Buddhist Concept of Nirvana Research Paper

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Religious doctrine usually includes some form of salvation as a reward for good behavior and for keeping to the tenets of the religion. Each religion treats this general idea in its own way. For the Christian, right behavior lead to salvation from permanent death and promises an afterlife in heaven. In Buddhism, the promise is not of an afterlife but of a reward in this world, a reward in the form of perfect peace through a mind free of craving and unwanted emotion. Nirvana is a state of mind and an achievement in itself, for nirvana is that state of mind to which the adherent aspires. It is considered the highest form of happiness and is achieved only by the most dedicated follower of the Buddha.

The conception of salvation usually relates to the idea of some ultimate value or being, and it can be thought of as an identity with such an ultimate state or being. It is most frequently thought of as a kind of communion with a personal Lord in a heavenly place. There are different means offered whereby the individual may gain liberation or final communion. In those religions where God is a personal object of worship, salvation typically has to be effected by the deity, though the individual may cooperate even if it is only by calling to the divine for salvation. In religions where there is no such personal God, the individual must prepare himself or herself, often through rigorous methods, to be in a position to gain eternal freedom. There are also different emphases in different religions on whether salvation is something that occurs after death or whether it is something that can be attained in life.

In China, Buddhism is the dominant religion. Buddhism has a very different conception of the relationship between man and nature from that of Christianity and a different sense of the meaning of salvation and the route to achieve it. Salvation in Buddhism is an escape from the suffering of this world and is stated as the third of the Four Noble Truths, the extinction of suffering, a turning away that is possible only for the person who has recognized that everything is fleeting, subject to suffering, and without a self and yet who can face everything with serenity even with this knowledge.

For the Buddhist, salvation is found in the state of nirvana, which involves the elimination of all pain and desire. It is essentially a way of escaping from immortality. The Four Noble Truths extend back some 2,500 years and have shaped the way the culture has developed.

The Christian world view developed as an image of this world as a world of woe, with life tending toward salvation in the next. The Hindu and Buddhist world views both tend more toward visions of the correct life in this world, though in India, the Islamic influence creates expectations more like those of Christianity. The three religions also exert different levels of control, with Christianity being more controlling while Buddhism is more an individual religion leaving the individual to seek out his own truth through the practices of the religion. The culture of these three civilizations reflect some of the same differences, though all three claim to seek some form of reconciling of opposites in this world.

Two kinds of truth are found in the teachings of the Buddha, the truth of this world and the truth which is the highest sense. The highest awareness is needed for the release that is salvation in Buddhism, and this is achieved through pratEQ O (O, i) tyasamutpEQ O (O, a) da, the ultimate affirmation. Four soteriological paths are identified in the literature: 1) ascetic practices; 2) the pratimoksa, or monastic discipline; 3) the bodhisattva path; and 4) the Vajrayana, or "diamond vehicle."

PratEQ O (O, i) tyasamutpEQ O (O, a) da is seen as the most important method of the Middle Way, the relationship of humanity to nature, a pluralist view of the inter-relatedness of all the entities which constitute the universe. In the Middle Way, undivided being is ultimately reality, eternal and unconditioned, while immediate, conditioned inter-relatedness is understood in terms of the mundane truth of pratEQ O (O, i) tyasamutpEQ O (O, a) da, or conditioned or dependent origination:

There is thus in the Middle Way a vision of the entire world as a grand system where all specific entities are inter-related, and where also it is possible to be aware of being on one's ultimate nature not divided from the Undivided. This requires that understanding and practice go hand in hand, and reinforce each other.

As the basics of Buddhism were transferred from India to China, the basics of Zen were also transferred form China to Japan. Different branches of Buddhism co-existed. One branch held that the Path was too difficult for ordinary people and that only a monk could undertake to seek the enlightenment of a saint. This approach is called Hinayana and is followed in Burma, Ceylon, and Thailand, though adherents prefer to call this approach Theravada, meaning the Teaching of the Elders. The more popular approach has been that which spread to China and Japan as Mahayana, in which "the saint is not the Arhat who has enough to save himself, but the Bodhisattva who is capable of attaining Nirvana and turns back until all beings are saved." This approach would lead to the development of Zen and to its transfer to Japan, with nirvana in this case being "a positive state expressed negatively. It is awakening for the good life here and now, in medication-and-action, with determination to help other people toward this awakening; though each man must attain it for himself."

The Buddhist conception developed by Buddha in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. includes the then prevailing Indian conception of transmigration, though Buddha was not happy with the way this conception was voiced by Hindu religious leaders of his time. He denied their conception of the soul as a spiritual substance: "Authentic child of India, he never doubted that reincarnation in some sense was a fact, but he was openly uncomfortable over the way his Brahmanic contemporaries were interpreting the concept."

Buddha only gives a minimal description of his own views on the subject, however. He used the image of a flame being passed from candle to candle: "As it is difficult to think of the flame on the last candle as being in any meaningful sense the same as the original flame, the connection would seem instead to be a causal one in which influence was transmitted by chain reaction but not substance." Buddha also offered his acceptance of karma, and combining this with his sense of transmigration, Smith describes the Buddhist conception of Buddha's views on salvation as follows:

1) A chain of causation exists that threads each life to those which have led up to it and others which will follow. This means that each life is in the condition it is in because of the way the lives were led that lead up to it and that subsequent lives will have a condition based in part on how this life is led.

2) Man's will remains free in the midst of this causal sequence. Up to a point, acts will be followed by predictable consequences, but these consequences never shackle the human will or determine completely what the human being is to do. The human being always remains a free agent, always at liberty to do something to change his or her destiny.

3) While this assumes the importance of causal connections in life, it does not require the notion of a lump of mental substance that is passed from life to life -- this is a reference to the earlier Hindu conception of the soul as spiritual substance. All that can be found passed from life to life are impressions, ideas, feelings, "streams of consciousness," "present moments," and no underlying spiritual substrata.

Smith also offers an analogy to show the ingredients of Buddha's combined views of reincarnation and karma. He says that in the realm of ideas the thoughts that fill the mind are not there by accident but have definite histories: "Apart from the conditioning impact which the minds of my teachers, my parents, and the molders of Western civilization have exerted upon me, they could not possibly have come into being." However, this does not mean that we have to pass on these ideas unchanged, and instead we may alter and add to them. Ideas need not be regarded, though, as entities, things, or mental substances that are in any way physically transmitted.

As noted, there are four paths to achieving salvation under this conception. The ascetic practices involve seclusion of the body and restraint of speech. There are usually thirteen practices listed, and these go back to the time when the Buddha was alive. These practices are meant to purify the mind and make it fit for the "pure life."…[continue]

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