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Nirvana (Pali = Nibbhana) is a Sanskrit term, applied mostly to Buddhism, that’s arguably difficult to understand and has several different interpretations.
Generally speaking, Nirvana refers to a condition where all worldly desires are extinguished or, more literally, “cooled by blowing.”
Buddhists believe that the world is impermanent, essentially unreal and the cause of all suffering. The only way to annihilate suffering is to detach oneself from all worldly cravings and desires. By doing this one apparently avoids another earthly incarnation (see reincarnation).
But most schools of Buddhism take this one step further. Becoming enlightened (another concept with multiple meanings) not only necessitates ridding oneself of all ignorance about the apparent reality of this world but, perhaps most radically, it also involves letting go of the supposedly false idea of one’s essential, individual self.
For some Buddhists, enlightenment is an experience of “nothingness” or “emptiness” (Skt: sunyata). Other Buddhist schools view enlightenment as a blissfully “full void,” the “essence of the Buddha” (Skt: dharma-kaya) or “ultimate reality” (Skt: dharma-dhatu).
The Buddhist scholar Trevor Ling argues that a common Western misunderstanding sees Nirvana as the extinction of everything. Instead, Ling says, Nirvana points to the extinction of evil passions.
For many who believe in God as a creator of a created reality (to include individual selves), the idea of Nirvana may seem misguided. For believers in God, life isn’t just about shutting down the bad to make room for some kind of alleged ultimate bliss. Rather, life is about striving to serve God, to know God’s will, and enter into a dynamic relationship with God.
Despite what some well-meaning people may say, this seems very different from the Buddhist ideal, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the numinous quality of God-fearing vs. God-denying religions would be equally different.
Nirvana is also the name of a rock band that was popular in the early 1990′s, whose gifted singer, Kurt Cobain, died prematurely under mysterious circumstances.
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Anatman (Sanskrit) and Anatta (Pali): “no self”
Anatta theory is generally held to be a Theraveda Buddhist theory stipulating the non-existence of the soul or eternal self. But like any philosophical theory about the self, there’s much room for debate as to just what this means.
At one extreme, we have those who say that the Buddha, himself, did not believe in any kind of permanent individual self. At the other extreme, we have interpreters like the Chán Buddhist, Nan Huaijin, who says that modern interpretations are too materialistic and “totally wrong.”¹
“When the Hīnayāna speaks of no self, it is in reference to the manifest forms of presently existing life; the intent is to alert people to transcend this level, and attain Nirvāṇa. But when this flowed into the world of learning, especially when it was disseminated in the West, some people thought that the Buddhist idea of no self was nihilism and that it denied the soul, and they maintained that Buddhism is atheistic. This is really a joke.”²
Part of the problem is trying to figure out what we mean by an eternal or everlasting self. For some, this includes all the changeable aspects of the entire personality. For others, like many Hindus, it refers to an eternal soul (atman) that grows in wisdom to ultimately become one or, depending on the school of Hinduism,³ in some kind of close relation with the ultimate soul (brahman). For others, for example Christians, it refers to a “seed” that is planted at baptism and which potentially grows into something worthy of everlasting heaven.
Aspects of anatman and anatta theory fit with or, to some extent resemble some of the ideas implied by the theory of reincarnation. But there are differences between anatman (Hindu) and anatta (Buddhist) theories.
In Buddhist anatta theory, a temporary seat of consciousness is often said to be exterminated like a candle flame at death, to be re-lit as a new candle at each succeeding birth. Personality characteristics (skandhas) reappear from one lifetime to another as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance of these characteristics from one life to another is discontinuous. That is, they’re just a bunch of temporary aggregates that cluster around a new life, much like iron filings would cluster around a new electromagnet if the old one were turned off.
This opposes the popular Hindu view of reincarnation in which one soul (atman) repeatedly reincarnates (taking within itself all it has earned and learned) as it enters and departs from many bodies, until it achieves full identity with, or some close relation to, ultimate consciousness (brahman).
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Buddhism is a world religion founded by Siddhartha Gotama (c. 563-483 BCE), who later became the Buddha. Some claim it is not a religion but a way or path, as if to suggest that Buddhism doesn’t involve belief and human opinion but sheer truth. However, when challenged with this claim, believers often fall back on traditional ways of looking at and talking about ultimate reality, which seems to point to a belief system based on or, at least, strongly influenced by human concepts and theories.
