© 1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down
and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that
the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana),
literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it's hard to
imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation.
It turns out, though, that this reading of the concept is
a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as of an image.
What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of
the Buddha's day? Anything but annihilation.
to the ancient Brahmans, when a fire was extinguished it went
into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it
became dormant and in that state -- unbound from any particular
fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the
Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmans
of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished
fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the
impossibility of defining a fire that doesn't burn: thus his
statement that the person who has gone totally "out" can't
when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana more
as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time
saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both
clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite
a fire, one had to "seize" it. When fire let go of its fuel,
it was "freed," released from its agitation, dependence, and
entrapment -- calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry
repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor
for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of
fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well.
Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance
a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only
one of the five "heaps" (form, feeling, perception, thought
processes, and consciousness) that define all conditioned
experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes
out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood,
so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.
the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries
support this point by tracing the word nibbana to its verbal
root, which means "unbinding." What kind of unbinding? The
texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime,
symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are
still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is
conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and
pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The
second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally
out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences
after this life. All input from the senses cools away and
he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and
limitations of existence in space and time.
insists that this level is indescribable, even in terms of
existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things
that have limits. All he really says about it -- apart from
images and metaphors -- is that one can have foretastes of
the experience in this lifetime, and that it's the ultimate
happiness, something truly worth knowing.
next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a case
of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be found
in letting go.