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Nirvana

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by Sangharakshita

... of eternal life, in heaven, after death. If one is of another way of thinking one might think of Nirvana even as a state of complete annihilation or extinction.

Now it isn't really very difficult to answer this question as to what is Nirvana? It isn't very difficult. The texts are pretty clear as to what it is and what it isn't. I can say myself that in the course of my experience in India, even in this country, I've often spoken on this subject of Nirvana. In fact, as I've already told you, it is even rather a popular subject. And one can say that a talk, a lecture, on Nirvana, usually goes down with people quite well. One finds that after hearing all about Nirvana, people go away from the meeting rather happily, with quite a clear idea as to what Nirvana is and also quite a clear idea as to what it is not.

The procedure on these occasions is quite simple, quite straightforward. One usually begins by discussing the etymology of the word Nirvana, whether it means a blowing out or whether it means a cooling down, and so on and so forth. And one usually goes on then to explain that Nirvana, at least according to the Pali texts, consists in the extinction of all lobha, or greed or craving or desire; all dvesa, anger or antagonism or hatred; and all moha, mental confusion or bewilderment. Nirvana is the extinction of all these three unwholesome roots.

Then one usually goes on to say that Nirvana is a state of supreme, of incomparable bliss, to which the bliss of this world cannot be compared. Also, if one wants to go into the subject a little in detail, one describes the two kinds of nirvana: the klesa nirvana, nirvana consisting in the extinction of all passions and defilements; and skandha nirvana, that is to say, nirvana as consisting in the extinction, or the waning, of the skandhas, the five aggregates or heaps of psychophysical existence, which takes place upon the death, as we call it, of the person who has already gained klesa nirvana during his lifetime.

One can furthermore go on to the different interpretations of Nirvana in the Hinayana, the Mahayana, the Vajrayana, the Madhyamika, the Yogacara, Zen, and so on and so forth again.

And of course one shouldn't forget, one doesn't forget to explain that Nirvana is neither eternal life, in the Christian sense, nor annihilation or extinction. These are the two extreme views about the nature of Nirvana. Here, as elsewhere, one has to follow the middle path.

So this is the usual procedure, this is the usual, the standard, one might almost says the stereotyped pattern for a lecture or talk about Nirvana. And as I've said, people go away after hearing such a talk, such a lecture, quite happily, and one can say with regard to such a talk or lecture that in this way a good time is had by all.

Now this evening I don't intend to go through this routine or this procedure. I intend this evening, or at least will try this evening, a rather different approach, some would say perhaps a rather unorthodox approach. But I don't think it's really so. Perhaps I might observe in passing that orthodoxy is a much abused word in modern Buddhism, and if one wants to know perhaps what it really mean, well, you can turn to the article which appears, or which has been appearing for three months, in `The Buddhist', on `The meaning of orthodoxy', which is significantly subtitled `A Protest'.

Now Nirvana is said to be the goal of Buddhism. Those of you who attended the talk on evolution, lower and higher, will remember that on our chart Nirvana was represented by the symbol for infinity, at the end of the whole process of the higher evolution. So Nirvana is commonly spoken of as the goal of Buddhism and of Buddhists inasmuch as they are Buddhists.

Now this is as though to say that there are different groups of people in the world, religiously, politically, culturally and so on, different groups of people existing, and that they have so many different goals: some after power, some after wealth, some after satisfactions of various kinds.

So in the same way there is in the world a group of people called Buddhists, practising Buddhism, the teaching of the Buddha. And their particular goal is what they call Nirvana. That's what they're trying to reach, what they're trying to realize.

So we are therefore really concerned, when we speak about Nirvana, with the idea of a goal. So let us try to begin with to understand what is meant by this idea or this conception of a goal to be attained or realized or achieved, and then try to see, try to understand, to what extent this idea or this conception of a goal is applicable to Nirvana.

