by Ryuei Michael McCormick
Nirvana is the goal of Buddhism, and yet it is not a heavenly paradise or any kind of eternal life or union with a divine being. It literally means “to extinguish” and refers to extinguishing the fires of greed, anger, and ignorance. Nirvana is usually spoken of in terms of what it removes or destroys, namely the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance and the suffering they engender. In the following passage, the Buddha clearly states what nirvana refers to, and also shows that an equally valid term would be “the deathless” because in extinguishing the fires of greed, anger, and ignorance one is released from the cycle of birth and death and awakens to the unconditioned.
The third noble truth as expressed in the Buddha’s first discourse at the Deer Park actually does not use the term nirvana. Rather, the third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. Nirvana is simply another name for the cessation of suffering and it’s causes, but many others are used as well.
So nirvana is one among several possible terms used to indicate the goal of Buddhist practice. It is certainly the most well known. However, the other terms should be kept in mind because they give further clues as to the nature of this goal. Many of the terms are negative: the taintless, the unaging, the undisintegrating, the unmanifest, the unproliferated, the deathless, the destruction of craving, the unailing, the unailing state, the unafflicted, dispassion, and the unadhesive are all terms which show what this goal is not and what it is freedom from. Other terms emphasize the elusive nature of the goal: it is subtle and very difficult to see. Others convey a sense of safety and the transcendence of suffering: the far shore, the stable, the peaceful, the secure, the island, the shelter, the asylum, and the refuge. There are terms which bring out the positive nature of the goal: the truth, the sublime, the auspicious, the wonderful, the amazing, purity, and freedom. Judging from these descriptive terms, it would seem that nirvana is much more than simply the absence of the three poisons and the suffering they create. However, because it is something so unlike anything we can experience with our deluded consciousness, it is safer to say what it is not rather than to risk giving a distorted view of it by trying to say what it is.
What Nirvana Is Not
The following statement by Shakyamuni Buddha gives a good illustration of the way in which the goal of Buddhist practice is set apart from all conditioned phenomena:
What is interesting about this list is that it not only negates worldly phenomena but also other-worldly phenomena which meditators might get fixated on. Earth, air, fire, and water are the four primary elements which the ancient world believed composed all material things. So in negating those elements as well as the sun and moon it is made clear that nirvana is unlike any worldly phenomena. But the passage goes on to say it is “neither this world nor another world nor both” which cuts off identification of nirvana with any other world including the heavens of the realms of form and formlessness.
Buddhist cosmology views the world as divided into three realms: the realm of desire, the realm of form, and the realm of formlessness. These three realms consist of all the many regions wherein one undergoes samsara, the cycle of birth and death. The realm of desire encompasses the many hells, the hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting demons (the asuras), and the first six of the many heavens. It is called the realm of desire because all the beings within them are primarily motivated by their desire for sensual pleasures and it is within the realm of desire that they reap the rewards of their good and bad actions. The realm of form consists of the eighteen heavens which correspond to the four states of “dhyana,” or meditative concentration. Those who attain those states of concentration in this life or who are reborn in those heavens have all reached a state of mind which temporarily transcends the sensual desires in favor of the contemplation of some more abstract form or concept. The realm of formlessness consists of four heavens which correspond to four increasingly subtle subjects of meditation which are all listed in the passage above: the base consisting of the infinity of space, the base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, the base consisting of the infinity of nothingness, the base consisting of the infinity of neither perception nor non-perception. Each of these heavens or states of concentration are said to transcend form itself due to their immaterial and boundless nature. However, even the refined heavens of the realms of form and formlessness are held to be only temporary states, and after millions or billions of years the heavenly beings in those realms must “come back to earth” and undergo rebirth in one of the other realms. Likewise, even the most advanced meditator must come out of their meditative absorption at some point and if they have not uprooted clinging and delusion within their minds they will undergo just as much frustration, anxiety, and suffering in regard to life and its problems as before.
