Mahayana ideas of the finite (samsara), the infinite (nirvana), and the process of liberation from the narrow sense of self are incomplete.
Eastern philosophy and Buddhist scholar Alan Watts wrote, "For if nirvana is the state in which the attempt to grasp reality has wholly ceased, through the realization of its impossibility, it will obviously be absurd to think of nirvana itself as something to be grasped or attained." This statement, representative of Mahayana thought, speaks directly to the limited understanding that crept in during the Dark Ages.
Nirvana is not the state of not grasping at reality, as Mahayana generally presented it. Very little of any positive or even negative nature can be said of nirvana. The word "nirvana" is a negative whether it is translated as "blowing out" or "no waves,” but these non-descriptions do their best to point to something by saying little. Even the word "infinite" is but a negative in speaking to positive words like absolute, eternal, and omnipresent yet resist any positive comprehension by the intellect. If the Buddha never positively answered questions concerning nirvana and the self, it was not merely out prudence, but also practicality.
Not grasping after finitude naturally culminates in nirvana, which is absolute reality. One proactively grasps at reality by directing awareness away from finitude and toward the intuitive centers of the spine and brain. It is this proactive method that Mahayanists practically convinced themselves out of.
Nirvana itself cannot be qualified by the kind of efforts required to realize it, especially the negative part of the effort. The Mahayanists confuse the negative method in realizing nirvana - non-grasping after finitude - with the state of nirvana by assuming a false definition of nirvana.
This false definition gave birth to a host of Dark Age methods that, still thriving today, are useless in positively realizing infinite self-knowledge.
Efforts at grasping toward infinitude in the way that we grasp toward finitude are useless, of course. An obvious example of this would be in subscribing to a belief system as a means of reaching an eternal heaven. But the Buddha never taught grasping at infinitude in that way. He taught the positive way of pranayama. By emphasizing the avoidance of grasping, Mahayanists crippled their efforts.
Moreover, the process of realizing infinite nirvana can only be negatively qualified as ceasing to grasp after finitude from the standpoint of finitude. In the ultimate sense, it is not even that.
It is impossible to realize nirvana through grasping at finitude, so ascetics like the Buddha taught that it is possible and even effortless to realize nirvana through positive efforts at directing awareness and energy inwardly. But some Mahayanists argued that grasping at finitude with the right motivation culminates in the realization of nirvana. Their error was in the belief that since samsara (finitude) is part of nirvana (infinitude), grasping at samsara properly will embody realizing nirvana.
This is as absurd as saying that grasping at a ray of the sun will result in having all the stars in your hand. The hand has the capacity to obstruct the path of a few rays of the sun, but not to catch all the stars. The senses, intellect, and feelings are as limited in the endeavor of realizing the infinite; they will never register nirvana no matter what the motivating intent behind their activities.
Some Mahayanists took their renunciation of finitude in the spirit of realizing the infinite to such a degree that renouncing nirvana became necessary in their minds. In the first place nirvana is not something to be grasped at with finite faculties, and in the second absurd to conclude from this that renouncing nirvana is desirable or even possible.
Renouncing nirvana with the apparent purpose of eventually realizing nirvana is an obvious contradiction. This misguided attitude is perfectly reflected in the Buddhist "meditation" practice of sitting without any preconceived notions or plan. The way to actually succeed in sitting without any limiting patterns of thought and awareness is to proactively direct awareness inward through pranayama. Mahayanists did not renounce nirvana. They, like so many modern followers of priests who teach in the name of the Buddha, merely renounced all efforts toward nirvana.
Never mind the fact that one cannot renounce what one does not have. The ignorant are in no position to renounce knowledge. They can only presume to do so. Positively stated, nirvana is the very being underlying phenomenal existence.
Watts continues, "If, furthermore, the ego is merely a convention, it is nonsense to think of nirvana as a state to be attained by some being." This statement is naught but an example of Indian and East Asian Dark Age minds arguing the obvious (nirvana is not attained by some being) in every effort to avoid the inevitable (the discipline required to master the mind). How is this so?
