Nibbana (Nirvana)
Lecture No. 10, 4th March 2000

Author: Venerable Dhammasami,
Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.


Nibbana (Nirvana)

        Nibbana (in Pali or Nirvana in Sanskrit is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practices. Before we discuss what it means, we should have this revision in order to prepare ourselves to understand about Nibbana.


        Question:: What is the central teaching of Buddhism?

        Answer: It is the Four Noble Truths, (1) suffering (2) the cause of suffering (3) the end of suffering and (4) the Way leading to the end of suffering. They are true to, concerned with anyone, and therefore are called the Noble Truths.

        In terms of methodology, they are (1) locating the problem (2) diagnosing the cause (3) envision the solution and (4) applying the remedy. The solution earlier envisioned is to be achieved as the remedy is applied in practice. The four are not separable in being truths or in understanding them.

        In other words, without understanding suffering and the cause of it at least to a certain extent it is hard to imagine how Nibbana is like. To understand Nibbana is therefore to contemplate on suffering that is apparent here and now in daily life, to see dislike, disappointment, agitation, anger and attachment as suffering.

Nibbana (Nirvana)


        Question: What does Nibbana look like? Is it like a paradise?

        Answer: No. Nibbana is not like a paradise. It is not a place where we must be reborn after death either through our own Kamma (karma) or through the blessing of somebody like the Buddha.

        Nibbana is a constant peaceful state of mind in the absence of the elements causing mental suffering. You may liken it to a complete cure of a disease. You feel not only a great peace of mind but also relieved from a burden inevitably imposed by the disease.

        The elements causing mental suffering are attachment (greed), anger (irritation, agitation, resentment, hatred etc.) and illusion. Ego, pride, jealousy, restlessness, anxiety, fears and worry arise from them. Their total absence brings constant peace in the mind. That is Nibbana that we can experience here and now.

        Nibbana is not an imaginative place, city, or heavens where you build your own world with all the things you like and exclude all what you do not like.

        Question:: Then what do you mean by 'attaining Nibbana'?

        Answer: Attaining Nibbana means to have eradicated all those elements described earlier. Some have a misperception that Nibbana is like an entity that we must try to possess or get. Nibbana arises when there is no more desire to possess or to get, when there is no illusion of something to be possessed.

        Question:: How can we think about Nibbana then before we attain it?

        Answer: Well, Nibbana is not possible to realise or experience through thinking, conceptualisation or ideation. It must be realised and experienced. The fist step is to experience suffering mindfully. We are experiencing it anyway in daily life though we rather choose not to acknowledge it. The kings and queens, the presidents and prime ministers, the billionaires and millionaires - all experience anxiety, worry, disappointment, irritation and so on and so forth on daily basis. Suffering is nothing new to us.

        You will come to have at least a slight understanding of what Nibbana must be like then. Only when you overlook suffering here and now through resentment of having it, you will doubt if Nibbana is real or does exist.

        Centuries ago asked by Milinda, an incredible curious king to prove if Nibbana exists, the Venerable Nagasena gave an example to help him understand. He (the Venerable) said that he could not hold in his hand and prove that wind exists but we all know it does. With dualistic mind, it is always hard to even imagine what it looks like.

        Question:: What is the dualistic mind?

        Answer: Dualistic mind is a mind that grasps at something and at the same time resents at or rejects the other. To describe something pleasant means to compare it with something you think of it unpleasant. The two ideas - being pleasant and unpleasant - are inter-related. Like and dislike, happiness and unhappiness, rich and poor, good and bad are some dualistic expression we use daily. They do exclude each other. Each owes its status to its opponent nature. They are conditioned and impermanent. They can be described as extreme in a sense they exclude one another.

        It is not possible to describe Nibbana in dualistic terms. That is why the Buddha often used their negative terms (i.e. the end of attachment, anger and illusion) to shed some light on Nibbana to those who have not experience it.

        Question:: What is being conditioned?

        Answer: Being conditioned means being dependent on something or somebody psychologically and emotionally. For instance, you choose to put on the best clothes and go out. You may not be conscious of your own desire in your mind that wishes to see people think of you as somebody or getting impressed by looking at the way you dress. However, if that desire is there, you will feel disappointed if no one pays attention to the way you look. This disappointment or unsatisfaction depends on other people. Your desire makes your unhappiness dependent on them.

        If they say you look very nice, you will be on the moon. Your happiness and satisfaction again depends on their praise. Or it is being conditioned by their praise.

        With that desire, you can be made either happy or unhappy depending on their reaction. So, psychologically you are not independent, not therefore unconditioned.

