On the inherent pessimism of parinibbana as mere cessation

Cw: discussion of suicide

A number of monastics and scholars hold that parinibbana consists merely of cessations of the five khandhas rather than a positive, existing reality or element obtained by arahants. While my knowledge of pali and the tipitika is far from sufficient to contest this interpretation on hermeneutic grounds, I would like to explore what I view as the extreme philosophical pessimism of such a position, a pessimism I feel these scholars are less than forthright in admitting. (That said, I think the interpretive debate here seems far from settled, with scholars of the acumen of Bhikkhu Bodhi rejecting this view of parinibanna)

A strong example of scholarship that argues for parinibbana as mere cessation is Ajahn @Brahmali’s paper What the Nikāyas Say and Do not Say about Nibbāna. In this paper, he argues first against a multitude of different positive interpretations of parinibbana, for example that its a form of consciousness, and then goes on to claim

This, then, is what really happens at the death of an arahant. Because human beings, including arahants, are nothing more than an impersonal process (i.e. devoid of a stable self) which is impermanent and suffering, all that happens when an arahant dies is that this process comes to an end. From arahants’ point of view the khandhas have nothing to do with them; nor are they anything apart from the khandhas, as we have seen in the Yamaka Sutta. Moreover, because the khandhas are suffering, their cessation can only be a good thing. The death of an arahant is just the end, the cessation, of an unwanted process. Nothing of value is being lost; nothing is being annihilated. This is why the death of an arahant does not count as annihilation. The reason an arahant is not annihilated at death has nothing to do with the nature of final Nibbāna

Thus, to view nibbana as mere cessation is distinct from the annihilationism the Buddham rejected. Then, anticipating the critique that this interpretation is quite dark, he states

The idea that final Nibbāna is nothing apart from the cessation of the khandhas
might seem bleak. If it seems bleak, it is only due to the false sense of having
a permanent self, or more precisely, because of the view of personal identity,
sakkāya-diṭṭhi. The sense that one has a permanent core — a distortion of perception
that is unavoidable for all puthujjanas — makes cessation appear like annihilation
and the successful practice of the path like a form of suicide. If cessation
seems undesirable, it is only due to this distorted outlook…But if the illusion of personal identity is seen through, if the perceived solid core is seen not to exist, there is nothing to be concerned about anymore. When it is seen that all a being is made up of are the ever-impermanent khandhas, utterly tied up with suffering, then cessation becomes the most desirable thing possible. Questions such as ‘is there anything else?’ and ‘is there not anything else?’ are quite simply beside the point.

It it here I must disagree with the author, specifically with his claims that it seems bleak only due to sakkaya-ditthi and that this doesn’t make the “path seem like a form of suicide.”

A common perception of the dhamma by those new to it is that the Buddha taught that life is suffering and that the dhamma is consequently quite pessimistic. To this, the common response is that the dhamma is actually rather optimistic because, while it does teach that dukkha is ubiquitous, it also teaches a path out of dukkha, a path to real and lasting happiness greater than any sankhara, inherently anicca, dukkha and anatta, can provide. If, however, the final goal of the Path is the cessation of existence, I don’t this response as still true. From the view of the cessationist, dukkha is brought to end not by finding some reality greater than samsara but rather by the cessation of all experience. This path is not one leading to any unconditioned happiness beyond that experienced by any arahant between their awakening and parinibanna. In short, for the cessationist, total non-existence is preferable to any form of existence, an undeniably dark view of things.

I don’t find the author’s response that this only seems dark if one has self-view compelling. It seems quite possible that existence is preferable to non-existence even if there is no atta behind that existence and experience. One could go through life recognizing that their experience is entirely impersonal but still hold that that experience is preferable to non-experience. At the very least, the question of whether the inherent dukkha of existence within samsara so outweighs the happiness there to make the complete cessation of experience preferable seems far from trivial and a highly personal choice.

