According to the Buddha, final liberation is marked by an end of craving and, ultimately, all suffering. What does that look like and how is it achieved? The late Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw explains.
Nibbana is not like a splendid palace, city, or country. It is not like a bright light or some kind of clear, calm element. All of these things are not unconditioned ultimate realities but concepts or conditioned realities.
In fact nibbana, as an unconditioned reality, has simply the nature of cessation called “the characteristic of peacefulness” (santilakkhana). It is the cessation of the defilements and the rounds of suffering. Or, it is the nonexistence of conditioned phenomena (visalikhara), the cessation of conditioned phenomena, and the opposite of what is conditioned. Thus the Patisambhidamagga defines it by contrasting it with conditioned phenomena in these ways:
[Mental and physical] arising is conditioned phenomena.
Non-arising is nibbana.
[Mental and physical] occurrence is conditioned phenomena.
Non-occurrence is nibbana.
[Mental and physical] sign is conditioned phenomena.
Nonsign is nibbana.
[Mental and physical] accumulation [of kamma] is conditioned phenomena.
Non-accumulation [of kamma] is nibbana.
[Mental and physical] rebirth is conditioned phenomena.
Non-rebirth is nibbana.
—Patisambhidamagga, “Path of Discrimination,” 1.22
This Pali quote shows that the nature of nibbana is the complete cessation of conditioned phenomena, expressed in terms of the cessation of arising, occurrence, sign, accumulation, and rebirth.
Grammatically the word nibbana can be considered a “verbal noun” and could be interpreted as having any of the following three senses:
Nibbana: where the cycle of suffering ceases
Nibbana: through which the cycle of suffering ceases
Nibbana: the cessation of the cycle of suffering
—Sumangalavilasini, Buddhagosa’s commentary on the Digha Nikaya
This definition of nibbana does not mean that it is simply some kind of empty state that can be understood through everyday ideas. Nibbana is described as being beyond logic, too profound and difficult to be understood through common knowledge, and experienced only by the wise with empirical knowledge. Moreover, since it is beyond the reach of craving, it is also beyond entanglement (vana), which is another term for craving. When nibbana is experienced by a meditator through path knowledge, that person’s mind is freed from craving. Thus the commentaries also define it as follows:
Nibbana: liberation from entanglement
Nibbana: where there is no entanglement
Nibbana: through which entanglement is eradicated
Nibbana is simply the cessation of mental and physical phenomena that becomes manifest as the signless (animittapaccupanhanam) to a noble one. So although one has experienced it, one cannot describe it in terms of color or form or say what it is like. It can only be experienced or described as the cessation or end of all conditioned mental and physical phenomena. In the Milindapanha of the Khuddaka Nikaya, it is shown in this way:
O Great King [Milinda], nibbana is incomparable. It cannot be described in its color, shape, size, dimension, likeness, remote cause, immediate cause, or any other logical way of thinking.
Nibbana is said to be the cessation, liberation, non-arising, or nonexistence of conditioned phenomena. It is also said that nibbana has no color, form, or size. It cannot be described by using a simile. Because of these points one might believe that nibbana is nothing, and think that it is the same as the concept of nonexistence (abhavapannatti). But it is absolutely not like the concept of nonexistence. It is obvious that it has the nature of cessation, liberation, non-arising, or nonexistence of conditioned phenomena. And because this nature is obvious, the phenomena of path and fruition can arise while directly experiencing the cessation of conditioned phenomena. The mental and physical processes of an arahant do not arise anymore after they have entered parinibbana; they have completely ceased. The following texts from the Khuddaka Nikaya show how the nature of nibbana is obvious when directly experienced.
There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.
Because there is no arising in the nibbana element [which is the cessation of conditioned phenomena through their non-arising], it is called not-born (ajata) and not-brought-to-being (abhhuta). Because it is not made by a cause, it is called not-made (akata). Because it is not made dependent on causes and conditions, it is called not-conditioned. If the nibbana element does not exist, then the cessation of the mental and physical processes or the aggregates could not happen. Thus it is not true that the nibbana element is nothing, like the concept of nonexistence. Being the object of path and fruition, it is obvious in an ultimate sense. And because it is so obvious, the constantly arising mental and physical processes or aggregates in a person who practices correctly do not arise anymore after that person’s parinibbana. Then, they are able to cease forever. It means that the cessation is something that can be obvious. May you believe this!
There is, bhikkhus, that base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither-perception-nor-nonperception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.
The nonexistence of the four elements shows the nonexistence of the derived material phenomena (upadardupa), and the nonexistence of the mental phenomena that arise in the sense desire and fine-material existences based on physical phenomena.
There are no sense objects connected with the immaterial existence.
“Neither this world nor another world” refers to the nonexistence of any phenomena concerning these worlds. Therefore, at the moment of path and fruition that takes nibbana as its object, one knows no objects concerning this or another world.
