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.


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Nationalism is a disease

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind” (Albert Einstein).

Beauty is not health

Though people often confuse/conflate them, beauty and health are not the same. It is entirely possible that a very beautiful person has some health problem (e.g., high cholesterol, osteoporosis, etc.) that gives them chronic or extreme pain, shortens their life, etc., which they hide from the world.

Freeing frugality

If you can find ways of spending less, you don’t need to earn/work as much (but it’s still a good idea to have plenty of savings for old age or a rainy day). For example:

  • Live in a poor area/country and work in/for a wealthy area/country. Rent or buy outright a tiny place, to minimize mortgage interest, utility, and maintenance fees.
  • Own only 1-2 of the things you need (i.e., one primary and one backup).
  • Keep pictures of things you’ve had/enjoyed in the past, instead of storing and moving things forever. Sell or donate more.
  • Shop at thrift stores.
  • Use prepaid cellphones, avoid long phone conversations, and find the free public wifi hotspots near you (and use HTTPS, Tor, and/or a VPN for protection).
  • Replace large things that use a lot of electricity with smaller, more pinpointed things or well-designed locations (e.g., 1-watt USB fans and LED task/reading lights; phones, tablets, and laptops instead of desktops; put your computer to sleep when not in use; choose a house or apartment that gets good cross-breezes between the windows; etc.).
  • Recharge small electronics from public places (malls, airports, etc.) or buy a small solar panel, if possible.
  • Use free/open-source software instead of expensive proprietary software.
  • Natural gas cooking and heating is usually cheaper than electric.
  • Get in the habit of picking up a few groceries on your way home from work, so you don’t have to use a refrigerator as much or at all, and so that you eat fresher food.
  • The body can adjust quite a bit to summer heat and winter cold, if you limit your exposure to heating and air conditioning systems. Also, fans, sweaters, blankets, and the like can go a long way before air conditioners and heaters really become necessary.
  • Bathe in cool or lukewarm water.
  • Handwash your clothes. Use clotheslines instead of clothes dryer machines.
  • Bicycle or walk if you can. Use buses instead of subways, unless they are the same price (as in NYC). Use taxis and rental cars, instead of owning a car, unless owning a car is cheaper for your profession. If you must own a vehicle, consider a scooter/moped or motorized bicycle. I prefer motorized bikes, because if a scooter or motorcycle breaks down, you can’t pedal it home.
  • Fill the empty spaces in your freezer with ice and fridge with cold water, so it doesn’t use as much energy to stay cool.
  • A dark, thick, or reflective umbrella can protect against both rain and sun, and will probably last much longer than a tube of sunscreen.
  • Watch and take care of wild animals (birds, trees, etc.), which live free and natural lives, instead of keeping pets, which often have genetic/breeding problems that can cause them pain and you high vet bills.
  • Watch videos and listen to music from the public library or FM radio stations, instead of paying for streaming video and audio.
  • Boil and maybe filter tap water, instead of buying bottled water.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle, so your healthcare expenses are likely to be less.

Mindfulness exercise: Don’t scratch

One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.

Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.

Being too thin can be as dangerous as being too fat

Several medical doctors over the years have told me that, though it is unhealthy to be very overweight or obese, it is a good idea to be a little overweight (i.e., on the high end of the healthy BMI range for your height), because if you ever become very sick and can’t eat for a week or two, your body will survive on whatever fat and muscle mass you have. They have also told me that being very thin can worsen osteoporosis, because it takes more bone strength to resist the pull of gravity on a heavier body, and the body automatically adjusts for this.

After having once asked a nutritionist and done my own research about how to healthfully maintain enough weight, here are the conclusions I reached:

  1. Protein hurts the heart the least, is easiest to burn off through exercise, and low-fat protein (e.g., from lean meats like chicken and fish, nuts, beans, etc.) is healthiest for the heart and arteries.
  2. The body needs a certain amount of fat, and unsaturated fat (e.g., from nuts, vegetable oils, soy milk, etc.) is usually healthier than saturated fat (e.g., from dairy, beef, or pork).
  3. In order to gain or maintain weight, one must have a surplus of calories. It’s usually easier to eat a lot, if one eats slowly or frequently, though this can be hard on the teeth.

Buddhism is not nirvana

The pop-cultural, public “sugary coating” of Buddhism is so flashy (elaborate statues, chants, jewelry, bright orange robes, etc.) that it’s easy to forget that one of the fetters people must abandon in order to be stream-enterers is attachment to rites and rituals.

Though such things can serve to get people in a religious/spiritual mood, or to draw people to Buddhism, people can become overly attached to them, and such things come with negative costs. For example, one usually must kill flowers and fruit to put them on an altar, the herbs and spices in incense come from plants that must be killed, burning incense and candles pollutes the air and can hurt people’s lungs, burning candles can start larger fires, and monks chanting over loudspeakers for hours can intrude upon the peaceful silence of a space.

Buddhism is a worldly phenomenon that points to nirvana; it itself isn’t nirvana. Though doing meritorious rites and rituals might give one good karma for a better rebirth, or help one communicate with devas, if people actually want nirvana, as I understand, they shouldn’t neglect the practices that make a person more like the Buddha (e.g., renouncing worldly things, being virtuous, mindful, calm, aware, kind, compassionate, etc.).