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314. What is ‘Nirvana’?

There’s a common belief that Nirvana is the reward for practice. So, as it were, if we put in the hard yards of meditation, at some point we attain Nirvana. It’s something we attain, like we would attain Enlightenment, on the same kind of thinking: attain and keep. We go from our ordinary, fallen human condition to the state of Nirvana. Nirvana is a noun. Paired with that is often an image of blowing out a candle – Nirvana is like blowing out a candle.

This is an almost complete misunderstanding of what Nirvana originally meant. For that, we need to go back to the Buddha’s first three sermons after his awakening. He gave the first two of these to the five ascetics whom he practiced with, before taking a different path. 

In the first sermon he outlined the truth of suffering. He talked about the four noble truths  and the noble eightfold path. In the second sermon he talked about No Self. Throughout, he talked to this small group of practitioners in a straightforward way.

The third sermon was different. It was given to a much larger group of practitioners, and is known as the Fire Sermon. The reason why it’s called that is because the Buddha used the metaphor of fire to describe our ordinary human condition. So he said that our eyes are burning, the objects of our eyes are burning, our mind is burning, our hearing is burning, and so on. Burning is the common theme, and the fires that he describes are what later became known as the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.

To understand this metaphor you need to understand that the Sanskrit and Pali word for fuel (i.e what keeps the fire going) and the word for attachment are the same. The word is upadana. The suggestion of the metaphor is that the fires of greed, anger and ignorance which consume our lives are generated and sustained by the fuel of attachment –  attachment to a self, and to all the things which your self believes it requires.

The word Nirvana has two parts to it: the prefix NIR means out and VANA means blowing. So at first glance we think, ‘oh, that fits in quite well with the image of the candle being blown out,’ but we need to understand two things. Firstly, the word vana has a much broader meaning than our word ‘to blow’, which we would think of as a person blowing out. We wouldn’t think of it as a person breathing in, and we certainly wouldn’t think of it in terms of a general movement in the air – though figuratively we would understand if someone said ‘the wind is blowing’.

The contemporary Theravada monk and translator, a wonderful and generous man called Thanissaro Bhikkhu, renders ‘Nirvana’ as not-blowing. On his reading of it, Nirvana is not blowing on the flames with a bellows, with the breath, or with something similar, a blowing which will keep the fire going. It’s not doing that. However, this isn’t quite right. ‘Nirvana’ is transitive; there’s nobody doing the blowing, and there’s nobody refraining from blowing. In fact, the reference is to the fire blowing. In other words the fire – of greed, anger and ignorance – which is sustained by our attachment, is ‘blowing’. It is drawing in the air which helps to sustains it. The consequence of us not continuing to give fuel to the fire is that the fire gradually dies down, and when it does so it’s not ‘blowing’- and that’s Nirvana.
But you can see how this original metaphor could gradually change into the metaphor of blowing out the candle, and who else would blow out the candle other than the practitioner? But this is almost a complete reversal of the original meaning, and throws attention onto what the practitioner will get, rather than what they need to stop.

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304. Buddhist Language

Master Mazu (Baso) famously said, “Mind is Buddha”. He also said, “Ordinary mind is the Way”. Yet on other occasions he said, “Neither mind nor Buddha”.

When challenged about this apparent inconsistency his successor Pai-chang said,

“All verbal teachings are just like cures for diseases. Because the disease is not the same, the medicines are also not the same. That is why it is said that there is Buddha and sometimes that there is no Buddha. True words cure sickness. If the cure manages to bring about healing then all are true words. If they cannot cure sickness they are false words. True words are false words insofar as they give rise to views. False words are true words insofar as they cut off delusion. Because the diseases are unreal there are only unreal medicines to cure them.”

There’s a lot buried within that text. The reference to views for example – giving rise to views –  clearly echoes Nagarjuna.

The metaphor of sickness and medicine is a direct reference to the final parable of the Lotus sutra, which describes the Buddha as like a wise physician.

 This idea of the Buddha as someone who cures sickness by expedient means, rather than someone who gives a correct view, is dominant within Chinese Buddhism.

When a person is sick that person is like a sleeping person – they’re entirely caught up in the sickness of the self. When a person is cured they are not released into any particular thing. They’re released into everything. They’re released into the world of all beings.

So language in Buddhism doesn’t have a truth function in the way that we would normally recognise it. Its function is to release us from clinging, grasping and attachment. It is to unclench us, to release us from grasping onto one thing and opening us to everything.

Because our inherent tendency to grasp and cling never goes away, we also require to be mindful about our desire to grasp wisdom. Or to grasp compassion. Or to grasp emptiness.

So the language will change in accordance with the situation of the person.

It’s not that as deluded beings we’re sick and then we come across Buddhism and we get well. No. This sickness and wellness is an intrinsic part of our nature as human beings. It does not change. It does not go away.

And so our language must always remain open.

