Nirvana, or nibbana, is the ultimate goal of original Buddhism and its modern representative, Theravadin Buddhism. Nibbana means “extinguished,” and attaining it means you have extinguished the “outflows” of sensuality, ignorance, and the desire for further existence. Someone who attains nibbana experiences ineffable peace and freedom, and a permanent state of human perfection. Achieving nibbana, however, is supremely difficult and usually takes many lifetimes. This episode familiarizes you the teachings about nibbana, discusses some of the implications for Buddhist practice, and points out how views of nibbana are one of the fundamental differences between Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism.
Quicklinks to Content:
Relationship to the Cosmology of Transmigration
What Does It Mean to Attain Nibbana?
Don’t Knock Nibbana ‘Til You’ve Tried It?
Nibbana as Freedom
The Dualism Inherent in the Teaching of Nibbana
This episode is another in my “Buddha’s Teachings” series, and it’s on nirvana, the ultimate goal of original Buddhism and its modern representative, Theravadin Buddhism. As the website Access to Insight puts it, in its “Self-guided Tour of the Buddha’s Teachings” called “A Path to Freedom:”
Note: I use the term “nirvana” in the title of this episode because it’s the form of the word most people are familiar with, but for the rest of the episode I’ll use “nibbana,” the Pali form of the word used in the canonical texts and in Theravadin Buddhism.
Despite the obvious centrality of Nibbana to the Buddha’s teachings, I highly doubt you’ve been anxiously awaiting my episode on it so you can get to work on achieving it. Maybe you love philosophical discussions of religious concepts, but from the standpoint of everyday practice, the goal of nibbana is… shall we say… not the driving factor for most people. At the very least, even if you aspire to nibbana, you probably have a sense you’re a long, long way from achieving it and don’t really have to worry about the details of it at this point.
Still, the goal of nibbana is central to the Buddha’s teachings, and is mentioned in most of the Pali Canon suttas, or discourses of the Buddha or his direct disciples. At the very least we should be familiar with the concept, and appreciate the implications for Buddhist practice. In addition, this discussion will end up pointing out one of the fundamental differences between Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism, which sets us up perfectly for talking about the arising of Mahayana in an upcoming Buddhist History episode.
Relationship to the Cosmology of Transmigration
I think it’s important to appreciate the teaching of nibbana in the context of the cosmology of transmigration, which predates and isn’t limited to Buddhism. This is a view which arose in India a century or two before the Buddha. It holds that, after death, each of us is reborn in another body. This process is called rebirth or reincarnation, and the perception was that this cyclic process – being born, living out a life with shifting fortunes, inevitably experiencing sickness, loss, aging, and death – repeated over and over, infinitely many times. According to this view, you’ve already lived countless times, and will live countless more times. Each time, you’ll be ignorant of what came before. Because of its cyclic quality, this process of rebirth is sometimes called the “wheel of life,” and the world of suffering itself was referred to as “samsara,” literally meaning something like “perpetual wandering.”[ii]
As I discussed at length in Episode 6: Arising of Buddhism Part 2 – New Religious Developments, we’re not sure why the cosmology of transmigration took hold in India around this time, but it formed the background for many new religious movements, including Buddhism. Spiritual thinkers contemplated the process of rebirth and speculated what it was that caused beings to experience fortunate versus unfortunate circumstances in a given lifetime. Was there anything they could do to affect their future lives? If so, what kind of behaviors led to positive outcomes? Some thinkers also saw the whole cycle as a trap: Sure, you might experience joy and happiness at certain times, in certain lifetimes, but you’re doomed to lose everything, over and over. Was there a way to break free from the whole cycle of transmigration? If so, how did you go about it?