In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, 95 types of wrong views held by the Buddha’s contemporaries are listed. Five are specifically concerned with mistakenly claiming that nirvana can be identified with sensual pleasures or any of the four dhyanas. These are all considered views which wrongly identify nirvana “here and now” with the conditioned experiences of the three realms. (Long Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 85-86) The Brahmajala Sutta together with the passage from the Udana make it clear that nirvana is not any kind of material pleasure, altered state of consciousness, or heavenly realm. It should also be remembered that before attaining buddhahood, Siddhartha systematically rejected each of these possibilities after personally experiencing them for himself. He left the pleasures of the palace precisely because he recognized that sensual pleasures could not hold off the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. During his years of searching for the Truth he attained the meditative state of nothingness and later the state of neither perception nor non-perception but discovered that as soon as one came out of those states, one was still confronted by old age, sickness, death, and many other forms of suffering. Siddhartha’s ability to see the shortcomings of both sensual pleasures and highly refined states of mental concentration and his determination to go beyond them was quite remarkable. Most people mistakenly believe that these lesser experiences are in fact the goal, when in fact nirvana is of a whole different order. This is why the Buddha impressed upon his disciples the distinction between nirvana and all the states of mind and being in the three realms.
There are other more subtle errors than simply misidentifying nirvana with the pleasures of this world or those of sublime meditative achievements. As taught in the Fire Sermon, there is nothing that should be identified or clung to as the self among the five aggregates. Nor is there anything apart from the five aggregates which can be the basis of a permanent, unchanging, independent self. This includes nirvana. So if one believes that nirvana is something that can be identified with the self, or as the abiding place of a self, owned by a self or even as something that can be contrasted with a self, then one has not really understood nirvana let alone come to know it as it really is. The experience of nirvana is simultaneously the experience of selflessness. The Buddha taught that one could analyze all the different elements of material existence such as earth, air, fire, and water, and see that none of them provide the basis for a self. In fact, in coming to know things as they really are one will also appreciate selflessness and the freedom that comes from abandoning the delusion of self. If this is true of the material elements, how much more true is it of nirvana which is the unconditioned.
Even recognizing that the spiritual goal is not sensual pleasure, or exalted states of consciousness, or the basis of a self is not enough however. The most insidious obstacle to liberation is clinging itself. If one tries to pridefully lay claim to the experience of nirvana, the unconditioned, then that very attitude of egotistic clinging gives the lie to that claim. Only when every cloud of pride and clinging have been cleared away can the genuine illumination of nirvana shine through into our lives.
For many, all these negations gave the impression that the Buddha was teaching a form of nihilism in which one ceased to do anything except contemplate the annihilation of the “self.” The Buddha clearly stated that this was not the case. In one instance, a Jain adherent named General Siha came to the Buddha to see if the Buddha really taught a form of quietism and annihilationism. The Buddha responded:
Nirvana is not just passivity nor is it the annihilation of the self. The Buddha taught that the “self” is a concept with no substantial or singular referent in the first place. So there is no “self” to get rid of, and nirvana is not the extinction or annihilation of a self. But it is the extinction of greed, anger, and ignorance. It is, therefore, the extinction of the delusion of self and all the selfishness and suffering which the delusion of self engenders.
Nirvana is most often spoken of in negative terms, in terms of what it is not. But this does not mean that nirvana itself is a negative experience. Rather, it is something which is very positive because it eradicates the very things in our lives which keep us chained to the cycle of birth and death, and all the suffering which comes with it.
What Nirvana Is
The Buddha did teach that nirvana is more than a mere absence. While it is unlike any conditioned phenomena which ordinary people experience, the Buddha does describe it as something which we can awaken to as the source of freedom and bliss. It is an unconditioned reality which can be seen or experienced by those who remove delusion and clinging in regard to conditioned phenomena.
In the Itivuttaka, this same passage is accompanied by the following verses which explicitly describe this sublime state as one of bliss:
Nirvana is often referred to as blissful in several discourses. In the following verses, nirvana is called the “greatest bliss.” It is then referred to as the deathless, which is the goal of the eightfold path.
Another passage from the Udana, said in reference to the enlightenment and passing away of Bahiya whom we shall hear more of later, includes many of the negations found in the other passages, but this time the negations are used to characterize nirvana as an otherworldly illumination which transcends the light of the sun, moon, and stars.
Despite the fact that nirvana is the unconditioned, the Buddha did distinguish between two different “types” or “elements.” The first is the nirvana-element with residue left and the second is nirvana with no residue left. Actually, these are not two different kinds of nirvana, as though the unconditioned could be divided into categories, so much as they are descriptions of the impact that nirvana has at the point of realization and later on upon the death of one who has realized it. These are described in the Itivuttaka as follows:
Nirvana with residue left is what the Buddha attained beneath the Bodhi Tree. This type of nirvana is the extinction of the defilements during one’s lifetime. One is still vulnerable to physical pain and discomfort, as well as the need for food and sleep and other natural functions, but one no longer suffers any emotional distress because all greed, anger, and ignorance have been rooted out. In addition, one who attains nirvana with residue left no longer produces any karma. In other words, their actions are no longer tainted by craving or egocentricity or the desire to possess or acquire anything further from or in life. Because their actions are accompanied only by pure intentions with no trace of craving or aversion there are no longer any karmic repercussions. However, while they no longer create any further karma, karma from their past (including past lives) may still come to fruition for good or ill until the time of their passing. Fortunately, those who attain nirvana with remainder are able to deal with all the vicissitudes of life with calm and equanimity from that point on.