Indeed, Buddhism takes several different forms, usually called schools or branches. Most forms of Buddhism agree that attaining enlightenment involves becoming aware of and discarding flawed beliefs about
- having and individual self
- the existence of God
This, alone, should put to rest any claims by well-meaning but misinformed people who maintain that “all religions are the same.” To say that we do not really exist as individuals and, moreover, that God does not exist is misguided from the perspective of several world religions.
Like most other religions, Buddhism split off into many branches. Offshoots in China, Korea, Japan and the West have built up a complex system of deities, masters, Lamas, rules and procedures, many of which are reverentially given legitimacy and even supremacy over other schools.
In one branch of Hinduism, the Buddha is regarded as an incarnation of a master demon, sent to deceive the masses. This is probably because the Buddha story threatened the established Hindu social and religious order. But most traditional Hindus regard the Buddha as the 9th avatar who incarnates just after Krishna and before Kalki, the one who is yet to come.
Buddhist scriptures were written 300-600 years after the death of Buddha.† Assuming the scriptures reflect his actual words, Buddha pessimistically said this worldly life is like a “burning bush.” This apparently lead him to proclaim the Four Noble Truths about human suffering and the Eightfold Path, which apparently are his instructions on how to escape suffering.
Around 200 CE Buddhism split into two main factions: The Mahayana and the Hinayana. The Mahayana school spread into China and Japan, each culture putting its own, unique stamp on the original teachings.
Scholarly, academic, popular and non-devotional versions of Buddhism seem to appeal to logically-minded intellectuals, even though the attainment of nirvana is beyond both logic and form. Nirvana is, according to early scriptures, “Joy.” The following parable illustrates two main Buddhist ideals, those of the arhat and bodhisattva: The arhat uses a walking stick to climb up a mountain. But on reaching the top, the stick is no longer needed. At this point, the arhat throws the stick away and enjoys the wonderful view—that is, the arhat enters nirvana. The bodhisattva, however, picks up the stick and goes back down the mountain to help others to climb up for the first time.
The arhat ideal belongs to Hinayana Buddhism (“small vehicle”). The bodhisattva ideal relates to Mahayana Buddhism (“great vehicle”). While the arhat enjoys enlightenment and abandons all worldly techniques used to attain it, the bodhisattva delays entry to nirvana, retains his worldly techniques and returns to society to lead others to a supposedly higher level of ego-less awareness.
Plato advocates a structurally similar approach to the bodhisattva ideal in the cave analogy of the Republic. For Plato the beholder of the eternal Forms must return to the “cave” (i.e. the mundane world) to guide others to the truth, which for Plato is Beauty.
Buddha’s ethical message about interpersonal relations is similar to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. But Buddha’s teaching differs in that Christ tells us to love one another and to love God. And for Christ to love God is the single most important commandment of all time. Buddha does tell us to love each another, but he he also claims that ultimately you, the other and God do not exist. The only true reality is nirvana, a kind of interdependent whole with no absolute Creator. That is, no God.
Some say this is no different from the Catholic ideal of mystical union with God. Others believe it differs because the Catholic mystical saint beholds and basks in the glory of God but never claims to attain equal status or permanent identity (on non-identity) with God. And down here on Earth, to the Christian who inwardly and outwardly perceives the Holy Spirit guiding him or her through life, to be spiritual is to believe – and have reason to believe – in God.
Another difference between Buddhism and Christianity, in general, is found in the Buddhist idea that heavens and hells are mere stepping stones on a path of many reincarnations leading toward Nirvana. For Christians, heaven and hell are respectively blissful or horrendous eternal endpoints reached after a single lifetime. Catholic Christians do believe in purgatory but in Christian Fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, at death one either goes to eternal heaven or hell.
Viewed in this light, the Catholic belief in purgatory is arguably a very loose parallel to the Buddhist notion of reincarnation. This is because Catholics believe that the impure soul in purgatory receives another chance to enter into heaven. But again, Buddhists see their many heavens as mere stops along the way to Nirvana instead of the soul’s final destination. And Christians, for the most part, do not believe that the soul re-enters a physical body on earth to learn (or unlearn) more.
