On the Way to Nibbana

Bhikkhu Professor Dhammavihari
Nibbana is the one and only goal of Buddhist spirituality. This is the final end in which the Buddha ended his noble quest for the termination of all samsaric ills. This he achieved here and now, in this very existence, at the very young age of thirty five. And he enjoyed the bliss and benefit of it for full forty five years, with no more to add to it. At eighty he had only to disclaim his physical body and part with it. After his physical death, he declared, that neither gods nor men will ever see him. His bodily relics, from wherever they are claimed today, are no more than symbolic items of veneration. No more proof of his physical presence or continuance.

But even at thirty five, the attainment of Nibbana carried with it the full implications of no more birth hereafter. In his joy of attaining this goal, the Buddha summed up his victory as follows - Ayam antima jati. Natthi ‘dani punabbhavo =‘ This is my last birth. There is no more being born again for me.’ One single Pali word which is used to refer to Nibbana seem to adequately illustrates this. It is nibbuti or no more revolutions or turning on of the wheel of life. Once Nibbana is reached, there is no further rolling on of the wheel of life. That is why it is said of Nibbana yattha vattam na vttati = where there is no more turning of the wheel.

Perhaps when held in contrast with the trikaya doctrine of the Mahayana, of the Buddha existing at three different levels of Dharma-kaya at cosmic level, Sambhoga-kaya at heavenly level and Nimana-kaya at down-to-earth level, this discontinuance of the life of Buddha Gotama after his physical death might look less glamorous. But we are sorry we can do no more about this. For nobody’s sake is Buddha Gotama going to be born again.

This Nibbana, as far as the Theravada Buddhism goes, is also personal and individual. Nibbana is not a place where we can go and meet Buddha Gotama. In the Thervada tradition, Nibbana is the opposite of Samsara. According to the earliest utterances of the Buddha, he has only two things to speak of [pnnapemi] to the world - dukkha and the cessation of dukkha: dukkan ca aham pannapemi dukkhassa ca nirodham. It does not need much Commentary writing to indicate that dukkha and therefore the cessation of dukkha or dukkha-nirodha which is equal to Nibbana is also personal and individual. Let no imagination of the poets, of Sri Lanka or anywhere, distort this.

Out of this original two fold presentation of dukkha and the cessation of dukkha [out of the Four Noble Truths], the way to the cessation of dukkha is an invariable derivative. One would naturally ask the question ‘How does one get there’? The answer is the Truth of the Way or magga sacca. And this is no more than personal development of each and everyone. We would consider it a gross howler to say that the Eightfold Path or Anyo atthangiko maggo is for the monk. It is for everyone who wishes to get to Nibbana.

This Eightfold Path is undeniably the Buddhist way to Nibbana. A complete outsider, i.e. a non-Buddhist from anywhere at any time, gets his first admission to Buddhism through this. The way begins with the entry into or acceptance of Buddhism. It implies a specific Buddhistness of approach. That is why the very first item of the magga sacca or the Noble Eightfold Path begins with samma-ditti. We choose to translate this term as corrected vision, by which we mean corrected in the Buddhist way. Note phrases like ujugata assa ditthi [= his vision straightened out] and agato imam saddhammam [= he has had an entry into this good doctrine] which occur as definitions of samma-hi in the Samma-ditthi Sutta at MN. I. 42.

A correct understanding of this initial step of samma-ditthi of the Eightfold Path, both with regard to its origin and its function, and an equally correct assessment of its role is very vital. It would, in our opinion, convince one that the religious and spiritual development implied in the Path or magga is sequential and successive and not concurrent as is sometimes believed to be by a certain school of interpreters of Buddhism.

In the interpretation of the Noble Eightfold Path, we are of the opinion that there are two serious errors that have crept in which are both misleading and damaging. One is the theory of concurrent development where the interpreters present the Path, comparing it to a cable with eight different strands twisted together [ The Noble Eightfold Path - Bhikkhu Bodhi, BPS. p. 13]. The other is to present the Noble Eightfold Path as being equal in size and content to the threefold total spiritual culture of Buddhism which goes under the name of tisso sikkha.

Inspite of the convincing statements presented, in anticipation as it were, of these possible misunderstandings, these errors have found their way in course of time. The earliest of these corrective statements we find in the Culavedalla Sutta of the Majihima Nikaya where Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna tells her erstwhile husband Visakha that while the threefold culture of tisso sikkha can contain within it the Noble Eightfold Path, the Noble Eightfold Path cannot contain within it the tisso sikkha [MN. I. 301]. Let us first take up this error of taking the Noble Eightfold Path as being equal to the tisso sikkha.

