Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World

September 2, 2016; Revised April 17, 2017

1. Misconceptions about Nibbāna 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 Nibbāna 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 PariNibbāna (“pari” + Nibbāna“; meaning “full Nibbāna“).
  • Until PariNibbāna, an Arahant lives like a normal person, and is subjected to kamma vipaka; during that time it is called saupadisēsa Nibbāna, i.e., Nibbāna is not complete.

2. It is not possible “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 can be used to describe what Nibbāna is like.

  • We simply do not have any “data” or “concepts” or “terminology” that pertain to Nibbāna 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 Nibbāna “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  Nibbāna (Udana 8.1 through 8.4); the first one at, “Paṭha­ma­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta­Sutta“.
  • 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, tadāyatanan“. Here “atthi” means “exists”, and “tadāyatana” is another word for Nibbāna. tadāyatana comes from “tath” + “āyatana“, where “tath” (pronounced “thath”) means “perfect” and “āyatana” means “faculties”. Phonetically, the combined word is “tadāyatana” (pronounced “thadaayathana”).
  • Thus the translation is, Bhikkhus, Nibbāna exists (where everything is perfect)”.

4. The rest of the verse is, “there is not patavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo (satara 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 paralowa (where gandhabba live: see, “Hidden World of the gandhabba: Netherworld (Paralowa)); and the Moon or the Sun would not arise there (canidimasuriya is for “chandra” or the Moon and sūriya is the Sun).

  • So, all that we experience (including jhāna), are not there after PariNibbāna, as discussed in #2 above). Our terminology simply does not apply there.

5. One time, the inquisitor Vaccagotta (there is a whole series of suttas in the Vaccagottavagga 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 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 abhinnā powers (with the cutūpapāda ñāna) 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 Nibbāna, by relinquishing our desire for worldly things based on the unsatisfactory nature (or the anicca nature) of this world.

  • He said, “rāgakkhayo Nibbānan, dōsakkhayō Nibbānan, Mōhakkhayō Nibbānan“, i.e., one attains Nibbāna via getting rid of rāga, dōsa, Mōha in our minds. Thus cleansing our minds is the only way to Nibbāna.
  • However, it is not possible to even start on “rāgakkhaya” until one gets to the Sōtapanna stage. “rāgakkhaya” is 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 would have reduced dōsa to patigha level (which is removed at the Anāgāmi stage), and Mōha to avijja level (which is 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 rebirth. 

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

  • The very first stage is to experience the first stages of Nibbāna or “Niveema” or “cooling down” that can be experienced even before getting to the Sōtapanna stage. In fact, it is not possible to get to the Sōtapanna stage by skipping this step.
  • In order to attain the Sōtapanna 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 “pancanivārana” 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 Nibbāna by reading about deep concepts about what it is. There are so many books out there on 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 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 (cētasika)
  • Matter (rūpa)
  • Nibbāna

The first three exist in “this world” of 31 realms; Nibbāna 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 Nibbāna. He/she cannot experience Nibbanic bliss (experience of Nibbāna) unless getting into Nirōdha Samapatti for a maximum of 7 days at a time.

  • When an Arahant is in  Nirōdha Samāpatti, 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 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, Mōha cannot arise: 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 punnabhisankhāra or punna abhisankhāra.

11. 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.

  • 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 gandhabba need to come out of the dead human body; see, “gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)“. But the fine body (trija kaya) of the gandhabba 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 gandhabba 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 “pariNibbāna” at the death of an Arahant: “the Nibbāna is complete”. The Sinhala word is “pirinivana“, where “nivana” is Nibbāna and “pirinu” means “full” or “complete”.
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