[Buddha-l] Nirvana si, bodhi no! [was: liturgical languages]

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri May 13 10:04:08 MDT 2005

On Thu, 2005-05-12 at 23:40 -0500, Bruce Burrill wrote:

> Would you be kind enough to expand on this -- the difference between 
> nirvana and enlightenment, and the role the Lotus Sutra plays in this. 

Unless I am mistaken (I usually am about Buddhism), the goal of original
Buddhism was nirvana, which was seen as the cessation and blocking of
the further arising of the kleshas for the remainder of this life and
the cessation of rebirth to any future rebirth in any realm at any time.
One of the kleshas is delusion, the absence of which is awakening from
delusion or coming to one's senses. Coming to one's senses is called
bodhi, often translated as enlightenment (but I, perhaps alone in this
wilderness, find this a truly repugnant translation fobbed off on us by
European enthusiasts of the European Enlightenment). Bodhi is a
necessary but not a sufficient condition for nirvana. Bodhi, in other
words, is not the goal of Buddhist practice. Even in Mahayana,
bodhicitta is not the goal of Buddhist practice; rather, the goal is
still nirvana. Bodhicitta is the desire to recover one's senses well
enough to lead all suffering beings to nirvana. It is a means to a noble
end. Even in so-called Happy Land (or Pure Land) Buddhism, the goal is
not to attain the Happy Land. That is merely a way-station on the way to
nirvana. So in both original and Mahayana Buddhism the final goal is
nirvana, and nirvana is a name given to the absence of kleshas and the
blocking (damming, to use the standard metaphor in early Buddhist texts)
of future rebirth.

What changed with the Lotus Sutra, I think, was the explicit denigration
of nirvana and the elevation of anuttara samyaksambodhi (previously seen
as a quality only of the Buddha) to the status of the goal of all
Buddhist practice. The claim is made that unsurpassed perfect awakening
is the goal to which everyone will attain, unless they "settle" for
"mere nirvana." Striving for nirvana is then seen as the goal of those
who are overwhelmed with "overweening pride" (to use one of the
favourite refrains from the Lotus).

During all the years I practiced Zen, I never once heard any talk of
nirvana. All I ever heard about was enlightenment, which I gather was
seen as the natural state of all beings. So seeing nature (kensho) was
seeing the intrinsic enlightenment of all beings, sentient and
insentient. It never made any sense to me. I continued with Zen only
because I liked eating with chopsticks. When the outfit I was with
starting eating with spoons and forks, Zen lost all its appeal to me and
I let my overweening pride steer me back to original Buddhism and the
pursuit of nirvana.

There are reasons why I think nirvana is superior in every way to bodhi
as an ultimate goal. Let me address that issue in a separate message,
which I will write when I get back from my yoga class (taught by my
lovely and flexible wife, who disagrees completely with my understanding
of Buddhism but tolerates me anyway).

Richard Hayes
"The spiritual path is never one of achievement; it is always one of
letting go. The more we let go, the more there is empty and open space
for us to see reality." 
                                              --Sister Ayya Khema

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