That’s the colloquialism: we don’t have problems with something nowadays, we have “issues”. “Issues” doesn’t mean we’re fed up, but there’s something there that’s just not right. There’s something that needs dealing with, working out.
I have two main issues with the Buddha’s notion of nibbāna. But let me preface this by saying that since I can claim no direct experience of anything like a nibbānic state, I am writing strictly and completely as a nibbānic ignoramus. My concepts of nibbāna are just that: concepts, coming from writings of contemporary practitioners, those of the past, and the Pāli Canon itself.
Maybe that’s the problem.
Sometimes it’s said that the experience of nibbāna is beyond conceptualization, and that therefore any attempt to use words to describe the state are invariably misleading or erroneous. These claims may come from passages like Udana 8.10:
Just as the destination of a glowing fire
struck with a [blacksmith’s] iron hammer,
gradually growing calm,
Even so, there’s no destination to describe
for those rightly released
— having crossed over the flood
of sensuality’s bond —
for those who’ve attained
In his book The Mind Like Fire Unbound, Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu refers to the Vedic notion that
Fire, even when not manifest, continues to exist in a latent form. … When fire is extinguished, Agni [the god of fire] and his powers do not pass out of existence. Instead, they go into hiding. (pp. 21-22).
Ṭhānissaro believes the Buddha adopted this notion when it came to his interpretation of nibbāna, a word, after all, which means something like “extinguishing”. He says,
… when we look at how the Buddha actually used the image of extinguished fire in his teachings, we find that he approached the Vedic idea of latent fire from another angle entirely: If latent fire is everywhere all at once, it is nowhere in particular. If it is conceived as always present in everything, it has to be so loosely defined that it has no defining characteristics, nothing by which it might be known at all. Thus, instead of using the subsistence of latent fire as an image for immortality, he uses the diffuse, indeterminate nature of extinguished fire as understood by the Vedists to illustrate the absolute indescribability of the person who has reached the Buddhist goal. (p. 26)
This interpretation makes sense of some of the more intractable passages in the Buddha dhamma. But it also raises a thorny issue. There are many things we can mean when we say that something is “indescribable”. We can, for example, mean that it is very, very good or bad: here the term “indescribable” is used as a kind of hyperbolic adjectival or adverbial strengthener. I can say, “That chocolate ice cream was just indescribable.” This is perfectly consistent with saying, “It was indescribably delicious”, where “delicious” is itself a description of the ice cream. What I mean to say is that it was very, very delicious, perhaps delicious in a way that I cannot adequately convey by words. But that isn’t to say that the ice cream is literally beyond conceptualization. Clearly it is not, since it is accurately conceptualized as being delicious and ice cream.
In a sense, of course, all language is imperfect. The philosopher Frank Jackson argued many years ago that it would be impossible by language alone to let a color blind person know what seeing color is like. Similarly, unless you have tried a particular flavor, or smelled a particular odor, describing it in words will not convey its precise qualitative feel. To that extent, all experience is “beyond conceptualization”. But let’s note that experience only outruns concepts by a little bit. If you haven’t tried grapefruit, I can tell you that it tastes something like a cross between a lemon and an orange. I can tell you that it tastes sour. I can tell a colorblind person that red and yellow are bright colors that tend to “pop out”, while blue and green are more placid and “lay back”. That is, while concepts and descriptions may not capture the entirety of an experience, that isn’t to say that experience completely outruns them.
This problem is reflected in the suttas themselves. For example, Saṃyutta Nikāya 43.14-43 cites a long list of descriptors of nibbāna (Ṭhānissaro quotes some on p. 20, my slightly reworked partial list is from Bodhi’s translation):
The far shore, the subtle, the very difficult to see, the unaging, the stable, the undisintegrating, the unmanifest, the unproliferated, the peaceful, the deathless, the sublime, the auspicious, the secure, the wonderful, the amazing, the unailing, the unafflicted, dispassion, purity, freedom, the shelter, the asylum, the refuge.
