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Lions Roar : September 2018
time,” Mara said, “for your final nibbana [Sanskrit: nirvana] .” “You need not worry, Evil One,” the Buddha replied. “ Three months from now I will take final nibbana.” And three months later, suffering from a severe bellyache with diarrhea, the Buddha laid down between two Sala trees. Surrounded by tearful disciples, he breathed his last. Mara finally won, as he always does. Or does he? The worldview of the Buddha’s ancient Indian culture was the opposite of ours. We are radical materialists with an impressive record of mastery of the physical world. This makes us life-affirming and optimistic. As best we can, we try to avoid the incon- venient fact that we die. We say, why obsess about it? Death comes later, after a long happy life. There’s no use spoiling things by thinking about it. That would be morbid. Anyway, science will stave off death for a long, long time. The best doctors can cure even the worst diseases, and they are discovering new cures every day. Perhaps we will even be able to eliminate death at some point. Who knows? Scientists are working on it. The ancient Indian view of life and death couldn’t be further from this. In ancient India, life was not long and happy; it was brief and brutal. The daily struggle to survive was arduous and miserable. Dis- ease, starvation, and crushing poverty were the fate of most people. And, as the ancient Indians saw it, even at the end of this terrible lifetime there was no escape. We leave this life only to wander for a time in hideous post-life realms from which we will be reborn into yet another miserable life. This diaboli- cal process goes on and on and on. The goal then, according to ancient Indians, is not to prolong life; it’s to end this painful process once and for all. This is nibbana: final peace, complete rest, freedom from the beginningless cycle of birth and death. The word nibanna means “to blow out,” as in blowing out a flame and entering peaceful dark- ness. Nibbana isn’t death; it’s the opposite of death. Life and death are restless and painful; nibanna is completion, fulfillment. Though old and infirm, the Buddha did not succumb to illness; he transcended it. In entering nibanna he became whole. For the Buddha, what we call death is ultimate healing. Though the metaphor is the mirror oppo- site, the nibanna proposed by the Buddha may not be so different from the Christian conception of heavenly eternal life after death. To be sure, nibanna isn’t the only goal of early Buddhism. Even in the midst of life’s unpreventable difficulties, suffering can be reduced by following the Buddhist path. Though we can never eliminate illness and harm, we can reduce the self-inflicted suffering we ourselves produce when we take a bad situation and make it worse through our resistance and unwise behavior. A lifetime of such exacerbation is normal for most of us. It leads to all sorts of bad effects, from making enemies we don’t need to make, to ruining our physical health with bad habits and too much unnecessary stress. If, on the other hand, we practice meditation, ethical conduct, and the other Bud- dhist virtues, living mindfully and harmoniously, we will have community, cooperation, peace, and love, which will promote and extend our life. Such is one view of the path set forth in the Bud- dhist scriptures. It’s the view emphasized in Western Buddhism and in the Buddhist-inspired mindfulness movement. Buddhism is good for you; it accords with the healthy life we all want. And yet, in Asia throughout the ages, beginning with the Buddha, who nearly starved himself to death, sages put their lives at risk in pursuit of the Way. Why? As we’ve said, in Buddhism, as in all spiritual cultures, there is an overlap between what we usu- ally think of as physical and emotional wellness and the greater healing promised by ultimate commit- ment to the path. The Buddhist teachings, as they are interpreted in the West, accord with current scientific research, which has been influenced by them. But the traditional Buddhist canon is full LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 54