Buddhism in a Nutshell

The Path to Nibbana

How is Nibbana to be attained?

It is by following the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of Right Understanding (samma-ditthi), Right Thoughts (samma-sankappa), Right Speech (samma-vaca), Right Actions (samma-kammanta), Right Livelihood (samma-ajiva), Right Effort (samma-vayama), Right Mindfulness (samma-sati), and Right Concentration (samma-samadhi).

1. Right Understanding, which is the keynote of Buddhism, is explained as the knowledge of the four Noble Truths. To understand rightly means to understand things as they really are and not as they appear to be. This refers primarily to a correct understanding of oneself, because, as the Rohitassa Sutta states, "Dependent on this one-fathom long body with its consciousness" are all the four Truths. In the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Understanding stands at the beginning as well as at its end. A minimum degree of Right Understanding is necessary at the very beginning because it gives the right motivations to the other seven factors of the Path and gives to them correct direction. At the culmination of the practice, Right Understanding has matured into perfect Insight Wisdom (vipassana-pañña), leading directly to the stages of sainthood.

2. Clear vision of right understanding leads to clear thinking. The second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path is therefore, Right Thoughts (samma-sankappa), which serves the double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts. Right Thoughts, in this particular connection, are threefold. They consist of:

i. Nekkhamma -- Renunciation of worldly pleasures or the virtue of selflessness, which is opposed to attachment, selfishness, and possessiveness;
ii. Avyapada -- Loving-kindness, goodwill, or benevolence, which is opposed to hatred, ill-will, or aversion; and
iii. Avihimsa -- Harmlessness or compassion, which is opposed to cruelty and callousness.

3. Right Thoughts lead to Right Speech, the third factor. This includes abstinence from falsehood, slandering, harsh words, and frivolous talk.

4. Right Speech must be followed by Right Action which comprises abstinence from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.

5. Purifying his thoughts, words and deeds at the outset, the spiritual pilgrim tries to purify his livelihood by refraining from the five kinds of trade which are forbidden to a lay-disciple. They are trading in arms, human beings, animals for slaughter, intoxicating drinks and drugs, and poisons. For monks, wrong livelihood consists of hypocritical conduct and wrong means of obtaining the requisites of monk-life.

6. Right Effort is fourfold, namely:

i. the endeavor to discard evil that has already arisen;
ii. the endeavor to prevent the arising of unarisen evil;
iii. the endeavor to develop unarisen good;
iv. the endeavor to promote the good which has already arisen.

7. Right Mindfulness is constant mindfulness with regard to body, feelings, thoughts, and mind-objects.

8. Right Effort and Right Mindfulness lead to Right Concentration. It is the one-pointedness of mind, culminating in the jhanas or meditative absorptions.

Of these eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path the first two are grouped under the heading of Wisdom (pañña), the following three under Morality (sila), and the last three under Concentration (samadhi). But according to the order of development the sequence is as follows:

I. Morality (sila)
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood

II. Concentration (samadhi)
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

III. Wisdom (pañña)
Right Understanding
Right Thoughts

Morality (sila) is the first stage on this path to Nibbana.

Without killing or causing injury to any living creature, man should be kind and compassionate towards all, even to the tiniest creature that crawls at his feet. Refraining from stealing, he should be upright and honest in all his dealings. Abstaining from sexual misconduct which debases the exalted nature of man, he should be pure. Shunning false speech, he should be truthful. Avoiding pernicious drinks that promote heedlessness, he should be sober and diligent.

These elementary principles of regulated behavior are essential to one who treads the path to Nibbana. Violation of them means the introduction of obstacles on the path which will obstruct his moral progress. Observance of them means steady and smooth progress along the path. The spiritual pilgrim, disciplining thus his words and deeds, may advance a step further and try to control his senses.

While he progresses slowly and steadily with regulated word and deed and restrained senses, the kammic force of this striving aspirant may compel him to renounce worldly pleasures and adopt the ascetic life. To him then comes the idea that,

"A den of strife is household life,
And filled with toil and need;
But free and high as the open sky
Is the life the homeless lead."

It should not be understood that everyone is expected to lead the life of a bhikkhu or a celibate life to achieve one's goal. One's spiritual progress is expedited by being a bhikkhu although as a lay follower one can become an arahat. After attaining the third state of sainthood, one leads a life of celibacy.

Securing a firm footing on the ground of morality, the progressing pilgrim then embarks upon the higher practice of samadhi, the control and culture of the mind -- the second stage on this Path.

Samadhi -- is the "one-pointedness of the mind." It is the concentration of the mind on one object to the entire exclusion of all irrelevant matter.

