Nirvana: Three Takes

Teachers from three Buddhist traditions offer surprisingly divergent views on the meaning of nirvana. Where does your path lead?

Gil Fronsdal, Tulku Thubten Rinpoche, and Roko Sherry Chayat

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Tisra Til

In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, dharma teachings spread from India into the rest of Asia, evolving eventually into the three yanas, or vehicles for the teachings—Theravada, Vajrayana, and Mahayana, the predominant traditions of Southeast Asia, Tibet, and East Asia, respectively. The doctrinal distinctions that arose have caused fundamental aspects of what the Buddha taught to be disputed. Even the teachings on such essential matters as karma, enlightenment, and rebirth vary in the three yanas, and from school to school within the yanas—now more so than ever with Western epistemologies stirred into the doctrinal diaspora.

Tricycle editors—and likely lots of other dharma students—are frequently asked for the “Buddhist” take on everything from premarital sex to cloning to cosmetic surgery. The problem is, no single answer emerges from all the branches of Buddhism that have sprouted around the world. A Soto Zen response to the question “Does heaven exist?” diverges drastically from a Pure Land view or a Theravada teaching; even practical questions about how dharma practitioners celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, get married, or care for the dead elicit distinct responses pointing to distinct anniversaries, histories, and rituals, depending on who you ask and where you look.

In an effort to point to the profound variance between “Buddhisms” and teachings, Tricycle takes a look at three basic views of nirvana, its aspects and attainment, from a Theravada, Vajrayana, and a Rinzai Zen (Mahayana) teacher. While Tulku Thubten, a Vajrayana teacher, sees the possibility of sudden, unexpected, and even repeated enlightenment, Gil Fronsdal, a Theravada teacher, has described the process of reaching the “deathless” as akin to desalinating a glass of seawater: the fresh water is there, but getting out the salt—our delusion—is a task of dedication, meticulously applied, over time. And in Zen master Sherry Roko Chayat’s essay, we have enlightenment in “this very moment, this very place; we are 'all done' just as we are.” The differences, perhaps, will speak for themselves. —Mary Talbot

 

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