What is Nirvana ?
Lin Yu Tang
Every student of Buddhism must be interested in a coorect notion of Nirvana,the goal of this religious effort.Naturally this has puzzled many serious minds.Sir Edwin Arnold,in his preface to "The Light of Asia" expresses the "firm conviction that a third of mankind would never have been brought to believe in blank abstractions,or in Nothingness as the issue and the crown of Being." Yet what is it?
The foregoing philosophical exposition in the Surangamma Sutra must have prepared the reader to expect a philosophic and at the same time mystic outcome of such speculations.The process of religious enlightenment is a process of divesting oneself of the illusions of the sensory world and constantly rising to a higher conception of an ideal world ,such as arrived at by Kantian idealism.It is a steady process of dropping off of errors arising from the finite "discriminating mind," such as the habitual and ingrained notion of the ego and the individuality of things.From this,the reader can already deduce what the final outcome must be.It is the reaching of that unconditioned,infinite world.But then the mechanism of our thinking and language fails,because our words must fail to describe an unconditioned existence.To call it "destruction" is to assume that there is something to destroy,and call it "emptiness" is to assume the contrast of a substantial world.when we read that Nirvana is "neither being,nor non-being" we realize that the words "being" and "non-being" are no longer adequate.If we could think of a world without our pet notions of space and time,that is,an unconditioned world,we would have a fair notion of what Nirvana means.The doggedly logical,finite mind can never rise to this conception,and therefore it is hard western scholars to grasp its significance.
The following disquisition gives,in my opinion,the best description of the Mahayana conception of the Nirvana,found in the end of Lankavatara Sutra.The Lankavatara Sutra is very popular with the Chinese Buddhist students ,there being four Chinese translations of it,in A.D.420,443,513,AND 700,of which the first one was lost.It gives a clear and well-reasond outline of Buddhist metaphysics in a shorter,better- ordered and more complete scheme than the Surangamma.Readers who are interested in such a clear summary are referred to "The Buddist Bible" ,edited by Dwight Goddard (published by Goddard,Thetford,Vt.).But I have chosen the Surangamma,rather than the Lankavatara,because the latter is like a well-written history of philosophy,while the former is like an original masterpiece in philosophy.Both employ the Buddhaesque method of dialogue,but anyone who examines both can have no dobt as to the superior aptness and freshness of Buddha’s illustrations and the flesh-and –blood quality of the Surangamma.
WHAT IS NIRVANA ?
Then said Mahamati to the Blessed One :Pray tell us about Nirvana?
The Blessed One replied:The term,Nirvana,is used with many different meanings,by different people,but these people may be divided into four groups:There are people who are suffering,or who are afraid of suffering,and who think of Nirvana;there are the philosophers who try to discriminate Nirvana;there are the class of disciples who think of Nirvana in relation to themselves;and,finally,there is the Nirvana of the Buddhas.
Those who are suffering or who fear suffering,think of Nirvana as an escape and a recompense.They imagine that Nirvana consists in the future annihilation of the senses and the sense-minds;they are not aware that Universal Mind are One,and that this life-and-death world and Nirvana are not to be separated.These ignorant ones,instead of meditating on the imagelessness of Nirvana,talk of different ways of emancipation.Being ignorant of,or not understanding,the teachings of the Tathagatas,they cling to the notion of Nirvana that is outside what is seen of the mind and,thus,go on rolling themselves along with the wheel of life and death.
As to Nivanas discriminated by the philosophers:there really are none.Some philosophers conceive Nirvana to be found where the mind-system no more operates owing to the cessation of the elements that make up personality and its worlds:or is found where there is utter indifference to the objective world and its impermanency.Some conceive Nirvana to be a state where there is no recollection of the past and present,just as a lamp is extinguished,or when a seed is burnt, or when a fire goes out;because then there is the cessation of all the substrate,which is explained by the philosophers as the non-rising of discrimination.But this is not Nirvana,because Nirvana does not consist in simple annihilation and vacuity.
