Don’t need no ticket, you just get on board…
Some readers have made critical comments about this series, Ultimate Knowledge. Most seem to take umbrage with my audacity, being a ‘junior monk’ and a ‘foreigner’ at that, daring to criticize the writings of Venerable Buddhaghosa and other orthodox works with arguments that are full of ‘mistakes’. I am rather certain that if a few readers express such doubts, many more must share them tacitly. So let us address these comments before setting them aside to continue with our discussion of the deep meaning of Nibbāna.
I do not consider myself audacious; if anything, in view of the present situation of the Sāsana, I am far too tolerant and reticent. The Sri Lanka Sāsana today is in grave danger of marginalization, of making itself irrelevant to the concerns of everyday life. It has adopted an ivory-tower attitude, isolating itself at the very moment when confident, dramatic outreach is most needed. It is losing credibility — especially among the young — because of failing to adapt just when the need for a spiritual balance, an unshakable truth is becoming critical in the face of accelerating destabilizing change.
And I am hardly a junior monk. I was ordained in a Vedic Vedānta lineage over 40 years ago, and have lived as a monk in various traditions ever since. I rose to the position of a senior disciple and ācārya (guru), with several temples and many disciples; despite this I felt that my designation was hollow, my own sādhana incomplete. Therefore instead of consolidating my position, I resigned and began my search anew at an advanced age.
I resolved this time to base my exploration of spirituality on phenomenology — direct personal experience — instead of faith. That view brought me via existentialism to the Buddha’s teaching and the Theravāda tradition. Because of all that, it is no coincidence that I was ordained immediately as ‘Thero’ without the customary waiting period. Therefore it is fitting that I take up the duties of a Thero and spread the original understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. Let those who think that no ‘foreigner’ can understand or realize the Buddha’s teaching be content with their chauvinism.
The Buddha’s teaching is self-sufficient; it stands perfectly well on its own without outside help. But as the Buddha’s teaching spread to the west it became diluted, distorted and polluted by outside ideas. This is a matter of great concern to all sincere followers of the Buddha’s teaching. Yet many hesitate to say anything about it, because criticism of any Buddhist may be seen as criticism of Buddhism, and we fear being seen as promoting schism, or that our Sāsana appear to the world as a house divided.
Well it is too late; the house was divided a long time ago. The great schisms have already occurred, and are a matter of historical record. There is no use crying over spilt milk, or posing as if we Buddhists are one big happy family — we’re not. That being so, I sought to trace back the weakness in our line to the root, and cut it out there.
Our authentic tradition broke long ago, when the monks of Anuradhapura accepted scholastic ideas and attitudes drawn from South Indian Vedānta as more important than the Buddha’s original words, as being more essential to the propagation of the teaching than the perfection of the practice. Having previously been a teacher of Vedānta with well over a million published words on the subject, I am intimately familiar with both its strengths and its flaws. My mission is to subtract from the Theravāda tradition what was added from outside, to restore the original literature, teaching and practice to the foremost priority, to create an authentic standard against which other renditions can be measured.
Besides the concerns expressed above, I am inspired to write this series of essays for three reasons: First because my mentor the Venerable Kaṭakurunde Ñāṇananda invited me to do so, and generously permitted me to make free use of his previous extensive research into the Suttas. He is probably the most senior forest tradition monk in Sri Lanka, and certainly the foremost exponent in English of the Suttānta view — that the Suttas, the original words of the Buddha and his direct disciples, take precedence over the derivative Commentaries, Abhidhamma and other later works.
Second, I write in the hope that this work will be of benefit to my brothers and sisters in the Dhamma, as well as interested lay persons. And third, I write because I am wary of the weakness, inconsistency and inadequacy of the orthodox interpretation, having seen its dangerous results, and want to clarify the correct views for myself. I am well aware that the foregoing are minority views in the Sri Lankan Sāsana today, and that I am risking being seen as a disruptive heretic. But I am confident that history, and the universal law of Dhamma, will vindicate these words. Thus let us proceed.
Everything we have written so far in this series is just about Nibbāna as a term. It’s just a preamble to show that the word Nibbāna in the sense of ‘extinction’ has a deeper dimension that has to be understood in the context of the law of Dependent Origination, paṭicca samuppāda. As we proceed, we will study many deep Suttas on Nibbāna to penetrate to the essence. I strongly encourage you totake advantage of the links to read the original Suttas; they provide essential context for our study.
Much of the original significance of the term Nibbāna was undermined by scholars bringing in a speculative etymology based on misinterpreting the element vāna as ‘weaving’. We don’t see any justification or explanation for this, apart from exegetical hubris. The Buddha often declares that Nibbāna is the cessation of suffering or the destruction of craving. He frequently uses terms like dukkhanirodho, ‘cessation of suffering’ and taṇhakkhayo, ‘cessation of clinging’ in the Suttas as synonyms for Nibbāna. If they are synonyms, there is no need to discriminate by insisting on a periphrastic usage like āgamma — as if Nibbāna is a ‘thing’ or location somewhere ‘out there’ that one can go to.
