Names of Nibbāna | Ordinary logic cannot reveal its nature

Nibbāna is not the only term for the ultimate realization, the consummation of the Noble Eightfold Path. There are many synonyms for Nibbāna, such as akata (unmade) and asaṅkhata (unfabricated). There is even a list of thirty-three such epithets in the Dutiya Asaṅkhata Vagga (SN 43.37):

  1. Asankhataṃ — The Uncompounded
  2. Antaṃ — The End
  3. Anāsavaṃ — Lack of Outflows
  4. Saccaṃ — The Truth
  5. Pāraṃ — The Beyond
  6. Nipuñaṃ — The Accomplishment
  7. Sududdasaṃ — The Difficult to See
  8. Ajajjaraṃ — The Undecaying
  9. Dhuvaṃ — The Permanent
  10. Apalokitaṃ — The Indestructible
  11. Anidassanaṃ — The Signless
  12. Nippapañcaṃ — The Unworldly
  13. Santaṃ — The Appeasement
  14. Amataṃ — The Deathless
  15. Panītaṃ — The Exalted
  16. Sivaṃ — The Auspicious
  17. Khemaṃ — The Peace
  18. Taṇhakkhayo — The Destruction of Craving
  19. Acchariya — The Wonderful
  20. Abbhutaṃ — The Unborn
  21. Anītika — The Free From Harm
  22. Anītikadhammaṃ — The Teaching of Harmlessness
  23. Nibbānaṃ — Extinction
  24. Abyāpajjho — Freedom from Suffering
  25. Virāgo — Destruction of Passion
  26. Suddhi — Purity
  27. Mutti — The Emancipation
  28. Anālayo — Freedom from attachment
  29. Dīpa — Island, lamp, help, support
  30. Lena — The Shelter
  31. Tāṇaṃ — Peace
  32. Saraṇaṃ — The Refuge
  33. Parāyanaṃ — The Beyond

One of the synonyms for Nibbāna is dīpa (island). When we hear Nibbāna compared to an island, we tend to imagine some utopian existence on a beautiful tropical island. But the Buddha corrects our imaginary projection in his reply to the Brahmin youth Kappa. Kappa puts his question in the following impressive verse:

“Unto those who stand midstream When the frightful floods flow forth, To them in decay-and-death forlorn, An island, sire, may you proclaim. An island which none else excels, Yea, such an isle, pray tell me sire.”

And the Buddha gives his answer in two inspiring verses:

“Unto those who stand midstream When the frightful floods flow forth, To them in decay-and-death forlorn, An island, Kappa, I shall proclaim.

Owning naught, grasping naught, The isle is this, none else besides: Nibbāna, that is how I call that isle, Wherein decay is decayed and death is dead.” — Kappamāṇavapucchā (Sn 5.11)

Akiñcanaṃ ‘owning nothing’, anādānaṃ ‘grasping nothing’, etaṃ dīpaṃ anāparaṃ ‘this is the island, nothing else’. Nibbānaṃ iti naṃ brūmi, jarāmaccuparikkhayaṃ “and that I call Nibbāna, which is the extinction of decay-and-death.”

From this we can infer that words like akata, asaṅkhata and sabba-saṅkhārā-samatha, ‘the end of all fabrications’, are also synonymous with Nibbāna. Nibbāna is not some mysterious faraway place; it is not something projected into the distance. Nor can be understood by mere logical negation of the quality of conditioned existence.

Some scholastics try to define Nibbāna by trying to establish an Aristotelian logical duality: ‘Ordinary conditioned existence is saṅkhata, fabricated, and Nibbāna is asaṅkhata or unfabricated. Saṅkhata is anicca, impermanent. If saṅkhata is anicca, then asaṅkhata must be nicca, Nibbāna must be permanent or eternal.’

Following the same sophomoric logic they continue that since saṅkhata is dukkha, suffering, asaṅkhata or Nibbāna must be sukha, pleasurable. But when they come to the third step, they get into difficulties: ‘If saṅkhata is anattā, not-self, then surely asaṅkhata must be attā, or self.’

Nibbāna is self? Oops! At this point their ‘logical’ argument is exposed as too fragile, so they end up admitting that ‘After all, Nibbāna is something to be realized.’ There is a logic to the relation of Nibbāna to ordinary conditioned existence, but it cannot be expressed by ordinary binary logic, or even by the trinary logic or tetralemma (four-valued logic) so often found in the Suttas.

“That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no ‘you’ in connection with that. When there is no ‘you’ in connection with that, there is no ‘you’ there. When there is no ‘you’ there, ‘you’ are neither here nor there nor in between. This, just this, is the end of stress.” — Bāhiya Sutta (Udāna 1.10)

“When there is the view that the soul is the same as the body, there isn’t the leading of the holy life. And when there is the view that the soul is one thing and the body another, there isn’t the leading of the holy life. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathāgata points out the Dhamma in between: From birth as a requisite condition comes aging-and-death…” — Avijjādipaccaya Sutta (SN 12.35)

Ordinary logic does not apply to the transcendental state of Nibbāna. It is neither this nor that, neither here nor there nor in between. Nibbāna is not a thing; rather it is the absence of ‘things’, including the self. All fabrications disappear, including the Noble Eightfold Path. There are no signposts, no dimensions, nothing to measure by or cling to whatsoever. It is beyond all conceptions and symbols.

Nevertheless, the scholastic monks tried to interpret the Suttas through logic. This has led to misunderstanding, wrong view and most tragically, inability to apply the wisdom of the Suttas and attain Nibbāna. All this confusion arises due to a lack of understanding of Dependent Origination, paṭicca samuppāda. To understand anything at all about Nibbāna, first we have to learn something about Dependent Origination.

The principle of specific conditionality underlying the process of Dependent Origination is stated by the Buddha:

“Thus: This being, that comes to be; With the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not come to be; With the cessation of this, that ceases.” — Bahudhātuka Sutta (MN 115)

In other words, everything that exists has a cause that brings it into being, and consequently is subject to cessation upon the ending of the conditions that bring it into manifestation. This principle also applies to aging and death:

“If one is asked, ‘Is there a demonstrable requisite condition for aging and death?’ one should answer, ‘There is.’

“If one is asked, ‘From what requisite condition do aging and death come?’ one should say, ‘Aging and death come from birth as their requisite condition’.” — Mahā-nidāna Sutta

Therefore, if the chain of causality leading to birth is interrupted, then not only birth but also aging and death, dependent on birth for their existence, also cease. This is the state of Nibbāna, the Deathless, the Permanent, the Indestructible. Subsequent installments of this series will build upon this theme of the deep relation between Dependent Origination and Nibbāna.


Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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