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What IS Nibbana, exactly?


#1

I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading the EBTs and discussing them, but I am still unclear as to what Nibbana actually is.

Some EBT passages ( eg in the Udana ) give the impression of a different realm, dimension or reality to which the Arahant gains access. Other passages describe Nibbana more prosaically as the cessation of the taints, giving the impression that it is basically a permanent transformation of mind ( citta ).
I realise these two options are not mutually exclusive, and that there may well be additional options.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.


#2

I think you partly answered it yourself already! And I doubt that the EBT will give you a satisfying answer to what N is. More satisfying would be a collection of what different answers the texts provide. We could then trace back if different answers were given in different contexts or to different kinds of people, or by different people.


#3

Removal of taints gives meditative access to the experience of Nibbāna or cessation of phenomena.


#4

What, bhikkhus, is the Nibbāna-element with residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, the holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbāna-element with residue left.

“Now what, bhikkhus, is the Nibbāna-element with no residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant … completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbāna-element with no residue left.
iti44

As to explaining what ‘Nibbana’ actually is. My guess is it’s like trying to explain what ‘Silence’ actually is.


#5

My friend AlexM (as he posts here in the forum) this year gave me his copy of The Island. Thank you, AlexM.

If desire is fire, nibbana is cooling.
Having lived immersed body, feeling and thought in the wildfire of anger,
I would now gently tend to solitude, cooling, fading away and extinguishment.


#6

It’s fairly mystifying alright. Tends to almost being described like a state in places, more just like just simple cessation (of greed, delusion etc.) in others, and in terms of a kind of logical elimination of what it is not in others (e.g. the four-fold negation and the status of an arahant after death, leaving I’m not entirely sure what when the four possibilities are ruled out). Some difficulty in describing such things is perhaps inevitable. On a more mundane level, imagine trying to explain the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it before. Probably hard to get too far in that. :slight_smile: It irks a little though that the end goal is so mysterious in the EBTs.


#7

Maybe it’s fortunate as a perfect description allows an opportunity to for attachment - not an ideal situation as it’s different from a Heavenly destination or aspiration.


#8

May well be the case. Though perhaps there a word description problem too. Experiences are tricky enough to describe in words at the best of times. I suppose for the chocolate example the best approach would be to relate it to similar shared experiences (similar foods already tasted, their textures and aromas etc.), which would work to an extent. Nibbana probably is a bit off the usual shared experience map though, except perhaps for stream-enterers and above; maybe descriptions of higher path experiences to a stream-enterer would not be totally alien. Though, is nibbana actually even an experience per se (that’s not clear either), though I presume it would at least generate experiences in a living noble one.


#9

“As a flame overthrown by the force of the wind, Upasīva,” said the Gracious One,
“goes to rest and can no longer be discerned,
just so the Sage free from the mental body
goes to rest and can no longer be discerned.”
Snp 5.7 - Upasīvamāṇavapucchā Sutta

Dīpo yathā nirvṛtiṁ abhyupeto
naivāvaniṁ gacchati nāntarīkṣaṁ
diśāṁ na kāncit vidiśāṁ na kāñcit
snehakṣayāt kevelameti śāntiṁ
Evaṁ kṛtī nirvṛtiṁ abhyupeto
naivāvaniṁ gacchati nāntarīkṣaṁ
diśāṁ na kāncit vidiśāṁ na kāñcit
kleṣakṣayāt kevalameti śāntiṁ
Even as the flame of a lamp when it goes out
Goes not to the earth nor to the firmament
Not to any direction nor to a sub-direction
By exhaustion of oil only reaches appeasement
So too the accomplished one when gone to extinction
Goes not to the earth nor to the firmament
Not to any direction nor to a sub-direction
By extinction of taints only reaches appeasement
This is how the philosopher Asvagosa put it (quoted from Page 131, Chapter 5, Paticca Samuppada Sermon Series by Ven K. Knananada)

Bhavarāgaparetehi
bhavasotānusārihi
māradheyyānupannehi
nāyaṁ dhammo susambudho
Ko nu aññatramariyehi
padaṁ sambuddhumarahati
yaṁ padaṁ sammadaññāya
parinibbanti anāsavā

By those who are given to lust for becoming
By those who are swept by the current of becoming
By those who have slipped in to Māra’s realm
Not easily comprehended is this Norm
Who else but the Noble Ones deserve
To waken fully unto that state
By knowing which being influx-free
Tranquil Nibbāna they attain.
Snp 3.12 – Dvayatānupassanā Sutta

viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ
anantaṁ sabbatopabhaṁ
ettha āpo ca paṭhavī
tejo vāyo na gādhati
ettha dīghañca rassañca
aṇuṁ thūlaṁ subhāsubhaṁ
ettha nāmañca rūpañca
asesaṁ uparujjhati
viññāṇassa nirodhena
etthetaṁ uparujjhati
Consciousness which is non-manifestative
Endless lustrous on all sides
Here it is that water and earth
Fire and air no footing find
Here again is long and short
Subtle and gross, comely and ugly
Here is name as well as form
Are held in check with no trace left
Wherein consciousness comes to cease
All these are held in check therein
DN.11 Kevatta Sutta

What do you think, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, ‘This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“…I would reply, ‘This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.’”

“If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”

“…yes…”

“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’.”

“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.

“Any feeling… Any perception… Any fabrication…

“Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.”
MN.72 - Aggivaccagotta Sutta

The parable of the tortoise explains succinctly the difficulty in understanding what Nibbana is. It goes as follows.
A tortoise, after having spent a few days on dry land, goes back into the water and the fishes ask him
where he came from. The tortoise replies that he came from land. In order
to determine what sort of a thing land is, the fishes go on asking the
tortoise a number of questions based on various qualities of water such as a. Is there water there, b. Can you swim there, c. Are there ripples d. Can you dive in there etc.
To each question the tortoise has to reply in the negative, since land has none of the
qualities of water.

Hope this will help
With Metta


#10

Not only the citta but the kaya also is transformed.
An example: one of the taints is sensual desire and its correlate is ill-will/aversion; suppose you get rid of anger and similar unwholesome emotions you will notice a change in the body who is no more storing and producing these emotions.


#11

Or could it be the other way round, ie access to Nibbana leads to cessation of the taints? And is it just “meditative” access?

Also, I’m not clear what “cessation of phenomena” means here, practically speaking - could you elaborate? By “phenomena”, do you mean conditioned experience?


#12

We could certainly do that here - brief quotes would probably be more digestible than lengthy ones though.

It would be interesting to see some positive descriptions of Nibbana, what it is, rather than what it is not ( eg absence of taints, etc ).


#13

Is silence merely the absence of noise, or something more profound? Is there a “sound of silence”?


#14

It’s the ambiguity that irks me.


#15

Though I think in the EBTs the Arahant still experiences vedana, both pleasant and unpleasant?


#16

I’ve read “The Island” several times - it’s an interesting book, though I find it quite interpretative ( reflecting the views of the authors ) and rather inconclusive.


#17

It is a state without attachment and aversion but with wisdom.
It is a state without existence and non-existence but with wisdom.
If you think Nibbana exist you are in the eternalist camp.
If you think Nibbana does not exist you are in the nihilist camp.
Once you understand Dependent Origination you have realise Nibbana.


#18

Could you elaborate on what you mean by “state” here?


#19

It is a state with wisdom.


#20

It could be that there is no conclusive answer. The texts possibly reflect the differences of interpretation among the earliest followers of the Buddha and practice traditions, and can’t be harmonized.