What does Nirvana mean in Buddhism? For Buddhists, Nirvana (also known as “Nibanna” in Pali) is the ultimate goal of practice.
But what exactly is Nirvana, and what does it mean to you: Is it a popular grunge band? A place you go after death? Is it a Yoga position? Let’s find out…
Throw a Wet Blanket on It
In the same way that a criminal loses his freedom by being shackled and manacled, so too are sentient beings bound by the chains of greed, hatred, and ignorance. The Dharma can liberate us from these defilements, and allow us to attain nirvana. ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun.
Nirvana in Buddhism is often translated as meaning to “blow out” (or “extinguishing” from the Sanskrit translation), so it is often confused with the term “extinction”.
Thankfully, it has nothing to do with extinction but instead blowing out the fires (which are known as the “Triple Fires“) that cause suffering and dissatisfaction (a term known as “Dukkha“) in our lives.
In the Buddhist world, everyone is engulfed in these fires that cause Dukkha…all the time (well, at least those who are not enlightened yet). What is important to remember is that Dukkha is not something permanent in our lives, but instead fueled by:
Because these “fires” are “conditioned”, they can be ended. What remains after the fires are blown out, is nirvana. And nirvana is your natural, or “true”, being. Nirvana is what Shakyamuni Buddha explained as the Third Noble Truth.
A wonderful example of this is what was explained by the Buddha and throughout the time since his passing: the embers of the fire. Imagine you have gone camping and you have a fire going (or if you have never gone camping, imagine a barbecue with coals), and eventually, it goes out or you put it out.
The fire is nice, we think, but it can also cause much destruction…which is why we often have it “safely” contained in an earthen, stone, steel, or metal structure. If we get too close, we could get burned, or if the flames reach something flammable, it can ignite them.
The Triple Fires you experience have no such “protection”…they are inside you and, yes, they are igniting you at various times and levels.
Now let’s go back to that fire going out. At first, the embers are still quite hot or warm, but of course not as hot as the flames were before! Those who have “blown out” the fires are still very aware of the Triple Fires, and some “residual” heat exists. They may be enlightened, but this is still “new”. However, after some time, the embers “cool”. In-fact, there is a time between the hot/warm embers and the cool embers that the embers are quite refreshing! At least so I’ve heard, I dare not put my hands in real embers 😉
While it may sound scary to “blow out” these fires, the result is cool and refreshing, and our natural state. Nirvana. What a wonderful thing to “exist” in!
What Once Was Lost, Is Now Found
Nirvana is your natural state (or original being), but Dukkha prevents you from realizing it. It’s like the water in an ocean or lake. Its natural state is peaceful, calm, clear. But the true nature of the water is churned up into waves due to winds and storms (“Dukkha” to correlate it to humans), and even the moon which creates gravitational forces. But those waves are not the natural state of the water which has been transformed due to causes and conditions.
Author Timothy Freke explained how meditation (“Zazen” in Zen Buddhism) can help us experience this:
In meditation, practitioners sit perfectly still and allow their thoughts to come to a rest. Just as a puddle of muddy water slowly clears when left undisturbed, so the mind clears of thought when we stop agitating it by paying attention to the constant chatter in our heads. Through meditation it is possible to become conscious of the empty space within which thoughts rise and fall. This is our true identity.
Just like the ocean and lake, your true nature is peaceful and calm also, which is known as nirvana. But because the Triple Fires fuel your Dukkha, and that you don’t know how to blow out those fires, you live forever in this condition.
While that sounds bleak, the Buddha taught that you could blow out these fires by understanding his teachings (known as the “Dharma”), and specifically by following the “Eightfold Path“. The Eightfold Path provides a map of how you can end Dukkha in your life. And with this path, you can also achieve nirvana which is your natural state.
Can this be done? Absolutely! Not only did the Buddha show us that this was possible in his own life, but there have been many others who have achieved this (in Buddhism, a person is known as an Arhat and/or Bodhisattva when they have become enlightened and achieved the state of nirvana).
Sometimes in Buddhism, “Enlightenment” (or “Awakening”) is confused, or mixed in with, “Nirvana”. They are two separate concepts, where enlightenment is more about “intellect and reason” (although defining enlightenment is a futile attempt), and nirvana is about “blowing out” the fuel that creates Dukkha.
Is Nirvana a Place on Earth?
A common misconception in Buddhism is that Nirvana is a place you go to, rather than a state you achieve. In-fact, popular culture believes it is much like a heavenly realm found in one of the other major religions.
But nirvana is not a place, another dimension, or a kind of heaven where the Buddha greets you at some pearly Bodhi tree. Instead, Nirvana is something you attain while you are still alive, and it is also something that already exists within you.
