The Third Noble Truth

chapter iv.


The third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), which is Nibbāna, more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvāṇa.

To eliminate dukkha completely one has to eliminate the main root of dukkha, which is ‘thirst’ (taṇhā), as we saw earlier. Therefore Nirvāṇa is known also by then term Taṇhakkhaya ‘Extinction of Thirst’.

Now you will ask: But what is Nirvāṇa? Volumes have been written in reply to this quite natural and simple question; they have, more and more, only confused the issue rather than clarified it. The only reasonable reply to give to the question is that it can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvāṇa. Language is created and used by masses of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense organs and their mind. A supramundane experience like that of the Absolute Truth is not of such a category. Therefore there cannot be words to express that experience, just as the fish had no words in his vocabulary to express the nature of the solid land. The tortoise told his friend the fish that he (the tortoise) just returned to the lake after a walk on the land. ‘Of course’ the fish said, ‘You mean swimming.’ The tortoise tried to explain that one couldn’t swim on the land, that it was solid, and that one walked on it. But the fish insisted that there could be nothing like it, that is must be liquid like his lake, with waves, and that one must be able to dive and swim there.

Words are symbols representing things and ideas known to us; and these symbols do not and cannot convey the true nature of even ordinary things. Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding of the Truth. So the Lankāvatāra-sūtra says that ignorant people get stuck in words like an elephant in the mud.[87]

Nevertheless we cannot do without language. But if Nirvāṇa is to be expressed and explained in positive terms, we are likely immediately to grasp an idea associated with those terms, which may be quite the contrary. Therefore it is generally expressed in negative terms[88] – a less dangerous mode perhaps. So it is often referred to by such negative terms as Taṇhakkhaya ‘Extinction of Thirst’, Asaṃkhata ‘Uncompound’, ‘Unconditioned’, Virāga ‘Absence of desire’, Nirodha ‘Cessation’, Nibbāna ‘Blowing out’ or ‘Extinction’.

Let us consider a few definitions and descriptions of Nirvāṇa as found in the original Pali texts:

‘It is the complete cessation of that very ‘thirst’ (taṇhā), giving it up, renouncing it, emancipation from it, detachment from it.’[89]

‘Calming of all conditioned things, giving up of all defilements, extinction of ‘thirst’, detachment, cessation, Nibbāna.’[90]

‘O bhikkhus, what is the Absolute (Asaṃkhata, Unconditioned)? It is, O bhikkhus, the extinction of desire (rāgakkhayo), the extinction of hatred (dosakkhayo), the extinction of illusion (mohakkhayo). This O bhikkhus, is called the Absolute.’[91]

‘O Rādha, the extinction of “thirst” (Taṇhakkhayo) is Nibbāna.’[92]

‘O bhikkhus, whatever there may be things conditioned or unconditioned, among them detachment (virāga) is the highest. That is to say, freedom from conceit, destruction of thirst,[93] the uprooting of attachment, the cutting off of continuity, the extinction of “thirst” (taṇhā), detachment, cessation, Nibbāna.’[94]

The reply of Sāriputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, to a direct question ‘What is Nibbāna?’ posed by a Parivrājaka, is identical with the definition of Asaṃkhata given by the Buddha (above): ‘The extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion.’[95]

‘The abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of Attachment: that is the cessation of dukkha.’[96]

‘The cessation of Continuity and becoming (Bhavanirodha) is Nibbāna.’[97]

And further, referring to Nirvāṇa the Buddha says:

‘O bhikkhus, there is the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned. Were there not the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned, there would be no escape for the born, grown, and conditioned. Since there is the unborn, ungrown, and unconditioned, so there is escape for the born, grown, and conditioned.’[98]

‘Here the four elements of solidity, fluidity, heat and motion have no place; the notions of length and breadth, the subtle and the gross, good and evil, name and form are altogether destroyed; neither this world nor the other, nor coming, going or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense-objects are to be found.’[99]

Because Nirvana is thus expressed in negative terms, there are many who have got a wrong notion that it is negative, and expresses self-annihilation. Nirvāṇa is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self no annihilate. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self.

It is incorrect to say that Nirvāṇa is negative or positive. The ideas of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ are relative, and are within the realm of duality. These terms cannot be applied to Nirvāṇa, Absolute Truth, which is beyond duality and relativity.

