What does nibbana mean in buddhism?

Nibbana/Nirvana is the term used in the system of Buddhist thought to denote the Sammun bonum attained through the realization of the reality of the world. The places in which the state of the Nibbana is interpreted are mostly regarded as the terms which connote the negative sense, such as “nirodha”,

  • Ragakkhaya – extinction of desire
  • Dosakkhaya – extinction of hatred
  • Mohakkhaya – extinction of illusion

On the basis of connotation this, some scholars say that the Nibbana is indicating some pessimistic idea. Some argue that it is a nihilism of being. According to the teaching of the Buddha there is no so-called being to be annihilated. So let us examine what is the nature of Nibbana.



A greatest discourse

In the first Sermon of the Buddha to the world, he referred to his realization in the following world.

“pubbe anunussutesu dhammesu, panna udapadi, vijja udapadi, aloko udapadi”

There arose eye, knowledge, wisdom, science and light with regard to the phenomena unheard of earlier.

The Buddha

In this statement the Buddha uses a series of cognitive terms to describe the vision he realized.

The Buddha’s total overcoming of the perception

The path to arahathood has been elaborated in the discourses. The Buddhist path to purification beings with morality (seela) and goes through the stage of development of the moral qualities of mind along with its concentration (Samadhi) and finally culminates in wisdom (prajna).

In the second stage one starts cultivating one’s mind. The key elements of this process are abandoning what are called five hindrances (pancha nivarana) and generating the advanced states of mind called absorptions (Dhyana). In the dhyanics states gradually one’s mind gets directed to itself and the connections with external world becomes less and less.

The Samanaphala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya elaborates this state of process as following manner,

“…. Then he equipped with Aryan morality, with his Aryan contentment, finds a solitary lodging at the root of a forest tree… and concentrates on keeping mindfulness established before him. He enters first, second, third and fourth dhyanas.

He enters and remains in first dhyana which is with thinking and pondering, born of development filled with delight and joy. And with this joy and delight born of detachment, he so suffuses, drenches, fills and irradiated his body that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched his delight and joy born of detachment.”

The Samanaphala Sutta

In this manner all dhyanas are described in there. It is mentioned in the second dhyana that there is no spot in his delight and joy born of detachment. In the third dhyana he experiences the equanimity and mindfulness. In the fourth dhyana it is said that there is no mysticism in the whole process for they are characterized by the clarity of mind.

The Buddha’s total overcoming of the sphere of the boundless space

In the Buddhism, there are four other stages of dhyana which are called “formless’ (Arupa dhyana). Through the attained to the first dhyana, the Buddha was able to think and examine totally unifying the mind (akasanancayatana). Next, going deeper with the stilling of initial and sustained attention by gaining inner tranquility and oneness of mind he attained to the second dhyana (vinnanacayatana). After he attained into third dhyana by faded away of the rapture, remaining imperturbable, transparent mindful and clearly aware of the reality (akincannyatana).  At the end, with the earlier disappearance of rapture and distress, which means, beyond pleasure and pain and purified by equanimity and mindfulness the Buddha attained into fourth dhyana of formless (nevasannanasannayatana).

The account of finer states of dhyana shows that they result from the gradual isolation of mind from the external world. Even in the fourth stage the mind is not totally devoid of perceptions, but they are almost absenting. These states cannot be described as mystical or transcendental for they are nothing other than what has been described.

The culmination of the trend of isolating the mind from perception is the attainment of cessation (nirodha samapatti) it is a temporary stopping of all sensory avenues including mind. The resultant state is characterized by the complete cessation of any form of conscious existence. In this state one is characterized by all total nothingness. Even in this state there is nothing either mystical or non-mystical.



Wisdom in the path to purification

The final stage is wisdom in the path to purification. As it is mentioned in the Sutta it is also a gradual process of experiencing the truth. The Samammapala Sutta explains it as following,

“…..and he, with mind concentrated, purified and cleaned, unblemished,  free from impurities, malleable, workable and established applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the corruptions. He knows it is suffering.

He knows this is the origin of the corruptions, “this is the cessation of the corruptions” and “this is the path leading to the cessation of corruptions.”

Through his knowledge and seeing his mind is delivered from the corruptions of sense desires, from the corruption of becoming, from the corruption of ignorance and the knowledge arises in him. “this is deliverance” and he knows “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led and done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here.” 

The Samammapala Sutta

The actual occasion of becoming an arahat and realizing Nibbana occurs on the realization of the knowledge of the destruction of the defilements. The unmystical character of the stage of realization is emphasized in the discourse through the following simile.

Just as if, in the midst of the mountains there were a pond, clear as a polished mirror, where a man with a good eyesight standing on the bank could see oyster-shells, gravel banks and shoals of fish on the move or stationary and he might think “this pond is clear……. there are oyster-shells…” just so with mind concentrated, he knows, “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there is nothing further here.

Above simile makes it very clear that the final stage if the process purification is wholly unmystrical and does not refer to any transcendental phenomenon. This very process concludes that Nibbana is not a transcendental phenomenon which lies beyond human cognitive capacity. Nor does it indicate any transcendental reality similar to Atman. Therefore, Nibbana or the Buddhist enlightenment is not ineffable.

