Non-abiding Nirvana

An important concept of Mahayana Buddhism which is not there in Theravada is that of “non-abiding nirvana” or apraḍiṣṭhita nirvāṇa in Sanskrit. The word ‘apraḍiṣṭhita’ actually means ‘non-stationary’ or ‘not fixed in one place’ or something like that, so the translation as ‘non-abiding’ seems quite appropriate. Many Theravada followers, when they hear about non-abiding nirvana have a hard time understanding what it is really about.

Well, non-abiding nirvana is the state of Buddhahood itself. It is the goal that all bodhisattvas, namely those who have made a vow to become a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings, aspire to. In fact to call it a ‘nirvana’ is not quite correct because it is the state which is neither samsara or nirvana. This is very hard to understand. But we can begin to approach it by looking at the usually perceived distinction between samsara and nirvana. Samsara is the ocean of sufferings. Beings drown in this and try to find solace and resting place in the ocean any way they can, but due to their own ignorance of the very nature of things as empty they keep on deluding themselves and as a result they keep on swimming in the ocean. The arhats are those who have destroyed all the ignorance and defilements that keep them within samsara. So they are, so to speak, ashore. They do not swim in samsara any more. Less metaphorically, they are not born again. They are forever cut off from samsara, residing in the blissful space of static nirvana.

This ‘static’ nirvana is what the Buddha talked about when he first taught to his students, and it is the goal of all Theravana practitioners. However, the Theravadins do not regard this nirvana as ‘static’ because for them there is only one kind of nirvana. In Mahayana, however, there is another kind, the non-abiding, or non-static nirvana, which is the state of attainment of perfect Buddhahood and not the arhats.

The main difference between static and non-abiding nirvana is that those who attain the latter actually speaking reside neither in samsara or nirvana. For them the distinction between samsara and nirvana breaks down completely. The arhats believe that there is such a distinction and they forever remain on the side of the static nirvana. The Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, do not remain in this static condition, for they are always motivated by their bodhicitta vows to help ferry sentient beings across to the other shore. So they cannot remain completely still and static. They have to move and act. So on the one hand we can say that they are in nirvana (or they have attained nirvana) because they, being Buddhas, have completely destroyed all causes of being compelled by the force of karma, but on the other they do not have to remain in that blissful, static state. As a result they can take up many forms in order to realize their vow. These forms are known as ‘nirmanakaya’ or emanation bodies. One who completely embodies the qualities of a Bodhisattva is an emanation body of that Bodhisattva.

However, being neither in samsara or nirvana, Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas (such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjushri and others), are free to travel anywhere. They can take up emanation bodies and stay in samsara. They are even there in pure forms within samsara which only highly attained practitioners can directly perceive. So in a real sense the Buddha himself, as well as Avalokiteshvara, Tara and others are now here watching over us.

But don’t take this to mean that they really exist like those deluded beings in samsara are attached to existence. It is not like that at all. Once you see that they really exist, then you are deluded. Everything is empty of their inherent nature, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas not excluded. So they are empty too. So on the one hand they do exist, because they reside neither in samsara or nirvana, and hence can be in either way, but on the other since they are empty they are not there to exist anywhere to begin with. You will get a hang of this after you contemplate on emptiness for quite some time 🙂

So how does one know that non-abiding nirvana actually exists? Well, the best we unenlightened beings can do is to use our reasoning faculty. Since nirvana (of either kind) is a state that results from total elimination of all causes of suffering which lead a being to continue to swim in the samsaric ocean, then one who attains nirvana (of either kind) does not have to be born again. But here is the difference between the arhat and the realized Buddha. The arhat does not make the bodhicitta vow, so once he (or she) attains nirvana, then everything is over for him (or her). The Buddha, on the other hand, is moved by the sufferings of all the sentient beings so he (or she) cannot remain still. Realizing that both samsara and nirvana are all empty, the Buddha transcends that distinction and can remain wherever he or she is needed. Hence his state is called “non-abiding.”


Time is empty.

One point that attracted quite a lot of attention during the class on Nagarjuna last weekend was about time. Basically what Nagarjuna is saying is that time itself is empty. What this means is not that time itself has no content of its own, nor that time is in the Newtonian sense of being a steady flow moving ever forward, but that time itself is empty of any inherent characteristic. The flow that one imagines in conceptualizing time is nothing but our own imputation on reality. In this sense time is not different from other results of conceptual imputation, such as individual things and so on.

