Saturday, January 8, 2011

Defining Nirvana

WebSangha (updated for Wisdom Quarterly)
It seems the reason why nirvana never gets defined by people who see it is that when asked about it, they start to re-experience it, which they can do many times in a lifetime. And the experience of it is so intense -- utterly peaceful and still, beyond blissful, beyond words and mental chatter -- that they neither conceptualize it nor think to. Anyone who has experienced it is enlightened to some degree by the experience. Nirvana is experienced with the entire body (kalapas) and mind (cittas). Find someone, ask, pry, and see that this is the case. Conceptual definitions mislead.

The Inspired Utterances (Udana) consist of a number of discourses on nirvana -- the "end of suffering." The most famous of these texts is Udana 80:

"Meditators, there is an unborn, unmade, unbecome (un-brought-to-being), unconditioned (uncompounded). Meditators, if there were no unborn, unmade, unbecome, unconditioned, there would be no escape from what is born, made, become (brought-into-being), conditioned. But since there is, therefore an escape exists.'

In What the Buddha Taught (p. 40), Ven. Rahula states: Nirvana is. In the exclusively Buddhist language Pali, the first line reads: "Atthi [There is] ajaatam [unborn], abhuutam [unproduced], akatam [unmade], asankhatam [unconditioned]."

Translations fail to get across that the four un-words are adjectives in Pali. The noun is unstated. There is what? What is it that is unborn and so on?

As mysterious as Ud. 80 may sounds, its context clarifies what the text is about. The sutra opens:

"Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Savatthi at Jeta's Grove in Anathapindika's monastery. On that occasion the Buddha was instructing, rousing, inspiring, and gladdening the monastics with a Dharma talk connected with nirvana. They, being receptive and attentive and concentrating their whole mind, were intent on listening to the Dharma. Then, on realizing its significance, the Buddha uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance: 'Meditators, there is an unborn..."

The subject is nirvana. There is what? Nirvana. The four adjectives modify and describe nirvana. What we find in Pali language sutras is that in these forms or variations are used to describe or characterize nirvana or act as synonyms of nirvana.

One of the most straightforward definitions the Buddha gives is: "Nirvana is the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion" (SN IV 251, IV 321) and "Asankhata [that which is unconditioned] is the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion" (SN IV 359, SN 362). Nirvana and asankhata are equivalent terms.

As synonyms, nirvana is “unconditioned” because it is not composed (sankhata) of or dependent on supporting conditions. Whereas all phenomena are composites (even single elements), nirvana is unconditioned. It is not a composite. It is not a "thing."

The prefix "a-" in asankhata functions just like the English (Latin/Greek) prefix a in, for example, atypical, un-typical/not-typical. (In front of a vowel, just as in English, the Pali/Sanskrit prefix a becomes an as in anatta/anatman, "not-self"). More>>

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