Nibbana “Exists”, but Not in This World

September 2, 2016; Revised April 17, 2017

1. Misconceptions about Nibbana arise because the true meaning of it had been hidden for many hundreds of years. In the previous posts in this series, I have described what Nibbana is.

  • The question many people have is, “what happens to an Arahant upon death?”.  One simply is not reborn anywhere in the 31 realms of this world. It is called Parinibbana (“pari” + Nibbana“; meaning “full Nibbana“).
  • Until Parinibbana, an Arahant lives like a normal person, and is subjected to kamma vipaka; during that time it is called saupadisesa Nibbana, i.e., Nibbana is not complete.

2. It is not possible “describe” Nibbana (or more precisely what happens after Parinibbana) in terms of the terminology rooted in “this world”. Not a single word that we use can be used to describe what Nibbana is like.

  • We simply do not have any “data” or “concepts” or “terminology” that pertain to Nibbana because those would be totally foreign to us living in “this world”.
  • One crude analogy would be trying to explain to a fish what life is like outside the water: how one needs to breathe air instead of water.
  • Another would be like trying to explain to a person who has time-traveled from thousand years ago, how a radio or a television works. He would not have sufficient “data” to be able to comprehend how a radio or a TV works.

3. But Nibbana “exists” because one can attain it. But it does not exist in this world of 31 realms.

  • There are four sutta in the Udana section of the Anguttara Nikaya that explain  Nibbana (Udana 8.1 through 8.4); see, “Pāli Suttas: Khuddaka Nikāya (KN): Udāna
  • Once you open a sutta, click on the left-most drop down to choose on of several languages. This is good resource; consider making a donation if you find it useful. Note: I am not associated with them in any way.
  • Of source, the translations are incorrect frequently for key Pali words, as is the case at many sites. But at least one can see the correct Pali version.

3. Let us look at the first one, Paṭha­ma­ Nib­bā­na ­Paṭi­saṃ­yutta ­sutta. It say, ““Atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṃ, yattha neva pathavī, na āpo, na tejo, na vāyo, na ākāsānañ­cāyata­naṃ, na viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­naṃ, na ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatanaṃ, na neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­naṃ, nāyaṃ loko, na paraloko, na ubho candimasūriyā..”.

  • Let us consider the first part: atthi, bhikkhave, tadayatanan“. Here “atthi” means “exists”, and “tadayatana” is another word for Nibbana. Tadayatana comes from “tath” + “ayatana“, where “tath” (pronounced “thath”) means “perfect” and “ayatana” means “faculties”. Phonetically, the combined word is “tadayatana” (pronounced “thadayathana”).
  • Thus the translation is, Bhikkhus, Nibbana exists (where everything is perfect)”.

4. The rest of the verse is, “there is not patavi, apo, tejo, vayo (satara mah bhuta) there; there is no ākāsānañ­cāyata­na, no viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­na,no ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatana, no neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­na; furthermore, there is no “this world (that we experience), there is no paralowa (where gandhabbaya live: see, “Hidden World of the Gandhabbaya: Netherworld (Paralowa)); and the Moon or the Sun would not arise there (canidimasuriya is for “chandra” or the Moon and suriya is the Sun).

  • So, nothing that we experience (or can experience by cultivating jhana), are not there after Parinibbana, as discussed in #2 above). Simply our terminology does not apply there.

5. One time, the inquisitor Vaccagotta (there is a whole series of suttas in the Vaccagottavagga of the Samyutta Nikaya about his probing questions put forth to the Buddha), asked the Buddha what happens to an Arahant upon death: “Where would he/she go?”.

  • The Buddha showed him a burning fire, and asked him, “when this fire is extinguished, can you say where it went?”. Vaccagotta understood. When the fire is extinguished, it simply is not there anymore. That is all one can say. In the same way, when an Arahant dies, he/she is not reborn and thus cannot be “found” anywhere in the 31 realms.
  • On the other hand, someone with abhinna powers (with the cutupapada nana) can see where a normal person is reborn upon death. That life stream exists somewhere in the 31 realms.

6. The Buddha could only explain to us the way to attain Nibbana, by relinquishing our desire for worldly things based on the unsatisfactory nature (or the anicca nature) of this world.

  • He said, “ragakkhayo Nibbanan, dosakkhayo Nibbanan, Mohakkhayo Nibbanan“, i.e., one attains Nibbana via getting rid of raga, dosa, moha in our minds. Thus cleansing our minds is the only way to Nibbana.
  • However, it is not possible to even start on “ragakkhaya” until one gets to the Sotapanna stage. “Ragakkhaya” is attained partially at the Anagami stage and fully at the Arahant stage. By that time, one would have reduced dosa to patigha level and moha to avijja level.
  • In the new section, “Living Dhamma“, we discuss these points and start from a basic level, even without referring to deeper concepts like rebirth. 

