What is Nirvana?
Our topic tonight is Nirvana and Enlightenment, the way that it is described in the Buddhist teachings. And first of all, I suppose I should say that there are many different Buddhist traditions and each of them developed in different areas, different countries – and even within one country, many different forms developed – and although they all have many things in common, they also have different interpretations of many points. And this is in keeping with Buddha’s method of teaching, which was to teach with skillful methods, and this means to teach each person according to the best way that they would understand. And so because of that, we find that there are many different explanations of what nirvana and enlightenment mean in these various Buddhist traditions. And it’s a bit too much to give a survey of all of them, or even quite a few of them, and so I’ll give just one explanation of it, so as not to confuse you. But I explain like this to start with because you might read slightly different explanations in different books, and so I don’t want you to get confused.
What do we mean by nirvana and what do we mean by enlightenment? This is the basic question. And then the second question is: How do we achieve it? And as for what nirvana is, there are again, within this term nirvana, there are many different kinds of nirvana. And again, the different traditions are going to give different explanations. I think if you are going to learn something about Buddhism, the first thing that you have to understand is that there is a tremendous amount of variation, but you shouldn’t be discouraged by that. So what is the most fundamental meaning of nirvana? This is what is relevant. And nirvana, literally… it’s a Sanskrit word and it means an extinguishing, like blowing out a candle. What is it that we’re blowing out here? What we’re blowing out is suffering and its causes.
When we speak about suffering and its causes, of course that has quite a specific meaning. It’s not just referring to pain and unhappiness – that’s one aspect of it – but we’re also speaking about our usual type of happiness, which is unsatisfactory: it never satisfies. It is the type of happiness that we usually have that we never feel it’s enough; we always want more. And if we have too much of something that makes us happy initially, we get tired of it; it turns into unhappiness. Like eating our favorite food: we can enjoy it to start with, but if we eat too much of it, then it makes us sick. So we want to get rid of all these unsatisfying, unsatisfactory situations.
What are the causes of this type of experience? It has to do with our understanding of reality. Because of this confusion about reality, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions. When we say confusion about reality, we have to go a little bit deeper. Basically, the situation is that our minds make things appear in ways that don’t correspond to reality. This includes projections; we tend to project all sorts of things which obscure seeing reality. And even our perception is deceptive, in the sense that we see only what’s in front of our eyes; we don’t see everything around us. And we only see what is happening right now; we don’t see what happened before or what might happen in the future. So we think that what exists is just what’s in front of our eyes. So, anyway, the problem here is that our minds project these things sort of automatically. And they seem to be real; and because they seem to be real, we believe that they correspond to reality.
Let’s take an example: I think we all have experienced a voice, what seems like a voice, going on in our heads. This is talking all the time, or at least a great deal of the time. And it is commenting about everything that’s happening, or remembering things in the past, or planning for things in the future, or singing songs. And one of its biggest activities is worrying. And what seems to be the case is that there’s a little me inside, talking. And we believe that.
What kind of a me is that, that we imagine that is talking in our head? It’s a me that seems to always be the same; it’s the same me talking. When I was a little kid, when I was a teenager, now as an adult – well, it’s still me, so it seems as though it never really has changed. I go to sleep at night, I get up in the morning – here I am again! It seems like that, doesn’t it? And somehow it seems as though this me is separate from my experience, as if that me in my head is sort of watching what’s going on, observing what’s going on and commenting, and trying to control things. And worrying about me, as if now there’s two mes inside – there’s the me that’s worrying and the me that is the object of the worry.
For instance, I could be sitting here speaking to you and I could be – although I’m not, but I could be – in my head, thinking, “Oh my God, they’re looking at me. What am I going to say next? What are they going to think of me?” And “Oh, I’m not sitting up straight. I’d better press the button inside, as it were, and correct my posture, because it’s not good for my back”, as if there was a me that’s separate from my body and it’s manipulating it like a machine. So it seems like that, doesn’t it? It’s like “Me. I have to take care of me.” That’s really weird.
So there are two me's, it seems. That’s just complete garbage. That’s complete fantasy. And even if we think it’s just one me – “I’m worried about me, about myself” – well, we could say, “But I’m worried about the one that’s worrying.” Even then it’s pretty weird, isn’t it? It’s a me that’s separate from life, from experience.
But there’s this voice in my head, and so naturally it seems as though somebody’s speaking, doesn’t it? So who’s speaking? It’s not anybody else, so it must be me. Unless of course we’re schizophrenic and we have some idea that it’s somebody else speaking in our head, but let’s put that aside. Hearing voices, this type of thing; let’s put that aside.
