The practice of awakening

In this talk I am going to briefly explore the art of awakening, and to say something about what is meant by the terms, ‘nirvana,’ and ‘reactivity.’

A literal definition of the term, nirvana, (or ‘nibbana’ in Pali) is ‘blowing out’ (as with a candle) or ‘extinguishing’ (as with a fire). In one of the Pali texts, the Samyutta Nikaya or ‘Connected Discourses,’ the Buddha says that nirvana involves the blowing out, or extinguishing, of desire, hatred and delusion. (Batchelor, 2015, p. 59) In other words, nirvana involves the extinguishing of suffering.

According to Damien Keown:

The Buddha discouraged speculation about the nature of nirvana and emphasized instead the need to strive for its attainment. Those who asked speculative questions about nirvana he compared to a man wounded by a poisoned arrow who, rather than pulling the arrow out, persists in asking for irrelevant information about the man who fired it, such as his name and clan, how far away he was standing, and so forth. (Keown, 2021)

Another relevant metaphor might be that to chase after nirvana is like chasing after a soap bubble floating in the air – as soon as we catch it and try to hold it, it bursts and is no more.

Despite the Buddha’s advice not to speculate, there is widespread speculation about the nature of nirvana – what it is and how we can experience it. Although nirvana is a word that crops up a lot in popular discussions of Buddhism, whether it is commonly used and what it means varies enormously within different Buddhist schools and traditions.

In the Theravada schools, nirvana is seen as the ultimate destination on the Buddhist path. The goal of practice is to achieve liberation from suffering. In the Mahavagga sutra, there is an account of what is called the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. The Buddha describes the fires that nirvana extinguishes: ‘Everything is on fire; the eyes are on fire; sights are on fire; visual perception is on fire. . . ; the ears are on fire. . . ; the nose is on fire. . . ; the tongue is on fire. . . ; the body is on fire. . . ; the mind is on fire. . . . They are on fire with greed, hatred, and delusion.’ (Fronsdal, et al, 2006) Thus, the aim of a Theravada Buddhist is to extinguish craving, clinging and misunderstanding – and, we might add, we must even extinguish clinging to the goal of nirvana.

In the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, nirvana is seen in a different light. According to Tulku Thubten Rinpoche, ‘the Vajrayana doctrine regards [the view of nirvana as a state of being free from suffering] as a pseudo-nirvana, which is nothing more than a pain-free vegetative state. [Instead, the Vajrayana doctrine] defines awakening as a state that is not only free from sorrow, but also the embodiment of transcendent love, wisdom, and ecstasy.’ (Fronsdal, et al, 2006) The language here shifts from a largely negative one – ‘freedom from’, ‘extinguishing’, and so on – to a combination of negative and positive – ‘free from’ and ‘love, wisdom and ecstasy.’

A Rinzai Zen teacher, Roko Sherry Chayat, describes nirvana from yet another perspective. Chayat replaces the word ‘nirvana’ with the words, ‘enlightenment’ and ‘Buddha-nature.’ She goes on to suggest that: ‘Enlightenment is not a thing, not a condition, not an event, not a goal, not an accomplishment. That which is without limits,’ she says, ‘cannot be defined. Yet …. in truth, we are practicing enlightenment! It is always and already here! There is not a hair’s breadth of separation between what we perceive as our separate, burdensome selves and Buddha-nature.’ Chayat writes: ‘In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches, “All living beings are Buddha-nature.”’ She also quotes Dogen: ‘The principle of Buddha-nature is that one’s Buddha-nature remains incomplete as long as one is not awakened, and that it is completed only from the moment one is awakened; the Buddha-nature and awakening can only be simultaneous.’ In other words, nirvana or enlightenment is synonymous with awakening, and awakening is something that we can all do, with the necessary guidance and effort. 

Stephen Batchelor suggests that another way of thinking about nirvana is that it involves the extinguishing of reactivity, attachment and discrimination – a process of release, letting-go and non-attachment. In other words, being mindful in the fullest sense of the word.

