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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Eliminating personal pronouns

One problem a Buddhist often encounters in daily life is that, though Buddhist meditations and philosophies quickly lead to the conclusion that the self is an illusion or delusion, most non-Buddhists assume that, and speak as if, the self is real [enough]. Perhaps the main way in which one encounters this is by the use of personal pronouns (I, me, my, you, we, he, she, they, etc.). Therefore, here are several examples of how one can avoid personal pronouns, in order to make one’s speech more Buddhist:

  • Use the passive: I prefer this one. -> This one is preferable.
  • Use participles: I went to the store, and the shelves were empty. -> Having gone to the store, the shelves were empty.
  • Replace the pronoun with an impersonal one: My head hurts. -> This head hurts. (admittedly awkward)
  • Remove the pronoun: I have a headache. -> [point to the head, maybe make a pained look, and say:] Headache.

A Buddhist critique of God’s/Gods’ eternity

The following is a Buddhist critique of the common theistic idea that God(s) is/are eternal. Eternity means constancy — that something always remains the same. For example, if something eternal is speaking, then it must always have spoken and must always continue to speak, forever. If something spoke eternally, it would also not be able to make more than one sound forever. Although the Abrahamic “I am that I am (or that I will be)” suggests constancy, were an eternal being actually to speak, it would not be able to say more than one sound/word (e.g., “I”), and it would always have been speaking that sound/word and would still be speaking that word today, tomorrow, etc. It could not stop and start speaking, such as to pronounce multiple or even polysyllabic words, because then it would have changed from a time/state when it was not speaking to a time/state when it was speaking and vice versa.

Therefore, as I understand, from a Buddhist perspective, claims that God(s) spoke at great length (e.g., giving entire holy books and many commandments), or that God(s) did some temporary corporeal action (e.g., bringing plagues or floods, destroying cities, writing on stone tablets, etc.) are highly suspect. If they truly are descriptive of a real being — though that being could be immensely big, powerful, old, etc. — that being cannot be eternal, because, by doing those things, it changed.

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

The not-quite-present moment

Though trying to live in the present moment may be an enlightening exercise, as long as one is conscious, it probably is physically impossible to actually live in the present moment, because the brain always needs a few milliseconds to construct feelings of the self and world from the sensory input it receives. The reality we see is always slightly delayed.

Did the Buddha ignore God(s)?

One thing I find puzzling about the 10 Unanswered Questions and Poisoned Arrow parable in the Pali canon is that they seem to ignore the existence of devas and/or a personal/interactive creator God. If such beings exist, why can’t we just ask them for the answers to those questions? Why do we have to find the answers ourselves? Is Buddhism saying that such beings don’t exist, that such beings are inaccessible or unreliable for some reason (e.g., they live outside of time in a nirvana-type state, or they might not be truthful), or that the answers are beyond human comprehension? What experiences had the Buddha had that allowed him to make such an absolute “it’s useless to try to answer these questions” statement? Though a great achievement, if the Buddha only (re-)discovered, but did not create, nirvana, how could he be sure that he knew the full reality of nirvana (e.g., that nirvana is truly eternal or how nirvana compares with the rest of the universe)? Why did the Buddha not feel it appropriate or necessary to acknowledge whoever or whatever underlies, supports, etc. nirvana? Was, or is, God(s) offended by being ignored or taken for granted in this way?

Don’t brood: have difficult conversations

Many times in my life, in myself and others, I have seen how inaccurate, incomplete, often negative views can be reinforced by brooding or brainwashing — by a person going into some kind of echo chamber (in their head, on the Internet, only spending time with similar people in the real world, etc.) for a long time and repeating certain thoughts or feelings over and over until they become more and more extreme. The same was apparently true in the Buddha’s time, about 2,600 years ago: “‘He insulted me, he hit me, he beat me, he robbed me’ — anger will never cease in those who dwell on such thoughts” (Dhammapada, 3).

But real people are small and complicated. Everyone finds themselves born into a certain body, family, country, etc., which can be hard to escape. Everyone has had many unique past experiences that informed them. No one can see or learn everything. The only way to understand the complexity of life or people is to get out of your comfort zone (either mentally or physically) and have strange, new, different experiences. Brooding or brainwashing in isolation usually only makes one’s views more xenophobic, unrealistic, inaccurate, and incomplete; having difficult, new conversations and experiences usually makes one’s views more connected, realistic, accurate, and complete.

Here is a nice Ted talk, which says pretty much the same thing:
https://www.ted.com/talks/theo_e_j_wilson_a_black_man_goes_undercover_in_the_alt_right