What is Nibbāna?

Nibbāna (literally: “extinguishing” or “quenching”) is the unconditional happiness and clarity of mind which is the goal of Buddhist practice.

Rather than seeing suffering as the inevitable flip side of happiness, Buddhism sees suffering as an affliction caused by a specific condition within the heart, namely wanting the world to be other than the way that it is.

From this angle, there are two ways to achieve happiness: forcing the world to conform to our wishes or accepting things as they are.

These two methods for achieving happiness are, of course, unequal. Getting what we want is a fleeting happiness while letting go of our neediness leads to a lasting contentment. If we are fine however things turn out, then we will always be happy. Even when death comes for us, we can remain cool and unperturbed — leaving no “unfinished business.”

The mental “seeds” of “I want…” or “I meant to…” which normally lead us on are, in fact, only the seeds of suffering. By attending closely and continuously to the workings of our own mind, we can eventually see this directly: that grasping is painful. As this realization dawns, we naturally let go. The radiance of insight sterilizes the seeds of discontent.

This “dhamma eye of wisdom” opens when we see for ourselves that absolutely everything is impermanent and therefore unsatisfying. Seeing this danger in clinging to the things of the world, the practitioner begins the process of letting go. When she’s let go of everything, to her immense surprise, she experiences nibbāna: freedom from conditioned phenomena.

Prerequisites

This course assumes prior knowledge about Buddhist practice. Familiarity with the early texts and Buddhist philosophy is recommended but not required.

Textbooks

A perilous flood has arisen
For those oppressed by old age and death
Let me declare an island to you
~ Snp 5.10

This excellent, free anthology will be our textbook for this class:

A compendium of ‘essence’ teachings on nibbāna, as they appear in the Pāli Canon and in contemporary traditions. My most highly recommended book for anyone who wants to know what Nibbāna is.

This secondary monograph will be threaded through the course to help contextualize the historical developments:

Gives a thorough summary of how nibbāna evolved as a concept in ancient India as a reaction to the ideas of rival sects.

Course Outline

The course will simply go sequentially through The Island. As you read each chapter, please refer back here for some supplemental readings and a few talks.

Part 1: Seeds

In part one of our course, we do a deep analysis of the word “nibbāna” and try to understand its connotations and use. This section plants the “seeds” for our analysis of the philosophy, practice and fruits in the later sections of the course.

What is Nibbāna?

The Introduction and Chapter 1 of Metaphor and Literalism (hereafter, “ML”)

  • Will give an introduction to this text and to the term “nibbāna
  • A standard definition and straightforward typology of Nibbāna.
  • Sometimes we will talk about nibbāna as a philosophical entity and at other times as a psychological state, or even as a meditation experience. This essay gives a good outline of these different aspects. Useful to keep in mind throughout the course, that “Nibbāna” can refer to a few different things!
  • The beautiful sutta from which our textbook (The Island) gets its name.
  • “The Island” is, however, not the only synonym for the ultimate given in the early texts. This chapter from the Saṃyutta Nikāya lists 43 others to give us a better idea of its character.
Synonyms for Nibbāna According to Prajñavarman, Vasubandhu and Asaṅga – Peter Skilling (pdf)
  • While sadly these forty synonyms were lost in the Chinese Tradition, Skilling shows that SN 43 (above) was preserved in Tibet.

Fire, Heat, and Coolness

Chapter two of The Island gives us the basic metaphorical image behind the term “Nibbāna”.

ML: Chapter 2 - The Two Nirvana Theory

  • A discussion of the imagery of fuel and fire, and an analysis of the important “Two Nirvana Theory” curiously left out of The Island. What is “The Two Nirvana Theory”? Read this chapter to find out!

And if you’re still thinking that Nirvana is some heaven realm somewhere…

  • Bhante Ñāṇananda disabuses us of that notion, by reminding us that “Nirvana” simply means relinguishing: letting go of fuel.
  • And Ajahn Geoff further explores ancient Indian phsysics to come up with a striking, new (old) take on this central metaphor. A long booklet, but well worth the read.

Part 2: Terrain

This is the main section of the course. We’ll cover the rest of Metaphor and Literalism and the core philosophical dimentions of nibbāna.

This, That, and Other Things

ML: Chapter 3 - Developments of the Two Nirvana Theory

  • The Abhidharma Tradition took Nirvana from a metaphor and turned it into a physical reality (“dhatu”).
  • This leads to some problems, particularly how this “ultimate reality” differs from the “ultimates” postulated by other religions.
  • This booklet helps to answer that very question, by explaining the middle way and contrasting it to the influential Vedāntic theology.

I personally find that The Island occasionally leans on the side of eternalism (or at least doesn’t argue against it to my satisfaction), so the above chapter and booklet will be especially good to read and keep in mind.

All That is Conditioned

We will return to Metaphor and Literalism in a few chapters, but first let us talk for a while about nibbāna’s opposites: conditioned reality and suffering (dukkha).

  • How does an arahant relate to the world?

To Be or Not to Be

  • What is the difference between an Ordinary and an Enlightened being?
  • How is “extinguishing” the Middle Way? How is it not nihilism? How is “extinguishing” different from “annihilation”?

Not Made of That

  • What is “non-duality” and, more importantly, how does one practice it?

Attending to the Deathless

who sees within, without “there’s nought”,
of such a one, what knowledge known
how will such a one be led?

