Thursday, May 17, 2012

Nirvana in the ancient texts (Part II)

Ryuei Michael McCormick* (
The Buddha's final nirvana, Buddha Eden Garden, Portugal (pedronogueiraphotography/

Swayambhunath, Nepal (
The Buddha taught that nirvana is more than a mere absence. While it is unlike any conditioned phenomena which ordinary people experience, the Buddha describes it as something which we can awaken to as the source of freedom and bliss.

It is an unconditioned reality [unlike everything else in samsara, it does not depend on any condition for its existence] which can be seen or experienced by those who remove delusion and clinging in regard to conditioned phenomena [things that do depend on conditions for their conditional existence].
“There is, monastics, a not-born, a not-brought-into-being [becoming], a not-made, a not-formed. If, monastics, there were no not-born, not-brought-into-being, not-made, not-formed, no escape would be [possible or] discerned from what is born, brought-into-being, made, formed. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-into-being, a not-made, a not-formed, an escape is [possible and] discerned from what is born, brought-into-being, made, formed (Verses of Uplift, Udana, p. 109).
In the This Was Said (Itivuttaka, p. 31), this same passage is accompanied by the following verses which explicitly describe this sublime state as one of BLISS:
The born, come-to-be, produced,
The made, the formed, the unlasting,
Conjoined with decay and death,
A nest of disease, perishable,
Sprung from nutriment and craving’s cord --
That is not fit to take delight in.
The escape from that, the peaceful,
Beyond reasoning, everlasting,
The not-born, the unproduced,
The sorrowless state that is devoid of stain,
The cessation of states linked to suffering,
The stilling of the conditioned -- [that is] bliss.
Nirvana is referred to as blissful in several discourses. In the following verses, nirvana is called the “greatest bliss.” It is then referred to as the deathless, which is the goal of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“The greatest of all gains is health,
Nirvana is the greatest bliss,
The Eightfold Path is the best of paths
For it leads safely to the deathless.”
(Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 613)
Another passage from the Verses of Uplift (Udana, p. 21), said in reference to the enlightenment and passing away of Bahiya [of the Bark Cloth, who was the quickest to become enlightened after hearing just one stanza], whom we shall hear more of later, includes many of the negations found in other passages. But this time the negations are used to characterize nirvana as an otherworldly illumination which transcends the light of the sun, moon, and stars [to show that it is not a heaven on another planet, in a distant land, or any world like this].
Where neither water nor yet earth
Nor fire nor air gain a foothold
There gleam no stars, no sun sheds light.
There shines no moon, yet there no darkness reigns.
When a sage, a brahmin, has come to know this
For oneself through one's own experience
Then one is freed from form and formlessness
Freed from pleasure and from pain. More
*This essay on nirvana is a chapter of a book on the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon or the Agamas worked on by McCormick since college, written in 2003. It restricts itself to the earliest existing Buddhist texts in an effort to present only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Buddha. My works are informed by Mahayana and the older Theravada teachings. I hope to cover both canons to show how it does or does not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.

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