“This fire that has gone out… in which direction from here has it gone?”
The discourses report two instances where brāhmans asked the Buddha about the nature of the goal he taught, and he responded with the analogy of the extinguished fire. There is every reason to believe that, in choosing this analogy, he was referring to a concept of fire familiar to his listeners, and, as they had been educated in the Vedic tradition, that he probably had the Vedic concept of fire in mind. This, of course, is not to say that he himself adhered to the Vedic concept or that he was referring to it in all its details. He was simply drawing on a particular aspect of fire as seen in the Vedas so that his listeners could have a familiar reference point for making sense of what he was saying.
Now, although the Vedic texts contain several different theories concerning the physics of fire, there is at least one basic point on which they agree: Fire, even when not manifest, continues to exist in a latent form. The Vedic view of all physical phenomena is that they are the manifestation of pre-existent potencies inherent in nature. Each type of phenomenon has its corresponding potency, which has both personal & impersonal characteristics: as a god and as the powers he wields. In the case of fire, both the god & the phenomenon are called Agni:
Agni, who is generated, being produced [churned] by men through the agency of sahas.
‘Sahas’ here is the potency, the power of subjugation, wielded by Agni himself. Jan Gonda, in discussing this passage, comments, ‘The underlying theory must have been…that a man and his physical strength are by no means able to produce a god or potency of Agni’s rank. Only the cooperation or conjunction of that special principle which seems to have been central in the descriptions of Agni’s character, his power of subjugation, his overwhelming power, can lead to the result desired, the appearance of sparks and the generation of fire.’ Further, ‘a divine being like Agni was in a way already pre-existent when being generated by a pair of kindling sticks’ (1957, pp. 22-3). As fire burns, Agni ‘continues entering’ into the fire (AV 4,39,9). Scattered in many places—as many separate fires—he is nevertheless one & the same thing (RV 3,55). Other fires are attached to him as branches to a tree (RV 8,19).
When fire is extinguished, Agni and his powers do not pass out of existence. Instead, they go into hiding. This point is expressed in a myth, mentioned frequently in the Vedic texts, of Agni’s trying to hide himself from the other gods in places where he thought they would never perceive him. In the version told in RV 10,51, the gods finally find the hidden Agni as an embryo in the water.
[Addressed to Agni]: Great was the membrane & firm, that enveloped you when you entered the waters…. We searched for you in various places, O Agni, knower of creatures, when you had entered into the waters & plants.
As Chauncey Blair notes, ‘The concept of Agni in the waters does not imply destruction of Agni. He is merely a hidden, a potential Agni, and no less capable of powerful action’ (1961, p. 103).
The implications of Agni’s being an embryo are best understood in light of the theories of biological generation held in ancient India:
The husband, after having entered his wife, becomes an embryo and is born again of her.
Just as ancient Indians saw an underlying identity connecting a father & his offspring, so too did they perceive a single identity underlying the manifest & embryonic forms of fire. In this way, Agni, repeatedly reborn, was seen as immortal; and in fact, the Vedas attribute immortality to him more frequently than to any other of the gods.
To you, immortal! When you spring to life, all the gods sing for joy….By your powers they were made immortal….[Agni], who extended himself over all the worlds, is the protector of immortality.
Not only immortal, but also omnipresent: Agni in his manifest form is present in all three levels of the cosmos—heaven, air, & earth—as sun, lightning, & flame-fire. As for his latent presence, he states in the myth of his hiding, ‘my bodies entered various places’; a survey of the Vedas reveals a wide variety of places where his embryos may be found. Some of them—such as stone, wood, plants, & kindling sticks—relate directly to the means by which fire is kindled & fueled. Others relate more to fire-like qualities & powers, such as brilliance & vitality, present in water, plants, animals, & all beings. In the final analysis, Agni fills the entire universe as the latent embryo of growth & vitality. As Raimundo Panikkar writes, ‘Agni…is one of the most comprehensive symbols of the reality that is all-encompassing’ (1977, p.325).
Agni pervades & decks the heaven & earth…his forms are scattered everywhere.
He [Agni] who is the embryo of waters, embryo of woods, embryo of all things that move & do not move.
In plants & herbs, in all existent beings, I [Agni] have deposited the embryo of increase. I have engendered all progeny on earth, and sons in women hereafter.
You [Agni] have filled earth, heaven, & the air between, and follow the whole cosmos like a shadow.
We call upon the sage with holy verses, Agni Vaiśvānara, the ever-beaming, who has surpassed both heaven & earth in greatness. He is a god below, a god above us.
