Nibbana dilemma – is it worth it?

After discussion on the nature of Nibbana (the Goal) and Samsara in the last few posts, the next question, is whether Nibbana is worth it. Why not just enjoy the vicissitudes of birth and death in eternity …

The Fight and Temptation

This question is especially relevant when you consider the arduous meditation, renunciation and spiritual struggle that are involved. It is not by accident that the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha’s story, Parsifal of the Round Table and other stories all use the analogy of a great battle to win enlightenment. These characters all had to face insurmountable odds to win through to the final goal.

  • Jesus had to choose the desert over the whole world that the devil offered him
  • Buddha had to leave his three palaces of luxury for the jungle
  • Parsifal was cast out of the Grail Kingdom and forced to wonder alone in the world before he finally had to resist the Evil lord’s flower maidens and then Desire itself.
  • Jack of the Beanstalk fame, traded in his family’s cow for a handful of beans.

The list is endless. Anything that speaks of the Spiritual Path, will have this theme buried in it somewhere. You can have your nibbana and eat the world too!

Any Takers?

The fact is that most people – by far the most – are not interested.

When the Buddha was enlightened he said:

This dhamma won to by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful, beyond logic, subtle, intelligible by the wise.

But this generation  delights in sense pleasure, rejoices in sense pleasure .. and so is a matter difficult to discern, that is, the arising of the world, the calming of habitual tendencies, the renunciation of attachment, destruction of craving, dispassion, stopping, nirvana.

If I were to teach dhamma others would not undertstand me, and that would be wearisome.

This dhamma will be

…. unseen by slaves of passion, who are cloaked in the fog of ignorance.

This remains true today. Who is interested in ‘dispassion’ (viraka, or non-lusting). Few.

And why should anyone be interested? Does it matter?

It is tempting to try and justify the path and the goal, and to explain away the ideas of renunciation and dispassion – maybe inserting the words ‘peaceful’ or ‘letting g0’ instead. But at the end of the day, a very few people will gain a genuine notion to make enquiry. This is not therapy!

It is said, that just hearing about Enlightenment awakens a yearning that will eventually be fulfilled, even if it takes many lifetimes. Arunacala mountain in India, where the sage Ramana Maharshi lived, is said to guarantee enlightenment if you walk around it (they don’t say how long you have to wait after the walk!). Some Tibetans wear a tiny scrap of scripture around their neck in the belief that anyone who even sees the sutra (usually the pivotal Lotus Sutra) will eventually become enlightened.

Many people, especially in Sri Lanka, will make offerings with the resolution and wish to be reborn in the time of Maitreya Buddha (the next Buddha) and get enlightened easily under him.

The majority however, even if they hear about Enlightenment and believe, will be content to seek out Enlightened beings to make an offering, to recite chants, wear certain clothes or charms, engage in a few rituals … but not to do the work on themselves. True meditators are a fairly limited group and probably always will be – Buddhism was not designed to be a mass religion.

Taking up the practise is not so easy.

The Drum Peg

In fact the Buddha predicted many times how the Dhamma would decline. In one sutta he compares it to a cowhide stretched over a drum. As the hide tears, so extra pegs are put in place to keep it together. But eventually there are too many pegs and the drom won’t work. So Dhamma becomes stretched in the hands of those who prefer ‘favours and flattery’ over genuine spiritual research into the goal.

At many other points he talks of how future generations will make fine hymns and poems that please the aesthetic sense, but do little more…. of how those generations will become enthralled by waterfalls, music, possessions, and sensual lust. Celibacy will be eschewed for ‘love’. Being ardent and mindful will be replaced by dogmatic views and opinions. People will be happy to talk and sing about Samsara.

