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(5/12) Conscious of attaining nirvāṇa
November 14th, 2018 (November 17th, 2018)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

(5/12) Conscious of attaining nirvāṇa

(intro to the series at
Question 5, and its answer provided by the spam:
If achieving “nirvana” means that we will be liberated from the illusion of consciousness, how then will we know (be conscious of) our achieving this “nirvana”? How can we be “conscious” of this, if “consciousness” will no longer exist?

Our existence outside the material, physical world, presumes a conscious existence in which we can “realize” our enlightened condition. How can we be conscious of this if consciousness will no longer exist?

Of all the 12 questions, I guess this one is the most sensible, even if phrased with bias, because it does ask about a difficult point.

First, 'consciousness' in Buddhism is codependently arising: it arises alongside its 'perception', its 'object'. There's no awareness / consciousness without object (possibly reflexive: the awareness of awareness… but this itself is a difficult question in Buddhism —with various answers, depending mostly on whether that's really an awareness of itself in the same moment, or an awareness of what it was the previous moment…).

Second, awareness constantly comes to be then ceases, then another moment of awareness comes to be.
There's a causal continuity… hence an illusion of identity through time, possibly leading to an illusory mental fabrication about having a soul!
The causal continuity arises from the grasping by the awareness of its object as such. The awareness arises with what it grasps as its 'object' (and therefore also what it doesn't take as its object: what it rejects as 'mere background' rather than 'foreground'), and what it grasps as its 'object' is influenced by tendencies, preferences and biases (i.e. by karma) but the effort required to grasp it (according to tendencies and potentials)… and what usually takes the least effort (be it as an object, but also as habits, well-worn tracks, tendencies) is to pick up whatever was just left off, the previous moment!
Hence, the consciousness of an untrained sentient being mostly is "on automatic": in each moment, it just graps what was left from the previous moment… except the context also unfolds and evolves… which leads to: people have an illusion of continuity and of inherent 'being', although they do not actually control what their next thought will be! That's mindlessly following some tracks laid by the mix of unexamined tendencies and of uncontrolled conditions / circumstances… and that's why there's spiritual progress (and why 'concentration' and 'mindfulness' are spokes of the eightfold path) when one has disciplined the mind (e.g. thanks to meditative practices) enough for it not to be any longer a mere victim of circumstances!

The above may seem unrelated to the question, but it's a necessary preamble, because the question assumes pre-existence of a consciousness (with enough of a fixed identity, for it to make sense that the consciousness could see experiences as its 'own' experiences!). The assumption is not inline with what Buddhism teaches.
The question also assumes that a consciousness has to be tied to a specific entity or to a fixed identity, but this isn't necessary: a consciousness requires a supporting 'body', at least one organ of perception (a brain helps, if we're talking of perceiving ideas), but it doesn't require a fixed identity… and indeed the body (which supports the consciousness) evolves, thus conditioning the consciousness differently from moment to moment. [Which explains the 5th precept of Buddhism on not using intoxicants, as they indirectly obscure the mind, through affecting the underlying body!]

The question also makes strong assumptions about what nirvāṇa is, about what the teachings point to. Which again is a difficult question, so that's understandable confusion. And yet… it's both difficult and simple (the Buddha was aware of this: cf.

At this point, I could avoid the nuances and variations that exist between Buddhist traditions… and simply assert that the spammer's question is ill-posed: in nirvāṇa, you 're not aware of it, that's true (in part because 'you' doesn't make sense in that context, nor does 'it' !)… but this doesn't prevent being aware of entering it (upon 'crossing the threshold', just the moment before the cessation of views) and it doesn't prevent being aware of coming out of it (upon grasping a new stimulus —be it a thought, since Buddhism considers 6 senses, not 5, and since the 6th is linked to perceiving ideas).
But this could mislead people, and they'd possibly accept that consciousness / awareness has ceased in nirvāṇa… and the Buddha did not actually assert that!

