How Do You Know Someone has Attained Nirvana?

This is a really big question, something that I think has persisted in the minds of Buddhists, both in the East and the West. The goal of the teaching is of course nirvana, and we are instructed to get teachings from those who have realized them. But how do we know? How can we tell whether those who are giving us the teachings and explanations of the Words of the Buddha have actually internalized them and made them part of their lives?

There is a story (and just as almost everything I know, this one is also from Deshung Rinpoche). A very learned monk was on his way to receive an honorary position at a temple. He was deeply read in all the sutras and could expound the teachings really well. However, he had not fully realized the teachings; that is, he had not become identical with the subject matter of what he was teaching. While he was traveling he met a poor peasant, and, out of kindness, he gave the peasant a tidbit of the Buddha’s teaching and told him always to keep it in mind and to practice it well. Then he left the peasant and continued his journey. He got to the temple which was his destination and stayed there as a respected abbot for many, many years. Meanwhile the poor peasant became deeply faithful in the teaching he got from the learned monk and became a monk himself.

Years passed. One day while he was at the temple the monk who used to be the poor peasant whom he had taught for a short while came to see him. From the look and the understandings shown through the outlook of the visiting monk, the learned abbot knew that he had really attained the Goal. He became surprised when he learned that the visiting monk was in fact the poor peasant whom he had given a short teaching while he was on the way to accept the position here. The learned monk said to himself, “I had studied all the texts. I had memorized a huge amount of the Buddha’s teachings and had taught countless number of students. Yet I had not attained the result myself. This monk who got just a short teaching from me instead had achieved it.”

So he became really subdued and asked the visiting monk for a teaching. Thus the teacher became student and vice versa. The visiting monk told him to be mindful and to practice the teaching well with no distractions. The learned abbot then followed that instruction and finally obtained Realization.

The message of the story is that it does not quite matter whom you get the teachings from. You could even get teachings from a radio or, in today’s age, from the Net, but if it is a genuine teaching and if you are persistent in practicing it, you will eventually be Realized. The point is not the actual identity of your teacher. The point is that you have unwavering faith in the teaching and in your belief that you are getting the teaching from an Enlightened One. What really matters is your mind.

So how does this story answer the topical question of this post? Maybe the story is not directly to the point. But perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don’t really need to know that the one we are studying with is Realized or not. That would distract us from really practicing and being really mindful. It does not quite matter whether our flesh and blood teacher is Realized or not, that is in fact a matter for the teacher himself or herself to practice on his or her own. But for us students we need to look inside our own minds and practice from the insides of our hearts.

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?

Luang Pu Doon on Emptiness

Luang Pu Doon
Luang Pu Doon

Here is another piece of great wisdom from Luang Pu Doon, the late master of the forest tradition from Surin, Thailand:

No More Rebirth

Many senior practicing monks came to talk about the teachings with Luang Pu. They usually ended with the remark about some famous practicing monks who looked very worthy of respect and who behaved very well within the Vinaya rules, and who was recognized by their fellow monks of being steadfast in the religion, yet in the end could not make it and had to disrobe, or behaved themselves in such a way that blemished the Order. They would like to know how advanced in the practice they had to be in order to cut themselves off from samsara so that they did not have to be reborn.

Luang Pu said:

“Observing the Vinaya rules strictly and taking up the vows of a forest monk are very good practices. They are very worthy of respect. However, if the practitioner does not practice so that they attain great mind and great wisdom, it is always possible to become blemished. This is because they have not attained the state of going beyond the world. In fact the arahants themselves do not know many things at all. They only train the mind so that they fully understand the five skandhas. They fully understand the twelve links of dependent origination. They cease searching; they cease having fabricating mental activities. This is all there is to it. And it all ends here. What remains is only pure, clean, bright, empty. It is Great Emptiness.”

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.”

Nirvana and Self

One of the most intense controversies in the Thai Buddhist scene is the debate over the nature of nirvana (or ‘nibbana’ in Pali). Basically the debate is over whether nirvana is ‘atta’ (self) or ‘anatta’ (non-self). In plain English it is whether nirvana has the characteristic of the self (namely substantively enduring and permanent) or the opposite. In Thailand the mainstream establishment Sangha has declared that nirvana is ‘anatta’. That is, they claim that nirvana does not have the characteristic of being permanent and substantive. This issue requires at least some unpacking and explanation.