Again,some philosophers explaind deliverance as though it was the mere stopping of discrimination,as when the wind stops blowing,or as when one by self-effort gets rid of the dualistic view of knower and known,or gets the notions of permanencyand impermanency;or gets rid of the notions of good and evil;or overcomes passion by mean of knowledge;to them Nirvana is deliverance.Some,seeing in "form" the bearer of pain,are alarmed by the notion of "form" and look for happiness in a world of "no-form".
Some conceive that in consideration of individuality and generality recognizable in all things inner and outer,that there is no destruction and that all beings maintain their being for ever and,in this eternality,see Nirvana.Others see the eternality of things in the conception Nirvana as the absorption of the finite-soul in Supreme Atman ;or who see all things as a manifestation of the vital-force of some Supreme Spirit to which all return;and some,who are especially silly,declare that there are two primary things,a primary substance and a primary soul,that react differently upon each other and just produce all things from the transformation of qualities;some think that the world is born of action and interaction and that no other cause is necessary;others think that Ishvara is the free creator of all things;clinging to these foolish notions,there is no awakening,and they consider Nirvana to consist in the fact that there is no awakening.
Some imagine that Nirvana is where self-nature exists in its own right,unhampered by other self-natures,as the variegated feathers of a peacock,or various precious crystals,or the pointedness of a thorn.Some conceive being to be Nirvana,some non-being,while others conceive that all things and Nirvana are not to be distinguished from one another.Some,thinking that time is the creator and that as the rise of a world depends on time,they conceive that Nirvana consists in the recognition of time as Nirvana.Some think that there will be Nirvana when the "twenty-five" truths are generally accepted,or when the king observes the six virtues,and some religionists think that Nirvana is the attainment of paradise.
These views severally advanced by the philosophers with their various reasonings are not in accord with logic nor are they acceptable to the wise.They all conceive Nirvana dualistically and in some causal connection; by these discriminations philosophers imagine Nirvana,but where there is no rising and no disappearing,how can there be discrimination?Each philosopher relying on his own text book from which he draws his understanding,sins against the truth,because truth is not where he imagines it to be.The only result is that it sets his mind to wandering about and becoming more confused as Nirvana is not to be found by mental searching,and the more his mind becomes confused the more his mind he confuses other people.
As to the notion of Nirvana as held by disciples and masters who still cling to the notion of an ego-self and who try to find it by going off by themselves into solitude:their notion of Nirvana is an eternity of bliss like the bliss of the Samadhis-for themselves.They recognize that the world is only a manifestation of mind and that all discriminations are of the mind, and so they forsake social relations and practise various spiritual disciplines and in solitude seek self-realisation of Noble-Wisdom by self effort.They follow the stages to the sixth and attain the bliss of the Samadhis but as they are still clinging to egoism they do not attain the "turning-about"at the deepest seat of consciousness and therefore they are not free from the thinking-mind and the accumulation of its habit-energy.Clinging to the bliss of the Samadhis,they pass to their Nirvana,but it is not the Nirvana of the Tathagatas.They are of those who have "entered the stream";they must return to this world of life and death
Then said Mahamati to the Blessed One: When the Bodhisattvas yield up their stock of merit for the emancipation of all beings,they become spiritually one with all animate life;they themselves may be purified,but in others there yet remains unexhausted evil and unmatured karma.Pray tell us,Blessed One,how the bodhisattvas are given assurance of Nirvana? And what is the Nirvana of the Bodhisattvas?
The Blessed One replied:Mahamati,this assurance is not an assurance of numbers nor logic;it is not the mind that is to be assured but the heart.The Bodhisattva’s assurance comes with the unfolding insight that follows passion hindrances cleared away,knowledge hindrance purified,and egolessness clearly perceived and patiently accepted.As the mortal-mind ceases to dicscriminate,there is no more thirst for life,no more sex-lust,no more thirst for learning,no more thirst for eternal life,with the disappearance of these fourfold thirsts,there is no more accumulation of habit energy;with no more accumulation of habit-energy the defilements on the face of Universal Mind clear away,and the Bodhisattva attains self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that is the heart’s assurance of Nirvana.
