"This is peace, this is
exquisite : the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all
acquisitions, the ending of craving ; dispassion ; cessation ; nirvâna."
"... nirvâna, the unexcelled
safety from bondage !"
"The destruction of desire, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of
ignorance : this, friend, is called 'Nirvâna'". - Samyuktâgama (Samyutta-nikâya),
"Nirvâna is the foremost
Dhammapada, verse 204.
Nirvâna is Not
Description of Nirvâna
Nirvâna beyond Existence & Non-Existence
Nirvâna in the Lesser Vehicle
in the Great Vehicle
without fuel the
fire is thus gone
"Nirvâna" is the
ultimate goal or fruit of the paths proposed by all Vehicles of the
In short, "nirvâna" implies the irreversible cessation of
suffering. Conceptually, an exclusive negation pertains (strict
apophatism). Experientially however, affirmative, katapathic
contents are given, namely the enlightened body, enlightened speech,
enlightened mind & enlightened action of a Buddha.
Distinguished Western scholars say
"nirvâna" means "to blow out". They base this on the Sanskrit "nir"
as "out" + "vâna" as coming from "vâ", meaning "to blow". The word
would suggest the act of extinguishing, extinction or unbinding.
This is the
image of blowing out the flame of a butter lamp. Here the
action ending the fire comes from without, implying the agent is
separate from the flame.
Another view is possible. In this, the flame is not blown
out (as if one could cause an absolute state !). The end of
the flame comes from within, i.e. is part of the conditions causing
In general, as an outer offering to the Buddha, a fire-offering
should, once lit, never be disturbed, but venerated. To blow it out
would be disrespectful towards the ideal proposed by the Buddha. Even in Vedic fire
rituals this respect for the continuity of the presence of the flame was pertinent. It prevailed in
Ancient Egypt (cf. the lamp of the
Morning Ritual left in
the "holy of holies" to burn to its end), and is found in
the everburning light near the Holy Host in Roman churches. As one enters a clearing
in the forest, moving into open space, likewise the flame, as it were
exhausted, vanishes because there is no wood to fuel the fire. The particle "ni" negates "vâna", meaning "weaving,
sewing", closing up space with an intricate network of causal threads
(dependent-arisings of suffering). This is
negated : the causes of suffering are eliminated.
Dependent-arisings of bliss remain.
Without ignorance, one no longer weaves one's own misery !
The fire (of ignorant craving) is extinguished because at some point
fuel is consumed and so no longer available. There is no ground (or cause) for the fire to be
there again, and so it vanishes from sight. This end or cessation of the fire
does not cause "nirvâna", as it would in the conventional, functional
process, but dispells the hinderances in the face of ultimate truth.
"Nirvâna" is supramundane, beyond anything worldly.
Therefore non-conceptual & object of nondual prehension.
The "fire" thus gone is not
annihilated in the ontological sense. This would be like saying
"nirvâna" does not exist, which is not the case. The flame has, by
passing into space ("âkâśa"), just become invisible to ordinary
sight, entering into a supramundane mode about which nothing can be
said. Neither does "nirvâna" exist as an eternalized object "out
there" (like a Creator-God like Brahman) or does it exist
somewhere "in here" (like an eternal soul or "âtman") ...
Tibetan scholars take the Sanskrit "vâ" in "nirvâna" from the root
"vrit", or "to pass beyond". So in Tibetan, "nirvâna" comes as
"passed beyond sorrow" (Tib. "mya ngan las 'das pa"), i.e. the cessation
of suffering. This is an excellent synthesis of both apophatic &
katapathic meanings. "Nirvâna" is not some thing, neither is it
"Nirvâna" is the goal or fruit of the
Buddhayâna and should not be
confused with annihilation (the fruit is non-existent) or eternalization
(the fruit exists for ever from its own side). Being always
there (aware of the continuous present), it neither comes about from
previous causes, nor does it
spring into existence as a result of an act of creation. It was never created,
always was, is and will be. But due to the mental & emotional
darkness of ordinary benighted sentient beings, it remains
temporarily hidden (just as clouds shield the Sun).
What Nirvâna is
These so-called "formless"
absorptions are the kind of
happening before entry into "nirvâna". They are mundane
(part of "samsâra"),
while "nirvâna" is supramundane (escaping "samsâra"). The
mind distinguishing both is samsaric ! Nevertheless, the Form Realm of the
gods does provide entry into "nirvâna", albeit very difficult to attain.
By themselves, these and other mystical experiences differ from "nirvâna". "Nirvâna" does not cease
and so once achieved, can never be lost ! This is a distinct difference
from the "samâdhi" (union) associated with the "dhyânas" or
"jhânas" of the Form & Formless Absorptions, with their arising, abiding & ceasing.
Even in Hindu yoga, this distinction is acknowledged (cf. the difference
between seedless union and "dharma-megha-samâdhi" or "Dharma Cloud Union"
Yoga-Sûtra of Patañjali).
In the second verse of the Samâdhi-pâda,
the first book of the
Yoga-sûtra, the theist, non-Buddhist
yogi Patañjali (ca. 3th century CE) also defines enlightenment as
restriction, the cessation of fluctuations caused by the five causes of
"Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness."