The argument of the mainstream position against its opponent is that the opponent argues that nirvana is some kind of a substantive entity, a ‘place’ where those who have achieved it can enter and dwell there. In short they endure in some substantial form. However, the argument of the mainstream Sangha is that this distorts the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha does not teach that nirvana is some kind of place like a heaven, because everything is subject to birth, enduring and decay. If nirvana is a place, then it is a thing, and hence it is subject to arising and ceasing. But that contradicts the very definition of nirvana.

Listening to these debates I am reminded of Nagarjuna and his teaching on Emptiness. Somewhere in the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (I don’t have happen to have the text with me) Nagarjuna says that nirvana is neither there nor not there, and it is also not the case that it is both there and not there, nor neither there and not there. This is the famous catuskoti argument (or tetralemma) which finds its original mention from the Buddha himself. The idea of the catuskoti is to wean one of the bewitchment of language. Those who are still mired in samsara are so because they believe, mistakenly, that language defines reality. Reality is whatever told them by language. Since ultimate reality is free from all conceptual fabrications, then this ultimate reality cannot be described in words. Hence nirvana is neither there nor not there, neither there and not there, neither not there nor not not-there. That is, since these four corners of the tetralemma exhaust every possibility of language use to form a proposition making a thought, understanding what nirvana really is does not involve language in this way. Rather it involves understanding *through* language that language is only fabrication.

Hence this underlies the debate between the reificationist (those who say that nirvana is substantial) and the annihilationist (those who argue that nirvana is “non-self”). It seems that both sides still are being bewitched by language. As language has this tendency to foist binary thinking (there or not-there), then this is the fundamental conceptual fabrication that the Buddha taught us to get rid of. In one way, nirvana cannot be spoken of at all, but another way nirvana can be spoken of as it is not separable from ordinary beings and ordinary objects in any way (See my earlier post on “Nirvana and Samsara”). If you don’t understand this, go from the computer and do something else for a few days and come back here again. But if you still don’t, just forget it 🙂

Practicing Emptiness

Many seem to think that the conception of emptiness as ‘lack of inherent existence’ is too difficult and then does not relate much to the everyday practice of the Dharma. For example, one might think that such a conception is overly philosophical and is only an intellectual exercise. There are ways to practice emptiness that does not rely on such a conception, or so it might seem.

In the Culasunnata Sutta (Smaller Sutta on Emptiness), one of the key texts from the Pali canon, the Buddha was telling Ananda what it means by being empty. The monks, said the Buddha, enjoy an ’empty’ house, free of commotion and distracting noises. But the house is still a house, even though an empty one, so the monks further enjoy the forest, which is free of the house. They still recognize, nonetheless, that there is something in the forest and they direct their attention to their meditative minds. After going through all the stages of meditation from the grosser ones to the most refined ones, the monks finally realize that there is nothing to be fabricated whatsoever. In other words, all fabricated things (that is, things in so far as they are conceptualized or thought of as being something) are by their very nature impermanent and thus are causes of sufferings and continued rebirths within samsara. There is nothing that the monks could get hold of conceptually as being something. And the Buddha said that when the monks realize this, their minds become totally free from all the defilements, whether gross or refined, old or new. According to the Buddha, the monks then will have completed all that is there to be completed. There is no other task that leads to this condition. The monks, then, becomes an arahant, one who has completedly vanquished the foes of defilements.

Ven. Thanissaro has translated the key passage here in the Sutta as follows:

“He discerns that ‘This theme-less concentration of awareness is fabricated & mentally fashioned.’ And he discerns that ‘Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.’ For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, ‘Released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’

The key to the Buddha’s teaching here is that so long as there is any fabrication, no matter how refined and how high in terms of meditation stages it is, will unfailingly lead to sufferings. But to say that things are not to be fabricated is just another way of saying that things do lack inherent characteristics. So this key Pali text, which is the root teaching of all traditions of Buddhism, show clearly that the notion of lack of inherent characteristics, which is usually how Nagarjuna’s teaching is characterized, is also available in the Pali canon.

