What IS Nibbana, exactly?


It is never described, because it is confusing to speculate on something that exists outside of conditioned reality. Language is only able to articulate adequately that which is within conditioned existence. You are sorta opening a can-of-worms that could never be properly described. A thicket of confusion ensues. It’s no wonder Buddha Gotama never bothered describing it. It’s rather pointless. Better to take the standance, “go and see for yourself,” rather than trying to intellectualize something outside of intellectualization.


Are you saying this from your experiences or Mahayana suttas then, if it isn’t in the Pali?


It would make no sense for it to be in the Pali texts or any other texts because there is no point in describing something that is essentially ineffable in all languages, since it would only lead to unnecessary confusion. There is no coming to an understating through logic or reasoned thinking in this issue.

My rendering of “bare-potential-awareness” is laughable, but’s the only linguistic conceptualization I’ve come up with and it certainly produces more confusion than any real resolute understanding. Which is the problem and why Buddha Gotama didn’t even touch it. Sorta like how the Abhidhamma compilers invented the word bhavaṅga to articulate the passive impersonal continuation of probabilities that transmigrates rebirths.

I went out on a precarious limb even attempting to articulate this conceptually. When something exists outside the realm of conditioned reality any attempt to articulate it will fail.


What reason is there for believing that anything exists outside conditioned existence? Why not say that everything that comes to be, comes to be because of and in some way dependent on antecedent conditions.


You can say and believe whatever you want. Your prerogative. I am not a doctrinal propagating missionary. Wouldn’t want to be. People believe in all sorts of things like eternal omniscient creator gods and eternal heavens and hells. Permanent unchanging souls. This is almost universal. There are all kinds of views in this world. Adhere to what you want…

Intellectual contemplation on the unconditioned is an unfruitful endevour.


We shouldn’t say what we like nibbana to be. Do a detached study of the suttas.


Here is the endless loop. It occurs rarely in the suttas. Usually, one reads only one of these in a sequence.

So: name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. --DN15


Consciousness can’t be it, because consciousness is conditioned and ‘bare potential awareness’ isn’t.


Dear Mat,
To be honest, I first thought of ignoring your above statement, but then, I thought No, I might be wrong in my interpretation of the Itivuttaka Sutta which has now become our point of discussion.

I do not profess to be one hundred percent competent in anything let alone Dhamma and therefore I would sincerely appreciate if you could pin point relevant sections from the Itivuttaka Sutta in particular and any other Sutta in general where Nibbana can be understood to be anything other than just ending of formations sankhara.

Thank you in advance.
With Metta


Did you notice this posted above:


Given that we are looking back in time 2,500 years, there is no way that we can know the original intention of the authors. We can either take such passages at face value, or interpret them in a metaphorical way - though similes and metaphors are usually clearly identified as such in the EBTs.


You could say that, but it’s closer to the Mahayana view of sunyata. In the EBTs there is clear description of an unconditioned as an “escape” from the conditioned, and this is a distinguishing mark of Theravada.


This is probably worth checking out. I have a copy from Wat Pah Nanachat, but haven’t gone through the whole thing. It’s a gem of quotes and insight.

With Metta,



A search for unconditioned (which is now an SCV suggested search term) reveals the following.

And what is the unconditioned?
The ending of greed, hate, and delusion.
This is called the unconditioned.

The very existence of the Buddha being in Nibbana himself walking about teaching the Dhamma is itself the proof that Nibbana is concrete and not mere extinguishment. The Buddha did not disappear into a puff of smoke. I believe this is what Mat is pointing out in linking to Ven. Bodhi:

So all these terms, considered as a whole, clearly establish that Nibbana is an actual
reality and not the mere destruction of defilements or the cessation of existence. Nibbana
is unconditioned, without any origination and is timeless.

Oh. I thought @Lokantara meant bare potential awareness was everyday conditioned consciousness (i.e., “barely aware”) vs. Fully Aware Nibbana. Perhaps Lokanatara can clarify for us since you and I understood him differently.


