(adapted and translated by Santikaro Bhikkhu)
When you hear the words "Nibbana for
everyone," many of you will shake your heads. You'll think that I'm
trying to "dye cats for sale"(1) and
probably don't have any interest in the subject. This only happens
because you understand the meaning of such words too narrowly and out
of line with the truth.
In the schools children are taught that
Nibbana (2) is the death of an
Arahant. The ordinary man in the street has been taught that it's a
special city empty of pain and chock full of the happiness of
fulfilled wishes, supposedly reached after death by those who store up
perfections (parami) over tens of thousands of lifetimes.
Modern social developers see it
as an obstruction to progress that we shouldn't get involved with or
even discuss. Students in general consider it a matter for devout old
folks at the temple with nothing of relevance for them. Young men and
women think it's bland and unexciting, awful and frightening. All the
candidates for the monkhood merely mouth without understanding the
vow, "May I go forth in order to awaken to Nibbana." The old
monks say Nibbana can't happen anymore in this day and age, and
that an Arahant cannot exist anymore either. So finally, Nibbana
has become a secret that no one cares about. They've turned it into
something barren and silent, buried away in the scriptures, to be paid
occasional service in sermons while no one really knows what it is.
In fact, without this business of Nibbana,
Buddhism would be as good as dead. When nobody is interested in
Nibbana, then nobody is genuinely interested in Buddhism. When
nothing about Nibbana interests us, then we can't get any
benefits at all from Buddhism. I feel that it's about time for us to
get interested and bring about the highest benefit, as fits the words,
"Nibbana is the Supreme Thing" — namely, the highest goal of
living things, which is always
inseparable from our daily lives.
Nibbana has nothing in the
least to do with death. The word "Nibbana" means "coolness." Back
when it was just an ordinary word that people used in their homes it
also meant "coolness." When it is used as Dhamma language, in a
religious context, it still means "coolness," but refers to the
cooling or going out of the fires of defilement (kilesa,
reactive emotions), while in the common people's usage it means the
cooling of physical fires.
Throughout the Pali scriptures, the word "Nibbana"
is never used in the sense of death. When death is discussed, the word
"marana" is used. Otherwise, the word "Parinibbana" is
used, such as when the Buddha said, "The
Parinibbana will occur three months from now.(3)
Nibbana Is One Of The Dhatus (natural
conditions). It is the coolness
remaining when the defilements — greed, anger, fear, delusion — have
ended. Two types of this element can be distinguished. In the first,
the defilements are exhausted and cooled, but the sensory system, the
organs that receive sensory stimuli aren't yet cool. In the second,
this sensory system is also cooled. A white-hot charcoal illustrates
the difference. When it first goes out, it is still too hot to be
handled. We must wait a while longer until it is cool enough to be
touched. Through the explanations of later generations the meaning of
"Nibbana" has changed to "death." Such changes and lapses are
commonplace in this world, so nowadays we Thais use the later
distorted meaning. I myself was taught this way when I was a child.
When I first became a bhikkhu, I still understood it erroneously and
passed that understanding on to my friends and students. Only when I
could study the original Pali texts for myself did I discover that
Nibbana was a whole other affair than death. Instead, it's a kind of
life that knows no death. Nibbana is the thing that sustains life,
thus preventing death. It itself can never die, although the body must
As things are, other
Indian religions contemporary with Buddhism also used the word "Nibbana."
In the Pali texts there's a passage about a Brahmin teacher named
Bavari from the area of the Godhavari River in Southern India. He sent
his sixteen students, also well-known teachers, to ask the Lord Buddha
about his version of Nibbana. Some of them may have understood Nibbana
to mean "death." In Theravada countries, this story is well known as
"the Sixteen Questions" (of the students).(4)
The point here is that the theme of
Nibbana was the highest concern of the Indian religions contemporary
with Buddhism. Further, there must have been at least one group that
interpreted it as "death" and spread its teaching in the vicinity of
"The Golden Land" (Suvarnabhumi, the ancient name of Siam)
before Buddhism arrived here. Thus, it was left behind as the general
understanding among the common folk, similar to what happened with
atta (self) and atman (soul). Now we had better return to
our examination of Nibbana as taught in Buddhism.
