For the full archive of Middle Way articles, click here.

In Samsara Exists Nibbana

Roy Brabant-Smith, Middle Way (Volume 68:4 p. 201) February 1994

(Based on the teachings of Buddhadasa)

It is probably best to start by defining Samsara and Nibbana. Samsara means in this context literally circling; or the recurrence of desires, the pursuit of those desires, the outcome of those desires.

Nibbana on the other hand means the prevailing existence of stillness, coolness and serenity, the supermundane state with the complete extinction of suffering.

Most people think of Samsara as different or opposed to Nibbana. Man is always caught up in the whirlpool of Samsara until he starts to try to obtain Nibbana. But I suggest that Nibbana exists in that very whirlpool. The wise man using insight and without external help can find it, but the foolish person caught up in the web of his own desires cannot; it is entirely a matter of one's own ability and progress.

What is the justification for saying this? Let us first consider a saying of the Buddha's:

"The world, the cause of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way to the cessation of the world, I declare, exists within our six foot body with perception and mind".

The 'world' here means suffering or dukkha, in other words the troubles of human beings; and 'within the six foot body with perception and mind' means the living physical body of man. The Four Truths cannot be found in the dead body. So we can say that suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, can all be found in the living body. This means that inevitably the whirlpool of Samsara as well as Nibbana are also to be found there; and we have the Buddha's own words as the authority to back this up.

If for one moment we consider this body and mind we find that they are made up of just natural elements composed of solid, liquid, air, heat, space and consciousness. Since we only consist of Nama and Rupa, mind and body, we can consider in this context that consciousness is a constituent part of Nama or Mind.

In ordinary every day life when working together the body and mind is passive neither specifically in Samsara nor Nibbana.

It is only when the mind and body (I will use the term Nama-Rupa to show them as one entity) becomes excited or disturbed that it becomes the domain of either Samsara or Nibbana. We should remember that this Nama and Rupa of ours can manifest both Samsara and Nibbana. Whenever Nama-Rupa is conditioned by ignorance it becomes disturbed, and Samsara is the home of suffering; but when it's not conditioned by ignorance, it is still, unmoving, calm and at peace, the home or characteristic of Nibbana.

We have always to be aware of' the state of our own Nama-Rupa and realise that sometimes it is disturbed or boiling hot and at other times it is comfortably cool. The really heated or disturbed mind only arises occasionally and only lasts for a short time, while the cool and peaceful periods last for much longer.

When we fall asleep, or when we are awake and our emotions are not disturbed by love, hate, anger, stupidity, conceit, pride and so on, the mind is empty. Then it could be said that we are still, cool and calm. During everyday life when we are talking, thinking, or doing anything the emotions are suppressed most of the time. This is because they do not get disturbed by the concept of "I and Mine" which cause them to become turbulent with desire, anger or delusion; so it can be said that they are still, cool and calm.

Another Buddhist saying holds that "The mind is crystalline; only the visiting defilements darken it." The mind becomes darkened only when we allow or encourage defilements; otherwise it is naturally clear and luminous; it then has the property of stillness, coolness or calmness.

It is because the Mind is normally able to stay in the cool and calm of Nibbana for longer than the disturbance of Samsara that we are able to avoid mental breakdown and madness. So we should be grateful for the cool and calm of Nibbana for keeping us sane.

The problem is whether this Nibbana is temporary or permanent.

As the temporary Nibbana is subject to change whereas the permanent Nibbana is changeless our goal must be to try to attain the permanent state. If we could extend the permanent for a longer period without regress we might find that we should live longer as well as retaining better physical and mental health because mind and body would not be subjected to unnecessary wear and tear due to wrong thought and action.

The terms Samsara and Nibbana have been used quite a lot so let us look at them in more detail. To start with we should not consider that the whirlpool of Samsara is eternal. If we look at it care fully we shall find that Samsara only exists occasionally when we become careless or foolish and allow the concept of "I" and "Mine" to arise. When the mind is not thinking in these terms there is no whirlpool of Samsara. There will only exist the pure state of Nama Rupa containing the calm of Nibbana.

All people are different. Some are more easily stimulated or disturbed than others. An Arahant is one who never enters the whirlpool of Samsara but the ordinary person is often involved depending on how much or how little he is influenced by Dhamma. If he is without any Dhamma at all he will be involved more and more in Samsara; even while he is asleep, and in his dreams.

