In philosophy and religion, there are many schools of thought. Most of them support and promote ideas that clash with the beliefs and views of others. As a result, it is interesting to explore the potential perspectives the representatives of different schools would have on certain issues. In this paper, an argument about nirvana (or liberation) between Buddha and a Carvaka representative will be presented. Further, the ideas of Muhammad and Confucius on the same topic will be brought into the discussion.
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The Buddha discouraged speculation about the nature of nirvana and emphasized instead the need to strive for its attainment. Those who asked speculative questions about nirvana he compared to a man wounded by poisoned arrow who, rather than pulling the arrow out, persists in asking for irrelevant information about the man who fired it, such as his name and clan, how far away he was standing, and so forth.
The ancient Greek Epicureans in fact believed something incredibly similar. Limit your desires, live a simple life, and then no loss will ruin your happiness. Gain your pleasure from striving for maximum pleasure, which meant learning to curb unnecessary desires, and keep only that for maximum pleasures, which meant going beyond desire, and in fact, through it. Then each pleasure becomes a blessing, without also becoming a cage. Friendship and community of like minded individuals is the best way to help you get there, but ultimately, this too can be a trap. Becoming identified with the gods is the goal, just like in Vedantic Hinduism, and in its more radical agnostic way, identifying with the principle of desire beyond desire, or nirvana.
To understand early Chinese Buddhist art, we must first travel back in time hundreds of years and across Eurasia to ancient India and the origins of Buddhism. Buddhism was founded by prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Historical Buddha (also known as Shakyamuni) after his enlightenment (nirvana).
If you open the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to 'nirvana', you will find the colloquial definition of the word to be 'a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality' or 'a goal hoped for but apparently unattainable'. However, the dictionary definition is not what nirvana means in its original language.
Nirvana is an ancient Sanskrit word with significant religious meanings across Indic traditions like Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. In Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, the term means liberation from worldly existence. All three believe that there is an everlasting soul (atman) that travels through the cycle of rebirth. The soul is real, but one's particular identity is not. Hindus and Jains believe liberation cancels one's identity and one's soul merges into the universal soul (brahman), the underlying reality. Hindus use meditation or devotion to a deity to achieve this while Jains practice self-denial. Sikhs believe nirvana is a state of pure bliss gained by pleasing the divine.
The meaning of nirvana in Buddhism is different from the others. Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul, nor do they believe in a universal soul. They don't believe there is an underlying reality at all. Because there is no merging, the Buddhist meaning of nirvana is nothingness (sunyata). This lesson will focus on the Buddhist understanding of nirvana.
The great 3rd century CE Buddhist philosopher and logician Nagarjuna referred to nirvana as neti neti, 'neither this nor that'. He did this because no word, sign, or idea could accurately describe something that has no being. Even saying that nirvana doesn't exist misses the mark because it is both the absence of being and the absence of non-being. Today, we live in a world where logic is dilemmic -- we only have two choices, something exists, or it doesn't. Indian philosophy works within a quadrilemma with four possibilities: something exists, it doesn't, it exists and doesn't exist, or it neither exists nor doesn't exist. Nirvana in Buddhism is this last possibility. It is completely outside any frame of reference.
In this nothingness framework, nirvana means extinguishing the self so completely that the illusion of reality has no more impact. The word nirvana comes from combining the Sanskrit past participle /ban/ 'blown' and the adverb /nis/ 'out, away'. It originally meant nothing more than what one does to a candle's flame. And while there were other words circulating at the Buddha's time for liberation from rebirth (moksha, mukti, samadhi), the word nirvana was deliberately chosen by the Buddha to convey this puff-and-your-gone release from the illusion of reality (maya). No soul, no universe, just nothingness.