Nibbana, in brief, is the Buddhist conception of escaping the cycle of transmigration altogether. In the Pali Canon and in Theravadin Buddhism, nibbana is presented as the end of samsara – the end of perpetual wandering. When the Buddha describes his enlightenment in the Pali Canon, he explains how it began with a vision into countless past lives of countless beings, which allowed him to discern the workings of karma – that is, what accounted for the different conditions beings found themselves in, lifetime and lifetime. He saw the effect craving and aversion had on your actions, and on whether your actions had positive or negative consequences. He then perceived a path of practice leading to the cessation of craving and aversion, and once he fully comprehended all of this, he said:
“My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done…’”[iii]
Notably, nibbana refers to the release from the cycle of perpetuating suffering, in the sense that someone who achieves it is no longer subject to the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, and is no longer generating karma that will cause them to take rebirth in a new body after death. The idea is that it’s our unresolved longing, resentments, and delusions that propel us into a new body after this one dies, so someone who achieves nibbana – an arhat – will not take rebirth now that they’re free of such compulsions. It’s only upon physical death that an arhat experiences parinibbana, or “complete” nibbana – release not only from greed, hate, and delusion, but also from the inevitable discomfort and limitations of being alive and embodied.
What Does It Mean to Attain Nibbana?
In many modern interpretations of Buddhism, we tend to gloss over the full attainment of nibbana, and emphasize how each of us can taste some of the peace and release of it in our daily lives when we just let go of our craving or aversion – as if nibbana is, more or less, a state of mind. However, there’s nothing in the Pali Canon suggesting the original Buddhist teachings presented nibbana as anything less than a state of human perfection.
According to the Pali Canon, nibbana isn’t a momentary experience, it’s a permanent achievement of spiritual adepts after a great deal of hard work – if it looks like someone achieved it relatively easily in this lifetime, it’s just because they’ve done a lot of work in previous lives. You may have heard English translations that say someone “entered” nirvana, but the Buddha was very clear that nibbana is not a place. Instead, it’s a state, or a way of being, attained after the complete cessation of the outflows, or fermentations – something achieved through moral behavior and renunciation as well as through meditation and insight. Given the cessation of the outflows, including any views of self, the arhat also does not take any delight or pride in having attained nibbana, nor does she hold any concepts about it. Thanissaro Bhikkha, in his essay “A Verb for Nirvana,” says there is a word for the act of attaining nibbana: nibbuti, which means to “go out,” like a flame. Nibbana, in the most literal sense, simply means “having gone out,” or having been extinguished, like a flame.[iv]
The Buddha’s disciples were clearly categorized as falling into (or outside of) four levels of attainment with respect to nibbana: 1) Stream-enterer (anagami; it may take you many lifetimes, but you’ll eventually attain nibbana); 2) Once-returner (you’ll attain nibbana in your next life); 3) Non-returner (you will never be reborn in the human realm again, but will take birth in a heaven realm and attain nibbana there), and 4) Arhat (arahant). Naturally, the Buddha’s lay and ordained disciples varied from the beginning in terms of their diligence and ambition in seeking the ultimate goal of nibbana, but it was understood that – given transmigration – any progress you made in this lifetime would contribute to your ability to eventually attain arhatship. In other words, different practitioners didn’t differ in terms of goal, only in terms of how long they expected to take in attaining it.
An arhat – someone who has attained the permanent state of nibbana – is understood to have extinguished the “fermentations” or “outflows,” the causes for the continuation of rebirth and suffering, namely sensuality, ignorance, and “becoming.” The outflow of “becoming” is a little difficult to grasp, but it seems to point toward our appetite to continue to exist. So, an arhat is free from any attachment to, or craving for, worldly pleasures of any kind, including things like comfort, safety, or a good reputation. Being free from the outflows, an arhat is considered incapable of killing, stealing, engaging in sex, lying, or taking pleasure in sensual things.[v] While still alive, an arhat can feel physical pain, but is not troubled by it.[vi] Even when presented with terrible loss, an arhat does not grieve.[vii]
Nibbana itself is described as pleasant and blissful, but in an extremely refined and subtle sense. In the Nibbana Sutta,[viii] Venerable Sariputta explains to assembled monks how it is nibbana can be pleasant when, by definition, it’s a state in which all sensuality has ended and “there is nothing felt.” In response, Sariputta describes more and more advanced levels of meditative absorption, or jhanas. At first, he says, a monk enjoys “rapture and pleasure” from the meditative absorption itself, and by comparison sensuality feels like an affliction. At higher levels meditative absorption, rapture fades away, then pleasure. In each higher jhana, the main positive feature of the previous level begins to feel, in comparison to the current state, like an affliction. The monk leaves behind less refined states over and over, culminating in nibbana. Logically, then, because the state of nibbana is preferable not just to sensuality but to all the subsequent meditative states, it is pleasant and blissful.[ix]
Although it is negative things such a greed, hate, delusion, and self-view that are “extinguished” in nibbana, there’s an undeniable aspect of the Buddhist goal of nibbana that rejects the world of samsara. In the Assu, or Tears, Sutta, the Buddha says to his monks:
“From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans? …This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time…”[x]
The Buddha goes on to remind the monks:
“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter… loss with regard to relatives… loss with regard to wealth… loss with regard to disease.”[xi]
Given the sad state of samsara, then, original Buddhism recommends we seek the sweet release of nibbana instead, and free ourselves from the cycle of transmigration. As it says in verse 43 of the Itivuttaka Sutta, or The Group of Twos, with the first stanza describing samsara, and the second describing nibbana:
The born, become, produced,
made, fabricated, impermanent,
composed of aging & death,
a nest of illnesses, perishing,
come from nourishment
and the guide [that is craving] —
is unfit for delight.
