I Can’t Believe It’s Not Nirvana

by | Feb 13, 2024 | Buddhism for All

There is an important teaching regarding samadhi that enjoys consensus among all Buddhist masters across all schools of Buddhism, which is that meditative experience and realization are different things.  In other words, no matter how sublime your jhāna experience is, that is most certainly not nirvana.

Siddhattha had a sense of it even before he became the Buddha.  He was able to reach the sublime state of the base of nothingness, and later, the even more sublime base of neither perception nor non-perception, equaling or exceeding his teachers Alara and Uddaka, but he had the wisdom to know that just because he experienced those states did not mean he was liberated from suffering.  For that, he needed to gain realization into the true nature of all phenomena.  Because of that insight, he rightly continued his search until he became the Buddha.  The sublime states are jumping boards to nirvana, not nirvana itself.

Ānanda gave a discourse that reinforced this point to a man called Dasama of Aṭṭhakanāgara.  Ānanda said that a disciple can jump to enlightenment from any jhāna ranging from the first jhāna to the base of nothingness.  He also added an important point: that jump can only happen with insight, specifically in this case, the insight into the impermanence of the jhāna itself.  When the disciple is in any jhāna, he considers and understands completely: “this jhāna is conditioned and volitionally produced, but whatever is conditioned and volitionally produced is impermanent, subject to cessation.” [1]  If he is steady in that insight, Ānanda says, he can gain enlightenment.

The main drawback of the jhānas is they are conditioned states, and when those conditions change, the jhānas fade away.  Anything impermanent cannot possibly be nirvana.  Mahā Koṭṭhita, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, gave a number of delightful similes to illustrate this point.[2]  It started with a monk called Citta Hatthisāriputta, who constantly interrupted the senior monks when they were discussing the Dharma.  Mahā Koṭṭhita asked Citta Hatthisāriputta to please stop interrupting, please wait until the senior monks have finished talking first.  Citta’s companions were offended.  They fought back, claiming that Citta was just as accomplished as the senior monks.

Thus began a discourse by Mahā Koṭṭhita to those junior monks to not judge a monk by his jhānas.  He said, just because a monk can enter even the most sublime of jhānas doesn’t mean he would never again fall back to a lesser life.  He gave a number of similes.  When the rain comes, the dusty crossroad is no longer dusty, but you cannot say that this crossroad will hence never be dusty again.  There is a shallow pond with the clams and mussels, and pebbles and gravel.  When there is heavy rain, they would all vanish under the increased water level, but you cannot say that therefore, clams, mussels, pebbles and gravel would never appear again.  A man finished a delicious meal and he became so full he has no desire for left-overs, but you cannot say that therefore, food will never appeal to him again.  And so on. 

So, what happened to Citta later?  Just as Mahā Koṭṭhita had hinted, despite Citta’s meditative accomplishments, he was still unenlightened, and he later became discontent and eventually disrobed and returned to a lesser life.  Fortunately, there is good news.  Citta did attain the jhānas during his time as a monk, and that powerful experience stayed with him even after he disrobed.  Living life as a lay person, he eventually remembered renunciation.  He shaved his head and returned to the Buddhist order as a monk, and this time, he gained enlightenment.

As important as right mindfulness and right samadhi are, virtue is just as important. It serves as their basis and infuses them with great power. Coming up next: we will take a closer look at virtue before taking a deeper dive into Dharma and exploring the final arc to nirvana itself.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela: The power of the mind has to include both the stillness and calmness aspect, as well as the wisdom aspect. Awakening is possible when you directly realize the wisdom aspect, the impermanence of even the most joyful, blissful and subtle states of mind and cut through directly to the deathless. What insights, learning, or reflection came up for you from this article?


[1] Aṭṭhakanāgara Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 52).

[2] Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.60.

Featured image by Natalie Tsang.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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