Depending on certain circumstances we may not normally get very excited; but when an object occurs to the mind we become careless and unmindful and then ignorance will certainly occur. This ignorance will immediately give rise to thought, and in succession to consciousness, Nama Rupa, the senses, contact, feelings, desires, becoming, and the birth of the "I" and "Mine" concept. This is the disturbed or boiling state in the realm of Samsara. If the corresponding results are relatively pleasant they are called merits and if unpleasant, de-merits. Both are equally disturbing.

If we use sufficient mindfulness, whatever stimuli are observed by the senses will not be able to disturb the mind, but if the stimuli and their reactions in the mind are encouraged they will give rise to thought and the whole of the "I" and "Mine" concept. This normally results in attachment to greed, anger, and delusion. The thought that leads either to merit or de-merit is none other than Samsara; and both are in their own way Dukkha.

Let us consider the worlds of merit and de-merit as they are shown in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. These realms exist both inside and outside ourselves. We still inhabit our own human bodies, but as we behave, we are, as it were mentally immediately reborn into these worlds. This is mental rebirth not a physical rebirth. Both rebirth and annata can be better understood if we can see and understand them in this way.

There is a rebirth every time the thought of "I" arises. Annata does not so much mean that there is no Self but that the thought of Self and "I" does not arise. In other words that all situations are devoid of the selfish aspect. So when we hear people saying that all things are devoid of "Self' or that "I" have no "Self' it is really a contradiction in terms; because the idea of "I" or "Self' is reborn every time the thought of "I" arises. You can hear phrases such as "In my own opinion" or even as the person gets really heated and starts uttering "I", "I", "I", to try to catch attention and project his "Self" into the argument. It shows the speaker's complete lack of comprehension of what is meant by rebirth, Annata or the Dhamma in general.

So let us look at these states and see what is involved. Let us first of all consider de-merit. During a day there may be a number of different times and forms in which greed, hatred and delusion arise. These are recognised as the four woeful states; the state of hell, the animal world, the world of unfulfilled desires and the world of the power seekers and paranoid fears. Whenever greed, hatred or delusion cause us to become disturbed or heated, then we, as it were, go into hell. In Buddhism anxiety is often equated with the hellish state.

When we become frustrated not getting enough food, drink, sex, enjoyment then we become like hungry ghosts born into the realm of unfulfilled desires. When we are stupidly foolish, doing something wrong which we know to be wrong at that moment we become like an animal.

When we go around feeling that we are enlightened or Buddha or we become afraid of death to the extent that we start getting involved in all sorts of rites, rituals and superstitions to try to extend our lives, or become terrified of spiders, wasps, dust, eating meat so that it becomes an obsession then we enter the world of the cowardly demons or, to use modem terms, paranoia.

All these unpleasant states are the result of de-merits: the Samsara instigated by greed, hatred, and delusion.

On the other hand those who are spurred to making merit, will be eager to obtain the happiness of sensual pleasures and the desires of becoming and not becoming. These will lead to the realm of form and the realm of the formless respectively. These are called meritorious states and could be termed as heavenly states as opposed to hellish states.

We often hear of the term Devas (or gods) and wonder what they are; it is merely those who get their enjoyment in life from what might be called aesthetic pleasures; from music and art. Heavenly or aesthetic are to be found at the sense plane as well as at the levels of the form and formless.

These three heavenly levels arise from the desire to make merit or do good: for sensual pleasure, for existence and for non existence. These desires give rise to merited Samsara and are based in trying to achieve good pleasant states as opposed to unwholesome states.

Ignorance gives rise to desire both for wholesome states as well as unwholesome states. Merit is the opposite of de-merit just the same as you could say that the heavenly state is opposed to the hellish state. They are both however still in the whirlpool of Samsara.

A person who attains sensuous pleasure in such a sensual state is said to be in the sensuous heaven of the realm of desire. When he is peaceful and free from sensuous desires while obtaining pleasure from imaginary objects he is said to be in the realm of form. A person with a better trained mind who is at ease and peacefully enjoying himself with distractions, without any attachment to either sensuous or imaginary objects, could be said to be in the heaven of the formless realm. As the term form and formless may be a little misleading I will explain what I mean. If a person sits watching a beautiful sunset and pleasure arises then he could be said to be in the realm of form. If however he is just sitting under a tree enjoying the feeling of peace that arises he could be said to be in the formless state because the feeling has arisen from within spontaneously and not as a result of phenomena coming within the field of consciousness, either internally or externally.

When people are young they tend to find most of their pleasures in sensuous happiness but as they get older they tend to obtain and look for satisfaction in things which attract their attention unrelated to sensuous pleasure in the realm of form. Higher still they look for the fulfilment of their dreams and hopes, and happiness in the formless realm.

