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  • Nibbana

    Dear Ajahn Brahmali,
    I am listening to a series of lectures by Bh Bhodhi and he gave his understanding and interpretation of nibbana. He says that the theravadin interpretation of Nibbana is that it is a realm. He gives examples of amata dhatu, a state and nibbanic element. An unconditioned...
    I was hoping you can provide an alternative interpretation of the passages in the sutta for which B. Bodhi interprets Nibbana to be a realm.

    Can you please clarify your understanding of those pali words and sutta passages. Many would benefit from your clarification

    with great appreciation.

  • #2
    Dear Dania,

    I feel a bit awkward criticizing Ven. Bodhi. I consider him as one of my main teachers of the Dhamma. For a long time I have been reading his writings and much of my comprehension of the Dhamma is due to his excellent translations and commentaries. I have a great sense of gratitude towards him and much respect. At the same time, I suppose there comes a time when a student has gained enough understanding to stand on his own two legs. So perhaps in this case it would not be wrong to present my own understanding of this issue.

    It seems to me that the main mistake Ven. Bodhi makes here is to give a direct answer to a question that is based on a misunderstanding. There is an exchange between Ven. Sāriputta and Ven. Mahākotthita in the Anguttara Nikaya (AN4:173) which makes this very point:

    (1) "Friend, with the remainderless fading away and cessation of the six bases for contact [that is, the death of an arahant], is there anything else?"
    "Do not say so, friend."
    (2) "With the remainderless fading away and cessation of the six bases for contact, is there nothing else?"
    "Do not say so, friend."

    (1) "Friend, if one says: ‘With the remainderless fading away and cessation of the six bases for contact, there is something else,' one proliferates about that which is without proliferation [i.e. final Nibbāna]. (2) If one says: 'Friend, with the remainderless fading away and cessation of the six bases for contact, there is nothing else,' one proliferates about that which is without proliferation.
    So these very questions are just proliferations; they are misconceived. The Dhamma is not about attaining or not attaining an existing reality. It’s about ending suffering. The reason why anyone is concerned about what happens when the arahant dies is because of their sense of self. The sense of self makes us perceive the death of an arahant either as annihilation or some sort of eternal existence. Once the false sense of self is removed, one no longer perceives the death of an arahant in either of these ways, and the concern about what happens to them after death just falls away. I feel Ven. Bodhi should have pointed this out rather than try to answer the question. That would have been much more useful for the inquirer’s understanding of the Dhamma.

    Having said this, I also do not find Ven. Bodhi’s arguments persuasive. Before I consider Ven. Bodhi’s individual points, I should point out a general danger in arguing that Nibbāna is “an existing reality”. It is impossible to conceive of a reality beyond the six senses, at least for non-ariyans. For this reason, any idea of Nibbāna as an existing reality will by default be understood in terms of the eternal continuation of one or more of the five khandhas. The result of this will often be attachment to a refined form of the five khandhas, in particular refined states of samādhi, and taking this as Nibbāna. So the best thing to do is to put this question aside and instead practice the path until one penetrates non-self. Only when one sees this will one understand that the very question was misconceived.

    Now let me try to reply to some of Ven. Bodhi's points.

    The Buddha refers to Nibbana as a 'dhamma'. For example, he says "of all dhammas, conditioned or unconditioned, the most excellent dhamma, the supreme dhamma is, Nibbana". 'Dhamma' signifies actual realities, the existing realities as opposed to conceptual things.
    The full quote that Ven. Bodhi is referring to reads: “To whatever extent there are phenomena conditioned or unconditioned, dispassion is declared the foremost among them, that is, the crushing of pride, the removal of thirst, the uprooting of attachment, the termination of the round, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.” (AN4:34) Here, as is common in the suttas, Nibbāna is used synonymously with nirodha. Nirodha means “cessation”, the very opposite of a “reality existing in itself”. To fit in with this, Nibbāna must simply refer to “extinguishment”, which is its literal meaning, rather than to an existing reality.

