From Samsara to Nibbana

The goal of religion in Buddhism

Prof. Dhammavihari

First of all, let us identify the goal of Buddhism as a religion. There is no mistake about it. It is undeniably the termination at the earliest opportunity of the process of rolling on in samsara. This in turn is called vattupaccheda [A.11.34] or termination of the rolling on of the wheel of life where the incessant interplay of name and form [nama-rupa and vinnana] ceases. [For further details see the above two references.] Every effort at religious or spiritual growth in Buddhism must be geared to this.

It has also to be admitted that this striving for release from samsara must be operated from the human plane. This is why the slipping off of an individual from the human state into a lower degenerate existence is always referred to as niraya, apaya, vinipata etc. They all mean slip off from, degenerate and deteriorate. These are states in which one is expected to purge oneself of the defilements [patisamvedeti] which one has gathered round oneself in the incorrect process of living in the world. We hear of beings in such states said to be always praying to be born as humans and promising to lead a good life on their return there.

They say:

So hi nuna ito gantva yanim laddhana manusim
vadannu silasampanno kalami kusalam bahaum.
[Pv. v. 805]

This is a poignant reference to the value of human life as a launching pad from which to commence one's spiritual ascent. It may be stated with one hundred percent accuracy that whatever one does towards the attainment of one's salvation, one is invariably tied up with human existence and the life process in the world. While the normal run of the life process leads to prolongation of samsara, a correct and regulated life process leads to its reduction and termination. Life in the world and religious aspirations have thus to be integrated into a harmonious whole. What one attempts to do in the name of religion towards the attainment of the goal of salvation cannot be apart from our process of living. It has to be a part of it. This is why we would choose to call the statement "the lonely road to Nirvana", often made by uniformed and uninitiated persons, a wild generalization. It is much worse when somebody says of the Buddhists that "They can no longer exclude the social dimension from their system."

Bhumisparsha mudra – Buddhagaya Vihara, India

These misconceptions regarding the social concern of Buddhism as a religion have well and truly originated from an ignorance of the religion as a whole both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists. For the critics come from both quarters. This is why we have the need today, more than ever before, to re-read our Buddhist texts, understand the full importance of the religion and re-regulate our religious life in a meaningful way.

Life of man in the world, if he is also heedful of his religion, can be brought under three broad categories, namely social, economic and religious. Man's position in the world in relation to other human beings, both immediately connected and remotely connected, is one that needs to be carefully determined, to ensure that the human complex works without friction and with perfect ease and efficiency. Human nature being what it is, the ego tends to dominate at every turn and self interest can work to the detriment of those around. Likes and dislikes in life, attraction and repulsion are the outcome of this. When these get beyond manageable limits there is violence, crime and unrest in society. This, nobody likes. This is a universal truth: Sukhakama dukkhapatikkula . Whether it is pain of mind or pain of body, nobody ever likes it [See M.I.341].

This is the basis of Buddhism’s social philosophy.  When pushed to its transcendental heights, it is also the basis of its religious philosophy. For nibbana is happiness or sukha supreme - nibbanam paramam sukham. With these preliminary remarks in mind, now let us turn to a sutta like the Parabhava. The word parabhava means decline, degeneration or deterioration. When we analyze the sutta carefully we discover that the decline discussed in this sutta pertains mainly to the social and economic spheres of life of the man in the world. The opposite of this idea of decline, namely development, is expressed in the sutta by the term bhavam. The idea of development and growth implied in bhavam is seen reaching as far as bhavana. For bhavana is essentially growth of character, morally and intellectually.

This same interest for the social and economic development of man in society is witnessed throughout Buddhist texts. Vasala Sutta is another very good example of this. In an honest attempt to foster such growth, the Parabhava Sutta carefully highlights the areas of decline and attempts to arrest such decay. We have time and again stressed that Buddhist ethics are set up on the bed-rock of respect for life and respect for property of others. This is because, as far as we are concerned, this is what we also would like others to respect. We take ourselves as an example and behave towards others on that principle. This is the principle of self-example or attupamaya [atta : self + upama : example].

As a basic universally extensive ethic, the panca-sila is upheld by the Buddhists for this reason. Regional barriers and political boundaries are disregarded in the promulgation of the panca-sila by the Cakkavatti King in Buddhism. Man must be man, and full of humanitarian considerations, whatever his politics be. Moral reorganizing and not political restructuring is the Buddhist theme. This is why the Cakkavatti begins with the panca-sila : pano na hantabbo etc. and ends up by telling his vassals "to carry on as before: yatha bhuttam ca bhunjatha" in the administration of the kingdom.[See D.III.62].