This brings me finally to the matter of suicide, which Ajahn Brahmali dismisses as due to the “distorted outlook” of self-view. This again assumes that existence can only be a good if there is a self behind that existence. I can’t help but feel the incredibly dark but logically necessary implication of cessationism is that if one hypothetically assumed that rebirth does not occur after death and thus that there are no negative kammic consequences to committing suicide, then the rational choice for all beings would be to commit suicide–after all, existence is so wrought with dukkha that non-existence is always preferable, no matter the path to get there.

I think it is self-evident that even if a position carries some nasty implications, it still can be true. My purpose here was merely to point out that those implications are possibly there and don’t get the recognition and consideration they ought.

Very interested to hear other’s thoughts on this matter, especially the many members of this forum who are both far more advanced than me in their practice and in their knowledge of tipitika.

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Even in the time of the Buddha, this seems to have been an issue (an9.34):

There he addressed the mendicants: “Reverends, extinguishment is bliss! Extinguishment is bliss!”

When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him, “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

“The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

The main idea seems to be that, as one experiences more peaceful and still states of meditation, up to the cessation of perception and feeling, the states that contain more experience seem relatively like painful afflictions.

Like, if cessation literally feels better than existing, why not? It’s not your fault that cessation feels better than experience. They should have built a better existence if they wanted you to hang around forever :stuck_out_tongue:

Why believe the Buddha on dukkha but not on rebirth and kamma though?

Like, you could cherry-pick teachings of the Buddha to justify suicide, but you could do the same for many other spiritual teachings, or as an atheist materialist.

Logically, if you don’t know 100% for sure about rebirth, kamma and existence, you might as well live out your lifespan in case you are wrong?

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My point here was less that Buddhists should commit suicide if they take the dhamma seriously and more that cessationism carries an extremely dark logical consequence that isn’t given much consideration or acknowledgment. It’s entirely possible that cessation is preferable to experience, but if this is true, Buddhism presents an incredibly, incredibly dark view of the world that I don’t see acknowledged as such.

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Right, that is why the Buddha’s message is so challenging. IMO, most people are not ready hear what the Buddha is really saying.

But is it dark? To my mind, something that is true cannot be really be dark.

Like, in 7.5 billion years the sun will explode and the earth will be burnt up. Does this mean that astronomers have a dark view of the world because they report this result from their scientific investigations?

If experience really is suffering, you can’t really fault the Buddha for accurately reporting the facts?

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I’m not going to address this main claim right now, but I just wanted to thank you for the careful and serious way you broached a challenging topic.

Indeed. There is a tendency to assume that truth is subjective, so if someone talks about a dark thing, it is because there is darkness in them. And obviously this is sometimes the case.

The Buddha said that existence is suffering. And if this really is true, then the cessation of existence is the cessation of suffering.

Is this a projection of a depressed mind, or a clear-eyed assessment of reality? Psychologically, you tell the difference by looking at the rest of a person’s life. Are they sad, misanthropic, pessimistic, dysfunctional? Obviously the Buddha was none of these things.

I’m not directly addressing the OP’s main argument here, just reinforcing that we need to be careful about the way we talk about this.

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Hi. To me, the above premise is “pessimistic” solely on the basis or premise that continued existence in an afterlife is something “optimistic”. While my intention here is certainly to not enter in a debate over rebirth, you seem to be saying a similar view of a natural impermanence is something “pessimistic”. For example, when the life of a flower, tree, dog, cat, caterpillar or butterfly ends, you seem to be saying this impermanence is “pessimistic”. Brahmali said:

:dizzy:

Mmm… my first response here is the above is like a person who does not have cancer saying a cure for cancer is pessimistic.

Mmm… isn’t the above similar to fantasies about winning a $100M lottery, where you can live the rest of your life having so much fun? Isn’t being permanently happy for 60, 50, 40 or 20 years something really optimistic and fun? :slightly_smiling_face:

My impression was you previously said there is a happiness to be found while living this life when you said: “This path is not one leading to any unconditioned happiness beyond that experienced by any arahant between their awakening and parinibanna.”

To me, the above seems to be referring to the two types of becoming that manifest as suffering (2nd noble truth), which are craving to be (bhava tanha) and craving not to be (vibhava tanha). For the puthujjana, yes, you are correct, self-interest is intrinsic in their pursuit of happiness but also intrinsic in suicide. If the self-view was given up, the inclination towards suicide would be also given up. :slightly_smiling_face:

Did Ajahn Brahmali infer or suggest the above? I doubt he would.

