PART ONE: THE ABSTRACT
"Released...with unrestricted awareness."
According to the Pali Canon--the earliest record of the Buddha's
teachings now extant--nothing outside of the realm of differentiation
can be properly designated by the conventions of language. In one
mode of analysis, this realm is divided into the six senses (counting
the mind as the sixth) & their objects; in another, it is divided into
the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, thought processes, &
consciousness. The two modes cover mutually equivalent areas.
However, one passage in the Canon points to another realm where the
six senses & their objects cease, which can be experienced although
not otherwise described, even in terms of existing, not existing,
both, or neither. The attainment of the Buddhist goal belongs to this
second realm, and this of course raised problems for the Buddha in how
to teach & describe the goal.
He solved the problem by illustrating the goal with similes &
metaphors. The best-known metaphor for the goal is the name nibbana
(nirvana), which means the extinguishing of a fire. Attempts to work
out the implications of this metaphor have all too often taken it out
of context. Some writers, drawing on modern, every-day notions of
fire, come to the conclusion that nibbana implies extinction, inasmuch
as we feel that a fire goes out of existence when extinguished.
Others, however, note that the Vedas--ancient Indian religious texts
that predate Buddhism by many thousands of years--described fire as
immortal: Even when extinguished it simply goes into hiding, in a
latent, diffused state, only to be reborn when a new fire is lit.
These writers then assume that the Buddha accepted the Vedic theory in
its entirety, and so maintain that nibbana implies eternal existence.
The weakness of both these interpretations is that they do not take
into account the way the Pali Canon describes (1) the workings of
fire, (2) the limits beyond which no phenomenon may be described, and
(3) the precise implications that the Buddha himself drew from his
metaphor in light of (1) & (2). The purpose of this essay is to place
this metaphor in its original context, so as to show what it was and
was not meant to imply.
Any discussion of the way the Buddha used the term nibbana must
begin with the distinction that there are two levels of nibbana (or,
to use the original terminology, two nibbana properties). The first
is the nibbana experienced by a person who has attained the goal and
is still alive. This is described metaphorically as the extinguishing
of passion, aversion, & delusion. The second is the nibbana after
death. The simile for these two states is the distinction between a
fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm, and one so
totally out that its embers are cold. The Buddha used the views of
fire current in his day in somewhat different ways when discussing
these two levels of nibbana, and so we must consider them separately.
To understand the implications of nibbana in the present life, it
is necessary to know something of the way in which fire is described
in the Pali Canon. There, fire is said to be caused by the excitation
or agitation of the heat property. To continue burning, it must have
sustenance (upadana). Its relationship to its sustenance is one of
clinging, dependence, & entrapment. When it goes out, the heat
property is no longer agitated, and the fire is said to be freed.
Thus the metaphor of nibbana in this case would have implications of
calming together with release from dependencies, attachments, &
bondage. This in turn suggests that of all the attempts to describe
the etymology of the word nibbana, the closest is the one Buddhaghosa
proposed in The Path of Purification: Un- (nir) + binding (vana):
To understand further what is meant by the unbinding of the mind,
it is also important to know that the word upadana--the sustenance for
the fire--also means clinging, and that according to the Buddha the
mind has four forms of clinging that keep it in bondage: clinging to
sensuality, to views, to precepts & practices, and to doctrines of the
self. In each case, the clinging is the passion & desire the mind
feels for these things. To overcome this clinging, then, the mind
must see not only the drawbacks of these four objects of clinging,
but, more importantly, the drawbacks of the act of passion & desire
The mind does this by following a threefold training: virtue,
concentration & discernment. Virtue provides the joy & freedom from
remorse that are essential for concentration. Concentration provides
an internal basis of pleasure, rapture, equanimity, & singleness of
mind that are not dependent on sensual objects, so that discernment
can have the strength to cut through the mind's clingings.
Discernment functions by viewing these clingings as part of a causal
chain: seeing their origin, their passing away, their allure, the
drawbacks of their results, &, finally, emancipation from them.