A negative word need not necessarily indicate a negative state. The Pali of Sanskrit word for health is ārogya, a negative term, which literally means ‘absence or illness’. But ārogya (health) does not represent a negative state. The word ‘Immortal’ (or its Sanskrit equivalent Amṛta or Pali Amata), which also is a synonym for Nirvāṇa, is negative, but it does not denote a negative state. The negation of negative values is not negative. One of the well-known synonyms for Nirvāṇa is ‘Freedom’ (Pali Mutti, Skt. Mukti). Nobody would say that freedom is negative. But even freedom has a negative side: freedom is always a liberation from something which is obstructive, which is evil, which is negative. But freedom is not negative. So Nirvāṇa, Mutti or Vimutti, the Absolute Freedom, is freedom from all evil, freedom from craving, hatred and ignorance, freedom from all terms of duality, relativity, time and space.

We may get some idea of Nirvāṇa as Absolute Truth from the Dhātuvibhaṅga-sutta (No. 140) of the Majjhima-nikāya. This extremely important discourse was delivered by the Buddha to Pukkusāti (already mentioned), whom the Master found to be intelligent and earnest, in the quiet of the night in a potter’s shed. The essence of the relevant portions of the sutta is as follows:

A man is composed of six elements: solidity, fluidity, heat, motion, space and consciousness. He analyses them and finds that none of them is ‘mine’, or me, or ‘my self’. He understands how consciousness appears and disappears, how pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations appear and disappear. Through this knowledge his mind becomes detached. Then he finds within him a pure equanimity (upekhā), which he can direct towards the attainment of any high spiritual state, and he knows that thus this pure equanimity will last for a long period. But then he thinks:

‘If I focus this purified and cleansed equanimity on the Sphere of Infinite Space and develop a mind conforming thereto, that is a mental creation (saṃkhataṃ).[100] If I focus this purified and cleansed equanimity on the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness … on the Sphere of Nothingness … or on the Sphere of Neither-perception nor Non-perception and develop a mind conforming thereto, that is a mental creation.’ Then he neither mentally creates nor wills continuity and becoming (bhava) or annihilation (vibhava).[101] As he does not construct or does not will continuity and becoming or annihilation, he does not cling to anything in the world; as he does not cling, he is not anxious; as he is not anxious, he is completely calmed within (fully blown out within paccattaṃ yeva parinibbāyati). And he knows: ‘Finished is birth, lived is pure life, what should be done is done, nothing more is left to be done.’[102]

Now, when he experiences a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensation, he knows that it is impermanent, that it does not bind him, that it is not experienced with passion. Whatever may be the sensation, he experiences it without being bound to it (visaṃyutto). He knows that all those sensations will be pacified with the dissolution of the body, just as the flame of a lamp goes out when oil and wick give out.

‘Therefore, O bhikkhu, a person so endowed is endowed with the absolute wisdom, for the knowledge of the extinction of all dukkha is the absolute noble wisdom.

‘This his deliverance, founded on Truth, is unshakable. O bhikkhu, that which is unreality (mosadhamma) is false; that which is reality (amosadhamma), Nibbāna, is Truth (Sacca). Therefore, O bhikkhu, a person so endowed is endowed with this Absolute Truth. For, the Absolute Noble Truth (paramaṃ ariyasaccaṃ) is Nibbāna, which is Reality.’

Elsewhere the Buddha unequivocally uses the word Truth in place of Nibbāna: ‘I will teach you the Truth and the Path leading to the Truth.’[103] Here Truth definitely means Nirvāṇa.

Now, what is Absolute Truth? According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self, Soul, or Ātman within or without. This is the Absolute Truth. Truth is never negative, though there is a popular expression as negative truth. The realization of this Truth, i.e., to see things as they are (yathābhūtaṃ) without illusion or ignorance (avijjā),[104] is the extinction of craving ‘thirst’ (Taṇhakkhaya), andthe cessation (Nirodha) of dukkha, which is Nirvāṇa. It is interesting and useful to remember here the Mahāyāna view of Nirvāṇa as not being different from Saṃsāra.[105] The same thing is Saṃsāra or Nirvāṇa according to the way you look at it – subjectively or objectively. This Mahāyāna view was probably developed out of the ideas found in the original Theravāda Pali texts, to which we have just referred in our brief discussion.

It is incorrect to think that Nirvāṇa is the natural result of the extinction of craving. Nirvāṇa is not the result of anything. If it would be a result, then it would be an effect produced by a cause. It would be saṃkhata ‘produced’ and ‘conditioned’. Nirvāṇa is neither cause nor effect. It is beyond cause and effect. Truth is not a result nor an effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state, such as dhyāna or samādhi. TRUTH IS. NIRVĀṆA IS. The only thing you can do is to see it, to realize it. There is a path leading to the realization of Nirvāṇa. But Nirvāṇa is not the result of this path.[106] You may get to the mountain along a path, but the mountain is not the result, not an effect of the path. You may see a light, but the light not the result of your eyesight.

