Sunday, 12 February 2017

Parinirvana, death and freedom

So today's festival day marks the Buddha's great decease in the sala tree grove at Kusinagara at the end of a period of wandering and teaching that apparently lasted up to 45 years. The Pali scriptures record the occasion very fully. One particularly touching episode relates the story of the lamentation of Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and attendant for the last 25 years of his life: it's quite short so I'll quote it in full:

Then Ven. Ananda, going into a [nearby] building, stood leaning against the door jamb, weeping: "Here I am, still in training, with work left to do, and the total Unbinding of my teacher is about to occur — the teacher who has had such sympathy for me!"

Then the Blessed One said to the monks, "Monks, where is Ananda?"

"Lord, Ven. Ananda, having gone into that building, stands leaning against the door jamb, weeping: 'Here I am, still in training, with work left to do, and the total Unbinding of my teacher is about to occur — the teacher who has had such sympathy for me!'"

Then the Blessed One told a certain monk, "Come, monk. In my name, call Ananda, saying, 'The Teacher calls you, my friend.'"

"As you say, lord," the monk answered and, having gone to Ven. Ananda, on arrival he said, "The Teacher calls you, my friend."

"As you say, my friend," Ven. Ananda replied. Then he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "Enough, Ananda. Don't grieve. Don't lament. Haven't I already taught you the state of growing different with regard to all things dear & appealing, the state of becoming separate, the state of becoming otherwise? What else is there to expect? It's impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.

"For a long time, Ananda, you have waited on the Tathagata with physical acts of good will — helpful, happy, whole-hearted, without limit; with verbal acts of good will... with mental acts of good will — helpful, happy, whole-hearted, without limit. You are one who has made merit. Commit yourself to exertion, and soon you will be without mental fermentations."

This is a lovely episode isn't it, although you can't help but feel that Ananda's grief is directed at his own sense of loss, which I guess is always the nature of grief: "here I am with work left to do, but my teacher is now about to leave me". But it's particularly worth noting that the Buddha tells Ananda not to grieve, as the Buddha's passing is both natural and inevitable, fully in accordance with his teaching of impermanence, and Ananda cannot expect not to be separated from that which is dear and appealing. Even on his deathbed the Buddha's concern is with the welfare of his disciple, that he should fully understand and act on what he has been taught. His attitude is one of total kindness and encouragement. He doesn't sound like a man who is worried that his life's about to be snuffed out. He doesn't sound scared. I don't know about you, but I get scared when I think about my own death. I can only reflect on it for a short while before my mind just kind of slides off into more comfortable territory. The difference is, of course, that the Buddha is enlightened, that he has already experienced klesha-nirvana, an awakening that eliminates all negative mental states and all confusion regarding the nature of reality, and Ananda has not. So Ananda is, from our point of view, understandably upset that the Buddha 's time of "unbinding" is at hand.

But hang on a minute. The Buddha is already enlightened, fully emancipated. So what is this "unbinding" that Ananda refers to? When I looked up "unbinding" online I found that it is used as a synonym for nirvana itself, one explanation being that nirvana is like the extinguishing of a flame that is bound to its fuel, releasing the flame from bondage, unbinding it. But if the Buddha isn't yet fully unbound, something is still binding him until the point of death. But what?

The answer lies in the title of today's festival - Parinirvana Day. What Parinirvana means is "nirvana without remainder". To see what that means we should compare the two types of nirvana I've already mentioned: klesha-nirvana and Parinirvana. As I said, klesha-nirvana arises with the extinction of the passions, of all negative mental states and views concerning the nature of reality. But what's left behind? Well, the answer is the Buddha's psychophysical organism, his senses, his total experience of embodiment on any plane of conditioned existence. This is the remainder in nirvana without remainder. It's a telling expression: the Buddha's entire embodied experience dismissed, as it were, as leftovers. It does at the very least indicate a perspective that is unimaginably different from ours! There's also a sense of deep mystery: if the remainder is everything we experience in this life, what on earth can be experienced as being outside it? Thats a tricky one, and I'll return to it later.

