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Approaching Nibbana

Nibbana denotes perfect happiness, contentment, peace, and emptiness. 

Nibbana also connotes extinguishing, as in blowing out a lamp. Nibbanti dhira yathayam padipo, (SN 235) with the flame of the lamp signifying our greed, hatred, and delusion: ragaggi, dosaggi, mohaggi. (S IV 19) When these fires are extinguished, peace is attained and one becomes completely cooled—sitibhuta. (SN 542, 642)*

Nibbana may be attained in this life or in the afterlife. (D I 156, 167) It is the highest happiness, the supreme state of bliss: Nibbana.m paramam sukham. (Dh 203) It indicates freedom from hatred and mental illness, even among those who are hateful and suffering from mentall or emotional afflications: susukham vata jivaama verinesu averino/aturesu anatura. (Dh 197–99)

Sukha in Pali means pleasure or happiness. In English, happiness denotes mental ease, while pleasure denotes physical well-being. In Pali, sukha combines both together as the menta and physical bliss attained in nibbana.

Through the practice of jhana (meditative absorption), impermanent experiences of non-sensuous physical bliss are possible before the attainment of nibbana. The Samannaphala Sutta describes these experiences using extended similes: (D I 74)

When bath powder is kneaded with water into a neat wet ball, the sutta relates, moisture touches every part of the ball but does not ooze out; similarly, the body of the adept in the first jhana is drenched and suffused with joy and pleasure born of detachment from sense pleasures: vivekajam pitisukham.

In the second jhana, a deep pool filled to the brim with clear cool water is fed by underground springs, yet the waters do not overflow and no part of the pool remains untouched by the cool waters. Similarly, joy and pleasure born of concentration (samadhijam pitisukham) pervade the body of the meditator in the second jhana.

In the third jhana, a lotus is born in water, grown in water, fully submerged in water, drawing nourishment from water, with no part of the lotus remaining untouched by the cool water. Thus happiness/pleasure suffuses, drenches, and permeates the entire body in the third jhana.

While experiences of non-sensuous pleasure are temporarily possible before attaining nibbanaafter the attainment of nibbana, permanently refined non-sensuous pleasure is possible.

The Canki Sutta states that when a monk realizes nibbana, he experiences truth with the body: Kayena ceva paramasaccam sacchikaroti. (M II 173) The Sutta Nipata states that through the destruction of feelings and sensations, a monk can live without desire and at peace: vedanana.m khaya bhikkhu nicchato parinibbuto. (SN 739)

Sariputta was asked what happiness exists when there are no feelings or sensations: kim panettha natthi vedayitanti. (A IV 415) He replied that the absence of feeling/sensation itself is happiness: etad eva khvettha sukham yad ettha natthi vedayitam.

The Buddha explained happiness not simply in terms of pleasant feelings or sensations. (S IV 228) Mental states also involve feelings: vedanasamosarana sabbe dhamma;(A IV 339, V 107) sankappavitakka vedanasamosarana. (A IV 385)

Because mental states precede bodily sensations, anger results in bodily sensations, such as feeling hot, sweaty, restless, and anxious. Sadness causes tears through the discharge of glandular secretions. If emotions can cause strong sensations, we may assume that thoughts can cause subtle sensations, and we become aware of such sensations through vedananupassana—thecontemplation of sensations).

Thoughts and sensations continue endlessly: the Vedana Samyutta states that just as diverse winds constantly blow in different directions, numerous sensations pass through the body. (S IV 218)

When an arahant controls thoughts: cetovasippatta (A II 6, 36), he also controls feelings and sensations. When the texts say that a monk, by the destruction of feelings and sensations, lives without desire and at peace, this means he has eliminated feelings/sensations.

Understood conventionally, physical feelings and sensations lead to suffering: yam kinci vedayitam tam dukkhasminti. (S IV 216) If we remain seated for an hour, we shift our limbs to more comfortable positions because of discomfort. If there were no mind/body sensations, we would not need to change positions. We would feel continuing ease, even if we stayed in the same position.

Some might assume that an arahant is unable to feel pain, but that is wrong because an arahant would feel if a part of his body were being burnt or broken. An arahant feels physical changes and sensations. The Buddha felt acute pain when he was wounded by a stone splinter, (Vin II 193) and when he suffered from indigestion. (D II 127) He was, however, able to withstand such painful sensations with mindfulness and clear comprehension and without becoming exhausted.

An experience of Sariputta can help us to understand (UD 49): a malevolent Yakkha person gave Sariputta a blow on the head strong enought to knock down an elephant or split a mountain peak. Moggallana, who saw this with his divine eye, asked Sariputta how he was feeling, and Sariputta replied that he was fine but felt a slight pain in his head.

This indicates that a blow that might kill an ordinary person would not kill an arahant, because there are two kinds of pain, physical and mental: kayikanca cetasikaca (S IV 231), and arahants are said to experience only physical pain: araha ekam vedanam vediyati kayikamna cetasikanti (Miln 253), without reacting in mental agony.

The Pali texts state that vedana is destroyed in the arahant, but never claim that the sense faculties are destroyed. They describe, instead, the state of sannavedayitanirodha, in which the sense faculties are “refined”—vippasannaani indriyaani. (M I 296. 24)

The Vedana Samyutta differentiates between three types of joy and pleasure: (S IV 235)

 Samisaa piti samisam sukham: joy and pleasure stimulated by worldly sense pleasures.

• Niramisa piti niramisam sukham: joy and pleasure free from stimulation by sense objects as jhanic experiences.

• Niramisatara piti niramisataram sukham: more refined joy and pleasure free from stimulation by sense objects (nibbana). An arahant experiences both physical and mental bliss (so kayasukham pi cetosukham pi patisamvedeti) as all tensions (daratha), torments (santapa), and fevers (parilaha) have been completely eliminated. (M III 288-89)

The monk Bhaddiya was often heard to exclaim, “What happiness, what happiness!” (aho sukham aho sukham). So fellow monks supposed he was talking about indulgence in lay comforts and reported this to the Buddha. When questioned, Bhaddiya explained that, as a prince, he had kept armed guards around his palace, yet suffered from insomnia and insecurity, fearing rivals might usurp or murder him; whereas living alone, out in the open, he felt free from all fear and anxiety.

Some arahants remained in the same position, without moving, for seven days, enjoying the bliss of emancipation. Great was their experience of joy on the attainment of release from all mental intoxicants (asavakkhaya): pitisukhena ca kaya.m pharitva viharim tada / sattamiya pade pasaresim tamokkhandham padaliya. (Thig 274)

The Pali texts record experiences of bliss following the attainment of nibbana, the body being permeated with joy and bliss, independent of the five aggregates. The Dvayatanupassana Sutta maintains that suffering (dukkha) ceases after the cessation of the five aggregates. (Sn pp.142–48) The Alagaddupama Sutta says the perfected being (tathaagata) even while still alive cannot be identified with the five personality factors. (M I 140)

* This essay is based on Prof. Lily de Silva’s translations of Pali texts as it is good to write based on the authority of the original texts.


De Silva, Lily. 1996. Nibbana as Living Experience. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society

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