Bhikkhu Bodhi on Nibbāna

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your message. Rather than respond to each point in the discussion, I prepared a “Note on Nibbana” which explains, in brief, my understanding of nibbana according to the Nikayas and the commentaries (which I take to be consistent with each other on this point). I attach it here.

With metta,
Bhikkhu Bodhi

Note on Nibbāna (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

I understand nibbāna to be, in its own nature, an unconditioned reality. This is certainly the position of the mainstream Theravāda tradition as represented by the Abhidhamma, the aṭṭhakathā, and the ṭīkās. I think it is also the position that best conforms with the Nikāyas. The suttas speak of nibbāna as a dhamma, dhātu, āyatana, and pada—all terms that entail some kind of existence. As such, this element is apprehended by the noble ones in a specific type of experience, which in the Abhidhamma is identified as the magga and phala cittas.

I take as testimony from the Nikāyas two familiar suttas from the Udāna chapter 8. One is Udāna 8.1, which says, “There is that base (āyatana) where there is no earth, water, fire, and air, etc…” The other is 8.3, which says “There is an unborn, unmade, unbecome, unconditioned … without which there could be no escape from what is born, made, come to be and conditioned.” I know that some interpreters take “unconditioned” to mean merely the absence of conditioned phenomena, but grammatically this negation points to a subject that it qualifies, something that is not conditioned. Similarly, these interpreters take ajāta and amata to mean simply “the absence of birth” and “the absence of death,” But again, grammatically, the terms signify something that has not been born and that does not die.

Based on this, I understand the nibbāna element without residue to be, not just the ceasing of the five aggregates, but the attainment of that unconditioned state, which had already been realized by the arahant while alive. As for my statement in the Wisdom interview that, with the passing away of the arahants, consciousness becomes “nirvanized,” I meant by this that consciousness “goes out,” the literal meaning of the verbs nibbāti or nibbāyati, not that consciousness continues in nibbāna or that consciousness literally becomes nibbāna.

However, I don’t agree with those who understand the nibbāna attained with the passing of the arahant to be complete and absolute nonexistence, a position that would correspond to the stance that a materialist takes about the post-mortem fate of all beings. To my knowledge, the only school of early Buddhism which held that the nibbāna attained with the passing of an arahant is total and unqualified extinction was the Sautrantikas, and their position was contested by the Pali commentators. Ven. Nyanaponika summarized the arguments in his tract, “Anattā and Nibbāna.”

In my view, what remains with the nirvānizing of consciousness—with the going out of consciousness—is the unconditioned, world-transcendent nibbana element, which is described elsewhere as everlasting (dhuva), not-disintegrating (apalokita), imperishable (accuta), transcendent (accanta), immeasurable (appameyya), and even in somewhat later canonical texts (see below) as sassata, “eternal.”

The passages that speak of the goal as the extinction of craving, the cessation of dependent origination, the abandoning of the five aggregates, the cessation of becoming, etc., may be more numerous than those that hold up the goal as “the unborn … unconditioned,” but the two modes of description have to be taken in balance, and I regard the texts that point to the goal as the unconditioned to be the more authoritative.

Apart from the familiar suttas from the Udāna, there are several other suttas which, in my opinion, show that nibbāna is an actual entity and, as such, a direct object of cognition and realization. One is MN 64, the Mahāmalunkya Sutta (with a part-parallel at AN 9:36). Here is the essential passage:

"When it is said: ‘the destruction of the taints [occurs] in dependence on the first jhāna,’ for what reason is this said? Here, … a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna. He considers whatever is present there pertaining to form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness as impermanent, suffering, an illness, a boil, a dart, misery, affliction, alien, disintegrating, empty, and non-self. He turns his mind away from those dhammas and directs it to the deathless element (so tehi dhammehi cittaṃ paṭivāpetvā amatāya dhātuyā cittaṃ upasaṃharati ) thus: ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna’. If he is firm in this, he attains the destruction of the taints. But if he does not attain the destruction of the taints because of his passion for the Dhamma, his delight in the Dhamma, then, with the utter destruction of the five lower fetters, he becomes one of spontaneous birth, due to attain nibbāna there without ever returning from that world.”

The Majjhima Aṭṭhakathā explains:

“He directs [his mind]: He directs the mind of insight to the deathless element, the unconditioned, by way of hearing, by way of praise, by way of learning, by way of concepts, thus: ‘This nibbāna is peaceful.’ The mind of the path does not say, ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime,’ but one directs the mind to it, penetrating it by making nibbāna the object.”

Upasaṃharatī ti vipassanācittaṃ tāva savanavasena thutivasena pariyattivasena paññattivasena ca etaṃ santaṃ nibbānanti evaṃ asaṅkhatāya amatāya dhātuyā upasaṃharati. Maggacittaṃ nibbānaṃ ārammaṇakaraṇavaseneva etaṃ santametaṃ paṇītanti na evaṃ vadati, iminā pana ākārena taṃ paṭivijjhanto tattha cittaṃ upasaṃharatīti attho.

Another passage occurs in a number of suttas in the Anguttara Nikāya, Tens and Elevens. Ven. Ānanda comes to the Buddha and asks whether there can be a type of samādhi in which the monk is not percipient of any worldly phenomena, and yet he is still percipient (so it is not saññāvedayita-nirodha). Here is the version at AN 11:7:

“Here, Ānanda, a bhikkhu is percipient thus: ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.’ It is in this way, Ānanda, that a bhikkhu could obtain such a state of concentration that he would not be percipient of earth in relation to earth … he would not be percipient of anything seen, heard, sensed, cognized, reached, sought after, and examined by the mind, but he would still be percipient.”

