Index to Current Series
“Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”
Nirvana is both the beginning and end of Buddhist practice. We begin with accepting the truth of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Even before we have an understanding of what this is, we accept that the Buddha gained some special quality that we too can with time achieve in Buddhist practice. We end with Nirvana. We practice in between, gaining confidence in the Buddha’s enlightenment as we observe elements of our own character fall into place and gain glimpses of the ultimate goal.
Nirvana, along with its companion, Rebirth, forms a context for Buddhist practice. Keep in mind though that practice is simply about skillful intentional action, that is, Karma. We have added the layers Habit, Character and Destiny to Thought and Act merely to explore the consequences of our intentional action, so that we better understand what it is to be skillful and why its cultivation is so imperative. As with the understanding of Rebirth the understanding of the goal of Nirvana is not without pitfalls.
The Goal. Goals themselves are often put to unskillful uses. They quickly become objects of desire, clinging and obsession, and thus foster unskillful states of mind. “I gotta have that NOW! Oh, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.” Sugarplums are painful things to have dancing in your head. Nirvana can do that as well. Once achieved goals accordingly create an equivalent fear of losing what has been accomplished, or dissatisfaction in it. Don’t worry, you will not have achieved Nirvana in the first place if you have this level of clinging. How do you have a goal skillfully?
It is important to hold skills lightly. Think of them as the North Star, guiding your path, but not something you need to actually reach (in fact the North Star is more and more out of reach the further you travel toward it; it ends up overhead). If you are learning a language, you just follow a fixed daily routine of practice, otherwise you will make yourself miserable striving to speak as a native and will eventually give up. Consider Gandhi’s life task; he just followed the daily practice of non-violent non-participation along with encouraging others to join him; he never would have endured his half-century campaign had he been obsessed constantly with driving the British out of India. Consider the misery of dieting to get slim, the repeated sacrifice of what needs to be renounced in the painful effort to be slim, then the disappointment after you abandon the discipline that you had barely been able to sustain, only to return to your former pleasingly plump condition. The goal can skillfully form a background context to occasionally consult to ensure you are headed in the right direction.
The ways in which the goal of Nirvana has been framed seems to have played an important role in Buddhist thought. In China the notion of Sudden Enlightenment became very prominent. This is the idea that within this very life it is very feasible that one can attain Nirvana, without plotting out a path of development spanning many lifetimes. Zen literature is full of references to people who through practice and skillful instruction suddenly realize in a single instant Enlightenment, often with little preparation beforehand. These stories in a sense mirror the stories of the early Suttas of disciples of the Buddha who realize the final goal during a single discourse of the Buddha. However in the Suttas the presupposition is almost always present that these are people “with little dust in their eyes,” people who have already lived as recluses perhaps for many lifetimes, practiced meditation, developed virtue, reflected deeply on the nature of existence, and only needed the wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching to pull it all together. Within Zen even while embracing Sudden Enlightenment the contrasting notion that one should practice without a goal, simply practice. The notion that “We are already enlightened” encourages this. This is particularly evident in the teachings of Japanese Master Dogen (1200-1253), whose view was essentially that Enlightenment is not something you achieve, it is something you do, or fail to do, moment by moment. After all, the only way we shape Habit, Character and Destiny, or in fact anything else in the world, is through our intentional actions. Isn’t it enough just to get our intentional actions right, that is, to face each moment with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and then act skillfully? Similarly, for the chubby person is it not enough just to face each day moderate eating habits? In either case the goal takes care of itself.
It is important to distinguish striving for a goal from effort. Effort does not require clinging, which is painful, only discipline, which can be quite joyful. What we would call an awakened being, and arahant, someone who has attained the goal of Nirvana gets intentional actions right naturally and without effort, which is why we don’t even think of them as intentional or karmic any more, and would not know what else to do. The rest of us must meet each moment while being hammered by the typhoons and eruptions of impulse and obsession, assaulted by the flames and avalanches of passion and rage, so we must be able to put all that aside then act with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and to enact Enlightenment. So effort does not vanish with the notion that we are already all enlightened. We still need to act like it.
I suspect that, like much of Buddhist doctrine, the various ways of treating the goal of Nirvana are pragmatic adaptations of the Buddha’s teachings to differing cultural circumstances. It has been suggested that the idea of Sudden Enlightenment is related to the existence of greater social mobility in China than in India. In India there was not much expectation that one’s lot in life would change significantly within this lifetime, life required extreme patience, and many lifetimes to make progress. In China one might be born a peasant and die an advisor to the emperor, quick results could be expected in this lifetime. I doubt that the Chinese actually developed a way to become enlightened faster, they just framed to process in a more appealing, less frustrating way. For those that might have doubts about the veracity of Rebirth, which recall brings with it a sense of urgency in practice, the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment might also inspire to urgency in practice. The downside of all this is that the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment encourages clinging to the ultimate goal. This would explain the common accompanying theme of practicing with no goal as a wise defense against this clinging.
