Monday, August 8, 2016

What is Nirvana Anyway?

I have been listening to a talk by Shohaku Okumura on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the teachings of the Buddha at the end of his life. In Sanskrit Maha means great beyond great; Parinirvana is the death of the body of one who has attained nirvana in his or her lifetime. A verse from the sutra says:

Then the Lord said to the monks, “Now, monks, I declare to you all conditioned things are of the nature to decay. Strive on untiringly.” These were the Tathagatha’s last words.

I have been thinking of nirvana, perhaps the most important idea in this sutra. In Soto Zen, we chant the Heart Sutra regularly. One of the lines is “Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.” When I pause for a moment to think about the words that I am chanting, I am always amazed by the complexity of just one word. What do I think that nirvana means?

The Sanskrit word nirvana means “blown out,” as a candle is blown out. In the Indian tradition, nirvana means complete freedom and liberation from samsara, or the wheel of birth and death, the wheel of earthly existence. The individual soul, or Atman in Sanskrit, is extinguished and merges with Brahman, the supreme divine consciousness (God.) Nirvana can be attained in this lifetime with intense and lifelong yogic practice.

In pre-Mahayana Buddhist practice, nirvana can be attained in one’s lifetime, but as in the case of the Buddha before his death, nirvana is considered incomplete, because he still had a physical body. Complete nirvana, or Parinirvana, occurs when the five skandas (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness) are dissolved. When the Buddha died, he entered complete nirvana, because he no longer had body and mind.

The insight I had while listening to Rev. Okumura’s talk is that in the Chinese version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a Mahayana text, there is an important difference in the meaning of nirvana. In fact, the meaning of nirvana has almost completely changed. Nirvana is not the cessation of the skandas, the death of the body and mind. Nirvana is the cessation of arising and perishing.

As I understand it, then, complete nirvana can occur in this lifetime, while you still have a body and mind. Nirvana is not the cessation of conditioned things. Nirvana is a state of mind, according to Rev. Okumura, in which the idea of arising and perishing ceases. This state of mind is freedom from suffering.

Now I need to look at my life and figure out what this means. Well, clearly things arise and cease. That is, a person is born. I gave birth to my son. And a person dies. The other day I was sitting next to a corpse, and that person was clearly dead and gone. To deny that things arise and cease in this world would be absurd.

So what does this cessation of arising and perishing mean? Rev. Okumura says, So the time when arising and perishing, a dichotomy, ceases means we are really right now, right here.” He gave the example of firewood and ash, from Dogen’s Genjokoan: when firewood is firewood it is 100% firewood; it is not ash. And ash is 100% ash. So I would relate this to my own life, thinking when I am alive, I am 100% alive, not dead.  When a body starts failing, it is often said that the person is dying. But, no! That person is alive until the final breath.

For me, this isn’t just about birth and death. It means a radical acceptance of what is right now. We accept that things are born and die, that things come and go. It is the clinging to perishing that can be so painful. My birth family relationships are gone. My son has moved 1500 miles away. My body is changed and weakened.

These are facts: things arise and cease. Nirvana would be cessation of wishing things were different. Acceptance doesn’t mean denial of events that are sad, such as the loss of a child. It would mean that at a deep and radical level, we accept the inevitable suffering in our life. We understand and accept that things arise and cease. This would be equanimity. This would be peace of mind.

Does this make sense?