The Buddhist Path to Enlightenment (study)

by Dr Kala Acharya | 2016 | 118,883 words

This page relates ‘Nibbana (Liberation) in Theravada Buddhism (Introduction)’ of the study on the Buddhist path to enlightenment. The Buddha was born in the Lumbini grove near the present-day border of India and Nepal in the 6th century B.C. He had achieved enlightenment at the age of thirty–five under the ‘Bodhi-tree’ at Buddha-Gaya. This study investigates the teachings after his Enlightenment which the Buddha decided to teach ‘out of compassion for beings’.

6. Nibbāna (Liberation) in Theravāda Buddhism (Introduction)

Nibbāna is the summum bonum of Buddhism.[1]

In almost all religions the summum bonum can be attained only after death. But, nibbāna can be realized in this very life; it is not only necessary to wait ti you die to “attain” it. He who has realized the truth, nibbāna, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all “complexes” and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives full in the present.[2] Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without selfprotections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.[3] As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such ‘defilements’, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to other is of the purest, for he has no though of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, not even anything spiritual, because he is free from the illusion of self, and the ‘thirst’ for becoming.

Nibbāna is beyond all terms of duality and relativity. It is therefore beyond our conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, existence and non-existence. Even the word ‘happiness’ (sukha) which is used to describe nibbāna has an entirely different sense here. Sāriputta once said: “O friend, Nibbāna is happiness! Nibbāna is happiness! Then Udāyi asked: “But, friend Sāriputta, what happiness can it be if there is no sense?” Sāriputta’ s reply was highly philosophical and beyond ordinary comprehension: “That there is no sensation itself is happiness.”[4]

Nibbāna is the result of of the cessation of craving, of selfish desires. It may also be defined as the extinction of lust, hatred and ignorance. The Pāli word nibbāna is formed of ni and vāna, ni is a negative particle and vāna means craving or self desire. Nibbāna therefore literally means the absence of craving. The Sanskrit word Nirvāṇa comes from the va which means to blow and the prefix nir which means off or out. Hence, Nirvāṇa is its Sanskrit from means “the blowing out”. It is understood to mean the blowing out the flame of personal desire.[5]

According to Buddhist texts, nibbāna has only one essence or only one intrinsic nature. This means taditaṃ sabhāvato ekavidhampi–there is only one characteristic of nibbāna. What is the essential quality of nibbāna? This is: Satilakkhanaṃ nibbānaṃ, which means, “nibbāna is absolute peace or unconditional peace.”[6]

However, there are essentially two types of nibbāna in Itivuttaka Pāli, Khuddaka Nikāya. The statement of reads: Dvemā bhikkhave nibbānadhātuyo. Katamā dve? Saupādisesa ca nibbānadhātu anupādisesā ca nibbānadhātu–Monks there are these two nibbāna-elements (nibbānadhātu). What are two? They are: (1) Saupādisesa nibbānadhātu (nibbāna-element) with residue left and (2) Anupādisesa nibbānadhātu (the nibbāna with no residue left).[7] This means that saupādisesa nibbāna is a kind of experience of psychological liberation. It is the release from suffering due to defilement in the person’s life-time. Anupādisesa nibbāna is another kind of experience of biological liberation. It is release from all suffering that is linked to the five aggregates (pancakkhandhā) after entering the state of nibbāna.

The word nibbāna occasionally occurs in Pāli texts, but it Pāli meanings are varied. According to Pāli English Dictionary (PTS), the word nibbāna with its root words, ‘nir+vā’ was already in use in the Vedic period. The meaning is “to blow” or “to put out” or “to extinguish”. However, the application to the extinguishing of fire, that is worldly “fires” of greed, hatred and delusion is the prevailing Buddhist conception of the term. The word nibbāna is a Pāli form that is derived from a verb “nibbanti”. The word “nibbanti” appears in the Ratana sutta, Khuddhaka Nikāya; nibbanti dhirā yathāyaṃ padipo–the wise go out, as if the lamp burns out. It means “to be extinguished” or “to be blown out”. In this context, nibbāna signifies the extinguishing of the worldly “fires” of greed, hatred and delusion.[8]

