Hierarchy of Beings according to Jain Thought
but also applicable to Hindu, Buddhist Thought
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. Through constant rebirths, Buddhists believe they can escape the Wheel of Life and ascend to nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism a person can be reborn in one of three level of existence: 1) the world, 2) the hells below, and 3) the heavens above.

Buddhists believe in “karmic energy” rather than souls. Followers respond to life in their own self interest rather than out of allegiance to a god or creator. Since only humans can break out of the cycle of reincarnation, human life is seen as opportunity that must seized upon to improve one’s fate and effort towards transcendence. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

Buddhist ideas about of reincarnation grew out of the Hindu concept of reincarnation, which first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles. Karma determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into nirvana. According to Buddhist theology an an internal self or soul dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their slef and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world. Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their soul.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to "get off the wheel," to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

Karma and Merit


The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just, automatic, and impersonal cosmic law, one's actions in this incarnation and in all previous ones will determine which position in the hierarchy of living things one will occupy in the next incarnation. An individual's karma can be improved through certain acts and omissions. By following the five precepts or commandments, a Buddhist can better his or her karma. These commandments are: do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in forbidden sexual pleasures, do not tell lies, and do not take intoxicants or stupefying drugs or liquors. [Library of Congress *]

The most effective way to work actively to improve one's karma is to earn merit. Any act of benevolence or generosity can gain merit for the doer. Theravada Buddhists tend to regard opportunities for earning merit as primarily connected with interaction with the sangha (monks), contributing to its support through money, goods, and labor, and participating in its activities. Some of the favorite ways for a male to earn merit are to enter the sangha as a monk (after the age of twenty) or as a novice, or to live in the wat as a temple servant; in the case of a female (usually the elderly), the favorite way is to become a nun. Other activities that gain merit include sponsoring a monk or novice, contributing to a wat, feeding members of the sangha at a public meal, and providing food for either of the two daily meals of the sangha. *

Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one's actions," it is a moral force that survives death, determines one's existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.

The concept of karma in Buddhism is similar to that in Hinduism and other Indian beliefs and is referred to once as “a long, long faring on, both for me and for you." Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action." It describes a "reap what you sow" and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one's reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.

The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.

Reincarnation, Rebirth and Samsara (Cycle of Life and Death)


On Samsara, the Hindu-Buddhist cycle of life, death and rebirth, The Buddha said: “Which do you think is the more: the flood of tears, which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way- hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired- this, or the waters of the four oceans? . . . But how is this possible? Inconceivable is the beginning of this Samsara; not to be discovered is any first beginning of beings, who, obstructed by ignorance, and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune, and filled the graveyards full; verily, long enough to be dissatisfied with all the forms of existence, long enough to turn away, and free yourselves from them all.” [Source: Mario Bussagli, “5000 Years of the Art of India” (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.). Internet Archive, from CCNY]

Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “The Buddha remembered clearly many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks, nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past life, Rebirth is an established fact which puts this life in a meaningful perspective. The Law of Kamma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit. Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty; why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed whereas others enter deformed and diseased... The fruits of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how much better to learn about the need for generosity than to be reborn among the poor! [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]

“Rebirth takes place not only within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms, too, realms of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but we can come from any of these realms into our present life. This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues "How can there be Rebirth when there are 10 times as many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?" The answer is that people alive today have come from many different realms. Understanding that we can come and go between these different realms, gives us more respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them with us.” =|=

In a lecture, Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, said: “Reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the "essence" of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality. Thus, infancy brings to earth not a blank scroll for the beginning of a new earthly record, but it is inscribed with ancestral histories, some like the present scene, most of them unlike it and stretching back into the remote past. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996]

Reincarnation, a Scientifically Acceptable Phenomenon?

