If someone asked me directions from New York City to Washington,D.C., I’d tell them to hop on 95 and drive south, and keep going till the signs told them to stop. If that person then called me from Philadelphia and said they couldn’t find D.C., I’d tell them they were on the right track, they just needed to keep going; they weren’t lost, they just hadn’t gone far enough. However, if they called me from Paris and said my directions hadn’t been helpful, I’d furrow my brow and tell them they obviously hadn’t been listening.
This is sort of the way I feel after reading Mr. MacPherson’s second post, “The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism inside Christianity.” His explanations of the first two truths (in his first post) weren’t so much wrong as incomplete; in neither case did he go far enough. This could be on account of a lack of reading or insufficient reflection, and since in his second comment on my site he said he was “still learning Buddhism,” this is perfectly understandable. In those cases he was like the person who drove to Philly and just needed some extra encouragement. But in this post, concerning the third noble truth, I feel like I’m getting a call from Paris. Or perhaps it’sAnchorage.
He claims that every Christian can affirm the Third Noble Truth. But what exactly does he think the third noble Truth is? How does he define it? As I did for his definition of the second noble truth, I’ll extract some relevant quotes and see if we can’t draw a picture from them.
- “Third Noble Truth: There is a way to stop suffering.”
- “In Buddhism the way is the virtuous life of the Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth coming up.” He equates this with the Christian imitation dei—specifically the imitation of God in the form of Jesus Christ, the goal of which is to “stop sinning” (though he admits this is not in keeping with standard Christian thinking in America).
- The Christian goal of obedience to God by not sinning parallels the Buddha’s injunctions: “never stop trying to conform your behavior to ‘good,’ to the Eightfold Path.”
It seems then that, in Christian terms, the third noble truth—for Mr. MacPherson, at least—means to stop sinning. Or, to quote the Buddha:
To abstain from evil,
To cultivate the good,
To purify one’s mind –
This is the teaching of the Buddhas
But is this in fact what the Third Noble Truth says? A definition, once again, is in order:
The Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), which is Nibbana more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvana (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught , p. 35).
Or, as the Buddha put it in his first sermon:
The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation (nirodha) of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it (quoted in Rahula, p. 93).
So, judging by these two quotes, Mr. MacPherson was correct as regards point #1: “There is a way to stop suffering.” Or maybe not. The way to stop suffering, as he notes in point #2, is the Eightfold Path. But that’s the Fourth Noble Truth. He seems, then, to be confusing the third and fourth Truths. He affirms a method, but offers no expected outcome; he does not indicate what the cure for the illness of dukkha, of suffering, actually is. He simply says that God, in the Old and New Testaments, “exhorts people to willfully stop sinning,” and then assumes this is what the Buddha was saying.
But sin is an entirely Christian concept. One cannot sin in Buddhism because there is no God setting forth commandments that everyone then breaks in due course. If you jump off a cliff and go splat on the rocks, you haven’t sinned against gravity, you’ve simply acted like a suicidal idiot. You’ve behaved unskillfully. And, indeed, stupid behavior (i.e. “immoral actions”) in the Buddha’s teaching are called exactly that: akusala kamma, “unskillful action.”
But I digress.
The problem I have with Mr. MacPherson’s post on the Third Noble Truth is he never actually tells us what the Third Noble Truth is. He never even mentions the words nibbana or nirvana. This is like Jaws without the shark. And this, needless to say, is where I furrowed my brow and wondered who could possibly be calling me Paris. Or Anchorage. Wherever he’s coming from, one thing is certain: Mr. MacPherson has no argument concerning the Third Noble Truth existing anywhere in the Bible.
That said, an answer to the question of “What is nibbana?” needs to be attempted. I’ll now attempt it, though first I would strongly urge readers to review my post, “The Buddha on Suffering and the Nature of Personality.” While my intent in that post was to answer a different question than the present one, a lot of the discussion there illuminates what I’m going to say here.