People often ask: What is there after Nirvāṇa? This question cannot arise, because Nirvāṇa is the Ultimate Truth. If it is Ultimate, there can be nothing after it. If there is anything after Nirvāṇa, then that will be the Ultimate Truth and not Nirvāṇa. A monk named Rādha put this question to the Buddha in a different form: ‘For what purpose (or end) is Nirvāṇa?’ This question presupposes something after Nirvāṇa, when it postulates some purpose or end for it. So the Buddha answered: ‘O Rādha, this question could not catch its limit (i.e., it is beside the point). One lives the holy life with Nirvāṇa as its final plunge (into the Absolute Truth), as its goal, as its ultimate end.’[107]

Some popular inaccurately phrased expressions like ‘The Buddha entered into Nirvāṇa or Parinirvāṇa after his death’ have given rise to many imaginary speculations about Nirvāṇa.[108] The moment you hear the phrase that ‘the Buddha entered into Nirvāṇa or Parinirvāṇa’, you take Nirvāṇa to be a state, or a realm, or a position in which there is some sort of existence, and try to imagine it in terms of the senses of the word ‘existence’ as it is known to you. This popular expression ‘entered into Nirvāṇa’ has no equivalent in the original texts. There is no such thing as ‘entering into Nirvāṇa after death’. There is a word parinibbuto used to denote the death of the Buddha or an Arahant who has realized Nirvāṇa, but it does not mean ‘entering into Nirvāṇa’. Parinibbuto simply means ‘fully passed away’, ‘fully blown out’ or ‘fully extinct’, because the Buddha or an Arahant has no re-existence after his death.

Now another question arises: What happens to the Buddha or an Arahant after his death, parinirvāṇa? This comes under the category of unanswered questions (avyākata).[109] Even when the Buddha spoke about this, he indicated that no words in our vocabulary could express what happens to an Arahant after his death. In reply to a Parivrājaka named Vaccha, the Buddha said that terms like ‘born’ or ‘not born’ do not apply in the case of an Arahant, because those things – matter, sensation, perception, mental activities, consciousness – with which the terms like ‘born’ and ‘not born’ are associated, are completely destroyed and uprooted, never to rise again after his death.[110]

An Arahant after his death is often compared to a fire gone out when the supply of wood is over, or to the flame of a lamp gone out when the wick and oil are finished.[111] Here it should be clearly and distinctly understood, without any confusion, that what is compared to a flame or a fire gone out is not Nirvāṇa, but the ‘being’ composed of the Five Aggregates who realized Nirvāṇa. This point has to be emphasized because many people, even some great scholars, have misunderstood and misinterpreted this smile as referring to Nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa is never compared to a fire or a lamp gone out.

There is another popular question: If there is no Self, no Ātman, who realizes Nirvāṇa? Before we go on to Nirvāṇa, let us ask the question: Who thinks now, if there is no Self? We have seen earlier that it is the thought that thinks, that there is no thinker behind the thought. In the same way, it is wisdom (paññā), realization, that realizes. There is no other self behind the realization. In the discussion of the orgin of dukkha we saw that whatever it may be – whether being, or thing, or system – if it is of the nature of arising, it has within itself the nature, the germ, of its cessation, its destruction. Now dukkha, saṃsāra, the cycle of continuity, is of the nature of arising; it must also be of the nature of cessation. Dukkha arises because of ‘thirst’ (taṇhā), and it ceases because of wisdom (paññā). ‘Thirst’ and wisdom are both within the Five Aggregates, as we saw earlier.[112]

Thus, the germ of their arising as well as that of their cessation are both within the Five Aggregates. This is the real meaning of the Buddha’s well-known statement: ‘Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.’[113] This means that all the Four Noble Truths are found within the Five Aggregates, i.e., within ourselves. (Here the word ‘world’ (loka) is used in place of dukkha). This also means that there is no external power that produces the arising and the cessation of dukkha.

When wisdom is developed and cultivated according to the Fourth Noble Truth (the next to be taken up), it sees the secret of life, the reality of things as they are. When the secret is discovered, when the Truth is seen, all the forces which feverishly produce the continuity of saṃsāra in illusion become calm and incapable of producing any more karma-formations, because there is no more illusion, no more ‘thirst’ for continuity. It is like a mental disease which is cured when the cause or the secret of the malady is discovered and seen by the patient.

