Value & Unique Attributes of Nibbana

Value and Unique Attributes of Nibbāna

1. Nibbāna is Attainable in this Lifetime

Nib­bā­na, which is the high­est goal of Bud­dhism, can be real­ized by peo­ple in this present life, when they apply effort and are endowed with the nec­es­sary qual­i­ties. One need not wait until the next life, as revealed by Nibbāna’s attrib­ut­es sandiṭṭhikaṃ (seen clear­ly by one­self; real­iz­able in this life) and akā­likaṃ (not sub­ject to time; immediate).1 The Bud­dha offered ways of prac­tice for real­iz­ing Nib­bā­na in this present life,2 as con­firmed by this passage:

I tell you this: Let a wise per­son come to me who is sin­cere, hon­est and straight­for­ward, and I will instruct him, I will teach him Dham­ma. If he prac­tis­es what he is taught, then with­in sev­en years by real­iz­ing for him­self here and now through direct knowl­edge he will enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clans­men right­ly go forth from the home life into home­less­ness. Let alone sev­en years—in six years, five years… a fort­night, in sev­en days he can achieve that goal.3

2. Nibbāna Is Attainable By All

Every per­son with deter­mi­na­tion and spir­i­tu­al apti­tude can real­ize Nib­bā­na. No restric­tions exist con­cern­ing race, class, caste, wealth, gen­der, or whether one is a house­hold­er or monas­tic, as ver­i­fied by the Buddha’s verses:

The straight way’ that path is called,

And ‘fear­less’ is its destination.

The char­i­ot is called ‘silent,’

Fit­ted with wheels of righteousness.

A sense of shame is its rear-guard,

Mind­ful­ness its armour;

I say this Dham­ma vehicle,

Has right view guid­ing as charioteer.

One who has such a vehicle,

Whether a woman or a man,

Has, by means of this vehicle,

Arrived at the abode of Nib­bā­na.4

The Bud­dha per­mit­ted women to be ordained as bhikkhu­nis despite the oppo­si­tion by ele­ments of Indi­an soci­ety at that time; he claimed that women who fol­low the Dham­ma-vinaya are capa­ble of real­iz­ing super­mun­dane states, from stream-entry to ara­hantship, equal­ly as men.5

At one time, Somā Bhikkhunī was sit­ting at the foot of a tree when Māra approached, and want­i­ng to dis­turb and fright­en her, exclaimed in verse:

That state so hard to achieve

Which is to be attained by the seers,

Can­not be attained by a woman

With her two-fin­gered wisdom.

Somā Therī replied:

What does wom­an­hood mat­ter at all

When the mind is con­cen­trat­ed well,

When knowl­edge flows on steadily,

See­ing cor­rect­ly into Dhamma.

One to whom it might occur,

I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man’

Or I am any­thing at all—

Is fit for Māra to address.6

In rela­tion to house­hold­ers and monas­tics the Bud­dha had this to say:

I do not praise the wrong way of prac­tice on the part either of a house­hold­er or one gone forth; for whether it be a house­hold­er or one gone forth, one who has entered on the wrong way of prac­tice, by rea­son of his wrong way of prac­tice, is not accom­plish­ing the true way, the Dham­ma that is whole­some. I praise the right way of prac­tice on the part either of a house­hold­er or one gone forth; for whether it be a house­hold­er or one gone forth, one who has entered on the right way of prac­tice, by rea­son of his right way of prac­tice, is accom­plish­ing the true way, the Dham­ma that is whole­some.7

I say there is no dif­fer­ence between a lay fol­low­er who is (thus) lib­er­at­ed in mind and a bhikkhu who has been lib­er­at­ed in mind for a hun­dred years, that is, the one lib­er­a­tion is the same as the oth­er.8

Caste was a seri­ous issue of debate and con­tro­ver­sy in India about which the Bud­dha fre­quent­ly dis­coursed. One exam­ple is the dis­cus­sion between the Bud­dha and the brah­man Esukārī:

Mas­ter Gota­ma, the brah­mans pre­scribe four types of wealth:… they pre­scribe wan­der­ing for alms as the wealth of a brah­man… the bow and the quiver as the wealth of a noble… farm­ing and cat­tle-breed­ing as the wealth of a mer­chant… the sick­le and car­ry­ing-pole as the wealth of a work­er… What does Mas­ter Gota­ma say about this?’

