The path and the goal are nirvana

The goal of Buddhism is the attainment of awakening, liberation, or, as it is called in early Buddhism, nirvana. What is nirvana?

Nirvana is the cessation of suffering. Nirvana, the end of suffering, is the third of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. As you probably know, the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is the truth of duhkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Suffering or the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence should be seen. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering, which is craving. Wherever there is craving, there is suffering. Craving is to be transcended or let go. The Third Noble Truth is the peace of nirvana, which comes from the end of craving. When one lets go of craving, suffering ends. Nirvana is to be experienced and known. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path, which is to be followed.

These four truths, along with dependent origination, can be said to comprise the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. The Four Noble Truths can be applied to any situation, and by doing so, the peace of nirvana can be found anytime and anywhere.

When a difficult, unpleasant, unwanted or uncomfortable situation is encountered, this can be recognized as suffering, dukha. When duhkha—unsatisfactoriness— is accepted for what it is, and is known fully, its origination in craving is naturally seen. The very nature of unsatisfactoriness is seen to be the desire for something else than what is happening.

When craving is seen as the source of suffering, it can be dropped, or transcended. Whatever is occurring can be faced simply and directly without craving or pre-formed ideas of what should or should not be.

When what is occurring is faced simply and directly without craving for it or pushing against it, the natural experience is peace. Peace, or nirvana, is the natural condition when craving is absent.

With peace, or nirvana, a path opens through the ups and downs of life. This is a path of simplicity, awake presence and integrity because it is based on inner peace, and it is directed to peace. From peace and to peace, one walks a path of fearlessness, dignity and joy, a noble path, the path of the Buddha.

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Why enlightenment?

Sakyamuni Buddha initially felt no one would comprehend what he had realized under the Bodhi tree. According to legend, he did not want to teach until the god Brahma convinced him that there are beings whose eyes had little dust and who would understand.

Enlightenment is not hard to get because it is foreign or complex. It is hard to understand only because it is so simple yet profound. It is like convincing a fish that it is in the water and it is mostly made of water. It is hard to see because it is so close and so present.

Because of its subtlety, some might even ask, what good is enlightenment anyway? Why should one try to realize enlightenment at all?

I think that Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths is an elegant, simple, and profound solution to this question. Buddha taught that there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering; there is an end to suffering; and there is a path. If you are dissatisfied, do not seek to end your dissatisfaction with a temporary patch. Liberate yourself from its inner root. Seek enlightenment.

Buddha identified a problem—dissatisfaction or suffering—and offered a solution. In that way, out of his great compassion, he made the purpose of liberation and the path to liberation accessible.

But—dare I say this?!—liberation has another meaning, beyond the end of dissatisfaction alone. Or perhaps I should say, calling it the end of dissatisfaction does not seem to do it complete justice, does not by itself give a sense of liberation’s fullness, and might even mislead one into thinking it is a state that is placid or numb.

Beyond the end of suffering, there is an ecstatic quality to liberation. It gives fullness, meaning and joy. It brings gratitude and love. It reveals the beauty and magic of the ordinary. It grants overwhelming wonder that there is anything rather than nothing at all. It shows the whole universe to be an amazing magic trick. In its wake comes immense satisfaction and well-being. It is like putting down a burden one has carried for a million years. Attaining it might even make one want to sing, shout and dance like a madman or a fool.

In the realm of liberation, the evocation of bliss found in the secret Tantra, or the love and ecstasy found in the poetry and song of a Hafiz or Rumi, might be closest to the truth.

Easy meditation, natural liberation

Meditation leading to liberation can be easy and natural. As the Buddha recounted:

“I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’—Majjhima Nikaya 36

The Buddha had engaged in yoga and in self-mortification, but his desire for liberation from suffering was not satisfied. Then he recalled how, as a young man, he had spontaneously entered a natural state of meditative contemplation while resting in the shade of a rose-apple tree. It occurred to him that such natural meditation might be more conducive to liberation than the yogic trances or self-denial he had previously pursued. As a result, he took some food, and proceeded to the Bodhi tree where he sat naturally and easefully, with the strong intention to sit still until he penetrated the matter of suffering. The sutras recount that the next morning, upon seeing Venus rising, Gotama became the Awakened One.

The most fruitful meditation is like that of the Buddha—natural, relaxed, awake and with the intention of liberation, but at ease. The great teachers of Dzogchen, such as Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa, also taught natural meditation. In meditation, as in life, too much force, concentration or fancy technique is counter-productive. Since one’s true nature is the natural state-the default state of rest when craving is relaxed-it is not hard to understand how meditation that is natural and full of ease is the most direct path to its realization.