School Days

This blog will overview Nirvana as seen through the lens of the various Buddhist schools. This snapshot is a quick summary:


ibid, pg.67

Two of the early schools are the Sarvāstivāda and Vaibhāika, the latter being a continuation of the former. Both contended in their teachings that all exists, insisting that all conditioned dharmas continue to exist through the three time periods of past, present and future. Nirvana itself is the absolute absence of karma and an [escape] from all defiled dharmata including the skandhas and all samsaric existence by the strenuous efforts of an arhat. Hence, Nirvana is an ontologically [real force] that is won by the arhat when all the defilements are abandoned.

According to Vaibhāṣika, nirvāṇa must be an ultimately real existent because no real supporting phenomena can be found which could serve as the basis on which to designate nirvāṇa as a relative existent (as the aggregates serve to designate the self as relative, for example).

Also, if nirvāṇa is not a real force, then beings could not give rise to delight in nirvāṇa and disgust towards saṃsāra, for nirvāṇa would be inferior in terms of existence. It would also mean that the Buddha had been deluding everyone by speaking of non-existents in the same way that he spoke of the existents.

Furthermore, if nirvāṇa was unreal, it could not be one of the four noble truths, since a non-existent cannot be said to be true or false. An ārya is said to directly see the four truths, including the third truth of duḥkhanirodha (the end of suffering, i.e. nirvāṇa) and wisdom cannot arise with regard to a non-existent object. (wiki)

The Sautrāntikas

This school took an opposite approach. They categorically denied that the past and future elements really existed in the same sense as the present ones did. The school insisted that Nirvana was the [absolute end] of all manifestations that were in motion due to the unruly kleśas. It also proclaimed that Nirvana was the end of the life-process as a collective whole. In this sense Nirvana lost the materialistic character that were claimed by the aforementioned earlier schools. They taught that there would be no Buddha or Buddhism without Nirvana.

The Mādhyamikas

This school is considered to be the bedrock of Philosophy in the Mahayana with Nāgārjuna himself at its helm. It is the supreme school of Buddhist philosophy that sets forth a middle way between the extreme of eternalism and the extreme of annihilationism. Hence, it’s considered as the Middle-Way par excellence. Dependent origination itself in its Madhyamaka interpretation refers not only to the twelvefold chain but more broadly to the fact that all phenomena arise in total dependence upon other factors. It has also maintained that the highest wisdom is possible only in Nirvana, but that nirvana itself cannot be attained without realizing the paramārtha satya, or the Ultimate Truth. Thus the proper understanding of śūnyatā is considered the highest good in the very heart of the Nirvanic enterprize. In this understanding, though, Nirvana is ultimately considered in a negative light as we shall see later through Nāgārjuna, but for now the following is highlighted:

What is not abandoned and not attained,
Not cut off and not eternal,
What is not suppressed and not produced,
That is called nirvana

The intention of the Madhyamika notion of nirvana is to break down, by means of the via negativa, the duality implicit in all conceptualized formulations. The Absolute is ineffable; [ultimately], one must realize that there can be no duality, that there can be neither samsara nor nirvana.

The Yogācāras

This school is the most familiar here at Unborn Mind Zen since portions of it coalesce into Lankavatarian teachings. One of its teachings is Unfixed-Nirvana, referred to as nonabiding-nirvāṇa or apratiṣṭhitanirvāṇa found in the IX Chapter in Étienne Lamotte’s translation of Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha.

Cessation (prahāṇa) is the nonabiding-nirvāṇa (apratiṣṭhitanirvāṇa) of the bodhisattva; it has as nature (lakṣaṇa) this twofold tranformation of support (āśrayaprāvṛtti) which consists of rejecting the defilements (saṃkleśaparityāga) and not abandoning transmigration (saṃsārāparityāga).

  1. i) First, transmigration (saṃsāra) is the defiled portion (saṃkleśabhāga) of the dependent nature (paratantra-svabhāva).
  2. ii) Nirvāṇa is the pure portion (vyavadānabhāga) of the dependent nature.
  3. iii) The two aspects of the support (āśraya) is the dependent nature (paratantrasvabhāva) as it is included in both parts at the same time (tadubhayabhāgapatita).
  4. iv) The transformation (parāvṛtti) of the support consists of the expulsion (tchouan che = ldog = vivartana) of the defiled portion (saṃkleśabhāga) of the dependent nature when its antidote (pratipakṣa) arises and it is reduced (tchouan tö = gyur pa = pariṇāma) to its pure portion (vyavadānabhāga). (Lamotte, pg. 353)

Breaking this down further, apratiṣṭhitanirvāṇa refers to a type of nirvana that is not bound to any one form of activity in samsaric realms. This is highly contrasted with the nirvana of the sravakas and pratyekabuddhas who are criticized within the Mahayana for forever remaining fixed in a type of transcendent state of nirvana that was somehow [existent] as the final extinction of all defiled dharmata. This Unfixed Nirvana does relinquish forms of defilements, but never abandons (for the Bodhisattva) the realm of birth and death (samsara). It’s all about the redeeming of pure-components while at the same time shredding the skandhic shell. Hence, this fourth portion of the above revolves around the thusness that is forever freed from any form of blocking obstruction. This is all accompanied by the Compassion and Wisdom of the Bodhisattva who never really remains fixed in either samsara or nirvana. This positive force empowers the Bodhisattva to always remain quiescent which is considered as the nirvanic quotient. Vasubandhu writes in his commentary on the Mahāyānasaṃgraha:

By virtue of the power of this [subsequently acquired] cognition of the bodhisattvas, out of consideration for the weal of all sentient beings, decides to be reborn in the world. When they are reborn, however, they are no longer subject to defilement by worldly contingencies. Because this [subsequently-acquired] cognition is born of the [fundamental] non-discriminating cognition, it is also called non-discriminating. [DYNAMIC LIBERATION IN YOGACARA BUDDHISM by Alan Sponberg]

As we can see from this segment on our series on Nirvana, these later schools criticized the particular type of nirvana as sought by the sravakas and pratyekabuddhas who considered both nirvana and samsara to be two [separate] realities. This notion was totally adverse from the newly emerging Monistic Mahayana Absolutism. This evolving notion found no real distinction between samsara and nirvana, something that was fine-tuned as we shall see in our next blog on the Lanka’s take on Nirvana.

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