Well, brah­man, has all the world autho­rized the brah­mans to pre­scribe these four types of wealth?’ – ‘No, Mas­ter Gota­ma.’ – ‘Sup­pose, brah­man, they were to force a cut of meat upon a poor, pen­ni­less, des­ti­tute man and tell him: “Good man, you must eat this meat and pay for it”; so too, with­out the con­sent of those [oth­er] reclus­es and brah­mans, the brah­mans nev­er­the­less pre­scribe these four types of wealth.

I, brah­man, declare the noble super­mun­dane Dham­ma as a person’s own wealth… What do you think, brah­man? Sup­pose a head-anoint­ed noble king were to assem­ble here a hun­dred men of dif­fer­ent birth and say to them: “Come, sirs, let any here who have been born into a noble clan or a brah­man clan or a roy­al clan take a fire-stick of teak, sal-wood, pine, san­dal-wood, or pome­gran­ate wood and light a fire and pro­duce heat. And also let any who have been born into an out­cast clan, a trap­per clan, a wick­er work­ers’ clan, a cartwrights’ clan, or a scav­engers’ clan take a fire–stick made from a dog’s drink­ing trough, from a pig’s trough, from a dying vat, or from cas­tor-oil wood and light a fire and pro­duce heat.”

What do you think, brah­man? When a fire is lit and heat is pro­duced by some­one in the first group, would that fire have a flame, a colour, and a radi­ance, and would it be pos­si­ble to use it for the pur­pos­es of fire, while when a fire is lit and heat is pro­duced by some­one of the sec­ond group, that fire would have no flame, no colour, and no radi­ance, and it would not be pos­si­ble to use it for the pur­pos­es of fire?’

No, Mas­ter Gota­ma… For all fire has a flame, a colour, and a radi­ance, and it is pos­si­ble to use all fire for the pur­pos­es of fire.’

So too, brah­man, if any­one from a clan of nobles goes forth from the home life into home­less­ness, and rely­ing on the Dham­ma and Dis­ci­pline pro­claimed by the Tathā­ga­ta… holds right view, he is one who ful­fils the whole­some qual­i­ties that are the way of deliv­er­ance. If any­one from a clan of brah­mans goes forth… from a clan of mer­chants… from a clan of work­ers goes forth from the home life into home­less­ness, and rely­ing on the Dham­ma and Dis­ci­pline pro­claimed by the Tathā­ga­ta… holds right view, he is one who ful­fils the whole­some qual­i­ties that are the way of deliv­er­ance.’9

3. Nibbāna Is the Highest Spiritual Attainment

Although the attain­ment of Nib­bā­na is depen­dent on men­tal deliv­er­ance (cetovimut­ti), that is, it relies on a par­tic­u­lar achieve­ment of jhā­na, and this achieve­ment has a bear­ing on the every­day life of enlight­ened beings, Nib­bā­na is dis­tinct from jhā­na. Nib­bā­na is a release even from these psy­chic achieve­ments and is acces­si­ble when one is able to tran­scend them. There are some unique aspects to the attain­ment of Nibbāna:

The real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na is deci­sive, final and irre­versible. In regard to moral con­duct, for exam­ple, true spon­ta­neous self­less­ness aris­es. This self­less con­duct stems from erad­i­ca­tion by wis­dom of self­ish han­ker­ing, to the point that all self-obses­sion is abol­ished. As this self­less­ness aris­es nat­u­ral­ly and of its own accord, it is not the result of will-pow­er or force; one need not seize one opin­ion or habit in order to let go of anoth­er. One need not hold up some ide­al, sac­ri­fice one­self to an object of faith, sup­press one’s pas­sions by calm or insight, or get absorbed in jhāna.