The escape from that
the sorrowless, stainless state,
the cessation of stressful qualities,
the stilling of fabrications,
Don’t Knock Nibbana ‘Til You’ve Tried It?
For a moment, set aside any thoughts you might be having about how you actually like life quite a bit, despite its downsides, and how blowing yourself out like a candle sounds pretty grim. There are subtleties to the concept of nibbana we should explore with an open mind.
First, there’s a problem with our analogy of nibbana being like a flame having been blown out. In our modern western culture, this makes us think of the lovely, warm flame that no longer exists, which leads us, by extension, to think of the individual life force that gets squelched by nibbana, and then ended entirely by parinibbana when that being physically dies. In more everyday terms, we might imagine nibbana kills someone’s individuality, creativity, and zest for life, making them more or less a zombie until they die, never to be reborn.
However, the arhats presented in the Pali Canon, including the Buddha, were depicted as wise, compassionate people called to spend their lives teaching others the way to liberation. They are adaptable and creative, in the sense that they try to find the best ways to get through to their audiences. Original Buddhism definitely does not portray arhats as zombies, although they no longer have any appetite for the things that us ordinary beings regard as making life worth living: Family; sexual relationships; sensual pleasure from food, music, beauty, exciting experiences, leisure, or art; the love or adoration of others; personal possessions; fame; satisfaction based on mastery, reputation, personal expression, etc.
What’s preferable about nibbana if it means you lose your appetite for everything except helping others attain it? Well, perhaps that best answer to that question is, “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.” In other words, until we have direct, personal experience of what’s good about “higher” or subtler spiritual experiences like profound meditative absorption or states approaching nibbana, we can’t understand we they might be preferable to life as we ordinarily experience it. I’ve heard nibbana described as the cessation of something agitating and uncomfortable such as an itch, or a persistent pain. We can get used to anything, and sometimes it’s only when we experience the end of a painful, distracting, or debilitating condition that we can appreciate how delightful it is to be free of it, and just how compromised our previous state was.
Nibbana as Freedom
The idea of nibbana being a state of freedom is reflected in an alternative interpretation of the “extinguishing a flame” metaphor inherent in the term. Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains, in an essay on nibbana, that the Indian understanding of fire at the time of the Buddha was very different than ours. He says:
“Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to ‘seize’ it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was ‘freed,’ released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment — calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom.”[xiii]
Because of this interpretation of fire, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates “nibbana” as “unbinding;” just as fire is “unbound” from its fuel and, once unbound, can’t be described, so a person who has attained nibbana becomes unbound from greed, hate, and delusion, and all the processes that continue the cycle of suffering. In particular, they are liberated from any self-view, so in their experience there is no one who suffers extinction once the whole process ends with physical death. While us ordinary beings may lament the flame that is no more, in original and Theravadin Buddhism the flame is simply a sign of bondage, and freedom is the ultimate goal.
I can’t talk about nibbana from personal experience, but I do know that we can gain a larger perspective through contemplative spiritual practice that allows us to partake of a calm and expansive, peaceful joy… and that from that larger, or deeper, or subtler, perspective, our ordinary way of operating appears relatively agitated, limited, and deluded. I assume the path to nibbana is simply pursuing more and more refined levels of meditative absorption and spiritual understanding, and leaving behind what seems, in comparison, like affliction or bondage.
