In the Indian religions Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, nirvāna (from the Sanskrit निर्वाण, Pali: Nibbāna — Chinese: 涅槃; Pinyin: niè pán), literally “extinction” and/or “extinguishing”, is the culmination of the yogi’s pursuit of liberation. Hinduism and Jainism also use the word nirvana to describe the state of moksha, and it is spoken of in several Hindu tantric texts as well as the Bhagavad Gita.
Etymologically, nirvana (Pali Nibbana) in sutra is “bhavanirodha nibbanam” (The subjugation of becoming means Nirvana). Nirvana in sutra is never conceived of as a place, but the antinomy of samsara (see below) which itself is synonymous with ignorance (avijja). “This said: ‘the liberated mind/will (citta) which does not cling’ means Nibbana”. Nibbana is meant specifically as pertains gnosis which ends the identity of the mind (citta) with empirical phenomena. Doctrinally Nibbana is said of the mind which no “longer is coming (bhava) and going (vibhav)”, but which has attained a statis in perpetuity, whereby “liberation (vimutta) can be said”.
It carries further connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace; the realizing of nirvana is compared to the ending of avijja (ignorance) which perpetuates the will (citta/mind) from passing through samsara life after life, 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. Buddhism holds that the ultimate goal and end of existence is realization of nirvana; what happens to a person after his parinirvana cannot be explained, as it is outside of all conceivable experience.
Gautama Buddha sometimes refers to nirvana as amata (“immortality”). Elsewhere the Buddha calls nirvana ‘the unconditioned element’ (i.e., that which is not subject to causation). 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 nirvāna. While some of the associated effects of nirvana can be identified, a definition of nirvāna 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.
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 nirvāna might be said to be doctrinally unimportant.
Nirvana and Samsara
Calling nirvana the “opposite” of samsara or implying that it is apart from samsara is doctrinally inaccurate. They are in fact identical according to early Mahayana Buddhism. Both 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.
Nirvana in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
However, in certain Mahayana teachings of the Buddha, Nirvana, or “Great Nirvana” in particular (higher than “ordinary” Nirvana), is said to be the sphere or domain (“visaya”) of the True Self. In the “Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra“, as well as in a number of other important Mahayana sutras, Great Nirvana is seen as the state which constitutes the attainment of that which is “Eternal, Self, Bliss, and Pure”. Maha-nirvana thus becomes equivalent to the ineffable, unshakeable, blissful, all-pervading and deathless Selfhood of the Buddha himself – a mystery which no words can adequately reach and which can only be fully known by an Awakened Being directly.
An important facet of Nirvana in general is that it is not something that comes about from a concatenation of causes, that springs into existence as a result of causes and conditions: it always was, is and will be. But due to the moral and mental darkness of ordinary, samsarically enmeshed sentient beings, it remains hidden from unawakened perception. The Buddha of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra insists on its eternal nature, saying:
“It is not the case that the inherent nature of Nirvana did not primordially exist but now exists. If the inherent nature of Nirvana did not primordially exist but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints (asravas) nor would it be eternally (nitya) present in nature. Regardless of whether there are Buddhas or not, its intrinsic nature and attributes are eternally present .. Because of the obscuring darkness of the mental afflictions (kleshas), beings do not see it. The Tathagata, endowed with omniscient awareness (sarvajna-jnana), lights the lamp of insight with his skill-in-means (upaya-kausalya) and causes Bodhisattvas to perceive the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure of Nirvana.”
Vitally, according to Mahayana teachings, any 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 indwelling 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.” We must pass beyond this world, we must transcend time and space- ascend Jacob’s ladder, enter the World of True Forms, of which Plato spoke. There we shall behold the archetypes, it is the Absolute Mind, the Universal Being..
- “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.”
- 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.
- accī yathā vātavegena khitto
- Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta
- Atman (Buddhism)
- Bhagavad Gita
- Great Perfection
- God in Buddhism
- Nirvana Sutra
- Jon Kabit-Zin, Wherever You Go, There You Are
- The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Nirvana Publications, London 1999-2000), translated by Kosho Yamamoto, revised and edited by Dr. Tony Page.
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