Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Poetry of Nirvana

 Nirvana is one of those words like heaven, freedom, or God—it means so many different things to so many different people that it ends up meaning almost nothing. Let’s go back to the beginning and see if we can restore the essence of nirvana to its rightful clarity.

In Sanskrit, nirvana literally means “no wind.” Nir is a negating prefix (like unintentional or impossible), and vana in this context means breath or air that is moving. In its original sense then nirvana was a one-word poem connoting stillness, serenity, and the absence of agitation.

It certainly wasn’t a celestial realm reserved for the most devout—that idea would take shape much later.

As Buddha traveled and taught throughout India in the sixth century B.C.E., he used the word nirvana to describe the enlightened, awakened state. In this context, nirvana means “to extinguish” or “to blow out,” as in to blow out a candle. It’s a potent metaphor. When you blow out a candle, where does the flame go? I don’t know, but the conflagration is over. So too in the consciousness of nirvana no longer are we driven by the agitation of craving and fear. Not only is there nothing left to crave—there’s no one left to do the craving. In the state of nirvana we have transcended our ordinary egoic consciousness and entered a calmer state characterized by selfless compassion (karuna).

Would anyone around you even know if you had tasted nirvana? It’s not like you begin glowing, levitating, or spouting wisdom aphorisms. In fact, you probably just get back to work. As the Zen saying goes: “Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

But something happened as Buddhism evolved. In some of the devotional branches of Mahayana Buddhism nirvana came to be understood (especially in the minds of the laity) as an afterlife realm reserved only for the most devout Buddhists. While the original Buddha told his students “don’t follow me,” and “be lamps unto yourselves,” Buddha 2.0 required our purity, devotion, and adoration. How does this happen?

I guess we need gods, and in their absence, we create them. This impulse to devotion runs throughout the world’s religions. In mainline Christianity for example, it’s so much easier to worship Jesus than to follow him—to live as he lived. Setting celebrities, political leaders, and wisdom teachers up on celestial pedestals serves us in two paradoxical ways—it creates an aspirational ideal while releasing us from the arduous work of transformation.

But in original Buddhism, and arguably in the early Jesus movement as well, the emphasis was not on right belief (orthodoxy) or even on devotion, but on right action (orthopraxy). Nirvana was understood not as a reward for obsequiousness, but as an inner condition revealed only after the interfering impediments of egotism had sloughed off. The practice of renunciation, humility, meditation, and service untied all the knots and unlocked all the doors. The truth indeed will set you free.

Imagine a pond on a windy day, the surface choppy and silt from the bottom roiling up and muddying the water. Then imagine no wind—the pond’s surface returning to glass as the silt settles back to the bottom. Now, every cloud in the sky is reflected on its mirrored surface, and every pebble below a speckled jewel. From stillness comes clarity and depth. This is the poetry of nirvana.  


[This piece originally appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2022 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]

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