The concept of Salvation,

A Buddhist Perspective

In the world, there cannot be a religion without Salvation. The word Salvation means the act of saving. That is the ultimate in religion. It is the act of saving from sin and its consequences.

Buddhism is not a religion through which one is saved from one's sin and its consequences. Saving from sin and its consequences. In most religions the reference is to saving from sin. The word sin in Pali is Papa. Now in Buddhism sin is not an unconditioned phenomena. In the Dhamma ,the root of sin is the Kilesas, namely the defilements which are another name for lobha which is greed, Dosha which is hatred and Moha which is usually translated as delusion. So while most other religions offer to save human beings from sin, what Buddhism does, it offers to save one from the kilesas.

I must make clear the meaning of " offer to save" .The word save has a meaning which it is not usual for the Buddha to use. It means an act which is done by someone, a positive act, including rescue. One saves a person from drowning, but the Dhamma saves not in that sense. The Dhamma teaches the human being to save himself. It is not an act that another can do. It is what one does oneself. Therefore the term "Salvation" itself is not relevant in the Buddhist concept .The Buddhist concept is Nibbana.

The terms such as extinction, freedom, emancipation, liberation, release and deliverance are used as synonyms, instead of Salvation. As there is no interference of any agency in Buddhism, Buddhists do not like to use the term Salvation as a synonym to Nibbana. However for this study, we use the word "Salvation " as an umbrella term for Nibbana. Deliverance in Buddhism is release from bondage. According to Buddhism we all are bound to Samsara with ten fetters (dasa samyojana). The cause of attachment to the life process is craving led by ignorance. Being wise one can realize the Four Noble truths, which brings final Salvation. The method adopted for this purpose in Buddhism is insight meditation.

It is quite clear that Buddhism teaches that one is one's own refuge and one should never seek refuge in any external power. That means each person has to work out his own salvation. Therefore in Buddhism there is no Saviour who could save us from the samsaric fetters . Once the Buddha said that we are all bound to Samsara and there is neither a beginning nor an end to this samsara (anamataggo ayam bhikkhave samsaro pubbakoti na pannayati).

The term given in the Buddhist canon to Salvation is Nibbana. This term Nibbana in Pali or Nirvana in Sanskrit is composed of Ni+ Vana." Ni" is a negative particle meaning absence. "Vana" is a figurative expression for craving or lusting.1 Thereby it means the absence of craving.

This definition is very popular among Buddhists and one always come across it in Buddhist literature. This very word Nibbana or Nirvana is a primal word in Buddhism. In ancient India, Nirvana was apparently used as an everyday word for "being well" or "being healthy". But to be healthy in Buddhism is to have realized final release. 1

Buddhist Salvation is, figuratively, extinction of fire. In the Anguttara Nikaya it clearly elaborates that Nibbana is complete extinction of covetousness,(greed) complete extinction of aversion(hatred) and complete extinction of delusion, and it is to be realized within this life time itself. (Yato kho ayam brahmana anavasesam ragakkhayam patisam vedeti, anavasesam dosakkhayam patisamvedeti, anavasesam mohakkhayam patisamvedeti, evem kho brahmana sanditthikam nibbanamhoti akalikam ehipassikam opanayikam paccattam veditabbam vinnuhiti). In the Samyutta Nikaya it is stated that it is a flame blown out by wind.

Acciyatha vatavegena khitto- Attam paleti na upeti samkham

Evam muni namakayo vimutto-Attam paleti na upeti Samkham. ( S.N. I. 170)

As a flame blown out by the wind goes to rest and is lost to cognizance, so the sage who is released from name and form(mind and corporeality), goes to rest and is lost to cognizance.

As we said earlier there are ten fetters through which we are bound to Samsara. Nibbana is defined as a deliverance from these ten fetters. They are:

  1. Belief in personal entity
  2. Sceptical doubt
  3. Clinging to mere vows and ceremonies
  4. Craving for sense-pleasure
  5. Ill-will
  6. Craving for material existence
  7. Craving for immaterial existence
  8. Conceit
  9. Vanity
  10. Ignorance.2

Nibbana is the Summum Bonum of Buddhism. For the realization of Nibbana one has to accept existence of unsatisfactoriness, as an indispensable fact. The cause of the existence of unsatisfactoriness is that we are attached to what is changing. We are craving for conditions that arise which are characterized by change. Thus we are craving for what is fleeting, disappearing, for what is in short a process. All existence is characterized by the feature of unsatisfactoriness because existence is undergoing change. Craving can be realized through penetrative wisdom developed by insight meditation .The eradication of craving is the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and resultant . There is a path to be followed for eradication. It is the Noble Eight-fold Path. Once the Buddha said "It is the cessation without a remainder the complete fading away and extinction of craving, the abandonment of it, the forsaking of it, the release from it and non attachment to it"(yo tassayeva tanhaya asesa viraga nirodho cago patinissaggo mutti analayo)1 .

