Kamma, Rebirth and Nibanna —

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Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha



The Buddha says that he teaches only dukkha and the cessation of dukkha — that is, suffering and the end of suffering. It is the cessation of the round of suffering the Buddha calls nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). In this lesson we bring together the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, and kamma to understand the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice — inner transformation which issues in our deliverance from the round of suffering in its entirety.

The noble truth of the cessation of suffering

The problem of suffering, presented in the first noble truth, is the starting point of the Buddha's teaching, not the final word. The Buddha starts with suffering, because his teaching is designed for a particular end — it is designed to lead to liberation. In order to do this he must give us a reason for seeking liberation.

Your house is on fire — arousing a sense of urgency

In the second noble truth, Buddha points out that the principal cause of suffering is craving, the desire for a world of sights, sounds , smells, tastes, touch sensations and  ideas. Since the cause of Dukkha is craving, the key to reaching the end of dukkha is to eliminate craving. Therefore the Buddha explains the third noble truth as the extinction of craving.

The Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering has two dimensions, a psychological dimension and a philosophical dimension. We shall deal briefly  with each of them.

Psychological dimension of nibbana

When we really look — and this requires the effort to week wisdom and insight — we find that unhappiness,  discontent, suffering result from the tension between desire and the lack of the thing desired. There are two possible approaches to overcoming this unhappiness. Either obtain the object desired or eliminate the desire.

The Buddha's teaching reverses the common assumption that happiness can be found by satisfying our desires.

When we carefully examine the happiness that comes from satisfying our desires, we find that such happiness is unreliable and insecure. This happiness depends on external things. These objects of desire are inevitably impermanent, and when we are separated from them we become unhappy. Thus even in the midst of happiness we become vulnerable to suffering.

True happiness, the Buddha teaches, is achieved by taking the opposite approach, the approach of eliminating our desires. When we eliminate the desire, our mind remains satisfied, content and happy — no matter what our external situation may be. The Buddha says that this principle can be carried through  all the way to the total uprooting of craving. This is the cessation of craving, the end of Dukkha visible here and now. 

Extinguishing the flame of craving

But the end of dukkha has a more wide-ranging meaning as well. When craving — which drives us on over and over in samsara — is eliminated, our actions no longer build up kamma, The wheel of  becoming is brought to a halt. This is the state of final deliverance which is the aim of the Buddha's teaching.

This state of final deliverance is called Nibbana. Nibbana literally means the extinguishing of a flame, and the Buddha uses Nibbana to describe the extinguishing of the flame of craving and the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.

Nibbana is the ultimate goal of the Buddha's path. The Buddha says:

Nibbana is an existing reality

Nibbana is not only the destruction of defilements and the end of samsara but a reality transcendent to  the entire world of mundane experience, a reality transcendent to all the realms of  phenomenal existence.

The Buddha refers to Nibbana as a 'dhamma'. Dhamma signifies actual realities, the existing realities as opposed to conceptual things. For example, he says:

Dhammas are of two types, conditioned and unconditioned.

Conditioned dhamma
An actuality which has come into being through causes or conditions. The conditioned dhammas are the five aggregates: material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Conditioned dhammas go through a ceaseless process of becoming — they arise, undergo  transformation and fall away due to their conditionality.

Unconditioned dhamma - nibanna
Not produced by causes and conditions, it has no arising, no falling away and it undergoes no transformation. Nevertheless, it is an actuality, and the Buddha refers to nibbana as an unconditioned Dhamma.

The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as:

  • a realm (ayatana)

  • an element (dhatu)

  • an experience of the body

  • a state

  • Truth (sacca) — This refers to Nibbana as the truth, a reality that the Noble ones have known through direct experience.

Nibbana, the Buddha demonstrates, is an actual reality and not the mere destruction of defilements or the cessation of existence. Nibbana is unconditioned, without any origination and is timeless.

The practice of the path —  what is always present.

If Nibbana is attained by the practice of the path, doesn't this make it something conditioned, something produced by the path? Doesn't Nibbana become an effect of a cause, the path? Here we have to distinguish between Nibbana itself and the attainment of Nibbana. By practicing  the path one doesn't bring Nibbana into existence but rather discovers something already existing, something always present.