Earning the robe

Wearing a robe or uniform doesn’t make you a good person. Being a good person makes you a good person.

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Two competing views of Buddhist nirvana

As I understand, here are the Mahayana and Theravada conceptions of nirvana/nibbana:

Mahayana

As do several later schools of Hinduism, notably Advaita Vedanta, with which Mahayana/Madhyamika philosophy may have merged to some degree over the millenia, Mahayana thinks that the relativistic, dualistic (self vs. other) reality in which we live is not real. Though both Mahayana and Theravada would probably agree that our current reality is empty of a permanent/stable essence, because everything in this world somehow depends on something else (e.g., consciousness depends on the body, the body depends on molecules and atoms, etc.), Mahayana claims that our current reality is not only impermanent/unstable but is totally unreal — a collective delusion or illusion, resulting from us having forgotten that we are all already enlightened and are actually one big, unified/monistic, real Mind (variously called absolute reality, Buddha-nature, Tathagata-garbha, etc.). As such, it was/is possible for the many past Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to come and go between nirvana and samsara, and to create and destroy dualistic worlds (such as Pure Lands, where it is supposedly as easy as possible to attain nirvana), as they please. Attaining nirvana makes one like a God in this world.

Theravada

There are two states of matter/energy existing right next to each other, which rarely interact (similar to dark matter vs. regular matter): one is more permanent and stable (nibbana), one is more impermanent and unstable (our reality, called samsara). Both samsara and nibbana are real, though living beings may misperceive or misunderstand them, and both have their pros and cons. The cons of living in samsara are things like old age, sickness, death, loss, pain, fear, vulnerability, etc., but the pros are that it can be fun, exciting, pleasurable, etc. Nibbana is basically the opposite of samsara: no old age, sickness, death, etc., but it is also very still and lacking pleasure or pain. In that they are quite different states of matter/energy, a person cannot easily come and go between them. The samsaric body must die before an enlightened mind (having extinguished kamma/karma and totally let go of this world) can transfer into a nibbanic state (called parinibbana), and nibbanic beings apparently cannot or do not transfer back into samsara. When the Buddha became enlightened, his mind could only see nibbana from this world, like looking across a river at the other shore. His samsaric body had to die for his mind to somehow join with or become nibbanic matter/energy. The Buddha was just a man who discovered something great (i.e., a way for the mind to apparently live forever without suffering). He was/is not some kind of God — when Theravada Buddhists “worship” the Buddha, they are typically trying to gain karmic merit for themselves by doing something good or noble, not trying to interact with the Buddha (because nibbanic beings do not interact with samsaric beings; they just set an example for samsaric beings to emulate) — and nibbana is not an absolute essence for samsara.


Don’t let karmic fruits run your life

Thoughts and feelings that arise automatically just are what they are. What matters is what new thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds we choose to make or not make.

As I understand, a fruit or result of karma (Pali: phala) is any experience that arises automatically in a person. For example, if someone insults or attacks you, the fear, anger, etc. that most people automatically feel is a result of past karmic seeds (Pali: bija) you have planted in your mind by choosing to feel that way under similar circumstances. Karma is intention (or mental energy), like setting or preference or default about how your mind should react in the future. Buddhists think that every automatic human experience (sights, sounds, moods, cravings, habits, cognition, etc.) is a karmic fruit — complex results from many past choices. Unless one practices making intentions more consciously, it is very easy for the fruits of past karma to run one’s life, and to keep perpetuating themselves if you keep giving them mental energy. It’s like a song stuck in your head that never stops as long as you keep singing it.

So, in terms of personal development, one has two good options: either try to have a happier future by learning to create happier, healthier, etc. karmic seeds (i.e., the path to a pleasurable, heavenly life), or learn not to make new karmic seeds and to destroy the seeds that already exist in the mind (i.e., the path to a peaceful, nirvanic life). For instance, for a more heavenly life, if a person attacks you, practice feeling pity, sympathy, or empathy for them instead of fear or anger, try to understand why they are attacking you and how you can reach some compromise with them or how you can help them out of whatever problem is prompting them to attack you. The brahmaviharas/divine-attitudes (metta/loving-kindness, karuna/compassion, mudita/sympathetic-joy, and upekkha/equanimity) are supposedly the mental states of heavenly beings. For a more nirvanic life, if a person attacks you, practice remaining calm and cool-headed, and make no responses, either mentally or physically, like a statue — even if a statue is destroyed by an attack, it does not respond. Nirvanic beings supposedly do not make any actions in this world, no matter what happens here. Here is an example of a (comedic, over-the-top) nirvanic response from a Vietnamese Buddhist man in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. The context is that Robin Williams’ character was teaching a funny English class about cursing.

