While studying Left Hand Path, from materials, books and lectures, I have found several oddities to the philosophy that I disagree with. This post will cover one of those oddities, what I believe to be a misrepresentation of Buddhism.
Misrepresentation of Buddhism
It’s fine to disagree with a spiritual path, like Buddhism, as long as you correctly identify it. What I’ve seen over and over again is a repeated misrepresentation – identifying general Buddhism as seeking complete annihilation as the final goal. Having been a Buddhist, I found this to be contrary to teachings I was given in that construct of philosophy. We were always impressed upon the need for total enlightenment (i.e. to become A Buddha.)
Consider this quote below, from the Dalai Lama (about enlightenment):
So, enlightenment! “Consciousness” or “mind” has cognitive ability–there is something through which we know. Usually, we say: “I see, I learn, I know, Iremember.” There is one single element that acts as a medium for viewing all objects. At our level, the power or ability to know is very limited, but we have the potential to increase this ability to know. “Buddhahood” or “Buddhahood enlightenment” is when the potential of this ability to know has been fully developed. Merely increasing that capacity of knowing is also a level of enlightenment. So, the term “enlightenment” could refer to knowing something that you did not know or realizing something that you had not realized. But when we speak about enlightenment at the state of Buddhahood, we are speaking about a fully awakened state.https://www.care2.com/greenliving/the-dalai-lama-on-enlightenment.html
Let’s consider the Zen Buddhist take on the goal of enlightenment:
The goal of Zen practice is satori, Japanese for enlightenment. Every person has the capacity to attain this state, meaning that each of us is, potentially, a Buddha. Nagatomo calls this state the “perfection of personhood.” While enlightenment is, generally speaking, the goal of all branches of Buddhism, Zen differs in its focus on the practice. Achieving satori, in other words, doesn’t make the practitioner a morally better person. Dale S. Wright of Occidental College makes this case, arguing that the extent to which Zen masters were ethical people relies upon the extent to which they developed a morality from sources other than Zen. Satori is a pure state, beyond culture or morality.https://www.theclassroom.com/what-is-zen-buddhism-and-what-is-its-primary-goal-12086715.html
The quotes above are clearly speaking of an opposite of annihilation. It speaks instead of the goal to be a Buddha (or the state of waking up.) As someone who has been a Buddhist (several times), I can attest that annihilation was never the goal.
The Sources of Confusion
The assertion here, is that Buddhists have a goal of complete annihilation, based on a definition of nirvana. If one does a quick dictionary check on the word, we get this definition, “the final beatitude (see BEATITUDE sense 1a) that transcends suffering, karma, and samsara and is sought especially in Buddhism through the extinction of desire and individual consciousness.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
At a glance in a dictionary (as quoted above) it may appear a Buddhist seeks annihilation, but as I’ve been a Buddhist, I know this isn’t true.
The reason why the Merriam-Webster dictionary misrepresents the Buddhist goals, is in their attempt to convey the totality of a complex idea – they are trying to convert a deep spiritual philosophy into a materialist paradigm and in just a few sentences.
To really understand Buddhism, we must either a) become a Buddhist b) research Buddhism from various Buddhist texts or c) ask Buddhist leaders their views on the subject.
Luckily, researching Buddhism from Buddhist sources is very easy!
Buddhism & Their Goals
Buddhism has two main categorical schools: The Theravada and the Mahayana. The each have a slightly different take on the “final goals,” of their respective ideologies so I’ll cover them separately.
Theravada Buddhism has the goal of reaching a state of Nirvana. On this many in the LHP are correct… Keep in mind, however, Theravada is but one flavor of the path. Yet still, we need to fully understand the idea of nirvana and the concepts of self, as well as the concepts of emptiness (the lack of self-existence.) This, I believe, is what trips up people in this discussion.
Had one asked a Buddhist, “what is the goal of Nirvana,” they should get a response like so:
When that perfected state of insight is reached, i.e.Nibanna, that person is a ‘worthy person’ an Arhat. The life of the Arhat is the ideal of the followers of this school, ‘a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life’.https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/schools1.htm
Clearly (from a Theravada school perspective) the individual nature is retained – it doesn’t read, “we go into oblivion,” but rather they become an Arhat. To define Arhat, I took a general concept from Wikipedia which seemed to be fair:
Theravada Buddhism defines arahant as one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana. Other Buddhist traditions have used the term for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment, but who may not have reached full Buddhahood.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arhat
In the Mahayana path (described further on), one doesn’t stop at nirvana, and nirvana isn’t the end. The totality of the goal is identification (wakefulness or awareness) with the supreme state of being a Buddha.
