Monday, 27 May 2013

Different Kinds of Nirvana

One of the things that attracts me to Buddhism is that it’s not really a religion. It is, of course, but I think I agree with the secular Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor that elements such as literal rebirth and karma are largely cultural – they aren’t uniquely the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha didn’t teach a set of beliefs as such; a study of the vast Pali canon suggests that Siddartha Gotama was evasive when asked metaphysical questions. What he taught was actions. Being mindful, practising meditation and following ethics based on the principle of non-harming – these are practical, pragmatic ways of living life without adding unnecessary suffering.

I’m attracted also to a sense of joyfulness, peacefulness and compassion. Those qualities of equanimity, gentle humour and deep compassion that the Dalai Lama seems to exude, are characteristic (though to a lesser extent, perhaps) of a lot of sincere and experienced Buddhists. When I first joined my local Buddhist group, I was greeted by a lovely, friendly, gentle group of people – as mixed as any group, but all with a noticeable tendency not to be judgemental – and a small shrine centred around a statue of a serene Buddha – a human being with a mysterious half-smile. No almost-naked man hanging bleeding on a cross. No sins to be forgiven.

I still like this group, although I don’t attend often. One cause of slight alienation for me is the absolute reverence with which the Buddha is often spoken of. At the start of every session we ‘salute’ the shrine - hands together, with a chant and then a bow - and so far I’ve felt a little too embarrassed to ask what this means. It feels to me almost as if he’s thought of as perfect – as if his enlightenment that night under the Bodhi tree (did it really happen like that? – who knows; it’s a lovely myth) resulted in a uniquely perfect person. But there are no perfect persons. That would make him a God. And it would make Buddhism a little more like the other religions that I cannot relate to because of the similar leaps of faith that they require one to make.

I have a kind of shrine as well – two of them, in fact. In my bedroom, a rather feminine Buddha rests sweetly with hands and face on one knee, while downstairs, a more traditional statue sits in the familiar lotus position. I don’t salute them, though, or revere them as such. They represent for me a kind of ideal of equanimity and peace with life, which it seems the Buddha found (at least for much of the time), and which brings me a little more calm when I gaze at them. As my friend Toni says in her book ‘How to Be Sick’: ‘The Buddha inspires me because he never claimed to be more than a human being. He found pain just as painful as you and I do. I take this as a reminder that the equanimity and joy we see in the many images of him are within the reach of every one of us.’

In a small discussion group I was part of one evening, we talked about the human tendencies of craving and aversion which, from the Buddhist viewpoint, cause so much suffering. The group leader said that experiencing pleasure almost inevitably carries with it a craving to prolong the experience, as unpleasant experiences create powerful feelings of aversion. As I remember it, he said that the ideal emotional state would be a kind of ‘flatlining’, because then we wouldn’t feel craving or aversion and suffering would be greatly reduced. I found this very hard to accept, and so did another group member, who said that she could experience pleasure and then let go of it, because there would be other pleasures to enjoy later. As Toni said to me when I told her this, who wants to live by flatlining? What mindfulness and other practices help us to do, she said, is to experience each moment fully, with its joy or its pain, and then to let go of it. Buddhism recognises that all life, all experiences, all feelings, all thoughts, are impermanent – but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them while they’re here.

Because my main reason for joining the Buddhist group was to meet other people in a kind of sangha (spiritual fellowship), and to meditate with others, I began to attend only on practice nights. I found other activities hard to relate to; although ideas of literal rebirth and such aren’t forced on any of us, it feels like a different kind of Buddhism from the one which I have at last come to accept. If I can find a more secular group, more based on meditation practice and living in the here and now, I will. But I’ve made some lovely friends in this group, so I’d like to recognise the beautiful things we have in common, and take part in it from time to time.

Last week was meant to be a practice night, but this was changed, and I found myself studying the complex subject of the Wheel of Life. This is a symbolic, pictorial way of exploring the law of conditionality and its effects on human life. As one goes round the wheel, we see how the course of an unenlightened life takes us from birth to death to birth again, with experience, sensation, attachment, craving and aversion in between. I wasn’t sure about this, either. For one thing, it felt as if we were being taught doctrine – and after years of Sunday masses full of it, I don’t feel comfortable finding it again in a Buddhist guise.

