Most people have little or no idea about the goal of Buddhism. When I realised this, I published the book “Not Everything is Impermanent”. Most people said, “But I thought that Buddhism taught that everything is impermanent.” Only those who really knew Buddhism said, “Yes, of course, nirvana is not impermanent.”
We can say that the goal of Buddhism is to enter nirvana, but who knows what “nirvana” means? Who even mentions it these days? We might look the word up in our dictionary and discover that it means something like “extinguished” as when a fire is put out. Where is the fire when it is extinguished? Then we might conclude that Buddhism is about not existing anymore. Then we might decide that the puzzle is too difficult and give up and settle for some less esoteric benefits like stress relief.
Clearly, however, Buddhism does have something to do with being “cool”. This is an interesting idea since “cool” has acquired currency as a slang word meaning relaxed and confident. This is not far from the Buddhist meaning. We might, only slightly jokingly, say that Buddha was a cool fellow. He was cool because he had attained to that kind of relaxed confidence that enabled him to let go of so many of the things that cause worry to ordinary people.
This probably made him attractive because he would handle situations wihout becoming ruffled. He would have equanimity, which is much to be valued. From this position of basic equanimity he could reach out to different people according to their condition, rejoicing in their successes and helping in their distress. He must have had a certain dignity together with a message that spoke of eternal verities. Thus he came to have the reputation for being the greatest sage.
So, in a certain sense, the Buddha had extinguished the cause of so much suffering for so many people, but he had by no means become distant and unapproachable. He was cool, but not cold. To describe this he chose the word nirvana, or, perhaps, the word may already have been in circulation as a desirable spiritual goal. In any case, it stood in contradistinction to the fire that was the centre of the activities of the priests of Agni, who seem to have been one of the Buddha’s chief opponants.
Agni is the god of fire and the priests encouraged the making of sacrifices to the fire god. The priests often became rich and lived rather unspiritual lives. The Buddha saw them as hypocrites who led the faithful astray. In contrast, he sought to create a cadre of practitioners who were genuinely “worthy of offerings”. At the same time, he did not go to the opposite extreme. In India there were ascetics who practised penance, sometimes to extreme degrees. Buddha had tried this himself and found that it did not lead to a noble life, but merely to a sick one.
FAITH IN THE MIDDLE WAY
Thus Buddha taught the Middle Way, cool, not cold, of restraint, not deprivation, dignity, not pomp. This is nirvana. It is to refrain from fanning the flames of passion toward either extreme. To do this requires a kind of faith or steadiness, so that one is not swept away by the energy of the crowd. One needs to be referrenced toward something that transcends ephemeral situations. Everything in the ordinary world of human interactions is indeed impermanent. Things go up and they come down again. Modern people tend to think that this is all there is. They bob about like corks on the sea.
To have more stability than this one needs a religious sense; one needs to be referenced to something beyond. It probably does not matter that much what one calls it - nirvana, heaven, eternity, the divine, the Tao, etc. It does matter, however, that one not then get carried away into making one’s concept of the beyond into something that is not really beyond at all. There has been an unfortunate tendency for religions to make their idea of the ultimate into some kind of worldly power. To do so, however, ruins the whole thing.
Shakyamuni seems to have thought of this ultimate reference as the way of all the Buddhas. He saw himself as simply following in a tradition of other sages, a line that stretched back into time immemorial and would necessarily continue into the far distant future. Indeed, in principle, there could be no beginning and no end because we are talking here of something that is always true. As long as there are sentient beings in whatever universe there must be some ultimate reference - some nirvana - that enables them to go beyond the passions of the moment and keep faith with eternity.