Friday, May 18, 2012

What is "Final Nirvana"?

Dharmachari Seven and Amber Dorrian, Wisdom Quarterly
Largest Buddha in the world, Thimphu, Bhutan (Michael Foley Photography/

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana -- transcendent peace, the unexcelled reality, the refuge from all bonds and suffering.

But it is not heaven, not a place, not a nothingness. It is. It is the unconditioned element, whereas everything else (every "thing") is a composite of transient elements.

Nirvana is alone in this sense. It is the only unconditioned reality. There is that nirvana glimpsed and experienced while living, but for those who are fully enlightened (arhats) it is the deathless state, unending peace, utterly unlike ordinary experience that continually rises and falls.

In addition to knowing-and-seeing that occurs when one becomes a stream winner, entering the "stream" that leads eventually to full liberation, to crossing over, to the farther shore of safety, there is the permanent attainment or realization of final liberation (pari-nirvana).

The enlightened do not "die," then, in that sense. For death is otherwise always followed by rebirth. This is true from moment to moment but much more apparent from lifetime to lifetime.

The body will go away, even as it is now going away. But without continuing to wander on in samsara -- oppressed by the Three Poisons of the heart (greed, hate/fear, delusion) -- there is no death. One has overcome Mara.

Conventionally speaking, we have undergone countless rebirths, past lives too numerous to count. And for most of us, the future holds more of the same -- wandering on without end, beset by passion (craving), riled by aversion, confused by delusion.

For those who realize the pinnacle of serenity and insight (shamatha and panna, samma samadhi and vipassana), it becomes possible to lay down the burden of this illusion and all of the disappointment and misery that attends it.

Vesak celebrates not only the birth of a fully enlightened world teacher (samma-sam-buddha) but also the great enlightenment (maha bodhi), and the consummation of the quest for truth, final nirvana.

This is troubling because on the face it, it sounds like Buddhism is no more than a humdrum "religion" preaching an eternal afterlife, a heavenly attainment, a stoic life and a glorious death.

Nick Blinko succinctly states this problem with faith and religion: 

Build a tower of strength
And watch it weaken
Construct high hopes
As the brightest beacon

Watch the seagulls eat the trash
You contemptuously ditch
Do you know a seagull?
Do you know a wreck?

Are you tired of the tide?
Are you tired of the tide?
Roll in rock pool
Come let's hide [as the]

Tower of strength takes to the sea...

What will "heaven" be like? That depends on which of the many heavens one is reborn in. But there is something greater than rebirth in heaven, which is always subject to impermanence no matter how long it lasts. It is conditioned, so from moment to moment it is passing. Then when the profitable karma that upholds one is exhausted, it falls away.

Whatever we set up as the post mortem ideal, the infinite afterlife, the spiritual hero, is bound to fail us. Why then is Buddhism any different?
"Ugh, this heaven again? Onward and upward!"
Buddhism -- or what Wisdom Quarterly loosely translates as "Awakenism" (the Doctrine of Awakening or Buddha-Dharma) -- teaches that what is ultimately true is realizable in this very life.

Humans, purified in heart and mind by concentration and intensification (samadhi) can develop liberating insight (vipassana). It is not an intellectual pursuit but a far more natural realization.

One does not wait for death to see if one was right, if confidence (faith, conviction) was well placed. 

For the person who sees the Truth is emancipated by that knowledge-and-vision. The heart is freed from all illusion and clinging. One comes to a certainty, a verified-faith (saddha), that it is true, that nirvana is the ultimate freedom from all bonds.

This is why the Buddha's final nirvana is so significant. He did not preach something he did not himself attain. He saw nirvana on the morning of his enlightenment (bodhi). He periodically re-experienced it throughout his life, and he consciously entered it at his passing.

Had he "died," he would have reborn. And there are many heavens -- many sense sphere worlds in space, many subtle fine material worlds, and a few immaterial worlds (arupa loka) to have been reborn into IF rebirth were any way to bring about the end of suffering.

Those "heavens" (sagga) are long lasting, glorious, and blissful.
But they in no way compare to experiencing nirvana.
Nothing compares to nirvana. Most Buddhists are not actually practicing to realize nirvana, even if they say they are. 
Most sentient beings and Buddhists would be happy to be reborn in heaven or to be reborn as a rich and beautiful human being. And that is possible. The Buddha taught the paths to all destinations, to all planes of rebirth. But the ultimate goal, the final peace, is bliss without end, the incomprehensible but experiential final nirvana.
The Buddha did it, the arhat disciples did it, the non-teaching  (pacceka) buddhas did it. And we can, too.

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