        One day a girl who has been my student did a stage performance somewhere. She expected an appreciation from her father. She did well with her performance but it happened that her father was annoyed with her behaviour some days before that and withheld from expressing his appreciation. The girl told me that she was very hurt by her father's silence.

        Her expectation made her happiness depend on her father's expected favourable reaction. When that was not forthcoming, the expectation caused unhappiness. Her happiness and unhappiness rely on others. It is born within but to be conditioned from outside.

        When this rather conditioned state of mind ceases, the mind becomes unconditioned and there is a constant peace of mind. That is Nibbana. You do not react any more. You are not moved any more no matter how people will react or say about your look or performance.

        At this stage, you will do something out of pure intention. No selfish desire for any return at all. Nibbana is a selfless state of mind.

         Question:: Can our mind practically reach that unconditioned state?

        Answer: Certainly, it can. An unlikely but useful simile is desensitisation. Once you have desensitised something disgusting, that particular disgusting stuff does not make you feel disgusting any more. The same is true to something very attractive. You achieve a balance of mind. But it must not involve any resentment or suppression of your emotion. You rather work through it instead of denying it. You do not react to it any more. This is as if the mind has become unconditioned by that disgusting stuff. You do not lose your calm in the face of such a thing. Your mind does not depends on it any more.

        Meditation is a psychological desensitisation process that leads to the unconditioned state of mind.

        Question:: What are the well-known descriptions of Nibbana by the Buddha Himself?

        Answer: The Buddha often described Nibbana as the end of attachment, the end of clinging, the end of hatred and anger, the end of illusion, the end of suffering, the end of kamma (karma), peace and the unconditioned, the unborn and immortal.

        Question:: What do you mean by the end of Kamma (karma) and the unborn? You do accumulate good Kamma (karma). Don't you?

        Answer: Yes, we do. However, even good Kamma (karma) is conditioned. You may behave very well (observing precepts) and feel very angry when you see people ignorantly accusing you of being a hypocrite. That conditioned anger is linked to doing a good thing. Because you still, attach self-importance to yourself. There is a perception of a 'self'. As long as this notion of 'self' or 'entity' is there, our action will go on to be conditioned, no matter how good it may be by its inherent nature. Selflessness (Anatta) is the very nature of Nibbana.

        The unborn mean the non-origination of the conditioned reactions. It is psychological as well as kammic (karmic). It is immortal as there is no conditioned state of phenomena to die any more. There is not birth of that conditioned or subjective state of mind, and therefore the absence of it is metaphorically termed as immortal. The physical body and mind change every moment and therefore die any moment. It is not about the mortality of this body being or the process of natural mind referred in this case.

        Question:: People make a vow to attain Nibbana. Does it help one to achieve Nibbana that way?

        Answer: Strictly speaking, no. It does not help one attain Nibbana that way. When somebody passes away, we also wish him to attain Nibbana. However, this is only an expression of the best goodwill on the part of the living. We cannot curse him to hell nor commit him to heaven.

        However, when one reiterates the wish to attain Nibbana, he is directing his mind to that goal and it is a good practice. It should not be however regarded as a prayer. There is no one who can grant you Nibbana. You have to work for yourself and it is within all our reach.

        Question:: Is Nibbana permanent or impermanent?

        Answer: Nibbana cannot be described in terms of either permanent or impermanent. Permanence and impermanence are dualistic that rules out each other. As there are no causes for mental suffering to arise, it then ceases forever. Attachment, anger and illusion (Lobha, Dosa and Moha) ceases permanently for someone who has achieved Enlightenment. Nevertheless, cessation of those elements is not suitable to be described as permanent. Being permanent means something exists there eternally.

        Those defiling elements are like a fire that exists due to fuel. When fuels are completely burnt out, the fire simply ceases. Nothing exists permanently there. As the causes (fuels or the defiling conditions) cease, the result that is the fire does not arise any more. It is only the working of the law of natural causality (Paticcasamuppada). It is impossible to say if the fire went away to any direction or leaves something to exist permanently.

        The Buddha said, "all conditioned things are indeed impermanent". He made no mention though of Nibbana in terms of permanence and impermanence. Nevertheless, he did say very clearly that Nibbana is devoid of 'self' or 'any permanent entity'.

        Keywords today

        Nibbana, Four Noble Truths, defiling elements, cessation, dualistic tendency, conditioned mind, unconditioned state of mind, impermanence, permanence, selflessness, suffering, dependent, independent, rely, desensitisation, meditation, achieve Nibbana, here and now, understanding suffering, not denying suffering, the unborn, the immortal, the natural law of causality.

Related articles for further reading selected by the Course Organizer:

        The Way to Nibbana: A Collection of Articles., Nibbana.com Website.

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