7.  The point is that Nibbana is to be comprehended in stages. 

  • The very first stage is to experience the first stages of Nibbana or “Niveema” or “cooling down” that can be experienced even before getting to the Sotapanna stage. In fact, it is not possible to get to the Sotapanna stage by skipping this step.
  • In order to attain the Sotapanna stage one MUST comprehend the anicca nature of this world to some extent. In order for the mind to grasp that concept, it must be free of the “coarse defilements” or “pancanivarana” or “five hindrances” that cover one’s mind.
  • For that one MUST live a moral life, start contemplating Buddha Dhamma, and experience the “cooling down” that results.

8. Many people try to attain or comprehend Nibbana by reading about deep concepts about what it is. There are so many books out there on explaining what Nibbana is, by people who may not have experienced even the basic “cooling down” or “niramisa sukha“.

  • They try to explain concepts like sunyata or “emptiness” and bodhicitta; see, “What is Sunyata or Sunnata (Emptiness)?“. That is a complete waste of time, because as we saw above, it is not possible to describe Nibbana with words that we know.
  • Rather, one starts experiencing Nibbana in stages. One can  start experiencing the RELIEF or COOLING DOWN that results when one starts living a moral life and start discarding dasa akusala in STAGES.
  • Furthermore, it is important to understand that one does not start on the Path by first comprehending the anicca nature; the anicca nature will gradually become clear.
  • The Buddha clearly stated the importance of following a gradual Path in the “Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“. Also, see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart“.
  • Even a person who does not believe in rebirth can start from this level: “Living Dhamma“.

9. In the post, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma – Introduction“, we saw that everything that EXISTS, can be put into four ultimate constituents (paramatta dhamma):

  • Thoughts (citta)
  • Thought qualities or mental factors (cetasika)
  • Matter (rupa)
  • Nibbana

The first three exist in “this world” of 31 realms; Nibbana does not exist within the 31 realms, but it “exists”, i.e., it can be attained.

10. Finally, let us discuss some relevant characteristics of an Arahant, i.e., one who has attained Nibbana. He/she cannot experience Nibbanic bliss (experience of Nibbana) unless getting into Nirodha Samapatti for a maximum of 7 days at a time.

  • When an Arahant is in  Nirodha Samapatti, there are no citta or thoughts flowing through his/her mind. There is no breathing and is not very different from a dead body. The point is, that Arahant will not be able to explain to us “the experience of Nibbana“. In our terminology, all he/she can say is that he/she did not experience any “worldly thoughts”.
  • At other times, an Arahant will be experiencing “this world” just like another human: he/she will recognize people/things, sounds, smells, etc. The only exception is that  thoughts burdened with raga, dosa, moha cannot arise: Either sobhana (beautiful) or asobhana (non-beautiful) cetasika will not be associated with those thoughts; see, “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika“.
  • But he/she will be engaged in punna kriya (meritorious deeds like delivering discourses), just like the Buddha did; they are just “actions”, and are not punnabhisankhara or punna abhisankhara.

11. Here is another interesting point: Some Arahants may have kammic energy for the “human bhava” left when he/she dies; see, “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and Births Therein“. But still there will not be another rebirth for any Arahant in this world.

  • The reason is that the “status of the Arahanthood” could not be borne (or sustained) by any other body than a dense human body. For example, if he/she were to be reborn human, then a human gandhabbaya need to come out of the dead human body; see, “Gandhabbaya (Manomaya Kaya)“. But the fine body (thrija kaya) of the gandhabbaya cannot “bear” the energy associated with an Arahant. In the same way, the fine bodies of a deva or a brahma also cannot.
  • We can consider the following analogy to make clear what happens. When a heater coil is immersed in water, it can “bear” the current that passes through it, even when the water is boiling. But if we take a coil out of the water, it will burn. The heater coil cannot “bear” the current passing through it, unless it is immersed in water.
  • In the same way, the “Arahanthood” can be “borne” or be “sustained” only with a solid human body; once the gandhabbaya comes out of that body –upon the death of that physical body — the “Arahanthood” cannot be “borne” by that very fine body. In fact, the “Arahanthood” cannot be “borne” by a even a lay person for more than 7 days; once attaining the “Arahanthood“, one must become a Bhikkhu within 7 days, or one will die, because a lay person cannot “bear” the “Arahanthood“.
  • This is why it is called “parinibbana” at the death of an Arahant: “the Nibbana is complete”. The Sinhala word is “pirinivana“, where “nivana” is Nibbana and “pirinu” means “full” or “complete”.
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