In the Dhammapada it is said , just as a tree though cut down, sprouts up again if its roots remain uncut and firm, even so until craving that lies dominant, is rooted cut, suffering springs up again and again.

Yathapimule anupaddave dalhe- Chinno pi rukkho punarevaruhati

Evam tanhanusaye anuhate - nibbattati dukkha midam punappunam ( Dh. 338)

The path to deliverance leads to insight, to higher wisdom ,to peace and to Nibbana. For the highest perfection Nibbana, the seven stages of purity are very much needed. Those seven are as follows :

1/ The purity of good conduct or morality

2/ The purity of consciousness or mind

3/The purity of right view regarding personality

4/ The purity brought about by escaping from all doubts

5/ The purity of insight which discriminates between "path" and "not path "

6/ The purity of insight arises from the path and progress in it

7/ The purity of insight brought about the knowledge and vision of the four paths and their fruit. 2

According to the Mulapariyaya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the one whose fetters of becoming are utterly worn away(parikkhinabhava samyojana) recognizes Nibbana as Nibbana; having recognized Nibbana as Nibbana, he does not think of Nibbana , he does not think of himself in Nibbana, he does not think of himself as Nibbana, he does not think Nibbana is mine, he does not rejoice in Nibbana. That is because it is thoroughly understood by him.3 As a religion which is based on anthropology and psychology, Buddhism teaches "Salvation" through perfection, giving prominence to wisdom. But on the other hand ,in theological religions such as Christianity, "Salvation" is based on faith. Dr. Shanta Ratnayaka very clearly and categorically shows the difference between wisdom and faith (in Buddhism and Christianity), in his work "Two ways of perfection Buddhism and Christian". He writes " Perfection is seen as a gradual progress because both insight wisdom in Buddhism and faith in Christianity belong to the process of character development. Wisdom is like a seed which brings to grow through insight meditation. When it mature one reaches the seven purification, at the end of which one sees Nibbana and becomes a Perfect One" (p.156).

Perfection in Buddhism is something developmental and real. Buddhism does not accept any type of metaphysical or non verifiable reality, but only an empirical reality. The truth, Salvation or Nibbana, is to be realized by each and every individual in this very lifetime itself,(ditthevadhamme) –not after death- .The Perfected One or the Enlightened One is an free of bias and unfettered . He is psychologically and ethically fully developed; and lives within society rendering a tremendous service to man.

Psychological aspect of Salvation

Buddhist Salvation is thoroughly Psychological transcendence within this world(lokanirodha). According to early Buddhism, the whole world could be reduced to five categories ,namely Form (body),Sensation (vedana), Perception (sanna), Volitional formation(Sankhara) and Consciousness(vinnana). Within this category vedana is the affective dimension, sanna and vinnana come under the cognitive dimension and sankhara comes under the conative dimension. These five categories cannot be separated from one another but may be distinguished from each other. Affective, cognitive and conative are the psychological dimensions. Our consciousness consists of these three dimensions. When one makes an effect to realize Salvation or Nibbana one strives to purify these three dimensions. Of the three cognitive is dominant and could be modified and developed into a complete realization of Nibbana. According to the Dhammapada, the one who psychologically transcends this world is like water on a lotus leaf, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle; he clings not to sensual pleasures. 1

In early Buddhist psychology there are two major aspects, namely:

  1. Causal genesis of consciousness i.e. apart from the condition on which it depends there is no arising of consciousness (annatra paccaya natthi vinnanassa sambhavo)
  2. Reciprocal dependence of consciousness i.e. mind and matter depend on consciousness and consciousness depends on mind and matter(namarupa paccaya vinnanam vinnana paccaya namarupam).

Therefore it is obvious that mind is not an independent entity. So the psycho-physical faculties are inseparable. On the other hand , consciousness cannot be recognized as a permanent entity(atman). It is a stream of thought (vinnanasota). Our mind or consciousness is something manipulable so that it can to be developed and ,purified, in order to attain Nibbana. The wise are those who categorically comprehend the cause for existence of the five faculties and strive hard to develop them great faculty of consciousness by weakening the dominance of sensation, perception and volitional formation or conation .

