From Thought to Destiny: Nirvana, the Perfection of Character 1/2

Uposatha Teaching: Last Quarter Moon, November 29, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

The final Destiny for those on the Buddhist Path is Nirvana. “Nirvana” itself means Unbinding or Extinguishing, and has been described as the End of Suffering; the End of Greed, Hate and Delusion; the Destruction of Fermentations; the End of Karma; the End of Samsara or the Round of Birth and Death; the Deathless; Awakening, Enlightenment or Realization; Attainment or Realization of Emptiness; Liberation. Each of these phrases describes a specific aspect of Nirvana. A more encompassing description would be simply Perfection of the Human Character, or Finally Growing Up Completely. It is the North Star toward which we navigate in our practice. The one who has caught a first glimpse of Nirvana is called a Stream Enterer and is said to be no longer able to turn away from the Path to Nirvana, which is said to be attained within seven lifetimes. The one who has attained Nirvana is called an Arahant. This generally happens, for example, like this:

Dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, he … reached and remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for himself in the here and now. He knew: “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.” And thus Ven. Sona became another one of the arahants. AN 6.55

Few make it there in this life. The one who has shown us how to attain Nirvana is the Awakened One, the Buddha. Lets take the different aspects of Nirvana in turn: Imperturbability, Awakening, Highest Virtue and Liberation.

Imperturbability. This is the result of developing the affective aspect of character. With the ending of craving, suffering ends. Craving ends with Greed and Aversion, with the fermentations, the taints on the human character. The ending of craving entails the arising of contentment in all things.

In Nirvana, neither scantily clad lass, nor debonair hunk, neither chocolate cream cake a la mode, nor catchy tune, will make the heart beat faster with passion. Neither plunge into nest of snapping vipers, bite of bear, nor lunge of lion, neither ghoul, nor remorseless torture, will raise a hair in fear. Neither fender bender nor rude waiter, neither computer crash with total loss of data, nor out o’ cash with total loss of face, will curl the lip or wrinkle the brow one snippet in ire. Life simply ceases to be a problem or a struggle. The senses continue to function, even physical pain can still be discerned, but nothing is taken personally, ever.

As a single mass of rock isn’t moved by the wind, even so all forms, flavors, sounds, aromas, contacts, ideas desirable and not, have no effect on one who is Such. AN 6.55

This non-attachment runs very deep. The imperturbable mind, for instance, can have no stake in that which is compounded or fabricated, which is to say everything we think of as being a thing, because a compounded thing is always held with some degree of stress or suffering, even if it is a good intention, a skillfully motivated plan or a thing of great beauty. We’ll look at what it is with these darn compounded things in a few paragraphs.

To be a mass of rock, unmoved by the wind, might seem a bit boring, like a bland soup without any spice. It certainly could not form the basis of a popular soap opera. But in fact, those who have attained Nirvana report an abiding feeling of bliss, just not in sensual things. It is the bliss of serenity, the bliss that arrives as suffering departs, the bliss of settling in with things as the are and not seeing them as personal problems, the bliss of contented abiding in this marvelous world. It is like a soup that, though bland, is simply healthy and nourishing to the body. It is the bliss of renunciation, of no personal stake, that abides by its own accord, that will not and cannot depart, no discipline required.

A favorite story from the Suttas relates that Ven. Bhaddiya Kaligodha was often heard by other monks to exclaim, “What bliss, what bliss!” Since he had, as a layman, been a king, they assumed that he was reminiscing, that while he had let go of all of his cushy advantages physically, he was still having trouble with unskillful thoughts. Upon word of this, the Buddha summoned Ven. Bhaddiya and discovered that the monks were underestimating his realization. This was Ven. Bhaddiya’s account:

“Before, when I was a householder, maintaining the bliss of kingship, I had guards posted within and without the royal apartments, within and without the city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear — agitated, distrustful, and afraid. But now, on going alone to a forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated, confident, and unafraid — unconcerned, unruffled, my wants satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer. This is the meaning I have in mind that I repeatedly exclaim, ‘What bliss! What bliss!’”

A couple of analogies might help to understand the affective experience of Nirvana. Suzuki Roshi used to tell his students who, like good Westerners intent on results, expressed too much greed for Nirvana, “How do you know you will like Enlightenment?” In fact, we don’t like the idea of giving up sensual pleasures, nor fame and gain. But consider how much you gave up in the process of growing up. Toys and games and interpersonal concerns that one year seemed so enticing the next year had no appeal. All of the elements of samsaric existence are one by one similarly shed in the process of Finally Growing Up Completely. The toys and games and interpersonal concerns are themselves, in the end, simply boring. In contrast, consider the moments of bliss that meditators commonly experience in the utter stillness of samadhi, and most people have experienced spontaneously in occasional moments of serenity, sometimes in the gaps between worrying about this and worrying about that. This bliss seems to arise naturally just by making room for it.

Awakening. This is the result of developing the cognitive aspect of character, or the wisdom faculty. It is seeing things clearly as they really are, rather than through the lens of our concepts. This is not omniscience—the Buddha apparently was not omniscient—but rather more like being able to see the fabric out of which reality is sewn, in particular the impermanence and non-self of all things, the unceasing contingency and flux of reality, even as we humans try to comprehend it with fixed and solid conceptualizations. That which is compounded or fabricated only to quickly fade, we take to be things that exist more substantially, independently and reliably than they deserve. We thereby live most of our lives in a Fabricated World that cannot keep possibly keep pace with reality, a world that we take very seriously, but which is in fact Empty. Living in that Fabricated World, we stake our claims to many of the things we find there and because they cannot keep pace with reality, stress or suffering arises; they will always disappoint our expectations or demands, they become problems. Now, what you are reading is a very conceptual account of the nature of compounded things, which I hope has a its own logic. The highest Wisdom, realized in Nirvana, is to see these things directly, to see right through that Empty Fabricated World in which we dwell to the actual reality of things as they are.