I'll try to explain this by stating that there's a temporary cessation of some specific activity of consciousness, not of all consciousness: the activity which stops is that which perpetually 'separates' a global continuum of inter-dependent, intertwined 'processes' into separate, distinct, and ultimately illusory, 'entities' (in some contexts, this is referred to as the activity of 'naming' —merely apparent— entities)… Upon attaining nirvāṇa, the mind is thus non-dual, but not blind!
This cessation itself is temporary, but the ability to re-cease it on demand —therefore, when appropriate— is gained permanently.
It matters that cessation is temporary but not the ability to trigger it again (from moment to moment if appropriate): a bodhisattva / buddha can thus re-engage with saṃsāra "whenever (s)he chooses to" —but this happens to also match a non-choice of "when the situation demands it"!— and a bodhisattva / buddha can avoid being trapped in tendencies, can reclaim freedom, at any point through the engagement (just by stopping the 'naming' activity if/when it becomes unhelpful… thus 'resetting' a mental state of being ready to wisely and compassionately intervene afresh, "when the situation demands it")!
Upon returning in saṃsāra (aka. "non-abiding" in nirvāṇa, in Mahāyāna Buddhism vocabulary), the awakened person might re-use words like "I" —but (s)he sees the shallow conventionality of it and doesn't take it seriously: (s)he does not fall into any entanglement vis-à-vis fame and disrepute (or praise and blame), gain and loss, success and failure, and joy and sorrow [the "eight worldly winds"]. (S)He re-use labels and names, for the sake of being understood by those still lost in believing in firm, distinct entities (SN 1.25).

Nirvāṇa is defined in many ways, but not as a cessation of awareness!

Nirvāṇa is defined as the end of suffering… which might indicate an awareness having another relationship to reality than an untrained awareness —e.g. easily stepping back, seeing the unfolding of life with equanimity (i.e. without qualifying it as pleasant or unpleasant)— rather than no awareness at all.

Nirvāṇa is defined as "seeing phenomena as they are" (which includes seeing the role of the mind in the perception of phenomena, and therefore the responsibility of the mind for the experience. Cf. A key teaching in Seon (Korean Zen) is found in meditating upon the question "what is this?", to get to finally see the mind's role in "this" (among a few other lessons)! Seeing things as they are still calls for seeing, i.e. awareness.

Nirvāṇa is defined as the cessation of greed / lust, hatred / aversion, and ignorance (incl. all cankers and defilements). It's the cessation of the "three fires", or of the "three poisons". There's no contradiction therefore in still having a consciousness, filled with e.g. the four brahmavihara (wise loving-kindness, wise compassion, wise equanimity —not indifference, not blindness—, wise empathetic joy)… That's how Zen defines the "True self" (which is neither a self, nor any sort of stable, inherent identity… oh the joy of vocabulary and pedagogical tricks!), cf.
As a consequence of the cessation of the three fires, Nirvāṇa also equates the cessation of rebirth… which can then be seen as another definition of Nirvāṇa… but the cessation of rebirth is a side-effect really.

Nirvāṇa is defined as peace, with the world at large: upon understanding what causes your experience, you're in a better place to accept it, to shape it, to engage constructively and wisely with it. You don't rush to liking and disliking, then fighting for what you like and against what you dislike. It doesn't mean you're indifferent, but by "not taking things personally", by engaging with reality as it is (rather than some hypothetical "how it should be" —according to who?), you live a life engaged and nonetheless at peace.

Mahāyāna Buddhism would state this by its (famous and controversial) "nirvana is saṃsāra"… As already mentioned in 2/12 of this series,, "pretty things remain as they are, but the wise remove the desire for them" (SN 1.34) yet pretty things are still perceived… just like the Buddha also perceived its foot injury (SN 1.38). Consciousness doesn't stop upon attaining nirvāṇa, only its 'naming' activity temporarily does.
Thus there can be an experience of non-duality (of oneself and nirvāṇa being one) when attaining nirvāṇa, by which the consciousness knows it has attained nirvāṇa, and the consciousness will be able to state so once coming out of it, back into the 'naming and labeling' mode of existence.

And in fact, it is described many times in the suttas that someone who awakens 'knows' (s)he has attained the goal of holy life!
The question assumes it isn't possible to know so, due to many other misleading assumptions on what consciousness is, and on what nirvāṇa is… but, no, there's no trivial contradiction in Buddhism about that: it's subtle but non-contradictory. Hopefully, the above helps a bit, rather than confuses further, those who seek to see through the subtle… in spite of its own imperfections and shortcuts.

#Buddhism #Dharma #Nirvana