The way I see it
Attaining Nibbana = The enlightened state (‘X has attained enlightenment’)
The actual element of Nibbana = nibbana dhathu

Removing craving, aversion and delusion is necessary to access the nibbana dhathu through developing the Noble eightfold path.

I hope that’s a bit clearer.

The Far Shore

Hi Karl,

Thank you for pointing out the relevant paragraph from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay on Nibbana and I would make clear my understanding of Nibbana as follows.

Let’s first take the first link of Dependent Origination (DO) - conditioned by ignorance are formations. As far as I understand DO, all living beings are formations Sankhara . It is due to their not understanding this truth that they keep on harbouring greed, hatred and delusion using a non-existent self as scapegoat. In this process, living beings accumulate the five aggregates which are also formations. Due to Kammic potential of this accumulation of the five aggregates, living beings get reborn again and again. This is what, in brief, the DO shows.

If we now consider DO in the opposite direction, it says that cessation of ignorance is cessation of formations. That means a living being, having understood DO, has embarked on the path and completely got rid of the self view and halted the accumulation of the five aggregates. When that living being dies, mere formations come to an end without any residue remaining.

Now let’s take the Ahara Sutta SN 12.11 wherein the Buddha speaks about the four nutrients - solid food, contact, mental volition and consciousness. The source of the four food is ignorance which is not realizing the four Noble Truths which takes living beings in Samsara as shown in DO above. Then the Buddha speaks about cessation of food in Suttas SN 47.42, SN 22.56 and SN 22.57. In all these three Suttas a commonality is that when solid food is not supplied, form ends and when name & form cease consciousness or mind ceases. That means when consciousness or mind ceases, there is no any residue remaining because consciousness or mind is always in unison with name & form.

In SN 4.23, the Buddha declares that Godhika attained parinibbana when he committed suicide because his consciousness was not established (on any name & form). A similar incident is reported in SN 22.87 in respect of Vakkali.

In SN 12.64 we find the Buddha explaining the same principle using the sun as an example. He says that when the sun rises from the east, its rays fall on the western wall. If the western wall is not there, it falls on the ground. If the ground is not there, it falls on water. If water is also not there, it does not fall anywhere. This is again the same principle of consciousness being unestablished anywhere or anything.

Then in another Sutta the name of which I do not remember, the Buddha admonishes a monk who had fallen behind in practice after attaining anagami because the monk when questioned by the Buddha says that he would continue the rest of his practice once he has gone to Brahma world. The Buddha states that he does not tolerate even a tiny bit of existence. The Buddha says feces - a reference to defilements - smell bad whether it is little or a big quantity.

Then again we have MN.44 wherein Venerable Dhammadinna clarifies to Visaka that Nibbana is the culmination, destination and end of the spiritual life. She specifically says that Visaka’s questioning goes too far when Visaka asks her what the counterpart of Nibbana is.

And finally, we have DN.11 wherein we find the following explanation about consciousness.

“consciousness that is non-manifestative, infinite, radiant all around. Here’s where water and earth, fire and air find no footing. Here’s where long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly; here’s where name and form cease with nothing left over- with the cessation of consciousness all these come to an end”

From all the above Suttas, it is very clear that parinibbana is the end of the journey with nothing remaining. If I may add, if there is any residue which can be called element or dhatu or whatever, the Buddha’s solution to the Samsaric problem is far from satisfactory. And the fact that the Buddha’s solution - Nibbana - is not such an unsatisfactory solution is overwhelmingly proven by the Sutta references mentioned above.

With regard to Dhamma which, Bhikkhu Bodhi (BB) mentions in his essay on Nibbana, whether it is conditioned or unconditioned, the Buddha’s advice in MN.37 is not to hold on to any Dhamma. And when it is so, he or she becomes personally extinguished and they understand that rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.

Let’s now look closely at the following paragraphs from BB’s essay.

