One of the most intense controversies in the Thai Buddhist scene is the debate over the nature of nirvana (or ‘nibbana’ in Pali). Basically the debate is over whether nirvana is ‘atta’ (self) or ‘anatta’ (non-self). In plain English it is whether nirvana has the characteristic of the self (namely substantively enduring and permanent) or the opposite. In Thailand the mainstream establishment Sangha has declared that nirvana is ‘anatta’. That is, they claim that nirvana does not have the characteristic of being permanent and substantive. This issue requires at least some unpacking and explanation.
The argument of the mainstream position against its opponent is that the opponent argues that nirvana is some kind of a substantive entity, a ‘place’ where those who have achieved it can enter and dwell there. In short they endure in some substantial form. However, the argument of the mainstream Sangha is that this distorts the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha does not teach that nirvana is some kind of place like a heaven, because everything is subject to birth, enduring and decay. If nirvana is a place, then it is a thing, and hence it is subject to arising and ceasing. But that contradicts the very definition of nirvana.
Listening to these debates I am reminded of Nagarjuna and his teaching on Emptiness. Somewhere in the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (I don’t have happen to have the text with me) Nagarjuna says that nirvana is neither there nor not there, and it is also not the case that it is both there and not there, nor neither there and not there. This is the famous catuskoti argument (or tetralemma) which finds its original mention from the Buddha himself. The idea of the catuskoti is to wean one of the bewitchment of language. Those who are still mired in samsara are so because they believe, mistakenly, that language defines reality. Reality is whatever told them by language. Since ultimate reality is free from all conceptual fabrications, then this ultimate reality cannot be described in words. Hence nirvana is neither there nor not there, neither there and not there, neither not there nor not not-there. That is, since these four corners of the tetralemma exhaust every possibility of language use to form a proposition making a thought, understanding what nirvana really is does not involve language in this way. Rather it involves understanding *through* language that language is only fabrication.
Hence this underlies the debate between the reificationist (those who say that nirvana is substantial) and the annihilationist (those who argue that nirvana is “non-self”). It seems that both sides still are being bewitched by language. As language has this tendency to foist binary thinking (there or not-there), then this is the fundamental conceptual fabrication that the Buddha taught us to get rid of. In one way, nirvana cannot be spoken of at all, but another way nirvana can be spoken of as it is not separable from ordinary beings and ordinary objects in any way (See my earlier post on “Nirvana and Samsara”). If you don’t understand this, go from the computer and do something else for a few days and come back here again. But if you still don’t, just forget it 🙂