David_2010 wrote:This is only my second post, other than my introduction, but, I've recently started to investigate Buddhism and really like a lot of the practices and ideas within it, but, I'm a bit confused by something, what is Nirvana?, like, I know it's freedom from suffering, but, is it just freedom in this life, then you die, and that's it, nothing survives, or, do you (in some sense) survive outside of time and space, which I think I've seen stated about Nirvana.
On another forum I'm on, there was someone who's from a Tibetan background who explained it to me this way, and I'm just paraphrasing here, so, I may explain it wrong, but, she said, you're, basically, still you, but, you're free of all your hangups, like you've been slowed down that you don't care about whether you're you or not (I'm probably explaining it wrong), and you're free of all suffering, is that it?. Like would the historical Buddha (the one that, basically, founded Buddhism), still exist in some form somewhere?, I know there's the concept of No Self, and it's different to the Hindu, Christian and other religious views of eternal soul, but, I'd like any help understanding it a bit more.
In the suttas, nibbana
(Skt. nirvana) is said to be the end of suffering, the extinction of craving (AN 10.60
), the extinguishing of greed, hatred and delusion (SN 38.1) and the highest bliss/happiness (Dhp 203-4
). Beyond that, it's open to interpretation.
In one sense, one could say that samsara
is the antithesis of nibbana. Pragmatically speaking, samsara, literally "wandering on," is the potential for the arising of human [mental] suffering, while nibbana, literally, "extinguishing," is the cessation of that potential. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu
puts it, "Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process." Nirvana is "realized only when the mind stops defining itself in terms of place ... it's realized through unestablished consciousness."
As for nibbana being the annihilation or cessation of consciousness after death, that's how some people interpret the term anupadises-nibbana-dhatu
(nibbana element with no fuel remaining) in Iti 44
— as well as the line, "With the cessation of [the aggregate of] consciousness each is here brought to an end" from DN 11
— but that's certainly not how it's understood by everyone.
In The Mind Like Fire Unbound
, for example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes that, "This experience of the goal — absolutely unlimited freedom, beyond classification and exclusive of all else — is termed the elemental nibbana property with no 'fuel' remaining (anupadisesa-nibbana-dhatu
)." He also points to the term vinnanam-anidassanam
(consciousness without feature) in DN 11
, and notes
that this consciousness, not "partaking the allness of the all," doesn't come under the aggregate of consciousness because it stands outside of space and time. As such, it is a type of awareness that is "not harmed by death
." This is a very controversial view, however, and not one supported by Theravadin orthodoxy.
In terms of the aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha
), it's clear that consciousness is a dependently existing phenomena. Sensory consciousness can only arise with the presence of the appropriate sense organ and its corresponding object of reference. The process of seeing, for example, is described as a conditional process where "dependent on eye and visible forms, eye-consciousness arises" (SN 12.43). Without the presence of the appropriate sense organ (e.g., the eye) or the corresponding object of reference (e.g., rock), sensory-consciousness (e.g., eye-consciousness) can't arise. So none of the six forms of sensory consciousness can stand on its own without the corresponding stimulus to make it manifest or arise.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of sutta passages which could seem to suggest that there's a form of consciousness that doesn't come under the aggregate of consciousness. For example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu states in a note to his translation of MN 109
One form of consciousness apparently does not come under the aggregate of consciousness. This type of consciousness is termed vinnanam anidassanam — consciousness without a surface, or consciousness without feature. MN 49 says specifically that this consciousness does not partake of the "allness of the all," the "all" being conterminous with the five aggregates. The standard definition of the aggregate of consciousness states that this aggregate includes all consciousness, "past, present, or future... near or far." However, because vinnanam anidassanam stands outside of space and time it would not be covered by these terms. Similarly, where SN 22.97 says that no consciousness is eternal, "eternal" is a concept that applies only within the dimension of time, and thus would not apply to this form of consciousness.
There are those in academia who also acknowledge this possibility. Peter Harvey, professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Sunderland, writes in his Introduction to Buddhism
Nevertheless, certain passages in the Suttas hint that Nibbana may be a radically transformed state of consciousness (vinnana):
The consciousness in which nothing can be made manifest (like space), endless, accessible from all sides (or: wholly radiant):
Here it is that solidity, cohesion, heat and motion have no footing,
Here long and short, coarse and fine, foul and lovely (have no footing),
Here it is that mind (nama) and body (rupa) stop without remainder:
By the stopping of consciousness, (all) this stops here. (D.I.223)
Like Ud.80, above, this describes a state beyond the four physical elements, where mind-and-body are transcended. As the heart of Conditioned Arising is the mutual conditioning of consciousness and mind-and-body, this state is where this interaction ceases: from the stopping of consciousness, mind-and-body stops. Consciousness is not non-existent when it stops, however; for it is said to be non-manifestive and endless. One passage on the stopping (nirodha) of the nidana of consciousness (S.III.54-5) says that there is no longer any object (arammana) or support (patittha) for consciousness; consciousness is thus 'unsupported' (apatitthita) and free of constructing activities, so that it is released, steadfast, content, undisturbed, and attains Nibbana. This description, of a 'stopped' consciousness which is unsupported by any mental object, where mind-and-body are transcended, seems to accord well with the Ud.80 description of Nibbana itself.
