The Buddha didn’t talk very much about awakening, but when he did he referred to it in very practical terms. For example, the word ‘nibbāna’ literally means ‘going out’, in the sense that a flame goes out. You could make a play on words by saying, ‘The candle has nibbāna-ed’. But if we translate it too literally, ‘nibbāna’ becomes ‘extinction’ – we’re going to be extinguished. This may sound exciting to nihilists or annihilationists – ‘I won’t be anything, just a puff of ash.’
But the Buddha’s teaching was not annihilation and not eternalism. He taught the middle way between those two extremes. If we translate ‘nibbāna’ too literally as ‘extinction’, we may give the wrong impression and simply attract nihilists. Eternalists may go to Christianity, which offers eternal bliss. But annihilationists would be attracted to Buddhism, where they can be extinguished.
But in a sense there is a kind of extinction because nibbāna can be said to be the extinction or cessation of greed, aversion and delusion, the cessation of craving and ignorance. Thus it is the cessation or extinction of certain aspects of selfhood with which we’re familiar.
On the other hand, the Buddha also gave some very positive explanations of nibbāna as the ultimate well-being, and he talked about it in a more mystical sense as the unborn, the undying, the unformed, the uncreated, the unconditioned. But what is that? How can we know it? What we know are the formed, the created, the conditioned. That’s where our practice is, within the realm of what’s created and conditioned. And so we don’t go directly to the unconditioned, but rather we observe any condition and realize that it arises and passes away. We actually realize by a process of elimination – not extinction, but elimination – that if nibbāna is not that, then it must be something else.
If we see the conditional arising of selfhood – the incessant ‘I like this’, ‘I don’t like that’, ‘I like the body’, ‘I am the body’, ‘I am the thoughts’ – we realize this is not the unconditioned. So we just turn away from those references to self and recognize that the unconditioned is somewhere towards the selfless. We can get a hint of it through awareness, by just observing what the conditions of the body and mind are, by not going into ‘I like it’, ‘I don’t like it’, ‘It’s good’, ‘It’s bad’, but just being directly with a particular experience as it is.
Then that sense of ‘I’ does not arise, but there is still clear presence of mind. There is a quality of knowing, there is some clarity and collectedness, not clouded by the sense of ‘I’.
This reflection by Ajahn Thiradhammo is from the book, Contemplations on the Seven Factors of Awakening, (pdf) pp.136-137.