Indeed, the above quote from Ud. 8.10 calls nibbāna “unwavering bliss”; there are plenty of such passages in the Canon. Here’s the point: these are all conceptualizations of nibbāna. One cannot claim on the one hand that nibbāna is literally and completely beyond conceptualization and on the other hand claim that it is a state of peace, security, dispassion, purity, freedom, and unwavering bliss.
If nibbāna were truly a state beyond all conceptualization, what would be the point of working towards its realization? Presumably we work towards nibbāna because it is something good and worthwhile, but “good” and “worthwhile” are themselves concepts. A state to which I have literally no conceptual access is a state in which I could have no conceivable interest.
So perhaps the right thing to do here is to assume that words like “indescribable” are indeed meant textually as descriptive strengtheners, or not to be taken literally. That is, while nibbāna is describable, the descriptors don’t entirely capture what the state is like, much as my descriptions of the taste of grapefruit wouldn’t capture the entirety of what it’s like to eat a grapefruit.
Here’s the thing, though. Ṭhānissaro’s Vedic-inspired interpretation of nibbāna makes sense of several passages where the Buddha refuses to say what happens to the Tathāgata after his parinibbāna (E.g., MN 72, SN 22.86). The ordinary conclusion one would make is that when clinging is finished, rebirth is finished. When rebirth is finished, there is no rebirth, and hence the Tathāgata would simply no longer exist in any sense after death.
Now, one could see how the Buddha might shy away from making such a claim, in that it would tend to be misconstrued, e.g., as implying that the Buddha used to have an ātman that had now been eliminated. This is a version of annihilationism that the Buddha rejected. Nevertheless, in cutting off any kammic action, and hence any possibility of kammic rebirth, the Buddha literally would not have been reborn. Hence he would not exist after death, in the way that unenlightened beings’ kammic streams continue after their death.
Ṭhānissaro’s Vedic solution is to envisage a post-mortem for the Buddha based vaguely around “the diffuse, indeterminate nature of extinguished fire”. Instead of being a “both exists and does not exist” or a “neither exists nor does not exist”, both of which the Buddha rejected, Ṭhānissaro is suggesting something like a “sort of exists and does not exist”, or a “sort of exists in a sense to which our concepts are inadequate”. What can we say of such a state? Not much, though Ṭhānissaro does say something.
In fact, Ṭhānissaro claims the Buddha has post-mortem experiences of a certain sort: “the completely free & unadulterated experience … is that of nibbāna after death.” (p. 38). Once again, if it’s free and unadulterated, it’s not beyond conceptualization. But hey, is this really a satisfying resolution to the problem? From a textual perspective, perhaps. It does make some sense of a bunch of difficult passages in the suttas. From a rational perspective, I don’t think so. Anything that allows some vague notion that the Buddha survived his earthly death, even in a “diffuse, indeterminate” way, having certain kinds of experiences, amounts to a form of unjustifiable reification. There really only can be one reasoned conclusion, which is that the Buddha died at his parinibbāna:
He understands: ‘On the dissolution of the body, with the ending of life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here.’ (MN 140.24).
Nibbāna is said to be “unconditioned” or “unfabricated” (asaṇkhata) (C.f., AN 43). This is to distinguish it from the conditioned or fabricated nature of lived reality: our lived reality is conditioned by its past, as well as being fabricated by concepts, actions and so on. It is therefore impermanent, and unsatisfactory, since it cannot itself be perfected. One stated aim of the Buddhist path is to search for a state of well being that is permanent, by being unconditioned by external phenomena.
Now, to an extent I think we can figure out what this might mean. In ordinary life our happiness comes about conditioned by particular passing events: we are happy because we got a new job, got a raise, booked a trip, and so on. These events necessarily will pass away, so they cannot promise anything more than fleeting pleasure. If our only source of happiness depends on such external conditions, we are prone to oscillate between happiness and unhappiness like a weather vane in the wind.
It would be better to try to find a more stable sort of happiness that doesn’t depend upon external events: one that is less susceptible to conditions. And following along the extrapolation, it may therefore be possible to find a state that is entirely free of conditions: one that is happy (or more precisely that is “peaceful, sublime, dispassionate, pure, free”) all the time.
