Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Zen, Starbucks, and Iron Maiden

In a week my life undergoes a major transition. On June 1 I move into a Zen center/community in the Santa Cruz mountains, where I will reside for the summer, writing, making bricks, and engaging in Zen practice. As time permits, I intend to blog on my experiences during the summer, as well as continue blogging on material related to my book on survival.

Starbucks: During the past two weeks Starbucks has been something of a second home for me as I dismantle my domestic life and embark upon a new phase of life’s journey. I’ve met some really interesting people at Starbucks and had some great conversations. I’d like to dedicate this blog to them. Here I offer some Zen-oriented contemplations on Nirvana and enlightenment, quite appropriately while sitting in Starbucks and listing to Iron Maiden. 

Now for contemplations under the influence of many cups of Starbucks tea and Iron Maiden tunes. . . .

According to Buddhism, attachment to fictions such as ‘permanent world’ or ‘permanent self’ is the cause of dukkha (lack of satisfaction).   Nirvana, literally ‘to be blown out,’ is usually described as the cessation of attachment to such fictions and consequently the cessation of dukkha. 

However, when the mind tries to grasp Nirvana, the mind thinks ‘goal to be achieved.’ Immediately the mind is in the grip of a delusion.  That which must be ‘achieved’ is judged not to be present, but Nirvana is precisely the present reality.  To look for it elsewhere is to miss it together.  More specifically, to look for it is delusion.   Nirvana is not a thing at all, which is why it is nothing to be achieved.

Nirvana is beyond the grasp of the mind, beyond all thinking, feeling, and sensing.  The mind can no more know Nirvana than a character in a film can know the screen out of which it is made.  All ‘things’ are made of Nirvana.  All ‘things’ are Buddha nature. 

Duality/Non-Duality: It’s not that there is no duality. It’s not that there is no non-duality. It’s that these are different ways of speaking of what cannot be spoken, diverse ways of grasping at what cannot be grasped by the mind.

Life minus ‘mental story telling’ equals Nirvana. 

To see the flower without judgment is all that is meant by Nirvana.

If nirvana is a goal, it is unattainable.  If nirvana is practice, it is trivially attained. Nirvana is therefore practice and goal, simultaneously unattainable and as easy as your next breath. 

When I blow out a candle, the room is plunged into darkness, but does the cat care?

No one ever achieves Nirvana, for all sentient beings are even now the Buddha nature.  What does it mean that we are Buddha nature?  Nothing more than what is present in each breath. You are already experiencing Nirvana.  It just goes unnoticed. Breathe, therefore, with awareness.

Nirvana is unstoppable.  As you are powerless over delusion, you are powerless over enlightenment.

In the big mind there is plenty of space for chaos and nonsense.

Nirvana sometimes appears as birth.  At other times, it appears as death. When birth has been freed from attachment and death has been divested of aversion, birth and death are non-different from Nirvana.  The lake that is stirred up by wind is tranquil when the wind has ceased.  Whenever life is revealed as it is, there has been cessation.  This is nirvana.

Nirvana is the field covered with bullshit when bullshit gives rise to life.  Nirvana does not require the removal of bullshit from consciousness, only its rearrangement, that is, seeing bullshit as bullshit.  This is what Nagarjuna meant by saying that nirvana and samsara (life and death) are non-different.  Life happens. Death happens. Shit happens.  See it clearly and you won’t step into it, and if you step into it, grass will grow from your feet. 

What, from the perspective of duality, appears as ‘entering Nirvana’ is in fact only the falling away of the body-mind.

As long as you are inside criticism or judgment, nirvana is veiled.  But the truly hard thing about removing the veil covering nirvana is not cessation of criticism and judgment but simply our stopping talking altogether.  You want to see clearly? Just stop talking, at least for a few minutes.

In zazen (Zen ‘meditation’), there is no essential concentration of any object, but rather a relaxing of attention on objects.  Thoughts, feelings, and sensations are permitted to arise without attachment or aversion to them.  This may be described as a gentle watching of mental activity.  Watch the rising and falling of layers of mental content, like waves on the ocean. 

If you sit in zazen, you may experience something people call ‘enlightenment,’ or you may not experience what people call ‘enlightenment’.  Most likely, you will experience enlightenment but not know that you have experienced enlightenment, for the effects of zazen are beyond our conscious life. 

But if you sit again, and again, you may nonetheless conjecture the work is being done.  I believe this is what Dogen meant by saying that sitting in zazen is the effect of enlightenment, not its cause.  And this is true even of the first sit.  It too is the effect of enlightenment.  Ultimately zazen is grace – grace expressing grace. 

What is enlightenment? Dogen said it was the tea and rice of daily living. For me, it’s 12 hours at Starbucks drinking Calm tea with steamed milk while listening to Iron Maiden.

I’m waiting in my cold cell, when the bell begins to chime.

Reflecting on my past life and it doesn’t have much time

‘Cause at 5 o’clock they take me to the gallows pole.

The sands of time for me are running low, running low


When the priest comes to read me the last rites

Take a look through the bars at the last sights

Of a world that has gone very wrong for me.

Can it be that there’s some sort of error

Hard to stop the surmounting terror

Is it really the end, not some crazy dream?

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