The term ‘reactivity’ is used by Batchelor and others, to refer to a jumble of habitual, conditioned behaviours, including: clinging, craving, mental chattering, judgmental habits and obsessive thinking and feeling. Reactivity, in this sense, denotes the unnecessary rumination that goes on in our minds – often out of our control and often hardly registering in our awareness. Thoughts and feelings spawn further thoughts and feelings, in endless cycles. Craving for one thing, or idea, or feeling, after another, continually creates disturbance, confusion, dissatisfaction, frustration and exhaustion. Reactivity, in this sense, is what mindful meditation illuminates and dissolves. When we are mindful, we are letting-go of, or extinguishing, the fires of reactivity.

When we let go of reactivity, or repetitive habits of thought, feeling and behaviour, our experience becomes clearer, lighter, more direct and fluid. We feel more harmonious and connected – at peace with ourselves and better able to realise our kinship with others and with the universe. But the fires of reactivity spring up when we least expect them, even after many years of mindful meditation. They do not simply go out for good. So, we have to be alert, to pay attention, to see the practice of mindful awareness and letting-go as a lifelong process or skill – to be endlessly honed, refined and cultivated. It is a craft or art to be practised and enjoyed, not an object or reward to be put on a shelf to be admired and polished from time to time.

Elsewhere in the Samyutta Nikaya, nirvana is described as, ‘immediate, clearly visible, inviting, uplifting, and personally sensed by the wise.’ When we are awake to life as it is – being mindful of our experiences without reactivity and attachment – we are realising nirvana (or awakening). This is an experience and a skill available to everyone, not just to an elite, super-human few. To be mindful is itself nirvana – a process of moment-by-moment awakening to the reality of impermanence and interdependence within the ups and downs of everyday life.

My own view of all this is not fixed. I am always shifting my perspective and revising my understanding depending on my practice of zazen and my studies. I rarely use, or think about, the term, ‘nirvana.’ The word ‘awakening’ seems much more useful and relevant to my Zen practice. It seems to me that, just as the self is a process, not a thing or an essence, so awakening is a process – a continual awakening to the reality of everyday existence, awakening to the dharma (the way things are). There is no final state of eternal, absolute, unchanging enlightenment – no final destination for our journeying. There can be no transcendent or absolute state of nirvana – for this would pre-suppose that there is a state in which anatta (interdependence), and anicca (impermanence) no longer apply – something the Buddha suggests is not the case. It might be more useful to use the word ‘awakening’ to refer to this continuing process of mindful attention, unhindered or unclouded by clinging, judgment, unnecessary commentary or misunderstanding.

For me, awakening is a process of discovery and liberation not a goal or destination – it is a creative, open and enjoyable engagement with the world as it is – in all its everyday splendour, challenge and surprise. It is the journeying itself that matters, and the journeying is the practice of awakening – being mindful. Rather than the noun, ‘nirvana,’ we could call it ‘nirvana-ing’ – an active process, rather than an object. Or we could use the Japanese term, kensho, referring to those moments of insight when we see into the fluid, creative, indeterminate and ‘empty’ nature of ourselves and the world. As Dogen says many times, ‘enlightenment is practice, practice is enlightenment.’ This may seem an odd thing to say, but it fits into Dogen’s thinking about time – which is quite rational. His argument goes like this: in the present moment, there is no past or future, so awakening cannot lie in the future or in the past, it can only be here and now.

To conclude, my view is that rather than think of the Buddha as the awakened, or enlightened, one – a super-human being – it might be more useful to think of him as a human being who was extremely adept at the skill, or art, of awakening. The word, Buddha, comes from the root budh, to awake, perceive, know. And it was in this skill of non-reactive, clear-sighted awareness, that the Buddha was an expert.

To put all that I have said in a more poetic and direct way, with echoes of a poem by the fifteenth century Japanese poet-monk Ikkyu:

To search elsewhere for nirvana

is foolish

It is right here

right now

Let go and it appears

Try to grasp it

and it disappears

NB

Anicca = impermanence, endless change, process

Anatta = ‘non-self’, interdependence, conditionality

Bibliography

Batchelor, Stephen. 2015. After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age. London: Yale University Press.

Fronsdal, Gil, Tulku Thubten Rinpoche & Chayat, Roko Sherry. 2006. Nirvana: Three Takes. In Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2006. Online at: https://tricycle.org/magazine/nirvana-three-takes/ – accessed 2 March 2021.

Keown, Damien. 2021. The Meaning of Nirvana in Buddhism Explained. Online at: https://tricycle.org/magazine/nirvana-2/ – accessed 2 March 2021.

Watts, Alan. 1989. The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage.