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The Meaning of Parinirvana

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 115 The Meaning of Parinirvana

In the course of the last few weeks or even in the course of the last few months, I've had occasion to participate in discussions not only with people here, not only with people who are actually trying to follow the Path as taught by the Buddha, but discussions with other people elsewhere, people who, though they were involved in their own way in the living of the spiritual life, the treading of the spiritual path, were not very familiar with Buddhism, even though in many cases very interested in it. And in the course of the discussions which I have had, which in fact I'm still having, with some of these people in some of these groups, both formal and informal, one question which has come up again and again - one question, in fact, which has been put to me again and again - is the question of what really makes one a Buddhist.

Now obviously one is not thinking in formal, official, as it were ecclesiastical, terms - one is not thinking in terms of official membership or anything like that - but one is thinking in essentially spiritual terms, thinking in terms of Reality, thinking in terms of individual commitment. And the answer which has always emerged to that sort of question is that a Buddhist ultimately, when the question is probed, when the question is plumbed, one may say, to its very depths, a Buddhist is one who Goes for Refuge.

Now Going for Refuge is an act. One can even say it is ithei Buddhist act, the distinctive and the decisive Buddhist act. And one therefore is a Buddhist not merely by virtue of some external membership in some external body, not even by virtue of one's belief or one's faith, but essentially in virtue of an action, an action of igoingi, an action of Going for Refuge. Going for Refuge to what? This is something also that has to be elucidated, and in traditional terms one Goes for Refuge to the Buddha, to the Dharma, and to the Sangha.

By Buddha one means one's own ultimate ideal of spiritual perfection, or in a few words the spiritual Ideal. Going for Refuge to the Buddha means the acceptance for oneself of a certain spiritual ideal, especially as embodied in the life and the teaching of the Buddha; an ideal which one takes, which one accepts, as one's own in the sense that it is this ideal that one wishes to realise oneself, to achieve oneself, and embody in one's own life; in other words, it's a practical ideal, not merely something theoretical. So this is Going for Refuge to the Buddha.

Then Going for Refuge to the Dharma: this means, or this suggests, that in order to realise this ideal of Buddhahood, this supreme spiritual ideal, there must be some way, there must be some method, there must be some regular course of progress, and this essentially is what we call the Dharma - the Path of the Higher Evolution, in more contemporary terms. And therefore Going for Refuge to the Dharma means committing oneself to follow this path, however far it may lead, however difficult it may be, however remote the regions may be into which it leads, however trackless as it were, however intangible, but one commits oneself to following that Path of the Higher Evolution, that path leading to the realisation of the spiritual ideal, leading to the realisation of Buddhahood, one commits oneself to following it to the end. I had almost said 'the bitter end', but of course the end in this case isn't at all bitter. One might say the end is very sweet; but the path itself at least, in stages, may be bitter, may be rugged. So this is Going for Refuge to the Dharma.

Thirdly, Going for Refuge to the Sangha. The Sangha is the spiritual community: other people who in their own way are also treading that same spiritual path that you are treading, or trying to tread, in the direction of the realisation of the same spiritual ideal. So these are your fellow pilgrims, these are your companions on the way. You help them, they help you. You inspire them, they inspire you. If they stumble, you try to pick them up; if you stumble, you hope that they'll try to assist you to your feet also. So this is the spiritual community, this is the Sangha, and to the Sangha also one Goes for Refuge.

So in brief, in a very few words, in these traditional terms, one is a Buddhist by virtue of the fact that one Goes for Refuge in this sense, to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And these three, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, are known therefore as the Three Refuges and also as the Three Jewels, and they are the three great themes, one might say, of Buddhism itself.

The whole of Buddhism, vast as it is, complex as it is and also simple as it is, can be reduced to these three: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

And inasmuch as the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha are so important, are so all-important, it's only natural that in the course of centuries the custom should have grown up in the Buddhist East of commemorating them, celebrating them, at certain stated times of the year, on certain stated occasions. So we find in the Buddhist calendar we have three great days, three great feasts, if you like, three great festivals, when we commemorate the Buddha, when we commemorate the Dharma, when we commemorate the Sangha. Buddha Day is, of course, Vaishakha Purnima, the full moon day of the month April-May, when we commemorate the Enlightenment of the Buddha, when we commemorate, when we remember, that which makes the Buddha Buddha; in other words, his Enlightenment. And then Dharma Day or Dharmachakra Day is that day, some two months later, corresponding to our June-July, when we remember the Buddha's first enunciation of the Truth, the first teaching that he gave after his Enlightenment, the first showing of the Way, the first showing of the Path of the Higher Evolution, to the rest of humanity. And then Sangha Day comes later on still in the year; this comes on another full moon day, that of the month October-November. So on these three great days in the course of the Buddhist year we celebrate and we commemorate and remember these three Refuges, these Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

In addition to these, there are many other festivals, many other celebrations, but two amongst them all are of outstanding importance. The first of these is the Buddha's birthday; the other is the Buddha's Parinirvana Day or, as we would say in the case of any person other than the Buddha, the anniversary of his death. The Buddha's birthday falls, according to the Far Eastern Buddhist calendar, on April 8th. We'll be in retreat at Haslemere this year on that day, and we shall be having something quite special on that occasion. And the second day, the anniversary of the Parinirvana, happens to fall today, according to the Far Eastern Buddhist calendar. Today is the anniversary of the Buddha's passing away.

So today we can say we are commemorating what, as I've said, in the case of other people we would describe as the death of the Buddha. Now it so happens that this day falls on a Tuesday, and on Tuesdays, as most of you know, we have a meditation; sometimes more than one meditation. So inasmuch as we are commemorating the Parinirvana of the Buddha, the death as it were of the Buddha, and inasmuch as Tuesday is usually for us a meditation day, I'm going to say something this evening on the subject of the recollection of death in general, and the recollection of the Buddha's 'death' in particular.

The recollection of death, or imarana anusatii, happens to be a particular kind of meditation practice or meditation discipline. I want, therefore, to begin by saying this evening something in general on the subject of meditation.

We find nowadays that a lot of people talk about meditation; a lot of people practise meditation, compared with the numbers practising it before; a lot of people even teach meditation. A lot of people talk about meditation. So the word is quite well known, the word is quite current, as it were; you can even see it on posters in the Underground. But what meditation essentially is, what meditation comprehends, what sort of ground meditation covers, how it is to be practised, what its significance is, how many different kinds of meditation practice there are - all these points are not so well understood.

Very broadly speaking, we can say that there are three main senses in which the word meditation can be used, and they correspond, we may say, to three successively higher levels of experience or, if you like, successively higher levels of consciousness. First of all there's meditation in the sense of the integration, the bringing together, of all our psychic energies. This is the first level, if you like the first step. Human beings, like other living things, are embodiments of energy.

That is what we essentially are. Maybe we don't look like it sometimes, but this is what we essentially are - embodiments of energy; if you like, crystallised, semi-crystallised, energy. But unfortunately our energy is as it were split up into all sorts of streams: streams of energy flowing some in this direction, some in that direction, some meandering happily, others rushing and pouring and tumbling. And sometimes these different streams of energy, instead of flowing together, instead of flowing harmoniously, flow as it were in opposition. They are locked, as it were, in a sort of conflict. They sort of cancel each other - cancel ione ianother, even - out, and when that happens we tend to stagnate, we are fighting with ourselves, our energies are split, we are divided, we are divided people, divided selves if you like. And this is a situation in which many people find themselves today: ...

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