Sunday, May 26, 2019

Aspects of nibbāna from a lecture by Bhikkhu Bodhi (1979)

[Updated on 31 May 2019 to try to clarify opening sentences.]

In my exploration of intuition, I became fascinated by its role in Srinivasa Ramanujan's work in mathematics; he developed it in his spiritual practice with utmost commitment, which was rewarded by extraordinary discoveries.  Accounts of his animation philosophical discussions addressed the Absolute in Brahmanism, as the ultimate source for his results, thereby endowing a very positive outlook.

In Buddhism, there is the term nibbāna, which literally means 'without fuel [of craving]', and at first glance seems quite the opposite perspective, but its attainment may likewise be viewed positively as a transcendent state with supreme qualities - in which the Buddha is, for instance, 'Well-gone' and 'Knower of the worlds' (see e.g. the daily chant, iti pi so). 

It can be a wonderful perspective to reflect on, to turn the mind to 'the deathless', especially when the path becomes difficult with its various obstacles.  So here I've transcribed a portion of a talk by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a most distinguished scholar monk, responsible for many authoritative translations, particularly for the Buddhist Publication Society and Wisdom Publications.  Bhikkhu Bodhi originally delivered this presentation as Lecture No. 6: nibbāna from a series in autumn 1979 at the Washington Buddhist Vihara and then, at the request of Bhante Gunaratna, recorded the series in the summer of 1981 for distribution on tape, which were subsequently digitised and the audio made available online by Bodhi Monastery.

This lecture has since been summarised and appeared in various places, sometimes with further editing, e.g. at Wisdom Quarterly, and portions have been  frequently quoted, e.g. on Dhamma Wheel.  But the summary paraphrases, omits some passages and contains some slight changes in meaning.   Whilst it makes the presentation more suitable for print, it still lacks references that were missing from the original lecture audio, though in his talk Bhikkhu Bodhi mentions a list of terms, which I guess was originally part of a handout that might have included the references.  So I decided to carry out a transcription of a chunk of about 20 minutes, and to make explicit as many of these references as I can, with links to translations, where available, by Bhikkhu Bodhi.


In his Dhamma talk, Bhikkhu Bodhi opens with the vandana, homage to the Buddha, by chanting "Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhasa”, as part of the customary veneration.  Then, briefly, he introduces this talk in the context of the series, by saying that so far the previous talks have dealt primarily with the problem of suffering, but suffering is only the starting point, and the truth of suffering represents the negative side.  In this talk and the following one he deals with the positive side, the third and fourth Noble Truth.

However, before doing so he reminds his listeners that we have to know about suffering to give us a reason to seek liberation and urgently, hence using the imagery of escaping a house on fire, the fire representing greed, hatred and delusion fuelled by flames of craving.

We now join shortly before the 12 minute mark, where Bhikkhu Bodhi relates this to nibbāna, discussing the psychological dimension.  (My insertions are generally in green inside square brackets [].)


[11.40] “The word nirvana [Sanskrit] or nibbāna [Pali] literally means 'the going out or extinguishing of a flame'.  And thus used figuratively by the Buddha, it means the extinguishing of the flame of craving, the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.  The Pali writers also take the word to have the meaning of 'escape from the forest', that is escape from the forest of craving, or from the forest of Samsaric becoming.  The state of nibbāna is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, the end and the transformation of the entire practice.

The Buddha says that just as the waters of a river plunge into the ocean and merge with the ocean, so the spiritual path, the Noble Eightfold Path, plunges into nibbāna and merges with nibbāna.
[This might combine multiple references; the idea is expressed in slightly different words in the Daruka-khandha Sutta (the Simile of the Great Log), SN 35:200 (241) and the wording is from the Rādhasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, SN 23:1(1), where the Venerable Rādha asks a series of incremental questions, finally concerning nibbāna, to which the Buddha states “the holy life is merged in nibbāna, its consummation is nibbāna, its culmination is nibbāna."]

