“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)
We continue our reflections on the Buddha’s above description of awakening, or enlightenment, by examining the Marvelous and Nirvana. The heart of these reflections are not the words themselves, nor the exercises imbedded in the text, but the experience to which they point. That the Buddha used so many different and differing words to describe awakening – he used many more than in the above paragraph – reveals the diverse expressions of it, and the many Dharma Gates to ‘enter’ it. Hopefully, we may stroll through such a Gate together and bask on the other Shore, in the Everlasting contentment of enlightenment.
· The Marvelous (Abbhuta) There are many things to marvel at in this universe: the Grand Canyon, a mother’s love, Saturn’s rings, a humming bird in flight, the Himalayas, and an beehive, to name but a few. All these are natural phenomena, but there are other marvelous things made by human hands to consider: Stonehenge, Homer’s Odyssey, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Great Wall of China, silicon chips, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers, as a brief sample. Which is the most marvelous and awe inspiring? The majesty of the Himalayas or the ingenuity of the Hubble Space Telescope? How would we begin to compare them? Each of the marvels mentioned above is astounding in its own right, and worthy of our appreciation, but there’s a sobering point to be remembered. This point is that all them are subject to change, deterioration and eventual destruction, as evidenced in the current condition of the Great Wall and Stonehenge. Neither natural nor manmade beehive last forever, and the Himalayas will wither away in time. All of the amazing things are ephemeral because they are things. No thing lasts forever.
What is it that is aware of the marvels written of above? It is awareness itself, and it is the contention of this article that awareness is the Marvelous that the Buddha referred to, and which not only encapsulates the things above, but also outlasts them. Awareness can know a van Gogh painting just as it can the Grand Canyon. With the assistance of the Hubble Space Telescope and other such devices, awareness can know distance stars and the rings of Saturn. By contrast, a humming bird cannot be aware of the Hubble Space Telescope, and Stonehenge cannot know Homer’s Odyssey. In addition, whereas all things are impermanent, awareness (which we may call No-thing because of its incorporeal and empty nature) is not a thing in the first place and therefore cannot die. No-thing lasts forever.
To illustrate the nature of the Marvelous in practical terms, we can utilize the scent of a rose. If you don’t have a rose to hand, another fragrant flower will do, or anything with a nice smell for that matter. Unwashed socks are probably a bad idea – at least not just yet! Close your eyes and focus attention on the pleasant aroma, taking in its marvelous ‘bouquet.’ Now, reveres your attention to that in which the smell is known – does that have a particular scent associated with it? Is it not the case that awareness – for that is what we are discussing here – is without any smell, and is therefore able to be aware of smells, just as it is without appearance, and is therefore able to be aware of sights, the same with thoughts, sounds, tastes, and tactile sensations. Awareness is the marvelous in which all the marvels of existence are given space to be known; no awareness and no knowledge of the wonders of the world. Awareness is the marvelous backdrop to our existence, and is therefore the Marvelous, without which, life is impossible.
· Nirvana/Nibbana (Extinction or Unbinding)
Now here’s a word every self-respecting Buddhist should know – or should that be no-self-respecting Buddhist?! That’s a deliberately humorous opening to this brief exploration of this central Buddhist concept, for it seems here that too many Buddhists are somewhat po-faced about it, especially those learned types who probably haven’t even experienced it. Moreover, perhaps it is the fact that Nirvana remains at the conceptual level for so many Buddhists that they are so darn serious about it. Nevertheless, if we’re to be thorough in our quest to understand Nirvana, we should at least investigate the descriptions of it that are found in Buddhist literature before attempting to actually experience it. (And don’t be fooled by the light mood of these words – Nirvana is indeed awaiting our discovery right here and right now. Read on and hopefully it will be experienced in due course.)
