Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World

September 2, 2016; revised April 17, 2017; re-written March 22, 2020; May 20, 2021; June 26, 2022; August 10, 2022

Introduction

1. Misconceptions about Nibbāna arise because its true meaning has been hidden for hundreds of years. In the previous posts in this series, I have described what Nibbāna is. See “Nibbāna.”

  • Many people ask, “what happens to an Arahant upon death?”.  One is not reborn anywhere in the 31 realms of this world. It is called Parinibbāna (“pari” + Nibbāna“; meaning “full Nibbāna“).
  • Until Parinibbāna, an Arahant lives like a normal person and is subjected to kamma vipāka. However, “stressful thoughts that arise due to greed, anger, and ignorance” do not arise in a living Arahant. Until the death of the physical body, an Arahant has saupadisēsa Nibbāna, i.e., Nibbāna is not complete.

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

  • We do not have any “data” or “concepts” or “terminology” that pertain to Nibbāna because those would be 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. A fish would not understand the need to breathe air instead of water.
  • Another would be trying to explain how radio or television works to a person who has time-traveled from thousands of years ago. He would not have sufficient “data” to comprehend how radio or TV works.
Suttā on Nibbāna

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

  • There are four suttā in the Udāna section of the Anguttara Nikāya that explain  Nibbāna (Udāna 8.1 through 8.4.)
  • Once you open a sutta at the Sutta Central website, click on the left-most drop-down to choose one of several languages. This is a good resource; consider donating if you find it useful. Note: I am not associated with Sutta Central.
  • The translations are frequently incorrect for key Pāli words, as in many websites/books. But at least one can see the correct Pāli version.
Paṭha­ma­ Nib­bā­na ­Paṭi­saṃ­yutta ­Sutta – Nib­bā­na Exists

4. Let us look at the first sutta, “Paṭha­ma ­Nib­bā­na­ Paṭi­saṃ­yutta ­Sutta (Ud 8.1). It says, “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. Tatrāpāhaṃ, bhikkhave, neva āgatiṃ vadāmi, na gatiṃ, na ṭhitiṃ, na cutiṃ, na upapattiṃ; appatiṭṭhaṃ, appavattaṃ, anārammaṇamevetaṃ. Esevanto dukkhassā”ti.”.

  • The first part is atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṃ.” Here “atthi” means “exists,” and “tadāyatana” is another word for Nibbāna. tadāyatana comes from “tath” + “āyatana,” where “tath” (pronounced “thath”) means “perfect.” Since Nibbāna is something that we cannot define in terms of words, the closest English word for “āyatana” is something like “dimension” or “sphere.” This “āyatana” is not to be confused with the six āyatana referring to the six sensory faculties in “Nāmarūpa Paccayā Salāyatana.”
  • Phonetically, the combined word is “tadāyatana” (pronounced “thadāyathana”).
  • We need to be familiar with how to spell Pāli words with the “Tipiṭaka English” convention. It is DIFFERENT from “Standard English.” See “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1 and “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2
  • Thus the translation of Atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṃ” is, Bhikkhus, Nibbāna exists (where everything is perfect).”

5. The second part in the blue says what can be said about Nib­bā­na.  First, “appatiṭṭhaṃ, appavattaṃ, anārammaṇamevetaṃ” means, “It is without support (causes), unmoving, without any ārammaṇa (thought object.).” The last part in the blue, Esevanto dukkhassā” ti,means, “it is the end of suffering.”

  • Therefore, those sentences in the blue state ALL that one can say about Nib­bā­na. 
  • The rest of that verse (in the red) says what is ABSENT in Nib­bā­na. 
Paṭha­ma­ Nib­bā­na ­Paṭi­saṃ­yutta ­Sutta – What is Absent in Nib­bā­na

6. The first part marked in deep red is, “there is no patavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo (mahā bhūta) there; there is no ākāsānañ­cāyata­na, no viñ­ñā­ṇañ­cāyata­na, no ākiñ­cañ­ñā­yatana, no neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­na; furthermore, there is no “this world (that we experience), there is no para loka (where gandhabbās live,) see, Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (para loka)); and the Moon or the Sun would not arise there” (candimasūriyā is Moon and the Sun).