Nirvana can be an unsettling concept. For some, Buddhism seems pessimistic, and the pursuit of nirvana appears self-destructive, so we look for more comforting words to describe it. The word 'enlightenment' seems to be a good synonym. But even though these terms are closely related, they are not the same. The Buddhist term for enlightenment is bodhi, 'awakening'. It is a set of methods for realizing that existence is suffering. If one follows the methods, one will stop making karma that causes rebirth. But one only attains nirvana once all their karma is spent, and none is left to trigger rebirth. Enlightenment is something to work towards in the world of existence, nirvana is when the process is done, and one ceases to be. Enlightenment is a process and nirvana is the result.
The history of Buddhist thought has many different approaches to attaining nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. These approaches, or schools, serve as guides that help one along the path, but there are disagreements over how one attains nirvana and who is ready to try. The two most prominent schools are the Theravada (the way of the elders) and the Mahayana (the great vehicle). And while all Buddhists hold to the Noble Eightfold Path, Buddha's fundamental framework for ending rebirth, each school offers a distinct scheme for achieving the goal
Attaining nirvana in the Theravada tradition focuses mainly on monks living in monasteries or forest dwellings as they strive to become arhats, enlightened ones. Both venues allow the secluded monks to practice self-discipline, meditate, and study the Tipitika - the sermons, rules of discipline, and metaphysical discourses of the Buddha. The Theravada path is one of individual striving and few monks become arhats in their lifetime, but their training will earn them sufficient merit to be reborn a monk and continue along the path. Ordinary people, however, have effectively no chance of attaining enlightenment. They do not learn the subtle lessons of the Tipitika and rarely interact with the monks except when giving them alms. Feeding and clothing monks do provide the lay followers with their only hope, an opportunity to earn modest amounts of merit that allow them be reborn as a monk in a future life.
The Mahayana tradition developed later and incorporates more diverse doctrines and practices than its older cousin. The largest difference is in the relationship among Mahayana monks and the lay followers. Mahayana is path where those who are enlightened choose to be bodhisattvas and withhold themselves from nirvana until the whole universe is ready to join them. Mahayana scriptures claim that no one escapes suffering until all have escaped and that the Theravada program of individual enlightenment is too slow for this goal. But by remaining in the world, bodhisattvas produce massive amounts of merit to pass on to lay followers (and all humans) to hurry them along the way. The goal is to bring the lay followers along with them so all escape maya together, and bodhisattvas continue to take rebirths in the world to help them.
The Buddha left two main roadmaps for how to attain nirvana. One is called the Four Noble Truths and the other is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths define the problem of rebirth that the Twelve Link Chain of Dependent Origination causes. But these can only identify and diagram the problem, they could not change mankind's imprisonment by illusion by themselves. The Eightfold Path provides a blueprint for how to conquer suffering.
The first of the Four Noble Truths is that existence is suffering. Nothing is permanent and everything slips away. This is not a sad insight. It is a realization that we may not have to keep losing things forever. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is greed and desire. If we can detach ourselves from our cravings, we can end suffering. The Third Noble Truth simply says that one can end craving. It is possible, but it is not easy. The final Noble Truth is that the way to end craving and impermanence and end the cycle of rebirths is to follow the method the Buddha discovered, the Noble Eightfold Path. This is what can lead people out of suffering, through enlightenment, and to the result -- nirvana.
In Buddhist thought, nirvana is the cessation of all existence. It isn't exactly non-existence; it is neither existence nor non-existence. One attains nirvana by realizing that all existing is suffering and following the Buddha's instructions on how to make existence stop. These instructions are the Noble Eightfold Path, the key teaching in Buddhism.
Nirvana is one of the hardest concepts to comprehend. Any conversations about it are vague because nirvana, by definition, cannot be anything you say or think about. But this has not stopped Buddhists from achieving enlightenment and attaining nirvana for over 2500 years. In Theravada Buddhism, individual monks spend their lives studying the sacred Tipitaka texts and living free from ego, pride, and selfishness so they can one day become an enlightened arhat and gain nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, enlightened monks will forego attaining nirvana and remain in the world of rebirths. Mahayana Buddhists believe suffering exists until everyone escapes it, so Bodhisattvas stay in the world in order to make immense amounts of merit to transfer to lay Buddhists so they can attain nirvana as well. 2b1af7f3a8