Where/What/When is nirvāṇa?

- through Francois Leclercq

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Resting place just before temple 67. Image by the author

The hike from Temple 65, Sankakuji, to Temple 66, Unpenji takes pilgrims through magnificent mountains and forests. At around 900 meters, Unpenji is the highest temple on the pilgrimage route. While Unpenji itself is in Tokushima Prefecture, most of the hike, once pilgrims leave Ehime Prefecture, passes through Kagawa Prefecture. The pilgrims permanently enter Kagwa Prefecture on their descent to Temple 67, Daikōji, also known as "the tumbling pilgrims" (Henri Korogashi 遍路転がし). Regardless of the boundaries of the political prefecture, somewhere along the climb to Unpenji, pilgrims enter the “dojo de nirvana.”*

Most people with even some tangential knowledge of Buddhism have heard of the concept of "nirvana.” But what does it mean for pilgrims after weeks of solitary trekking, ready to rejoin society?

Before thinking further about the notion and meaning of “nirvana», I would like to present the general atmosphere of this last section of the pilgrimage route. After leaving the forest at the foot of Unpenji, pilgrims enter the larger urban area of ​​Takamatsu. During this last stage, pilgrims visit, among other things, temple 73, Shussakaji, which commemorates an episode from Kūkai's childhood. It is said that at the age of seven, Kūkai jumped from Mount Gahaishi to test whether he should become a monk and behold, he was caught by a "celestial being" (tenjin天神) who placed him on the ground. According to legend, this experience strengthened Kūkai's determination to "leave home" (shukke 出家) and become a monastic. Temple 75, Zentsūji, marks his birthplace and Temple 84, Yashimaji is located on Mt. Yashima, where the Heike family suffered their decisive, if not final, loss during the Genpei War (1180-1185). While the pilgrimage route ends at Temple 88, Ōkuboji, in the mountains south of Takamatsu, pilgrims are encouraged to then visit Mount Kōya to officially complete the pilgrimage.

Paranirnvāṇa of Buddha at Unpenji. Image of the author
Sanmon in Negoroji. Image of the author

Even though the 88 temple itself is located in the mountains, the majority of the pilgrimage route in the "dojo de nirvana» has a rather urban side which constitutes an appropriate environment for reintegrating into society. The feeling of returning to school is not only evoked by the imminent conclusion of this solitary 4 to 6 week journey. In my last reflection on the pilgrimage**, I mentioned the traditional clothing worn by pilgrims. What I didn't say is that it's all white, the color of death. In a certain sense, pilgrims symbolically "die" to society and enter a different realm, a realm of solitude, devotion, detachment, closeness to spirits, gods and Buddhas and, above all, an area in which one must concentrate in order to “become a human being”. Buddha in this body” (sokushinjōbutsu 即身成仏).*** The white color of the pilgrim's clothing and equipment seems to signal the entrance of nirvanathe domain opposite to samsarathe world of suffering, the world of rebirth, the world of karmic causality and, in a certain sense, the world of daily work.

However, most Mahāyāna Buddhist texts and thought do not construct nirvana as the opposite of saṃsāra. On the contrary, as Nagarjuna says: nirvana is “no different from” samsara.**** In addition, the Heart Sutrawhich pilgrims diligently chant at least 88 times during the pilgrimage, clearly states that there is "no suffering and no end to suffering", ***** synonymous with "no samsara and no nirvana.” This, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. But what does it mean to say that the fourth of the four dojo– after the awakening of the mind, self-cultivation and “wisdom and enlightenment” – is “nirvana. "

Collection of walking sticks at Temple 88. Image by the author
5-tiered pagoda in Zentsūji. Image of the author

In the beginnings of Buddhist thought, nirvana identifies the goal of the Buddhist project, the relief of suffering. The goal of early Buddhism is to become an arhat, that is, someone who has achieved nirvana. However, the goal of most Mahāyāna Buddhism is to become a bodhisattva, that is, someone who has achieved "wisdom and enlightenment" – in Ehime Prefecture, so to speak – and who then returns to his country. samsaraThe place where nirvana is located. This is the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine.

