If final Nibbana is the cessation of the Khandas…? A question I've been pondering

Here is a question I’ve been pondering that I would love to hear your answers to. Before I even ask, I realize this is a bit of a controversial topic, and hope that we can have a useful discussion rather than have it turn polemical. My intention is not to create controversy, but simply to better understand Buddhism.

Here are the questions:

  1. If final Nibbana is the cessation of the Khandas, then how is the path to Nibbana not considered craving for non-becoming?

  2. If final Nibbana is some sort of consciousness or element positively experienced after death, then what differentiates the path from craving for becoming?

With Metta

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Hi, Good questions. Here’s my ideas.

First 2, which is easy: It is not a type of consciousness. :laughing:

Then 1, “craving for non-becoming” is a bit of a poor translation. Venerable Sujato translates “craving to end existence”, which is better, but I prefer “craving for annihilation”. Because the word is vibhava, and it is continually found in the statements of the annihilationists, people who thought a self/soul gets destroyed at death. Some even craved for this, thinking it to be a good thing.

For example in Iti49: "Some, becoming horrified, repelled, and disgusted with existence, delight in annihilation (vibhava): ‘When this self is annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death: that is peaceful, that is sublime, that is reality.’ "

So to answer the question, the craving for vibhava is based on a sense of self. But the path is about abandoning the sense of self. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I definitely agree with this part.

So what differentiates this from the Buddhist Nibbana? is it simply the fact that a self is denied? It seems whether a self is denied or not, the path itself still remains as one towards the cessation of Khandas. Of course, if the path is followed properly then one would not cling to the Khandas as self, so the thought of annihalation would not occur to such a person perhaps. But until that awakening occurs, wouldn’t the path itself consist of craving for non-existence? or perhaps it would be a thin line between letting go of identification and craving non existence.

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Hey,

That’s not a difference I would phrase as “simply”. The sense of self is something very subtle and profound. And it makes a big difference to how one perceives suffering and its ending. If you have a sense of self, you belief part of you will come to an end. If you don’t, then it is only impersonal things, only suffering, that comes to an end.

If you do have a strong sense of self, the two may feel the same, which is why some people are said to have reacted as follows after hearing the Buddha’s teachings on cessation and nibbāna:

They think, ‘Whoa, I’m going to be annihilated and destroyed! I won’t exist any more!’ They sorrow and wail and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion. That’s how there is anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally. [i.e. about a self which doesn’t exist] (MN22)

The path is about removing all sorts of craving, including the craving for the goal itself, whatever that goal may be. So if you have any kind of “helpful” craving along the path, it should be craving to end craving! :laughing: If you practice like that, you follow the eightfold path without any craving for existence or annihilation.

And ideally the practice towards awakening is not driven by craving, but by disillusionment (nibbida). See for example Dhp278.

All that is created (or “conditioned”) is suffering.
When you see that with understanding,
you get disillusioned with suffering.
That is the path to purification.

And I would also say craving for annihilation is rare in people, anyway, generally speaking. Most people would prefer to keep existing in some way, including those who see final nibbāna as the end of the khandhas. So they also still have primarily craving for existence, even though they don’t really aim at existence.

PS. To clarify my previous post, the ending of existence that aligns with the path the Buddha didn’t call vibhava, which is the word annihilationist used. He used bhavanirodha, ‘the cessation of existence’. In AN10.7 Sāriputta says: "Extinguishment is the cessation of existence.” (‘Extinguishment’ translates nibbāna, here refers to final Nibbāna.)

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Your conclusion is correct.

Ananda to a nun:

“‘This body comes into being through craving. And yet it is by relying on craving that craving is to be abandoned.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.”—Anguttara Nikaya 4.159

But that’s not about the two types of craving in question. The whole quote says:

‘This body is produced by craving. Relying on craving, you should give up craving.’ This is what I said, but why did I say it? Take a mendicant who hears this: ‘They say that the mendicant named so-and-so has realized the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. And they live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements.’ They think: ‘Oh, when will I too realize the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life. …’ After some time, relying on craving, they give up craving. That’s why I said what I said. (AN4.159)

In other words, the craving spoken about is craving to end the defilements (i.e. to end craving itself, to end the sense of self, and so forth). It’s not about craving for existence or ending existence.

