La Via Del Nirvana by Gedun Tharchin - English translation of the Sixth chapter.
THE PATH TO LIBERATION
The topic of this chapter will be the path to Liberation. By “Liberation” we mean Nirvana. Nirvana is the original Buddhist term by which we express Liberation. In Sanskrit it is called Nirvana, in Pali Nibbana. It literally means “beyond suffering”, “overcoming the limits of suffering”. In other words, those who have attained Liberation, Nirvana, have overcome every type of suffering. The path of Liberation is the path of those who have gone beyond suffering, the path that leads to decreasing suffering.
We have spoken about suffering several times already and have come to the conclusion that the first step to Liberation is to recognise the type of suffering we experience in daily life.
The suffering we are referring to here manifests on two levels: physical and mental suffering. From a practical point of view, physical suffering is a grosser and more superficial level of suffering for a Buddhist practitioner, as most of our physical pain can be cured by medicine. Also, mental suffering related to instability, or a psychological type of imbalance is considered to be suffering on a lower level. Therefore, this sort of problems of psychological nature, instability, derangement, are very relative from a Buddhist point of view.
But there is something that torments and scares us twenty four hours a day. This suffering is what we call negative mental afflictions, which we often do not even realise that we have them. When we stand still and analyse it, we notice this fear within us and feel that something is missing, even though everything seems to proceed in the right direction. This sensation of emptiness and anger resembles the feeling of being hungry. We feel that if we are not be able to satisfy this need, to fill this internal sense of void we experience, we will never be completely satisfied. And often, this emptiness that resides within us, causes problems of mental instability or the physical afflictions I was talking about before.
For this reason, Buddhism tries to resolve such discomfort radically. I personally think that the technique of curing and solving problems at their root is not a Buddhist prerogative. Other religions try to do that as well. We try to solve problems through meditation: meditation is nothing else than the attempt to cure problems radically. If we think we can cure physical discomfort by using medication only, we did not catch the meaning of meditation; at the same time, if we cure mental discomfort through psychotherapy, we cannot consider this to be meditation. Meditation is something that penetrates human beings on a deeper level .
Before we analyse the different levels of Buddhist techniques, we need to know the standard of the path to Liberation, the average of all Buddhist techniques, what leads to Liberation. The root of all our problems, when it comes to physical and mental discomfort, is represented by the sensation of emptiness that accompanies us constantly. This state of mind is the main cause leading to the destruction of our happiness. Even if we have everything to be able to satisfy all our needs in daily life, we always feel that something is missing.
We can spontaneously label it non defined needs, but from a more technical point of view we have to label those feelings as attachment. Attachment is not only the wish for means to satisfy our needs. Attachment goes further than that and until we do not eliminate it, we will keep being unhappy. How can we overcome this discomfort by eliminating attachment? It is impossible. Even if we did our best and really got involved with it, we would never succeed in finding something able to satisfy our attachment totally, something to end it for good.
Objectively, attachment is something that can never be satisfied. It is comparable to having a cup and nothing to fill it with: therefore it would be better to get rid of it. This cup remains there, empty, useless. Therefore, to be able to obtain Liberation we have to go beyond suffering: if we did not go beyond it, we would always be fixed on the metaphorical cup and would attain satisfaction.
Remaining attached to the fact of wanting to fill this sensation of emptiness is like wanting to fill a plate which has not been given to us for the purpose of filling it. This is because we do not know the real nature of that plate. If we realised its insurmountable nature we would possess the capacity to realise the understanding.
This explains why Buddha Shakyamuni said that we need to recognise suffering first, because until we do not identify the true nature of the problem, we will always remain attached to and blocked by it. Attachment in and of it itself is an impossible dilemma to solve: that is its nature, due to the fact that it is connected to ignorance and the lack of understanding. In fact, ignorance and the absence of understanding let us hope that sooner or later there will be something able to fill the plate and therefore will surmount our internal void.
Therefore, not understanding the nature of this kind of suffering is the cause of our problems. Understanding the nature of reality requires the effort of meditation. This was Buddha’s motivation for meditating during six years, and only eating three grains of rice a day. We certainly wonder how he was able to survive on such a small amount of food. I think that his strength came from the internal power he developed through meditation. There are images of the Buddha, a very famous one coming from Laos, depicting his six years of total ascetism.