The second part marked in red says, Bhikkhus, I say there is surely no coming and going between ayam loko and para loko, no living in either of those, no passing away (cuti), no birth.”

  • The absence of patavi, āpo, tējo, and vāyo means NOTHING made of matter that we see around us (people, animals, trees, other planets, or stars) is there in Nibbāna.
  • So, all we experience (including jhāna) will not be there after Parinibbāna, as discussed in #2 above.
  • And, of course, there is no gandhabba going back and forth between “ayam loko” and “para loko.”
  • Our terminology regarding ANYTHING AT ALL does not apply there.
Without Nibbāna, There Would Not Be an End to Suffering

7. The Tatiya­ Nib­bā­na ­Paṭi­saṃ­yutta ­Sutta (Udāna 8.3) has the following key verse: “Atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. No ce taṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, na yidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī”ti

Translated:Bhikkhus, “not born,” “not formed,” “not made,” “not conditioned” exists. For Bhikkhus, if there had not been that which is “not born,” “not formed,” “not made,” “not conditioned,” an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned cannot be discerned. But Bhikkhus, since there is a “not born,” “not formed,” “not made,” “not conditioned,” an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned is evident.”

  • The “not born”, “not formed”, “not made”, “not conditioned” is Nibbāna. It is reached by eliminating all that is formed, made, and conditioned.
  • In other words, “this world” comes to existence (for a given person) because of the bhava and jāti built via defiled thoughts (saṅkhāra) generated due to avijjā (in the Paṭicca Samuppāda process.) With the cessation of avijjā, that mechanism or process stops, and no more rebirths will be possible. That results in Nibbāna.
  • There are two more companion suttā that describe Nibbāna: “Dutiya­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta Sutta (Ud 8.2)” and “Catuttha­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta Sutta (Ud 8.4).” The translations available there are good enough to get further insights.
The Fire Analogy

8. One time, the inquisitor Vacchagotta (there is a whole series of suttā in the Vacchagottavagga of the Samyutta Nikāya 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, “when this fire is extinguished, can you say where it went?”. Vacchagotta 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 abhiññā powers (with the cutūpapāda ñāna) can see where a normal person is reborn upon death. That lifestream exists somewhere in the 31 realms.
Rāgakkhayo Dosakkhayo Mohakkhayo— Idaṃ Vuccati Nibbānan

9. The Buddha could only explain how to attain Nibbāna by relinquishing our desire for worldly things based on this world’s unsatisfactory nature (or the anicca nature).

  • The Buddha said, “rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo— idaṃ vuccati nibbānan” ti,” i.e., one attains Nibbāna via getting rid of rāga, dōsa, mōha in one’s mind. Thus cleansing our minds is the only way to NibbānaSee, for example, Nibbānapañhā Sutta (SN 38.1) and Sāmaṇḍaka Sutta (SN 39.1.)
  • However, it is impossible to even start on “rāgakkhaya” until one reaches the Sōtapanna stage. “Rāgakkhaya” attained partially at the Anāgami stage (via removal of kāma rāga) and fully at the Arahant stage (via removal of rūpa rāga and arūpa rāga). A Sōtapanna reduces dōsa to paṭigha level (removed at the Anāgāmi stage) and mōha to avijjā level (removed at the Arahant stage).
  • In the new section, “Living Dhamma,” we discuss these points and start from a basic level, even without referring to deeper concepts like that of rebirth. 
Nibbāna Reached In Stages

10.  The point is that Nibbāna is to be comprehended in stages. 

  • The first stage of Nibbāna, or “Niveema” or “cooling down,” can be experienced even before getting to the Sōtapanna stage. In fact, skipping this step is impossible to get to the Sōtapanna stage.
  • To attain the Sōtapanna stage, one MUST comprehend the anicca nature of this world to some extent. For the mind to grasp that concept, it must be free of the “five hindrances” (“pañca nivārana“) or “five factors that cover one’s mind.”
  • For that, one MUST live a moral life, start contemplating Buddha Dhamma and experience the “cooling down” that results.

