Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Verb for Nirvana

Ven. Thanissaro (American monk Geoffrey DeGraff, Abbot of Metta Forest Monastery)
Wisdom Quarterly: The problem is tanha (craving, the cause of suffering, literally "thirst"). The solution is nirvana (extinguishing suffering, metaphorically "going out").

Back in the days of the Buddha, nirvana (Pali, nibbana) had a verb of its own: nibbuti. It meant to "go out," like a flame.

Because fire was thought to be in a state of entrapment as it burned — both clinging to and trapped by the fuel on which it fed — its going out was seen as an unbinding. To go out was to be unbound. Sometimes another verb was used — parinibbuti — with the "pari-" meaning total or all-around, to indicate that the person unbound, unlike fire unbound, would never again be trapped.

Now that nirvana has become an English word, it should have its own English verb to convey the sense of "being unbound" as well. At present, we say that a person "reaches" nirvana or "enters" nirvana, implying that nibbana is a place where you can go.

But nirvana is most emphatically not a place. It is realized only when the mind stops defining itself in terms of place: of here, or there, or between the two.

This may seem like a word-chopper's problem. (What can a verb or two do to your practice?) But the idea of nirvana as a place has created severe misunderstandings in the past, and it could easily create misunderstandings now.

If the solution is nirvana (quenching, slaking, or "going out"), what goes out? It is simply ignorance and clinging to the Five Aggregates of Clinging with the end of craving (tanha or "thirst").

There was a time when some philosophers in India reasoned that if nirvana is one place and samsara another, then entering into nirvana leaves you stuck: You have limited your range of movement, for you cannot get back to samsara. Thus to solve this problem, they invented what they thought was a new kind of nirvana: an unestablished nirvana, in which one could be in both places — nirvana and samsara — at once.

However, these philosophers misunderstood two important points about the Buddha's teachings. The first was that neither samsara nor nirvana is a place. Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds (called becoming) and then wandering through them (called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process.

You may be able to be in two places at once — or even develop a sense of self so infinite that you can occupy all places at once — but you can not feed a process and experience its end at the same time. You are either feeding samsara or you are not. If you feel the need to course freely through both samsara and nirvana, you are simply engaging in more samsara-ing [samsaric wandering] and keeping yourself trapped.

The second point is that nirvana, from the very beginning, was realized through unestablished consciousness — one that neither comes, nor goes, nor stays in place. There is no way that anything unestablished can get stuck anywhere at all, for it is not only non-localized but also undefined [and undefinable]. More>>

"A Verb for Nirvana" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Access to Insight, June 7, 2009,