A New Buddhist Path - Selections
Engage with a new vision of Buddhism and the modern world with the bestselling author of Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.
We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
At the heart of Buddhist teachings there is a crucial ambiguity. It is not a new problem: an ambivalence is apparent even in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, as preserved in the Pali Canon. As Buddhism globalizes and becomes part of the modern world, however, this ambiguity is becoming increasingly awkward. It needs to be resolved for the Buddhist tradition to fulfill its liberative potential—not only to promote individual awakening more successfully, but also to help us address ecological and social challenges that cannot be evaded.
Gautama Buddha said that he simply taught dukkha and how to end it; the four noble (or “ennobling”) truths are all about dukkha, what causes it, its cessation, and how to end it. Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” yet that works only if we understand suffering in the broadest sense, to include anxiety and dissatisfaction generally. Why are we haunted by a gnawing dis-ease that keeps us from enjoying our lives? The ambiguity at stake in Buddhism is directly connected with how we understand the source of our dukkha: is the basic problem the nature of this world itself, or our inability to accept it as it is? Or something else?
In early Buddhism, the “end of suffering” is nirvana, which literally means something like “blown out” or “cooled off.” But it’s not completely clear what those metaphors actually refer to, because the Buddha described the nature of nirvana mostly with negatives (the end of craving, ignorance, etc.) and other metaphors (the shelter, harbor, refuge, etc.—which still leave us with the question “what sort of refuge?”).
His apparent reticence to describe the end of suffering leaves us with the important issue of whether nirvana involves attaining some other dimension of reality that transcends this world, or whether it describes an experience that is immanent in this world—a state of being that might be understood more psychologically, as (for example) the end of greed, ill will, and delusion in our lives right now. Surely nirvana must be one or the other?
Today that basic ambivalence appears most clearly in the contrast between a reading of the Pali Canon that understands nirvana as an unconditioned (asamskrta) realm or dimension, and the recent “psychologization” of American Buddhism, especially in the recent popularity of the mindfulness movement. Understanding the difference between these two will help us to see a third possibility, which emphasizes neither transcending this world nor accepting it as it is (or seems to be). Rather, the world as normally experienced—including the way we normally experience ourselves—is a psychological and social construction that can be deconstructed and reconstructed. We don’t need to attain anything or anywhere else, or to accept the conventional possibilities that modernity assumes. What we need to do is realize that this world is quite different from our usual assumptions about it and about ourselves.
The earliest Buddhist teachings were collected into what became the Pali Canon, which is approximately eleven times the length of the Bible. The material presented is so extensive and varied that most generalizations become risky, and this is especially true regarding the nature of nirvana. This book is not the place for a comprehensive analysis of the canon, yet it’s important to appreciate some of the inconsistencies in the way that nirvana is described—or what at least appear to be inconsistencies. There are plenty of passages in the Nikayas that seem to support transcendence and perhaps as many that seem to imply immanence. Before getting into that, however, we need to know what we are getting into.
According to tradition, the texts of the Pali Canon were memorized and passed down by word of mouth for at least three hundred years before they were written down. How well they preserve the original words of the historical Buddha, and how much those words have been edited and modified in the process, is a controversy that may be never settled. We like to think that its suttas offer us a direct conduit to what the Buddha actually said, but it’s not so simple. Religious doctrines can evolve very quickly, especially in the earliest days, when the institutions devoted to preserving the legacy of the founder are still taking shape. Within a single generation the parables of Jesus, an apocalyptic Jewish prophet, became overshadowed by his new role as resurrected god who can save us—thanks to the extraordinarily successful missionary efforts of Paul, who never met the living Jesus but apparently knew better than anyone else what Jesus really meant. How certain can we be that the compilers of the Pali Canon knew what the Buddha meant and accurately preserved what he taught?
Some of its mythological elements reflect ways of thinking that were generally accepted in the Buddha’s time and place (Iron Age India) but are more difficult to credit today. It presents the world as an enchanted place full of supernormal powers and disincarnate spirits. There are stories about the Buddha’s conversations with gods and the complaint of a tree spirit whose home had been cut down. We read that the Buddha flew through the air and hovered cross-legged above a river to stop a battle between two armies. In another incident, after a debate the Buddha suddenly rose up into the air and flew away. He also ascended to Tusita heaven, where he taught the Abhidhamma—the third part of the Pali Canon—to his deceased mother.
Some other issues are problematic in different ways. One of the most controversial episodes in the Canon was the Buddha’s decision to admit women into the sangha, the monastic community. According to the account in the Vinaya (the second part of the Pali Canon, which includes the rules that monks and nuns are expected to follow), the Buddha was originally reluctant to allow women into the sangha, until his attendant Ananda asked him whether women have the same potential for awakening as men do. The Buddha said yes and then agreed to admit them.
