Nibbana

In the talk this afternoon, I’d like to reflect on the third noble truth, usually referred to as nibbana, or liberation, or the end of suffering, and I hope you will appreciate that it is actually quite impossible to address such a weighty theme in a single talk, but nevertheless, we will endeavour to do so. Now nibbana is offered as being the essence, the heart, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life so I would like to try in some small way to begin to demystify this word nibbana, or what is meant by this unshakeable liberation of the heart. Basically, I’d like you to feel comfortable with the word nibbana because in my experience in teaching in the west, most people don’t feel at all comfortable with the word nibbana, in fact, asking someone if they practice in order to be liberated is a little bit like asking someone if they are going to die. Most people say, ‘No!’

I’d like you to see nibbana as something you can relate to something that is not reserved for cloistered monks and nuns. And most importantly, I’d like you to feel that the third noble truth does indeed have everything to do with why you practice. In truth, every hour you sit on your cushion or walk on your path, it is in the service of this unshakeable liberation. Every breath you are mindful of, every moment you contemplate everything your body can experience, it is in the service of liberation. Every moment you contemplate your emotions, the lovely and the difficult, and everything your mind can do, this is also in the service of liberation. Every moment you find the willingness to meet and understand suffering and its causes rather than fleeing from it and every moment that you are willing to begin again and to persevere in the face of doubt, all of this too is in reality a training in liberation.

In speaking about nibbana, the third noble truth, again I want to touch on this subject of goals, because sometimes it is this allergy that we have to the word goals that makes nibbana difficult for us to reflect on. But again, just remembering that this path does have a direction and it does have an outcome in mind, and in reality, we speak about goals all the time. The search for loving-kindness, for peace, for compassion. If they are not present in this moment in our practice in our life, then we aspire to cultivate them, to bring them into being. In truth, they are both aspirations and they are goals, and of course, we need to know when we turn these aspirations or goals into something less wholesome and when they begin to cause suffering rather than ending suffering.

Now the four noble truths describe the whole map, the whole mandala of awakening. In a way, the first noble truth describes the problem, the issue, the dis-ease that there is in our life dissatisfactoriness, discontent, there is at times struggle and pain. None of us is exempt, it is part of our shared language and experience. Now the question is, when does this reality become a noble truth rather than just bad news? Rather than something just to fix or overcome? Now it becomes a noble truth when suffering or dissatisfactoriness is seen as the ground of our awakening, when it is the beginning of a journey of investigation and waking up.

Now the second noble truth is that there is a cause of suffering. Often this kind of relentless restlessness of our hearts that leads us to be locked into this ongoing tension of trying to pursue one thing and avoid something else. In a way we are trying to ease the pain of this  sense of incompleteness or lack. And again this reality becomes a noble truth when we understand that suffering and struggle are not accidents, they are not failures, they are not bad luck, but that this thirst or sense of lack is something that can be understood, it can be healed and  liberated and so too can suffering come to an end.

Now the third noble truth describes the freedom from this dis-ease, or this sense of lack. And the fourth noble truth is simply the path to liberation or nibbana. The fourth noble truth is also sometimes called the stream of the dhamma and the embodiment, the manifestation of a liberated heart. A heart that is free from greed and hatred and delusion and that lives with a natural nobility and integrity and freedom.

So what is held within the four noble truths is a map of awakening. But the Buddha also spoke of a number of doorways into the liberated heart. Essentially, he offered a lot of different maps. Liberation through loving-kindness, through concentration as a basis for insight, he spoke about liberation through compassion, through equanimity and faith, and liberation through understanding the meaning of emptiness and insubstantiality. But this afternoon I’d like to focus on just one of those maps which presents what is called the four stages of awakening but first I’d like to explore a little more what this mysterious word nibbana points towards. I mean, to a certain extent, nibbana or nirvana, is a word that has actually entered our cultural vocabulary. There’s a perfume called nirvana, (there’s also one called samsara), there’s a rock group called Nirvana, It’s a word that’s used in advertising to describe this kind of utopian vacation, but I must say it’s used a little bit differently in the dhamma, as really being the heart of the path. Now certainly in Asia, there’s much more comfort and ease with this real possibility of liberation and awakening, in fact it’s really considered why we practice.
You know, if you are a tourist in England and you turn up in a village and say, ‘Where is your nearest castle?’ someone will say, ’Well you go down this road, turn right and the castle is there’. And in Asia if you go into a monastery and ask, ‘Any liberated beings around here?’ They’ll respond, ‘Well there’s a couple over there and a few down the road’,  but it’s not a concept or a possibility which is so embedded in our more psychologically oriented culture. In the suttas, in the discourses, nibbana is often described in the negative, words like ‘cessation’ are used or ‘blowing out the fire’ or ‘absolute coolness’ or it is sometimes described as ‘going beyond’. But if you look carefully, nibbana is also described in more glowing terms as the ‘unconditioned’ or ‘ultimate peace’ or as ‘unshakeable freedom’ or ‘the deathless’. Now I think that when we hear these terms, it’s very easy to see nibbana as some distant destination that has nothing to do with us, and in reality, nibbana is sometimes described as ‘the end of seeking’. But it’s also important to remember that pali is a language of verbs and process so in truth, practice is a process of liberating, of cooling and this has everything to do with our practice right now and in every moment because we are all learning moment to moment about calming and stilling about seeing and understanding about liberating the moment. And what are we liberating the moment from? We are liberating the moment from the heat and the fire of misunderstanding, of craving and aversion.

