Nirvana as the Solution of Samsara

With the concept of Nirvana we face a dilemma. Why would you ever want to seek Nirvana if it involves the extintion of all these things that are desirable?


The first answer to this question has to be one in which we look again very carefully at the Indian assumption about the nature of reincarnation. I think that the concept of Nirvana forces us to take quite seriously the negative aspect of the concept of reincarnation.

If you don’t want to come back again and again in some future life, then really what you want to do, what you seek is the stopping of that. And the Buddha found how to do that. That’s the great thing he discovered. If Samsara is something you want to escape, the Buddha showed the way.

So, Nirvana is negative in an appropìate way in the Indian tradition, because Samsara is something that you would like to avoid and you would like to escape. I think it’s interesting to think a little bit about how the concept of Nirvana can compare to concepts of the ultimate goal of human life, it might be closer to home.

Achieve Nothingness

Many who are Jewish or Christian have in their minds an image of God, looking at the chaos of creation, looking in a certain sense at Nothing, and making something coming to existence. Christian doctrine of creation is called creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

God looked at nothing and made something coming to being. I think that is fair to say that for Christian people, and maybe for Jewish people also, that when you imagine or do something, it is something that is essentially creative. You look at the chaos of the day and you try to make something beautiful come into existence. Creativity is something we strongly value. We search for being. We search to bring new things into existence.

It is really fascinating to note that the Buddhist tradition is almost exactly the opposite. The Buddha faced the situation in his own life in which things were being going on from beginningless time. In the Buddhist tradition there really is not time when creation begins, it has just always been there. They speak often of beginningless ignorance, of the beginningless flow of human existence. The beginningless Samsara.

The Buddha understood how to stop one piece of it. What he teaches us is that when we wake up in the morning, when we begin a day or we experience the flow from one moment to another, the challenge is not to take that and create something new out of it, but to allow it to quiet. To allow some of it to slip away. That’s not Nirvana, but it is a pretty good analogy of Nirvana. To take this busy flow of experience and let some of it become quiet. That’s what the Buddha discovered how to do.

In some respects this is diametrically opposed to the image of human life that grows out of the traditions of the West, and yet it serves as a remarkable counterpoint, a supplement, a challenge to the approaches many of us bring to the experiences of our ordinary every day lives.

The first way to answer the question is to recognize quite seriously that Samsara is a problem that needs to be solved. It is solved by allowing the busy flow of experience to become quiet and come to an end.

But it seems to me, as with the concept of Suffering, that this is not the whole story. It is not the full picture. We will continue discussing in the next article the second reason why Nirvana is desirable.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings.

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