This question came up in the Online 10-day Retreat Nov 3, 2020, guided by Delson Armstrong. Day 6 was part of a daily 30-minute discussion on the suttas, the Dhamma talk and reflections.
Slightly edited to improve readability
Non-returners can stay in Cessation for hours, yet they don’t become an arahant?
Because they’re still identifying with the process of coming out of Cessation. There’s still identification going on, which means that the fetter of conceit is still there.
One thing I want to make clear is; do not equate Cessation of Perception and Feeling and Nibbāna as one and the same. One experiences coming out of Cessation and sees the links, as they arise, without any involvement. Then, mind makes contact with the Nibbāna element.
At the level of contact with the Nibbāna element, there is some sense of relief that arises. That relief is the feeling that is experienced by the mind. The non-returner/ Anāgāmi doesn’t crave for that feeling. Which means, they don’t expect that feeling to continue to be there. But at the same time, they identify with the Dhamma. They still identify with the process, and there is still that conceit in them, where they have this sense of I have attained this or I have experienced this.
The gateway into arahantship is to see that to the whole process, when it arises again after Cessation of Perception and Feeling, and you see the links, there’s complete detachment. So, there’s complete non-involvement in any of the arising of the links and when the mind makes contact with the Nibbāna element, at that point that’s just seen as an impersonal process, seen as an impermanent process and not worth holding on to. Even that relief is not held onto.
And because there’s no identification and holding on to that relief, the fetters associated with identification, particularly conceit – upon which the fetters of restlessness, the craving for being and the craving for non-being are based -, and then Ignorance, is destroyed once and for all. Because now you fully understand the four Noble Truths. no longer identify with anything and understand that any identification process leads to suffering. Because of that, the mind is no longer prone to do that.
Not every Cessation will be followed by Nibbāna, especially in the case of an anāgāmi. What’s important to see is that you don’t require Cessation to have Nibbāna. Nibbāna can occur from the first jhana onwards, that is to say, if you can be in a state – when you are in the first jhana onwards – where you are completely letting go and not grasping onto anything, not grasping onto any of the Formations that create the factors of the jhana. By doing so, you can attain Nibbāna from that point on.
Of course, there are cases in the suttas where there are beings who attain arahantship upon just merely listening and reflecting deeply on the Dhamma. So, Nibbāna can happen even without Cessation.
To add to that, in the Therīgāthā and the Theragāthā – which are basically suttas from the earliest arahant nuns and monks – often they see something like a bucket with water falling over. And seeing the water flow out, they attain arahantship. I’m guessing they are in a permanent, meditative state with that, but it’s not always in sitting meditation.
Right, exactly, that’s true. And just to round out what you just said regarding just seeing something and being able to reflect on it without having to be in sitting meditation. In the case of beings like Bāhiya, who went to the Buddha and just listening to the Buddha’s discourse on not self, seeing not self in any aspect of the seeing, and the cognizing and so forth, he was able to let go of all his attachments, let go of all the defilements, and then attain arahantship. So there are different ways that this can happen, it’s not just precluded by Cessation.
Can the relief that can be felt in the body after attaining Nibbāna be soft and cool?
Yes, primarily the feeling that is experienced after making contact with the Nibbāna element is the cooling that you just mentioned, the relief. That primarily happens in the mind. There are sometimes statements by the Buddha where he talks about the body making contact with the Nibbāna element, but essentially that also means that the body is part of the mind as well. So it can manifest in some sense as a physical sense of relief.
One of the ways that bhante explains it is that it’s like an ocean of suffering that you have complete relief from. Your shoulders feel so relaxed because the burden has been lifted and laid down. So, in that regard, it can feel physical. But it primarily happens on a mental level.