The Dhamma says the Dhamma is “immediately effective” (“akalika”). Therefore, for a mind that is rational, I imagine the rational choice is to practice the Noble Eightfold Path, particularly Right View, which is immediately effective. This will stop suicide. It takes more time to commit suicide than to practice Right View. Therefore, I imagine rational mental faculties would choose Right View over suicide because the respite from suffering is more quick & efficient using the Right View method. My neighbor committed suicide over the back fence. It was very messy stuff. But Right View is neat, tidy, quick & effective.

I offered my thoughts above for your consideration. :slightly_smiling_face:

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This is something that I have thought about a lot, being as I am an agnostic about rebirth. It does seem that if rebirth turned out to be false, then the Buddhist account of value does seem to entail that it would be most rational to commit suicide.

On the other hand, if it turns out that rebirth is false, then the view that existence is suffering would seem somewhat less compelling. I don’t think that it would appear at all plausible to most people that the life of a human whose basic needs are met is not worth living. This even seems to be reflected in the suttas to some degree. Accounts of the drawbacks of “good” existence in samsara usually seem to emphasise the negative effects of craving for these states of existence, rather than their intrinsic undesirability. For instance, the Buddha doesn’t seem to emphasise the intrinsic undesirability of a state of existence constituted solely by the experience of jhana, probably because the statement that ‘rapture and bliss are suffering’ wouldn’t be particularly motivating to most people. For the sake of clarity, my point isn’t that the Buddha didn’t say that such states of existence are suffering, but it is rather that this doesn’t appear plausible to most people.

It does seem like one might argue that the Buddha didn’t assert that all conditioned phenomena are suffering, but rather that craving for them gives rise to suffering. “Suffering” is expressed with the use of dukkha as a noun, whereas “giving rise to suffering” being reflected in the adjectival use of dukkha. This appears to be reflected in some translations. For instance, some translators translate adjectival uses of dukkha as something like ‘unsatisfactory’.

It does at least seem that in some contexts ‘dukkha’ cannot mean suffering, since it is used adjectivally and “suffering” isn’t an adjective. However, this wouldn’t necessitate the conclusion that it is false that all sankharas are suffering, since an adjectival use of dukkha might nevertheless have the same meaning: the statement that “all conditioned phenomena are unpleasant” would seem to have more or less the same meaning as “all conditioned phenomena are suffering”.

The spanner in the works for this view seems to be the description of arahants in the suttas. It seems to be the case that arahants find the cessation of perception and feeling preferable to any of the jhanas or the formless attainments. If the cessation of perception and feeling is to be taken to be a sort of temporary equivalent of nibbana, this would seem to entail that complete non-consciousness is preferable to any form of consciousness. If this is the case, then it would seem that if rebirth is false, then it would seem to be most rational to commit suicide. Further, it would also seem to entail that it would be morally good, if possible, to end the conscious existence of all sentient beings, since one would be relieving them of suffering. Most people would probably find this to be indicative of a shortcoming in the proposition that all existence is suffering.

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This is a fairly compelling point; however, I think if you asked most people about the sun eating up the earth (perhaps all the more so with the heat death of the universe) they would say that it’s something unfortunate if albeit inevitable. In contrast, if you ask even quite serious Buddhists for their thoughts on nibbana, their descriptions would be of something glowingly positive, not something that’s the least bad option.

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Why walk across ancient India for 50 years only to teach people metaphysical euthanasia?

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It seems that with a traditional view, the ultimate goal is liberation from the cycle of rebirth. But it’s not clear from the suttas what, if anything, happens next. A Hindu might talk about merging with Brahman or something, but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent idea in the suttas.

Which to my mind does prompt the question, what next?

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Good topic. Here are some of my thoughts.

