There is an island, an island which you cannot go beyond. It is a place of nothingness, a place of nonpossession and of nonattachment. It is the total end of death and decay, and this is why I call it Nibbāna. (Sam.yutta Nikāya, 1092–5)
For their new anthology of the Buddha’s teachings on nibbāna, Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro have adopted the Buddha’s own metaphor for their title. Nominally, this book is merely a collection of teachings on nibbāna, however it suggests much more. Largely canon-based, the book’s authors have inserted themselves minimally but effectively to weave together this tapestry.
Being myself a follower of the Buddha’s path, I confess that over the years I have had my own misgivings and confused notions regarding nibbāna (Pali for nirvāna in Sanskrit). Is it a “thing,” a “state,” a “condition” or maybe even a “place”? Does one need to “gain,” “attain” or “perfect” something, become a “better person”? Apparently, followers in the Buddha’s time were confused on this point as well, for it seems he spent a great deal of energy setting people straight.
The Theravadan canon, originally an oral tradition, is largely made up of dialogues, the remembered conversations between the Buddha (also called “Gotama” or the “Tathāgata”) and his disciples, whom he coaxed and cajoled, admonished and praised, urging them on toward the “goal.” As quoted in The Island from the Majjhima Nikāya (72.15), one such memorable dialogue between the Buddha and the ever-questioning wanderer Vacchagotta is of this flavor. After asking the Buddha ten standard philosophical questions, Vacchagotta receives only the terse response, “I don’t hold that view.” Finally, exasperated, Vacchagotta blurts out,
“Then does Master Gotama hold any speculative view at all?”
“Vaccha, ‘speculative view’ is something with which the Tathāgata has nothing whatsoever to do. . . . With the destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up and relinquishing of all conceivings, all excogitations, all I-making, mine-making and the underlying tendency to conceit, the Tathāgata is liberated through not clinging.”
“But, Master Gotama, a bhikkhu whose mind is thus liberated: Where does he reappear [after death]?”
“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, does not apply.”
Here it happens to be views that have been relinquished. However, the Buddha is unambiguous: nibbāna is the total and complete letting go of the last shred of attachment, be it to form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or consciousness.
The Buddha is then confronted with a conundrum: how to point to that which in essence is an absence of something, the absence of grasping. Our authors face this puzzle as well. Ajahn Amaro artfully takes up this challenge in the first half of the book. Like so many fingers pointing at the moon, he lays out the terrain of nibbāna. In one striking chapter, he discusses the seldom-heard concept atammayatā, which literally means “unconcocted or unfabricated.” Ajahn Amaro describes how the famous Thai monk Ajahn Buddhadasa spent much of his later years proclaiming this the “ultimate Buddhist concept” and a crucial level of insight on the threshold of nibbāna. On reading about atammayatā, I couldn’t help being reminded of my own teacher’s suggestion that I pay more attention to those waking-up, nondual or predual moments before the mind concocts separation. Could these be atammayatā moments?
Ajahn Pasanno contributes the concluding chapters, which focus on the practical: practice, its progression and its fruits. Of special note here is the emphasis given to sotāpanna, the practitioner’s breakthrough realization for herself of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha described this spiritual turning point as “entering the stream,” a threshold crossing that inevitably leads to complete liberation within seven lifetimes. I was struck by the Buddha’s generosity in declaring even the drunkard Sarakāni a stream-enterer. It seems Sarakāni just kept coming back; he never gave up his devotion to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So devotion to the three refuges may be at least as important as perfecting oneself. If perfection happens, fine; but the real point stressed over and over is relinquishment. Finally, it is goal seeking itself, or any concept of “self” doing anything, that must be released. This is the way forward toward genuine peace.
What touched me most in The Island? It was the very human voices. These were folks just like me—I have a little Vaccha in me, maybe a little Sarakāni too. Even the Buddha somehow feels accessible. Nibbāna? Well, I too have what I imagine to be atammayatā moments. After all, isn’t waking up the inevitable cycling out of wandering mind? So, there’s an opportunity for paying a little more attention and noticing the quality of that moment before my mind concocts something new. For now it’s just one foot ahead of the other, and one more breath. But that’s okay with me.
For a copy of the book, visit www.abhayagiri.org.