I used to appreciate this incident for the way that the Buddha allowed himself to be persuaded—until I realized that was naïve. There are several textual problems that cast doubt upon the veracity of this story, including an apparent discrepancy between when women were admitted (about five years after the Buddha began to teach) and when Ananda became his attendant (later).
What finally dawned on me, however, is that Ananda’s role was probably added later as a way to blame him for the admission of women! There are a number of other incidents in the Pali Canon that seem designed to cast a bad light on him, including a bizarre passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta that recounts the last days of the Buddha. In the midst of a straightforward account about his physical decline and death, the Buddha suddenly upbraids Ananda for not noticing the implications of something he’d said a little earlier: due to his well-developed psychic powers, a buddha could actually live many thousands of years, but Ananda didn’t catch the hint and ask the Buddha to do so:
Then, Ananda, the fault is yours. Herein have you failed, inasmuch as you were unable to grasp the plain suggestion, the significant prompting given by the Tathagata, and you did not then entreat the Tathagata to remain. For if you had done so, Ananda, twice the Tathagata might have declined, but the third time he would have consented. Therefore, Ananda, the fault is yours; herein have you failed.
Just in case we miss the point, this ludicrous criticism is repeated twice more. Other accounts make it clear that the senior monk Mahakasyapa, who apparently assumed leadership of the sangha after the Buddha’s death, had an ongoing quarrel with Ananda, so perhaps it is no coincidence that some other incidents in the Pali Canon seem designed to show Ananda in a bad light.
I mention these magical displays and personal animosities not to belittle the doctrines in the Pali Canon but to question its reliability as historically accurate. The notion that the original events and teachings were transmitted word for word for over three hundred years, without addition or subtraction or “clarification,” is implausible to say the least. It is also inconsistent with a significant difference between oral and scriptural traditions. Once there is a written text, whether or not a copy is an exact reproduction becomes more significant and easier to verify. In the oral traditions of nonliterate societies, however, several versions of the most important stories commonly circulate, and there is no single, canonized set of doctrines that practitioners are expected to accept and follow. Without a written text to fixate the words, the emphasis is on conveying the meaning, which allows more liberty of expression. A teacher’s own understanding of a topic naturally affects how it is presented, and, inevitably in an oral culture, this sometimes has consequences for how a doctrine is transmitted to future generations.
The customary Theravada emphasis on meticulous memorization and recitation suggests that the Pali Canon might be an exception, but recently discovered Gandharan birch bark scrolls—now the oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts—do not support that possibility. Dating from the first century BCE to the third century CE—the period when the oral teachings probably began to be written down—those scrolls are inconsistent with the traditional belief that a definitive version of what the Buddha said was established during the First Council (presided over by Mahakasyapa) soon after his death. Although they include some familiar material, most of the fragmentary treatises and commentaries reveal new strands of Buddhist literature not included in the Pali Canon as we know it today. Among scholars of early Buddhism, the usual paradigm—that all Buddhist scriptures and schools are branches that diverge from the same tree trunk—has been replaced by a braided river metaphor, with multiple interacting streams that do not derive from a single source. The translator Richard Salomon has summarized the implications: no existing Buddhist collection of early Indian scriptures “can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”
Nobody holds the view of an original canon anymore.
—Pali scholar Oskar von Hinüber
Keeping in mind this nuanced understanding of the Pali Canon, we can return to the issue of what the canon says about nirvana: does it transcend this world or is it immanent in this world—or is it perhaps something else altogether?
One of the most common descriptions of nirvana is “the end of birth and death”: someone who is fully awakened is not born and does not die, as in this well-known passage in the Udana:
There is, monks, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-formed. If, monks, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-formed, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-formed, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed.
Another Pali Canon text, the Itivuttaka, contains the same passage and
adds some verses that explicitly describe this sublime state as blissful:
The born, come-to-be, produced,
The made, the formed, the unlasting,
Conjoined with decay and death,
A nest of disease, perishable,
Sprung from nutriment and craving’s cord—
That is not fit to take delight in.
The escape from that, the peaceful,
Beyond reasoning, everlasting,
The sorrowless state that is void of stain,
The cessation of states linked to suffering,
The stilling of the conditioned—bliss.
Another Udana passage seems to further distinguish the Buddhist goal from the world we live in now:
Where neither water nor yet earth
Nor fire nor air gain a foothold
There gleam no stars, no sun sheds light.
There shines no moon, yet there no darkness reigns.
When a sage, a brahmin, has come to know this
For himself through his own experience
Then he is freed from form and formlessness Freed from pleasure and from pain.
Yet a third Udana passage begins in the same way: “There is, monks, that state where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…” but goes on to assert that in this state there is “neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, monks, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering (emphasis mine).” Elsewhere we are told that there is no way to measure the consciousness of one who has “gone out,” because it is signless, boundless, and all-luminous: namarupa, one’s name and form, has been destroyed.
