Nibbāna isn’t Annihilation: Just Cessation, as the Buddha said

The previous essay began to explore the direct meaning of the word Nibbāna in terms of the Suttas. It seems plain enough in that light. But the commentators didn’t appreciate the deeper connotations of Nibbāna in the context of Dependent Origination (paṭicca samuppāda), so they developed a new etymology of their own.

The commentators were uneasy about the implications of the word ‘extinction’. Apparently they felt compelled to reinterpret certain key passages on Nibbāna to avoid the charge of nihilism or annihilationism, which also had been leveled at the Buddha. They conceived Nibbāna as a ‘something’ existing in its own right. They could not say where Nibbāna is; sometimes they even said that it is everywhere. They would say, with undue grammatical emphasis, that lust and other defilements are abandoned upon ‘going’ to Nibbāna.

That is a nice safe description for scholars and others addicted to words and symbols. But what say the practitioners who actually realized Nibbāna? As recorded in texts like the Thera-gāthā we find joyous utterances like, sītibhūto’smi nibbuto: “I am grown cool, I am extinguished.” (Rāhula TheraThe words sītibhūta and nibbuta have a cooling effect, even to the reader. Why did later scholars find them inadequate? Probably because the scholars weren’t practitioners.

Extinction is an experience bringing a unique bliss of appeasement. As the Ratana Sutta says, laddhā mudhā nibbutiṃ bhuñjamānā: “They experience the bliss of appeasement won free of charge.” Normally appeasement is won at a cost, but the appeasement of Nibbāna comes gratis.

Extinction is a loaded term. From the worldly point of view, it seems to mean death, a dreaded annihilation. The commentators conceived of Nibbāna as something like a location, on reaching which one abandons the defilements. Sometimes they say that craving is destroyed on seeing Nibbāna, as if Nibbāna were a ‘thing’ that could be seen.

Thus the commentarial definitions of Nibbāna are contradictory. On one hand we are given a definition of Nibbāna as release from craving, which is interpreted as ‘weaving’. On the other, we are told that on seeing Nibbāna craving is destroyed. To project Nibbāna into the distance, and hope that craving will be destroyed on seeing it, is something like trying to build a staircase to a palace one cannot yet see. In fact this is a simile that the Buddha used in his criticism of the Brahmins’ point of view:

“Poṭṭhapāda, it’s as if a man at a crossroads were to build a staircase for ascending to a palace, and other people were to say to him, ‘Well, my good man, this palace for which you are building a staircase: do you know whether it’s east, west, north, or south of here? Whether it’s high, low, or in between?’ and, when asked this, he would say, ‘No.’ Then they would say to him, ‘So you don’t know or see the palace for which you are building a staircase?’ When asked this, he would say, ‘Yes.’

“So what do you think, Poṭṭhapāda — when this is the case, don’t the words of that man turn out to be unconvincing?” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)

There is a very clear statement of the Third Noble Truth in the Dhammacakkappavattana SuttaHaving first said that the Second Noble Truth is craving, the Buddha goes on to define the Third Noble Truth in the words, tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo: “the Third Noble Truth is the complete fading away, cessation, giving up, relinquishment of that very craving, the release from and non-attachment to that very craving.”

The Commentary says that destruction alone is not Nibbāna: khayamattaṃ na nibbānaṃ (Abhidh-av 138). But in the Suttas the term taṇhakkhayo, the destruction of craving, is very often used as a term for Nibbāna, for example in Itivuttaka 90The Buddha himself calls destruction of craving the highest bliss:

“Whatever bliss from sense-desires there is in the world, Whatever divine bliss there is, All these are not worth one-sixteenth Of the bliss of the destruction of craving.” — Rāja Sutta (U 2.2.12)

Many of the verses found in the Udāna are extremely deep. Udāna means a joyous utterance, and generally a joyous utterance comes from the very depths of one’s heart, like a sigh of relief. The concluding verse in an Udāna often goes far deeper in its implications than the preceding narrative. For instance, in the following joyous utterance of the Buddha:

“What is the use of a well, If water is there all the time? Having cut craving at the root, In search of what should one wander?” — Udapāna Sutta (U 7.9.69)

The destruction of craving is not the destruction of some ‘thing’. Craving is a kind of thirst, and that is why Nibbāna is called pipāsavinayo, the dispelling of thirst, in the Aggapassāda SuttaWhile the world running here and there in search of water, one who has quenched his thirst for good simply looks within and drinks from the wellspring of his bliss.