And it goes even deeper: We think that there is a me that I could know separately from my body, my mind, my personality – all these sort of things. The best example that I’ve been able to think of is this feeling – which I’m sure most of us have had at some point – is that “I would like somebody to love me for myself. Not for my body, not for my looks, not for my money, not for my intellect. I want them to love me just for me, for myself”, as if there was a me separate from all of that, that could be loved separately from all of that. Or “I want to understand myself. I don’t understand myself.” Well, what is myself? As if there was a myself, a me, that could be understood separately from everything else. Or “I want to find myself.” That’s even more weird, if you think about it.
When we say, “I want to understand myself”, what we really mean is I want to understand different aspects of my personality – what I like, what I dislike, what my habits are – but we don’t think like that; we think “I want to understand myself.” And even deeper than that, we think that… (and it seems like this – that’s the horrible thing – it feels like this; it feels real) …that this is the way that things are. And even deeper, we think “Well, there must be something special inside me that makes me me and not you.” And we’re not just thinking of my DNA structure, that that’s what’s making my body unique – we’re not thinking on that physical level – we’re thinking in terms of me separate from all that, something that makes me me.
So on the basis of all of that – that it feels like that, that our mind is making this appearance to ourselves – we believe it. Right? We think that this corresponds to reality. And we think like that. I mean, I should say that our mind makes not just ourselves appear like that: it makes everything appear like that. “I want to know you”, as if there was a you that could be known separately from all the things about you.
So, anyway, what happens, on the basis of believing that this corresponds to reality, is that – because it doesn’t correspond to reality – we feel quite insecure. And because we feel insecure, then we speak in terms of this feeling of this little me inside; we want to make that me secure. And so we have different strategies for trying to make that me secure, and these are what we would call disturbing emotions; disturbing attitudes. And they tend to come up just automatically.
Desire, Attachment, and Greed
In order to try to make that me secure, we feel that I have to have things. If I could just possess these things that I don’t have – like love, attention, material things – that somehow that’ll make me secure. Who will it make secure? We think, “Ah, this little me that’s worrying in my head. Nobody loves me! Poor me!” That me. “I’m here, I’m here. Pay attention to me!” This type of me. And if it’s something that we don’t have, we want to have it; and if we have it, we don’t want to let go. So both this longing desire and, if we have something, attachment (“I don’t want to let go.”) and greed (“Even if I have some, I want more.”). That’s one strategy.
Aversion and Anger
Another strategy is: things that I feel threatening me, I want to get rid of. That could be anything that we don’t like, that we feel threatening. It could even be a type of food that we don’t like. I personally don’t like vinegar – “Ooh, I don’t want anything with vinegar in it” – and I would get very upset if somebody serves me some salad with vinegar on it: “Ooh, no.” And then you get annoyed. And then you worry, “Oh my God, are they going to put vinegar in the salad?”
The way that somebody does something – why do you get angry with it? It’s really funny, isn’t it? Somebody is eating in a different way – they hold their fork in a different way than we hold our fork – and it annoys us? That’s really weird, isn’t it? But it annoys us. Somehow that’s threatening, that maybe the way that I’m holding it isn’t right, or something like that. And we find it annoying. “Get rid of it.” We criticize. Right? I mean, what’s behind that? Behind that is thinking that the way that I do things is the right way and if anybody does it differently – well, that’s wrong. “That’s not the way you hold a fork.” But because we’re insecure, we find that threatening, don’t we? Why would we care? So what if they hold a fork differently?
So we have anger. It could get even stronger: we could even have hatred. And actually it’s usually based on attachment, if you think about it. I get angry when somebody takes the parking space that I wanted. Why do I get angry? Because I wanted that parking space. There’s a me and that me is special and that me should always have its way. That’s the thinking that we have.
A third strategy is naivety. Anything that is a little bit too difficult or whatever, we just shut it out. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to deal with it.” We put walls up as if there were a me, separate from everything, that could hide behind those walls. And of course if feels like that, doesn’t it? It’s very deceptive. You close your eyes – it seems as though there’s the me inside, and I’ve shut myself out from what’s going on outside. It seems like that, doesn’t it? You put your fingers in your ear – “Well, I’ve shut it out” – there’s a little me sitting inside.
And also in general we’re naive about cause and effect, the effect of our behavior on others and on ourselves. And we’re naive about reality; we believe in how things appear to be.