Nirvana is the state of infinite being, or is infinite self or infinite reality. The ego, or finite self, is an apparent fragment of that being, but its narrowness in the division of its consciousness is too limiting to allow for the realization of infinite reality. It can only understand the world of becoming, the world of finitude. So, of course Mahayana is right in repeating the ancient dictum that nirvana is not a state attained by some individuated being, since nirvana is verily the obliteration of division. It is the state of an expansive beam of consciousness going from the sense-bound ego to infinite self, and as such is the state of dropping the individual being in favor of the absolute being. The individuated sense of self that was making efforts in not grasping at the finite self by making efforts at looking within and expanding the sense of self dissolves upon the realization of nirvana.
The unfortunate snag of this is that if some individual does not attain nirvana, then the idea of an individual making effort to attain nirvana is silly. Of course, the problem with the willingness to get caught up in this snag is that it undermines not only material efforts, which are admittedly useless, but also mystical ones. The Buddha, like all yogis, never taught his disciples to make material efforts to positively attain nirvana. When it came to the phenomenal world, all of his teachings were presented by way of encouraging his disciples to negatively reject the world of the senses as the end-all of existence. Only, this kind of effort embodied in the positive effort of expanding the intuitive capacity would culminate in the positive realization of nirvana. In other words, nothing positive could be materially done to directly realize nirvana. Nothing could be learned, viewed, imagined, thought, heard, or performed to attain nirvana. All of yoga has ever revolved around unlearning the narrow sense of self, positively withdrawing the mind from the senses, stilling the thoughts, stilling the feelings, etc.
Watts again: "...if there is no nirvana which can be attained, and if, in reality, there are no individual entities, it will follow that our bondage in the Round [of rebirth] is merely apparent, and that in fact we are already in nirvana - so that to seek nirvana is the folly of looking for what one has never lost."
Allow me to repeat these statements in the manner that pre-Buddhist Samkhya would state them. There is no nirvana to be attained by an individuated being. There are no individual entities from the vantage of nirvana. Bondage in the round of finitude/samsara exists only as finite ideas in the infinite nirvana, but is real to the individuated narrow self in samsara. The individuated sense of self has never been in nirvana and will never be in nirvana because its very individuation is antithetical to the infinitude of nirvana.
Nirvana is not a state or a realization that was never lost or gained. The narrow self never had nirvana anymore than did the one who was blind from birth ever have sight. It is too narrow to register infinitude. It could never lose what it never had to begin with. We are not already in nirvana. Quite the contrary is true. We will never be in nirvana.
The narrow sense of self, by definition, is composed of the ideas of separate existence, birth and death, finitude, etc. There are individual entities from the vantage point of the round of samsara, no such entities from the vantage point of nirvana.
The presence of the habituated individual sense of self is marked by the inability to expand the knowledge of existence past the five senses and mind. As long as the idea of the narrow self is present, there will never be the genuine ability to renounce nirvana, there will never be the genuine ability to claim that nirvana was never lost, nor will there ever be the ability to seek nirvana. And when the self expands to infinity, the same is yet true.
Saying that we never lost nirvana is technically correct, but the very need of saying it points to an error in understanding. We would never say that the baby out of the womb never lost car keys. Of course, it never did lose car keys, but to say such a thing can imply that it had car keys to lose or some babies lose their car keys out of the womb. There are a million things that babies out of the womb never lost. The baby never lost things like car keys, term papers, and personal memories of sex because such things do not belong to the level of development that is a baby. Actively saying that it never lost these things implies that we somehow think babies inherently have the keys to the car in their hands right out of the womb.
Just as it is absurd for a baby to drive a car, it is absurd to think of the divided self as having or once having nirvana. If you as the individuated self want nirvana, you must simply cease to be you even as a baby must cease to be a baby in order to drive a car. The potential to drive a car is with the baby even as the finite self has the potential to expand into nirvana, but the ego as such will never have nirvana even as the baby as such will never drive a car.
