In this first part of lesson 4, Stephen reflects on the topic of #…. [#add text].


Talk ‘Clearly visible but hard to see’ [Download this audio file here]

[#place video here]


Discussion Question
Have you experienced nirvana? Find examples from your own life. [Or, if you not have examples, look at that.] What is it like? What do these experiences mean to you?


Q&A / discussion [Download this audio file here]

Stephen's notes

Chapter 7. Clearly Visible but Hard to See




The Thai monk Ajahn Buddhadasa was one of the forerunners of Secular Dharma. He challenged the commentarial traditions and returned to the original suttas. He explained the dhamma with an emphasis on this life — he denied that the Buddha taught rebirth. He emphasised the eightfold path as available to everyone irrespective of being monk or lay. He advocated Dhammic Socialism.


He was born to a Chinese father and Thai mother in 1906. He died in 1993.


Here are some passages from his 1988 essay Nibbana for Everyone.


“Nibbana is the coolness resulting from the quenching of defilements, whether they quench on their own or someone quenches them through dhamma practice.”


“[Nibbana]’s a kind of life that knows no death. Nibbana is the thing that sustains life, thus preventing death.”


“Anyone can see that if the egoistic emotions existed day and night without pause or rest, no life could endure it. …You ought to consider the fact that life can survive only because there are periods when the defilements don’t roast it. These periods outnumber the times when the defilements blaze [my italics].


“Every time the defilements don’t appear, Nibbana becomes apparent to the mind.”


I never met Buddhadasa or studied his writings in any depth. Only recently have I become aware of his views on nirvana, which I found to my delight were very similar to my own. Yet we arrived at these ideas independently.


In his essay Buddhadasa interprets a number of Pali and Thai words and phrases, but does not cite any passage from the suttas to support his view. Nor does he speak of nirvana in terms of the four tasks: nirvana being that which is to be beheld as the third task. Nor does he present nirvana as an ethical condition.


Yet in a dialogue with the brahmin Janussoni, Gotama explains that one who has let go of reactivity “neither plans for his own harm, nor for the harm of others, nor for the harm of both; and he does not experience in his mind suffering or grief. In this way, brahmin, nirvana is clearly visible, immediate, inviting, effective and personally experienced by the wise.” [A. III:55, p. 253. See After Buddhism, p. 60.]


A more vivid and explicit presentation of nirvana in this manner is found in the second dialogue with Sivaka [Selected Discourses, no. 10]:


Again the wanderer Topknot Sīvaka approached and exchanged greetings with the Teacher.  After a pleasant and courteous conversation, he sat down to one side and said:


“You talk of a ‘clearly visible dharma,’ sir.  In what respects is the dharma clearly visible, immediate, inviting, effective, to be personally experienced by the wise?”


“Let me ask you a question about this. Respond as you see fit.  What do you think: when there is greed within you, do you know, ‘there’s greed within me’ and when there is no greed within you, do you know, ‘there’s no greed within me’?”




With hatred, delusion and those qualities of mind associated with greed, hatred and delusion: when they are within you, do you know they are present?  And when they are not within you, do you know they are absent?”




“It is in this way that the dharma is clearly visible, immediate, inviting, effective, to be personally experienced by the wise.”


As Buddhadasa points out, nirvana is traditionally defined in the suttas as “the ending of greed, the ending of hatred, the ending of confusion.” In other words, the ending of reactivity. Yet he makes it clear that this does not mean only the final and complete ending but any ending, however temporary.


He does not, however, mention that exactly the same definition is given in the suttas for three other terms: amata, asankhata and pariññā.


Amata is usually translated as the deathless and asankhata as the unconditioned. Death is a metaphor for reactivity, and thus non-death implies a condition of being fully alive. Unconditioned does not mean unconditioned by anything at all, as in the metaphysical understanding of God, but unconditioned by greed, hatred and confusion.


Pariññā, however, means “to fully know” or “to embrace” — and refers to the first task: embracing life. To embrace, therefore, means to know something in a non-reactive way. The first task already includes the third task. Both love and compassion are a nirvanic embrace.


This non-reactive space of nirvana is the focus of the third task: to behold the stopping of reactivity. This is the core contemplative practice of the dharma. It is the turning point of the path: turning away from the repetitive patterns of reactivity and turning towards an eightfold path of human flourishing.


Yet although it is clearly visible, nirvana is also hard to see. Like the fish that swims through the ocean in search of water. To see nirvana requires that one train the mind to do so over time. We may have occasional glimpses of nirvana, but the practice of the third task sustains and deepens the experience of nirvana so that it becomes more and more a natural and familiar dimension of one’s life.


Nirvana, or emptiness, becomes a space in which you learn to dwell. Gotama describes it as the “dwelling of a great person” [mahapurisa-vihara]. They are the water or atmosphere in which you live.


The third task is a contemplative practice in which we learn how to dwell in this empty space. It operates within the ethical or operative frame of the seven facets of awakening:


Mindfulness — bearing in mind and paying close attention to the non-reactive dimension of one’s experience in the moment.


Questioning — inquiring with interest and curiosity into what is opened up in your experience when reactivity dies down.


Energy — being inspired to deepen and broaden this awareness in all aspects of one’s life.


Joy — experiencing the coolness, pleasure and delight at no longer being spun in anxious circles by reactivity.