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Do bodhisattvas seek Nirvana?

Sangha & Inclusion, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Student: I listened again to the [recording of the ] seminar and [the Buddhist teacher and academic] says that in early Buddhism the goal was Nirvana and he contrasts that, the elimination of passions, with the goal of the Mahayana of enlightenment which is not the elimination of the passions, but the evocation of the passion of compassion. A bodhisattva would not then be seeking nirvana but enlightenment, or acting out of enlightenment. Could you say a bit about your understanding of Nirvana? Do bodhisattvas pursue Nirvana or enlightenment?

Konin:  The question of Nirvana (Sanskrit) or Nibbāna (Pali) is such an fascinating one. The records that we have quote the Buddha as having said these three things about it, many times, in many of his discourses:

"This is truly peace, this is the Highest, namely the end of all kamma (karma) formations, the forsaking of every substratum of rebirth, the fading away of craving, the detachment, the extinction, Nibbāna."

"Enraptured with lust (desire, greed), enraged with anger, blinded by delusion, overwhelmed, with mind ensnared, man (a human being) aims at his [her, their] own ruin, at the ruin of others, at the ruin of both and he [she, they] experiences mental pain and grief. But, if lust, anger and delusion are given up, man aims neither at his own ruin, nor at the ruin of others, nor at the ruin of both, and experiences no mental pain and grief. Thus is Nibbāna, immediate, visible in this life, inviting, attractive, comprehensible to the wise."

"The extinction of greed, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of delusion: this, indeed, is called Nibbāna."

So, as you can see, there is Nibbāna described as something that seems to be possible only at or after death, a cessation of the rounds of rebirth. It is likened to the flame of a candle going out, not being passed to another candle. When the Buddha died, he said that he was passing into Mahaparinibbāna, meaning great, final extinction or cessation. 

Interestingly, he also speaks of a realm he called "the deathless." He is quoted as saying this about it:

"Truly there is a realm where there is neither solid, nor fluid, neither heat, nor motion, neither this world, nor any other world, neither sun, nor moon. This I call neither arising nor passing away , neither holding still, being born, or dying. There is no foothold, no development, no basis. This is the end of suffering. There is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed. If there were not this unborn, this unoriginated, this uncreated, this unformed, release from the world of the born, the orginated the created, the formed would not be possible. But since there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed, there is release from the world of the born, the created, the created, the formed." 

What is this realm? What is the deathless?

However, Nibbāna had already happened for him in the second and third senses described above - the sense of freedom from the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, complete rest in the mind. The Buddha said he dwelt in Nibbāna after his awakening/enlightenment, and his students who reached the highest ideal of awakening were called Arahants (Pali) or Arhats (Sanskrit). They were called that after having achieved this same freedom from the three poisons, again, called Nibbāna. This, he seems to have said, is available to everyone during their lifetime, and is a peace beyond any peace you can presently imagine. That is, until you have a taste of it. We can for brief periods be free from the three poisons, in moments of profound, bright clarity. That is a taste peace of mind, and that too is an experience of Nibbāna in this lifetime. 

As regards a bodhisattva, it is really important to remember that the bodhisattva ideal as a path also exists within the Theravada, or so called Hinayana, teachings. The Buddha referred to himself as a bodhisattva before his awakening. During the early periods of the Mahayana, practitioners were just beginning to take up the Buddha as a role model, rather than as a teacher. They chose to take up the attainment of Buddhahood as their goal, not the Arahant as a goal. Still, they ordained, lived and practiced in the same monasteries as those practicing the teachings we now know as Theravada [Sthaviravada, Sravakayana or Hinayana], who took the Buddha as a teacher who advocated the Arahant path. Yet it's really important to notice that, even though the Buddha was a bodhisattva, he didn't keep coming back to human form forever to help beings. He said that after his death he would be gone from any realm of rebirth forever. He goes on helping beings forever through the legacy of his teachings, which he said were sufficient for everyone to wake up by.

As I understand it, it was much later that the bodhisattva path came to be understood as coming back forever to keep helping beings. However, when it gets expanded in that way, then it makes sense that a bodhisattva wouldn't seek the final Nibbāna that the Buddha experienced and advocated for his students, because that would mean that their rebirths would come to an end.

9_koi_jump from yourkoipond dot com.jpg

Finally, as for eliminating passion versus generating compassion, I have to say that my experience of the paths is that both are deeply based in compassion for all beings. The Buddha, echoed by the later Mahayana teachers, clearly stated that the most compassionate thing one could do for another was to help them to realize enlightenment, to wake up to the true nature of all things, to realize complete, final liberation from suffering.

In my view, compassion arises from two directions. One way of generating compassion is to remember that all beings suffer and don't want to suffer, and so we should do the right thing by them and for ourselves. We should be kind and ethical. This is a compassion that is fairly easy to generate. It is also a form of generating compassion that will lead the one who practices it to fewer obstacles in their life of practice. Another way of generating compassion is to see the way in which all beings are intimately, physically and mentally inter-dependent, impermanent, and very subtly deluded. Then, like the fingers on the hand, one intuitively has kindness towards everything with which one is intimately connected. Causing harm doesn't make sense anymore. Supporting everyone's enlightenment is the only thing that makes sense. All of the schools of Buddhism that I have studied and experienced are generating both of these two forms of compassion. That said, I have to add that there are some forms of practice that really tax my ability to see them as compassion. Unfortunately, delusion about compassion can enter the practice life too.

