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Very precise description of nibbāna, wich is the more obscure and the more indescribable of all objects.



The Cessation

In Gotama's vision, does prevail a possibility to attain the complete extinction of the appearance of these phenomena, so that they CEASE to appear, so that aggregates cease to appear as well. However, this disappearance doesn't generate nothingness. There must be something at this specific moment, something real, another phenomenon, another category of phenomena. This is what the Buddha discovered. He discovered that when these aggregates cease to appear, there is something else. This is the discovery that he made beneath this tree, which we call the tree of awakening, as he named this experience awakening. He saw aggregates appearing and he also saw what does occur when they cease to appear. He saw that it is neither annihilation, nor nothingness.

Let's take the example of a wave that comes to die on a beach. The water hasn't disappeared, the sand hasn't disappeared, the rocks haven't disappeared. Nevertheless, the wave has disappeared. Let's take for example the fire that goes off, the ashes haven't disappeared, the stones around the ashes and the heat of the fire haven't disappeared either. Nevertheless the fire has disappeared, there is no fire left. Meanwhile everything is still there. The surrounding trees and the pebbles are still there but the fire is extinguished. In the same way, when the light in a room is switched off, nothing has disappeared, although one can no longer see anything. Having expressed all that, the comparison ends here. It has its own limitations.

One step further

That which the Buddha experienced is the complete cessation of all vision, audition, olfaction, tasting, touch and, something new, of all mental consciousness, in fact, all the perceptions. This means that where some talk of transcendental consciousness, of exalted consciousness, of limiteless consciousness, he, Gotama, went one step further. He succeeded in observing the disappearance of this cognition, the disappearance of this consciousness. Where there is talk of god, he saw the non-god. Where there is talk of "Buddhahood", he saw its absence, he saw its disappearance. Where there is talk of nirvana, he saw the absence of nirvana. Where there is talk of a transcendental state, of an ultimate state, of the state of omniscience, of the state of enlightenment, he saw all this vanishing. Then, what does remain?

That which remains lies beyond words (beyond the range of mind and speech), but, truly speaking, it is something. It is so much a thing that he puts it into in the category of things that constitute this universe. He said that this universe is composed of four things, which are universal. They are universal in the sense that they appear everywhere, that they are everywhere and that they can be known everywhere. There are all material phenomena, generally called matter. There are all mental phenomena, all these perceptions, sensations, ideations, conceptions, etc. There is consciousness that precisely has the faculty of cognizing these material and mental phenomena. Finally, we find this fourth thing that is one of them and truly speaking a reality. This is something that we do not see. We do not see it because we hear sounds, because we see images or because we do indulge in spiritual, mystical or transcendental experiences. We do not see it because we are conscious of something. Of what are we conscious? We are conscious of material and mental phenomena.

The origin of the word nibbāna

As soon as the arising process of the aggregates comes to an end, what does remain is this fourth thing that the awakened Gotama discovered. He called it nibbāna, not nirvana. He straightforwardly used the word nibbāna. It is not by chance that he did so. He used a word that none of his contemporaries used. Some tried to translate nibbāna by claiming that it means the absence of attachment, the breath that has been interrupted or anything else, I would never clue. It is, however, uninteresting to try to translate this word. It is necessary to use a word because this is a thing. Given that it is a thing, it is proper to use a term to name it.

We are very often told that the state of awakening is unnamable, ineffable, that it transcends everything. Nonsense! What are you talking about? Buddha never said that this was something transcendental, that it transcended concepts, that it transcended everything. He very simply said " It is one of the four constituents of the universe. " He gave a name to it, which is nibbāna. He chose to use the same word that is used for the rice cooling once out of the stove, or the ashes cooling down after the fire is extinguished. He made use of a word found in the everyday language. It is said for instance of rice becoming cold " Where is the rice? The rice is in "nibbāna". "

Thus, as he always did, Buddha used a word of everyday life. He refused to use the technical vocabulary of the religious, the priests, the spiritual masters. He employed the daily language, the language of the cook, the hunter, the butcher or the labourer.

