The State of Nibbana

The State of Nibbāna

Ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly, the term Nib­bā­na derives from the pre­fix ni- (‘out,’ ‘with­out,’ ‘fin­ished’ or ‘end­ed’), and vāna, (‘to blow,’ ‘to go,’ ‘to move,’ or in anoth­er sense a ‘restraint’). It can be used in rela­tion to fire or burn­ing, mean­ing extin­guish­ing, quench­ing, cool­ing, or coolness—but not extinc­tion. In ref­er­ence to the mind, it means peace­ful, refreshed, and hap­py: an absence of agi­ta­tion and anxiety.1 Sim­i­lar­ly, it refers to the end of defile­ments: of greed, hatred and delu­sion. The com­men­taries and sub-com­men­taries usu­al­ly define Nib­bā­na as the end of or escape from crav­ing, which binds peo­ple to repeat­ed existence.2

When the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) ends, free­dom from rebirth (vivaṭṭa) takes over imme­di­ate­ly and automatically.3 One does not trav­el from a place of saṁsāra-vaṭṭa to a place of vivaṭṭa, unless speak­ing fig­u­ra­tive­ly or com­par­a­tive­ly. Igno­rance, crav­ing and cling­ing cease and Nib­bā­na appears simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in their place. One can say that the ces­sa­tion of igno­rance, crav­ing and cling­ing is Nibbāna.

Igno­rance, crav­ing and cling­ing dis­turb the minds of unen­light­ened peo­ple (puthu­j­jana) and con­ceal wis­dom; they entan­gle the mind with defile­ments (kile­sa) and dis­tort vision. When igno­rance, crav­ing and cling­ing cease, lumi­nous wis­dom (vijjā) aris­es. With such wis­dom one sees all things accu­rate­ly, not through the lens of one’s desires. A person’s per­cep­tion, atti­tudes and per­son­al­i­ty change. A new knowl­edge and vision aris­es; things appear that one has nev­er known, seen or con­ceived of because they were con­cealed in the shad­ows or because one was obsessed with oth­er objects. The mind unfolds and expands immea­sur­ably; it is clear, free, resplen­dent, peace­ful, and pro­found. When the state of Nib­bā­na is reached a per­son knows this for himself:

Nib­bā­na is to be seen for one­self,4 time­less, invit­ing one to come and see, to be brought with­in and real­ized, to be expe­ri­enced indi­vid­u­al­ly by the wise.5

Ordi­nary peo­ple are unable to com­pre­hend or imag­ine the state of Nib­bā­na. When encoun­ter­ing new con­cepts peo­ple nor­mal­ly use pre­vi­ous knowl­edge as a basis for com­par­i­son, and in attempt­ing to under­stand Nib­bā­na they cre­ate an image that is a com­pos­ite of pre-exist­ing per­cep­tions. Take for exam­ple a per­son who has nev­er heard of an ele­phant. On hear­ing the word ‘ele­phant’ he may think it is a for­eign word or even an obscen­i­ty. Learn­ing that an ele­phant is an ani­mal, he may con­sid­er all ani­mals, from ants to whales, irre­spec­tive of size or type. The image is clear­er when he is told that an ele­phant is a large land ani­mal with big ears, small eyes, tusks, and trunk. This image may be close to real­i­ty or far from it; if he were to draw a pic­ture on paper of what he saw in his mind, it may resem­ble some bizarre, mytho­log­i­cal beast. Hav­ing nev­er seen the real thing, he uses famil­iar per­cep­tions to cre­ate an elab­o­rate new image. The image will depend both on the accu­ra­cy of the speaker’s descrip­tions of the object, and on the listener’s stored per­cep­tions used as com­po­nents for a new perception.

In the case of some­thing utter­ly dif­fer­ent from any­thing pre­vi­ous­ly per­ceived and thor­ough­ly incom­pa­ra­ble, the lis­ten­er has no way to con­ceive of it. If he attempts to under­stand this thing by means of famil­iar con­cepts and per­cep­tions, the only rea­son­able way for the speak­er to respond is by nega­tion. Fur­ther spec­u­la­tion by the lis­ten­er, using stored per­cep­tions for com­par­i­son, can lead to mis­un­der­stand­ing. He may even go so far as out­right rejec­tion, accus­ing the speak­er of decep­tion and claim­ing that the thing does not exist. Such rejec­tion, based on unfa­mil­iar­i­ty and an inabil­i­ty to con­ceive of some­thing, would be ungrounded.

Nib­bā­na is beyond every­thing known by ordi­nary peo­ple, sur­pass­ing cog­ni­tion influ­enced by igno­rance, crav­ing and cling­ing. It is a state arrived at direct­ly with the aban­don­ment of defile­ments, like slid­ing back a screen and see­ing the sky. Nib­bā­na has no prop­er­ties sim­i­lar to things known by ordi­nary peo­ple. But claim­ing Nib­bā­na does not exist is incorrect.