When Prince Siddhartha first
took up the homeless spiritual life, he wandered in search of the
Nibbana that is the total quenching of all dukkha — he wasn't looking
for death! From the famous teachers of India at that time, he learned
nothing higher than the experience of neither perception nor
non-perception (nevasanyanasanyayatana), a degree of mental
tranquility so deep that we can describe it neither as "death" nor as
"non-death." He couldn't accept this as the supreme Nibbana, so he
went off to search on his own until he discovered the Nibbana that is
the coolness remaining when the defilements have finally ended. He
called it "the end of dukkha," meaning the exhaustion of all
the heat produced by defilements. However much the defilements are
exhausted, there's that much coolness, until there is perfect coolness
due to the defilements being finished completely. In short, to the
degree that the defilements are ended, there will be that much
coolness or Nibbana. That is, Nibbana is the coolness resulting
from the quenching of defilements, whether they quench on their
own or someone quenches them through Dhamma practice. Whenever the
defilements are quenched, then there is the thing called "Nibbana,"
always with the same meaning — coolness.
Next, notice that the defilements are concocted
things (sankharadhammas) that arise and pass away. As it says
in the Pali,
Yankinci samudayadhammam sabbantam nirodhadhammam.
(Whatever things originate, all those will cease.)
Any reactive emotion that
arises ceases when its causes and conditions are finished. Although it
may be a temporary quenching, merely a temporary coolness, it still
means Nibbana, even if only temporarily. Thus, there's a temporary
Nibbana for those who still can't avoid some defilements. This indeed
is the temporary Nibbana that sustains the lives of beings who are
still hanging onto defilement. Anyone can see that if the egoistic
emotions exist night and day without any pause or rest, no life could
endure it. If it didn't die, it would go crazy and then die in the
end. You ought to consider carefully the fact that life can survive
only because there are periods when the defilements don't roast it,
which, in fact, outnumber the times when the defilements blaze.
These periodic Nibbanas
sustain life for all of us, without excepting even animals, which
have their levels of Nibbana, too. We are able to survive because this
kind of Nibbana nurtures us, until it becomes the most ordinary habit
of life and of the mind. Whenever there is freedom from defilement,
then there is the value and meaning of Nibbana. This must occur fairly
often for living things to survive. That we have some time to relax
both bodily and mentally provides us with the freshness and vitality
needed to live.
Why don't we understand and feel thankful for this kind of Nibbana at
least a little bit? We're lucky that the instincts can manage by
themselves. Conscious beings naturally search for periods that are
free from craving, thirst, and egoism. We might call this natural urge
"the Nibbana instinct." If there is unremitting thirst, life must die.
Thus, infants know how to suck the breast and mosquitoes know how to
buzz around sucking blood to sustain their lives until they are
slapped to death. Our instincts have this virtue built in: they search
for periods of time sufficiently free from defilement or free from
thirst to maintain life. Whenever there is freedom and voidness there
is always this little Nibbana, until we know how to make it into the
lasting or perfect Nibbana of the Arahant. It isn't death, but rather
is deathlessness, in particular, spiritual deathlessness. If anyone
sees this fact, they'll personally experience that we can survive only
through this kind of Nibbana. We don't survive just because of that
rice and food that so infatuate people. We realize that everybody must
have this thing called "Nibbana" and must depend on it as their lives'
sustenance. So who can object to us talking about "Nibbana for
In order to better understand
the meaning of the word "Nibbana," we ought to look at it from the
perspective of linguistics. A material sense of the word is found in
the phrase "pajjotasseva nibbanam" This "nibbana" refers
to the ordinary quenching of a lamp, and more broadly to any source of
heat or fire. When the rice porridge is still hot, the cook yells out
from the kitchen, "wait a moment, let it nibbana first." When
the goldsmith melts down gold and pours it into a mold, he sprinkles
water on it to cool it down. The word used in Pali here is "nibbapeyya,"
to first make it nibbana or cool before working it into some
shape or form.
Even the wild animals that are
captured from the jungle and tamed like pussycats are said to have
been "nibbana-ed." Sensual pleasures cool down foolish people
in a way appropriate for them. Unwavering concentration on material
forms (rupajhanas) brings coolness free from those fires of
sensuality. Although temporary, these absorptions (jhanas) are
certain levels of Nibbana, also. The "experience of nothingness" (akincanyayatana)
and the other formless absorptions (arupajhanas) bring levels
of coolness free from the fires that arises out of attractive material
things. Nibbana due to the ending of all defilements brings the final
coolness that is the ultimate in all respects.