The tip on practicing and meditating on emptiness is this. First start with the usual meditation routine. Well, for beginners this is not a routine at all, and I will write in later posts on how to begin on meditation. But for those who know how to do it, start with the usual routine, which could be the breathing meditation and practicing bare attention. Then reflect on the meaning of the Culasunnata Sutta. The key point is that we are looking for an empty something in increasing levels of refinement, culminating in the realization that there is nothing that could be conceptualized as being something at all. Even the deepest meditation — that of pure one-pointedness with no visualizations — still has something that functions in the same as the house does. That is, it is still not empty, for it is still conceptualized as “pure one-pointedness stage with no visualization.” Hence there is still something that counts as an instance of “busyness” that keeps the mind away from pure, bare attention and elimination of causes of sufferings. This is like you are still cling on to their being a house even though you have managed to clear away things in it. But in the end you also have to clear away the house itself. Pure emptiness — no fabrications, no concepts.

I know this is heady stuff. Let us unpack this very important teaching of the Buddha further… 🙂

All the past and future lives

Yesterday I listened to a podcast by Robert Thurman. He talked about a Sutra where the Buddha turned himself into a blue figure. He was not turning himself into Medicine Buddha, whose body is also blue. But he is about to perform a miracle. What he did was to send out very bright light rays from his urna, which is a tuft of hair between his eyebrows. The light was sent to all corners of the universe. Everyone was touched by the light, and when that happened, they were suddenly able to see all their past and future lives in all their entirety. Suddenly everybody could see who they were in their immediate past life and in all the lives in the past. They could also see what they will become in the future, they can see all their future lives. What is amazing is that all the sentient beings could see their future lives all the way to their eventual becoming Buddhas.

The Buddha

Thurman said that everyone could then see themselves having the life of a Buddha. They will see that they will be born a prince, living a protected life by a doting father, seeing the four signs of birth, sickness, old age and death, heading for the renunciate’s life and attaining Buddhahood.

Listening to Thurman’s account of the Sutra (I happened to forget the name of the Sutra, but it is not too hard to track it down), I was struck by the power of it. If the Buddha could open our eyes and let us see all our past and future lives, what would happen? If I were able to see all my lives, what would I do? What would I become?

Let us think about it. Thurman said that the reason why most of us are not able to see our past lives is because they are too traumatic. Each one of us used to be every kind of sentient being in the universe before taking on our present lives. The Buddha said that if all the bones of all the animals and beings that used to be us were to be piled up, its height would exceed that of Mount Sumeru. Or if all the tears have have been shed because of the immense sufferings that the beings that we used to be were poured down, the entire world would then be flooded deeply. This is how many and how countless our past lives are. We would then see that we used to be eaten by lions countless times, chased down by wolves countless times, suffering hunger as hungry ghosts countless times, being burned in hell countless times, enjoying the pleasures of the heavens countless times, suffeing the intense angst of no longer able to enjoy these pleasures countless times, and so on and on. THere does not seem to be an end to it. In the future the same fate will happen to us again, and again, and again, until in the long while we attain Buddhahood.

So this is the point of the Sutra. On the one hand, it shocks us to see all our past and future lives. So we don’t need to have trained ourselves so that we could actually see them, Due to the power of the Buddha in the Sutra, we can see them now. In fact this is not so hard as it might look. Since all of samsara is beginningless, there is no being at all that we did not use to be. Pick one being, an insect perhaps, it is we that used to be that particular insect. So the insect in a real sense is us. Thus, all beings in samsara are all connected to one another. Every being then used to be our mother, our father, our friends, our enemies, our colleagues, our partners, etc. etc. in the countless number of revolving lives in samsara.

So what is the point of all this? The catch is that the Buddha let us see that there is the end to the story. Everyone of us will one day become a Buddha. This is reality. Why? Because sooner or later we will become so bored with this unending cycle. We will see with our own very eyes how pointless the whole thing is. We will want to find a way out. That is, we will become Buddhas.

Furthermore, seeing all our past and future lives lets us realize that our own sense of individual self is a mere chimera. It is purely illusory. Time itself is also illusory. The sense that there is our *self* that is separated from all others is also illusory. All of us used to be a woman, a man, a grandmother, a husband, all kinds of animals, all kinds of pretas, all kinds of hell beings, all kinds of gods, all kinds of goddesses, and so forth. So what we think of as our *self* is only what appears if we hold on to the sense that there is something to hold on to, that this particular life is something different, something unique among all others. But that is totally a false conception. The reason why all beings are still wandering around in the endless cycle of samsara is that they do not see this Truth. Seeing all this, an acute sense of compassion is aroused in the Bodhisattva. He or she sees the pointlessness of all this and is resolved to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.