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Nirvana Is Neither Immortality Nor Nothingness

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the taintless and the path leading to the taintless.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the truth and the path leading to the truth.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the far shore and the path leading to the far shore.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the subtle and the path leading to the subtle.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the very difficult to see and the path leading to the very difficult to see.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unaging and the path leading to the unaging.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the stable and the path leading to the stable.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the undisintegrating and the path leading to the undisintegrating.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unmanifest and the path leading to the unmanifest.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unproliferated and the path leading to the unproliferated.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the peaceful and the path leading to the peaceful.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the deathless and the path leading to the deathless.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the sublime and the path leading to the sublime.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the auspicious and the path leading to the auspicious.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the secure and the path leading to the secure.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the destruction of craving and the path leading to the destruction of craving.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the wonderful and the path leading to the wonderful.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the amazing and the path leading to the amazing.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unailing and the path leading to the unailing.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unailing state and the path leading to the unailing state.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the extinction and the path leading to the extinction.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unafflicted and the path leading to the unafflicted.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the dispassion and the path leading to the dispassion.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the purity and the path leading to the purity.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the freedom and the path leading to the freedom.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unadhesive and the path leading to the unadhesive.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the island and the path leading to the island.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the shelter and the path leading to the shelter.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the asylum and the path leading to the asylum.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the refuge and the path leading to the refuge.

SN 43.14

Nirvana is one of the many teachings of the Buddha that has often been inaccurately described in either eternalist or annihilationist terms. Any serious inquiry into Buddhism will reveal that the Buddha did not describe Nirvana as eternal bliss or immortality, presuming a self that once existed and continues to exist. Likewise, the Buddha never described Nirvana as obliteration into nothingness, presuming a self that once existed but ceases to exist. The Sanskrit term निर्वाण nirvāṇa, its Pali equivalent being निब्बान nibbāna, means to extinguish, like a fire, or literally “to cool.”

“What fire?” one may ask. Desire is the flame. The path taught by the Buddha, dhamma-vinaya, is the path of truth-discipline, culminating in wisdom-renunciation, extinction of fire.

Once this flame is extinguished, a being does not become immortal and transmigrate to another realm to spend an eternity, nor does a being disintegrate and disappear into nothingness or the fabled “void,” a mistaken reification of sunyata never taught by the Buddha. In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha describes Nirvana as the exhaustion of sustenance, like a fire no longer fed by grass and timber. Nirvana is the end of suffering, and suffering’s fuel is desire or craving – tanha.

Taṇhā (literally thirst) is the sustenance for the firey rounds of Samsara. Thirst is characterized by heat, dryness, burning. Nirvana is the blowing out, the dousing of this flame – the removal of thirst not through temporary means (a drink of water to quench one’s thirst, only to have it return), but for good.

What happens to the flame? “It is classified simply as out, unbound,” the Buddha says (MN 72).

The Buddha makes clear that speaking of the enlightened person as if s/he reappears, disappears, both, or neither do not apply. To speak of existence or non-existence would invite obvious contradictions. Why concern oneself with metaphysical absurdities? The Buddha merely says the root is uprooted, the flame is blown out: the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, all of which play a role in craving, which conditions becoming, are cooled. Through Nirvana (blowing out, cooling), one leaves the fuel of craving (desire) behind, and thus extinguishes suffering for good.

The Buddha explains in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: “And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).” (MN 72)

In the Jambhukhadaka-Samyutta, it is explained: “Extinction of greed, extinction of hatred, extinction of delusion; this is called Nibbana” (SN 38:1). These flames no longer have craving as their fuel, and they therefore burn out. One can think of Nirvana as a fire that becomes cool.

In early Buddhism, nibbana was conceived of as the elimination of craving (tanhakkhaya) and thus had no transempirical content, meaning it is not above and beyond experience. It is not some sort of heaven, paradise, or other realm, as popularly believed.

Nirvana is often described as the uncompounded, the unconditioned.

In the Asankhata-Samyutta, the Buddha says “Monks, what is the uncompounded? Monks, that destruction of greed, hate and delusion is called the uncompounded.” (SN 43)

A distinction is sometimes made between nibbana and parinibbana. Also between “with effluents” and “without effluents.”

“And what is the Unbinding property with fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose fermentations have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, ended the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. His five sense faculties still remain and, owing to their being intact, he is cognizant of the agreeable & the disagreeable, and is sensitive to pleasure & pain. His ending of passion, aversion, & delusion is termed the Unbinding property with fuel remaining.

“And what is the Unbinding property with no fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose fermentations have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, ended the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. For him, all that is sensed, being unrelished, will grow cold right here. This is termed the Unbinding property with no fuel remaining.” (Iti 44)

Nirvana/nibbana is the exhaustion of craving and thus the extinguishing of suffering in this very lifetime, with effluents (subtle forms of fuel) and aggregates (the things that constitute a conventional self) remaining.

Parinirvana/parinibbana is the same but without the effluents or aggregates remaining, since upon death, there is the passing away of form, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.

In the Yamaka Sutta, Ven. Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, clarifies the matter to Ven. Yamaka:

“And so, my friend Yamaka — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘As I understand the Teaching explained by the Blessed One, a monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, & does not exist after death’?”

