MCTB The Perpetual Bliss Models
Perpetual Bliss Models focus on enlightenment bringing on a state of continuous happiness, peace, joy, or bliss. These are commonly found in Hinduism, though they are in full force in Buddhism and other traditions as well, e.g. Christianity’s “the peace that passes all understanding.” Buddhism often describes Nirvana (Nibbana) as synonymous with the highest happiness and the end of suffering, and this end of suffering is the natural corollary of the Perpetual Bliss Models. Perpetual Bliss Models and their corollaries are so pervasive in the world of awakening as to be a central, nearly unassailable tenet of most people’s core beliefs. I am sorry to say, they need serious revision.
The first point is that about impermanence. Bliss, peace, happiness, as well as their counterparts pain, chaos, and misery, are all transient phenomena, subject to conditions, arising and passing like the weather. As Zen says, the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows march through our lives according to the laws of reality that have always been in place. This returns us to the great question of realization: does realization change things or does realization reveal how things always were? I advocate a modified version of the latter view, both for practice and for having sane models, but the dogma and those selling something often stray into the promises of a radically different and better existence.
The standard Buddhist argument is that by removing the condition, namely ignorance or misperception, the suffering caused by this condition is also removed. The question then is how much suffering is caused by that particular condition and how much is caused by just being alive. I assert that most of our suffering is caused by simply being alive, but must concede that there is something about changing something in the relationship to the ordinary facts of life and humanity that does help, and why I am so reluctant to admit that there is some sort of peace that comes from realization is a question I am still looking into. While I strongly believe that there are practical reasons not to sell things in this way, I suspect that some residual quirk of my personality is also at play here, and you may have already come to that conclusion.
The other side of the Perpetual Bliss Models is the notion that somehow one will enter into a permanent jhanaic state, such as the fourth jhana or some sort of Nibbanic jhana. These versions of the bliss models imply perfect, continuous concentration untouched by circumstance or enhanced by some sort of inborn wellspring of jhanaic qualities. As noted above, all the concentration states are temporary, not related directly to realization, attained both by some who are enlightened and some who are not, and thus are a false promise.
However, as so many people get a taste of jhana and are sure this must just get better and more continuous as they progress, they end up cultivating these states again and again and get nowhere in insight practice. Further, why would someone who was hanging onto a bliss model want to look into suffering? They don’t, and so the chances of them coming into real insight territory or handling the Dark Night well are slim. Now, it is true that there is some sort of relationship between the perspective on things that occurs in the first four jhanas and the four paths, and the panoramic perspective of both the fourth samatha jhana and the panoramic perspective of arahatship share some positive aspects in common, but they are not the same thing, and even mentioning these patterns and parallels is dangerous, as it can cause a lot of misguided effort and assessment of where people are on the path. I think that this is a good place to introduce the Tibetan concept of the Three Kayas, as it has some useful aspects that help make sense of these things.