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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Fortress mind

“Luminous, O monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements” (Pabhassara Sutta, AN 1.49-52).

“By effort and heedfulness, discipline and self-mastery, let the wise one make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm” (Dhammapada 25).

One particularly useful type of meditation is visualizing a castle wall around the mind, or that the mind is on a high mountain (perhaps an inactive volcano) on a deserted island, or something similar. Outside the wall is the din of the dualistic world: sounds, sights, thoughts and feelings that have arisen automatically/karmically, etc. bombard the mind’s peacefulness. Inside the wall is completely silent and still, as close to a nirvanic state as possible. Especially in noisy, stressful environments, this meditation can be very soothing.

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.

Loving-kindness is a better way to live

Metta-karuna (Pali: loving-kindness and compassion) are ethically, and perhaps morally, better than aggression, greed, and so on. Though someone may attack, curse, or hate me, I resolve not to do those things to them in return. Why? Because kindness and compassion are better than those things. A world full of kindness and compassion would probably be a nicer place for everyone to live than one full of anger and cold-heartedness, and cycles of revenge must be stopped somewhere. Also, there may exist something like karma or God’s judgment, such that unkindness, hatred, etc. may lead to a worse life for oneself in the future.

I am not saying that I am necessarily better than an unkind person, that my self/essence/soul is better than their self/essence/soul. (Actually, I suspect that we are all made of the same stuff, in different and changing configurations, whatever that stuff is.) I am saying that kind behavior is better than unkind behavior.

Of course, there are times when one must stand one’s ground. There is an art to standing firm but remaining kind. For example, if someone tries to steal my life savings, I cannot let them, but I can be as kind as possible in stopping them, and I do not have to chase after them looking for revenge. As I understand, liberal-majority states’ laws around the world about defending one’s body and property usually go along those lines, that avoidance if possible, or minimal sufficient defensive force if necessary, are best.

I am also not saying that I love it when people (or animals, plants, bacteria, etc.) mistreat me. I do not love that some people yell at me, threaten me, manipulate me, try to force their beliefs or preferences on me, are racist or nationalistic to me, try to cheat me, and so on. But I try to empathize with what reasons or life experiences might have prompted them to behave that way, I resolve not to hate them even if I do not understand them, and I try to treat them kindly.

A paradox between monism and enlightenment

If, as I understand Mahayana-based Buddhisms to teach, we are all really one big monistic/unified Mind/Being, which is supposedly happier as Itself than as a suffering human, why doesn’t one person’s becoming enlightened cause everyone to become enlightened? When the Mind learns of its delusion from one person (e.g., Gautama Buddha), why doesn’t It correct Itself and stop manifesting this world?

Three interpretations of Dhammapada 1

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought” (Dhammapada 1, Acharya Buddharakkhita translation).

“Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation).

Here are three different ways of interpreting that famous first line of the Dhammapada:

  1. (A possibly animist or creationist interpretation:) There apparently exists an outside world independent of my mind, and the arrangements or configurations of most/all things in that world apparently result from the activities of human and non-human minds. For example, my house exists because many people in the past have thought that humans should live in houses for various reasons (protection from weather, animals, thieves, etc.); thought of ways to construct and sell a house in the climate, society, etc. where I live; and then constructed it. How far out/back you want to abstract this idea to nature or the universe is up to you. The Buddha didn’t offer a view about the origins of the universe.
  2. (A constructivist/phenomenological interpretation popular among Western Theravadists today:) Though there probably exists an outside world independent of our minds, no one can see it directly; we can each see only our own mind. Everything we see is a mind-state, a construction of our body-mind complex – mental output based on sensory input. When you think you’re seeing yourself or a world out there, all you’re really seeing are poorly measured, heavily subjectively biased mental constructs/fabrications of how the self or world might be. The only way to maybe see absolute reality is to remove one’s subjective biases through meditation and simple/ethical living, going deeper and deeper into the mind, until one can see reality clearly.
  3. (A later-Buddhism, possibly Vedanta-influenced interpretation:) The external world is literally made of/by mind, and has no existence except to the degree that our minds create it. In reality, there is only a single, monistic, cosmic Mind (e.g., Buddha-nature), which manifests itself as this dualistic world because it has somehow forgotten its true nature and/or developed dualistic cravings. When people realize/remember that true nature, they can wake up from this delusional dream we’re all living in.