Buddha’s explanations on Nibbana

In the discourses themselves we find statements which could be used as supporting a transcendental interpretation of Nibbana. One of such well-known instances occurs in the Udana, in which the Buddha points out the nature of Nibbana as if in forms of metaphysical reality. The Buddha explains,

“there is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space, nor of infinite consciousness, nor of nothingness nor of neither perception-nor non-perception wherein there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor both together, nor moon nor sun, this I say is free from coming and going, from duration and departure there is no establishment, no continuation, this indeed is the end if suffering.”

Nibbana on Buddhism – Mampi Biswa

 In this passage explains about a sphere which does not involve any of the characteristics of the world we ordinary experience.

“Monks, there is a not born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded. If that not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, no escape from the born become made compounded had been known here. But monks since there is a not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, therefore an escape from the born, become made, compounded is known”

Nibbana on Buddhism – Mampi Biswa

This passage seems to say that there is what is not born. If there is not become,there is not made and not compound. That’s is the summery of above explanation/

There is another statement in Udana which says that “just as the ocean does not shrink or overflow” even so, though many monks attain Parinibbana in that condition of Nibbana without any attachment left. Yet there is neither shrinking nor overflow seen in that condition of Nibbana.

However, it is possible to interpret these passages as referring to the nature of Nibbana experience which is opposite to the nature of the ordinary experience. But, these passages indicate some sort of transcendental positions. According to the Buddha everything is restricted into the five aggregates. In other words, there is no so-called world to transcend. In that sense the Buddhist ultimate experience is neither transcendental nor non-transcendental.



Aggivaccagotta Sutta

The Buddha’s rejection of four propositions regarding the arahat would illustrate the situation further. In the Aggivaccagotta Sutta a dialogue relevant to this point occurs between the Buddha and Vaccagotta. Vaccagotta asks the Buddha about the possibility of the post-mortem existence of the arahat. The Buddha replies to him saying that the arahat cannot be described as existing, not existing, both existing and not existing or neither existing nor not existing.

In this reply the Buddha rejects all four logical alternatives. The argument is that if anything can be said, it must be said by means of any one of the above four alternatives. If all the four are inapplicable then no language can describe the sates of the arahat after his death.

The Buddha explains why the four positions are not relevant to the arahat. He takes the fire that was burning in front of them as an example and asks Vaccagotta whether it is proper to ask where the first has gone once it extinguishes. Vaccagotta admits that such a question was not proper. The Buddha says that fire which was burning owing to some causes such as fuel gets extinguished once the causes are removed. There does not arise a question as to where the fire has gone. Like this, the Buddha said the arahat has totally destroyed all the five aggregates with which one could speak of him. The Buddha further explains the status of such an arahat as deep, immeasurable, unfathomable great ocean, as follow.

gambhiro appameyyo duppariyogaho seyyatapi mahasamuddo


The explanation of the Suttanipata

There is a similar statement in the Suttanipata which describes the state of the arahat as follow,

“the person who has attained it does not have a measure. He does not have that with which one can speak of him when all the phenomena are totally destroyed all the ways of speech too are destroyed.”

In this explanation the idea that the arahat does not have any of the aggregates with which one can speak of him leaves open the possibility that he can still have some form of existence in the absence of the five aggregates. This kind of interpretation is supported by the subsequent statement which compares the arahat to the great ocean, which is immeasurable and unfathomable.

However, the resultant picture of Nibbana is that it is a sublime state of mind and that it manifests in the experience as purity of defilements and liberation from bonds. In here, Buddhism talks about is a result of mental development. The enlightened person has been described as one who is born and brought up in the world but lives in it without getting smeared by its defilements. The mind of such a person may be unfathomable like the great ocean by an ordinary mind. But it cannot mean that the arahat enters a transcendental reality after his attainment of arahathood.

Empirical reality

It is possible to exclude the attribution of the transcendentally from the ultimate experience without allocating the Nibbana to an empirical reality. Because when we say that the Nibbana can be experienced, many subsequent questions can be raised as to on what sense they experience it, who is experiencing it?

It is true that the Buddha and arahats have described the nature and the characteristics of Nibbana by means of words. But they do not say that Nibbana can be expressed by using words in order to be convinced of its nature. If the listener is an ordinary person, he would never understand the nature of Nibbana expressed either by the Buddha or by an arahat.

That is because of the lack of the cognitive capacity of the person to grasp the meaning of it. In other word and ordinary person always seek to grasp anything as conception. We should remember that the Buddha said that to grasp something as “is” or “is not” is the tendency of the world.

Further, we should remember that although the Buddha and arahats makes use of conception in order to convince the Dhamma to others they do not it dogmatically. It can be seen obviously in Mulapariyaya Sutta how the Buddha and arahats conceive the world.

It is said that they conceive it with direct knowledge (abhijanati) while others merely conceive and delight in it.

In essence Nibbana is transcendent as long as we realize it, as a fish thinks that the land is beyond his world. But we cannot say that Nibbana that has been attained by the Budddha or by arahat is transcendental as it is neither a transcendent nor non-transcendent for them.

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