Reflecting on these topics can bring up different emotions, none of which is necessarily more truthful than others. Calling the idea of nibbana as mere cessation “inherently pessimistic” and “undeniably dark” I think universalizes a personal value judgement: not everybody will see it as such. Many may find it dark, indeed, but many will not. For me, when I first heard of it I was literally laughing out loud out of appreciation. I found it a very relieving and unique idea, especially compared to other religions. I saw a certain beauty in finishing a long journey without needing any outcome, and a certain wisdom when the Buddha bowed down to a truth higher than his own desires.

It all depends on our frame of reference. I think I can show by analogy how this is so.

Many people might wish for an eternal heaven where they meet their deceased relatives, listen to heavenly music, fly over fields of butterflies, and what not. But most Buddhist, including those who see nibbana as a type of existence, would reply that such experiences are impermanent and still suffering, so that going beyond them is not a dark thing. They just shifted the line on what they consider to be suffering beyond such heavens. Now, if we just move that line even further, including the more subtle kinds of existence, we can conclude that the end of existence isn’t necessarily a dark thing either. It depends on our perspective.

In other words, Buddhism is indeed inherently pessimistic: pessimistic about samsara, that is. But some Buddhist (including the founder, I would say!) simply include all forms of existence in samsara. Does that make them pessimistic while others are optimistic? I don’t think that is the right way to frame the debate.

But it’s true, on a bad day even stream winners, though having right view, when they aren’t reflecting properly, may prefer eternal existence in samsara over nibbana. Cessation may seem like a somewhat empty goal. However, for them such thoughts will be fleeting. Since deep down they have understood the Dhamma, their disillusion (nibbida) with existence will prevail. It is no longer about what is “preferable” but about what is truth. The truth is that there is nothing worth holding on to, so they stop holding on. Like the Buddha, they bow down to truth and set aside their desires. Also, a vision of the truth includes the realization of rebirth, so ideas of suicide to end one’s one and only life will not come up.

When I have taught on this topic, I made sure to add a disclaimer: if these ideas make my audience feel very uncomfortable or otherwise unstable, it is probably not a good time to reflect on them. There is such a thing as proper attention (yoniso manasikara). Proper attention is not just about what you pay attention to, but also at what time you do it. The best time to do it is after a deep meditation, because then the hindrances, including fear and discontent, are gone. That’s largely why the suttas say samadhi (which includes joy and bliss) leads to seeing things as they really are, not pondering them in a state of sadness and worry.

In fact, I even would go so far to say that drawing certain conclusions about this when the mind is not ready can block samadhi, which thereby block access to right view and all progress. I think this is why even senior monastics get stuck in certain eternalist views. The kind of letting go you need to do to enter jhana is similar to letting go of all ideas of all permanent existence. But if you’ve already concluded that consciousness “that is what you are”–to quote a prominent western ajahn (and the Upanishads…)–you won’t be able to do that kind of relinquishment.

So the best way to approach it, in my view, is to not preemptively decide what is pessimistic and what is not. Instead, develop other factors of the path such as virtue and meditation until the mind is ready.

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I’m not sure! The general idea of Hindu moksha seems to be liberation from samsara, and union with Brahman, presumably for eternity. And this union can occur either in life, or after death, depending which school one believes.

My point was that Nibbana doesn’t seen to involve an eternal union, it’s more like a cessation. And as I understand it, the suttas don’t specify what happens when an Arahant dies.

You need to ask yourself why you see it as dark? I suggest it is because you see some inherent value in existence. The point of the non-self teaching is that this is a distorted perception.

The truth is that cessation is not just a blank nothing; it is the highest happiness. To see this, the Buddha’s teaching in MN 59, “The Many Kinds of Feeling”, is particularly illuminating. The Buddha goes through a list of successively higher happinesses. The peak of felt happiness is experienced in the third jhāna. It is a bliss so powerful that you lose all interest in the sensory world. Yet the astonishing thing is that the fourth jhāna – where the bliss is gone and all you have is neutral feeling – is said to be a superior kind of happiness. This is virtually incomprehensible, unless, of course, you have experienced these states. The Buddha then takes it one step further and says that the cessation of perception of feeling, saññāvedayitanirodha – which is the living persons equivalent of final Nibbāna – is an even greater happiness.