Nirvana without remainder in the sources I've found refers to nirvana without the five skandhas. Many of you will be familiar with these from the Heart Sutra, which contains the lines "the Bodhisattva of compassion, when he meditated deeply, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds that caused him suffering". The sutra then goes on to say what they are, in some cases a bit idiosyncratically. I'll tell you about them in a moment. But first its already worth noting here the association between the skandhas and suffering.

The skandhas, the remainder abandoned by the Buddha at the point of Parinirvana, are basically a way of describing the sum total of our experience. I prefer talking in terms of experience rather than material or stuff out there because our experience is all we can know, and anything else is speculation. They are the experience of physical form, feeling in the primary sense of pleasant, painful and neutral, perception, actions and consciousness. Between them, according to early Buddhist teachings, they completely exhaust anything we can possibly experience in the universe.

Firstly, form, or rupa. The rupa skandha covers the experience relayed via the physical senses. It is everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. You might say that it is the world "out there", although it also includes our embodied sense of ourselves - our own physicality. Traditionally it is talked about principally in terms of the four great elements or earth, water, fire and air plus a whole load of secondary experiences which I won't go into now. Let's try to get a sense of this in immediate practical terms. Put out your hand and touch something, the floor or your chair or leg. What happens? Well, there's an experience of solidity, of resistance. You can't put your hand through it. That is the earth element. But at the same time there's a feeling of flexibility, of flow. If you press down your flesh gives way, and if you move your fingers you get a sense of fluidity. That's the water element. There is also an experience of temperature, warm or cold. That's fire. And lastly, in your hands and in your whole body there's a sense of expansion, of buoyancy. They aren't like slabs of rock or dead fish. That's the air element. And between them these elements make up all the essentials of our experience of materiality.

And if you look closely you'll find that the experience comes with a feeling tone. It might be mildly pleasant, mildly unpleasant or too neutral for you to identify a particular feeling tone. But of course we're all familiar with pleasant and painful feelings in our lives, from toothache to heartbreak. All of these start with simple hedonic feeling, which is vedana, which can be physical or mental. If you've ever discussed the wheel of life, you will know how crucial vedana is in the generation of suffering. But more of that in a minute.

If you look at your hand, a couple of things happen. You see a particular shape with bits sticking out of it, lines, shadow and light, colour tones, and you recognise it as "my hand". That's perception - sanna - which is our faculty for recognising things, say colours or shapes, and using our previous experience of them to categorise the objects that have them as this or that. This is of course a useful skill, as it enables me to tell the difference between a bus and a biscuit.

I can use my hands in various ways. I can make a cup of tea as an act of thoughtfulness for a friend or reluctantly because I’ve been asked but don’t really want to; I can paint a picture to beautify my own mind and delight other people or to curry favour with a totalitarian regime, or I can fire a gun in sport or in anger. These actions all condition certain effects, and those effects depend on the mental state in which I perform the action. Negative mental states give rise to suffering, positive mental states conduce to happiness, and neutral mental states have no particular karmic effect. Volitional actions that give rise to particular consequences are known as samskaras. I've also heard them described as all the actions that make up our life, which is all of them really.

And finally, what makes it possible for me to perceive my hands, to see or smell them, to touch with them? The answer is consciousness. Our western view of consciousness tends to see it as a kind of field that surrounds us, into which objects enter and are then registered by that consciousness, but the Buddhist take on it is different. early Buddhist teaching has it that each sense organ is associated with a particular consciousness: eye consciousness, ear consciousness and so on, and that for an act of perception to take place there needs to be a functioning organ, an object "out there" and consciousness to link the two. Consciousness only arises under these conditions. So consciousness isn't an ever-present field that surrounds us but is instead dependent on conditions to manifest. This is vinnana, the fifth and last of the skandhas, of the elements that make up all our experience.

So to recap, we have form, feeling, perception, action and consciousness. And that's all. There is nothing else.

