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“Siddhartha Gotama sat for one last time under the pipul tree with the adiṭṭhāna that he would not get up till he became realized. He battled the beautiful as well as the ugly and fearful illusions of Māra successfully that night and at the same time had very profound insights into Reality, the final one being that into paticcasamuppāda which destroyed the last vestiges of avijjā and Gotama became the Buddha, the Tathāgata, ‘Thus Gone’.”

It was a momentous event!

I want to understand this profound moment and, therefore, have some questions:

  1. What happened to Gotama when he became the Buddha? Of course, as Buddhists we understand that there was no self at all to begin with, but that was not experientially realized till asmi māna, one of the last fetters, dissolved. So, Gotama did not realize nibbāna because that would mean that his ‘I-am-ness’, his māna, continued into nibbāna, which is unacceptable. Should we say instead that ‘there was realization’, an impersonal phenomenon, as the asmi-māna vanished? Could we say that this realization entailed an ontological shift from the puny, illusory self to the unconditioned Nibbāna? But then wouldn’t that still be some kind of eternalism?

Or:

  1. Did Gotama, the conditioned, illusory self ‘die’ at the time of his realization and the nāma- rūpa, that it once was, continued by the sheer force of its unspent past karma which on exhaustion then led to Parinibbāna of this psycho-physical being? Was the Buddha this nāma- rūpa that, metaphorically speaking, ‘translated’ the unconditioned Reality for puthujjana like us and made it possible for us to tread the path for its realization? But then what happened at Parinibbāna? What remained? Nothing? Doesn’t that sound like annihilationism?

Or:

  1. Did at Parinibbāna, with the extinguishing of the final vestiges of conditioned being, the Unconditioned shine in its brilliant, impersonal glory? Beyond Being and Non-being? Beyond anything that can ever be understood? Or would that be mere linguistic gymnastics?

I want to understand what actually happened!

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Your question somehow seems to superimpose onto Buddhism the Hindu Advaitin idea of an illusory self merging into God the Ultimate Reality, except that instead of God, you have Nibbana. Buddhism is different.

Eternalism and annihilationism

There is no eternal self. That would be eternalism. If we associate the self with the mental idea of Nibbana, or eternal consciousness or God or Ultimate Reality etc., that would be eternalism, a false view. In MN 38, we read that Sati made this mistake of associating consciousness with the self and assuming it to be eternal or unconditioned.

It is also wrong to say that there is no self at all, or that the self gets destroyed at death or at Nibbana. That would be annihilationism.

Quote from the Acela Sutta (This comes from here but the full text can be found here).

Again, when the Buddha was asked by the naked ascetic Kassapa whether suffering was of one's own making or of another's or both or neither, the Buddha replied "Do not put it like that." When asked whether there was no suffering or whether the Buddha neither knew nor saw it, the Buddha replied that there was, and that he both knew and saw it. He then said "Kassapa, if one asserts that 'He who makes (it) feels (it): being one existent from the beginning, his suffering is of his own making,' then one arrives at eternalism. But if one asserts that one makes (it), another feels (it); being one existent crushed out by feeling, his suffering is of another's making,' then one arrives at annihilationism. Instead of resorting to either extreme a Tathaagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle way (by dependent origination)" (S. XII, 17/vol. ii, 20).

According to the Attakari Sutta, it also doesn't make sense to say that there is no self-doer at all. It is obvious that you can will your hands and legs to move and they will move.

What is the self?

The self is just an idea of the mind that is dependently originated based on conditions and is impermanent. The "birth" (jāti) nidana of dependent origination is the birth of the idea of the self. Snp 4.14 calls this the thought "I am the thinker". This mental idea of the self is reborn from moment to moment i.e. it's changing dependent on conditions.

In the Vina Sutta, we read the analogy of the lute, where different parts of the lute work together to create music. But if you take the lute apart into pieces, you cannot find music. Similarly, the mental idea of the self is constructed by the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations, by the process of dependent origination. If you take them apart, you cannot find the self. Music here refers to the self (atta), which is what becoming (bhava) and birth (jāti) is about.

According to the Khemaka Sutta, even a stream enterer already fully understands this (i.e. no longer has self-view), but he still has conceit (the self-habit or self-obsession). He KNOWS that "I am the body" or "the body belongs to me" are false views, yet he still FEELS that "I am the body" or "the body belongs to me". That's the difference between self-view and self-habit. Please also see this answer.

In fact, the stream enterer still has seven of the ten fetters. The non-returner would still have all the higher fetters, namely, desire for material existence, desire for immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness and ignorance.

What is Nibbana?

Next, what exactly is Nibbana? It's not an Ultimate Reality or Truth or God.

Nibbana is a mental object to be experienced by the mind. It is that which is experienced by the mind when it is free from defilements.

