Perspective(s) on Nirvana, Cessation Experiences, and Emptiness

I hope to provide here some clarification of the views at play in contemporary discussions at the deep end of meditation discourse, primarily informed by Buddhist tradition(s). This is a synoptic presentation derived from many sources (which I will attempt to credit, though a full accounting of influence would be impossible) and much personal phenomenological (meditative) as well as philosophical investigation. If this seems too in-the-weeds, feel free to disregard, however, these are live issues in my practice, as I know they are for many of you here as well. May this be of use to you in your practice and understanding.

Ud 8:3:
There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not
that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, no leaving behind of the born,
become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But because there is indeed an
unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, a leaving behind of the born, become,
made, fabricated is discerned.

I was recently alerted to an old talk of Guy Armstrong’s in which he lays out neatly some competing definitions of the goal of Buddhist practice between traditions, some of which are, if you’re not attempting to scrub away inconsistency, mutually contradictory and incompatible, at least at first blush. It’s been useful to me in clarifying my own view on these subjects. I suggest listening to it! []

For those without time to listen, and as a recap and contextualization for those who have, the four definitions of nirvana as he describes them (nibbana, the unconditioned, etc.) are:

1: A state freed from delusion (moha), attraction (raga), and aversion (dvesha), without separate ontological or phenomenological status, a mere absence of these factors. What that actually means isn’t quite clear. Guy attributes this view to hard-line Madhyamikas (followers of Nagarjuna’s philosophy), and perhaps others. This definition is compatible with the others as a qualification of them, but may be held in isolation from 2, 3, and 4 and in denial of their importance or ultimacy.

2: A state of phenomenal cessation in which all consciousness is suspended. No time, no space, no subject, no object, not even the barest trace of cognizance remaining. This view is held by Theravadins influenced by the Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga, primarily in Burma and by those following this stream of teaching, e.g. Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram, among many others. Those who hold this out as ultimate tend to depreciate 3, and perhaps 4 relative to this state.

3: A state of phenomenal cessation in which all sensory consciousness is suspended. No time, no space, no subject, no object, a content-less, non-sensory consciousness, yet consciousness nonetheless. This corresponds to the Theravadin view held by most in Sri Lanka, in the Thai Forest tradition, and appears to be quite amenable to the perspectives of Indo-Tibetan traditions such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra. See Ajahn Amaro’s (a Thai Forest monastic) book Small Boat, Great Mountain for a comparative reflection. It is also arguably the view which accords best with the Pali suttas. See Thanissaro Bhikku’s book The Mind Like Fire Unbound, or Bhikku Katukurunde Nyanananda’s The Magic of the Mind, and Rob Burbea’s ever-excellent Seeing That Frees, chapter 28.

4: A state not of phenomenal cessation but rather cessation of subject-object duality alongside recognition of the nature of mind as the timeless, boundless, and empty cognizance undifferentiated from the illusion-like contents of consciousness. This is equivalent to rigpa, awareness-awake-to-itself, yada yada, cf. Seeing That Frees, chapter 30, or any number of Dzogchen and/or Mahamudra texts. It also appears compatible with the descriptions of awakened sensory perception found in the Pali suttas, e.g. AN 4:24 Kalaka Sutta, Ud 1:10 Bahiya Sutta, etc. This is likely to be equated with 1, and to be considered a result of repeated and/or especially impactful immersions in 2 and/or 3. Plenty also teach it as immediately accessible given the right nudges. Some people who favor this one tend to not care much about or even acknowledge 2, but plenty identify this state with 1, and regard 3 as a pure distillation of it.

What are we, as practitioners, to make of this muddle? We could just leave it aside, but I suspect, as it has been for me, that at some point these fine points of disambiguation take on an urgency and it is productive to comprehend and investigate for oneself, or at least be clear about the interpretations on offer.