The fol­low­ing fable has been used to illus­trate how the unknown is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the unreal:

A fish and a tur­tle were close friends. The fish had spent its entire life in a lake, where­as the amphibi­ous tur­tle knew both land and lake. One day the tur­tle returned to the lake after a walk on land. He told the fish how refresh­ing it was to walk on land, among open fields and a pleas­ant breeze. The fish lis­tened for a while per­plexed and thought: ‘What is walk­ing?’ ‘What is dry land?’ ‘How can there be hap­pi­ness with­out water? Cer­tain­ly, it just spells death.’ The fish grew impa­tient and inter­rupt­ed the tur­tle, seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion. The tur­tle explained using earth terms; when the fish inquired with water terms, the tur­tle could only reject them. The tur­tle could not find any terms to use for com­par­i­son and the fish con­clud­ed that the tur­tle was lying, the sto­ry wasn’t true: dry land does not exist and nor do fields, pleas­ant breezes or hap­pi­ness out­side of water. The tur­tle spoke of some­thing that does exist but it lay beyond the fish’s ken. Since the fish had nev­er been on land it was unable to understand.

Con­sid­er the dis­tinct expe­ri­ence and per­cep­tion aris­ing from each of the sens­es. Sense impres­sions dif­fer absolute­ly from each oth­er and are not com­pa­ra­ble: sights can­not be com­pared with sounds, nor can sounds with smells. A per­son blind from birth can­not under­stand the nature of green, red, orange, pink or oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics of sight, using per­cep­tu­al knowl­edge from oth­er sense bases. Words such as ‘loud,’ ‘faint,’ ‘mal­odor­ous,’ ‘fra­grant,’ ‘sour’ or ‘sweet’ would all be inad­e­quate. No one can accu­rate­ly explain to a per­son born with­out the sense of smell the qual­i­ty of fetid, fra­grant, the smell of ros­es, cit­rus or jas­mine. Words such as ‘red,’ ‘blue,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘light,’ ‘fat,’ ‘thin,’ ‘bit­ter’ and ‘salty’ would all be unsuit­able. Human beings have five sense organs for cog­niz­ing the world’s prop­er­ties, the sense objects (āram­maṇa). Knowl­edge sur­pass­ing the domain of mun­dane objects will gen­er­al­ly remain hid­den. Even the five rec­og­nized sense objects are known accord­ing to dis­parate qual­i­ties. Lack of famil­iar­i­ty or an inabil­i­ty to con­ceive of some­thing is there­fore not a guar­an­tee of its non-existence.

Soon after the Buddha’s enlight­en­ment, before pro­claim­ing the Dham­ma, he had this thought:

The Dham­ma6 that I have attained is pro­found, dif­fi­cult to see, dif­fi­cult to real­ize, peace­ful, excel­lent, not acces­si­ble by rea­son­ing,7 sub­tle, to be known by the wise.

This is fol­lowed by the verse:

I should not now teach what I have attained with such tribu­la­tion; this Dham­ma can­not be eas­i­ly real­ized by those over­come with greed and hatred. Beings dyed in lust, enveloped in dark­ness (igno­rance), will not dis­cern that which goes against the cur­rent, is sub­tle, pro­found, dif­fi­cult to see, refined.8

Despite its com­plex­i­ty the Bud­dha made great effort to teach and explain the Dham­ma. How­ev­er, Nib­bā­na can­not be pen­e­trat­ed by mere thought. No words or per­cep­tions exist to accu­rate­ly describe or define it. Con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing and dis­put­ing the sub­ject of Nib­bā­na only leads to mis­un­der­stand­ing. The cor­rect way is to apply the teach­ings so as to arrive at Nib­bā­na and see it clear­ly for one­self. With prop­er deter­mi­na­tion, rather than being ‘incon­ceiv­able’ or ‘inde­scrib­able,’ Nib­bā­na is ‘dif­fi­cult to see, dif­fi­cult to real­ize,’ as quot­ed by the Bud­dha above.

The fol­low­ing quote is an affir­ma­tion by the Bud­dha that the real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na, and oth­er sub­lime states, can tru­ly occur, when the ‘eye’ of wis­dom opens. Fol­low­ing is the Buddha’s con­ver­sa­tion with the brah­min stu­dent Sub­ha. The Bud­dha refutes the brah­min Pokkharasāti’s asser­tion that it is impos­si­ble for humans to expe­ri­ence superla­tive knowl­edge and vision (ñāṇa-das­sana):

Young man, sup­pose there were a per­son blind from birth who could not see black forms, white forms, green, yel­low, red, or pink forms. He could not see even and uneven forms, the stars, the moon or the sun. Were he to say that black and white forms do not exist, and behold­ers of black and white forms do not exist; that green forms do not exist, and behold­ers of green forms do not exist … that the moon and sun do not exist, and behold­ers of the moon and sun do not exist; were he to say ‘I do not know or see those things, there­fore they do not exist’; would he be speak­ing correctly?’

Incor­rect­ly,’ the young man replied.