This points to a startling conclution that time, considered on its own, or “from its own side” as the Tibetans are wont to saying, is nothing. Ultimately speaking there is no such thing as time in reality. As individual objects have already been found to be empty of their inherent characteristics, so is time. Nagarjuna’s argument here is quite similar to that advanced by Leibniz in his characterization of time and space as being relational and dependent on things and events. For Leibniz time and space do not exist on their own, and here is one of the main differences between him and Newton. If time could be thought of as inherent existing, for example, as a “place” wherein events take place in such a way that one event can be classified as being earlier or later, then there must already be some coordinates by which these events could be so classified, for how else can we know which one is earlier or later? But if that is the case, then time itself must already have within it some means to measure the positions of the events. This, however, contradicts Newton’s own assumption that time is shorn of any marks and is nothing more than something that flows absolutely.

This also seems to be Nagarjuna’s point. Time, as does everything else that is conceptually constructed, depends for its very being on other things. Without the things that compose events, time is nothing at all, not, of course, in the Newtonian sense of time having nothing in it, but time itself is nothing. We have time because we do have things in it, and we have things in it (and space) because we already have the concept of time. Time, space and things and events are totally inseparable from one another.

If time is empty in this sense, then it does make sense ultimately to hold that there is the past, the present and the future. For all these are but relations within time. Moreover, the past, present and future derive their being from the relation to the consciousness of an individual. We feel that the time “right now” is the present because this is what we feel, this is what we are consciousness of at the moment, and of course we feel taht this “now” is forever moving. This is only a fact of our consciousness. Since all of us are moving inexorably toward that end, we have the sense of time as something ever moving onward and something that absolutely cannot be recalled or repeated. Once time is lost, it is lost forever.

However, a startling thing from the teaching of the Buddha is that that feeling that we all have is but an illusion. The relation between past, present and future holds only if there is a reference point, a point at which the present can be determined. If the present couldn’t be determined, then both the past and the future would make no sense. The present can only be determined with reference to the self, or the thinking consciousness. One feels that the present is nothing but one’s own present. But if we were to take a more general position and detach ourselves from our own individual mental continuum and our body, then the present does not have to be what we ordinarily take to be here and now, but could in fact be anywhere, that is, any time.

Perhaps this is what is meant when it is said that Buddhas and highly attained Bodhisattvas are above time. They are timeless, and once it is totally, fully absorbed in the mind of a being like you and me that time itself is empty in this sense, then it is possible that we can be timeless too.

Four Points for Accumulation of Merit

Last night Phakchok Rinpoche gave an empowerment of the Buddha Vajrasattva at the DMG Books office on the 22nd floor of the Sogo Building on Ploenchit Rd. There was a crowd of around sixty people, which filled up the hall. The empowerment went on for about an hour and there was a lively question and answer session. Then Rinpoche gave a lecture on “Four Points for Accumulation of Merit.” These are very good indeed and if anyone practices these four points diligently they are sure to reap a lot of benefits both for themselves and for sentient beings.

So here are the four points:


  • Sympathetic Joy and Rejoice
  • Motivation
  • Taming the Mind
  • Dedication


“Sympathetic Joy” means that you are pleased and happy whenever others are happy. This tends to go against the grain of most people, who feel that they are displeased or even unhappy when others are happy 🙂 Well, that is the ‘natural’ state of most people, so the way to practice is to cultivate genuine, uncontrived happiness whenever we learn that others are happy. This is a very good thing to do and will bring you a lot of merit. This way we are always joyful and thankful for being alive.

“Rejoice” goes with sympathetic joy. You ‘rejoice’ in this rather technical sense when you learn that others are doing good merits for other people. Suppose you see someone making an offering to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, you feel a fullness of happiness, rejoicing in the merit and the good deeds that she is doing. You are very joyful, very glad that she is doing such a good thing. This is what is meant by rejoicing. The Buddha tells us that the merit gained by genuine rejoicing is equal to that which accrues to the person who actually does the merit. So rejoicing is very powerful.

The second point is motivation, which is very important. You have to make merit out of a pure motivation, such as to achieve the state of Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings (this is called ‘bodhicitta’), or if you are a Theravada practitioner you might wish for the state of Nirvana. In either case, this is the pure motivation and acts performed under this pure motivation will accumulate a vast amount of merit. Rinpoche advised us not to make merits out of self-interested motifs, such as “I want to become richer” or “I want to go to heaven.” This is not pure and will not bring you the greatest amount of benefit.

