What is Nirvana in Buddhism?

Nirvana is the notion of salvation and liberation from the cycle of rebirth found in the religions of ancient India, notably Hinduism and Buddhism (as well as Jainism and many other schools and sects).

The term is from the negative suffix nir and a Sanskrit root which is either va (to blow) or vr (to cover), both of which connote images of extinguishing a flame. Most early sources affirm the latter, which indicates that attaining nirvana is conceived as a gradual process implied by the metaphor of cutting off the fuel to a fire and letting the embers extinguish slowly. Nirvana is not a sudden or dramatic event

The flame metaphor suggests the extinction of the flame of desire. More broadly, it is the extinction of the primary afflictions or “three poisons” of greed/sensuality hatred/aversion, and delusion/ignorance.

For Hindus, nirvana is liberation (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and extinction into the Supreme Being that produces internal happiness, satisfaction, and illumination. It is the elimination of worldly desires and attachments so that union with God or Supreme reality is possible. 

Although the concept is found in various ancient Indian sources, nirvana is associated largely with Buddhism according to which it is considered the final soteriological goal of the Eightfold Path. Buddha considered nirvana the highest happiness and the extinction of aging and dying. It entails recognizing that there is no Self or soul that finds any state of union after death. A notable quote of the concept attributed to Buddha has him state that,

“There is that plane where there is neither earth, water, fire, nor air… nor the sphere of infinite space… nor the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception, neither this world nor another nor both together, neither the sun nor the moon. Here, O monks, I say that there is no coming or going, no staying, no passing away or arising. It is not something fixed, it moves not on, it is not based on anything. This indeed is the end of suffering” (1).

Nirvana was not therefore a place but rather an absence described apophatically or in the negative (what it is not). Yet where attempts are made to describe it, it is usually referred to as being deathless, blissful, peaceful, uncreated, and imperishable. It is also considered empty of anything associated with a sense of self.

Early Buddhist scholarship was preoccupied with the question of whether or not nirvana entailed annihilation. Exactly what persisted was another discussion that has taken place over the long history of the Buddhist tradition.

One perspective, called the “nirvana of the skandhas” or “final nirvana”, is that at an individual’s death all future existence, the physical form, and consciousness are extinguished, which is what Buddha is believed to have achieved upon his death. 

Another view is often called “nirvana with remainder” which maintains that nirvana is achieved before death. This is what the Buddha is believed to have obtained under the Bodhi Tree. “Remainder” refers to the mind and body of this final existence or present life still operating until death.

Under Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of nirvana “without remainder” was denigrated. Instead, Buddha was considered eternal and dwelled in a place that is neither nirvana nor samsara

Mahayana Buddhists revere those who have come close to attaining enlightenment (bodhisattvas) but decided to remain in the world where they will continue to be reborn to assist others to attain nirvana. The bodhisattva chooses only to attain nirvana when other all other beings have entered before him.

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