We should get clear that describing Nibbāna by words is categorically impossible. The ineffable truth can be experienced, but not explained; realized, but not articulated. Nevertheless, one can become aware of non-conceptual phenomena or experience, and the way to its realization, by careful application of adequate terminology. Indeed, this is precisely the principle of operation of the Buddha’s teaching. Hopefully this will become clearer in the discussion below.
But first we have to discuss why there are is such confusion and controversy about the meaning of Nibbāna. Not only do the different schools and branches of Buddhism disagree among themselves, but even within the Theravāda tradition itself, there is a great division over the meaning, approach to and realization of Nibbāna. This has reached the point where it is a great faux-pas in Buddhist circles even to hint that one has attained Nibbāna or any of the states leading up to it.
Ultimately these problems boil down to the pre-conceptual, non-conceptual, para-conceptual or meta-conceptual nature of Nibbāna itself. We have to agree with Chinese Master Lao-Tsü that “Those who speak, do not know; those who know, do not speak.” However, although Nibbāna cannot be described, certainly something can be said about its qualities and the approach to it by means of the Eightfold Noble Path. Once the goal is made clear, the intelligent reader can ascertain the steps necessary to complete the work on his own.
For the first centuries after the Buddha’s parinibbāna, the Suttas were passed on by oral recitation alone. The problem began when the original words of the Buddha were written down. Putting any knowledge into writing tends to give rise to the conceit that knowing the words about something is equivalent to knowing it directly. Of course that is absurd, ludicrous—but the institution of modern university education is largely based on that very delusion.
An anecdote may serve to illustrate this. Once I was playing a Bach Prelude for a friend in a side room at a social event. Another guest came in, and once I had finished, began to criticize my performance. After several points were advanced, I offered him my instrument and asked, “Can you do it better?” He shrank away, “I can’t play a note.”
Similarly in many Buddhist venues we encounter those who like to criticize, but who cannot present anything superior in the way of explanation, practice or realization. However if we inquire, we often find that they are relying on the writings or interpretations of some popular teacher, or of the early scholastic monks who compiled the Commentaries.
There is a popular belief—no doubt originated by the authors of the Commentaries themselves, and fostered by their disciples—that the interpretations and authority of the Commentaries are traceable to pakiṇṇakadesanā, some obscure passages scattered here and there in the Suttas, and known only to deep scholars. Another questionable idea deeply rooted in the Sāsana is that the Sutta Piṭaka is simply the external teaching, the Buddha preaching to ordinary people in conventional language, implying that the Suttas are not as deep as later works compiled by the scholars themselves.
But the truth is, the Commentaries are derivative, not more ‘advanced’ than the Suttas. Very often they are inconclusive regarding the meaning of deep Suttas. They often give several possible—often mutually contradictory—interpretations. Sometimes they go off on a speculative tangent, overlooking the direct meaning. The Commentaries are silent on some of the most profound Suttas, as if they don’t know what to say about them.
In the Āṇi Sutta of the Nidānavagga in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Buddha foretells the dangers that will befall the Sāsana in the future:
Ye te suttantā tathāgatabhāsitā gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokuttarā suññatappaṭisaṃyuttā, tesu bhaññamānesu na sussūssisanti na sotaṃ odahissanti na aññā cittaṃ upaṭṭhāpessanti na te dhamme uggahetabbaṃ pariyāpuṇitabbaṃ maññissanti. — Āṇi Sutta (S II 267)
“In times to come, monks will lose interest in those deep Suttas which deal with transcendental matters; they will not listen to those Suttas having to do with emptiness, suññatā. They will not think it worthwhile learning or pondering over the meanings of those Suttas.”
The Buddha is not foreseeing some remote future: it has already happened. According to the Aṅguttara commentary Manorathapūraṇī, there was a debate early in the Sri Lankan Sāsana between the scholar-monks and the meditators. And the conclusion was that passing on the words of the Suttas and Commentaries is enough for the continuity of the Sāsana, and the realization of the practice is not so important. So unfortunately the basket of the Buddha’s words was passed on from generation to generation in the dark—that is, without the corresponding realization.
Certainly much was lost as a result of that unfortunate decision. It is visible in the present-day division in Sri Lanka between the ritualistic temple monks, who generally wear bright, almost day-glo robes, and the meditators who prefer more sober vestments. Even among the meditators, most are university-educated, and trained to value the words of the Suttas over the realities and realizations they are supposed to represent. Thus the monks chant the Paritta Suttas with great facility but cannot explain them in terms of Nibbāna or suññatā, to say nothing of realizing them for themselves. If you ask, they reply that they are ‘too busy’ managing their temples to devote time to meditation.
Also there is a tendency in the Commentaries to elaborate on and obfuscate even perfectly clear words in the Suttas simply as an exegetical requirement. This led to many unnecessarily complicated ideas. Thus the deeper meanings of the Dhamma got obscured. Actually the depth of the Dhamma can be seen only through its simplicity and clarity, just as one sees the bottom of a tank only when the water is pellucid. Unnecessary elaborations and complications of interpretation lead to the clear meaning being obscured, and the result today is that few followers of the Buddha’s path are becoming enlightened.