Now when we try to talk about nibbāna, we immediately come up against the problem that nibbāna is said to be “beyond the range of speech and language”, [atakkāvacara – beyond logical reasoning].  nibbāna is a supermundane state, a reality which is to be seen, realized and experienced, not a concept to be conceptualised or an idea to be discussed.  Ultimately, nibbāna should be experienced and realized.  However, to make known the nature of nibbāna, we have to resort to words, we have to speak about it and therefore this lecture becomes possible.  If we were to really give a very direct communication of the nature of nibbāna, we just have to stop the lecture at this point, but then those who are listening would be disappointed.  So therefore I shall have to go on to speak, to fill up the rest of the tape.

nibbāna is an existing reality

Now the question comes up as to the nature of nibbāna and especially the question is asked: Does nibbāna signify only the extinction of the defilements and liberation from samsara or does it signify some reality existing in itself? According to the Theravada School of Buddhism, which I see to be solidly grounded in the actual word of the Buddha, nibbāna is not only the destruction of defilements and the ending of samsara but an actually existing reality, a reality which is transcendent to all the realms of phenomenal existence, to the entire empirical world of mundane experience.

There are certain reasons which can be offered in support of this view.  Here I don't wish to burden anybody with dry scholarship, but a look at the texts, at the suttas spoken by the Buddha, can help clarify for us our idea of what nibbāna is.  (This part might be a little bit dry, a little bit at times difficult to follow, but I ask the listeners to try to follow it, even if they have to repeat the tape.)

In the suttas we find that there are certain key words that the Buddha uses to designate existing realities.  These you can call 'ontological terms', terms with an existential meaning.  These key terms are the words dhamma, āyatana, dhātu, pada and sacca.  (The words are given on the list of Pali terms.)

We'll explain these words briefly and then show how each of them is applied to nibbāna.  First we'll take the word 'dhamma'.   We have dealt with this word and some of its more common meanings, such as 'the teaching of the Buddha', as 'the truth made known by the Buddha', and as 'the path that leads to the realization of truth.'

But this word 'dhamma' also has a more philosophical meaning. The word 'dhamma' signifies the basic actuality, the existing realities, those things which bear their own natures independent of our thinking, of our conceptual processing of them.  The dhammas are distinguished from conceptual entities – those things which do not exist in fact, but only as ideas or notions in the mind.  Now all the dhammas, the actual existences, are divided into two basic groups: the conditioned and the unconditioned, sankhata and asankhata.  A conditioned dhamma is an actuality which has come into being through causes and conditions, something which arises through the working of various conditions.  The conditioned dhammas include all the phenomena with which we are ordinarily familiar. These all fall into the five aggregates.  So any conditioned dhamma is either a material form, a feeling, a perception, a mental formation or an act of consciousness. 

Now all the conditioned dhammas go through three phases of becoming.  First there's the phase of arising [uppāda], then finally a phase of falling away, cessation [vaya], and in between the two there's a phase called ṭhitassa aññathatta, that is, the changing of that which stands, the transformation of that which persists, that is, while the conditioned dhamma lasts, while it persists, it undergoes constant change.  It doesn't remain static, but it undergoes transformation.  It's in a ceaseless process of becoming.   So the conditioned dhamma has these three phases: arising, transformation, and falling away.

Now in contrast to all of the conditioned dhammas, there is the class of the unconditioned, which is much simpler.  It contains only one actuality, that is: nibbāna.  In contrast to the conditioned, the unconditioned is not produced by causes and conditions.  And then, in contrast to the conditioned, the unconditioned has the three opposite marks, that is: it has no arising, it has no falling away, and it undergoes no transformation.

And the Buddha speaks distinctly of nibbāna as a dhamma.  He calls it 'the supreme dhamma', the 'uttamaŋ dhamma'.    And in one sutta he says, “Of all dhammas, conditioned and unconditioned, the most excellent dhamma, the supreme dhamma, is nibbāna.”  [Anguttara Nikaya, Sutta 4:34: ConfidenceSo nibbāna is definitely referred to by this key ontological term of Buddhism, the word, dhamma.