This view that Agni/fire in a latent state is immortal & omnipresent occurs also in the Upaniṣads that were composed circa 850-750 B.C. and later accepted into the Vedic Canon. The authors of these texts use this view to illustrate, by way of analogy, the doctrines of a unitary identity immanent in all things, and of the immortality of the soul in spite of apparent death.
Now, the light that shines higher than this heaven, on the backs of all, on the backs of everything, in the highest worlds, than which there are no higher—truly that is the same as the light here within a person. There is this hearing of it—when one closes one’s ears and hears a sound, a roar, as of a fire blazing.
Truly, this Brahma [the god that the Upaniṣads say is immanent in the cosmos] shines when fire blazes, and disappears when it does not blaze. Its brilliance goes to the sun; its vital breath to the wind.
This Brahma shines when the sun is seen, and disappears when it is not seen. Its brilliance goes to the moon, its vital breath to the wind. [Similarly for moon & lightning.]
Truly, all these divinities, having entered into wind, do not perish when they die [disappear] in the wind; indeed, from there they come forth again.
In the major non-canonical Upaniṣads—whose period of composition is believed to overlap with the time of the Buddha—the analogy is even more explicit:
As the one fire has entered the world
and becomes corresponding in form to every form,
so the Inner Soul of all things
corresponds in form to every form,
and yet is outside.
As the material form of fire,
when latent in its source,
is not perceived—
and yet its subtle form
is not destroyed,
but may be seized again
in its fuel-source—
so truly both [the universal Brahmā
& the individual soul]
are [to be seized]in the body
by means of [the meditation word] AUM.
Making one’s body the lower friction stick,
and AUM the upper stick,
practicing the drill of meditative absorption,
one may see the god,
hidden as it were.
One interesting development in this stratum of the Vedic literature is the positive sense in which it comes to regard extinguished fire. The Vedic hymns & earlier Upaniṣads saw burning fire as a positive force, the essence of life & vitality. These texts, though, see the tranquility & inactivity of the extinguished fire as an ideal image for the soul’s desired destination.
To that God, illumined by his own intellect,
do I, desiring liberation, resort for refuge—
to him without parts,
the highest bridge to the deathless,
like a fire with fuel consumed.
As fire through loss of fuel
grows still [extinguished] in its own source,
so thought by loss of activeness
grows still in its own source….
For by tranquility of thought
good & evil karma.
With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul,
Whether this re-evaluation of the image of fire—seeing its extinguishing as preferable to its burning—predated the founding of Buddhism, was influenced by it, or simply paralleled it, no one can say for sure, as there are no firm dates for any of the Upaniṣads. At any rate, in both stages of the Vedic attitude toward fire, the thought of a fire going out carried no connotations of going out of existence at all. Instead, it implied a return to an omnipresent, immortal state. This has led some scholars to assume that, in using the image of an extinguished fire to illustrate the goal he taught, the Buddha was simply adopting the Vedic position wholesale and meant it to carry the same implications as the last quotation above: a pleasant eternal existence for a tranquil soul.
But when we look at how the Buddha actually used the image of extinguished fire in his teachings, we find that he approached the Vedic idea of latent fire from another angle entirely: If latent fire is everywhere all at once, it is nowhere in particular. If it is conceived as always present in everything, it has to be so loosely defined that it has no defining characteristics, nothing by which it might be known at all. Thus, instead of using the subsistence of latent fire as an image for immortality, he uses the diffuse, indeterminate nature of extinguished fire as understood by the Vedists to illustrate the absolute indescribability of the person who has reached the Buddhist goal.
Just as the destination of a glowing fire
struck with a [blacksmith’s] iron hammer,
gradually growing calm,
Even so, there’s no destination to describe
for those who are rightly released
—having crossed over the flood
of sensuality’s bonds—
for those who’ve attained
‘But, Venerable Gotama [the brāhman, Aggivessana Vacchagotta, is addressing the Buddha], the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?’
‘“Reappear,” Vaccha, doesn’t apply.’
‘In that case, Venerable Gotama, he does not reappear.’
‘“Does not reappear,” Vaccha, doesn’t apply.’
‘…both does & does not reappear.’
‘…neither does nor does not reappear.’
‘At this point, Venerable Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured.’
‘Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. How do you construe this, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, “This fire is burning in front of me”?’
‘And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, “This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?” Thus asked, how would you reply?’
‘…I would reply, “This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.”’
