As I discussed in my previous blog entry, the Buddhist religion often stretches the very limits of what some of my students of comparative religion (and other newcomers to Buddhism) are typically used to regarding as some of the absolutely essential, even defining qualities or characteristics of a “religion.”
How does a religion function, many often wonder, which feels no need to invoke the existence of a Creator God, and which also lacks any belief in the existence of eternal souls?
Like Hinduism, Buddhism believes that humans (and other sentient beings) are caught up in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (known as samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”), but that ceaseless cycle of endless rebirths can be broken — and doing so represents the ultimate religious or spiritual goal. According to Hinduism, the cycle of rebirth terminates only when one’s eternal soul at last attains either union or communion with God or the Divine (variously conceived of and understood by different sects or branches within Hinduism).
However, in Buddhism, there is no God to attain any such union or communion with. (Nor is there any such thing as an “eternal soul,” either.)
Instead, nirvana in Buddhism refers to a state or condition that is so radically transcendental that it even transcends all human concepts and categories of thought (including even the concept of “God”). When one attains nirvana, one is thereby forever freed from the shackles of the otherwise-endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; however, nirvana is simply not conceptualized in terms of union (or communion) with God or the Divine. In fact, nirvana is so fundamentally different from anything and everything that human beings are capable of talking about, or thinking about, that it’s pointless even to try. Words fail, and concepts fall short.
The Buddha himself discouraged metaphysical speculation or discussion about the nature of nirvana as useless and irrelevant. It was much more important, he emphasized, to get on with the business of actually attaining nirvana, rather than to waste time engaged in futile efforts to describe or comprehend that which so radically transcends any such description or comprehension.
The Buddha compared such pointless and unfruitful human attempts to grasp or discuss the elusive nature of nirvana with the plight of a victim injured by a weapon who foolishly insists upon first understanding who had shot him, why they had shot him, the nature of the weapon used, who manufactured it, and so forth, instead of getting on with the far more urgent business of seeking immediate first aid. Instead of foolishly insisting upon first obtaining an intellectual comprehension of nirvana (which is fundamentally impossible, since it is simply so radically different from anything we know or can imagine), seek instead to pursue and attain nirvana itself, and the blissful release from rebirth that its attainment entails.
To those who still insisted upon attempting to discuss, debate, and otherwise comprehend the nature of nirvana, the Buddha in turn insisted that such efforts were forever doomed to failure. Did nirvana represent a form of existence, they persisted in enquiring of him, or did it instead refer to some form of non-existence? The Buddha’s response was tellingly paradoxical: nirvana, he said, was neither existence, nor non-existence (nor, for that matter, both or neither, either)! Nirvana fundamentally forever eludes conceptual capture; it just won’t fit into any of our human, rational, logical “boxes.”
So, nirvana cannot be “union (or communion) with God,” either, since that is after all at least to some degree a humanly conceivable idea or concept, and nirvana simply does not correspond to any humanly conceivable idea or concept. That’s just how radically transcendental nirvana really is!
So, whatever else it might or might not be, non-theistic nirvana simply isn’t thought of in the same sorts of terms that, say, theistic (or even monistic) Hindus use when they talk or think about release from rebirth. God simply plays no role in Buddhism. Whereas divine creation myths are plentiful in Hinduism and in other theistic religions (and notably so in Judaism and Christianity, with its Genesis creation accounts), such mythic accounts are rather conspicuously absent in Buddhism.
No Creator God (and no “Creator Buddha”) set the universe in motion via an act of special divine creation; instead, the cosmos is simply an everlasting and intricately complex web of interlocking and interwoven causes and effects, a beginningless and endless merry-go-round of cause/effect or action/reaction (e.g., of karma) locked in a ceaseless dance of mutual interplay. Instead of fruitlessly pondering the possible origins of such a state of affairs (into which we are perpetually born back into, reincarnating into it over and over again), the Buddha pointed out that it was actually vastly more profitable to instead set about simply transcending it altogether, and once and for all, by attaining the infinite and eternal bliss of the otherwise-incomprehensible (and emphatically non-theistic) nirvana.
But if Buddhists say that not only is there no eternal Creator God, but also no such thing as an eternal soul, then just exactly what reincarnates — or attains nirvana?
(To be continued, in Part Four.)