In a lecture, Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, said: “Scientists now have the professional clearence to scientifically investigate reincarnation...If reincarnation is to be examined from an unbiased scientific point of view, it is necessary first of all to find a way of bypassing such unscientific barriers as religious bias. This can be done by considering the standard procedure used at present for the acceptance of any modern scientific theory and testing reincarnation by following the same procedure. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996 ==]

Jain view of gati (existences)

“Geremy Hayward has described how one ventures to deal with a new theory. He describes this procedure as a four step scientific process as follows: a) study the relevant phenomenon; b) formulate the new theory; c) use the theory to predict observations that we should be able to make if the theory is correct, and; d) look for these predicted observations. Richard Feynman, Noble Laureate for Physics, describes this process in detail. He combines steps "a" and "b" and describes it as a three step process. ==

“If the observations made in the last step do not agree with the predictions of the earlier step the proposed theory is not acceptable. If they agree the theory becomes acceptable. If more and more observations show agreement the theory receives stronger scientific acceptance. Once a theory becomes scientifically accepted by this test it remains so unless someone finds reliable new data to prove its unacceptability. ==

“Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it...Hence the phenomenon of reincarnation is already known and therefore the steps "a" and "b" are already there. In examining the scientific acceptability of reincarnation therefore one has only to go through the last two steps of the above scientific process. If this is done successfully the scientific acceptability of reincarnation is proved in the way any other theory of modern science is proved. ==

“There are two possible scenarios, No-Reincarnation scenario and Reincarnation scenario that can be considered. Human being is composed of the body and an immaterial part. The body which is the material part is well understood because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Extensa and was extensively studied by scientists. The immaterial part has not been studied by scientists because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Cogitans.” ==

“Evidence” That Reincarnation is a Scientifically Acceptable Phenomenon?

Dr. Dharmawardena went on to say “In the No-Reincarnation scenario death is something like the Event Horizon of a black hole. Crossing the event horizon is a one way journey and after crossing it nothing can come back, not even light. Here the body disintegrates after death and the immaterial part either annihilates or gets into a scientifically unknown state and remains there for ever, ie. each individual is borne, lives one life time and at the end of it passes the event horizon of death to a state of no return. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996 ==]

“In the Reincarnation scenario death is not an event horizon because only the body, the material part, disintegrates and goes into a state of no return. The immaterial part enters into a scientifically unknown state and reappears, after a period. The above description of the phenomenon of reincarnation constitute steps "a" and "b" of the scientific process. The next step of the scientific process is looking for observations that can be predicted assuming the existence of this phenomenon, observations that have a reasonable chance of being practically examined. ==

“Abilities of individuals to carry memories of past events differ widely from individual to individual. Some people can remember events and experiences of long past whereas some easily forget things within a few years. Most people vividly remember special events such as tragic happenings for a very long time, even up to death. Under hypnosis people recollect events which they had completely forgotten. Some people have the exceptional ability to recall knowledge and experiences gathered long ago and use them when necessary. For example a friend of mine who had been discussing Advanced Level Physics with me when he was studying for the GCE AL exam long time ago, but never did any science there after escaped injury in the Central bank bomb blast by instantaneously recalling his memories discussing AL Physics. But others who had studied Physics more recently lost their eyes because that memory didn't flash back to their rescue at the time of impending disaster. As soon as my friend saw the flash of the bomb blast from his window , AL Physics flashed back to his mind and prompted to him that the shock wave comes a little while after the flash. Instantaneously he threw himself back flat on the floor before the shock wave blasted the window glasses. ==

“If reincarnation as defined earlier is true it should be possible to extend some of the above human capabilities, which result from immaterial aspects of the human being, beyond birth to the previous life and even beyond to earlier lives. Some people should be able to remember events in their past lives. Hypnosis must enhance this ability. Some must be able to make use of knowledge and experiences of past lives.

With these predictions we can move on to the last stage of the scientific process, to look for these predicted observations. A large amount of data has been accumulated by research workers around the world on matters relating to reincarnation: 1) spontaneous recall of past lives, 2) past life therapy, 3) child prodigies and others who can make use of knowledge and experience gathered in their past lives are some of the aspects that have been subjected to much research and investigation.

The observations made on the above areas agree with the predictions made in the third stage of the scientific process thereby successfully completing the four step test for scientific acceptability. No scientifically acceptable data that can go to prove the scientific unacceptability of reincarnation have appeared in scientific literature so far. On the basis of these tests it is concluded that the scientific acceptability of the phenomenon of reincarnation is proven at least on three counts in terms of the accepted principles of modern science.

