The answer to the question: ‘What is Nirvāṇa?’, lies in an understanding of the misunderstanding that underlies the question itself.
In the common analogy, its like explaining the nature of life outside water to a fish that has known nothing else and cannot conceive it with any credence. [The fish is an easier case. With us humans, explanation is both unconvincing and deleterious.]
The self-scuttling has to be done at the level of the questioner. And to properly sunder the Self-Loop is to comprehensively answer the question.
To ask: ‘What is Nirvāṇa’, is to have misunderstood; to answer it, is to extend the error.
It’s like the old line at the Rolls-Royce dealership: ‘If you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it’. If you need Nirvāṇa explained, you won’t understand it.
The point of arrival at Shūnyam is called Nirvāṇa.
Nirvāṇa is not ecstatic joy. Nor is it any cosmic peace. And no, upon reaching it, you still will not be able to part the Red Sea.
The word Nirvāṇa, literally a ‘Flaring-Out’, has its etymological roots in a fire that has ‘Come to Rest’.
The original verse [MadhimaNikaya] says it is like asking the direction taken by a dead fire. To ask: ‘In which direction has [the dead] fire gone?’, is a question that: ‘does not fit the case’.
It is impossible and markedly unwise to explain the nature of the absence of the separated self to one who can only interpret the explanation from the platform of a presumed self.
The Buddha famously held his silence [Avyākṛta, Anirvacaniya,] to all questions about the terminus. If you miss its significance, you miss Shūnyam.
The word Nirvāṇa long predates the Buddhist literature. And the problem of ambitious Guru’s unknown to Shūnyam who pin a plethora of enticing and outright misleading attributes on Nirvāṇa is a very old one.
You have just murdered both your parents and your lawyer is making the case that since you are now an orphan you deserve the court’s sympathy.
And furthermore you are mentally-insane. So he calls in an expert-witness, a brilliant professor from a local university, a national luminary, in fact.
‘Sanity’ the professor judiciously declares ‘ is ‘Reflective Consciousness’. An ability to be conscious that you are conscious. And that is what tells a person what is right and what is wrong.’ [You remember the M’naghten Rule, don’t you?]
And since you are shortchanged on this essential endowment you cannot be held responsible. You need compassionate care for the emotional damage caused by witnessing your parents violent death.
You think I’m joking? This happens to be a true story with names changed to protect the innocence of the guilty.
‘Consciousness’: from the Latin ‘Con Scire‘: ‘to be awake; to know’; and related to Cognitionem, as in the words ‘Cognition’ and ‘Science’.
The First Law of Consciousness declares that you may not investigate your consciousness while being in an actively conscious state.
If you can consciously point to something as your ‘Consciousness’, by that very fact what you have pointed to cannot be your consciousness.
You cannot be conscious of being ‘Conscious’. You can be conscious. That’s it.
To be conscious of being ‘Conscious’ is the high road to fatal self-contradictions. An unwarranted, illegitimate doubling, an engendered plurality that makes what is simple and unclouded into a belligerent complexity.
You cannot, however hard you blink, wiggle or scheme, stand outside Consciousness to orate upon it. If you feel hemmed in, that is the idea.
Consciousness, Mind and Thought. The machine-tools that make the machines that make the models. The devoted Meta-Trinity servicing the Self-Loop.
If you can convincingly hold-forth on the conscious ‘Unconscious’ in addition to the merits of mentating about Mind, your talent should not go unnoticed. The most convincing Couch Therapists all live on Park Avenue.
What is the Orangeness in an Orange?
How do you miraculously, unhesitatingly, repeatedly manage to identify Orangeness?
What is common between a sliced and a peeled Orange? A ripe and a rotten Orange? A nibbled Orange and a fresh one?
A picture of an Orange, the sound ‘Orange Juice’, the taste of Orange pop, the smell of Orange peel, the touch of Orange pip, the letters ‘O R A N G E’, on a page.
This is the Self-Loop doing a salsa.
Orangeness is an idea. I cannot explain ‘Orangeness’, Professor. But I sure know how to pick an Orange.
‘Thought’ proffered Immanuel Kant ‘ is cognition by means of conception’.
Cognition is a concept. A Concept is that which is conceptually differentiable. But ‘conceptually differentiable’ is itself a concept.
A ‘concept’ says the Dictionary, is a ‘a general notion or idea’. But a ‘general notion’ and an ‘idea’ are both very much concepts.
A concept has a public understanding while conception is just a private view. Yet concept is for you a conception and conception becomes a concept in the dictionary, unchanged regardless of who looks at it.
Concept; Conception; Concept of Conception; Conception of Concept. All Concepts; or are they Conceptions?
Is there anything I am absolutely sure about? The first Moon-Landing was actually faked in Utah. Cream-Pie widens the arteries. My mother really loves me. Maybe; maybe not.
But I don’t have these invidious doubts about whose thoughts are bouncing around in my head. The thoughts in my head are my thoughts. What happens in my mind is mine! mine! mine!
I can wear your cuff-links and you can borrow my cologne. But my thought is my thought and your thought is your thought. And my thought is closer to me than both.
There is nothing else on the planet that is so appropriated, taken for granted as belonging to ‘Me’, as ‘My Thoughts’. That’s why it is so real.
As long as I have my thoughts, I have me.
[Are you sure it is your thought you are thinking right now?]
So it was that René Descartes, founder of Cartesian method and Father of Western Academic Philosophy wrote:
‘Thinking. At last I have discovered it- Thought. This alone is inseparable from me.’
Cogito ergo sum.
Descartes’ rationale was more nuanced than the standard academic bumper-sticker interpretation. We’ll get to it later in his less-known letters.