“Neither sun nor moon” means that because there are no material phenomena, there is no darkness. Thus no light is needed to dispel darkness. Thus it is shown that the sun, moon, other planets, and stars do not exist.
“There is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, and no uprising” means that while one can come and go to another realm from the human or the celestial realm, one cannot come to nibbana, and from nibbana one cannot go somewhere else. Unlike the human and celestial realms, there are no persons or beings in nibbana.
“Nothing new arises in nibbana” means that it can only be known and taken as an object by path, fruition, and reviewing knowledges.
“It has no support” means that because it is not a material phenomenon, it is not located anywhere and it is not based on any other phenomena. Even though it is a mental phenomenon, it is not a result or an effect. This means that it is not based on any conditions.
“Just this is the end of suffering” means that there is no occurrence in nibbana. Nibbana is the opposite of the constantly arising process of mental and physical phenomena. Although it is a mental phenomenon, it does not have the characteristic of being aware of an object as consciousness and the mental factors do. Because it is the object of path and fruition, when one experiences nibbana there is no suffering at all, and so it is the end of suffering.
Because nibbana is the opposite of all conditioned phenomena [such as fire and water, heat and cold, light and dark], there is no nibbana in conditioned phenomena, and there are also no conditioned phenomena in nibbana. The conditioned and the unconditioned never coexist.
In accordance with this commentary from the Udana, as long as there are still conditioned phenomena, nibbana cannot yet be reached. While experiencing nibbana, no conditioned phenomena arise. When entering parinibbana, conditioned phenomena no longer arise; they cease to exist.
When nibbana is realized by means of the four path knowledges, there is no room left for any form of craving, either those that lead to lower rebirths, gross forms of sense desire, subtle forms of sense desire, or fine material and immaterial forms; all these forms of craving are totally destroyed. All these forms of craving have been discarded, destroyed; their bondage has been severed, and the tangle has been untangled. That is why the Buddha also spoke with these words about nibbana:
And what, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it. This is called the noble truth of the cessation of suffering.
—Samyutta Nikaya, 5.13
And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.
—Majjhima Nikaya, 26.19
Two Types of Nibbana
In terms of being the cessation of all mental and physical suffering that has the characteristic of peacefulness, there is only one kind of nibbana. However, in another sense, nibbana may be further divided into two types as follows: with residue remaining (sa-upadisesa)—this is the nibbana of an arahant, one who has completely extinguished all mental defilements but still experiences the “residue” of the aggregates as a result of past craving, clinging, and volitional actions; and without residue remaining (anupadisesa)—this is the nibbana of an arahant who has passed away, that is, after entering parinibbana, and refers to the complete cessation of all conditioned phenomena.
The Buddha explained these two types of nibbana as follows:
Bhikkhus, there are these two Nibbana-elements. What are the two? The Nibbana-element with residue left and the Nibbana-element with no residue left. What, bhikkhus, is the Nibbana-element with residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, the holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element with residue left. Now what, bhikkhus, is the Nibbana-element with no residue left? Here a bhikkhu is an arahant … completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbana-element with no residue left.
Note that in the first section of this passage that describes nibbana with residue left, a living arahant is said to have “laid down the burden” of the five aggregates, even though one still possesses a mind and body. This is because they are one’s last aggregates, and no more will arise, so we can say that they have effectively set down the burden of the five aggregates.
Note that in the second section of this passage that describes nibbana with no residue left, the feeling that is mentioned refers to the particular type of feeling that is experienced only by arahants. This is kammically indeterminate (abyakata) feeling, that cannot be said to be wholesome or unwholesome and produces no kammic results. Also, although only feeling is mentioned explicitly, it should be taken to include all five aggregates. The arahant has no involvement with any of the aggregates that might lead to rebirth. None of the phenomena that one experiences while still alive are associated with desire, pride, or wrong view. Thus they all arise and pass away completely, without leaving any kammic residue that might create the potential for another life.
A fire that does not get any more fuel cannot continue to burn but simply dies down and becomes extinguished. Likewise, an arahant’s aggregates that have been caused through previous kamma do not arise as a new life or new aggregates but, after having arisen, simply cease and become extinguished. After the cessation of the aggregates, the aggregates no longer arise. As a result, the aggregates that constantly arise in an arahant due to the momentum of previous kamma do not continue to arise in a new life but are extinguished in this very life.
Nibbana without residue remaining is synonymous with the cessation of the aggregates (khandhaparinibbana). Once the path has been attained, and after having entered parinibbana, there is no longer any opportunity for the arising of mental and physical phenomena that would come into existence if the path were not attained. In addition, cessation of the five aggregates is accomplished with the realization of the path knowledge of arahantship.