‘If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that “This fire burning in front of me has gone out”?’
‘And suppose someone were to ask you, “This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?” Thus asked, how would you reply?’
‘That doesn’t apply, Venerable Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass & timber, being unnourished—from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other—is classified simply as “out” [nibbuto].’
‘Even so, Vaccha, any form by which one describing the Tathāgata would describe him: That the Tathāgata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of existence, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathāgata is deep, boundless, hard-to-fathom, like the sea. “Reappears” doesn’t apply. “Does not reappear” doesn’t apply. “Both does & does not reappear” doesn’t apply. “Neither reappears nor does not reappear” doesn’t apply.
‘Any feeling… Any perception… Any fabrication…
‘Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathāgata would describe him: That the Tathāgata has abandoned…. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathāgata is deep, boundless, hard-to-fathom, like the sea.’
The person who has attained the goal is thus indescribable because he/she has abandoned all things by which he/she could be described. This point is asserted in even more thoroughgoing fashion in a pair of dialogues where two inexperienced monks who have attempted to describe the state of the Tathāgata after death are cross-examined on the matter by Ven. Sāriputta & the Buddha himself.
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘How do you construe this, my friend Yamaka: Do you regard form as the Tathāgata?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Do you regard feeling as the Tathāgata?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘…perception…?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘…fabrications…?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘…consciousness…?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Do you regard the Tathāgata as being in form? Elsewhere than form? In feeling? Elsewhere than feeling? In perception? Elsewhere than perception? In fabrications? Elsewhere than fabrications? In consciousness? Elsewhere than consciousness?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Do you regard the Tathāgata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Do you regard the Tathāgata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘No, friend.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘And so, my friend Yamaka—when you can’t pin down the Tathāgata as a truth or reality even in the present life—is it proper for you to declare, “As I understand the Teaching explained by the Blessed One, a monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, & does not exist after death”?’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘Previously, friend Sāriputta, I did foolishly hold that evil supposition. But now, having heard your explanation of the Teaching, I have abandoned that evil supposition, and the Teaching has become clear.’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: “A monk, a worthy one, with no more effluents, what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?”’
Ven. Yamaka: ‘Thus asked, I would answer, “Form…feeling… perception… fabrications…consciousness are inconstant. That which is inconstant is stressful. That which is stressful has stopped and gone to its end.”’
The Buddha puts the same series of questions to the monk Anurādha who—knowing that the Tathāgata after death could not be described in terms of existence, non-existence, both, or neither—had attempted to describe the Tathāgata in other terms. After receiving the same answers as Ven. Yamaka had given Ven. Sāriputta, the Buddha concludes:
‘And so, Anurādha—when you can’t pin down the Tathāgata as a truth or reality even in the present life—is it proper for you to declare, “Friend, the Tathāgata—the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment—being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathāgata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death”?’
‘Very good, Anurādha. Both formerly & now, Anurādha, it is only stress that I describe, and the stopping of stress.’
Thus none of the four alternatives—reappearing/existing, not reappearing/ existing, both, & neither—can apply to the Tathāgata after death, because even in this lifetime there is no way of defining or identifying what the Tathāgata is.
To identify a person by the contents of his or her mind—such things as feelings, perceptions, or fabrications—there would have to be a way of knowing what those contents are. In ordinary cases, the texts say, this is possible through either of two cognitive skills that a meditator can develop through the practice of meditation and that beings on higher planes of existence can also share: the ability to know where a living being is reborn after death, and the ability to know another being’s thoughts.
In both skills the knowledge is made possible by the fact that the ordinary mind exists in a state of dependency on its objects. When a being is reborn, its consciousness has to become established at a certain point: This point is what a master of the first skill perceives. When the ordinary mind thinks, it needs a mental object to act as a prop or support (ārammaṇa) for its thoughts: This support is what a master of the second skill perceives. The mind of a person who has attained the goal, though, is free from all dependencies and so offers no means by which a master of either skill can perceive it.
Then the Blessed One went with a large number of monks to the Black Rock on the slope of Isigili. From afar he saw Ven. Vakkali lying dead on a couch. Now at that time a smokiness, a darkness was moving to the east, moving to the west, moving to the north, the south, above, below, moving to the intermediate directions. The Blessed One said, ‘Monks, do you see that smokiness, that darkness…?’
‘That is Māra*, the Evil One. He is searching for the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman: “Where is the consciousness of Vakkali the clansman established?” But, monks, through unestablished consciousness, Vakkali the clansman has attained total nibbāna.’
