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Attributes of true cessations: Cessation and peace

Attributes of true cessations: Cessation and peace

Part of a series of short talks on the 16 attributes of the four truths of the aryas given during the 2017 winter retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The difference between the lower and upper schools
  • Establishing that nirvana exists
  • Differntiating nirvana from the peace of the meditative absorptions of the form and formless realms

We finished the four attributes each of true dukkha and true origins of dukkha. Now we’re moving on to the four attributes of true cessations.

The four truths are usually presented in the singular: you would have true cessation and true path. Actually, they’re plural. You have many true cessations, because at each level of the path, when you have abandoned the portion of afflictions and their seeds to be abandoned by that level of the path, that abandonment is a true cessation. You’re actually gathering more true cessations as you go up each level of the path, once you hit the path of seeing.

The way the lower schools present the path is that you have to realize the four noble truths directly and that that’s the true path. You negate the self of persons, which is a self-sufficient substantially existent person (that’s the “controller” one). But for the Prasangikas, they say that’s not what you have to eliminate to gain a true cessation. You have to eliminate that degree of grasping inherent existence—not just realizing the four noble truths, but realizing the emptiness of inherent existence and eliminating that portion of grasping inherent existence. It’s also a deeper level of selflessness—the absence of inherent existence, not the absence of a self-sufficient substantially existent person.

There are four attributes of true cessations:

  1. Cessation
  2. Peace
  3. Magnificence
  4. Definite emergence

Definite emergence is sometimes translated as renunciation, but in this case “definite emergence” is actually a better translation. It doesn’t mean “renunciation” here.

Remember in each of them there’s an example that’s used when you make the statement. Here the example is “an arhat’s nirvana.” It’s talking about the ultimate true cessation in the continuum of an arhat. The first one is,

Nirvana is the cessation of dukkha (cessation of dukkha is the attribute) because being a state in which the origins of dukkha have been abandoned it ensures that dukkha will no longer arise.

What this opposes is some people say that there’s no such thing as true cessation. Nirvana doesn’t exist. The afflictions are an inherent part of who we are, there’s nothing we can do about them so don’t even try, just live your life and do your best. It’s kind of a defeatist, cynical attitude that, unfortunately, many people have because they’ve never learned about the buddha nature, or learned about the possibility of eliminating the afflictions. Instead, they think, “I am my afflictions.” That’s a big problem.

This overcomes that, which is important because if we don’t believe that it’s possible to attain true cessations we won’t try and do anything to attain them, so we won’t attain them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s the first one. I think we can go on to the second one now, too. The second one is,

Nirvana is peace because it is a separation in which the afflictions have been eliminated.

The true cessations are all non-affirming negatives. The afflictions have been eliminated. Period.

There’s a big discussion, actually, exactly what true cessations are, in many ways. In terms of the Prasangika, the true cessations are the purified aspect of the emptiness of a mind that has eliminated that portion of obscurations. There true cessation is equated with emptiness. True cessation is a non-affirming negative, because emptiness is a non-affirming negative.

But then you say, “But emptiness is a non-affirming negation of something that never existed—inherent existence. True cessation is a negation of something that did exist—the afflictions. Or a portion of the afflictions. So how can they be the same?” And the second question is, “If it’s just the kind of disintegration of these afflictions, then isn’t true cessation an affirming negative?” Like the past phenomena are. You know how past phenomena are. The disintegration (the jigpa, the ‘has ceased”) of the pot is a past pot. It’s an affirming negative that can produce a result. So, if true cessation is an affirming negative like that then it can’t be emptiness. Because emptiness is a non-affirming negative. So then you have to say, “Okay, what’s the difference between the “having-ceased” of the chair when the chair breaks and the having-ceased of the defilements when the defilements are removed? They’re both a lack. The chair has disintegrated, there’s the lack of a chair. The defilements are gone, there’s a lack of those defilements. But the thing is the having-ceased of the chair is an affirming negative. Is the cessation of that portion of the defilements an affirming negative? Or what’s the difference between that cessation and the cessation of the chair? Any ideas?

Audience: When the chair ceases it produces something else. There’s something else there, the broken parts of a chair which are pulverized into chair dust. When the afflictions cease, do they produce anything?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): That’s it. The having ceased of the chair, there’s still something that can come out of it. When you’ve really ceased the defilements so that they can never come back, then there’s nothing that can come out of it. There’s nothing that can be produced afterwards. So that cessation is a non-affirming negative.

It’s different, for example, “I’m angry now. My anger ceases.” Is that a true cessation of my anger? No. It can come back because it’s having-ceased can produce a result. It’s not fully eliminated. When you attain path of seeing or on the path of meditation and you eliminate a portion of anger, that anger can never come back. That cessation is a non-affirming negative. It’s eliminated such that it can never return, so it’s different than it just ceasing temporarily. Or it’s different than the having-ceased of the chair, which can produce something else. In this case the cessation of those afflictions, there’s nothing that is produced, or can be produced from it.