So there was a question from the audience on whether making merit which in the end will bring benefits to oneself is something that is done out of self-interested motifs or not. For example, one wishes to become a Buddha as a result of making the merit; is this actually a pure motivation as one wishes ultimately to gain something for oneself? Well, I remember that the Dalai Lama has said that the greatest benefits of the bodhicitta aspiration is to oneself. This is the supreme Buddhist irony — the more you do for others, the more benefits you gain for yourself. But you are not thinking of yourself; you are thinking of others, and the benefits to yourself are corollary to that.

The third point is to tame the mind. The reason why we are making merits — making offerings to monks and nuns, giving alms to the poor, volunteering in charity organizations, donating your blood to the Red Cross, practicing meditation, etc — should always be that you want to tame your mind. That is, you aim at reducing and eliminating all the defilements or negative emotions that arise in your mind. If you practice meditation and do not aim at reducing the defilements, observing how they arise, stay and disperse, then Rinpoche said that it will be like shooting an arrow without knowing the target is. So when you practice meditation, or when you do the merits that you are doing, always be mindful of your own possible defilements and keep them away.

The last point is perhaps the most important one, which is dedication of merit. The worst thing a practitioner can do is to keep all the accumulated merits to oneself. That will destroy almost all of the merits that one has actually accumulated. So in all practice sessions, always dedicate the merits to all the sentient beings. Rinpoche compares this with depositing the money in a bank. Your accumulated merit is the money that you should be depositing in the Buddha’s bank where the Buddha is the CEO and the bodhisattvas are the middle management and staffs. Now if you deposit your merit to this bank your interest will increase a hundred fold, a thousand, or a million fold. He said however the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are dedicating the merit, I will join in that too! In this way you dedicate the merit like the Buddhas and Bohisattvas do. This will only increase your merit.

So the talk ended naturally with a dedication of merit session and everyone present was very blessed by Rinpoche’s presence and his lively teaching.

Buddhism and Fear

During the question and answer period at the World Buddhist University after Kris’s talk on the Bodhisattva Tara, a member of the audience asked about whether Buddhism was governed by fear as is, according to him, Christianity. In Christianity, he said, people are motivated because they fear the fires of hell and the like, and he seemed to think that Buddhism offers a way out of this. However, when he heard the idea that there were a lot of hell beings in Buddhism as well as hungry ghosts, who are wandering around in samsara, he felt rather uneasy and proclaimed that Buddhism was not governed by fear. For him this would return to the same situation. Buddhists appear to be motivated also by fear, fear of having to wander around in samsara, spending some lives as hell beings, others as hungry ghosts, etc.

This is a good point for reflection. Is Buddhism governed by fear? Does the teaching of the Buddha demand credence and obedience because you will taste the fires of hells if you fail to do so? Nothing is further from the truth. The first difference between Buddhism and a theistic religion like Christianity is the absence of the supreme being who upholds the laws. According to the questioner here, the Christian God is a fearsome creature, one who metes out punishments to those who do not obey his commands. You had better behave well, or else God will punish you. This is a very popular picture indeed. And one could then extrapolate that onto Buddhism. If you do not behave well, then watch out for the lives of hell beings, hungry ghosts or non-human animals.

I am not an expert of Christianity, but I think he is wrong on both counts. I don’t believe that Christianity is governed by fear in such a way that anyone who does not behave will immediately be angrily punished by an unforgiving God. If that is true, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross? But I leave a more nuanced answer to the Christian theologian. My concern is with Buddhism. Since there is no God, the impersonal law of karma seems to stand in His place as the ultimate law giver and upholder. But do things really work that way in Buddhism?

Not at all. Fear is one of the defilements and destructive emotions that we need to get rid of in order to have any hope for Liberation or nirvana. We fear because deep down we believe that there is this individual self, this ‘me’ inside that we need to protect. And whenever we feel that this ‘I’ is being threatened, we fear and we react as a result. We either run away, or confront the threat head on, fully intent on destroying the threat, all in order to protect this sense of the self, this ‘me’ inside.

According to this picture, the questioner’s fear is perhaps due to his unexamined and unfounded belief that there is his ‘self’ that he thinks is there and needs protection. Since he does not want his self to be grilled and boiled in one of the Buddhist hells, he fears that this will happen so he is motivated to follow the Buddha’s teaching. However, he feels that this is not right because there should not be any fear; more importantly, any teaching that is based on fear is not a right one.

