Now back to Buddhism (I will report on the demonstrations occasionally though).
This morning my wife and I went to a Dharma talk organized by my cousin. There were around ten people attending the talk and mostly my wife talked about her experiences in Tibet when she did the prostration there last year. She also talked about her works at the Thousand Stars Foundation that we set up. She also demonstrated how to do prostration the Tibetan way (astangapradistha – sorry don’t know how to do diacritical marks yet). Then there was a question from the floor. The main difference between Theravada and Mahayana seems to be that in the former nirvana (or nibbana in Pali) is totally separate from samsara, whereas in Mahayana they seem to be much closer to each other. How so?
I answered that in Nagarjuna’s main teaching in the Mulamadhayamakakarika, or the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, he indeed says that nirvana and samsara are very close, in fact they are one and the same. This is quite shocking to the Theravadins, who are taught that nirvana is so remote from everyday living in samsara that it is almost unattainable. So when they listen to Nagarjuna’s talk about the two being one and the same they are understanably shocked in disbelief. How is it possible? They might even think that Nagarjuna is perhaps a perverse master who alters the original intent of the Buddha’s teaching.
It is quite straightforward to see how the Theravadins think that way. The goal of Dharma practice is to attain nirvana; that is, to attain the state whereby traces of suffering are completely eliminated. And the way to realize that state is a very difficult and arduous one. Theravadins usually pray that they will realize that state, when the appropriate time comes, in the very distant future. Notice the phrase “when the appropriate time comes.” This presupposes that the present time when the practitioner is making the wish is not appropriate. This is because it is assumed that most people, almost everybody, is so mired within the samsaric world that it is not possible for them to realize Liberation in a short period of time. Nirvana is a very distant destination, something almost unattainable, and Theravadins think of themselves as not worthy for such a lofty goal. Thus they wish that they achieve the ultimate goal of the entire Buddhist teaching when it is appropriate for them to do so. Who knows exactly when that time actually is. Moreover, not only lay people make a wish like this, but so do monks. Monks are supposed to practice in order to realize nirvana — this is stated explicitly in the Buddha’s own teaching in the Pali — but most monks are content merely to follow the Vinaya rules and to study the language. At least this has been the case in Thailand.
In Thai Buddhism, the traditional teaching is that realizing nirvana is not emphasized at all. The teaching was almost neglected until Ajahn Buddhadasa brought it to the fore and proclaimed it to the Thai public. Which caused tremendous pressure on him from the Sangha establishment. The monks in the forest tradition in the Northeast also received criticisms from the establishment because they were seen to wander around in search of Liberation instead of staying in monasteries and perform their traditional rituals and ceremonies. Nowadays the situation has changed somewhat due to the popularity of Ajahn Buddhadasa and the monks of the Northeast forest tradition like Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Chah, Luang Ta Bua and others. But still the attitude prevails among the typical Thai Buddhism and I believe other Theravadins.
The above serves to show how deeply ingrained the idea of nirvana and samsara being totally separate is. I listened to Bob Thurman’s podcast the other day and he said that the idea was a kind of dualism, nirvana and samsara being two totally distinct worlds. He also said that in the Mahayana things are different. Nirvana and samsara are not separate; they are one and the same. There is no dualism there. What this means is that in Mahayana, especially in Nagarjuna’s teaching, nirvana and samsara are those that could be said to be different aspects of the same thing. This “same thing” is none other than the reality as we know it.
Nagarjuna talks about this point when he discusses the Buddha, or the Tathagata in his terminology. Discussing whether there is any difference between there beling a living and breathing Buddha and a Buddha who has gone to Parinirvana (that is, no longer living and breathing in bodily form), Nagarjuna argues that there is in fact no difference. There seems to be a difference only to those who are attached to the bodily form of the Buddha, such as his height, his complexion, his look, etc. But the point is that the Buddha’s height, complexion, look, etc. are not properties of a Buddha, or an Awakened One at all. This is a very easy point to understand, but somehow many peole have missed it completely. The properties that matter are those that make Siddhartha Gautama an Awakened One, not merely a good looking Nepali prince. And those are universal properties — they must be universal because if there were not, then it would not be possible for anyone except Gautama himself to become a Buddha or in other words to become awakened, which is totally contradictory to the Buddha’s own intention. But if they are to be universal, they have to transcend particular time and space.
Hence, there is no difference between a living and breathing Buddha and a Buddha who has entered Parinirvana because both share these universal properties. Then Nagarjuna goes on saying that if that is so, then there is no difference whatsoever between samsara and nirvana. The living and breathing Buddha lives in samsara, and the Buddha who has entered Parinirvana lives in nirvana. Since they both share all universal properties in such a way that there is no such property that one has and the other does not, then the two are exactly one and the same. So samsara and nirvana are the same.
The way to understand Nagarjuna’s argument here is to see that in fact what makes what appears to be samsara what it is is only due to our own failure to see the real truth. Things are thus and so and will continue to be so. However, when we apprehend those things, we usually do so out of ignorance or avidya. That is, we conceptualize them and capture them as if they were to have real and substantial properties. The most serious conceptualization and capturing is that of the individual ego. This is the root cause of all sufferings. Once this is realized. Once it is realized that what is thought to be “I” or “mine” is in fact an illusion caused by misunderstanding, then the wall breaks down that separates individual ego and the reality outside as well as between the ego and the mental continuum of other people. Nagarjuna calls this sunyata, or Emptiness.
In the world where there is the living and breathing Buddha, we can follow his teaching and make our own effort to practice in order to realize Liberation for ourselves. In the world where there is the Buddha who has entered Parinirvana, we can also follow his teaching and make our own effort to practice in order to realize Liberation for ourselves. There is no slightest difference between samsara and nirvana.