Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

On 10 April 2010, Dr. Shenpen Hookham - insightful Buddhist meditation master and Oxford-trained scholar of Buddhist philosophy - responded in a very interesting and valuable way to a student's question about Nirvana. Here is the exchange (part of Lama Shenpen's 'Buddhism Connect' series of questions and answers):

Summary: Lama Shenpen speaks of the meaning of Nirvana.

A student asks:

"Is nirvana a state of mind as space...or is it more a metaphorical place (like heaven)...or a combination of both...or something entirely different?!"

Lama Shenpen replies:

"Sometimes nirvana is spoken of as if it were a space or place you entered and sometimes as if it were a state of mind you arrived at and in the original sources there doesn’t seem to be much sense of a question around this.

Like the heavenly abodes one reaches through meditative absorption, you can enter them as a state of mind even in this body in this life, or you can enter them as birth places once you have left this body.

I think the idea of mandala principle helps here. States of mind are mandalas that we create and enter like worlds we live in. Worlds we are born into are like states of mind that have stabilized like a kind of samadhi or state of meditative absorbtion. There is not really any essential difference between a place and a state of mind in this sense.

Nirvana of course is not just any old mandala - it is the ultimate mandala - the all encompassing mandala of which all other mandalas are merely sub-mandalas. If we take nirvana to mean the state of complete and perfect Awakening then it is unlimited, unbounded, non-differentiated reality - it is not space in the way we conceptualize space to ourselves right now as an object of awareness.

That space is limited by the fact that we think of ourselves as outside of that space - so it does not encompass everything - the seer of the space is different from the space that is seen. That space belongs to the realm of the illusory and yet it corresponds to something real - there is space in which there is not differentiation, no separation or limit. It is a totally different kind of space though.

When you try to imagine space you kind of think of a vast if not infinite extension of distance out and out in all directions - almost like blowing up an imaginary balloon - and yet however big that balloon became - still you could think of an end to it and what lay beyond it. Only if you drop the mind that believes in size and distance and separate points in space - only then could a space open up that was if you like 'real' space.....yet somehow although you knew it intuitively to be such you could never 'know' it at wouldn’t be an object of knowledge.

This would be an insight and maybe last only a fraction of a second - but that is the direction in which we are going!"