Renunciation and Nirvana

Regular readers of this blog probably know by now that the title, The Endless Further, is borrowed from the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (see About). He was not a Buddhist. He was Hindu, and he believed in God. Nonetheless, he had great respect for the Buddha’s dharma, which does not include teachings about a supreme being. Tagore, also accepted many of the same concepts that Buddhism adheres to, although his understanding of them differed according to his religion and his own sense of things.

The way I use “Endless Further” is changed slightly from the way Tagore used it, and yet, I have not strayed too far from his intended meaning. For him, the spiritual work of an individual was to realize an oneness with God, or to awaken to the presence of God within. To have that realization was the same as becoming infinite.

“Infinite” was also Tagore’s understanding of the meaning of Nirvana. But, it was not, in his mind, a goal or the end of one’s effort.  Nor was it realized solely from the practice of austerities.  As Mohit Kumar Ray tells us in Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, he “never did set Nirvana as his goal. He has repeatedly and explicitly stated his faith in the great joy of release which can be attained within the innumerable bonds and ties of life instead of abdicating the earthly for the ethereal.”

Most religious philosophies concern themselves with a division between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Tagore did not see a division; instead, he beheld the two in a dynamic relationship. The sacred is manifested through the profane, and through the profane, it is possible to find the sacred. Renunciation is a state of mind. So, too, is Nirvana.

Each moment is new and ends in a new moment. We should not strive to attain Nirvana in some future moment. This is what Zen master Dogen meant when he declared that practice is not a means to Nirvana, it is Nirvana. Every activity no matter how mundane is Buddha activity (butsu-ji). Each moment is Nirvana, and infinite.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

Tagore, Gitanjali


Sufferings are Nirvana

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

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* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110


Extraterrestrial Highway

ET-Hwy2The U.S. Government has finally admitted the existence of Area 51, the secret base where many people believe that for decades the Air Force has been studying crashed alien spaceships along with captured, or stranded, extraterrestrials. Area 51 is located 100 miles from Las Vegas, near the small town of Rachel, on Nevada State Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, so named because of the numerous UFO sightings and reports of other strange alien happenings along the road.

Unfortunately, according to the new declassified documents, Area 51 was just home base for the U-2 spy plane program and other aerial surveillance programs. How boring. But there is a caveat, and that’s that this information comes from the CIA, not famous for their truthfulness, so there is still a small ray of hope for UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.

marvinI believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and I’d certainly like to meet up with an ET. Nothing would be cooler. Unless, he, she, or it wanted to zap me with a ray gun, or was intent on destroying the earth. That’s definitely not cool.

But believe me, the threat from space is real, and as it stands right now, we’re about to become less protected. The United States Air Force says that because of the sequester cuts, it can no longer afford to maintain the “Space Fence,” the space surveillance network that scans the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could destroy Earth. This is disturbing news because when the Space Surveillance System shuts down in October not only will we be vulnerable to global devastation from incoming comets and asteroids, but we’ll also be unable to detect impending interplanetary attacks.

This is serious stuff. This June, NASA announced that more than 10,000 asteroids and comets are near Earth, which means they could come within 28 million miles of the planet – that’s uncomfortably close. I guess.

Speaking of space, Lama Govinda notes that “According to the ancient Indian tradition, the universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as motion, and as that in which motion takes place, namely space . . . space is called akasa . . . derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore also the meaning of ‘ether’. . .” *

In Buddhism, there are two kinds of space, local or limited space (akasa-dhatu), and infinite space (ajata-kasa). You really got to hand it to the ancient Indians, because when most people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, those guys in India were envisioning multiple universes, multiple planes of existence within these universes, life on other worlds.

It’s really mind-blowing. Take the Lotus Sutra, for example. In this text, the Buddha explains that he didn’t actually become enlightened under the Bodhi tree as he said, but in fact, he became enlightened in unimaginably distant past.

