The Dawn of the DhammaSucitto Bhikkhu

click image for large viewArt Frame - Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Nibbana,
the Universal Potential

Yato ca kho me bhikkhave … abhisambuddho paccaññasim.
But as soon as these Four Noble Truths in their twelve aspects were seen clearly
as they are, then I taught the world—with its devas, maras and brahmas,
its samanas and brahmins, its monarchs and ordinary folk—
that I had realized the complete and perfect Awakening.

The position of the Buddha is the same here as it was in the last illustration. He hasn’t moved, but something about him has changed. His eyes are wide open, he is teaching the Dhamma, and he looks more vitalized than in his previous state as an unenlightened Bodhisatta. Also, everything else in the world has changed radically. The experience of the host of Mara has been transformed into that of an attentive universe, delighting in the Dhamma. All this has come about through the Buddha having clearly seen the Four Noble Truths and understood their implications.

To use another phrase, he has realized Nibbana. Nibbana is often held to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism, and yet it is rather ill-defined. It is considered to be remote, indicative of a superhuman vision that sees the illusory nature of the world, and hence, is free from grieving about its misfortunes. For many people, this gives Nibbana about as much appeal as an anesthetic—and a difficult-to-obtain one at that.

What does the word Nibbana actually mean? It is a term that was applied to a fire; when it is no longer burning, the fire has “nibbana’d”—the elements on which it was based are no longer in a state of combustion. This may seem like sterility and lifelessness from the viewpoint of the fire, but from the perspective of the elements it means life and potential. The Nibbana that the Buddha pointed to was in the mind, when the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are extinguished. Nibbana, then, is the ease and joy that is realized through the cessation of those fires.

If … greed, hatred and delusion are given up, one aims neither at one’s own ruin, nor at others’ ruin, nor at the ruin of both, and one suffers no more mental pain and grief. Thus is Nibbana, realizable even during this life-time, immediate, inviting, attractive and comprehensible to the wise. (Anguttara Nikaya: [I], Threes, 55)

As it is based upon dispassion and cooling, the realization of Nibbana cannot arise from getting heated up about the host of Mara, or from denying its existence. It comes from replacing the compulsive movements of desire and ignorance with mindful energy and insight. Nibbana is the experience of space in the mind where previously everything was densely stuck together in regenerative congestion. In that congestion, a self is imagined that, now and then, longs to escape from the oppressive host of inner voices, feelings, doubts and desires. So, to one who practices insight, the idea that Nibbana is a selfish goal doesn’t make sense, for the mirage of self evaporates as the fires cool. And the means of bringing that about is the self-less Eightfold Path. Essentially, the practice cultivates a purer and wiser response to faults and attachments than the “counterattack” or “defense” moods adopted by the self-view—and typified by the ascetic perched on the serpent of hatred in the last picture. Rather than fight the host or get away from them, you have to liberate the host of Mara from all delusion—from all the hatred and fear and belief that binds them with self-view.

What is it like when the approach to life is free from the force of ignorance? What happens to motivation when there’s no self to gratify? Who is there to defend? What about the search for some state of happiness? And does this in itself mean that, with Nibbana, there will be no happiness and no motivation so that we exist in a state of neutralized apathy? Well, when we investigate happiness, we note that it is normally experienced in those moments when we feel we have enough; or we have a beautiful experience that blots out the aches and pains and troubles or makes them seem insignificant. Then sometimes, there’s a relief when something painful has ended, and the irritations associated with pain and the resistance to it cease. All these forms of happiness and ease arise when desire temporarily stops. In the case of Nibbana, the Buddha brings about happiness in the direct and total way. The Buddha’s Nibbana isn’t through a temporary alleviation, but by a complete abandonment of the self upon which desire and discontent grow. Hence Nibbana is a nonspecific “happiness,” not related to any particular circumstances; therefore, it is not subject to change.

To bring that about requires a deep sense of motivation, but one that goes beyond the reach of self. Liberation can only come about through letting go of the hosts of Mara which are always manifesting through our unenlightened attitudes towards ourselves and the world. To liberate all those beings, forces and memories may seem like a task of hopeless gallantry, but insight brings the whole process down to the subtle point of self-view. When one isn’t acting from a position of self, its fabricated needs and desires have no footing upon which to stand. When this is experienced, even for a short while, there is vitality, ease, and life seems full of potential. So the energy of life gets released from the constricting “self” pattern into the total, universal pattern.

