Nirvana and Spring Peepers
The weather here in northern Michigan is amazing! Scary but amazing. We should have several feet of snow, still, but hyacinths are pushing up, trees budding and starting to leaf, peepers going crazy in the smaller lakes. Today should be in the 80s again. It’s no wonder we had only about nine at our weekly meditation and discussion. I hope everyone else was having a good time . . . . .
We started together the chapter of One Dharma called “Nirvana.” The concept of Nirvana (or Nibbana) is often debated—what it means, how it manifests. Goldstein says that for him, it was a relief to “finally realize that there are different perspectives even on ultimate reality . . . .and that there is a way of holding these opposing views in a context of greater unity.”
I will pause here to respond to the unspoken question, “So what? I just wanted to get calm, or to be clear about who I am, i.e., wake up. I don’t care about the arguments those who spend their lives studying this want to have about splitting-hair meanings.” It may be that part of the clarifying process our minds need to do is just that—to see exactly what we’re doing and why. What would it mean if I went all the way with this, if I really did what I say I want to do? What would it mean, to get “free”? It seems to me that even struggling with that question, or letting that question hang there in the air, is helping to clarify the mind. Just reading this (maybe arguing with my take on the reading) or just trying to follow what Goldstein says, can be part of opening the mind.
In India, Goldstein says, the word Nibbana has been used to describe rice after it’s cool enough to eat. So coolness—not being caught up in the mind, not contracting around a feeling—is one inflection of the word. The Buddha, as he says, called Nibbana “unshakable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood and end.” The fundamental difference in how people view this statement is this: “Does Nirvana, ultimate freedom, transcend awareness or is pure awareness itself freedom?” In other words (mine, trying to clarify this for myself), is there a state beyond awareness, or is awareness “it”? Goldstein looks at this question from Theravadan, Zen, and Tibetan points of view.
At this point in our discussion, we just tried to understand the issue. We did and didn’t. Karen brought up the jhana states—where the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed—and wondered how they relate, and if a deep jhana state is beyond awareness.
Bill described how if we are able to be fully present, a moment is only a moment, all senses engaged, letting go moment by moment, nothing leading to anything.
Goldstein feels that the way to approach this issue is from a closer look at the aggregates, or the Skandas. He takes us through the building blocks of the sense of self, how consciousness constantly invents itself. He quotes the Buddha, talking to a monk named Sati: “Have I not stated consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness?” As we sit, we refine our attention so that we see this happening.
From this point of view, Goldstein says, there is no awareness or consciousness outside the play of those building blocks. Consciousness and mindfulness are “all part of the flow of conditioned phenomenon, and Nirvana is something quite apart.” There are “stages of purification”—the steps on the path of clearing out the impediments to seeing. We all agreed that this is clear and maybe even comforting, to see how it works, but there is a real danger of engaging our tendency to work our way up the ladder, to “succeed” at this practice, which continues to feed the small ego.
Goldstein himself mentions the risk of getting attached to calmness, rapture, concentration, so that we feel pride in our accomplishments and think we’ve arrived at our goal. If we continue to be mindful, we see that even those blissful states are “impermanent, ultimately unsatisfying, and nonself” the three characterisitics, or marks, of existence the Buddha so often pointed out.
“The importance of this discernment is highlighted in all the Buddhist traditions. For example, in the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings, great care is taken to not confuse the conditioned states of bliss, clarity, and nonthought with the experience of realizing the unconditioned Nature of Mind.”
Next week we’ll continue with this long chapter, reading aloud together. We have only one more chapter to go in this book. We’ll be choosing a new one soon.