Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices; Of all Buddhist concepts, nirvana has perhaps been the most misunderstood. Although it is frequently equated with heaven or described as a state of bliss, nirvana is actually the absence of all states. The Sanskrit word literally means "to blow out, to extinguish," as one would blow out a candle. Nirvana then refers to the absolute elimination of karma. Since karma is what keeps us in samsara, what constitutes our very being, the elimination of karma logically means an elimination of being. This is the end of duhkha, the end of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, beyond all states of existence. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

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...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. 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.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism

The Buddha on Nirvana

Kinnard wrote: Despite the fact that nirvana is the Buddhist understanding of ultimate salvation, the Buddha himself had little to say on the topic, often warning his followers of the dangers of grasping on to the end goal at the expense of living a focused, compassionate life. He describes it as the "extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion" and also as the "abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of attachment; that is the cessation of duhkha." When asked once if nirvana were a state or not a state of existence, however, the Buddha responded that this was an unanswerable question and left it at that. The point again is that the focus should be on mindful progression on the path, not on the destination. The person who spends too much time obsessively focusing on nirvana — or on any aspect of existence or doctrinal complexity — is, the Buddha said, like the man who, upon being shot by a poison arrow, asks who shot it, how did he aim, what sort of wood the arrow was made of, and so on. The point is that the man must first remove the arrow before the poison kills him. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

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 (suffering) 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.” ***

Efforts to Define Nirvana

“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.

Although the Buddha had relatively little to say about nirvana, later Buddhist schools enthusiastically delved in the subject, often engaging in long philosophical analysis of the possibility of describing it in positive terms. In some Mahayana schools nirvana is, in fact, often described as a kind of state of blissful calm. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

Efforts to Realize Nirvana

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.

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.”

Dr. S. A. Ediriweera wrote: 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.

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”]

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.

Five Aggregates (Khandhas, Skandhas)

The Buddha nirvana as the "extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion" and also as the "abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of attachment". The Five Aggregates (Khandhas, Skandhas) are five psycho-physical components related to the idea that origin is dependent on cause and being is a convention. The Five Skandhas are: 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 skandha are best viewed as symbiotic relationships between the physical first four skandha 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.”

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia: The Buddha departed from the prevailing thought of his day by affirming the reality of rebirth in higher or lower states of life based on the moral quality of one's accumulated karma, but denying that there is a self (atman ) that goes from body to body and life to life. It was self-contradictory, he said, to assert that the true self is an entity ensconced within the body which is eternal, unchanging, and partless but which nevertheless is affected and guided by karma. It was better not to think of the human person as an ongoing entity at all, but as a process that was ever-changing and whose relation to its own previous lives was one of continuity rather than identity. Thus, his followers came to see all living beings as aggregations of processes, both physical and mental (sensation, perception, consciousness, and mental constructions) that karma kept active just as firewood keeps the fire going, and the point of practice became to end the process (a goal called "nirvana," or "extinguishing") rather than to liberate an inchoate entity. [Source: A. S. Rosso,; Jones, C. B. New Catholic Encyclopedia,]

Theravada Buddhists 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 Skandhas (Five Aggregates)

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 promised “samsara” (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. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Traditional formulations of Buddhist practice describe a path to salvation that begins with the observance of morality. Lay followers pledged to abstain from the taking of life, stealing, lying, drinking intoxicating beverages, and engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. Further injunctions applied to householders who could observe a more demanding lifestyle of purity, and the lives of monks and nuns were regulated in even greater detail. With morality as a basis, the ideal path also included the cultivation of pure states of mind through the practice of meditation and the achieving of wisdom rivaling that of a buddha. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

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.

In a letter to National Geographic, San-Diego-resident Tim Cardoza wrote, “Enlightenment is not a permanent state to be achieved in the future. It happens in the present moment, breath by breath. The concept of a permanent state of enlightenment is the big romantic sham of Buddhism. I fell for it. It is a useful sham, though. Once the practice is started, it’s difficult to quit.”

Buddha reaching Nirvana after his death

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. ***

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.

“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.” ***

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “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); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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