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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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311. The Good Physician

About four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the buddhist sangha started writing down the sutras which recorded his teachings. Up to then, they had been memorised and transmitted orally.

Writing them down enabled them to be collected together. This was the start of the Abhidharma (‘about the dharma’) literature.

At the start, each buddhist group which compiled that sutra collection, simply prefaced it with an attempt to state buddhist belief. This gradually grew into a distinct literature which attempted to create a consistent set of buddhist beliefs.

As they did this, they had some difficulties. So, for example, if nothing has a self, how can we explain karma? If nirvana and samsara are opposite, then how do they relate to each other? And if they’re the same, then why do they appear so different? Do past and future exist and if they do, in what sense? And so on. 

In these various attempts to create a consistent philosophy, divergences started to occur.  Some groups would affirm something that seemed quite like ‘a self’. Others would say, “Well there’s not a self, but karma is possible because past, present and future all exist together”, and so on.

And so, various different schools appeared. Traditionally, it is said that there were 18 schools, but there were probably many more.

However, the enterprise to create a consistent philosophy was based on a false premise; namely that the Buddha’s teachings were a set of consistent beliefs waiting to be systematised.

The most persistent way of describing the Buddha is as a physician. People would come to him with particular queries, particular distresses, particular sources of puzzlement. These would be specific, and the Buddha would give an answer specific to that person – like a good physician who would not prescribe the same medicine to all his patients, irrespective of the illnesses they had. 

It’s really in this way that we need to understand buddhist language. The essential insight of the Buddha was that we suffer because we cling. We cling to what we have, to what we want, to what we hate, to what we don’t have but fear will be imposed on us, and so on. That’s why we suffer. 

So his language is a provisional, instrumental language; it’s not a philosophy, it’s a strategy to address this basic wound. That’s why there’s apparently inconsistent or incomplete language. That’s why sometimes buddhists talk of ‘no-self’ and other times they talk of ‘buddha-nature’ and other times they talk of ‘emptiness’, or of ‘suchness’. 

They’re a very wide range of languages. But we need to understand these languages in terms of our sickness and our health rather than in terms of ‘literal truth’. A medicine for the person, not a picture of the world.

In our error, it’s as if when ill, a doctor gives us a prescription for medicine, but instead of taking the medicine we take the prescription, keep taking it whether ill or not, and urge others to do the same. 

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306. The Wise Doctor

In Chapter three of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells the story of a foolish king who has a stubborn doctor as his personal physician. This doctor only prescribes milk products as medicine, whatever the illness.

One day, a wise doctor arrives in the kingdom. This doctor has eight different remedies for illness but he hides his knowledge and apprentices himself to the stubborn doctor and thus gains access to the king.

He convinces the king that the stubborn doctor is no good. The king expels the stubborn doctor from the kingdom and makes the wise doctor his physician instead.

The king asks the wise doctor what he would like by way of recompense. The wise doctor says that he would like nothing for himself but he would like the king to make an order saying that the remedy of milk products for illness is absolutely prohibited throughout the kingdom. The king makes the order. 

Sometime later the king becomes ill and the wise doctor prescribes milk as the appropriate remedy.

The king is baffled and furious and asks the wise doctor why he is prescribing milk in view of the milk prohibition. The wise doctor says, in effect, “it all depends on the particular circumstances.”

The narrow purpose of this story is to set up an argument later on in the sutra about buddha nature, but the wider purpose is to say something important about teaching.

The wise doctor is obviously the Buddha. The eight different remedies refer to the noble eightfold path and the milk products remedy which the stubborn doctor always prescribes we can take to be the various doctrines of the self. Just as milk products might look different from each other, but all rely on milk, the doctrines of the various non Buddhist schools may look very different, but they all rely on the assumption of an underlying self. The outlawing of the milk remedy we can equate with the buddha’s teachings on no-self, emptiness and impermanence.

The metaphor of the Buddha as a wise doctor is also the last of the  famous parables of the Lotus Sutra and, arguably, the most important.

We normally think of any spiritual tradition as involving the acceptance of our set of beliefs which we then apply to our lives, regardless of whether the effect is good or bad. The beliefs of that tradition form the structure of our lives. But Buddhism is not like this. It isn’t a system of beliefs about the world. It’s a compassionate strategy to attend effectively to human suffering.