The Courage of the Big Cats

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment
Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Zen practice is sometimes described as the study of the self. This description, in part, arises out of the old story of an interaction between Bodhidharma, Zen's first ancestor in China, and the student who later became his dharma heir, Huike. The story can be found in the koan collection "The Gateless Gate," Case 41. 

In the story Huike says that his mind is not at peace, and he asks Bodhidharma to help him with this. Bodhidharma agrees to help saying, "Bring me your mind, and I will set it at rest." However, after some time, Huike responds by saying, "I have searched for the mind and finally it is unattainable." To which Bodhidharma replies, "I have thoroughly set it at rest for you." (Translation by Thomas Cleary) 

Thus, our earliest Zen role models were engaged in the study of the self, the study of how best to live in a human body and mind. This is the study of what we mean when we say "body and mind." This is the study whose culmination is setting the mind at rest. And when this study yields a result that points to the limits of human conceptual capacity and to the boundlessness of mind, then it begins to show us how we can rest. It's ironic really, particularly when placed in the context of a Western society that highly values the intellect and its capacity for investigation and categorization. Yet, it can be a deeply satisfying experience to come face-to-face with the knowledge that you can't figure something out. That fact is fundamentally a good thing.

In order to see it as a good thing, though, a practitioner must have the courage to face the facts and then consider the potential responses. That is, if you encounter the limits of your concept of mind and react in fear or complacency, then you have missed the opportunity it presents. To say that it is enough simply to lead your life whatever way you like, because it is impossible to understand, is also to waste a whole lifetime of opportunities. So what might be a skillful way to study the self?

Shakyamuni Buddha gave us a pointer about this kind of practice in his teachings called "The Dhammapada." In this text the Buddha teaches:

Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet she indeed is the noblest victor who conquers herself.
The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha speaks of conquering one's self, meaning to stop being fooled by one's sense of separation. And what to make of the military reference? For me, it points to the value of courage, perhaps the most important attribute of a warrior. That is, in the study of the self you must have courage - the courage to face the conditions of your life, to face the conditions in the world, to face the nature of suffering and of inconceivability. In fact, the great bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, are usually referred to as mahasattvas as well. "Mahasattva" is a Sanskrit word that can be literally translated to mean "great being" but its roots and connotation provide more nuance. The term mahasattva originally referred to the large cats - lions and tigers - as noble, courageous beasts. Later it came to be associated with people who were also noble and courageous. 

So today I encourage you to have the courage of the big cats. I ask you to consider how you might find the courage to face your life, to face a world which seems to be separate from you. I encourage you to face the desire to separate from the world, and to have the courage not to turn away, but to turn toward it. Study the desire to build a wall and have the courage to step across that divide, toward a self that is incredibly more vast than any wall could contain.






The True Activity of the Bodhisattva

Study & Arts, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

Registration is now open for the summer's online class offering:

The True Activity of the Bodhisattva:

Teachings of the Diamond Sutra as a model for engaging the world


How does the Bodhisattva path relate to a modern life? What is true Bodhisattva activity?  How does it make the world a better place? This class will explore the Bodhisattva activity of engaging with, rather than withdrawing from or trying to control the world, utilizing the Diamond Sutra as a pointer toward its lived experience.

The Vajracchedika Sutra or “Diamond Cutter Sutra” is one of the most widely studied of Mahayana texts, and it continues to be chanted in Soto Zen temples around the world nearly 2,000 years after its writing. It is said to be the true body of Buddha, expounding the teachings of wisdom beyond wisdom in just 300 lines.

Learn more about the class and how to register here.


How Do We Know the Way Home?

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

A good Dharma friend of mine recently asked the question, "Even after enlightenment, how do we know the way home?" 

This is my reply:

Dear Dharma Sister, 

The realization of enlightenment is said to reveal the purity of the self and all things as mere momentary attributes of a constantly changing universe. For that reason, it brings profound peace of mind, because one is then able to truly rest in reality as it is, rather than suffer by clinging to things that will inevitably change.

In that context, there can be no immortal spirit, but rather all things as expressions of the luminous awareness of Original Function - not a object or a being, but an activity that is awareness itself. So you are right to say that we are more than a body, because we are beings that arise out of causes and conditions, and therefore we are inter-connected with everything. That is the great koan of Buddhism and of life - how is it that we are aware and what is it that experiences the stream of karma, the stream of change? 

One could say it is a constantly changing thing, this body and mind, precisely because it is arising in relationship to everything else. That is, a person is a wave that surges, crests, and sinks back into the ocean of reality. And that very activity creates the conditions for the next person/wave, which is not the same one reappearing, but a new one influenced by the karmic energy of the last.


Home is where we are in every moment because enlightenment - understood as absolute harmony (beyond any harmony we can imagine) with this Original Function, which we must be by definition - enlightenment/harmony is the nature of things. 

Realizing this (awakening or realization or actualization) is to find our true home, our true home in this moment, our true home in the great creative activity of all being. There is no place to go after that, because you have discovered you have always already been there.

Therefore, after realization, there is simply sharing and more and more sharing, as the Buddha did getting up from the bliss to go teach, as the Bodhisattvas did and still do, vowing to support all beings to discover this for themselves.

May you all abide in your true home, knowing that it is the great, vast oneness.