From the Buddha’s point of view, cessation is an extremely attractive thing, and about as far from a bleak outlook as you can get. Why is it is so hard for us to see this? Well, it’s because of that self illusion again.

To appreciate this it may be better to leave aside theoretical considerations and focus on meditation instead. As things cease in your meditation – the thinking, the body, the senses, painful feelings – it is easy to notice that suffering is decreasing and happiness is going up. By extrapolating from this, you get some idea why cessation is so attractive. It gives you the confidence to continue, which eventually leads you to the full “experience”.

Seeing is believing. In the meantime, some degree of confidence or faith is required.

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I share that sentiment of pessimisms of parinibbana as mere cessation. It is challenging.

I believe that the wish to end existence and suffering can also be said to be related to belief and experience of a self . It is related to a belief in, and perception of, a self that suffers and cannot bear it, and does not want it anymore.

That’s why the mystic say that one also has to give up such ego-desires not to suffer and desire nothing but to be a perfect empty vehicle for Unborn Goodness. I like that very much. To see oneself only as a receiver not as a possessor. The idea of empyting oneselves to be a perfect vehicle for what is wise, loving and true. I like to see the Buddha as such a person. Empty. A perfect vehicle.
He hungered for wisdom, truth, goodness. I like to believe.

I personally feel there is also a subjective element about happiness . I do not think there is some objective criterium for what is the highest happiness. The kind of happiness the Buddha most appreciated was that of seclusion and cessation, of a total peace, the stilling of all formation, quitness, internally and externally. He did not enjoy a noisy Sangha and probably noisy places.

Personally i do not believe that this means that the happiness of seclusion is a greater happiness than being among friends and just enjoying oneself. Maybe you think i am a fool, but so it is for me.
I believe happiness is very relative.

I feel often in between. I like the happiness of seclusion and stilling but i also like the happiness that is in noise, non-stilling, manifestation, expression.

Is happiness subjective or do you think that it is a sure fact that the happiness of jhana is greater than the happiness of friendship or the happiness of tears running over your face when you see acts of pure goodness? Is the happiness of jhana really greater than the happiness one can suddenly feel while seeing something nice? I believe it is subjective.

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“In short, for the cessationist, total non-existence is preferable to any form of existence, an undeniably dark view of things.”

Were there any views or concerns about non-existence, any opinions about “darkness”, or any troubles during deep, dreamless sleep last night?
Of course, this example is not to equate dreamless sleep to nibbana or as a Dhamma teaching. But, in its limited way, it may offer a hint of the untroubled peace and utter silence of saññāvedayitanirodha.

Compared to the waking and dream states with all their activity, pleasures, and pains – where was all that in deep, dreamless sleep? Was anyone concerned about anything? Was there any concern about existence/ non-existence, about “dark” viewpoints or possible suicide? Was there any fuss at all?

Again this obviously is not nibbana and there was still “existence” in dreamless sleep in the sense that the mind was not free of all defilements, etc. Rather, this is offered as an example of how cessation and the ending of existence, at least as far as dreamless sleep can convey, is not dark or troubling. Quite the contrary…

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If parinibbana is mere cessation, what does it mean that we not only have to know that what has the nature to arise, cease and change (5 khandhas’s) but also what does not have the characteristic to arise, cease and change?

If there is something that does not cease, how can cessation be the final goal? The final goal is the deathless, the unborn.

I also have seen a sutta that says that cessation is known. The stilling of formations. I have seen this confirmed by Ajahn Suchard. I believe Maha Boowa also taught this. This means that cessation might be the end of sanna en vedana but not of some element of knowing. So cessation refers to what is able to cease , and has that charateristics, but Buddha also taught that there is what does not cease.
I believe that reveals itself during cessation. Then the unborn and deathless element reveals itself.

I feel it wrong to see mere cessation as an island, refuge, protection, safety and happiness. How can being non-existent be an island, refuge? It makes no sense.

