This is an offshoot of the previous discussion here
. I thought it might be better to start a new thread, in order to keep the other one closer to the OP.
In the previous discussion, some of us were arguing that the goal of cessation in Theravada has rebirth and the traditional Buddhist as a premise. Take that premise away, and we run into a serious doctrinal obstacle: cessation as a goal no longer makes sense, because everyone will reach that goal at the time of death anyway, regardless of whether they followed the Buddhist path (with all its austerities) or not. Buddhism is also deprived of an argument against suicide, since in effect it becomes possible to parinibbana by more expedient means. "Go directly to paranibbana, do not pass nibbana-with-remainder".
I was thinking about the discussion last night, and it occurred to me that there is another way to approach this issue. We can ask the following question: "suppose it were possible to achieve instant paranibbana, without any practice at all. Would something then be lost?"
So I wanted to put this question before the group. It seems to me that indeed there are some things that would be lost, although this partly depends on how we interpret aspects of Buddhist practice.
1. The knowledge (gnosis) of Unbinding would be lost. One might technically have achieved a state equivalent to Unbinding, but one would be no wiser for it. Indeed, someone who ends his or her life may spend their final moments of consciousness in a state of intense affliction and confusion.
2. The actual experience of release, which the suttas present as somethingr remarkable and different from any sort of mundane experience.
Prior to these, there are also rewards along the path that are worth seeking in and of themselves, e.g.
3. The jhana states. Even an ordinary lay practitioner has the potential to reach first jhana. They can go on retreat or practice assiduously with the help of manuals like Shaila Catherine's.
4. Calm arising from anapanasati practice.
5. Feelings of lovingkindness arising from metta practice.
6. Insight and control over one's thought processes arising from noting practice.
What else could be added to this list?
My overall point is that it may be a mistake to construe the path simply
in terms of an end-goal. The fact that the Buddha incorporated jhana into the scheme at all indicates that the dhamma is to be construed as a path rather than simply as a means to achieve a result.
It's true that Theravada is goal-oriented compared to, say, Zen (where the practice and goal are seen as one and the same thing). Even so, from the point of view of the beginning or intermediate practitioner, there are incentives prior to nibbana (let alone parinibbana), while the advanced practitioner has gnosis in sight.
This does not negate the centrality of rebirth to the dhamma, but it does avoid a potential caricature of Buddhism as a "religion for people who would prefer to be dead but don't believe suicide works".