Monday, October 4, 2010

Nirvana Explained

The Buddha as depicted in Thailand (Ursulainbkk/

Nibbana by Bhikkhu Bodhi, edited by Wisdom Quarterly

The Buddha says that he teaches only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha. Dukkha, or "suffering," is an ancient term that includes all unpleasant experience from slight agitation to intense agony. In other words, the Buddha only explains suffering and the end of suffering.

The First Noble Truth deals with the problem of suffering (dukkha). However, the truth of suffering is the first word, not the final word of the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha starts there because his teaching is designed for a particular end: It is designed to lead to liberation from all further suffering.

In order to do this the Buddha must give us a reason for seeking liberation. For example, if a person does not know that a house is on fire, one lives there amused and distracted, playing and laughing. To get that person to come out to safety, that person must first be led to understand that the house is on fire.

In the same way, the Buddha announces that our lives are burning with old age, sickness, and death. Our minds are aflame with greed, hatred, and delusion. It is only when we become acutely aware of the peril we are in that we are finally ready to seek a way to release.

The Second Noble Truth points out that the principal cause of suffering is craving -- the desire for more and more sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. Since the cause of dukkha is craving, the key to reaching the end of dukkha is to undo craving.

The Buddha therefore explains the Third Noble Truth, the end of suffering, as the extinction of craving.

Psychological Dimension
The Third Noble Truth has two dimensions, one psychological, another philosophical.

With regard to the psychological, we find that our unhappiness or "suffering" results from the tension between desire and the lack of the thing desired.

There are two possible approaches to overcoming this unhappiness. One is to obtain the object we crave. The other is to eliminate the craving.

The Buddha's teaching reverses the common assumption that happiness can be found by satisfying our desires. Careful examination of the "happiness" that comes from trying to satisfy a desire reveals that such happiness is unreliable, insecure, and hollow. That is, our desires are not really satisfied. We know this because we continue to crave, even when we have gotten the thing. Either we want more and more of the same object (possessiveness) or we thirst for something new and better, something we imagine will finally satisfy this craving that oppresses us.

The struggle for this kind of "happiness" depends on external things. Such objects are inevitably susceptible to loss. Again, even while we have them, we are not satisfied with them. Yet when we are separated from them, as inevitably happens, we are filled with sorrow.

Due to their radically impermanent nature, even as we seem to be in possession of them, they are incapable of giving us any lasting satisfaction. In fact, a more useful translation of the term dukkha is "unsatisfactoriness." Often, the dukkha in life is not suffering as such but rather an empty or dissatisfied feeling.

So even in the midst of our "happiness" we are dissatisfied. And the hidden danger is that we are vulnerable to greater suffering because of loss, sorrow, lamentation. Suffering comes from attachment and loss of the thing we are attached to. As soon as we lose the object of our attachment, the pain is there waiting to reveal itself.

The Buddha points out that true happiness is to be achieved by taking the opposite approach: eliminating desires, in other words, undoing craving and our desperate neediness, which gets us into all kinds of trouble.

Just as soon as craving is undone, the mind is satisfied, content, and happy no matter what our external situation, whether we have the object or not.

The Buddha teaches that this principle can be carried through all the way to the total uprooting of craving, the utter and permanent cessation of all suffering -- nirvana. This cessation of craving, this end of dukkha, is visible here and now.

Philosophical Dimension
But the end of all kinds of suffering has a more wide ranging meaning than this. Craving drives us on over and over in Samsara, the "wheel of repeated births and deaths." When craving is eliminated, our actions no longer build up karma. Thus, the wheel is brought to a halt. This is the state of final deliverance, nirvana, the aim of the Buddha's teaching.

What is nirvana?
The state of final deliverance from all suffering is called nirvana (Pali, nibbana). Nirvana literally means the extinguishing of a flame in Sanskrit. The word as used by the Buddha means the extinguishing of the flame of craving. Another way to understand it is as the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion -- the roots of karma that lead to suffering now and in the future.

