After his enlightenment the Buddha uttered the following spontaneous verse:
Through many births I wandered,
Seeking, but not finding, the builder of this house.
Painful is repeated existence.
Oh housebuilder, you are seen now.
You shall build no house again.
All your rafters are broken,
Your ridgepole is shattered.
To dissolution goes my mind.
Achieved is the destruction of craving.
(Dhammapada, verses 153,4)
The Buddha-to-be, or bodhisatta, began his quest for enlightenment at some far distant point in time. He eventually reached a stage of spiritual maturity when there was no turning back, and enlightenment was certain. Ninety-one aeons ago he was reborn as a youth called Sumedha. His multi-millionaire parents died while he was young. He reflected, “They have died taking nothing with them. It is better to give it all away before one dies, then at least I will take that wholesome kamma with me when I die.” Thus he renounced all his fabulous wealth and became a wanderer. Then he met the Buddha Dipaṅkara, who predicted that Sumedha would become a Buddha named Gotama in the distant future.
The bodhisatta continued to seek enlightenment throughout many existences. When his spiritual virtues were fully ripe he was reborn as Siddhartha Gotama, made the final renunciation of his wealth to seek enlightenment, and gained it after six years of struggle.
The simile of the house-builder refers to the house of selfhood, which is built by kamma, and protected by the rafters of mental defilements, held together by the ridge-pole of ignorance. With the destruction of ignorance, the other defilements and craving for existence were destroyed, as he attained to nibbāna.
First, we should understand that nibbāna is not a place or realm of existence like heaven, and the Buddha didn’t ‘enter’ nibbāna, neither when he gained enlightenment, nor when he died. Throughout his life, he could abide in the attainment of nibbāna whenever he wished, and all noble disciples can do this too. Nibbāna just means cessation or letting go.
When you just let go of something, you cease to suffer, there and then. Unenlightened people can experience a ‘mini-nibbāna’ every time they suppress the urge to defend themselves from some perceived attack. When we don’t suppress that urge, the ego rises up and we instigate another cycle of suffering.
If you can understand that this so-called ego is entirely mind-made, illusory, and has no substance, then you will see that the house is empty. There is no one at home. No soul, no self, no spirit, no person, no me, no you. Just mind and matter arising and passing away, and creating illusions. So where could a Buddha or Arahant go after death? If a fire ceases to burn because the fuel is used up, the flames go out. It makes no sense to ask, “Where did the flame go?” It didn’t go anywhere, it just went out.
However, it is difficult to see this. Usually, the ego does rise up, so we keep on making kamma, which means intentional actions by body, speech, and mind. This is the driving force that accumulates momentum throughout life, and throws us into this or that existence after death. Wholesome kamma leads to happiness, unwholesome kamma leads to misery. When we die, it is just the last conscious moment that determines the arising of the next existence, so it is wise to cultivate good mental habits and to remove bad ones, since we can die at any moment.