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How can we evaluate which description of nirvana is accurate? Also what problems does King Millinda point out about nirvana in his 80th dilemma?

  • The Buddha himself did not. "Whatever phenomena arise from cause: their cause & their cessation. Such is the teaching of the Tathāgata, the Great Contemplative." MvI, no "is"'s – Samana Johann Dec 9 '17 at 16:13
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    @SamanaJohann What about "the sorrowless state", and "the Deathless", and "Unbinding", etc.? Are these not attempts to describe Nirvana, and isn't the word "Nirvana" itself a description? – ChrisW Dec 9 '17 at 18:25
  • Hari, is this meant to be a general question about any/all attempts to describe? Or if you're asking about specific descriptions, which descriptions? – ChrisW Dec 9 '17 at 21:01
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    Hari might ask for the problem to discripe tast of chocolate for one never tried it and the danger of relaying on something known. Therfore Nibbana is merely found pointed out by description of what it is not and Nibbana is not realy a suitable meditation object for one not having seen by him/her self, out of those reasons. This might be the heart wood of the question, but could be of course meant otherwise. Nyom Hari might know. Baka and Mara tried to convince others with similar attempt. Baka unkownly, while Mara ... – Samana Johann Dec 10 '17 at 11:48
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The Pali suttas provide accurate descriptions of Nirvana, such as the 'destruction of craving' (Dhammapada 154; MN 37); 'visible here-&-now destruction of greed, hatred & delusion' (AN 3.55; SN 45.7); 'supreme happiness' (Dhammapada 203); and 'Simile of the Ocean'.

Therefore, the description by Nâgasena given to King Millinda in his 80th dilemma should be compared to the Pali suttas to test its accuracy.

That Nagasena offered a very lengthy answer shows he did not really have a "dilemma" & spoke falsely, when he said: 'Nirvâna, O king, has nothing similar to it. By no metaphor, or explanation, or reason, or argument can its form, or figure, or duration, or measure be made clear.'

These links might help: Nibbana For Everyone & Bhikkhu Pesala What Is Nibbāna?

Have you bothered to read the text or are you a university student looking for an easy answer?

'O happy word, Nâgasena! Speak then, quickly, that I may have an explanation of even one point in the characteristics of Nirvâna. Appease the fever of my heart. Allay it by the cool sweet breezes of your words!'

'There is one quality of the lotus, O king, inherent in Nirvâna, and two qualities of water, and three of medicine, and four of the ocean, and five of food, and ten of space, and three of the wish-conferring gem, and three of red sandal wood, and three of the froth of ghee, and five of a mountain peak.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, that one quality of the lotus which you said was inherent in Nirvâna,--which is that?'

'As the lotus, O king, is untarnished by the water 3, so is Nirvâna untarnished by any evil dispositions. This is the one quality of the lotus inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those two qualities of water which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As water, O king, is cool and assuages heat, so also is Nirvâna cool, and assuages the fever arising from all evil dispositions. This is the first quality of water inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as water allays the thirst of men and beasts when they are exhausted and anxious, craving for drink, and tormented by thirst, so does Nirvâna allay the thirst of the craving after lusts, the craving after future life, and the craving after worldly prosperity . This is the second quality of water inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those three qualities of medicine, which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As medicine, O king, is the refuge of beings tormented by poison, so is Nirvâna the refuge of beings tormented with the poison of evil dispositions. This is the first quality of medicine inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as medicine puts an end to diseases, so does Nirvâna put an end to griefs. This is the second quality of medicine inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as medicine is ambrosia, so also is Nirvâna ambrosia. This is the third quality of medicine inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those four qualities of the ocean which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As the ocean, O king, is free from (empty of) corpses, so also is Nirvâna free from (empty of) the dead bodies of all evil dispositions. This, O king, is the first quality of the ocean inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as the ocean is mighty and boundless, and fills not with all the rivers that flow in to it; so is Nirvâna mighty and boundless, and fills not with all beings (who enter in to it). This is the second quality of the ocean inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as the ocean is the abode of mighty creatures, so is Nirvâna the abode of great men--Arahats, in whom the Great Evils and all stains have been destroyed, endowed with power, masters of themselves. This is the third quality of the ocean inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as the ocean is all in blossom, as it were, with the innumerable and various and fine flowers of the ripple of its waves, so is Nirvâna all in blossom, as it were, with the innumerable and various and fine flowers of purity, of knowledge, and of emancipation. This is the fourth quality of the ocean inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those five qualities of food which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As food, O king, is the support of the life of all beings, so is Nirvâna, when it has been realised, the support of life, for it puts an end to old age and death. This is the first quality of food inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as food increases the strength of all beings, so does Nirvâna, when it has been realised, increase the power of Iddhi of all beings. This is the second quality of food inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as food is the source of the beauty of all beings, so is Nirvâna, when it has been realised, the source to all beings of the beauty of holiness. This is the third quality of food inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as food puts a stop to suffering in all beings, so does Nirvâna, when it has been realised, put a stop in all beings to the suffering arising from every evil disposition. This is the fourth quality of food inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as food overcomes in all beings the weakness of hunger, so does Nirvâna, when it has been realised, overcome in all beings the weakness which arises from hunger and every sort of pain. This is the fifth quality of food inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those ten qualities of space which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As space, O king, neither is born nor grows old, neither dies nor passes away nor is reborn, as it is incompressible, cannot be carried off by thieves, rests on nothing, is the sphere in which birds fly, is unobstructed, and is infinite; so, O king, Nirvâna is not born, neither does it grow old, it dies not, it passes not away, it has no rebirth, it is unconquerable, thieves carry it not off, it is not attached to anything , it is the sphere in which Arahats move, nothing can obstruct it, and it is infinite. These are the ten qualities of space inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those three qualities of the wish-conferring gem which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As the wishing-gem, O king, satisfies every desire, so also does Nirvâna. This is the first quality of the wishing-gem inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as the wishing-gem causes delight, so also does Nirvâna. This is the second quality of the wishing-gem inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as the wishing-gem is full of lustre, so also is Nirvâna. This is the third quality of the wishing-gem inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those three qualities of red sandal wood which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?' 'As red sandal wood, O king, is hard to get, so is Nirvâna hard to attain to. This is the first quality of red sandal wood inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as red sandal wood is unequalled in the beauty of its perfume, so is Nirvâna. This is the second quality of red sandal wood inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as red sandal wood is praised by all the good, so is Nirvâna praised by all the Noble Ones. This is the third quality of red sandal wood inherent in Nirvâna.'

