Is Nirvana a transcendental metaphysical reality?
Ven. Kirinde Chandananda Thera
University of Peradeniya
Nibbana or Nirvana is the term used in the system of Buddhist
thought to denote the Sammum bonum attained through the realization
of the reality of the world. The places in which the state of the
Nibbana is interpreted are mostly regarded as the terms which connote
the negative sense, such as “nirodha”, ragakkhaya dosakkhaya
On the basis of these connotations some scholars say that the Nibbana
is indicating some pessimistic idea. Ven, Walpola Rahula
explained these misinterpreted terms by saying that the negative
words do not always mean some negative view. He cites the etymological
illustration of the word “Arogya” though it is a negative but
means positive state.
As a religious concept the Nirvana has been a theme of many
debates in academic field. Some argue that it is a nihilism of being.
But according to the teaching of the Buddha there is no so-called
being to be annihilated.
Let us examine what is the nature of Nirvana and how should we
realize it as an ultimate religious experience.
In His first sermon to the world the Buddha referred to His realization
in the following words: “Pubbe ananussutesu dhammesa
cakkhum udapadi nanom udapadi, panna udapadi, vijja udapadi,
aloko udapadi (there arose eye, knowledge, wisdom, science and
light with regard to the phenomena unheard of earlier. In this statement
the Buddha uses a series of cognitive terms to describe the
vision he realized) The path to arahanthood has been elaborated in the discourses. The Buddhist path to purification begins with morality (sila) and goes through the stage if development of the moral qualities of mind along with its concentration (samadhi) and finally culminates in wisdom
(panna). In the second stage one starts cultivating one’s mind. The
key elements of this process are abandoning what are called five hindrances (nivarana) and generating the advanced states of mind
called absorptions (Jhana). In the jhanic states gradually one’s mind
gets directed to itself and the connections with external world
becomes less and less. The Samanaphala sutta of the Dighanikaya
elaborates this stage of process in the following manner:
“...Then he, equipped with Aryan morality, with his Aryan
restraint of senses, with his Aryan contentment, finds a solitary lodging
at the root of a forest tree... and concentrates on keeping mindfulness
established before him. He enters first, second, third and
fourth jhanas. He enters and remains in first jhana which is with
thinking and pondering, born of detachment filled with delight and
joy. And with this joy and delight born of detachment, he so suffuses,
drenches, fills and irradiates his body that there is no spot in his
entire body that is untouched by his delight and joy born of detachment.
In this manner all jhanas are described. It is mentioned in the
second jhana that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched
by his delight and joy born of detachment. In the third jhana he experiences the equanimity and mindfulness. In the fourth jhana it is said
that it is beyond pleasure and pain. However, what is striking in these
accounts is that there is no mysticism in the whole process for they
are characterized by the clarity of mind.
The Buddhist tradition also refers to four other stages of jhana
which are called “formless” (Arupa jhana) They have been
described in many discourses in the following manner:
Sense reactions Through the total overcoming of the perception of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense reactions and the non-attention to the perceptions of variety, with the idea “Boundless is space”
he reaches the sphere of boundless space (Akasanancayatana) and
abides therein. Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless
space and with the idea “Boundless is consciousness he reaches
the sphere of boundless consciousness (Vinnanancayatana) and
abides therein through the total overcoming of the sphere of nothingness,
he reaches the sphere of neither-perception nor Non-perception
(nevasannanasannayatana) and abides therein.
The account of finer states of jhana shows that they result from the
gradual isolation of mind from the external world. Even in the fourth
stage the mind is not totally devoid of perceptions, but they are
almost absent in it. These states cannot be described as mystical or
transcendental for they are nothing other than what has been
described. The culmination of the trend of isolating the mind from
perception is the attainment of cessation (nirodha samapatti). It is a
temporary stopping of all sensory avenues including mind. The
resultant state is characterized by the complete cessation of any form
of conscious existence. In this state one is characterized by total
nothingness. Even in this state there is nothing mystical because
there is nothing either mystical or non-mystical.
