by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Venerable David Xi-Ken Astor wrote in his book, ‘Pragmatic Buddhism: Reflecting Contemporary Vitality’ that, “the Buddha’s arising occurred during a time of metaphysics, and as a result his teachings have metaphysical elements used to describe them and to realize them. Now those teachings are arising in a time of science and it is up to us to realize them through a lens of modern society, science and cultural influences in order to harness their potential of positive transformation.” This is a view that can be applied to much of what can be confusing philosophies in this ages old system of beliefs, a system of beliefs that the Buddha himself made clear must change with time, culture and context so that the intent of the dharma could be realized and valued. The Four Ennobling Truths were a reality before the Buddha awakened to them, they have been a reality ever since. Along the way, the mutability of the Dharma allowed it to effectively change dependent those cultures and times.
The Buddhist concepts samsara and nirvana are metaphysical ideals as they are difficult to prove, and can be difficult to understand and find the value of in a contemporary practice. Samsara is often experienced as the imperfect world of suffering discontent and anguish that human beings spend their existence in. Nirvana is the meta-physical place where ultimate liberation is found. What if these are not places WHERE one is, but are instead viewed as HOW one is? Can we pull away the traditional veil of metaphysics to reveal the contemporary value of these millennia old concepts that initially arose from Siddhartha’s (and his earliest disciples) Hindu beliefs?
Buddhist scholar, professor of philosophy and Pali translator, John J. Holder presents definitions of samsara and nirvana in his book Early Buddhist Discourses, definitions that see these concepts through a traditional lens with a contemporary shading. In these definitions we can recognize the HOW inherent in realizing these important Buddhist ideals.
samsara: cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; mundane, unenlightened existence; escape from samsara constitutes liberation or nibbana.
The reality we know is that we are born and we die. Viewing samsara as the cycle of birth to death that is human existence it is important that we pay equal attention to the positive experiences as well as the negative. It is the joyful, the beautiful, the compassionate, and all other uplifting experiences that help to energize our bodyminds to make the effort, to apply the concentration, and to realize the potential of positive transformation. We must hold the appropriate view that while these positive experiences have value inherent in their effect on us, they are as fleeting and momentary as the negative ones that we tend to apply unequal focus to. All experiences have lessons to learn from. That is the reality of the cycle of birth and death. Nothing really metaphysical to mess with there.
Rebirth. That opens up a whole metaphysical can of fish bait. Transmigration of . . . well, of something . . . from one body to a new body can lead us into a pretty long philosophical debate that in the end won’t have much effect on HOW we decide to be. Anything that can’t be proven in this moment, but that people believe in as a matter of faith or belief is metaphysical in nature. I must say here that I find it interesting that folks who scoff at the idea of witchcraft, UFOs and Bigfoot can be adamant in their belief in the metaphysical idea of rebirth. To believe in any, without proof is a metaphysical exercise.
I first heard someone loudly exclaim, “I have been reborn in Jesus”, in 1972 at the height of the “Jesus Freak” movement, and I still hear it proclaimed today. Of all the elements of Christian theology I get this. Someone has lived a mundane life, unenlightened by the word of a man whose compassion, love and faith could hardly be denied, and they suddenly find themselves awakened to the potential of positive transformation. They have experienced rebirth in that body, in that time, and can go on to be that better Christian person than they were each previous moment. Can’t we apply that same realization to the Buddhist ideal of rebirth? How would it change each of our lives if we arose and proclaimed, “I have been reborn in the dharma?” We’d set aside the mundane life for the noble life, an unenlightened existence for one awakened to the reality of ourselves and the world around us. Awakening to the reality that positive transformation doesn’t have to wait for a new body, it can happen NOW in this very body offers a new paradigm of thought and action. Seems a shame to waste the limited time we have between birth and death fondling the birth of future selves or ferreting out what previous lifes we might have had, when we can experience rebirth NOW. In Buddhist speech we can escape from samsara and find liberation and nirvana.
nirvana (nibbana): literally, the extinction or cooling of the flame of moral defilements that cause suffering; represents the highest possible meaning for a human life; release from the cycle of samsara
Personally, I don’t want to go the Nirvana (note the capital N) as the whole idea seems boring after a life of dynamic changes happening in each moment. I’d rather experience nirvana as HOW I am in each moment between birth and death, and I’d like to experience others doing the same. We begin this path by “cooling” down our negative moral character traits by getting some control over them through the appropriate efforts of meditation and mindfulness, thereby easing suffering and discontentment. Extinguishing negative traits is HOW we experience the highest possible meaning in our human life . . . and newsflash . . . this human life is what we’ve got to work with . . . birth to death and each rebirth in between. This isn’t nirvana as a higher plane of existence, a sort of Buddhist heaven. Rephrasing a Christian aphorism, it can be nirvana right here on earth. It is making nirvana an element of HOW we think and act in each moment, moments when we release ourselves from cycles of samsara.
Cycles of samsara because if we’re rigorously honest with ourselves we experience multiple, often interconnected cycles of unenlightened existence. When someone finds themselves in bad relationships one-after-the-other, that is a cycle of samsara, seeing always the negative in every situation is a cycle of samsara, and living continuously in fear, anger and hatred are cycles of samsara. When someone misunderstands that craving the permanence of positive experiences like love, wealth and health can lead to suffering they find themselves in a cycle of samsara. There can be liberation from these, and other cycles in this human life. This is HOW we can be nirvanic (probably not a real word) NOW. Don’t view nirvana as a place to be, experience it as a state of being.
Great. One can jump on their metaphorical bicycle and ride from the state of samsara to the state of nirvana. No more suffering and discontentment just the calm, serenity and release of . . . No . . . sorry. Looking for any sort of permanence here is surely to bring on the arising of suffering and discontentment. Achieving nirvana as part of HOW we are doesn’t mean that the mundane aspects of life will disappear. It won’t sever the connections each of us have with this impermanent existence, things will change and sometimes it’ll be negative changes. It sucks . . . but it is reality. What good then is a nirvanic frame of bodymind? Well, when reality rears up it’s ugliest of heads . . . death, destruction, depression and such . . . there’ll be a bodymind strengthened by the knowledge that each situation is unique, and the wisdom that it doesn’t have to become part of a cycle. Situations, no matter how negative can be met with compassion, calm and focused action. This is a path from samsara to nirvana, a way that can change how in each situation we can experience rebirth of our noble self.
It is up to you to get on your bicycle and ride.