First Published in “Buddhism as a way of life and other essays”,
Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K., 1993.
Samvarattam pahanattam brahmacariyam anitiham
adesayi so bhagava nibbanoghadhagaminam.
Esa maggo mahantehi anuyato mahesibhi.
Ye ca tam patipajjanti yatha Buddhena desitam
dukkhassantam karissanti satthusasanakarino.
The Blessed One has pointed out the holy life, which is not hearsay,which is restraint and abandoning, leading to firm footing in Nibbana.
This is the path of the great ones, followed by great seers. And whoever follows it in the way taught by the Buddha, whoever follows the Teacher’s Doctrine, they will calm all suffering. Anguttara-nikaya II 26; Itivuttaka 28, 29
1. What is “Nibbana-dhatu”?
According to the Pali-English Dictionary of the Pali Text Society,the word “dhatu” has four main meanings:
- element (as for the four primary elements of earth, fire, water, and air);
- natural condition, property, disposition; factor, item, principle, form;
- a humour or affection of the body; and
- the remains of the body after cremation [relics].
“Nibbana-dhatu” is given under the second meaning and is translated in the dictionary by: “the state of Nibbana.”
In his preface to the translation of the third book of the
Abhidhamma-pitaka by U Narada (Mula Patthana Sayadaw), U Thein Nyunt explains some aspects of the meaning of “dhatu” in the usage we will be discussing here
An element is defined as that which bears its own intrinsic nature. It cannot be split up or transformed into another. The elements are abstract qualities and as such are empty and void of substance, self, soul, I, being, person and life. Except for Nibbana, which is permanent and unconditioned, the rest of the elements are the ultimate constituents of all things which are said to be animate and inanimate. …
The elements are not permanently present. They arise to exhibit their own characteristic natures and perform their own characteristic functions when the proper conditions are satisfied, and they cease after their span of duration. Thus no being has any control over the arising and ceasing of the elements … They are entirely dependent on conditions.
For example, when the four conditions: a visible object, the sense of sight, light and attention, are present, the eye-consciousness element arises. …
[Each of the eight material elements] carries out its own function but does not assist the other elements in carrying out their own functions. However, they are dependent upon one another for their arising in accordance with the co-nascence, mutuality, support, presence and non-disappearance conditions of the Patthana. …
All things said to be animate consist of material and mental elements comprising
- 28 material qualities…,
- 52 mental factors…,
Only the appropriate material and mental elements arise together on each occasion…. Only an Enlightened Buddha perceives each one of them at the same time. Others, who know how to observe them practically, perceive only the predominant element. …
The elements, being abstract qualities, are empty and void of substance. Since only these elements really exist, no solid, substantial things are to be found outside them. So, in the ultimate sense, there are no such things but only the abstract elements. …
When the proper conditions are present, the elements arise and carry
out their respective functions. There is no “atta”, i.e. no ego-entity,
soul, self, or I, that is independent of these elements and controlling
The elements do not possess the characteristic functions of living
beings. They arise and cease within an exceedingly short period of time.
… The elements arise and cease without any movement taking place. …
In “What Buddhism Is”,Sayagyi U Ba Khin speaks of “loka- Dhatu” and “dhamma-Dhatu”. He defines “dhatu” by “nature elements or forces” and says that “loka-dhatu” is “matter (with its nature elements) within the range of the physical plane.” So this is “dhatu” as material elements, and this, Sayagyi points out, is what modern science studies. “Dhamma-dhatu”, he says, “comprises mind, mental properties and some aspects of the nature elements which are not in the physical but in the mental plane.”
In the Pali canon, “dhamma-dhatu” seems to be used in two ways:
- to mean “the element of ultimate truth” and
- to mean “the element of mental states.”
The first meaning is found, for example, in the Buddha’s reply to Prince Abhaya, who asked whether the Buddha prepared answers to questions in advance. The Buddha replied that he had fully penetrated the element of ultimate truth (“dhamma-dhatu”) and so he
instantaneously knew the answers to questions others asked.
The second sense is found, for example, in the list of eighteen elements associated with the six senses as enumerated in a discourse the Buddha gave to Ven. Ananda.
The eighteen elements are made up of three elements associated with each of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, physical body, mind): the sense door, the thing sensed, and consciousness of the thing sensed. For example, the eye (one sense door), a visual shape (the thing sensed by the eye), and consciousness of what is seen. For the mind, these three are: the element of mind, the element of mental states (“dhamma-dhatu”), and the element of mental consciousness. In this same discourse, the Buddha gives several different lists of elements. In the Visuddhimagga, Ashin Buddhaghosa says that all the elements enumerated in the Suttas and in the Abhidhamma can be seen as various aspects of theeighteen elements associated with the six senses. It is here that we can see the connection between “dhamma-dhatu” and “Nibbana-dhatu”. Some mental states come under the category of formed elements (“sankhata-dhatu”), but one element of the mental states is the unformed element(“asankhata-dhatu”), i.e., Nibbana.