† Christianity is often criticized for being based on scriptures written 45 to possibly 140 years after the death of Jesus. But for some odd reason few of these critics seem equally concerned that Buddhist scriptures were not written until some 300-600 years after the death of Gotama.
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According to Buddhist legend, the Bodhi Tree the tree under which the seated Buddha-to-be resolved to find Truth.
Apparently the future Buddha was first pursued by demons and then received what he believed were heavenly visions.
Rejecting both as temporary and unreal, he attained Nirvana, which for him and his followers is the ultimate, true and unchanging reality.
The term Bodhi Tree also refers to a number of trees that Buddists believe are descendents from the original Bodhi Tree. Wikipedia explains:
The Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple is called the Sri Maha Bodhi. According to Buddhist texts the Buddha, after his Enlightenment, spent a whole week in front of the tree, standing with unblinking eyes, gazing at it with gratitude.¹
Buddhists preach about non-detachment and anatman (no-self) and yet, like adherents of most other religions, tend to venerate a whole series of ritualistic objects, from this kind of tree to well-kept rock gardens. In fact, one could argue that some Buddhist monasteries – not unlike some Christian monasteries – appear more like well-funded middle class havens instead of a place where any kind of real letting go of worldly things occurs.
That would be fine if admitted as such. But the sanctimonious preaching about renunciation that often comes from these places sometimes seems facile and, perhaps, a touch hypocritical.
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Cults and Religions – What’s the difference?
Many debate the differences between religion and cults. Some say there’s no difference. In other words, religions are cults and cults are religions. But this kind of thinking arguably doesn’t do justice to the complexities of faith and the supernatural.
One difference seems to be that, in a cult, a charismatic leader is undeservedly glorified. Some say that this would make Abraham, Jesus Christ, Mohammad, Buddha and Mahavira cult leaders. But cults also display a relatively short longevity (after the leader dies, the cult dwindles away). This didn’t happen in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Jainism. So they can’t be called cults by that standard.
Another difference is that cults typically isolate new members from their families and unbelievers. Religions tend to be less drastic, with most (not all, mind you) accepting interfaith relationships.
Steven Hassan, an expert on cults, says
Since all destructive cults believe that the ends justify the means, they believe themselves to be above the law. As long as they believe that what they are doing is “right” and “just,” many of them think nothing of lying, stealing, cheating, or unethically using mind control to accomplish their ends. They violate, in the most profound and fundamental way, the civil liberties of the people they recruit. They turn unsuspecting people into slaves. ¹
Others say the difference between religions and cults is a matter of degree, especially with those religions and cults that attract, institutionally legitimize and reproduce authoritarian personality types and the legalistic beliefs and structured practices that these individuals participate in.
In these instances, religious or cultic affiliation apparently provides a convenient means for the psychologically immature to overlook unresolved emotional issues. Accordingly, some critics of religion maintain that religious affiliation provides a safe but essentially cowardly means for unleashing centuries of culturally and perhaps genetically inherited anger onto those who don’t wish to sacrifice their free will to the dictates of an institution. These critics say that most religious institutions must incorporate (or reject) new developments within the context of their limiting teachings and traditions.
This too, seems somewhat simplistic. For religious believers will often say they are fully choosing to cooperate with God’s will as progressively revealed to them within their particular religious organization. Apparently there’s a richness in their spiritual life that the secular critics just don’t get. And individuals belonging to orgqanizations seen by outsiders as cults often say the same thing. “You don’t understand…”
This can make it difficult to tell the difference between a religion and a cult. Meanwhile, many new religions are cropping up. And some say they’re nothing more than cheap covers created by creepy masterminds aiming to get tax breaks on donations made by gullible believers.
When in doubt, draw a chart
One of the definitions for “cult” in Merriam-Websters dictionary is: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents.”
The following chart compares some of the main beliefs and practices found within religions and cults. This is not the final word. The items in each column don’t universally apply and many of the distinctions made in this chart are debatable. In keeping with the classical sociologist Max Weber, however, this chart offers ideal types.
Ideal types are generalized constructs. They don’t provide precise definitions and they’re not comprehensive. But they are thought-provoking. And that’s their main purpose.
Above chart elaborates on many sources, including Gregg Stebben’s Everything You Need to Know About Religion (The Pocket Professor, Denis Boyles ed., New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 25-26).
¹ Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, Rochester: Park Street Press, 1988, p. 36.