Although the Canon reports cases where individuals cut through all
four forms of clinging at the same time, the more common pattern is
for discernment first to cut through sensual clinging by focusing on
the inconstancy & stressfulness of all sensory objects and on the
worthlessness of any passion or desire directed to them. Thus freed,
the mind can turn its discernment inward in a similar way to cut
through its clinging to the practice of concentration itself, as well
as to views in general and notions of 'self' in particular. Once it
no longer views experience in terms of self, the entire self/not-self
The mind at this point attains Deathlessness, although there is no
sense of 'I' in the attainment. There is simply the realization,
'There is this.' From this point onward the mind experiences mental &
physical phenomena with a sense of being dissociated from them. One
simile for this state is that of a hide removed from the carcass of a
cow: Even if the hide is then placed back on the cow, one cannot say
that it is attached as before, because the connective tissues that
once held the hide to the carcass--in other words, passion &
desire--have all been cut (by the knife of discernment). The person
who has attained the goal--called a Tathagata in some contexts, an
arahant in others--thus lives out the remainder of his/her life in the
world, but independent of it.
Death as experienced by a Tathagata is described simply as, 'All
this, no longer being relished, grows cold right here.' All attempts
to describe the experience of nibbana or the state of the Tathagata
after death--as existing, not existing, both, or neither--are refuted
by the Buddha. To explain his point, he again makes use of the
metaphor of the extinguished fire, although here he draws on the Vedic
view of latent fire as modified by Buddhist notions of what does and
does not lie within the realm of valid description.
To describe the state of the Tathagata's mind, there has to be a
way of knowing what his/her consciousness is dependent on. Here we
must remember that, according to the texts, a meditator may develop
intuitive powers through the practice of concentration enabling
him/her to know the state of another person's mind, or the destination
of that person after death. To do so, though, that person's
consciousness must be dwelling on a particular object, for it is only
through knowledge of the object that the state of the mind can be
known. With ordinary people this is no problem, for ordinary
consciousness is always dependent on one object or another, but with
Tathagatas this is impossible, for their consciousness is totally
independent. Because terms such as existing, not existing, both, or
neither, apply only to what may be measured against a criterion of
knowing, they cannot apply to the Tathagata.
The Buddha borrows two points from the Vedic notion of fire to
illustrate this point. Even if one wants to assume that fire still
exists after being extinguished, it is (1) so subtle that it cannot be
perceived, and (2) so diffuse that it cannot be said to go to any one
place or in any particular direction. Just as notions of going east,
west, north, or south do not apply to an extinguished fire, notions of
existing and so forth do not apply to the Tathagata after death.
As for the question of how nibbana is experienced after death, the
Buddha says that there is no limit in that experience by which it
could be described. The word 'limit' here is the important one. In
one of the ancient Vedic myths of creation, the universe starts when a
limit appears that separates male from female, sky from earth. Thus
the implication of the Buddha's statement is that the experience of
nibbana is so free from even the most basic notions that make up the
universe that it lies beyond description. This implication is borne
out by other passages stating that there is nothing in that experience
of the known universe--earth, water, wind, fire, sun, moon, darkness,
coming, going, or stasis--at all.
Thus, when viewed in light of the way the Pali Canon describes the
workings of fire and uses fire imagery to describe the workings of the
mind, it is clear that the word nibbana is primarily meant to convey
notions of freedom: freedom in the present life from agitation,
dependency, & clinging; and freedom after death from even the most
basic concepts or limitations--such as existence, non-existence, both,
or neither--that make up the describable universe.
with regard to pleasant things
seen, heard, felt, & cognized,
There is: the dispelling of passion & desire,
the deathless state of Unbinding.
Those who, knowing this, mindful,
in the here & now,
are forever calmed
have gone beyond
entanglement in the world.
Freed, dissociated, & released from ten things, the
Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness, Vahuna. What
ten? Freed, dissociated, & released from
birth...ageing...death... stress*... defilement, he dwells
with unrestricted awareness. Just as a red, blue, or white
lotus born in the water and growing in the water, rises up
above the water and stands with no water adhering to it, in
the same way the Tathagata--freed, dissociated, & released
from these ten things--dwells with unrestricted awareness.
Just as the great ocean has but one taste, the taste of
salt, even so does this doctrine & discipline have but one
taste: the taste of release.