‘Nirvana’ Demystified

Is it possible to do nothing? Doesn’t doing nothing amount to inaction? So, when you don’t act, when you don’t do what you must, aren’t you failing in your duty? And if there’s nothing to do, nothing to achieve, what’s the purpose of Life?

Any seeker will encounter these questions. They are perfectly normal, logical questions. The answers to these have to be understood at two levels: at the spiritual, inner awareness, level and at the everyday action, practical, level.

First, let’s view it from an inner awareness angle. Rinzai, the famous Chinese mystic, considered a Master in Zen Buddhism, has said famously: “Sit silently, doing nothing, and the grass grows by itself.” By this Rinzai does not mean you should do nothing forever. He calls for a deeper level of observation – every day. Everyone’s in a tearing hurry to get things done. There are the dishes to be done, groceries to be fetched, the kids to be dropped and picked up, meetings to go to, deadlines to be met, targets to be achieved, bills to be paid, mortgage dues to be settled….and on and on…you go. From one commitment to another. From one small crisis to another. Hours, days, weeks and often months have gone by rushing until you realize that you need a break. Phew! But a break has come to signify again accomplishing a set of things you always wanted done. Go to the spa, change the upholstery, get the air-conditioners serviced or have the whole house re-painted! And just in case you managed a vacation, it is always about “seeing” whatever you can in the “limited” time that you have. Again it’s a rushing of a different kind. Rinzai says, drop everything, and sit silently. Just observe. See how Life goes on. Be silent. Thoughts will come and go. Let them. Bring your attention back to your present – to the now. You can sit in your balcony and see the crowded street below or the clear blue sky above or you can go to the park or you can go to the beach or even to mall. Go somewhere. But you be silent. You be a witness. Then, says Rinzai, you will see the beauty of how nature works on its own.

A friend had posted this status message last evening on his facebook wall: “The pigeons who made a home of my sit out have flown away with their babies. It was interesting to watch how the momma pigeon and her boyfriend cajoled the younger ones to fly as they started growing. In the last four days they got the first of the baby pigeons flying while the second one preferred the comfort of the nest behind my flower pot. Today the mom-pop combo persuaded the other one to fly too. It was a heart-warming experience to see those babies born in my backyard flying”. This is what sitting silently and doing nothing can help you with. It will help you experience the magic and beauty of Life. It is through being silent that you realize what inner peace is. It is through inner peace that you become aware of the true nature of Life. That Life goes on not because of you, but in spite of you. When you have realized this, then everyday living becomes stress-free and, in fact, meaningful!

Next, at a practical level,  you must never abdicate your responsibilities. You have to continue doing what you are doing. You may have a job, you may have a business, you may just be a home maker, you may be a student – whoever you are and whatever you have to do, keep doing it. If you don’t like what you are doing, change it. Do something else. Philosophy and spirituality cannot pay your bills. You have to earn an income. But don’t earn to pay your bills. Earn from what gives you joy. Then you won’t think of your Life as a drudgery. And if someone’s earning for you, do something with your time that makes you joyful. Don’t sit and complain about Life and say you are bored. So, from an everyday action point of view, keep doing whatever you must do. Just don’t complain. Don’t hanker for results. This is what sitting silently for a while each day can help you understand.

When you combine spiritual practice and everyday living, then you learn to live intelligently. Completely at peace with yourself and your immediate world. In this zone, you become the most productive and whatever you do works out just great. And whatever you need, the Universe always provides you with. Because your rhythm’s in harmony with the Universe’s.