  2. [322] 'Venerable Nâgasena, those three qualities of the skimmings of ghee 1 which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As ghee is beautiful in colour, O king, so also is Nirvâna beautiful in righteousness. This is the first quality of the ghee inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as ghee has a pleasant perfume, so also has Nirvâna the pleasant perfume of righteousness. This is the second quality of ghee inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as ghee has a pleasant taste, so also has Nirvâna. This is the third quality of ghee inherent in Nirvâna.'

  1. 'Venerable Nâgasena, those five qualities of a mountain peak which you said were inherent in Nirvâna,--which are they?'

'As a mountain peak is very lofty, so also is Nirvâna very exalted. This is the first quality of a mountain peak inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as a mountain peak is immoveable, so also is Nirvâna. This is the second quality of a mountain peak inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as a mountain peak is inaccessible, so also is Nirvâna inaccessible to all evil dispositions. This is the third quality of a mountain peak inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as a mountain peak is a place where no plants can grow, so also is Nirvâna a condition in which no evil dispositions can grow. This is the fourth quality of a mountain peak inherent in Nirvâna. And again, O king, as a mountain peak is free alike from desire to please and from resentment, so also is Nirvâna. This is the fifth quality of a mountain peak inherent in Nirvâna.'

'Very good, Nâgasena! That is so, and I accept it as you say.'

If you are a beginner student to Buddhism, what is important to understand is the words 'birth' & 'death' mean conceiving the thoughts: "I am born" & "I will die", as described in MN 140. Therefore, in Nibbana, there is no birth & no death because there is no view of "I am" or "self".

The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations, and when the tides of conceiving no longer sweep over him he is called a sage at peace.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

“Bhikkhu, ‘I am’ is a conceiving; ‘I am this’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall not be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be possessed of form’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be formless’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be percipient’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be non-percipient’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be neither-percipient-nor-non-percipient’ is a conceiving. Conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumour, conceiving is a dart. By overcoming all conceivings, bhikkhu, one is called a sage at peace. And the sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die; he is not shaken and does not yearn. For there is nothing present in him by which he might be born. Not being born, how could he age? Not ageing, how could he die? Not dying, how could he be shaken? Not being shaken, why should he yearn?

MN 140

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What it is

I guess a problem with the kinds of descriptions in the Milinda Pañha is that, so far as I know, Nirvana is a not-thing -- for example an absence of craving and attachment, and unconditioned (not a caused thing).

What it isn't

If there's a feeling of spaciousness or limitlessness associated with an absence of form/contraint, that (limitlessness) might remind you of an ocean; however, saying that it's like an ocean implies that (like an ocean) it is substantial.

So I'd start by saying it's not like any "thing", no thing which has a form.

Saying it's "like something" is a weak description because you're likely to want to seize that thing, to examine its form etc.

Why it's described in both ways

But as well as being described using negative attributes (e.g. "deathless"), it's also described using positives.

For example it is also described as "an Island" and so on ... I guess the "strength" of that description is that it would be "weak", misleading, unattractive, perhaps incomprehensible to only describe it as "non-existent" ... so it's described in terms of its effect rather than its form (it provides the same effect as an island, i.e. like a rescue from a flood).

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