Shen-ling and nirvana

Visibly the teachings on anatta were not particularly easy to bring to China, and shen-ling (the indestructibility of the soul) was favoured as an explanation for rebirths and karmic continuity. I don't find this 'too' surprising:
• first, Pudgalavadins had followed similar considerations. They were rejected by the other schools, but it still means the re-introduction of the notion of 'soul' in Buddhism is not necessarily so weird…
• second, shen-ling might not be a notion too far from a naïve understanding of the eight consciousness (or store-consciousness)…

The point I'm struggling with is how this impacts 'Nirvana'.

Nirvana seems to suddenly become a Paradise, i.e. a 'place' which can be (positively and conventionally) defined.

This seems at odd with the idea of 'cessation' of ignorance: buddhists should know that cessation of ignorance does not mean everything else ceases and the world disappears, Buddhism is not nihilism… but the point of defining nirvana by a 'cessation' was that it allowed a fluid view as to what nirvana is, it allowed to see wisdom as an "appropriate, unbiased response to what the situation at hand requires", a definition wholly context-dependent, i.e. empty of essence!

Defining Nirvana as a Paradise breaches the idea of cessation, and while I know of descriptions of nirvana as "endless bliss" (end-less because beginning-less), I do not remember any early school that would have described Nirvana as a conventionally-defined 'place'.
Does anyone have examples of similarities with other schools?

Shen Ling and Nirvana


I do not think there is any true Buddhist tradition that defines Nirvana as a place/paradise to strive for. The closest would be Pureland; but then although it is believed to be a celestial realm, its inhabitants still have yet to practice further to attain Nirvana.

The idea of 神灵 (pinyin: shen ling) or ‘soul’ is the belief that a person’s physical body is made up of the elements while the soul is derived from Heaven. This is why a proper transliteration of 神灵 is ‘Heavenly soul’. This belief was already popular during the time Buddhism was first introduced to China; with one form believing that the soul would cease to exist upon physical death (“神即形也, 形即神也, 形存则神存, 形谢则神灭” - 范缜《神灭论》, ‘Soul is body, body is soul; soul survives because body survives, soul is destroyed as body is destroyed’ - Fan Zhen’s The Treatise on the Destructibility of the Soul); while another believing that the soul would rise up to heaven after physical death (“天地有灵, 精神不灭… 神不可灭, 所灭者身也” - 宗炳《明佛论》, ‘There are spirits in the heaven and earth, the soul does not die... the soul cannot be destroyed; what is destroyed is the body’ - Zong Bing’s The Treatise on the Understanding of the Buddha.

The idea that there is a soul is so entrenched in the Chinese culture that even until now, it is very common to hear someone speak of a particular person who has departed by referring to him/her as 在天之灵 (his/her soul in Heaven.)

The former school of thought included the Confucianists and the Daoists whose beliefs were basically materialistic in nature, and who in the competition which later developed between themselves and the Buddhists, came up with many arguments to attack the latter school of thought.

At the time Buddhism was introduced to ancient China during the Han dynasty, the concept of Karma somehow got fused with the traditional native belief that one’s deeds will be accordingly punished and rewarded by Heaven, mainly as a result of the early propagators of Buddhism heavily relying upon the existing Confucianist and Daoist terminologies to explain the Buddhist doctrine, considering the fact that the Indian and the Chinese languages are two entirely different systems and Buddhism was a foreign religion.

And so the debate over whether there was such a thing as karma hinged heavily upon whether there was an undying soul in the first place. It was vital for the Buddhists to come up with arguments to prove there was. Chief among these was Hui Yuan’s The Treatise on the Sramana’s Disrespect of the King (慧遠 -《沙門不敬王者論》). In it, Hui Yuan famously said 火之傳於薪,猶神之傳於形; 火之傳異薪, 猶神之傳異形. 前薪非後薪, 則知指窮之術妙; 前形非後形, 則悟情數之感深 ( The fire of a firewood is like the soul of a body; a fire transferring to a different firewood is just like a soul transferring to a different body. The former firewood is different from the latter firewood just like the former body is different form the latter body.)

Therefore , we can see that the belief that there is a soul and that Nirvana is a place to strive for are inevitable results of the development of Buddhism in ancient China against the backdrop a society steeped in the belief that there is a Heaven where souls originate from and return to.

We might question whether the early Buddhist propagators were being true to the teaching of the Buddha when they explained that there was a soul to speak of but we have to consider the historical milieu in which Buddhism was introduced to China from India and the Western Region. The more important question is, would Chinese Buddhism be the ‘flower’ (to borrow the term from Daisaku Ikeda) it is now had the early propagators not employed such means as they had?

After Buddhism established itself firmly on Chinese soil from the Han to Jin dynasties, we see a conscious effort to put right the idea that Nirvana is a place to strive for. These efforts crystallised in the later central Mahayana concept that 煩惱即菩提, 生死即涅槃 (klesa is bodhi, samsara is nirvana), which expresses ultimate non-attachment and non-duality.

However, I do not think the idea that Nirvana is a place/paradise to strive for is a misunderstanding prevalent only among Chinese buddhists.