“What is born is of the nature of death”

My cousin was 57 years old and lived with her husband in Northern California where they had raised three children, all adults now. Several years ago, she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At that time, she appeared to be cancer free. Just a couple of months ago she had some tests done and again, it looked as though she was in the clear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend she emailed, writing that she was worried about how her stomach was swollen. She’d had a blood test and was going for a CT scan early the next week. It didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like ascites, where the abdomen becomes very swollen and distended. I’d seen that a lot at the liver clinic. People with ascites look like they are pregnant, and it is painful.

On Sunday, July 7, we talked on the phone. She was afraid the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. She cried. I didn’t say much. I just listened. Even though there was nearly 400 miles of distance between us, I tried to there for her, present in body and mind. I did remind her that fear was her worse enemy . . .

Cancer had spread through her body and ravaged it with a vengeance. Her kidney was more tumor than organ, I am told. She died this past Monday, July 21.

With cancer, you can never say never.

We corresponded via email frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Besides the bond of family, we had that special bond formed by our experience with the Big C. We both battled cancer and we also battled fear, and we would encourage one another to stay strong and fight the fight. In one of our last email exchanges, later the same day we talked on the phone, she wrote, “Fear sucks our life away.” I believe she understood that the greatest tragedy is not physical death but rather when a negative emotion like fear destroys what lives within us. I hope the realization helped her touch some peace in that final skirmish.

Sufferings and peace are both of the nature of the mind.
It is fortunate to have made the resolution to liberate oneself from sufferings
While understanding that all sufferings in the world and the peace called Nirvana are mingled into one,
Without having imperfect views and without taking the phenomenal world to be real.
It is fortunate to remember from one’s heart
Meditations on the transcendence of birth and death,
Knowing that what is born is of the nature of death
And not unchangeable as we imagine.

from Gyu-thog’s Hymn of Wisdom



Sufferings are Nirvana

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110


Why Samsara is Nirvana

I may have been unfair the other day in my post Sufferings are Nirvana with my characterization of the early Buddhist view, and that of present day Theravada, on nibbana. Richard, who blogs at My Buddha is Pink, pointed out in his thoughtful response that annihilation “is a mistaken translation . . . Nibbana is not annihilation, but really is an image of freedom because the underlying Pali root in the term ‘nibbana’ means ‘unbinding’.”

I am not convinced that annihilation or something on that order doesn’t figure in somewhere, however I will leave it for others to explain those teachings.

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

I would like to share a few more thoughts on how nirvana is viewed in Mahayana, specifically in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka or Middle Way philosophy, as far as I understand it.

I should point out that Madhyamaka looks at everything through the lens of the Two Truths: the conventional or relative truth (vyavahara) and the ultimate or absolute truth (paramartha). What is valid from the standpoint of the relative truth of our everyday world is not necessarily valid from the ultimate side. In the final analysis, though, the relative and the ultimate are neither different, nor identical. Nor does one stand independently of the other.

The same can be said of samsara and nirvana. In Madhyamaka, samsara represents the world of birth and death, the world of suffering, while nirvana represents realization of the ultimate truth, without which freedom from the bondage (bandhana) of suffering is not possible.

As noted above, one sense of nirvana is that of “unbinding.” In the Madhyamaka-karika or “Roots Verses on the Middle Way,” Nagarjuna says, “If binding, would exist prior to one who is bound, there would be bondage, but that does not exist.”

Binding/bondage belongs to the relative truth. In the ultimate truth, if binding existed prior to the bondage of a sentient being, then it would have inherent existence.  Yet, ultimately, neither bondage nor anything else has inherent existence (Svabhava, own-being, self), and so release from bondage is not an inherently existent phenomenon either.

This is important because grasping onto the false idea of inherent existence is the primary cause for suffering. Nagarjuna felt that the term “nirvana” was useful for indicating spiritual release, but only if the term did not refer to something that could be an object for clinging. A few verses on, he says, “Those who grasp at the notion, ‘I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,’ have a great grasp on grasping.”

In The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield provides a good explanation of this:

It is [possible] to grasp after nirvana – to reify it as a state and to crave it as a phenomenon inherently different from samsara and as highly desirable since it is indeed characterized as liberation from suffering. But this grasping onto the end of grasping is itself a grasping and so precludes the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana requires, according to Nagarjuna, a complete cessation of grasping, including that onto nirvana itself. While that might seem paradoxical, it is not: To grasp onto something in this sense requires, inter alia, that one reify it. By refusing to reify liberation, in virtue of seeing it as the correlative of bondage, which itself is not inherently existent, it is possible to pursue the path to liberation without creating at the same time a huge obstacle on that path – the root delusion with regard to nirvana itself.

If things do not exist in themselves, then from the ultimate truth they are unreal, illusions. Nirvana, for Nagarjuna, if seen as something inherently existent, is only an illusion that will perpetuate more grasping, followed by more suffering.

There are no real distinctions in Madhyamaka philosophy because all things are considered empty of inherent existence or own-nature. For samsara and nirvana to be distinct from one another, they would have to be inherently existent things. But they are empty, and within this emptiness, they are without distinction.