He therefore taught that there are four things that make up this universe.

  1. Consciousness, which is the faculty of cognizing.
  2. Material and physical properties, which can be known by consciousness.
  3. Mental properties, desserving to be known by consciousness.
  4. nibbāna, parinibbāna.

That which we call consciousness, mental and physical phenomena, are the five aggregates.

In fact, although one talks of "five aggregates", it is just another way to state them. Sometimes they are stated under two categories (on the one hand the physical phenomena, on the other the mental phenomena), sometimes three categories are defined (consciousness, material phenomena and mental phenomena), sometimes five (the five aggregates), sometimes even more. It is said that there are twenty-eight material properties, that there are fifty-two mental properties, (etc.) They can be subdivided even further, and Buddha's contemporaries unhesitatingly did so. However, all this can be regrouped in three: Consciousness, material phenomena and mental phenomena. Then there is this thing set apart from these categories, that list, that thing whose we call nibbāna (or parinibbāna). This is what the monk Gotama discovered.


Every time consciousness arises, it is completely locked on its object, it is fixed, stuck to its object. This is what we call upadāna, clinging. Just as when one throws a little ball of bread against a glass, like we did when we were children, it stays glued to the glass. What makes the ball of bread remain stuck to the glass is upadāna. For example, when one applies a "sticky note", upadāna makes the "sticky note" remain attached.

In the same way, consciousness stays clinging to its object. This is completely natural, it is the way consciousness functions. Even for someone fully liberated like the monk Gotama, the awakened buddha, when he was conscious, when he talked, when he walked, there was consciousness clinging to its object (upadāna). The consciousness has such a power to cling to its object that even when the monk Gotama experienced the total cessation of the five aggregates, consciousness continued to arise. Although nibbāna is a very particular object, it is, nevertheless, an object, and it is precisely because of this that it also can be known by consciousness.

Thus, although the five aggregates have ceased to arise, immediately after, consciousness projects itself again. As there no longer are material and mental phenomena to be cognized, it projects itself onto the remaining phenomenon. And it is nibbāna indeed. Owing to this simple fact, Buddha did remember this experience. Thus, he could talk about nibbāna. Because if he had merely lost consciousness, how could he had said that he had known nibbāna? nibbāna cannot be known while we are unconscious, to know it, one has to be conscious. Thus, the Buddha SAW nibbāna, he KNEW nibbāna, he touched nibbāna.

He knew nibbāna once the consciousness stopped clinging to those objects that appear and disappear ceaselessly. Once consciousness ceased grasping those objects, it projected itself onto nibbāna, and it clung to nibbāna because it cannot do anything but clinging to what it grasps. Thus, for a brief moment, because clinging to nibbāna cannot last for long, Buddha knew nibbāna.

nibbāna is empty

nibbāna is a very particular object, palpable, touchable, cognizable by consciousness, but its particular characteristic lies in that it does not appear. Because it does not appear, it never disappears either. Moreover, it is empty, it contains nothing; no sound, no smell, no formation, nothing whatsoever. It is empty. It is not THE voidness, it is not nothingness. It is simply empty of everything that is alien to itself. We can compare this with an empty room. Upon entering a room that is totally empty, without people or furnitures, one says: " This room is empty ". One does not infer that this room is EMPTINESS, this is a way to talk, one just says: " It is empty ". It is empty of those things that, when they are there, make us say that it is not empty. For example, there is no furniture, nobody. If there was a chair, we would not say that the room is empty. Because it is empty of what habitually makes it not to be as such, we say: " This room is empty. "

Similarly, in the "suññata sutta" Buddha said: " nibbāna is empty " and not: " It is EMPTINESS ". He simply said: " It is empty ". It is empty of anything that is alien to it. This pugnacious, tenacious consciousness, with its extrordinary power of clinging, of attaching itself, to anything appearing in its field, will project itself onto nibbāna. But this will not last long, it cannot remain clinging to nibbāna long because nibbāna is empty. Nothing arises within nibbāna, and nibbāna itself does not arise. When consciousness projects itself on nibbāna, it is a little as if it skidded, as if it slid on it. It will not stay long. It cannot remain more than a few minutes, perhaps up to a few hours. Soon after, it returns again to its "favourite occupations". This means that it starts again to cognize phenomena, aggregates as a whole among which it is a mere part. It starts again to know sounds, thoughts, touch, tastes, colours, etc.