    However, the unconditioned dhamma is not produced by causes and conditions.
    “Extinguishment” is unconditioned because it is not dependent on conditions. That is, it is “free from the conditioned”, which is probably a more appropriate translation of asankhata than “unconditiooned”. Once Nibbāna is achieved, it is irreversible, and thus asankhata.

    The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as an 'ayatana'. This means realm, plane or sphere.
    Āyatana often does refer to a “realm, plane or sphere”, but not always. For example at AN9:46, saññāvedayitanirodha, “the cessation of perception and feeling” (which is the cessation of the mind), is called an āyatana. Here the word āyatana simply seems to point to the fact that such cessation is possible. In this context āyatana cannot refer to a “realm”; rather it refers to the ending of all realms. Again, when Nibbāna is called an āyatana (which actually is very rare; the most celebrated occurrence being Ud 8:1), it is probably used in the same way as nirodhāyatana, and it is perhaps best translated as “the principle of extinguishment“.

    The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as a 'dhatu,' an element, the 'deathless element' (amata-dhatu).
    The word dhātu, too, is used in a variety of contexts, and the translation “element” is often not suitable. These contexts include saññāvedayitanirodhadhātu (“the dhātu of the cessation of perception and feeling”), avijjādhātu (“the dhātu of ignorance”), nirodhadhātu (“the dhātu of cessation”) and then there is the passage jātipaccayā bhikkhave jarāmaranaṃ uppādā vā Tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā Tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitā va sā dhātu (“monks, from the condition of birth, there is old age and death; whether Tathāgatas arise or not, that dhātu persists”) (SN12:20). In all these cases “principle” might be the most suitable translation of dhātu. Given this wide usage of the word dhātu, it is not given that nibbānadhātu must refer to something existing. Rather, “the principle of extinguishment” might again be a suitable translation.

    He also speaks of Nibbana as something that can be experienced by the body, an experience that is so vivid, so powerful, that it can be described as "touching the deathless element with one's own body”.
    In my understanding of the sutta idiom, this expression (“experienced with the body”; kāyena phusati) means “direct experience”, i.e. in contrast to inferential understanding. Even the attainment of full cessation (saññāvedayitanirodha) is said to be experienced “with the body”, that is, “directly” (AN4:87). In this case, presumably, the meaning is that you experience the process of entering and emerging from cessation. The meaning of directly experiencing the amatadhātu, “the death-free principle”, should probably be understood in the same way.

    The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as a 'state' (pada), as 'amatapada' - the deathless state - or ‘accutapada’, the imperishable state.
    In the main Nikāyas, this expression only occurs in verse, once in the Dhammapada and once in the Theragāthā. It is very difficult to draw any conclusion on the basis of such rare usage, but I would suggest that pada here is used like dhātu is used above, and that it therefore should be understood in the same way.

    Another word used by the Buddha to refer to Nibbana is 'sacca', which means 'truth', an existing reality.
    Again, there is also nirodha-sacca, which is the third noble truth, which is Nibbāna.

    In sum, Nibbāna is very closely related to nirodha, and they are frequently used as synonyms. There is little indication that they should be understood as referring to different realities. On the contrary, when they are respectively translated as “extinguishment” and “cessation”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they must be referring to the same thing.

    I think one of the main reasons people tend to see Nibbāna as a “state” is that most translations into English leave Nibbāna untranslated. I believe this is a mistake. The word Nibbāna in itself is meaningless to English speakers, and thus they will tend to read almost anything into it, in particular the idea of an existing “something”. Once you translate Nibbāna with “extinguishment”, it becomes much more difficult to read inappropriate ideas into it. Nobody, as far I know, understands nirodha, “cessation”, as some kind of “state”. In the same way, if we read “extinguishment” rather than Nibbāna in the English translations, I believe we would be much less likely to regard it as a “state”.

    With metta.



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