The Bud­dha then continued:

Just so, the brah­min Pokkha­rasāti is blind and vision­less. That he could know, see or real­ize out­stand­ing knowl­edge and vision, which is com­pe­tent, excel­lent and super­hu­man, is impos­si­ble.’ 9

It is worth not­ing the expres­sions the Bud­dha used when he spoke about Nib­bā­na. The def­i­n­i­tions of Nib­bā­na can be sum­marised in the fol­low­ing four ways:

By nega­tion: Those mark­ing the renun­ci­a­tion and removal of some infe­ri­or, unlove­ly or dis­ad­van­ta­geous con­di­tion belong­ing to the round of rebirth (vaṭṭa). For exam­ple: Nib­bā­na is the end of greed, hatred and delusion;10 Nib­bā­na is the ces­sa­tion of becoming;11 Nib­bā­na is the end of craving;12 and the con­clu­sion of suffering.13 Such descrip­tions also use terms reveal­ing a qual­i­ty direct­ly oppo­site to an attribute of vaṭṭa. For exam­ple, Nib­bā­na is uncon­di­tioned (asaṅkha­ta), age­less (ajara), and death­less (ama­ta).14

By syn­onym: Those indi­cat­ing com­ple­tion or per­fec­tion. For exam­ple, san­ta (peace­ful), paṇī­ta (excel­lent), sud­dhi (pure), and khe­ma (secure).

By sim­i­le and metaphor: Sim­i­les are more often used for explain­ing the state and traits of a per­son who has attained Nib­bā­na than for Nib­bā­na itself. For exam­ple, the com­par­i­son of an arahant15 to a bull, lead­ing his herd across the riv­er to arrive at the oth­er side,16 or to a per­son cross­ing a great ocean filled with dan­gers and reach­ing the shore.17 The Bud­dha claimed that it is inac­cu­rate to say an ara­hant is reborn (‘reap­pears’) some­where, or is not born; he com­pared an ara­hant to a fire that is extin­guished because there is no more fuel.18 There are some direct sim­i­les, for exam­ple: Nib­bā­na is like a tran­quil, pleas­ant region;19 like the oth­er shore, secure and free from danger;20 and like a mes­sage of truth.21 There are many metaphors, for exam­ple: āro­gya (with­out ill­ness; per­fect health), dīpa (an island; free­dom from dan­ger), and leṇa (a cave; shel­ter from dan­ger). In lat­er scrip­tures com­posed by dis­ci­ples there are metaphors refer­ring to Nib­bā­na as a city, e.g., pura­mut­ta­maṃ (mag­nif­i­cent city)22 and nib­bā­na-nagara (fortress of Nibbāna)23 used as ora­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary terms. Thai idioms include great death­less citadel (ama­ta-mahā­na­gara-nirvā­na), and crys­tal city, but these lat­er words are not rec­og­nized as terms that reveal the state of Nibbāna.

By direct expla­na­tion: These expla­na­tions occur in only a few places, but they are of much inter­est to schol­ars, espe­cial­ly for those who con­sid­er Bud­dhism a phi­los­o­phy. The vary­ing inter­pre­ta­tions have giv­en rise to numer­ous debates. I have pre­sent­ed a selec­tion below.

Epi­thets for Nib­bā­na are occa­sion­al­ly found grouped in a sin­gle pas­sage. Exam­ples of all four kinds of def­i­n­i­tion are list­ed below, in Pali alpha­bet­i­cal order.24

Akaṇha-asuk­ka: not black, not white (not con­fined to social class or caste; nei­ther good nor bad; nei­ther puñña nor pāpa).

Aka­ta: not made; not built.

Akiñ­cana: noth­ing lin­ger­ing in the mind; free from anxiety.

Aku­to-bhaya: fear­less.

Accu­ta: immov­able; undeparting.

Accha­riya: mar­vel­lous.

Ajaraaja­j­jara: age­less; undecaying.

Ajā­ta: not born.

Ana­ta: not swayed; absence of craving.

Anan­ta: lim­it­less.

Anādā­na: no grasping.

Anā­para: sub­lime; foremost.

Anālaya: with­out long­ing; absence of clinging.

Anāsa­va: with­out āsa­va (effluents/taints).

Anidas­sana: not seen with the eye; signless.

Anīti­ka: with­out calamity.

Anut­tara: unsur­passed; supreme.

Apaloki­ta (-na): not dis­in­te­grat­ing; not dissolving.

Abhaya: free of danger.

Abb­hū­ta: ‘has not been before’; wonderful.

Abyād­hi: with­out disease.

Abyā­pa­jjha: with­out oppression.

Abhū­ta: not com­ing to be.

Ama­ta: death­less.

Amosa-dham­ma: imper­ish­able.

Asaṅk­il­iṭṭha: unde­filed.

Asaṅkup­pa: unshake­able.

Asaṅkha­ta: not constructed.

Asaṅhīra: unshift­ing.

Aso­ka: sor­row­less.

Āro­gya: with­out sick­ness; per­fect health.

Issariya: free­dom; mastership.

Khe­ma: secu­ri­ty; safety.

Taṇhakkhaya: the end of craving.

Tāṇa: defend­er; protection.

