Nibbāna: The Goal of Buddhist Practice
A Reading Guide
“This song is for the soil
That’s toxic clear down to the bedrock
Where no thing of consequence can grow
Drop your seeds there, let them go
Let them all go
Let ‘em all go”
~ Cotton, The Mountain Goats
Modified: February 14, 2023
Table of Contents
- What is Nibbāna?
- The Course
- Further Reading
- Advanced Courses
What is Nibbāna?
Nibbāna (literally: “extinguishing” or “quenching”) is the unconditional happiness and clarity of mind which is the goal of Buddhist practice.
Rather than seeing suffering as the inevitable flip side of happiness, Buddhism sees suffering as an affliction caused by a specific condition within the heart, namely wanting the world to be other than the way that it is.
From this angle, there are two ways to achieve happiness: forcing the world to conform to our wishes or accepting things as they are.
These two methods for achieving happiness are, of course, unequal. Getting what we want is a fleeting happiness while letting go of our neediness leads to a lasting contentment. If we are fine however things turn out, then we will always be happy. Even when death comes for us, we can remain cool and unperturbed — leaving no “unfinished business.”
The mental “seeds” of “I want…” or “I meant to…” which normally lead us on are, in fact, only the seeds of suffering. By attending closely and continuously to the workings of our own mind, we can eventually see this directly: that grasping is painful. As this realization dawns, we naturally let go. The radiance of insight sterilizes the seeds of discontent.
This “dhamma eye of wisdom” opens when we see for ourselves that absolutely everything is impermanent and therefore unsatisfying. Seeing this danger in clinging to the things of the world, the practitioner begins the process of letting go. When she’s let go of everything, to her immense surprise, she experiences nibbāna: freedom from conditioned phenomena.
This course assumes prior knowledge about Buddhist practice. Familiarity with the early texts and Buddhist philosophy is recommended but not required.
A perilous flood has arisen
For those oppressed by old age and death
Let me declare an island to you
~ Snp 5.10
This free anthology will be our textbook for the class:
A compendium of ‘essence’ teachings on nibbāna, as they appear in the Pāli Canon and in contemporary traditions.
Listen to the book read by Ajahn Amaro here
This secondary monograph will be threaded through the course to help contextualize the historical developments:
Gives a thorough summary of how nibbāna evolved as a concept in ancient India as a reaction to the ideas of rival sects.
If you prefer audiobooks, you can find The Island read by one of its authors online here (or at the “mp3s” link above).
The course will simply go sequentially through The Island. As you read each chapter, please refer back here for some supplemental readings and a few talks.
Part 1: Seeds
In part one of our course, we do a deep analysis of the word “nibbāna” and try to understand its connotations and use. This section plants the “seeds” for our analysis of the philosophy, practice and fruits in the later sections of the course.
What is Nibbāna?
- At its core, Nibbāna is the penetrative understanding of the Four Noble Truths which ends the cycle of rebirth.
The Introduction and Chapter 1 of Metaphor and Literalism (hereafter, “ML”)
- Will give an introduction to this text and to the term “nibbāna”
- A standard definition and straightforward typology of Nibbāna.
- Sometimes we will talk about nibbāna as a philosophical entity and at other times as a psychological state, or even as a meditation experience. This essay gives a good outline of these different aspects. Useful to keep in mind throughout the course, that “Nibbāna” can refer to a few different things!
- The beautiful sutta from which our textbook (The Island) gets its name.
- “The Island” is, however, not the only synonym for the ultimate given in the early texts. This chapter from the Saṃyutta Nikāya lists 43 others to give us a better idea of its character.
- While sadly these forty synonyms were lost in the Chinese Tradition, Skilling shows that SN 43 (above) was preserved in Tibet.
- An exultation of the Buddha and the enlightened state.
Fire, Heat, and Coolness
Chapter two of The Island gives us the basic metaphorical image behind the term “Nibbāna”.