All very interesting, perhaps (at least to me!), but what does it have to do with enlightenment and the Buddha and us? Well, a lot. The composite word often used in the Pali scriptures is "upadanakhanda", which means "the skandhas afflicted by clinging". The unenlightened many folk don't just have skandhas, they have skandhas afflicted by clinging. The enlightened, in contrast, do not, except inasmuch as their skandhas are objects of clinging for the unenlightened. What does this all mean? Well, I think it means that we ordinary people take our skandhas and add the idea of a self to them. My form, my feelings, my perceptions, my actions and my consciousness. And it is this positing of a self that opens us up to suffering. If things are mine, then losing them will cause me suffering. A belief in me in here sets up an opposition with everything else out there, and that is a recipe for tension and unhappiness. And this all arises on the basis of an illusion, as the self we posit just isn't there.

Let's examine this a bit. If something is truly mine, then I would expect to be able to dispose of it as I see fit, like I do my car or my computer. But in terms of the skandhas that doesn't really hold water. If rupa or form were really mine, I would be able to control the information conveyed by my senses. Instead of bumping up against a wall, I ought to be able to walk through it or at least to choose the physical experience I have. But I can't. I can only experience the physical sensations that the conditions – the particular materiality of my body - allow me to experience. So rupa depends on conditions. And if I am really rupa, what happens when I'm asleep can no longer feel my body? Do I cease to be? What about someone who is paralysed from the neck down? Or someone who loses a limb? Are they any less themselves? I think the answer has to be no. So rupa can't be any basis for an independent and autonomous me. The same goes for feelings or vedana: not even the Buddha could control painful, neutral or pleasant sensations except on a temporary basis by going into dhyāna. So how can I possibly hope to? And vedanā are transient, changing constantly and not enduring for ever. And what about perceptions? I can't look at Abhayanara and see Napoleon or Harry Potter, unless I'm delusional that is. I can’t see a car and perceive a wombat. I can try to make my perceptions more accurate, for instance by recognising a rope as a rope and not a snake, but the basic stuff that experience presents to me is given by the nature of my senses and the information they relay to me, backed up by all my past experience. And my perceptions are continuously changing. To see this, all you have to do is get up and turn in a circle. As the visual field changes, so does your visual perception. You can’t do anything about it. So this doesn't admit the possibility of an autonomous me calling the perceptual shots. And, as far as samskaras go, I will admit that I can to some extent control my actions, but we probably all know how easy it is to be controlled by them. And there is never any complete autonomy in our actions, as they are all conditioned by motives that arise from feeling and perception. These motives may be skilful or unskilful, but, because they are conditioned, they do not constitute a self. And, lastly, there is consciousness, which in Buddhism is nothing other than a moment-by-moment arising in dependence on the presence of sense organs and sense objects. The tendency to put all these things together to create a separate and enduring "me" is very strong, and the feeling we have of that self is very strong, but, as Chökyi Nyima Rimpoche puts it, the closer you look, the more elusive it gets.

So positing a self on the basis of the skandhas - clinging to them - causes us suffering. The self needs protecting by pushing away things that appear threatening to it and trying to cling on to things it thinks will make it happy. This kind of push-pull tension is virtually ever-present and leads to enormous amounts of dissatisfaction. I’m sure none of you needs to hear any more about this to know that it’s true!

The Buddha also had skandhas. He had senses, feelings, perceptions, actions and consciousness. But his realisation consisted in seeing that no permanent self was to be found in them. With this realisation came the end of identification, the end of all kinds of emotional and psychological suffering. He let go of identifying the skandhas as being him. When seen in this light, the idea of the skandhas as "remainder" starts to make sense. Whatever the Buddha was, he wasn't to be found in the skandhas. This recalls the line from the Heart Sutra: "the Bodhisattva of compassion, when he meditated deeply, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas, and sundered the bonds that caused him suffering." No longer beset by ideas of me or mine, the Buddha cut off all suffering at the root.

