Also see:

The Meaning of Nirvana
Great Resource of Buddha's Teachings
What is Nirvana?


From a post I wrote years ago:
 
Hi Justin Struble we have to be very careful in interpreting that Nibbana sutta. First of all we have to understand what 'Nirvana/Nibbana' means in context. As Ven Hui-feng puts it, "keep in mind the basic metaphorical meaning of the term nirvana, the extinguishing of a flame". The main analogy given by Buddha for nirvana is the extinguishing of a flame. As Ven Nanananda also pointed out,

"Regarding this concept of Nibbàna too, the worldling is generally tempted to entertain some kind of ma¤¤anà, or me-thinking. Even some philosophers are prone to that habit. They indulge in some sort of prolific conceptualisation and me-thinking on the basis of such conventional usages as `in Nib­bàna', `from Nibbàna', `on reaching Nibbàna' and `my Nib­bàna'. By hypostasizing Nibbàna they de­velop a substance view, even of this concept, just as in the case of pañhavi, or earth. Let us now try to determine whether this is justifi­able.

The primary sense of the word Nibbàna is `extinction', or `extin­guishment'. We have already discussed this point with reference to such contexts as Aggivacchagottasutta.[8] In that dis­course the Bud­dha explained the term Nibbàna to the wan­dering ascetic Vaccha­got­ta with the help of a simile of the ex­tinction of a fire. Simply be­cause a fire is said to go out, one should not try to trace it, wondering where it has gone. The term Nibbàna is essentially a verbal noun. We also came across the phrase nibbuto tveva saïkhaü gacchati, "it is reck­oned as `extinguished'".[9]"

Extinction of what? Extinction of passion, aggression and delusion driving the whole mass of samsara. Extinction of the the whole mass of suffering/samsara in the twelve links from ignorance up to old age, sickness and death.

Next is the terms 'unconditioned/death-free/etc' it is very easy to reify this in terms of a metaphysical entity. This is not the case.

Here are some quotations which should hopefully clarify:

Nana/Geoff: "“Firstly, while the translation of asaṃskṛta as “the unconditioned” is fairly common, it’s a rather poor translation that all too easily leads to reification. The term asaṃskṛta refers to a negation of conditioned factors, and the meaning is better conveyed by “not-conditioned.” Secondly, for Sautrāntika commentators, and many mahāyānika commentators as well, an analytical cessation (pratisaṃkhyānirodha) is a non-implicative negation (prasajyapratiṣedha), i.e. a negation that doesn’t imply the presence of some other entity, and therefore nirvāṇa simply refers to a cessation that terminates the defilements and fetters that are abandoned by the correct practice of the noble path. It doesn’t refer to an entity or state that is substantially existent (dravyasat).” "

Nana/Geoff: "One has to be careful with such descriptions which may seem to be pointing to some sort of truly existent "unconditioned ground." Nibbāna is the extinguishment of the mental outflows (āsavā). The liberated mind is measureless (appamāṇa). This is not a "state of oneness with all of existence." It's an absence of identification (anattatā). It's non-indicative (anidassana), unestablished (appatiṭṭha), and not-dependent (anissita). None of these adjectives entail any sort of metaphysical "ground of being" or "unconditioned absolute." They are all negations. An arahant has simply "gone out."

tiltbillings: "There is no "deathless." That is a bad translation leading to an objectification/reification of the idea of awakening. With awakening, there is no more rebirth, one is free from death. (31 words.)""

Loppon Namdrol/Malcolm: “When you have eradicated all afflictions which cause rebirth, this is all the deathlessness you need. No more birth, BAM! no more death.”

Buddha: "And what, monks, is the not-fabricated (asaṅkhata)? The elimination of passion, the elimination of aggression, the elimination of delusion: this is called the not-fabricated. " .... "And what, monks, is the death-free (amata)? The elimination of passion, the elimination of aggression, the elimination of delusion: this is called the death-free." - SN 43 Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta - more in http://measurelessmind.ca/pariyosana.html

I can provide many more quotations but this will suffice for now, I think. Nirvana is extinction, like the blowing out of a flame, it is simply and merely the end of suffering and afflictions and does not imply a metaphysical substantial existent as some may postulate. There is no "The Unconditioned" or "The Unborn" or "The Deathless" as some sort of metaphysical essence. There is an unconditioned dharma - analytical cessation (nirvana) - that is the end of birth and death (death-free), is not conditioned (by afflictive causes and manifestations) etc.

All these are classic Nirvana stuff found in the earliest teachings in Pali suttas. In Mahayana emptiness, there is another understanding of "unconditioned" and that is as what Kyle said which I find to be very well said:

"The unconditioned is the emptiness of the skandhas.

Recognition of the emptiness of the skandhas means that the skandhas are non-arisen, what has not arisen cannot be conditioned."

In any case, whether the classical nirvana understanding of the earliest text, or the emptiness understanding of unconditioned/non-arisen, there is no postulating of a truly existing metaphysical essence.




