The earth shook at dawn and the devas rejoiced on that morning long ago when the wanderer Gotama attained nirvana by “waking up” under the Bodhi tree to become the Buddha. The sky rained flowers out of season, and the devas lamented forty-five years later as the Buddha passed away, between twin Sal trees in Kusinara, in what has come to be called the parinirvana. These were two very different events that I believe require entirely different explanations. The first was a psychological event, focusing on extraordinary changes in the way experience gets constructed by the mind as it operates in the world; the second was a metaphysical event, having to do with issues of rebirth, postmortem consciousness, and the emerging theology of a growing religious movement. In most popular discussions of awakening, however, the distinction between them gets blurred, which naturally leads to some confusion.
In the years between these two events, as the Buddha walked from town to village along the Ganges valley, people would come to him wanting to know what had happened to him under that tree, and whether they too might be able to accomplish the same feat. He talked about it in terms of a radical psychological transformation. Before the moment of awakening, he constructed suffering in the same way the rest of us do, forged in the fires of craving, but in the moment afterward his mind and body were dramatically purified of all unwholesome or unskillful states. All the emotions rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion were cut off, uprooted, annihilated, dried up, extinguished, withdrawn, and otherwise abandoned once and for all, such that it was no longer possible for them to manifest themselves in his experience. The Buddha spoke of it as finding peace, becoming cool, reaching safety, putting down the burden, attaining liberation, and he used a wide range of similar imagery to express the final, irreversible cessation of suffering. He continued to live for the duration of his natural life as any other man might—eating, sleeping, talking, and meditating— though as one who experiences an unshakable sense of well-being in the face of any and all conditions.
After the final passing away, when his body had been respectfully cleaned, wrapped, and cremated, and the ashes distributed equitably, the question inevitably arose: How are we to understand what has just happened? What has become of our teacher? It was not appropriate to say the Buddha had gone to another realm, since he clearly said he had escaped this entire world system and would not be reborn in any of its various destinations. Neither was it fitting to say he died, since he also declared that he had defeated Mara, the lord of death, and had attained the Deathless. All other available options for explaining his passing, encompassing subtle variations on the theme of existence and nonexistence, perception and nonperception, seem also to have been considered and excluded, resulting in a profound and lasting paradox.
When asked earlier what happens to an awakened person after death, the teacher had famously remained silent. When pressed for an explanation, he responded by saying: It is a wrongly posed question; no one can understand the answer; the means of expressing what happens just do not exist; or the issue is entirely irrelevant. We have our hands full dealing with experience as it presents itself each moment; trying to understand conceptually what is clearly beyond common experience is not a worthwhile use of the precious time remaining to us. Just let go of speculative views on the subject, focus skillfully on what is arising and passing away in direct experience, and you may see for yourself someday.
Of course, human nature being what it is, very few are capable of finding this a satisfactory answer. Splendid and nuanced treatments of the subject are to be found in Sanskrit sutras, in Tibetan philosophical treatises, and in the rich visual imagery of East Asian art. However, since so many of the explanations of how to understand the parinirvana tend toward the cosmological, pointing quite beyond verifiable direct experience, I worry that the Buddha’s teaching about nirvana as an accessible psychological transformation in this life has become overshadowed and even undervalued. This is not about calling these resolutions of the paradox into question, but rather about excavating and recovering a more modest view of nirvana from that sliver of Buddhist tradition laid down during his lifetime.
What if the nirvana experienced by the Buddha in Bodhgaya turns out to be something considerably less magnificent than that of later mythic tradition, yet at the same time, by virtue of its being actually attainable by ordinary folk, something of unparalleled value? The Buddha spoke of learning how to be deeply happy right here and now, no matter what circumstances we are facing. Even the existential challenges of our own impending illness, aging, and death can be encompassed with the wisdom to acknowledge that all things change, to accept that there is no essence underlying it all, and nevertheless to be able to meet each moment without clinging to anything in the world.
The early texts tell us that the Buddha was able to lead many, many people—man and woman, brahmin and outcast, aristocrat and merchant, monastic and layperson—to a state of no longer struggling with the human condition. I really do not know what happens to such a person at death, any more than I know what became of the Buddha. Somehow that seems less relevant than the remarkable prospect of attaining profound well-being simply by understanding the causes of suffering in lived experience, and managing to unravel those causes each moment as life unfolds.
The Buddha’s own description of his midlife transformation is compelling in its simplicity and immediacy:
Indeed, the sage who’s fully quenched
Rests at ease in every way;
No sense desire adheres to him
Whose fires have cooled, deprived of fuel.
All attachments have been severed,
The heart’s been led away from pain;
Tranquil, he rests with utmost ease,
The mind has found its way to peace.