A Goal Without Limits
March 10, 2024

Our duty with regard to the third noble truth is not to talk about it too much, it’s to realize it. But still, to do the duty with the fourth noble truth—the path to the end of suffering—we have to have some motivation. We have to convince ourselves that the path does lead to a good end. It’s for this reason that even though the Buddha said that the goal can’t be properly described, and the person attaining the goal can’t be properly described, either, still he would talk about the goal in enough of a way—through similes, names—to give us a sense that it is a positive thing. After all, he said, if you have any idea that on attaining the goal you would be disappointed or there would be any regret at all—that’s wrong view. The goal is totally satisfying.

Ajaan Suwat made this comment once, that it’s so satisfying that you don’t even ask who’s there experiencing it, whether you exist or don’t exist. The pleasure of the goal, even though it’s not a feeling, is a pleasure. It is a happiness. It is a bliss. And it’s that fulfilling.

So what are some of the ways the Buddha talks about the goal? One of the epithets he gives for it is: anidassana. It’s a word that doesn’t appear often in the Canon. It does appear in the suttas in two contexts: In one, the Buddha refers to space as being anidassana; in another, he talks about a special kind of consciousness that’s anidassana.

Now, nibbana is obviously not a space, but the way the Buddha talks about how space is anidassana gives some idea of what the word means. The sutta says that you can’t draw pictures or draw words on space because it’s anidassana—it doesn’t have a surface. Some people translate it as invisible, but you can draw pictures on invisible things, as when you draw pictures on glass. But if something doesn’t have a surface, there’s no place for pictures to stick.

It’s given as an analogy with the type of goodwill you want to have, the kind of mind you want to have, a mind where unkind things don’t stick. People can say horrible things to you, but their horrible things don’t stick. That makes it easier to be patient with difficult things, and to have goodwill even for the people who say those things.

As for consciousness, there are two passages where the Buddha talks about viññāṇa anidassana. They’re both in the contexts demonstrating what makes the Buddha superior to Brahmas. This type of consciousness is something he knows that they don’t know. In one case, he says it’s where name and form have no footing and are brought to an end. Some people say the Buddha here is referring to the concentration of infinite consciousness and not to nibbāna, but the concentration of infinite consciousness does contain some of the sub-factors of name: It’s based on a perception, the perception infinite consciousness, and it’s maintained by acts of attention and intention. So when the Buddha says that there’s no name or form in anidassana consciousness, he’s talking about nibbāna, because that’s where there’s no experience of name and form. Consciousness without surface is a type of consciousness but it’s not like the consciousness of the six senses, which depends on objects. This has no objects. The consciousness of the six senses or the five aggregates covers all consciousness in space and time—near, far, past, present, future—but this is something outside of space and time. That’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Our language can cover things within space and time, but things outside of space and time really can’t be described.

As for the other reference, the Buddha says that this consciousness is not known through the six senses. In other words, even when the six senses grow cold—which is the definition of what happens to an arahant at death—this consciousness is not affected.

Some people say that all consciousness is dependently co-arisen, therefore there cannot be any consciousness outside of space and time. But the Buddha himself never said that. There’s an interesting passage where a monk claims that this one consciousness goes from one life to the next. The Buddha asks him, “Which consciousness are you talking about?”

The monk says, “This consciousness that I experience right now.”

The Buddha says, “Didn’t I say with regard to dependently co-arisen consciousness that consciousness doesn’t last, that it’s inconstant?”

Notice he makes that qualification—“dependently-originated” consciousness doesn’t last, it keeps getting replaced by other acts of consciousness, but it itself doesn’t last. But the fact that he makes that qualification leaves open the possibility that there could be a consciousness that’s not dependently co-arisen. So the idea of consciousness without surface being outside of space and time doesn’t conflict with anything else in the suttas.

There’s an image in one of the suttas that gives you an idea of what it means for consciousness to be without surface. The Buddha talks about a house with a window on the eastern wall. The sun rises in the morning. If there’s a wall on the west, where does the sunbeam going through the eastern window land? The monks answer, “It lands on the western wall.” Literally, they say, it’s established on the western wall. “What if there’s no western wall?” Then it lands on the ground. “What if there’s no ground?” It lands on the water. (They believed in those days that the earth was supported by water.) “What if there’s no water?” It doesn’t land. It’s not established, there’s no surface for it.

Think about that, a light beam that has no surface to reflect off of. You can’t see it, which is why they say that an arahant whose consciousness is not established can’t be found. There are two places in the Canon where monks die, and Mara is looking for their consciousness. It can’t be found because it’s not established, it doesn’t land anywhere. A light beam of this sort can’t be seen by anyone else, because there’s nothing to reflect it. But that doesn’t mean that the light beam doesn’t exist. It’s like the light beams going through space. You look up at night and space seems totally black except for little pinpoints of light. Those are either sources of light or objects off of which light is reflected. If there were more objects in space, you’d see more reflected light. Space is full of light, actually, simply that when there’s nothing to reflect it, the light can’t be seen.

So think of that: a light beam that doesn’t reflect off of anything—totally unlimited. This lack of limitations is one of the descriptions both of the goal and of the person who attains the goal.

The few times that they try to talk about someone who has gained awakening and has passed away, they use the simile of the ocean. Just as the ocean is limitless, hard to fathom, the amount of the water can’t be measured—in the same way, the person who has gained awakening and has passed away is limitless and hard to fathom.

So we’re aiming at a state where there are no limitations. As the Buddha said: he dwelled with unrestricted awareness. As he lived in this life, he was aware of things, but these things didn’t impinge on him. As he put it, he would experience things “disjoined” from them. Even when he was practicing meditation, he was aware of the body in and of itself but disjoined from the body; aware of feelings and mind-states but disjoined from them. Not in a sense of being alienated, but simply because he was no longer feeding on these things. When you don’t feed on them, they don’t come into you. They don’t invade you. They can have their separate existence. You’re not limited by them.

So this is the main image to take away—total freedom from limitations. That’s the goal we’re aiming at. You can trust that the Buddha wouldn’t send you to annihilation or non-existence. It’s just that because you have no attachments when you’re fully awakened you can’t be defined. When you can’t be defined, you can’t be described as existing or non-existing or both or neither or anything else.

There are some people who advocate the idea that you’re basically nothing after gaining awakening and passing away, saying that when the Buddha says, “You can’t be described as existing or non-existing or both or neither,” he’s talking about the idea that you exist while you’re alive and stop existing when you’re no longer alive, but that you’re properly described as non-existing at any time at all. But that would be another way of describing the awakened person after death. And the Buddha says there are no ways of describing such a person. When we ask about whether we’ll exist or not, the answer he gives is not a trick answer. He refuses to answer because he says the question comes from a wrong state of mind in which you’re holding on to something. You’re holding on to the aggregates, either for fear of losing them or out of the desire to be done with them, but either way, you’re holding on.

So he has you put those questions aside, but you can rest assured that the goal is a good goal, that when you attain it there will be no regrets. That’s the Buddha’s promise. And it’s the promise of all those who have found the goal.

So take heart in your practice. This is a practice going to a good goal—total freedom, total limitlessness. Let that be your motivation to stick with the path.