The Third Noble Truth
The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. The term “cessation” here doesn’t refer to the fact that suffering, once it arises, ordinarily has to pass away. Instead, it denotes the absolute ending of any and all stress and suffering that arises from craving.
The way the Buddha defines this truth points out the basic strategy for how this cessation is brought about. You attack the problem at the cause. It’s like going into a house and seeing that it’s full of smoke. Instead of trying to put out the smoke, you try to find the fire causing the smoke, and you put that out. The smoke will then dissipate on its own.
In fact, this third noble truth is defined in a way that shows that it’s identical with the act of fulfilling the duty with regard to the second noble truth. It’s “the remainderless cessation through dispassion, giving away, giving back, release, and letting go of that very craving.”
In this sequence of terms, dispassion, virāga, can also mean “fading.” Suffering ceases when passion for the chain of events causing it fades from the mind.
The terms for “giving away,” “giving back,” and “release”—cāga, paṭinissaga, and mutti—refer to the fact that the mind, in acting on craving, lays possessive claim to it. To abandon craving, it has to abandon its claim and return it to nature. You see that even your cravings aren’t worth viewing as yours, so you give them their freedom.
The final term in the sequence—letting go (anālaya)—also carries the connotation that you let go with no sense of nostalgia for your cravings. You cut off the relationship entirely, with no lingering regret for what has ended.
Other passages in the Canon describe the dispassion and cessation of the third noble truth as the foremost phenomenon that can be experienced. There is no phenomenon higher than this (Iti 90).
Your duty with regard to this truth is to realize it. In other words, you not only abandon craving, but you’re also fully aware of how you do it, and of the results that come when you do.
As we noted in the preceding chapter, to develop dispassion for craving, you also have to develop dispassion for the processes of sensory experience on which it focuses. Because these processes are fabricated through your intentions, and because acts of fabrication are rooted in desire (AN 10:58), when you develop full dispassion for that desire, these fabrications cease as well. This means that all the processes around the six senses cease—at least for the duration of the experience of gaining awakening. The mind discovers a dimension that is totally separate from the six senses. As the Canon says, this dimension is not mediated by the six senses at all, and yet it can still be known (SN 35:117). Even when, after you gain awakening, you return to your experience of the six senses, you experience them “disjoined” from them: Because you no longer try to feed on them, you allow them their separate existence (MN 140).
Now, because language is a fabricated phenomenon, this unfabricated dimension can’t be properly described by words. Nevertheless, the Buddha needed to give some explanation for why it would be a good goal to aim for, and some indications of how to recognize it once attained. That’s why he described it indirectly through metaphors—nibbāna, “unbinding” being his metaphor of choice.
In ordinary Pali usage, the term nibbāna was used to describe the extinguishing of a fire. To understand the implications of this image, though, we have to understand how the Buddha described the physics of how fire worked.
Individuals fires, he said, were caused by provoking the fire property, which existed, in a calm latent state, to a greater or lesser degree in all things. When you provoked it—say, by using a fire-starter—it would grab hold and cling to the fuel that would sustain it. (Here, for fuel, the Buddha used the word upādāna, the same word for clinging/feeding that he used in the definition of suffering in the first noble truth.) As long as the fire burned, it was trapped in a state of heat and agitation. When it went out, it let go of its fuel, grew calm, and was released.
The Buddha used the term “unbinding” for the goal both to indicate that it was a state of freedom and calm—“cool” was another metaphor he used for this state—and also to suggest how to get there. Just as fuel doesn’t cling to the fire, it’s not the case that the aggregates cling to you. You’re the one clinging to them. You gain freedom by letting them go.
The main difference between the nibbāna of the fire and the nibbāna experienced by the mind is that the fire property can be provoked again, and so give rise to other fires. The release of the mind, though, is said to be unprovoked. Nothing can provoke it into clinging to anything ever again.
The Buddha also uses the metaphor of an extinguished fire to make the point that the person who has gained release can’t be described. Just as a fire, when it goes out, can’t be described as going east, west, north, or south, in the same way, a person fully released can’t be described as existing, not existing, both, or neither (MN 72). That’s because people are measured and defined as beings in terms of their attachments (SN 22:36). When they have no more attachments, they can’t be defined, and so can’t be properly described.
The Buddha was very rigorous in never describing the state of the person fully awakened, although he did give an image to indicate that such a person lies beyond the limits of language: Such a person, he said, is immeasurable like the great ocean (MN 72).