In other discourses by the Buddha, we can see how the element of Nibbana is linked with mental forces. When a bhikkhu asked the Buddha the meaning of the terms “the removal of lust,” “the removal of greed,” “the removal of delusion,” the Buddha replied that these mean the element of Nibbana (“Nibbana-dhatu”) and that they indicate the waning of the taints (“asavanam khayo”). The commentary says the Buddha is speaking here of Arahatship. Desire, hatred, and delusion (“raga, dosa, moha”), of course, are the three roots of wrong actions (“akusala”) that lead to suffering. When they are completely, permanently removed from the mind, then there is the perfect awakening of Arahatship.
The term “Nibbana-dhatu” is also used in describing two categories of Arahats: (1) the Arahat who attains the element of Nibbana with the results of past clinging remaining (“sa-upadi-sesa-nibbana-dhatu”) and (2) the Arahat who attains the element of Nibbana without the results of past clinging remaining (“an-upadi-sesa-nibbana-dhatu”). As long as an Arahat lives, the results of past clinging will continue to give results, but when an Arahat reaches the end of his life, all cause and effect leading to new births will end.
The element of Nibbana may have an effect on the mental world, but we should not make the mistake of identifying it with anything in the conditioned world. When the Buddha gave a list of wonderful qualities of the Dhamma and Discipline, one quality was that the emptiness or fullness of the element of Nibbana is not affected even though many bhikkhus attain Nibbana in the element of Nibbana without the results of past clinging
2. What are the benefits of soliciting “Nibbana-dhatu”?
As we have seen, Nibbana has no cause. It is not subject to change (“anicca”). But it can have an effect on the world of cause and effect we live in. The link between this conditioned world and the realm of Nibbana is through the mind. The Pali texts do not specifically mention soliciting “Nibbana-dhatu”, but we know that the activity of the mind is
responsible for what happens to us. If the mind is not trained properly, it will cause us great suffering. If the mind is properly trained, it will lead us to experience the element of Nibbana and the end of all suffering.
Before we take an action, we think about it. So, if we direct our minds to the final goal, even though it may take us a long time to reach that goal, we will be stirred to make right effort.
The Pali texts are full of the wonderful qualities of Nibbana and the happiness to be derived from it. In the poem we quoted at the beginning we see a reference to the holy life (“brahmacariya”) “leading to firm footing in Nibbana” (“Nibbanogadha-gamina”). The
commentators often associate “firm footing (ogadha)” with “the act of plunging (ogaha)”. Meditators have described their experience after
attaining Nibbana as a cool stream flowing down through the body. We can see here, perhaps, what effect “plunging into Nibbana” can have.
We will come back to this question in our answer to the way to solicit “Nibbana-dhatu”.
3. Who can solicit “Nibbana-dhatu”?
Anyone can solicit “Nibbana-dhatu”. Only those who have confidence in the Buddha’s Teachings, however, will be inclined to do so. The key to the answer to this question is once again the mental attitude of the person. An Arahat has fully experienced Nibbana and will know without any doubt that it exists and will be tuned to that understanding at all times. In a discourse enumerating the qualities of those who are worthy of gifts (i.e., Arahats), the Buddha says that, among other qualities, they see happiness in Nibbana; they are conscious of it, aware of it, at all times, continually, without a break, marking it mentally, and fathoming it by wisdom. Ariyas on the lower three paths will also have full confidence in the existence of “Nibbana-dhatu”, but the further they have come along in their practice of the Buddha-Dhamma, the better they will be able to “tune in” to the force of “Nibbana-dhatu”.
We should be careful, however, not to imagine we have experienced Nibbana if we have not. In one discourse the Buddha pointed out how dangerous it is to think, “Nibbana is mine.” And in a discourse to Magandiya, the Buddha warned of the danger of imagining Nibbana to be something other than what it actually is (in Magandiya’s case, good health).
The Buddha mentioned directing our thought towards Nibbana as being among the six advantages that should be seen to help us continuously be aware that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent (“anicca”): (1) we will see all conditioned phenomena as impermanent, (2) we will not delight in this world, (3) our thought will rise above the world, (4) our thought will be inclined towards Nibbana, (5) we will be eliminating the fetters,
and (6) we will follow the path of higher recluseship.
Establishing the thought of Nibbana and being confident that we will come to know the peace of Nibbana are among six advantages that the Buddha says will help us to establish the thought that all conditioned phenomena are suffering (“dukkha”) without reserve. These six advantages are: (1) we shall keep the thought of Nibbana present in us in the midst of all phenomena, like a slayer with drawn sword; (2) our minds shall rise above all worlds; (3) we shall become seers at peace in Nibbana; (4) our latent tendencies [to do evil] will be rooted out; (5) we shall do what should be done; and (6) we shall serve our Teacher with loving service. In another discourse, the reference to “a slayer with drawn sword” is included in relation to establishing mindfulness of the suffering inherent in
impermanence. That passage shows that we should see the dangers in the conditioned world as a constant threat. If we can do this, whenever lethargy, indolence, languor, idleness, carelessness, and disregard arise in us, “a lively sense of fear springs up.” This, of course, refers to the sort of fear that gives us a sense of urgency to work for the goal of Nibbana; it does not refer to morbid fear.