[The Buddha describes the meditative state of a person who has achieved the goal and is experiencing a foretaste of nibbāna after death while still alive. We will discuss the nature of this meditative state below. Here, though, we are interested in how this person appears to those who would normally be able to fathom another person’s mind.]
‘There is the case, Sandha, where for an excellent thoroughbred of a man the perception of earth with regard to earth has ceased to exist; the perception of liquid with regard to liquid…the perception of heat with regard to heat…the perception of wind with regard to wind…the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space with regard to the dimension of the infinitude of space…the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness with regard to the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness…the perception of the dimension of nothingness with regard to the dimension of nothingness…the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception with regard to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception…the perception of this world with regard to this world…the next world with regard to the next world…and whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect: the perception with regard even to that has ceased to exist.
‘Absorbed in this way, the excellent thoroughbred of a man is absorbed dependent neither on earth, liquid, heat, wind, the dimension of the infinitude of space, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the dimension of nothingness, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, this world, the next world; nor on whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after or pondered by the intellect—and yet he is absorbed. And to this excellent thoroughbred of a man, absorbed in this way, the gods, together with Indra, the Brahmās & their viceroys, pay homage even from afar:
“Homage to you, O thoroughbred man.
Homage to you, O superlative man—
of whom we have no direct knowledge
even by means of that with which
you are absorbed.”’
Thus the mind that has attained the goal cannot be known or described from the outside because it is completely free of any dependency—any support or object inside it—by which it might be known. This point forms the context for the dialogue in which the brāhman Upasīva asks the Buddha about the person who attains the goal.
If he stays there, O All-around Eye,
unaffected for many years,
would he be cooled & released?
Would [his] consciousness become like that?
As a flame overthrown by the force of the wind
goes to an end not fitting to classify,
so the sage freed from naming (mental) activity
goes to an end not fitting to classify.
He who has reached the end:
Does he not exist,
or is he for eternity free from affliction?
Please, sage, declare this to me
as this phenomenon has been known by you.
One who has reached the end has no criterion
by which anyone would say that—
for him it doesn’t exist.
When all phenomena are done away with,
done away are all means of speaking as well.
The important term in the last verse is pamāṇa: ‘criterion’. It is a pregnant term, with meanings both in philosophical and in ordinary usage. In philosophical discourse, it refers to a means of knowledge or a standard used to assess the validity of an assertion or object. In the Buddha’s time and later, various schools of thought specialized in discussing the nature and role of such criteria. The Maitri Upaniṣad contains one of their basic tenets:
Because of its precision, this [the course of the sun through the zodiac] is the criterion for time. For without a criterion, there is no ascertaining the things to be assessed.
Thus when a mind has abandoned all phenomena, there is no means or criterion by which anyone else could know or say anything about it. This much is obvious. But the verse also seems to be saying that the goal is indescribable from the inside—for the person experiencing it—as well. First, the verse is in response to Upasīva’s inquiry into the goal as the Buddha has known it. Secondly, the line, ‘for him it doesn’t exist,’ can mean not only that the person experiencing the goal offers no criteria to the outside by which anyone else might describe him/her, but also that the experience offers no criteria from the inside for describing it either. And as we have already noted, the outside criteria by which a person might be described are determined precisely by what is there inside the person’s mind. Thus, for the person experiencing the goal, there would not even be any means of knowing whether or not there was a person having the experience. There would simply be the experience in & of itself.
This is where the ordinary meaning of pamāṇa—as limit or measurement—comes in. This meaning goes back to the Vedic hymns. There, the act of measuring is seen as an essential part of the process of the creation (or ‘building,’ like a house) of the cosmos. In one Ṛg Vedic hymn (X.129), for example, the creation of mind is followed by the appearance of a horizontal limit or measuring line separating male from female (heaven from earth). From this line, the rest of the cosmos is laid out.
So to say that no criterion/measurement/limit exists for the person experiencing the goal means that the person’s experience is totally free of all the most elementary perceptions & distinctions that underlie our knowledge of the cosmos. And the word ‘free’—one of the few the Buddha uses in a straightforward way to describe the mind that has attained the goal—thus carries two meanings: free from dependency, as we have already seen; and free from limitations, even of the most abstruse & subtlest sort.
This second reading of the verse—dealing with the limitlessness & indescribability of the goal for the person experiencing it—is supported by a number of other passages in the Pali Canon referring explicitly to the inner experience of the goal.