However, this cessation is not something that actually arises, so it cannot be described in terms of time. Prior to the development of the path, the defilements and their resultant phenomena (new life, aggregates) may arise at any time when the conditions are favorable. However, such potential defilements and phenomena cannot be said to actually exist in the past, present, or future. Thus they are considered to be “independent of time” (kalavimutta). Thus both kinds of nibbana—nibbana with residue and nibbana without residue—are independent of time. They cannot be said to exist in the past, present, or future.
Therefore, one should not ask questions such as “Did the nibbana that was experienced at the moment of knowledge of change-of-lineage occur in the past, present, or future?”
These two Nibbana-elements were made known
By the Seeing One, stable and unattached:
One is the element seen here and now
With residue, but with the cord of being destroyed;
The other, having no residue for the future,
Is that wherein all modes of being utterly cease.
Having understood the unconditioned state,
Released in mind with the cord of being destroyed,
They have attained to the Dhamma-essence.
Delighting in the destruction (of craving),
Those stable ones have abandoned all being.
In these verses, the cessation of the defilements or the aggregates—that is, nibbana either with or without residue remaining—is called the unconditioned. Just as the opposites of fire and water, heat and cold, dark and light, or jungle and open space, so is it the opposite of conditioned phenomena and therefore called the unconditioned. Nibbana is also called a “state” (pada) because it can be attained and experienced through the path knowledge and fruition knowledge. Based on this, it can be concluded that the nibbana that is experienced through path and fruition is the same as the two types of nibbana with and without residue remaining. If this were not the case, then the Abhidhamma would be incorrect in saying this:
Though nibbana is onefold according to is intrinsic nature, by reference to a basis (for distinction), it is twofold, namely, the element of nibbana with the residue remaining, and the element of nibbana without the residue remaining.
—Abhidhammattha Sangaha, 6.31
The unique characteristic of nibbana is the peacefulness associated with the cessation [of conditioned phenomena]. Or, in other words, this unique characteristic must necessarily belong to any type of nibbana. In this sense there is only one type of nibbana, even though it may be divided into two types, one with and one without residue remaining.
Even though it is clearly stated that nibbana is twofold, if nibbana either with or without residue remaining and nibbana that is experienced through path and fruition were divided, it would also contradict the Abhidhammattha Sangaha. If nibbana were divided in such a way, then we would have to say that the nibbana that is experienced through path and fruition is real, being an ultimate reality, while the nibbana that is with or without residue remaining is imaginary, being simply a concept. But if this were the case, then nibbana would have to be classified into three types, rather than two: one real nibbana, having its unique characteristic of peace, and two [other conceptual types of nibbana], one with and one without residue remaining.
Some even claim that nibbana is conceptual nonexistence (abhavapannatti), and that in an ultimate sense it does not exist. Then one would also have to say that cessation of the defilements and aggregates is just a concept like the concept of a self [based on wrong view]. This would mean that there is no cessation of potential defilements and aggregates. In that case the defilements would continue to arise in an arahant’s mind continuum, and after having entered parinibbana, the aggregates would also continue to arise. There would be no possibility of escape from the round of suffering.
We must conclude, therefore, that the nibbana that is experienced by means of path and fruition is general nibbana (samannanibbana). The two types of nibbana—with and without residue remaining—that are specific nibbana (visesanibbana) are included within general nibbana. This is why the nibbana that is experienced by means of path and fruition is not identified as being with or without residue remaining, or as the cessation of desire, aversion, delusion, material phenomena, or feeling, or as present, past, or future, or as the cessation of defilements or phenomena. In reality nibbana is simply experienced and known as the cessation of conditioned phenomena that perceive or are perceived. Because all mental and physical phenomena are extinguished in nibbana, it also includes nibbana with residue remaining and nibbana without residue remaining.
Because you do not yet rightly understand the cessation of the defilements and aggregates, you may think that it is just the concept of nonexistence, that it is not profound, or that it is so profound that you will be unable to rightly understand it. So if you are not yet satisfied, you should resolve to practice in order to forever extinguish not only the defilements but also the arising of the aggregates in a new life. Only then will you be able to comprehend that the cessation of the defilements and aggregates is not a concept of nonexistence but an ultimately and obviously existing unconditioned phenomenon, profound, difficult to see, and beyond the reach of logical thought.
Before you have realized nibbana by means of the four paths, you must develop diligence and mindfulness in order to protect your mind from yielding to temptation.
Therefore, bhikkhus, that base should be understood where the eye ceases and perception of forms fades away. That base should be understood where the ear ceases and perception of sounds fades away. That base should be understood where the nose ceases and perception of smells fades away. That base should be understood where the tongue ceases and perception of tastes fades away. That base should be understood where the body ceases and perception of touch fades away. That base should be understood where the mind ceases and perception of mental phenomena fades away. That base should be understood.