And this points to the ultimate error of Mahayana: The desire for nirvana certainly ceases along with the very idea of the individualized "you" in the realization of nirvana, but that desire for nirvana will not keep you from nirvana, as the Mahayanists thought it would, because the sincere desire for nirvana will never, ever, directly amount to a positive desire for nirvana that leads to materially-bound activity, i.e. finite avenues to knowledge. It will always express itself as a lack of desire for finitude and a positive desire to develop a nonfinite avenue to knowledge.
In other words, saying that nirvana is a desireless state is incorrect. It only appears to be a desireless state from the vantage point of those who have desires, divided selves. Confusing the path to nirvana (desirelessness in relation to the sensory world) with nirvana itself, then assuming that the desire for nirvana (which is never the actual desire for nirvana anyway since one cannot desire what one does not know, but nevertheless appears as such to those in the state of desire) will keep one from nirvana since nirvana is a desireless state, is ignorance.
This ignorance ties one's hands behind the back, spiritually speaking. The emptiness and uselessness of the moment is all that is left; but this emptiness and uselessness, glorified by many sects of Buddhism, is antithetical to the progress toward the state of samadhi. The absolute is only empty in relation to finitude. That is, it is empty of finitude! Making any more of the doctrine by qualifying infinitude increases the likelihood for the proliferation of more ignorance.
Does the desire for God or nirvana direct the attention inward toward the spine or outward toward the senses? It depends on how God and nirvana are defined, of course, but this is the only question one needs to ask on this issue. Proper definitions of God and nirvana and life itself will inspire the practice of intuition, or looking within, while less definitions of God and nirvana will keep the awareness outward and tied to the senses, the finite avenue to knowledge that affirm the individuated self.
If Buddhists during the Dark Ages proactively sought nirvana with the methods the Buddha taught, they would have found no other way to do it but to cease to seek after finitude, that is, switch off the finite avenues to knowledge and in so doing unite the finite faculties into a single brain-bound intuitive current.
Finitude, the narrow self, will never register infinitude, so it can never seek it and does not need to avoid seeking it; the most the finite self can do is die as the ascetic switches off the breath, heart, and senses. Though the narrow self as awareness is made of the same infinite substance as nirvana, the finite self will never know nirvana for it must expand and burst into the Infinite self of nirvana. And that expansion means the end of the divided self.
Watts once more: "Naturally, then, the Bodhisattva makes no motion to depart from the Round of samsara, as if nirvana were somewhere else, for to do so would imply that nirvana is something that needs to be attained and that samsara is an actual reality." This is naught but a Dark Age rationale for prolonging ignorance.
The Buddha never taught that there was ever a need to take material pro-action to directly depart from the round of birth and rebirth. The teachings of yogis like the Buddha sound very pro-active, and they are, but their activities are all in the service of detaching from finite ideas, limiting desires, and narrowing identities. The divided self is of birth and rebirth rounds; it cannot depart from its very qualities. It can only renounce those things that it can actually choose to renounce or grasp onto, such as sense-objects mistakenly assumed to be sources of lasting happiness, finite ideas mistakenly assumed to be the way to self-realization, and body identification mistakenly assumed to be the true state of affairs.
Nirvana and samsara are not in two different places, and Mahayana was right about this. However, samsara is but a drop in the ocean of nirvana. You reading this are made up of finite ideas rolling on the infinite sea of nirvana. Samsara, when all is said and done, is but a narrow range of perception of nirvana. The range of the divided self's perception is called samsara; the range of the self-realized ascetic’s perception is called nirvana. Even as there is a cosmos full of sounds that our ears are deaf to, so there is the infinite nirvana all around us that our five senses are ignorant of. Does the narrow self need to attain it? Of course not, but to say this is as if to imply that such a thing is actually possible, or even worse, already has been.
The bodhisattva will never attain nirvana. The moment nirvana is realized the bodhisattva is gone. However, nirvana must be realized and an aid in that realization is the understanding that samsara is a narrow range of perception of the reality of nirvana. The only thing the bodhisattva, which is the narrow self, must depart from is the self-imposed limitations that result in the narrow range of perception that is the bodhisattva. The sense-bound self must depart from those ideas, thoughts, and resulting actions that promote the narrow range of perception. As the range of perception expands, the realization of nirvana increases and the intuition-limiting patterns of the self decrease. It can hardly be said any simpler than that.
