Nirvana: A Farther Shore
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Along the river the boatmen cry, Who is going across? Who is going across? This is the song of the ferrymen who would row us to the other shore. And the Buddha, too, the eternal boatman, calls to us, Is there anyone who wants to go to the other shore, to nirvana? We have heard the boatman beckon, but the water is high, the waves are rough. We hesitate. Yet we cannot turn away. How can we ignore the cry of the Buddha, who can take us across the turbulent, treacherous sea of life? How can we shut our ears to his promise that in the limitless sea of change there is an island, a farther shore: nirvana, a realm utterly beyond the transient world in which we live?
We are all moving towards nirvana, the Buddha says. No one will ever be lost. Everyone will get home one day. Yet most of us hesitate when we hear the summons. We could take our evolution into our hands, here and now, but we waver. Instead of waiting for the forces of evolution to buffet us for a million years, instead of waiting for our heart to be broken a million times, we could try, during this very life, to take command of our destiny. But the journey seems too long, the effort too arduous.
We’ll wait and go another day. There is too much to do on this shore. We are not ready.
Yet for a few special creatures, a time comes when they say, “All right, I’m coming! Don’t leave without me!” They don’t want to wait any longer. They want to make the journey now.
Others say, “Let me see what happens if I get into the boat . . .” They have one foot on the shore and the other in the boat – when the Buddha gives them a push. Either way, whether you jump in or are pushed, you are in the boat and on your way.
“Few are those who reach the other shore; most people keep running up and down this shore.
“But those who follow the dharma, when it has been well taught, will reach the other shore, hard to reach, beyond the power of death.” – The Dhammapada
We do not know it, but the Buddha does: we were born for this adventure. As long as we are running up and down on this shore, we are not aware of our real needs. We think a handful of profit or a thimbleful of praise will satisfy us. It is only when we open our ears to the Buddha’s call that we begin to understand that nothing will satisfy us except this great journey. It is our deepest desire, our grand destiny, to reach the end of the long travail of human evolution.
To emerge from the world of change into nirvana is what the Buddha means by crossing the river of life. Coming close to the language of modern science, the Buddha teaches that everything is in flux: nothing is the same; everything changes. The word used in both Hinduism and Buddhism is samsara, “to move with terrible intensity.” Everything is moving, flowing, coming into existence and passing away. No one can find a firm foothold anywhere on this shore – not in any personal attachment, not in any personal achievement – because everything is changing, body, mind, and world. So, he asks, who is ready to go across to the other shore?
The Buddha’s cry is so urgent because there is very little time to make experiments in life. There is very little time in which to learn. Sixty years, seventy years, even a hundred years, pass in the twinkling of an eye. There is no time to quarrel. There is no time to misunderstand. There is no time to be selfish.
On this shore life is over so quickly, and then we shed the mortal body, but the Buddha calls us with the promise of a life beyond suffering:
“For those in great fear of the flood, of growing old and of dying – for all those, I say, an island exists where there is no place for impediments, no place for clinging: the island of no going beyond. I call it nirvana, the complete destruction of old age and dying.”
We all hear this message. For some it comes like an express delivery in the night. Others hear a whisper so quiet they easily ignore it. For a few one postcard is enough. They know it’s time to seek what is permanent, what really matters. For some the postcard comes when they are young. More often it comes to the middle-aged. For some it comes after old age has brought wisdom. For the Buddha it came when he was a young man, with everything that life could offer.
Siddhartha Gautama – Siddhartha means “he whose wishes are fulfilled” – was born in a royal family in a small kingdom on the border of the mountain state of Nepal, about two hundred miles from the sacred city of Benares. At his birth, so the story goes, a wise sage foretold that this boy would either become a great emperor or a great teacher, and the king, his father, like a good king, wanted his son to become an emperor, so the little prince was always carefully protected from any sorrow that might bring him to question the pursuit of power and wealth.
Then one day, when he was twenty-nine, the prince asked to be taken outside the palace. There he saw the four sights that were to change his own life and the lives of all Asia for thousands of years to come: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a mendicant seated in meditation – visions of decay, disease, death, and deliverance. It was almost as if a bomb exploded within the young man at the sight of the fate that lies in store for every human being. Day and night, one question began to torment him: “Is there no way to be free from the ruthless tyranny of disease, decay, and death?”
This question would not let him sleep. It would not let him rest. All the pleasures of the table lost their appeal. The twinkling feet of the dancing girls, the magic lilt of the vina, became meaningless to his eyes and ears. The roses nodding their heads in the breeze in the royal garden, the gleaming snows melting on the peaks of the mighty Himalayas, all these now began to cry out to him of the fleeting shadow play that is your life and mine.
Unable to bear this torture any more, one full-moon night in the month of May the prince stole into the royal chamber where his wife and baby son were sleeping peacefully side by side. He did not wake them up but pronounced a blessing on them. Then he left the royal chamber silently, called his loyal charioteer Channa, and told him to saddle his favorite horse. Quietly, the prince and Channa rode out of the palace.
