(A talk given at the Annual Conference of the British Buddhist Society
held at Summer School, London on the 1st September 1973)
Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya
Nibanna is a Pali word for which the Sanaskrit equivalent is Nirvana. Both these words mean cool, peace, calm, serenity, bliss, supreme happiness, emancipation, passionlessness and the Summum Bonum. Now I am going to set before you how Nibanna is explained in Theravada literature.
The term Nibanna and its equivalents Nibbuti and Vimutti are used in various Suttas to express several experiences of mind.
According to a certain classification we find six kinds of experiences under the terms Nibbana, Nibbuti and Vimutti namely, micchaditthi Nibbana, Sammati-Nibbana, Tadanga-Nibbana, Vikkhambhana Nibbana, Samuccheda Nibbana, Patippassaddhi-Nibbana and Nissarana-Nibana or Nibbana-dhatu.
In the foregoing list the first one is Micchaditthi-Nibbana. Here Micchaditthi means wrong view. Materialists ignore religious practices and value only material things such as wealth, bodily comforts and sensual enjoyments. According to them the real happiness lies in the enjoyments of senses and apart from this they recognize no other happiness, no other Nibbana. This view is reffered to in the Brahmajala-Sutta of Dighanikaya as follows:
“Whenever the soul (being), in full enjoyment and possession of the five pleasures of senses, indulges all its functions, then, the being has attained, in this visible world, to the highest Nirvana”.
Next we come to Sammuti Nibbana. In common parlance, release or relief from worries or troubles is called ease or happiness. When we read the life of the prince Siddhartha, we come across an account of an important incident in his life. One day, when he was returning in his chariot from the royal pleasure grove, a Sakyan girl called Kisa Gotami, seeing his majestic but saintly and charming complexion, breathed forth this joyous utterance:
“Nibbuta nuna sa mata
Nibbuto nuna so pita
Nibbuta nuna sa nari
Yassayam idiso pati”
(Happy and cool indeed is the mother, happy and cool indeed is the father, who has this or a similar one for her or his son; happy and cool indeed is the wife who has got this or a similar one for her husband).
In this utterance she used the word ‘Nibbuta’ to mean ‘happy, cool or fortunate’. The literal meaning of this word is ‘one that has attained Nibbuti or Nibbana’. This sort of Nibbana or cool state of one’s life is called Sammuti Nibbana, the happiness according to convention.
Inspired by her words, the prince began to ponder over how one would become perfectly happy and cool. He became immersed in this thought and at last came to the conclusion: “So long as there remain the fires of passions unquenched and uncooled in one’s heart, one could not be counted as really happy and perfectly cooled. So I must find out with no delay a way to extinguish these fires.”
In this incident we see that the Sakyan girl meant a peaceful and happy family life by the term nibbuta (happy and cooled).
Suppose a certain part of a country has been infected with some epidemic, dysentery or plague. The inhabitants of that area would no doubt spend an anxious time full of fear and dismay. But if, after some weeks, they come to learn that the epidemic has ebbed down and abated and completely passed out of the country, we can imagine what an intense joy and consolation might arise in them.
If we examine their mental attitude, we could see that their minds are devoid of the fear and anxiety which had obsessed them at the time of epidemic. Is that all? There is a positive side as well. Their minds are now pervaded by peace, consolation, hope and immense joy. This is not nothingness or mere void. This is a thing they experience.
The next higher stage of happiness is tadanga Nibbana. Suppose you do some unselfish service to a man in a serious trouble and rescue him therefrom. On such an occasion your mind becomes full of wholesome states such as pity, compassion and unselfishness, and at the very moment the unwholesome states as selfishness and the like have no opportunity to surge up in your mind. Or, suppose you pay respect to a saintly person, to your parents or teacher or any virtuous person whom you regard as worthy of respect. On such occasions your mind is full of faith, love and modesty on one hand and self-conceit, haughtiness and the like get no chance to appear in it on the other hand. When we do some philanthropic service, when we esteem those who are worthy of respect, or when we ponder over the value of abstention from selfish or cruel deeds or words, on such occasions the unwholesome states of mind like selfishness, anger and conceit find no chance to rise up in the mind because the wholesome states like generosity, loving kindness and modesty have already occupied our minds. If we perform any good deed even for five minutes, then our mind becomes happy, serene and clean. This temporary or momentary comfort or serenity and wholesomeness of mind is called Tadanga-Nibbana, the temporary peace of mind. This state of mind is not nothingness.
