Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?

Revised December 6, 2016; December 20, 2016; November 22, 2018; January 3, 2019

Our distresses and sufferings are due to our defiled minds. As one purifies one’s mind, one starts experiencing Nibbāna.

  • I advise reading through any post one time without clicking on the links first. Once you get the main concept, then the links can be used to clarify the other related key concepts.
  • Nibbāna may not be easy to attain, but it is easy to figure out what it is. You don’t need complex concepts like emptiness (sunyātā) and Bōdhi citta to describe or to understand Nibbāna.

1. The Buddha said we suffer because of the defilements we have in our minds: greed, hate, ignorance, and other mental qualities that arise from them. Nibbāna has many synonyms, and “Nivana” (“cooling down”) is one that conveys the above idea better; Nivana, which is also called “niveema” (නිවීම) in Sinhala,  conveys the same idea as nirāmisa sukha.

2. In order to “cool down”, we first need to know what is “burning” (“tāpa” in Pāli; pronounced “thāpa); our minds are constantly burning due to greed, hate, and ignorance, and we don’t even realize this; see the “Living Dhamma” section and specifically the post, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“.

  • This “burning” is really worse in the lowest four realms or the “apāyā“. Thus one really needs to understand the first Noble Truth about suffering, in order to realize the value of Nibbāna. There are several posts at various levels on the real, deeper meaning of what the Buddha meant by “suffering in this world of 31 realms”.
  • Our sufferings are masked by the apparent sensory pleasures, which do not last. A Sōtapanna understands suffering better than a normal person, and as one gets to higher stages of Nibbāna one will be able to see the meaning of the First Noble Truth even more clearly.

3. The key point is that one CAN start feeling “nivana” RIGHT NOW. Nivana is experienced by giving up the ten defilements (see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“). One does not have to get rid of all of them at once, and that is not advised either. One should get rid of the BIGGEST ones that can be easily gotten rid of.

  • Killing, stealing, lying (and gossiping, slandering, verbally abusing), engaging in sexual misconduct, and being intoxicated (not just with alcohol or drugs, but also with wealth, power, etc.) are the first to be considered.
  • Just abandon the relatively easy ones first for a few weeks and experience the “nivana“, the ease of mind, the “inner peace”, that comes from that. That is the biggest incentive to continue on the Path.

4. One also needs to understand the relative weights associated with dealing with animals and humans, and also there are different levels among humans. For example, it is very difficult to be born human; thus even saying a hurtful thing to a human (especially to an Ariya or a Noble One), could have thousand-fold kammic weight compared to killing an animal; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma“.

  • Another key concept is that one does NOT need to worry about the past kamma. The role of kamma has been exaggerated; see, “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.  Nibbāna is not attained via removal of kamma, but the removal of āsavā or cravings; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā“.
  • The main thing is not to repeat the same mistakes. The more one stays away from the ten defilements, it automatically BECOMES easier. It is like pushing a stalled car: initially hard, but it becomes easier when it starts moving.

5. Nibbāna is NOT removing everything from the mind, just removing the defilements: Nibbāna is rāgakkhaya ( greed elimination), Nibbāna is dōsakkhaya (hate elimination), Nibbāna is mōhakkhaya (delusion elimination); those three are more synonyms for Nibbāna.

6. The suffering is a direct result of having a “material aspect” associated with the mind: that material body is subject to decay and death. The mind gets associated with a body that it gets “attached” to with greed, hate, and ignorance.  If you look at the 31 realms of “this world” (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“):

  • it is clear that suffering is there in the lowest five realms — including the human realm — where all three (greed, hate, ignorance) can be present; the bodies of beings in these realms are, in general, dense and are subject to decay and diseases. Of course, there is unimaginable suffering in the lowest four realms.
  • However, the human realm (#5) is unique, because one COULD attain Nibbāna as a human, even though they are also subject to bodily pains, decay, and diseases.
  • In the dēva lōkā (realms 6-11), hate is not there and suffering is less. And the bodies of dēvas are less dense and not subject to physical ailments (until the death of course).
  • In the Brahma lōkā (realms 12-31), both hate and greed are absent, and suffering is even less. They have very fine (less-dense) bodies and no physical ailments.

7. However, since ignorance is there in all 31 realms, complete, absolute state of happiness is absent anywhere in the 31 realms. Even if one is born in a dēva or  Brahma world, one will eventually end up in the lowest four realms (unless one has attained the Sōtapanna or a higher stage of Nibbāna).

  • The suffering is of course unimaginably intense in the lower realms.
  • This is the key message of the Buddha: He said that suffering never ends as long as one  keeps coming back to “this world of 31 realms” when one dies (i.e., unless one attains Nibbāna).
  • Suffering totally ends with the death of an Arahant; no more births in this world of 31 realms.
  • However, one could get depressed by thinking that Arahanthood is “annihilation”; but that is not true. One just needs to follow the Path step-by-step; see, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?” and “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“.

8. Therefore, one could visualize a gradual decrease of suffering as one gets rid of hate, greed, and ignorance in that order.