From these discourses we can see that if the soliciting of “Nibbana-dhatu” is to be effective, the person who is doing so should be one who practises the Buddha’s teachings. For those of us who use knowing “anicca” as the means of developing insight, the better our awareness of impermanence is, the better we will be able to experience the impact of
the element of Nibbana. The closer we come to experiencing Nibbana for ourselves, the greater will be the benefits of soliciting “Nibbana- dhatu”.
4. How does one solicit “Nibbana-dhatu”?
The answer to the preceding question should make the answer to this question clear. We should work on “sila”, “samadhi”, and “panna” so that our minds will be as pure as possible and so that we will be able to be aware of the constant change (“anicca”) taking place within our own bodies and mind. If we are able to do that to a fairly good extent, then we will automatically know the changing sensations to be suffering (“dukkha”), and we will have some glimpse of the uncontrollable aspect (“anatta”) of what takes place in our minds and bodies.
The forces associated with Nibbana are always present as they are outside the conditions of time and space. We do not need to worry about whether those forces are present. But it is only when the mind is receptive to “Nibbana-dhatu” that the impact will have an effect on us.
5. Under what circumstances can one solicit “Nibbana-dhatu”?
In “Knowing Anicca and the Way to Nibbana” (pp. 105f.) we mentioned the story of Elder Meghiya, who tried to meditate in a mango grove where he had resided as a king in a past life. Because of the bad actions he had done in that past life, distracting thoughts made it impossible for him to make any headway in his meditation. So we can see
that it is important to choose the right place if we are to control our minds and develop insight. If we are not able to do that, then we will obviously not be able to direct our minds towards “Nibbana-dhatu”.
In our day-to-day lives, when we are surrounded by the world with all its distractions, we should be able to solicit “Nibbana-dhatu” as an aid and protection, but generally speaking, if we wish to dwell on the thought of “Nibbana-dhatu” as an aid and protection, we should do so in an atmosphere of retreat from the world of sense pleasures. This would mean places where we are able to practise the technique of meditation
taught by our teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin — a meditation centre, a site where a meditation course is being held, or a place set aside in our homes for meditation. Whenever we have doubts about whether to meditate or not, we can revert to mindfulness of breathing as a way of protecting our minds from outside distractions.
Sayagyi U Chit Tin
These questions were submitted to Saya U Chit Tin by Lim Song Teng.The answer to this first question includes the answer to his last question: Is “Nibbana-dhatu” mentioned in any of the Suttas or in the Abhidhamma?
Translators have given: “the realm of Nibbana” (KS V 7), “element of nibbana” (MQ II 146), “conditions of nibbana” (MA II 143), “element of cool” (GS IV 139).
“Discourse on Elements” (Dhatu-katha), pp. xxii-xxvii.
Although U Narada does not mention it, the Nibbana element would be an exception to this statement.
Earth, heat, wind, water, visibility, odour, taste, and nutriment.
“Dhamma Texts”, revised ed., pp. 32f.
See I.B. Horner’s remarks, MLS II 64, n. 1.
MLS II 63f.
MLS III 105.
 “Path”, Chap. XV, paras.25-31.
 “Path”, Chap. XV, 31. Mental state is translated there by: “mental-
data elements.” See “Buddhist Psychological Ethics”, Appendix 2 (pp.
342-344) concerning “asankhata-dhatu” as meaning “Nibbana”.
 KS V 7.
 See “Path”, Chap. XVI, para.73; Nyanatiloka, “Buddhist
Dictionary”, under “Nibbana”; MA II 143; and “The Guide”, p. 26, note
 BD V 335, GS IV 139.
 In GS II 28 and MA II 136f., this is translated: “the plunge into Nibbana’s stream.” A similar passage is found at S V 218: “Nibbanogadham hi brahmana brahmacariyam vussati nibbanaparayanam nibbanapariyosanan ti” (“Indeed, brahman, the holy life is led to gain firm footing in Nibbana, with Nibbana as its goal, with Nibbana as its end”). The word
“Nibbanogadham” is translated at KS V 193 by “to plunge in Nibbana.” The commentary is quoted there: “ogadham = Nibb. abbhantaram anupavittham” (“firm footing = entered inside Nibbana”). The same passage in the same context is found at GS III 156, and is translated: “Rooted in Nibbana, … the holy life is lived.” The commentary for “ogadham” there is: “Nibbane patittham” (“its support is in Nibbana”). See also CPD s.v. “ogadha”.
 See CPD “ogadha”.
 GS IV 9.
 MLS I 5f.
 MLS II 188f.
 GS III 309.
 GS IV 29.
 GS IV 234-237.
TITLE OF WORK: Concerning Nibbana-Dhatu
AUTHOR: Sayagyi U Chit Tin
AUTHOR’S ADDRESS: n/a
PUBLISHER’S ADDRESS: International Meditation Centre, Splatts House, Heddington, Calne, Wiltshire SN11 OPE, England
COPYRIGHT HOLDER: The Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K.
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1993
DATE OF DHARMANET DISTRIBUTION: 1994
ORIGIN SITE: BODY DHARMA * Richmond CA 510/234-9431 DharmaNet (96:101/33)
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