I am a deep sympathizer of all Buddhist ways, regardless of their cultural background. I have studied Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, in deep personal intimacy. However, there is something I have never been able to come to terms without throughout these years of study.
How is it possible that a being, upon attaining Enlightenment and reaching nirvana, could actually "choose" to be reborn again? Because infants are obviously not Enlightened, and they obviously experience suffering and pain which indicated an absence of nirvana. I could understand a being postponing nirvana for the sake of helping others, since they are so very wise and compassion, and because of their attainments they can easily attain nirvana sometime in the future. However, according to basic Buddhist study, either you reach nirvana or you are still trapped in samsara. Why then, is it said that lamas and so forth have attained Enlightenment, while at the same time not reaching nirvana. According to the Master, Gautama, achieving Enlightenment is nirvana. So, I have never really been able to understand the reasoning for all this.
You have raised several questions in your post, and I will answer them one by one, but not necessarily in the order which they appeared.
"Why then, is it said that lamas and so forth have attained Enlightenment, while at the same time not reaching nirvana. According to the Master, Gautama, achieving Enlightenment is
In all Mahayana triditions, enlightenment occurs at different levels, and the enlightenment of the Buddha is called the Supreme Enlightenment, or simply Enlightenment if it causes no confusion. So, only at the level of the Supreme Enlightenment does a person gain the power to enter parinirvana which in turn is defined in the sense of being free once and for all from the samsara, or in the sense of forever ending all sufferings if in a slightly different wording.
It is then clear that the enlightenments of all other sentient beings are inferior to the Buddha's Enlightenment, and therefore they lack the power to enter the parinirvana in the sense defined above. However, one should also realize that at a certain advanced stage of bodhisattvahood, a person is able to control when and where he is to be reborn, or in other words, he has achieved certain freedom from the samsara, and because of this, it can also be claimed that the person is reborn for the purpose of saving others. Yet this claim can be easily misunderstood, since in a strict sense, it is only partially true. In fact, a person at an advanced stage of Bodhisattvahood comes into this world primarily for his own spiritual growth, and saving others is just the way of how he achieves his goal of this necessary spiritual growth. In short, Buddhist emancipation, and the road that leads to it, represents a profound, unchanging law (I bet you love law, right?) rather than something that can be manipulated at one's own will, and one just needs to properly understand this law and to make effective use of it in order to eventually achieve the Buddhahood.
Hope this has answered some of your biggest questions in your post, but obviously there are other subtleties that still need to be clarified, and I will continue in a separate post when necessary.
Well, yes, it is widely said that there are different levels of Enlightenment. Especially in Zen when we find the concept of satori, this is obviously not the nirvana spoken of by the Buddha. Satoris are sudden, and what's more several of them can occur. But the Buddha taught to his disciples that if they attained nirvana they would be eternally liberated from their suffering. He didn't say, "you'll re-enter into samsara," he said the exact opposite. It's in his clear teachings that both sammasambuddhas, savakabuddhas (disciples or students of the Dharma), and pratyekabuddhas (who attain nirvana with no teaching) all escape samsara. Why and how does the idea that only Fully Enlightened Buddhas attain nirvana. And on top of that, there is no way that "different kinds" of nirvana exist. Nirvana is nirvana."It is then clear that the enlightenments of all other sentient beings are inferior to the Buddha's Enlightenment, and therefore they lack the power to enter the parinirvana in the sense defined above."
The first half is unanimously true in all contexts, but I've never read any suggestion for the second half. The Buddha definitely explained that anyone achieving nirvana is permanently released from samsara. Because of the nature of nirvana, if a being remains in any way attached to or bound up with any level of suffering or existence in samsara, they haven't achieved nirvana. And someone actually stated the idea of "being attached to nirvana..." I'm not trying to sound dry, but nirvana
as the Master used the term, cannot be attached to, since nirvana is devoid of attachment. It seems like somewhere down the line, words for enlightenment began to jumble up what nirvana meant, and of course ultimately leading to Zen re-purifying the meaning of nirvana by placing it in an unfathomably far away kingdom of nowhereness, thus proving "enlightenment" to be relative after all, and a mere convention for profound realization. Which brings me to my point: the Master chose to use the word Enlightenment to refer to the one and only realization which delivers one unto nirvana.
This brings me back to the multiple satori statement and similar phenomena. Regardless of what "enlightenments" they're achieving, it cannot be nirvana because nirvana is the final end of suffering. Yes, according to the Master, nirvana is the absolute end of samsara, and all of these teachings are clear and truthful. There's no splitting hairs with that. It applies to any being with any level of enlightenment regardless of any qualities. Either you're in samsara, or you've achieved what is called "nirvana." That said, it could be acceptable to bring up being "attached to nirvana," under the circumstance that they're attached to it before they've actually achieved it. But you cannot be attached once having nirvana, because you can't have nirvana unless you have no attachment. Originally, the term bodhi
was commonly used to refer to the disciples who had achieved nirvana, but it seems to have fractured prismatically into a multitude of convenient uses throughout the cultures of Buddhism.
What I had begun to think more and more throughout practice and study, is that different traditions had started to use the word for Enlightenment as meaning smaller or larger realizations, and sort of transcending the essential meaning of nirvana altogether. This sort of estranges "enlightenment" from nirvana, in a way that the earliest Buddhists didn't seem to do. However, I never thought it to be wrong--it's okay because enlightenment is just a word. Notwithstanding, here I am continuing to opening the same can of worms.
Basically, what I always get down to--in my theory, here--is that most Buddhists, like most non-Buddhists, use the term enlightenment to refer to some various general "realizations" and "illuminations," which can usually carry on a very bodhisattvic truth. However nirvana, as it cannot possibly be differentiated between any being, Supreme Buddha or disciple Buddha, and it cannot be ended, is something in itself which the Buddha and his disciples achieved after he was Fully Enlightened and turned the great Wheel.
Again, thank you, you've been more helpful than most of the people I've spoken with in the past. They mostly didn't think much into the deep meanings of the Dharma. Which is fine for most people, but serious inquiry into the deep nuance of the Dharma isn't important. And there isn't a reason for someone not born
into a Buddhist sect, to not study them as a living unity. After all, the different rays of Truth all emanate from the same Buddha, and he was only one person, one human being. Therefore if anyone plans on attaining Supreme Buddhahood, they're eventually going to have to understand this fundamental unity and move past conventions for enlightenments.
Again thanks for the insight you're giving.