Now this rather different type of procedure obviously suggests a word of warning. We generally tend to think that words like goal and so on can be applied to Nirvana as it were almost automatically. We tend to use terms rather loosely, without any clear, any vivid idea of what they mean. And in particular we're rather inclined to transfer terms and expressions derived from our mundane experience to our spiritual experiences, even to the transcendental itself. And of course we very often find that they don't quite fit, sometimes even that they don't fit at all.

So with this in mind, let's get back to the idea of a goal. A goal means an objective. It's something we have to strive either to be or to have. We can even say that these two, being and having, are the same, because we can say having is a sort of vicarious being. A goal is something that we want to be. Suppose, for instance, our goal is wealth. We can say that our goal is to possess wealth, or that our goal is to be wealthy, but obviously the possessing, the having, is reducible to the being, the existing.

Now a very important point which arises here is this: that we can want to be only that which we are not. Obviously we don't want to have or to be that which we already are, that which we already have. We want to be that which we are not. And this suggests, quite obviously, that we're dissatisfied with what we are. If we're not dissatisfied with what we are, we shall never strive to be that which we are not. Suppose, just by way of example, our goal happens to be money, material possessions. Well, we make these things our goal - we want to be wealthy, to possess wealth - because we're dissatisfied with being poor. And in the same way when we make, say, knowledge our goal, when we want to know, to add to our knowledge, to accumulate facts, investigate principles, we want to do all this, want to be all this, we want to be possessed of knowledge, to know, because we're dissatisfied with our present state, that is to say, our state of being ignorant.

So this is the pattern, this is the procedure, this is what always happens. We become aware of a certain poverty in ourselves, something missing, something lacking, something absent, and we want to try to gain, to achieve, that which is absent, that which is not. All this is quite familiar; the process is quite familiar. And we can say that on its own level it's a perfectly right and correct procedure. But unfortunately it's all extended into the spiritual sphere.

Take another example. Suppose I have a problem, a personal problem. Let's say that that problem is the possession of a rather bad temper. I get irritated, I get upset, even angry, rather easily. Even a small thing is enough to spark me off. I see some people looking at other people, but better if we look at ourselves. So the possession of this bad temper, even this persistent irritability, makes me, and makes other people very often, very disturbed, if not actually from time to time miserable.

So what happens? One fine day, either on our account, or on account of what other people tell us, what they bring to our notice, we realize our state. We feel so wretched, so uncomfortable, so miserable; we feel so dissatisfied with being like that, that is to say, being bad-tempered, that we think `All right, it's time all this ended. It's time it came to a stop.' So what do we do? We set up, we construct for ourselves a goal, the goal of being good-tempered. We think `Well, here I am now, I'm bad-tempered. It's a source of misery to me. I must get rid of it. I must be good-tempered. That's my goal. Here I am, a bad-tempered person. I'm going to achieve this goal of being good-tempered, of being sweet-tempered, always returning the soft answer, turning the other cheek and all that sort of thing.

So we set up this goal and we try to reach it, we try to realize it, try to make ourselves, as it were, good-tempered, sweet-tempered. But what usually happens? I'm sure you can all tell me this. We almost always, if not invariably, fail. If we succeed at all, it's only momentarily, just once or twice. We check ourselves, we control ourselves, but before very long, before many days have passed, certainly before many weeks have passed, we're back again in the same old rut. And we usually of course blame it onto other people, onto external circumstances.

Now why is this? Why does it happen? Why is it that I'm not able really to cure my own bad temper, to become good-tempered? What's the reason for the failure? It's a question which concerns all of us because we all have problems of this sort, if not the problem of bad-temperedness or irritability, certainly other problems of an analogous nature, so it concerns us all. What's the reason for the failure, the great, even catastrophic failure? The reason is that all the time we're really unaware of the cause, the reason, the fundamental deep down cause and reason of our being bad-tempered. And if this isn't resolved, if we don't know why we are bad-tempered, what is making us irritated, what is prompting, really, the angry answer or the violent reaction, we can't possibly hope to become good-tempered. It's not of course just a question of intellectual ...

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