When we try to deal with the sickness of suffering of each being, we can’t unthinkingly prescribe the same doctrinal remedy, because what is medicine for one person may be poison for another. Ideas of no self and how that is expressed might be either very helpful or very harmful for someone whom at this moment is borderline psychotic, for example. It all depends. That’s why “skilful means” is emphasised so much. 

If we read the Pali sutras, two things are evident. One is the Buddha’s refusal to answer abstract questions, such as whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens after death, and so forth. The second is that he is attending to the person in front of him, not simply recapitulating what he has already said.

After the Buddha’s death, there were attempts, with the Abidharma literature, to make his teaching into a coherent philosophy. It was in reaction to this that Nagarjuna emphasised Emptiness and said that Buddhism was the relinquishing of views (ie systems).

Aside from the wise doctor, the other metaphor often used for the Buddha is that of the father, which, I think, emphasises the feelingness rather than the thinkingness of Buddhism. The father, like the doctor, is concerned with care, not belief. But each exemplifies different facets of care: compassion, and love.

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292. The Buddha Field

In the Vimalakirti Sutra the Buddha announces that this world is a Buddha field. Sariputra is astonished and perplexed and takes issue. He says when he looks at the world what he sees isn’t a world of perfection, what he chooses to see is a world full of shit. The Buddha then touches the Earth with his big toe, magically transforming it temporarily into glittering diamonds and precious stones.

The underlying assumption behind Sariputra’s view is that we should be free of emotions because emotions are essentially grasping. To overcome this grasping we require disgust or revulsion.

 The Buddha magically transforming the world into diamonds and precious stones in response to Sariputra  isn’t meant to be taken literally, rather, it is emotionally evocative, inspiring feelings of wonder, delight, gratitude, astonishment and so on.

 I think that is making a fundamental point about our emotions and feelings in Zazen.

Much of apparently fantastical Buddhist language is an attempt to be descriptive about what we actually experience in Zazen. When our mind and body are balanced, and our posture enables us to feel spacious and open, comparable emotions to those evoked by the Buddha arise in our Zazen. Far from feelings of lust, grasping, rejection and hatred, what we feel – and we feel it in an unusual way, in an embodied way –  is openness, gratitude, wonder and so on. There is an entire emotional landscape available to us in Zazen which is largely ignored when we talk about desire and emotion in the usual way, because when we are in that place, we are within our normal calculation of gain and loss, where grabbing onto or throwing away is almost the defining characteristic.
And in turn, this takes us back to the four noble truths, specifically the second noble truth which says that the origin of suffering is desire. But we need to be careful. It says ‘desire’, not ‘feeling’. The first is future focused: there’s something we want to get, or get rid of. The second is present focused, and is nothing to do with grasping or rejecting. And when we say the Buddhist state is the feeling state, that’s what we mean.

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289. Tathagatagarbha

One of the core ideas of Chinese Buddhism is that all living beings have Buddha-nature. Dogen radicalises this to: all living beings are Buddha-nature. 

The core idea derives from a number of sutras, the most prominent one being the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

Tathagatagarbha is a compound made up of two Sanskrit words. ‘Tathagata’ means ‘Thus Come One’, the Buddha. And ‘garbha’ means either ‘womb’ or ‘embryo’.

Whilst the idea of Buddha nature originates in India, China truly developed it. 

If you read the Tathagatagarbha sutra, the metaphors for Buddha-nature are generally about something being concealed or covered over. There’s nine metaphors for Buddha-nature which include images such as gold concealed under mud. Things like that. 

But it’s interesting if we take the term Tathagatagarbha more literally. On the face of it, it gives us an image in which each of us are, as it were, incubating a little Buddha. 

But the whole point of a Buddha is that they understand that they have no self-nature. So your little incubating Buddha and my incubating Buddha and everybody else’s is effectively the same Buddha. So it’s not really mine. Or your’s. (Which begs the question: who or what is within whom or what?)

And if we give birth to that little Buddha, it’s no longer an embryo: once it comes out into the world, it isn’t ours either. That’s one aspect. 

The other aspect is that it’s called Tathagatagarbha, not Buddhagarbha, so there’s a deliberate choice of words to emphasise the thus-ness of this little Buddha, the is-ness of it. So what we can say is that we’re, as it were,  incubating thus-ness and we can give birth to it.