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Happiness is also regarded as dukkha because of its impermanence. For Buddhists, the inevitable loss of worldly happiness begets unhappiness.
By way of contrast, most Buddhists would argue that the allegedly ‘supreme bliss’ attained from Nirvana is permanent.
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- Right views
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
The path is not to be followed in a linear sense; the aspirant usually shifts from one prescription to another. And interpretations of each prescription differ according to the doctrine of a particular Buddhist school, of which there are myriad. Japan, alone, had 162 different Buddhist schools in 1972 (Eliade Guide to World Religions: 1991, p. 40).
Having said that:
- Right views generally refers to accepting the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the Four Noble Truths.
- Right intention refers to cultivating a state of mind leading to the flowering of awareness known as enlightenment (bodhi).
- Right speech means avoiding harsh, unnecessary and untruthful speech.
- Right action means monks following the rules of their order or laypersons avoiding slothful, violent and generally unethical actions.
- Right livelihood means avoiding unethical occupations.
- Right effort means harnessing all of one’s thoughts and activities to the goal of enlightenment.
- Right mindfulness dispassionately observes the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations, with a view towards controlling and stilling them.
- Right concentration refers to focusing on a single point, ultimately leading to the achievement of nirvana. Right concentration could be seen as the doorway to meditation, the last step towards the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment.
Many compare the Eightfold Path, in a very superficial way, to the Hindu Vedanta or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But an honest, clear-minded analysis reveals important differences among the teachings of these world religions. By way of analogy, it’s like saying coke is identical to corn syrup, which is identical to water. While these all share the quality of being liquids, they’re also quite different liquids. And so it is, many would contend, with the teachings (and effects) of different world religions.
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Heaven is a place where nothing… nothing ever happens.
If taken literally, this song lyric from the mid-1970s to early 90s pop group Talking Heads represents a view of heaven that was probably influenced by a particular New York City intellectual/arts scene.
Apart from that kind of Zen outlook, we find as many different ideas about the nature of heaven as there are people who’ve speculated on it.
Heaven is difficult to know about, because it seems that, if it truly does exist, one must pass on to experience its fullness.
The Hebrew Old Testament (OT) emphasizes a select few outstanding individuals who will see God “face to face.” And some passages indicate that God resides in a “high” place (Psalm 19:2-5). But the OT also says that the dead seem to, somewhat like the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian departed, meet their ancestors in an underworld (sheol).
The “heavens” (plural) in the OT is an inverted dome above the disc of the earth, separating the waters above and below (Genesis 1:6-9).
In the Christian New Testament the aim of Jesus’ ministry is to invite all of God’s chosen to join him “at the right hand of the Father” to enjoy a new vision of heaven, a heaven where anyone is welcome.
Several NT passages speak directly to “losing one’s life” in this transient world to gain a lasting, true and happy existence in heaven.
As for the constitution of heaven, Christ speaks in parables and metaphors because it’s too glorious to be described literally. Throughout history orthodox and unorthodox Christians have depicted countless types of heaven, some on the basis of mystical vision, others on the basis of speculation and others, perhaps, on the basis of some combination of mystical experience and cultural filters.
Pseudo-Dionysus, or Dionysus the Areopagite, spoke of three levels of heaven, each inhabited by different kinds of spiritual beings. St. Thomas Aquinas notes that Dionysus’ view of heaven is supported by scripture. And the general Christian understanding is also scriptural. The NT says there are “many mansions” in God’s house (John 14:2).
For some saints and (often) ascetic mystics, heaven may be partially experienced as a blessed union with God, united as ‘husband and wife.’ This may involve beholding the “face” and being “illumined” by the glory of God to become like an angel (Matthew 22:30, Mark: 12:25), “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).
For many good and honorable worldly persons, heaven is usually seen as a blissful, carefree environment where one reunites with deceased friends and loved ones.
The Islamic Koran speaks of a land of “flowing, crystal streams” that awaits God’s elect. Some criticize Islam for having a simplistic view of heaven, while others say that the Koranic view is allegorical.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all affirm heavens, although not as permanent abodes. By and large, the heavens of Asian religion are taken as stepping stones for the reincarnating soul whose ultimate aim is to achieve the unity of atman-brahman (Hinduism), nirvana (Buddhism) and jin (liberation in Jainism).