Unsupported and Unsupportive Consciousness

  • It is very important (and very difficult!) to understand that the “experience” of nibbāna is no experience at all!
  • Ajahn Brahmali here argues the other side of the “debate” from The Island, explaining how “anidassana viññāṇa” should be understood, not as a hidden, pure, or non-dual consciousness, but as something else entirely.

The Unconditioned and Nonlocality

Nibbāna and Abhidhamma – L.S. Cousins (pdf)
  • If experiences, not metaphysical “elements,” were the point of Early Buddhism, how did nibbāna develop into the “unconditioned element”?

Metaphor and Literalism: Chapter 4 - Nibbāna in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition

  • We return to ML and the analogy of fire in order to better understand the Theravada developments to the doctrines of nibbāna and anatta.

The Unapprehendability of the Enlightened

The Buddha gives pithy answers to Upasīva about the path to liberation and the status of anāgāmīs and arahants.

ML Chapter 5 - The Northern Schools

  • If you are interested in the Northern schools of Indian Buddhism (which came to be part of the Mahayana), you may want to read Chapter 5 at this point. If you’re uninterested in the Mahayana, however, you will probably want to skip this chapter of Metaphor and Literalism

‘Reappears’ Does Not Apply

everything becomes cool when nothing is relished

  • On what it feels like to transcend the categories

Metaphor and Literalism: Conclusion and Translations

  • The Conclusion is worth a read to tie together our study of Nirvana’s history.
  • Those interested in the primary sources may also wish to read the translations in Part Two. Even a quick skim may be helpful to get a general impression of the genre, but don’t worry: this part won’t be on the final exam!

Epilogue: Knowing, Emptiness and the Radiant Mind

We wrap up this, the main, section of our course, with a brief word on the “Radiant Mind” and related perennial topics:

  • Bhikkhu Analayo gives a careful, textual study of the supposedly “luminous” nature of the mind in early Buddhism. Is such a view supported by the early texts or is this a later development?
  • The curious case of an arahant committing suicide. Can someone who has attained the goal decide to kill themselves?

Part 3: Cultivation

The next two parts of the course shift from philosophical to more practical considerations: How is enlightenment achieved?

The Gradual Path

  • What is the relationship between the mundane and supermundane paths? How did these concepts develop?

Sudden Penetration

  • This deep sutta on the details of the meditative “experience” of nibbāna takes place as a discussion between the Bhikkhuni Dhammadinnā and her student, the layman Visākha. How is “the unconditioned” conditioned?
  • Ajahn Brahm celebrates their Bhikkhuni ordination with a talk on this sutta.

The Path and Goal

The Arahat – Bhikkhu Bodhi (mp3)
  • An introduction to the final goal of Buddhist Practice.

Part 4: Fuition

We finally come to the last, but perhaps most important, part of our course: the experience of enlightenment itself. We will break it down into two lessons: on the first breakthrough and the final release.

Sotāpanna

Sotāpanna (or a Stream Winner) is someone who has attained the first stage of awakening. They have eliminated doubt and are firmly on the path to final deliverance. We will conceptualize this “turning point” in the spiritual career first with this work on the stages of insight that lead up to Stream Entry:

  • What does it feel like as we transition from ordinary to super-mundane practice?
  • A short talk on balancing faith and knowledge against expectations.

“Ah, What Bliss!” — Conclusion

  • Ajahn Maha Boowa describes what it’s like to be an arahant in this short talk delivered near the end of his life.
  • “What’s next?” What happens after enlightenment?

With those final words of inspiration, our course is now finished. The rest is up to us.

Further Reading

Booklets

An extremely profound and exceptionally rare book, Arahattamagga gives an unfiltered first-hand account of what it’s actually like to walk the entire Path—from its tumultuous beginning to its extraordinary finish.

To be female is to have the dukkha of a female. To be male is to have the dukkha of a male. […] If we deludedly think ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly.

Canonical Works

‘I’ve developed the heart’s release by love… Yet somehow ill will still occupies my mind.’

Mendicants, these seven perceptions, when developed and cultivated, are very fruitful and beneficial. They culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless. What seven? The perceptions of ugliness, death, repulsiveness of food, dissatisfaction with the whole world, impermanence, suffering in impermanence, and not-self in suffering.

It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief

So this holy life, bhikkhus, does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood, and its end.

Wisdom and consciousness–these things are mixed, not separate. And you can never completely dissect them

One should not neglect wisdom, should preserve truth, should cultivate relinquishment, and should train for peace.

A pithy and deep sutta on the true difference between the ordinary and the enlightened mind.

I say it’s not possible to know, see or reach the end of the world by traveling. But I also say there’s no making an end of suffering without reaching the end of the world.

indeed there is no thing there

Articles

Essays

During my first weeks with my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, I began to realize that he had psychic powers.

Kammaṭṭhāna meditation should be practised so as to reach Nibbāna, thereby escaping from all kinds of misery

Audio/Video

Yeah, we’re locked up in ideas
We like to label everything
Well, I’m just gonna do here
What I gotta do here
‘Cause I gotta keep myself free

Advanced Courses

Imagery in the Early Buddhist Texts
In this course, we illuminate and inhabit the thought world of the Buddha by continuing our close examination of the language, images, and metaphors of 24 other key doctrinal terms from the Early Buddhist Texts.
Tranquility and Insight: Madhyama Āgama Division 7
Bhikkhu Analayo walks us through a chapter of the Madhyama Āgama on the subject of how tranquility and insight work together to lead the mind to maturity.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.