This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Nibbana

Nibbana (Nirvana) is a term that became known in the West even before Buddhism itself, and this has unfortunately let to misconceptions about its meaning. It is the final goal of the Buddhist, and is roughly equivalent to the Moksha of the Brahman. The first of these misconceptions was that Nibbana was a state to be reached after death. On the contrary, the attainment of states in Buddhism is something that happens in the midst of the stream of Becoming and does not depend on any discontinuities or changes of state in order to become realized.

In the Milinda Panha, Nibbana is a “glorious city, stainless and undefiled, pure and white, ageless, deathless, secure, calm and happy,” but it is a city not situated in any place, not in this world or any other:

“There is no spot, O king, East, South, West or North, above, below or beyond, where Nibbana is situated, and yet Nibbana is; and he who orders his life aright, grounded in virtue, and with rational attention, may realize it, whether he live in Greece, China, Alexandria, or in Kosala.”

Nibbana is not what happens when a ‘soul’ dies and presents itself before God in a last judgement: Nibbana is preached so that it may be realized here and now. It was attained by the Buddha before he began his ministry and by numerous Arahats after him. The Fruit of the Fourth path is to be tasted in life, this one or another, but it is not a judgement.

We said above that those who are free from the first five fetters are Arahats, and these can be called adepts; the state of adeptship is called Arahatta.

“Lord, he who is Arahant, who…has won his own salvation, has utterly destroyed the fetters of becoming, who is by perfect wisdom emancipate, to him there does not occur the thought that any are better than I, or equal to me, or less than I.” To which Gautama replied, “men of the true stamp declare the gnosis they have attained; they tell what they have gained (attha), but do not speak of I (atta).”[1]

Perhaps another point worth mentioning is that in the Psalms of the Brethren the joy is not for the future, for a salvation that is looked forward to in the life to come: it is a now and is neither increased nor diminished by the prospect of any posthumous condition. It is what it is and the Buddhist salvation is experienced in its plenitude or it is not experienced at all.

There are other terms that seem almost synonymous with Nibbana, but are sometimes employed with a nuance. There is vimutti, which is the closest to the Western term ‘Salvation.’ To attain Salvation is to achieve the ethical extinction and the psychological aspect that follows.

Here we find the Eight Stations of Deliverance:

  1. Having oneself external form, one sees forms.
  2. Unaware of one’s own external form, one sees forms external to oneself.
  3. Aesthetic hypnosis.
  4. Abiding in the sphere of space regarded as infinite.
  5. Abiding in the sphere of cognition regarded as infinite.
  6. Abiding in the sphere of nothingness.
  7. Abiding in the sphere of neither ideation nor non-ideation.
  8. Abiding in the state where both sensations and ideas have ceased to be.[2]

The reader should note that stations 4-7 coincide with the Four Arupa Jhanas by which the Formless heavens, the Brahma-lokas, are attained.

[1] Anguttara Nakaya, iii, 359.

[2] Maha Nidana Sutta, 35; Mahaparinibbana Sutta, 33.

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