At dawn they reached a desolate forest, where Siddhartha ordered Channa to exchange clothes with him, royal robes for a simple garment. Then he asked Channa to return to the palace and break the news that he had gone in search of an answer to the question, “Is there no way to transcend change and death?” This is the question that burst in his consciousness – not when he was an old man but at the pinnacle of youth, with all the wealth and power of his father’s kingdom at his command.
It was the vision of impermanence that pushed him to leave his wife and son, not selfishly, but out of infinite compassion, a compassion so profound that it is almost beyond our human understanding. Six years later, when he had found the way to cross the river of life, he didn’t withdraw forever into the forest, but returned to rescue them so that they too could discover what lies beyond the world of change and death.
When I was a boy, in my own small way I received the same message young Siddhartha had been given so many hundreds of years ago. It was my grandmother, who was my spiritual teacher, who delivered this postcard to me. This illiterate lady planted the seeds of mystical awareness in the depths of my consciousness before I reached the age of sixteen. She opened a window in my consciousness, saying, “Look! If you look far enough you’ll see Yama, the King of Death, waiting for you.” My grandmother loved me passionately, and this was a great blessing she bestowed on me when I was a boy, which I did not understand at that time.
In my ancestral village, my extended family occupied one small lane, with homes on either side where more than a hundred people lived. Death was often a visitor to our lane, and deaths almost always occurred at home. In the larger houses there was a small alcove called “the dark room,” and it was the tradition to keep the body there overnight before the cremation the following day. That room was never used for any other purpose.
Even the bravest men in my home would never walk past that room at night, because for us Yama lived there; death lived there. When anyone died, the body was taken to that room and placed on the floor with an oil lamp lit nearby. In these oil lamps the wick must be pushed forward into the oil as it burns, and this has to be done many times during the night. Whatever happened, the lamp couldn’t be allowed to go out, since this was considered to be part of the funeral ritual.
My grandmother would volunteer to do this. Not only was she willing, she would lie by the side of the dead body – the body of someone she had known all of her life, often someone for whom she had had great affection – and fall asleep as usual, waking up when it was necessary to tend to the lamp. I was amazed; I couldn’t understand how she could do this. Only now do I understand that it was because she knew that body was just an empty garment, the poor jacket that the person had shed. Would you be afraid of a jacket? For her it was that obvious, but I didn’t understand until many, many years later, when I went so deep in meditation that spiritual wisdom finally drove out fear.
My grandmother wasn’t good at explaining things with words, but she loved me so much that she wanted me to make the central question of my life not how to be successful, not how to make money, but how to conquer this sad fate that awaits everybody – man, woman, and child. Today after more than fifty years “ remember one of her lessons. On the front page of today’s paper, there was a picture of a little boy of five being carried in the arms of a lifeguard. The boy had been swept away by the waves at the beach and could not be rescued in time, even though many tried. Just a glance at the photo sent a message deep into my heart. It was with me throughout the day, it was with me throughout the night, as I recalled a similar scene that took place in my village half a century ago when a boy I knew drowned in the river nearby. I was with my mother, who almost broke down, and my grandmother. The sorrow was too much to bear because we knew the boy; we knew the parents. When we returned home I could hardly speak.
That afternoon, my grandmother sat by my side and talked to me just as the Buddha would have talked. She didn’t try to console me. She tried to strengthen me. She knew my heart was open and she struck hard, “This is going to happen to everybody. All relationships are going to come to an end.” She specified: grandmother and grandfather, father and mother, parents and son, parents and daughter, brother and sister, friend and friend. My mother, who was the gentlest, most compassionate woman said, “I don’t want to hear,” which is the natural, human response. I didn’t have a reputation for being a brave boy, but somehow my granny’s grace came to me at that moment. I told her I wanted to hear more. I wanted to understand. “This is what I want to rescue you from,” she replied. At that time, I couldn’t understand. Only much later did I realize that she was trying to give me the courage I would need to take to the spiritual life.
My grandmother’s message was the same as the Buddha’s: Even if you are young, make this the central question of your life, and always remember this is waiting for everyone. Because of her, it became a vital issue with me even before I undertook the practice of meditation when I was nearing middle age.
Millions of people have read the words of the Buddha, millions read the Hindu scriptures, but my grandmother opened the window through which I could see, “Oh, yes! There is Yama waiting.” Now, because of the grace of my teacher, I can say to Yama, “You cannot conquer me.”
To me, this is the greatest love. As the Buddha says, this is the greatest gift. It is the measure of the Buddha’s infinite love and compassion that he wants every one of us to enter nirvana in this very life. Then Yama steps aside. When we pass by he says, “I have no power over you.”
This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book Essence of the Dhammapada.