ML: Chapter 2 - The Two Nirvana Theory
- A discussion of the imagery of fuel and fire, and an analysis of the important “Two Nirvana Theory” curiously left out of The Island. What is “The Two Nirvana Theory”? Read this chapter to find out!
And if you’re still thinking that Nirvana is some heaven realm somewhere…
- The Arahant Bhikkhuni Paṭācārā gives us the literal meaning of nibbāna in this beautiful poem from the Therīgāthā.
- Bhante Ñāṇananda disabuses us of the notion that Nibbāna is a place by reminding us that “extinguishing” means the “letting go” of a fire’s fuel.
- And Ajahn Geoff further explores ancient Indian physics to come up with a striking, new (old) take on this central metaphor. A long booklet, but well worth the read.
Part 2: Terrain
This is the main section of the course. We’ll cover the rest of Metaphor and Literalism and the core philosophical dimensions of nibbāna.
This, That, and Other Things
ML: Chapter 3 - Developments of the Two Nirvana Theory
- The Abhidharma Tradition took Nirvana from a metaphor and turned it into a physical reality (“dhatu”).
- This leads to some problems, particularly how this “ultimate reality” differs from the “ultimates” postulated by other religions.
- This booklet helps to answer that very question, by explaining the middle way and contrasting it to the influential Vedāntic theology.
I personally find that The Island occasionally leans on the side of eternalism (or at least doesn’t argue against it to my satisfaction), so the above chapter and booklet will be especially good to read and keep in mind.
All That is Conditioned
We will return to Metaphor and Literalism in a few chapters, but first let us talk for a while about nibbāna’s opposites: conditioned reality and suffering (dukkha).
- How does an arahant relate to the world?
- To an enlightened being, even sensual pleasures are seen as painful for how fleeting they are indeed!
To Be or Not to Be
- What is the difference between an Ordinary and an Enlightened being?
- How is “extinguishing” the Middle Way? How is it not nihilism? How is “extinguishing” different from “annihilation”?
- How is it that we both long for and fear freedom?
Not Made of That
- What is “non-duality” and, more importantly, how does one practice it?
Attending to the Deathless
- Is “the deathless” the same as “nothingness”? What knowledge eradicates ignorance?
- An excellent, clear summary of the path and its fruit, connecting the dots between mindfulness meditation and the attaining of nibbāna.
Unsupported and Unsupportive Consciousness
- It is very important (and very difficult!) to understand that the “experience” of nibbāna is no experience at all!
- Ajahn Brahmali here argues the other side of the “debate” from The Island, explaining how “anidassana viññāṇa” should be understood, not as a hidden, pure, or non-dual consciousness, but as something else entirely.
- And in this brilliant essay, Bhante Sunyo proposes a most elegant solution to the problem in this verse.
The Unconditioned and Nonlocality
- If experiences, not metaphysical “elements,” were the point of Early Buddhism, how did nibbāna develop into the “unconditioned element”?
Metaphor and Literalism: Chapter 4 - Nibbāna in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition
- We return to ML and the analogy of fire in order to better understand the Theravada developments to the doctrines of nibbāna and anatta.
The Unapprehendability of the Enlightened
The Buddha gives pithy answers to Upasīva about the path to liberation and the status of anāgāmīs and arahants.
- Even in the Buddha’s day (all the more so later) people tried to attribute omniscience to the Buddha: a claim he rejected.
- In this sutta, the Buddha explains that, rather than omniscience, it’s right view and renunciation that make nibbāna “unapprehendable” by ordinary people.
ML Chapter 5 - The Northern Schools
- If you are interested in the Northern schools of Indian Buddhism (which came to be part of the Mahayana), you may want to read Chapter 5 at this point. If you’re uninterested in the Mahayana, however, you will probably want to skip this chapter of Metaphor and Literalism
‘Reappears’ Does Not Apply
- “everything becomes cool when nothing is relished”
- On what it feels like to transcend the categories
- Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the nature of Buddhist enlightenment in order to defend using the English term “enlightenment” to describe it at all.