“Previously, my friend Sariputta, I did foolishly hold that evil supposition. But now, having heard your explanation of the Dhamma, I have abandoned that evil supposition, and have broken through to the Dhamma.”

“Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?”

“Thus asked, I would answer, ‘Form is inconstant… Feeling… Perception… Fabrications… Consciousness is inconstant. That which is inconstant is stressful. That which is stressful has ceased and gone to its end.”

Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85)

Nirvana is the cessation of suffering “with remainder/residue” in the form of the physical body, sensations, the capacity for recognition, emotion tinged thoughts, and cognitive faculties, or in other words, the five aggregates.

Parinirvana is the cessation of suffering “without remainder/residue,” because these pass away at death. “That which is stressful has ceased and gone to its end.”

Although nirvana seems to entail the blowing out of the flame, the Buddha emphatically condemned nihilism and annihilationism. Nirvana lies beyond all thought, which is why it is so difficult to imagine in anything other than nihilistic/annihilationist terms.

In a series of the Buddha’s teachings collectively referred to as the Nibbana Sutta found in the Udana, the Buddha conveys Nirvana thus:

“There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support (mental object). This, just this, is the end of stress.” (Ud 8.1)

“There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.” (Ud 8.3)

“One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no desire. There being no desire, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of stress.” (Ud 8.4)

Nirvana has often been described as the “remainder-less cessation of everything,” which conjures nihilistic/annihilationist imagery. Yet in this context, “cessation of everything” does not imply apocalyptic ends, but instead refers to the remainder-less cessation of the five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental impulses/fabrications/the thinking faculty, and consciousness, as can be deduced from the Sabba Sutta: The All. To identify the Buddha with any of the five aggregates would be a faulty basis for claiming his eternality or annihilation. These five aggregates cease and the “flame” is out, unbound, without eternally abiding (it is remainder-less, after all) yet without annihilating.

This is further founded in the Anuradha Sutta, when the Buddha says “tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, rupam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti? … Vedanam… sannam… sankhare… vinnanam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” which translates as “What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard form as the Tathagata (Buddha)? … feeling… perception… mental properties… consciousness as the Tathagata (Buddha)?” All questions are met with “no,” as the Buddha did not teach any such thing, any way to identify the self as an absolute.

Any reading of the preserved discourses demonstrates the Buddha maintained that none of the aggregates should be identified as self. Instead, he asserted, they are all without self, empty of self, without self nature. Why search for a self that cannot be found?

In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha says “rupam, bhikkhave, anatta… vedana anatta… sanna anatta… vinnanam anatta…” which means “form, bhikkhus (monks), is not self… feeling is not self… perception is not self… mental properties are not self… consciousness is not self…”

“Tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, rupam… vedana… sanna… sankhara… vinnanam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” (What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?)

“Tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, ayam so arupi… avedano… asanni.. asankharo… avinnano tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” (What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?)

All such inquiries are met with “No hetam, bhante.” (No, venerable sir.)

Before concluding with the statement that his teachings all come back to the origins of suffering and its cessation, the Buddha remarks, “Ettha ca te, Anuradha, dittheva dhamme saccato thetato tathagate anupalabbhiyamane kallam nu te tam veyyakaranam— ‘yo so, avuso, tathagato uttamapuriso paramapuriso paramapattipatto tam tathagato annatra imehi catuhi thanehi pannapayamano pannapeti— hoti tathagato param maranati va… na hoti.. hoti ca na ca hoti… neva hoti na na hoti tathagato param maranati va ti?” which translates to “And so, Anuradha — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death’ (SN 26.86).

So what is Nirvana?

The Buddha gives 30 metaphors for nirvana/nibbana, an otherwise inconceivable (non-)state: the taintless, the truth, the far shore, the subtle, the very difficult to see, the unaging, the stable, the undisintegrating, the unmanifest, unproliferated, peaceful, deathless, sublime, auspicious, secure, the destruction of craving, wonderful, amazing, unailing, the unailing state, unbinding, unafficted, dispassion, purity, freedom, unadhesive, island, shelter, asylum and refuge. (SN 43)

asankhata/the unconditioned,
antam/the end,
anasavam/without cankers,
saccam/the truth,
param/the ultimate,
nipunam/the subtle,
sududdasam/the very hard to see,
ajaram/the no-decay,
dhuvam/the stable,
apalokitam/the taken leave of,
anidassanam/the non-indicative,
nippapam/the without impediment,
santam/the peace,
amatam/the deathless,
panitam/the excellent,
sivam/the auspicious
khemam/the security,
tanhakkhaya/the destruction of craving,
acchariyam/the wonderful,
abbhutam/the astonishing,
anitikam/the freedom from harm,
anitikadhammam/the state of freedom from harm,
nibbanam/extinction,
avyapajjho/the harmless,
virago/non-attachment,
suddhim/purity,
mutti/the release,
analayo/the done away with,
dipam/the island,
lena/the cave,
tanam/the shelter,
saranam/the refuge,
and parayanam/the ultimate goal.

Thus is Nirvana.

Nirvana is Thus.

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