Certain groups of teachers have
come up with the word "sivamokkha-mahanibbana," which they
explain as some kind of town or city. Although no one can make any
sense of it, they keep it around for people to bow to when this
strange word is declaimed from the pulpits of their run of the mill
There is also the word "nibbuti,"
meaning an ethical level of Nibbana. It refers to a cool heart and
cool life such as that which impressed a young woman on seeing Prince
Siddhartha. She exclaimed, "Whoever's son this gentleman is, his
mother and father are nibbuta (that is, cool); whoever's
husband he is, that woman is nibbuta (once again, cool)." Such
examples have the meaning of Nibbana, also. Nowadays the monks in
Thailand chant the benefits of ethical behavior with "silena
nibbutim yanti," which means nibbuti is achieved through
healthy morality (sila). This comes after the lesser benefits
of ethical living, such as acquisition of wealth and attaining happy
births (sugati). The purpose here is for Nibbana to have a
place in ordinary daily life.
This coolness of
heart and peace of mind that everyone desires is the meaning of
Nibbana. However, people
misunderstand it and aim only for sex, which is hot stuff. Thus, they
get a deceptive Nibbana. People have clung to such an interpretation
since, or even before, the Buddha's time, such as can be found among
the sixty-two wrong views listed in the
Please consider the history and
basic meaning of the word "Nibbana." In all cases it points to
coolness of heart and mind, according to the higher or lower awareness
of each person. The essential meaning, however, is always in the
nurturing and sustaining of life. It lessens the time when fires burn
the mind just enough for us to survive and eventually develops to the
highest level, which absolutely quenches all fires. The highest degree
of realization in Buddhism, according to the Buddha, is the end of
lust, the end of hatred, and the end of delusion, which is the final
quenching of all fires and the coolest coolness that life can be.
Nibbana is not the
mind, but is something that the mind can experience,
or, as the Buddha put it, is a certain ayatana that wisdom can
experience. Forms, sounds, odors, flavors, and tactile sensations are
material or physical ayatana, things the body can experience.
The formless absorptions from the experience of endless space (akasanancayatana)
up to and including the experience of neither perception nor
non-perception (nevasanyanasanyayatana) are
that the mind can experience.(6)
Then, Nibbana is a spiritual ayatana
for mindfulness and wisdom to experience and realize. We should
consider it something that Nature has provided for the highest level
of humanity. We ought to know it so that Nibbana and our lives are not
in vain. Every one of us has mindfulness and wisdom in order to touch
Nibbana. Don't let it go to waste!
The Nibbana-element exists
naturally so that Nibbana will be realized, like a precious
medicine which ends all dukkha. There is the dukkha or disease which
ordinary medicines cannot cure, namely, the disease of defilement that
must be cured by the extinction of defilements, through which this
nibbana-dhatu is realized. This highest spiritual illness lies
deeply hidden in us and torments us secretly. Anyone who can quench it
has reached the pinnacle of being human.
The words "there is no Nibbana"
are more wrong than wrong can be because the nibbana-element
exists naturally, everywhere, always, only nobody is interested enough
to find it. The Lord Buddha discovered and revealed it to us through
his enormous compassion, but we cut the story short thinking that in
this era there is no Nibbana anymore, when we should instead say that
nobody understands it or is interested in it. Merely by becoming
proper followers of the Buddha, Nibbana will appear. It is already
waiting for people to find it.
We cannot create Nibbana
because it is beyond all causes and conditions. Nevertheless, we can
create the conditions for realizing Nibbana, namely, all actions which
lead to the abandonment of the defilements. We won't claim, as some
do, that "doing good is a condition for Nibbana." Condition (paccaya)
implies causal necessity, but there is nothing which has such power
over Nibbana. The right words are "doing good is a condition for
realizing Nibbana," which can be done in any age or period. Old folks
like the words "Stairway to Nibbana" because they think it is a place
or city, which is what they have been taught. Still, it is an
acceptable enough phrase, meaning simply "supporting conditions for
the realization of Nibbana."
There are dozens of
synonyms for Nibbana, for
example, the Deathless, Permanence, Peace, Safety, Health,
Diseaselessness, Freedom, Emancipation, Shelter, Refuge, Immunity,
Island (for those fallen into water), Highest Benefit, Supreme Joy,
Other Shore, That Which Should Be Reached, and the End of Concocting.
All of these are thoroughly cool, because there aren't any fires to
make them hot. Peaceful coolness is their meaning or value;
unfortunately, it is a value too subtle to interest people who are
still overly enveloped by selfishness. When brushing aside the
defilements for the first time, you will certainly be delighted by
Nibbana more than anything ever before. This is available to and
possible for everyone. May we take the word "coolness" as the supreme
The expression that
best conveys the meaning of Nibbana is "the end of dukkha."