The finite is the infinite only as much as the drop is part of the ocean, but limited intellectual information concerning the drop does not imply knowledge of, or culminate in oneness with, the ocean. What has always been necessary is the expansion of the range of intuitive knowledge. In other words, nirvana includes samsara, but samsara does not include nirvana. Nirvana has all knowledge concerning samsara, but those still wed to samsara by maintaining the narrowness of the range of consciousness will be oblivious to nirvana even while they are in a sea of nirvana, since the five senses were never designed to register infinitude. Methods of meditation inspired by this philosophy, like open-eyed meditation, will never constitute nonfinite avenues to knowledge.
Mahayanists argue that the state of nirvana will not annihilate the field of the senses. This is not absolutely true. Ultimately, there is no finite cosmos to the infinite but merely the idea of one. The state of nirvana is not a monolithic concept, but any investigation of a nonfinite avenue to knowledge implies shutting down the finite faculties. The senses, when left alone to their own devices, help to promote ignorance as their data determines the parameters of the self. But when the senses are tempered by absolute knowledge, their data is understood to be representative of but a miniscule range of nirvana.
Nirvana knowledge contains sensory knowledge, or at least access to it, but sensory knowledge does not include nirvana knowledge or any access to it. Mahayanists came to the correct intellectual realization that nirvana knowledge includes the senses, and so will not annihilate the field of the senses, but then they indulged in a non sequitur by proposing that if that were true, then we need not turn away from the sensory world to realize nirvana. This is like arguing that since the drop is in the ocean, living our lives limited to the drop means we'll see and know the entire ocean.
The ironic, but expected, part of all of this is that East Asian Buddhists repeatedly used this philosophy to rationalize all kinds of material desires in their rejection of their desire for nirvana. In that regard it became no different than any other Dark Age organized religion.
Absolute knowledge contains access to sensory perception, but sensory perception does not include absolute knowledge. Yet, the senses are the avenue of choice for sensory data. Mahayana's history is replete with masters, bodhisattvas, and patriarchs that had not one ounce of absolute knowledge.
Mahayanists further argued that the attempt to blot out the sensory world means to admit it absolutely exists. This crippling idea practically dissuaded centuries of Buddhists from investigating intuition, the only nonfinite avenue to knowledge accessible by human beings.
The attempt to withdraw the mind from the senses means only to admit that absolute existence, nirvana, is more than what the senses alone can reveal. The sensory world exists with the senses; one cannot separate the two. However, the world's caliber of realness, ontologically speaking, can only be determined, ultimately, from the state of nirvana. If anything, the capacity to so easily switch off the senses and obliterate the phenomenal world is evidence that its reality is unstable. Even sleep and dreams challenge its realness.
Switching off the senses does not culminate in blindness to the world. It is only blindness to a narrow frame of the world. If any one of the Mahayana scholars actually gained the power of sensory disassociation through pranayama, he would have seen how blind he was with the senses fully lit. The sense-bound are blind to the world of nirvana though their senses are wide open; the lesser meditator is even more blind since he or she closes the senses but yet perceives nothing directly through intuition; but the accomplished ascetic directly knows more of the cosmos than any billion pairs of senses can perceive. With the weak senses withdrawn, the intuitive eye opens and the world as infinite is realized to be the very self.
In closing Part III, we might imagine the Buddha said, "Close your two little eyes to the world and see you are the infinite!" The Mahayanist replies, "If I am truly the infinite, I'll just keep my eyes open because my effort to close them will keep them open." The Buddha says, "Let go of finitude!" The Mahayanist replies, "I must hold onto finitude because the act of letting go will make me hold on even more." The Buddha says, "Do not entertain suffering-producing material desires!" The Mahayanist replies, "I must keep my desires, because efforts at uprooting desires will create more desires."