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I completely agree with this. But it seems to me as people practice, they need a goal they can aspire to. I do think that goal could be the cessation of suffering, i.e the cessation of craving itself as defined in the 3rd noble truth. But could the idea of the cessation of khandas become a deterrent? or perhaps it could become a craving itself? in other words, to what degree is it useful to define Nibbana as anything more than the cessation of suffering?

Suffering is more than just craving. The khandhas themselves are suffering too.

“You should abandon desire for what is suffering. And what is suffering? Form, feeling, perception, will (sankhāras), and consciousness are suffering.” (SN22.140)

So if you want to end suffering, the khandhas have to end. That’s why final nibbāna is stated to be the cessation of existence. Because only that is the complete end of suffering.

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How do you define non-becoming? Are you using this in place of non-existence?

I have a few thoughts on a positive experience of Nibbana, however it may not be necessary to get into that to answer your question.

The Buddha provided an analogy for using kamma to get to the end of kamma. Below is a paraphrased version of this:

Suppose you developed a desire to go to the park. Having developed the desire, you walk to the park. Having arrived at the park, do you still desire to go to the park? No you don’t. Still, although you no longer have the desire while at the park, you needed the desire to get to the park.

The difference between desire that gets you to Nibbana and desire for existence or non-existence is that desire for the latter two is not satiated upon achieving them. Existence requires effort to maintain and may even fall apart eventually. If maintaining it is found to be unsatisfactory, non existence is sought after. If this is found unsatisfactory, another mode of existence is sought after. There is no end to becoming with existence and non-existence. You just move to and fro forever, never quite satisfied. But there is an end to becoming with Nibbana, and with it comes the end of dissatisfaction.

Existence and non-existence are not absolutes. Both are relative to your current state. This is why craving for either simply perpetuates the cycle.

A wholesome desire for Nibbana, on the other hand, undermines the ignorance that causes us to hop between various modes of existence in a never ending search for satisfaction. Once knowledge of how to end dissatisfaction is obtained (i.e. ignorance is abandoned), the wholesome desire for Nibbana is also abandoned.

The wholesome desire for Nibbana still causes a ‘becoming’, as we develop the skills necessary to reach it. However, once we are there, the skills we have developed also provide us the means stop ‘becoming’, once Nibbana is within reach.

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I guess for me this opens up some new questions. If the delight or clinging for that which is Dukkha is gone, then what difference does it make whether they cease or not?

Another one is related to the idea you mentioned earlier, the idea of no self. It seems to me that if there really isn’t a self, then again I wonder what difference it makes if the aggregates cease or not. If the aggregates don’t cease, well they will not be me anyways, so why worry?

I guess these questions, to me at least, point to the fact that once craving is gone, there isn’t really a need for much else, whether its existence or non existence.

With Metta

yeah, I am talking about bhava and vibhava, which some translate as existence and others as becoming.

But could Nibbana itself become an object of suffering, if we strive for it in an unwholesome manner? The question for me is, why do we need to talk about anything more than the cessation of suffering (or greed hatred and delusion). It seems to me that to say anything more than this would necessarily entangle us in ideas about existence and non-existence. Perhaps at some point it becomes less useful to define Nibbana and more useful to keep Nirvana as a positive goal of the cessation of suffering. Whatever comes after that, well I guess we’ll find out when we get there.

With Metta

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Yes, ideally you just want to take note of how to develop skills that reduce suffering and take the relevant actions. Even here though, there is becoming, as you go about trying to perfect your sila, samadhi and panna. It’s only when you take the final step of letting go completely that this becoming stops.

Again, true. However most people tend to try and imagine what the absence of suffering might feel like. This then brings us back to notions of existence and non-existence, as we try to understand what is beyond the aggregates by means of the aggregates. To the extent that we can pay attention to our present experience and undermine the causes of suffering, these issues can be side-stepped.

A common occurrence these days is to see Nibbana as the absence of everything. Although people say that a self isn’t destroyed because you had no self to begin with, when you look at the functional aspects of the argument it is indistinguishable from the notion of annihilation. I’ve seen people try to force their way into this non-self-ness by negating becoming and self-ing at every turn. The results can be quite paralysing.