Etymologically, the word nibbāna is a combination of the two words: Ni+vāna in Pāli language. Ni here means “negation of”, or “departure from” (nikkhantattā), and vāna means “craving”. In Abhidhammavibhāvanīṭīkā, the statement reads: saṃsibbanato vānasankhātāya taṇhāya nikkhantattā–departure from the entanglement of vāna or taṇhā (craving).[9] This means “the absence of taṇhā (craving)”. The combination of the two words “ni+vāna” means “departure from craving”. According to Pāli grammatical form, before the word vāna another word va is grammatically combined with it. And the vāna becomes a combination word, va+vāna=vvāna. Then the word vvāna become bbāna grammatically. Thus it is understood that the word ni+bbāna becomes the formal Pāli word nibbāna. It means departure from craving.[10]

However, in the doctrine of the “four noble truths”, the Buddha stated that nirodhasaccā (the truth of the cessation of suffering) is the third noble truth, which is considered to have the same meaning as nibbāna, recorded in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna sutta of Dīgha Nikāya. The statement as reads as follows:

Katamaṅca bhikkhave dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ. Yo tassāyeva taṇhāyaasesavirāga-nirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo muttianālayo … etthesā taṇhā pahīyamānā pahīyati. Ettha nirujjhamānā nirujjhanti. Idaṃ vaccati bhikkhave dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ.[11]

What, monks, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering? It is the complete fading-away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, libration from it, detachment from it … and there this craving comes to an end, there is its cessation comes about. And that, monk, is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.[12]

In the textual context, according to the commentary of the Mahāvagga Pāli, Dīgha Nikāya, the word nirodha is synonymous with the word nibbāna. In the state of nibbāna, taṇhā (craving) has completely ceased. Thus, the word nibbāna is understood to have the same meaning with nirodha in this case. The Pāli statement reads as follows: asesavirāganirodhoti ādīni sabbāni nibbānavevacanāneva (the words, asesaviraga and nirodha etc are synonymous with the word nibbāna).[13] Therefore, it is said that the word nirodha has the same meaning as nibbāna in the context of nirodhasaccā.

No matter what names or synonymous are employed, the essence of nibbāna is only one, that is, santilakkhaṇā (absolute peace). Yet the word nibbāna can have many names: for example, asesavirāga (complete cessation of craving), asesanirodha (extinction of craving), cāga (forsaking), paṭinissagga (abandon-ment), mutti (liberation), anālaya (detachment), ragakkhaya (extinction of lust), dosakkhaya (extinction of hatred), mohakkhaya (extinction of delusion), taṇhakkhaya (extincttion of desire), anuppāda (non-becoming), appavatta (non-continuance), animitta (signless), appaṇihita (desireless), anāyūhana (nonaction), appaṭisandhi (unborn), anupapatti (non-rebirth), agate (nonexistence), ajāta (unbecome) ajara (non-aging), abyādi (non-sickness), amata (deathless), asoka (non-sorrow), aparideva (non-lamentation), anupāyāsa (non-despair), asaṃkiliṭṭha (taintlessness or purification) etc. The citation comes from the commentary of Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya.[14]

As a matter of fact, the synonymous of nibbāna are more than the above names. The aforementioned statement of has not yet counted some common and useful synonyms of nibbāna. For instance, here are some of the words: suññata (void), abhūta (nothingness), santi (peace), and khema (safe, tranquil or full of peace) in the Pāli literature. It would be interesting to study synonyms for the word, nibbāna. In fact, both the Pāli and Sanskrit languages are, like English, rich in synonyms. Just as in English there is the thesaurus, which gives many synonyms and antonyms, so the Pāli and Sanskrit languages have similar kinds of works, known as lexicons. There is a book in Pāli language, named Abhidhānappadīpikā that shows different words that have the same meaning. The greater part of the books is a collection of synonyms and the books contains 1203 verses, excluding the colophon. Synonyms for nibbāna are given in the book. There are altogether 46 different names for the words nibbāna.[15]

In the Buddhist literature, every now and then, the word asaṅkhata has been also used to describe the meaning of nibbāna. Asaṅkhata is also synonymous with the word nibbāna. Etymologically, the word asaṅkhata is a combination of the two words: a+saṅkhata in Pāli language. A here means “negation of” and saṅkhata means “conditioned”. This means: paccayehi abhisaṅkhatattā saṅkhataṃ–things such as the five aggregates, are conditioned due to certain circumstances. The circumstance include kamma (action), citta (mind), utu (temperature or weather), and āhāra (food). In this regard, asaṅkhata here means “non-conditioned” or “unconditioned”.[16]

The word Asaṅkhata is present in the Mahāparinibbāna sutta, Dīgha Nikāya. The statements show how the word asaṅkhata (unconditioned) and nibbāna (absolute peace) are related to one another from the point of view of the etymological context.

