We all know what happens when a fire goes
out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when
we first learn that the name for thegoal of Buddhist practice,
nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire,
it's hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal:utter
annihilation. It turns out, though, that this reading of the
concept is a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as
of an image. What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians
of the Buddha's day? Anything but annihilation.
According to the ancient Brahmins, when a fire was extinguished
it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist,
it became dormant and in that state -- unbound from any particular
fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha
used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmins of his
day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire
continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility
of defining a fire that doesn't burn: thus his statement that
the person who has gone totally "out" can't be described.
However, when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana
more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time
saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging
and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one
had to "seize" it. When fire let go of its fuel, it
was "freed," released from its agitation, dependence,
and entrapment -- calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry
repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor
for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire
imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana,
or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from
its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five "heaps"
(form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness)
that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of
a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking
sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging
to the khandhas.
Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali
commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to
its verbal root, which means "unbinding." What kind
of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding
in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but
whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened
arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to
pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion.
The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally
out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences
after this life. All input from the senses cools away and he/she
is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations
of existence in space and time. The Buddha insists that this
level is indescribable, even in terms of existence or nonexistence,
because words work only for things that have limits. All he really
says about it -- apart from images and metaphors -- is that one
can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that
it's the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing.
So the next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a
case of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be
found in letting go.