Owing to the simple fact that consciousness followed a particular channel, whose, let us feel secure, Buddha has thought of leaving us the recipe prior to passing away, it will experience the cessation of all those physical and mental formations and will again project onto nibbāna, upon which it will remain some time, and so on and so forth.

However, it is certain that this does not happen spontaneously. It only comes in the wake of a certain effort. The monk Gotama made this effort. And then taught us how we, in turn, can make it.


The wave that has vanished

For the being who is totally liberated, there will come a moment, precisely at time of passing away, when consciousness will project on nibbāna. Because the time to die has come, it will stop, it will cease. From this moment onward, only nibbāna will remain, devoid of residual consciousness. The body will undergo the usual decomposition of all corpses, and then everything will be over. This is exactly like the wave that has vanished on the beach: The water is still there, the sand is still there, but the wave has disappeared. The same thing applies to the arahanta, the fully liberated being, the Buddha. What happens at the moment of death is simply a cessation, definitive this time, of the arising of the aggregates. Consciousness that took nibbāna as its object arises no more.

Could it be only once

At the end of our path, of our training, what the Buddha calls training in the development of mindfulness, satipaṭṭhāna, it will be possible to experience nibbāna for the first time (this can be attained in the span of a few weeks, months or years). In itself, that's already wonderful, excellent. It will be the first time since times immemorial, in myriads of years that we go around in circles, after having been sometimes disciple, or else teacher, man, woman, animal, man, that we see nibbāna, that we attain nibbāna.

Buddha said that whoever has seen nibbāna, could it be only once, has put an end to all his problems. He did away with all his anxieties because as soon as it was seen by him once, inevitably, in the natural course of a process in which this experience takes part, he will one day succeed in reaching the goal. It may not be in this life, it may be in the next life or in the one after, in the worst case, Buddha said, at the end of the seventh life, he will succeed, from this time onward, in experiencing nibbāna without residual consciousness. This is what we call parinibbāna.

We imagine that the awakening is a kind of spiritual uplifting, something imposing, gigantic, loftier than everything we could imagine. We believe that we are small, too small to succeed and that it will take a long time. And we imagine that our guru has succeeded in reaching it. But, in reality, nibbāna is there. It is very accessible, rapidly. It is just a phenomenon like any other. It differs from the others in that it does not appear, but it is a phenomenon like any other in the sense that it is nothing else than a phenomenon. Simply because in this world there cannot be anything but phenomena. It is just a phenomenon that we have never known before and that is at our doorstep. Buddha does not stop telling us. We need to undergo a training, rather rigorous, indeed. But whoever is merely self-contented with putting into practice what Buddha taught, cannot fail to succeed in attaining the final aim, the definitive cessation of all dissatisfaction, nibbāna.

Questions and answers on nibbāna

Can one compare nibbāna, which (if properly understood) is a phenomenon of consciousness, to the state of deep sleep? There, one can say that nothing does occur, that it is similar to a state of absolute calm.

That is how some imagine it. Some say that during deep sleep, there is a phase in which the mind remains in its natural state, which would be the state of awakening.

Firstly, according to the theravāda tradition, there is no such thing as the state of awakening. Therefore, nibbāna is not comparable to this. Secondly, nibbāna is NOT a state of consciousness.

Does consciousness experience something specific at this particular stage?

It is something particular that is cognizable, likely to be experienced, but it is not consciousness as such. When consciousness does experience nibbāna, it is still a conditioned, fabricated consciousness. Buddha said that it is still a mental fabrication.

When consciousness "sees" that experience, is it a kind of tenuous consciousness, which has already lost its strength?