Constructive and Destructive Behavior
On the basis of these disturbing emotions, this attachment and anger and naivety, what happens is that we act on the basis of that. And so we could act in a destructive way. Like for instance when we are angry, we could yell at somebody; say things that are very harsh. And when we are attached, we could steal something to try to make myself happy. So we exploit others; it doesn’t have to be actually stealing, but you exploit them, use them for your own benefit. And when we’re naive, we could hurt somebody by the way that we act toward them or the way that we speak with them, and we don’t want to know about that. We think that the way that I act with them, coming late all the time or criticizing them all the time, doesn’t matter: it doesn’t have any effect. It’s naivety. It causes problems, doesn’t it?
So all of those types of behavior are based on these disturbing emotions, and this type of behavior just produces more and more problems and unhappiness – not just for others, but more specifically for ourselves.
Based on this naivety about how we exist, we could even act in a constructive way. But even in a constructive way, it could produce some problems from our constructive behavior; it could produce some problems. I do nice things for you. Well, in a sense, that’s very nice – I help you and so on – but I have a hidden agenda: I would like for you to appreciate me, I would like to feel needed, I would like for you to love me. So there’s still this thought of a solid me there inside that wants to feel needed and appreciated and so on. And as a result of helping others and being kind – well sure, we may be happy, they may thank us, but it’s never enough. We still don’t feel secure. We feel happy for a little while, and then it’s gone. We have to do it again and again and again, so that we feel needed and appreciated.
The point is that this is the cause of our problems – this belief in this me that has all these characteristics that I said: that there is a me that is separate from everything, sitting inside my head, and there’s something about it that makes it special me, and I can know it all by itself, and so on – the me that’s the object of worth. That’s the problem: it's believing that that’s me, believing that it corresponds to reality.
And believing that the way that I appear to exist and the way that everything else appears to exist corresponds to reality, then we, as I said, get these disturbing emotions and we experience the up and downs of life – unhappiness and then happiness that doesn’t satisfy, things going well, things not going well. You get the ups and downs of life, and it just goes on and on and on, and it’s unsatisfactory. And we never know how we’re going to feel in the next moment: Now I feel basically OK, and then in the next moment, for no apparent reason, I feel unhappy. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. But if you examine yourself, your feelings and your moods go up and down all the time every day. It's quite boring, if you think about it.
From a Buddhist point of view, then, we would say that actually this whole confusion about how I exist, how everything exists – this is really what activates all the what we would call karmic potentials to continue from one lifetime to another: rebirth. And so this whole up and down cycle just goes on life after life after life. And what we want to achieve, then, with nirvana… nirvana is an extinguishing of this; this ends. A synonym for nirvana here would be liberation: we’re liberated from it.
But specifically what we get rid of with nirvana is the belief in these deceptive appearances that our mind creates. So that the belief in all of this – that it corresponds to reality – is never going to appear again in my mental continuum, in my mind. Finished. Not even a tendency for it is left. And because I no longer believe that these deceptive appearances correspond to reality, I no longer have disturbing emotions based on that belief. So no more anger and no more attachment, no more naivety. Finished. Gone in such a way that it never will return.
What we experience then is not that I… Well, also what we experience is that then we no longer have this uncontrollably recurring rebirth based on this belief in this garbage. Now this doesn’t mean that we no longer exist. Within Buddhism – this is the Mahayana understanding here – I exist; I continue to exist. I don’t exist like this little me sitting in my head; that’s not how I exist, but I exist. I’m here. I’m talking to you. I’m sitting. I’m breathing. Nobody else is doing that. It’s not just a body sitting here; I’m sitting here. But that me is just what can be labeled on and known in terms of a body, in terms of a mind, and so on; it’s not something separate from it. There’s no separate little me that you have to be worried about and try to make secure.
That’s the real secret: there’s nothing to make secure. So what are you trying to make secure? Are you trying to make secure something that doesn’t exist? That doesn’t mean that we don’t intend to do things – we plan to do things, we are careful, we take care – of course we do that, but without this worry about: “Ooh me. What am I going to do? What are people going to think of me?” The me continues – I continue – even after achieving nirvana, after achieving liberation. We are, at this point, known in Buddhism as an arhat, a liberated being.
It’s not that we have no feelings at all. It’s not like that. But the type of feelings that we have are not like these unsatisfying type of feelings. (By feelings I’m talking about happy and unhappy.) Right? Because we’re not naive about cause and effect, then naturally we don’t act destructively. So we never experience unhappiness as a liberated being, but the happiness that we experience is very different from our ordinary happiness.
