Does the Buddha Live in Nibbāna?
Many people believe that the Buddha is alive and living in some sort of transcendental realm called Nibbāna where he can hear your prayers and eat and drink the food and water that you offer to Him. We Buddhist monks smile when we hear that people have such beliefs because nobody lives in Nibbāna, not even a Buddha.
This is wrong view, and any teacher or monk who believes and teaches this is surely not enlightened because permanently removing wrong view is part of enlightenment (in Theravāda). “So where is The Buddha then?” you might ask. The Buddha as far as a “being” is concerned dead and gone. There is only (dead) material form from his bodily remains that exist today. When The Buddha died, He did not take another birth. He achieved the final goal of Buddhism, which is to not be reborn ever again. His Arahant disiples have also achieved that goal too. There is no difference between a Buddha and an Arahant disciple after death. Any trace of them, is nowhere to be found. However, their physical remains may have been saved to represent the power of those who have achieved the final goal. There is no remainder other than that dead and lifeless material.
So what do you worship when you worship a Buddha?
The Buddha is dead and gone. It is like an atheist Physicist who has a picture of Einstein on his wall. It is inspiring to him even though he believes that Einstein does not exist*. He might even talk to Einstein’s picture while looking for solutions to his own physics research. Einstein discovered some natural laws of physics. His new laws are his teaching, and those who can understand his laws on a deep level (like a PhḌ.), are his true disciples.
The Buddha is sort of like this Einstein analogy. The Buddha is the one who discovered the natural laws of the Four Noble Truths. The laws he discovered are his teachings or Dhamma. Those who come to know these laws on a deep level (Enlightenment), are the true disciples or Saṅgha. The general saying is, “As long as the teaching is alive, the Buddha is alive.” Right now, there is no real Buddha in terms of what many conventionally want to believe in. They want to relate it to some sort of god or being that they can talk to and be heard. It does not happen because The Buddha died without any remainder. Dead I say. Like a hunk of wood. No life. It is not sacrilegious to say this either. When a flame goes out, does it go anywhere? No. It is gone.
Isn’t that a Nihilistic view to say he is dead and gone and completely gone?
There are two types of wrong view; Eternalism and Nihilism. Eternalism is a belief that there is a Soul that can exist forever. If you believe that a “you” will exist in Heaven for ever and ever, this is Eternalism. If you believe that a “you” or a “soul” will be reborn again and again and it will never end, this is also Eternalism. If you believe that your “True Self” should be known and once you know it, you can merge with the infinite collective soul, this is also Eternalism. Eternalism is quite wide and most religions fall into this category.
Nihilism is more simple and there is only one type of Nihilist. If you believe that when you die you die, finish, kaput, no cause and effect, no more birth no matter what you have done in this life, good or bad, then this is Nihilism. Lights out. It is that simple.
Buddhism asserts that there is no “person” to be reborn. It is only a moment to moment mind and matter that is continuously arising and passing away. There is no inherent self to be reborn, yet there is a force of continuation from one moment to the next. That is why we prefer the term rebirth-linking over the conventional term, reincarnation. Reincarnation implies a “soul” that gets a new bodily form. In Buddhism we believe that a momentary mind and matter will be a result of the actions done in this and previous lives, and rebirth linking is inevitable for as long as this force is present to cause relinking. It is only until one attains full enlightenment that this force for rebirth linking is removed… permanently. When there is no longer a force that can create a new rebirth linking consciousness after death, the mind of the mind and matter duo is dead and stops and no longer exists. Dead, kaput, lights out, finished. No More. Only a hunk of wood remains. Only when you think in this way, is one on the track to have right view in Buddhist Philosophy.
So while we believe in rebirth and countless lives in the past and future, the lives do eventually end but only when one sees the true nature of mind and matter and removes the force that causes rebirth. Seeing the true nature of mind and matter is not discovering a “True Self.” In contrast, it is seeing that there is no true self that can ever exist. Conventionally, is sounds near to Eternalism and near to Nihilism and a combination of both. However, since there is no real self to exist or stop existing, we would be more likely to say that the Buddhist view is very far away from both views. Right view is not close to wrong view.
This is why the Buddha does not live in Nibbāna. There was no longer force to push a rebirth-linking consciousness in any other realm. Although Nibbāna can be directly known by the mind, nobody goes to or lives in Nibbāna. Anyone who says otherwise is not a True Buddhist. The Buddha as far as a conventional being goes, is dead and gone, yet alive through His Teachings which still survive today. Eventually, the Teachings which keep the Buddha “alive” will perish too. This is the Law that was discovered by the Buddha that not even He could bypass. His Final Death is celebrated as a confirmation that all beings are subject to these laws.
Strive with diligence. Rare is the appearance of the Buddha.
*This analogy about Einstein is taken from an Atheist viewpoint only.