Many schools of Buddhism don’t posit any soul whatsoever, only the illusion of a soul.This matters if one it to see heaven as a union of the personal, created self, with the creator. In Buddhism the self just disappears once one realizes it never was. What happens after – experientially speaking – depends on which Buddhist school one believes in.
Contemporary reports about the existence and character of heaven come from those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences (NDE).
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had a NDE but he didn’t experience heaven in the traditional Christian sense (Jung’s father was a Lutheran pastor). In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), Jung describes dying as something like “stepping out of a tight-fitting shoe.” He says that after seeing the Earth from space and feeling a deep serenity, Jung was resuscitated and unhappily returned to his body.
Some believe that aliens (ETs) are indistinguishable from angels. But most religious and spiritually-minded people do not uncritically believe that ET’s derive from heaven. The cosmic heavens of astronomical observations, they say, are of a far lower order than the heaven experienced by bona fide saints. Likewise, angels are often said to reside in an entirely different order of reality than the observable universe.
Heaven is also said to lie beyond and above the so-called ‘astral’ realms where New Age enthusiasts tell us that energy beings apparently exist. Some pro-ET figures like Rael believe that angels and aliens are highly similar, if not identical.
The celebrated mythographer, Joseph Campbell, argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1968) that “heaven doesn’t exist” because it would take too long for the Virgin Mary, travelling at the speed of light, to get there. Here Campbell, despite his impressive erudition, entirely misses the point that heaven is a different reality, beyond and above the observable universe and its apparent laws of time and motion.
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The Heart Sutra contains the famous assertion, “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” which is often cited in New Age circles and probably taught in just about every undergraduate Oriental philosophy course.
Although this may seem a simplistic, unsophisticated claim, it’s arguably relevant to recent discoveries in sub-atomic physics where matter and energy are observed as two different forms of one mysterious underlying reality.
But this idea cannot account for spiritual experiences (and possible realms) that extend beyond and above that somewhat basic level of cosmic – not heavenly – mystery.
Quite different from Jewish, Islamic and Christian heavens, Buddhist heavens are not taken as everlasting abodes. Buddhist heavens are just so many stops on a road towards the ‘nothingness/fullness’ of Nirvana.
So the oft-overlooked question remains: Are all of the heavens mentioned in different world traditions the same in character and quality?
Some find this simple, straightforward question troubling, preferring to focus on the apparent commonalities among world religions. While this is an admirable approach, one arguably shouldn’t turn a blind eye to religious differences.
Meanwhile, some tend to embrace politically correct beliefs about religious homogeneity instead of really thinking carefully about religion.
Additionally, we have those who conflate national pride with absolute truth. The semiologist Roland Barthes asked several decades ago, for instance, whether the ‘Holy Spirit’ and the ‘American Spirit’ connote the same thing. Along these lines history reveals that personal imaginings, political correctness and zeal for one’s nation rarely make good bedfellows with the sincere pursuit of truth, not only in religion but in just about any discipline.
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In Buddhism, especially, this circle represents the totality of all existence. Tibetan Buddhist artworks (tankhas) depict various mandalas containing both gods and demons, encircled around a center point representing the alleged absolute bliss of nirvana. Contemplating these images is said to help the spiritual aspirant attain a supreme consciousness that lies beyond gods (heavens) and demons (hells).
At times Jung seems to homologize circular Christian and non-Christian symbols, fitting them into his particular interpretation of the mandala, while at other times he differentiates them.
This apparently contradictory nature of Jung’s theory runs throughout his work. But Jung, himself, doesn’t shy away from contradiction. Rather, he admits and embraces this aspect of this outlook.
Jung…notes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections his own inconsistency and suggests that it represents a normal, acceptable human quality. Perhaps the essence of his overall thought is best summed up in this confession:
I had to obey an inner law which was imposed on me and left me no freedom of choice. Of course I did not always obey it. How can anyone live without inconsistency?
As a philosophical argument this itself is inconsistent, for one cannot choose to disobey something which provides no option to choose. On another level, however, the statement is consistent in its admission of inconsistency, much like the coniunctio oppositorum (union of opposites) view of the self which Jung advocates.¹
¹ See, Synchronicity and Poststructuralism, 1997 (Ph.D. Thesis by Michael W. Clark – pdf), pp. 13-14 http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf
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