From this universal ethic we see what might also be called a regional Buddhist ethic emerging. It is certainly no narrowing process leading to exclusion, but one of being specific for better enforcement. The general principle of respect for life is seen developing in a new direction, bringing within its fold a principle of respect for persons in view of their social position. This ethic of interpersonal relationship accepts the principle of leadership and seniority [vuddhapacayana] in the human community. Thus the respect for religious men, parents and elders in the family by the rest of the membership did not appear offensive to the Indian mind.

A primus inter pares was accepted. It was the fulfillment of a social contract. This we should be able to see in the Parabhava, Vasala and Mangala suttas of the Sutta Nipata [Sn. vv: 91-114, 116-142, 258-269 respectively] and also in the satta aparihaniya dhamma [or virtues that arrest social decay] of the Vajjis [See D.II.73f.]. The perfect development of this attitude, made highly domestic, is seen in the idea of saluting the six directions as admonished by the Buddha to young Sigala as a home-dweller [kule gihi] in the Sigala Sutta [D.111.191f.].

This virtue of respecting clan-elders [kule jetthapacayana], each within its own clan grouping, looms large in the Buddhist horizon [See D.III.72-74 for further details of this. See also M.III.179]. The Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, in this context, refers to epochs in human history when this virtue waxes and wanes, and associates it with periods of human development and degeneracy in general. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta, while enunciating the seven factors which arrest socio-political decay [i.e. satta aparihaniya dhamma of the Vajjis] specifically stresses respect for the elders of the community, adding that due attention be paid to the counsel they can offer: Yavakivan ca ananda Vajji ye te Vajjinam Vajjimahallaka te sakkarissanti garukarissanti manessanti pujessanti tesam ca sotabbam mannnissanti vuddhi yeva ananda Vajjinam patikamka no parihani [D.11.74].

Samadhi mudra - Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka Built in 12th century A.D. by King Parakramabahu the 1st. Whole image is carved in one granite rock. – Declaired as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1982

While this forms the broader base of the pyramid of ethical culture in this specific area, the Sigala Sutta picks it up at the narrower end of the single family unit and talks in terms of parents and children [D.III.189]. With a reciprocal responsibility the Sutta states five conditions each for both groups and insists on their fulfillment for the healthy growth of community life. Feeling as it were that this mild and persuasive didacticism of the Sigala Sutta is unequal to the task, the Vasala and Parabhava Suttas take up this cause and address the miscreants who neglect their duty by their parents in terms which would be called both caustic [Vasala] and incisive [Parabhava]. In no uncertain terms, the Vasala Sutta [Sn.v.124] calls such a defaulter an outcast while the Parabhava Sutta [Sn.v.98] strikes the warning that such behavior definitely leads to one's decline and deterioration.

Likewise the respect for others' property is seen developing, not only in relation to material possessions, but also in relation to the personal composition of the family, like the wife and the husband and the children in relation to one another. Thus there emerge very specific injunctions with regard to conjugal fidelity, pre-marital sex relations etc. Here too, one discovers a collective attempt made in the Buddhist texts to consolidate these virtues in society. Picking up this virtue of conjugal fidelity as the basis of domestic solidarity, the Vasala Sutta [Sn.v.123] assails its violation very comprehensively, ruling out both compulsion and connivance [sahasa sampiyena va] as grounds for its commission. Parabhava Sutta [Sn v.. 103] frowns upon looseness of sexual behavior on grounds of incontinence and insatiability [Sehi darehi asantuttho].

It should now be clear from what has been indicated so far under the caption 'From Samsara to Nibbana' that the goal of Buddhism as a religion is unquestionably a transcendental one. Admittedly it is so in all religions. But Buddhism has its uniqueness here on two specific grounds. To the Buddhist, this life from birth to death is only a single frame in an infinitely long film strip. Therefore the correction and improvement in the first is of primary importance for those that follow, the second and the third etc. The risk of error and breakdown is minimal if the correction is made here and now, while one is alive. The second consideration is that this correction is solely and entirely the burden of the individual. It is his judgment, it is his will and it is his endeavor [ditthi chanda viriya].

It is his personal responsibility [attana'va katam papam or attana akatam papam as the Dhammapada precisely puts it at Dhp. v. 165] that gains him purity for his transcendence, for his attainment of the religious goal. Our endeavor was to show that the Buddhist has to live the life into which he is born, well and truly in the Buddhist way, to transcend it. This process of religious living makes this life immensely richer by whatever sensible yardstick one measures and makes it considerably useful for the peace and prosperity of the world around him. This concept of true Nibbanic aspiration and its correct method of achievement, one must not lose sight of.

Thus, in the first stage of the journey to nibbana, sila or good ethical living appears to be the most reliable carrier.

Parinibbana Mancaka – Last moments of the Buddha – Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.