The Buddha identifies that state as one without greed, hatred, or ignorance. He also identifies it as the state where the taints (āsavas) of sense desire, desire for existence, and ignorance have been destroyed. The latter description makes clearer the supposed permanent nature of the nibbānic state: once one has destroyed the āsavas, they are no longer latent and hence prone to reappearance. Once destroyed, they will never return.
… he has abandoned them, cut them off at the root, made them like a palm stump, done away with them so that they are no longer subject to further arising. (C.f., MN 140.28)
Being diligent, he attains perpetual liberation. And it is impossible for that bhikkhu to fall away from that perpetual deliverance. (MN 29.6)
… a bhikkhu who is an arahant — one whose taints are destroyed, who has lived the spiritual life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, one completely liberated through final knowledge — is incapable of transgression in nine cases. (1) He is incapable of intentionally depriving a living being of life; (2) he is incapable of taking by way of theft what is not given; (3) he is incapable of engaging in sexual intercourse; (4) he is incapable of deliberately speaking falsehood; (5) he is incapable of storing things up in order to enjoy sensual pleasures as he did in the past when a layman; (6) he is incapable of rejecting the Buddha; (7) he is incapable of rejecting the Dhamma; (8) he is incapable of rejecting the Saṇgha; (9) he is incapable of rejecting the training [and returning to lay life]. (Aṇguttara Nikāya 9.7)
Now, there is a superficial and a deeper issue with this notion of nibbāna. On the superficial level, if one is to achieve nibbāna, that achievement will have been conditioned by one’s past experiences and training. It is a state arising from causes and conditions like any other, it seems to me. I am aware that this is essentially a heretical position from within the Buddhist tradition, wherein nibbāna is often thought of as revealing the “true nature” or “Buddha nature” of one’s being or of reality itself. (Although this approach is not really Theravādin).
It is also looked upon as a state of wisdom so deep and profound that it alters the way one approaches the world in an absolutely fundamental way. So the argument against my superficial problem must be that although the state of nibbāna is trivially conditioned by one’s training, it is itself a state which, having got beyond grasping and ignorance, no longer depends upon external conditions to generate well being.
But there is a deeper problem. There may well be such a state (I don’t know, I have yet to achieve it), nevertheless if there is such a state, it is one that will be instantiated in imperfect, physical beings. As such, any state of such beings will necessarily always be conditioned. Even states of deepest wisdom and insight can pass away, if not due to inherent foolishness or backsliding, then at least due to illness and infirmity.
Or are we to assume that no enlightened person ever becomes mentally ill later on in life? Never falls into dementia? Never is affected by Alzheimer’s?
My concern with claims of perpetual liberation or the incapacity to transgress is that they seem to run up against the implacable forces of anicca, or impermanence. It’s always open to those of us on the outside to bestow claims of arahantship ex post facto on those who lived exemplary lives. However, if the point is to discover nibbāna in this life, then its permanence can only be limited to those with good fortune.
Nibbāna and Naturalism
I would like to suggest alternatives to these two aspects of nibbāna, traditionally conceived. I leave these only as suggestions, since as I say, I cannot speak as an authority on perfection. Nevertheless from my limited perspective on the path it would seem as though nibbāna is not, should not, and cannot be entirely beyond our ability to comprehend. If it were, it would be of correspondingly scant interest to us. Therefore we are to take expressions of its ineffability as a kind of poetic attempt to express the extremity of its greatness. Nibbāna is the extinction — or perhaps the near extinction — of greed, hatred, and certain forms of ignorance. And parinibbāna does not amount to some “diffuse, indeterminate” way of being, but rather is the simple death of an enlightened person, without remainder.
Such perfection, even if achievable, cannot be permanent, since nothing macroscopically composed is truly permanent. (As I’ve mentioned before, certain elementary particles have very long mean lifetimes and may in fact be permanent, but they are hardly our concern). A surpassingly lucky and diligent person may be able to achieve such a state and remain mentally lucid until the day they die. But such lucidity is not guaranteed by nature, nor by nibbāna. Hence any achievement, even the ultimate one, must be tempered by time, reposing in the present until it fades.