Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nibbana in Early Buddhist Teachings

Image by Bhikkhu Samahita on

Elucidate the different implications involved in early Buddhist teachings on the concept of Nibbana.

Most significantly, the Buddhist concept of nibbana is a definite break from earlier and contemporary religious thought which was based around an eternal heaven as a reward for the soul who had lived an upright life.

What is achieved by reaching nibbana?
The individual sees the world as it really is - impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
The false notion of an enduring self is eliminated, as are both suffering (dukkha) and the causes of suffering (desire, hatred and illusion). In earlier texts, at least, kamma no longer operates now. The two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence are avoided.
Forms, sensations, perceptions, mental activities and consciousness are all abandoned.

Who can reach nibbana?
According to the Upanishads, only the educated elite or Brahman priests could reach eternal bliss. The Buddha, however, taught that nibbana is a goal which can be reached by anyone, regardless of status. Additionally, it is not just for Buddhists but for all who follow the right Path.

When does one reach nibbana?
Again, unlike other religions, the Buddha taught that, under the right conditions, it can be reached in this present lifetime. Otherwise it can be realised after death.

How does one realise nibbana?
Nibbana is reached through successfully following the Noble Eightfold Path, seeing the world as it really is. For this reason, it represents the highest moral ideal and goal. Since this achievement depends entirely on individual effort, there is no need to rely on the benevolence or whims of a distant God who needs to be appeased.

What is nibbana like?
In answer to questions about the nature of nibbana, the Buddha stated that it was very difficult to understand. “Profound is this doctrine, recondite and difficult to comprehend”. We have some ideas about it, but it cannot be fully appreciated by one still in samsara. One reason is that no words can describe it, since language is created and used to express the experiences of our senses and our mind.

Some aspects we know about are that it is unconditioned, therefore permanent. It is beyond the sphere of logic where cause and effect, duality and relativity operate. It is also beyond good and evil, right and wrong, existence and non-existence. Those who reach nibbana in this life remain unaffected by the phenomenal world, their actions are no longer motivated or coloured by self-interest, yet they remain conscious of sights and sounds, and sensitive to pleasure and pain.

In general terms, the experience is one of tranquillity, with unlimited vision, freedom and attitude. There is happiness and mental well-being, but no fear or fiery passions. There is neither attraction nor repulsion, excitement nor worry. Thus it is a psychological experience rather than a metaphysical one.

What is it not?
Finally, knowing what nibbana is not also helps to understand it. It is not eternal as there is no eternal soul, but rather it is the annihilation of the ego-illusion. For the same reason, it is not self-annihilation. Although not being outside the five aggregates (khandhas), it is neither attached to nor identified with them. It is not located in a separate world, nor does it represent union with God. Additionally, it is not the result of anything – it just is.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)