This is the state that the Buddha called ‘nirvana’. ‘nirvana’ is often misunderstood as enlightenment, and worse, as enlightenment that’s got under a tree. ‘nirvana’ is downright simple, easy to attain, anywhere, anytime, provided you are ready, you are tuned in!  In Sanskrit, ‘nirvana’ literally means ‘blown out’ as in a candle. “Just as the candle ceases,” the Buddha says, “I will cease.” So, ‘nirvana’ does not really mean ‘moksha’or liberation, it means a cessation. When a candle ceases to burn, the flame disappears, but it is still there in the cosmos. Because nothing can disappear from the cosmos. Similarly, the metaphor of the extinguished flame means that your desires have ceased to be. So ‘nirvana’ is the state where all desires cede. When all desires are extinguished or expunged, there can be no agony, nothing to worry about, nothing to grieve over. In such a state, what remains is just you, doing your daily bit diligently, often sitting silently, and watching the grass growing!

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When you don’t know what to do, do nothing

Sometimes not knowing what to do is a good thing. Just surrender to Life and do nothing.

Some years ago, everything that I had created and had tried to protect was taken away from me through our bankruptcy – my business, the trademarks we owned, the assets we had built up, the team I led, the client we had, the cars we drove…Everything that conceivably had a monetary, material value was gone! And we had no money. No work. No clients. Irate creditors were hounding me asking for their money back. I had tried for weeks on end to raise cash. But in vain. Nobody wanted to trust our business or plans anymore. Our balance sheet and bank statements had no value in the financial market.

A banker I met on a Friday was brutally frank. He told me in as many words: “Sir, your balance sheet and bank statements are not even worth as much as toilet paper is. I am sorry we can’t consider your application for a loan from us.” I remember coming out of that meeting devastated, beaten, broke. Just as stepped out the bank, my phone rang. It was Philip Sir, my good friend from Kerala who is 20 years older to me. He said he was in town. And wanted to meet me. We agreed to meet at the Woodlands Drive In restaurant which was still around then. When we met later that evening, Philip Sir, who had some background to my Life’s challenges, asked for an update. I filled him in.

As I finished, I broke down saying, “I simply don’t know what to do! Where do I start? How do I start? Every door we know of has shut on us!”

Philip Sir beamed a big smile and said, “Fantastic! Just surrender and do nothing!!”

“What?” I remember exclaiming.

Philip Sir leaned across the table, placed his hand on mine, squeezed it tight and said: “AVIS I have known you for many years. I have admired the ambitious streak in you. You have achieved many things. You grew and rose very fast. But I hope you know what goes up must come down. So, when things come crashing, sit back and let Life take over. Do nothing. Surrender to Life.”

That conversation with Philip Sir did not make much sense to me immediately. But that Sunday, when I was in my ‘mouna’ (daily silence period) session, I read a passage by Osho, the Master. Osho talked about the philosophy that Rinzai, the Zen mystic, taught the world with his famous saying: “Sitting silently, doing nothing, and the grass grows by itself.” What I understood that day was that we humans have this phenomenal urge to keep on doing something or the other. The whole endeavor appears to be to control Life. To treat it like our hand maiden. We strive to ensure that “only the outcomes we desire happen for us. Now that never really happens all the time. So we get angry, frustrated, depressed and cynical about Life when things don’t go our way. That, as I have come to realize, is an immature response to Life. The truth is, Life was always in control. You – and I – were never controlling anything. You were only imagining that you were in the driver’s seat. When the chips are down, when whatever you do doesn’t seem to work for you, when you are clueless about what’s next in your Life, when you don’t know what you must do, simply surrender. When you do this of your own accord, through a deep acceptance of your current reality and your inability to find ways to resolve it, an awakening will happen within you. That awakening will help you understand the larger cosmic design.

My awakening, in a way, happened over the weekend following that coffee conversation with Philip Sir at Woodlands Drive In. But it took several months of “mouna”,  of reflecting upon Rinzai’s saying to actually see the “grass growing by itself”. I discovered that I had been rushing through Life – missing the whole aspect of living, while wanting to be rich, famous and successful. My personal cashless situation, compounded by my cluelessness and helplessness, forced me to reflect on Life. I have learned, through my experience, that more than material wealth, inner peace makes one richer. And that peace comes from soaking in the silence that engulfs you, from doing nothing – especially when you don’t know what to do – and letting Life take over!