One view of nirvana is that it is the termination of undue influence by trsna, literally “thirst” but signifying “desire” or “craving.” As noted previously, unwholesome desire is considered to be like a fever, and as Professor Trevor Ling notes in The Buddha,
Cessation [of passion] may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of heath. In fact, in the Buddha’s time the associated adjective nubbuta seems to have been an everyday term to describe one who is well again after an illness. It is evident from this that the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.
This is why in Mahayana Buddhism we say that samsara, the world of suffering, is nirvana. When one is afflicted by dis-ease, when one is stricken by the fever of unwholesome desire, then this is indeed a world of samsara. However, when one is healthy and free of fever, the world appears different, we see it in more positive, wholesome light, and this is nirvana. It is not about the absence of suffering, but the transcendence of suffering.
Buddhas do not obtain some special knowledge that the rest of us do not have. Rather, they have changed the way they know the world.
When we recover from a fever, we cannot be assured that we will never be sick again. The potential for disease is always present. Alternately, the potential for health is present. Health in this sense is realizing the world as nirvana. We are not speaking of two separate worlds, one that is full of suffering and one that is full of peace. We are speaking of the disintegration of dualistic thinking.
In this same way, a common mortal and a Buddha are not two different persons. Because the potential for enlightenment is present, a common mortal can realize enlightenment and become a Buddha. To combat our tendency toward dualistic thinking, we say that the common mortal is already a Buddha, albeit an unrealized one.
The Chinese T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i taught a doctrine called “The Ten Life-conditions and their Mutual Possession.” The Ten Life-conditions, or spiritual realms (Jpn jikkai), are potential mental states inherent in each living being. In ascending order, they are Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. In the Moho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”) Chih-i wrote,
One mind contains ten spiritual realms. At the same time, each of the ten spiritual realms contains all the others, giving a hundred spiritual realms. . . It is obscure, subtle, and profound in the extreme. Knowledge cannot know it, nor can words speak it. Herein lies the reason for its being called ‘the realm of the inconceivable.’
What is important here is not the numbers, but that it is another way to express the non-dualism of nirvana and samsara. Hell contains Buddhahood and Buddhahood contains hell, as well as all the other realms. Instead of being distinct worlds unto themselves, they are potentialities, conditions that we can experience at any given moment.
The potentiality for Buddhahood should not be slighted. At the same time, merely thinking that one is a Buddha does not a fait accompli make. Realizing enlightenment is a process, like peeling an onion. We strip away layer after layer, and eventually we reach the core. Some layers do not peel away easily. We have to rip through our hard karma, tear away at our dualistic mind, our prejudices and attachments. It can be painful. Onions produce tears. But it is necessary. The core awaits.
Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of starting with this basic understanding of original enlightenment, inherent Buddha-nature, the mutual possession of all life-conditions – awareness that this potential exists is the first step in uncovering it.
Tsung-mi, the the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School, wrote,
All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.
From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.
More on Original Enlightenment in the next post.