Well, not quite all suffering. There was still suffering in the remainder. Particularly when he got old, the Buddha's body was a source of constant discomfort. He would get backache, and at one point he memorably describes his body as being like a broken-down old cart, held together by straps. It is said that he could only escape from physical discomfort by going into dhyana. But the difference between him and us was that not identifying with the experience meant that he didn't suffer any of the psychological or emotional suffering that we normally do when the skandhas don't play ball.

So we get the idea of the Buddha's skandhas binding him to the material plane, even though his mind was completely free - and completely unfathomable. If the Buddha wasn't to be found in any of the skandhas, where was he? Well, there's the problem. If the five skandhas exhaust everything that can be experienced, what is there outside them? The Pali word to describe this mysterious realm is Lokuttara, which, rather unhelpfully, means "above the world". So if you're not careful you can start imagining some kind of realm above and beyond the suffering of samsara, a bit like the Christian heaven, into which the Buddha happily ascended in spirit and then, at the point of his death, in his entirety. I've recently been reading an interesting little book called "Honest to God", written in 1962 by the then bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, which deals with the same problematic issue from a Christian perspective. Robinson says that the traditional Christian idea of God "up there", beyond the reach of straining church spires, was at some point replaced by the idea of God "out there": one spatial metaphor replaced by another. But his point was that increasing scientific understanding of the universe rendered this idea absurd for modern people, and a completely different understanding of transcendence was needed: the presence of the divine in everyday things, sanctified by love, like the bread and wine. This struck a real chord with me: the problem lies in the concepts themselves. The skandhas are not things in themselves: they are merely limited concepts that have a certain instrumental value but are empty of real existence, of self. And the idea of nirvana, of emptiness itself, is likewise a concept, an inspiring one perhaps, but limited nonetheless in our understanding to a particular state or set of states experienced by an entity. In reality there is no difference between them: the distinction between the conditioned existence that we create by grasping the skandhas and the unconditioned nature of nirvana is ultimately illusory. To become free, the Buddha had to let go of an idea of there being a self that could be free or unfree. And this ultimate freedom was realised with the final abandonment of the skandhas at Parinirvana. Even to say the Buddha became free is to miss the point, to posit an entity that could attain to freedom. Perhaps the closest we can get is simply to say that the Buddha was – is - freedom itself, above any categories of freedom or bondage. A freedom that is ultimate bliss - for, without limits of any kind, how could there be suffering of any kind - and compassion for anyone stuck in notions of self or, for that matter, not-self. A freedom that was supreme letting go.

Which brings me to my final point, which intersects with our practice. When we get involved in the Dharma we are quite naturally looking to better ourselves, to change, to become kinder, more aware, and wiser. There's nothing wrong with any of this, but I would argue that we tend to see progress in the Dharma life as equivalent to becoming a better me: kinder, more aware, but still essentially me. And the reason we can't comprehend enlightenment is because it is impossible for us to think in terms other than being us, essentially separate and recognisable, albeit with various bells and whistles. This is what you might call the developmental model. Great, but not sufficient on its own. I think we also need to engage with letting go, letting go of identification with our skandhas, of ourselves as a particular being. Letting go of boundaries, of self-interest. And I think we have practices that allow us to do this. Take the metta bhavana for instance. Viewed in one way, it is a practice of developing kindness, becoming kinder and friendlier. Viewed in another, however, it's about letting go of the difference between ourselves and other people, transcending them, being united with others in a field of love. And even the good old mindfulness of breathing. Is it a concentration exercise or an opportunity to see the changing nature of our experience and to cease to identify with it? What about simple acts of generosity? A truly generous impulse is a momentary realisation of the emptiness of any distinction between ourselves and the recipient of our generosity. It offers a glimpse of that mysterious state that is neither of the world nor not of the world, not in the skandhas but nowhere else either.

So this is the question I would like to leave you with. When you think of your Dharma life, what terms do you think in? Do you think of adding positive qualities onto yourself but staying essentially the same, or do you also experience those mysterious moments in which the self loses traction, and you find yourself in a state of greater openness and connectedness with others?