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.


Common grounds between Buddhism and Judaism

Since there is a Jewish Buddhist movement, here is a list of ways in which (Theravada or early) Buddhism and Judaism are, as I understand, more similar to each other than either is to Christianity:

  • In both, though there are things on which most members of each religion agree, there is no firm dogma, because the spiritual goal (experiencing God or Nirvana) is thought to be beyond mundane human thought. Individuals are free to explore their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and to develop their own understandings. Prophets, Messiahs, the Buddha, and monks are people who may have had an especially clear or rich spiritual experience, but they are not God(s) themselves. Said another way: both religions are more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (i.e., less faith-based, more focused on what people do and experience than on what they believe).
  • Absolute reality, God, etc. is usually thought to be some kind of unity or single substance, not a trinity, a hypostatic union (hybrid God-man), etc.
  • Both are/were largely aniconic (Buddhism was in the early days) and prohibit giving anything a higher status than God or nirvanic beings.
  • Like devas in Buddhism, early Judaism seems to have acknowledged polytheism (e.g., El becoming YHWH, “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.), but neither made polytheism central to their religion.
  • Hell is not forever. In Judaism, hell is more like Catholic purgatory and lasts only a short time, so that God can teach sinners a lesson. Those souls who are too bad to be redeemed are either destroyed by God, which seems much more compassionate to me than eternal torment, or continue to exist in a remorseful state. In Buddhism, the length and depth/badness of a hellish life varies based on one’s karma, with the worst hell being called avici. Both also find rebirth/reincarnation possible.
  • Both generally lack a notion of original sin, though in Buddhism, the mind that is reborn has typically had many past lives and has accumulated many both good and bad traits. Both see people as a mixture of good/selfless and bad/selfish impulses, and see a Middle Way-type balance to be necessary for successfully living in the world (e.g., a person has to be a little selfish in order to have food to eat, to do a job, etc.).
  • Less focus is placed on external forces (e.g., the devil, praying to angels or saints, God(s) taking physical form, etc.), which are usually considered to be metaphorical. Unlike how Christians often interpret it literally, the oft-quoted line from Genesis 1:27, that man was made in the image of God, is usually taken in Judaism to mean that a human’s nature, essence, or capacities for things like reason and intuition are similar to God’s, not that God literally has a human-like (or any corporeal) form.
  • Both Buddhism’s precepts, the Brahmaviharas, etc. as well as Judaism’s kosher rules are concerned with how to kill animals as sparingly and humanely as possible. In both, the brief five-to-ten precepts/commandments are just a categorization or introduction to a much longer set of vinaya/commandments about many aspects of life.
  • Both Buddhists and Jews do merit-making activities, especially as regards dead family members: https://ohr.edu/explore_judaism/ask_the_rabbi/ask_the_rabbi/1065

Frogs in a well

Usually, I find that being well-educated and/or well-traveled makes people more open/large-minded, tolerant, patient, non-racist, non-nationalistic, peaceful, etc., and that being poorly educated and/or traveled makes people the opposite of those things. People who, mentally or physically, never go far from home usually seem to be the ones who are passionately attached to one (and against all others) religion, ethnic or national identity, sports team, local dialect of a language, and so on. A common metaphor for such people in south and southeast Asian countries is “frogs in a well.”

Negligent karma

If karma is intention, how is it karmically pure to intentionally allow others to do your dirty work for you (e.g., to kill or be selfish to obtain your food or money, to kill people or steal things to defend your home or country, to kill germs or bugs in your home or office, to raise children so you don’t have to, etc.)? Aren’t you intentionally neglecting what is karmically best for the person who is serving you?

Similarly, even if someone didn’t intend to do a particular act of violence (e.g., to hit someone with their car), mustn’t there have been a intentional decision/willingness to create the circumstances that might give rise to that particular act of violence (e.g., to drive a car instead of taking another mode of transportation, to drive too fast, not to pay very close attention to the road, etc.)?