A science minded person often finds it difficult to accept reincarnation because he/she had failed to perceive a reincarnation mechanism that is intelligible within the outdated Decartes' classical science frame work. But Modern Science, specifically Quantum Mechanics, has compelled us to accept unintelligible mechanisms of natural phenomena like the behaviour of electrons and we do not hesitate to accept them. Likewise with the data available we are compelled to accept reincarnation as a reality. Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says, "Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity".

Yama, the Lord of Death, holding the Wheel of Life

Buddhism, Death, Suicide and Autopsies

T.T Thich Nguyen, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk from Co Lam Temple said: “All Buddhists do meditation. One of the meditations done is on death. Everyday, through meditation, we recall our death and so we do not worry about dying. When a Buddhist person is dying, the family may think, "What can we do for the dying person?" They will invite a monk to see the dying person and to do chanting. In Buddhism, the word chanting is used instead of prayer. As a person is dying we chant in permanency of the life. We do this for two reasons. First, we want to make the person happy before they die. Second, we want to make the family understand that death is a part of our life. It is because of our birth that we have to accept our death. Death is not unusual. That is the Buddhist point of view. So, everyday, when we finish our normal regular prayer, we do some meditation on death. That is why the Buddhist is not afraid to die, and also why the family is ready to accept the death. [Source: Christine Wilson Owens, Kim Lundgreen, CCM, University of Washington, June 1, 2002]

On suicide, T.T Thich Nguyen said: “The first important thing to know is that Buddhists do not agree with the act. Suicide goes against Buddhism. Many people use the term "vows" for what we call "precepts" in Buddhism. The first precept is to refrain from killing. As suicide is the act of killing yourself, it is considered bad. Practically and socially, if someone commits suicide, the Buddhist society does not value that death. Buddhists condemn the action while still doing what they can for that person. They do not praise the action, but still do all the traditional prayers for the dead body. On funeral occasions for a suicide death, as a monk, I criticize the action and advise to those present that this is not the answer to a problem nor is it a brave action. This is the Buddhist point of view. Suicide is a very bad, lower choice. This belief is common in every Buddhist society and for the Vietnamese too.

Autopsy is not prohibited by Buddhist law. On autopsies, one Vietnamese-American medical expert said, “The time of death is a tough period for everyone. It is important to talk directly to the immediate family in a very nice way to let them know what happened and if an autopsy needs to be done. Explain why an autopsy needs to be done and the family will likely understand. Recognize that for the Vietnamese, we don't believe in opening the body to get tissues or organs, neither for autopsy nor organ donation. We believe that we were born with everything and we will die with everything. Very seldom is it that the family members will agree with you to open the dead body, however if you explain the necessity in a manner that is respectful, they will understand. Recently, the Vietnamese who have come to the U.S. have learned about the law here. It will depend on the family whether they agree with autopsy or not. When talking about the Vietnamese community's acceptance of the practice of autopsy, limited is probably a better word to use than prohibited.

A medical examiner in Washington state said: “We work under legal authority. At some point it becomes our legal responsibility to do an autopsy. We will always work with the family up to a certain point, and advise of other options if we can forego an autopsy and still learn the cause of death in another way. In a homicide situation, the purpose of the autopsy is to benefit the entire community so the death can be explained. To do the autopsy becomes a matter that transcends the interests of the family or any one group. We are forced to perform the autopsy when there is a homicide. There may be other options to autopsy in some instances, however these alternatives may not be any more suitable as they present some time delays. We always try to do things as quickly as possible so we can return the body back to the family and avoid delays. The best course of action, as we see it, is to try and let us do what we need to do, and in that way we can avoid delays.

The twelve nidanas explain the rebirth / reincarnation mechanism in Buddhism. Starting with Avidya (ignorance, misconception) as first. The 12 nidanas are often shown in wheel of life's outer rim (above) in the traditional bhavachakra. This is a derivative work on File:Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out.

