Nibbāna 9: Lay Down the Burden

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Nibbāna as a term for the ultimate aim of Dhamma is significant because of its allusion to a fire going out. The Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta (S IV 368–373) lists thirty-three terms the Buddha used 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)

And the Buddha answered them fairly and squarely with the fire simile. To paraphrase:

“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.”

When the fuel is exhausted, the fire ‘goes’ out. 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: “being and becoming is dependent on grasping” (Mahā-nidāna Sutta). Grasping/clinging and being/becoming are two very important links in the process of Dependent Origination, paṭicca samuppāda.

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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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