Dīpa: island; refuge.

Dukkhakkhaya: the end of suffering.

Dud­dasa: dif­fi­cult to see.

Dhu­va: endur­ing.

Nipuṇa: sub­tle.

Nip­pa­pañ­ca: with­out obstruc­tive defile­ments; with­out papañ­ca.

Nib­bā­na: the ces­sa­tion of defile­ments and all suffering.

Nib­bu­ti: cool­ing; the allay­ment of affliction.

Nirod­ha: ces­sa­tion of suffering.

Paṇī­ta: excel­lent.

Para­mattha: the supreme benefit.

Para­ma-sac­ca: the supreme truth.

Pāra: the oth­er shore; safe destination.

Mut­ti: release; emancipation.

Mokkha: sal­va­tion.

Yogakkhe­ma: free­dom from bondage.

Leṇa: sanc­tu­ary; shel­ter from danger.

Vimut­ti: lib­er­a­tion; freedom.

Vimokkha: lib­er­a­tion.

Vira­ja: stain­less.

Virā­ga: the fad­ing, cool­ing off, and expi­ra­tion of lust.

Visud­dhi: puri­ty; impeccable.

Sac­ca: truth.

San­ta: peace­ful; still.

San­ti: peace.

Saraṇa: refuge.

Siva: high­est bliss.

Sud­dhi: puri­ty.

Sudud­dasa: exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to see.

There are many more ref­er­ences and descrip­tions for Nib­bā­na in the scrip­tures con­tain­ing vers­es by dis­ci­ples and in the com­men­taries (e.g., Nid­de­sa, Paṭisamb­hidā­mag­ga, Ther­agāthā, Therīgāthā, Apadā­na), as well as in lat­er scrip­tures, (e.g., Abhid­hā­nap­padīpikā). Exam­ples are list­ed below:

Akkhara: imper­ish­able; interminable.

Akhali­ta: unfal­ter­ing.

Acala: unwa­ver­ing.

Anāram­maṇa: free from con­straints; inde­pen­dent of sense objects.

Anup­pā­da: not born.

Apavagga: with­out for­ma­tions (saṅkhāra); final emancipation.

Ama­raṇa: death­less.

Arū­pa: with­out rūpa; formless.

Asap­at­ta: with­out enemies.

Asam­bād­ha: uncon­fined; unoppressed.

Kevala: unadul­ter­at­ed; inher­ent­ly complete.25

Nic­ca: con­stant; certain.

Niru­patā­pa: free from distress.

Paṭi­pas­sad­dhi: tran­quil­li­ty; calm.

Pada: place to be reached; destination.

Para: the beyond; the ultimate.

Pariyosā­na: con­clu­sion; goal.

Pahā­na: the aban­don­ment of defilements.

Vivaṭṭa: deliv­er­ance from the round of rebirth (vaṭṭa); with­out vaṭṭa.

Vūpasama: still­ness.

Some of these terms are very impor­tant, since they are con­sis­tent­ly used as def­i­n­i­tions for Nib­bā­na, for exam­ple: asaṅkha­ta, nirod­ha, vimut­ti, virā­ga, san­ta and san­ti. Oth­er words are used infre­quent­ly. Some are used in only one loca­tion, oth­ers in two or three loca­tions, so they should not be regard­ed as high­ly sig­nif­i­cant. They are includ­ed here to increase under­stand­ing. The same is true for the trans­la­tions. They pro­vide some sense of the mean­ing, but they might not give a com­plete flavour as they lack the sup­port­ive con­text. And most impor­tant­ly, many terms were famil­iar to peo­ple in the spe­cif­ic time peri­od, region and com­mu­ni­ty in which the Bud­dha taught and the terms were asso­ci­at­ed with their per­son­al val­ues or reli­gious beliefs. When the words were spo­ken, the lis­ten­ers prob­a­bly under­stood the mean­ing com­plete­ly. Some­times the Bud­dha used descrip­tive words for Nib­bā­na to facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion while sub­sti­tut­ing a new mean­ing in accor­dance with Bud­dha-Dham­ma. Peo­ple out­side of those time peri­ods, places and groups may not com­plete­ly under­stand the mean­ing of these words.

An impor­tant word for describ­ing Nib­bā­na is asaṅkha­ta (‘not con­struct­ed’). Nib­bā­na does not exist as a result of caus­es or con­di­tions. It may be claimed that Nib­bā­na must arise from caus­es, since Nib­bā­na is the fruit of mag­ga (the Path, the Way) or of prac­tice in accor­dance with the Way. This doubt can be answered briefly by way of anal­o­gy: if we com­pare prac­tice for reach­ing Nib­bā­na with trav­el­ling to the city of Chi­ang Mai, we see that Chi­ang Mai, which is the goal of the jour­ney, is not the result of the path or the act of trav­el­ling. Regard­less of the road or of trav­el­ling, Chi­ang Mai exists. The road and trav­el­ling are caus­es for reach­ing Chi­ang Mai, but not for Chi­ang Mai itself. It is the same with the Path and prac­tice along the Path, which are caus­es for attain­ing Nib­bā­na, but not for Nib­bā­na itself.26