One of my problems is that I’m a habitual sceptic when it comes to anything metaphysical. Sure, we have mystical experiences. I have them sometimes when I listen to Beethoven’s string quartets - but if anyone tries to explain them in terms of God or whatever, I shut my ears again! Now Buddhism isn’t a theistic religion (thank God!), but many Buddhist traditions still require you to believe in something without evidence. This means that they are inevitably doctrinal in their way of teaching. And in my case, it makes the idea of literal rebirth a big stumbling block.

Although some of the imagery feels a bit anachronistic, I accept that the Wheel of Life is a subtle concept; as more than one group member said, one can find something new in it each time one studies it. I’ll have to take that on faith, but I do believe them! I wondered if it could still have something profound to say about life, whether or not we believe in reincarnation. Well, I haven’t studied the concept before, but it seems to me that it probably does.

At the same time, something else bothered me. It all felt rather negative and depressing – like the idea of emotional flatlining instead of fully experiencing life. Thinking about rebirth, I suppose I wouldn’t want to keep being born again indefinitely. It would be pretty tedious having to go through adolescence and pain and working for bullying employers again – and that’s if I didn’t end up in a war zone! But then, given that none of the Buddhists I know seem to remember any previous lives, every life would feel like the first one anyway. Why was the group teacher, a relaxed, smiling and likeable man with a sense of humour (and who probably enjoys life on the whole), so intent on escaping the cycle and floating off into nirvana? (I ought to add that he’s also one of my Facebook friends!). Is this life really so bad – at least for many of us in the developed world?

True, I think the Buddha was right when he said that life is dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) – it isn’t the way any of us would ideally want it to be. It does include a lot of suffering, and it’s certainly far from perfect. But it includes a lot of joy as well – and I speak as someone who really would love life to be different, given that it includes chronic pain and anxiety and is all too limited by these difficulties. I can’t help thinking that this interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings is all too reminiscent of other religions, and their ‘bias against the living world’ (as Tara Brach puts it). Religions tend to hold that the spiritual world is ‘higher’ and more perfect than the material one. Hence the need to reject physical temptations in order to reach heaven (as in traditional Christianity), or to attain full enlightenment, nirvana and an ultimate escape from the cycle of rebirth (in Buddhism). The emphasis is a kind of anti-life. And I don’t relate easily to that, because despite all my difficulties, I love life. Perhaps that just means I’m not very enlightened – well, I know I’m not, so perhaps the non-secular Buddhists have a point!

One morning a few weeks ago, I was walking down the street from my local pharmacy, preoccupied with pain and anxiety – in a flare-up, family problems, difficult appointment with my doctor… All in all, I wasn’t very cheerful. And then I looked up, and saw that the trees lining the road had finally, after a long winter, come into leaf. The leaves were that vivid, fresh green that they only have when they’re new, and the sun was shining though them in a brilliant blue sky. It completely took my breath away, and I felt my heart rejoicing.

I hadn’t made any conscious effort or decision. I hadn’t reluctantly put time and Beethoven aside, and settled down to dutifully meditate (it can feel rather like that at times). Quite involuntarily, the physical world had swiftly brought me out of my ruminations and into the present moment.

Isn’t present moment awareness what the Buddha’s teaching is about? Yet here, in a moment that probably lasted just a few seconds, I was rejoicing, awe-struck by the beauty of the real, physical world.

It reminded me of a wonderful passage in the final chapter of Tara Brach’s new book, ‘True Refuge’. Tara is one of the teachers who introduced me to the beauty and consolation of Buddhist thought, who helped me to realise that here was something that might actually have a deep meaning for my life. She describes a day when she too was suffering physically and mentally (like me, she has a chronic pain condition), and when she too was brought into a joyful present moment awareness by the beauty of the world around her. I’m quoting this long passage because, while it’s quite metaphysical and based on something we’d probably need to experience ourselves to fully ‘get’, at the same time it’s so beautiful and moving. Reading it gives me hope that I may have the potential to fully love life, despite the difficulties in my mind and body. After all, is loving and cherishing life necessarily the same as craving it?

It also raises a question – one which I’m quite willing to accept may result from my lack of experience and knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings. This period of scepticism may just be something I’m going through, before reaching a deeper understanding that others in my Buddhist group already have.