There are different subjects for meditation according to the temperaments of the individuals. Concentration on respiration is the easiest to gain the one-pointedness of the mind. Meditation on loving-kindness is very beneficial as it is conducive to mental peace and happiness.

Cultivation of the four sublime states -- loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) -- is highly commendable.

After giving careful consideration to the subject for contemplation, he should choose the one most suited to his temperament. This being satisfactorily settled, he makes a persistent effort to focus his mind until he becomes so wholly absorbed and interested in it, that all other thoughts get ipso facto excluded from the mind. The five hindrances to progress -- namely, sense-desire, hatred, sloth and torpor, restlessness and brooding, and doubts are then temporarily inhibited. Eventually he gains ecstatic concentration and, to his indescribable joy, becomes enwrapt in jhana, enjoying the calmness and serenity of a one-pointed mind.

When one gains this perfect one-pointedness of the mind it is possible for one to develop the five supernormal powers (abhiñña): divine eye (dibbacakkhu), divine ear (dibbasota), reminiscence of past births (pubbenivasanussati-ñana). Thought reading (paracitta vijañana) and different psychic powers (iddhividha). It must not be understood that those supernormal powers are essential for sainthood.

Though the mind is now purified there still lies dormant in him the tendency to give vent to his passions, for by concentration, passions are lulled to sleep temporarily. They may rise to the surface at unexpected moments.

Both Discipline and Concentration are helpful to clear the Path of its obstacles but it is Insight (vipassana pañña) alone which enables one to see things as they truly are, and consequently reach the ultimate goal by completely annihilating the passions inhibited by samadhi. This is the third and the final stage on the Path of Nibbana.

With his one-pointed mind which now resembles a polished mirror he looks at the world to get a correct view of life. Wherever he turns his eyes he sees nought but the Three Characteristics -- anicca (transiency), dukkha (sorrow) and anatta (soul-lessness) standing out in bold relief. He comprehends that life is constantly changing and all conditioned things are transient. Neither in heaven nor on earth does he find any genuine happiness, for every form of pleasure is a prelude to pain. What is transient is therefore painful, and where change and sorrow prevail there cannot be a permanent immortal soul.

Whereupon, of these three characteristics, he chooses one that appeals to him most and intently keeps on developing Insight in that particular direction until that glorious day comes to him when he would realize Nibbana for the first time in his life, having destroyed the three fetters -- self-illusion (sakkaya-ditthi), doubts (vicikiccha), indulgence in (wrongful) rites and ceremonies (silabbataparamasa).

At this stage he is called a sotapanna (stream-winner) -- one who has entered the stream that leads to Nibbana. As he has not eradicated all fetters he is reborn seven times at the most.

Summoning up fresh courage, as a result of this glimpse of Nibbana, the pilgrim makes rapid progress and cultivating deeper insight becomes a sakadagami (once returner) by weakening two more fetters -- namely sense-desire (kamaraga) and ill-will (patigha). He is called a sakadagami because he is reborn on earth only once in case he does not attain arahatship.

It is in the third state of sainthood -- anagami (never-returner) that he completely discards the aforesaid two fetters. Thereafter, he neither returns to this world nor does he seek birth in the celestial realms, since he has no more desire for sensual pleasures. After death he is reborn in the "Pure Abodes" (suddhavasa) a congenial Brahma plane, till he attains arahatship.

Now the saintly pilgrim, encouraged by the unprecedented success of his endeavors, makes his final advance and, destroying the remaining fetters -- namely, lust after life in Realms of Forms (ruparaga) and Formless Realms (aruparaga), conceit (mana), restlessness (uddhacca), and ignorance (avijja) -- becomes a perfect saint: an arahat, a Worthy One.

Instantly he realizes that what was to be accomplished has been done, that a heavy burden of sorrow has been relinquished, that all forms of attachment have been totally annihilated, and that the Path to Nibbana has been trodden. The Worthy One now stands on heights more than celestial, far removed from the rebellious passions and defilements of the world, realizing the unutterable bliss of Nibbana and like many an arahat of old, uttering that paean of joy:

"Goodwill and wisdom, mind by method trained,
The highest conduct on good morals based,
This maketh mortals pure, not rank or wealth."

As T.H. Huxley states -- "Buddhism is a system which knows no God in the Western sense, which denies a soul to man, which counts the belief in immortality a blunder, which refuses any efficacy to prayer and sacrifice, which bids men to look to nothing but their own efforts for salvation, which in its original purity knew nothing of vows of obedience and never sought the aid of the secular arm: yet spread over a considerable moiety of the world with marvelous rapidity — and is still the dominant creed of a large fraction of mankind."

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