The confusion of the Left Hand Path is in the terminology. “The self is annihilated in Buddhism,” I’ve heard over and over again. The confusion arrises on what exactly is being overcome.
From the Buddhist perspective, the aspect that is left behind (or annihilated) is not the real self, but an illusionary self (the source of suffering) – That limited, small speck of self. It’s that limited self that says, “there’s nothing but what I can see.” It’s also ignorance. That’s the self that is overcome.
As we see in the description above, nirvana (Nibanna) is not spiritual suicide. Instead, it is described as spiritually awakening to truth and reality – they see past the illusion and suffering no longer exists. Rebirth is conquered and I would add that the concept of identity is EXPANDED not annihilated.
The other school of Buddhism is that of the Mahayana. This is the traditions that I have gravitated to over the years. I took Buddhist vows in 2004, in the Geluk Tibetan Mahayana school of Buddhism.
The goal of the Mahayana Buddhist is NOT Nirvana.
The Mahayana traditions trace back to the roots of Buddhism and today there are 488 Million active followers of this school. To simply neglect this and state that Buddhism is about nirvana, is rather like rolling all of the LHP paths under atheist satanist and stating, “the LHP Initiate is one who is an atheist.” That’s exactly what it’s like.
For the Mahayana Buddhist, the goal is often translated as “total enlightenment.” Meaning that nirvana (from this perspective) is not the totality of Buddhism, but a step along the way. The final goal is one element:
To become A BUDDHA.
This is a very different from “being nothing.” A Buddha has an identity. It isn’t “annihilated.”
Where the Theravada Buddhist stops at personal liberation (becoming an Arhat in the realm of Nirvana), the Mahayana Buddhist believes in pushing through that state. In fact the Geluk school of the Dalai Lama teaches that Nirvana is not permanent. One’s karma will burn off, and they will pull back down into rebirth. It is only by pushing through into the highest state of TOTAL ENLIGHTENMENT that one truly awakens (permanently.)
“Nirvana is not a place; it is a mental state for us to achieve to experience or final salvation. We cannot say the Buddha has gone somewhere or is existing somewhere but he experiences the nirvanic bliss or the final goal of life” Ven. Dr K Sri Dhammandahttps://www.dorjeshugden.com/forum/index.php?topic=4981.0
But as Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhists, we emphasize on altruistic motivation, of becoming Buddha for the sake of saving all sentient beings, of Bodhicitta and Bodhisattva-hood…
Some say that the Mahayana path delays enlightenment (nirvana) in order to return back to the world of formation as a Boddhisattva… In my experience, I have never heard this teaching taught in Mahayana schools.
What was taught by authentic Buddhist teachers was an idea of becoming a Buddha (total enlightenment for the sake of all sentient life.)
An Empty Self
To summarize, within both of the two schools of Buddhism, there isn’t a concept of spiritual suicide or becoming “nothingness.” This is an error in the misunderstanding of what it means when the Buddhist refers to “self.”
The Buddhist views an emptiness in all things – a lack of “self existence,” which isn’t to say “it doesn’t exist,” but rather all things are so malliable, they can exist in all ways.
If you’re from the Temple of Set variety of the LHP, you may think this sounds a bit like the idea of the Subjective Universe.
My Buddhist lama explained this idea with the following analogy, he held a pencil in his hands and asked the students what it was. “A pencil,” they said. “Are you sure,” he questioned. They were baffled. Yes, of course it’s a pencil. “But what of the dog here,” he motioned to someone’s pet dog, “how does it view the pencil?”
To the dog, the pencil is perhaps a stick, or a chew toy. As I pondered it, I realized that a violent person might conceptualize the pencil as a weapon. This is the unreality of the pencil. There is something there, but it renders different depending on the sentient being.
What is empty is the nature of the thing. If it self-existed, then it would radiate its nature out to all beings, but because its nature depends on an interpretation, it is modified in part (or whole) by the observer.
While most of us do see the same thing (in many cases), there are many others where we don’t. A boss at work might be seen as a villain by many, and a hero by some.
“This is just psychology,” someone might demand… while true these examples are about personal psychology, the Buddhist thinks it goes much deeper and profound – that this state of emptiness is phenomenal as well.
This is why the Buddhist will state, “point to your ‘self.'” The demand isn’t meant to say, “you don’t exist,” but rather the idea you think is you, doesn’t exist.
Within Buddhism, that substance called “you” or “me” is ever changing. They might call it “the mind,” but it’s hard to find “the mind.” It moves about and seems to identify with many different things. At one moment it identifies with the body alone, at another moment, with a concept of family or nation. Yet the mind (identity) remains, it simply isn’t what we think it is. Thus it lacks a reality we push onto it, but yet it still exists.