2020-10-21 Nibbāna (3 of 5) Nibbāna is Release
2:54PM Oct 21, 2020
So today I'm giving the third of five talks on Nibbāna, or Nirvāna. And it can be a complex topic. And sometimes, especially in some circles of Buddhism, and among teachers, Buddhist teachers, there can be a lot of discussion about what it really is Nibbāna. And there can be controversies around it.
And one of the controversies that goes back thousands of years in the Theravada tradition itself, is whether Nibbāna, Nirvāna, is a state or a thing or a place, that's transcendent. Or whether it really is an absence. And much of the tradition finds it really distasteful or unacceptable to consider the highest goal and highest possibility of Buddhism to be an absence. And because then it can have no profundity, it can have no power, no big influence on freeing us. And Nibbāna has to be something. A transcendent state, for example, that is beyond time and place, which is beyond somehow unconditioned, uncreated, somehow exists in some transcendent way. And my own orientation to this is that it's an absence. So that's kind of the way, kind of the background for how I'm talking about it this week. And I think it's a radical absence. Absence that's actually quite profound and quite transformative and radical. And it's quite powerful, in its own way. And so how can that be?
So one of the things to understand about the word Nibbāna is that it is in fact a noun, but it's a verbal noun, like the word walking. The person is walking and because the person is walking, we can talk about the walking the person is doing. And the walking is a verbal noun of the verb walking. So the same thing. We can release our clinging. And then we can talk about the release. The release felt so good. And that the releasing is the verb. And the releasing is the verbal noun. So it turns out that Nibbāna is a verbal noun and it's directly connected to a verb that's very similar Nibbāyati, so Nibbāna Nibbāyati, n i b b ā y a t i. So Nibbāyati is the act of release or of cooling or of the fire going out. he fire of clinging, fire of attachment. And sometimes translators into English will find that it's awkward to translate Nibbāyati as something like in English if Nibbāna-ing, if you use the Pāli word. So sometimes they will translate it as, even though it's the verb, to attain Nibbāna. And then we read it as a noun. To attain this noun, this thing, but it's really the act of releasing. And you find the tradition in the Buddha's teachings over and over again, uses verbs to describe the action of freeing. Freeing, the destruction of the attachments we have, the ending of something, the releasing of something, and there's this movement that happens.
And that's the important movement of freedom, of freeing ourselves from our attachments. And when we free ourselves, then there's the absence of what we were caught by. So if I'm holding something and I put it down, then there's the absence of the thing in my hand. If I've been caught, if I'm clinging to something for very, very long time, it's a big deal than to have put it down and have the hand open. And the hand now is absence of something. But it's not a minor thing that it's now no longer there. If I've been holding it for 20 years, and finally my hand is free to do something else. The the analogy I like to use for how significant this is, an absence is someone who's been in prison for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And finally, they're freed from prison. And now they walk down the street and they look like everyone else, maybe walking down the street and living their lives. But the longer they've been in prison, the more the absence of prison is something that they always appreciate. The absence is actually quite significant for them. In a way, there are other people walking the streets who'd never been to prison, wouldn't appreciate.
So the same thing with a lifetime of clinging, of holding, of being attached, or being closed in ways that many of us don't even realize we are because we haven't really developed the deep sensitivity of mindfulness to really understand the kind of underlying holding, attachment, clinging, that supports all the ways in which we suffer. All those distress and stress and that we feel. But to really to have that release of suffering, release of clinging. And have the absence of it shows powerful potential of freedom. And that absence then becomes an arena in which we can function and move with freedom.
So one of the meanings of Nibbāna, in the way I often like to translate it, is Nibbāna is release. It's the releasing, it's the release of whatever it is that limits us, that binds us that oppresses us, that has its genesis in ourselves. And to have freed ourselves from this is quite a, you know, to move in that direction is one of the great paths of human life. And to really start attaining and tasting a degree of this absence of clinging, absence of greed, hatred, and delusion. And to really appreciate this possibility. The Buddha describes it as the Dharma which is visible here and now. So the Dharma, whatever the Buddha was talking about as The Dharma, you don't find it in a book or in teachings, the essence of it is something that's visible to us directly here and now. And how is it visible? The Buddha was very clear. He said it's visible when there's been greed. And the greed has been abandoned, released, brought to an end. That is how the Dharma is visible. That it's kind of simplistic, it's maybe not such a, you know, it doesn't take a lot of books and deep philosophy to understand this kind of dharma. But it's very practical. And it's very, you know, at least in maybe in the imagination, something we can understand that if we've been holding tight for a long time, and then we release that holding, in the release we see the Dharma. The releasing is really the heart of the Dharma. Sometimes we have to understand the holding first before we can release it. And so sometimes mindfulness has a lot to do with just being present for all the ways we might be attached and to cling. And as we understand it deeply and well, the underlying conditions for it, then something can release. As we stop feeding it and fueling it and fueling the fires of greed, hate and delusion, the fires begin to go out. And this idea of going out, releasing, the fire gets released. It's kind of an ancient kind of idea that doesn't quite work with the maybe the modern English. But this Nibbāna, the fires, the cooling of the fire, the calming of the fire, the going out of the fire, the release of the fire.
And so to really experience that for oneself in these areas of our life that's so ordinary. It's so common. It's so common to have lived maybe to have some little movements of hostility. Or big movements of hostility, jealousy, resentment. And then to have the palpable visceral experience of that not there. Especially if we can learn how to abandon, not there because we've been distracted from it. But there because something's really let go, something's released, ahh look at that. And then that is where the Dharma is. And that is also, in the teachings of the Buddha, also can be seen as a possibility of tremendous inspiration. Oh this is possible. It's possible to live without clinging. It might be hard to do it thoroughly or do it all the time. But to have some experience of this release that's possible. And the absence then of clinging. And to really appreciate that absence and what a breath of fresh air and fresh heart and fresh mind that it gives. It's really fantastic.
So I think of Nibbāna is the release and this wonderful absence that follows that release, is really how we begin to understanding the Dharma and what it's really about in the big picture. And you don't have to have a lot of philosophy for this.
So to make Nibbana a transcendent thing. Maybe it is, there's these different points of view. But the release, once we have a sense of release of clinging, then we don't want to then cling to the transcendent idea of Nibbāna a thing or a state or something. It'd be a little bit like we have held our hands in a fist for a very, very long time. And we finally open the fist. And it feels so good for the fist, fingers, the hand to be free and open and relaxed. And we like it so much that we then want it more. And so because we want it, we close the fist to grab hold of it. And of course you can't have both. You can't grab the fist, can't grab the open hand. As soon as you grab the open hand, you've lost it.
So this freedom of Nibbāna, this release that what Nibbāna is, this releasing, it feels so good. But then if we want that goodness, we paradoxically are going in opposite direction, we're grabbing on to it again. So it's a kind of wonderful kind of balancing act, a wonderful kind of space to walk in, to really appreciate freedom and letting go and calm. And then not to pick up clinging again. Not to be over evaluated or hold on to it or get stuck on it.
So Nibbāna as release. And as we develop our mindfulness, we will begin experiencing small and sometimes big, small experiences of that release and freedom. That is the Dharma. To appreciate that. And don't be blinded from that by thinking that the Dharma is something much more difficult and sophisticated that only people with PhDs will understand. That it's to be understood right there in the release. And so may you be released. May you delight in your release. May you understand how it leads to the release of all suffering.