Consciousness without surface, without end,
luminous all around:
Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing.
Here long & short,
coarse & fine,
fair & foul,
name & form
are all brought to an end.
With the stopping
of [sensory] consciousness,
each is here brought to an end.
‘There is, monks, that dimension where there is neither earth nor water, nor fire nor wind, nor dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, nor this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis, nor passing away, nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.’
Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing:
There the stars do not shine,
the sun is not visible,
the moon does not appear,
darkness is not found.
And when a brāhman, a sage through sagacity
has known [this] for himself,
then from form & formless,
from pleasure & pain,
he is freed.
‘Consciousness without surface, without end, radiant all around, is not experienced through the solidity of earth, the liquidity of water, the radiance of fire, the windiness of wind, the divinity of devas [and so on through a list of the various levels of godhood to] the allness of the All.’
The phrase ‘the allness of the All’ can best be understood with reference to the following three passages:
‘What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is termed the All. Anyone who would say, “Repudiating this All, I will describe another,” if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.’
If the six senses & their objects—sometimes called the six spheres of contact—constitute the All, is there anything beyond the All?
Ven. MahāKoṭṭhita: ‘With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six spheres of contact [vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, & intellection] is it the case that there is anything else?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Don’t say that, my friend.’
Ven. MahāKoṭṭhita: ‘With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six spheres of contact, is it the case that there is not anything else?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Don’t say that, my friend.’
Ven. MahāKoṭṭhita: ‘…is it the case that there both is & is not anything else?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Don’t say that, my friend.’
Ven. MahāKoṭṭhita: ‘…is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything else?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Don’t say that, my friend.’
Ven. MahāKoṭṭhita: ‘Being asked… if there is anything else, you say, “Don’t say that, my friend.” Being asked… if there is not anything else…if there both is & is not anything else… if there neither is nor is not anything else, you say, “Don’t say that, my friend.” Now, how is the meaning of this statement to be understood?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘Saying… is it the case that there is anything else… is it the case that there is not anything else… is it the case that there both is & is not anything else… is it the case the there neither is nor is not anything else, one is objectifying the non-objectified. However far the six spheres of contact go, that is how far objectification goes. However far objectification goes, that is how far the six spheres of contact go. With the remainderless fading & stopping of the six spheres of contact, there comes to be the stopping, the allaying of objectification.’
The dimension of non-objectification, although it may not be described, may be realized through direct experience.
‘Monks, that dimension should be experienced where the eye [vision] stops and the perception [label] of form fades. That dimension should be experienced where the ear stops and the perception of sound fades… where the nose stops and the perception of aroma fades… where the tongue stops and the perception of flavor fades… where the body stops and the perception of tactile sensation fades… where the intellect stops and the perception of idea/phenomenon fades: That dimension should be experienced.’
This experience of the goal—absolutely unlimited freedom, beyond classification and exclusive of all else—is termed the elemental nibbāna property with no ‘fuel’ remaining (anupādisesa-nibbāna-dhātu). It is one of two ways in which nibbāna is experienced, the distinction between the two being expressed as follows:
‘Monks, there are these two forms of the nibbāna property. Which two? The nibbāna property with fuel remaining, and the nibbāna property with no fuel remaining.
‘And what is the nibbāna property with fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose effluents have ended, who has attained completion, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. His five [sense] faculties still remain and, owing to their being intact, he experiences the pleasing & the displeasing, and is sensitive to pleasure & pain. His ending of passion, aversion, & delusion is termed the nibbāna property with fuel remaining.
‘And what is the nibbāna property with no fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant…released through right gnosis. For him, all that is sensed, being unrelished, will grow cold right here. This is termed the nibbāna property with no fuel remaining.’
The phrase referring to the range of feeling as ‘growing cold right here’ is a set expression describing death as experienced by one who has reached the goal. The verse following this passage states explicitly that this is what is meant here.
by the one with vision
the one independent
the one who is Such:
one property, here in this life
with fuel remaining
from the ending of [craving],
the guide to becoming
and that with no fuel remaining
after this life
in which becomings
Those who know this unfabricated state,
their minds released
through the ending of [craving],
the guide to becoming,
they, attaining the Teaching’s core,
delighting in ending,
have abandoned all becomings:
they, the Such.
The Verses of the Elder Udāyin suggest a simile to illustrate the distinction between these two nibbāna properties:
A great blazing fire
unnourished grows calm
and though its embers exist
is said to be out:
Conveying a meaning,
this image is taught by the cognizant.