Buddhist Enlightenment and Salvation

"The Buddha's aim was not to know the world or to improve it," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "but to escape its suffering. His whole concern was salvation. It is hard for us in the West to understand or even name this Buddhist concern. To say that the Buddhists had a 'philosophy' would be misleading." The process of salvation is seen as a never-ending one. Since there was an infinite number of selves, there of course would never be a time when all of them achieved Nirvana. [Source:"The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Hinduism promise of samsarea (Sanskrit for migration), escape from the endless round of "life everlasting" by "disappearance of the individual into an unchanging anonymous Absolute." Buddhism also offered the escape for the "weary reiteration" of life towards nirvana.

Although enlightenment is something that occurs in a flash and is complete and total. Reaching enlightenment is not something that comes immediately, however, but rather occurs gradually with training and practice. A teacher can help a novice to understand the true meaning of things as they really are but ultimately enlightenment must achieved through one’s own efforts by following the Way.

Nirvana, Being, The Self and Buddhist Consciousness

Nirvana , the ultimate goal of every Buddhist, has been described various ways, including: 1) "a cosmic state that pervades the universe which everyone must link up with"; 2) "the permanent unconditioned being"; 3) "a state of bliss that one reaches when they escape from the bonds of the material world"; and 4) "the result of transmigration of the soul from the self and the state of suffering into oneness with the universe."

Nirvana comes from the Sanskrit word for "blowing out." The sutras of Buddha describe it as a state free from greed, anger, ignorance and various other "fetters" of everyday life. Once a person reaches nirvana there is no need to be reborn and the process of reincarnation ends.

Most Buddhists realize that attaining nirvana is unrealistic for now and simply aim for a “better” existence. They think they are unworthy of nirvana and simply aim to improve their lot by earning merit, aiming for higher levels in their next life and reducing the number of rebirths they have to go through.

Scientist tend to view the mind as a function of the brain while Buddhists tend to see it as expression of a consciousness that can be reincarnated over lifetimes and shaped by karmic destiny. Another key Buddhist idea is the notion that we can change our world by changing how we choose to look at the world.

Sakyamuni, The Buddha the moment he reached enlightenment

According to Buddhism: 1) people do not possess an unchanging self but are rather empty vessels through which experiences pass. 2) Being is existence in a cycle that is not created or destroyed but continues until the cycle is broken. And 3) consciousness is a stream that flows from life to death to rebirth in a continuous flow. Reincarnation itself is not seen as a form of transcendence but is rather viewed as a stage in a continuous process.

In his first sermon, Buddha said, “being dispassionate, he becomes detached; through detachment he is liberated. When liberated there is knowledge that he is liberated, and he knows: birth is exhausted, the whole life has been lived , what has to be done is done, there is no more to be done on this account.”

Five Khandha and the Senses

Origin is dependent on cause and being is a convention comprised of five psycho-physical components known as khandha : 1) the supporting or the solid (earth); 2) the binding or the cohesive (water) ; 3) the heating or temperature (fire); 4) the motion or movement (wind); and 5) feelings, perception and consciousness.

The five khandha are best viewed as symbiotic relationships between the physical first four khandha and the fifth, consciousness. Consciousness can not exist without the physical world and the physical world can not exist without consciousness. In this way we perceive being as a kind of echo that is produced by the interplay between consciousness and the physical world. On this matter, The Buddha told Sati, a fisherman caught in the net of craving: “in many a figure has consciousness, generated by conditions, been spoken of by me to you, saying that apart from conditions there is not origination of consciousness.”

Theravada Buddhists also express being in terms of 1) the six sense organs (eyes, nose, ears, mouth, touch, thinking), 2) the six correspondent stimuli for each sense and 3) the six forms of consciousness associated with each sense. Together these are known as the 18 dhatus . The six sense and their corresponding stimuli are known as the 12 ayatanas . All of these are seen as elements of “the world” which are seen as something that is internal rather than external to humans and part of the Not-Self. The True Self is viewed as something that is either beyond the world and the senses or at least independent of them.