Apart from vimut­ti, there are many oth­er syn­onyms that reveal facets of Nib­bā­na, as pre­sent­ed ear­li­er. Of all these syn­onyms, there are two often-used words that rep­re­sent impor­tant prop­er­ties: visud­dhi and san­ti. Visud­dhi is puri­ty or clean­ness, the absence of defile­ments which tar­nish and obscure, and the abil­i­ty to see things clear­ly. San­ti is peace, the absence of agi­ta­tion and afflic­tion, the end of tur­moil; this state of mind is serene, deep, cool, set­tled, self-reliant, able to ful­ly expe­ri­ence the fruits of prac­tice, and ready to be employed for action.

The few pas­sages that explain the state of Nib­bā­na explic­it­ly are pre­sent­ed below. In some cas­es a sto­ry is pro­vid­ed in order to give the con­text for the Buddha’s words:

1. At one time the Bud­dha gave a Dham­ma dis­course to the bhikkhus con­cern­ing Nib­bā­na. As the bhikkhus were lis­ten­ing intent­ly, the Bud­dha uttered this exclamation:

Monks, there exists that sphere (āyatana) where there is nei­ther the earth, water, fire, or air ele­ments; nor the realm of infi­nite space; nor the realm of infi­nite con­scious­ness; nor the realm of noth­ing­ness; nor the realm of nei­ther per­cep­tion nor non-per­cep­tion; nor this world; nor the next world; nor the moon; nor the sun. I do not say that that sphere has going, com­ing, aris­ing, stay­ing, or pass­ing away. It has nei­ther foun­da­tion, nor move­ment, nor con­straint (āram­maṇa). That is the con­clu­sion of suf­fer­ing.27

2. On anoth­er occa­sion, the Bud­dha gave a sim­i­lar teach­ing to the bhikkhus, and uttered this verse:

Indeed, ana­ta (the state of not inclin­ing towards birth; being with­out crav­ing, i.e., Nib­bā­na) is dif­fi­cult to see. Truth (sac­ca) is not eas­i­ly dis­cerned. Hav­ing pen­e­trat­ed crav­ing, and by know­ing and see­ing [the truth], there will be noth­ing lin­ger­ing in the mind (noth­ing to cause men­tal anx­i­ety).28

3. On a sim­i­lar occasion:

Monks, there is the Not-born (ajā­ta), Not-become (abhū­ta), Not-made (aka­ta), Not-con­struct­ed (asaṅkha­ta). If there were not the Not-born, Not-become, Not-made, Not-con­struct­ed, then there could not be known the escape here from the born, the become, the made and the con­struct­ed. But because there is the Not-born, Not-become, Not-made, Not-con­struct­ed, there­fore the escape here can be known from the born, become, made and con­struct­ed.29

4. On a sim­i­lar occasion:

Still being depen­dent, there is waver­ing. Not being depen­dent, there is no waver­ing. There being no waver­ing, there is tran­quil­li­ty. With tran­quil­li­ty, there is no favour­ing. With no favour­ing, no com­ing and going. With no com­ing and going, no pass­ing away and aris­ing. With no pass­ing away and aris­ing, there is nei­ther this world, the oth­er world, nor a between-the-two. This is the con­clu­sion of suf­fer­ing.30

5. Anoth­er account describes the Bud­dha cor­rect­ing the view of Brahma.31 In brief, at one time this per­ni­cious view arose in the Brah­ma named Baka:

This abode of Brah­ma is per­ma­nent, endur­ing and eter­nal. It is per­fect; there is no way for it to per­ish. This abode of Brah­ma is not born; it does not orig­i­nate, age, die, or pass away. A supe­ri­or sal­va­tion can­not be found.

The Bud­dha, know­ing Baka’s thought, went to him and said:

Brah­ma, you have lapsed into igno­rance. There­fore, you claim that which is imper­ma­nent as per­ma­nent, unsta­ble as endur­ing, and uneter­nal as eternal…and there being a supe­ri­or sal­va­tion, you claim there is none.

Then Māra32 pos­sessed one of Brahma’s ret­inue, who spoke to the Buddha:

Bhikkhu, bhikkhu, do not offend Brah­ma, do not offend Brah­ma. This is Brah­ma, the Great Brah­ma, the Lord (abhib­hū), the Unvan­quished, The All See­ing One, the Omnipo­tent, the Sov­er­eign, the Mak­er, the Cre­ator, Excel­lence, Prov­i­dence, the Mas­ter, Father of those born and to be born…

The Bud­dha admon­ished Māra, fin­ish­ing with:

Brah­ma and all his com­pa­ny and ret­inue are in your hands, are in your power…but I have not fall­en into your hands, nor am I under your power.

