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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Worldy Buddhists-by-birth

Most Buddhists-by-birth I have met, if they practice at all, focus on gaining merit to have a pleasant future life. Very few meditate, renounce the world, etc., in order to attain nirvana.

Attachment doesn’t have to be positive

When speaking of attachments, desires, cravings, etc., people often seem to focus on positive things: love of/for pleasure, family, friends, a certain place, etc. However, attachments can also be negative. For example: an activist might hate corruption or injustice, a police officer might hate crime or criminals, a military officer might hate foreign aggressors, a terrorist might hate another religion or ethnic group, an abused person might want revenge, an abusive person might want to exploit others, a corporate boss might want to conquer every competitor, a politician might want dictatorial power, and so on. Of course, most people probably have a mixture of positive and negative attachments.

As I understand, in Buddhism, rebirth happens because of any attachment to this (or any) world, not only positive attachments. The Buddha also seems to have been attached to “the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of self-awakening” (AN 8.86), which are perhaps attachments leading to nirvana.

What do you want: peace or pleasure?

Numerous times throughout the Suttas, the Buddha says or suggests that peacefulness and renunciation are the most pure, stable forms of happiness and escape from suffering. But most Buddhists I meet seem more interested in less pure, more unstable, more craving-oriented forms of escaping suffering (e.g., pleasure, wealth, etc.). This seems to be the issue that separates serious Buddhists from not-so-serious.

Minimize stress by choosing peace

Experiences of thoughts, feelings, and actions, even when pleasurable, usually require some energy, involve some stress, and arise in response to stressful situations: talking or playing music to fill socially awkward silences or to avoid unpleasant feelings; eating, sleeping, etc. to satiate biological needs or seek pleasure; working to make a living, pay for education, buy entertainments, etc.; feeling anxiety from social or natural pressures; feeling depression from hopelessness or weariness; and so on.

Though one can try to avoid or minimize stressful situations, one can also minimize stress by refusing to create more thoughts, feelings, or actions than necessary. For example, if one must, one can speak only softly and in an emotionally monotone way, drive or walk as slowly and calmly as possible, eat simple foods without seasoning, do other biological things in a routine way as little as necessary to stay healthy, and minimize expenses so that you can minimize how much you have to work. If one embraces them, peace and quiet can be perhaps the purest forms of happiness.

Selfless virtue

Developing virtues/merits for selfish reasons (e.g., for the karmic, physical, or social benefits) still contains a degree of unvirtuousness (i.e., a delusion of self). In my opinion, the point of being virtuous (and of Buddhism in general) is to completely cleanse this samsaric mind-body complex of whatever is obstructing it from becoming nirvanic, not to seek a nice future/rebirth in samsara.

Heaven might be so luxurious and pleasurable that beings there never think about nirvana or about making more merit, and, according to the seed-and-fruit concept from early Buddhism (i.e., that one instance of karma causes/conditions only one outcome), once the merit that is supporting a heavenly life runs out, one’s next rebirth may not be heavenly.

Equanimity

Pursuing either positivity (enjoyment, pleasure, luxury, etc.) or negativity (anger, punishment, vengeance, etc.) causes struggle and stress. Both are very unstable. Neutrality (contentment, balance, selflessness, etc.) seems to be the least stressful, most stable path.