Training Wheels Buddhism


Last week in the comments, Zopa asked me to explain the terms nirvana and samsara. It’s an interesting question, and the more I thought about it the more interesting it got.


There is a whole Buddhist cosmology that we’ll go into another time, with six Dharma realms from the realm of gods living in intense rapture to the level of intense suffering, a sort of Buddhist version of Hell. If you visit the Tiger Balm Garden in Singapore, you can see brightly painted versions of the six Dharma realms, along with lots of other Chinese mythical figures and scenes.

The problem is, since Buddha was pretty definite about the doctrine of anatman, the doctrine that there’s no such thing as a permanent identity or soul, what is there to reincarnate?

Then it occured to me that Buddha, as a teacher, was known for crafting his message to communicate with the person in front of him at the moment. The stories of his previous incarnations, the Jatakas, are teaching stories, parables; a lot of them are basically children’s stories, with bunnies and tigers and mysterious silent princes. Maybe these are basically Buddhism with training wheels, intended for people who do believe in reincarnation and rebirth. So, okay, let’s start with training wheels Buddhism to explain samsara and nirvana.

Basically, in the training wheels tradition, a person has a part that survives death and is reborn. Krishna explains this to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter:


The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11) There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist, nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12) Just as the living entity (Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during this life; similarly, it acquires another body after death. ….

Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones; similarly, the living entity (Spirit, Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies. (2.22) Weapons do not cut this Spirit (Atma), fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the wind does not make it dry. Atma cannot be cut, burned, wet, or dried. It is eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval. (2.23-24) The Spirit (Atma, Self) is said to be unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unchanging.

Notice that this translator, Dr Prasad, has included a hint there that Spirit in this context is Atman.

Hindu tradition would be that this Spirit acquires credits for good deeds and debits for bad deeds, and so when a body died, the Spirit is reborn into a life that is well suited to it. An incarnation is like going to school, and rebirth is kind of a Cosmic Sorting Hat that puts you in Griffendore or Slytherin as you deserve.


Buddha saw that this thing, this spirit, had to be something that changes and so was subject to cause and effect; it changes, so it is essentially impermanent. It can’t be the unchanging permanent thing it’s supposed to be.

So here’s one view of samsara and nirvana: samsara is that cycle of rebirth, returning again and again. Nirvana is graduation, leaving that cycle. For what? That’s one of the Unanswerable Questions: it’s literally unspeakable.

To which a whole bunch of profound students of Buddhism, in the -4th to -2nd centuries, said “what?”

There is another way of looking at it, though. When you meditate, doing shikentaza, “just sitting”, it quickly becomes clear that your mind is full of these little transient moments, thoughts you dwell on, from sexual fantasies to worries about your job to memories of your childhood. During meditation, you get hints that there is a sort of space between these thoughts, moments when that stream of thoughts just isn’t happening. Buddhism developed a kind of philosophy of mind called yogacara, and a kind of analytical model of psychology based on that called abhidharma.

In this (very analytical, even scientific) view, what we call consciousness is a flow of these events, one after another. (This is interestingly like the global workspace theory of consciousness; I’m going to write more on that in the future too.)


When you pay attention to those moments, though, you see they all have to do with the roots of duhkha: you dwell on thoughts of pleasant things; you think of unpleasant things that hurt you in the past or that you fear happening in the future; you fantasize plans of how things should be and how to make things go your way. It’s that stream of moments of “dwelling-on” that make up ordinary consciousness, and the way we feel about them that is duhkha.

In yogacara, it’s that stream of ordinary dwelling-on thoughts that are samsara and the source of suffering. The space between them, those moments when you’re not dwelling on some particular thought, but freely responding in the moment, is nirvana.


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