The destruction of craving was called the highest bliss by the Buddha himself. However the term taṇhakkhaya appeared too negative to the scholars, thus they minimized its value. They searched for grammatical excuses in conventional usage to separate that term from Nibbāna.

According to the Buddha, Nibbāna is realization of the cessation of existence. Existence is said to be an eleven-fold fire; the entire existence is a raging fire. Lust, hate and delusion are fires. Therefore Nibbāna may be best rendered by the word ‘extinction’. Once the fires are extinguished, what more is needed?

Unfortunately Venerable Buddhaghosa, well-trained in the rhetoric of South Indian Brahmanism, was not prepared to appreciate this point of view. In his famous Visuddhimagga, and in the commentaries Sāratthappakāsinī and Sammohavinodanī, there is a long discussion on Nibbāna in the form of a discussion with an imaginary heretic (Vism 508; Spk III 88; Vibh-a 51). Many of his arguments are inharmonious with both the letter and spirit of the Dhamma.

First Buddhaghosa gets the heretic to put forward the idea that the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is Nibbāna. But actually the heretic is simply quoting the Buddha word, for in the Nibbāna Sutta of the Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta, the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is called Nibbāna: rāgakkhayo, dosakkhayo, mohakkhayo idaṃ vuccati nibbānaṃ.

The words rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya and mohakkhaya together form a synonym of Nibbāna, but Buddhaghosa interprets it as three synonyms. Then he argues directly against the Buddha in form of the imaginary heretic, that if Nibbāna is the extinguishing of lust it is something common even to the animals, for they also extinguish their fires of lust through enjoyment of the corresponding objects of sense (Vibh-a 53). This argument ignores the deeper sense of the word extinction as it is found in the Suttas.

To explain the position of lustful beings in the world, the Buddha gives the simile of a man with a skin disease sitting beside a pit of hot embers:

“Suppose, Māgandiya, there was a leper with sores and blisters on his limbs, being devoured by worms, scratching the scabs off the openings of his wounds with his nails, cauterizing his body over a burning charcoal pit. Then his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a physician to treat him. The physician would make medicine for him, and by means of that medicine the man would be cured of his leprosy and would become well and happy, independent, master of himself, able to go where he likes.” — Māgaṇdiya Sutta (MN 75)

That man is simply trying to assuage his pains by the heat of the fire. It is an attempt to warm up, not to cool down. Similarly, the lustful beings in the world are trying to warm up by drawing near the fires of lust. There is no way that can be compared to the extinction and cooling down of the Arahants.

As the phrase nibbutiṃ bhuñjamānā (Ratana Suttaimplies, that extinction is a blissful experience for the Arahants. It leaves a permanent effect on them, so much so that upon reflection he sees that his influxes are extinct, just as a man with his hands and feet cut off, knows upon reflection that his limbs are gone:

“Saṇḍaka, I will give you a comparison, for some wise men understand when a comparison is given. Saṇḍaka, a man’s hands and feet are cut off. In whatever posture he may be, he would know ‘my hands and feet are cut off’, and reflecting would know ‘my hands and feet are cut off’. In like manner, the bhikkhu who is perfect, has destroyed desires, has done what should be done, put down the burden, has come to the highest good, has destroyed the desire ‘to be’ and rightly knowing, is released, would know constantly and continually ‘my desires are destroyed’.” — Saṇḍaka Sutta (MN 1 513)

Today the deeper implications of the word Nibbāna are obscured by a set of disingenuous and misleading arguments based on a scholarly methodology borrowed from South Indian Brahmanism. Nevertheless, most Theravādins, dazzled by the brilliance of Ven. Buddhaghosa’s scholarship, accept his arguments as gospel.

That has led to an unfortunate situation where the sober voices of the forest practitioners are out-shouted by a politicized chorus of university-trained city temple scholastics. ‘I know, I see, that’s just how it is!’ (Kālakārāma Suttathey chant. But actually, unenlightened, they are clinging to the straws and reeds (Nadī Suttaof speculative commentaries, while the current of saṃsāra sweeps them downstream toward the inevitable precipice.

Everyone accepts and admits that very few people are becoming enlightened nowadays. And the rare Stream-entrants, Once-returners, Non-returners and Arahants that do arise, come almost exclusively from the forest tradition. Could that be because the practitioners alone retained the correct understanding of Nibbāna?

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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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