And another thing…
When we’re trying to understand a subtle thing like Nibbana, we should know from the beginning that we can’t really capture it in words. Heck, I can’t even describe the taste of pesto, what hope Nibbana?
That doesn’t mean we should despair or just not even try. It means that we should have a reasonable humility. And it means that we shouldn’t muck up the few clear facts that we do have – like the fact that the Buddha spoke countless times of how all forms of vinnana are impermanent and suffering and not-self.
Another of the clear facts that we have is the basic distinction between Nibbana in this life and Nibbana after death. Consciousness still operates as long as life lasts, no more. Here I will set out the basic facts, for simplicity treating only the full Awakening of an arahant.
We can distinguish the following aspects.
1. The event of Awakening. This happens once only, when a person penetrates the truth and abandons all defilements. At that moment they have a clear vision of the four noble truths, and the impossibility of them being reborn. This is a conscious experience of utmost clarity and brilliance. Since the third noble truth is Nibbana, this event involves an awareness of Nibbana. This is primarily described as Nibbana in the sense of the ending of defilements.
2. The mind of an arahant. After Awakening, the arahant lives every day in mindfulness and peace. They are fully aware, fully conscious. Nibbana is ever-present in the sense that there is never any greed, hatred, or delusion. But the mind otherwise functions as normal – thinking, feeling, experiencing, remembering, imagining, and so on. An arahant is not continuously aware of the 4 truths, but will clearly perceive them whenever she turns her mind to them.
3. The meditative attainment of arahant-fruition. This is a profound meditative immersion accessible only to arahants. It is somewhat controversial, but has some basis in the Suttas. It is clear, however, that consciousness is still operating here: it is different from the cessation of perception and feeling.
All the above aspects pertain to the living arahant, and in all of them it is uncontroversial to say that there is consciousness – in fact all 5 aggregates.
Then there is the state of the arahant after death, sometimes called ‘parinibbana’, more technically ‘anupadisesanibbana’, ‘Nibbana without residue’. It is here that all forms of conscious experience, inclusive of the 5 aggregates, or citta, or whatever you wish to call it, stop utterly and finally. This is clear and unambiguous in the Suttas.
When passages such as the ‘anidassana vinnana’ or the ‘pabhassara citta’ are invoked to lend support for the notion that Nibbana is an eternal cosmic awareness that survives the death of an arahant, the first question we should ask is, ‘Do these phrases actually refer clearly to the state of an arahant after death?’ If they don’t, they are irrelevant to the problem. We all agree that an arahant is conscious before their death.
Arguments for the ‘eternal-consciousness Nibbana’ almost invariably tend to slip from talking about the citta or vinnana in this life to the state after death. It is a subtle sleight of hand, which pivots on the ambiguity of the term Nibbana, and is hidden by the conceptual fog that mere mention of the term evokes. Read the Wikipedia article for a good example of how this works.
Nibbana is an enigma, elusive, threatening, uncompromising. It will never be tamed, no matter how hard we try to pretend that it’s something like something. It’s not. It’s nothing like anything.