What about Nirvana?

According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe God created human beings in pretty much their present form in one stroke at some point in the last 10,000 years. This is remarkable in the face of lots of data to the contrary and despite most schools teaching that human beings have evolved to their present form over a much longer period of time. Whatever you might believe about how and when humans came to be as we are today, the poll makes it clear that humans are capable of passionately holding to cherished beliefs regardless of evidence or pervasive arguments to the contrary.

The poll is interesting to me personally as a Zen Buddhist priest practicing a somewhat esoteric ancient tradition because it raises the question of holding to ancient views independent of the preponderance of available evidence. This is at least indirectly related to how I, as a Buddhist priest, think about the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are a foundational teaching of The Buddha and as such, are foundational to Zen practice and teaching. I believe they add up to a profound understanding of the human condition and an excellent prescription for how to navigate this human life. Generally, I trust them. However, I make one important exception. But first, here’s how I understand the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is unsatisfying because everything’s impermanent and constantly changing, so it never quite matches or measures up to what I want.
2. Craving in various forms, based on a failure to understand the nature of things, is the source of this lack of satisfaction.
3. It’s possible to bring an end to this unsatisfactoriness once and for all
4. The route to the end of unsatisfactoriness (aka suffering) is the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha

The part I have trouble with is the “once and for all” part. Some fellow practitioners may say that part’s an artifact of translation, but I take it to be a key part of the teaching. My issue with it came into sharp relief when I was reading Buddhism with an Attitude: The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training, by B. Alan Wallace. In a short section of his excellent book, Wallace tackles this question of “once and for all.” First, he describes nirvana as “an irreversible state of freedom from all mental afflictions and their resultant suffering.” He goes on to write that “… the important question is: does our engagement with the ever-changing world necessarily trigger our own mental afflictions of attachment, anger, and delusion? The Buddhist assertion is that these mental toxins are responsible for all the mental suffering and fear we experience, and when the mind is purified of these afflictions, all mental distress vanishes and even physical pain is experienced in such a way that the
mind remains tranquil.”

Wallace draws a distinction between some senior Western teachers who say that practice/awakening does not alleviate all mental distress once and for all, versus some Tibetan teachers who profess that it does. Wallace believes the Tibetan view of the possibility permanent nirvana is what the Buddha truly taught and that anything “less” is just a psychological technique. To quote him fully:

“If all we are after is a temporary alleviation of our mental afflictions and the resultant suffering, there are a great number of avenues we can pursue. And if Buddhist meditation is presented as just one more way to achieve a transient easing of our distress, with no hope of a complete and irreversible cure from all mental afflictions, then it is reduced to the status of one more matrix of psychological techniques. But this was not what the Buddha himself was pursuing in his quest for enlightenment, and it is not what he claimed to offer to the world.”

He cites as proof “authoritative Indian Buddhist treatises” and the Tibetan contemplative Lobsang Tenzin achieving “a state of immutable bliss” based on long practice under difficult circumstances, and argues that if one person can achieve this, others can too. On the surface, this is pretty encouraging. Putting aside the question of whether it’s actually possible (I don’t personally believe it: Bliss, yes. Immutable, no. Didn’t the Buddha say something about immutability?), I’ve concluded that holding out the promise of this kind of immutable alleviation of all mental distress through meditation practice is actually unhelpful and maybe even dangerous.

Before explaining why I think this, I want to be clear that I count myself among the Western teachers Wallace refers to (they’re unnamed, so this is just my general sense) who, despite realizations and awakenings, “invariably return to the world of change, and this brings with it the wounds of pain.” That describes me, alright. But I can’t buy Wallace’s logic that dismisses practice that fails to provide “a complete and irreversible cure from all mental afflictions.” Perhaps this is a difference between Zen practice and Wallace’s Tibetan tradition. I’m not sure. Maybe Zen practice in general, my personal practice, or both are simply weak and badly flawed compared to Tibetan practice. I can’t say.

I do know the world I return to every day is a terrible mess, at war, hungry, full of human suffering. More intimately, several friends have died recently as has my mother. My own health is deteriorating. A grandchild wakes up with a burning fever in the middle of the night. And so forth. Every day, I return to this world of change and its wounds of pain. I’m grateful that my practice (and realizations and awakening experiences along the way) has helped immeasurably. It has given birth to an increasingly large and dependably tranquil space that holds and understands these wounds of pain as simply the nature of reality. It doesn’t make the wounds of pain go away, but it does moderate the extent to which I add to my suffering by thinking things should be otherwise.

As to my view that promising immutable alleviation of distress is unhelpful, the first two Noble Truths basically explain why. Meditation gets turned into one more unsatisfying pursuit. Certainly, it’s important not to be lazy about meditation, especially in Soto style Zen meditation where letting things arise and abide can turn into daydreaming. On the other hand, holding up immutable bliss or nirvana as a standard tends to turn meditation into one more form of striving – this is our habit in life every day and something our culture encourages. We ask ourselves how we’re doing and compare our life and everything in it to a standard (of wealth, of beauty, of achievement, of health) that’s been set up for us that we can’t really achieve, and we’re dissatified.

And I think the promise of immutable nirvana can even be dangerous because it can be (and is) used to feed idealized fantasies about meditation teachers. Religious cults and abusive teachers are not only ancient history. If you read the newspapers carefully or check out websites and blogs that document what’s going on in Buddhist sanghas in the West, you know that financial and sexual abuse by meditation teachers is a contemporary problem. And the notion that the offending teacher has transcended “the world of change” and somehow lives in the absolute is one bulwark used against appropriate intervention and remediation.

Which brings me back to where I started on this ramble – the question of holding to ancient teachings independent of evidence. I’ve met quite a few experienced, dedicated, kind, inspiring, skillful Buddhist meditation teachers, both Asian and Western. While my ability to judge is unavoidably limited, as far as I can tell, none of them comes close to being entirely free from distress or delusion and immutably blissful. This, together with my own experience, comprises the data I have to work with. Is it inconceivable to me that a human being could be completely and irreversibly cured from all mental afflications through practice? Theoretically, no. But practically speaking, I think this promise is not essential to faithful practice, and is more likely a hindrance.


  1. Peter says:

    Brandon, Nice to hear from you.