For a more experiential description on what Nibbana is and the relation to the recognition of anatta (selflessness) do refer to the articles I pasted in Great Resource of Buddha's Teachings


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Soh:
The understanding of Nirvana in the different schools of Buddhism

Just saw Geoff (nana/jnana) wrote a great informative post explaining the different understanding of Nirvana in the various Hinayana or Mahayana traditions of Buddhism:

"For the Theravāda, nibbāna is an ultimately real dhamma (paramatthadhamma) and the only dhamma that is not conditioned (asaṅkhata). It is an object of supramundane cognition (lokuttaracitta) and is included in the mental phenomena sensory sphere (dhammāyatana) and the mental phenomena component (dhammadhātu). The four paths, four fruits, and nibbāna are classified as the unincluded level (apariyāpanna bhūmi), that is, not included in the sensual realm, the form realm, or the formless realm. According to the Visuddhimagga, nibbāna "has peace as its characteristic. Its function is not to die; or its function is to comfort. It is manifested as the signless; or it is manifested as non-diversification (nippapañca)."

According to the Sarvāstivāda, nirvāṇa is an analytical cessation (pratisaṃkhyānirodha) that is a disjunction from impure dharmas that occurs through analysis (pratisaṃkhyāna), which is a specific type of discernment (prajñā). This analytical cessation is substantially existent (dravyasat) and ultimately exists (paramārthasat).

For Sautrāntika commentators nirvāṇa as an analytical cessation (pratisaṃkhyānirodha) is a merely a conceptual designation (prajñapti) and doesn't refer to an entity or state that is substantially existent (dravyasat). It is a non-implicative negation (prasajyapratiṣedha), that is, a negation that doesn't imply the presence of some other entity. Therefore nirvāṇa simply refers to a cessation that is the termination of defilements that are abandoned by the correct practice of the noble path.

According to the Yogācāra, for those on the bodhisattva path, nirvāṇa is non-abiding (apratiṣṭha nirvāṇa). The dependent nature (paratantrasvabhāva) is the basis (āśraya) of both defilement and purification. The all-basis consciousness (ālayavijñāna) is the defiled portion (saṃkleśabhāga) of the dependent nature. Purified suchness (viśuddhā tathatā) is the purified portion (vyavadānabhāga) of the dependent nature. Synonyms for purified suchness are the perfected nature (pariniṣpanna) and non-abiding nirvāṇa. Non-abiding nirvāṇa is the revolved basis (āśrayaparāvṛtti) that has eliminated defilements without abandoning saṃsāra.

Madhyamaka authors accept the notion of non-abiding nirvāṇa, but they don't use the three natures model used by the Yogācāra. Rather, they simply consider all things to be conceptual designations (prajñapti) that are empty of nature (svabhāva). For them, conceptual designations are relative truth (saṃvṛtisatya) and only emptiness is ultimate truth (paramārthasatya).

Zen, Pure Land, Vajrayāna, etc., are practice traditions more so than doctrinal schools, and authors writing from any of these perspectives would generally rely on Yogācāra or Madhyamaka śāstras or a specific Mahāyāna sūtra."

Dmytro asked: "Hi Ñāṇa,

And how you would put the Buddha's description of Nibbana in relation to said above?"

Geoff replied: "Given the definition given in SN 38.1, SN 43.1-44, and Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga 184, I would say that it's a designation (paññatti, prajñapti) referring to the elimination of passion, aggression, and delusion. Or with regard to the four paths (stream-entry, etc.), a designation referring to the elimination of fetters terminated by each path. This is similar to the Sautrāntika interpretation."

I concur. Sautrantika has the closest understanding of Nirvana to the original teachings of Buddha, which I shall elaborate in the comments section.
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Soh: Some weeks ago I also wrote something elsewhere:

"Nagarjuna wrote in his seventy verses that rejected Nirvana as a true existence or as the annihilation of a real being or entity: #24.
Opponent: If there is no origination and cessation, then to the cessation of what is nirvana due? Reply: Is not liberation this: that by nature nothing arises and ceases?
.
#25.
If nirvana [resulted] from cessation, [then there would be] destruction. If the contrary, [there would be] permanence. Therefore it is not logical that nirvana is being or non-being."

Not only does the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñapāramitā Sutra talk about Nirvana as illusory, the Samadhiraja Sutra also says 'The ultimate truth is like a dream; And nirvana is similarly like a dream. The wise take them that way And this is the supreme discipline of mind" and "When the bodhisattva addresses these things: The truth of cessation is like a dream, Nirvana also is essentially a dream; That is called the discipline of speech."