11. Many people try to attain or comprehend Nibbāna by reading about deep concepts about what it is. There are so many books explaining what Nibbāna is by people who may not have experienced even the basic “cooling down” or “nirāmisa 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 Nibbāna with words that we know.
  • Rather, one starts experiencing Nibbāna in stages. One can start experiencing the RELIEF or COOLING DOWN that results when one starts living a moral life and 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.”
Nibbāna Is Not a Dhamma – It Is a Paramatta Dhamma

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

(i) Thoughts (citta)
(ii) Thought qualities or mental factors (cētasika)
(iii) Matter (rūpa)
(iv) Nibbāna

  • Any dhamma in this world is normally a COMBINATION of ALL THREE of the first three paramatta dhamma. Note that Dhammā “bear” things in this world. 
  • The fourth paramatta dhamma in the list above, Nibbāna, does not exist within the 31 realms. But Nibbāna exists, and one can attain it. An Arahant merges with Nibbāna at the death of his/her physical body.
  • Nibbāna is NOT dhammaIt does not “bear” anything in this world.
Nibbāna Can Be Experienced in Nirōdha Samāpatti

13. Let us discuss some relevant characteristics of an Arahant, i.e., one who has attained Nibbāna. He/she cannot experience Nibbānic bliss (experience of full Nibbāna) unless getting into Nirōdha Samāpatti. An Arahant can experience Nirōdha Samāpatti for a maximum of seven days at a time.

  • When an Arahant is in  Nirōdha Samāpatti, no citta or thoughts flow through his/her mind. There is no breathing, and it is not very different from a dead body (other than the fact that the body of the Arahant will have normal body temperature.) The point is that Arahant will not be able to explain to us “the experience of Nibbāna.” 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 rāga, dōsa, and mōha cannot arise: Asobhana (non-beautiful) cetasika are absent in those thoughts; see, “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika“.
  • But he/she will be engaged in puñña kriya (meritorious deeds like delivering discourses), just like the Buddha did; they are just “actions” and are not puññābhisaṅkhāra or puñña abhisaṅkhāra.
Nibbāna and Parinibbāna

14. Here is another interesting point. Some Arahants may have kammic energy for the “human bhava” left when he/she dies; see “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” But still, there will not be another rebirth for any Arahant in this world of 31 realms.

  • The reason is that the “status of the Arahanthood” could not be borne (or sustained) by any other “finer body” than a dense human body. Thus, at the death of the physical body of an Arahant, the gandhabba that comes out of the dead body will perish. Since Arahant‘s mind will not grasp existence within the 31 realms, so the rebirth process will stop.
  • What happens to the “gandhabba kāya” of an Arahant is similar to the burning of a heater coil removed from a water bath. The heated coil will survive as long as it is immersed in water:

  • Thus, the fine body (trija kaya) of the gandhabba cannot “bear” the energy associated with an Arahant. See “gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya).”
  • In the same way, the fine, subtle “bodies” of a Deva or a Brahma also cannot sustain the mind of an Arahant. Thus, if a Deva or a Brahma attains the Arahanthood, they will immediately attain Parinibbāna. In other words, there are no living Arahants in Deva or Brahma realms.

15. We can consider the following analogy to make clear what happens. A heater-coil is immersed in water and can “bear” the current that passes through it while immersed in boiling water. But if we take a coil out of the water, it will burn. The heater coil cannot “bear” the current passing through it unless immersed in water.

  • In the same way, the “Arahanthood” can be “borne” or “sustained” only with a solid human body. Once the gandhabba comes out of that body –upon the death of that physical body — the “Arahanthood” cannot be “borne” by that gandhabba body. The “Arahanthood” cannot be “borne” by even a layperson for more than seven days. Once attaining the “Arahanthood,” one must become a Bhikkhu within seven days, or one will die because a layperson cannot “bear” the “Arahanthood.”
  • With Parinibbāna (death of an Arahant), “the Nibbāna is complete.” The Sinhala word is “pirinivana,” where “nivana” is Nibbāna, and “piri” means “full” or “complete.”
  • Therefore, Nibbāna exists. But one who has attained “full Nibbāna” or Parinibbāna will no longer be in this world of 31 realms. One would be free of any sufferings in this world, including harsh sufferings in the apāyā.
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