While many Buddhists aspire to a better human rebirth or to rebirth in the many heavens, nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha explains that "Just as the water of a river plunges into the ocean and merges with the ocean, so the spiritual path, the Noble Eightfold Path, plunges into nirvana and merges with nirvana.

Nirvana is an Existing Reality
Regarding the nature of nirvana, the question is often asked, Does nirvana merely signify the end of suffering? That is, is it only the extinction of mental defilements and liberation from Samsara, or does it signify some reality existing in itself?

Nirvana is more than just the destruction of defilements and the end of Samsara. It is a reality transcending the entire world of mundane experience, a reality that transcends all realms of phenomenal existence.

How can we know this? The Buddha refers to nirvana as a dharma [Pali, dhamma, an independently existing reality, not capitalized to distinguish it from the Buddha's Dharma, doctrine, or teaching]. For example, he says "of all dharmas, conditioned or unconditioned, the most excellent dharma, the supreme dharma is, nirvana."

Nirvana is a dharma
As a Buddhist technical term, dharma signifies actual realities, the existing realities as opposed to conceptual things. There are two types of dharmas, conditioned and unconditioned.

A "conditioned" dharma is an actuality that has come into being through causes and supporting conditions. It is a "thing" that arises through the workings of various conditions, supports, components. The conditioned dharmas are the Five Aggregates:

  1. material form
  2. sensation
  3. perception
  4. mental formations (or volitions)
  5. consciousness
Conditioned dharmas do not remain static. They go through a ceaseless process of becoming. They arise, undergo transformation, and fall away due to this conditionality.

However, the unconditioned dharma is not produced by causes and conditions. It has the opposite characteristics from the conditioned: It has no arising, no falling away, and undergoes no transformation. Nevertheless, it is an actuality. The Buddha refers to nirvana as an unconditioned dharma.

Nirvana is a Sphere
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as an ayatana. This means base, realm, plane, or sphere. But it is a sphere where there is not anything at all that corresponds to our mundane experience. It therefore is often described by way of negations. (See the story of the turtle and the fish). That does not make it "nothingness." But this is exactly how many well meaning and sincere people interpret what cannot be conceived of in familiar and tangible terms.

The negating of all limited, determinate qualities makes it easy to assume that the Buddha meant the unconditioned was nothing. It is unfortunate that many succumb to this assumption. For the Buddha went to great pains to set nirvana apart from "nothingness." (The Sphere of Nothingness is an ayatana that can be seen by attaining the seventh jhana; it is not nirvana at all).

Nirvana is an Element
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as a dhatu or element. It is the "deathless element" (amata-dhatu). He compares the element of nirvana to an ocean: Just as the great ocean remains at the same level no matter how much water pours into it, without increasing or decreasing, so the nirvana element remains the same, no matter how many or how few people attain nirvana.

The Buddha also speaks of nirvana as something that can be experienced by the body, an experience so vivid and powerful that it can be described as "touching the deathless element with one's own body."

Nirvana is a State
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as a "state" (pada). He calls it amata-pada, the "deathless state" and accuta-pada, the imperishable state.

Another word used by the Buddha to refer to nirvana is sacca, which means "truth," an existing reality. Nirvana as truth means it is a reality that the Noble Ones (who have entered upon the stages of enlightenment beginning with stream entry) have directly experienced.

All of these terms taken together clearly establish that nirvana is an actual reality. It is not merely the destruction of mental defilements, the end of suffering, or the cessation of illusory existence in Samsara. Nirvana is unconditioned, without origination, unaffected by time.

But isn't nirvana conditioned by the Path?
Now a trick question may be asked: "If nirvana is attained by the practice of the Path, doesn't this make it something conditioned, something produced by the Path? In other words, Doesn't nirvana become an effect of a cause (literally, the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path)?

Here we have to distinguish between nirvana itself and the attainment of nirvana. By practicing the Path one does not "bring nirvana into existence." Rather, one discovers something already existing, something that was always present.

It is just as if one wished to go to San Francisco. Whether or not one makes the effort, whether or not one ever arrives there, San Francisco continues to exist. Its existence does not depend on anyone's arrival. But for San Francisco to be a real experience for anyone, that person would have to set off in the right direction, strive to get there, then actually arrive. Arriving will not cause San Francisco. But it will make real what up until then is merely an aspiration.