Ordinary happiness is generated by some sort of condition. (I mean, from a much deeper point of view, its deepest cause is constructive behavior, but let’s leave that aside; let’s just speak in terms of a condition that brings about our ordinary happiness.) The condition, let’s say, of eating our favorite food or being with our friend that we like so much. Well, as long as we’re eating that food, or as long as we’re with that friend, we have the condition to be happy, so we may be happy; but we’re not eating that food all the time and we’re not with the friend all the time, so that happiness ends. And even when that condition is there, if I have too much of it, I become unhappy. So I have my favorite food and I’m eating it, but if I eat too much, I become unhappy. Or if I had it for every meal for the rest of my life, I would be unhappy. Same thing with the friend: after a while, my friend gets on my nerves; I really would like to be alone. So even when the condition is there, it doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.
So this ordinary happiness that we have – well, it’s very nice, we can enjoy it when we have it; but it’s not reliable, it’s not dependable. Every time I see my beloved friend – well, I don’t always become happy; sometimes, I really don’t feel like seeing this friend. It’s not reliable. But the happiness that we have as a liberated being, this is a happiness which… the condition for it is being parted from this unawareness of how we exist, these disturbing emotions. Being parted from it – it’s gone – and that is a situation that stays forever. So the happiness that comes because of that condition is stable; it lasts.
It’s hard for us to imagine what this is like, but maybe we get a small idea of this in terms of if your shoes are too tight, and you’ve been wearing them all day long, and your feet are hot – you take them off and you feel, “Wow!” This is the relief, the happiness, of being free from something. Well, here we’re talking on a much deeper level, but this is the type of happiness that we’re talking about. And as a liberated being, we would have this type of happiness all the time. Except certain times we could be in very, very deep meditation absorption on these very, very deep states which are states in which you feel equanimity – you feel neither happy nor unhappy. Those times you wouldn’t feel this happiness. You would be too deeply absorbed in this sort of trance, trance-like absorption. But you wouldn’t want to stay in such absorption for any length of time. I mean, what’s the point? Why? But you could.
As a liberated being, after we die from the lifetime in which we become a liberated being, instead of having our ordinary type of rebirth we would have quite a different type of way of continuing. We could continue in what’s known as some sort of pure land, in which our body is something like made of very subtle elements, or we could continue to appear in our usual world and work further to become a Buddha. And in that case, even though we would be born, and we would have childhood, and grow up, and old age and stuff, we would never have this type of suffering that we would have as an ordinary being.
Renunciation: The Motivation to Achieve Nirvana
So this is an arhat, a liberated being. They achieve nirvana. What is extinguished is their… the Buddhist term is samsaric existence. Samsara is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is the basis for our ordinary unhappiness and our ordinary happiness. That’s the problem that you’re free of forever. And what motivates us to achieve that goal is called renunciation; it means a determination to be free – “I want out of this. I have had enough of this up and down, up and down life, throughout my life and lifetime to lifetime. I’m completely bored with it, and enough already!” And we’re not just running away from it; this is very important to realize.
If you think about it, in this life time, many of us have had close loving relationships with not just one person, but several people. And it has all the insecurity to start with, plus of course the excitement. It has a lot of happiness, but it never lasts – we always want more. And it has a lot of pain: We miss the person when they’re not there. And if they don’t pay enough attention to us, we get upset. And we’re just up and down, and up and down. And in many cases that relationship ends and then we get into another one – and it’s the same thing, slightly different. As we say in India, “Exactly the same, only completely different.” Exactly the same. We have the same syndrome, just with another person; slightly different experiences.
And we have the same thing with work. We find a job, and it goes well sometimes; sometimes it doesn’t go well. We’re worried about: Will we lose it? Are we getting enough money? We have to deal with the people at work. And we change jobs, and it’s the same thing, just slightly different.
And we have to be a baby – we can’t do anything except cry and go to the toilet in our clothes – and we have to go to school and we have to get an education, we have to find a job, we have to find a partner, we grow old, we have to deal with old age. And all of this just repeats over and over and over and over again. And we think – this is again a projection – we’re going to find our true love, we’re going to find true happiness, and we’re going to find the perfect job, and you never do. And maybe we have this experience of a loving relationship and a job a few times in this lifetime. But just imagine having to do it over and over again for millions of times. How incredibly boring!
