…there is no distinction at all between samsara and nirvana…. The limit of nirvana is the limit of everyday life. -Nagarjuna
Buddhism is the path of awakening, but what does awakening mean? Different Buddhist traditions seem to understand it differently, or at least emphasize different aspects of it. In the Pali canon, the earliest texts we have, nibbana signifies the end of rebirth into samsara, thereby the liberation from this world of suffering, craving, and delusion. Insofar as we escape it individually, one by one, ultimately my well-being is distinct from your well-being. Yes, I hope that you will awaken too, but nevertheless my enlightenment is separate from yours. Such a dualistic understanding of the Buddhist path does not invite us to engage with ecological and social problems. Rather, it can encourage a belief that we should not waste our time trying to reform this unsatisfactory world; instead, we should concentrate on transcending it.
How literally should we take “the end of rebirth”? Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, famously declared…
“there is no distinction at all between samsara and nirvana…. The limit of nirvana is the limit of everyday life.”
In other words, there’s only this world, but there are different ways of experiencing it. So the Mahayana tradition emphasizes that enlightenment involves realizing the “emptiness” (shunyata) of things, including ourselves. Depending on how we understand this, however, our view of emptiness can also discourage social or ecological concern.
Joanna Macy’s contribution to A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency focuses on some “spiritual traps” that can hinder us from engaging with the world. The first is any view that devalues the world in comparison with some “higher” spiritual reality. Macy criticizes the view that the phenomenal world is merely an illusion: “Impermanent and made of matter, it is less worthy than a realm of pure spirit. Its pain and its demands on us are less real than the pleasures or tranquility we can find in transcending them.” To see the phenomenal world only as an illusion is to dwell in an emptiness that is disengaged from the forms of this world. “According to this view,” says Macy, “freedom from suffering is attained by nonattachment to the fate of all beings, rather than nonattachment to matters of the ego.” But the Buddha did not teach that nonattachment means indifference to what is happening in the world, to the world. The Heart Sutra asserts that forms are empty, yet it immediately adds that emptiness is not other than forms. And forms—including the living beings and ecosystems of this world—suffer.
Other spiritual traps are more worldly. Since many modern Buddhists aren’t attracted by the traditional Asian goal of ending rebirth, the path is sometimes understood as a program of psychological development to help us let go of afflictive emotions and resolve personal problems. Today, innovative types of Buddhist-inspired psychotherapy are providing new perspectives on psychological well-being and practices that promote it by reducing the three poisons—greed, ill will, and delusion—right here and now. There is much to appreciate about this new development, which is reducing dukkha. Nevertheless, there is a difficulty if one believes that all problems are due to the way the mind works; the solution, then, is simply to change the mind rather than change the system.
Written by David Loy, originally appeared in Lions Roar, November 30, 2015