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A Course in Spiritual Practice -
Part B : Buddha's Enlightenment = nirvana.
Table of Contents.
B1. The Spiritual Qualities, or bodhyaṅga.
B 2. A Mountain Top Experience?
B 3. Why a Negative Definition?
B 4. Buddhist Teachings on nirvāṇa (nirvana).
B 5. Can Enlightenment be Permanent?
B 6. Is nirvāṇa something to Attain?
B1. The Spiritual Qualities.
What is spiritual enlightenment? To describe it as the end of suffering is a negative definition, it defines what it is not.
The best positive definition is in terms of the Factors of Enlightenment = bodhyaṅga where bodhi = spiritual enlightenment or awakening. On this website, these are usually called the “spiritual Qualities”. These are active in the enlightened state. So a list of these beautiful Factors or Qualities of Freedom best describes the enlightened state.
These Factors of Enlightenment are numerous and varied, and can be conveniently grouped to aid understanding. You are invited to add to this list.
- Inner peace, - and stillness and silence, contentment, being at ease, feeling safe ...
- Determination – and diligence, making effort, renewing efforts, persisting, motivation, competence and confidence, courage ...
- Clarity – and wisdom, tactfulness, perceptiveness, insight, good decision making ...
- Friendship – and finding and sharing good things, trust, forgiveness and tolerance, being supportive ...
- Enjoyment – and appreciation, inspiration, reverence, wonderment, happiness ...
- Healing – and nurturing, caring for, releasing the pain, resolving difficulties, transcendence from suffering
- protecting - and guiding and guarding the mind, practising the spiritual Qualities, cultivating them,
- good companionship - and good leadership, quality service, honesty, integrity, inspiring others, transparency in motives,
For our Liberation, we need to recognize these Qualities, cultivate them, value them, speak well of them, encourage them, protect them, and remember to do these things. This is essential to the Way of Being Liberated in your daily life.
The Factors of Enlightenment can be labelled with ordinary words and phrases. We know what they mean.
This is most significant. We all know what the Qualities of Freedom are because we already have experienced them. The enlightened state is not so far away after all.
B2. A Mountain Top Experience, Or A Daily Experience?
Spiritual enlightenment is often presented as rare and fleeting moments, or as something that only available to the great spiritual master, with numerous devoted disciples. This leads to some questions –
- Is enlightenment a peak experience, occurring only a few times in our lives, or is it for daily life?
- Is the end of suffering for ourselves, or only for the Guru?
Since the Reformation, people no longer need to go to a Church appointed priest to access God. Similarly, we no longer need to reserve the Goal of the spiritual path to the religious elite.
Nor is there any need to limit Buddhist philosophy concerning the Goal to rare and fleeting moments. And we need not postpone the end of suffering to our old age or until it’s too late.
Moreover, who would want to sit on the mountain top all day every day? Is this even possible ?
So when I discuss spiritual enlightenment, I am talking about the Goal for daily life - a special Way of Being that is free from suffering, where all suffering has ended. I also discuss how we can train ourselves to return to the enlightened state and restore it back into daily life where it is supposed to be.
B 3. Why a Negative Definition of Spiritual Enlightenment?
Sometimes, when people demanded a definition of spiritual enlightenment from the historical Buddha, he either remained silent or gave the negative definition – the end of suffering.
A positive definition best comes from insight that arises in meditation – it does not really come from the interrogative mind busy with opinions, judgements and analysis. When the mind is intellectually busy like this, it cannot access nor perceive the enlightened state.
For this reason, Eckhart Tolle calls the enlightened state “the Unmanifested” - it is not manifested to the ego.
This treatise comes from my intellect to your intellect, but it is pointing to that which is beyond the intellect.
B 4. Buddhist Teachings on nirvāṇa (nirvana).
There are other reasons why Buddhism often does not give a clear, positive definition of nirvāṇa (pronounced “nirvaarna”). Buddhist themes about nirvāṇa are like Hindu themes about brahman and ātman. The more they talk about these themes, and the more we read about their “explanations”, the more confusing they become.
Hinduism responded by developing the Purana stories, as something more accessible to the people than ātman. The Purana scriptures use the ancient tradition of telling stories, often gathered around the communal fire at night. These traditional stories convey themes intended to guide the people in their religion and culture. Often about connecting with what we would call “Mother Nature,” as the Source of all life, health and healing. And people were used to such stories and their purpose. Modern storey telling is not really like this.
