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Like worms towards the motorway

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

The sixth of the blogs from 2014. This one is quite self-contained and doesn’t require many annotations from 2022.

There is a Nibbana element.

This was a completely new idea to me. The Buddhist worldview is that there is a world made up of the four elements – water, fire, earth, and air. And that our bodies are a temporary constellation of these constituent elements that return to these base materials after death. A Western scientific notion might be that we are all atoms, temporarily constellated, only to dissolve back into carbon, oxygen etc. once we die.

The idea that Nibbana is part of the mix was not an idea I had heard up till that point. Nibbana (or nirvana) is a familiar word yet rarely expounded upon. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is notoriously tight-lipped about it. He rarely defines this undefinable concept because it is beyond concepts. The most we hear is negations: the Unborn, the Unconditioned, the Undying.

You will reach liberation from the cycle of suffering and dwell in the unconditioned, unsuffering state of Nibbana

Without a doubt, though, it is seen as the outcome of practice. This is what we’re all heading towards.

In the Hinayana, the earliest school of Buddhism, there is an idea of personal liberation. That by following the eightfold path and understanding the four noble truths (the core teaching of the Buddha) you will reach liberation from the cycle of suffering and dwell in the unconditioned, unsuffering state of Nibbana. This is a state that one can attain within a human body (though not necessarily within a human lifetime).

Within this tradition, it is common to conceive of Nibbana as the ‘goal’ or aspiration of one’s practice. The problem is that goals take us out of the Present into a conceptualized future. Which is what the questioner in Lisbon was struggling with: If Nibbana is in the present – surely there’s no goal, no getting anywhere and the whole idea of ‘improving oneself’ becomes redundant?

Later manifestations of Buddhist thought (the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools) change the goalposts.

One chooses to stay in the suffering mass to ensure that ALL sentient beings are liberated too

The Mahayana (so, for example, Zen thinking) sees the aspiration, not as personal liberation but universal liberation. Each person moves towards Nibbana but rather than disappearing out of the world – one chooses to stay in the suffering mass to ensure that ALL sentient beings are liberated too. This ideal is known as the Boddhisattva vow: to stay in the world and help all fellow beings to liberate themselves likewise. This, of course, presupposes the idea of re-birth. And it necessitates a very long haul till every human, bird, worm, microbe has progressed through to Buddhahood. But – the Mahayanists believe, – the state of being a Boddhisattva is (because of its compassionate core) the most exalted state to exist in.

Vajrayana practitioners (mostly Tibetan schools) reach another solution. For them, there is no development towards a state of Nibbana, rather a simplification or purification of our present state which is simply unaware that we are already perfectly enlightened. This is the idea of tathagata-gartha or Buddha Nature. We all have perfect Buddha awareness but it’s covered in crud and conditioned delusion. The ‘Path’ is not to become something else but to realise you are who you truly are. In this model there is no need to move out of the timeless present – that is precisely the place where Nibbana dwells.

Most of us limp along through life, like blind slow-worms heading towards the motorway

All of these three models of ‘enlightenment’ are pointing to the same thing but in quite different ways. And the problem with all of them is: why aren’t we feeling enlightened and why is it so difficult to touch Nibbana? Because most of us do not feel enlighted or liberated on a day-to-day level. When suffering comes along we definitely get caught up in it. Most of us do not feel radiant and luminous with inherent wisdom and compassion. And most of us limp along through life, like blind slow-worms heading towards the motorway.

Which is why Sucitto’s idea of the Nibbana element is so interesting.

As he expounded it in Lisbon, there is this extra element which we might also call space which ‘breaks up’ the continuity of the other five, more familiar ones.

This rings a change on a common idea in Vajrayana Buddhism about being aware of the ground, not the form. So when we see a black circle on a white background we automatically see that: a black circle. We don’t habitually see a white wall with a hole in it.

Similarly, looking at these letters on your screen. Your habitual focus sees the black marks but you don’t give any importance to the white shapes that flow around them. But, of course, without the white space, there would be no black shape, no letters and no meaning. So we need space for form to exist.

This constant, obsessive worrying and fussing about oneself is a kind of self-hypnosis, a self-brainwashing

Vajrayana Buddhism makes a great deal out of space. It is in “basic space”, to use the Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa’s phrase, that basic sanity arises. And this is, I think what Sucitto is also pointing at.

Much of the stress of being alive in the world comes from this seamless torrent of worried and anxious thoughts. I mentioned this in the last post – the anxious ripples of infant anxiety, rolling endlessly through our busy, pre-occupied lives. And from a Buddhist point of view, this constant, obsessive worrying and fussing about oneself is a kind of self-hypnosis, a self-brainwashing: I am worrying so much therefore I must be in danger and so I should worry some more. “You see, by worrying so much, nothing really terrible happened”. Or when something terrible does happen – then “If I had worried a bit harder, a bit more comprehensively, then that wouldn’t have happened. I need to worry more.”

This, or some subtle variant of this, is what the Buddha calls “me-making”. All the little localised thoughts about what’s happening between this body and the world outside it, all add up into a seamless, airless blanket of ME. Rather than occasional targeted thoughts, like “how do I find the way out of this building? There, I’ve done it. Back to freshness…”, we believe the constant hype of – I’m a bad map-reader. I’m hopeless. I’m brilliant. This person hates me. This person is a good thing for me. I, I, I. Me.Me. Me….

Like a chopper or a scalpel, the Nibbana element cuts through that.

If we train ourselves to pay attention to the gaps then the whole blanket unravels. In a good way. In a way that lets more air in.

Someone commented on Twitter that without thought we wouldn’t exist and that is precisely the sort of delusion that ‘me-making’ insists upon.

Most of us, he said, would not notice Nibbana when it comes

Actually, there are thousands of moments in a day when we don’t think – when we’re simply eating, or smelling something, or being in our body. And there are the whole hours of sleep where the thinking mind is silent but we still exist. But we never acknowledge them. Never pay any attention.

I remember Ajahn Sumedho, Sucitto’s teacher, pointing this out: Most of us, he said, would not notice Nibbana when it comes. We’d march right past it, looking for the next thought about ourselves, the next thing we need to do. The spaciousness, simplicity, vastness would be too ‘boring’ and we’d miss it.

This is also what Sucitto is pointing us towards. Pay attention to the gaps – to the Nibbana element – that is already seamed through our lives in a much more fundamental way than we have noticed and two things happen: one, the suffocation of the ‘me’ blanket starts to vanish and two, the other elements – the air, fire, earth, water of our life – stands out in brilliant, fresh detail.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Nibbana. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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