[There is also:
“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 destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.”  
Ratana Sutta, Sn 2.1]

Another important ontological term used by the Buddha is āyatana.  This word usually means 'realm', 'plane', or 'sphere'.  For example, the Buddha speaks about the different planes of existence as āyatanas and he also speaks about the six sense faculties as the six āyatanas.  In a famous passage from the text, the Udāna, the Buddha also speaks about nibbāna as an āyatana.  He says,

“Monks, there is a realm (atti tadāyatanaṃ) where there is neither earth, water, heat or air, neither the sphere of infinite space, the sphere of infinite consciousness, the sphere of nothingness, or the sphere of neither perception or non-perception [that is the four formless realms].  There is neither this world nor any other world, neither sun nor moon.  This I call 'neither arising, nor passing away, neither standing still, nor being born, nor dying.'  There is neither foothold there, nor development, nor any basis.  This is the end of suffering.”

So we see then in this passage the Buddha speaks of nibbāna as an āyatana, a realm or sphere.  It is a sphere where there is nothing at all that corresponds to our world of mundane common experience and therefore it has to be described entirely by way of negatives, as the negation of all finite properties.

Another word frequently used in the Buddha's discourses is the word 'dhātu'.  This word most often means 'element'. Thus the Buddha speaks of the four dhātus, the four material elements: earth, water, heat and air. At other times he speaks of 18 elements: the six sense organs, the six sense objects and the six kinds of consciousness.   But the Buddha also speaks of another dhātu, another element.  He calls this the amata dhātu, that is the deathless element and this deathless element is nibbāna.

Thus in one sutta he speaks about a monk who has reached the highest level in the development of insight, where he is seeing all of the five aggregates as impermanent, as dukkha, and as insubstantial.  Then, when he reaches the climax of insight, his mind suddenly turns away from all conditioned dhammas and he says that he focuses his mind upon the deathless element and that with his mind focused on the deathless element he reaches the destruction of the defilements. [MN 64: Mahamalunkyaputta Sutta]

In another sutta, the Buddha speaks of the nibbāna dhātu, the element of nibbāna.  And he compares it to an ocean.   He says that just as the great ocean remains at the same level no matter how much water pours into it from the rivers, it remains at the same height, without increase or decrease, so the nibbāna element remains the same no matter whether many or few people attain nibbāna. If many people attain nibbāna, the nibbāna element doesn't grow fuller; if few attain, the nibbāna element doesn't become diminished.  [Pahārāda Sutta, AN 8.19,  clause (5).]

And the Buddha speaks quite concretely about seeing nibbāna, the deathless element, almost as though it were the object of an act of vision. 

In another sutta he speaks of it as something that can be experienced by the body, an experience that's so vivid, so concrete and real that it can be described as 'touching the deathless element with one's own body'. [Cunda Sutta, AN 6.46]

The Buddha also speaks about nibbāna as a pada.  The word 'pada' means 'a state', and the Buddha calls nibbāna the amatapada, 'the deathless state'.  Thus he states in the Dhammapada, “Better than living a hundred years without seeing the deathless state is living one day seeing the deathless state.”
[Dhammapada 114]

Another word used in the texts is sacca.  This word means 'truth', not 'truth' as a statement, but truth as reality, as an existing reality.  There's a passage where the Buddha says, “That which the ignorant take to be true, that the Noble Ones, the Ariyans, know to be false.  That which the Ariyans know to be true, that the ignorant regard as false.  That which is of an imperishable nature, that is nibbāna, and that is the truth known by the Ariyans.”
[Perhaps this paraphrases verses in the Dvayatānupassanā sutta (Observation of Dualities), Sn 3.12].

So here in this passage that which the ignorant take to be truth, to be real, is a self, an ego entity and this the Ariyans know to be false since through their insight they have realized that all phenomena are without a self, that they're all insubstantial.  And that which the Noble Ones know to be truth, that is nibbāna, and this the ignorant take to be false, an imaginary thing or a vain notion.   But the Noble Ones, the Ariyans, have seen nibbāna, they've known through direct experience that it is real, the one ultimate reality that's imperishable. 

In another sutta, the Buddha says, “That which has a perishable nature, that is false, but that which is of an imperishable nature [accutapada], namely nibbāna, that is truth.  And then he says in the same sutta that this is the supreme noble truth, nibbāna, which is of an imperishable nature.  [ref.  ???]