Achieving complete freedom, nirvana and escape from the cycle of existence is achieved therefore by detaching oneself from the senses and the world and attaining the self almost as a matter of default through calming the mind and meditation. The Buddha took this idea in a different direction, arguing that the sensory world should not be extinguished but rather should be controlled through The Middle Way and that transcendence can be achieved in the sensory world in which an individual is neither attracted or repelled by the senses.

Five Khandhas (Five Aggregates)


On Nirvana, The Buddha said: “ This, truly, is the Peace, this is the Highest, namely the end of all formations, the forsaking of every substratum of rebirth, the fading away of craving: detachment, extinction- Nirvana. Enraptured with lust, enraged with anger, blinded by delusion, overwhelmed, with mind ensnared, man aims at his own ruin, at others' ruin, at the ruin of both parties, and he experiences mental pain and grief. But, if lust, anger, and delusion are given up, man aims neither at his own ruin, nor at others' ruin, nor at the ruin of both parties, and he experiences no mental pain and grief. Thus is Nirvana immediate, visible in this life, inviting, attractive, and comprehensible to the wise. The extinction of greed, the extinction of anger, the extinction of delusion: this, indeed, is called Nirvana. [Source: Mario Bussagli, “5000 Years of the Art of India” (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.). Internet Archive, from CCNY]

On Nibbana (Nirvana), Bikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The Buddha says that he teaches only Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha, that is, suffering and the end of suffering. The First Noble Truth deals with the problem of suffering. However, the truth of suffering is not the final word of the Buddha's teaching. It is only the starting point. The Buddha starts with suffering, because his teaching is designed for a particular end: it is designed to lead to liberation. In order to do this he must give us a reason for seeking liberation. If a man does not know that his house is on fire, he lives there enjoying himself, playing and laughing. To get him to come out we first have to make him understand that his house is on fire. In the same way the Buddha announces that our lives are burning with old age, sickness and death. Our minds are flaming with greed, hatred and delusion. It is only when we become aware of the peril that we are ready to seek a way to release. In the Second Noble Truth, he points out that the principal cause of suffering is craving, the desire for a world of sights, sounds , smells, tastes, touch sensations and ideas. Since the cause of Dukkha is craving, the key to reaching the end of Dukkha is to eliminate craving. Therefore the Buddha explains the Third Noble Truth as the extinction of craving.” ***

“Nibbana cannot be understood through words or expressions or study of the text. One has to understand Nibbana by actual realization. However, in order to convey some idea of the goal to which his teaching points, the Buddha resorts to words and expressions. He uses both negative and positive expressions, and to get a balance idea of Nibbana both types of expressions have to be considered. Otherwise you will come away with a one-sided, distorted picture of Nibbana.” ***

Dr. S. A. Ediriweera, an esteemed Sri Lankan playwright, wrote: “Nirvana is a state of supreme happiness. It is life without suffering. It is the Third Noble Truth. Nirvana is the ultimate aim of Buddhists. The summum bonum of Buddhism. Nirvana is achieved in life and is not something gained after death. For example the Buddha attained Nirvana at the age of 35 years and lived till 80 years.

Nirvana is attained by completely eradicating craving and that could be done by following the Noble Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth). Nirvana is absolute mental peace brought about by completely abolishing greed, hatred and delusion. Perfect mental peace is immense happiness, it is the happiness of calming down, tranquillity achieved by allaying passions.

Nirvana is not something to be perceived with the five senses. To a question by Udayi "What happiness can it be if there is no sensation"? Sariputta the chief disciple of the Buddha replied "That there is no sensation itself is happiness". Nirvana is a supramundane state to be realised by wisdom.

Buddha reaching Nirvana after his death

One who has achieved Nirvana is free from all forms of self identification. The concept of ‘self’ is no more. The Ego illusion is completely uprooted. Rebirth producing craving and ignorance has been stopped. The mind is not attached to anything, there is ceasing of becoming and one is delivered from all future rebirths and deaths.