No mat­ter how lofty a person’s men­tal achieve­ments, one must see into their causal nature and let go of attach­ment to these achieve­ments before real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na is pos­si­ble. This let­ting go ulti­mate­ly sup­ports, con­sol­i­dates and per­fects fur­ther spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment, even for enlight­ened beings. For exam­ple, such beings can ben­e­fit from pro­fi­cien­cy in jhā­na to abide when alone in ease and hap­pi­ness (diṭṭhad­ham­ma-sukhav­i­hāra). If orig­i­nal­ly they accessed the eight lev­els of jhā­na, with the real­iza­tion as a non-return­er or an ara­hant, they can achieve ‘ces­sa­tion of per­cep­tion and feel­ing’ (saññāve­dayi­ta-nirod­ha).

Some spir­i­tu­al accom­plish­ments can sus­pend defile­ments and suf­fer­ing for a long peri­od, but not yet irrev­o­ca­bly. The defile­ments and suf­fer­ing can return, and there­fore these height­ened men­tal states are tem­po­rary; they are a means to sup­press oth­er con­di­tions or to engage the mind in some­thing else. The real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na, how­ev­er, puts an absolute end to suf­fer­ing and men­tal impu­ri­ties. And through this real­iza­tion, only harm­ful con­di­tions cease, for exam­ple: greed, crav­ing, anger, woe, con­fu­sion, fixed views of self, and igno­rance; all good­ness remains. Fur­ther­more, the vices are auto­mat­i­cal­ly replaced by the excep­tion­al whole­some qual­i­ties of a life guid­ed by wis­dom and com­pas­sion, which sur­pass ordi­nary hap­pi­ness and can­not be secure­ly accessed by oth­er spir­i­tu­al achieve­ments. There­fore, although a per­son who has real­ized Nib­bā­na may not have expe­ri­enced the most refined states of jhā­na, he or she is still supe­ri­or to some­one who has these expe­ri­ences but is as yet not ful­ly enlightened.

The real­iza­tion of Nib­bā­na brings about a fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion of a person’s heart, per­son­al­i­ty, think­ing process, world­view and behav­iour. There are two prin­ci­pal aspects to this men­tal trans­for­ma­tion. The first involves knowl­edge, under­stand­ing, opin­ions and belief, which per­tains to igno­rance and wis­dom. The sec­ond con­cerns a person’s sense of val­ues or rela­tion­ship to desire, which per­tains to crav­ing and enthu­si­asm (chan­da).

A stu­dent who believes her teacher will crit­i­cize and pun­ish her may trem­ble at the thought of meet­ing the teacher, where­as if she knows that the teacher is kind she will feel hap­py and at ease. Peo­ple who see oth­ers as ene­mies and those who see oth­ers as friends will behave dif­fer­ent­ly. A per­son find­ing a map that shows the loca­tion of a hid­den dia­mond may risk his life and even kill oth­ers for that dia­mond, while anoth­er per­son may not give it much thought. Peo­ple desir­ing plea­sur­able sights, tastes, fra­grances, sounds and tan­gi­ble objects tend to be engrossed with these things. If they believe that they can tru­ly pos­sess these objects then their hap­pi­ness is depen­dent on the acqui­si­tion of these things. In con­trast, ful­ly enlight­ened beings under­stand the world as it real­ly is, they see noth­ing that can be tru­ly owned or con­trolled, they go beyond the search for plea­sur­able sen­sa­tions, and they rec­og­nize how to act in har­mo­ny with truth. They do not yearn for sense impres­sions. As a con­se­quence, a new under­stand­ing aris­es of one’s rela­tion­ship to the world: mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions, oth­er peo­ple, nature, and even one’s own life. One is of the world but not bound to or tar­nished by it.

This lib­er­a­tion and inner trans­for­ma­tion is dif­fi­cult to describe and there­fore the scrip­tures explain it with sim­i­les, for exam­ple: recov­er­ing from an ill­ness, sober­ing up, cool­ing down, clear­ing out refuse, escap­ing from a snare or chain, and cross­ing over an expanse of water to a safe haven. These sim­i­les all depict the hap­pi­ness of reliev­ing an orig­i­nal entan­gle­ment, incon­ve­nience, con­fine­ment and strug­gle. The release from these con­straints to a state of free­dom and safe­ty is Nib­bā­na. An enlight­ened per­son can move about as he pleas­es, with­out wor­ry­ing about self-pro­tec­tion. Some of the above sim­i­les can be used for oth­er spir­i­tu­al achieve­ments; the dif­fer­ence lies in the fact that jhā­na, for exam­ple, pro­vides only tem­po­rary results.