The Dualism Inherent in the Teaching of Nibbana
Making nibbana your ultimate goal – whether in this lifetime, or understanding you’ll only achieve it after many lifetimes – is undeniably dualistic. Nibbana is better than samsara, the refined enjoyment of meditative states is better than sensual pleasure, renunciation of worldly affairs is better than staying involved in them, the wholehearted dedication of your life to monasticism is better than trying to practice in the midst of the distractions, temptations, and responsibilities of lay life, etc. The ideal of nibbana involves clear distinctions between actions that lead to progress on path and those that do not, between people fully committed to achieving nibbana and those who aren’t quite ready to renounce worldly pleasure, and those who have achieved this permanently perfected state and those who have not.
My first inclination, when presenting the teaching of nibbana as a Mahayana Buddhist, is to make apologies for it. By that, I mean I want to explain how the teaching is not actually as dualistic as it seems, or emphasize how nibbana may sound lofty but it’s something you can experience in everyday life. However, my inclination toward nonduality just reveals my own preferences and biases, because nibbana and the path to achieve it are every bit as dualistic as they seem, and nibbana is not something you experience in everyday life. From the point of view of a Pali Canon purist or strict Theravadin Buddhist, the Mahayana assertion that “samsara and nirvana are one” is preposterous.
“The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: ‘All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature.’
“The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses… Where I think the teaching of the Buddha, as preserved in the Theravada tradition, surpasses all other attempts to resolve the spiritual dilemmas of humanity is in its persistent refusal to sacrifice actuality for unity.”[xiv]
Isn’t this a fascinating perspective? As passionately wedded as I am to the profound nonduality presented in Mahayana Buddhism, which I think finds the most nondualistic expression of all in Zen, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s comments give me pause. Am I just clinging to the idea of unity or nonduality because I’m not up to the challenge of treading the long, hard road to achieving a permanent state of human perfection? The Zen statement “nirvana is right before your very eyes, you just need to wake up and see it is so” sure sounds a lot easier than trying to wrestle with the forces of greed, hate, and delusion within me until they disappear entirely! Given how much luck I’ve had with that process so far, I probably don’t even qualify as a “stream-enterer” in the strict Theravadin system.
Am I just being lazy in embracing the ideal of nonduality, or does it serve as a justification for holding on to all the stuff I like? Maybe so, but upon initial examination I think my preference for nonduality is because I don’t actually believe a state of permanent human perfection is possible, or, if it is (I’d have to see it to believe it), it’s so incredibly rare as to be irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of spiritual seekers. I also embrace nonduality because, despite how elusive complete and permanent human perfection seems to be, I perceive an incredibly important perfection and freedom that’s accessible to any of us, at any moment – and this perception makes all the difference to our lives. I sincerely wonder what Bhikkhu Bodhi would say in response to my words, it might lead to a very stimulating conversation! I don’t know about you, but I welcome this kind of dialogue between different spiritual traditions – not in order to figure out who’s right, or come to some kind of bland, meaningless middle ground, but in order to challenge and clarify my own understanding.
In closing, I should point out that Buddhist lineages with roots in Theravadin Buddhism, such as the modern Vipassana movements and Insight Meditation lineages, do not necessarily adhere to a strict, dualistic interpretation of the teaching of nibbana. I expect they fall somewhere in between a traditionalist like Bhikkhu Bodhi and the Mahayanists, and try to find ways to make the path of Buddhist practice relevant and accessible to modern lay practitioners.
[iii] “Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html
[iv] “A Verb for Nirvana”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nirvanaverb.html .
[v] “Sutava Sutta: To Sutavan” (AN 9.7), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.007.than.html .
[vi] “Sakalika Sutta: The Stone Sliver” (SN 1.38), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn01/sn01.038.than.html .
[vii] “Upatissa Sutta: About Upatissa (Sariputta)” (SN 21.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 27 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn21/sn21.002.than.html .
[viii] “Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding” (AN 9.34), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.034.than.html .
[x] “Assu Sutta: Tears” (SN 15.3), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn15/sn15.003.than.html .
[xii] “Itivuttaka: The Group of Twos” (Iti 28-49), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.2.028-049.than.html#iti-043.
[xiii] “Nibbana”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nibbana.html .
[xiv] “Dhamma and Non-duality”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html .