The point is not just to try to escape from this, as if this little solid me in my head could go off into a cave and be immune to that. That’s putting up a wall. That’s not the solution. The point is to discover what the cause of it actually is and root out that cause, get rid of that cause. So we’re actually facing the situation and dealing with it and getting rid of it, rather than just running away and hiding from it.
So nirvana, liberation, it’s based on this determination to be free: “I really want to be free from this.” I’m not going to just run away from it, but I’m going to get rid of the cause that’s perpetuating it, so that I can, in a sense, live in peace.
Bodhichitta: The Motivation to Achieve Enlightenment
But eventually it reaches a point – it doesn’t have to, but for many it will reach a point – in which we say, “Yeah, but what about everybody else? Everybody else is in this same situation.” In fact, we might have this feeling long before we achieve nirvana. And so we think, “Wow, it would be really great if I could be able to help everybody get rid of this uncontrollably recurring rebirth and the problems and so on.”
So to do that, it’s not enough to be liberated. You have to be liberated in order to help others: If I’m a tiny little baby wetting my pants, what can I do to help anybody else? If I get angry with others, or if I become clinging and attached to them, how can I really help? Or if I’m helping them because I feel that there’s this little me inside that wants to feel, “Oh, I’m so wonderful. I’m the great bodhisattva” – I’m helping everybody so that they will like me or I’ll feel good about myself – that also produces lots of problems. Then we go on what we would call an ego trip in terms of Buddhism. And if we teach, then we try to be “The Great White Guru” and sit there and wear a costume and call ourselves lama, and everybody should bow to us. It’s an ego trip.
So really to help others, we have to get over all of this. We have to get liberated on the way, but just to be liberated is not enough, because although we no longer believe all these projections that our mind creates, still our mind creates these projections: our mind makes things appear in ways which are just impossible, and they don’t exist that way.
Let’s give an example: We go to a nursing home, an old age nursing home, and we see these old people there. They’ve lost their memory; they’re sitting in a wheelchair, playing with a towel, drooling, this type of scene. You walk down the hall, and in their wheelchair they see you and they grab out to hold you, to touch you, to get some human contact. So how does our mind make these people appear? It makes them appear as if they were always like that. That’s how they truly are. They are this old senile person in a wheelchair. And it does not appear to us at all that this is a human being – they’ve had a childhood, they had an adult life, they had a family, they had a profession. None of that appears to us, that this is just a final step in a lifetime. It appears that this is truly how they are, just this, and we believe it. And if we are not a liberated being, then because we believe it, then we get a disturbing emotion: we get frightened of this person, closed off – “I don’t know how to relate to them” – and we just want to get out of there as soon as possible; we feel very uncomfortable.
Well, as a liberated being, we wouldn’t believe that they actually exist like that. We would know that they had a whole life and so on, so it wouldn’t be disturbing to us. But we wouldn’t really know how to help this person, because all that we can see is what’s in front of our eyes, and that’s how it appears. So we have this limitation because of these projections of our mind and also because of our hardware. You can only see out of the holes in the front of your head; you can’t see behind you. We have limited hardware.
So if we really want to help everybody, we need to understand all the causes, all their background, not just in this lifetime but endless lifetimes – beginningless lifetimes, I should say – beforehand to know all their background. What are all the factors involved with this person? And we have to know, if I teach them this or if I do that, what will be the consequences on them and on everybody that they interact with, forever, in the future. And I need to know how to talk and relate to everybody, not just in the language that I learned as a child. Or in one way or another, I need to be able to communicate with everybody. And I need to never have the limitations of this kind of body that gets old and has to be fed and has to go to the toilet, and these sort of things.
In other words, I need to become an enlightened Buddha. So enlightenment is that stage where our mind no longer makes these deceptive appearances. And because it no longer makes these deceptive appearances, we can see the entire network of cause and effect of everything: we become omniscient. And we know what are the most effective ways of helping everybody and what would be the consequences of doing this or that to help them. Or we would know that this person is not receptive, so there’s nothing that I can do now. See, a Buddha’s not omnipotent. A Buddha doesn’t have the power to just snap their fingers and free everybody from their suffering. Others have to be receptive and follow the advice, the teachings, of the Buddha – of any Buddha.
Enlightenment is much, much more advanced than just nirvana. I’m not talking about systems which use nirvana also to refer to enlightenment. As I said, there are many different systems. Let’s just stick with this one.