Great Nāgas* will recognize
the Nāga as taught by the Nāga
as free from passion,
free from aversion,
free from delusion,
His body discarded, the Nāga
will go totally out
Here Ven. Udāyin compares the nibbāna property with fuel remaining—the state of being absolutely free from passion, aversion, & delusion—to a fire whose flames have died out, but whose embers are still glowing. Although he does not complete the analogy, he seems to imply that the nibbāna property without fuel remaining—when the Worthy One discards his body at death—is like a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold.
Thus the completely free & unadulterated experience we have been discussing is that of nibbāna after death. There are, though, states of concentration which give a foretaste of this experience in the present life and which enabled the Buddha to say that he taught the goal on the basis of direct knowledge.
Ven. Ānanda: ‘In what way, venerable sir, might a monk attain concentration of such a form that he would have neither the perception of earth with regard to earth, nor of water with regard to water, nor of fire… wind… the dimension of the infinitude of space… the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception… this world… nor of the next world with regard to the next world, and yet he would still be percipient?’
The Buddha: ‘There is the case, Ānanda, where he would be percipient of this: “This is peace, this is exquisite—the pacification of all fabrications; the relinquishing of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; stopping; nibbāna.”’
[Ven. Ānanda puts the same question to Ven. Sāriputta, who responds that he himself once had experienced such a concentration.]
Ven. Ānanda: ‘But what were you percipient of at that time?’
Ven. Sāriputta: ‘”The stopping of becoming—nibbāna—the stopping of becoming—nibbāna”: One perception arose in me as another perception stopped. Just as in a blazing woodchip fire, one flame arises as another flame stops, even so, “The stopping of becoming—nibbāna—the stopping of becoming—nibbāna”: One perception arose in me as another one stopped. I was percipient at that time of “the stopping of becoming—nibbāna.”’
Ven. Ānanda: ‘It is amazing, my friend, it is marvelous, how the Blessed One has attained & recognized the opportunity for the purification of beings…and the direct realization of nibbāna, where the eye will be, and forms, and yet one will not be sensitive to that dimension; where the ear will be, and sounds…where the nose will be, and aromas… where the tongue will be, and flavors…where the body will be, and tactile sensations, and yet one will not be sensitive to that dimension.’
Ven. Udāyin: ‘Is one insensitive to that dimension percipient or not percipient?’
Ven. Ānanda: ‘… percipient…’
Ven. Udāyin: ‘… percipient of what?’
Ven. Ānanda: ‘There is the case where—with the complete transcending of perceptions of form, and the passing away of perceptions of resistance, and not attending to perceptions of diversity—(perceiving,) ‘infinite space,’ one remains in the dimension of the infinitude of space: Percipient in this way, one is not sensitive to that dimension.
‘Further, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of space, (perceiving,) ‘infinite consciousness,’ one remains in the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness: Percipient in this way, one is not sensitive to that dimension.
‘Further, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, (perceiving,) ‘There is nothing,’ one remains in the dimension of nothingness: Percipient in this way, one is not sensitive to that dimension.
‘Once, friend, when I was staying in Sāketa at the Game Refuge in the Black Forest, the nun Jaṭilā Bhāgikā went to me and, on arrival—having bowed to me—stood to one side. As she was standing to one side, she said to me: “Ven. Ānanda, the concentration whereby—neither pressed down nor forced back, nor with fabrications kept blocked or suppressed—still as a result of release, contented as a result of stillness, and as a result of contentment one is not agitated: This concentration is said by the Blessed One to be the fruit of what?”’
‘I said to her, “…This concentration is said by the Blessed One to be the fruit of gnosis [the knowledge of full Awakening].” Percipient in this way, friend, one is not sensitive to that dimension.’
In this extraordinary state of mental poise—neither pressed, forced, blocked, or suppressed—nibbāna in the present life is experienced as freedom from all perception dealing with the six sensory spheres & the dimensions of meditative absorption. Although one is conscious, and these dimensions are present, one does not partake of them.
On the level of ordinary sensory experience, however, nibbāna in the present life is experienced by the Worthy One as the passing away of passion, aversion, & delusion. This implies that these three states are analogous to fire; and as we saw in the Introduction, they are directly referred to as fires at various points in the Canon. On the surface, the notion of passion & aversion as fires hardly requires explanation, but in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the analogies that the Canon draws between fire on the one hand, and passion, aversion, & delusion on the other, we first need some background on the specifically Buddhist views on fire it contains.