He is right in thinking that no teaching should be based on fear. But his problem is that he has this rather strong sense of fear inside. So whenever he hears about hell beings, hungry ghosts and the like, he feels very uneasy. Instead of looking at these creatures with compassionate eyes, thinking of how they have come to suffer like this and how they should be helped, he wants to run away from them with fear.

The key is to eliminate all fear altogether. This cannot be done unless the sense of the individual self, the ego, the ‘I’, is totally eradicated. Then one has no fear and in that situation instead of looking at hell beings or hungry ghosts with fear, one realizes that they are intensely suffering and then shares a lot of their sufferings, feeling the same thing as they actually do. Out of the compassion, one then does anything in one’s power to help them. Actually these beings happen to be there because of their strong defilements, strong mental obscurations. Having eradicated all the sense of the ego, the Bodhisattva then has no boundary between herself and all beings around her. Everything becomes one and the same. Thus the sufferings of hell beings thus become hers too.

Tara Khadiravana

One of the most powerful meditation techniques is known as “Realizing the Sameness of Oneself and Others and Exchanging Oneself with Others.” Shantideva said that this is the path undertaken by all the realized Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A necessary element in that is the total elimination of the ego. Having no ego, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas thus have no fear. Shantideva said that they enter the deepest and hottest level of hell out of their compassion for those trapped there as swans lowering themselves onto the lotus pond.

Hell Beings, Hungry Ghosts and the Like

Last Sunday I accompanied Krisadawan to her talk at the World Buddhist University, which was on the third floor of the World Fellowship of Buddhism Building behind the Benjasiri Park in Bangkok. She talked about “Practice of Tara in the Absolute and Relative” to about twenty or so audience in a rather small meeting room. The talk went well and there was a lively period of questions, answers and discussion afterwards.

One of the questions posed to Kris was from an Englishman (judging from his accent) who asked her how she did know that hell beings, hungry ghosts (or pretas in Sanskrit) and the like existed. She answered that they resided within your hearts. Whenever you are greedy and are never satisfied with what you have, then you have actually become a hungry ghost. This is true, and I added that the whole point of Buddhism is to teach us to realize this truth so that we naturally become so bored with this pointlessness of all the lives and wanderings within samsara that we strongly feel we need a way out, as if fire was burning on our head and we are instantly looking for a way to put it out. Some beings in samsara are suffering so intensely, like the hell beings and hungry ghosts, which are in these states because of what they have done in their past lives.

In fact the question about how do we know that such beings as those in hell or the hungry ghosts exist is an important one in basic Buddhist teaching. Krisadawan’s answer is that being a hungry ghost is a personification of our unwholesome state. But this state is not wholly subjective. This is the point. If it were wholly subjective, then it is an individual matter and seems to be nothing more than someone’s thoughts and feelings only. But in that case the realm of the pretas or hungry ghosts would be no more than some kind of thought realm without objective reality, whereas there are numerous passages in the Buddha’s original teachings in the Tipitaka of hungry ghosts having objective reality. One such case is mentioned in the Vinaya, the first of the Tipitaka dealing monastic rules. The story is that there was a monk who actually had sexual intercourse with a female preta and then wondered if he had broken the vow of celibacy (The Buddha answered the monk did indeed break the vow, so the monk was expelled from the order). This shows that pretas do exist objectively, and not only in the imagination of the monk, or someone else.

Philosophically speaking, there is also a lot of sense in maintaining that pretas do exist objectively, since the realm of the pretas does belong to the six realms of samsara, and in this respect they are equal in terms of their reality. If this were not the case, then there would be a problem of explaining how someone was born as a human being while in the previous life he or she was a preta. It would make more sense to hold that the realms of human beings and the pretas do exist at the same level, ontologically speaking. 

But then how would one explain how one comes to know anything about the pretas? For this we need to refer to the teaching on what happens to the consciousness after death, a topic that Krisadawan has been talking about for some time. After someone dies, his or her consciousness enters into an ‘in-between’ realm called “bardo” in Tibetan. This is a place where the consciousness stays for a period of time before they move on to a more permanent place within the samsaric realms. And what kind of realm they will enter largely depends on the quality of mind they have at the moment of their entering the bardo, or in other words at the moment of their death. If at the time they die they think of good things, such as the merits that they had done when they were living, or if they think continuously of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas at the time they die, then it is quite assured that they will go to the higher realms (gods or humans). But if they die thinking of nothing other than holding on to power or to their wealth, then it is said that they will accumulate this negative force so that when they enter bardo they will be compelled by their karmic force and enter a lower realm, such as that of the pretas.