The opposite extreme of course is to think that Nibbana is a permanent existence of an I. The various religious traditions of the world have examples of ascetics who achieve great peace by practicing according to this view. But they fall short of Nibbana because they don’t understand that the I needs to eventually be abandoned because it too is a source of suffering.

Yes, the primary focus is on what must be done. An understanding of what things are can provide supplementary guidance though. E.g. knowing what the aggregates are and how they are bound up with suffering can be useful; so long as the pursuit of a definition doesn’t impede skillful action.

If you can have a view of Nibbana that allows for skillful action, it makes sense to maintain it. If you have a view that does not allow for skillful action, it makes sense to abandon it.

I’ve found great benefit in trying to understand Nibbana according to the suttas; but when it comes to meditation and reflection on my actions, the theme tends to be on whether suffering is growing or diminishing.

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Cessating craving for Nibbana is the only Way to start Entering the Stream. Desire is the root of all suffering.

:green_heart:

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I’ve heard different interpretations.

I think it was either Ven Dhammavuddho or Punnaji who said that man craves life (being), and when faced with painful illness man craves annihilation (non-being), because they identify with the aggregates.

Ven Bodhesako claimed that craving for non-existence is actually abhava, and that vibhava means craving for absence.

bhavatanha craving for present (experience)*

vibhavatanha craving for absent (experiences)

i.e. vibhavatanha means craving for an experience that is possible but not currently present, which is discontent with the present moment aka misery.

Bodhesako quote (click arrow to see)

To begin with, we may note that presence is singular while absents is plural. Experience demands this distinction, for in our experience there is always only one total present experience but many total absent experiences. Thus, at this moment what is present is a complex entity which may be partially described as ‘sitting at a desk writing a paper’. The sitting, the desk, the writing, and so on, are not separate entities but integral parts of a single composite whole: the present experience. The absent, or possible, experiences, however, are manifold: I could be standing or lying; at a table or beneath a tree; scratching, pondering, or talking; holding a pencil, a book, a pose, or nothing at all. I could be seeking, sighing, or sweeping. Many of these things are exclusive of each other (I cannot be simultaneously standing and sitting) but, one and all, they have the characteristic of being what I might do, of being possible, and, as possible, they infect and determine the actual (the sitting at a desk, etc.) for what it is; for at each moment that I remain seated I do so only because I choose to remain seated, and I can only choose to remain seated if there are other things I might choose but in fact do not. Being seated at a desk, however, is only one experience: it is singular, while the possible (absent) experiences are manifold.

Bhavatanha means trying to maintain/hold on to the present experience (i.e. I don’t want to die, I want to live for eternity).

Bodhesako quote (click arrow to see)

Craving for presence. Now we have introduced the notion of choice. We can observe that any experience we are (presently engaged in) we are (so engaged) because we are (choosing) it. We have at any moment many possible things we might do (or be, or have) and we choose one of them. The choice is made, always, because, as a totality our present experience is the most satisfactory (or, at minimum; the least unsatisfactory) available choice. Certainly a carefully reflexive attitude will reveal soon enough that we have chosen this particular experience out of all possible experiences because it is the one we most crave. And this is craving for presence: the craving for our present experience as being the most desirable of all experiences possible to us. Indeed, if we did not crave our present experience we would not have (or be) that experience; and if we craved no experience we would not be (any experience) so that by a careful examination of the negative character of intentionality we can see clearly, through practice of reflexion, that craving for presence is a structural necessity. So understood, there is nothing gratuitous about craving for presence: if it were not, there could be no experience whatsoever.

If I could experience only craving for presence I could never wish to be doing anything other than being seated-writing-this-paper, and I should never do anything else for all eternity. But in fact I can put my pen down, stand up, and stretch; and I can do so whenever I wish (or intend) to do so. But I am not now doing so; if I do do so it will only be to satisfy a craving for what is not my present experience.

He gets into more details here Being and Craving – Path Press

Therefore answering @brus963 question based on Bodehsako’s interpretation

then how is the path to Nibbana not considered craving for non-becoming?