In almost all religions the summum bonum can be attained only after death. But Nirvāṇa can be realized in this very life; it is not necessary to wait till you die to ‘attain’ it.

He who has realized the Truth, Nirvāṇa, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all ‘complexes’ and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present.[114] Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.[115] As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such ‘defilements’, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, not even anything spiritual, because he is free from the illusion of Self, and the ‘thirst’ for becoming.

Nirvāṇa is beyond all terms of duality and relativity. It is therefore beyond our conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, existence and non-existence. Even the word ‘happiness’ (sukha) which is used to describe Nirvāṇa has an entirely different sense here. Sāriputta once said: ‘O friend, Nirvāṇa is happiness! Nirvāṇa is happiness!’ Then Udāyi asked: ‘But, friend Sāriputta, what happiness can it be if there is no sensation?’ Sāriputta’s reply was highly philosophical and beyond ordinary comprehension: ‘That there is no sensation itself is happiness.’

Nirvāṇa is beyond logic and reasoning (atakkāvacara). However much we may engage, often as a vain intellectual pastime, in highly speculative discussions regarding Nirvāṇa or Ultimate Truth or Reality, we shall never understand it that way. A child in the kindergarten should not quarrel about the theory of relativity. Instead, if he follows his studies patiently and diligently, one day he may understand it. Nirvāṇa is ‘to be realized by the wise within themselves’ (paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi). If we follow the Path patiently and with diligence, train and purify ourselves earnestly, and attain the necessary spiritual development, we may one day realize it within ourselves – without taxing ourselves with puzzling and high- sounding words.

Let us therefore now turn to the Path which leads to the realization of Nirvāṇa.


[87] Lanka. p. 113

[88] Sometimes positive terms like Siva ‘Auspicious’, ‘Good’, Khema ‘Safety’, Suddhi ‘Purity’, Dīpa ‘Island’, Saraṇa ‘Refuge’, Tāṃa ‘Protection’, Pāra ‘Opposite shore’. ‘Other side’, Santi ‘Peace’, ‘Tranquillity’ are used to denote Nirvāṇa. There are 32 synonyms for Nibbāna in the Asaṃkhata-saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta-nikāya. They are mostly metaphorical.

[89] Mhvg. (Alutgama,1922), p. 10; S V p. 421. It is interesting to note that this definition of Nirodha ‘Cessation of Dukkha’, which is found in the first sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath, does not contain the word Nibbāna, though the definition means it.

[90] S I, p. 136

[91] Ibid. IV, p. 359.

[92] Ibid. III, p. 190.

[93] Here the word pipāsa which lit. means thirst

[94] A (PTS) II, p. 34.

[95] S (PTS) IV, p. 251.

[96] Sāriputta’s words. M I, (PTS), p. 191.

[97] Words of Musīla, another disciple of the Buddha. S II (PTS), p. 117.

[98] Ud. (Colombo, 1929), p. 129.

[99] Ibid. p. 128; D I (Colombo, 1929), p. 172.

[100] Notice that all the spiritual and mystic states, however pure and high they may be, are mental creations, mind-made, conditioned and compound (saṃkhata). They are not Reality, not Truth (sacca).

[101] This means that he does not produce new karma, because now he is free from ‘thirst’ will, volition.

[102] This expression means that now he is an Arahant.

[103] S V (PTS), p. 369.

[104] Cf. Lanka. p. 200; ‘O Mahāmati, Nirvāṇa means to see the state of things as they are.’

[105] Nāgārjuna clearly says that ‘Saṃsāra has no difference whatever from Nirvāṇa and Nirvāṇa has no difference whatever from Saṃsāra.’ (Madhya. Kari XXV, 19).

[106] It is useful to remember here that among nine supra-mundane dharmas (navalo-kuttara-dhamma) Nirvāṇa is beyond magga (path) and phala (fruition).

[107] S III (PTS), p. 189.

[108] There are some who write ‘after the Nirvāṇa of the Buddha’ instead of ‘after the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha’. ‘After the Nirvāṇa of the Buddha’ has no meaning, and the expression is unknown in Buddhist literature. It is always ‘after the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha’.

[109] S IV (PTS), p. 375 f.

[110] M I (PTS), p. 486.

[111] Ibid. I, p. 487; III, p. 245; Sn (PTS), v. 232 (p. 41).

[112] See Aggregates of Formations above pp. 16, 21.

[113] A (Colombo, 1929), p. 218.

[114] S I (PTS), p. 5.

[115] M II (PTS), p. 121.