9. When the mind “starts thinking” about a given thought object (ārammana), say a visual object, it starts as “just seeing”; this is the citta stage. But within a fraction of a second, the mind starts adding defilements (based on greed, hate, ignorance), if that object is “of interest”.

10. When rāga, dōsa, and mōha are removed from the mind, cittā (plural of citta) become pabhassara (bright); there is no more defilements there clouding the cittā.  At this stage, it is said that the pure citta “sees Nibbāna”; see, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga“.

  • After one attains Nibbāna with one citta, the cittā fall back to the “normal state” and the person lives like a normal human (but without doing anything with greed, hate, and ignorance) until the kammic energy of the kamma seed that started the present life is exhausted.
  • At death (called Parinibbāna), the mind of an Arahant does not grab (upādāna) another kamma seed (even if there may be many kamma seeds), and thus there is no further rebirth. The mind becomes free of a “body” that can be subjected to decay and death. That is Nibbāna or “complete Nivana” or “complete cooling down”.

11. We are bound to this rebirth process basically due to two causes: avijjā and taṇhā. The first version of taṇhā is lōbha, the strong greed, which could easily turn to dōsa (strong hate) when someone else gets in the way. Thus those two causes of avijjā and taṇhā effectively become three: lōbha, dōsa, mōha.

  • Even though dōsa arises due to lōbha, dōsa brings about the worst vipāka: rebirth in the niraya (hell), where the suffering is optimum. Thus dōsa actually has origins in the 4 greed-based “sōmanassa sahagata, diṭṭhi sampayutta citta“.
  • When diṭṭhi is removed at the Sōtapanna stage, all four of these greed-based citta stop arising. Thus at that stage, lōbha and dōsa become rāga and paṭigha, which are removed successively at the Sakadāgāmi and Anāgāmi stages. Avijja keeps reducing at each stage of Nibbāna, and is removed at the Arahant stage.

12. When the mind is devoid of rāga, dōsa, and mōha, the mind (and thus cittā) become devoid (sunya) of them; that is the purified state of a citta, anidassana viññāna (consciousness devoid of defilements) or paññā (wisdom); see, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means“.

  • The forefathers of Mahāyāna Buddhism could not grasp the concept of Nibbāna, so they came up with misleading descriptions including that of Sunyata: see, “What is Sunyata or Sunnata (Emptiness)?“.
  • Even among the current Theravāda Buddhists, there are many debates about what is meant by Nibbāna. That is sad to see.

13. When rāga, dōsa, mōha are removed, a citta stops going around and around a given thought object (ārammana). This “wheeling” is what fuels the saṃsāric journey. Thus stopping this process is called “taking off the wheels of the saṃsāric vehicle”.

  • The Pāli (and Sinhala) word for a vehicle is “riya”, and stopping of the “riya” is called “Ariya”; one who has taken the wheels off the vehicle for the saṃsāric journey is called an “Ariya”. Thus contrary to popular usage, “Arya” is not the word for a Noble Person, it is Ariya.
  • Therefore, it is clear that “Ariya” has nothing to do with a race, “Ārya”.
  • Furthermore, “viriya” (“vi” + “riya“) means staying away from the “wheeling process” (and the effort to do so). Therefore, viriya really means actively engaging in Satipaṭṭhāna and Ānāpānasati; see, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“.

14. Anyone who has at least attained the first stage of Nibbāna, i.e., Sōtapanna, can be called an Ariya, or a Noble Person. This is because the “āsavā” or deep-seated cravings that a Sōtapanna has removed stay permanently removed even in any future lives.

  • All the āsavā are removed at Nibbāna; thus “Āsāvakkhaya” (elimination of āsavā) is another synonym for Nibbāna. People who had been in the lowest social ladder or lowest caste at the time of the Buddha were able to become Ariyā or Noble Persons.

15. When one sees Nibbāna, one’s mind does not crave for anything “in this world” of 31 realms. There is nothing for the last citta (cuti citta, pronounced “chuthi chiththa”) of this life (at death) to grab (nothing to upādāna) and to start a new birth in “this world”, and the mind becomes totally free.

  • The mind becomes PERMANENTLY pure and be detached permanently from any type of physical body, dense or fine.

16. Thus an Arahant will not be reborn in “this material world” of 31 realms (see “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”), i.e., one attains Parinibbāna. He/she is simply “gone” from “this world” of 31 realms. The suffering stops permanently.

  • Thus it is quite clear WHAT Nibbāna is: it is the stopping of the rebirth process in the material world. What is hard to understand is WHY stopping the rebirth process can relieve one of all suffering.
  • No matter how much hardship one has endured, one likes to live. This is true for a human or a lowly worm. For any living being, the most precious thing is its life. When one starts understanding the “big picture of the Buddha”, one will slowly start seeing the dangers of staying in this endless rebirth process.

Other analyses of Nibbāna can be found at, “Nirodha and Vaya – Two Different Concepts” and “Difference Between Giving up Valuables and Losing Interest in Worthless“, …………

Continue to “What is San?“…..

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