It seems there are really two questions pertaining to the Buddhist nibbana: (1) What is it? (the obvious one), and (2) What is the state of the saint who has attained it?
(1) Earlier I remarked that Dependent Arising lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, and that, specifically, the second and third noble truths are built directly off it. For the second noble truth we saw that samudaya, “arising,” referred to the existent structure of conditioned consciousness. The Buddha described the putthujana’s experience as something “built up,” “constructed,” “contrived,” (sankhata) and noted that its integrity remained intact so long as its individual constituents—ignorance (avijja), mental formations (sankharas); contact (phassa), etc—were left unexamined. But if “proper attention” (yoniso manasikara), minduflness-and-clear-comprehension (sati-sampajanna) and concentration (samadhi), along with other wholesome mental attributes, were cultivated and brought to bear on the constituents of experience, then one or more links in the chain could be severed and the entire structure would collapse. And so he described Dependent Arising in its reverse, or negative (patiloma), order:
With the cessation of delusion, mental formations cease; with the ceasing of mental formations, consciousness ceases; with the cessation of consciousness, name-and-form ceases; with the cessation of name-and-form, the six sense bases cease; with the cessation of the six sense bases, contact ceases; with the cessation of contact, feeling ceases; with the cessation of feeling, craving ceases; with the cessation of craving, grasping ceases; with the cessation of grasping, existence/being ceases; with the cessation of existence/being, birth ceases; with the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease; thus is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering (M.38:20).
Just as the positive order of Dependent Arising described samudaya, the arising of suffering, so the negative order describes nirodha, the cessation of suffering. This, then, is nibbana; this is the third noble truth.
The nature of this event is pointed to in the method of meditation the Buddha teaches, i.e. satipatthana (“setting up of mindfulness”), the point of which is knock out the foremost link in the chain: avijja (delusion). As described by Ñanananda:
By revealing the antecedents of craving, the law of Dependent Arising points to a technique whereby this tendency [to identify with sense-data] deeply ingrained in the ruts of our samsaric habits could be ferreted out of its sockets. Ignorance has to be replaced by knowledge. In other words, the tendency to attend to the dependently arisen phenomena by imagining “things” in them, has to be overcome by training the mind to attend to the law of Dependent Arising, instead. It might be recalled that each of the twelve links of the formula has been described as “impermanent, compounded, dependently arisen, of a nature to wither away, pass away, fade away and cease.” The via media of training the mind to attend to the nature of things rather than to the things themselves, may be called a rare type of psychotherapy introduced by the Buddha. It is a way of making the conditioned phenomena “fade away and cease” by penetrating into their cause. Thus, insight into the Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) of Dependent Arising implies a knowledge of the cause (hetu) as well as of the things causally arisen… As the insight into the principle—“This being, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—goes deeper and deeper into the fabric of the twelve-linked formula, a de-colouration or a fading-away ensues, with which one realizes the destruction of the very conditions (paccaya) forming the warp and woof of the formula in its direct and reverse order (Magic of the Mind, pp. 50-51).
The “psychotherapy” Ñanananda refers to here is none other than vipassana, the continuous, dispassionate observance of experience, until the observer no longer relates to phenomena as “I” or “mine” or “other,” at which point consciousness as something caused or determined by its objects (namarupa) ceases; consciousness, as it were, drops out:
…when insight knowledge is mature, having become keen, strong, and lucid, it will understand one of the formations [sankhara] at one of the six sense doors as being impermanent [anicca] or painful [dukkha] or without self [anatta; these are the three marks—tilakkhana—of all phenomena]. That act of noticing any one characteristic out of the three, which has a higher degree of lucidity and strength in its perfect understanding, becomes faster, and manifests itself three or four times in rapid succession. Immediately after the last consciousness in this series of accelerated noticing has ceased, path and fruition (magga-phala) arises realizing Nibbana, the cessation of all formations (Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, pp. 35-6).
And so the Buddha proclaimed on the seventh day after his enlightenment:
When phenomena manifest themselves
To the ardently meditating Brahman,
All his doubts vanish for he has understood
The destruction of all conditions (Udana 1.2).
