvana is that it is very difficult for a practitioner to achieve. There is a common belief in Buddhist circles that it will take many lifetimes of practice in order for a practitioner to realize Nirvana. Note here that such a notion is again based on the existence of an immutable soul, which Buddha refuted. On the realization of Nirvana, I find the following statement, made by Walpola Rahula, the most helpful. It is something that we should remember:

It is incorrect to think that Nirvāṇa is the natural result of the extinction of craving. Nirvāṇa is not the result of anything. If it would be a result, then it would be an effect produced by a cause. It would be saṃkhata ‘produced’ and ‘conditioned’. Nirvāṇa is neither cause nor effect. It is beyond cause and effect. Truth is not a result nor an effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state, such as dhyāna or samādhi. TRUTH IS. NIRVĀṆA IS. The only thing you can do is to see it, to realize it. There is a path leading to the realization of Nirvāṇa. But Nirvāṇa is not the result of this path. (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught)

So, Nirvana is Truth. It is not an achievement. It is not a result of someone’s effort. How can Nirvana be realized? How can dukkha be ended? How can our thirst be quenched? These are practical questions that many students of Buddhism have asked. Walpola Rahula provides us with this guidance:

The realization of this Truth, i.e., to see things as they are (yathābhūtaṃ) without illusion or ignorance (avijjā), is the extinction of craving ‘thirst’ (Taṇhakkhaya), and the cessation (Nirodha) of dukkha, which is Nirvāṇa. It is interesting and useful to remember here the Mahāyāna view of Nirvāṇa as not being different from Saṃsāra. The same thing is Saṃsāra or Nirvāṇa according to the way you look at it — subjectively or objectively.

The way of deliverance is not to seek some kind of magical power. It is to see things as they are. As Alan Watts said, “Enlightenment or awakening is not the creation of a new state of affairs but the recognition of what already is.” There is also the wisdom of not grasping and just letting things be. Watts also said, “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax, and float.” This is what I sometimes refer to as the “inverse law.”

There is another important point here: Nirvana is no different from Samsara. They are the different facets of the same reality. Whether you see Nirvana or Samsara is a matter of perspective. Contrary to what the popular Theravada literature suggests, Nirvana is NOT an escape from Samsara. It is not the ending of cyclical existence. One does not have to leave this “troubled world” to reach Nirvana. The way to realize Nirvana is to face reality squarely, without sugar-coating it and without deceiving ourselves with lies. According to the Theravada tradition, many people realized Nirvana during Buddha’s time. If it were an impossibly difficult achievement, then this would not have happened. This leads us to conclude that not only is the Nirvana experience hyped up, but the difficulty in realizing Nirvana is also hyped up.

Perhaps the best way to understand Nirvana is through the very touching story of Kisa Gotami. According to the story, a poor young woman by the name of Kisa Gotami is married into a rich family. She bears a son. Unfortunately, the son dies when he is still an infant. Kisa is so grief-stricken that she becomes insane. She carries the corpse of her infant son on her back wherever she goes, believing that he is still alive. A village elder takes pity on Kisa and advises her to consult Buddha. So, Kisa immediately goes to Buddha’s residence and begs Buddha to bring her son back to life. Buddha tells Kisa that in order to remedy the situation, she has to go door to door and ask each household for some mustard seeds. Buddha says that there is one caveat — the mustard seeds have to be from a household that has experienced no death in the family. So, Kisa goes around town, knocking at every door to seek what is needed for medicine. Kisa meets a great number of people who tell her, with tears in their eyes, how their loved ones have passed away and there is nothing they could have done to save their beloved. After spending all day in this search, Kisa still cannot locate a single household that has never experienced death. Exhausted, Kisa sits at the river bank to reflect. Then, it suddenly dawns on her that her wish to have no death in her own family is unreasonable and cannot be done. She finally accepts that death is a natural law that no one can escape. She learns to “see things as they are.” She buries her son and becomes a follower of Buddha.

Legend has it that Kisa later becomes an Arhant who realizes Nirvana. She has overcome the craving to revive her dead son. She makes peace with what IS.

Famous psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck, spent some time studying Buddhism. He drew this conclusion from what he learned, which is essentially his interpretation of the First Noble Truth:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

So, this is the paradoxical nature of the Nirvana experience. It operates based on an “inverse law” and is counterintuitive. Suffering is not overcome by fighting it or suppressing it. Rather, it is overcome by embracing it, by surrendering to the truth of the Three Marks of Existence. In the end, the way of Buddhist liberation is a gentle one.

Our willing surrender to truth is what liberates. There is also a parallel teaching in Christianity, although many Christians fail to see it. Jesus said, “… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Lest you think that Jesus was talking about certain supernatural law or magical powers, note that he also said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus did not fight death or any natural law. He embraced it.

Perhaps the Buddhist way of liberation can be stated as “You shall accept and surrender to the Truth no matter how difficult it is, and the Truth will set you free.” One central truth taught in Buddhism is the truth of impermanence. Let us end by recalling an anecdote of a famous Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah. He is one of the most celebrated Theravada masters. Ajahn Chah once had a beautiful drinking cup that he was very fond of. His students asked him how he could reconcile his love of the cup with the truth of impermanence. The following is his reply. The secret seems to lie in managing one’s expectations:

To me, this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. When we understand the truth of uncertainty and relax, we become free.

The realization of Nirvana has to do with seeing Truth, honoring it, and surrendering to it. There is nothing magical in solving life’s problems. There is nothing special. The Buddhist art of living is a kind of “ordinary magic.”

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