As for nibbāna as a state, there’s a paradox in how the Buddha talks about it, although the paradox can be easily resolved. In the passage in which he describes dispassion as the highest unfabricated phenomenon, or object of the mind, he lists the realization of nibbāna as a synonym of dispassion (Iti 90). In other passages, though, he indicates that nibbāna isn’t a phenomenon at all—it’s the end of phenomena (Sn 5:6; AN 10:58). We can resolve the paradox by noting that because the act of realizing nibbāna is an action, it would count as a phenomenon. But nibbāna as a state is beyond all actions, which is why it’s the ending of all phenomena, whether fabricated or not.
Still, the Buddha had to give his listeners some sense that nibbāna was a desirable goal. This is why he described it with many positive metaphors (SN 43). These metaphors can be divided into five classes, to give an idea of why you would want to unbind.
1. Unbinding is experienced as a type of consciousness. This consciousness is said to be “unrestricted,” “without surface,” and “unestablished,” meaning that it makes contact with no object at all, not even consciousness itself (AN 10:81, MN 49, Ud 8:1). The Buddha illustrates these terms with a simile: a beam of light that lands on no surface anywhere, causing nothing to reflect it (SN 12:64).
Unlike the consciousness aggregate, consciousness without surface isn’t known through the six senses. This is why unbinding is said to be subtle and hard-to-see. Yet because this consciousness is a form of knowing, the Buddha states that it’s a mistake to say that fully awakened people do not know or see (DN 15). In other words, awakening is not a blanking out. Actually, awakened people know and see to such a heightened extent that they’re beyond even the need for conviction in what the Buddha taught.
Consciousness without surface is also unlike the consciousness aggregate in that it’s totally outside of space and time. This is why the Buddha states that it contains no coming nor going nor staying in place, as these activities would assume time; and that it has no here nor there nor between-the-two, as these concepts assume space. Existing outside of space and time, this consciousness is without end.
2. The second aspect of unbinding is its truth. Because it’s unfabricated, it doesn’t change into anything else. Ever. After all, it’s outside of time. This is why the Buddha calls it undeceptive, unwavering, permanence, ageless, undecaying, deathless, unbent (i.e., not tending in any direction), and true. Because unbinding is a state (pada) rather than a being (satta), it doesn’t have to be defined by attachment, so the Canon doesn’t hesitate to say that it unequivocally exists. There’s even one passage where the Buddha calls it the highest noble truth.
3. The third positive aspect of unbinding is that it’s the ultimate sukha—a term that can be translated as pleasure, happiness, ease, or bliss. Unbinding, as experienced in this lifetime, is invariably described as pleasurable: It’s bliss, the exquisite, and the unafflicted. Just as consciousness without surface is totally apart from the consciousness aggregate, the bliss of unbinding is totally apart from the pleasure that comes under the feeling aggregate.
Given that unbinding is unfabricated, it has no need for nutriment, which means that its bliss has nothing lacking. So the fully awakened person is said to be hunger-free. And because this bliss is known independently of the six sense media, it’s not affected even by that person’s death (Iti 44; MN 49), which is why the Buddha calls unbinding peace, rest, the secure, security, island, shelter, harbor, and refuge.
4. However, even though unbinding is pleasant, fully awakened people don’t cling to this pleasure, so they’re not limited by it. They’re said to be beyond both pleasure and pain (Ud 1:10), and also free: free from the slightest disturbance or limitation, free from fabrication, free from the fires of passion, aversion, and delusion, free from passion for dispassion, and—as noted above—free even from the confines of space and time. Because locations come from craving, and because unbinding is free of craving, it doesn’t count as a “place” at all. For this reason, those who fully attain it are said to be everywhere released and everywhere independent (Dhp 348; Sn 4:6). Like the light beam that doesn’t reflect off of anything, they can’t even be located.
For these reasons, the fourth positive aspect of unbinding—and the one most emphasized in the Canon—is that it’s total freedom.
This freedom is indicated in a general sense by the Buddha’s two most common epithets for unbinding: the term unbinding itself, and release. Because, in line with the underlying metaphor of the extinguishing of fire, freedom comes from letting go, the remaining epithets for this freedom focus on the fact that unbinding is free from all the clinging defilements that cause suffering and stress: It’s attachment-free, free from longing, the ending of craving, dispassion. It’s purity. And as the Buddha indicates, the freedom of a person whose mind is released is no different from the freedom of the Buddha himself (SN 22:58).
5. In all the above aspects—consciousness, truth, bliss, and freedom—unbinding excels everything that there is, so its fifth aspect is its excellence. There’s nothing to equal it, much less to exceed or surpass it. The Buddha calls it the amazing, the astounding, the ultimate, and the beyond.