What IS Nibbana, exactly?


And as I observed in the OP, these positive and negative expressions of Nibbana are not mutually exclusive. More like different views of the same thing.


I think the real difficulty in harmonizing the various sutta descriptions of nibbana does not come from trying to reconcile the negative and positive descriptions. It comes from trying to make sense of the idea that nibbana is both something that happens to a conditioned being, while at the same time being something that is unconditioned, and is unborn and deathless.

If we describe an arahant’s nibbana positively as a certain state of blissful happiness and peace that comes to obtain when the arahant’s suffering comes completely to an end, and his poisons are eradicated, asavas destroyed, fetters cut, etc., then that still leaves open the possibility that the arahant’s nibbana is a conditioned state: it begins at a certain time, and its beginning is conditioned by practices of the arahant that succeeded in destroying certain bad things that preceded it. As a conditioned state, it will only last as long as the arahant’s ongoing mental life, and come to an end with the breakup of the body.

But if nibbana is unconditioned, unborn and deathless, then presumably the nibbana of that arahant is not something that only came to obtain when the arahant destroyed the poisons or asavas and ended his suffering. It must have already “been there”, when the arahant was still suffering and working on attaining nibbana. In that case, the attainment of nibbana by the arahant - which presumably begins at a particular point in time - must be different from nibbana itself, which is supposed to be beginningless. So the attainment must consist in the arahant “entering” nibbana, or coming into some kind of relation with it or awareness of it. That relation to nibbana would be conditioned, and last only as long as the arahant lasts, but nibbana itself, being deathless, would continue.

A more negative view of nibbana would involve not taking any of the positive appellations seriously. Nibbana could be interpreted very strictly as only the end of certain bad, conditioned things or processes. Sariputta’s nibbana is only the end of his defiled mind states, or the end of his production of kamma. Any happy mind states that attend his nibbana are not constitutive of his nibbana itself, but are inessential conditioned add-ons accompanying the cessation. We could even then make sense of Sariputta’s nibbana being deathless, by noting that it will always be the case, even a million years after Sariputta’s death, that Sariputta is no longer producing kamma. But it is very hard on this interpretation to make sense of the idea that Sariputta’s nibbana is unborn, because even if Sariputta’s mental non-defilement and non-production of kamma has no end, it does seem to have a beginning.

Maybe the sutta descriptions can all be harmonized. But maybe they can’t, and represent the work of different disciples, working with different conceptions of the goal of the holy life.


Are we even supposed to ask these questions according to the EBT? Think about how people say that after death you go to heaven and you’ll be united with all your loved ones. Apparently people have believed that for centuries and had faith in that salvation. And then people started asking: “But in what age will I see them, decomposed, or at the peak of their beauty? And where will everyone live? and will my fingernails grow in heaven? Will I still eat, digest, and defecate or will my orifices close, and will I thus completely different? etc. etc.”

These questions are not valid within this simple concept of heaven. The concept was not designed for these kinds of questions. So maybe the concept of nibbana is also not designed to be questioned in a way of philosophical and conceptual consistence as people started doing a few centuries later up until today. (Just a cognitive-linguistic thought)


Buddha himself said questions like ‘what’s beyond nibbana’ were meaningless.


And the Brahmins in the Upanisads said that questions beyond Brahma are meaningless. Also, that it’s written in the texts doesn’t mean that the Buddha actually said it, and it doesn’t convey how he meant it. And anyhow the questions don’t go beyond nibbana but are about nibbana.


This what Ajhan Chah say’s on the matter.

The Buddha is the Dhamma; the Dhamma is the Buddha. The Buddha awakened to is something always there in the world. It hasn’t disappeared. It’s like groundwater. Whoever digs a well down to the level of the groundwater will see water. It’s not the case that that person created or fashioned the water into being. All he’s done is to put his strength into digging the well so that it’s deep enough to reach the water already there.

So lets just dig shall we. The tools for the dig are well explained in the suttas.


I dont think there are any commandments in buddhism. An individuals actions and the results of his action are his own. We are free to do as we wish.


Or perhaps they are just different views of the same thing? By analogy, I could describe a sunny day as the presence of the sun, or as the absence of clouds.


I think you missed my point there. What I meant is “Was the concept of nibbana created with the understanding that it would be scrutinized for philosophical and linguistic coherence and consistency?” If not then our questions might be useless for we would try to find something that doesn’t exist.


The ceassation order of the DO shows how ceasing of ignorance and then craving (ie via vipassana of the EBT type) can lead to cessation ie Nibbana.


Possibly. But as I argued above, the challenges in harmonizing the suttas on nibbāna go beyond reconciling the negative descriptions and the positive descriptions.


What are the issues with harmonisation?


The main problem is the tension between the view that nibbana is an unconditioned, beginningless and deathless reality, independent of any persons or their attainments, versus the view that nibbana is either something that happens to a person on becoming an arahant, or else is a state of that person that abides for some time after they have become an arahant. On the first view, nibbana is something like a “deathless realm” or eternal One that the arahant has somehow touched on, entered or come into relationship with. There is only one nibbana, but many people have “reached” it. On the second view nibbana is just the state of a person who has put out the fires of great, hatred and bewilderment. There is no eternal, unconditional realm or level of reality that this person has entered. It’s just that that person’s ongoing mental life used to be filled with various afflictions or defilements, and now it is not.


Assume that the way to get to the dimension of Nibbana [First view] is to put out the fire of craving, anger and delusion [Second view].


Yes, that’s a possibility, but not consistent with all the descriptions. Some people think that the “unconditioned” stuff is the importation into Buddhism of the very sort of Upanishadic eternalism about an eternal world soul, or “Great Brahmā” as the ground of all being, or root of all things, that in other cases the Buddha was keen to challenge. If you think the Buddha taught that everything is impermanent, then it follows that there is nothing “deathless.”


So from the First view, if we are to call it that, some people (not the Buddha) have certain additions to the definition of nibbana. These include ground of all being, root, eternal Atman etc which is not mentioned in EBTs. The term unconditioned (asankhata) isnt there to make it sound ‘beyond reach’ but rather there’s nothing fabricated (or arising and passing away) in nibbana. If we simply take nibbana as the place where arising and passing away stops (nirodha) it is the ending; the end of all dhammas, the ending of the All, the ending of planes of existence, the ending of All suffering.

In such an ending it is beyond any Self.


What do you mean by the “place” where it all stops?


Replace that with ‘the moment where it all stops’. :smiley:


Do you think that moment is unconditioned?


If sights, sounds, etc. stop arising while mindfully watching and it didn’t occur due to intense concentration, or drowsiness and the drawbacks of phenomena were apparent. Nothing would be seen if your eyes were open. Taken further the mindful observing consciousness ceases. You only know when you wake up from that state, that profound degree of stopping took place. Yes I would say that quite emphatically it was uncondioned or more precisely no conditioned phenomena were arising in that moment. Words describe better the world we know.