And how would we do that? Well, quintessentially, we do it when we sit. When we’re sitting we’re, as it were, leaping out of ourselves, although we’re sitting still. We’re leaping out of ourselves in the sense that we’re unconstrained by our karma. Our likes, our dislikes, our memories, our dreams, all of that – we just allow to just be in this open, wide, awareness of practice.

And that’s why we can talk about practice-enlightenment. And that’s why we say that we sit from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of the self. 

Zazen in fact makes no sense from the perspective of the self, with its habitual patterns and expectations of gain and loss.Which is one reason why Kodo Sawaki said it was good for nothing.

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275. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.

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262. Clouded Water Eyes

A famous passage in the Nirvana Sutra reads:

The Buddha’s True Dharma Body is just like space
Manifesting form according to circumstances
It is like the moon in water.

Nirvana sutra

I think this is a description of our state in zazen.

“the moon in water” is a metaphor for emptiness. It isn’t that the reflection doesn’t exist, it’s that it isn’t separate. The reflection is the expression of all the different aspects of the whole of reality working together: the moon, the water, the clouds, the clouded water eyes of the person witnessing it into being.

Each line informs the other. The third line is a poetic instance of the general statement of interdependence in the second.

And the purpose of the first line is to convey that “space” and “expression” are not in conflict: our aim is not to nullify whatever arises: thoughts, noises inner and outer, feelings, but not to fixate on them either, and thus to allow vast compassionate space to manifest, a space which can hold all this expression, like a mother holds her baby.

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257. Like a womb

In the Tathagatagarbha sutra, Buddha nature is portrayed figuratively as a little Buddha inside each sentient being. Each being is a womb for the Buddha.

An ignorant or self centred person might imagine that through practice they would actualise a personal Buddha.

Except, the Buddha which is represented in each sentient being is the same Buddha. These same buddhas form a kind of fabric, containing all beings, like a womb. Each being is like the embryo in this womb of Buddha.

It is like space: in this moment, is the breath inside you yours, or not?

Is the dynamic space inside you as the expression of this breath yours, or not? How can we distinguish this inner space from the greater space which holds us?

Yet if Being collapses, space likewise collapses.

All these little tiles create the vast space of the temple.

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238. Only a buddha, together with a buddha

In Chapter eleven of The Lotus Sutra, there is the story of a stupendously large tower, many miles high and wide, containing both the remains and the living body of an ancient Buddha, which has lain concealed within the dynamic ground, and which emerges when it appears that the Buddha is about to preach The Lotus Sutra, hovering in mid air. Shakyamuni Buddha then joins the ancient Buddha in the tower, a Buddha alone, together with a Buddha.

It seems unlikely that anyone has ever taken this scene literally, so what is it trying to say?

It is extremely rich and potent obviously, but I would wish to draw attention to the depth of the ground and the height of the sky. One is reminded of the Buddha’s enlightenment, where he touches the ground, and sees the morning star, shining through vast space.

The ground – Being – is not static or passive. It is dynamic, full of expression. Likewise, space – Emptiness – is not ‘empty’, it is the location of the liberation of Being into full expression.

And when you sit, you are the dynamic ground. You are the plenitude of space. And when you breath and move, you are Emptiness, made real.

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237. The Lotus Sutra

Within our strand of Buddhism, the most important sutra, by some distance, is The Lotus Sutra.

The sutra depicts a universe of unimaginable extent and duration, within which a large group of characters ebb and flow through an unimaginable number of lifetimes. The central message of the sutra, which is gradually unfolded, is that each being, at some point in the unimaginably vast future, will become a Buddha.

Think about this. Within this perspective, you are the past life of a future Buddha. Not only that, each event, each thought, each feeling in your life, no matter how apparently painful or useless, is part of the vast karmic tapestry which leads to this future Buddha. Were any of it to disappear, everything would unravel, so everything matters. Matters more fundamentally than we can properly express.

This future Buddha is holding your present, karmic self like a mother would hold a fitfully sleeping baby, and each dream, each flicker of that baby matters. Matters.

It’s a mythical presentation of the classic question in Chinese Buddhism: if everything is perfect, why doesn’t it seem so? And in its answer, nothing is excluded, nothing is to be harried into nothingness. It evokes a feeling through the creation of a magical world. The feeling is the important thing, not the myth.

What if you kept it?