Buddhist Audio Books

What is the Dharma?
The Essential Teachings of the Buddha
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 189957901X
Read by Tejasvini

To walk in the footsteps of the Buddha we need a clear and thorough guide to the essential principles of Buddhism. Whether we have just begun our journey or are a practitioner with more experience, What is the Dharma? is an indispensable exploration of the Buddha’s teachings as found in the main Buddhist traditions.

Constantly returning to the question ‘How can this help me?’ Sangharakshita examines a variety of fundamental principles, including:
karma and re-birth,
nirvana and shunyata,
conditioned co-production,
impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality,
ethics, meditation and wisdom.
The result is a refreshing, unsettling, and inspiring book that lays before us the essential Dharma, timeless and universal.

An Extract from: What is the Dharma?
From chapter 4: Nirvana

The first question Buddhists get asked when they meet non-Buddhists is, as likely as not, 'What is nirvana?' Certainly, when I was a Buddhist monk travelling about India, I used to find on trains that no sooner had I taken my seat than someone would come up to me (for in India people are by no means bashful when it comes to getting into conversation) and say, 'You seem to be a Buddhist monk. Please tell me - what is nirvana?'

Indeed, it is a very appropriate question to ask. The question is, after all, addressing the whole point of being a Buddhist. You may see Buddhists engaged in all sorts of different activities, but they all have the same overall purpose in view. You may see shaven-headed Japanese monks in their long black robes sitting in disciplined rows, meditating hour after hour in the silence and tranquillity of a Zen monastery. You may see ordinary Tibetans going in the early morning up the steps of the temples, carrying their flowers and their candles and their bundles of incense sticks, kneeling down and making their offerings, chanting verses of praise to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and then going about their daily business. You may see Sri Lankan monks poring over palm-leaf manuscripts, the pages brown with age. You may see layfolk in the Theravadin countries of South-east Asia giving alms to the monks when they come round with their black begging-bowls. You may see Western Buddhists working together in Right Livelihood businesses.

When you see unfolded this whole vast panorama of Buddhist activities, the question that arises is: Why? What is the reason for it all? What is the moving spirit, the great impulse behind all this activity? What are all these people trying to do? What are they trying to achieve through their meditation, their worshipping, their study, their alms-giving, their work, and so on?

If you asked this of any of these people, you would probably receive the traditional answer: 'We're doing this for the sake of the attainment of nirvana, liberation, Enlightenment.' But what then is this nirvana? How is it to be understood, explained? How is it to be fitted in to one's own particular range of mental furniture? One naturally gropes after analogies, of course. If one has a Christian background one will try to envisage nirvana as a sort of eternal life in heaven after death. If one takes it outside the usual religious framework altogether, one may even think of it as a state of complete annihilation or extinction.

But in fact there is no excuse for these kinds of badly mistaken views. It is not really difficult to give a clear account of nirvana, because the ancient canonical texts are pretty clear as to what it is and what it isn't. If one does have the job of presenting the topic of nirvana, one will probably need to begin by discussing the etymology of the word nirvana - whether it means a 'blowing out' or whether it means a 'cooling down'. And one will no doubt go on to explain that, according to the Pali texts at least, nirvana consists in the extinction of all craving, all hatred, and all ignorance of the true nature of things.

At some point it is customary to say that nirvana is a state of incomparable bliss, to which the bliss of this world cannot be compared. And if one wants to get a bit technical one may want to describe the two kinds of nirvana: the klesa nirvana, consisting in the extinction of all passions and defilements; and the skandha nirvana, consisting in the extinction of all the various processes of psychophysical existence, an event that takes place upon the death - as we call it - of someone who has already gained klesa nirvana during their lifetime.

One may then go on to the different interpretations of nirvana in the various different schools of Buddhism - the Theravada, the Madhyamaka, the Yogacara, the Tantra, Zen, and so on. Finally, it is always necessary to emphasize that nirvana is neither eternal life in the Christian sense, nor annihilation or extinction in the materialist sense - that here, as elsewhere, one has to follow the middle path between two extreme views.

So this is how nirvana is traditionally delineated. Above all, perhaps, nirvana is conventionally defined as the goal of Buddhism. And it is in respect of this particular way of positioning the concept that my approach in this chapter will appear to some people - mistakenly, in my view - to be perhaps rather unorthodox.

The psychology of goal-setting

There are all kinds of groups of people in the world - religious groups, political groups, cultural groups, charitable groups, and so on - and each of these groups has its goal, be it power, or wealth, or some other satisfaction, and whether it is for their own good or the good of others. And it would seem that Buddhists likewise have their own particular goal that they call nirvana. So let us look at what is meant by this idea of a goal to be attained or realized, and then establish to what extent it is applicable to nirvana.

It should be clear at once where this procedure is going to lead us. The fact is that whenever terms get to be used rather loosely, without any lucid consideration of what they mean, you get the beginnings of serious misunderstandings. This is particularly the case when we transfer terms and expressions derived from mundane experience, like 'goal', to spiritual or transcendental experience, like 'nirvana'. If they don't quite fit then we need to be aware of this, and if they don't fit at all, then we need to think through the whole question afresh.