The threefold culture of tisso sikkha takes the pursuer of the path through all three stages [i.e. the complete set] of religious development in Buddhism, namely sila, samadhi and panna, up to the door step of release or vimutti in Nibbana. But the Noble Eightfold Path, it must be clearly noted, ends at the eighth item of samadhi. The Path itself proceeds no more. The pursuer of the Path needs, beyond this, the wisdom of nana [= panna] as the ninth item and the consequent release or vimutti as the tenth before he comes to be called the arahant or the accomplished one [Iti kho bhikkhave atthangasamannagato sekho patipado. Dasangasamannagato araha hoti. MN. III. 76.]

Therefore to treat these two items, the Noble Eightfold Path and the tisso sikkha as being equal? cutting up the Noble Eightfold Path into three segments to fit into the three divisions of the tisso sikkha is both unwarranted and misleading. Theri Dhammadina, in the Culavedalla Sutta quoted above, has warned us against doing this when she tells us that the three khandhas [ = sikkha ] cannot be contained within the Noble Eighffold Path [Na kho avuso Visakha ariyena atthangikena maggena tayo rhandha samagahita. MN. I. 301].

Let us now take up the theory of concurrent development of the Noble Eightfold Path where the interpreters present the Way, comparing it to a cable with eight different strands twisted together [ The Noble Eightfold Path - Bhikkhu Bodhi, BPS. p. 13 1. We find this completely contrary to the presentation of the Noble Eightfold Path in the early Buddhist texts in Pali.

In talking of the Noble Eightfold Path, the suttas refer to its first item samma ditthi as heralding or introducing the Path - samma-ditthi pubbangama hoti. Samma-ditthi is the fore-runner. This means that it stands as the first item in the list. The rest therefore necessarily come after. It is samma-ditthi which enables one to correctly judge wrong patterns of thought [miccha-sankappa] as wrong and correct ones [samma-sankappa] as correct. Samma-sankappa is unmistakably the second item in the Noble Eightfold Path, generated through samma-ditthi’ which heads the series. Note how the Sutta correctly allocates the right place to each item. [Kathan ca bhikkhave samma-ditthi pubbangama hoti? Miccha-sankappa michcha-sankappo ‘ti pajanati samma-sankappam samma sankappo‘ ti pajanati. Sa ‘ssa hoti samma-ditthi. Mahacattarisaka Sutta MN. III.72]

It is also to be noted that the four following items of the Path [ 2, 3, 4 and 5 ], i.e. samma- sankappo or correct thoughts, samma-vaca or correct speech, samma-kammanto or correct action and samma-ajivo or correct livelihood are the major components of day to day living. In the perfecting of these, in pursuit of the transcendental goal, the Mahacattarisaka Sutta points out that the continuous and concurrent assistance of samma-ditthi, samma-vayamo and samma-sati is invariably needed [Itissime tayo dhamma samma-sankappam... anuparidhavanti anuparivaffanti seyyathidam samma-di.ffhi samma-vayama, samma-sati. Ibid. 73-75]. But a closer scrutiny of their behaviour makes it quite clear that in this context they are not equal in stature to their counterparts on the Path. They play a very different and very limited role here as supportive associates.

Another very important word which one must not miss in the study of the Noble Eightfold Path is the word pahoti [= is generated or produced] which is used with every second item in the list in relation to the preceding one, implying that the latter is produced by the former - Samma-ditthhissa bhikkhave samma-sankappo pahoti, samma-saankappassa samma-vaca pahoti... samma-satissa samma-samadhi pahoti. [loc.cit. 76.]. This definitely points in the direction of sequential development.

In a Digha Nikaya sutta called the Janavasabha [DN. II. 216 f.], Brahma Sanankumara is presented as addressing the devas of the Tavatimsa world and telling them of the seven contributory factors as ‘well proclaimed by the Buddha‘ [yava supannatav’ ime tena bhgavata janata passata...] which lead to the establishment of samma-samadhi. They are referred to as satta samadhi-parikkhara. Here too the sequential development of each succeeding factor from the preceding one is emphatically presented with the use of the same word pahoti as referred to above. Here too, as in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta, samma-samadhi is followed by the two additional items - samma-nana which is No. 9 and samma- vimutti which is No.10.

We are sorry Professor Rhys Davids has seriously misunderstood this portion of the sutta and incorrigibly blundered in its translation [Dialogues of the Buddha II. p. 250]. He has bungled in the translation of the word pahoti. He takes it to mean suffices to. This has compelled him to reverse the word order, putting the second noun as the first, making it the subject and taking the first as its object. This is his translation - Right intention suffices to maintain right views for Samma-ditthissa samma-samkappo pahoti. Maurice Walshe in his Thus Have I Heard [p. 299] gets it correct as "From right view arises right thought".

This sequential and successive development from stage to stage in the Noble Eightfold Path is evident from the sutta references given above. The quest for release in Nibbana, i.e. vimutti, does not terminate with samadhi as the last item of the Path. The development proceeds further as we have already indicated earlier from samadhi to nana as the ninth and from there to vimutti as the tenth, ending at the final goal of arahanthood. This is the termination in Nirvana of the samsaric process for all beings - the Buddha as well as all Buddhist followers.