To say that Nibbana is unconditioned, objectless consciousness indicates something of its nature, but it does not penetrate far into its mystery. For it seems impossible to imagine what awareness devoid of any object would be like. As regards the 'stopping' of mind-and-body, as a state occurring during life, this is perhaps to be understood as one where all mental processes (including ordinary consciousness) temporarily cease, and the matter of the body is seen as so ephemeral as not to signify a 'body'. A passage at M. I.329-30 which parallels D.I.223 says that the non-manifestive consciousness 'is not reached by the solidness of solidity, by the cohesiveness of cohesion...'. The analysis of Nibbana as objectless consciousness, though, is the author's own interpretation. Theravadin tradition sees Nibbana as 'objectless' (Dhs.I408), but regards 'consciousness' as always having an object. D.I.223 is thus interpreted as concerning NIbbana as to-be-known-by-consciousness: Nibbana is itself the object of the Arahat's consciousness (Pati.II.I43-5).
And while the view that there's a type of consciousness that lies outside of space and time, and therefore, outside the consciousness-aggregate altogether, isn't a view that's supported by the "classical" Theravada Tradition in which the entire Tipitaka and its commentaries are considered authoritative, I think the imagery of consciousness that "does not land or increase" mentioned in SN 12.64
does seem to support such a possibility, even if some might say that comparing this imagery of consciousness that "does not land or grow" to the consciousness of nibbana is taking it out of context. At least I think so.
The commentaries, on the other hand, gloss the term vinnanam anidassanam in a way that denies such a possibility. Using the Kevatta Sutta (DN 11
), for example, Suan Lu Zaw, a Burmese lay-teacher of Pali and Abhidhamma, explains that according the the Kevatta Sutta Atthakatha [DN 11 commentary], vinnanam does not refer to the usual meaning of "consciousness" here, but instead defines it as, "There, to be known specifically, so (it is) "vinnanam." This is the name of Nibbana." He also explains that the following line of DN 11, "Here (in Nibbana), nama
as well as rupa
cease without remainder. By ceasing of consciousness, nama as well as rupa ceases here" illustrates this point. He states that, "Nibbana does not become a sort of consciousness just because one of the Pali names happens to be vinnanam."
He concludes by using a quote from a section of the Dhammapada Attakatha
[Dhammapada commentary], which apparently states that there is no consciousness component in parinibbana
after the death of an arahant
. This, of course, is in direct contrast to Thanissaro Bhikkhu's note
to this particular sutta, which suggests that this term refers to a consciousness that lies outside of space and time, and therefore, outside the consciousness-aggregate altogether.
Basically, what this controversy seems to boil down to is the experience of nibbana and the nature of that experience, especially after death. The general tendency is to either describe nibbana as the ending of all consciousness, all awareness, or in other words, to stress the cessation aspect of nibbana, or to describe nibbana as a state of purified awareness, "consciousness without feature," or in other words, to stress the transcendent aspect of nibbana. The "classical" Theravada Tradition favors the former view of nibbana while others, especially some within the Thai Forest Tradition, favor the latter.
As for which view is right, however, I can't say. Perhaps consciousness is purely a conditional phenomenon with nothing else underlying it. Perhaps consciousness is something that is fundamental to the basic structure of the universe. Perhaps there is a separate type of consciousness that doesn't partake of any of the six senses or their objects. Who knows, perhaps none of them are right. For me, the jury is still out on this one, especially since I can see how both views — i.e., the cessation of consciousness vs. an awareness untouched by death — seem to fall into the extremes of annihilationism and eternalism. Nevertheless, both have support in the suttas, as well as sophisticated arguments as to why their view don't fall into either extreme.
I used to lean towards the classical position that all consciousness ceases at death, but now I tend to lean more towards the view that there is a type of consciousness that lies outside of space and time. I think the imagery of consciousness that "does not land or increase" mentioned in SN 12.64 does support such a possibility, as does various other passages throughout the Canon. My position on this may change again, but for now I simply find the latter to be more interesting, as well as motivating as far as my practice is concerned.