As I read this text, the meditator is not merely reflecting deeply on nibbāna but is directly perceiving it in a state of meditative absorption. This must be an ariyan’s meditative experience of nibbāna, and I don’t see how this passage would make sense if nibbāna was just total absence of defilements and aggregates and not a real element existent in its own right.

Still another text is a verse in Itivuttaka 51 (Threes, no. 2):

The Taintless One touched with his body
the deathless element, the state without acquisitions.
The Perfectly Enlightened One taught
the sorrowless and dust free state.

Kāyena amataṃ dhātuṃ, phusayitvā nirūpadhiṃ;

Upadhippaṭinissaggaṃ, sacchikatvā anāsavo;

Deseti sammāsambuddho, asokaṃ virajaṃ padan ti.

Here, the amata dhātu is clearly nibbāna. In my understanding the verse is saying that the Taintless One (here the Buddha) has personal experience of nibbāna, an experience so vivid that it is described as “touching it with the body.” This is an almost tactile experience of the deathless element, the state without upadhis (probably the upadhi of the aggregates). If nibbāna were just an absence (of the defilements, of the five aggregates), I don’t see how it could be experienced so viscerally.

The verses of the former courtesan Sirimā, from the Vimānavatthu, provide another illuminating statement about nibbāna. Though this collection is a bit later than the oldest portions of the Nikāyas, it is still worth looking at:

V 143 : The Buddha, the bull among sages, the leader, taught me about the origin (craving), suffering, and impermanence; and he also taught the unconditioned, the cessation of suffering, the eternal (sassataṃ), as well as the straight and peaceful path.

V 144 : Having heard the Buddha’s message, the deathless state, the unconditioned, I became well restrained by the precepts and was established in the Dhamma.

V 145 : Having known the unconditioned, the dust-free state taught by the Buddha, I reached serenity and samādhi in that (tatth’eva). I am fixed in destiny (i.e., bound to reach final liberation).

V 146 : Having gained the excellent boon of the deathless, being certain in the excellent breakthrough (that is, having reached stream-entry), I am without doubt and revered by many people. I now enjoy delight and pleasure (in heaven).

V 147 : I am now a devatā who is a seer of the deathless, a disciple of the Tathāgata, a seer of the Dhamma, one established in the first fruit, a stream-enterer no longer subject to the lower realms.

  1. ‘‘Buddho ca me isinisabho vināyako, adesayī samudayadukkhaniccataṃ;

Asaṅkhataṃ dukkhanirodhasassataṃ, maggañcimaṃ akuṭilamañjasaṃ sivaṃ.

144 . ‘‘Sutvānahaṃ amatapadaṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tathāgatassanadhivarassa sāsanaṃ;

Sīlesvahaṃ paramasusaṃvutā ahuṃ, dhamme ṭhitā naravarabuddhadesite.

145 . ‘‘Ñatvānahaṃ virajapadaṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tathāgatenanadhivarena desitaṃ;

Tatthevahaṃ samathasamādhimāphusiṃ, sāyeva me paramaniyāmatā ahu.

146 . ‘‘Laddhānahaṃ amatavaraṃ visesanaṃ, ekaṃsikā abhisamaye visesiya;

Asaṃsayā bahujanapūjitā ahaṃ, khiḍḍāratiṃ paccanubhomanappakaṃ.

147 . ‘‘Evaṃ ahaṃ amatadasamhi devatā, tathāgatassanadhivarassa sāvikā;

Dhammaddasā paṭhamaphale patiṭṭhitā, sotāpannā na ca pana matthi duggati.

I don’t know of any other text in the Nikāyas that refers to nibbāna as sassata, “eternal,” but I don’t see any reason to reject this description. The eternalist view (sassatavāda) rejected in the Nikāyas is the view that the self and the world are eternal, or the view that some component of the five aggregates is an eternal self. But nibbāna is the world-transcendent state and thus calling it eternal does not mean a fall into the type of eternalist view condemned in the Nikāyas. Certainly, this text makes it clear that the sotāpanna sees the deathless element, nibbāna. Here, Sirimā says she has known the dust-free state, the unconditioned (Ñatvānahaṃ virajapadaṃ asaṅkhataṃ). Such expressions would be incomprehensible if nibbāna were merely the extinction of defilements and cessation of the five aggregates. And bear in mind that she has known this as a stream-enterer, not an arahant who has reached the nibbāna with residue remaining.

On Ven. Thanissaro’s interpretation of nibbāna, I agree with him in holding nibbāna to be a transcendent dimension or reality, but I disagree with his view that this reality can be characterized as a type of consciousness. His arguments rest on obscure verses and metaphors, to which he ascribes meanings that are not necessarily entailed by the texts themselves. In contrast, there are many simple, straightforward prose passages in the Nikāyas that speak of the attainment of final nibbāna as the complete cessation of consciousness. I do not know of any texts that qualify such assertions or distinguish between two types of consciousness—phenomenal and transcendental, conditioned and unconditioned. Rather, they assert unequivocally that consciousness arises in dependence on conditions; that it is impermanent, dukkha, and subject to change. And they say that with the attainment of final nibbāna, consciousness ceases without remainder.

As for the condition of one who has attained the nibbāna element without residue, the Suttanipāta tells us that this is indescribable:

“There is no measure of one who has gone out,
(Upasīva,” said the Blessed One).

“There is no means by which they might speak of him.

When all [conditioned] dhammas have been uprooted,

all pathways of speech are also uprooted.”

reply from B. Bodhi.