When Baka maintained:

I have declared the per­ma­nent as per­ma­nent, the endur­ing as endur­ing, the eter­nal as eternal…

The Bud­dha announced there are many things that Brah­ma does not know, including:

The state that can be known (viññāṇa), not seen with the eyes (anidas­sana),33 lim­it­less (anan­ta), and all radi­ant (sab­ba­to-pab­hā),34 which the solid­i­ty of earth can­not hold, the wet­ness of water…the heat of fire…the move­ment of wind can­not hold, the exis­tence of beings…the divin­i­ty of devas…the rule of Pajāpati…the grandeur of Brahma…the bril­liance of the Ābhas­sara Brahmas…the beau­ty of the Sub­hak­iṇha Brahmas…the abun­dance of the Vehap­pha­la Brah­mas can­not hold, the lord­ship of the Lord can­not hold, the char­ac­ter­is­tics of all things can­not hold.

Baka replied to this by say­ing that he would van­ish from sight, but he was unable to do so. The Bud­dha in turn said he would van­ish and did van­ish. Brah­ma and his ret­inue could only hear his voice speaking:

Hav­ing seen the dan­ger in being, and seen the exis­tence of those who seek non-being (vib­ha­va), I do not praise any sort of being, nor cling to delight (i.e., bha­vataṇhā: the crav­ing for being).35

6. Anoth­er sto­ry tells of a bhikkhu who trav­elled through every realm until he reached the Brah­ma world, seek­ing an answer to a question.

This bhikkhu had the fol­low­ing doubt: Where are the four great ele­ments – earth, water, fire and air – extin­guished with­out remain­der? He then entered a state of con­cen­tra­tion and vis­it­ed the var­i­ous deities, begin­ning with the realm of the Four Great Kings, to pose his ques­tion. Unable to answer him, the gods sug­gest­ed he go to pro­gres­sive­ly high­er heav­en realms until he arrived at the Brah­ma world. The Brah­mas too could not answer but said that the Great Brah­ma, the Lord, would sure­ly know. With a radi­ance the Great Brah­ma revealed him­self to that bhikkhu.

The bhikkhu posed his ques­tion to the Great Brah­ma, who prevaricated:

I am Brah­ma, Great Brah­ma, the Lord, the Unvan­quished, the All See­ing One, the Omnipo­tent, the Sov­er­eign, the Mak­er, the Cre­ator, Excel­lence, Prov­i­dence, the Mas­ter, Father of those born and to be born.

The bhikkhu continued:

I did not ask you if you are Brah­ma, Great Brah­ma, the Lord… I asked you where the four great ele­ments are extin­guished with­out remainder.

Brah­ma replied again, that he is Great Brah­ma, the Lord, etc.

The bhikkhu asked again, for a third time, at which point Brah­ma took him by the arm and led him to one side, saying:

Monk, these gods, fol­low­ers of Brah­ma, rec­og­nize me as one for whom there is noth­ing not known, seen, expe­ri­enced, or real­ized. There­fore, I did not answer in front of them. Monk, I also do not know where the four great ele­ments are extin­guished with­out remain­der. It is thus your mis­deed and mis­take that you have aban­doned the Blessed One, and come to search for an answer to this prob­lem else­where. Go and approach the Blessed One to pose this ques­tion and accept what­ev­er answer he gives.

The bhikkhu then went to ask the Bud­dha, who answered:

You should not ask: ‘Where are the four great ele­ments – earth, water, fire and air – extin­guished with­out remain­der?’ You should ask: ‘Where can earth, water, fire and air find no foot­ing? Where can long and short, small and large, beau­ti­ful and repul­sive find no firm ground? Where do men­tal­i­ty and cor­po­re­al­i­ty ter­mi­nate with­out remainder?’

He then explained as follows:

The state that can be known (viññāṇa), not seen with the eyes (anidas­sana),36 lim­it­less (anan­ta), and can be reached from every direc­tion (sab­batopab­hā),37 here, earth, water, fire and air can find no foot­ing; long and short, fine and coarse, beau­ti­ful and repul­sive can find no firm ground; men­tal­i­ty and cor­po­re­al­i­ty ter­mi­nate with­out remain­der. Because sense con­scious­ness (viññāṇa) ceas­es, men­tal­i­ty and cor­po­re­al­i­ty ter­mi­nate here.38

These descrip­tions of Nib­bā­na have result­ed in var­i­ous inter­pre­ta­tions and debates. Some schol­ars inter­pret the last two pas­sages as a Bud­dhist attempt to com­bat Brah­man­ism by assim­i­la­tion, by incor­po­rat­ing the Brah­man­ic per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of God. Note that in all these pas­sages the Bud­dha was either teach­ing bhikkhus, who had a basic knowl­edge of Dham­ma, or was speak­ing to Brah­ma, who is a mas­ter the­o­reti­cian. I will not elab­o­rate upon these details here, but remem­ber that this dis­par­i­ty of inter­pre­ta­tion aris­es because Nib­bā­na can­not be con­ceived of; it must be known direct­ly through spir­i­tu­al practice.

