Nibbāna 14: Cutting the Root

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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 craving is destroyed on seeing Nibbāna. 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 Sutta. Having 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 90. The 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 (Udāna 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 (Udāna 7.9.69)

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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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