This is another thought experiment, based on what I’ve studied about Buddhism so far, particularly the Early Buddhism of the Pali Canon. So here goes…
What did the Buddha promise to practitioners as a result of their practice and understanding of the Dhamma?
Well, first lets reflect on what many Westerners believe he promised: that the Buddha promised a kind of salvation. They believe that Buddha promised something like the salvation promised by faith in Jesus Christ: life everlasting, in a blissful heaven, with God and all our beloved friends and relatives. Like an eternal Facebook without all the irritating rancor.
Who the hell believes that stuff anymore? It’s completely irrational and unscientific, just like the Virgin Birth and Christ’s ‘Death on the Cross’ that supposedly absolves our alleged natal ‘sin.’ The whole thing is pure myth, but yeah, at one point in my young life I used to believe it. You can only have ‘faith’ in that kind of mythology because its so wholly irrational and without common-sense evidence that it would be laughable otherwise.
Yet this is the subconscious belief of many [former] Christians who later become Buddhists. The mythology of salvation is so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize that we still believe it at some deep, psychic level.
It shows up in our politics, that we believe that we can create a perfect society (Shambhala: Enlightened Society) where no one suffers and everyone lives a life of perfect fulfillment, a utopia.
It shows up in our medical science, that we believe medicine will someday miraculously prevent us from aging or dying; that we will never get sick. We expect medical science to cure, and even prevent, every possible disease.
And so on…
When people raised in a Judeo-Christian culture encounter Buddhism, and read the Buddhist texts, the first thing that they come to believe is that Buddhism will save them. Save them from suffering. Save them from ever making a wrong decision or action that results in pain to self or another. Save them from any form of mental anguish. Save them from death itself, because if you are an arhat or fully awakened, you don’t really die. Or maybe you die physically, but you live on as some kind of enduring Consciousness in a state of perfection that is pure bliss, total connectedness to the Universe (aka ‘God’), an everlasting blissful existence. (That, btw, is Atman and Buddha taught anatman).
But that’s not what the Buddha promised. At least, that’s not how I read the Pali texts thus far. The Buddha never promised salvation. That’s not the Buddha’s dispensation as I understand it. The Buddha promised an end to suffering from craving, hatred and delusion by following the eightfold path comprising wisdom, ethics and meditation.
Many Westerners, when they contemplate the meaning of ‘enlightenment’ or ‘full awakening’ think of it as a state of nirvana, in the Western sense, a state of pure bliss, an eternal life of pure blissful consciousness without a pain-body, a kind of non-theistic heaven.
Some Westerners think nibbana means some kind of total and permanent freedom from any kind of psychic disturbance or emotional unhappiness—a kind of psychological nirvana.
But that’s not what the Buddha promised. As far as I can tell, the Buddha never promised anything. The Buddha doesn’t guarantee anything either, except what I have already described. The Buddha’s dispensation is basically the Four Nobles Truths and the Eightfold Path.
What the Buddha taught, was an end to suffering, or nibbana, not “nirvana” as Westerners define it—endless bliss, heaven, etc. Nibbana is an ‘ending.’
Nibbana means extinction, ‘going out’, like a candle flame being quenched at the wick. Nibbana is essentially the most basic fact of existence: everything comes to an end. Death without remainder. Not coming back. No rebirth. No reincarnation. No ‘resurrection’ either. Nibbana is a final end to everything.
Everything is impermanent. Everything that is living takes birth, exists for some time, then dies. That’s just the way it is. That is nibbana.
All species on earth, plant or animal, continue for some incredibly long period of time, sometimes millions of years, but ultimately, all species go extinct at some point. Extinction is nibbana.
The Universe itself took birth some 13.8 billion years ago, at the ‘Big Bang’. It will continue to exist for approximately 5 billion years longer, scientists predict. But ultimately, the universe will die a ‘heat death’. It will continue to rapidly expand and cool until its energy is so spread out and so cold that it can no longer hold together as matter, as atoms or stars or galaxies. Then it will ‘die’, cease to exist. Nibbana.
Will your ever suffering end? Yes, of course it will—when you die, your suffering will end, finally and completely. Nibbana.
But in the meantime, until you die, the Buddha taught a path that leads to the end of the kind of suffering that you experience while you are alive—dukkha—via the Eightfold path.
The ultimate ‘awakening’ is realizing nibbana, that everything comes to an end.*
People spend years sitting in mediation halls and shrine rooms, practicing, practicing, hoping to experience nirvana, which is some kind of Western Judeo-Christian twist on the expectation of enlightenment as some kind of blissful salvation.
It’s so deeply engrained in our cultural conditioning that when we encounter the real meaning of nibbana as ‘going out’, as extinction, as the finality of death, we say “Nah, that can’t be it. It’s gotta be something more than that.” But that’s what it is. We just can’t accept it.
That’s why realizing nibbana is so difficult. And it was just as difficult to grasp for Buddha’s disciples 2500 years ago who believed in the absolute certainty of reincarnation. They had to spend their lives practicing to finally get over the deeply ingrained belief in rebirth.
That’s what the Buddha taught, as I understand it. Now I may at some point ‘walk this back.’ I may find that I have overstated my case, or left out some other important nuance that would balance this notion of Nibbana, that would make it a fundamentally different equation. And when that time comes, I’ll write about it.
*And here it is. The other end of the balance beam is the idea that although all forms of matter come to an end, they don’t disappear to ‘nothing.’ All forms of matter return to a state of undifferentiated energy, the background stuff of the universe. And that, surprisingly, is the similar to the idea of entropy. Entropy is the resting state of energy that is completely random and formless. That’s a revelation because it never occurred to me before that Buddha’s formulation of reality might point to entropy. The middle-way teaching is that reality is not eternalism but not nihilism either; thus energy/matter does not disappear completely into nothingness. It dissipates completely into a state of formless, random entropy. So the Buddha’s teachings could point to entropy as a facet of reality as well.
Maybe shunyata should be translated as entropy instead of emptiness.
On the extinction of the flame and energy becoming potential energy:
More thoughts on emptiness and the deathless:
But for right now, I’m contemplating nibbana as extinction.
Eh th-th-that’s all folks. Said Porky Pig.