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Nirvana

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by Sangharakshita

... understanding, just knowing objectively, theoretically. It's something much more than this.

Now we can extend, we can generalize a little more. We can say that most of our problems, if not all, really boil down to this problem, or this question, of happiness or unhappiness in one form or another. Even this question of good and bad temper is a question really of happiness and unhappiness. Bad temper is a problem for us, or we realize it's a problem, because it makes us miserable, it makes us unhappy. But taking this wider view, this wider perspective, what usually happens? We feel unhappy for some reason or other, we feel miserable, ill at ease, even tormented.

Now we don't usually really ask ourselves why. If we do ask at all why, we ask only superficially, we only skim the surface, and we get, or we give ourselves, only a very superficial answer, in terms of symptoms, in terms of externals. What we usually try to do is to escape, to get away, from the experience, the feeling, of being unhappy and to be happy. We don't usually ask ourselves, we hardly ever really deeply ask ourselves `Why am I unhappy?' We simply see or we feel or we realize that we're unhappy, that we're miserable, discontented, and we simply ricochet as it were, or try to ricochet, from that experience into an opposite state or experience of feeling happy. And this usually means grasping at some object or some experience which we think, which we believe, will give us the happiness which we lack and which we seek.

In other words, what happens is we set up happiness as a goal and we try, we strive, to achieve it. We feel unhappy, so we set up this goal of happiness, and we try to get away from our feeling, our experience, of unhappiness, and to reach the goal of happiness. Now here also, as you know very well, we nearly always fail. After all, our whole lives through, in one way or another, we're in search of happiness. No one is in search of misery. No one's in search of unhappiness.

Everyone's in search of happiness, everyone sets up happiness as a goal, but everybody fails to reach it, everybody fails to realize it. There's no one who could possibly say that he's so happy that he couldn't imagine himself being a little happier. Most people, if they're honest with themselves, have to admit that their lives, their whole life in fact, is more or less one of unease and dissatisfaction, punctuated with little flashes of happiness, joy, which make them temporarily forget, if not their actual misery, at least certainly their discomfort and discontent.

So this brings us, all this discussion brings us, to a most important conclusion, which is that the setting up of goals is really a substitute for awareness, for self-knowledge. As I said, if we find ourselves bad-tempered, we don't try to understand, to be aware of why we are bad-tempered, we simply, almost automatically, set up the goal of being good-tempered. If, taking the more general view, we feel unhappy, miserable, instead of trying to understand why very deeply, we automatically, almost instinctively, set up a goal of being happy in order to get away from the unhappiness and the misery. But it's all automatic - there's no real awareness, no real self-knowledge in it all at all. But that's why I say, that's why I state as an important principle, this conclusion, that the setting up of goals in this way is really a substitute for awareness or for self-knowledge.

We shouldn't really try to escape from ourselves. We should begin by accepting ourselves just as we are. I say `begin'. We should try to understand not just intellectually but much more deeply than that why we are what we are. If we're suffering, well, accept the fact we suffer - but why? Or, as the case may be, if we're happy, well, accept the happiness - don't feel guilty about it - and understand why. This isn't something that's just intellectual; it's something that has to go very deep down indeed.

For some people this sort of understanding, this sort of penetration, this sort of insight will come in the course of meditation. Meditation isn't just fixing the mind on an object. It isn't just revolving a certain idea in the mind. Meditation really involves, among other things, getting down to what we may call the bottom of one's own mind, and illuminating one's mind from the bottom upwards, as it were, exposing one's motives, the deep-seated causes of one's mental states, one's experiences, one's joy and one's suffering and so on. In this way real growth, we may say, in awareness will come about and will take place.