- Key to his argument is that complete liberation is described as the arising of true knowledge. Once ignorance is destroyed, it will never appear again.
Metaphor and Literalism: Conclusion and Translations
- The Conclusion is worth a read to tie together our study of Nirvana’s history.
- Those interested in the primary sources may also wish to read the translations in Part Two. Even a quick skim may be helpful to get a general impression of the genre, but don’t worry: this part won’t be on the final exam!
Knowing, Emptiness and the Radiant Mind
We wrap up this, the main, section of our course, with a brief word on the “Radiant Mind” and related perennial topics:
- Bhikkhu Analayo gives a careful, textual study of the supposedly “luminous” nature of the mind in early Buddhism. Is such a view supported by the early texts or is this a later development?
- If the Arahants are beyond “suffering” can they still experience pain? What is the difference between the two? What about painful thoughts?
- The curious case of an arahant committing suicide. Can someone who has attained the goal decide to kill themselves?
Part 3: Cultivation
The next two parts of the course shift from philosophical to more practical considerations: How is enlightenment achieved?
The Gradual Path
- What is the relationship between the mundane and supermundane paths? How did these concepts develop?
- This deep sutta on the details of the meditative “experience” of nibbāna takes place as a discussion between the Bhikkhuni Dhammadinnā and her student, the layman Visākha. How is “the unconditioned” conditioned?
- Ajahn Brahm celebrates their Bhikkhuni ordination with a talk on this sutta.
The Path and Goal
- An introduction to the final goal of Buddhist Practice.
Part 4: Fuition
We finally come to the last, but perhaps most important, part of our course: the experience of enlightenment itself. We will break it down into two lessons: on the first breakthrough and the final release.
Sotāpanna (or a Stream Winner) is someone who has attained the first stage of awakening. They have eliminated doubt and are firmly on the path to final deliverance. We will conceptualize this “turning point” in the spiritual career first with this work on the stages of insight that lead up to Stream Entry:
- What does it feel like as we transition from ordinary to super-mundane practice?
- A short talk on balancing faith and knowledge against expectations.
“Ah, What Bliss!” — Conclusion
- Ajahn Maha Boowa describes what it’s like to be an arahant in this short talk delivered near the end of his life.
- A short, ecstatic poem from the SN.
- “What’s next?” What happens after enlightenment?
With those final words of inspiration, our course is now finished. The rest is up to us.
Congratulations on finishing the course!
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Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the MNS has provided the historical starting-point as well as the chief scriptural basis for enquiry into the problem of the Buddha-nature in China, and it would be difficult if not impossible to grasp the significance of the concept and its subsequent evolution in Chinese Buddhism without a proper understanding of the teaching of the MNS on the subject.
An extremely profound and exceptionally rare book, Arahattamagga gives an unfiltered first-hand account of what it’s actually like to walk the entire Path—from its tumultuous beginning to its extraordinary finish.
To be female is to have the dukkha of a female. To be male is to have the dukkha of a male. […] If we deludedly think ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly.
‘I’ve developed the heart’s release by love… Yet somehow ill will still occupies my mind.’
Mendicants, these seven perceptions, when developed and cultivated, are very fruitful and beneficial. They culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless. What seven? The perceptions of ugliness, death, repulsiveness of food, dissatisfaction with the whole world, impermanence, suffering in impermanence, and not-self in suffering.
So this holy life, bhikkhus, does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood, and its end.
is one a brahmin due to birth,
or else because of actions?
for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.
A pithy and deep sutta on the true difference between the ordinary and the enlightened mind.
I say it’s not possible to know, see or reach the end of the world by traveling. But I also say there’s no making an end of suffering without reaching the end of the world.
mendicants, gaining these four continents is not worth a sixteenth part of gaining these four things.
indeed there is no thing there
Kammaṭṭhāna meditation should be practised so as to reach Nibbāna, thereby escaping from all kinds of misery