Introduction to Nibbana


Human beings encounter many prob­lems, which affect their hap­pi­ness and involve moral issues. The sit­u­a­tion can be summed up in one word: suf­fer­ing (dukkha). Say­ing that the pur­pose of life is to pur­sue hap­pi­ness implies suf­fer­ing: the very search for hap­pi­ness reveals an inner defi­cien­cy that dri­ves peo­ple to seek ful­fil­ment. This suf­fer­ing has many con­se­quences. The search for hap­pi­ness gives rise to con­flicts of inter­est and to social prob­lems. What begins as a per­son­al prob­lem is mag­ni­fied and spreads outwards.

By attend­ing to suf­fer­ing incor­rect­ly, the inher­ent stress which is part and par­cel of the con­di­tioned nature of life is neglect­ed rather than addressed.* With their sin­gu­lar inge­nu­ity peo­ple con­coct a whole host of prob­lems, until the basic predica­ment of life (of inher­ent stress) is vir­tu­al­ly for­got­ten. Peo­ple may even delude them­selves by think­ing that hap­pi­ness results from turn­ing a blind eye to suf­fer­ing. To make mat­ters worse, that inher­ent stress, which has been avoid­ed, covert­ly incites peo­ple to search for and indulge in ever more pas­sion­ate and rest­less forms of plea­sure, depriv­ing them of con­fi­dence and con­tent­ment. As a result, moral integri­ty is com­pro­mised in increas­ing­ly seri­ous ways and suf­fer­ing is exac­er­bat­ed. As long as peo­ple are unable to come to terms with this fun­da­men­tal aspect of life—unable to rec­on­cile them­selves to the uni­ver­sal char­ac­ter­is­tic of dukkha—they will not suc­ceed in resolv­ing their prob­lems. They will not escape the oppres­sion of dukkha, no mat­ter how much hap­pi­ness they find, and they will not meet with true hap­pi­ness, which is intrin­si­cal­ly com­plete and ful­ly satisfying.

Human life involves solv­ing prob­lems and seek­ing release from suf­fer­ing. But if we do not know the cor­rect way lead­ing to free­dom, our attempt­ed solu­tions to these prob­lems only bring about increased suf­fer­ing. The greater the effort, the greater the afflic­tion, becom­ing an ever more com­plex cycle: a whirlpool of suf­fer­ing. This state of affairs is saṁsāra-vaṭṭa, the ‘wan­der­ing around’ or round of rebirth, which the Bud­dha explained in the teach­ing of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion (paṭic­casamup­pā­da) under the cycle of orig­i­na­tion (samu­daya-vāra) and the for­ward sequence (anu­lo­ma-paṭic­casamup­pā­da). There it is revealed how human suf­fer­ing aris­es accord­ing to cause and effect.

When the Bud­dha taught Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion, he did not end with the ori­gin of suf­fer­ing. He also taught the cycle of ces­sa­tion (paṭic­casamup­pā­da-nirod­ha-vāra), which is the process of turn­ing back, or turn­ing away (vivaṭṭa): the end of suf­fer­ing. Human suf­fer­ing can be reme­died and there are ways to achieve this. The Bud­dha went on to reveal the supreme state, in which humans are able to live noble lives, enjoy gen­uine hap­pi­ness, and bring true ben­e­fit and mean­ing to life. They become free, with­out hav­ing to rely on exter­nal fac­tors or depend on the hap­pi­ness deter­mined by con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na. Con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na can­not sus­tain them­selves, let alone sus­tain our hap­pi­ness. Hap­pi­ness depen­dent on exter­nal things offers no true sup­port, since it con­tin­u­al­ly relies on these things. Seek­ing mean­ing in this inse­cure form of hap­pi­ness results in los­ing free­dom and independence.

One may not ful­ly attain the state of ‘turn­ing away’ at first, but to the extent that one cor­rect­ly attends to problems—reducing the force of the orig­i­na­tion cycle and increas­ing the force of the ces­sa­tion cycle—suffering will grad­u­al­ly abate and one’s life will be enhanced. One will be able to expe­ri­ence the plea­sures of the world with wis­dom, not enslaved to them or harmed by their fluc­tu­at­ing cur­rents. World­ly plea­sures will not be a source of trou­ble to one­self or oth­ers, and this healthy rela­tion­ship to plea­sure will pro­mote well-being with­in society.

The dis­cus­sion here focus­es on the ces­sa­tion cycle and the end of suf­fer­ing, which direct­ly oppos­es the orig­i­na­tion cycle with its resul­tant suffering.


* There are many Eng­lish trans­la­tions for dukkha, includ­ing: Suf­fer­ing, unsat­is­fac­tori­ness, stress, pain and mis­ery. The Bud­dha used this word in dif­fer­ent con­texts, most notably in: A) The Three (uni­ver­sal) Char­ac­ter­is­tics, refer­ring to the stress and pres­sure inher­ent in con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na; B) the Four Noble Truths, refer­ring to human suf­fer­ing caused by igno­rance and crav­ing; and C) the three kinds of feel­ing (vedanā), refer­ring to ‘painful sen­sa­tion’. The author here is high­light­ing the over­lap and con­nec­tion between con­texts A and B. In this sen­tence the terms ‘suf­fer­ing’ and ‘inher­ent stress’ are both defined by the Pali word ‘dukkha’ (or the Thai word took – ทุกข์). See ‘The Three Signs’ (pub. 2007), a trans­la­tion of chap­ter 3 of Bud­dhad­ham­ma on the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics (anic­ca, dukkha, anat­tā).