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Theravada and Mahayana views on Nirvana

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 "I notice Pa Auk Sayadaw talks different times about the unformed object of nibbana. I find this phrase curious. Could anyone shed more light on this paradox?

"After this as he continues to discern the passing away and ceasing
of dhammas with a wish for release from them he finds that
eventually the formations cease and his mind takes the unformed
nibbana as an object."

An Eternal Now: I do not know what is Pa Auk Sayadaw's understanding of Nirvana.

But as some suttas explained, Nirvana is an object of mental cognition and therefore falls under the all - the 12 ayatanas which are the 6 cognitive faculties (5 sense organs and the mind) and the 6 corresponding categories of objects (which Thanissaro Bhikkhu may not agree with such correlation) and is the object of mental cognition.

Malcolm: "No, actually it does. The Sabbasutta is just a description of the twelve āyatanas. The twelve āyatanas contain all conditioned and unconditioned phenomena, including the supreme Dharma, nirvana.

The twelve āyatanas:
eye | form
ear | sound
nose | scent
tongue | tastes
body | tactiles
mind | dharmas

That is it. There are no phenomena taught in any buddhist teachings that can go beyond this list. The dharma āyatana contains the aggregates of sensation, ideation and formations (vedanasamjñā̄saṃskaraskandha), as well as space and the two kinds of cessation. When the twelve āyatanas are broken out in to the eighteen dhātus, the dharma āyatana changes its name to the dharmadhātu. Mano āyatana, the mind ayatanā is the aggregate of consciousness, vijñāna skandha, and the ten material āyatanas, eye, form, etc, are the rūpaskandha.

Well, that may be how Theravadins approach that sutta -- but some tendencies in Theravada are slightly eternalist. We also have that Sutra in the Agamas, and the way the twelve āyatanas are described by Vasubandhu and the way I have outlined this is completely normal and consistent with that sutra. Nirvana, for stream enterers and so on, is an object of their consciousnesses since it is included in the dharmāyatana/dhātu.

There are no phenomena that lie outside the twelve āyatanas."

Geoff: "It's (nirvana) a mental object of the sixth consciousness. The path has a purpose, and that purpose for śrāvakas (and bodhisattvas as well) includes the elimination of the fetters. Thus, with the fruition attainments there is the knowledge (ñāṇa) of extinguishment (nibbāna) of fetters, also called the knowledge of elimination (khayeñāṇa) of fetters, etc. Without such elimination there is no awakening (bodhi). This isn't controversial."

"It's the object of a supramundane cognition (lokuttaracitta), yes."

"It's implicit in terms such as the cognition of cessation (nirodhasaññā), etc."

Nirvana here simply means the termination of passion, aggression and delusion. The termination of such defilements is called Nirvana and given many epithets by Buddha like unaging, not-born, and so on.

For a more experiential example of "taking nibbana as an object of cognition" just think of carrying a 20kg load on your shoulders for 20 miles and suddenly putting it down. Ah! What a release.

The burden of samsara, afflictions, attachments, seLF:-clinging, all gone... and in place of it is such a liberating mode - perception/experience becomes direct, immediate, liberating without any sense of seLF:/SeLF:.

And in the suttas we often hear, "Now at that time a large number of monks had declared final gnosis in the Blessed One's presence: "We discern that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fuLF:illed, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.'""

An Eternal Now: Nirvana is the termination of passion, aggression, and delusion. This is precisely what Nirvana is, not what it is not.

Non-Buddhist people, particularly Awareness people or those with an eternalist view like to see Buddha as talking about Nirvana in a negative way but keeping silence on what Nirvana is. This is because they have the idea that Nirvana is for example, eternal awareness.

Actually the Buddha did not avoid talking about nirvana. He remained silent on speculative issues (like the infinitude of universe, etc) - but not on the subject of nirvana which is straightforward, not speculative, can be verified experientially which he has and many had, etc.

The Recognition of Cessation (Nirodhasaññā)

It is very well written by Geoff (online jnana/nana) and backed up by scriptures - what Buddha himseLF: said.

Nirvana is unconditioned because cessation is unconditioned - it is not subjected to passing away, not subject to afflictive conditions, etc. Like a fire that has gone out - it is simply ceased, terminated. It is described by Buddha as being extinguishment like a flame going out. That is what Nirvana is - the cessation of afflictions. Cessation is not conditioned. The two cessations (analytical/nonanalytical) are examples of unconditioned dharmas.

Mahayana means different things to different people, simply because it is not one particular teaching taught by one person. It is not even from the historical Buddha. Rather, it is a collection of teachings from so many people with different background, situation, understandings, under different circumstances or periods of doctrinal developments etc etc.