As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:
Most people believe that nirvana is attained only after death. Actually, nirvana is beyond birth and death. it is the state where the attachment to self and phenomena is extinguished, the state where all afflictions and defilements are eliminated, and the state of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains further:
Nirvana is not the absence of life. Drishtadharma nirvana means “nirvana in this very life.” Nirvana means pacifying, silencing, or extinguishing the fire of suffering. Nirvana teaches that we already are what we want to become. We don’t have to run after anything anymore. We only need to return to ourselves and touch our true nature. When we do, we have real peace and joy.
When It’s Over, It’s Over
Nirvana is something you achieve here, while you are alive, and not something that happens after you die. It’s also something that you can achieve because your true nature is Nirvana.
It’s the central part of Buddhist practice because the Third Noble Truth says that we end “suffering” (Dukkha) in our lives by achieving Nirvana. In a word, Nirvana is freedom. Freedom from suffering, wrong views, and wrong perceptions (greed, hatred, and ignorance…which were those annoying “Triple Fires”).
As Thich Nhat Hanh said:
And that is why Nirvana is not something that you get in the future. Nirvana is the capacity of removing the wrong notions, wrong perceptions, which is the practice of freedom. Nirvana can be translated as freedom: freedom from views. And in Buddhism, all views are wrong views. When you get in touch with reality, you no longer have views. You have wisdom. You have a direct encounter with reality, and that is no longer called views.
Or more simply, Thich Nhat Hanh explained Nirvana this way:
When you remove wrong perceptions, you remove suffering.
A beautiful quote about nirvana by Maha Ghosananda was found in Gary Gach’s book:
Nirvana is everywhere. It dwells in no particular place. It is in the mind. It can only be found in the present moment. … It is empty and void of concept. nothing can comprise nirvana. Nirvana is beyond cause and effect. nirvana is the highest happiness. It is absolute peace. Peace in the world depends on conditions, but peace in nirvana is unchanging … Suffering leads the way to nirvana. When we truly understand nirvana, we become free.
Understanding that Nirvana is something that is our natural state, which we can experience whenever we want and forever how long we want, and that it is through the absence of wrong views and perceptions, you achieve peace and happiness. No wonder the Buddha looks so relaxed!
As with other concepts in Buddhism, the two major branches both believe in Nirvana but have slightly different views on certain parts of it. Before reading the differences, it is important to note that all paths eventually lead to the same destination…Nirvana/Nibbana!
- Theravada: Theravadins use the Pali term for Nirvana, which is Nibbana, and those who attain it are known as an Arhat. They believe that when the fires are extinguished, there are still warm “embers” (like a campfire that is put out), but the Arhat is not bound by those fires anymore (but are still conscious of them). This is known as “Nibbana with remainders”, where the being is known as an “Arhat” [enlightened being]. Upon death, the Arhat enters parinirvana or “complete nirvana”. But what about becoming a Buddha? Theravadins believe that if you achieve Nibbana by yourself, you are a Buddha (such as with Shakyamuni Buddha). However, if you achieve Nibbana with the help of a Buddha, you are an Arhat. Here is Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu talking about Nibanna:
- Mahayana: Theravadins and Mahayanists both believe that nirvana is attainable within this world, but Mahayanists believe in postponing parinirvana (as part of the Bodhisattva vow and path) until all other sentient beings have attained it. I am making that distinction because in Mahayana you often hear that those on the Bodhisattva path do not enter Nirvana. Well, that is true. However, in Mahayana, an enlightened being, such as a Bodhisattva, can experience their natural state…Nirvana. In Theravada, you can go right into ending Samsara for yourself (the cycle of birth and death) when you achieve Nibbana and become an Arhat (the Arhat path), whereas in Mahayana you are on the Bodhisattva path and don’t become a Buddha until all beings are free (it is important to note that this doesn’t mean that all Theravadins don’t believe this, not at all, and you can read more about that in my other article). But why is this? Mahayana believes that, essentially, all beings are interconnected (because all physical forms are void of intrinsic self…more on that below) so individual enlightenment (as in Theravada) is not possible.
Here is Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh talking about Nirvana:
The concept of “emptiness” is important to understand when it comes to Buddhism and Nirvana.
Barbara O’Brien explains further on emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism (which is why they don’t believe they can attain nirvana until all beings attain it):
Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”) and individual autonomy to be a delusion. Therefore, according to Mahayana, individual enlightenment is not possible. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we cannot separate ourselves from each other.
I recommend reading her article on emptiness for a deeper understanding of this crucial difference between Mahayana and Theravada.
For more information about the differences between Mahayana and Theravada, please visit my article about that here (a section regarding Arhat’s and Bodhisattva’s is included).
- Featured Image: CC photo by Lyle Vincent on Flickr
- Books for Further Reading: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and What the Buddha Taught By Ven. Walpola Rahula
- Recommended Articles: Nirvana on Tricylcle, Moment by Moment Nirvana on Lions Roar, Enlightenment and Nirvana and Nirvana both by Barbara O’Brien
- Although commonly translated and referred to as “suffering“, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc.