Reaching for Nirvana

February 12, 2017 ()


READING ~ Buddha by Karen Armstrong. New York: Viking Books, 2001. Introduction

Many aspects of the Buddha's quest will appeal to the modern ethos . . .

Those who find the idea of a supernatural God alien will [also] warm to the Buddha’s refusal to affirm a Supreme Being. … Those who have become weary of the intolerance of some forms of institutional religiosity will also welcome the Buddha's emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness.

But the Buddha is also a challenge, because he is more radical than most of us.  … In his view, the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience, and feel the pain of all other beings, even those whom we do not find congenial.  It is also true that most of us are not prepared for the degree of the Buddha's self-abandonment.    p xxvi - xxvii 

The life of the Buddha challenges some of our strongest convictions, but it can also be a beacon.  We may not be able to practice the method he prescribed in its entirety, but his example illuminates some of the ways in which we can reach for an enhanced and more truly compassionate humanity.    p xxvii - xxvii.


READING ~The Buddha (c. 563 BCE/480 BCE – c. 483 BCE/400 BCE)

Never does hatred cease by hating in return;
only through love can hatred come to an end.
Victory breeds hatred;
the conquered dwell in sorrow and resentment.
They who give up all thought of victory or defeat
may be calm and live happily at peace.
Let us overcome violence by gentleness;
let us overcome evil by good;
Let us overcome the miserly by liberality;
let us overcome the liar by truth.

The Dhammapada is a collection of 423 verses uttered by Gauthama Buddha



“Bhikkhus, come closer. My time is nearly finished. For I have lived into my ninth decade and I am an old man; my body is worn out. I will leave you, relying on myself alone. This is my last teaching. If any amongst you has any doubts as to the Buddha, the teaching, or the order of monks, ask me now so that afterwards you may have no cause to regret that you did not ask me while I was still with you. Ah, not even one question. Well then, this is my last advice to you. Be a lamp unto yourself. Be your own refuge. Seek for no other. Fill your mind with compassion.   All component things will vanish. Strive with earnestness and diligence. Hold to your truth within you as the only truth. Pursue the Dharma and the Discipline untiringly and you shall go beyond the round of births and make an end of suffering. Do your best.”

And after he had said these things to the 500 or so monks gathered around him, the Buddha lapsed into the stages of meditative absorptions. Going from level to level, one after the other, ever deeper and deeper. Then he came out of the meditative absorption for the last time and passed into final and complete nirvana, leaving nothing whatever behind that can cause rebirth again in this or any other world.

What do we make of the Buddha’s transition into ultimate nirvana – what is known in Buddhism as parinirvana? This parinirvana is the end of the cycle of life, death and rebirth; it is the end of the cycle of suffering; it is, quite literally, the end of everything human. There is no rebirth after one reaches parinirvana. When asked about nirvana, the Buddha said that it can never be explained, it can only be experienced. Yet, he made an attempt to share with his followers some sense of what nirvana will be – mostly by describing what it is not. In her biography of the Buddha[1], religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, puts it this way:

[Nirvana] means "cooling off" or "going out" - like a flame.
Buddha told his disciples it is a state
Where there is neither earth nor water, light nor air; neither infinity or space; it is not infinity of reason but nor is it an absolute void ... it is neither this world or another world; it is both sun and moon.
(Buddha, p. 181)

[Nirvana] canceled out everything that we find intolerable in life.
But there were positive things that could be said of [Nirvana] too: It was "The Truth," "the Subtle," "the Other Shore," "the Everlasting," "Peace," "the Superior Goal," "Safety, " "Purity, Freedom, Independence, the Island, the Shelter, the Harbor, the refuge, the Beyond."    It was the supreme good of humans and gods alike, an incomprehensible Peace, and an utterly safe refuge.  (Buddha, p. 182)

Sounds pretty good to me. It’s no surprise that of all the complicated teachings and concepts of the many schools and traditions of Buddhism, most of us seem to have some vague sense of Nirvana as a state of being that is beyond the trials and tribulations of ordinary human life. When the Buddha died, he experienced parinirvana – or the ultimate nirvana. As you might suspect, there is also a little nirvana or a kind of premature nirvana. An adherent, a mendicant, a seriously dedicated disciple of Buddhism might experience this nirvana. Surely, the Buddha himself experienced this “little nirvana” during his lifetime and determined that he was not ready to go into the final nirvana until the perfect time.

In some schools of Buddhism, monks and nuns experience a kind of nirvana. A bodhisattva is a person who is on the path to enlightenment and has generated bodhicitta – the energy that helps all beings find happiness. A bodhisattva is one who has experienced nirvana and nevertheless has chosen to remain in this life for the purpose of helping others. There are many bodhisattvas. You may be sitting beside a bodhisattva right now. So, I’m just trying to draw a kind of distinction between what we might know as “little nirvana” and parinirvana which is the complete release from samsara and always means the death of the person.

The Buddha accepted parinirvana only when he knew he was already dying. AND, here we are, just a few days before February 15th - the day when Buddhists around the world will celebrate the anniversary of the Buddha’s passage into parinirvana. It provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the notion of actually working to discover a way out of the endless cycle of suffering.

Would you do it? Would you dedicate your life to finding and experiencing nirvana? Think about it for a minute. No pain, no suffering, no disillusion, no fake news, no alternate facts, no crushing disappointments in the ups and downs of life, no grief, no loss, no imagining what sort of rebirth will come next given our numerous failures to be our best selves.

Ok, your minute is up. Would you do it?

Monks and nuns and adherents practice every day with the determination of one who is reaching for nirvana while still being fully present to this very moment. I can assure you – my fledgling and embarrassingly inconsistent spiritual practice will not bring me very close to nirvana. But, I do wonder. What would it be like to be able to reach out and touch nirvana – sure it would be that little nirvana, the premature nirvana that does not mean the end of life, but still ….   Can you imagine coming to a place where you could actually choose to pass into complete nirvana and never again be caught up in the cycles of samsara, suffering and disillusion, or, to reach out and just barely touch it and then pull back and return to this hurting and imperfect world with the purpose of helping others? To be a bodhisattva for even one day would be pretty amazing.

Why I wonder do Buddhists not go flying off into nirvana as soon as possible? It is clearly part of the teaching and tradition to reach for enlightenment and then for nirvana. Why are there any Buddhists over the age of 42?  Although I do not know that there is an answer to this question, probably, it’s that the attainment of nirvana requires years of practice and deep wisdom. And wisdom only comes with age and life experience.

There is another possible reason too. Enlightened people remain here because their work is not finished. The Buddha lived to be at least 80 years of age. What was he doing all those years after his time sitting under the Bodhi tree awaiting enlightenment? He was teaching and meditating and working in every way he could to be a positive impact on this world.

Karen Armstrong says – rightly I think – that while many of us are drawn to the basic premise of Buddhism and some its teachings and practices, most of us shy away from fully embracing it. Why? It’s too hard. It demands too much of us. The radical self-abandonment that Buddhism requires is beyond most of us. And so, we look to what is possible and we reach for nirvana.

In Buddhism today there are many schools and traditions and teachers. I won’t attempt to engage with all of them or even pretend that I know much of anything about them. What I do know is that there are contemporary teachers whose message is both ancient and modern. Two masters of their traditions , both getting to be really old men now, can provide a way to live more meaningfully.

Thich Nhat Hanh is of the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. He is Vietnamese, though he can never go home again because the government has permanently exiled him as a consequence of his opposition to the Viet Nam war. During that time, Thich Nhat Hanh originated the concept of engaged Buddhism. This is a specific form of Buddhist practice. Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. They seek to heal the world and bring about a more peaceful existence through their active engagement with meditation and with social action, including civil disobedience and direct action. This is not a Buddhism for solitary monks living in a cave and meditating for 20 hours a day. There are 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism. They are guidelines for anyone wishing to live mindfully. By developing peace and serenity through ethical and conscientious living, they (or we) can help our society make the transition from one based on greed and consumerism to one in which thoughtfulness and compassionate action are of the deepest value. This is serious practice and serious work.

The other super important influence on contemporary Western Buddhism is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. While Thich Nhat Hanh is promoting engaged Buddhism, the Dalai Lama speaks about compassion.

Here is a bit of what he has said:

All of Buddha’s teachings can be expressed in two sentences. The first is, “You must help others.” This includes all of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana Buddhism) teachings. “If not, you should not harm others.” This is the whole teaching of the Low Vehicle (Hinayana Buddhism). It expresses the basis of all ethics, which is to cease harming others.
Both teachings are based on the thought of love, compassion.

Compassion and Engagement. These two principles are at the heart of contemporary Buddhism. These principles are thoroughly Buddhist in the way they are experienced and expressed by members of the traditions of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.   The right practice of engagement and compassion may indeed bring one closer to nirvana. It will absolutely bring healing and hope and justice and right relationships to our world. Thoroughly Buddhist and at the same time, these principles and practices are completely available to non-Buddhists who seek to reach for their own understanding of nirvana or at least to work for justice and peace and a more meaningful engagement with our world.

As we move through this week, may we pause and remember the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and his contribution to the spirituality of humanity. Because he was committed to this world and its perfection, however far in the future, before he accepted the experience of parinirvana, we can now appreciate and perhaps follow the teachings of his disciples. We too may live as people of engaged spirituality and the commitment to compassion – even when we don’t want to and even with those we do not favor. You know what I’m saying.

May we love the world. May we love and engage with this world. May we have the courage to speak our truth and to magnify compassion at every opportunity. May we be free from suffering. May we be free to be our very best selves.

Blessed Be.   I Love You.   Amen.

[1] Buddha, by Karen Armstrong. Published by A Lipper/Viking Penguin Books, New York in 2001.

Download Files

Posted in
Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

Rev. Margaret A. Beckman

Sermon Archives