Some of those scriptures may be attributed to Buddha, but even those scriptures are not exactly by the historical Buddha (as modern scholarship will tell you) but are composed by many unknown authors writing them - perhaps a visionary account of their teachings, or more likely than not as Malcolm said - "...Even though Shakyamuni Buddha certainly never actually taught Mahayana, nevertheless, Mahayana stands on its own and is valid as a spiritual path and practice because the folks that wrote the Mahayana sutras down were realized persons. The source of these teachings are all realized beings-- ***their assumed historical settings are merely skilLF:ul means to instill faith in the teachings in those person's who need to crutch of historical literalism...***" In any case, the Mahayana sutras show signs of literary composition and gradual development that are simply absent in the Pali suttas, which shows signs of being handed down orally in the beginning and having more consistency etc.

And because Mahayana is such a diverse set of teachings developed over a thousand years, you can actually easily find a sutra to support a whole range of positions to your own liking. So if for example your understanding is that your true seLF: is eternal and changeless awareness (and I know you're an eternalist lol), sure, you can also find doctrinal support easily in Mahayana Buddhism. You may even find that the early Tathagatagarbha teachings like the early Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Mahayana) may even seem more eternalist than Vedanta and is rather unapologetic about it. In that sutra, Nirvana is described as the true changeless seLF: and distinct from the five passing aggregates. Which is in direct contradiction to the earlier Pali suttas (and Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras etc) which held Nirvana to be empty of seLF:.

But that is just one small part of the Mahayana basket of scriptures. Earlier than the Tathagatagarbha class of teachings we have the Prajnaparamita class of teachings, which are the emptiness teachings - all dharmas including Nirvana are taught to be empty and illusory, and as I quoted to you in the past from this class of teaching, "Nirvāṇa is an illusion. Even if there is anything greater than Nirvāṇa, that too will be only an illusion." ~ Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñapāramitā Sutra

And in the later developments, such as Lankavatara Sutra, which is not particularly prajnaparamita, not particularly tathagatagarbha, not particularly yogacara - but since it is such a late sutra it is a synthesis of all the earlier developments - PP, TG, YC all included in one coherent scripture. This is the sutra that teaches sudden awakening and is said to be the only sutra brought into China by the 1st Zen/Ch'an Patriarch in China, Bodhidharma.

In this Lankavatara Sutra, it explains that the doctrine of Tathagatagarbha is simply a skilLF:ul, expedient means taught to non-Buddhists who fear the notion of emptiness and cling to notions of true seLF:. Its aim is actually to lead them gradually towards understanding emptiness, non-arising etc expediently. It teaches that true Bodhisattvas must treat tathagatagarbha as ultimately not-seLF:, and warn against falling into non-Buddhist views of an Atman. But of course this is not what is being explained in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra for example, which explains itseLF: as being the final definitive teachings, etc. So there are always contradictions between sutras simply because they are written and developed by different people.

So all these mean very different things to different people, all depending on what they take to be provisional and what they take to be definitive.

The general consensus among the majority of Mahayana and particularly Vajrayana people is that they do not hold a rather substantialist understanding of Buddha-nature. In Vajrayana for example Buddha-nature is understood as the inseparability of clarity and emptiness. In other words, even though clarity is an aspect of nature of mind, or one of the natures/essence of mind (the other being emptiness), that clarity too is not reified in terms of a changeless substantial true seLF: but is empty of any seLF: or substantial real existence as well.

Vajrayana generally take the middle way teachings on emptiness to be definitive but at the same time talk about the clarity aspect or the inseparability of clarity and emptiness. There is strong influence of Nagarjuna's emptiness teachings in terms of view on the Vajrayana teachings as a whole even though in terms of practice they are more focused on tantric methodologies generally speaking (or there may be practice-based teachings that claim themselves to be beyond tantras like Dzogchen and Mahamudra for example).

On the other hand there are also those minority like the Jonangs and the more extreme version of Shentong that takes some of the Tathagatagarbha teachings to be definitive and thus developed an eternalist doctrine out of it that is no different from the Vedanta teachings. The same goes for some adherents/teachers of Zen and Ch'an Buddhism which are also in many cases teaching stuff that are very much like Vedanta. At the same time you can find Zen teachers that teach a very non-substantialist understanding, and I especially like Dogen for example. So it is truly, a mixed bag, even within the specific traditions of Mahayana and Vajrayana. There can be no similar consensus among such a wide range of Buddhists on such issues.

But going back to topic, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists generally agree with the Buddha's (the early/original teachings in pali suttas) description of Nirvana and generally do not hold substantialist views about it. However they do have different understandings of the details - and some Vajrayana people will talk about the difference of Bodhisattva's nirvana (non-abiding nirvana) versus the one-sided cessation of arahants and so on. All these I'll leave to the experts like Geoff who described it very nicely:
Dharma Connection: Nirvana In The Different Schools Of Buddhism