Saturday, April 4, 2009

Nirvanic Inevitability

Recently I was perusing the internet in order to get some idea about what sort of misunderstandings of Buddhism are in circulation. It is, as American airmen during the first Iraq War used to say 'a target-rich environment.' And of course I'm just talking about the 'reasonable' stuff, the 'intelligent' but misinformed material. Putting it all together I got the impression that a good percentage of these misunderstanding are due to mistakenly attributing Hindu concepts to Buddhism. One such idea I found to be quite prevalent is what you could call the Doctrine of Nirvanic Inevitability. There seen to be two versions of this idea and they go like this. (1) Each time we die we are reborn into a gradually higher form (a germ, a cockroach, a frog, a mouse, a horse, a Republican, a Democratic, a Buddhist Democratic, a Buddhist monk, etc) until we eventually attain Enlightenment. The other version of this idea is that (2) we are here 'to learn.' Each time we are reborn we are given opportunities to learn about life and truth. As we learn we gradually move upwards until we…(fill in the gap) attain Nirvana/union with God/the Absolute/ see The Light, etc.
In a sense, this second version of the idea of Nirvanic Inevitability approaches the Buddha's Dhamma, but like the first version it includes or implies concepts that are not really Buddhist. (1) Both ideas suggest that Liberation or Realization is inevitable, and (2) both imply that there is some innate 'purpose' behind the process of birth and death
There is no hint of either of these ideas in the earliest record of the Buddha's teachings or even in the later versions (at least not that I know of. If anyone can correct me on this point please do - but it will be necessary to give chapter and verse). The only thing that comes near Nirvanic Inevitability is in the Tipitaka is the accounts of the teachings of Makkhali Gosala. He explained it by using the analogy of a ball of string, which, when thrown on the ground, continues to roll until it has completely unwound. 'Fool and wise alike go round and round until they (inevitably) put an end to suffering' (D.I,54). In early Medieval Hinduism the doctrine evolved that if you diligently adhere to your caste Dharma you will gradually be reborn into a higher caste until you are finally reborn as a brahman and from that position attain the goal - another version of the same idea. The Buddha's vision differed from all these ideas. There is, he implied, no 'purpose' or 'meaning' behind samsara; it is an impersonal and rather unpleasant process which 'just keeps rollin along', propelled by ignorance and craving. And until we reach what might be called the 'breakthrough point' or the 'critical mass', sotapati, there are no guarantees. We could go very high (one or another of the heaven realms) or very low. Further, the idea of a higher or lower rebirth in terms of caste, social or economic status, is nowhere suggested by the Buddha. In fact, he directly denied it. In the interesting he tells of an utterly poverty-strickened man who has a most advantageous rebirth (the implication is that he attained the sotapatianga) because he had faith, virtue, learning and wisdom. And in the Buddha's Dhamma there is no suggestion that we will just pick up these things as we go through life. They require an act of will, making an effort, trying.


lzblue said...

Another insightful article.
Can you provide some references to this statement?
"There is, he implied, no 'purpose' or 'meaning' behind samsara"
Thank you :)

Ken and Visakha said...

The Four Dhamma Summaries

The world is swept away.
It does not endure.

The world offers no shelter.
There is no one in charge.

The world has nothing of its own.
One has to pass on, leaving everything behind.

The world is insufficient, insatiable,
A slave to craving.
– Majjhima Nikaya 82

lzblue said...

Thank you Ken and Visakha.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Thank you Ken and Visakha

Virgin Man said...

One related question: As living beings exit samsara to enter nibbana, the samsara would be less crowded through time. Eventually no one is left in it, isn't it?

The reality showed me otherwise.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Virgin Man,
Nirvana is not a 'place' you 'enter' and thus cannot be empty, half-full or crowded. It is a state, or perhaps better, a transformative realization. The mind knows, truly knows, something it didn’t know before, and this radically changes how the individual relates to existence and the world. If I struggle to solve a mathematical equation and then suddenly 'see' the answer, that knowledge does not make my mind a little more 'full' in the spatiotemporal sense.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Virgin Man,
Sorry, but I misunderstood your question. I imagine that you are referring to the growing number of humans. So our visual experience tells us that their numbers are growing. But according to the Buddha, beings that we can't see (devas, purgatorial beings, etc) can be reborn as humans, and this might explain why there are more humans now than there were before.