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 minds.
“The present moment is not an absolute. It’s something that you’re [unconsciously] fabricating, and the goal of the practice is to learn how to fabricate it in a new [nirvanic] direction…. The present is here to be used, and the teachings are here to teach us how to use it wisely” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Use of the Present,” 2016-11-28).
“If you’re more carefully attentive to your choices in the present moment, you begin to see that you do have choices. There is some freedom here. And, the more you explore that freedom, by being skillful, the more you discover there’s something else… another kind of freedom, that’s not conditioned. The freedom of choice is something conditioned, but there is an unconditioned freedom. It’s a dimension that can be touched, and it’s right next to that freedom of choice” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Skill of Meditation”, 2016-11-29)
Looking at the very ethnically, linguistically, nationally, and philosophically fractured state of Buddhist peoples around the world today, as well as at the continued popularity of later-Buddhism philosophies like Buddha-nature and the Thai Dhammakaya Movement, it strikes me that, even (approximately) 2,560 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana, many people still have difficulty accepting the Buddha’s teaching of Anattā and letting go of attachment to self identities.
I have tried to make these instructions agnostic/tradition-neutral. I think that every human being is capable of exploring their own mind. These instructions are based on my experience(s).
I will give you the instructions all at once, because, if you do it correctly, my voice (or this text) should become harder and harder to hear (or read), the farther you go. Also, you would be going below the level of discursive thinking in your mind, and human language seems to be limited to the discursive level.
If you have any duties that require constant attention (e.g., young children, a serious health problem, etc.), make sure someone else is monitoring them, because you may not be available. Sit upright in a quiet place with dim lighting, which is neither too comfortable nor too uncomfortable, and close your eyes. Nothing else matters as much as what you are doing now. If the phone rings, if you hear someone speak, if a dog barks, if a car passes, if a lawnmower runs, if you feel a pain or an itch in your body… ignore them. Push the world away, and go into the darkness of your mind. It may take 15-30 minutes to adjust to that feeling. Just ignore the time and focus on going into your mind. If you have trouble ignoring the world, create the image, no matter how vague/blurry, of a pole, a line, or something else that is simple and stationary, in the middle of your mental field of vision, and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.
Eventually, you should start seeing mental images, like a lucid dream. Watch them, but keep them at a distance. Don’t give them any encouragement or energy. Don’t get attached to them or emotional about them; if you do, you may have a hard time going any deeper into your mind. Notice how they come and go on their own, if you do not interfere with them. That is how the mind works: one momentary construction after another, in an endless series.
After a while of watching mental images, apply your mental focus/energy to push them away like you did ‘external’ sensations, and go deeper. Gradually, the mind should feel brighter and brighter, like someone is slowly raising the light level in the room. If you were to open your eyes at this point, the room might actually feel darker than your mind just felt. Continue applying your focus, as the mind feels brighter and brighter.
You might see a vision, at this point, such as that you are flying atop an infinite expanse of clouds. Whatever you see, you can explore it, but do not get attached to it or emotional about it, or you may not be able to go deeper. Wherever the light or brightness is in the vision, work on approaching that brightness, which usually requires steadily increasing focus and effort.
If you believe in a religious tradition, or perhaps even if you are just in a religious place (e.g., a church, mosque, temple, vihara, etc.), you might experience a religious vision at this point. You might see one or more religious figure(s) (e.g., a Buddha or Bodhisattva; Christ, Muhammad, or an angel; a Hindu deity; etc.), which might be more beautiful than anything you have ever seen in the world, and more and more mental focus might be required in order to approach them. You can choose either to work on approaching them or to work on going towards the light/brightness, which may be different/separate than approaching the religious figure(s). If it is too difficult, slow down and rest, or stop the meditation (see the next paragraph, for instructions on how to stop) and try again later. These beings/things are always there, available to you. If you are able to reach the religious figure(s), you might be able to have some interaction with them and maybe learn something from them.
To stop meditating, it is best to slowly return back up through the things you have been holding back through concentration. If you suddenly stop concentrating/focusing on holding them back, they might all come rushing back, like flood waters after a dam is broken, which can be unpleasant. Whether you stop slowly or quickly, you might feel unusually strong cravings for worldly things (entertainments, food, sex, etc.) as well as anxiety or depression about returning from a more heavenly place to our more stressful world. But you also should have a deeply peaceful feeling and memories about what you experienced while meditating. Finally, depending on how deeply you have gone into your mind, if you stop meditating suddenly, you might return to a sleeping state, instead of to a conscious state.
If you ignore any visions and continue towards the light/brightness, you should eventually begin to experience the Jhāna process, which progresses through a predictable series of signs and stages that are known to several Dharmic religions. The stages are characterized by the mental light becoming brighter and whiter, and the feelings at each stage becoming more and more refined/subtle forms of a peaceful happiness. Eventually, Theravada Buddhists think, one realizes that the mind’s nature/core is always brightly radiant and in a deep state of peaceful happiness, but that it becomes harder to see the brightness the farther away from the core one goes, the more involved in worldly constructions one becomes. At the last stage of Jhāna, according to early/Theravada Buddhism, one supposedly can see that there is a better, more stable/permanent state of being in which the mind can live (called nirvana/nibbana), and that it is possible to transition from our current state (called samsara) to that state. One who completes that transition is said to be Enlightened, an Arahant, one who will not be born again into any impermanent world.