Samsara and nirvana are only different in the relative sense, because they designate entirely different things. Again, in the ultimate sense, there is no difference, because of their emptiness. Everything is empty, including emptiness.

This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering. It is freedom.

Frederick Streng has written,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety which accompany attachment.

Without suffering, one can never know release. As long as we see freedom as something separate from our suffering, we are grasping onto an object, inviting more suffering. Just as we are related to our karma, we are related to our suffering, and nirvana, our freedom, is also related to our suffering.

If we can understand that samsara “is” nirvana in this way, in each moment, and know that suffering, ultimately related to our goal, is the very tool that allows us to reach the goal, then I think, we are one step closer to where we want to be. Of course, we need take that extra step of realizing that the goal of freedom is ultimately empty, for as long as we live we will experience suffering in one form or another. The goal of complete release is an illusion. There is only the Endless Further.


Sufferings are Nirvana

In Root Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says, “Samsara has nothing that distinguishes itself from Nirvana; Nirvana has nothing that distinguishes itself from Samsara. The limit of Nirvana is the limit of Samsara, there is not the slightest difference between the two.”

Samsara is a Indian word that refers to our mundane world of suffering, the world of birth and death. When Nagarjuna says “samsara is nirvana,” he is pointing to the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana.

The 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen put it this way in Shoji (On Life and Death): “Living and dying is what nirvana is.” In Bendowa (On Practicing the Way of Buddhas), he says, “You must realize that birth and death is in and of itself nirvana. Buddhism has never spoken of nirvana apart from birth and death.”

This is not just Dogen speaking figuratively, it is, to some extent, a literal fact, for the Buddha never taught that nirvana was outside of this world, or this life.

The word “nirvana” literally means “to blow out” or “to extinguish” and originally referred to the extinguishing of passion, desire, the blowing out of the flames that cause suffering.

According to the Western monk Nyanatiloka, who in 1952 complied a Buddhist,  in early Buddhism, nibbana [the Pali transliteration of nirvana] was seen as “The full ceasing of the groups of existence . . . ‘Nibbana without the groups remaining’, in other words, the coming to rest, or rather the ‘no-more-continuing’ of this physico-mental process of existence. This takes place at the death of the Arahat.” Nirvana/nibbana then was seen as the extinction of the human entity transmigrating through the cycle of birth and death.

But is that really what the Buddha had in mind? Professor Max Muller, quoted in Mind Unshaken by John Walters:

If we look in the Dhammapada [one of the early collection of scriptures or sutras] at every passage where nibbana is mentioned, there is not one which would require that its meaning should be annihilation, while most, if not all, would become perfectly unintelligible if we assigned to the word nibbana that meaning.”

The idea of annihilation, of checking out of the cycle of birth and death, of nirvana as some other-worldly realm, or as pure nothingness, is definitely not what the Buddha was teaching. Most likely it was layered onto the Buddha’s teachings after his passing, possibly to bring Buddha-dharma more in line with the mainstream of Indian metaphysical thinking. However, Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book, The Buddha, writes,

The third noble truth concerns cessation (nirodha), and it is that the cessation of suffering is a consequence of the cessation of craving. The word used in this connection – nirodha – is a synonym of nibbana (in Sanskrit, nirvana), the best known name for the goal which Buddhist teaching has in view. Nirvana is the cessation of all evil passion, and because evil passion is regarded in Buddhist thought as a find of fever, its cessation may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of health. 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.

When Dogen used the phrase shoji soku nehan, or “birth and death are themselves nirvana”, he, like Nagarjuna, was saying that our sufferings and nirvana are interrelated. We can reach nirvana at any time. Actually, our sufferings are already nirvana, if we choose to look at it in that way.

We often talk about nirvana as being the other shore, about ferrying living beings across the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana – this is simile. We are already standing on the other shore, but we’re not sure about where we are because of the fog of delusion, pride, ego, attachment.

It’s not as simple as saying, “Okay, from now on I’ll see that sufferings are nirvana.” It is not a purely intellectual thing but rather an intuitive understanding that comes from the depths of one’s entire being. And we practice in order to be able to realize this intuitive wisdom.

We cool off the passions, then we recover from our fever and become healthy, whole – when our mind is clear and calm we see that sufferings are nirvana. Indeed, without suffering, there is no way that we could know joy or peace.

In the Kevaddha-Sutta, the Buddha is asked, “Where do earth, water, fire, and air come to an end?” And the Buddha replies, “The  answer is: In the invisible, infinite, all-radiant, consciousness (Vinnanam anidassanam).”  This term, Vinnanam anidassanam refers to consciousness in its undivided purity, no longer split into the duality of subject and object. This consciousness is said to be identical with nirvana.

We do not need to look any further beyond our own world, our own lives and our suffering to find peace and joy, nirvana, for it is always within our mind. As the Dalai Lama says,

Samsara-our conditioned existence in the perpetual cycle of habitual tendencies and nirvana – genuine freedom from such an existence- are nothing but different manifestations of a basic continuum. So this continuity of consciousness us always present.”