Nibbana is an unconditional reality in the Buddhist philosophical doctrine named Abhidhamma. As Nibbana is the unconditional reality, it is hard to interpret what it really is. Consequently, the concept of Nibbana becomes a critical issue in Buddhism because there are many interpretations and incomplete definitions of this reality. This study attempts to explore the Buddhist concept of Nibbana and its former interpretations done by Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars. From the theoretical and practical perspectives, this study focuses on the former interpretations of Nibbana applying the relevant methods to this inquiry.
In addition, this study sets out a brief outline of historical, textual, and methodological contexts for exploring the meaning of Nibbana in Pali, Nirvana in Sanskrit with reference to Pali and Burmese literature. The essential part of this word reexamines the interpretations of Nibbana with reference to the canonical texts, commentaries and sub-commentaries, especially with special reference to Theravada Buddhism in Burma. Yet some formulations from the West’s acquaintance with Buddhism are also put into this study as an additional value. The aim of this study is to explore the textual meaning of Nibbana from the practical or experiential viewpoint. The theoretical basis will also be discussed. Moreover, this study will analyze scholarly interpretations of early Buddhist texts and perspectives of Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars.
In fact, the historical scholarly interpretations are not sufficient enough to understand what the meaning of Nibbana is clearly. One reason is a limitation of the languages that they use and the second reason is that probably the writers themselves have insufficient practice of interpreting in order to clarify the meaning of Nibbana. And no Buddhist tradition draws a definite conclusion for the meaning of Nibbana. Since no single solution is found universally within the same religious tradition, there is even less to say about what other religious consider Nibbana to be.
However, this study will explore previous scholarly interpretations of Nibbana as well as canonical interpretations of Nibbana to clarify what is Nibbana. Since the interpretations of Nibbana are not clear enough to determine what Nibbana truly means, some non-Buddhist scholars attempted to interpret Nibbana a ‘annihilationism.’ The non-Buddhist scholar Max Muller (1823-1900) interpreted Nibbana as “utter annihilation.” He indicated that Nibbana was nothing more than absolute extinction. However, The doctrine of annihilation was not the original purpose of Buddhism. His view was considered to be very negative to Buddhism.
Unlike Max Muller, the Buddhist scholar, La Vallee Poussin (1866-1962) wrote: “We must confess that this identification, ‘Nibbana = annihilation’ is not one of the ‘primordial’ doctrines of Buddhism. The doctrine of annihilation was not an original ‘prupose’; it was a result. That is to say, Sakyamuni (or the Church) did not start with such an idea of deliverance; this idea had been forced upon him (or upon them) because he had been rash enough to deny the existence of a soul.
Poussin found the misinterpretation of Nibbana as “utter annihilation” in the previous work and insisted that Nirvana was considered to be a “blissful paradise” from the perspective of the practicing Buddhists. Yet there is nothing equal to describing Nibbana adequately according to Poussin. He emphasized the view of Nibbana as follows:
We believe that the most exact and the most authoritive definition of Nirvana is not annihilation, but “unqualified deliverance,” a deliverance of which we have no right to predicate anything.
Poussin’s analysis showed that for the original Indian Buddhism, the solutionfor the meaning of Nibbana did not depend on conception or theoretical refection, but depended on the practical approach as being necessary for this solution. Without taking part in the controversy which this problem raised, we can easily construct a reasonable idea of the probable history of Nirvana.” Like Poussin, Theodore Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) was a Buddhist scholar, but his name may not be familiar to Western European audiences. However, Western scholars acknowledge his analytical and intellectual views. His criticisms are found in his work,
The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana. His emphasis is that “the aim of Buddhism as a method of salvation is conceived to be the suppression of the process, a process of successive dharma moments. The famous Buddhist equation, existence equals sorrow (dukkha), which had seemed dubiously synthetic to most Western interpreters, becomes at best a tautology in Stcherbastsky’s treatment, since he translates dhkkha not as ‘sorrow’ but as ‘unrest’. Regarding the word Nibbana, Poussin perceptively said as follows:
Indians do not make a clear distinction between facts and ideas, between ideas and words; they have never clearly recognized the principle of contradiction. Buddhist dialectic has a four-branched dilemma: Nirvana is existence or non-existence or both existence and non-existence or neither existence nor non-existence.