In a previous essay we discussed how scholastic monks, eager to showcase their exegetical skills, unnecessarily complicated and distorted the meaning of nāma-rūpa in the Buddha’s teaching. Something similar happened regarding the word Nibbāna. Here too the semantic developments in the Commentaries are unsupported by the Suttas. It is very common to find an explanation of the etymology of the word Nibbāna such as vānasaṅkhātāya taṇhāya nikkhantattā: ‘Nibbāna is so-called because it is an exit from craving, which is a form of weaving.’
What? Taking the element vāna to mean a form of weaving is as unnecessarily complex and misleading as taking nāma as some kind of bending. It is said that craving is a kind of weaving in the sense that it connects up one form of existence with another, and the prefix ni– is said to signify the exit from that weaving. This is an approach straight out of the Indian scholastic commentaries on Vedānta, which also employ obscure misinterpretation of word roots to twist the text into bizarre renderings, blocking any attempt at realization.
But we do not see this kind of forced, indirect etymology and interpretation anywhere in the Suttas. The Suttas use the word Nibbāna in the sense of ‘extinguishing’ or ‘extinction’, as a fire that runs out of fuel. This direct sense brings out the true essence of the Dhamma.
The simile of the extinction of a fire is very often used as an illustration of Nibbāna. For instance the Ratana Sutta, commonly chanted as a paritta, says nibbanti dhīrā yathāyaṃ padīpo: “Those wise ones get extinguished even like this lamp.” The simile of a lamp getting extinguished is also found in the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta. Sometimes it is the figure of a torch going out: pajjotass’eva nibbānaṃ, vimokho cetaso ahu: “the mind’s release was like the extinguishing of a torch.” — Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta (D II 157) In the Aggivacchagotta Sutta (M I 487) the Buddha presents a sustained Socratic dialog, giving the simile a deeper philosophical dimension:
“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other, is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”
When a fire is burning, if someone were to ask us: “What is burning?” how shall we reply? Is the wood burning or the fire? The truth is that they have a reciprocal relationship like nāma-rūpa: the wood burns because of the fire, and the fire burns because of the wood. Here we have another case of causal relatedness of this-to-that, idappaccayatā or specific conditionality, the underlying principle of Dependent Origination. Thus there is a very deep significance in the fire simile.
Nibbāna as a term for the ultimate aim of Dhamma is significant because of its allusion to a fire going out. In the Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta (S IV 368–373) as many as thirty-three terms are listed to denote this ultimate aim. But of all these epithets, Nibbāna became the most widely used, probably because of its significant allusion to fire. The fire simile holds the answer to many questions relating to the ultimate goal.
The wandering ascetic Vacchagotta and many others accused the Buddha of teaching a doctrine of annihilationism. Their accusation was that the Buddha proclaims the annihilation, destruction and nonexistence of a being that is existent.
“And how is the bhikkhu a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered? Here a bhikkhu has abandoned the conceit ‘I am,’ has cut it off at the root so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered…
“So saying, bhikkhus, so proclaiming, I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmins thus: ‘The recluse Gotama is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being.’ As I am not, as I do not proclaim, so have I been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmins thus: ‘The recluse Gotama is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being’.” — Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22)
“Now if a fire is burning in front of you dependent on grass and twigs as fuel, you would know that it is burning dependently and not independently, that there is no fire in the abstract. And when the fire goes out with the exhaustion of that fuel, you would know that it has gone out because the conditions for its existence are no more.”
The Pāli word upādāna often seen in such contexts has the sense of both ‘fuel’ and ‘grasping’; and in fact, fuel is something that the fire grasps for its existence. Upādānapaccayā bhavo: “dependent on grasping is being/becoming” (Mahā-nidāna Sutta). Grasping/clinging and being/becoming are two very important links in the process of Dependent Origination, paṭicca samuppāda.
Eternalists, overcome by the craving for existence, want to find some permanent essence in existence. But the Buddha taught that what is true for the fire is also true for existence. That is, existence is caused by and dependent upon grasping. There is an existence only as long as there is grasping. As we saw above, the firewood is called upādāna because it catches fire. The fire catches hold of the wood, and the wood catches hold of the fire. And so we call it firewood. This is a case of a this-to-that relation or specific conditionality (idappaccayatā). This is also true of what is called ‘existence’, which is not an absolute reality but a conditioned phenomenon dependent on a specific chain of causality.
Even in the Vedic period there was the dilemma between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’. They wondered whether being came out of nonbeing, or non-being came out of being. Katham asataḥ sat jāyeta: “How could being come out of non-being?” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1–2) In the face of this dilemma regarding the first beginnings, they were sometimes forced to conclude that nāsadāsīt no sadāsīt tadānīm: “In the beginning there was neither non-being nor being” (Ṛgveda X.129, Nāsadīya Sūkta). Or else in their confusion they would leave the matter unsolved, saying that perhaps only the creator knew about it.
This shows what a lot of confusion these two extreme concepts sat and asat — being and non-being — created for the philosophers. The Buddha completely reappraised the whole problem of existence and presented a perfect solution, the middle way. He pointed out that existence is a fire dependent upon the fuel of grasping — so much so that when grasping ceases, existence ceases as well.
In fact the fire simile holds the answer to the tetralemma included among the ten unexplained points often mentioned in the Suttas. It concerns the state of the Tathāgata after death — whether he exists, does not exist, both or neither. The presumption of the questioner is that one or the other of these four must be true.
The Buddha solves or dissolves this presumptuous tetralemma by bringing in the fire simile. He points out that when a fire goes out with the exhaustion of the fuel, it is absurd to ask in which direction the fire has gone. All that one can say about it is that the fire has gone out. Nibbuto tveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati: “It comes to be reckoned as ‘gone out’.” (Aggivacchagotta Sutta)
A reckoning is just an idiom, a worldly usage which is not to be taken too literally. This illustration through the fire simile drives home to the worldling the absurdity of his presumptuous tetralemma of the Tathāgata’s existence after death.
“There is no measure of the one who has come to rest there is nothing by which they can speak of him, when everything has been completely removed, all the pathways for speech are also completely removed.”
— Upasīvamāṇavapucchā (Sn 1074)
Here ‘reckoning’ or discernment is to be understood in terms of the four propositions of the tetralemma: is, is not, both is and is not, and neither is nor is not. Any such reckonings in terms of extreme views of existence or nonexistence imply total misconception of the phenomenon concerned, whether being or fire. Absent the chain of causality leading to clinging, becoming and being, there is no birth. Reckoning or discernment is impossible in the absence of a measure, or a system of terminology to support comparison and analysis.
Once the fire has gone out due to exhausting its fuel, it cannot be traced. Nothing can be said about it, for it was never an independent entity to begin with. It is simply gone, and that is also all that we can say about the Sage who has gone to Nibbāna. He is called the Well-gone One (sugata) because his manner of going is good (sobhana-gamana), because of being gone to an excellent place (sundaram thānam gatattam) and because of having gone rightly (sammāgatattā):
“Bhikkhus, so long as the Well-gone One abides in the world, or the Well-gone One’s discipline is present, it is for the welfare and pleasure of many, for the compassion and happiness of gods and men. Bhikkhus, who is the Well-gone One?
“Here, bhikkhus, the Thus-gone One is born in the world, accomplished, fully enlightened, endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct, well-gone, the knower of worlds, the incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed. Bhikkhus, that is the Well-gone One.
“Bhikkhus, what is the discipline of the Well-gone One? He proclaims the Teaching good at the beginning, middle and end, explaining the complete and pure holy life. Bhikkhus, this is the discipline of the Well-gone One.” — Sugatavinaya, 10