Nirvana is not a place to enter into. Venerable Nagasena’s reply to King Milinda’s question "In what region is Nirvana located"? was "great king there is no place where Nirvana is located. Nevertheless this Nirvana exists. Just as there is no place where fire is located, the fact being that a man by rubbing two sticks together produces fire - so also there is such a thing as Nirvana, but no place where it is located. The fact being that a man by diligent mental effort realizes Nirvana."

Nirvana is complete inner transformation achieved by perfecting virtue and wisdom. Nirvana has to be experienced and cannot be expressed in words. One has to taste sugar to know its sweetness, words do not really convey the taste, similarly supreme bliss Nirvana has to be realized.

Just as there is Heat - there is Cold. Just as there is Evil - there is Good.
Just as there is Darkness - there is Light.
Just as there is Dukkha - there is Nirvana.
With growing awareness, we strive,
To end the cycle of life and death,
Till a state we reach,
Where their is the end of sorrow. [Source: “Essentials of Buddhism”]

Buddha’s First Sermon: on Nirvana

The Buddhist scriptires read: “And when the Blessed One had thus set the royal chariot wheel of truth rolling onward, a rapture thrilled through all the universes. The devas left their heavenly abodes to listen to the sweetness of the truth; the saints that had parted from this life crowded around the great teacher to receive the glad tidings; even the animals of the earth felt the bliss that rested upon the words of the Tagathata: and all the creatures of the host of sentient beings, gods, men, and beasts, hearing the message of deliverance, received and understood it in their own language. And when the doctrine was propounded, the venerable Kondanna, the oldest one among the five bhikkhus, discerned the truth with his mental eye, and he said: "Truly, O Buddha, our Lord, thou hast found the truth!" Then the other bhikkhus too, joined him and exclaimed: "Truly, thou art the Buddha, thou has found the truth. " [Source: Ephanius Wilson, Sacred Books of the East, rev. ed. (London: The Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 158, 160-61, 171-72, repr. In Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Volume I, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 67-71, Brooklyn College website]

“And the devas and saints and all the good spirits of the departed generations that had listened to the sermon of the Tathagata, joyfully received the doctrine and shouted: "Truly, the blessed One has founded the kingdom of righteousness. The Blessed One has moved the earth; he has set the wheel of Truth rolling, which by no one in the universe, be he god or man, can ever be turned back. The kingdom of Truth will be preached upon earth; it will spread; and righteousness, good-will, and peace will reign among mankind."

In his explanation on what is nirvana, The Buddha said: “Revered Nagasena, things produced of karma are seen in the world, things produced of cause are seen, things produced of nature are seen. Tell me what in the world is born not of karma, not of cause, not of nature." "These two, sire, in. the world are born not of karma, not of cause, not of nature. which two? Ether, sire, and Nirvana." "Do not, revered Nagasena, corrupt the Conqueror's words and answer the question ignorantly." "What did I say, sire, that you speak thus to me!" "Revered Nagasena, what you said about ether - that it is born not of karma nor of cause nor of nature-is right. But with many a hundred reasons did the Lord, revered Nagasena, point out to disciples the Way to the realization of Nirvana and then you speak thus: 'Nirvana is born of no cause."' "It is true, sire, that with many a hundred reasons did the Lord point out to disciples the Way to the realization of Nirvana; but he did not point out a cause for the production o f Nirvana." [Source: Ephanius Wilson, Sacred Books of the East, rev. ed. (London: The Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 158, 160-61, 171-72, repr. In Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Volume I, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 67-71, Brooklyn College website]

"Well then, sire, attend carefully, listen closely, and I will tell the reason as to this. Would a man, sire, with his natural strength be able to go from here up a high Himalayan mountain?" 'Yes, revered Nagasena." "But would that man, sire, with his natural strength be able to bring a high Himalayan mountain here. "Certainly not, revered sir." "Even so, sire, it is possible to point out the Way for the realization of Nirvana, but impossible to show a cause for the production of Nirvana. Would it be possible, sire, for a man who, with his natural strength, has crossed over the great sea in a boat to reach the farther shore!" "Yes, revered sir." "But would it be possible, sire, for that man, with his natural strength, to bring the farther shore of the great sea here?" "Certainly not, revered sir." "Even so, sire, it is possible to point out the Way to the realization of Nirvana, but impossible to show a cause for the production of Nirvana. For what reason? It is because of the uncompounded nature of the thing." "Revered Nagasena, is Nirvana uncompounded!"