During my brief career as a novice monk (cut short, alas, by poor health), I had the good fortune to meet a remarkable man whose lay-name I either never learned or have simply forgotten. To me he was Venerable Sunetta; he was my one and only ordination brother and—lucky me—a stream enterer (sotapanna). (How I came by this fact is a story for a different occasion.) Once I knew what he was I relentlessly plied him with questions and…he answered.
I described to him some of the “mystical experiences” I had had—experiences of great bliss, wherein—to paraphrase J. Krishnamurti—the “observer was the observed.” These are the sorts of experiences (non-dual) you read about in mystical literature from all over the planet. Ven. Sunetta said—quite emphatically, I might add—that such experiences naturally arise during the course of insight practice but he also said they were “very dangerous” because one might easily mistake them for the goal, which they are not. (In fact, such experiences are most likely cases of the fourth insight ñana, “the arising and passing away” event. See, e.g., case study #2 of Kenneth Folk’s “The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis” at The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis. Clearly, it is not uncommon for people to spontaneously attain one or more of the insight knowledges or, for that matter, the jhanas. [As a child of nine or ten I on several occasions experienced the first of the arupa jhanas, the “base of infinite space,” and then re-experienced it again at age twenty.] I have yet to hear of anyone though spontaneously attaining nibbana.) I then asked Ven. Sunetta to describe what the nibbana moment was like.
He said it most definitely was not “ultimate bliss” or any such thing as one would ordinarily conceive it. In fact, it was really not like anything at all. “Imagine,” he said, “that you’re walking down a path. You’re stepping along and then suddenly you’re at a different point along the path, as if you went from there to here, but without an interval. That gap is nibbana.” Refer again to Kenneth Folk’s “Guide,” case #5. That’s exactly it.
The nibbana moment then, is a disruption in the cause-effect stream of consciousness. It is neither cause nor effect, but rather the absence of either, which is why it is referred to as asankhata—the “unconditioned”; it is, if you will, a non-event, a non-experience. For the first time in the person’s samsaric career, the round of birth-and-death has, for him or her, stopped. Hence the formal designation of the third noble truth as nirodha, “cessation.”
As the Buddha described this stateless state:
There is that base where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air… neither this world nor another; neither sun nor moon. Here, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no passing away or arising. Unestablished, unmoving, unconditioned: just this is the end of suffering (Udana 8.1).
Clearly, this is no mystical pronouncement—it is not an affirmation of the “unity of all things” or a declaration about an immortal “Ground” out of which everything arises. This is, rather, the stopping of the world as we know it. If anything, nibbana is anti-mystical for, far from revealing any kind of ultimate Substance or Selfhood, it indicates that true freedom is in fact the absence of such things.
Given the structure of Dependent Arising, it is clear that ordinary, conditioned consciousness—conditioned, that is, by notions of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” which result from mis-apprehending phenomena as “things” or “objects” that a knowing self interacts with and appropriates—has no choice but to cease in the moment its “self-ness” is seen for the lie it is. The self appears as the shadow cast in consciousness by “things” when they are not known “as they are”—as ephemeral, unsatisfying, and empty (of self). If “I” cannot be found among “my” possessions—i.e. my experiences (namarupa)—and this fact is seen and known, then the “I” of necessity vanishes.
Of course, Ven. Sunetta and the Buddha are/were “conscious.” The arya walks and talks like anyone else, and uses language “per the conventions of the world.” What, then, distinguished him/her from the world? Which question brings us to issue #2: What is the state of the saint who has attained nibbana?
(2) Perhaps the best answer to this question is found in the Mulapariyaya Sutta (M.1). In that sutta the Buddha describes the responses of four different types of people to the phenomena of experience. The four types enumerated are: (1) the uninstructed commoner (assutava-putthujanna), (2) the noble disciple, or sekha, meaning a stream-enterer (sotapanna), once-returner (sakadagami) or non-returner (anagami), (3) the arhant, and (4) the Buddha. For all intents and purposes the natures of the third and fourth types are the same, so in fact we have three types of people. Their responses are described as follows:
- The putthujjana cognizes X as X; having cognized X as X, he imagines X, he imagines in X, he imagines from X, he imagines “X is mine,” he delights in X.