From this answer, we read:

So, Nibbana is not a thought of the mind, not a concept of the mind, not a state of the mind, not a state of consciousness and also not a feeling. However, when the mind experiences this Nibbana, which is not conditioned, not compounded, not suffering, not impermanent, not arising, not ceasing and not changing, it experiences bliss. The mind can therefore experience Nibbana, but it cannot feel it or think about it.

From AN 9.34:

Ven: Sariputta: “Reverends, Nibbana is bliss!

Ven. Udayi: “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

Ven. Sariputta: “The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

Final moment of realization

So, what happened at the final moment of the Buddha's realization?

From MN 36:

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’;…‘This is the origin of suffering’;…‘This is the cessation of suffering’;…‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’;…‘These are the taints’;…‘This is the origin of the taints’;…‘This is the cessation of the taints’;…‘This is the way leading to the cessation of the taints.’

“When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’

“This was the third true knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.

It's basically the destruction of all ten fetters, the last being ignorance. Ignorance is uprooted by enlightenment, the complete understanding of how it all works. Also uprooted are the underlying tendencies, which are deep-seated habits, hard to be removed.

The buddha became free from rebirth (of the mental idea of the self) and also free from death, i.e. the death of the self. To be deathless, i.e. to not experience the death of the self, because the mental idea of the self is no longer constructed by dependent origination.

When ignorance has been destroyed, craving (a habit of reification) no longer arises from feeling. Without craving, there is no clinging, becoming and birth of the mental idea of the self.

From Khemaka Sutta, we read that the cleaned cloth of the non-returner still has the scent of the self that needs to be finally smoked out, by complete enlightenment:

"Just like a cloth, dirty & stained: Its owners give it over to a washerman, who scrubs it with salt earth or lye or cow-dung and then rinses it in clear water. Now even though the cloth is clean & spotless, it still has a lingering residual scent of salt earth or lye or cow-dung. The washerman gives it to the owners, the owners put it away in a scent-infused wicker hamper, and its lingering residual scent of salt earth, lye, or cow-dung is fully obliterated.

"In the same way, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, he still has with regard to the five clinging-aggregates a lingering residual 'I am' conceit, an 'I am' desire, an 'I am' obsession. But at a later time he keeps focusing on the phenomena of arising & passing away with regard to the five clinging-aggregates: 'Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance. Such is feeling... Such is perception... Such are fabrications... Such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.' As he keeps focusing on the arising & passing away of these five clinging-aggregates, the lingering residual 'I am' conceit, 'I am' desire, 'I am' obsession is fully obliterated."

Parinibbana

Then what is Parinibbana?

Well, there is such a thing as clinging aggregates. According to this answer, for a living arahant, when ignorance is uprooted, this breaks dependent origination, that ends craving, clinging and suffering. In the chain of dependent origination, clinging aggregates would also cease.

The living arahant according to Iti 44, attained nibbana with fuel remaining (sa-upadisesa), meaning the non-clinging aggregates are still functioning like glowing embers, although the fires of passion, aversion and delusion have ceased.

Parinibbana is when the non-clinging aggregates stop functioning. This is nibbana without fuel remaining (anupadisesa) according to Iti 44.

For a living arahant, the music has stopped, but the lute remains. One day, even that will be destroyed. The five clinging aggregates is like a lute vibrating with music, while the five aggregates not subject to clinging is like a silent peaceful lute.

Although I said music, it's more like noise. When the noise stops, you have peace. That's the living arahant's mentally cognized peace of nibbana.

What happens after Parinibbana?

From Yamaka Sutta:

"And so, my friend Yamaka — when you can't pin down the Tathagata 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'?"

"Previously, my friend Sariputta, I did foolishly hold that evil supposition. But now, having heard your explanation of the Dhamma, I have abandoned that evil supposition, and have broken through to the Dhamma."

"Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?"

"Thus asked, I would answer, 'Form is inconstant... Feeling... Perception... Fabrications... Consciousness is inconstant. That which is inconstant is stressful (suffering). That which is stressful has ceased and gone to its end."

Change of perspective

A change of perspective is needed i.e. rebirth, birth, death, and parinibbana should not be linked to any permanent consciousness or identity. The first noble truth is that there is suffering. It's not there is my suffering or your suffering but simply there is suffering. This also relates to anatta (not self).

Also, think about the core teaching, sabbe dhamma anatta - all phenomena is not self. There is no permanent consciousness or identity or individuality or self in all phenomena.

There is suffering, and it arises because of the mental idea of the self, that arises because the mental idea of the self was constructed by the mind-body phenomena (the five aggregates) through the process of dependent origination, due to ignorance.

Suffering is connected to the mental idea of the self through papanca (reification). This is explained in this answer.

Craving itself is a habit of reification. The self is also a result of reification.

The rebirth of the mental idea of the self from moment to moment is sustained by craving.