—Samyutta Nikaya, 35.117
A meditator may arrive at the realization of nibbana by primarily observing the eye and perception of forms, or any of the other pairs of phenomena mentioned above. If cessation of the eye and perception of forms is obvious, then cessation and awareness of their physical and mental constituents will also be obvious. The same applies to the other pairs of phenomena. In fact, the cessation of all conditioned phenomena is obvious when one experiences nibbana. This is why the perception of conditioned phenomena completely ceases the moment one experiences nibbana.
Thus nibbana is described as the cessation of any of these pairs of phenomena. Taken as a whole, nibbana is the cessation of all twelve of these sense bases. Venerable Ananda once explained this, saying, “This was stated by the Blessed One, friends, with reference to the cessation of the six [internal and external] sense bases.” (SN 35.117)
The commentary to the Udana of the Khuddaka Nikaya also describes nibbana as the cessation of all twelve sense bases and refers to an explanation that the Buddha gave to Bahiya. According to scholars, the passage “Then, Bahiya, you will neither be here nor beyond nor in between the two” can be explained as follows:
[If one is no longer involved with defilements in what is seen, heard, experienced, or perceived, then, Bahiya,] one will no longer exist here in the internal [sense bases of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind], nor there in the external [sense bases of visible form, sound, odor, flavor, touch and mental objects], nor anywhere else in the sense consciousnesses [of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and perceiving. This is the end of suffering].
A meditator proceeds by observing the most obvious object from among these twelve sense bases, consciousnesses, and mental factors. But at the moment of path and fruition, the meditator stops perceiving the object and instead experiences the total cessation of all of these objects. This experience of cessation is nibbana. It is very important to understand this.
The sense bases actually represent all conditioned phenomena. So the cessation of the sense bases refers to the cessation of all conditioned phenomena. In the following discourse, nibbana is said to be that state that is the opposite of conditioned phenomena. According to the texts:
Where water, earth, fire, and air do not gain a footing:
It is from here that the streams [of phenomena] turn back,
Here that the round [of the defilements, kamma, and its
result] no longer revolves.
There, name-and-form ceases.
—Samyutta Nikaya, 1.27
Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
That’s where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul—
There “name-and-form” [mental and physical phenomena] are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness, this is all destroyed.
—Digha Nikaya, 11.85
The statement that nibbana is “all-luminous” in this passage means that it is completely cleansed of all defilements. Similar metaphors are used in such expressions as “the light of wisdom” (panna-aloka), “the luster of wisdom” (panna-obhasa), and “the torch of wisdom” (pannapajjota). It is in this same sense that the Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, the mind is luminous.” The sense here is that nibbana is always luminous. The mind and wisdom that possess an innate luminosity can be soiled by defiling phenomena. Nibbana, however, which is the cessation of defilements or conditioned phenomena, can never be connected with defiling phenomena. Therefore there is no way that any of these phenomena can soil or defile nibbana, just as the sky can never be painted. As a result, it is said that “nibbana is all-luminous.” To be straightforward, the meaning of the commentary and subcommentary is only that nibbana is absolutely not connected to the defilements or is completely cleansed of them.
So one should not misinterpret this statement to mean that nibbana is literally shining like the sun, moon, or stars, and that one sees this luminosity by means of path knowledge and fruition knowledge. This kind of interpretation would negate the previous statement that nibbana is signless, would be inconsistent with its unique “signless” manifestation (animittapaccupanhana), and would contradict Venerable Nagasena’s answer to King Milinda’s question about the nature of nibbana. In fact, this kind of literal interpretation would be in opposition to all the Pali texts and commentaries that say there is no materiality in nibbana. In any event, the cessation of potential defilements and aggregates is not something that is luminous and bright. If it were, the Pali texts and commentaries could easily have said that “nibbana is luminous and bright.” Otherwise they would not explain it with difficult names such as “destruction of lust” (ragakkhayo), “the peaceful ending of all conditioned phenomena” (sabbasankharasamatho), “nonarising” (anuppado), and so on, which are taken to be opposites of conditioned phenomena. One should reflect deeply about this!
That’s where earth, water, fire, and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul—
There “name-and-form” [mental and physical phenomena] are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness this is all destroyed.
—Digha Nikaya, 11.85
These lines point out nibbana, or cessation. The last line points out the cause of this cessation. “Consciousness” here refers to both the death consciousness (cuticitta) and the volitional mind (abhisankharavinna) at the time of parinibbana. All presently existing conditioned phenomena come to an end due to the destruction of death consciousness at the time of parinibbana, and because there is no volitional mind that can produce results, new phenomena do not arise but cease to exist. Thus, with the cessation of these two kinds of consciousness, all conditioned phenomena cease. This is like the cessation of the emission of light from an oil lamp whose oil and wick have been completely consumed.