… they will become delicate, soft and tender in both hands and feet; they will lie till sunrise on soft couches, on pillows of down; and to them Mara will gain access s ii 266

They will become lax, luxurious, backsliding, shirking the burden of renunciation and will put forth no effort to attain the unattained, to master the unconquered, realize the unrealized. Thus the folk who come after will fall into wrong views. A III p85

I know of two things that conduce to the confusion and disappearance of true Dhamma, the wrong expression of the teachings and the wrong interpretation of it. A Vol I, p53

The fact is that Buddhism is all about Nibbana/Enlightenment. When you strip away the goal and replace it with philosophical or religious arguments it becomes just another anthropological footnote of humanity.

Is it Worth it?

One analogy in the Magandiya sutta tells how the Buddha had all the luxury of youth, health and 3 palaces. But he gave all that up for the sake of Englightenment. The pleasure of the senses, compared to Enlightenment is like the pleasure a leper gains from scratching or burning his lesions.

In fact, even if it took a hundred years of the worst Hell, the Buddha stated, it would be worth it.

But fortunately it does not take hell, just some effort and an enquiring mind that is willing to enquire through meditation/investigation rather than through the ‘tricked out phrases’ of opinions. Dhamma is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end.

In fact just a little effort on the part of a yogi to tame the mind shows results. While it may just be a ‘hnadful of beans’ in the eyes of Samsara, the feeling of the mind coming together is quite compelling. As mindfulness and concentration grow, the direction becomes clearer, and this virtue really is its own reward.

The Path might always be chosen only by a few, but it is open to anyone.


3 replies on “Nibbana dilemma – is it worth it?”

  1. Dear Venerable Pandit,

    Isn’t it mentioned somewhere(in the suttas?) that Nibbana & samsara are also the same(yet different) essentially, how can there be any separation? A spiritual practice, exemplified by the rigid lifestyle of a monk is like a training or reprogramming of the mind(& body) to realize the illusory(temporal) nature of life, to dissolve any personal identification or attachment to it thus being able to(paradoxically) live it & appreciate it even more fully. Isn’t remaining a monk(to teach perhaps) just as much a preferential lifestyle choice as becoming an engineer or a musician?

    Metta & Appreciation

    1. It is mentioned in the Heart sutra and other Mahayana places that nibbana is in samsara … but it is not a Theravada teaching. One can decide for oneself if this idea is in line with the recorded teachings of the Buddha or not. Certainly one can attain to nibbana while the flesh body walks around visible in this world, as the Buddha did. But as outlined both Samsara and nibbana should not be soncidered to be places. Then the confusion disappears (replaced by a different confusion??). I agree that being a mok is full of attachment, more so than a musician or engineer. It’s full on attachment to robes, to a set of expectations etc… But is it conducive to the practise? That is the question. Buddha was adamant it is, but perhpas in this generation things have changed. I know many lay-people who are more ardent or attained than monks. Would they be even better if they were ordained??? As to Arahants – why would they stay as a monk after becoming Enlightened? We will have to check with Ven Kusala (the Sri Lankan monk) for the quote. But I recall Maha Kasappa saying something that it was for the inspiration of the lay people, for the confidence of the monks and the ease of living in the present – or something like that.

  2. Hello everyone,

    Yes, I’m still around/alive, just focussing on my studies and practice. I believe Ven Pandit and Ven Kusala have both finished their coursework and are now in the thesis research/writing stage.

    Regarding the quote mentioned: the question asked was not why they remained a monk, but why they remained living in solitude. There are records of both the Mahakassapa and the Buddha being asked the same question and they say, it was for a pleasant abiding here and now and out of compassion for future generations. (Buddha M I 23, A I 60-61) Majjhima Commentary expalins: He has “compassion for future generations” insofar as later generations of monks, seeing that the Buddha resorted to forest dwellings, will follow his example and thus hasten their progress towards making an end of suffering, but I think that is missing the most obvious point that, all (monks and laypeople) will be inspired from the example of simple living, as well as using up less resources leaves more for future generations, as Gandhi said “live simply, so that others may simply live.” The quote of Mahakassapa is at S II 203, where his explanation of the compassion part is for the encouragement of others to do likewise.

    Kind Regards

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