I have got this picture on the cover of a book about the Abidharma, written by a friend of mine, a professor who is now teaching at a University in Japan. This image of the ascetic Buddha is a figure that inspires me very much. Some time ago, I received a magazine called “The Middle Way of the English Buddhist society”. I found the same picture of the ascetic Buddha, he was very skinny and you could see his nerves very clearly. By looking at the picture, I realised, that Buddhahood, Nirvana, Liberation, means to be completely free of suffering. In my opinion, it is something that demands a lot of patience. People consider Liberation to be a process that happens by miracle, through a blessing received by somebody else. I think this is impossible. If it were possible the Buddha would not have had to sit in meditation for six years.
Buddha represents an example for his students. A very frequently asked question I often have to give an answer to is “What is Buddhism?” “What is the essence of Buddha’s teachings?” Millions of books have been written about this subject. The publishing houses are full of books about Buddhism. From my point of view, the best teaching is Buddha’s life. What is Buddha’s teaching then? The answer is: his life; because Buddha spoke about it, about his experiences, his discoveries, his realisations he gained through his own experience. It is not necessary to read countless books to study and realise Buddha’s life; every single one of us can take Buddha’s life as an example.
Every Buddhist temple in any tradition, every Buddhist centre, every gompa has an image of the Buddha, which helps to keep his life in mind. The subject of this chapter is the way to Liberation; I think that the answer to this topic is very simple, the path to Liberation is Buddha’s life. He has dedicated himself completely in order to extinguish the problem in its root. He was a prince, son of a king, but he felt that this would not help him to resolve his fears and therefore decided to go beyond these conditions. Eventually, he discovered the means to satisfy this immense longing he felt inside. He constantly meditated for six years, living on a very small amount of food and eventually realised real satisfaction which is called Enlightenment. For the rest of his life, the 45 years he had left to live, he taught and talked about his own experience. Technically, Buddha’s life represents the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths contain all the necessary ingredients for the achievement of Liberation. Knowing what suffering is, recognising its reality: understanding the function of suffering is the first Noble Truth. Each Noble Truth possesses three characteristics. When one understands the reality of suffering, the first Noble Truth, one moves on to the second Noble Truth which deals with the cause of suffering. Which is the function of that cause? What is its true reality? These first two Noble Truths, the essence and origin of suffering, have to be attained and overcome. These results appear when we analyse suffering and its causes. Furthermore, one understands that this is not the ultimate reality and therefore asks oneself: “We understood this, but is it possible to eliminate it for good?” At that stage, one proceeds on to the Third Noble Truth which is the cessation of suffering. The cessation of suffering means to come to Liberation from negative mental dispositions by realising the first two Noble Truths. We analyse the end of suffering; then we ask ourselves about the means to attain it. This logical procedure leads us to the realisation of the fourth Noble Truth, which is the path leading us to the cessation of suffering, the path leading to Nirvana. The fourth Noble Truth is the real refuge, the real protector and it is very simple, containing Buddha’s teachings about morality, wisdom and concentration. The combination of these three elements is meditation.
Therefore, I think that serious meditation is the one based on a strong morality developed by departing from wisdom. This is the path to Liberation. When we consider Buddha’s path, it does not mean that we have to do exactly what he did, following all of his tracks. We should take the essence of his life instead.
This is what it is all about; taking this essence according to our personal circumstances. Buddha was a very intelligent person, an amazing teacher and the environment he was living in was conducive to his Liberation. Maybe in our times, conditions are not as conducive, times are different and so are the conditions. But we try to do our best, trying to cut delusions at the root, in depth. We must not cultivate the hope of being able to cut through everything in a short period of time. Even only touching the ground of our problems is a very auspicious occasion already.
The roots of our afflictions are enormously strong, and therefore impossible to cut through quickly. It can happen to us to succeed quickly, but we need to apply constant effort and a lot of patience to gradually reduce afflictions. Only by decreasing a little part of them we feel the positive influence in our lives. This gives us some sort of internal peace, and if we continue with this “demolition work”, afflictions will eventually disappear because they are in the nature of impermanence.
It can happen in this life, the next one or even in the further lives to come: it is not a matter of time. The real question is if we do not make futile efforts to attain this. If we damage our ego, our selfish thoughts and continue to do so every day, it will eventually lead us to the solution. This is what they sometimes call the gradual path.