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263. The One Dharma Gate

The earliest image we have of dependent origination is Indra’s Net. It’s a beautiful image, yet implausibly tranquil. And it ignores time. Of course, if the inspiration was someone looking up at the star filled night sky which, ironically, is seeing both space and time. But only from our perspective, now.

And for us, we might imagine dependent origination to be external to us, and our seeing of it to be impeded by the aches in this person’s body, the groans and gasps in this person’s mind.

But dependent origination isn’t tranquil or still. It is the exertion of all things. It is a great storm. And as you are sitting here, in the lull after the storm, this body is the debris of the storm. This mind is the echo of the storm. This body and mind is our dharma gate. The only one we will ever have.

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166. Awakening

One of the three meanings of satori is awakening, in the sense of awakening from a dream, or awakening within a dream.

We’re liable to misunderstand the metaphor, as we equate dream with falsity, and awakening with truth, which is complete nonsense.

The issue is whether we partition and appropriate experience, or not. Awakening to the dream within the dream isn’t about seeing falsity, it’s about seeing wholeness. Wholeness, seeing.

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159. The Narrow Gate

(With thanks to David Taylor)

Enlightenment is sometimes referred to as ‘The Narrow Gate’. Note the words carefully. The gate isn’t hidden, or difficult to access, or far far away. It’s narrow. The sort of gate that a person would get stuck in. Neither able to go through, nor go back.

Zen is part of Mahayana. Mahayana means ‘Great Vehicle’. It’s ‘great’ because there’s nothing outside it. The whole chaotic miracle is there. That being so, there is no gate in, and no gate out. Enlightenment and delusion are both there, and nowhere else.

Delusion is taking experience and constellating it around the fiction of a ‘person’. The sort of person who might get fixated, who might get stuck. But enlightenment isn’t an attribute of a person, actual or potential: it’s universal.

In wholehearted expression and exertion, everything is the narrow gate.

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131. Living in a dream

In these days, it often feels as if we are living in a dream. But whose dream?

Awakening is one of the three meanings of Satori, Enlightenment.

So what is Awakening?

It isn’t waking up into a different world. It isn’t, asleep, imagining that the world is flat, and waking up, realising that it’s round. We have to get out of our fixation on truth and falsity. It is entirely useless.

It is just letting the ceaseless expression of life, flooding through us from moment to moment, be.

We awaken from the small dreams of ‘Me’: self and world, truth and falsity, hate and fear, clinging and so on.

But awaken into which dream?

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Artwork by Blair Thomson
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129. Delusion

Delusion isn’t being mistaken about something; the earth being flat, or there being penguins at the North Pole: it is taking experience and using it in creating and maintaining a sense of Self.

Often we experience this as a kind of incessant inner conversation. Whilst we might want it to stop, this too is Self-ing.

We change when we experience it as energetic noise, feeling it in the body. When we experience noise, we can experience silence. When we experience silence, we can experience vast space.

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124. What does Satori mean?

What does satori mean? When the Japanese coined the term, they rolled up into that one word three distinct ideas in Chinese Buddhism about enlightenment.

The first was delusion and enlightenment; that is, through practice, we gain insight into our habitual being pulled this way and that by our desires, our habits, our karma, and when we realise this, we can stop.

The second is awakening. We realise that what we take to be real, our whole conceptual apparatus of self and world, is created by us. It’s like a dream. But we don’t wake up into another reality; we wake up within the dream.

The third and most important is practice realisation. That is, we accept the Buddha’s teachings. We then sincerely practice, and through practice we realise that those teachings are true.

And in this context, what we realise is true, is our ceaseless tendency to fabricate the self, to fabricate a world, to fabricate our lives.

In seeing that, even for just moments we can stop that karmic activity. The problem with satori is we think it’s something else that we can acquire. But the whole point is that it’s not about getting. It’s about not-getting, losing, stopping, desisting.

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100. Mislocating Delusion

Delusion isn’t quite located where we think it is.

We imagine that it’s the apparently ceaseless thoughts and emotions which come up during sitting, but it isn’t. It’s our response. Uchiyama likened it to an ignorant person watching a play, mistaking it for reality, seeing a villain on stage, jumping up on the stage to remonstrate with the villain.

This is the practice. We keep finding ourselves up on the stage, realising what we’re doing, and leaving the stage, to sit with all beings.

That’s why an emphasis on consciousness is harmful, because we’re focused on the wrong thing. Whether we turn the mind from lead to gold, it’s still a headstone, weighing down on the body of the world.

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92. Senika

Senika appears in the Nirvana sutra as a kind of fall guy. He’s a Brahmin who believes that the body is the temporary home of the soul, which lives on after the death of the body.

Certainly, his soul has lived on, buried deep in our language. We make statements like ‘I am doing zazen’ or ‘I am living my life’ or ‘I need to be kinder to myself,’ and imagine we are saying something true.

Lying within the buried soul of Senika is the belief that the world is constituted of things, with attributes, acting.

This is the ground of delusion. Unless we can escape from it, buddhist teaching is entirely nonsensical.