Seeing Nirvana

A perennial issue in the minds of students of Buddhism is what it means for one to “see” nirvana. There are so many different teachings about this very important topic, and the student is understandably baffled by the many interpretations and teachings here. One teaching is that nirvana is similar to a place where one enters once one attains it. Another claims that nirvana cannot be compared to anything on earth, and thus language cannot describe what it is like exactly. Thus nirvana is not a place where one can enter, and it is by no means anything that one can see because presumably to see anything is only possible if the thing to be seen is of this samsaric world.

Naturally there are a lot of confusions on this. Luang Pu Doon, one of Thailand’s greatest meditation masters, told this moving story about nirvana. For one who is still practicing, nirvana is something like a far away destination full of glories and goodies. This is like when the practitioner, who is living in the Northeast of Thailand and has never been to Bangkok, is told how wonderful and beautiful the city of Bangkok really is. There are, the practitioner is told, “jeweled walls” and a “golden mountain” in Bangkok. So the practitioner sets up his mind intently on being able to see the jeweled walls, the golden moutain and other goodies that he was told exist in Bangkok. This is analogous to the practitioner who has been told about all the wonders of nirvana and sets out his mind and his practice to attain it eventually.

However, Luang Pu Doon said that, when the practitioner really gets to Bangkok, he then is told that this is in fact the “jeweled wall” and the “golden mountain” and the like. So his doubts are all banished, and he realizes, after all these years, that the “jeweled wall” and the “golden mountain” are just really ordinary things that do in fact exist in his home town! He is told that this wall is in fact a “jeweled” wall, and this stupa on top of a man made hill is the “golden mountain.” Nirvana, then, is not something far away, a fabled place where all the goodies and wonders exist, but something very mundane and has been with the practitioner all along.

The moral of the story, of course, is that nirvana is not to be compared with a place where one can enter and reside in all the glories, etc. But perhaps this is true in a way. The problem is that our language is so limited that it is impossible to describe exactly and adequately what nirvana really is. So it would in fact be misleading to say that nirvana is absolutely nothing like the wonders of Bangkok for the practitioner who has never been there. This is how language is used to tell story, to make a parable, to engage in metaphors. So the “jeweled wall” and so on are metaphors. But when the subject matter is nirvana, everything that can be said through language becomes metaphor. The usual distinction between metaphors and literal meanings break down completely.

So what does it mean to say that one “sees” nirvana. Here one can distinguish two sense of “see.” On the one hand, one sees a thing just in case one’s visual faculty is not impaired and that certain circumstances obtain, such as there is enough light, the thing seen is not completely transparent and reflect some light back, and so on. On the other hand, the word “see” is also used in another way, as when we say that one “sees” something when one completely understand it. So we say, “Ah, I see,” where in fact there might not be anything to be seen. (Just like when one says “I see” when one comes to understand something which might not have anything to do with seeing with eyes at all.

So there is another sense of “seeing” nirvana. One competely understands. One realizes one’s wisdom in toto and thus becomes utterly liberated. The Buddha “sees,” so do the arahants and highly realized Bodhisattvas. But what exactly do they understand then? Is the subject of their understanding something that exists materially, or only mentally? Is what they understand subjective, existing in their minds only, or objective, its precise spatio-temporal location to be determined later?

Now we are being bewitched by language again. Note that language will always take us to either the extreme of saying “yes” to meanings, thus reifying them, or saying “no” to them, thus affirming their negativities. In either case the Buddha said that we are still mired in the net of Mara. Language is really Mara’s net that bind us with samsara, preventing any means of escape. So when we unenlightened beings hear of nirvana, language comes to work. Nirvana has to be either this or that; it has to be here or there, and so on. But when language itself is at fault, then what are we to do?

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