Whatever path you choose, be patient with yourself and don’t give up. May you always meet with spiritual success.
I often have heard Mahayana (and Mahayana-derived) Buddhists criticize Theravada for not having a Bodhisattva Vow — where one vows to be reborn again and again to teach sentient beings, until all sentient beings either have attained enlightenment or attain it together — accusing Theravadists of being selfish for trying to attain nirvana/nibbana quickly. Here are a few defenses of the Theravada view:
Westerners are often asked to take the Bodhisattva Vow shortly after they have attended a Mahayana meditation group for the first time, when they barely know anything about Buddhism, are nowhere close to enlightenment themselves (so probably could not control their rebirths), and are hardly in a position to make a long-term promise.
Like the Western elementary school lesson/game ‘telephone’ — where 20-30 kids sit in a circle, whisper the same message in each other’s ears going around the circle, and see how distorted the message becomes after it has gone around the circle — humans often misunderstand what they hear, and then they pass on that misinformation. Over time, the original message is lost. Buddhism has split many times, and later forms of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Tientai, etc. have become very different from early Buddhism, even in just a few thousand years. How different might human Buddhism become in 1 million years, if it survives that long? Would it bear any resemblance to what the Buddha taught?
Pop culture religion also has a habit of incorporating legends and becoming more outlandish/fantastical over time. For example, some people have apparently arbitrarily made up large numbers for the sizes, distances from Earth, or lifespans of beings in certain heavens and hells. I have also heard South Asian people claim that there have always been Indo-Aryan peoples in South Asia, though the archaeological record says that they have been there for only about 5,000 years. Some people claim that Islam has always been in India, though Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived from 570-632 CE.
There also is the issue of how much karma Mahayanists must keep in their mindstreams, in order to remain in samsara. Some of them, especially Zen Buddhists, lead quite worldly, indulgent lives. It is unclear whether they are clear-headed enough to preserve and practice good-quality Buddhism.
If there are many, possibly infinite, fully enlightened Buddhas from the distant past living forever in Pure Lands, which they created for themselves and which samsaric beings can visit, why do ignorant humans, or even devas (long-lived, heavenly beings), need to take a bodhisattva vow? Won’t everyone encounter one of those Pure Lands, or beings who have visited those Pure Lands, eventually? If there is an infinite series of past Buddhas, why don’t they continuously come to Earth themselves, or create real-time projections of themselves on Earth with which people here could easily interact? If Buddhas gain Creator God-like power over Buddha Nature when they become enlightened, why are their powers to interact with humans apparently limited after their human body dies?
(For how long) Would a Mahayanist sit around waiting for solids, liquids, gases, etc. in the samsaric universe to possibly evolve into a sentient being that is complex enough to interact with and instruct on the path to nirvana? It has been about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, and there is a great deal of matter in this universe that is nowhere close to evolving into complex life, and may never be. Physicists’ predictions about the eventual fate of the universe (trillions of years from now) describe a great deal of matter either never evolving into sentient life or being destroyed in a Big Crunch. Upon what nearly-permanent bodymind medium do Mahayanists plan on surviving until the end of the universe, or across universes if there are multiple Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang… cycles?
It is very rare and transient for sentient life to evolve in this universe, and it might happen on worlds separated by vast distances. How do Mahayanists plan on traveling to such worlds to teach the people there?
As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said in one of his recorded dhamma talks: “This body requires that we have to take food, clothing, shelter, medicine…. And it’s not only a burden for us in the searching, but it’s a burden for other people in their providing… other beings of all kinds: animals. This is why, when we stop samsara-ing, it’s a gift — not only to ourselves, but to the people around us. It’s not selfish to stop doing this. If you thought of samsara as a place where people are suffering, then it might seem heartless to want to get out. But, if you see it as a process — a process that’s causing yourself suffering, a process that’s causing other people suffering — the more people who stop doing the process, the better everybody’s going to be… the happier everyone’s going to be” (“Constellations of Stress,” 2004-09-07).
I am not sure where I heard this comparison — maybe in the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness book. He and Trappist Catholic monk Thomas Merton were friends. Merton’s description of the spiritual process, in books such as The Seven Storey Mountain, is one of going within oneself, away from the outside world, as if climbing a mountain. At the top, one is left with only oneself and very little of the world. One can only call to God and wait/hope to be raptured (rapture has the same word root as raptor and rape, meaning to overtake by force; the image is of God swooping down and carrying one away from the world into the heavens). At some point, there is nothing more a person can do on the spiritual journey, and it becomes all up to God.
By comparison, a similar Buddhist metaphor is that there are two shores (perhaps of a river or of two islands), which represent two different states of being: one shore is samsara and the other nirvana. It is not evident how the two shores came into being, but the two always exist side-by-side, and the shores are visible to/from each other, if one looks hard enough. Most people spend their lives just walking up and down this samsaric shore. Very few people abandon this shore, jump in the water, and make the effort to swim to the nirvanic shore, but the process is possible through personal effort alone. There also are “vehicles” (i.e., traditions of Buddhism; Mahā-yāna means great-vehicle) that can ease the crossing.