The serpents of ignorance and desire have turned into a garland of lotuses—the Eightfold Path—woven around the Four Noble Truths. Radiance pervades the world-system, here depicted by many planetary forms. These represent every permutation of the external and internal worlds: every person, every individual quality or form that is held as having separate existence. Here, the worlds are seen as part of a totality; their separateness has blended into a pattern. This, rather than uniformity, is a useful model of the experience of individuality in the context of not-self. Rather than eradicating what is individual and particular, Dhamma practice allows us to experience a changing uniqueness—because life is not held within compulsive self-patterns. Then all personality and separateness can be seen and respected without attachment, and it all fits together. Our apparent identity is one of being a localized experience of the changing universe. In fact, all harmony, all true fitting together without force, is dependent on some practice of not-self. Notice what such harmony in life actually feels like—there’s space, buoyancy and potential in that feeling. Yet we can only experience that by understanding and letting go of our own attachments and views, not through being with “harmonious people.”

The Buddha commented that he did not contend with the world; the world contended with him (Samyutta Nikaya: [III], Elements, 94). The exemplar of total harmony, he is at the center of this painting as a focus for all the worlds, an access point for all beings, no matter how varied. Four primary character types encircle him outside of the particular expression of individuality (the circle of bhikkhus) and within the more universal formulation of the whirling worlds. From top right, proceeding clockwise, these are: the solar power, represented by a mythical fire bird, the garuda; the lunar power, represented by the water snake, the naga; the power of earth, represented by a satyr, ogre, or yakkha; and the power of ether (space and sky), represented by an angel or devata.

Normally these exist in opposition to each other. Garudas attack and devour nagas. The conflict of these two refers, in one sense, to the cyclical drying-up of the rivers by the heat of the tropical sun, and, in another sense, to the discord so often experienced between the rational (solar) and the irrational (lunar) aspects of the mind. The rational has the capacity to remove phenomena from their context and sees them in an abstract light. A rational mind can classify a parrot as a bird and study its characteristics to develop principles about birds, feathers, and flight. However, it sees a parrot as separate from its tree, its habitat and the creatures that prey on it, and puts the parrot on a perch in a cage in order to “look after” the poor brute. The irrational flows along with the rhythms of Nature like the moon and the water. However, although it may feel a sense of unity with Creation, it can’t get any perspective on the manifold world. It tends to meander and lack the vision of the rational. And so we spend our day looking at parrots instead of learning about flight.

The Earth characteristic here is also irrational; instinctive and spontaneous rather than intuitive and cohesive. It is characterized by its separateness; it is lumpy and fixed—yet occasionally volcanic and giving little warning of its vast upheavals. On the psychological level, the satyr represents a disruptive element in the irrational realm. It is the urge of spontaneous creation, the force that does not conform and flow according to generally held feelings. So it is in opposition to the cohesive Water element, either blocking it or being eroded by it. Their conflict is just like the emotional conflicts between men and women.

The massive substantiality of Earth is also opposite to the formlessness of the Ether represented by the angel of the next vignette. Psychologically, Ether is the aspect of the rational that looks towards balance, and the propriety of universal perspectives. In the overwhelming burst of Earth’s spontaneous creativity, there’s not much possibility for cool objectivity about what is right or suitable. Earth’s expression is in terms of “what I want now, the way it feels for me.” Ether is cool and mobile, but lacks immediacy; everything is possible, but nothing ever takes form. Lacking form, it tends towards an indifferent passivity to the forces that can move through it. Hence its presence is also frustrating to the soaring drives of the solar intellect; just as diplomats are a nuisance to people with a sense of mission.

When such forces operate independently of each other, they create an assembly point for Mara’s host. They become harbors for self-view. Pride and conceit gather around the fiery Sun; moodiness and inconsistency collect within the watery Moon; stubborn wilfulness settles into the firm Earth; and aloof dilatoriness drifts and blows around in the space of the Ether.