Pali words are some­times trans­lat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. The word āyatana in the first pas­sage, for exam­ple, can be trans­lat­ed as ‘sphere’, and some inter­pret this to mean a dwelling or place. Oth­ers inter­pret āyatana as anoth­er dimen­sion. The word viññāṇa, in pas­sages five and six, is con­sid­ered by some to be iden­ti­cal with viññāṇa in the expres­sions eye-viññāṇa, ear-viññāṇa, etc. They thus inter­pret Nib­bā­na as some form of con­scious­ness, defin­ing Nib­bā­na as a con­scious­ness that is not seen with the eyes, etc. In the com­men­taries, how­ev­er, viññāṇa is explained in this pas­sage to be a name for Nib­bā­na, ‘the state that can be known’, as used above.39 We can see that in pas­sage six the word viññāṇa occurs twice. The first viññāṇa refers to Nib­bā­na, with its own dis­tinct trans­la­tion (‘the state that can be known’), while the lat­ter viññāṇa, in the phrase ‘viññāṇa ceas­es,’ refers to the con­scious­ness that is the con­di­tion for the aris­ing of men­tal­i­ty and cor­po­re­al­i­ty as explained in the paṭic­casamup­pā­da.

We should refrain from draw­ing con­clu­sions about Nib­bā­na sim­ply because an inter­pre­ta­tion accords with our pref­er­ences and pre­con­cep­tions. If we estab­lish firm con­vic­tions about some­thing we do not yet clear­ly know, we may be great­ly deceived. Rather, we should put our empha­sis on those meth­ods lead­ing to Nib­bā­na along with the ben­e­fits of grad­ual lib­er­a­tion. This is more prac­ti­cal. As our spir­i­tu­al prac­tice devel­ops, we will clear­ly see the results for ourselves.

Although we may have con­sid­ered these expla­na­tions of Nib­bā­na, if we have not prac­tised and arrived at this state, we should remem­ber that all ideas of Nib­bā­na are com­pa­ra­ble to the image the blind men formed after touch­ing the ele­phant. The sto­ry from the Pali, in brief, is as follows:

At one time in the city of Sāvatthī, a large num­ber of reli­gious ascetics, wan­der­ers, and brah­mins, of var­i­ous creeds, adhered to their own beliefs and doc­trines as the only truth, while repu­di­at­ing those of oth­ers. This gave rise to quar­relling: ‘The truth is this way, not that way; the truth is not that way, it is this way.’ In response the Bud­dha told the fol­low­ing story:

In for­mer times a king of Sāvatthī ordered his advi­sors to gath­er all those men in the city who were blind from birth and present them with an ele­phant. The advi­sors showed one group of blind men the elephant’s head; to anoth­er they showed the elephant’s ear. They showed the tusks to anoth­er group, the trunk, the abdomen, the legs, the back, the tail, the tip of the tail, to each sep­a­rate group, say­ing each time that this is an ele­phant. They then informed the king that the blind men had become famil­iar with the ele­phant. The king went to the gath­er­ing of the blind and asked them, ‘Have you seen the ele­phant?’ They replied, ‘We have seen it, Your Majesty.’ The king inquired fur­ther: ‘As you say you have seen an ele­phant, what is it like?’

Those blind men who had touched the head said that an ele­phant is like a water-pot. Those who felt the ears said an ele­phant is like a win­now­ing bas­ket. Those who touched the tusks – a ploughshare. Those who touched the trunk – a plough shaft. Those who touched the abdomen said an ele­phant is like a gra­nary. Those who touched the legs, like a pil­lar. Those who touched the back, like a mor­tar. Those who touched the tail, like a pes­tle. Those who touched the tip of the tail said an ele­phant is like a broom. When this was fin­ished, the blind men began to argue – an ele­phant is this way, not that way; an ele­phant is not that way, it is this way – to the point of brawling.

At the end the Bud­dha uttered this verse:

Indeed, some ascetics and brah­mins cling to such views and doc­trines; peo­ple who see only one part, being con­tentious, argue and quar­rel.40

*   *   *

1 In this con­text, the verb and adjec­tive form nibbu­ta is most often used, e.g.: A. I. 162; 197; A. II. 212; Sn. 153; AA. II. 259, 307; AA. III. 184; NidA. I. 199; in par­tic­u­lar: DhA. I. 85; JatA. I. 60; BudA. 280.

2 Analy­ses of the word Nib­bā­na occur at many scrip­tur­al pas­sages, espe­cial­ly: Nid2. 33; VinA.: Pārājikaṇḍaṃ, Paṭhamapārājikaṃ, Sudinnab­hāṇavāravaṇṇana; DA. II. 464; AA. II. 283; KhA. 151; ItA. I. 165; SnA. I. 253, 299; NidA. I. 82, 104; DhsA. 409; Vism. 293–4; VinṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhā­go, Ver­añ­jakaṇḍavaṇṇanā, Vinaya­paññat­tiyā­canakathā; Vis­mṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhā­go, Samād­hinid­de­savaṇṇanā, Samād­hi-ānisaṅsakathā­vaṇṇanā; Com­pṬ.: Abhid­ham­matthav­ib­hāv­inīṭīkā, Para­matthad­ham­mavaṇṇanā; most of these expla­na­tions are iden­ti­cal or sim­i­lar. Fur­ther def­i­n­i­tions include: ‘free from the jun­gle’ (i.e., the tan­gle of impu­ri­ties): A. III. 344; AA. III. 371; Dh. verse 283; [DhA. 6/71]; and ‘an end to the tri­ad of dukkha’: dukkha-dukkha, vipar­iṇā­ma-dukkha, and saṅkhāra-dukkha: Vis­mṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhā­go, Samād­hinid­de­savaṇṇanā, Samād­hi-anisaṅsakathā­vaṇṇanā. The Dham­mav­icāraṇa of Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vaji­rañāṇavaro­rasa includes: free of ‘pierc­ing arrows’ (Mahā­maku­ta Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1958, p. 55).