Although the Buddha used this term,
it's of no interest for those people who feel that they don't have any
dukkha or suffering. They don't feel they have dukkha: they just want
the things they want and think there isn't any dukkha to quench.
Consequently, they don't care about quenching dukkha or about the end
of dukkha. Even a large number of the many foreigners who come to Suan
Mokkh feel this way. However, once we tell them there is a new life,
or quenching of thirst, or life which is beyond positive and negative,
they really start to get interested. This is the difficulty of
language, which we nonetheless must use to get people interested in
Nibbana. For each person, there must be one translation of the word
"Nibbana" especially for that person. This is no minor difficulty. Yet
deep down, without being conscious of or having any intention toward
it, everyone wants Nibbana if only through the power of instinct.
The study of Nibbana in
daily life is possible in order to have a better understanding of
and a greater interest in Nibbana's meaning. When seeing a fire go out
or something hot cooling down, look for the meaning of Nibbana in it.
When bathing or drinking ice water, when a breeze blows or rain falls,
take notice of the meaning of Nibbana. When a fever subsides, a
swelling goes down, or a headache goes away, recognize the meaning of
Nibbana as found in those things. When perspiring, sleeping
comfortably, or eating one's fill, see the meaning of Nibbana. When
seeing an animal with all its fierceness and danger tamed away, see
the meaning of Nibbana. All of these are lessons to help us understand
the nature of Nibbana in every moment. The mind will regularly incline
towards contentment in Nibbana and this helps the mind to flow more
easily along the path of Nibbana.
Whenever you find coolness in
your experience, mark that coolness firmly in your heart, and breathe
out and in. Breathing in is cool, breathing out is cool. In cool, out
cool — do this for a little while. This is an excellent lesson that
will help you to become a Lover of Nibbana (Nibbanakamo)
more quickly. The instincts will develop in an enlightened (bodhi)
way more than if you don't practice like this. Natural Nibbana — the
unconscious quenching of defilement — will occur more often and
easily. This is the best way to help nature.
In conclusion, Nibbana is
not death. Rather, it is the coolness and deathlessness that is
full of life. In the Pali scriptures, the word "Nibbana" is never used
regarding death. Nibbana is a natural element always ready to make
contact with the mind in the sense of being one kind of ayatana
(sensible thing). If there were no Nibbana, Buddhism would have no
meaning. The genuine kind of Nibbana, different from the Nibbana of
other sects, was discovered by the Buddha. Natural Nibbana can happen
simply because the defilements arise and end naturally because they
are just another kind of concocted nature. Every time the defilements
don't appear, Nibbana becomes apparent to the mind. This kind of
Nibbana nourishes the lives of living things so they survive and don't
go crazy. At least, it lets us sleep at night. Nibbana isn't any kind
of special city anywhere. It is in the mind that is now void of
besieging defilements. For the morality of ordinary people at home,
its name is "nibbuti." Nibbana isn't the mind, but it appears
to the mind as a certain ayatana. We can experience Nibbana
here and now by breathing in cool and breathing out cool. It is the
automatic quenching of heat, of thirst, of dukkha in ordinary life,
even without our being conscious of it. It is the eternal nourishment
and sustenance of life.
I hope that you all will begin
to know that "Nibbana for everyone" isn't just "dyeing cats for sale,"
but is the genuine cat for catching rats — that is, dukkha and anxiety
— according to the mindfulness and wisdom of each person!
Nibbana 1. "Dyeing cats for sale"
is a Thai expression similar to "window dressing," to dress up
something shabby and inferior in order to trick the customer into
Nibbana 2. Arahant, "Worthy Ones,"
have seen through ignorance, transcended self-centeredness, and are
released from all suffering. "Nirvana" is the Sanskrit equivalent of
Nibbana 3. Mahaparinibbana Sutta,
Nibbana 4. The Solasapanha make up
the final chapter, Parayana-vagga, of the Sutta-nipata,
Khuddaka-nikaya. In many of the verses, the Buddha emphasizes
conquering and going beyond death. He never speaks of seeking death as
some kind of salvation or end of suffering.
Nibbana 5. Digha-nikaya (Long
Discourses), Sutta #1.
Here, Ajarn Buddhadasa does not imply
that these refined meditative states are necessary attainments.
Rather, he is using the traditional terminology to illustrate how the
flavor of coolness pervades all the Dhamma teachings and is therefore
immediately available to us all.
First electronic edition: September 1996
Transcribed and proofread: Scott Oser <email@example.com>
Final editing by Santikaro Bhikkhu