The question is this: if present moment awareness can bring the sweetness of life so vividly and joyfully alive, why would one need to escape this world in order to experience nirvana?

Then I paused—the resentment toward my body caught my attention. As I looked more closely, the resentment quickly gave way to a familiar grief. Why couldn’t I just walk on this earth without feeling pain? Tears started to flow as I contacted the enormity of my frustration and longing. “I want to feel alive. I want to feel alive. Please. Please. May I feel fully alive.” Naming it opened me to what was behind the longing: I love life. Embedded in the grief, as always, was love. A voice inside me was repeating the words over and over, as a delicate, tingling warmth filled my heart.

I’d been holding back this love, holding back from fully engaging with life. It was a reaction to feeling betrayed by my body, a defense against more loss. But in my fear of being attached to health, I’d not allowed myself to feel the truth—I love life. Qigong wasn’t about fueling attachment, it was about fully embracing aliveness. At that moment I decided to stop holding back my love.

As I allowed the “I love life” feeling to be as full as it wanted, the “I” fell away. Even the notion of life fell away. What was left was an open radiant heart—as wide as the world.

This tender presence was loving everything: the soft streaks of pinks and grays in the sky, the smell of eucalyptus, the soaring vultures, the songbirds. It was loving the woman who was standing silently about two hundred feet away, also gazing at the colors of dawn. It was loving the changing painful and pleasurable sensations in this body. Now, sending chi to my knees made intuitive sense. It was awareness’s natural and caring response to its creation. “I” wasn’t loving life—awareness was loving life.

This experience led me to see and release a limiting and unconscious belief that I’d held for some time—a belief that the realm of formless awareness was more spiritual and valuable than the living forms of this world. This bias against the living world can be seen in many religious traditions. It emerges in some interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings as an insistence on guarding ourselves against the pleasures of the senses—beauty, lovemaking, music, play. It emerges in the superior status of monks over nuns, in valuing monastic life over family and lay life, and in the warnings against attachment in close personal relationships. I now believe this bias comes from fear and mistrust of life itself. For me, recognizing this in my own psyche was a gift.

We do not need to transcend the real world to realize our true nature and to live in freedom. In fact, we can’t. We are aliveness and we are the formless presence that is its source; we are embodied emptiness. The more we love the world of form, the more we discover an undivided presence, empty of any sense of self or other. And the more we realize the open, formless space of awareness, the more unconditionally we love the changing shapes of creation.

The Heart Sutra from the Buddhist Mahayana texts tells us: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is also form. Emptiness is not other than form, form is not other than emptiness.” We can’t separate the ocean from the waves. Our path is to realize the vast oceanness of our being, and to cherish the waves that appear on the surface.

During the final days of the retreat, my willingness to love life unfolded into a very deep, stable happiness. The happiness wasn’t reliant on things being a certain way—my moods and physical comfort went up and down. I was happy for no reason. This unconditioned happiness or well-being is a flavor of awakening. It arises when we trust our essence as awareness, and know that this entire living world is part of our heart. Being happy for no reason gave me a kind of confidence or faith that no matter what happened, everything would be fine.

I returned home and jumped into a delicious daily ritual of meditation and qigong. During those first weeks I’d go to the river and scramble down through rocks and bushes to a secluded beach. Nourished by the sounds of rushing water, the firm sand and early morning air, I practiced presence in movement and stillness. You can probably imagine what came next. After I hurt my knee on the small incline down to the beach, I moved my practice to our deck. Some of the arm movements strained my neck so I had to minimize them. Then standing up started to strain my legs, so I began to practice in a chair. Then it rained for a week straight.

And yet, it was all really okay. More than okay. One of those wet mornings as I was sitting, my mind became very quiet. My attention opened gently and fully to the changing flow of experience—aching, waves of tiredness, fleeting thoughts, sounds of rain. Continuing to pay attention, I felt the subtle sense of aliveness (chi energy) that pervades my whole body. This aliveness was not solid, it was spacious, a dance of light. The more I opened to this aliveness, the more I could sense an alert inner stillness, the background inner space of pure being. And the more I rested in that stillness, the more vividly alive the world became.