The final stage is wisdom in the path to purification. As it is mentioned
in the suttas it is also a gradual process of experiencing the
truth. The samannaphala sutta describes it in the following manner:
“...And he, with mind concentrated, purified and cleaned,
unblemished, free from impurities, malleable, workable and established
applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of the destruction
of the corruptions. He knows it is suffering.
He knows this is the origin of the corruptions”, “this is the cessation
of the corruptions” and “this is the path leading to the cessation
of the corruptions”. Through his knowledge and seeing (tassa evan
janato evam passato) his mind is delivered from the corruptions of
sense desires, from the corruption of becoming, from the corruption
of ignorance and the knowledge arises in him. “This is deliverance”
and he knows “Birth is finished, the holy life has been led and done is
what had to be done, there is nothing further here”.
The actual occasion of becoming an arahant and realizing Nirvana
occurs on the realization of the knowledge of the destruction of the
defilements. The unmystical character of the stage of realization is
emphasized in the discourse through the following simile.
Just as if, in the midst of the mountains there were a pond, clear as
a polished mirror, where a man with a good eyesight standing on the
bank could see oyster-shells, gravel banks and shoals of fish on the
move or stationary and he might think “this pond is clear..... there are
oyste-shells....just so with mind concentrated, he knows “Birth is
finished, the holy life has been led, done is what had to be done, there
is nothing further here, (this is a fruit of the homeless life visible here
This simile makes it very clear that the final stage of the process
purification is wholly unmystrical and does not refer to any transcendental
phenomenon. This very process concludes that Nirvana
is not a transcendental phenomenon which lies beyond human cognitive
capacity. Nor does it indicate any transcendental reality similar
to Atman/Brahman which is the negation of reality that alone can
allegedly be described by language and therefore Nirvana or the
Buddhist enlightenment is not ineffable.
In the discourses themselves we find statements which could be
used as supporting a transcendental interpretation of Nirvana. One
of such well-known instances occurs in the udana, in which the Buddha
points out the nature of Nirvana as if in forms of metaphysical
The Buddha explains:
“There is that sphere wherein is neither earth nor water nor fire nor
air wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space, nor of infinite consciousness, nor of nothingness nor of neither perception - nor nonperception wherein there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor
both together, nor moon nor sun, this I say is free from coming and
going, from duration and departure there is no establishment, no continuation, this indeed is the end of suffering”.
“Monks, there is a not born, not-become, not-made, not compounded.
If that not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded
were not, no escape from the born become made compounded had
been known here. But monks since there is a not-born, not-become,
not-made, not compounded, therefore an escape from the born,
become made, compounded is known.
The first passage talks about a sphere which does not involve any
of the characteristics of the world we ordinarily experience. The language
used suggests that what is described is a place or some sort of
entity. The next passage seems to say that there is what is not born,
not become, not made and not compounded. There is another statement
in udana which says that “just as the ocean does not shrink or
overflow” even so, though many monks attain parinibbana in that
condition of nibbana without any attachment left. Yet there is neither
shrinking nor overflow seen in that condition of nirvana.
However, it is possible to interpret these passages as referring to
the nature of nirvanic experience which is opposite to the nature of
the ordinary experience. Although these passages indicate some sort
of transcendental position, they deffer from the transcendentalism
that other religions put forward. In the case of other religions they
first believe this material world as the world and then seek for another
world that transcends this world. But according to the Buddha
everything is restricted into the five aggregates. In other words, there
is no so-called world to transcend. In that sense the Buddhist ultimate
experience is neither transcendental nor non-transcendental.