In the Travel west (Saiyuki西遊記), the protagonists Sun Wukong and Tripitaka do not remain in the presence of the Buddha and the arhats in the Pure Land – during the novel, Buddha is systematically referred to and referred to as “Amitābha – symbolized by India but returning to samsarathe realm of suffering as “birth, old age, illness and death” (shōrōbyōshi生老病死), symbolized by China. It is in China that samsara that our heroes achieve Buddhahood in this novel.

Chapter 2 of Vimalakirti Sutra describes the protagonist of this sutra as a bodhisattva who experiences a nirvāṇic lifestyle in samsara:

He wore the white clothes of a layman, but lived impeccably like a devotee. He lived at home, but remained away from the realm of desire, the realm of pure matter, and the immaterial realm. . . . He seemed to eat and drink, but still nourished himself with the taste of meditation. . . . To demonstrate the evils of desire, he even entered brothels. To establish the drunkards in correct full consciousness, he entered all the cabarets.******

However, I believe that the non-dualism of samsara et nirvana The characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy is not limited to the ideal of the bodhisattva. During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese philosopher monks developed the “philosophy of emptiness” (śūnyatāvāda) introduced above. Zhiyi (538-597), probably the founding thinker of Tiantai Buddhism, reinvented the famous assertion of Heart Sutra “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (Shiki Sokuze Ku, Ku Sokuze Shiki 色即是空空即是色) as a cosmology where the unity/emptiness of the world, generally imagined by religious thinkers as transcendence, is not different but manifests in the multiplicity of the empirical world and emphasizes the expression " one is all” (Yijieduo 一即多). The philosopher Huayan Chengguan (738-839) developed this formulation in his famous “world of fourfold dharma” (Shifajie 四法界) and offers “an unobstructed interpretation of all phenomena” (shishiwuai 事事無碍) visualized in the famous image of Indra's Net (帝釋網).

Hondō at Zentsūji. Image of the author

And now we have come full circle: during the pilgrimage, we manifest the non-duality of nirvana in samsara to the extent that we practice harmonization of body and mind, self and nature, as well as self and others, ******* the world of the living and the world of the dead, and let us walk in the modality of “dōgyō ninin» with Kūkai, the mountain gods/spirits and the bodhisattvas – especially Kṣitigarbha, who protects children, travelers and the dead – our ancestors, the “departed”** and, ultimately, all living and the dead. During this pilgrimage, we realize, in the sense of understanding as well as embodiment, our interconnection with all sentient beings, all living, as well as with all existing and non-existent beings. We embody, in the words of Dōgen (1200-1253), “express”, literally “achieve the way” (dotoku 道得), ourselves, all others, “buddhas and patriarchs” (knock 仏祖), and, ultimately, all of Indra's Net. Dogen explains:

From now on, I and the other engage in liberating practices and enter into a teacher-student dialogue; he and another engage in liberating practices and begin a teacher-student dialogue. In me there is expression and non-expression. In him there is expression and non-expression. At the bottom of the path, there is self and other; at the bottom of the non-path, there is oneself and the other. *******

Sanmon of Shussakaji. Image of the author

The embodiment of this interconnection in which the living, the dead, the departed and all the Buddhas and patriarchs express themselves constitutes life. nirvāṇically in samsara. This is what I realized this summer during my pilgrimage, this is the lesson of Kūkai, this is what it means to live like Vimalakirti in the 21th century.

* Practice of harmonization: the Shikoku pilgrimage (BDG)
** Dōgyō ninin: The Shingon version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (BDG)
*** Walking with Kukai – Becoming a Buddha: Pilgrimage in Shingon Buddhism (BDG)
****Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikāchapter 25.
***** Takakusu, Junjirō and Kaigyoku Watanabe, eds. 1961. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (The Taishō edition of the Buddhist Canon). Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. 220.5.017.
****** Vimalakirti Sutra20-21
******* Practice of harmonization: the Shikoku pilgrimage (BDG)
******* Ōkubo, Dōshū, ed. 1969-70. Dogen Zenji Zenshū (Complete works of Zen master Dōgen). Two volumes. Ed. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō. (Abbreviation DZZ), 1:304.

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photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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