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Advanced (Mahayana) teaching: Nirvāṇa is unchanging
September 16th, 2013 (September 17th, 2013)
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Advanced (Mahayana) teaching: Nirvāṇa is unchanging.

Given the "three marks of existence" (suffering, impermanence, selflessness), it may seem unintuitive or even contradictory to read about 'endless', 'ceaseless', 'unchanging' nirvāṇa.


Three marks of existence

The first thing to do is to go back to the "three marks of existence", as what is actually said is: "all conditioned phenomena are impermanent."

'Conditioned' in this context is equivalent to "arising from a set of conditions and circumstances," i.e. dependent on something else (notably, dependent on a context and/or an observer).

Nirvāṇa is repeatedly presented as 'unconditioned,' so there is no contradiction between the claims about nirvāṇa and the three characteristics of existence.
Abusively generalising a rule to a broader context is a very classic mistake, and it is at the heart of what Buddhism calls 'ignorance': do not generalise to nirvāṇa what describes saṃsāra. The resulting claims might  be true, but they might also be false: to distinguish things as they are, you need to actually pay attention rather than to extrapolate, generalise and assume!


There are a few consequences that are uneasy to accept about the un-conditionality of nirvāṇa, e.g. no amount of walking the Buddhist path will ever 'guarantee' the attainment of nirvāṇa (for the opposite would condition nirvāṇa to a particular path, or to specific preliminary attainments, etc.); most practitioners struggle with this one, as they still cling to the 'self' and would want the self to accumulate merit and be assured that a path is certain to get them the 'reward' of the holy life, should they commit to it.

There are a few other consequences which are easier to deal with. The un-conditionality of nirvāṇa means it's not a place or a time or even a particular 'state' (e.g. state of mind). It cannot be 'reified' because, as soon you fix a definition, dependence on a context (and on context-dependent hidden assumptions) arises. This would introduce 'conditionality' in contradiction with an 'unconditioned' nirvāṇa.
'Ignorance' sneaks in often in relation to nirvāṇa, with people describing it as some sort of paradise, some particular mental state (e.g. a lack of thought —which equates nirvāṇa with being brain-dead!)… but with a bit of training, it becomes reasonably easy to catch oneself when about to make this mistake.


Two truths

There are (at least) two ways to understand the deathlessness of nirvāṇa. Since the buddha did not vanish in thin air when attaining nirvāṇa, we can understand it at the 'individual' level. And since nirvāṇa cannot be reified or depend on a particular person, we can also understand it at the 'selfless' level.


Unchangingness

Nirvāṇa is the cessation of ignorance, lust and aversion.
We could limit ourselves to "cessation of ignorance" because the next two biases listed arise from ignorance, but to keep the three-fold presentation insists that it's not enough to be aware of one's biases and habits (i.e. preferences underlying the desires or aversions): nirvāṇa is in being free from ignorance, lust and aversion —not merely aware of them.

Another way to present nirvāṇa, fully compatible with the above, is to equate it with "seeing things as they are."

In both cases, it manifests at the 'individual' level as doubtlessness (sometimes translated as 'faith' in Buddhism… but 'doubtlessness', or trust in what you see, is probably closer to the original message).

« There are no second thoughts (…). Second thought refers to flickering mind, not having confidence in the purity of your perception, so that your mind wavers and hesitates. Here there are no second thoughts. It is an unchanging realm, completely unchanging. »
— Chögyam Trungpa, "Shamabala —the sacred path of the warrior"

The above is not expressed in nirvāṇa terms (hence the notion of 'realm'), because it's expressed at the level of the individuals manifesting Enlightenment (manifestation somewhere, i.e. in a realm or another).
Such a presentation is necessarily 'delusional' to an extent, because it projects individuality on phenomena who have realised selflessness!

Hopefully the idea is limpid: in nirvāṇa, there's no mind flickering (which is different from saying there's no thought).
There's no doubt, there's no change of mind, because one "sees things as they are" (which includes seeing 'oneself' seeing things as they are, hence trusting one's perception…).

If there's no change, we can speak of 'unchangingness', but it is not static in any way: it's a dynamic response, "moving on" from creatively answering one need of the world to appropriately answering the next need… there's no "looking back": only presence to here&now (again: this is not the same as a blank mind).

« Bravery means you are not giving in even to any potential doubts; in fact, there is no room for any doubts whatsoever in this realm. »
— Chögyam Trungpa, op.cit.


The buddha did not exactly say "move on", but he makes it quite clear in my view, e.g. in the Khema sutta (AN 6.49):
« When a monk is an arahant, with his fermentations ended —one who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis— the thought doesn’t occur to him that "There is someone better than me," or "There is someone equal to me," or "There is someone worse than me." » Don't start analysing, move on, engage!


Appropriateness

If nirvāṇa is the cessation of ignorance, lust and aversion, one of its clearest consequences is 'appropriateness'. Someone who has attained nirvāṇa is free from 'biases' (preferences or 'fundamental' cognitive errors (i.e. projecting permanence and entity-ness, or confusing expectations with reality, etc.)).

This means a response given to a situation at hand will be based on what the situation requires. The individual responding is part of the picture but is not the centre of it (from any specific perspective).

The response is 'appropriate': it is neither predefined, nor prejudiced, nor based on past lessons which might not apply this time, nor based on assumptions… Knowledge, right views, lessons from the past are not denied: simply, permanency is not assumed, the present is 'engaged' with, one monitors whether the previous lessons are 'appropriate' to the situation at hand.
It is very much based on "seeing things as they are" (not as they were, not as they will be, definitely not as they 'should' be).

Some people are reluctant to define nirvāṇa in any way at all, but I think a definition based on appropriateness is sometimes useful: it avoids the pitfalls of one-size-fits-all answer (because 'appropriate' is a rather weak prescription) but it nonetheless explicitly relates any response to the context at hand (impermanent, selfless…).

It acts as a (Mahayana) reminder that nirvāṇa is not a separate state of mind, a separate place or realm, a separate 'thing'. It is manifested as a response within a samsaric realm! And it is found when wisdom is manifested instead of biases, prejudices or preferences.

If such a definition is accepted, then 'ceaseless' nirvāṇa is in the fact that there always exists the possibility of a wise response to the situation at hand.

There's no silver-bullet, you cannot know the response in advance, you have to pay attention, trust yourself and engage… but you can rest in the knowledge that a wise response does exist: it's only a matter of seeing through our tinted glasses and individual prism, to access a perspective wide enough, inclusive enough, to see causality at play (and thus choose which circumstances to alter to let a new outcome arise —with less suffering in the world, since that's the only goal all sentient beings share). The ceaselessness of nirvāṇa doesn't say it's easy to embody wisdom… but it's possible, wherever, whenever.


"Unchanging nirvāṇa" is thus an invitation to pay attention to the subtlest changes, to what makes here&now be… here&now! And an invitation to creatively engage and appropriately respond, then move on, without dwelling in our (instantly 'former') achievements.

Nirvāṇa is ceaseless like embodying endless tolerance is. This is the opposite of not attending to the diversity of life! Deathlessness is found in 'constant' renewal of the wholesome qualities.


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