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.


About euthanasia

Even for (famously compassionate) Buddhists, euthanasia (killing someone or something to stop it from suffering) is a complicated topic. Here are the issues I have encountered when talking to Buddhists and reading Buddhist philosophies over the years:

  • Intentional killing is bad karma for the killer, breaks the first precept, etc. It could cause the killer to have an unpleasant future life(s). On the other hand, euthanasia is probably about as harmless of an act of intentional killing as is possible, because one is doing it mainly with the intention to avoid or stop suffering. On the other hand, the Abhidhamma (the philosophical section of the Buddhist canon) says that life is a series of instantaneous moments, which condition each other in a series. Any action takes many moments (e.g., killing or dying usually takes a few minutes), so it is probably possible for an action to create instances of both good and bad karmas in a complex mixture (i.e., one moment might be dominated by your compassion and another moment by your willingness to kill). Also, the last moments of one life conditions the first moments of the next life, so one should be in as peaceful or positive of a state of mind as possible when dying. (Side note: In Buddhism, there is no clear difference between humans and nonhumans. Humans have merely reached or evolved to a level of complexity where they are capable of complex thoughts and attaining enlightenment. Human mindstreams can supposedly be reborn in animal or other nonhuman bodies, if their mind is best suited to that kind of life. Unlike in the Abrahamic religions, there is no exception made for killing animals. Intentionally killing any sentient being is bad to some degree, and where exactly sentience begins is unclear.)
  • Life’s problems, including death, are considered to have been caused by that being’s karma (past intentional feelings/thoughts, words, and deeds), which conditioned that being to be born, and continues to condition everything that happens to them throughout their life. Everyone’s suffering is largely their own fault (the Buddha heavily emphasized the effects of karma, but later commentators also acknowledged the effects of the five niyama: genetics, the seasons, karma, that the mind is a stream of thought-moments, and the actions of powerful beings). The only way to stop making new karma is to meditate enough to become enlightened. As I understand, Buddhists think that it is no one else’s responsibility to stop another person or animal’s pain or suffering, though if someone wanted to ensure that they (themselves) continue to have nice rebirths, others’ suffering is an opportunity to behave generously, compassionately, etc. toward others, in order to accumulate merit for oneself. One is not abusing someone by not helping them through some natural situation, including illness or dying; their karma caused/conditioned that situation for them, and as karma is a natural law, it is an impartial, objective, just, etc. reaction to someone’s past action (i.e., nature has a built-in criminal justice system where people eventually automatically get exactly what they deserve). However, one must be careful about how one feels about others’ suffering. If one feels cruelly/sadistically happy that someone else is suffering, that is probably a negative karma for oneself. Neutral or peaceful karma leads to Nirvana or a middling/boring human life; positive, compassionate, loving, etc. karma leads to Heaven, wealth, beauty, etc.
  • Similarly, killing someone or something does not necessarily spare them/it from having to face its karma in a future life. However, Buddhists often believe that one could make merit for that being by doing good things and then transferring that merit to that being, to try to negate some of that being’s negative karma and spare it from suffering in the future. Without such an intervention, one must face one’s karma eventually.
  • Death and mortal pain offer important opportunities for the mind to watch the body fail. They provide important spiritual lessons, namely to clearly see the impermanence of life, that one should not become too attached to the body or one’s current lifestyle, and to see that a part of the mind (the “mindstream” or citta-santanaa) is separate from the body and survives death (though is not an immortal soul or spirit like in the Abrahamic religions).
  • Strong neurological drugs, like narcotic or opioid painkillers, the drugs used for anesthesia and euthanasia, intoxicants, etc. hinder or destroy one’s clarity of mind, making it difficult or impossible for what is left of the brain and body to clealy see what is happening, and maybe preventing the mindstream from knowing what to do, where to go, etc. for a good rebirth.

Instead, Buddhists usually advocate the following:

  • Offer palliative/comfort care to the terminally ill (mild painkillers that don’t disrupt mental clarity (like NSAIDs), a comfortable bed or chair, good food and liquids, help them to use the toilet and to bathe, etc.), and sit with them as they die (meditating, chanting, or praying with or over them; encouraging them; holding their hand; helping them stay calm and clear-headed; etc.). In the case of dying animals, I understand that it is difficult to communicate such things to them, and they may not have the cognitive ability or education to understand what is happening to them (interestingly, nature/God doesn’t seem to care about this). Nevertheless, I have seen how touching or holding an animal and making sympathetic or soothing sounds can be calming to them.
  • The Buddha initially recommended that people meditate on death, sitting in cemetaries, mortuaries, etc., watching bodies decay, and contemplating how one’s own body would eventually become like that. However, that was too depressing for some monks, so the Buddha switched to teaching breathing meditation (Pali: anapanasati), which is more mentally neutral. Some Buddhist monks encourage people to wait a few seconds before breathing in, to contemplate the feeling of breathlessness. I have also seen elderly people practice dying by stopping breathing for a minute, so that they might feel less traumatized when they actually die. And I have seen various animals encounter dead members of their own species, with various reactions: ants sometimes carry a dead ant back to the hive, and female dolphins and gorillas sometimes mourn (carry around, hold, contemplate, etc.) their own dead babies for days or weeks. I am not sure whether seeing a dead animal would help another animal of the same species learn to cope with death or would traumatize it. Like human children, animals do not seem to have as many socially learned filters, taboos, etc. about natural things (e.g., nudity, sex, and violence) as do adult humans.
  • If a person is in a coma, vegetative state, etc., I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to care for them in the hope that they might one day regain consciousness. The Buddha similarly encouraged healthy monks in a monastery to take care of sick monks. Caring compassionately and selflessly for others purifies one’s own mind, reduces one’s self delusion, and is good karma. If this continues for a long time, hopefully there will be some kind of government or other institutional facility and funds for the person’s long-term sustenance, so that their family is not burdened.
  • If a person is being kept barely alive by machines, I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to take care of them for a reasonable amount of time (the length of time is ambiguous) in the hope that they might recover and regain consciousness, but if they do not regain consciousness, to unplug the machines and let them die naturally in peaceful surroundings, with as much clarity of mind as possible.
  • In the case of stray animals, I understand that perhaps they should be neutered or spayed (if adequate veterinary facilities exist), and that they should either be allowed to roam freely or be taken in as pets, living off of people’s generosity. I have never seen an animal shelter in a Buddhist-majority country. The cacophony of stray dogs barking and howling at night can be quite loud in Buddhist-majority countries; people don’t like it, but they tolerate it. It is also considered wrong by some Buddhists to deprive an animal of its freedom by keeping it as a pet, though some wealthy Buddhists do have pets, including purebred animals. More common is that there are neighborhood or village animals that roam from house to house getting food, medicine, shelter, etc. from generous people or living as they wish in nature.

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.

Mindfulness exercise: Don’t scratch

One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.

Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.

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

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.

Constructing the present

“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).