The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Understanding Nirvana

When people talk about Buddhism, they often mention the First Noble Truth and summarize it as Life is suffering.

And yet…that’s not it, really.

Yes, the Buddha acknowledged the fact of suffering. But what he emphasized is the end of suffering — nirvana.

This is one of the many insights I gained from Shinzen Young.

Shinzen said that nirvana does not refer to some vague, spacey experience of bliss. Our purpose as meditators is not to get pleasantly buzzed in a “spiritual” way.

In fact, nirvana is often translated as extinction — not bliss or pleasure. But what, exactly, is extinguished?

The answer to this question takes us to the core of Buddhism.

Developing a new relationship to pleasure and pain

To begin, consider our instinctive relationship to pleasure and pain.

When pleasant sensations arise, we try to prolong them. The Buddha called this craving.

When unpleasant sensations arise, we try to resist them. This is aversion.

Moreover, we often fail to notice these responses. Craving and aversion happen without our conscious awareness. This is ignorance.

Meditation targets craving, aversion, and ignorance. It is these factors — the kilesas — that create suffering.

What is nirvana, then? It is what arises when the kilesas cease.

In short, meditation is not about adding anything to our life. It’s about releasing the primal habits that create suffering.

The Buddha compared suffering to the flame of a candle. Once we extinguish the fire of craving, aversion, and ignorance, nirvana appears.  

Pleasure and pain on a continuum

In his talks about nirvana, Shinzen defined pleasure and pain in broad ways.

Pleasure is a continuum, ranging from moments of mild relaxation to the ecstasy of orgasm.

Pain is another continuum, ranging from mild stress to paralyzing terror or the agony of a migraine headache.

If it helps, think in terms of comfort and discomfort rather than pleasure and pain.

Where pleasure and pain converge

We tend to think of pleasure and pain as polar opposites. But, said Shinzen, there is a point where they converge.

Both pleasure and pain are made up of thoughts and sensations flowing through the body-mind. These thoughts and sensations have different qualities, but they manifest in the same way — as waves that rise, crest, and pass away.

Our instinctive responses to pleasure and pain — craving, aversion, and ignorance — also have much in common. They are attempts to interfere with the free flow of thought and sensation.

Shinzen often referred to this interference as locking. We try to “lock” pleasant sensations in place. We also try to block painful sensations, which also requires us to “lock on” in order to battle them.

It is this locking on pleasure and pain — not the pleasurable or painful sensations in themselves — that creates suffering.

What to remember about suffering and nirvana

Shinzen, who is fond of mathematics, summarized this with a formula: suffering = pleasure + pain + locking.  

What meditation holds for us is the possibility of pleasure and pain without locking: nirvana = pleasure + pain — locking.

Of course, these formulas are abstractions. They reduce the raging chaos of our subjective experience to neat little categories.

Even so, formulas can keep us focused on fundamentals — handy reminders that point to the heart of nirvana.