buddha's final nirvana -- 8/1/16

Today's selection -- from Buddha by Karen Armstrong. Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhārtha Gautama, was an ascetic who lived in India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE and on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. At the point when Buddha was sick and dying and about to attain the final nirvana (nibbina) or nirvana-after-death (called the parinibbāna). He struggled to describe this death, and resorted to telling his followers what this final nirvana was not:

"What was this parinibbāna? Was it simply an extinction?

"And if so, why was this Nothingness regarded as such a glori­ous achievement? How would this 'final' Nibbāna differ from the peace that the Buddha had attained under the bodhi tree? The word nibbāna, it will be recalled, means 'cooling off' or 'going out,' like a flame. The term for the attainment of Nib­bāna in this life in the texts is sa-upādi-sesa. An Arahant [perfected person who has attained Nibbana] had extinguished the fires of craving, hatred and ignorance, but he still had a 'residue' (sesa) of 'fuel' (upādi) as long as he lived in the body, used his senses and mind, and experienced emotions. There was a potential for a further conflagration. But when an Arahant died, these khandha could never be ignited again, and could not feed the flame of a new existence. The Arahant was, therefore, free from samsāra [rebirth] and could be absorbed wholly into the peace and immunity of Nibbāna.

The death of the Buddha, or Mahaparinirvana, Gandhara 2-3rd century.

"But what did that mean? We have seen that the Buddha al­ways refused to define Nibbāna because we have no terms that are adequate for this experience that transcends the reach of the senses and the mind. Like those monotheists who preferred to speak of God in negative terms, the Buddha some­times preferred to explain what Nibbāna was not. It was, he told his disciples, a state

where there is neither earth nor water, light nor air; neither infinity or space; it is not infinity of reason but nor is it an absolute void ... it is neither this world or another world: it is both sun and moon.

"That did not mean that it was really 'nothing'; we have seen that it became a Buddhist heresy to claim that an Arahant ceased to exist in Nibbāna. But it was an existence beyond the self, and blissful because there was no selfishness. Those of us who are unenlightened, and whose horizons are still con­stricted by egotism, cannot imagine this state. But those who had achieved the death of the ego knew that selflessness was not a void. When the Buddha tried to give his disciples a hint of what this peaceful Eden in the heart of the psyche was like, he mixed negative with positive terms. Nibbāna was, he said, 'the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion'; it was the Third Noble Truth: it was 'Taintless,' 'Unweaken­ing,' 'Undisintegrating,' 'Inviolable,' 'Non-distress,' 'Non-affliction,' and 'Unhostility.' All these epithets emphasized that Nibbāna canceled out everything that we find intolerable in life. It was not a state of annihilation: it was 'Deathless.' But there were positive things that could be said of Nibbāna too: it was 'the Truth,' 'the Subtle,' 'the Other Shore,' 'the Everlasting,' 'Peace,' 'the Superior Goal,' 'Safety,' 'Purity, Freedom, Independence, the Island, the Shelter, the Harbor, the Refuge, the Beyond.' It was the supreme good of humans and gods alike, an incomprehensible Peace, and an utterly safe refuge. Many of these images are reminiscent of words that monotheists have used to describe God."


Karen Armstrong




Penguin Books


Copyright Karen Armstrong, 2001


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