Friday, April 4, 2014

Nirvana as Living Experience

Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; Prof. Lily de Silva, Nibbana As Living Experience, Buddhist Publication Society (Wheel No. 407/408); news inserts by CC Liu
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Prof. Lily de Silva approaches the age-old question "What is nirvana?" from a fresh angle: “What does the attainment mean in terms of the living experience of one who has reached the ultimate goal?” She discovers in the Pali texts four outstanding attributes of this experience. It is spiritual freedom to be experience here and now. In a second essay she examines the two types of individuals who have realized the ultimate goal, the Buddha and arhat disciples, distinguished by the breadth of knowledge but experiencing the same nirvana and liberation. She is Professor Emeritus of Pali and Buddhism at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and a frequent contributor to scholarly and popular journals as well as the editor of the Pali Text Society's "Long Discourses of the Buddha" (Digha Nikaya).
Nirvana is freedom for those who practice
Nirvana (Pali nibbana) is the culmination of the Buddhist quest for perfection and happiness. 

In order to understand the meaning of this term it is useful to refer to the verse attributed to Kisa Gotami when she saw Prince Siddhartha returning to the palace from the park on the eve of his great renunciation.

She declared: Nibbuta nuna sa mata, nibbuto nuna so pita, Nibbuta nuna sa nari, yassayam Idiso pati [Note 1]. “Happy (contented/peaceful), indeed, is the mother (who has such a son); happy, indeed, is the father (who has such a son); happy, indeed, is the woman who has such a one as her husband.”
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Nibbuta (from nir + v) is often treated as the past participle of the verb nibbayati, and nibbana is the nominal form of that verb.

It means happiness, contentment, and peace. Nibbayati also means to extinguish, to blow out -- metaphorically, as in the blowing out of a lamp [2]. Nirvana is so called because it is the blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion [3].

When these metaphorical fires are blown out, peace is attained. One becomes completely cooled (sitibhuta) [4]. 

It is sometimes conjectured that nirvana is called "cool" because the Buddha preached in a hot and humid country, where cool was appreciated as being much more comfortable. Had he taught in a cold and bitter climate, nirvana might have been described in terms of warmth.

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But it is certain that the term “cool” was chosen to convey a literal psychological reality [5]. Anger makes us hot and restless. We use expressions such as “boiling with anger,” clearly expressing the intensity of aggressive emotion.

When such negative emotions are completely uprooted never to arise again, one's temperament must be described as cool. Nirvana is a state to be attained here and now in this very life [6] not a state to be attained after death.
In terms of living experience, nirvana can be characterized by four special attributes: 
  1. happiness
  2. perfection of virtue
  3. realization
  4. freedom. 
Looking at these one by one, nirvana is described as the highest happiness, the supreme state of bliss [7]. Those who have attained nirvana live in utter bliss, free from hatred and mental illness among those who are hateful and mentally ill [8].  

Sukha in Pali, being the opposite of dukkha (disappointment, suffering, unsatisfactoriness) denotes both happiness and pleasure. In English, happiness denotes more a sense of mental ease and well being, whereas pleasure denotes physical excitement (pleasant agitation, arousal).

The Pali word sukha extends to both these aspects, and it is [2] certain (as shown below) that mental and physical bliss is experienced by one experiencing nirvana. The experience of supersensual yet physical bliss for limited periods is possible even before the attainment of nirvana through the practice of the meditative absorption (jhana, samadhi).

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The "Fruits of Recluseship" discourse (Sama├▒├▒aphala Sutta) describes these physical experiences with the help of eloquent similes [9]. When bath powder and water are kneaded into a neat wet ball, the moisture touches every part of the ball but does not ooze out. Similarly, the body of the adept in the first absorption is suffused and drenched with joy and pleasure born of detachment from sense pleasures (viveka-jam piti-sukham). 

The experience in the second absorption is also elucidated: When a deep pool is filled to the brim with clear cool water fed by underground springs, its waters do not overflow, and no part of the pool remains untouched by the cool. Similarly, joy and pleasure born of concentration in the second absorption pervade the body of the meditator. 
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The simile for the third absorption is that of a lotus born in water, grown up in water, fully submerged in water, drawing nourishment from water, with no part of it remaining untouched by water. In the same way, happiness/pleasure permeates, suffuses, and drenches the entire body of the adept in the third absorption.

These are the experiences of supersensual pleasure even before the attainment of nirvana. On attainment, more refined supersensual pleasure is permanently established. The "Discourse to Chunky" (Canki Sutta) specifically states that when a monastic realizes the ultimate truth, one experiences that truth “with the body” [10].

Regarding the experience of the arhat, the oldest discourses (Sutta Nipata) state that by the undoing of all feelings/sensations [through insight], one lives desireless and at peace [11].
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Once Sariputra, the Buddha's chief male disciple foremost in wisdom (counterpart to the nun Khema), was asked what happiness there can be when there is no feeling/sensation [12]. He explained that the absence of feeling/sensation itself is happiness (contentment/peace/ease) [13].

It is relevant to note here that the Buddha states that he does not speak of happiness only with reference to pleasant feelings/sensations. Wherever there is happiness and pleasure, he recognizes that as happiness and pleasure [14]. More
  • NOTES: (1) J I 60. (2) Nibbanti dhira yathayam padipo: Sn 235. (3) S IV 19. (4) Sn 542, 642. (5) A I 138, III 435. (6) D I 156, 167. 18 (7) Nibbanam paramam sukham: Dh 203. (8) Susukham vata jivama verinesu averino/aturesu anatura: Dh 197-99. (9) D I 74. (10) Kayena c’eva paramasaccam sacchikaroti: M II 173. (11) Vedananam khaya bhikkhu nicchato parinibbuto: Sn 739. (12) Kim pan’ettha n’atthi vedayitan ti: A IV 415. (13) Etad eva khv’ettha sukham yad ettha n’atthi vedayitam. (14) S IV 228.

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