Despite the great differences between these psychological characteristics, the Buddha-mind is a point of harmony that they can all reach. We can all contemplate these energies whenever they manifest. The Buddha sees dukkha in taking a position of one against another, and he abandons this. Throughout his life, the Buddha spoke sincerely and compassionately to every kind of human and non-human being: to yakkhas and devas and nagas as well as fierce bandits, sophists, distraught widows and proud monarchs. Knowing the Dhamma, that all phenomena are only conditioned configurations of an Unconditioned, he saw all these appearances as part of the way it is, and thereby did not make conflict with them. In this enormous act of faith, mindfulness and selflessness, the Buddha gives up any position in the conscious world—apart from to know it. This is Nibbana’s cooling of desire and attachment. And in the internal psychological realm, it is the Buddha of our own mindful wisdom that allows characteristics to harmonize with each other. In the wholeness of knowing, there’s room for the rational and the irrational, the spontaneous and the orderly. Then we can learn from life, how it actually is—not from a fixed position of how we take it to be.

When our aspiration is to realize Nibbana and to liberate all beings, we can reflect on all positions and archetypes. For example, consider the Earth and Ether characteristics as the respective values of individual experience and expression, and conformity to principles of universal Truth. When these are mutually respected by a mind that is not attached to any position, then the individual can be seen as enriching and giving meaning to the universal, and the universal as establishing a frame of reference for the individual. So in a religion, if the orthodox established viewpoint suppresses the individual, the religion loses its immediacy and its vitality. But the traditional expressions of Truth have to be respected to create a foundation for the individual. If this is not done, there is no common ground for dialog or transmission through time. Worse still, each individual becomes their own cause and God, and represents a new tyranny of my way and my view being the only way.

Unenlightened beings cling to their views and perceptions. Our conscious world is full of positions and attitudes that we alternately favor and despise. It is peopled with friends and enemies; those we are attracted to and those we are repelled by; those to whom we feel loyal, such as “my family;” and those we feel separate from and take no responsibility for. We can act in good and bad ways, we have bodies with masculine or feminine features, and we can be grouped according to racial type. We have minds that formulate things according to differences. But in emphasizing differences or seeking to establish ourselves as identities, we add to the sum total of divisive and conflicting energy in ourselves and in the world.

We may dismiss our intuitive side and repress the rational or lose contact with rational discernment. We may attach to traditions or to not having traditions. We may adopt a viewpoint and neglect others—or even cling to the view that one shouldn’t have a viewpoint. All these become sources of identity, and as long as we hold on to views about ourself or each other, no matter how valid they seem, we prevent the possibility of being liberated from self. Then there is the teaching of the Buddha:

“What is the teaching of the samana, what are his views?”
“According to my teaching, Sir … there is no contending with anyone in the world, because of which the Pure One is not obsessed with ideas as he practices. He remains unattached to sense-pleasures, without confusion, free from regret, empty of the desire to be something or to be nothing. This is my teaching, this my view.”
(Madhupindika Sutta; Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 18)

Because his mind has realized Nibbana, the Buddha was content to teach using the viewpoints and conventions of the time rather than create another set of polarities to establish “Buddhism.” So he taught within the conventions of the Vedic culture—kamma, Dhamma, Nibbana, heaven realms—to the societies of samanas, brahmins, monarchs and ordinary folk. His way of teaching was often to ascertain what his audience’s position was, and, from that position, expound a Path to Ultimate Truth, the experience of no conflict, no suffering, Peace, the Unconditioned, Nibbana. So he taught the Way independent of any personal position or philosophical viewpoint, presenting themes that relate to the way that human beings in general experience and live their lives.

The fundamental position that we can all reach is the basis of the Buddha’s teaching: we all suffer and nobody likes it. The nature of the human realm is that we are sensitive and affected by everything. Because of this, we tend to take positions for or against different experiences; these positions harden into the boundaries and habits of self. All that creates separation, loneliness and conflict. Yet we all want to get off this one-way road going nowhere, and the wish to get beyond the self-view can bring us together. The practical effects of that must be for the welfare of everyone: cultivating no-self for ourself alone is by definition an impossibility. So the realization of Nibbana is to be shared, available for those who no longer want to be men and women, mothers and sons, samanas and lay people, Asians and Americans. When there is Awakening, ultimately there is no position to take, no separation.

In this illustration, the Buddha is beginning to proclaim the universal law that will balance out all the polarities of humanity. Seeing yourself as separate from everything else is an illusion. Acting in that way brings pain, restriction, fear, disappointment—dukkha. Listen to the world as it is and find the balance in your own mind. Find the place where there is no ignorance, no avoidance of the way it is. Abandon the desire that things be your way. For each one who does this, there will be harmony, serenity with the difficulties, and delight with what is pleasing. Such a balance will immediately benefit the world and provide the inspiration for others to cultivate the Way.