“[Adrian (Robin Williams):] Let’s try a very special situation.
Wilkie, somethin’ special, okay?
You go into a restaurant okay?
A waitress comes up to you. You’re, eh–
You’re wearing your best new suit.
She comes up, she spills soup
all over you, looks at you like…
“Eh, I’m sorry.
What are you gonna do about it,
asshole?” What do you say to her?
What would you say? They spilled
something on your pants. What would
they do? What would you do?
[Wilkie (the Vietnamese man):] I do nothing.
[Adrian:] Come on, Wilkie. It’s cursing class.
You’re gettin’ a little pissed off.
What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I just remain reticent.
[Adrian:] Okay, she goes in the kitchen, she gets
a knife, she starts stabbing you.
She’s stabbing you.
She’s putting forks in you.
She’s got spoons in your eyes, Wil.
They’re startin’ to cut you with knives.
They’re puttin’ spoons in your eyes.
What would you do, Wil?
– What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I’m waiting to die! [everyone laughs]”
(transcript from Script-o-rama).

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is probably the main Buddhist meditation technique embraced by the Western mainstream, including Western psychology. In general, it teaches people how to keep a mental distance from their experiences — both to reduce life’s stressfulness and to help people think, feel, and behave in a more calm, clearheaded way — without taking drugs. Like any skill, mindfulness takes practice, but pretty much everyone (excluding perhaps people with serious brain injuries) can do it.

Here are the mindfulness meditation steps that have worked best for me:

  1. With your eyes open, not focused on anything in particular, sit in a room and (mentally, internally) note what you see. Don’t get up and do anything in the room. Don’t critique the room; just let it be as it is. Don’t make any plans about what you will do in/to the room in the future (cleaning, re-arranging, socializing, etc.). If it helps, put a one-word label on the things you see (e.g., wall, outlet, carpet, door, etc.). When you’re comfortable with the process of labeling, stop using labels and just observe the room without thinking about it. Notice that the room was built at some point in the past, that it’s existing/abiding for awhile, and that it will someday decay or be destroyed. Actually, you’re not necessarily watching a room — you’re watching images, sounds, etc. that your mind is creating, based on sensory input. These mental constructions may be different than the room’s objective/absolute reality.
  2. Close your eyes, and mentally watch the sensations of your body: pains, pleasures, itches, urges, fatigue, etc. Again, don’t do anything to them. Just let them be as they are. Don’t scratch, don’t shift around, don’t go eat or drink anything, don’t go to the toilet, etc. Just watch. If labeling things helps, do it as before (in step 1, above), but stop once you’re comfortable enough with the process, and just watch the body without thinking. Notice that sensations all follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may abide/stay awhile, then they decay on their own if you don’t do anything. Even itches, aches, etc. will eventually go away on their own. If any sensation is especially troublesome, hold that part of your body at a mental or physical distance, and say to yourself things like “the pain is over there… the pain is separate from me”.
  3. Turn your attention away from your bodily sensations, towards your mental thoughts and feelings. Watch the thoughts and feelings like clouds passing in the sky, or like a movie or TV show on a distant screen. Don’t get caught up in the movie. Don’t give the thoughts or feelings any energy (because this movie is like a “choose your own adventure” story). Don’t pursue, expand upon, cling to, dwell on, etc. anything you see. Just let things come into your mind, stay awhile, and then go. Like so-called “external” things and bodily sensations, notice that thoughts and feelings eventually fade away on their own; you don’t have to fight with them. Also notice how the part of your mind that is doing the watching feels. It isn’t tied up in anything, so it can be very calm, stable, and clear. No matter what happens in life, you can always return to this peaceful state of mind, and can use it to think more clearly.

This practice can be deepened further with Buddhist vipassana and jhana meditations, finding ever-more subtle and peaceful levels of the mind, and gaining ever-more insights into the nature of mental and so-called “physical” phenomena.

Buddha statues as representations of nirvana

Buddha images and statues might be the best representation of the early Buddhist notion of nirvana that is possible in this world, namely: existence without causality, where one thing doesn’t become another, nothing changes, “inflows” (physical or sensory input) don’t result in “outflows” (thoughts, words, or deeds) — like eternal statues with unchanging minds.

The pain is over there… the pain is not me

For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”

This seems to work for a few reasons:

  1. Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
  2. Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
  3. The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.

Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.

Automatic hate

When you see someone who is different than you or antagonistic towards you, do negative (critical, exploitative, dismissive, aggressive, etc.) thoughts/feelings automatically arise in your mind? When you sleep, do dark dreams arise? Do you feel urges to go watch aggressive TV shows or to listen to angry or depressive music?

That is the unconscious level at which people need to work on becoming better — more kind, compassionate, patient, tolerant, peaceful, content, etc. — because today’s conscious thought-choices plant the seeds for tomorrow’s unconscious feelings, and conscious thoughts, words, and deeds often take their cues from unconscious whispers. It’s a cycle. We need to keep a good tone to our minds.

If your mind were your living room, how would that room’s mood feel, and who/what would be welcome there?