When ignorance is uprooted, reification is stopped, craving ceases, which then causes the mental idea of the self to be no longer constructed, and thus suffering is ended.

The key defining feature of the Buddha's enlightenment is not about no more self or no more craving, but rather, no more ignorance. Ignorance is the root of it all.

Please also read SN 12.20 about self-view:

“When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?’

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    Thanks a lot @ruben2020 for explaining the classical Theravada position. Certain grey areas remain though. I'll return with these very quandaries in a while. Please give me some time. Apr 19 at 3:02
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    @SushilFotedar I have also added a quote from Yamaka Sutta which explains what happens to a fully enlightened person after death i.e. after parinibbana.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 19 at 6:03
  • @SushilFotedar I have also added a quote from SN 12.20 at the end. You may also find that useful.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 24 at 16:18
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There was an intellect that developed to understand the world as it actually is and without a self.

We cannot find a self even among the electrons & photons nor is there an element of 'justice' in molecular chemistry. When these words have no referents in our most scientifically precise predictive models, is it then not insane to think in those terms?

This is what that intellect which can be grasped with wrong view to be that of the Bodhisatta realized. His intellect understood thinking with thinking, he saw what one thinks when one thinks about how one thinks, seeing how one thinks he didn't see what isn't there, understanding what is there he had no confusion about the present qualities.

Not seeing a self he only saw what he thought of as not personal, as an affliction, as a consequence of a bad choice but no choice maker, only delusional thinking for requisite conditions.

Seeing it thus he became disenchanted, being disenchanted his mind didn't incline to any particular state of cognizance and was in that inclined to the cessation principle aka deathless aka sorowless state.

His verbal, physical and mental activity ceased but his lifeforce wasn't extinguished. He remained absorbed based on the cessation principle for 7 days & 7 nights, sensing unalloyed pleasure, at that time he became absorbed due to a cessation of the perception & feeling but he was still percepient thus 'the cessation of existence is nibbana [the destruction of greed, anger & delusion is spoken of in that way]'. At that time he felt pleasure where nothing is felt, nothing being felt is the pleasure therein.

It is not the case that the Buddha describes only the 6 classes of perception & feeling as percepience & pleasure he speaks of percepience & pleasure in whatever terms it is attained.

He realized the cessation of everything but he didn't see himself in everything, as everything, as coming out of everything, he didn't affirm a self or hold that the all was his. He saw with wisdom that cessation principle which persists without change as a truth & reality not included in the allness of everything as it actually is.

He didn't see himself coming in, coming out or being in Nibbana.

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Sorry for being late to reply @ruben2020

As you rightly pointed out, the notion of the ‘self’ is heavily loaded, most often as a synonym for the eternal ātman of Hindu thought, in particular Advaita. So, it was wrong for me to use the word, I admit. I would, therefore, move to the term, the ‘experient’, which I find more neutral and slightly better than the other classical western philosophical term, the ‘subject’.

When I talked about the illusory self, I meant this very experient, the ‘one’ who experiences any phenomenon, howsoever false it turns out to be in the end.

So, as I understand the basics of Buddhism, when we say that “there is suffering but ‘none’ who suffers”, what is actually meant is that when experience of suffering arises, it comes with its bit of viññāna; we have an inseparable package of the duo of the experience and the experient, the ‘suffering’ and its ‘awareness’ in the present example. Of course, as the experience ceases, the experient too collapses at the same time; there is no permanent ‘experient’ that persists after the experience of suffering has ceased. So far, so good!

Now coming to the two conundrums I was talking about, the riddles of Nibbāṇa and Parinibbāṇa:

When I raise the question of the Nibbāṇa and Parinibbāṇa of the Buddha, my understanding is that it falls in the realm of ‘pure reason’, as Kant would have called it. I think Buddha, long before Immanuel Kant, talked about antinomies and paralogisms and, therefore, the impossibility of answering such questions. When he talked about the four imponderables, the ‘Acinteyya’, for example, he was speaking about this very impossibility of reason to enter this realm where it fails utterly ‘like a bird trying to fly with one wing in a vacuum’.

It was, therefore, so heartening for me to read the ‘Yamaka Sutta’ which so beautifully describes the antinomies that arise when we try to conceptualize Nibbāṇa and Parinibbāṇa; it is simply impossible for reason to pierce and understand these imponderables.

I quote the portion that I loved the most:

“…"What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata 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?" "No, my friend. "What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness? "No, my friend. "Do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness? "No, my friend. "And so, my friend Yamaka — when you can't pin down the Tathagata 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'…?"

This is how I understand all this. I hope I have not gone utterly wrong!

Thanks dear friend for being kind with your detailed explanations.

Metta!

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  • Is this an answer to the question? This is a Q&A website and not a discussion forum. That said, it is also too long for one comment.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 20 at 15:19
  • Well, I am sorry if I have broken some rules here. Apr 20 at 15:25

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