The following article is about the term Nirvana in the context of Buddhism. See Nirvana (disambiguation) for other meanings.
In Buddhism, nirvāṇa (from the Sanskrit -- Pali: Nibbāna -- Chinese: Nie4 Pan2 (涅槃)), literally "extinction" or "extinguishing", is the culmination of the Buddhist pursuit of liberation. Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, described Buddhism as a raft which, after floating across a river, will enable the passenger to reach nirvana. Hinduism also uses nirvana as a synonym to its ideas of moksha, and it is spoken of in several Hindu tantric texts as well as the Bhagavad Gita. The Hindu and Buddhist concepts of nirvana should not be regarded as equivalent.
Etymologically, nirvana connnotes an extinguishing or "blowing out" of a fire or candle flame. In the Buddhist context carries the further connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace; the person realizing nirvana is compared to a fire gone out when its fuel supply is finished, this fuel being primarily the false idea of self (soul), which causes (and is caused by) among other things craving, consciousness, birth, death, greed, hate, delusion, ignorance. Nirvana, then, is not a place nor a state, it is an absolute truth to be realized, and a person can do so without dying. When a person who has realized nirvana dies, his death is referred as his parinirvana, his fully passing away, as his life was his last link to the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), and he will not be reborn again. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is realization of nirvana; what happens to a man after his parinirvana cannot be explained, as it is outside of all conceivable experience.
As a negation of saṁsāra (i.e., the whole phenomenal world), nirvana is impossible to define directly; it can only be experienced or realized. One may not even be able to say this, since saying this implies the existence of an experiencing subject--which in fact would not persist after full nirvāṇa. While some of the side-effects of nirvana can be identified, a definition of nirvāṇa can only be approximated by what it is not. It is not the clinging existence with which man is understood to be afflicted. It is not any sort of becoming. It has no origin or end. It is not made or fabricated. It has no dualities, so that it cannot be described in words. It has no parts that may be distinguished one from another. It is not a subjective state of consciousness. It is not conditioned on or by anything else.
Calling "nirvana" the opposite of samsara may not be doctrinally accurate since even in early Buddhism and by the time of Nāgārjuna, there are teachings of the identity of nirvana and samsara. However, even here it is assumed that the natural man suffers from at the very least a confusion regarding the nature of samsara.
We can also say that, given the vital importance of the idea of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: Anātman), which negates not merely the grasping mind but also any concept of essential substance or permanent self, it is clear that nirvāṇa is not to be understood as a union with monistic ideal. Since there is essentially no self and no not-self, there is nothing to unite, instead it is an experience of non-separation.
It should also be noted that the Buddha discouraged certain lines of speculation, including speculation into the state of an enlightened being after death, on the grounds that these were not useful for pursuing enlightenment; thus definitions of nirvāṇa might be said to be doctrinally unimportant.
Nirvana in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
However, in certain Mahayana teachings of the Buddha, Nirvana is said to be the perfection of the True Self, and in the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" in particular, as well as in a number of other important Mahayana sutras, Nirvana is seen as the state which constitutes the consummation of that which is "Eternal, Self, Bliss, and Pure". Nirvana thus becomes equivalent to the ineffable, unshakeable and deathless nature of the Buddha himself - a mystery which no words can adequately reach and which can only be fully known by an Awakened Being directly.
According to Mahayana teachings, the being who has reached Nirvana is not blotted out or extinguished: there is the extinction of the impermanent and suffering-prone "worldly self" or ego, but not of the immortal "supramundane Self" of the inner Buddha. The Buddha states in the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" (Tibetan version): "Nirvana is deathless ... Those who have passed into Nirvana are deathless. I say that anybody who is endowed with careful assiduity is not compounded and, even though they involve themselves in compounded things, they do not age, they do not die, they do not perish."
- "Where there is nothing; where naught is grasped, there is the Isle of No-Beyond. Nirvana do I call it -- the utter extinction of aging and dying."
- "There is, monks, an unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated. If there were not that unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born -- become -- made -- fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated, emancipation from the born -- become -- made -- fabricated is discerned." [Udana VIII.3]
- Sutta Nipāta, tr. Rune Johansson:
- accī yathā vātavegena khitto
atthaṁ paleti na upeti sankhaṁ
evaṁ muni nāmakāyā kimutto
atthaṁ paleti na upeti sankhaṁ
- atthan gatassa na pamāṇam atthi
ynea naṁ vajju taṁ tassan atthi
sabbesu dhammesu samūhatesu
samūhatā vādapathāpi sabbe
Like a flame that has been blown out by a strong wind goes to rest and cannot be defined, just so the sage who is freed from name and body goes to rest and cannot be defined.
For him who has gone to rest there is no measure by means of which one could describe him; that is not for him. When all (dharmas) have gone, all signs of recognition have also gone.
- Jon Kabit-Zin, Wherever You Go, There You Are
- Nibbana (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/nibbana.html) - more excerpts from the Pali Tripitaka defining Nibbana
- Nirvana and Samadhi (http://www.religiousbook.net/Books/Online_books/Ec/Ecology_34.html)