“This Noble Eightfold Path, friend, is the Holy Life; that is, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. One who possesses this Noble Eightfold Path is called ‘one who lives the Holy Life’. The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this, friend, is the final goal of the Holy Life.” — The Cock’s Park (3) (SN 45.20)
“Rādha, it is not possible to answer that question. Extinction is the final end. The Holy Life is lived to reach extinction and it is the end.” — Māra Sutta (SN 188.8.131.52)
He goes on: for what purpose is disenchantment? And the Buddha answers: dispassion. What is the purpose of dispassion? Release (liberation from conditioned existence). What is the purpose of release? Nibbāna.
Finally Venerable Rādha puts the question, Nibbānaṃ pana, bhante, kimatthiyaṃ? “For what purpose is Nibbāna?” And the Buddha gives this answer: Accasarā, Rādha, pañhaṃ, nāsakkhi pañhassa pariyantaṃ gahetuṃ. Nibbānogadhañhi, Rādha, brahmacariyaṃ vussati, nibbānaparāyanaṃ nibbānapariyosānaṃ: “Rādha, you have gone beyond the scope of questions, you are unable to grasp the limit of questions. For, Rādha, the Holy Life (brahmacariya) is merged in Nibbāna, its consummation is Nibbāna, its culmination is Nibbāna.”
Thus the Holy Life merges in Nibbāna, just as rivers merge in the sea. Wherever the Holy Life is lived to the full, Nibbāna is right there. That is why Venerable Nanda, who earnestly took up the Holy Life encouraged by the Buddha’s promise of heavenly nymphs, attained Arahantship almost in spite of himself. (Udāna 3.2) At last he approached the Buddha and begged to relieve him of his promise. This shows that as soon as one completes the training in the Holy Life, he is in Nibbāna. Only before attaining Arahantship, when the training is incomplete, can one go to heaven.
Thus Nibbāna is a result that comes of its own accord. There is no justification for a periphrastic usage like, ‘on reaching Nibbāna’. No glimpse of a distant object is necessary, no ticket for a long journey needs to be purchased, no need to navigate a meandering course. As soon as the Noble Eightfold Path is perfected one attains Nibbāna — right then and there.
“The Dhamma is well-proclaimed by the Blessed One, visible here and now, not delayed (timeless), inviting of inspection, onward-leading, and directly experienceable by the wise” — (many occurrences throughout the Suttas)
Now, why do the scholars try to refute this by projecting Nibbāna into the future, somewhere far away? This contradicts the words sanditthiko akāliko, ‘visible here-and-now, timeless’ in the verse quoted above. In the case of an examination, after answering the questions one has to wait for the grade: pass or fail. In the Holy Life, as soon as you answer the question correctly you pass, and the certificate is already there. The term aññā used in such contexts stands for full certitude of final knowledge, the experience of Nibbāna — Añña Sutta (SN 47.36).
The experience of the fruit of Arahantship gives the final certificate of attainment, aññāphalo — Ānanda Sutta (AN 9.37). That is why Nibbāna is called something ‘to be realized’ — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11). One becomes certain that khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ: “birth is extinct and the Holy Life is lived completely.” — Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2)
Of course there will always be some who, out of misfortune and illusion, want to push Nibbāna far away, who keep asking ‘what is the purpose of Nibbāna?’ So there remains a demand for scholars and speculators who go on splitting hairs to answer such useless questions. Normally, whatever one does in the world has some purpose. All occupations are for gain and profit. Even thieves and murderers have some purpose and profit in mind.
So naturally the deluded worldlings project their profit motive on those who are in the Holy Life: ‘Why should one attain Nibbāna? What is the purpose of trying to attain Nibbāna? What is the use of Nibbāna?” Rather than rejecting such questions, the scholars brought in phrases like nibbānaṃ pana āgamma: ‘on reaching Nibbāna’ just to answer them. They like to say that ‘on reaching Nibbāna’, somewhere far away, sometime in the future, craving will be destroyed.
But a little analysis reveals the fallacy in both this question and the answer. For if there is any aim or purpose in attaining Nibbāna, it would not be the ultimate aim. In other words, if Nibbāna is the ultimate aim, there should be no aim in attaining Nibbāna. Though it may sound tautological, Nibbāna is the ultimate aim for the simple reason that there is no aim beyond it.
Craving has the nature of projection or inclination. It is leaned forward, anticipatory, and that is why it is called bhavanetti, ‘craving for rebirth’ or ‘the leader in becoming’. It leads one on and on in saṃsāra, like the carrot before the donkey. That inclination is why all objects presented by craving have some object or purpose as a projection.
But what if one’s object is the destruction of craving itself? Because its inclining nature is always bent forward, craving begets craving in an infinite progression. This is for that, and that is for the other. Thus as Heidegger points out, “We are always already ahead of ourselves.” As the phrase taṇhā ponobhavikā implies, craving brings up existence again and again. — Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)
But that is not the case when one’s aim is the destruction of craving itself. On attaining that aim there is nothing more to be done. This brings us to the conclusion that the term taṇhakkhayo, ‘destruction of craving’, is a full-fledged synonym of Nibbāna. This deep point deserves further explanation, and we will continue to elucidate it in future installments of this series.