Some Theravadins have a slightly eternalistic interpretation of Nibbana. In the past, the Sautrantika (which was even much more popular than Theravada until it died out in India along with the whole of Buddhism in general, leaving Theravada in other countries like Sri Lanka etc) which follows the Buddha's teachings or suttas more to the letter would strictly define nirvana in terms of cessation or elimination of fetters. Which is what the Buddha taught that Nirvana is. An eternalistic interpretation of Nirvana as some ultimately existing reality has no basis at all in the Pali canon/Buddha's words which clearly defined in so many instances that Nirvana, not-conditioned, not-born, death-free and so on are simply synonyms for the "elimination of passion, aggression and delusion". (reference: http://sgforums.com/forums/1728/topics/447451)

The analogy given by the Buddha on Nirvana is a fire going out - and Nirvana simply means cessation, termination, gone out, etc. And with cessation there is no remainder of any kind of being or existence, nor could it be understood in terms of non-being, both or neither.

"Even in the Vedic period there was the dilemma between `be­ing' and `non-being'. They won­dered whether being came out of non-being, or non-being came out of being. Katham asataþ sat jàyeta, "How could being come out of non-being?"[23] In the face of this di­lemma regarding the first be­ginnings, they were some­times forced to conclude that there was neither non-being nor being at the start, nàsadàsãt no sadàsãt tadànãm.[24] Or else in the confusion they would sometimes leave the matter unsolved, say­ing that perhaps only the creator knew about it.

All this shows what a lot of confusion these two words sat and asat, being and non-being, had created for the philosophers. It was only the Buddha who presented a perfect solution, after a complete reappraisal of the whole problem of existence. He pointed out that existence is a fire kept up by the fuel of grasp­ing, so much so that, when grasping ceases, existence ceases as well.

In fact the fire simile holds the answer to the tetralemma in­cluded among the ten unexplained points very often found men­tioned in the suttas. It concerns the state of the Tathàgata after death, whether he exists, does not exist, both or neither. The presumption of the ques­tioner is that one or the other of these four must be and could be an­swered in the affirmative.

The Buddha solves or dissolves this presumptuous tetra­lemma by bringing in the fire simile. He points out that when a fire goes out with the exhaustion of the fuel, it is absurd to ask in which direction the fire has gone. All that one can say about it, is that the fire has gone out: Nibbuto tveva saïkhaü gacchati, "it comes to be reckoned as `gone out'."[25]

It is just a reckoning, an idiom, a worldly usage, which is not to be taken too literally. So this illustration through the fire sim­ile drives home to the worldling the absurdity of his presumptu­ous tetra­lemma of the Tathàgata.

In the Upasãvasutta of the Pàràyaõavagga of the Sutta Nipàta we find the lines:

Accã yathà vàtavegena khitto,

atthaü paleti na upeti saïkhaü,

"Like the flame thrown out by the force of the wind

Reaches its end, it cannot be reckoned."[26]

Here the reckoning is to be understood in terms of the four proposi­tions of the tetralemma. Such reckonings are based on a total mis­con­ception of the phe­nomenon of fire.

It seems that the deeper connotations of the word Nibbàna in the context of pañicca samuppàda were not fully appreciated by the com­mentators. And that is why they went in search of a new etymol­ogy. They were too shy of the implications of the word `extinction'. Proba­bly to avoid the charge of nihilism they felt compelled to rein­terpret certain key passages on Nibbàna. They con­ceived Nibbàna as something existing out there in its own right. They would not say where, but sometimes they would even say that it is everywhere. With an undue grammatical em­phasis they would say that it is on coming to that Nibbàna that lust and other defilements are aban­doned: Nibbànaü àgamma ràgàdayo khãõàti ekameva nibbànaü ràgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo ti vuccati.[27]

But what do we find in the joyous utterances of the theras and therãs who had realized Nibbàna? As recorded in such texts as Thera- and Therã-gàthà they would say: Sãtibhåto'smi nibbuto, "I am grown cool, extinguished as I am."[28] The words sãtibhåta and nibbuta had a cooling effect even to the listener, though later scholars found them inadequate.

Extinction is something that occurs within an individual and it brings with it a unique bliss of appeasement. As the Ratana­sutta says: Laddhà mudhà nibbutiü bhu¤jamànà, "they experi­ence the bliss of appeasement won free of charge."[29] Nor­mally, appeasement is won at a cost, but here we have an ap­peasement that comes gratis." ~ Venerable Nanananda, http://www.beyondthenet.net/calm/nibbana01.htm"

The Meaning of Nirvana - SgForums.com
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This type of blackout cessation is experienced by all sorts of yogis including those practicing non-Buddhist systems. Thus, it has nothing to do with the correct engagement of vipassanā. The cessation of unsatisfactoriness (dukkhanirodha) is the cessation of craving (taṇhā), not the cessation of phe...[Preview cut off]
March 6 at 2:41am · Like · Remove Preview


Soh: That being said, I do not see contradiction between Buddha's understanding of Nirvana and Yogacara's understanding of 'perfected suchness' (especially when we take into consideration the Buddha's teaching on suchness such as Kalaka Sutta). The notion of eliminating defilements yet not abandoning samsara is however a Mahayana development (which does not however contradict the Buddha's early teachings insofar as it does not present a substantialist understanding of Nirvana, especially for Madhyamika).
March 6 at 2:49am · Edited · Like
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