Nirvana of the Buddha

"Yes, sire, Nirvana is uncompounded; it is made by nothing at all. Sire, one cannot say of Nirvana that it arises or that it does not arise or that it is to be produced or that it is past or future or present, or that it is cognizable by the eye, ear, nose, tongue or body." "If, revered Nagasena, Nirvana neither arises nor does not arise and so on. as you say. well then, revered Nagasena, you indicate Nirvana as a thing that is not: Nirvana is not." "Sire, Nirvana is; Nirvana is cognizable by mind; an ariyan-disciple, faring along rightly with a mind that is purified, lofty, straight, without obstructions, without temporal desires, sees Nirvana."

"But what, revered sir, is that Nirvana like that can be illustrated by similes! Convince me with reasons according to which a thing that is can be illustrated by similes. "Is there, sire, what is called wind?" "Yes, revered sir." "Please, sire, show the wind by its color or configuration or as thin or thick or long or short." "But it is not possible, revered Nagasena, for the wind to be shown; for the wind cannot be grasped in the hand or touched, but yet there is the wind." "If, sire, it is not possible for the wind to be shown, well then, there is no wind." "I, revered Nagasena, know that there is wind, I am convinced of it, but I am not able to show the wind." "Even so, sire, there is Nirvana; but it is not possible to show Nirvana by color or configuration." "Very good, revered Nagasena, well shown is the simile. well seen the reason: thus it is and I accept it as you say: There is Nirvana."

Nirvana, Bliss, Annihilation and The story of the Turtle and the Fish

On Nibbana (Nirvana) and annihilation, Bikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The Buddha speaks of Nibbana primarily by way of terms negating suffering: as cessation of suffering, cessation of old age and death, the unafflicted, the unoppressed the sorrowless state, and so forth. It is also described as the negation of the defilements, the mental factors that keep us in bondage. So Nibbana is described as the same as destruction of greed hatred and delusion. It is also called dispassion (viraga), the removal of thirst, the crushing of pride, the uprooting of conceit, the extinction of vanity. ****

“The purpose behind the Buddha's negative terminology is to show that Nibbana is utterly transcendental and beyond all conditioned things; to show that Nibbana is desirable, that it is the end of all suffering, and to show that Nibbana is to be attained by eliminating defilements. The use of negative terminology should not be misunderstood to mean that Nibbana is mere annihilation, a pure negative attainment. ***

“To correct this one sided view, the Buddha also describes Nibbana in positive terms. He refers to Nibbana as the supreme happiness perfect bliss, peace, serenity, liberation, freedom. He calls Nibbana 'the Island', an island upon which beings can land, which is free from suffering. For those being swept away helplessly towards the ocean of old age and death, it is a place of safety and security. It is also described as a "cave" which gives safety from the dangers of birth and death. Nibbana is called the "cool state" - coolness which results from the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. ***

“To illustrate this error the Buddhists relate the story of the turtle and the fish. There was once a turtle who lived in a lake with a group of fish. One day the turtle went for a walk on dry land. He was away from the lake for a few weeks. When he returned he met some of the fish. The fish asked him, "Mister turtle, hello! How are you? We have not seen you for a few weeks. Where have you been? The turtle said, "I was up on the land, I have been spending some time on dry land." The fish were a little puzzled and they said, "Up on dry land? What are you talking about? What is this dry land? Is it wet?" The turtle said "No, it is not," "Is it cool and refreshing?" "No it is not", "Does it have waves and ripples?" "No, it does not have waves and ripples." "Can you swim in it?" "No you can't" So the fish said, "it is not wet, it is not cool there are no waves, you cant swim in it. So this dry land of yours must be completely non-existent, just an imaginary thing, nothing real at all." The turtle said that "Well may be so" and he left the fish and went for another walk on dry land.” ***

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Five Aggregates, sunyatameditation.org

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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