Saturday, October 13, 2007

Nirvana: who wants it?

One of the hot little debates in contemporary Buddhist Studies is focused on the nature of Nirvana and who exactly wants it.


The debate began in 1964, to the best of my knowledge, when Winston King published "In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics." There he describes a split soteriology (that is, two distinct goals) within Buddhism:
  1. that of the laity (heaven or a better human rebirth) and
  2. that of monks (nirvana).
For him this was based on empirical evidence. He did field research in Burma and Thailand (I believe) and simply asked people there why they practiced Buddhism. In general, the laity said, "to gain merit toward a better rebirth [in heaven or on earth]" while monks and (presumably) nuns said, "to attain nirvana."

His findings are supported, moreover, in the textual work in Richard Gombrich's "Theravada Buddhism." There (pp. 73-4) he states that, "... the Buddha expected those seriously interested in attaining salvation to become monks or nuns, that meditation was considered to be normally impossible for laity, and that much of the Buddha's teaching was only given to the Sangha." Gombrich gives the example of the very moving Anathapindikovada Sutta, in which Anathapindika, a lay patron of the Buddha is visited by Sariputta on his deathbed.

Sariputta attends to Anathapindika with calm and soothing words, to which the layman responds that he is suffering greatly and near death. Having heard this, Sariputta gives a long teaching on non-clinging as the final training for the dying man.

When this was said, Anathapindika the householder wept and shed tears. Ven. Ananda said to him, "Are you sinking, householder? Are you foundering?"

"No, venerable sir. I'm not sinking, nor am I foundering. It's just that for a long time I have attended to the Teacher, and to the monks who inspire my heart, but never before have I heard a talk on the Dhamma like this."

"This sort of talk on the Dhamma, householder, is not given to lay people clad in white. This sort of talk on the Dhamma is given to those gone forth."

"In that case, Ven. Sariputta, please let this sort of talk on the Dhamma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing [this] Dhamma. There will be those who will understand it."

There is no indication that the monks follow Anathapindika's suggestion, but rather they leave and soon after he dies and is reborn in Tusita Heaven, one of the highest realms of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology.

"Elsewhere," Gombrich continues, "the Buddha says that monks have a duty to show laymen the way to heaven; note that he does not say the way to nibbana [= S. nirvana]." The sutta he refers to there is the Sigalovada Sutta, described as 'The Layperson's Code of Discipline.' The only thing I can find there is in the Buddha's reinterpretation of the devotion to the six directions (a ritual performed by laypeople in his day) to mean a set of devotions (or duties) to six sets of people:
  1. East = Parents
  2. South = One's teacher
  3. West = Husband or Wife
  4. North = Clansman (or friends)
  5. Nadir = Servants and Employees
  6. Zenith = Ascetics and Brahmins
All of these are reciprocal relationships, i.e. a list of five duties toward the other and five duties they have back toward you. One of the duties that Ascetics and Brahmins have toward the layperson (and interestingly the only place where there are six duties instead of five) is (vi) they point out the path to a heavenly state. Also worth noting is that the Buddha does not speak strictly of duties on the reciprocal end, but rather five ways that the others "show their compassion towards [the layperson]." Lastly, this does not necessarily refer to Buddhist monks (who may well be charged elsewhere to lead the laity to nirvana), as the Buddha uses the term samaṇabrāhmaṇā (Ascetics and Brahmins) and not bhikkhu. (you can find the whole Tipitaka in Pali here)


To come... In brief, I think there is something important here, the beginning of a 'wedge' of sorts between the hightest good of the worldly life (heaven) and that of the renunciate/bhikkhu (nirvana). Those working to classify Buddhist Ethics as a 'virtue ethics' have tried to argue this wedge away.

Perhaps everyone does seek nirvana, but many simply accept that it won't come in this life. I don't know. It certainly raises questions for me - and I'll be interested to here what others think.


Gary said...

Hi Justin.

Great subject for reflection here - why do we practice?

From the Theravada point of view (and I practice this form of Buddhism), yes, according to scripture, those intent on Nibbana in this lifetime usually gave up lay life so's to devote themselves to the task at hand. This doesn't mean that no laypeople ever realized Nibbana, but in the Pali Canon, on the few occasions that this did occur,the newly enlightened Arahant would immediately ordain into the Sangha. (In Mahayana Buddhism, there are examples of fully enlightened lay people, including 'Layman Pang' and Vimalakrti, the latter appearing in the famous Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra.)

My favorite Buddhist layman found in the Pali Canon is called Citta the Householder (Cittogahapati). He did recieve detailed accounts of Dhamma aimed at Nibbana from bhikkhus and even explained Buddhist teachings when asked to by monks. He also confounded the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, in a lively and witty debate, as well as teaching the Dhamma to many lay people. Citta was declared the foremost layman in expounding the Dhamma, and this was the result of his dedicated meditation practice (he achieved all four levels of jhana, or meditative absorption). When he died, he was an Anagami, or Non-returner, the second highest level of awakening after Arahantship.

On a personal level, I practice Buddhism to realize Nibbana, but have no idea when this might transpire, so if it happens in this lifetime or in some future rebirth isn't a point I dwell on. I try to dwell on this moment now, being fully awake to the way things are at the present. This isn't as easy as it sounds, however, as I'm sure you know yourself, Justin!

Of course, many Buddhist teachers have emphasized that to desire Nibbana too much is an obstacle to realizing 'it' anyway! The great Ajahn Chah would make this point often to both his ordained and lay followers, saying that to want enlightenment was to immediately trap it in a concept that couldn't possibly lead to full awakening.

Thanks for a superb post, Justin!
Gary at Forest Wisdom.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Gary,

Regarding laypeople, Gombrich (p.73) notes that in the Milindapanha, p.264 it is said that if a layperson gains nibbana he [or she] will immediately join the Sangha or die within a day!

Yikes. But yes this does seem to be one idea fully rejected with the emergence of Mahayana.

And yes, like you, I seek nirvana - knowing full-well the difficulty entailed. :) It just makes me wonder why this talk of (just) heaven for the laity occurs in early Buddhism (and is found later in Pure-Land as well). Sure, I wouldn't mind being reborn in Amida's pure land so I can practice a bit more, but that is only so that I could gain full enlightenment.

So, for me at least, I say don't bother with striving for heaven so much and concentrate - layperson or not - on the path to enlightenment. Or, if you do seek heaven (/a pure land) and praise its wonderful attributes, just do so with the acknowledgement that it is not the end-all be-all.

In fact, now that I think of it, isn't heaven (the abode of the devas) described in Buddhism as a less appealing place to be reborn precisely because there is little impetus to practice there and death falls swiftly and unexectedly? - that may be a subtle knock against 'Ascetics and Brahmins' in the sutta I noted, saying that what they lead the layman to is realy a fairly lousy goal.