Nibbana (or the path) ends misery and delight, thus one no longer craves to bring absent experiences to the present, and one also no longer tries to hold on to the present experience either. So they are satisfied no matter what. See the kakudha sutta where a deva asks the Buddha if he delights or sorrows SN 2.18 :

Delight is born from misery, misery is born from delight;

The puthujjana constantly goes from bhavatanha (delighting and holding on to present experience) to misery (being discontent with the present experience and seeking an absent experience), and this is constant restlessness, and a self maintaining cycle.

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Hello again,

I’d say in a way it doesn’t matter. But in another way it still does, because it’s a natural inclination of the mind to move away from suffering. When the sense of self is gone, part of this inclination still remains, it seems, although it is not a type of craving anymore. Even the Buddha said he took rests from his painful body, and he still practiced meditation to have a peaceful time. Also enlightened beings will still see the cessation of the aggregates as peaceful, because they see the aggregates as suffering. They won’t actively crave for their cessation, but still see it as something positive, since it is the end of suffering. In the Theragatha for example we see various enlightened monks saying:

I don’t long for death;
I don’t long for life;
I await my time,
Like a worker waiting for their wages.” (Thag17.2)

Same thing, it’s natural the mind moves away from suffering. This is why stream enterers, who have understood non-self and suffering, can not stay in samsara for all that much longer, regardless of whether they might want to or not. Because the mind has understood samsara to be 100% suffering, it will automatically move away from it. It has nothing to do with the “I” anymore, it is something deeper than that. This is the disillusionment (nibbida) I mentioned earlier.

And later edit, as to this:

Because you need to know what suffering is first, otherwise the mind won’t move away from it in the way I just explained. That’s where the first noble truth, on suffering, comes in. I quoted before that the aggregates are suffering. If the mind hasn’t seen that, you can aim for the cessation of craving all you want, but attachments and craving for those aggregates will remain. Craving is there because of not understanding suffering. If you understand suffering, craving will automatically disappear, whether you want it to or not. :upside_down_face:

Hope that helps.

Much metta,
Bhikkhu Sunyo

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Thank you Bhante, for your patience towards my questions. I have one more question if you don’t mind. Would you say that cessation of khandas is the more traditional interpretation of Nibbana, or does traditional Theravada lean more towards Nibbana being a “thing”?

It seems very easy to say the above, particularly based on a questionable translation of the word ‘dukkham’. However, putting the questionable translation aside, how exactly do you propose we end the khandhas in a way that is different to ending craving? Did the Buddha explain a Path to ending the khandhas that is not the path of ending craving? :saluting_face:

Hi Sunyo,

The suttas explicitly state that the clinging aggregates are suffering, not the aggregates as such. If the aggregates themselves were suffering, there would be no liberation from suffering in life. In fact, if the aggregates themselves are seen as suffering, life as such would be experienced as suffering, which would turn the teaching of the Buddha on liberation from suffering in the here-and-now, into a religion of suffering, from which death is the only release. Besides that this is not mentioned in the suttas, it would be the opposite of what the Buddha taught, and would also not be very worthwhile to follow imo.

Warm regards,
Peter

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SN 22.59 seems to explicitly say the five aggregates themselves are dukkham. SN 22.59 literally says:

Is form permanent or impermanent?”
rūpaṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vā”ti?

“Impermanent, sir.”
“Aniccaṁ, bhante”.

“But if it’s impermanent, is it dukkhaṁ or sukhaṁ?”
“Yaṁ panāniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vā taṁ sukhaṁ vā”ti?

“dukkhaṁ, sir.”
“Dukkhaṁ, bhante”.

The suttas, such as SN 22.15, literally say:

What’s impermanent is dukkhaṁ.
Yadaniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ;

Dhp 278 literally says:

All conditioned things are dukkhā—
“Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā”ti,

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I think it might all depend on how one translates the word Dukkha. Some prefer to say that it is unsatisfactory rather than suffering. Then when the Buddha says that what is impermanent is dukkha, what would be meant is that ultimately no lasting happiness can be found in the aggregates. In that case the cessation of craving/clinging for the aggregates would be peaceful, whether one is alive or dead. But, anyways, I’m no Pali expert, so what do I know.