So on the one hand, these beings in bardo kind of create their own world out of their karmic propensities. But so did we when we were born as human beings, and we do not seem to think that our world here where we live as human beings are but figments of our imagination. It is as objective as it can be, and the world of the pretas is as objective to them as ours to us too. So we seem to have both the objective and the subjective all in one go. This difficult tenet, I think, is best explained by the Yogacara school. According to the Yogacara, everything is created by the mind from the beginning, so there is ultimately speaking no absolute distinction between the subject and the object. Let’s take the argument whether the Yogacara represents the original teaching of the Buddha or things like that aside for a moment. The point here is that there is a sense in which the distinction between the subject and the object breaks down, and those who are mired in the distinction would have a hard time understanding exactly where the pretas exist. On the one hand they exist in our minds, but on the other they are objective too.


Avatamsaka Sutra

In my earlier post on “All the past and future lives” I refer to a Sutra where the Buddha emits all encompassing light rays that transmit infinite wisdom to an infinite number of sentient beings in the universe. That was from Bob Thurman’s podcast. Well, I did some searching and the Sutra was “The Flower Ornament Sutra” or Avatamsaka Sutra in Sanskrit. This is a huge body of literature and would fill a whole book in itself. The passage which I think is relevant to Thurman’s talk is perhaps this one (from the Taisho Tripitaka 0279):

“When those sentient beings hear this, by the Buddha’s preternatural power, they all recollect their past lives and become enraptured. Because their hearts are enraptured, they spontaneously produce clouds of udumbara flowers, clouds of incense, clouds of music, clouds of robes, clouds of canopies, clouds of pennants, clouds of streamers, clouds of fragrant powders, clouds of jewels, clouds of lion pennants and crescent towers, clouds of songs and eulogies, clouds of various adornments, and reverentially offer them all to the Tathagata. Whence? Because all these sentient beings have obtained pure eyes. [Then] the Tathagata gives them prophecies about their attainment of anuttara-samyaksambodhi. Children of the Buddha, in this way the sun of the Tathagata’s wisdom benefits those sentient beings who are born blind, effectuating their wholesome roots to reach full maturity. Children of the Buddha, this is the fifth characteristic of the body of the Tathagata. All Bodhisattva-mahasattvas should perceive it thus.”

“Anuttara-Samyaksambodhi” is perfect Buddhahood, the state of complete enlightenment and omniscience, and “Bodhisattva-mahasattvas” are the Bodhisattvas who have realized non-abiding nirvana, the state of Buddhahood that is beyond nirvana and samsara at the same time. The Bodhisattvas who dwell in non-abiding nirvana are said to be in a way in samsara, but they do not belong to samsara. They are perfectly realized beings, as they have completely eliminated all causes and conditions that afflict sentient beings wandering in samsara. Yet they remain in samsara out of their compassion for all the beings.

This is the traditional teaching of Mahayana. The key is to make this teaching relevant to our condition. The goal of practice is to eventually realize this state of non-abiding nirvana. This is what practitioners aspire to when they are motivated by great compassion to be able to bring all sentient beings in the samsara to the complete and perfect happiness of Buddhahood.

Who are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Others?

พระโพธิสัตว์อย่างเช่น พระอวโลกิเตศวร พระมัญชุศรี พระแม่ตารา และองค์อื่นๆแบบเดียวกัน คือใคร?

พระโพธิสัตว์เหล่านี้ได้แก่ผู้ที่เคยตั้งจิตปรารถนาจะบรรลุเป็นพระพุทธเจ้า และก็ได้บรรลุเป็นพระพุทธเจ้าแล้ว แต่แทนที่ท่านเหล่านี้จะดำรงอยู่ในพระนิพพานและไม่ข้องเกี่ยวกับโลกสังสาระอีกต่อไป ท่านเหล่านี้กลับดำรงอยู่ในสังสารวัฏเพื่อช่วยเหลือสรรพสัตว์ แต่การดำรงอยู่ในสังสารวัฏของท่านเหล่านี้ไม่เหมือนกับเราๆท่านๆที่เวียนว่ายตายเกิด คือท่านหลุดพ้นเป็นพระพุทธเจ้าแล้ว แต่กลับเลือกที่จะไม่อยู่ในพระนิพพาน และดำรงอยู่ในสังสารวัฏอย่างที่ไม่ขึ้นกับกาลเวลาและสถานที่ ซึ่งทั้งสองนี้เป็นเพียงมาตรการแบ่งแยกภายในสังสารวัฏเท่านั้น