With this in mind, let us examine the idea of a 'goal' a bit more closely. A goal is an objective, it is something you strive for. You could, if you like, draw a distinction between striving to be and striving to have. But actually, the two come to the same thing: 'having' is a sort of vicarious 'being'. A goal is in the end something that you want to be. Suppose, for instance, your goal is wealth: you can say that your goal is to possess wealth, or that your goal is to be wealthy, but obviously the possessing, the having, is reducible to the being, the existing.

There is one really crucial (if obvious) precondition for setting a goal: it must represent something you aren't. You don't want to have or to be what you already have or are. You can only want to be what you aren't - which suggests, obviously, that you're dissatisfied with what you are. If you're not dissatisfied with what you are, you will never strive to be what you aren't.

Suppose, just by way of example, your goal happens to be money and material possessions. Well, you will have made these things your goal because you're dissatisfied with being poor. Or if, say, you make knowledge your goal, if you want to add to your understanding, investigate fundamental principles, and so on, then you want to do this because you're dissatisfied with your present state of being ignorant.

We don't always see it in quite these stark terms, but this is the basic pattern or procedure involved in setting ourselves goals; and it is a quite appropriate way of proceeding on its own level. But we get into a tangle when we extend it into the spiritual life - and by this I don't mean some elevated sphere of experience far removed from everyday concerns. By the spiritual life I mean something very close to home.

Any complex of problems we may have can be boiled down to the most basic problem of all, which is unhappiness in one form or another. A case of bad temper, for example, is a problem because it makes us miserable, and one could equally well say the opposite, that being miserable makes us bad-tempered. Even though we don't usually think of the problem we have as one of unhappiness as such, that is what, in the end, it is.

So we try to get away from unhappiness and attain happiness. The way we go about this is to try to ricochet, as it were, from that experience of feeling miserable or discontented into an opposite state or experience of feeling happy; and this usually involves grasping at some object or experience that we believe will give us the happiness we seek.

When we feel unhappy, what we do is set up this goal of happiness, which we strive to achieve. And as we all know, we fail. All our lives through, in one way or another, we are in search of happiness. No one is in search of misery. No one is in search of unhappiness. Everyone is in search of happiness. There's no one who could possibly say they're so happy that they couldn't imagine themselves being a little happier. Most people, if they're honest with themselves, have to admit that their life consists of a fluctuating state of unease and dissatisfaction, punctuated by moments of happiness and joy which make them temporarily forget their discomfort and discontent.

But this possibility of being happy becomes everybody's goal - a goal which can never be realized because happiness is by its nature fleeting. We all continue to set up this phantom goal, however, because the alternative is too challenging for us. The alternative is simply to be aware.

The setting up of goals - which means trying to get away from one's present experience - is really a substitute for awareness, for self-knowledge. Even if we do develop a measure of self-knowledge, we don't tend to maintain it because to do so would be just too threatening. We always end up setting up goals rather than continuing to be aware.

To take a simple example, suppose I have something of a problem with my temper: I get irritated, even angry, rather easily - even a small thing can spark me off - and this bad temper of mine makes life difficult, and perhaps miserable for myself and others. And suppose that I wake up one day and decide that enough is enough, that it's time it came to a stop. What do I do? I set up a goal for myself - the goal of being good-tempered. I think 'Well, here I am now - I'm undeniably bad-tempered: my goal, however, is to be sweet-tempered and amiable, always returning the soft answer, always ready to turn the other cheek.'

What actually happens, though? One almost invariably fails. The intention - even the degree of self-knowledge - is admirable. But after a while one's resolve falters. In the face of the same old provocations, one is back again in the same old rut - and probably blaming the same old people and the same old external circumstances for it. So why is this? Anybody who has ever begun to recognize that their problems are, at least to a degree, of their own making will also recognize that this is what happens. But why does it happen?

The reason is that we are continuing to tackle the symptoms rather than the disease. If we try to get away from our unhappiness simply by trying to be good-humoured, we are still unaware of the fundamental cause of our being bad-tempered. And if this isn't resolved, if we don't know why we are bad-tempered, if we don't know what is prompting the angry answer or the violent reaction, then we can't possibly hope to become good-tempered.

Whatever our problem, we automatically - almost instinctively - set up a goal of being happy in order to get away from our unhappiness. Even if a little awareness, a little insight, does arise, it is not sustained. We revert automatically to setting up a goal of one kind or another rather than continuing to be aware, and trying to understand very deeply why that problem arises. Setting up goals is an automatic reflex to short-circuit the development of awareness and self-knowledge - in short, to get away from ourselves.

How then do we change this? To start with, we need a change of attitude. Rather than trying to escape from ourselves, we need to begin to acknowledge the reality of what we are. We need to understand - and not just intellectually - why we are what we are. If we are suffering, well, we don't just reach out for a chocolate. We need to recognize the fact that we suffer and look at it more and more deeply. Or - as the case may be - if we're happy we need to recognize that fully, take it in more and more deeply. Instead of running from it into guilt, or into some sort of excitable intoxication, we need to understand why, what the true nature of that happiness is, where it really comes from. And again, this isn't just intellectual; it's something that has to go very deep down indeed.