Theravadin traditionalists disagree between 2 and 3, and given that for them the matter of the cessation of rebirth, the end of samsara, and liberation from interminable dukkha hangs on which is valid and therefore is rightly The Buddha’s True Teaching, you can understand the controversy. I suspect that this is not so relevant to most reading this. If it is, and you are concerned about the fate of your mind-stream post-mortem, I wish you the best of luck in figuring it out.

For a somewhat secular perspective, Culadasa (author of The Mind Illuminated) acknowledges both 2 and 3 as valid cessation experiences liable to afford insight into the emptiness, i.e. fabricated, dependently originated nature, of phenomenal appearances, and though he doesn’t lay it out explicitly, to be onward-leading to abiding continuously in 4, which he might equate with 1 (could someone ask him?). Compare with Shinzen Young, who I believe has a preference for 2, but values 3 as well, and certainly 4.

Rob Burbea, who was once a student of Thanissaro Bhikku, seems not to put much stock in 2, and follows his former teacher as identifying 3 as what the Buddha was on about with talk of the Unfabricated, the Deathless, etc. If you read his book and listen to his talks, it also appears that for him 3 definitely supersedes a watered-down version of 4, which can be a trap insofar as it might serve as a last stand for reification of or identification with awareness. Though it must be said that for Rob, liberating insight into the emptiness and dependent arising of phenomenal appearances is the gold standard, not any one-off or even repeated cessation experience. A version of 4 absent reification, in full recognition of the emptiness of awareness, space, and time, next to 3 seems to be his pinnacle.

Where do I happen to stand? In my own practice I had glimpses of 4 prior to any cessation experiences. Unpredictable, brief, and unrepeatable, however, I cultivated standard shamatha-vipashyana along the lines laid out in TMI. Later, influenced largely by Ingram when anicca all-day-every-day was what I was keyed into I prized repetitions of 2, which afforded pre/post-cessation tastes of 4. Later still, which is relatively recently, I’ve been pretty haphazard in a good way, it seems. While working with one of Shinzen’s students exploring his system and various practices therein (turning back attention to its origin has been especially helpful), I’ve been reading and practising from Bon Dzogchen materials and interpreting what has been/is happening phenomenologically within Rob Burbea’s framework of understanding samadhi, insight, and the dependent arising of empty fabrication (i.e. all phenomenal appearance). Cessation experiences a la 2 occur, but the gradual fading, arising, and modulation of perception leading into and out of 3 seems naturally conducive to recognizing and resting in 4 intermittently but more continuously throughout the days, as though the mature variant of 4 is the recognition of 3’s permeation of and identity with phenomenal appearances.

You must decide for yourself about these things, of course, and the pragmatic criterion of lessening dukkha is a good one. May all beings be at ease, and know the peace of nirvana (whatever that means!).

Some more scripture to close:

DN 11:
Consciousness without attribute, without end, luminous all around.
Here water, earth, fire, and air have no footing.
Here long and short, subtle and gross, pleasant and unpleasant, and nāmarūpa are all destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness [i.e. the six sense consciousnesses] here each of these is destroyed.

Dhp 153 – 154:
House-builder, you are found out! You will not build a house again.
All your rafters are broken, and your ridgepole disassembled.
The mind has arrived at non-fabrication,
has experienced the end of craving.

Nagarjuna’s MMK 18: 7:
Unarisen and unceased, like nirvana
Is the nature of things.

The Six Yogas of Naropa:
All things in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa… all existents, phenomena, appearances, and non-existents,
all these functional realities are inseparably of one taste with the quintessential nature of emptiness…
All share in the vastness of the great coalescence.
The wise who realize this truth no longer see mind, but only wisdom-mind.
They no longer see living beings, only Buddhas.
They no longer see phenomena, only the quintessential nature.

Nagarjuna’s MMK Homage Verses:
I prostrate to the perfect Buddha,
The best of all teachers, who taught that
That which is dependent origination is
Without cessation, without arising;
Without annihilation, without permanence;
Without coming; without going;
Without distinction, without identity
And peaceful— free from fabrication.

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