Audience: You say that the chair is an affirming negative, what is its having ceased affirm…..

VTC: The past phenomena, what it’s affirming is there used to be a chair. What it’s negating is that the causes of the chair still exist. Or that the chair still exists. But here it’s just the defilements have been negated, period, such that they can never return. So it’s not anything that can produce a result. And so in that way, seen from that perspective, it could be an emptiness because when you have removed that portion of the afflictions from the mind, then the emptiness of the mind is likewise purified. And that cessation is… What you’re left with that the afflictions have been eliminated…. That level have been eliminated completely, all you’re left with is the emptiness of the mind, there’s nothing else there, so that true cessation is the emptiness of the mind.

Takes a while to think about this. [laughter]

When we’re saying, “Nirvana is peace because it’s a separation in which the afflictions have been eliminated in such a way that they can no longer arise,” what this counteracts is some people, they mistake different afflictive states for liberation. For example, if you attain one of the dyanas, or one of the meditative absorptions in the formless realms, the manifest afflictions have been suppressed, so they’re not there. So some people think, “Oh, I don’t have manifest afflictions, this must be true cessation. This must be liberation.” Because these people haven’t understood that just getting rid of the manifest afflictions is not getting rid of all the afflictions whatsoever. As long as you have the “having-ceased” of those afflictions, as long as you have the seeds of those afflictions they can come back.

Here, saying “Nirvana, is peace, it’s a separation in which the afflictions have been eliminated,” is indicating that the meditative absorptions in the form and formless realms are not true cessations. It’s a way of warning somebody about that so that they don’t get confused. Because as you’re practicing the path you want to really deepen your concentration. At some point you’re going to get that deep concentration, and if you haven’t had a warning beforehand then it’s very easy to think that it’s all gone.

Similarly here, people don’t understand that nirvana is true peace. They’re thinking that these meditative states are true peace. That is a big problem because after the karma to be born in one of those states is exhausted, then kerplunk, you’re back into the desire realm, who knows where.

Those states, when you’re born in them, bring some degree of peace, but it’s not the peace of true cessation, it’s not the peace of nirvana, because it stops, it can stop when the afflictions come back.

When we’re really convinced of the harm of the afflictions and the possibility to eliminate them so that they never come back, then we’ll really have a lot of energy for practicing true paths in order to actualize these true cessations.

Audience: To make sure that I understood this right, can we say that what we call the seeds of the afflictions are jigpa of previous afflictions?

VTC: No, the seeds are not the jigpa. The seeds and the jigpa are different. Exactly what the difference is it’s hard to say. One IS potency, the other HAS potency. But when you really get into it, it’s very….

This came up in the discussions, and I asked that same question—aren’t the jigpas the same as the seeds? No! Why not? *silence* One of the first answers was the jigpa comes right after the cessation—the thing, then the jigpa comes right after that. But the seed is what produces the next moment. So the jigpa comes right after the last moment of this continuum of anger, and the seed is right before the first moment of this continuum of anger. But actually, don’t both of them have to be there between those two instances of anger? It’s not like you get one and it goes away, and suddenly the other one comes. They both have to be there. Maybe just in terms of how you talk about them there seems to be some difference.

The seed is a positive phenomenon. The jigpa is a having-ceased, it’s an affirming negation. They’re different in that way.

It makes you think. What’s the difference between an affirming negation and a positive phenomenon. Well, an affirming negation, one thing’s negated, another thing’s affirmed. In a positive phenomenon there’s just the affirmed phenomenon.

[In response to audience] The cause of the seed. The previous moment of the seed. And doesn’t the jigpa also have a jigpa? So don’t you have the jigpa of the jigpa of the jigpa of the jigpa….?

Audience: I think I read this somewhere in the FPMT series of books is that is there such a thing when these beings in the formless realm have got their meditative absorption so that they’re suppressing those afflictive states of mind, is there such a thing as a temporary cessation?

VTC: Yes, that’s called a non-analytical cessation.

Audience: Kind of as an encouragement cessation.

VTC: Well…

Audience: I mean what would be just to name it things are being suppressed therefore there’s a cessation going on but it’s only going to be for…

VTC: Yeah, the cessation is not a true cessation because it’s only a temporary absence. It’s called non-analytical. An analytical cessation is one gained when you realize emptiness. This one is just the temporary absence of the causes. But it gives you some relief from the manifest afflictions, so don’t knock it. It’s like, what a relief, wouldn’t that be nice? You want to get that, but you don’t want to be satisfied with that.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.