He tells the assembly on Vulture Peak:

It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of kotis of kalpas (eons) since I in fact attained Buddhahood . . .  Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi thousand-million-fold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, traveling east, passing another five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi worlds he drops one particle of dust. Then, suppose he continues eastward like this until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what do you think? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?”

Well, yeah, they can. A kotis is 10 million, and a nayuta is 100 million. It works out something like this: 5 x 100 x 1000 x 10,000 x 100,000 x 100, 000, 000, 000 x 1,000,000,000,000[4] x 1,000. On my calculator it comes out as 2.e+41, whatever that might be. Let’s just say it’s heck of lot of worlds. Actually they’re ‘world systems’ or galaxies.

By the way, I know you are very impressed with my calculations, but I have to admit that I got it from a book called Lecture on the Sutra by Josei Toda.

Then the Buddha says,

Suppose all these worlds, are once more reduced to dust, and each particle represents one kalpa (eon = 4.32 billion years). The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi kalpas. Ever since then I have been in this saha (mundane) world, teaching the dharma. Likewise, I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayuta asogi worlds.”

Not only that, but Buddhist tradition holds that there have been countless Buddhas in the past, although several eons usually go by between each Buddha’s appearance, and there are Buddhas presently teaching in other worlds.

I’m a bit pessimistic about all that, but at any rate, this passage in the Lotus Sutra is where the Buddha reveals that he is not the mundane Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha of history, instead, he is the cosmic, Eternal Buddha. Naturally, this shouldn’t be taken literally, because it’s allegory. Just as the Buddha says he has always existed in this world, the potential for awakening to Buddha Nature has always existed in our life.

We could say that in this allegory, infinite space represents the infinite mind. As a physical object, our brain, may not be a vast as space itself, but it does contain 456 trillion trillion atoms, and our brain can hold more information and process it faster than the most powerful super-computer on earth.

Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed the concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought.” These worlds, which some translators call dharma-realms, are basic conditions of life that interpenetrate one another, possess certain factors or qualities, and are manifested within the three spheres of existence: the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness), the realm of sentient beings, and the realm of the environment.

Chih-i arrived at the number of 3000 through a particular formula, but enough calculating for one post. Suffice it to say that the number of worlds is not important but rather what it represents, which is the interpenetration of all reality in a single thought. This is also stated as a single moment of thought permeating the universe with all phenomena in the universe contained within that single thought moment. Figuratively, then, the mind is a vast as space after all.

Chih-i’s identification of all reality with the mind was his way of equating the mind with Buddha-nature. All worlds or dharmas are Buddha-worlds or Buddha-dharmas, so the takeaway here is put succinctly by Chih-i himself in the text, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra,

If one contemplates the thoughts of one’s mind . . . with the understanding that all dharmas (realities) originate from the mind, then the mind is Buddha-nature.”

Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived roughly two hundred years after Chih-i once said, “Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

Just as with space, we are really still in the early stages of our exploration of the mind. The mind is the true Extraterrestrial Highway because it can take us beyond our saha or mundane world. I don’t mean to formless realms or twilight zones, but rather to a dimension of space and time where we transcend the desires and illusion that bind us to a world of suffering.

The mind is said to be quiescent like space. Nirvana is also said to be quiescent like space. It is through quieting the mind, allowing Buddha-nature to ‘to radiate, to shine’ that we can find Nirvana, right where we are in a single moment, in the present moment.

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* Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960


The Doctor Will See You Now

Suffering (dukkha) is a disease, the basic ‘ill’-ness of life, and because the Buddha offered an insightful diagnosis and effective treatment for this malady, he is called The Great Physician.

Every disease has a cause, and the cause for suffering, the Buddha taught, is the false sense of “self” and the passions this delusion inflames. The treatment he prescribed is the Eightfold Path, which we can summarize as ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Ethics I always feel is self-evident. Everyone, irrespective of religious considerations, should strive to live an ethical life. Meditation is the process that cools the fever of passion, and wisdom is the insight into and realization of no-self and all that goes with it.

