Fear of Nibbāna (Enlightenment)

March 18, 2020


1. I have presented an outline of the Buddha Dhamma in the “Wider Worldview of the Buddha” subsection. As explained there, the key message of the Buddha is that future suffering can be stopped only by stopping the rebirth process, i.e., by attaining Nibbāna. Now I need to clarify a few things.

  • The main issue that I want to address is the “fear of Nibbāna.” That arises with the wrong view of  “I exist.” Then the implication is that by stopping the rebirth process “I will be extinct.” It is also a wrong view to say that “I do not exist.” It is true that “I exist now as a human.” In the future, I may exist as Deva, Brahma, or an animal, based on the cumulative effect of my kamma (causes) up to now.
  • If I attain the Arahanthood in this life, then after my death I will not exist anywhere in the 31 realms of this world. I would not be subjected to the birth/death cycle with a vast majority of births in realms that are even worse than the animal realm.
  • These days there are many unfruitful discussions about whether a “self” exists or not. As the Buddha pointed out, that is the wrong starting point to discuss the life-cycle. A given life-stream evolves according to causes (kamma.) When the ability for past kamma to bring their vipāka is stopped (i.e., taṇhā or upādāna stopped,) then that process will stop and one merges with Nibbāna at the death of that last physical body.
  • The Buddha clearly stated that Nibbāna exists. See, “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”
  • I have discussed the Buddhist concept that while a “self with gati” exists until one attains Nibbāna, that is NOT a “permanent self” like a soul. See, for example, “Anattā (Mundane Interpretation) – No ‘Unchanging Self’,” “An Apparent “Self” Is Involved in Kamma Generation,” and “Paṭicca Samuppāda – A “Self” Exists Due to Avijjā.” Also see, “Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) – Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation but End of Suffering.”

2. We will re-visit that deeper concept in upcoming posts again, in a systematic way.

  • First, I would like to explain in simple terms that there is no need to be fearful about “stopping the rebirth process.”
  • I did a Google search and found the following comments by two people in online discussion forums. Those are representative of the comments of many others and thus I would like to address those.
First Myth – Fear of “Vanishing”  or “Extinction” Equated to Nibbāna

3. The following are extractions from the comments of Person 1.

  • “I started taking the Buddhist path not long ago, less than three years ago. At that time, life felt too heavy and it felt like it was pushing me towards not wanting to play the game anymore. So Buddhism seemed like the way to go.”
  • I can’t forget the first time I faced the idea of vanishing from this existence forever, the true death; never being able to come back once I ‘saw it’. Nevertheless, I kept investigating. “
  • “Then I contemplated the idea of being trapped in this. Existence has no way out, anywhere you go there is still existence. In other words ‘What if it has been like this for millions, billions of years, maybe even for eternity?”
  •  “But if enlightenment is the only escape, I am afraid of never being able to come back. I am afraid everything is just an illusion, that there aren’t others, just images and I’m alone. Sometimes I fear there isn’t even enlightenment to save me. My question is: Am I going crazy? Am I getting it all wrong?”
There Are Those Who Want to “End the Existence”

4. First of all, think about the mindset of those who commit suicide. Why do those people want to leave this world? Most of them probably do not believe in rebirth. But they just “wanted out” because they could not bear whatever the suffering that they were experiencing.

  • In fact, that is the mindset of living-beings in the apāyā. They just want to “end it all.” But no matter how much they “want out,” that will not happen. That is a good example of the suffering expressed by the Buddha in the verse, “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ,”  or “not to get what one desires (icchā) is suffering”, in the Dhamma­cakkap­pa­vat­ta­na Sutta (SN 56.11.)
  • In the Sacca­vibhaṅ­ga Sutta (MN 141), Ven. Sariputta explains the meaning of that verse: “Katamañcāvuso, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ? Jātidhammānaṃ, āvuso, sattānaṃ evaṃ icchā uppajjati: ‘aho vata mayaṃ na jātidhammā assāma; na ca vata no jāti āgaccheyyā’ti. Na kho panetaṃ icchāya pattabbaṃ.
  • Translated: “In a living-being subject to (some) births the wish (desire) arises, ‘Oh, may I not be subject to such a birth, and may that birth not come to me.’ But such a desire will not be fulfilled (and thus one will be subjected to suffering.)”

5. Thus, it is only when faced with physical pain/mental stress that one wishes it would just go away. Many people become interested in Buddhism when they run into either physical problems (getting sick or starting various body ailments due to old age) or mental problems (day-to-day stresses or even depression.)

  • They can, of course, get relief from those issues by living a simple life and abstaining from immoral deeds.
  • But then they start reading about Nibbāna as “ending of one’s existence” and then they freak out. That is what happened to Person 1 above.
Life in “Good Realms” Is Short-Lived

6. We normally do not realize the kind of harsh suffering experienced by many living beings. Of course, we can see only the animal realm other than the human realm. Even then, we do not pay much attention to the suffering of animals. In fact, we are conditioned to “not see” or “not recognize” the suffering of many animals that is in full display.

  • For example, people enjoy watching animal shows on TV where, for example, a tiger chases a deer, catches up with it and eats it alive.
  • Those who enjoy fishing do not see the suffering of a fish that is subjected to excruciating pain, with its mouth pierced by the hook, and unable to breathe outside water. But unlike some animals, fish cannot show emotion, which is a part of their kamma vipāka.
  • On the other hand, we can clearly see many animals showing their suffering by either yelling out or by their facial expressions.
  • All those animals had been humans at some point in the rebirth process!

