ACCORDING TO THE PALI CANON:
The earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings—the fabrications of language cannot properly be used to describe anything outside of the realm of fabrication. In one mode of analysis, this realm is divided into the six senses (counting the mind as the sixth) & their objects; in another mode, into the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness. However, passages in the Canon (such as AN 4:173 and SN 35:117) point to another realm—where the six senses & their objects cease—which can be experienced although not otherwise described, even in terms of existing, not existing, both, or neither. The goal of Buddhist practice belongs to this second realm, and this of course raised problems for the Buddha in how to teach & describe that goal.
He solved the problem by illustrating the goal with similes & metaphors. The best-known metaphor for the goal is the name nibb›na (nirv›°a), which means the extinguishing of a fire. Attempts to work out the implications of this metaphor have all too often taken it out of context. Some writers, drawing on modern, everyday notions of fire, come to the conclusion that nibb›na implies extinction, as we feel that a fire goes out of existence when extinguished. Others, however, note that the Vedas—ancient Indian religious texts that predate Buddhism by many thousands of years—describe fire as immortal: Even when extinguished it simply goes into hiding, in a latent, diffused state, only to be reborn when a new fire is lit. These writers then assume that the Buddha accepted the Vedic theory in its entirety, and so maintain that nibb›na implies eternal existence.
The weakness of both these interpretations is that they do not take into account the way the Pali Canon describes (1) the workings of fire, (2) the limits beyond which no phenomenon may be described, and (3) the precise implications that the Buddha himself drew from his metaphor in light of (1) & (2). The purpose of this essay is to place this metaphor in its original context to show what it was and was not meant to imply.
Any discussion of the way the Buddha used the term nibb›na must begin with the distinction that there are two levels of nibb›na (or, to use the original terminology, two nibb›na properties). The first is the nibb›na experienced by a person who has attained the goal and is still alive. This is described metaphorically as the extinguishing of passion, aversion, & delusion. The second is the nibb›na after death. The simile for these two states is the distinction between a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm, and one so totally out that its embers are cold. The Buddha used the views of fire current in his day in somewhat different ways when discussing these two levels of nibb›na, and so we must consider them separately.
To understand the implications of nibb›na in the present life, it is necessary to know something of the way in which fire is described in the Pali Canon. There, fire is said to be caused by the excitation or agitation of the heat property. To continue burning, it must have sustenance (up›d›na). Its relationship to its sustenance is one of clinging, dependence, & entrapment. When it goes out, the heat property is no longer agitated, and the fire is said to be freed. Thus the metaphor of nibb›na in this case would have implications of calming together with release from dependencies, attachments, & bondage. This in turn suggests that of all the attempts to describe the etymology of the word nibb›na, the closest is the one Buddhaghosa proposed in The Path of Purification: Un- (nir) + binding (v›na): Unbinding.
To understand further what is meant by the unbinding of the mind, it is also important to know that the word up›d›na—the sustenance for the fire—also means clinging, and that according to the Buddha the mind has four forms of clinging that keep it in bondage: clinging to sensuality, to views, to precepts & practices, and to doctrines of the self. In each case, the clinging is the passion & desire the mind feels for these things. To overcome this clinging, then, the mind must see not only the drawbacks of these four objects of clinging, but, more importantly, the drawbacks of the act of passion & desire itself.
The mind does this by following a threefold training: virtue, concentration, & discernment. Virtue provides the joy & freedom from remorse that are essential for concentration. Concentration provides an internal basis of pleasure, rapture, equanimity, & singleness of mind that are not dependent on sensual objects, so that discernment can have the strength & stability it needs to cut through the mind’s clingings. Discernment functions by viewing these clingings as part of a causal chain: seeing their origin, their passing away, their allure, the drawbacks of their results, &, finally, emancipation from them.
Although the Canon reports cases where individuals cut through all four forms of clinging at the same time, the more common pattern is for discernment first to cut through sensual clinging by focusing on the inconstancy & stressfulness of all sensory objects and on the worthlessness of any passion or desire directed to them. Thus freed, the mind can turn its discernment inward in a similar way to cut through its clinging to the practice of concentration itself, as well as to views in general and notions of ‘self’ in particular. Once it no longer views experience in terms of self, the entire self/not-self dichotomy collapses.
The mind at this point attains Deathlessness, although there is no sense of ‘I’ in the attainment. There is simply the realization, ‘There is this.’ From this point onward the mind experiences mental & physical phenomena with a sense of being dissociated from them. One simile for this state is that of a hide removed from the carcass of a cow: Even if the hide is then placed back on the cow, one cannot say that it is attached as before, because the connective tissues that once held the hide to the carcass—in other words, passion & desire—have all been cut (by the knife of discernment). The person who has attained the goal—called a Tath›gata in some contexts, an arahant in others—thus lives out the remainder of his/her life in the world, but independent of it.
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