Except perhaps for the final Udana quotation, which complicates the issue, such passages seem to support an understanding of nirvana as an unconditioned state or dimension that transcends samsara, which is this world of suffering, craving, and ignorance. The ultimate goal is to escape the unsatisfactory world we now live in by ending physical rebirth. In developing nonattachment, one can come to experience serenity and loving-kindness now, yet they are not in themselves the final solution to dukkha. Although we naturally want to improve our lives while we are here, the main goal is to avoid rebirth, because to be reborn into this world is to suffer.
Nevertheless—and you knew this was coming—there are other important passages in the Pali Canon that seem to offer a more this-worldly interpretation of the ultimate goal. Many Buddhist scholars believe that the Sutta Nipata, in the Khuddaka Nikaya, is part of the oldest stratum of the Canon, so it may provide a better glimpse of the Buddha’s original teachings and practices. This becomes especially important when we notice that some of the texts in the Sutta Nipata do not endorse a transcendent solution to dukkha, for they describe awakening as an unselfish, nongrasping way of living here and now.
In early Buddhism the move from samsara to nirvana is not a journey to a “separate reality,” but away from attachment to nonattachment, from greed and anxiety to calm and equanimity, or from “self” to “nonself.”
The short Atthakavagga Sutta is a good example. Grace Burford’s study of it (Desire, Death, and Goodness: The Conflict of Ultimate Values in Theravada Buddhism) emphasizes that the Atthakavagga makes no metaphysical claims about the role of one’s karma in causing rebirth, or about the importance of escaping the cycle of birth and death. Instead, the sole focus is on overcoming craving and attachment. According to Burford, “It represents simply a transformation of values within human existence,” involving suddhi purity, santi peace, and panna wisdom. Because we are addicted to desire, which leads to anxiety and conflict, the solution is just to eliminate that addiction, in which case we can live out the rest of our days serenely and happily.
This view is consistent with some other descriptions of nirvana in the Pali Canon. The goal is often described as simply putting an end to the “three fires” (also known as the “three poisons”): the unwholesome motivations of greed, ill will, and delusion. According to the Samyutta Nikaya, for someone who achieves their destruction, “nirvana is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise.”
One of the most interesting descriptions of all is found in the Honeyball Sutta, where the Buddha teaches Bahiya Daruciriya, a wandering ascetic who interrupted the Buddha as he was walking to collect alms. His request for the teachings was so urgent that the Buddha relented and gave him the following pithy response:
In the seen there is only the seen, in the heard there is only the heard, in the sensed there is only the sensed, in the cognized there is only the cognized: this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
When, Bahiya, there is for you in the seen only the seen, in the heard, only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no “you” in connection with that.
When Bahiya, there is no “you” in connection with that, there is no “you” there.
When, Bahiya, there is no “you” there, then, Bahiya, you are neither here nor there nor in between the two.
This, just this, is the end of suffering
The end of suffering is the most common description of nirvana, which Bahiya attained as soon as he heard these words. We will have occasion to refer to this passage later, but for the moment notice that here too there is no reference to ending rebirth, or attaining some other reality. It is enough to overcome the sense of a self that is doing the seeing, the hearing, and so forth, by focusing on the sights and sounds themselves.
Needless to say, these few references to some passages in the Pali Canon are no substitute for a more thorough analysis of its teachings. They are sufficient, however, to raise doubts about any understanding of nirvana that attempts to find definitive answers in the earliest texts. I have sometimes wondered why the Buddha was not clearer about the nature of nirvana. Was it another way of telling us not to get preoccupied with philosophy? “If you want to understand what nirvana is, experience it yourself!” Yet maybe he was as forthright as he could be. Is the basic problem the limitations of language? Are the discrepancies in the canon because different disciples of the Buddha remembered different discourses or understood them differently? Or did those inconsistencies rise later, due to intentional or inadvertent alteration during oral transmission and explanation? Or are the discrepancies only in our own unawakened minds?
Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.
—Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor
My main concern here, however, is to raise questions about any understanding of nirvana as an unconditioned realm distinct from the conditioned world where we live now. One wonders whether such a transcendental interpretation of awakening makes the same mistake that many religious traditions fall into: taking metaphors literally. Realizing the deathless—that which is beyond birth and death—can be understood as attaining another dimension of reality that escapes this impermanent world where everything arises and passes away. It can also be understood as describing what the Buddha recommended to Bahiya: to realize here and now that there is no “you” that was ever born or can pass away. In more modern terms, the sense of an “I” that is having these experiences is a construct that the Buddha encourages us to deconstruct, because the delusion of a separate self is the source of our most troublesome dukkha. Perhaps that does not involve achieving some other reality but simply reveals the true nature of this one.