For some people this sort of understanding, this sort of penetration or insight, will come in the course of meditation. Meditation isn't just fixing the mind on an object, or revolving a certain idea in the mind. Meditation really involves - among other things - getting down to the bedrock of the mind, illuminating the mind from the bottom upwards, as it were. It is about exposing to oneself one's motives, the deep-seated causes of one's mental states, one's experiences, one's joy and one's suffering, and so on. In this way real growth in awareness will come about.

But where is all this leading? What has all this to do with nirvana? It may seem that we have strayed rather from our subject, but in fact we have been doing some necessary preparing of the ground. With some things, if one tackles them too directly, one can easily miss the mark. What we can now do is open up some kind of perspective on the way nirvana is traditionally described - or rather on the effect on us of these traditional descriptions.

Suppose, for example, I have been going through rather a difficult, upsetting period, and am feeling rather miserable. Then one day I pick up a book in which it is stated that nirvana is the supreme happiness, the supreme bliss. What will be my reaction? The likelihood is that I will think, 'Good - that's just what I want - bliss, happiness.' I will make nirvana my goal. And what this means is that effectively I will be making lack of awareness my goal. I will be latching on to nirvana - labelled as the supreme bliss - because it happens to fit in with my subjective needs and feelings at this particular time. Such a reaction has of course nothing to do with being a Buddhist, but it is the way that a lot of us approach Buddhism, and indeed use Buddhism, in a quite unaware, almost automatic way. Unconsciously we try to use nirvana to settle problems which can only really be resolved through awareness.

We do not succeed in banishing unhappiness by pretending to ourselves that we are happy, by shoving our misery out of sight. The first step is to acknowledge the reality of our condition: if there is an underlying unhappiness to our lives, we must face up to the fact. It is certainly good to be cheerful and positive, but not at the expense of fooling ourselves. One has only to look at the faces of the people you see in any city to see the 'marks of weakness, marks of woe' that William Blake saw in London two hundred years ago, and yet few people will admit to their misery even in their own minds.

No progress can be made till we come to terms with our actual experience, till we get to know our unhappiness in all its comings and goings, till we learn to live with it, and study it. What is it, at bottom, that makes us unhappy? What is its source? We will get nowhere by looking for a way out of our misery, by aiming for the goal of happiness, or even nirvana. It is a mistake, at least, to postulate the goal of nirvana too quickly or too unconsciously. All we can do is try to see more and more clearly and distinctly what it is in ourselves that is making us unhappy. This is the only way that nirvana will be attained.

In this sense nirvana cannot be seen as an escape from unhappiness at all. It is by trying too hard to escape from unhappiness that we fail to do so. The real key is awareness, self-knowledge. One way - a paradoxical way - of putting it would be to say that the goal of Buddhism consists in being completely and totally aware at all levels of your need to reach a goal. We can also say, going a little further, that nirvana consists in the full and complete awareness of why you want to reach nirvana at all. If you understand completely why you want to reach nirvana, then you've reached nirvana. We can go further even than this. We can even say that the unaware person is in need of nirvana, but is unable to get a true idea of it. An aware person, on the other hand, is quite clear about this goal, but doesn't need it. That's really the position.

So there we have the basic drawback to conventional accounts of nirvana as being this or that. We simply accept or reject this or that aspect of nirvana in accordance with our own largely unconscious needs. If the underlying - and therefore unconscious - drive of our existence is towards pleasure, then we will find ourselves responding to the idea of nirvana as the supreme bliss. If on the other hand we are emotionally driven by a fundamental need to know, to understand, to see what is really going on, then almost automatically we will make our goal a state of complete illumination. And again, if we feel oppressed or constrained by life, if our childhood was one of control and confinement, or if we have a sense that our options in life are restricted by our particular circumstances - by poverty, by being tied down to a job or a family, or looking after elderly relatives - then we will be drawn to the idea of nirvana as freedom, as emancipation.

In this way there takes place a half-conscious setting up of goals based on our own psychological or social conditioning, instead of a growing understanding of why we feel dissatisfied, why we feel somehow 'in the dark', or why we feel tied down. Nirvana becomes simply a projection of our own mundane needs.

Hence when we consider the subject of nirvana, the goal of Buddhism, the question we should be asking is not 'What is nirvana?' but 'Why am I interested in nirvana? Why am I reading this book rather than another, or rather than, say, watching television?' Is it curiosity, is it duty, is it vanity, is it just to see how Sangharakshita is going to tackle this thorny topic? Or is it something deeper?

Even these questions will not settle the matter. If it is curiosity, well, why are we curious about nirvana? If it is duty, towards what or whom do we really feel dutiful? If it is vanity, why do we want to preen ourselves in this particular way? What is underneath our interest? If there is something deeper in our motivation, what is it?

This line of questioning might appear unconventional or unorthodox, and in pursuing it we may not learn much about Buddhism or nirvana in the purely objective, historical sense. But we will learn a great deal about what the ideas of Buddhism actually represent. If we follow this particular line, constantly trying to penetrate to the depths of our own mind, we may even get a little nearer to the goal of nirvana itself.


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