As a result of such a gradual process of control , he transcends this world and moves to a higher level of mind. The final goal of purification of mind is the cessation of craving and the psychological brightness of an illuminated mind. Now he has no more accumulation of volitional causation (kamma) which is found in every thought unit. Now he is psychologically a Perfected One. In the Samannaphala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya his mental powers are described as follows:.

" O king, as if in a mountain fastness there were a pool of water, clear, translucent and serene ; and a man , standing on the bank ,and with eyes to see ,should perceive the oysters and the shells, the gravel and the pebbles and the shoals of fish, as they move about or lie within it.He would know: ' This pool is clear, transparent, and serene and there within it are the oysters and the shells, and the sand and gravel and the shoals of fish moving about or lying still" (D.N. 1. p.84).

In the same way , the Enlightened One perceives the whole world the beings who come to be born in this world and who depart from this world. Psychologically he is completely unequalled and unencumbered. He is the Enlightened One i.e. the Buddha.

Ethical Aspect of Salvation

Buddhist ethics is fully endowed with the capacity to achieve the ultimate goal, Nibbana . As an ethico-philosophical teaching, it develops man's moral behaviour in daily life and uplifts him to the bliss of Nibbana. Ethics teaches us how to conduct a good or moral life. The result of such a moral life is the gaining or the supreme bliss or realization of Nibbana; the Summum Bonum.

The minimum resulting consequence of ethics is a calm and peaceful life, and the maximum is the highest happiness(Paramam Sukham). There is a commendable and laudable ethical code in Buddhist teaching. Step by step it takes one to the highest truth. It starts with generosity and morality. The Buddha however, advises us to investigate things in the world . It is very significant because it discourages blind faith. Faith based on fact (akaravati saddha) however ,is highly praised by the Buddha while faith without facts ( amulika saddha)is condemned .In the Canki Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya , the Buddha pointed out two qualities of the monks to be investigated.These two are:

1.Conduct of body – Kayasamacara

2.Conduct of speech –Vacisamacara

Investigating these two one develops faith ,and having faith one goes to the resort of monks (saddhajato upasankamati). Then starts an association with monks, while associating one listens to them . Thus one gets an opportunity to listen to the Dhamma . Listening to the Dhamma one keeps it in his mind and then examines it. Then one can understand well and develop a desire for more Dhamma. This desire helps one to make an effort . Thus one turns round in one's mind and reflects and reflection leads one to meditate ,and meditation helps one to understand the Noble Truths completely, even totally with body and mind, this is called understanding of Truth.

Once , referring to the Buddhist moral code, the great scholar Max Muller said " All testimonies from hostile and from friendly sources agree that it is one of the most perfect moral codes that the world has ever known" In the same manner, Sir Radhakrishnan says that the supremacy of the ethical is the clue to the teaching of the Buddha ; whatever may be their expressions, it is more logical and reasonable to examine the Buddha’s own words on Buddhist ethical code. Every now and then he explained this method of character formation in his famous discourses, such as Malunkyaputta and the Maha Govinda. In the Malunkyaputta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya(M.N. 63), disclosing what he has explained he says , "This is anguish has been explained by me, this is the arising of anguish has been explained by me, this is the stopping of anguish has been explained by me and this is the cause leading to the stopping of anguish has been explained by me. It is because it is connected with the goal; is fundamental to the Brahma- faring and conduces to turning away from passion to dispassion ,stopping, calming, super knowledge, awakening and Nibbana."

Whatever he teaches ,the Buddha had an aim. It tells us that His aim is mainly to produce wholly and solely detachment, passionlessness, cessation of craving, peace, understanding, insight into the highest stages of the path and to Nibbana.

The Buddha condensed his whole teaching into four lines as follows:

Sabbapapassa akaranam- kusalassa upasampada

sacittapariyodapanam- etambuddhana sasanam (Dh.183)

which means "not to do evil, to cultivate good ,to purify one’s mind", this is the advice of all the Buddhas. From his early days, i.e. within the first two decades the Buddha advising the monks said " speak no ill, do no harm, restrain yourself with moderation in eating, a life in solitude and devotion to meditation" . In the Anguttara Nikaya he says abundantly ": Monks do ye abandon evil ,it is possible . If it were impossible I would not bid you do so. Cultivate the good, it is possible . (A.N. I. 53) This ethical character formation undoubtedly gradually leads to Nibbana ( Iti kho Ananda kusalani silani anupubbena aggaya parenti).