7. Suffering in the other three realms of the apāyā is much worse. Therefore, those are the births (jāti) that we would not want for sure.

  • The point is that as long as we are in the rebirth process, such births cannot be avoided. Such births are much more likely than human birth just based on the statistics we can verify.
  • For example, there are less than eight billion people on Earth. But there are a million times more ants on Earth! There are a trillion TYPES OF lifeforms on Earth; see, “The Largest Study of Life Forms Ever Has Estimated That Earth Is Home to 1 TRILLION Species.” These are mind-boggling numbers! That is not counting the other three realms in the apāyā that we cannot see.
  • That is why the Buddha said that a human bhava (existence) is VERY rare. Any “pleasures” that we experience as a human is of VERY SHORT duration. The suffering that the Buddha taught was the suffering in the rebirth process where a given living-being spends much more time in the apāyā.
  • Now we turn to the issue of “fear of non-existence in this world.”
We Are “Effectively Not in Existence” During at Least a Third of a Day

8. Even though we may fear “extinction out of existence,” we are not aware of “our existence” during sleep. We are not conscious while we sleep, especially during the deep sleep cycle. Most of the time, we go to sleep and until we wake up the next morning, we are completely unaware of our existence in the world.

  • We don’t think about that normally. But I became acutely aware of this fact when I was made unconscious for over 9 hours during my brain surgery. I remember losing consciousness after the injection of the drug. The next thing I was aware of was when I came out of the drug-induced unconsciousness state.
  • While unconscious or in deep sleep, we are (effectively) “not in this world.”
  • When an Arahant dies, it will be like in such an “unconscious state (as far as this world is concerned)” forever. But he/she would have merged with Nibbāna. The Buddha clearly stated that Nibbāna exists. We just cannot explain it in terms of the concepts (rupa, citta, cetasika) in this world. See, “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”
  • There is no overlap between “this world of 31 realms” and Nibbāna (full Nibbāna or Parinibbāna.) They are mutually exclusive. One is either “in this world” or “in Parinibbāna.” Either the Buddha or any of the Arahants who have passed away are not in this world anymore.
  • Once an Arahant dies and merges with Nibbāna, there will be no more deaths. Attainment of Nibbāna is by removing ALL causes for the birth and death cycle (with complete removal of avijjā.) That is why Nibbāna is also called “deathless.”
Comments of Person 2

9. The second comment that I chose was from Person 2. Some of the selected parts are below.

  • “..I was meditating yesterday and had this weird “experience.” It freaks me the hell out because it was like I was never there. I’m just feeling scared now after that experience. It felt extremely beautiful to me yesterday but right now I’m just freaking out for some reason. My mind is just racing with the thought “I don’t want to die” and I’m just having an existential crisis.”
  • “I’m wishing I never did any of this meditation or consciousness work in the first place because it’s making me think that I can delude myself into thinking I’m alive but I’ve always been dead and have just been an empty void. I feel like I’m going insane. I’m just feeling a wave of negativity.”
  • “I know that the way I’m phrasing it is silly but I’m just curious about people who are completely enlightened (if such a thing is 100% possible). Are these people like talking corpses? All these words can come out their mouth and it looks like they’re alive, but they’re really dead?”
Can One Lose Perception While Meditating?

10. The first part of Person 2’s comment is to do with meditation. What he experienced was a “perception-less meditative state” or an “asañña samādhi.”

  • Such a state is reached by focusing on getting rid of ALL thoughts that come to the mind. That is NOT Buddhist meditation. In Buddhist meditation, one stops ONLY those thoughts that are immoral. One would CULTIVATE good or moral thoughts.
  • One who cultivates such an anariya meditation may be reborn in the asañña realm. That realm has a very long lifetime and there are no thoughts arising. It is like being unconscious for a billion years! Of course, that life will also end and one would be back in another realm.
Is An Arahant a Zombie?

11. Now, let us discuss the second highlighted comment from Person 2. An Arahant does not lose perception like in the case above in #10. A living Arahant “engages with the external world” just like anyone else.

  • The only difference is that a living Arahant WILL NOT generate greedy, angry, or unwise thoughts.
  • But he/she will recognize people as his/her mother, friend, an attractive person/object. He/she will experience the sweetness of sugar or the bitterness of vinegar, etc. Until the death of the physical body, an Arahant will live like any other human.
Nibbāna is Escape From Suffering – Two Types of Nibbāna

12. The Sinhala word for Nibbāna is “Nivana” or “Niveema” (නිවන/නිවීම.) That means “a cooling down.”

  • Ādittapariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28) is one of the early discourses of the Buddha. In that sutta, the Buddha compared said that the world is burning. That means the mind of anyone who embraces the world as good and fruitful is always “burning” or “under stress.” That stress goes away at the first stage of Nibbāna (saupādisesa Nibbaba) experienced by a living Arahant.
  • However, a living Arahant has a physical body that arose due to past kamma. That body can experience bad kamma vipāka from the past. After the death of that physical body, an Arahant will not be reborn and that is the end of any and all suffering. That is anupādisesa Nibbāna or Parinibbāna (full Nibbāna.)

13. Finally, one can only be afraid of Nibbāna until one has cultivated paññā (wisdom) far enough. Then fearful ideas/perceptions regarding Nibbāna disappears. It ay be a good idea to review the posts in this subsection: “Wider Worldview of the Buddha.” Also, see “Five Aggregates – Connection to Tilakkhaṇa.”

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