In one day each of us will find that we are in different states of merit and demerit. Have a look at your mind and you will find that it is impossible to sustain any one particular desire throughout twenty four hours; that desire has got to be relaxed. As the mind during that period of relaxation cannot be without any object it will turn to some other form of attachment unconnected with the first one such as walking, watching the television. playing a game or going for a drink at the local. Or the person may prefer to sit in meditation to develop concentration and purification of mind. This is how one adapts, adjusts and advances during the day.

Even these relaxed states are still Samsara, because they are not truly still and peaceful. Yet there are a few times during the day when we are asleep, not excited by anything or in meditation when the mind is not thinking about anything in particular; just making the body and mind still and yet mindful. It is only then that we are able to distinguish the boiling, disturbed mind as Samsara and the cooling down of the mind as Nibbana.

Turning to Nibbana: One can be peaceful and calm during the day. It does not matter what causes this calm, or its characteristics, its level or the amount, all can be called Nibbana. Nibbana means cool. For instance if we can consider the cold ashes of a fire that has gone out, you could say that these ashes are the Nibbana of the burning coal. A well trained animal, becomes tamed and not irritable, it is a cooled down animal; the animal is in the Nibbana state. A person who is truly without defilements and remains cooled and calm, certainly can be said to be in the Nibbana state.

If we look closely we will find that there are three ways of attaining Nibbana: by natural occurrence, by suppressing the defilements and by deliberately uprooting the defilements.

The first is Nibbana by natural occurrence. This can arise from being associated with cool or calm people, relaxing or being in a peaceful environment. This will automatically bring about the Nibbana of natural occurrence. The next higher Nibbana is the one sustained by the deliberate control and suppression of defilements which can occur when we are practising concentration or meditation; as a result of the practice we maintain a peaceful mind.

This Nibbana is similar to the first: the only difference is that we can maintain and control it by practice.

The highest Nibbana is the complete extinction of defilements, and the total elimination of ignorance where ignorance is not given any chance to disturb the mind at all. It is the getting rid of the habit patterns that arise from being ignorant or deluded. The particular tendencies which we should be aware of are:

  1. Wrong View: Being perpetually "Self centred", selfish and indulging in the "I" and "Mine" concept.
  2. Doubt: Being ruled by scepticism and being unwilling to accept the Truth particularly if it in any way conflicts with our own preconceived and accumulated knowledge.
  3. Belief in mere rites and rituals: Being accustomed to blind faith such as practising mysticism or blindly following the precepts and practices in Buddhism.
  4. Lust: Being accustomed to sensual stimulation.
  5. Repulsion: Being accustomed to emotional disorder.
  6. Lust for Form: Being accustomed to the joy of pure form.
  7. Lust for the Formless: Being accustomed to sinking into the happiness of the formless realm.
  8. Conceit: Being accustomed to the comparison of oneself with others in order to find out whether one is better, equal or worse than others.
  9. Restlessness: Being accustomed to getting involved in all sorts of different events, never being able to finish one before going on to the next; the unrestrained mind.
  10. Ignorance: Accustomed to foolishness, incoherence and mindlessness.

Once one has got rid of all these attachments, tendencies and biases then the Nibbana attained will be true, permanent and unchanging. The first two kinds of Nibbana are still not permanent, still not really under control. But in this last and highest Nibbana the defilements are more than just under control, they are uprooted and nothing further needs to be done. This is the true Nibbana which can never be changed into the whirlpool of Samsara. It is the absolute Nibbana.

It is still true to say that within this six foot body there exists both Samsara and Nibbana; but if we have not achieved the absolute Nibbana we are just alternating from one to the other. Deluded people think that eternity is somewhere else, but actually it is here.

Whether or not one is able to find Nibbana in the whirlpool of Samsara depends on one's own wisdom or foolishness; both Samsara of the boiling mind and body, and Nibbana of the non-grasping and cooled body and mind are to be found together in the same place. Nibbana can be found in Samsara . Once we have found Nibbana then Samsara becomes meaningless, because there will only be left for us the meaning of Nibbana. So we should be willing to face what is called the hottest to find the coolest. The coolest is not very far away; it is just in front of us. Time after time the foolish person searches the whole universe and never finds it. It is like the person who loses his glasses and searches for them everywhere only to find that they were on his nose the whole time.

When one can keep the "I", "Mine" concept under control Nibbana is right there. And so if we want to expand and extend life, expand the time without "I", "Mine" longer until it becomes deathless and eternal. When one is completely out of the "I", "Mine" concept, only the unconditioned Dhamma exists; there will then be no longer any problem of birth or death.

Back to index of articles