- The sekha understands X as X; understanding X as X, he should not imagine X, he should not imagine in X, he should not imagine from X, he should not imagine “X is mine,” he should not delight in X.
- The arhant understands X as X; understanding X as X, he does not imagine X, he does not imagine in X, he does not imagine from X, he does not imagine “X is mine,” he does not delight in X.
The distinctions between these three types of people lie in their manner of relating to sensory experience, including thoughts. For the uninstructed worldling, “things” are taken as they present themselves, as objects of potential appropriation by his (imagined) subject, and can be responded to either indifferently, or with desire or aversion. In either case, he is burdened by his inevitable speculation and conceptualizing (papanca) in regards to these objects on account of his lack of clear comprehension of their true nature. (Hence the proliferation of ideologies, mythologies, beliefs, customs and mores that every civilization produces.) The putthujjana becomes the hapless victim of his own blindness, and his culture, ethics, norms, etc are arbitrarily manufactured in accordance with whatever environment he happens to find himself in.
The noble disciple still in training, however, having already seen nibbana, is aware of the unsatisfactoriness of phenomena, as well as their arising and ceasing (i.e. he sees the first three noble truths, for he has practiced and, to a degree, accomplished the fourth), and is therefore aware of the ethical imperative “should not” as regards the objects of sense. It is only at this point that ethics are in any way seen as fundamental; the putthujjana, regardless of whatever ideology he adopts, is not in a position to understand that ethical norms are inherent in a universe populated by conscious beings, and hence must seek the sanction of imagined deities and arbitrary social systems to provide such standards. (Hence the incessant Christian refrain that without God there is no standard or basis for a moral life or the understanding of good and evil; they cannot grasp the fact of ethics in the absence of an ethical Lawgiver.) The sekha, however, though his training is as yet incomplete, knows directly the necessity of ethical norms, for he has the right view (sammaditthi) that comprehends the nature and consequence of intentional actions (kamma) and their results.
Finally, the arhant (and Buddha), like the noble disciple, knows phenomena for what they are: as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and as not designating a self (anatta). But unlike the sekha, he has completed the training and entirely done away with asmimana, the subjective sense of a controller or doer that still bedevils the sekha. As notions of self do not arise, objects are no longer seen as potentials for appropriation, hence are neither grasped at nor fantasized over.
This represents a brief, decidedly theoretical overview of the subject. I would strongly suggest materials by Kenneth Folk as supplementary resources for further understanding. See, in particular, his “Seven Stages of Enlightenment” video series (1-6), starting here. One interesting point he makes is that there are actually sub-grades of attainment in the classic four stages model you find in the suttas, and that only recently had he awakened to the degree where the elimination of negative affects had become a reality for him (the classic description of an anagami).
Considering the above discussion, it is obvious the Biblical tradition contains nothing remotely comparable to the third noble truth. To represent otherwise is delusional. In fact, the Bible is entirely predicated upon assumptions (of permanence, immortality, a divine Lawgiver and the like) that make the idea of cessation either incomprehensible or downright repellent. See, for example, the Alagaddupama Sutta (M.22:18-21) where the eternalist (sassatavadin), confronted by the Buddha’s teaching, misinterprets it as implying the inevitable destruction of his self—and cries out in despair. This may explain the total disconnect in Mr. MacPherson’s discussion of the third noble truth. What, after all, could he possibly say? Either the Dhamma is taken for what it isn’t—as some kind of positive formulation of a mystical, substantialist metaphysics—or it is viewed (as was frequently the case with early European interpreters) as a negative, world denying nihilism. And what do we have here but the very dualism the Buddha discussed in the Nidanasamyutta? This world, Kaccana, depends upon a duality—upon notions of existence and nonexistence…