Thursday Evening Online Program
Dear Still Water Friends,
Despite practicing meditation in a Buddhist tradition for over 20 years, nirvana is something I have rarely considered. My practice nurtures greater calm, clarity, and compassion in me. That seems like more than enough to expect. That is, until last week when I heard a friend read a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) about nirvana and I began to question the limits of my aspirations.
In Enjoying the Ultimate: Commentary on the Nirvana Chapter of the Chinese Dharmapada, Thay challenges the notion of nirvana as an unreachable goal:
Many people think that nirvāṇa is a place of happiness where people who are enlightened go when they die. No idea could be more misleading. The Buddha taught many times about the nirvāṇa that can be realized right here and now, in this very life (dṛṣṭadharma-nirvāṇa). Nirvāṇa means liberation and freedom. If we are able to free ourselves from our afflictions such as attachment, hatred, and jealousy, and we can free ourselves from wrong views like our ideas about birth and death, being and nonbeing, coming and going, and so on, we can be in touch with nirvāṇa in the present moment.
While I have previously read Thay’s message that nirvana is available in the present moment, I didn’t ever consider that it could be available to me. But upon hearing this clear and eloquent description, I received it with a new openness. I began to wonder about this kind of freedom he alludes to and if it was something that deserved more of my attention.
In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay explains that the essence of nirvana is freedom from attachment to ideas:
Nirvana means extinction, above all the extinction of ideas — the ideas of birth and death, existence and nonexistence, coming and going, self and other, one and many. All these ideas cause us to suffer. We are afraid of death because ignorance gives us an illusory idea about what death is. We are disturbed by ideas of existence and nonexistence because we have not understood the true nature of impermanence and nonself.
We worry about our own future, but we fail to worry about the future of the other because we think that our happiness has nothing to do with the happiness of the other. This idea of self and other gives rise to immeasurable suffering.
In order to extinguish these ideas, we have to practice. Nirvana is a fan that helps us extinguish the fire of all our ideas, including ideas of permanence and self. That fan is our practice of looking deeply every day.
Understanding nirvana as a practice is very encouraging to me. It has motivated me to work more diligently on trying to let go of ideas, particularly when those ideas bring suffering to myself or others. I have even noticed more moments of beginning to be able to get space from particularly unhelpful thoughts like “I need to hurry,” “Things should be different,” and “My view on this subject is definitely the right one.” And that space from my own ideas does feel like freedom indeed.
This Thursday night, we will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:
- What arises for you when you hear the word nirvana?
- If nirvana is one of your mindfulness aspirations, how do you practice with it?
- Are there times that you notice the “extinction of ideas”?
You are invited to join us.
A related except by Thich Nhat Hanh from No Death, No Fear is below.
Walking in the Kingdom of God
By Thich Nhat Hanh from No Death, No Fear
If you want to know where God, the Buddhas and all the great beings live, I can tell you. Here is their address: in the here and now. It has everything you need, including the zip code.
If you can breathe in and out and walk in the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home, in the here, in the now,” then you will notice that you are becoming more solid and more free immediately. You have established yourself in the present moment, at your true address. Nothing can push you to run anymore, or make you so afraid. You are free from worrying about the past. You are not stuck, thinking about what has not happened yet and what you cannot control. You are free from guilt concerning the past and you are free from your worries about the future.
Only a free person can be a happy person. The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom that you have in your heart. Freedom here is not political freedom. Freedom here is freedom from regret, freedom from fear, from anxiety and sorrow. “I have arrived, I am home, in the here, in the now.”
“I am solid, I am free.” This is what you feel, what you become, when you arrive in the here and now. You’re not just telling yourself this — you will see it; you will feel it. And when you do, you will be at peace. You will experience nirvana, or the kingdom of God, or whatever you may like to call it. Even if you are not caught by a lot of worries, if you are not solid and free, how can you be happy? To cultivate solidity and freedom in the present moment is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.