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Nirvana

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 26: Nirvana

Venerable Sir and Friends Those of you who come here regularly, or even those who come very often, will know, because it's a fact which I often emphasize, will know that Buddhism in its entirety, the whole teaching of the Buddha in its entire vast historical development, is a very very big subject indeed. You'll know further that this whole vast subject of Buddhism comprises so very many different aspects: the metaphysical, psychological, the ethical, the meditative, the artistic, the buddhological, as we may call it, and so on. Furthermore we have so many different teachings relating to so very many different aspects of the spiritual life, man's spiritual needs, problems and so on. And therefore we find the Buddha himself saying, in one part of the scriptures, that the Dharma, his teaching, his doctrine, his truth, is like the ocean.

And one of the reasons why it's like the ocean, one of the respects in which it resembles the ocean, is inasmuch as it contains so very many different jewels. The text of course is not content simply with saying jewels; it's got a whole long list of precious and semi-precious stones which are to be found in the depths of the ocean. And in the same way, the Buddha goes on to tell us, in the depths of the Dharma there are these so very many precious teachings, dealing with all aspects of the spiritual life.

Now in this series, in this series introducing Buddhism, with which we've been concerned from the beginning of the year, we're trying to cover just some of these different aspects of Buddhism.

We've had, as some of you will no doubt recollect, so far altogether ten lectures. We've discussed the necessity of religion in general and then of Buddhism in particular. We've tried to understand what the correct approach to Buddhism should be. We've surveyed Buddhism in England. We've discussed Buddhism again in terms of that very modern concept of evolution. We've discussed it in terms of the lower and of the higher evolution, spiritual evolution. We've tried to understand what is meant by the Buddha, what is meant by man himself. We've also tried to plumb, if not the depths at least the surface of those very important traditional formulations of the five aggregates, the five heaps into which man's being is divided; the twelve nidanas or links of the chain of conditioned co-production, and last of all, last week, the three laksanas or characteristics of all conditioned existence.

So these are the aspects, or some of the aspects, we've covered so far, just some of the jewels, some of the treasures, that we've tried to fish up from the depths of the Dharma ocean. Now sooner or later in the course of a series like this, sooner or later in the course of any attempt to be comprehensive with regard to Buddhism, sooner or later one must come to that very important, very relevant topic of Nirvana. So that is what we come to today, this evening.

Perhaps I may say that I'm quite happy to come to it, partly because in the past, in the course of my experience, I have discovered that Nirvana is, one might say, rather a popular subject with audiences of people interested in Buddhism. One finds, perhaps rather surprisingly, that people are always eager, if not anxious, to hear about Nirvana.

I remember in the course of my life in India sometimes going about from place to place by train.

In India one finds that people aren't at all backward about introducing themselves or getting into conversation. Sometimes it happened that no sooner had I taken my seat in the compartment of a train, someone comes up to me and says, `You seem to be a Buddhist monk. Please tell me - what is Nirvana?' They're just as straightforward, very often, as that. And very often also, not only in India but in this country too, after a meeting, especially in meetings outside London, where people don't very often get a chance of asking questions of Buddhist monks, very often the question comes up after one has given a lecture: what is Nirvana? It seems to be a word that many people have heard. They might even have seen it in a dictionary or in various writings; they've heard it or read it, they don't know quite what it's all about, so they take the opportunity of putting the question: what is Nirvana? Now one can say that this sort of question, this sort of interest, is quite natural, quite understandable. I don't know how many millions of Buddhists there are in the world today. This question of religious statistics is quite a controversial one. Some people, if you read various books on comparative religion, some people will tell you that there are about six hundred million Buddhists, while others will whittle it down to about fifty million. It's of course entirely how one reckons. But we can say this - that if we look at the various Buddhist countries of the world, if we look, either in our own imagination, or if we see programmes on television about Buddhist countries, or even read articles in magazines about Buddhist countries, we shall see, we shall find, that in these countries Buddhists, as Buddhists, are engaged in so many different activities.

You can see Buddhists meditating. I remember some time ago in the American magazine Life there were some quite impressive photographs of young monks meditating, Zen monks meditating in Japanese monasteries, sitting in rows upon rows. You just saw the backs of their shaven heads, their long black robes, and there they were apparently sitting and meditating hour after hour in the silence and tranquillity of the Japanese Zen monastery. It was quite an impressive picture.

Then again, one sees in Buddhist countries people worshipping. Some people of course don't like this word worshipping in a Buddhist context - they think it's rather inappropriate - but we'll use it, at least provisionally. You see people going very often in the early morning up the steps of the temples, carrying their flowers and their candles and their bundles of incense sticks, and you see them kneeling down and making their offerings, chanting various verses of praise to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and then going about their daily business. And especially you'll see them doing this on the occasions of the great festivals, such as the festival of Wesak or Vaishaka or `Shagadawa'?, which we shall be celebrating very shortly, in only a few weeks time, when they spend the whole day, or even three whole days, in this manner.

Then again, if one takes a look at the various Buddhist countries, one will see so many of them, especially the monks, engaged in various branches of Buddhist studies. In some cases you'll see them poring over palmleaf manuscripts, brown with age, perhaps hundreds of years old. In other places, like Tibet or Mongolia, at least in the old days, one would see them opening and unwrapping, turning over the pages of enormous xylograph volumes, which perhaps a very young novice by himself, by his own unaided effort, can hardly even lift. You see them writing books investigating the doctrine, giving lectures and so on.

And then, if one turns especially to the lay people, particularly in the Theravada countries of southeast Asia, one will find them on so many occasions giving alms to the monks, when they come with their black begging bowls, to the poor, to beggars, and even, in some Buddhist countries, if not most Buddhist countries, even giving food and drink, and shelter and medical treatment, what to speak of human beings, even giving it to animals.

And then again if one surveys these Buddhist countries, one will see some people taking the Refuges and Precepts, some going into retreat for two or three months or even years; and some again one will see presenting themselves in the monasteries, presenting themselves at a chapter of the Sangha, the monastic Order, having their heads shaved, putting on the yellow robes and becoming monks.

So when one sees unfolded before one's eyes, either in the imagination or through television or on the radio, or in the course of one's reading, when one sees unfolded this whole vast panorama of Buddhist activities - all this meditating and studying and preaching and teaching and practising - the question which arises is: Why? What's the reason for it all? What's the moving spirit, the great impulse behind it all, what is the reason, what is the explanation for all these activities? What are all these people trying to do? What are they trying to get? What are they trying to achieve? What are they trying to realize through their meditation and their study and their almsgiving and their worshipping and so on, in all these multifarious ways? Now the traditional reply to all this of course is very simple. If you go up to any of them, whether monk or layman, or nun or laywoman, if you go up to any of them, if they're at all conversant with their faith, and most of them are, at least in a humble, simple way, if you put the question to them, `Why are you doing this? Why are you meditating? Why are you giving alms? Why are you studying?' then they'll give you the traditional reply. They'll say, `We're doing this for the sake of the attainment, the achievement, the realization, of Nirvana.' In Ceylon they'll say Nibbana, in Burma they may say some other word, I don't know the Burmese word; the Japanese will say nehan?; the Tibetans will say palpa? - but they'll give you substantially the same reply: it's all for the sake of Nirvana, liberation, Enlightenment.

So therefore, with reference to all these various, these multifarious strands of Buddhist activity, the question arises, the further question arises: What is this Nirvana? How is it to be explained? How is it to be understood? One gropes of course after analogies. One tries to go from the known to the unknown. If one has a Christian background one will try to envisage it as a state of sort ...

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