It is effectively a tenuous consciousness, which is very comparable to the kind of consciousness that inhabits us during deep sleep, but nibbāna is not like the state of consciousness that we have during deep sleep. It is a phenomenon known by a kind of consciousness very similar to the consciousness of deep sleep. Why? Very simply because, when we are in deep sleep, consciousness has no tangible object. That is to say, all sensory perceptions are momentarily suspended.

Well understood, this suggests that, because there no longer is any perception, any sensation, and the Buddha talks of cessation, this must be the state of awakening itself. This is very particular and extremely subtle to understand. It is called the life continuum, a consciousness whose characteristic lies in that it has no tangible object, no vision, no smell, no sound, no thought, etc. But, despite all that, it is neither the state of awakening, nor the mind in its inmost natural stage, etc.

Likewise, when consciousness grasps nibbāna as its object, it has no tangible sensorial perception at all. In this sense, it is comparable, but only in this sense. nibbāna is not at all the object that consciousness grasps during deep sleep, neither is it the state of consciousness experienced in deep sleep. This state of consciousness is called the life continuum that some, especially the Tibetans, mistake with an unchanging consciousness, eternal, subtle, etc. The Buddha discovered that it is not so. He discovered that this is a particular consciousness, true, but that it is still nothing else than a consciousness.

Is this field of experience always underlying within us or maybe around us, and can one practice vipassanā to perceive it more often, to approach this experience?

This experience isn't always around us, because we are conscious; there are sounds, there are sights, therefore this is not nibbāna. There is a work worthy to be done in order to reach nibbāna. It is not something that is already here but momentarily masked. nibbāna is very particular, very, very particular. What is HERE is nothing else than what you do perceive. This idea that we ponder over within ourselves and that we hardly get rid of, that there is something else, something transcendental, invisible, within phenomena is, according to the monk Gotama, completely FALSE. He said, he proclaimed: "At any given moment, there is nothing else than what you cognize." He said that in this metre-something tall body dwell the Truth of suffering, the Truth of the origin of suffering, the Truth of the cessation of suffering, and the Truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. All that WITHIN this body, WITHIN these perceptions. There is NOTHING outside, besides, or within these things here.

We just can't prevent our mind from conceiving them. This is the way it works.

Maybe one does feel secure by giving himself a different image of reality, in this way, one has the feeling of treading the right path.

Sure. The mind can't avoid conceiving this. This is the way aggregates do react with one another, their way to be indeed. In actual fact, one should not make wrong statements about spiritual masters who claim to have attained transcendental states. Indeed, those latter can't refrain from thinking this way. That's how it is! According to nature. And we, we can't avoid believing it. This is the way everything works out.

Even if we cannot avoid conceiving this unity, this essence, it does exist nowhere else save within our conceptions. In the entire sphere of our experiences, there is no "exit gateway ". According to Buddha, the world revolves in an enclosed chamber. There is NO exit door, there is no finger-hole through which the light can come.

Actually, to illustrate it a little, would it be necessary to leave all our conditionings, to leave our consciousness that solidifies all?

It's impossible! How? It is the same as if, getting into your car, you wanted to leave the world. Wherever you will proceed with your car, you'll always be on the Earth's surface, this is a sphere! You take a boat and depart for adventure, towards a new paradise... Wherever you go, you will always be on Earth because this is a sphere. In the same way, you cannot leave your conditionings. The idea of transcending them is utopia, a phantasm.

I meant, leaving these conditionings by means of certain disciplines. In that case, can one do away with all conditionings.

What are these disciplines if not precisely those conditionings at work?

But if one speaks of vipassanā or of any step to reach, to touch nibbāna, we can leave our enclosed chamber! Excuse me for being stubborn...

You're right to be so. vipassanā, or more precisely satipaṭṭhāna, is the only thing that effectively enables one to achieve the complete cessation of this mechanism.

So, is there really a way?

This is what the monk Gotama discovered, he said: "There really is a way".