The Buddha’s rejection of the four propositions regarding the
arhant would illustrate the situation further. In the Aggivaccagotta
sutta a dialogue relevant to this point occurs between the Buddha and
Vaccagotta. Vaccagotta asks the Buddha about the possibility of the
post-mortem existence of the arahant. The Buddha replies to him
saying that the arahant cannot be described as existing, not existing,
both existing and not existing or neither existing nor not existing. In
this reply the Buddha rejects all the four logical alternatives. The
argument is that if anything can be said, it must be said by means of
any one of the above four alternatives. If all the four are inapplicable
then no language can describe the status of the arahant after his death.
The Buddha explains why the four positions are not relevant to the
arahant. He takes the fire that was burning in front of them as an
example and asks Vaccagotta whether it is proper to ask where the
fire has gone once it extinguishes. Vaccagotta admits that such a
question was not proper. The Buddha says that fire which was burning
owing to some causes such as fuel gets extinguished once the
causes are removed. There does not arise a question as to where the
fire has gone. In like manner the Buddha said the arahant has totally
destroyed all the five aggregates with which one could speak of him.
The Buddha further explains the status of such an arahant as “gambhiro
appameyyo duppariyogaho seyyatapi mahasamuddo” deep,
immeasurable, unfathomable, like the great ocean.
There is a similar statement in the suttanipata which describes the
state of the arahant in the following manner.
Attamgatassa na pamanam atthi
yena nam vajju tam tassa natthi
sabbesu dhammesu samuhatesu
Samuhata vadapatapi sabbeti
“The person who has attained it does not have a measure’, he does
not have that with which one can speak of him when all the phenomena
are totally destroyed all the ways of speech too are destroyed”.
In this explanation the idea that the arahant does not have any of the
aggregates with which one can speak of him leaves open the possibility
that he can still have some form of existence in the absence of
the five aggregates. This kind of interpretation is supported by the
subsequent statement which compares the arahant to the great ocean,
which is immeasurable and unfathomable. K.N. Jayatilleke in interpreting
these passages says”, The transempirical cannot be empirically
described or understood but can be realized and attained”.
However the resultant picture of Nirvana is that it is a sublime state
of mind and that it manifests in the experience as purity of defilements
and liberation from bonds.
Buddhism does not have concept of transcendence similar to that
of theistic religions or so-called monistic religions such as advaita
vedanta. What the transcendence Buddhism talks about is a result of
mental development. The enlightened person has been described as
one who is born and brought up in the world but lives in it without getting
smeared by its defilements. The mind of such a person may be
unfathomable like the great ocean by an ordinary mind. But it cannot
mean that the arahant enters a transcendental reality after his attainment
The empirical schools have attempted to understand nirvana as an
empirical reality. However, we can exclude the attribution of the
transcendentality from the ultimate experience without allocating
the nirvana to an empirical reality. Because when we say that the nirvana
can be experienced, many subsequent questions can be raised
as to on what sense they experience it, who is experiencing it.
It is true that the Buddha and arahants have described the nature and
the characleristics of nirvana by means of words. But they do not say
that nirvana can be expressed by using words in order to be convinced
of its nature. If the listener is an ordinary person he would never
understand the nature of nirvana expressed either by the Buddha or
by an arahant.
That is because of the lack of the cognitive capacity of the person
to grasp the meaning of it. In other words and ordinary person always
seeks to grasp anything as conception. We should remember that the
Buddha said that to grasp something as “is” or “is not” is the tendency
of the world. (Dvayanissitayam loko atthitamca natthitamca)
On the other hand, we should remember that although the Buddha
and arahants make use of conception in order to convince the dhamma
to others they do not do it dogmatically. It can be seen obviously
in Mulapariyaya sutta how the Buddha and arahants conceive the
It is said that they conceive it with direct knowledge (abhijanati)
while others merely conceive and delight in it.
In essence nibbana is transcendent as long as we realize it, as a fish
thinks that the land is beyond his world. But we cannot say that nibbana
that has been attained by the Buddha or by arahant is transcendental
as it is neither a transcendent nor non-transcendent for them.