The cure, then, we call Nirvana. The popular definition of this word is “blown out,” as in a candle being extinguished, and has sometimes been linked with the idea of extinction (of the entity of human life). However, its other and more relevant meaning has to do with the restoration of healthy conditions after the disease of suffering is treated.

There is the famous story of the maiden Kisagotami who from her balcony watched Siddhartha when he was a prince return home after he learned of his son’s birth. So taken by the prince’s beauty and glory, she spontaneously broke out in song: “Happy is the mother who has such a child, happy is the father who has such a son, happy is the wife who has such a husband!” The word she used for happy was nibbuta. Now, the future Buddha took this word, nibbuta, as a synonym for nirvana (nibbana) and transforms Kisagotami’s song in this way: “In seeing a handsome figure, the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana, the heart of a wife attains Nirvana.” Then he asks himself, of what does Nirvana consist? And the answer he arrives at is, “When the fire of passion is cooled, the heart is happy.”

Nirvana, that state said to be “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable” is actually, just plain and simple happiness, the transformation from a state of ill-ness into a state of health, and well-being.  We can accept the idea of “complete nirvana” as allegory, for there are few more powerful images than that of the Bodhisattva who forgoes this ultimate state to stay in Samsara, the world of suffering, and liberate other beings.

But liberation in this sense is a metaphor, because suffering is a chronic disease. As long as we live in the world, we will experience suffering. Liberation, Nirvana, these words mean to maintain a state of well-being, balance, happiness, while in the midst of suffering, a sort of “grace under pressure.” In this way, the key to good health is simply listening to the physician, picking up the prescription, and following the directions.

In the case of sickness, one needs to diagnose it, remove its cause,
Attain the happiness of good health and use reliable medicine for it;
Similarly, with suffering, one should remove its cause, and recognize its remission
And the path of remission should be applied and attained.

Uttaratantra Shastra


The Three Gates of Freedom

Nagarjuna taught that the city of Nirvana has three gates: emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. These are also known as the three doors of liberation (vimoksamukha).

Emptiness (sunyata) is knowing that all things in their conventional or mundane aspect are non-substantial.

Signlessness (animittata) is the emptiness of signs. It refers to not seizing upon things in their mundane aspect and using them as objects for clinging.

Wishlessness (apranihitata) is abstaining from actions based on passion and desire.

Nagarjuna tells us that the three gates also correspond to knowledge, wisdom, insight, and that they are called samadhi because the gates cannot be entered without a “collected mind.” Without this crucial element the gates cease to be gates and become only “cases of confusion.” Using samadhi as an expedient, one enters the city of Nirvana free of passion and this is the real freedom, “the residueless of freedom.”

Dharma then is the path that leads to the three gates and samadhi or meditation is the vehicle that carries us along the path and into the city. Those who say that meditation does not lead to freedom  or Nirvana do not understand that in teaching samadhi it was like the Buddha handing us the keys to the car.

The city is not a real city because Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind. The gates themselves are only expedients in terms of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. In respect to knowledge, wisdom,  and insight, these are the glimpses of enlightenment or Buddhahood we collect as we fare along the path. Yet, it should be obvious that none of these things are within our reach as long as we remain in states of confusion. A confused mind cannot think clearly let alone see clearly enough to be able to even make out gates or cities.

In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (as translated by Robert Thurman) it reads

What is ‘Joy in the pleasures of the Dharma’? . . .  it is the joy of unbreakable faith in the Buddha . . . It is the joy of the renunciation of the whole world, of not being fixed in objects, of considering the five aggregates to be like murderers . . . It is the joy of always guarding the spirit of enlightenment, of helping other beings . . .  it is the joy of the exploration of the three doors of liberation . . .  it is the joy of acquiring liberative techniques and the conscious cultivation of the aids to enlightenment . . .

True renunciation is done in the mind. It has little to do with what one wears as clothes, or whether one’s head is shaved or not, or one’s lack of possessions. On the other hand, it has everything to do with using the expedient of samadhi.