After about thirty minutes I opened my eyes and looked at the lush fern that hangs in our bedroom, at its delicacy and grace. I was in love with the fern, with the particularity of its form (how did this universe come up with ferns?), and with the vibrancy and light of its being. In that moment, the fern was as wondrous as any glorious scene by the river. I was awareness loving my creation. And I was happy for no reason. I didn’t need to have things go my way. I was grateful for the capacity to enjoy life, just as it is.

Adapted from  True Refuge (2013)

All photos my copyright, except the Wheel of Life image (artist unknown).


  1. An excellent post, Michael, so thoughtful and rich with analysis. Yes, I do not believe the Buddha taught "flatlining." That's a kind of resignation to "the way things are" and resignation carried with it aversion. It's not the open acceptance that brings us peace.

    1. Thank you so much, Toni. Yes, and I would also imagine that it involves a kind of shutting down of the heart - blocking out life instead of letting it in. That's partly why I used the phrase 'anti-life'. Also, I wonder how we can be fully compassionate if we don't let emotions in? I do it too: blocking out fear and other unpleasant emotions (and pain) by sometimes taking valium. But ideally, in order to be compassionate to ourselves or others, emotional flatlining would not seem to be very helpful, surely?

      Thank you too for such a positive comment. I'm such a newbie to Buddhism, and in the group I feel torn between my own thoughts, and the feeling that they must understand things better than me because they're more experienced. But YOU are very experienced too, so I'm relieved that in my attempts to learn from you I have been getting at least some of it right! :)

      I keep re-reading that tara Brach passage, because the more I read it the more subtle and thoughtful I realise it is. It's very deep indeed. That whole last chapter of her book feels like a description of her personal enlightenment. It's so wonderful!

      Thank you again for all the help you've given me, Toni, and for everything I've been learning from you.


  2. Hi Michael,

    I really enjoyed this post. For one it gave me a sense of the experience of joining a Buddhist group. Like any group, religious or otherwise, you always meet personalities that rise to dominate the group or at least suggest the flavour of the group. It's an inevitable part of human nature.

    As for the young soul who espoused flatlining as a path to the divine - well, I just take that a sign of his spiritual youth. From what I've learned from Tara Brach and Toni Bernhard, I think of Buddhism as a rather joyous religion, as you described so beautifully in this post, and yet, it acknowledges that life is full of suffering too. This speaks strongly to my sense that life is full of both moments of joy and suffering. Like you, I would like more of the joy, but I often experience it spontaneously in nature, the same way as you describe your sudden awareness of the leaves and the joy of life shouting through you.

    Yet, there's lots of earnest young souls. I often think of my first husband, who had a good heart, but was often involved with many almost radical political groups. I think I had some of those radical beliefs, but mine came almost from a naivety of what the world should be - that people should be equal, have equal opportunities and access to health care, and so on. I learned the hard way that my naive beliefs were not so widely accepted! Anyway, I don't think having those kind of almost doctrine-like beliefs are bad, as long as you don't end up wanting to harm other people who don't conform or fit with your vision of what enlightenment is.

    Many years ago, I remember sitting in a Hare Krishna run restaurant (the food was divine!) and reading one of their tracts about reincarnation and so on. I actually found this meshing with my beliefs, as did the later book, "Journey of Souls" by Michael Newton. I don't think reincarnation is anything to fear, and I don't think we remember those past lives, only advance on our spiritual course in subsequent lives. This is just my beliefs, but I'd like to believe my suffering is part of some larger plan, some kind of spiritual evolution if you will.

    As for saluting the Buddha - I don't feel out of place bowing as a sign of respect, as I might bow to anyone I respect. In our meditation class, we say Namaste and bow to each other, and that is how I feel about the Buddha. It's not about elevating him to a God, at least as I see it, it's more a case of saying, "Thank you for bringing us these teachings and ways of seeing". I don't think it takes away our free will, and I think it should be a totally personal decision as to whether you bow or not.

    I think it might be interesting to ask a few of your sangha as to what they feel and think when they do this - explaining that you are just trying to understand the practices they engage in. At the end of the day, I think the "practices" we follow are a very personal thing, and I think there is probably so much variation in what any one person believes. e.g. in your sangha, they may have an agreed set of practices, but it doesn't necessarily mean they resonate with everyone. What do you think?

    Thanks for writing this. I look forward to more of your thoughts and (as Toni says) analysis.