“So all these terms, considered as a whole, clearly establish that Nibbana is an actual reality and not the mere destruction of defilements or the cessation of existence. Nibbana is unconditioned, without any origination and is timeless”

And BB’s concluding paragraph.

“The passing away of an arahant is the final and complete passing out from conditioned existence. It does not lead to a new birth. In his own experience, the arahant sees only the cessation of a process, not the death of a self. The experience for him is without subjective significance, without reference to ‘me’ or ‘mine’. At this stage the residue of the five aggregates comes to an end”

I find the above two paragraphs contradicting each other if we are to understand from the first paragraph Nibbana to mean anything as ayatana or dhatu or whatever existing in some way however subtle it may be. The reason why I think so is because in the concluding paragraph BB says that residue of the five aggregates comes to end. We all know that the five aggregates are formations sankhara. If formations of the five aggregates come to an end without residue how can BB suggest anything contrary to that in the other paragraph quoted above?. BB with all his eminence in the Buddha’s teaching is unlikely to make such a glaring contradiction.

Therefore, my humble opinion is that when BB says Nibbana is an actual reality, he means Nibbana is an experiential reality for the living arahant beyond destruction of defilements and cessation of existence. Because the living arahant, as I quoted above, knows that his existence has come to end with the ending of defilements.

I sincerely hope I made my point as clear as it can be.
With Metta


Often when I see doctrinal terms like khandhas, sankhara, and dhatu being thrown around it reminds me how they have no relevance to life because they seem to be merely units in a Buddhist philosophical chess game.

If you don’t take dhatu = ‘element’ as a given and go through the suttas you might find that a better translation is ‘quality’. Nibbana dhatu then loses its atomistic implication.

I have no idea what sankhara is supposed to be. ‘Formation’ could mean literally anything.

The khandhas are categories themselves, functional boxes, abstractions, not pointing to anything in particular.

The triplet of greed, hatred, delusion is tautological. You can point to nothing that is not one of them, thus they have no explanatory value.

I don’t see how these pragmatic vague categories can help to determine nibbana, unless in a tautological way.

I know there is a buddhist lingo in which all these terms make perfect discoursive sense, but other than hammering out a nice tautological definition for nibbana I see little that can be used in meditation or the challenges of daily life that would be helpful.


Actually, the dukkha/feeling triplets have helped me a lot in daily life. The triplets crack open duality by offering a third dimension of consideration. For example, when I finally understood the neutral feeling, it helped me be more spontaneous and less OCD about planning ahead. And each of these small insights has always pointed towards the possibility of complete freedom from defilements, a living nibbana.

And how did I understand that neutral feeling? Well, I finally realized that I had a neutral feeling towards the neutral feeling. :see_no_evil: D’oh.

Hang in there! It’s worth figuring out how this all relates to our lives, not just in discourse.


I’ll take a stab at being more precise in this if I can.

“Bare-potential-awareness” might best described as a quantum field of probability that is quasi-individuated. When it has an object before it a bridge(citta) is formed that coalesces the probability potential into a newly formed “focused awareness.” From this newly formed “focused awareness” would arise sankhara. The avija that comes before sankhara is the false illusion of atta combined with various degrees of lobha, dosa, or moha that arise with the object. This isn’t the same as phassa(contact) in DO, but is what could be considered the birth of what the Abhidhamma describes as the bhavaṅga, essentially, so it’s a sorta precursor so-to-speak.

The obvious first “object,” at-least to me, that would come before the “bare-potential-awareness” would be cetanā itself.


I think the Buddha in many chapters of the samyutta nikaya and in many suttas in other nikayas talked about khandas, sankhara etc. It’s incorrect to think that developing insight into these phenomena in our daily life leads to zero progress. In the Anattalakkhana sutta SuttaCentral this progression is stated, and in leads to cessation.

That’s like ‘walking’ doesn’t point to anything.

This statement is reasonable if there’s no understanding of their practical value.

Getting past the hindrances this is what allows us to get past asava into nibbana.