Some might argue that the act of generosity in serving another person cancels-out the impurity of the bad action, but the early Buddhist seed-and-fruit metaphor seems to say that each karmic seed bears one karmic fruit, meaning that both the bad deed and the good deed will bear separate fruits.

Scientific questions about mindstreams

As a Western scientist, here are the questions that I would ask the most accomplished Buddhists (i.e., Arahants, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas) about mindstreams and self-other mental construction:

  • Can we identify substances that act as substrates/support for mental phenomena, as well as their properties, how they nourish/support minds, and the ways in which certain mental phenomena can emerge from, or be encoded/preserved upon, certain substrates?
  • Is nirvana a more stable substrate for the mind?
  • Why is the mind radiant? Are mental phenomena encoded on some kind of light?
  • How cohesive and stable is a mindstream? Does it degrade, when the body is old or unhealthy? Between lives, can mindstreams split (like light) or fade/degrade (like radio waves), if they are not reborn quickly enough?
  • Could we develop signatures/fingerprints (like a hash function) for specific mental phenomena or for an individual’s mindstream, and track those phenomena’s movement through and between different substrates/lives?
  • Can the karmic seed-to-fruit metaphor be demonstrated under well-controlled (i.e., laboratory) conditions? How exact/one-for-one/fair is karmic retribution, and do any other forces intervene (e.g., the natural environment, genetics, the actions of other beings, etc.)?
  • Can we compare the mental and substrate phenomena of different species with our own?
  • If everything we see and think is a construct, are there methods of consciously controlling the constructions? For example, could I consciously construct the perception/vision of an apple sitting on a table, or of another person in the room with me, when there is not really one there (i.e., a waking lucid dream)?

The subtlety of dukkha

Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s sometimes make the point that suffering, which is an imprecise/incomplete translation of dukkha, is more subtle than just obvious things like sickness, a broken heart, and so forth. The word dukkha’s etymology comes from having a poorly fitting axle on a cart, resulting in a bumpy ride. Dukkha is the nuisance, irritation, struggle, wasted effort/energy/heat, friction, inefficiency, or broken-ness in everyday life, and everything in life involves at least some small amount of dukkha. Here are a few everyday things that people often take for granted as being easy or pleasurable, and how they involve at least some amount of dukkha.

  • Breathing or beating one’s heart requires work by the unconscious aspects of the brain and nervous system, as well as the work of the heart and lungs.
  • Maintaining consciousness requires absorbing and burning energy from food, absorbing and transporting oxygen and blood sugars, getting enough rest, etc. Brains burn a large amount of calories.
  • Sitting or standing upright places a strain on the heart, and causes people’s bones to compress/shrink a little everyday from the force exerted on them by gravity. Healthy bones repair themselves during the night, when the force of gravity is perpendicular to the body. When unhealthy or elderly people’s bones can’t repair themselves enough, such people gradually shrink.
  • Sex requires physical exertion comparable to climbing a flight of stairs, work by the various reproductive organs in the body, and immune and tissue-repair responses by the body.
  • Even very delicate desserts or drugs require bodily swallowing or inhaling, digesting, absorbing, reacting, filtering by the liver and/or kidneys, expulsion of the waste, etc.

Tips for sleep & meditation

I usually sleep deeply, and can go to sleep in 10-15 minutes, even during stressful times. People I have lived or traveled with sometimes have asked me how I do it. Having a genetic health problem that causes chronic fatigue probably plays a large part, but I also intentionally abandon the outside world and focus on the inside world, as I fall asleep. The feeling is similar to diving into a swimming pool — letting go of the land and committing to the water — come what may. Going deeply into concentration/jhana meditation also feels similar to me, though dreaming feels more about letting the mind construct whatever it wishes, and meditation feels more about applying attention and piercing through the muddiness/murkiness of the mind. Sweet dreams.