Nirvana – also known by the Pali equivalent Nibbana – has an interesting etymology. Usually it is explained as meaning ‘extinction’ or ‘blowing out,’ which has given it a negative image in the eyes of some. This understanding of the word comes from taking its component parts as nir (‘un-’) and va (‘blowing’), which is rendered as to ‘cease blowing’ or ‘extinction’ in English. To think that the goal of Buddhism is to extinguish the self is a pretty disturbing idea, not altogether appeased by the usual explanation that the self never existed in the first place. The point here is that it is not the self that is extinguished, but the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion which cause the arising of the illusory suffering self. Another, less well-known derivation of the word Nirvana is from the Sanskrit words nir (‘un-’) and vana (‘binding’), which makes ‘Unbinding.’ This inspires the image of being released from restraints, or becoming free from the causes of our suffering. Promoted by the fifth century commentator-monk Buddhaghosa in his monumental ‘The Path of Purification’ (Visuddhimagga), this explanation of the term Nirvana suggests freedom from the bonds of attachment.
As touched upon above, if we look at these (and other) definitions from an intellectual point of view, we will find much to debate about, and may spend the rest of our lives arguing about the real nature of Nirvana. Unfortunately, this will get us no nearer Nirvana itself; merely spin us in ever-entangling circles of thought. No, if we genuinely wish to know what Nirvana is, we must put all these kinds of sophistry to one side, and look at the facts with a fresh, unbiased eye. Perhaps one or both of the definitions of Nirvana given above are correct, but it will benefit us more if we verify this via experience first and then look to define it.
Look at the objects in front of you at this present moment. Closely observe their constituent parts as they appear to you right now; their shapes, sizes, colours, etc. Now do the same with your own body, noting its various elements as presented at the present time; legs, arms, belly, and whatever else is on view! After doing this, turn your attention to that which is doing all this looking, right where your eyes are. What do you see there? Obviously, your eyes are not visible, because they are what you’re looking with, but put this to one side for a moment and actually recognize what’s there where you would normally place yourself. Is there a self where you are, or is there a spacious awareness that’s taking in all that’s on offer?
And, it’s not only physical phenomena that are in contrast to what you really are. Take a look at the thoughts and emotions in your mind at this present moment. Note what you’re thinking about and what your thoughts make of it all; also examine your emotions and notice if they are steady or fluctuating, positive, neutral or negative. Having seen the various contents of your mind, now turn your focus to what they are arising in. Is that a thought or series of thoughts? Is it an emotion of any kind? Or, again, is it a spacious awareness that’s room for every thought, emotion, memory, or any other mental phenomena to occur in?
When ‘I’ look here where ‘I’ took my self to be, ‘I’ lose my self, and yet this is not a negative experience at all. It is a cooling, calming experience that feels ‘just so’ and just right. Accompanying it is a quiet bliss that colours everything arising in it with an equanimous balance of mind. Moreover, where ‘I’ used to think ‘I’ was, the world is seen to be arising in its myriad forms, without any gap between here and there; ‘I’ am in fact not ‘I’ but everything else instead. This is true wisdom which recognizes the interconnection between different elements in the world, and also sees the absence of any separation between here and there. Indeed, without the sense of ‘I,’ there’s no sense of being a separate, suffering self lost in a big, bad world. The world may well be both big and bad at times, but there’s no ‘I’ to be found here to be lost in it; it appears in the spacious awareness.
To experience this spacious awareness is Nirvana, the blowing out of the delusion of being a separate self, an ‘I.’ It is also the ‘unbinding’ of the complicated psychology of egotistic separative existence, releasing what’s left into the unifies awareness of pure being. All this knowledge is not taken from books or heard at the feet of some renowned teacher, either; it comes from direct knowing of what it is to awaken to our true nature in this ever-present present moment. Living from this realization, we may find confirmation of it in Buddhist texts, or we may decide to simply be and see what happens, if anything. And, if we cultivate this awareness, our enlightenment will benefit whomever we encounter, for ‘we’ will no longer be in the way, and whatever we do or say will be right for that person in that moment. Marvelous…