In Buddhism, misunderstandings naturally arose about nirvāṇa, and whether the Teacher was “enlightened” or not. This also gave rise to accusations about “false claims” about “being enlightened”, whatever “being enlightened” might mean.
Buddhism responded with a major rule, that forbids a monk from making false claims about his spiritual attainments. Punishable by expulsion from the Order for life. This naturally gives rise to a lot of fear in monks of making any claims about their own spiritual attainments. Thus a minor rule also arose to not make any claims, true or false about one’s spiritual attainment. I remember a monk saying that this makes it quite difficult to teach nirvāṇa.
As a result, Buddhist monks and therefore Buddhism does not usually talk about nirvāṇa, for the speaker cannot really talk about their own experience. Or Buddhism talks about nirvāṇa in confusing terms, such as “extinction of self” or “cessation of desire” or “emptiness”. All this leads to much misunderstanding and strange ideas about “spiritual enlightenment”, which robs the word of the value to which it is entitled.
I discuss these strange “beliefs” about nirvāṇa elsewhere in my writings, where I have to. Otherwise, I leave aside all these hard-to-understand doctrines about nirvāṇa. I just define nirvāṇa as the Presence of the spiritual Qualities, and absence of defilements.
B 5. Can Enlightenment be Permanent?
When we can perceive the enlightened state as being permanent, then we know it is always there. It never dies, nor fails, nor disintegrates, just because we have fallen into another slump, yet again. It is always waiting
for us, calling out to us. This perception, that happiness is still available to us, is the first step in the healing process. The first step out of suffering.
Unfortunately, the enlightened state is all too often obscured from us by defilements. Indeed, this is the main role of defilements, to cut us off from eternal happiness. And defilements will arise, sooner or later, to do their work, whether we will this or no. That is their nature. Thus our experience of the enlightened state is always impermanent.
But the enlightened state is always there, either as the Goal we are heading towards in this hour, or the experience we are enjoying in this moment. For the only time we can be enlightened is right Now, in this moment. In this moment. We can never be enlightened in the future or in the past.
The enlightened state is likened to the blue sky. Although often obscured by clouds, it is always there. If we climb the mountain, we can rise above the grey clouds and reach the sunshine.
Thus enlightenment or nirvāṇa is presented as a permanent state. Naturally, this has given rise to the belief that we can stay in it permanently, or that we should be able to stay in it permanently. Even the belief that our experience of enlightenment is not “genuine” unless it is permanent. samādhi receives the same treatment, unfortunately.
There are powerful political reasons for this belief (and behind it.) It can create a highly elevated position for the big guru to occupy, with really good income and status, if he can somehow get the reputation of being “permanently enlightened” (whatever this might mean.)
It leads also to another belief : that Buddha’s enlightenment is for the Buddha, and not for the Buddhist.
All these things make the word nirvāṇa = enlightenment difficult to use. What does it mean? It is a term best used only sparingly.
I usually write about the spiritual Qualities or bodhyaṅga instead. These important Qualities are something to cultivate, practice, and protect from defilement. They are something to restore, renew and return to, in our daily life experience. For the bodhyaṅga take us towards the enlightened state or nirvāṇa. bodhi means “spiritual enlightenment” or “spiritual awakening”. (ṅ is pronounced “ng” as in sing, ring)
bodhyaṅga is a Sanskrit word that means requisites or factors of spiritual enlightenment, or what is needed for enlightenment. Even the “limbs” or “components” of Buddha’s enlightenment.
B 6. nirvāṇa is Something to Attain.
nirvāṇa is often described as something to attain, or as an attainment . “attain” means “accomplish” or “arrive at by development or effort.” This suggests that nirvāṇa is something to work towards, something to cultivate, and when we arrive there, nirvāṇa will be an important achievement.
Bhagavad Gita 6. 15 declares : adhi-gacchati nirvāṇa which is often translated as “attain nirvāṇa.” adhi = above, and gacchati = movement. Thus adhi-gacchati nirvāṇa means “rise up to nirvāṇa” or “move towards nirvāṇa”. When we study chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, which is entitled the “Yoga of Meditational Absorption”, we realise that nirvāṇa is something to move towards, and return to. We cannot stay in it forever.
And how do we rise up to nirvāṇa (adhi-gacchati nirvāṇa) ? What is the Path to spiritual Awakening? What is the Way of Being Free? That is the purpose of this website. It is over 100,000 words long, for the Wisdom of the East is vast in both breadth and depth, yet encumbered with millennia of dead wood.