There are Bodhisattvas here and in other Buddha-lands,who are sincerely devoted to the Bodhisattva’s mission and yet who cannot wholly forget the bliss of the Samadhis and the peace of Nirvana-for themselves.The teaching of Nirvana in which there is no substrate left behind,is revealed according to a hidden meaning for the sake of these disciples who still cling to thoughts of Nirvana for themselves,that they may be inspired to exert themselves in the Bodhisattva’s mission of emancipation for all beings.The Transformation-Buddhas teach a doctrine of Nirvana to meet conditions as they find them,and to give encouragement to the timid and selfish.In order to turn their thoughts away from themselves and to encourage them to a deeper compassion and more earnest zeal for others,they are given assurance as to the future by the sustaining power of the Buddhas of Transformation,but not by the Dharmata-Buddha.
The Dharma which establishes the Truth of Noble Wisdom belongs to the realm of the Dharmata-Buddha.To the Bodhisattvas of the seventh and eight stages,Transcendental Intelligence is revealed by the Dharmata-Buddha and the Path Is pointed out to them which they are to follow.In the perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that follows the inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva’s individualised will-control,he no longer lives unto himself,but the life that he lives thereafter is the Tathagata’s universalised life as manifested in its transformations.In this perfect self –realisation of Noble Wisdom the Bodhisattva realises that for Buddhas there is no Nirvana.
The death of a Buddha,the great Patinirvana,is neither destruction nor death,else would it be birth and continuation.If it were destruction , it would be an effect-producing deed,which it is not.Neither is it a vanishing nor abandonment,neither is it attainment,nor is it of no attainment;neither is it of one significance nor of no significance,for there is no Nirvana for the Buddhas.
The Tathagata’s Nirvana is where it is recognised that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself;is where,recognising the nature of the self-mind,one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination;is where there is no more thirst nor grasping;is where there is no more attachment to external things.Nirvana is where the thinking-mind with all its discriminations,attachments,aversions and egoism is forever put away;is where logical measures,as they are seen to be inert,are no longer seized upon;is where even the notion of truth is treated with indifference because of its causing bewilderment;is where , getting rid of the four propositions,there is insight into the abode of Reality.Nirvana is where the twofold passions have sibsided and the twofold hindrances are cleared away and the twofold egoless is patiently accepted;is where,by the attainment of the "turning-about" in the deepest seat of consciousness,self-realisation of Noble Wisdom is fully entered into-that is the Nirvana of the Tathagatas.
Nirvana is where the Bodhisattva stages are passed one after another;is where the sustaining power of the Buddha upholds the Bodhisattvas in the bliss of the Samadhis;is where compassion for others transcends all thoughts of self;is where the Tathagata stage is finally realised.
Nirvana is the realm of Dharmata-Buddha;it is where the manifestation of Noble Wisdom that is Buddhahood expresses itself in.Perfect Love for all;it is where the manifestation of Perfect Love that is Tathagatahood expresses itself in Noble Wisdom for the enlightment of all;-there , indeed,is Nirvana!
There are two classes of those who may not enter the Nirvana of the Tathagatas:there are those who have abandoned the Bodhisattva ideals,saying,there are not in conformity with the sutras,the codes of morality,nor with emancipation.Then there are true Bodhisattvas who,on account of their original vows made for the sake all beings,saying, "So long as they do not attain Nirvana,I will not attain it myself," voluntarily keep themselves out of Nirvana.But no beings are left outside by the will of theTathagatas;
some day each and every one will be influenced by the wisdom and love of the Tathagatas of Transformation to lay up a stock of merit and ascend the stages.But,if they only realised it,they are already in the Tathagata’s Nirvana for,in Noble Wisdom,all things are in Nirvana from the beginning.
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