There’s an important difficulty understanding Nirvana. (The word itself comes from the Sanskrit; the word ‘Nibbana,’ which means the same thing, comes from the Pali). The difficulty is that understanding Nirvana requires nonconceptual understanding.
The reason this is an important difficulty is that realizing Nirvana is the aim of all Buddhist practice.
Although its name may be unfamiliar, we are all familiar with teleological reasoning. In Greek the word “telos” means “completion, end, purpose.” Aristotle, in particular, was seriously interested in human design. In fact, he had a teleological understanding of the entire universe: telos was not only the good, but the ultimate Good, the First Mover, that was the final cause of all movement in the entire universe.
In everyday life, we behave as we do because we are aiming at some good or other. If I ask you why you are eating that apple, you may reply that you are hungry and, so, are eating that apple to diminish your hunger. The good you are aiming at is the end of your hunger.
There are many different kinds of Buddhist practices, such as meditation, chanting, and prostrations. They all aim at realizing Nirvana. What exactly is it, though, at which they are aiming? What, in other words, is understanding Nirvana correctly?
Etymologically, the word comes from nir + va and means “blowing out” as in the blowing out of a candle. Is it, then, correctly understanding Nirvana to think of it as extinction or total obliteration? Is it the total extinction of all experience?
Sometimes it is taken to mean this. However, wouldn’t it be very strange if this is all it was? After all, there are many dedicated Buddhist practitioners who spend much of their lives attempting to realize Nirvana. If all it is is annihilation, wouldn’t that be senseless?
However, there are texts in which it does seem to have that meaning. On the other hand, there are also texts in which it doesn’t have that meaning and instead means ‘highest bliss.’ The Buddha claims that our native state is a state of intense, abiding joy. (N.B.: this is not the emotional joy that alternates with sorrow.) The purpose of practicing is to uncover that state this is already there.
Combining these two concepts is why there’s a problem understanding Nirvana: it makes little or no sense to say that it is the great bliss of total annihilation!
Purely negative characterizations such as “the Deathless” or “the total extinction of desire and suffering” may tell us what it is not, but they obviously are little help in telling us what it is. For example, although the Buddha describes the goal as “the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage,” [The Buddha, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Boston: Wisdom, 2005), p. 86.] that doesn’t tell us what it is. Yes, it is liberation, an unbinding, but that is still unsatisfying.
The Buddha states that “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned” that provides an escape from “what is born, become, made conditioned” [In the Buddha’s Words, p. 366.]. If so, it may be of utmost importance to know that there is such an escape, but that still requires understanding what it is, understanding nirvana.
The same applies to the reasoning that a sage no longer identifies with the five aggregates. Since the five aggregates constitute personal identity, it appears to the mind that a sage no longer has any personal identity!
Synonyms such as “enlightenment” are useless unless we already have an understanding of the original concept.
Here’s the solution: understanding Nirvana requires nonconceptual understanding.
What’s the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual understanding?
As the word ‘conceptual’ implies, conceptual understanding works by relying on concepts. Concepts are principles of classification. If you have the concept redness, you are able to sort (classify, divide) colored objects into those that are red and those that aren’t. If you have the concept rectangularity, you are able to sort shaped objects into those that are rectangular and those that aren’t.
We learn concepts by noticing similarities and differences. Crimson is more like pink than it is like yellow. Redness has a set of similar colors, arranged from darker to lighter, under it. Since being red is more like being yellow than it’s like being rectangular, red and yellow are arranged under a more generic concept (namely, color), whereas being rectangular is sorted under a different generic concept (namely, shape).
Many different conceptual systems are possible depending upon which similarities and differences are important to us. What we find important is relative to our experience. (Blind people don’t care about colors.) In different circumstances, all sorts of similarities and differences are important to us, which explains why there are so many languages.
Discursive thinking is what grounds conceptual understanding.
By way of contrast, what grounds nonconceptual understanding? What is understanding without conceptualizing? Can the notion of nonconceptual understanding help us in understanding nirvana?
If you are stuck thinking conceptually you will naturally deny the existence of nonconceptual understanding. As Sengcan put it in the oldest extant Zen document: “Remaining in duality, / you’ll never know of unity.” [Rochester Zen Center translation.] This is like a blind person denying the existence of color: understandable but sad.
Because it works by sorting and organizing objects, conceptual understanding requires requires duality or multiplicity. By way of contrast, the object of nonconceptual understanding is unity; because it is the direct apprehension of oneness, it is spoiled by duality or multiplicity.
Therefore, when it comes to understanding Nirvana, conceptual understanding is impotent. Nonconceptual understanding is required for understanding Nirvana.
Linguistic communication presupposes duality or multiplicity. Like all spiritual teachers, the Buddha was attempting to do the impossible, namely, communicate unity using dualistic language. It can’t be done.
Nirvana is ineffable. It is beyond linguistic description. That’s not because it isn’t real; it’s because of the inherent limitation of language.
It’s important not to confuse an initial breakthrough or awakening with enlightenment [Cf. “The Benefits of Meditation” in my The Three Things the Rest of Us Should Know about Zen Training.] For some people, apparently an initial breakthrough may be so shallow that they don’t even realize that they’ve had a breakthrough! There’s an enormous difference between that and being a fully enlightened sage who has worked on extending the results of an initial breakthrough for many years.
However, only an initial breakthrough is required for understanding nirvana. All that is required is an initial insight into the egolessness, nonseparability, and insubstantiality of all forms. A single opening glimpse is all it takes.
Until then, all Buddhist practitioners have no choice but to be fueled by faith. After awakening, that faith is no longer required because it has been replaced by direct experience of unity.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended resources: Aristotle, Metaphysics; F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms; The Buddha, In the Buddha’s Words; The Buddha, Dhammapada, and The Buddha, The Long Discourses of The Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 1995; M. Walshe, tr.).