Is nirvana annihilation?
As a precaution, it must be repeated that nirvana can not be understood through words or examples, expressions or study. Nirvana can only be understood by realization. However, in order to convey some idea of the goal to which the Buddha's teaching points, he resorts to words and expressions. He uses both negative expressions and positive ones:

The Buddha speaks of nirvana primarily by way of terms negating dukkha: It is the cessation of suffering, the cessation of old age, sickness, and death. In positive terms, nirvana is the unafflicted, the unoppressed, the sorrowless state, and so on.

It is described as the negation of the defilements (mental factors that keep us in bondage). In this regard nirvana is described as the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion. It is also called the removal of "thirst" (tanha, a metaphor for intense craving), dispassion (viraga), the crushing of pride, the uprooting of conceit, the extinction of vanity.

To get a balanced idea of nirvana, both types of expressions have to be considered. Otherwise, we may come away with a distorted view, a mere conceptual understanding of nirvana. Holding to views and concepts leads to debate and strife, in other words, away from nirvana. While complete silence on the subject would be much safer, with silence comes a risk: People would have no idea that there literally exists a way to end to all suffering attainable here and now.

Death is not the end of suffering. Samsara continues life after life, death after death, in a self-perpetuating wheel that is incapable of coming to an end on its own. The idea that death is the end of suffering is the annihilationist view. The idea that a permanent self continues endlessly through Samsara experiencing all this is the eternalist view. Paradoxically, both are mistaken. And suffering continues.

The reason behind the Buddha's predominantly negative terminology is to show that nirvana is utterly transcendental. It is beyond all conditioned things. However, to show that nirvana is desirable -- a farther shore, by way of analogy, that is safe when clearly the shore we are on now is terribly unsafe -- positive terminology is also used. Nirvana is the end of all suffering attained by eliminating all defilements.

The use of negative terminology can be misunderstood to mean that nirvana is annihilation, a negative attainment. Therefore, to correct this one-sided view, the Buddha frequently describes nirvana in positive terms. People holding wrong views ignore such statements to their detriment. The Buddha refers to nirvana as the supreme happiness, perfect bliss, peace, serenity, liberation, freedom.

He calls nirvana "the island" upon which beings can land, free from all suffering. For those beings inundated and helplessly swept away towards the ocean of old age and death, nirvana is a place of safety and security. Metaphorically, Samsara is that ocean, that flood sweeping beings away.

Nirvana is also described as a "cave," a refuge that gives safety from the dangers of birth and death. Nirvana is called the "cool state" -- coolness resulting from the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.

Two Elements of Nirvana
There is another point of confusion for those caught in a thicket of views debating rather than experiencing. The attainment of nirvana comes in two stages, referred to as the two elements of nirvana. One is with residue remaining, the other without residue remaining.

The element of nirvana with residue remaining is the state of nirvana attained by an arhat (an enlightened or "liberated one," in Pali, arahant) in this very life. It refers to the extinction of greed, hatred, ignorance, and all other mental defilements. The "residue" that remains of the arhat is the Five Aggregates that constitute one's present life individuality; it is the psycho-physical organism produced from the past life. Upon the attainment of nirvana, one's body and mind continue until the end of the life span.

The second stage of the attainment of nirvana is called the nirvana element without residue remaining. This is the element of nirvana attained by an arhat when passing away -- with the breakup of his body or what we conventionally call "death."

It is certainly not death, because always implies rebirth. The "passing" of an arahant is the final and complete transition out of conditioned existence. It does not lead to a new birth. In the arhat's experience, the enlightened person sees only the cessation of a process, not the death of an individual or "self."

The experience for the arhat is without subjective significance, without reference to "me" or "mine." At this stage the residue of the Five Aggregates comes to an end. With the first element one still experiences pain but no mental suffering. With the second element, one experiences only nirvana. Physical pain, mental suffering, and dukkha of all kinds completely ceases.

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