I feel it is not that difficult. Buddha discovered that since beginningless time we think we are a lifestream of rupa and nama elements. This is our wrong view and perception. We have not seen the truth about ourselves because we are only focussed on what has the nature to arise and cease, formations, like the khandha’s. Due to this focus we do not see that what is no formation, the unconditioned, deathless element which is always present. It has not arising, changing and ceasing.
If we do not have any knowledge of this what does not cease, and only know things that arise and cease, our knowledge is incomplete. The Buddha might teach that there is no self, he certainly does not teach that all there is to discover is arising, ceasing and change.

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This is definitely one of those very difficult questions which ultimately we cannot answer through the intellect. Right now, to me, it seems that nibbana can’t be described as the ultimate happiness, as a kind of feeling, as a place (the island, the shelter), and other such positive statements if it is merely a total cessation. In fact, this view seems like annihilationism minus the atman (but, not all annihilationists believe in the atman, so in this sense, it is similar to the atheistic/naturalistic view of death). In this view, the idea of what happens after death that a non-Buddhist like David Hume would have (someone who also does not accept a self-atman) is almost identical to mere cessation nibbana. This is a strange consequence to me.

Of course, perhaps all of this is just a kind of poetic usage which should not be taken to have any metaphysical purport whatsoever. But I am not sure. Then again, I have gone back and forth on this numerous times.

Also, I agree that the explanation that the mere cessation view only seems bleak from the POV of personality view is not very convincing. This is because one can conceive of having experience / consciousness that lacks personality view and this kind of liberated experience definitely seems much more preferable to mere cessation. Especially since one would also be able to freely and compassionately engage with people in this way, while after cessation, one cannot help others (I note, this is one of the concerns which led to Mahayana). Indeed, the classic Mahayana view of what a Buddha is is exactly this, one has no view of self, but remains to help others with a purified consciousness. This is definitely more attractive, psychologically anyways, to most people.

Regarding suicide, I also think this problem makes the arahant’s continued living somewhat strange, since what would be the point of continuing to live in this body (which still feels pain etc) if one has fully liberated oneself? If the only reason to stay alive is that rebirth and kamma is true and one will just be reborn (and thus we need to stay alive to practice the path to escape this cycle) then those beings who have liberated themselves (and perhaps those who mistakenly think they have) would feel free to end their lives as they see fit (indeed, we see some ideas like this in some suttas).

This is, again, a kind of dark consequence of this view - i.e. the idea that life and being conscious has no value other than the instrumental value it has in allowing us to reach awakening (i.e its only value is that it can be used to destroy itself). Note, this is not just a fact about the world (like the explosion of the sun) but something with ethical implications.

Whatever the case, I think that this concern is valid, but also a bit removed from us as practitioners, since there is no way we can ever truly know what nirvana is like (experientially and metaphysically) unless we reach it ourselves. Thus, perhaps we should, as Ven Brahmali says, focus on our practice and try to improve there. If we focus on here and now and on being mindful of what leads to more happiness and less suffering, then I think we won’t go awry. Metaphysical speculation just won’t get us very far regarding the nature of nirvana, which is said to be beyond all concepts and words anyways. Perhaps its ok that there are different interpretations of nirvana, since different people will respond to different ideas about it and be more inspired by different takes on nirvana.

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I think both of these points make a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s best to simply bracket the question, something I think @Brahmali gets at in the original paper when he states, “Questions such as ‘is there anything else?’ and ‘is there not anything else?’ are quite simply beside the point.” What nibbana is actually like is knowledge only possessed by arahants and the best the rest of us can do is make educated guesses based on our reading of the suttas and incomplete insight through practice. To put it more simply, if upon finally reaching full awakening (or perhaps not until parinibbana), we find nibbana is somehow more than just cessation, that’s great! On the other hand, if we find the most preferable form of (non)existance is nothing more than cessation, then we’ve found the best there is and that’s great too.

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Reflecting some more about this sutta, I think it’s actually a bit ambiguous what’s going on here. I see two possible readings: first, the sutta could mean that there is no form of experience after parinibbana, which bolsters the view of cessationism. On the other hand, I think there is a much more limited reading where the bhikkhus are merely discussing how one could experience bliss after the cessation of vedana, which leaves open the possibility of a view of nibbana beyond cessation that is blissful without having a positive feeling tone.