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

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, December 6, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Last week we began discussing Nirvana in two of its aspects, Imperturbability and Awakening, that is, the affective and cognitive aspects. This week we consider the the remaining aspects of Highest Virtue and of Liberation, which ties together these three aspects.

Highest Virtue. This is the result of developing the behavioral aspect of character, or the morality, and thereby brings us one again to the issue of Karma. Virtue comes with the erosion and eventual loss of unskillful roots of Greed, Aversion and Delusion and with the arising and growth of Renunciation, Kindness, Compassion and Wisdom. In fact, with the complete disappearance of Greed, Aversion and Delusion, and backed by Renunciation, that is, staking no personal claim in anything, and by the penetrating and encompassing insight of Wisdom, the factors of Kindness and Compassion are unleashed to bring the world unlimited benefit. A saint is born. This seems, in fact, to accord with the Buddha’s life story.

However, there appears to be some confusion about what the Arahant, the one that has attained Nirvana, is capable of. Nirvana is frequently described as the End of Karma, referring specifically to the end of New Karma, that is, intentional actions, rather than Old Karma, that is, the cumulative results of past intentional actions, which may persist for a while after the attainment of Nirvana. For instance the following passage describes actions in accord with the Noble Eightfold Path as leading not only to the ending of skillful (bright) Karma, but also to the ending of unskillful (dark) Karma and everything in between, the ending of All New Karma altogether.

The intention right there is to abandon this kamma that is dark with dark result, the intention right there is to abandon this kamma that is bright with bright result, the intention right there is to abandon this kamma that is dark and bright with dark and bright result. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma. AN 4.232

Because Karma is a fabrication, that is a compounded thing, this provides a release from the arising of any slight suffering that would be associated with even skillful (bright Karma). Furthermore, with the end of Karma comes the end of Samsara, that is the end of Birth and Death, upon the physical death of the body. Rebirth, recall, is driven by Karma. But then, it seems that the arahant must be not only incapable of intentional action after Nirvana is attained, but also would be unable, in any case, to stick around to be of benefit in subsequent lives. So on the path nearing Nirvana the arahant has accumulated this huge reservoir of Virtue, only for it to be squandered in the attainment of Nirvana! Could this really be the case? It seems from the Suttas that the arahants were all capable of much more than sitting around blissfully drooling on their mudras, but apparently this is a common Mahayana understanding of what it means to become an Arahant: In response the Bodhisattva became a contrasting ideal, as one who stops just short of Arahantship, intentionally and nobly, in order to put this huge reservoir of Virtue to use for the benefit of all beings, in this life and in subsequent lives.

The best way to resolve this question, whether the Arahant is capable of benefiting the world, would be to find an arahant and ask him, but I am not sure where to find one. However, I would suspect to find someone far from the common Mahayana view of the Arahant. For instance, there are alternative passages that suggest as much. The following example suggests that the skillful roots produce no karmic fruit in any case:

In the same way, any action performed with non-greed… performed with non-aversion… performed with non-delusion — born of non-delusion, caused by non-delusion, originating from non-delusion: When delusion is gone, that action is thus abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. AN 3.33

The emphasis on non-delusion might suggest that particularly pure actions of non-greed and non-aversion are under discussion, ones without a hint of attachment to what is thereby fabricated. Perhaps these are the activities allowed the arahant. These might be quite spontaneous pure and simple acts of compassion and kindness in response to conditions as they present themselves with no attachment to results. The turtle is on its back, set it upright, what is there to say or even think about? There is nothing karmic about it in the sense of producing a lasting impression on the character or producing another Rebirth, but such simple actions can produce enormous benefit, coming from an limitlessly insightful, compassionate and kind mind. I think this is probably like the Taoist notions of no-mind and the action of no-action, which in fact became the Zen understanding of nirvanic behavior, as described like this in Twelfth Century China:

People of the Way journey through the world responding to conditions, carefree and without constraint. Like clouds finally raining, like moonlight following the current, like orchids growing in shade, like spring arising in everything, they act without mind, they respond with certainty. — Master Hongzhi

In other words compassionate and wise action becomes the natural function of an Arahant, just as the natural function of rain is to pitter-patter and the natural function of a door is to bar access until opened, requiring no particular intentionality on the part of the rain or door or even sense that a choice is being made.

Liberation. In common usage Liberation means the freedom to do what you want: If you want to speak harshly of others, freedom of speech allows you to do so. If you want to eat ice cream, money in your pocket ensures that you can. In Buddhism Liberation is something deeper: It is freedom from having to want. It is therefore freedom from the constraints of our own minds, freedom from the annoying backseat driver in our heads that is constantly demanding that we go there and avoid that, all the while with little sense of what will get us into an accident or take us on a long detour. These directives have their origin in the fabricated self, that entity in the world but not of it, on behalf of which personal advantages are sought in the world and the dangers of the world avoided. They take the form of emotional cues, of lust, of disgust, of heartbreak, of anger, of longing of disappointment, of envy, of acquisitiveness, of stinginess, of pity, or sadness, that keep the mind in anxiety and turmoil and give rise to our actions. This is the human condition.

Buddhism is about looking outside the box with the eye of wisdom. It is about seeing how our rich emotional lives, though providing good material for Italian opera, keep us constantly on edge, perpetually dissatisfied and trapped inwardly in a drama from which we cannot get free, all the while thrashing about outwardly a world of our own fabrication in horribly harmful ways. It is about transforming this insanity that we all seem to be endowed with, and instead to live worthwhile, satisfying and harmless lives, by liberating our actions from our basest emotions, by developing skill in our Karmic actions, turning away from our untutored emotional reactiveness. This is taking responsibility for our lives.

The word Nirvana means extinguishing, as one would extinguish a fire. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that at the Buddha’s place and time the physics of fire was different that we commonly understand it, so that the image for us can be misleading. Something like liberation from painful bondage is intended. Ven. Thanissaro translates Nirvana as Unbinding. In ancient India fire was considered to be present everywhere, normally in a cool state. However when it comes into contact with fuel it tends to attach to it, at which time the fire becomes hot and visible, as in the Buddha’s famous Fire Sermon:

Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame… The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame… The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame… The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame… The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. SN 35.28

Nirvana is a matter of unbinding the fire from the fuel to return to the natural, and for people of India more pleasant, state. He does not mention it, but this is much like our modern understanding of Oxygen, normally tame and cool, but quite ready to turn aflame in the presence of fuel and spark. Flame is as a metaphor for the directions of of the backseat driver brings forth graphically the aspect of suffering.

Liberation, it can be seen, summarizes the three aspects of Imperturbability, Awakening and Virtue. Imperturbability is the stilling of the flames, the turning away from the directives of the backseat driver, not getting caught up in the emotional life. Awakening results from seeing the world from a perspective other than through the flames of want, to see the world as it is on its own terms, and thereby recognize the insanity of the emotion-driven life. Highest Virtue is to recognize the sanity of the purpose-driven life and to behave in accordance with the world as it is.

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