Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, “Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.” Those were the Tathagata’s last words.
Nirvana Day is a Buddhist holiday in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd month. It commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, breathed his last. In Buddhist terms, this is sometimes called parinirvana or “final unbinding”. Upon reaching enlightenment in his younger years, he then reached the state of nirvana. However, as he still had residual karma, he lived out his life until the age of 80 when the karma was exhausted, and he became completely unbound. His last words, recorded above, reminded his fellow monks not to be idle and to strive along the Buddhist path too.
The notion of Nirvana (sometimes called Nibbana) is somewhat confusing to people who are new to Buddhism. Most people think of it as a kind of happy bliss where one is smiling and joyous, almost like they’re on drugs. Or, people see Nirvana as a kind of nihilistic extinction.
Nirvana is neither of these things. It is the state of mind that all Buddhists aspire to in one way or another, but rather than trying to explain it myself, allow me to quote the Buddha:
“This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.”
Ok, peace sounds nice, but why would one want dispassion, cessation and so on? I mean, if you’re reading this, you might be thinking “my life is pretty good right now, why would I give that up?”
The key to Nirvana is insight. The Buddha experienced Nirvana only after he had reached enlightenment, saw into the nature of all things. Once that happened, he couldn’t look at life the same way, and learned to let go of all the things he craved after. It wasn’t a conscious effort, presumably, it was something he saw, and couldn’t unsee no matter how much he wanted. But having seen it, he let go of things he realized weren’t worth it. So, Nirvana is less about bliss and more about peace and contentment. One is perfectly OK with themselves, and everything else around them.
Let’s compare that to the regular state of things. Again, quoting from the Buddha:
There’s no fire like passion,
no loss like anger,
no pain like the aggregates,
no ease other than peace.
Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
is the foremost ease.
Freedom from illness: the foremost good fortune.
Contentment: the foremost wealth.
Trust: the foremost kinship.
Unbinding: the foremost ease.
Again, for one who can directly perceive how things work, one naturally inclines toward letting go, contentment, Nirvana.
Ok, but is really that bad? I mean, yeah, sometimes you have to deal with people you don’t like, have to do things you don’t like, but you also have friends, loved ones, cool stuff, etc. It’s just a part of life, isn’t it?
That’s exactly right.
People like to pursue things are fun, attractive, tasty, etc. If we encounter something we like, we want more of it. It becomes the new norm. We spend more and more effort to maintain that norm, and if we encounter something else that we like then that becomes our new norm and we have to strive to maintain that. However, the cost of all this is that we also have to endure a lot of things that are unpleasant: work, waiting, discomfort, etc. That’s the cost of enjoying the things you enjoy. You can’t separate the good from the bad. It makes one weary.
Further, the Buddha perceived that all “fabrications” (that is, all things that come into existence) inevitably fade. This not only applies to physical things, but also states of mind, emotions, and other abstract things like fashion trends, etc. All things in this world have a tenuous existence, and won’t stay the same, no matter how much you want them to be. Your partner won’t stay young and attractive forever, and neither will you. Your favorite TV show has to end sometime, and even if it doesn’t, it just won’t be the same after a while.1 If you have a wonderful moment in your life, you can never go back to it, no matter how much you try to recreate the moment. It’s gone. Forever.
So, there’s no lasting refuge in this world. This is the crux of the First Noble Truth: it’s not that we’re living in constant agony, but that there’s no lasting peace, no lasting refuge in our lives. The rug keeps getting pulled out from under us sooner or later.
In one obscure sutra, the Buddha describes it like moths to a flame:
Rushing up but then too far, they miss the point;
Only causing ever newer bonds to grow.
So obsessed are some by what is seen and heard,
They fly just like these moths — straight into the flames.
Having understood this, the Buddha stopped grasping at phantoms he knew would fade. He just learned to let go and be ok with who he was right now, how he lived right now, etc. He didn’t fake this, didn’t consciously make himself happy, he just learned to let go because of direct perception because it was ultimately fruitless.
Buddhism is not an evangelical religion; it does not exist to conquer souls or save them from damnation. Instead the Buddha was like a doctor who understood why people were ill in their hearts, and offered a supreme medicine that people could take if they want. No compulsion; it’s just there. Take it or leave it. The Buddha himself stood as living proof that there was something better than the regular mode of life we all undergo, thought it’s hard to take on faith. One has to see it for themselves.
At any rate, Nirvana Day isn’t just commenting the Buddha’s accomplishment, it’s also a reminder that there’s more out there, if we’d only step through the door.
1 Firefly fans, take note. ;)