The great ocean is deep, boundless, hard to fathom."[/color]
"Even so, great king, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, great king, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the ocean. 'The Tathagata exists after death' doesn't apply. 'The Tathagata doesn't exist after death doesn't apply. 'The Tathagata both exists and doesn't exist after death' doesn't apply. 'The Tathagata neither exists nor doesn't exist after death' doesn't apply.
Jason Merritt wrote:while some Theravadins describe nibbana as the end of all consciousness, stressing the cessation aspect of nibbana, others describe nibbana as a state of purified awareness and stress its transcendent aspect. To be honest, I can see how both views — i.e., the annihilation of consciousness vs. an awareness untouched by death — seem like the extremes of annihilationism and eternalism. Nevertheless, both have support in the suttas, as well as sophisticated arguments as to why their view doesn't fall into either extreme.
I was thinking over Jason's blog posts and it occurred to me there might be a sense in which both "sides" in this debate are right, provided their positions are being offered as correctives rather than absolutes. Those teachers who use positive terms to describe Nibbana may be doing so in order to direct us away from nibbana as utter nothingness -- a formulation which contradicts the Buddha's teachings (annihilation=the Tathagata doesn't exist after death).
Alex, and others coming from a similar angle, may wish to direct us away from eternalistic conceptions of nibbana, a risk which can be easily seen in some of the positive fomulations, and which also contradicts the teachings (eternal "awareness"=the Tathagata exists after death).
The problem arises if, on either side, we take the corrective as a definitive statement. I think Alex goes too far in equating nibbana with materialist oblivion, for the simple reason that making this equation would require him to have experienced both. He would have had to directly realize nibbana, as well as nothingness, and then come back to tell us whether they are the same. But that's impossible.
The effort to describe the Unconditioned by means of language presents an obvious paradox. Language belongs to conditional existence and is thus part of the same processes which come to an end when parinibbana is attained. As de Saussure tells us, linguistic signifiers only gain meaning via their relationship to other signifiers. Dhamma deconstructs the whole system and with it go all the signifiers.
Therefore, if we speak of any kind of "awareness", "consciousness", "existence" or "luminosity" we are borrowing terms from the conditioned in order to make some point about the unconditioned. Still, we can use conventional language to make that point -- indeed, we have no choice.
We do this elsewhere in Buddhism. For example, even though we consider anatta to be one of the characteristics of samsaric existence, we don't routinely avoid personal pronouns. We recognize both the conventions of language and the fact that we -- as ordinary beings -- still adhere to a conventional world view (i.e. most of us still harbor the illusion of personality).
The existence of both positive and negative teachings on Nibbana is in keeping with the Buddha's method throughout the suttas. He does this repeatedly, usually by starting with the negative presentation and following it with the positive one. I think it's important to keep this in mind. If we look only at the positive side, then the dhamma may turn into something resembling a quest for eternal bliss -- similar to Hindu aspirations for union with Brahma, etc. If we look exclusively at the negative side, Buddhism becomes rather perverse -- a religion for suicidal people who believe that suicide doesn't work??
It is practically impossible not to use some sort of positive terminology. Looking through the links which Cooran provided earlier, we see that almost every teacher does this to a greater or lesser degree. Mahasi Sayadaw, for example, speaks of "the state of peaceful coolness or santi". But this implies some form of awareness that experiences the "coolness". There is no coolness in oblivion, just as there is no warmth or anything else. Even Alex does this at one point when he says nibbana is "total peace! total freedom!" Neither term is applicable to oblivion; the dead don't know peace any more than they know stress.
Oblivion is not "deep, boundless, hard to fathom". None of these adjectives apply.
Leonard Bullen wrote:We can, inadequately and not very accurately, describe it as a positive state of being. It is characterized by supreme bliss and complete freedom from suffering and is so utterly different from ordinary existence that no real description of it can be given. The Unconditioned can be indicated ... only by stating what it is not; for it is beyond words and beyond thought.
Now, interestingly, the quote above could also apply to materialist death. Oblivion is also "utterly different from ordinary existence"; "no real description of it can be given"; we can only state "what it is not". But it does not necessarily follow from this that nibbana=oblivion. It simply follows that both oblivion and nibbana are inconceivable and indescribable.
Or, as Wittgenstein said, "what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence".