Nibbana, or Nirvana in Buddhism


byThanissaro Bhikkhu

Thannisaro Buddho explains in this article the meaning of Nirvana. However, in his discussion he drew an erroneous conclusion about ancient Indians. He seems to be unware of the ascetic code of conduct which was meant for the Vedic people who renounced worldly life and lived in the forests as renunciants. He focused his attention upon the importance of fire in the life of a householder who was supposed to keep domestic fires and make offerings to gods, but ignored the Vedic Varnasharama Dharma, according to which when a householder retired from worldly life and took Sanyasa (renunciation) in the last phase of his life (sanyasashrama), he had to take a vow that he would renounce the use of fire for all purposes including its use to cook food or warm his body. He had to actually perform a ritual to extinguish the domestic fire and undertake the vow. For the householders and those who resorted to ascetic life, annihilation of fire meant renunciation of worldly life and all obligatory duties including daily sacrifices and use of domestic fire to prepare sacrificial food. Buddha did not invent the idea of liberation or Nirvana. It was a well-known concept in India at least 2000 years before the Buddha. Even the ideas such as karma, rebirth, desire as the root cause of all suffering, impermanence of the world, ego, impurities of the mind, etc., were well known to Jinas, Vedic seers and many ascetic traditions of ancient India long before the Buddha. Jayarm V

We all know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it's hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation. It turns out, though, that this reading of the concept is a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as of an image. What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of the Buddha's day? Anything but annihilation.

According to the ancient Brahmans, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and in that state -- unbound from any particular fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmans of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn't burn: thus his statement that the person who has gone totally "out" can't be described.

However, when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to "seize" it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was "freed," released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment -- calm and unconfined.

This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five "heaps" (form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness) that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.

Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to its verbal root, which means "unbinding." What kind of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life. All input from the senses cools away and he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations of existence in space and time.

The Buddha insists that this level is indescribably, even in terms of existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things that have limits. All he really says about it -- apart from images and metaphors -- is that one can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that it's the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing.

So the next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a case of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be found in letting go.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source:Copyright © 1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The author gives permission to re-format and redistribute his work for use on computers and computer networks, provided that you charge no fees for its distribution or use. Otherwise, all rights reserved.

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