The motivation for achieving enlightenment is known as “bodhichitta.” So of course we’re determined to be free from our own suffering, but what we have with bodhichitta is we’re focusing on our own enlightened state, which hasn’t happened yet but which can happen on the basis of all our potentials. And it’s based on love and compassion – love is the wish for others to be happy and have the causes of happiness; compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering – and the intention to achieve that enlightenment in order to be of best help to others as much as is possible.
We have to get used to… You see, to gain nirvana, we have to realize that things don’t exist in the way that they appear to exist. And to achieve enlightenment, we have to get that so, so deep that we have this all the time, this understanding all the time. To achieve nirvana, you have to see reality, that the way things exist doesn’t correspond to the way that my mind makes them appear to exist; we have to not just see it for the first time – we have to get used to it. But when you achieve nirvana, you don’t have that understanding constantly, every single moment. To achieve enlightenment, you have to have it every single moment. As a liberated being, you are only aware of this when you’re sitting and meditating. When you’re a Buddha, you are aware of how everything exists all the time, whether you’re meditating or not meditating. That’s just a very general statement; that could be made more specific and detailed, but not necessary.
In any case, the important point to understand is that nirvana and enlightenment aren’t the same. Nirvana is the first step. Enlightenment is the second step. With nirvana, we get rid of our belief in all this garbage that our mind produces. And because we don’t believe in it anymore, we are free of disturbing emotions. And because we’re free of that, we’re free of karmic behavior that is dependent on those disturbing emotions. And because we are free of that, we are free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And with enlightenment, we’re free – in addition to all of that – we’re free of our mind making these deceptive appearances, and so we understand the interconnectedness of everything; interconnectedness especially in terms of cause and effect in terms of how we can help others.
How does nirvana correspond to the different bodhisattva bhumi levels?
The bodhisattva bhumi levels are parts only of the arya bodhisattva paths. A bodhisattva is somebody who is aiming for enlightenment; and an arya is someone who has non-conceptual cognition of voidness. We can achieve that arya state either as a bodhisattva aiming for enlightenment or we could achieve it as somebody just aiming for nirvana. If we’re just aiming for nirvana, then when we reach the arya stage, we are called stream-enterers (rgyun-zhugs, Skt. srotapanna). But as a bodhisattva, from that point up to enlightenment is divided into ten stages, the ten bhumis (sa-bcu) they’re called in Sanskrit, the ten levels of mind of an arya bodhisattva mind. In the Chittamatra, Gelug Sautrantika Svatantrika and Prasangika systems, and Sakya and Nyingma Madhyamaka systems, you achieve liberation as a bodhisattva when you complete the seventh level, the seventh bhumi. So on the eighth bhumi, you are a liberated being already. But in the Gelug Yogachara Svatantrika system, as a bodhisattva, you achieve nirvana and enlightenment simultaneously. So you have two presentations. Obviously, which one you experience will depend on individual practitioners. Some will experience it one way; some will experience it another way.
Where is the attainment shamatha in terms of attaining nirvana and enlightenment?
Shamatha is just a tool. There are many, many tools that one needs, instruments that one needs, as part of our methods for achieving nirvana or enlightenment. Like having love and compassion all the time, that’s another tool.
Developing shamatha is not exclusively Buddhist; you find this in many of the other Indian systems as well. The danger with shamatha, by itself, is that on the basis of shamatha, this stilled and settled state of mind – which is, in addition to perfect concentration, an exhilarating feeling that you get with that – that you could go deeper and deeper and deeper into deeper absorptions. And the danger is that you might mistake one of these deeper absorptions as nirvana; and it’s not, because eventually you wake up from it. And this is exactly what Buddha Shakyamuni himself experienced. Before he became enlightened, he studied with various other teachers; and the main thing that he studied were these methods of achieving shamatha and going deeper and deeper into these absorptions – absorptions on nothingness, and so on. And he realized that that wasn’t liberation; he still had problems. So Buddha realized that achieving shamatha is absolutely essential for going any further on any spiritual path, but shamatha by itself is enough: you don’t have to go into these deeper and deeper trances. You have the tool; use it to focus on reality and to focus on love and compassion, etc.
But where do the actual stages to liberation and enlightenment start? They start when you have this motivation, whether it’s this determination to be free or of bodhichitta (aiming at your future enlightenment to help everybody). When you have this effortlessly, all the time, as your… this is the aim in life; no matter what, that’s there, firm. You don’t have to think about it; you don’t have to generate it again, it’s there automatically. Only at that point do you actually start the classification scheme of the steps to liberation and enlightenment. You could achieve shamatha either before that or after that: two possibilities.