The way that he originally taught, the one we still promote now a day in the theravāda tradition, is not the way of bliss, of divinity or of the essence, although he did not deny the possibility of attaining that. Moreover, he encouraged his disciples to reach those supramundane attainments. However, he said: "Beware, this is not the goal. It is right to do these things because it does yield great virtues, (there are many advantages, certainly), but do go beyond this stage". Priests, masters and gurus of all religions, at least in few of the best cases, have been self-contented with those attainments, believing to have succeeded in reaching the aim. This is rather improbable. Many only repeat what they have learnt since childhood. Ingrained in them was the belief (that they are the reincarnation of an awakened being) that they allegedly reached the attainment in a former life. Or else, by virtue of believing that nothing needs to be done, that everything is there, everything is spontaneous, everything partakes with the nature of awakening, the dog that defecates, click! It's Buddha! One can, some time, go as far as to tell oneself: " This is it, I have entered the "dance", I have attained enlightenment! "

Does one learn to cutivate more love while treading the path to nibbāna? One talks of development, realisation, accomplishment, inner blossoming, but the notion of love is important in life; to help others... On this path, one loves with an unconditional love...

This is precisely the point interesting us here.

...In failure to do so, one could believe that this is a personal quest, "I am in my little nibbāna, I am self-contented", and, why not, comprehend death in a somehow suicidal way?

It should not be seen from this perspective. This is what some people say about the members of the theravāda: "They are in their little corner, doing their own thing." The confusion started due to some monks who followed the Buddha's teaching, but reduced this teaching to what you have just said, because that is how they had understood it. Buddha always said: "You are alone, only you yourself can attain it, nobody can do it for you".

Some tell unto themselves: "Let's become monks, it is better because one has a greater purity, one will wear the robes. Then, the lay people who still have plenty of attachments, will feed us while we meditate, while we attain awakening. Thus, good karma will accrue unto them, and perhaps, they will, as a fair retribution, become monks in their next life". Unquestionably, these tendencies exist.. Those persons, precisely, followed this tendency that was qualified, in quite a fair way, of egoistic. From the beginning, they already distorted the Buddha' teaching.

Therefore, some took a legitimate step by saying: "But wait! Buddha also taught compassion, he also taught benevolence, he taught love (universal love) and you, you are at a complete deadlock high up there, you simply remain in a dry, arid vision, "pure wisdom", "instant nibbāna." etc. These monks, whom the serious monks called "hīnayāna", entrenched themselves on one side, and the others, exalted in taking the opposite step, went in the other direction, which ultimately also went a little too far. The latter are represented today by what is called "modern buddhism" or "mahayāna". Meanwhile, others, known today under the name of theravāda, kept on quietly following their own path, happily unaware, it is true, of these "small quarrels" and minor deviations. They were not unaware of them in the sense that they were not informed, they simply denounced them by saying: " We have nothing to do with those "hīnayāna", and even less with those "mahayāna". " At that time, the "hīnayāna" constituted sixteen different schools, and the "mahayāna" were called the "mahasamghika". The theravāda monks also declared: "We are neither on the rather limiting and restrictive extreme of the ones, nor on the decidedly cosmic and transcendental extreme of the others. We always remain on the line set by the monk Gotama.

For those who have already praticed vipassanā, who understand that it is necessary to remain in equanimity when vexed by sensations, to learn to accept, not to react, this is already a step taken in the way of love, in a better established kind of love.

Yes, certainly, it is something excellent. In fact, the Buddha taught meditations that allow the development of this love, of this compassion.

Thus, is the path of nibbāna encompassing the way of love?

nibbāna is beyond it, but without first passing through it, there is no chance to succeed.

The theravāda is a complete path that has preserved, well understood, completely actualised the Buddha's teachings on the way of compassion and on the way of love.

Is this an integral teaching that has not been cut out? That is not derived?

Integral! Buddha said: " It is perfect in its beginning, it is perfect in its middle, and it is perfect in its end. " This is the way he described it. Thus, there was no need to remove anything from it, and, even less, to add anything to it.

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Origin: Teaching given in France

Author: Monk Sāsana

Date: 1999

Translator: Lucy Costa

Date of translation: 2001

Update: 2005, June the 14th