One brilliant scholar of Sri Lanka, Dr. Gunapala Dharmasiri, in his work "Fundamental of Buddhist Ethics" , clearly points out that the Enlightenment is a result of morality and wisdom, which are interdependent. He says " Attainment of Nibbana is the result of Enlightenment. Enlightenment is a result of morality and wisdom which are inter-dependent in the sense that they cleanse each other"(p/139) Now it should be patent that Buddhist Salvation or Nibbana is a sort of character formation which is based on sila (virture) samadhi(concentration) and panna(wisdom).

The Negative aspect of Salvation

Nibbana is a complete eradication of attachment(raga) of ill-will(dosa) and of delusion (moha).In other words it is the removal of all impurities(kilesa) which get one deeper and deeper into samsara and further and further from the goal of Nibbana . Some scholars even prefer to see Nibbana in the light of negation. In one sense that is not incorrect because the Buddha himself has said that Nibbana is the cessation of suffering . (Dukkha Nirodha) .In the first Sermon itself he pointed out that Nibbana is the cessation of suffering. Therefore it is clear, in this context, that Nibbana can be negative. He expounded that samsaric existence is full of suffering and all conditioned things are impermanent, subject to change and without permanent substance or entity i.e. noumena behind phenomena. Impermanence, unsatisfactoriness ,and soullessness are the three main characteristics taught in Buddhism . One of the epithets given in the text to Nibbana is absence of suffering (Dukkhakkhaya).So one can come to a conclusion that Nibbana is a kind of negation of suffering. What is suffering? In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta it is said that birth is suffering, sickness is suffering ,death is suffering ,association with the un-pleasant is suffering , dissociation from the pleasant is suffering ,not to receive what one desires is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates of grasping are suffering. On one occasion by explaining his own experience, the Buddha said that he himself being subject to birth ,old age, sickness, death, sorrow and impurity and knowing his subjection to them as evil, he sought the highest security(yogakkhema) i.e. Nibbana, which is free from all these and succeeded in attaining Nibbana .So I hope I have made clear in what sense Nibbana is negative. There is nothing to be seen in Nibbana (anidassanam) and nothing to be grasped.

We may now direct our attention towards the possibility of discovering some ideas regarding the affirmative aspect or the positive aspect of Salvation in Buddhism.

Positive aspect

It would be correct to say at the very out set that Nibbana is more affirmative than negative because it is full of compassion (karuna), loving kindness(metta) and wisdom(panna) . The following are some of the other synonyms of Nibbana which manifest its positivity. Peace(Santa), unchanging truth(Sacca),the state of bliss(Siva) , the deathless state (Amata),the state of permanence(Dhuva),the refuge from suffering ( Sarana), full destiny (Parayana) the state free from fear( Khema) the absolute (Kevalam) the state of support(Pada) the supreme state (Pamita), the state free from decay (Accuta) release liberation(Mutta) emancipation(Vimutti) Tranquility (Santi) purity(Visuddhi) and the state of coolness(Nibbuti).

In the Sutta Nipata it is declared as an inner peace (ajjhatta santi) ( 837 Vr).

According to that it is not born of volitional effect nor is it a result of a cause. In the Rohitassa Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha said " It is in this one fathomed body with consciousness that I declare is found the existence of the world, its origin ,its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation of the world" (S.N. I.62).

Nibbana is not something mystic or spontaneous. One can work it out. Its something empirical and to be realized .Unlike in some religions its not the returning to the ultimate reality .i.e. absorption .There is no permanent entity in Nibbana. It is a state of one's heart (nibbanam hadayasmin osiya- Theragata 119) . One can enjoy it (ladda muda nibbutim bhunjamana).It is something observable (nibbanam pariyesamanam) .This is peaceful ,this is the highest bliss, the calming of all activities, the rejection of all attachment, the destruction of craving , the freedom of desire .

Those who are wise, meditative ,strenuous and can advance in insight , attain this supreme happiness of Nibbana become free from all bondage and reach the incomparable. It is said in the Dhammapada verse No. 23

"There is no measure of him who has gone to rest , he keeps nothing that could be named . When all dharma are abolished all paths of speech are abolished. "

In the Chapter of the Patali Village of the Udana ,there is a very good explanation of Nibbana where the Buddha explained the nature of Nibbana in negative terms. Salvation or Nibbana in Buddhism is something ineffable. 1

Finally may I quote from a versatile and erudite missionary monk of Sri Lanka , Ven. Narada, on realization of Nibbana. "Comprehension of Nibbana is impossible by mere perusal of books. Nibbana is not something to be set down in print nor is it a subject to be grasped by intellect alone. It is a supra-mundane state to be realized only by intuitive wisdom."1

By Bhikkhu Seelana1nda , Paramita International Buddhist Centre Kadugannawa