Now let’s consider Western culture. We tend to be acquisitive, we tend to expect instant click-of-a-button gratification, we tend to interpret things as personal goals. These things require that we be extremely careful with Nirvana, Enlightenment and the other synonyms. Already these have become marketing tools for Buddhist products, including teachings, accompanied by promises of fast results. I recommend that people steer clear of such appeals. I personally like to teach in terms of Gradual Enlightenment but Steady Progress in order to mitigate greed and encourage patience. I teach in terms of Perfection of Character or Virtue rather than Ending of Suffering, or Eternal Bliss, because it is less about personal advantage, it suggests something you do for everyone rather than just for yourself. I tried teaching in terms of Responsibility for a while, but students seemed to think that was a bummer. (It is perhaps an advantage of being a monastic that I do not have to try to sell anything, like seminars, books and retreats; I don’t depend on teaching as a livelihood, I have no livelihood. This leaves me free to teach what is most skillful, like renunciation and disenchantment, rather than what appeals to the naive and commercially influenced understanding.) Most importantly is to settle into a well-defined daily practice routine, disciplined but not striving. The book will get written if you write a certain number of pages a day, competence will develop if you learn something new each day. Just take care of the day, the moment, the intention behind the action and the rest will take care of itself.
Rebirth and Nirvana together give a broader meaning to the Buddhist path that extends beyond the confines of this one life. Although Nirvana is a distant goal for most, it is one toward which noticeable progress, along with occasional glimpses of its waiting arms, can be witnessed in this one life, and sometimes some recluse will actually attain this lofty goal of perfection of character. For most of us Nirvana simply provides a cathedral-like framework to contain our daily practice or aspirations.
Greater than the One Life. The focus on this one life gives a limited view of the Buddhist path. Another analogy is perhaps in order.
The focus of corporate capitalism tends to be limited to quarterly profits. Sometimes the executive vision is a bit more far-sighted as certain long-term perspectives are able to raise stock prices for the short term, but the performance of executives are by and large judged on the basis of quarterly profitability. This means that the global view is largely lacking; where will we be, say, one hundred years from now? The characteristic myopic decisions of individual corporations exemplifies what in Artificial Intelligence is known as Hill Climbing. The logic of Hill Climbing is that if you want to get to the top of the mountain in the fog, just keep walking up hill. The decision-making process is thus driven by a local metric, the contours beneath your feet. The weakness of hill climbing is that you almost always get stuck at the top of a foot hill and miss the top of the mountain altogether because you lack the global perspective. This is the problem of scrambling for short-term, measurable gain. Since corporations by and large can not sustain a long-term perspective, other human institutions are required that can. The scientific and technological research communities can afford a long-term view because at their purest they are generally not required to show quarterly results or any particular practical results. Their practitioners, sustained by job security (tenure and so on) provided generally through government funding, have the leisure to work on projects with very long-term goals, or simply advance human understanding of certain principles, like computability. They become a resource for future long-term corporate profitability, at little corporate expense. They also potentially provide a social conscience in corporate decision-making. (Unfortunately a great weakness of the corporate system is that more often than not warnings that would conflict with quarterly profits tend not only to be ignored actually suppressed through corporate control of media and through corporate lobbying of government agencies responsible for allocating funds for scientific and technological research.)
Our individual spiritual focus tends to be similarly limited to quarterly results. Sometimes we are motivated to sustain a meditation practice through the inspiration of others, but generally we waste time scrambling for short-term measurable gain, wealth, reputation, fun, a new romance, kids off drugs and in school, the neighbor’s dog not barking all night, getting the upper hand in the battle of the bulge, finding the best cell phone service provider for the family, looking busy at work and so on. With so many petty concerns it is easy to lose sight of Nirvana, the overarching goal of the Buddhist life, the lofty peak that may lie many lives in the future, and instead get stuck at the top, or even half way up, a little hill. As a matter of fact, since Buddhists by and large can not easily, in the bustle of samsara, sustain a long-term perspective, another human institution is required to hold to that perspective as a constant reminder. This is a traditional role in Buddhism of the monastic Sangha. Its practitioners, sustained by lay donations, and at the purest giving up all temporal concerns that might distract them from the higher goal, have the leisure to work on something much bigger than their single lives. They become the conscience of the Buddhist, keeping him pointed toward the higher goal. On a quarterly basis the elements of Buddhist practice may not seem so urgent, but those periods on the cushion, meeting situations with kindness and insight, keeping life simple and peaceful, make an incalculably huge difference in the Destiny of the world.