Just because we can make up fancy explanations and stories about ultimate wisdom doesn’t mean they’re true.
“This is peaceful, this is excellent: the stilling of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all assets; the destruction of craving; detachment, cessation, extinction.” — Mahā-Mālunkya Sutta (M I 436)
This description of Nibbāna by the Buddha is a kammaṭṭhāna, one of the forty classic meditation subjects. It is a contemplation on the ultimate peace of Nibbāna, upasamānussati. If we can successfully understand these six qualities of Nibbāna, we will be in a position to realize it for ourselves.
We are told in Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta (D II 93) that the Buddha’s teaching is svākkhāta, well-proclaimed; sandiṭṭhika, can be seen and realized in the here-and-now; akālika, timeless; ehipassika, inviting one to come and see for oneself; opanayika, leading one onwards to enlightenment; and paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi, that the wise individual can understand it by himself. The purpose of this essay, and all our work, is to help you to experience these six qualities of the Dhamma.
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 the possibility 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 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, there is a great division over the meaning, approach to and realization of Nibbāna. It has become a great faux-pas in Buddhist circles even to hint that one has attained Nibbāna or any of the transcendental 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 (pick your pet prefix; we will go with non-conceptual). 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 directly, certainly something can be said about its nature and the approach to it by the Noble Eightfold 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 language, especially writing, often results in 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 help 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 not on their own insight, but on the writings or interpretations of some popular teacher, or of the early scholastic monks who compiled the Commentaries.
There is a popular belief —a conceit 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 — even 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, the Buddha foretells the dangers that will befall the Sāsana in the future:
“In times to come, monks will lose interest in those deep Suttas that 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.” — Āṇi Sutta (S II 267)
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, 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 interpretative complications led to obscuration of the clear meaning, and the unfortunate result today is that few followers of the Buddha’s path are becoming enlightened.