Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Nirvana and Psychology

July 13, 2017

Nirvana in Buddhism is the state of nothingness, either non-existence or simply bliss. For an essence to be in nirvana, they have nothing left of their identity, no desires, no events, no change. Is this something that should be in an improved Buddhism, should not be, or only in a modified state?


Because of the difficulty in conceiving of the reality of any immaterial essences, the object which travels between incarnations, this is almost a moot point. However, there might be something to be learned from its nature and role in Buddhism.


Why would a Buddhist, or a Hindu sharing the same afterlife beliefs, want to go into nirvana? Buddha revolutionized the Hindu process for achieving it, by stating that it was possible to achieve it in one lifetime, not only after a long series of reincarnations. With this modification, some of the unpleasantness in the definition of the immaterial essence seems to be reduced. Buddha’s teaching was that meditation was the key to achieving nirvana, but this means that those who die young, before they have had time within their lives to master meditation, would have to be reincarnated and try again.


Perhaps an approach to the difficulties of self-consistency and agreement with physical laws might be to assume that nirvana is a goal to be sought during one’s lifetime, and, while not achievable in full, can be nearly achieved by the use of Buddhist techniques such as meditation. But does not wanting anything at all seem like a goal that works for most possible practitioners of Buddhism? Buddha seems to have accepted this ancient Hindu goal, but it seems more like a goal for those who are oppressed and deprived, to make their state more acceptable, if not changeable.


Some Buddhist sects use meditation not for a highway to eternity in nirvana, but instead as a technique for either improving their mental state in the present, or for focusing their intentions on improving some aspects of their life or the lives of others close to them, in the future. Buddha’s direction for those who wished to improve their lives consisted in having them follow his Eightfold Way, a set of very simplified guidelines for how to make decisions when confronted with difficult choices. The first set of worldly goals involves something that seems very congruent with today’s society, in which individuals are concerned with how to succeed and to improve their economic, health, or other situations, while the Eightfold Way seems to be something more akin to recent past times, when moral questions might dominate the horizon for an individual. What goals might be incorporated in an improved Buddhism: improve your standing in society, follow a prescribed moral path, or prepare for some afterlife? Perhaps these correspond to phases of life, with young people being intent on achieving whatever they can while they can be filled full of enthusiasm, either naturally or by the influence of religion, middle-aged people interested in living a just and fair life after they have achieved some station, and old people thinking about an afterlife or at least a calm and quiescent old age. There was, at least at Buddha’s era, a Hindu tradition dividing life into these three periods.


Buddha’s biography has him passing through the first two periods, of youth and education, and family and career, very rapidly. He was born and schooled as a prince, and married young and had a child, but left them early to meditate and understand life somewhat better. He had lived a sheltered life, free from deprivation or suffering, either in his own personal experience or in what he observed inside his family palace, and was taken aback upon seeing examples of it when he first travelled outside the palace grounds. It is no great surprise that he later stated his goal was in teaching others how to mentally handle suffering, specifically by avoiding and eliminating desires and longings. Since he had hardly witnessed it prior to his initial departure from the palace, after marriage and child, it could easily be seen as something to completely capture his attention and demand his focus on, seeking some way to incorporate this into his rather insulated prior learning. What he came up was, in essence, a prescription for marching toward nirvana, specifically by meditation, similar to what was being practiced by other great teachers of that era on the Indian subcontinent.


Buddha apparently mastered the art of training his immediate followers to memorize his teachings, almost word-for-word, and transmit them to the next generation. This means that other teachers, who did not do this, had teachings that were lost to the future, where Buddha’s were not. Only several centuries after his death were they recorded and transmitted in written form, rather than oral tradition. This particular trait might be more important to the preservation of his teachings than its competition with those of others in his era or later. Having a good message is certainly critically important, but ensuring its preservation and dispersion is as well. This is yet one more reason not to be hesitant about striving to improve these teachings and make them more appropriate for our later era.


Nirvana provides a less disturbing picture for family and associates of a person who dies, than simple material decay and dissolution. As a comfort, it might have some role in an improved Buddhism, even if no one takes it too seriously. Grief can be very difficult to handle in the short term, and in this role, perhaps thinking about nirvana can bring some relief. However, for intelligent people, there might be too much disconnection from reality for it to play a large role. It does provide a way of speaking that might cause less emphasis on the loss, so a terminology or set of euphemisms might be the proper role for nirvana.


Without nirvana and without immaterial essences for reincarnation, Buddhists have no long-term individual goals, only the goal of having a satisfying and fulfilling life. Buddhism, via meditative techniques and the intra-religious support that social networks can provide, can certainly aid members in achieving this, both in dealing with setbacks and sadness and in facing challenges. Having a controlled mind, calm and able to concentrate, is a tremendous benefit, and is perhaps the instrument by which life changes can be effected.


These two features of real-life Buddhism, meditation and the community of adherents, are not completely disconnected. To be part of a social network and to benefit from that connection implies something about the mental state of the adherents. Meditation affects that. So also does the more general rules for living that Buddha left behind. Meditation assists the members to live according to Buddha’s suggested rules, which are not very different from the rules for living in other religions. However, these rules are often broken, and the phenomena connected with breaking them is often the emotional state of the person. In some situations, it is what Buddha called ‘grasping’. This is an emotional state leading to intensely seeking benefit that overwhelms any sense of fair play. Other emotional states which lead to rule breaking include revenge and hatred. Meditation quiets the emotions, and leaves the mind more free to make decisions based on the consideration of others. Emotions result from neurochemicals and hormones being pumped into the brain from one of several glands, and one aspect of meditation is learning the control of these, although it is not taught as such.


Another benefit of meditation is that it allows the noise in the brain to subside, again, another biofeedback training exercise. This allows the practitioner to think more clearly and focus on planning for some future activity. Both emotional control and focus are ideal attributes for community members to have. Thus, meditation, with its dual benefits neurologically, has a very serious long-term benefit in training members of the Buddhist community to be suitable individuals for interpersonal relations. Of course, it is possible to have jealousy, hate, rage, suspicion, plotting, ambition, and other emotions within a Buddhist community; nothing is perfect. However, the use of meditation should relieve much of these if done properly.


Buddhism, and its predecessor Hinduism together with its other offshoots, has as a core technique, meditation, which has both intrinsic benefits for the individual practitioner an. These might also be considered to be tailored for the individual, as it allows each person to calm their own mind. Since our minds can have multiple emotional problems, meditation has to be a general technique for dealing with them all. It might be considered self-controlled biofeedback, as the individual practitioner monitors his own state and perhaps continues or modifies his practice to make progress. It also has wider effects on the Buddhist community, turning most individuals into, at least emotionally, people with psychologies well suited for interaction, support, sharing and commiseration. Nirvana is not necessary at all for this to work, and is somewhat surplus to an improved Buddhism, except as a way of expressing support at a time of loss of an individual to those who were close to him. Thus, Buddhism can become more compact in its message, and not lose anything valuable for today’s world.


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