3 The words saṁsāra-vaṭṭa and vivaṭṭa are used here cor­re­spond­ing to the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage; they are not the orig­i­nal spe­cif­ic terms. In the Canon, the pre­ferred terms for saṁsāra-vaṭṭa are saṁsāra (e.g., S. II. 178; A. II. 12) and vaṭṭa (e.g., S. III. 64; S. IV. 52; Ud. 75). In lat­er texts the two were used as a com­pound (e.g., Nd1. 343; Nd2. 17). As for vivaṭṭa, it was not gen­er­al­ly used in the Canon in this sense, except in the Paṭisamb­hidā­mag­ga (e.g., Ps1. 2, 107–11.) Lat­er, in the com­men­taries and sub-com­men­taries it was abun­dant­ly used (e.g., Vism. 694; VinA.: Pācit­tiyakhaṇḍaṃ, Musāvā­davaggo, Pada­sod­ham­masikkhā­pa­davaṇṇanā; AA. III. 337; Vis­mṬ.: Paṭhamo Bhā­go, Sīlanid­de­savaṇṇanā, Dutiyasīlapañcakavaṇṇanā.)

4 Author: alter­na­tive­ly, ‘real­iz­able in this lifetime’.

5 A. I. 158–9; note that these five qual­i­ties are iden­ti­cal to the last five qual­i­ties of the Dham­ma. This is con­sis­tent with the expla­na­tion that the first qual­i­ty of the Dham­ma (svākkhā­to) is the teach­ing, lat­er called pariy­at­ti-dham­ma, the Dham­ma that should be stud­ied. Qual­i­ties 2–6 (san­dit­thiko to pac­cat­taṁ ved­itab­bo viññūhi) are attrib­ut­es spe­cif­ic to lokut­tara-dham­ma, the Tran­scen­dent (Vism. 215–18).

6 Author: The word Dham­ma here refers to Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion, Nib­bā­na, or the Four Noble Truths – the essen­tial mean­ing is the same.

7 Author: Not with­in the realm of reasoning.

8 Vin. 1. 5; M. I. 168.

9 M. II. 201–2.

10 S. IV. 251, 261.

11 S. II. 117. 

12 S. III. 190. 

13 This last is an indi­rect rather than an explic­it def­i­n­i­tion. See e.g., S. IV. 43; Ud. 80; It. 47.

14 For the sources of all these sin­gle words see below (n. 24).

15 [A per­fect­ly awak­ened being.]

16 M. I. 226.

17 S. IV. 157, 174.

18 M. I. 486–7; S. IV. 399.

19 S. III. 108–9.

20 S. IV. 174. 

21 S. IV. 195.

22 Ap. 530.

23 Miln.: Book IV, Aṭṭhamav­aggo, no. 5: The Gift of Ves­san­tara (dilem­ma 71). 

24 From many sources, the impor­tant ones being: S. IV. 359–373; M. I. 173; A. II. 247–8; Ud. 80–1; S. IV. 210.

25 Kevala (San­skrit: kaivalya) is a word express­ing the ulti­mate goal of the Jain reli­gion. In the Bud­dhist Pali Canon this word is not used as a direct ref­er­ence to Nib­bā­na, but rather as a name for some­one who has attained Nib­bā­na, e.g., kevalī or kebalī. In many loca­tions, e.g.: S. I. 167; A. I. 162; M. II. 144; A.V. 16; Sn. 88.

26 This mat­ter is dis­cussed in the Milin­da­pañhā: Book IV, Sat­ta­mo vaggo, no. 8: Nib­bā­nas­sa Atthib­hā­va­pañho (dilem­ma 65).

27 Ud. 80–81.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 [Brah­ma: in Brah­man­ism the chief of the gods, cre­ator of the universe.]

32 The ‘Evil One’, the ‘Tempter’, per­son­i­fied as a deity.

33 Anoth­er trans­la­tion is ‘incom­pa­ra­ble’.

34 Anoth­er trans­la­tion is ‘can be reached from every direc­tion,’ or ‘can be reached by every method,’ i.e., can be attained by every method of kam­maṭṭhā­na.

35 M. I. 327–8.

36 See n. 33.

37 Anoth­er trans­la­tion is ‘all radiant’.

38 D. I. 215–223.

39 DA. II. 393: MA. II. 412.

40 Ud. 67–8.