There is a still higher experience deeper and stronger than this preceding one, which is called Vikkhambhana-Vimutti or Vikkhambana-Nibbhana. Suppose a man sees the evils and futility of the pleasures of senses and intends to develop himself spiritually. For this purpose he starts practising concentration on a selected object, for there are forty kinds of objects for such meditations, according to Buddhist scriptures. The mind of the average man is usually not self-composed, not settled, but is drawn towards this or that object at every moment. Being scattered and constantly disturbed, it is frequented by selfishness, ill will, conceit, fear and many other lower mental conditions, owing to which it turns weaker and weaker. So, to develop and strengthen his mind, he must first control it so that it may not wander after this or that object. He must isolate his mind from other objects and fix it exclusively on the chosen object only. At the start it may seem a very hard and tiresome task. But if he tries hard for some time, he will surely come to success. His mind will forget the whole outer world and remain fixed on its only object, and become self-collected. There are eight stages of this self-collectedness of mind to be attained gradually, each successive stage being deeper than its preceding one. These are called Jhanas in Pali terminology.
In these stages of Jhanas, the meditator feels blissful and suffused with a sense of ease and pure lucidity of mind. Weaknesses of mind, sensuality, ill will, sloth and torpor, worry and restlessness and perplexity subside and the mind feels healthy, happy, strong, calm, serene and blissful. The bliss experienced at these afore-said stages of Jhana is called Vikkhambhana-Nibbana or Vikkhambhana-Vimutti, the ecstatic bliss experiences as a result of the subsidence of passions.
This Vikkhambhana-Nibbana is not nothingness, but a bliss to be experienced, more subtle, more serene than the preceding ones.
But this Jhanic bliss is vulnerable. If somehow or other, the meditator, owing to his slight negligence, turns his mind towards external objects, it is not impossible for him to fall down from the same bliss, as he has not as yet been freed from vulnerability. Now the meditator, as he knows his weaknesses, takes further steps and begins to practise Vipassana (the development of insight).
In this process of practice, first of all, he examines his own body very closely in terms of its constituent parts and analyses them part by part. He goes deeper and deeper in this process and sees at last that his physical body is a volume of waves, a form of wave-movements, that it is dynamic, and therefore impermanent, with nothing in it that is substantial. After examining his own physical body, he begins to examine his mind and its characteristics, observes how thoughts appear and vanish and discerns very clearly that the so-called mind is but a process of states, a stream of activities called thinkings, a flux of continued happenings. Mind and all its states, he sees, are subject to change, and all of them are impermanent and unsubstantial. Thus he contemplates the nature of his body and mind by turns, scrutinizes and analyses them in various ways and realizes at last that the so-called man or creature or being is a mere phenomenon. At the moment of this realization he perceives with his mind’s eye that he himself and all other beings in the world are but mind-matter processes subject to momentary change and void of any substantiality.
He clearly discerns the unsatisfactory nature (Dukkha) of the life in the world, puts out the adherence to the wrong views (miccadhitthi) and uncertainty (vicikiccha), perceives Nibbana-dhatu intuitively (Nirodha-pativedha) and cultivates the strength of the path-factors (Magga-bhavana). This moment at which the afore-said four functions are fulfilled is called entering the holy stream (Sotapatti-Magga). It is immediately followed by two or three thought moments, taking Nibbana-dhatu for their only object. These thought moments are called Sotapatti-phala-cittas, the fruition of the first Path-consciousness (Sotapatti-magga), in which the gross sansaric fatigue is extinguished.
Still he continues developing insight on the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness or entitylessness of the psycho-physical process which we call man or being, and when his meditation develops enough the function of realizing four great truths recurs in his mind. At the second time the remnants of his craving and allied unwholesome states of mind turn so thin that he is destined to be reborn here only once more and hence he is called Sakadagami (Once-returner). At this stage too, his mind is fixed on Nibbana-dhatu. This stage is immediately followed by some two or three mind-units, which fixing on Nibbana, remove the mental fatigue to a great extent. This is called the stage of the second fruition (Sakadagami-phala or dutiya phala).
Once again he meditates as usual and when his meditation develops enough, the fourfold function of realization recurs at which the craving and its allied passions are eliminated to such a degree as he becomes destined never to be reborn within the boundary of the Sphere of Sensuality (Kamaloka) and lower Brahma realms. If he does not fulfil his task of rooting out craving, he becomes destined to be reborn in a higher and subtle celestial sphere known as the Holy Abodes (Suddhavasa), where there are beings who have dispelled from their minds sensuality and ill-will entirely. He who has attained to this stage is called Anagami (Never-returner). This stage too is immediately followed by two or three mind-units, which fixed on Nibbana-dhatu, remove a great portion of the long Sansaric fatigue. This is called the stage of the third fruition (Tatiya-phala or Anagami-phala).
Now the meditator starts once more to analyse mentally both his body and mind more profoundly, contemplates their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness or entitylessness of the whole psycho-physical life. When his meditation process rises up to its culmination, he clearly perceives the phenomenal nature of the life in the world, roots out the craving for it entirely, intuits Nibbana-dhatu and fixes his mind firmly on it, thus reaching the end of the Path. This is called the Path-stage of Arahantship. This stage, as usual, is followed by two or three mind-units which, fixing on Nibbana-dhatu, removes the remainder of the sansaric fatigue that had been caused by the mental defilements so long. This last stage is called arahantship or Perfection.