The statement reads as follows:

Parinibbute bhagati saha parinibbānā sakko devānamindo imaṃ gāthaṃ abhāsi; aniccā vata saṅkharā, uppādavayadhammino, uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, teasṃ vūpasamo sukho.[17]

At the Blessed Lord Buddha’s final passing, Sakka, ruler of the devas, uttered this verse: impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall, having risen, they’re destroyed, their passing truest bliss.[18]

The phrase, ‘tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho’ (their passing truest bliss), seem to be unclear in this context. Therefore, the commentator, Venerable Buddhaghosa, clarified the meaning of asaṅkhata in the commentary of Mahāvagga, it is, Mahāvagga aṭṭhakathā, Dīghanikāya Aṭṭhakathā.

Tesaṃ vūpasamoti teasṃ saṅkhārānaṃ vūpasamo.Asaṅkhataṃ nibbāna-meva sukhaṃti attho.[19]

Tesaṃ vūpasamo (their passing truest bliss) means since all saṅkhāras (compounded things) have ceased, the state of nibbāna that is the unconditional state (asaṅkhata) that is considered to be the truest bliss (santisukha).[20]

In this context, the word nibbāna and the word asaṅkhata (the unconditioned) have the same meaning, just words are different. With regard to the meaning of nibbāna it is understood that if something is subject to be conditioned, whatever is born (jāta), become (bhūta), and compounded (saṅkhata) is subject to decay, no one can wish that it cannot be, that it dose not decay. However, nibbāna is not subject to the conditional things, that is, decay, birth or becoming. The statement delivered by the Buddha reads: yaṃ taṃ bhūtaṃ saṅkhataṃ palooka-dhammaṃ, taṃ vata mā palujjīti. Netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati (Whatever is born, become, compounded is subject to decay, it cannot be that it dose not decay).[21] It is clear that nibbāna has many canonical contexts to define its meaning.

Footnotes and references:


A Manual of Buddhism, Narada, Buddhist Culture Center, Dehiwala, Sri lanka, 1998, p. 127


SN I, p. 5.


MN II, p. 121


What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, Repr, Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, 1996. p. 43


The Path of the Buddha, U Thitthila, p. 111


Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha bhāsāṭīka by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1993, p. 545


Itivuttaka Pāli, Khuddhaka Nikāya, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1972. p. 221


Khuddakapāṭha Pāli, Khuddaka Nīkaya, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1981. p. 7


Abhidhammatthavibāvinīṭīka, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1990. p. 216


Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha bhāsāṭīka by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1993, 544


DN II, 247, 249


Long Discourses of the Buddha, 347-348


MA III, p. 390


DA II, p. 390. The commentary citation is: Ekameva hi nibbānaṃ. Nāmāni panassa sabbasaṅkhatānaṃ nāmapaṭipakkhāvasena anekāni honti. Seyyathidaṃ–asesavirago asesanirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo taṇhakkhayo anuppādo appavattaṃ animittaṃ appaṇihitaṃ anāyūhanaṃ appatisandhi anupapatti agate ajātaṃ ajaraṃ abhyādi amataṃ asokaṃ aparidevaṃ anupayasaṃ asaṃkilitthaṃti.


Mokho nirodho nibbānaṃ, dīpo taṇhakkhayo paraṃ,
Tānaṃ lena-marūpañca, sataṃ sacca-manālayaṃ
Asaṅkhataṃ siva-mamataṃ sududdasaṃ, parāyanaṃ saraṇa-manītikaṃ tathā,
Anāsavaṃ duva-manidassanā-kathā, palokitaṃ nipuṇa-manantamakkharaṃ.
Dukkhakkhayo byābajjhaṅca, vivaṭṭaṃ khema kevalaṃ,
Apavaggo virāgo ca, paṇīta-maccutaṃ padaṃ.
Yogakkhamo pāra-mapi, mutti santi visuddhiyo,
Vimutya-saṅkhatadhātu, suddhi nibbutiyo siyuṃ.
These verse are recorded Ven. Mahāmoggallāna mahāthera. Abhidhānappadīpika, Department of Religious Affairs, Yangon, Myanmar, 1990. p. 3-4.


Abh-b-t, p. 481


DN, p. 124


Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 217


Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 217


This is translation based on the commentary


DN II, p. 129-139.

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