In his wonderful book, “What makes you Not a Buddhist“, the author (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) points out that much of what we take as true Buddhism is really just the dressing that various cultures have added to Buddhism. In short, things like being a vegetarian, believing in reincarnation, being pacifist or living in a monastery are all actually not a part of Buddhism. As the author points out there are only 4 things that are integral to buddhism and these are the realization;
1. All compounded things are impermanent.
2. All emotions are pain.
3. All things have no inherent existence.
4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.
I have talked about the first three on this blog at various times but I’ve never really dealt with 4. (Nirvana is beyond Concepts) til now. It might be one of the toughest things to accept because we really have trouble conceiving of a thing which we can’t conceive! For example, thoughts are almost invariable accompanied by some form of concept. if we think of a person we may visualize their face, or the way they sound when they speak, their smell or even how their skin or hair feels. But when we try to conceive of “nothing” there is almost always “something” in our heads we are conceiving of as “nothing”. Perhaps we envision an empty vessel, a barren desert, the vastness of space but none of these things are actually nothing, they are symbols of nothingness.
Nirvana is like this, whatever you wish to call the state (enlightenment, awakening, as-it-is-ness, seeing reality, etc.) the fact is that it can not be described because the very act of conceptualizing it means you have lost it. In the sect of Zen Buddhism I follow it gets even more diffuse because we believe that so-called enlightenment is really just this very moment! No clouds, no angelic fanfare, no blinding flash of inspiration, just this very moment. It is no wonder that lots of folks get a little taste of Zen Buddhism and decide it isn’t for them, after all it is one of the few systems of belief out there which tells you right up front that there is no reward at the end of this path (of course the path itself is the reward, but no one wants that when they believe they get a shiny prize doing some other form of philosophy). So why bother?
For one thing, there are results of a sort, but they aren’t sought after, can’t be quantified, and don’t really change the world into the way you think you want it to be. The fact is that by the time you start to feel different you realize that lots of the things you started off desiring out of Zen aren’t even all that appealing to you anymore. Its like going on a 100 mile bike ride to get some ice cream, and by the time you arrive you feel so healthy and energetic you dont want ice cream anymore! Besides, its far more subtle than that, after sitting zazen for a few years you find that life is simply a little calmer, that you tend to stop feeling put upon by the world and instead you feel very much a part of it. It isn’t dramatic, but it is very comfortable.
Is that a big enough reward? It is once you are in it, but from the outside it probably doesn’t seem as cool as the idea of being all “enlightened” and, like, peaceful and shit. Most people seem to believe that the state of Nirvana is being sort of high all the time but never having to come down. In fact it would be safe to say that most folks want Nirvana to be just about anything other than what is going on in their lives right at this moment. Too bad, cause this is Nirvana right here.
You can not conceive of it because our conceptions are what is fucking it up in the first place. When they line says “Nirvana is beyond concepts” it doesn’t just mean that its cooler or more amazing than concepts, it literally means that it is beyond Concepts, as in further-down-the-road! Once you get past concepts, when we cease ignoring the real world for the one we make up in our minds it turns out that Nirvana is all around. It’s not something else that is keeping us apart from reality, its us.
I should admit right now that I’ve never been there, and I’ve been doing this Buddhism thing for some time now. Heck, I may never ever get to that point and I am absolutely sure that I will never get to anything matching my fantasies about what Nirvana is. What is amazing is that even though I feel like I’m 10,000 miles away from seeing it, I have found that even the first baby steps I have taken have substantially improved my own life and , I honestly believe, the lives of everyone else.The cool thing about Nirvana is that you don’t need to understand it, conceive of it, or feel it, you can just be it a little at a time.
*the only reference to the band Nirvana in this blog.