Impermanent are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Suffering are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Insubstantial are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

The compounded thing to which we stake the greatest claim is, naturally, Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The second greatest claims are to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. The third greatest claims are the compounded things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. In Awakening this all becomes transparent, it dissolves into Emptiness, and the reality is seen directly, there is nowhere where one can discernibly stake any claim at all. There is a kind of cruel hoax in thinking, as we embark on Buddhist practice, that progress toward Nirvana is some kind of self improvement, in seeing the bliss of Nirvana, for instance, as a My Birthright, as something that I hope someday to stake a claim to. The hoax is that, when I finally arrive, there is no Self to stake the claim; in fact that is the most prominent feature of Nirvana, the absence of a stakeholder.

In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that abides so long, there is no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality behind the Fabricated World is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless, which is the reality you recognize on attaining Nirvana. It is also sometimes called Emptiness, but this is a bit of a misnomer: It is the fabricated world that is Empty; the reality behind it is actually quite rich and full, just not full of fixed Things.

A couple of pointers might be helpful in understanding the cognitive experience of Nirvana. For many this is the most obscure point of the Buddha’s teachings. First, an intellectual understanding is of limited value. This is the best intellectual understanding I can convey here, and at its best an intellectual understanding provides only the closest jumping off point from which to plunge into an experience beyond concepts, beyond language. And this experience should represent a radical reorientation. For example, a theoretical physicist while on campus inhabits a curious intellectual word of strings of vibrating probabilities that have already jumped this way or that depending on who is observing at the moment, but at home inhabits the same world—wife, dog, kids, dinner, TV—that most of us inhabit; the one does not impinge on the other. The Deathless should impinge, though this requires some courage on the part of the practitioner. If it does not impinge you will continue to be caught up in suffering, in Greed, in Hatred, in misperceptions, in unskillful and harmful behaviors. Second, there is another means to develop the abilty to see through the fabricated world: Don’t be a stakeholder. Seeing through the fabricated world helps you to stop being a stakeholder. It works the other way as well. Just as money seems very real to the person who keeps earning and spending it, and God seems very real to the person who keeps praying to Him, the fabricated world will seem very real to the person who continues to have a stake in the things that it offers. This is a reason that Renunciation along with the meditative and ethical practices that loosen the grip of Greed and Aversion are critically important.

… to be continued next week.

5 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: Nirvana, the Perfection of Character 1/2”

  1. Joe Costello Says:

    What a wonderful essay! Especially appreciate the way you reminded us of the stitched together nature of the fabricated realities we live, how bliss rises in the gaps and how Nibbana must impinge for clear seeing to occur . Looking forward to Part 2. Thank you Bhante 🙂

  2. don Says:

    Venerable Cintita,

    Wonderful essay. You had mentioned the physicist that sees strings of matter being altered when viewed. I am fascinated that neurons and protons behave differently when viewed. What is the cause of that I wonder? Is it mind interpreting what it sees or is it our consciousness that links to what is being viewed?
    I am still searching for my way in all this. I also fall into the realm of thinking nirvana must certainly be a selfish pursuit. As you say that is the great lie but it is difficult to release attachments to outside appearances and let it go. Perhaps it is an inside job but I am still pulled about by the five senses. I also fall into the trap that the less I try to react the less I can be helpful to those around me.
    I do not know much about Buddhism. I do know a small amount about Jesus teaching.
    I am not so certain Jesus was here to prove there is a god. If he were trying to prove god exists I doubt he would have picked a small corner of some sand lot to do that.
    However he seems to be teaching the same things you talk about. He had little concerns for outside appearances or what was good and what was evil. Often when he taught: the poor and the sick would come to him. From what I read he never saw the illness. He only would see the true nature of what was appearing in front of him.
    My question would be this. If one were to reach nirvana would the perception of the enlightened one alter any of the suffering of the world. Can mediation, practice and study of the path have an effect on the appearances of this world?

  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Don, I think all of us have enormous capacity to affect the conditions of the world through our actions. The enlightened one is much more capable of recognizing the effects and is unencumbered by defiled factors of mind that interfere with the capacity for acting in beneficial ways. (I’m not sure this answers what you are asking.)

  4. don Says:

    I guess I was wondering if the mind of a Master brings harmony to the world just becasue he or she lives has reached Nirvana (without direct action to the suffering).

    On a lesser extent I was wondering if any meditation can be of help to those we know have a greater degree of suffering. Sometimes we just can’t reach people or animals with actions.

  5. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Don, I am not aware of Buddhist teachings about ways to influence the world independently of actions (anyone?). Apparently there are some modern scientific studies, interestingly enough, that suggest such influences. I don’t know how credible they are. One I have heard of indicates that a concentrated population of meditators, as in the case of a new meditation group that meets regularly, will reduce crime rates in the neighborhood. Maybe another reader knows more about these studies. I think Buddhist practitioners, or anyone who has developed along the path by whatever means, will have subtle positive influences on all those around her. Just being around a calm person (for a change) makes a difference.

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