So I’m sitting here in the midst of the tremendous insight I had back in August, and finally articulated just now, trying to process and digest its tremendous significance. The power of the apophatic structure of the Buddha’s teaching rests in the fact that nibbāna cannot become a symbol, a concept; it must remain ever and always an ineffable living experience of transcendence, or the essence of the Buddha’s teaching will be lost.
Simultaneously, the function of the Eightfold Noble Path as ‘a process of becoming that leads to the end of becoming’ is revealed to be applicable to any set of aggregates. In fact, the more drastic the change, the more bizarre the configuration of aggregates we find ourselves beset by, the more powerful the Buddha’s teaching shines as a means to transcend their influence. This is the source of its profound and unprecedented antifragility.
By defining nibbāna or fixing its meaning in any way whatsoever, all this power is lost. Setting the meaning of nibbāna in stone reduces it to an ordinary concept. Bhikkhu Ñānananda writes: “The chimerical and elusive nature of sense percepts and conceptual data is such that as soon as one thinks in terms of them, one is estranged from reality.” This fact is brought out in the following verse:
“In whatever egoistic terms they think of an object, ipso facto it becomes otherwise. And herein, verily, lies its falseness, the puerile deceptive phenomenon that it is.” — Dvayatānupassanā Sutta (Snp 3.12)
In other words, due to the impermanent nature of experience, the relative stability of verbal concepts imbues our thoughts with a false sense of permanence and reality. By the time we return from our concepts to the reality, it has changed—sometimes beyond recognition.
The cure for this inevitable alienation from reality brought about by fixed conceptual thought is to “remain fully in a dwelling of emptiness.” — Cūla-suññata Sutta
Thus there is no way to evade the conclusion that actual practice of the Buddha’s teaching must consist in ‘The signless concentration of the heart’.
But most people who identify as ‘buddhist’ are far from this. Instead they wallow in designations like, ‘My name is so-and-so’; ‘I am a disciple of such-and-such teacher’; ‘I follow the XYZ lineage of Buddhism’; ‘I practice the ABC method of meditation’, etc.
In other words, their consciousness is resting on signs, permeated by signs, delimited by signs. The signless seems far away—even inconceivable to them.
But there is no question of attaining or even approaching nibbāna as long as we conceive of it in terms of signs and symbols:
“When that is the case, he should get the mind steadied right within, settled, unified, & concentrated in his first theme of concentration. He then attends to internal emptiness. While he is attending to internal emptiness, his mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, grows steady, & indulges in internal emptiness. When this is the case, he discerns, ‘While I am attending to internal emptiness, my mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, grows steady and indulges in internal emptiness.’ In this way he is alert there.” — Mahā-suññata Sutta
Today I attended a death anniversary ceremony—a friend’s father passed away three months ago. Such family ceremonies were recommended by the Buddha as beneficial for everyone concerned. As usual, however, Buddha-puja was performed: a ritual offering of food, incense, scent and flame accompanied by prayers borrowed from Hindu culture. I wonder what the Buddha would have to say if he were to see it.
If the Buddha’s teaching is to be made into a religion, then at least it needs a true sacrament reflective of its true nature. Thus let Nibbāna be the wine, Suññata the cup and the Dhamma the wafer. Let hymns of silent praise be directed toward the glory of wisdom and the beauty of emptiness. Let the scripture of the signless concentration of the heart (Animitto Sutta, SN 40.9) be read aloud as the sermon. And let the succulent fruits of the Path be shared among the faithful. That would be a far more fitting tribute to the Buddha as the most intelligent and compassionate wisdom-teacher of all.