Nirvana with no remainder describes the total extinction of all pain and suffering with no chance of it arising anymore. This is attained upon the death of the physical body and the dissipation of the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness). Nirvana with no remainder is also called “parinirvana,” which means “complete nirvana.” Parinirvana thus refers to the death of a buddha or arhat whereupon they transcend the cycle of birth and death and are forever beyond the reach of all forms of pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, some sutras occasionally use the term “nirvana” to refer to the parinirvana of a buddha or arhat, and so people mistakenly got the impression that nirvana was a state which could only be achieved at death and some even came to the conclusion that it was a kind of heavenly reward. In actuality, nirvana is something which is realizable in this very lifetime; though it is true that the second type, parinirvana, is only attained at death. Even then, parinirvana depends upon the attainment of nirvana during one’s lifetime as it is the culmination of the cessation of suffering which is begun at the point when one extinguishes the defilements and directly encounters the unconditioned which transcends all conditioned objects of clinging.
Perhaps the most positive characterization of nirvana is that it is liberation from suffering. It is this taste of liberation which pervades the entirety of the Buddha Dharma. All of the teachings and practices have liberation as their aim. As the Buddha put it:
Nirvana Directly Visible
Nirvana might seem to be a remote goal, something that lies forever beyond our horizon. However, the Buddha assured people that it was indeed possible to come to know it within one’s lifetime. The way to do it is to abandon greed, anger, and ignorance.
Once the brahmin Janussoni approached the Blessed One ... and spoke to him thus:
Simply abandoning greed, anger, and ignorance is easier said than done. It involves more than just a determination to be a better person. One must actually walk the eightfold path and attain a more accurate and direct perception of the way things actually are. In other words, one must develop a new perspective which recognizes that due to the impermanent and thoroughly contingent nature of all things there are no fixed or permanent signs of individual existence to grasp, that all things are empty of a self or what will establish a self, and therefore there is nothing to be wished for or desired. The Abhidharma calls this perspective the triple gateway to liberation: the signless, the empty, and the wishless. The triple gateway actually cuts both ways, because not only the conditioned but the unconditioned, nirvana, is characterized as signless, empty, and wishless. Nirvana is without any kind of sign by which it could be compared to anything else, it is empty of any kind of self or substance, and it is freedom from all wishes and desire. One can not help but wonder if this implies that the true nature of conditioned phenomena and the unconditioned are really the same since they are both said to have these three qualities. Furthermore as one sees through conditioned things and stops reacting to them on the basis of greed, anger, or ignorance one is able to see and enjoy the unconditioned.
Nirvana as the unconditioned can not be created or brought about or possessed or identified with as we have seen. Following the eightfold path and the other teachings of the Buddha do not create nirvana but enable us to make the causes whereby we can see and know it for ourselves. In some cases this can take a lifetime or even lifetimes, but it is also possible to come to know it directly and immediately by dropping all our projections and ceasing to depend upon the things around us for our happiness and identity. In learning to let go completely and allow all things to be themselves, without the distortions of the three poisons, we encounter nirvana. This is the gist of the instruction which Shakyamuni Buddha gave to the wanderer Bahiya, who instantly attained nirvana because he put the Buddha’s teaching into practice without any hesitation.
The sudden liberation of Bahiya, who passed into parinirvana shortly thereafter,
shows that nirvana is not so remote. It is called the unconditioned, the
unborn, the deathless, the supreme joy, transcendent illumination, and
the extinguishing of the fires of greed, anger, and ignorance, among many
other names which put it beyond what we normally experience. However, the
lesson to Bahiya and his subsequent awakening make it apparent that ultimately
nirvana is not just another thing to experience in terms of our desires
and delusions, but rather a profound shift in the way we experience everything.
It is all about seeing reality not as we want it to be, but as it is.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
___________, ed. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidamma: The Abhidammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993.
Buddhaghosa, Bhadantacariya. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1991.
Ireland, John D., The Itivuttaka. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1991.
____________, The Udana. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1990.
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
Nyanaponika, Thera and Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans. & ed., Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999.
Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.