So all of these textual sources, put together, I think, very clearly establish the view that nibbāna is an actual reality and not the mere destruction of defilements, the cessation of existence. 

Then there's also another famous passage, which, I think, also makes the matter very definitely clear.   This is the passage in the Udāna, where the Buddha says, addressing the monks:

“Monks, there is an unborn, an unoriginated, an uncreated, an unconditioned.  If there were not this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unconditioned, there would be no escape possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, and conditioned.  However, since there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unconditioned, therefore escape is possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the conditioned.
[Nibbāna Sutta: Parinibbāna Ud. 8.3]

The Buddha here is saying that if there were no unconditioned reality, there would be no escape possible from the round of birth and death. The round of birth and death would go on forever; there would be no way at all to put an end to it.  But the Buddha adds the positive counterpart to it.  He says that there is, that there already exists an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unconditioned and therefore it is possible for the mind to know the unconditioned, to realize the unconditioned and by realizing the unconditioned to destroy the ignorance and craving which hold us in bondage, and thereby make an end to the round of becoming and reach deliverance from birth and death, deliverance from the world of the born, originated, created, and conditioned. 

Now since nibbāna is the precondition for this liberation to take place, since nibbāna must exist for it to be known and for liberation to take place, therefore it is evident that nibbāna cannot simply be reduced to the destruction of the defilements and liberation from the round.  Those events are conditioned events, they occur in time, while nibbāna is unconditioned, without any origination, timeless.

Is nibbāna conditioned by its path?

Now one particular problem that's sometimes raised over the statement that nibbāna is unconditioned.  It's said that it seems contradictory to say that nibbāna is unconditioned and yet by practising the path you attain nibbāna.  Doesn't this seem to make nibbāna something that's conditioned by the practice of the path, something that's produced by the path?   Doesn't nibbāna become an effect, something not unconditioned, not causeless?

Here the contradiction is only apparent: nibbāna itself – we have to make a distinction between nibbāna itself and the attainment of nibbānanibbāna itself is unproduced, unoriginated, it's always existent. But by following the path, by reaching Enlightenment, you realize nibbāna.  By practising the path you don't bring nibbāna into existence, but rather you discover something already existing, something always present. We can say the attainment of nibbāna, the realization of nibbāna, is produced by the practice of the path.  But this doesn't mean that nibbāna itself is brought into being by the path.

We can illustrate this by an analogy.  The city of New York is presently existing and there are highways leading into New York from all over the country.  By driving along the highway you can reach New York and enter the city.  We can't say that New York itself is produced by travelling along the highway.  Rather, the highway gives us entrance to New York; by travelling along the highway we can enter New York.  Similarly, the path leads to nibbāna; by following the path you reach Enlightenment and that brings the realization of nibbāna, but nibbāna itself is not created by the path."

END of transcription.

(Bhikkhu Bodhi then proceeds to consider some of the terms and expressions used in the text as designations for nibbāna.)


I personally find these accounts of the positive aspects of nibbāna, as presented by Bhikkhu Bodhi, very inspiring.  And there's the prospect of more not just in the Pali canon; comparative analysis of Theravadin and Mahayana canons, which are derived from different schools, have each undergone different editorial processes involving revisions and omissions, and may well yield further examples.

Some scholars and practitioners, particularly Theravadins in the West, express a very minimal characterisation of nibbāna as the culmination of a process to eradicate defilements and uproot craving; they may say that all that subjectively remains on completion of the Path is experience.  They're not motivated to hear and even show antipathy to hearing more than that and argue that it would be a distraction.  I sense that underlying this resistance are perspectives confining attā and anatttā to the khandhas.  But the texts contain pointers beyond the khandhas; I have found, as did the Pali scholar, I. B. Horner, that this topic really merits further exploration.

I feel there is an imperative to explore these topics in the context of artificial intelligence, especially the 'strong AI hypothesis'.  I've been exploring aspects of nibbāna motivated by the wish to articulate the distinctness of human beings from machines.  Humans have the potential to attain to nibbāna, which is the source of ultimate wisdom, but machines, being conditioned, do not.  However, that distinction is hard to draw without a clear sense of transcendence being communicated in a constructive way.