Craving for Nibbana?

Or: How can i desire Nibbana if it is supposed to be the end of desires?

Part of mainstream Buddhism and supported by a notion from late Mahayana school of thought is the proposition that you cannot achieve Nibbana if you still long for it. This not only sounds good but also seems very logical if you look at it. This understanding is so mainstream nowadays that from Tibetan to Zen and even in Theravada circles the notion of “desire to attain Nibbana” seems contradictory to Buddha’s own teaching.

We may even come across comments like this:

“How do you extinguish the desire for Nirvana? Simple. Abandon the distinction between Nirvana and Samsara, accept that we all have the Buddha nature (are already Buddha) and return to living everyday life!” {here}

This is not in accordance with the original teachings of the Buddha – it is quite the opposite. Instead of using a make shift raft (the Dhamma) to carry one from the shore of birth, death and suffering to the other side which is the end of desire and suffering one suddenly stops thinking: “What the heck! both sides of the river are just river shores”. So one stops to paddle and the raft drifts aimlessly midstream until the next existence finds us maybe in less fortunate surroundings and the practice of meditation and development of insight seems even further away. (Cmp. Dhp. 182)

So, what do the most ancient scriptures say about this seemingly contradictory statement, that a person could have desire for nibbana and still realize the desirelessness?

Let us quote two prominent sutta passages:

“‘This body comes into being through craving. And yet it is by relying on craving that craving is to be abandoned.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? There is the case, sister, where a monk hears, ‘The monk named such-and-such, they say, through the ending of the preparations, has entered & remains in the preparations-free deliverance of the mind & deliverance through wisdom, having known & realized them for himself in this very life.’ The thought occurs to him, ‘I hope that I, too, will — through the ending of all preparations will enter and remain in the preparations-free deliverance of the mind & deliverance through wisdom, having known & realized them for myself in this very life..’ Then, at a later time, he abandons craving, having relied on craving. (So aparena samayena taṇhaṃ nissāya taṇhaṃ pajahati) ‘This body comes into being through craving. And yet it is by relying on craving that craving is to be abandoned.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said. {AN 4. 159}

And here the second one:

One day a brahmin came to visit the venerable Ananda. He asked the venerable Ananda: “How can you ever overcome desire if you desire for Nibbana?”. Then the venerable Ananda gave a simile: When you, dear brahmin, were at home, did you not think: “I wish to go to the monastery to see the venerable Ananda”. Tell me, what happened to that desire of yours?” – Then the brahmin answered: “Well, that wish of mine was fulfilled once i came to the monastery.” – Then venerable Ananda said: “In the same way someone would desire to achieve Nibbana, but on reaching Nibbana that desire would be fulfilled.” [Thanks to Daniel and Kerstin for pointing to the source, here it is  SN 51,15 ]

The idea that one had to give up even striving for Nibbana was caused probably by a misunderstanding and trying to leap ahead: what is definitely the case for someone very well advanced might make progress unthinkable for someone who has not even started walking the path. Sometimes people are more inclined to think and conceptualize Buddhist philosophy (painting the raft) than to use and apply the Dhamma – thus seeing no results and wishing for the wishless they aim in theory.

It is one thing to practice Vipassana and not to cling to any sense impression including thoughts and concepts and it is another to built philosophical mountains with concepts taken from the concept of how to get to the end of all concepts. You might say: It is the difference between a 10 day Vipassana retreat and a 10 day Buddhology seminar 🙂

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