Now we have to look back again. When the meditator practises Vipassana, in its preliminary stages, passions of his mind subside temporarily and he experiences a temporary peace of mind which is called Tadanga-Nibbana.
When he develops his meditation to a higher level so that the passions get no chance to Surge up, as he was in the Jhanic ecstasy, then he is said to have attained to Vikkhambhana-Nibbana.
When he reaches the four higher stages of the Four Great Truths are realized, he is said to have attained to Samuccheda-Nibbana, as, at these stages, he eradicates some passions.
In the long journey in the Samsara, the phenomenal existence, his thought-process was afflicted and consequently fatigued by the dormant and surging passions. Though those passions are radically removed at the afore-mentioned four holy stages, the fatigue that had been created by those passions still remains. So, immediately succeeding each of those four passions-dispelling mind-units (or the Path-consciousnesses), some two or three more mind-units rise up fixing themselves, too, on the Nibbana-dhatu, and as a result the afore-mentioned mental fatigue is removed thereby.
These latter four stages are called the stages of the fruition of the Path.
The peace tha pervades over the mind at these four stages is called Patippassaddhi-Nibbana, the cool of mind as experienced at the removal of mental fatigue.
Now so far we have passed over a number of stages of mental peace. None of them can be called nothingness. On one hand unwholesome states of mind are removed and on the other hand wholesome states and peace of mind are gained at those stages.
The persons who have attained to these eight Holy stages perceive Nibbana-dhatu, the Nibbana-Element with their mind’s eye, fix their mind on it and experience the bliss arisen thereby in their mind. The very same Nibbana-dhatu, on which the minds of those holy persons are fixed is called Sa-upadisesa-Nibbana.
With reference to the nature of an Arahant after his death, the very same Nibbana-dhatu is called Anupadisesa-Nibbana.
None of the aforementioned states called Nibbanas or the Nibbana-dhatu cannot be regarded as nothingness or annihilation.
Now rises the question: “How could one know the existence of Nibbana-dhatu?”
According to Theravada-teachings, the existence of Nibbana-dhatu may be known by three ways namely, agam-siddhi, anumeyya-siddhi, and paccakkha-siddhi. Of these three, agama-siddhi means the knowledge of Nibbana-dhatu through the study of the scriptures. In Itivuttaka, thus has it been said: “There exists, O Brethren, an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an uncompounded. If O Brethren, there were not this unborn, this unbecome, this unmade, this uncompounded no hope at all could be had by this born, by this become, by this made, by this compounded”.
One day a king met an Arhant nun and asked her to tell him as to what would happen to an Arhant, a perfected Saint after his death.
The Nun said: Permit me, O king, to ask you in return a question, and if it shall seem good to you, so do you reply. What do you think, O king? Have you among your men an accountant, a master of your treasury or any official skilled in numbers who might be able to number the sands of the Ganges, who might be able to tell you how many are the grains of sand in that great river?
“That have I not, Venerable lady,” replied the king.
“Or have you, O king, an accountant or store-keeper or arithmetician who could measure the water of the great ocean and say how many drops of water it contains.
“That have I not” replied the king.
“Why not?” returned the nun.
“It is because the great ocean is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable.”
“Even so also is the being of him who has attained to Nibbana…, the being of such a one is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable,” said the nun.
Then the king went to the Lord Buddha and told him what the nun had said to him. Thereupon the Lord Buddha said: “If you, O king, had come to me first with this same question, I would have given you exactly the same reply. O king, the nun is very learned and very wise.”
Now you can understand from this sutta that the person who has attained to Perfect Nibbana-dhatu is not annihilated His nature after death, the Anupadisesa – Nibbana-dhatu is beyond words and cannot be described by positive terms, because the So-called positive terms are words limited to the conditioned and composed things. Only the phenomenal states, of which the world is composed, can be expressed by such terms.
Thus the knowledge of the actuality of Nibbana-dhatu, gathered through the study of the scriptures is called Agama-siddhi, understanding through the study of the scriptures.
Anumeyya-siddhi is the inferential knowledge. Everything has its opposite side. Sickness has its opposite in health; heat has its opposite in cool; darkness has its opposite in light: and likewise Samsara the round of rebirths the phenomenal existence must have its opposite side in Nibbana-dhatu, the only Reality.
A man by means of the knowledge he has gathered by these two ways, the scriptural knowledge and the inferential knowledge, comes to understand that there is actually a perfect peaceful state, a reality, a hope for the suffering mortals. He then follows the path leading to that state, discovered and expounded by the Lord Buddha and consequently attains to realization of the four Great Truths, at which moment he perceives Nibbana-dhatu with his opened mind’s eye, realizes it and experiences it. This, the realization of Nibbana-dhatu, is called Paccakkha-siddhi.
Now you should understand at last that Nibbana-Dhatu, as expounded by the Lord Buddha as the Goal of the Path-goer, is not nothingness but a state to be realized and experienced, an actuality, the only Reality.