Wednesday, August 28, 2019

3: Describing Nirvana (sutra)

Dhr. Seven (trans.), Sayalay Aloka (ed.), Nibbāna Sutta: "Nirvana Discourse, 3" (Ud 8.3), Wisdom Quarterly based on Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ven. Thanissaro, John D. Ireland, Ven. Nyanatiloka translations

Nirvana is the deathless, the peaceful, bliss.
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One (the Buddha) was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta's Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery.

On that occasion the Blessed One was instructing, urging, rousing, and encouraging the meditators with Dharma-talk concerned with nirvana.

The meditators -- receptive, attentive, focusing their undivided attention, and lending ear -- listened to the Dharma.

Then, on realizing the significance of this, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

"There is, meditators, an unborn [Note 1], unbecome, unmade, unoriginated (unfabricated).*

"If there were not such an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, the become, the made, the originated to be discerned.

"But it is precisely because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unoriginated that escape from the born, the become, the made, the originated (the fabricated) is discerned [2].


*VARIOUS TRANSLATIONS: (1) Bhikkhu Bodhi: "[Meditators], there is an unborn, an unoriginated, an uncreated, an unconditioned. If there were not this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unconditioned there would be no escape possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the conditioned. However, since there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unconditioned, therefore, escape is possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the conditioned."

(2) Ven. Nyanatiloka: "Verily, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed, would not be possible" (Ud.VIII.3).

(3) John D. Ireland: "There is, [monastics], a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, [monastics], there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned."

Note 1. Some scholars have argued that the term "unborn" (ajātaṃ) cannot be used to distinguish nirvana [("unbinding") the separation of a phenomenon, such as fire, from its supports, such as fuel] from samsara (endless rebirth), as there are discourses (such as SN 15.3) stating that samsara (the "continued wandering on" through the Wheel of Life and Death) itself has no beginning point, implying that it, too, is unborn.

Thus they argue that in this passage the term ajātaṃ ("unborn"), although a past participle, should be translated as, "without birth."

However, this argument is based on two questionable premises. First, it assumes that nirvana is here being contrasted with samsara, even though the passage simply contrasts it with the dependently-originated (fabricated).

Secondly, even assuming that the phrase "the born, the become" and so on is a reference to samsara/rebirth, the scholars' argument is based on a misreading of SN 15.3.

There, samsara (like a circle) is said to have an "inconceivable" or "undiscoverable" beginning point. This is very different from saying that it is unborn.

If rebirth/samsara were unborn, it would be unoriginated (see AN 3.47), which is obviously not the case. Thus, in translating this term to describe nirvana, Ven. Thanissaro has maintained the straight grammatical reading "unborn."

Note 2. Iti 43 gives this exclamation as the synopsis of a Dharma talk followed by this verse:

The born, become, produced,
made, dependently-originated, impermanent,
fabricated of aging and death --
a nest of illnesses, perishing,
come-into-being [becoming] through nourishment
and the guide [craving] --
is unfit for delight.

The escape from that
is peaceful, permanent,
a sphere beyond conjecture,
unborn, unproduced,
the sorrowless, stainless state,
the cessation of all suffering,
the stilling-of-fabrications, bliss.

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