Now there are a number of stories in the suttas that describe these sudden enlightenments. I mean, according to the story, Siddartha sat down under the bodhi tree a deluded young man and got up a Buddha. We hear stories of the Buddha giving a talk and suddenly there are five hundred liberated beings in front of him. We hear these stories and it’s all too easy to think of liberation as an experience, a moment in time. There are also many stories and anecdotes that speak about liberating as a path, a path of cultivating the wholesome and the free, moment to moment, cultivating ethics and calmness and kindness and wisdom, all in the service of inclining our hearts towards unshakeable wisdom. The path is often described as a process of understanding suffering, change and non-self. It’s really a path of learning to develop the unshakeable and that development ends in a profound unshakeability. As is said in one of the stories, ‘Wood turns into ashes but ashes don’t turn back into wood’.

Now the Buddha described this development in what are called stages of liberation, called ‘noble understandings’. There are words for these stages and you might be familiar with some of these words. He called these stages of awakening the understanding of a sotopanna a sakadagami, an anagami and an arahant. Now again, this can sound like it has nothing to do with someone like us who gets up in the morning, goes to work, cooks the dinner, pays the mortgage, but quite frankly our job is to convince you that this does have something to do with you.

Firstly, I think it’s very important to distinguish between stages and states, because we often think of states as an experience and as we know all experiences have a beginning and an ending, they arise and they pass. But I think ‘stages’ puts the path in a different light because I think quite frankly we all see stages of deepening in our practice. I mean, you can begin to sit very confused and agitated and you practice and you see you are more calm. It’s a stage of deepening.
Now for those of you who have a longer practice, you will have seen that practice marked by stages of deepening and that deepening is often marked by what has been let go of and what has become increasingly embedded in our hearts. If you practice you see that, over time, there’s more loving-kindness, more clarity, there’s a deeper capacity for compassion. Increasingly, you see a capacity to see the difference between what causes suffering and what ends suffering and, more importantly, to live in accord with those understandings. Many of you will have seen in the time of your practice things fall away. You may have seen doubt or layers of greed or fear simply begin to fall away and sometimes this surprises us, but why should it surprise us? I remember a friend of mine practising once and going to the teacher and saying, ‘There’s something wrong, there’s nothing happening’, and he replied, ‘I think this might be peace’, and she said, ‘It can’t be. I don’t do peace!’ But these things show us that there are actually fruits to this practice and what we are seeing in those stages of deepening is the liberating of our heart.

Now the stages of awakening are simply a continuation of that journey. The first stage of awakening is called the stream enterer, or one who has firmly entered the stream of the dharma. And one of the characteristics of the stream enterer is this unshakeable confidence and faith. The stream of the dharma has become natural, authentic so the stream enterer embodies the eightfold path. They live with a natural wise view and intention, wise speech and action. Wise livelihood and effort, concentration and mindfulness are simply the fabric of their being. But they have also reached this place of natural authority and wisdom through  cultivating the same eightfold path.

