The Essential Cognition of the Ineffable
ineffable adj. too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words; not to be uttered.
Synonyms: indescribable, inexpressible, beyond words, beyond description, begging description; indefinable, unutterable, untold, unimaginable; overwhelming, breathtaking, awesome, marvelous, wonderful, staggering, amazing.
Most people trying to understand the Buddha’s teaching fall into two classes: those who think it’s about being, and those who think it’s about nonbeing. Schools such as Mahāyāna and the religious practitioners are contemplating Buddhism as being; Zen and other voidists are contemplating it as nonbeing. Both are incorrect, and their understanding is insufficient for complete enlightenment. Actually the Buddha’s teaching is about something inconceivable and ineffable: neither-being-nor-nonbeing.
Both being and nonbeing are part of Dependent Origination, the process of being and becoming taught by the Buddha. After a state of being has been conceived and manifested, it gradually decays and becomes unmanifest again. Both being and nonbeing, becoming and passing away, are causes of suffering, to be transcended by the aspirant through deep meditation.
The very last words of the Buddha were, “All fabrications are subject to cessation. Attain completion by heedfulness.” [Mahā-pārinibbāna Sutta] Thus the Buddha’s teaching has nothing to do with either fabrication or cessation, being or nonbeing, becoming or passing away. The essence of the Buddha’s instruction is contained in the words, “Attain completion by heedfulness.”
Completion of what? Cessation of suffering via the Noble Eightfold Path. We get a clue from the description of the eighth jhāna (meditative state of concentration) as ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception’. This rare and little-understood meditative state is the gateway to nibbāna and Unbinding.
“Further, Ananda, the monk — not attending to the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, not attending to the perception of the dimension of nothingness — attends to the singleness based on the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. His mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, settles, & indulges in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.
“He discerns that ‘Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness are not present. Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the perception of the dimension of nothingness are not present. There is only this modicum of disturbance: the singleness based on the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.’ He discerns that ‘This mode of perception is empty of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. This mode of perception is empty of the perception of the dimension of nothingness. There is only this non-emptiness: the singleness based on the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.’ Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: ‘There is this.’ And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, & pure.” — Cula-suññata Sutta
But even the state of neither-perception-nor-non-perception is not the ultimate:
“‘I shall be of neither-perception-nor-non-perception’—this is a conceiving. Conceiving, monk, is a disease; conceiving is an imposthume (abscess); conceiving is a barb. When, monk, the sage has gone beyond all conceiving, he is said to be at peace. But, monk, the sage who is at peace is not born, does not decay, is not agitated; not decaying, how will he die? Not dying, how will he be agitated?” — Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta
Nevertheless, the state of neither-perception-nor-non-perception is an important milepost on the way to enlightenment of the Noble Eightfold Path. How can we understand anything higher until we have realized it? The key is in the statement, “not born, does not decay… not decaying, how will he die?”
The key to the whole problem is desire. Desire is the beginning of the whole chain of Dependent Origination, cause and effect leading to birth and death, being and nonbeing. We feel that we are incomplete, and so we reach outside ourselves for gratification, not realizing that in doing so we set in motion a process that inevitably leads to suffering.
Attaining the object of our desire requires a self, an ego, an identity, a body. The body requires a world to live in, and thus we set in motion space, time, matter and energy. The impulse to possess and enjoy some object creates the senses that give enjoyment, but also suffering and ultimately death.
Out of ignorance, we do not foresee the consequences of desire. So ironically, out of a desire to enjoy we create an eternity of suffering—samsāra. Even if we can tolerate the cessation of the body and senses that embody the results of this cause, we do not understand that we also have to let go of desire.
Thus we usually wrap right around into another cycle of desire, becoming and suffering. This is called rebirth, and it can happen at the time of death after a lifetime, or in a moment as we change from one desire to another. The Buddha’s teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path is designed to counteract this vicious cycle.
And what is the end of the Noble Eightfold Path? Nibbāna, Arahantship, Unbinding. These states cannot be explained in words, because words are symbols referring to things that exist, that have being. And nibbāna, by definition, is beyond being and nonbeing. As soon as we try to explain nibbāna, we are actually talking about something else.
But the method or path to attaining nibbāna can be explained in words. When an expert physician gives a prescription, he does not try to explain the chemical composition or biochemical science behind his diagnosis and treatment. He simply tells the patient how to take the medicine, and leaves him to experience the result. And that’s what the teaching of the Buddha is: not a religion, not a philosophy, but simply a treatment for the human condition; a way or path to the cessation of suffering.
Upasiva: “Those who have reached the end, do they no longer exist? Or are they made immortal, perfectly free?”
The Buddha: “Those who have reached the end have no criterion by which they can be measured. That which could be spoken of is no more. You cannot say ‘they do not exist.’ But when all modes of being, all phenomena, have been removed, all ways of speaking have gone too.” — Upasiva-manava-puccha