Now suppose now we come back to this question, this subject, this problem if you like, of Nirvana. It may seem as though we've rather strayed away from it, but one very often finds that if one tries to go too directly to a subject, one misses it. One has to prepare the ground, one has, rather like a plane before it lands, one has, as it were, to go round and round before one can really come down on the subject. Now you know from your reading of books and listening to lectures that it's possible to describe Nirvana in various ways. For instance, it's possible to describe Nirvana as the supreme bliss, as the supreme happiness. The Dhammapada, for instance, does this. One of the verses in the Dhammapada says `Nirvana paranam sukham' - `Nirvana is the supreme bliss, the supreme happiness, the supreme joy.' Now suppose somebody, suppose you yourself, feel unhappy. Suppose you are going through rather a difficult period. There have been lots of upheavals, lots of upsets, and you're feeling rather low, rather miserable. So in that state, in that condition, you read a book or you hear a lecture, in the course of which it is stated that Nirvana is the supreme happiness, Nirvana is the supreme bliss. So what's your reaction? You think, `Good. That's just what I want - bliss, happiness.' So you decide to make Nirvana your goal. Now this, one may say, is the height of unawareness - nothing to do with Buddhism at all. One just latched onto Nirvana, labelled as the supreme bliss, because it happened to fit in with one's subjective needs and feelings at that particular time. But this is what is happening constantly. We try to use, as it were, Nirvana, in a quite unaware, unconscious, almost automatic way, for the solution, for the settlement or the resolution, of problems which can only be resolved through awareness.

What we should do, or what such a person should do, is to begin by accepting his unhappiness, at least face up to the fact `Well, I'm unhappy.' Even `I'm miserable. I'm absolutely miserable.' In other words, accept oneself as an unhappy self to begin with, don't try to cover it up, don't try to put on that beautiful smile and make everybody think that well, you're just on the top of the world, as it were. Be cheerful with other people certainly, don't get them down with your gloom and sorrow, but at least don't disguise the fact from oneself. Accept the fact that one is unhappy, that one is an unhappy self. So study this unhappy self, one can even say live with it side by side, don't try to shove it away, don't try to get rid of it. Live with it and ask oneself, try to see deeply, what is it that makes one unhappy? What's the cause, what's the source of the misery? Don't clutch at a way out of it. Don't try to put a goal of non-misery of happiness, not even of Nirvana.

Don't try to postulate that too quickly or too unconsciously. Just try to see more and more clearly, more and more distinctly, what it is in oneself that is upsetting one, which is making one miserable and which is making one unhappy.

So if one can do this, if one can see this more and more clearly, again one can say there's some possibility that gradually, eventually, Nirvana will be attained. But certainly not by using the idea of Nirvana as the supreme bliss or in any other form as an escape from unhappiness, without being aware of what the cause of the unhappiness is. It's the awareness, it's the self-knowledge, which is the important thing, the all-important thing.

Perhaps at this stage one can indulge in a little paradox. One can perhaps say that the goal of Buddhism consists in being completely and totally aware at all levels of why we want to reach a goal, or we can say, in awareness of our need to reach a goal. We can also say, going a little further, that Nirvana consists really in the complete awareness of why we want to reach Nirvana.

If you understand fully and completely why you want to reach Nirvana, then you've reached Nirvana. You can even go further than this. We can even say that the unaware person is in need of a goal, but on account of his unawareness is unable to formulate a goal, a true goal. An aware person, on the other hand, on account of his awareness, is able to formulate a goal, but he doesn't need it. That's really the position.

Now let's come back to this meeting and this talk. I said at the beginning that it would have been quite easy to give a conventional account of Nirvana - it's this, it isn't that, and so on. But suppose that had been done, then what would have happened? What would have happened is that you would have accepted or rejected this aspect of Nirvana or that aspect of Nirvana in accordance with your own largely unconscious needs.

Suppose you feel an unconscious need for happiness, well, when I said Nirvana's the supreme bliss you would have thought `Well, that's what I want', you would have latched on to that, and you would have settled down in that, without really realizing what you were doing. If on the other hand you're rather sensitive to your lack of knowledge and understanding, had I said `Nirvana's a state of complete illumination', again, half-consciously you would have latched onto that. And in the same way, if you were rather oppressed or overpowered by a sense of your own life being constricted ...

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