Now I think that stream entry arguably could be said to be the most significant point of awakening because the stream enterer is said to be free of the first three obstacles or unwise views that bind us to suffering. So what has fallen away is the belief in personality view. All the ideas of a solid or enduring self have disappeared. They are free from the obstacle of sceptical doubt and from the attachment to rites and rituals. So I would like to speak about these three obstacles that fall away. Now nobody I think needs to tell us that personality belief and personality view is a powerful source of suffering in our lives. ‘I am my body and everything that happens in my body happens to me’. ‘I am my mind, my thoughts’. So I’m ‘wonderful, terrible, obsessive’. ‘I am my emotions’, so I’m ‘happy, sad, elated, depressed’. ‘I am a success, or a failure’. Now I think we have all heard this endless symphony that flows through our life. The mantra of, ‘This is me, this belongs to me, this is who I am’. This is personality view, personality belief. And this is what we are actually encouraged to question and investigate. Is it true? Now what the Buddha encouraged is not to push this away, not to judge it but simply to question it. To bring into all the places of identification and clinging the question of, ‘This is not me. This does not belong to me. This is not who I am’. This contemplation is not trying to annihilate or erase this sense of ‘I’ , it is trying to uproot wrong view. To uproot the view of self which is born moment to moment of clinging and grasping. The view of self that is bound to whatever is clung to. If you cling to a thought, you become the thinker. If you cling to pain, you become the sufferer. If you cling to an emotion, you become sad or exhilarated or depressed. And you have the self of the moment which is very convincing. Now this first insight of a stream enterer is not something which is abstract or esoteric but we can see some understanding that we are often dragged to quite reluctantly because we are in truth just a little bit attached to our personality view.
Now this is not to suggest that we have no personality, of course we all do, but it is to suggest that clinging creates a constructed view of who we are. And it is really to see that these constructed views of who we are is really an event in the mind. In truth, none of us can really be described by a changing event. When we say, ‘I’m terrible, I’m wonderful, I’m a mother, I’m a success, or I’m a failure’, these are only describing the event of the moment. They can never describe the whole truth of anything. Instead, these descriptions only describe often what we have clung to in that moment. The insight into the insubstantial nature of these constructions is the insight of a stream enterer. To know deeply and unshakably that there is no independent, enduring self. In fact, there is only our view of self. And when there is no clinging to any event, no view of self is born. Now again, I want to put this into the context of your own practice. Think of the moments when you are really locked into a view of yourself. So, ‘I’m so judgemental, I’m really the sufferer, I’m the meditator’. Now isn’t it true that in our practice we learn to hold those statements just a little more lightly? As I mentioned this morning, we learn to cultivate a little more creative disbelief and we really do start to see how the view of the moment is the clinging of the moment. And as we do this we’re actually really practising to be a stream enterer. (I do admit, this can take quite some practice). But this understanding does ripen and mature until it becomes a cellular understanding and it’s an understanding that transforms our life. You see, in all these stages of awakening there’s both the path and there’s the fruit of the path. So we walk the path of non-clinging, and with practice, there is a deepening and a fruit of non-clinging.

Now I think this understanding of the emptiness of personality view is perhaps the most important insight in the stages of awakening because that insight changes our perspective on all the other views and obstacles that remain. We can start to see that doubt and ill-will and craving and clinging are kind of like habits of ignorance. Rather than being my problems, my obstacles, you actually know very deeply that these are not me and not mine and they can be held with a little more ease and curiosity rather than governing our hearts. Now this understanding of the emptiness of any independent self existence certainly leads to the second insight of the stream enterer, which is the cessation of sceptical doubt. Sceptical doubt is a kind of disabling and paralysing kind of doubt and we see that sceptical doubt mostly arises out of personality view. We say, ‘Is freedom from suffering possible for me? I doubt it.’ We say, ‘I’m too inadequate, I’m too unworthy’ or ‘my story is so big’. Sceptical doubt says, ‘Is this the right path for me? Is this the right teacher for me? Is this the right tradition for me?’ ‘I don’t know, I can’t decide’. And we see how sceptical doubt shadows us and plagues us through our life. You know, ‘Should I do this or that?’ ‘Is this the right decision to make?’ ‘Am I in the right relationship or the right job?’ ‘Should I be a renunciate or should I get married?’ Some of these questions are of course appropriate questions to ask but the nature of sceptical doubt is that there is never a right answer, there’s never a satisfying answer. So we find ourselves continually wavering and being uncertain. What sceptical doubt is really looking for is a kind of solid ground to stand on but the truth is that this changing and unpredictable world is essentially groundless. Now the faith and the confidence of a stream enterer is not something that is blind or rigid but it is informed, and  it is wise, and it is rooted in one’s own experience. For example, in this practice we come to know with confidence what leads to suffering and what leads to the end of suffering. We come to know that the path of ethics and calmness and understanding only has one outcome, and it is the outcome of freedom. We come to know with confidence that the causes of sorrow and the causes of joy live within our own hearts, and that confidence and knowing truly becomes unshakeable because we begin to taste a freedom that cannot be denied. Again, the cessation of doubt and the coming into being of confidence has the aspects of cultivation and fruition.

The third characteristic of stream entry is the letting go of the attachment to rites and rituals and really this is speaking to the very nature of attachment itself and all the things we do in our lives to try to guarantee safety and certainty. Basically we see the attachment to rites and rituals is actually pretty widespread in our lives. How we are constantly trying to arrange our world, our mind and our life in ways that guarantee, or seem to guarantee, happiness and safety. Now the cessation of attachment does not mean that we surrender wise and informed choices, it is simply the cessation of attachment. It’s the willingness to live our lives without guarantees and that is actually to live a life that is free from disappointment. It is to know a liberation of heart that is not dependent upon conditions. Now sometimes I think we hear this and it can sound impossible, but it is possible.

I love these Tibetan lines, they say:

‘Sometimes when we hear the great trials and hardships of the yogis and Buddhas of the past we imagine that they could only face them because they were great yogis and Buddhas’, but it goes on to say ‘but this is not so. It’s simply by acting like great Buddhas that they became so’.

And in many ways this is the encouragement of our practice, to trust in the training and to trust in the path and that path and that training will ripen and it will bear fruit. And the fruit is the unshakeable liberation of the heart.