At least a small per­cent­age of human beings will seek the mean­ing and ulti­mate goal of life, beyond mere­ly being born, search­ing for sense plea­sure and dying. Some­times mate­r­i­al dif­fi­cul­ties or a strug­gle for sur­vival will cause them to tem­porar­i­ly neglect or inter­rupt their search, but when cir­cum­stances per­mit and as long as doubt per­sists peo­ple will con­cern them­selves with these mat­ters. There­fore any creed or phi­los­o­phy that mere­ly answers to mate­r­i­al com­fort and does not meet people’s spir­i­tu­al needs is incom­plete and unable to offer ade­quate sat­is­fac­tion. To use Bud­dhist ter­mi­nol­o­gy, respond­ing to ‘mun­dane wel­fare’ (diṭṭhad­ham­mikattha) alone is insuf­fi­cient; one must also attend to ‘spir­i­tu­al wel­fare’ (sam­parāyikattha) and ‘supreme wel­fare’ (para­mattha). The teach­ings on Nib­bā­na and oth­er spir­i­tu­al achieve­ments ful­fil this require­ment. Some psy­chic attain­ments, how­ev­er, although sur­pass­ing mun­dane phe­nom­e­na, are still clas­si­fied as sub­or­di­nate, that is, one is encour­aged to reach the final stage of Nib­bā­na, the supreme ben­e­fit and true perfection.

*   *   *

1 A. I. 158–9. Sandiṭṭhi­ka means the same as diṭṭhad­ham­mi­ka, e.g. at KhA. 124; SnA. I. 71; see also A. III. 40 and the Aṅgut­tara sub-com­men­taries, referred to in the Maṅ­galatthadī­panī (Sumanav­aggo, Sīhasenāpatisuttādivaṇṇanā). 

2 E.g.: S. II. 18, 115 = S. III. 164 = S. IV. 141; A. IV. 351–3, 454–5.

3 D. III. 55–56; relat­ed pas­sages at Vin. I. 9–10; M. I. 172; M. II. 44. (See the chap­ters in Bud­dhad­ham­ma on cetovimut­ti/paññāvimut­ti and sati­paṭṭhā­na which per­tain to real­iza­tion in one’s present life­time. See also D. II. 314–5; M. I. 62–3.)

4 S. I. 33.

5 Vin. II. 254–5.

6 S. I. 129; Thīg. vers­es 60–62.

7 M. II. 197; cf. S. V. 18–19.

8 S. V. 410; the Thai trans­lat­ed edi­tion ren­ders the phrase ‘the one lib­er­a­tion is the same as the oth­er’ as ‘they are both lib­er­at­ed by deliv­er­ance,’ since the Thai Pali edi­tion reads: yadi­daṃ vimut­tiyā vimut­tan­ti. The Burmese and Roman edi­tions read: yadi­daṃ vimut­tiyā vimut­tin­ti. The phrase also occurs at A. III. 34, which the Thai edi­tion trans­lates dif­fer­ent­ly. The com­men­taries (SA. III. 292 and AA. III. 244 explain ‘vimut­ti’ as ara­hat­ta-pha­la-vimut­ti. The scrip­tures from around the first cen­tu­ry BC onwards, for exam­ple the Milin­da-pañhā (Miln.: Book IV, Chaṭṭhav­aggo, no. 3, Gihī-ara­hat­ta­pañho, dilem­ma 62), assert that a lay-per­son real­iz­ing ara­hantship must take high­er ordi­na­tion (upasam­padā) on that very day or else attain parinib­bā­na. On the ques­tion of why an enlight­ened house­hold­er would take ordi­na­tion, see Miln: Book IV, Chaṭṭhav­aggo, no. 9, Gihipab­ba­ji­tasam­mā­paṭi­pat­ti­pañho (dilem­ma 54).

9 Esukārī Sut­ta: M. II. 180–84.