Taking a look at Buddhism's central promise
At the heart of Buddhism is the idea of awakening, or enlightenment. The basic idea is that the practices of Buddhism lead to a fundamental shift in the way you experience the world, with the result that life is immeasurably better thereafter. But what changes, and how?
Liberation from suffering in early Buddhism
A key concept in the Pali canon - the earliest records we have of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived roughly 2,500 years ago - is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. These encapsulate what is usually seen as the central problem that Buddhism intends to address:
You'll find different translations and interpretations, but the gist is generally pretty straightforward - life sucks, but the Buddha found a way out of life's suckitude, and if you follow the Eightfold Path then sooner or later your life won't suck any more either.
Early Buddhism elaborates the path of awakening by describing ten 'fetters' which are progressively 'unbound' through practice. Along the way to full awakening - becoming an 'arahant', a 'worthy one' - you'll overcome sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and ignorance. Finally, you achieve nibbana (aka nirvana, not to be confused with the grunge band), which literally means something like 'blowing out', like a candle flame.
The 'candle flame' analogy also works nicely with another central teaching in early Buddhism, that of the 'three fires' of greed, hatred and confusion. Through practice, we extinguish these fires, and as a result we come to see the world with their opposites, generosity, compassion and wisdom.
So far, so good. But what does it actually look like to 'extinguish' greed, hatred and confusion?
What does it mean to be 'free' of something?
Freedom means different things to different people.
Some - particularly orthodox Theravada teachers - would say that when one of the fetters is overcome, it's totally destroyed, eradicated, finito - so, for example, when you overcome the fetter of ill will, you will never experience ill will ever again, for the rest of time. If you do find even the tiniest flicker of ill will - oops, you weren't as enlightened as you thought, better keep practising.
This is a very high standard. For some of us, this is very motivational - it suggests that the outcome of truly devoted practice is extraordinary, and we can feel blessed even to have the good fortune to have encountered the teachings and to know that such things are possible. We can also look to real-life examples of deeply committed practitioners who are able to bear remarkable levels of suffering with profound equanimity - for example, when my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, was dying of cancer, she maintained a remarkable and inspiring peace of mind, calmness and clarity throughout the process.
On the other hand, for some of us this kind of ideal can be quite unhelpful. As I mentioned in last week's article, there's a fine line between working skilfully with difficult emotions and simply suppressing them, and if our idea of success is to have completely extinguished all negative states then that's a recipe for suppression. Alternatively, perhaps we regard the goal as unachievable - maybe it's something that monastic practitioners can achieve, but daily life is sufficiently intense, busy and triggering that it seems there's no hope of totally eliminating our reactivity. Or maybe it's actually unattractive to us - we value the richness of our emotional life, and what's being described sounds worryingly close to becoming an emotionless robot who is only capable of experiencing a bland, tepid neutrality all day long.
Another interpretation of 'freedom' is that the condition may still arise, but it no longer has power over us. Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we experience a surge of anger - but that anger is seen for what it is, and we can allow it to arise, be experienced and then pass away again, without the anger forcing us to act in a certain way. This type of freedom is not so much about eliminating anything as giving us the choice about whether or not to participate in it.
This type of freedom is what tends to be found in Zen, where there's a strong emphasis on having a full emotional range, rather than being what my teacher Daizan calls a 'good little Buddhist' who is always buttoned up, well-behaved and never deviating from the straight and narrow. In Zen, emotions - even the 'negative' ones - are seen as something to be included in the practice, rather than something to be eliminated.
In fact, Zen goes as far as to say that achieving permanent nirvana is not the goal of the practice - actually, the experience of nirvana is merely a way-station on a much longer journey. The peace of mind of nirvana is certainly a worthwhile experience, but the ultimate aim of Zen practice is to help us live a fully engaged life, not simply 'extinguish' ourselves.
Experiencing moments of freedom
Let's go back to the three 'fires' - greed, hatred and confusion. We've all had experiences of acting from a place of one (or more!) of these three, and we would probably admit that these were not our wisest actions in retrospect.
On the other hand, we've all had experiences of their opposites as well - acting from a place of generosity, compassion, and wisdom - and I'm willing to bet that these were happier, more fulfilling experiences. We could look at experiences like these as moments of freedom - moments of nirvana.
The three fires typically arise in the form of reactivity - an instinctive grasping, pushing away, or misunderstanding of what's going on. (This is what's meant by 'craving' in the Second Noble Truth - the urge to act in a certain way which arises in response to a situation.) By cultivating mindfulness, presence and open-heartedness, we develop the ability to see that reactivity arise and then let go of it, without being compelled to act on it, making space for a wiser response to the situation. Over time, we find that more and more of our behaviour comes from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom - the moments of nirvana come more frequently and last longer. This type of freedom profoundly enriches our lives, without requiring us to eliminate or suppress anything - a moment of freedom is a moment of freedom, even if it's the only one we've had all week. Nirvana then becomes not a permanent resting place - retiring to the beach with a deck-chair and waiting for your life to come to its end - but a powerful support for a life of action.
A classic Zen practice which cultivates this very directly is 'just sitting' (also known as shikantaza, Silent Illumination, resting in the Unborn, and various other names). In this practice, you simply sit, aware of whatever comes and goes, without pushing away or grabbing onto anything - in other words, the direct experience of non-reactivity. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen went as far as to say that this kind of practice is enlightenment, and that there is no other liberation than this.
So why wait? Experience nirvana today! You can find a guided shikantaza practice on my Audio page to get you started. Enjoy!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!