Patañjali : Yoga-sûtra, I.1.2.
As long as fluctuations exist, enlightenment is veiled by
the yogi's identification with the flux. Eliminate this by restriction
("nirodha"), and "samâdhi" occurs. For Patañjali, ultimate union
("dharma-megha-samâdhi") happens only after death, while during life, the
liberated yogi or "jîvanmukta" cannot settle in "seedless samâdhi" permanently. For sure, an
instance of such intense union transforms the mind radically, but subtle &
very subtle obscurations remain. So he is like the one who sees how the
wheel of the potter still turns after adding no more motion to it.
The difference with the Buddhadharma is pertinent : the Hindu yogi comes out of
"seedless union" and may "settle" in cosmic consciousness, meditating on
"Iśvara", the "Lord of the Universe", a yogic form of Brahman (Patañjali
warns against focusing on becoming). This state is not "nirvâna", but a
worldly (immanent) "devalike" ("godlike") consciousness. While possessing
humongous stores of merit & extreme power, such Divine states are
impermanent, and invite a steep "fall" doomed to be highly unpleasant.
They lack wisdom, the realization of the universal process-like nature of
The outstanding marks of "nirvâna"
are absence of arising, subsisting, changing and passing away, or the
negation of "samsâra".
In the canons, we read how Buddha describes it as : "infinite" ("ananta"), "non-conditioned"
("asamkhata"), "incomparable" ("anupameya"), "supreme" ("anuttara"),
"highest" ("para"), "beyond" ("pâra"), "safety" ("tâna"), "highest refuge"
("parâyana"), "security" ("khema"), "happiness" ("siva"), "unique"
("kevala"), "abodeless" ("anâlaya"), "imperishable" ("akkhara"), "absolute
purity" ("visuddho"), "supramundane" ("lokuttara"), "immortality"
("amata"), "emancipation" ("mutti"), "peace" ("santi"), etc.
So affirmations can be made !
But despite these descriptions, no predication of the word "nirvâna" can
ever be literally true, for
conceptual thought cannot process nondual, intuitive cognition or direct
insight (wisdom). Other traditions confirm this. Both the Western "via
negativa", with its
apophatic theology of God, and the Hindu
"neti, neti" approach of Brahman (cf.
Brihadâranyaka-Upaniśad), clarify how true conceptual
absolute truth and the depth of reality, only leaves one with negations
Unannihilated, not permanent,
unarisen, unceased :
this is how nirvâna is described."
Nâgârjuna, Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ, XXV.3
The core of Buddha's argument, as portrayed by Nâgârjuna (ca.
150 - 250 CE), explains "nirvâna" cannot be said to "exist" in any sense
at all, not as a conventional entity or object, nor as a "good"
alternative to cyclic existence, or as something independent & eternal,
etc. But from the standpoint of conventional reality, mental and sensate
objects do appear as entities, with certain conventional (nominal)
characteristics. "Nirvâna" is never such an entity. It is there where the
four elements (cohesion, extension, heat and motion) find no footing.
This then is only recognized by aware presence of and in what is at
"Nirvâna" is thus beyond any possible characterization. Nevertheless, entry into "nirvâna"
is impossible without dependence, impermanence and the option of change.
So it is realized in dependence on the practice of the
Truth of the Path
and the accumulation of merit &
wisdom. But once
attained, it depends on nothing and is experienced as always present.
Entering "nirvâna" is once and for always. That is why it truly
One cannot coherently assert "nirvâna" :
(a) exists : it cannot be said
to exist in the same way as conventional sensate & mental objects arise,
abide & cease ;
(b) does not exist : neither can it be
maintained it is just like nothingness, a mere void or like mathematical zero, for if so,
the fruit of the path would be extinction, while awakening is an
experience of an unbounded wholeness ;
exist & does not exist : as both individual positions (A & -A)
are false, their conjunction must be false, in this case : a contradiction
(d) neither exists nor does not exist
: this implies a "third" position between "existence" & "non-existence".
Does this "third" exist or not ? The answers lead to an infinite regress
(yes) or a contradiction (no).
exhausts all possible logical positions. From the standpoint of "nirvâna",
nothing conceptual is said about
how things truly are.
Ineffable, "nirvâna" equals "samsâra" without reification, without any mental
delusion and emotional afflictions (lust & unlust), without ignorance
("avidyâ"), like the full Moon or radiant Sun freed from clouds.
"Samsâra" & "nirvâna" are
different conceptual isolates, but not different entities.
"Nirvâna" = "samsâra" - "avidyâ" (with "vidyâ" Ξ "śûnyatâ")
The logical, philosophical approach to "nirvâna", working with
the non-affirmative negation of un-saying, must be complemented by
reflection and meditation. Like many Indian spiritual concepts, the
cessation ("nirodha") involved is
yogic, and so part of a spiritual orthopraxis
rather than a textualized, ritualized orthodoxy. It is a cognitive, non-conceptual
apprehension of the true nature of all possible phenomena by each and
every seeker. Buddhist
philosophy is before anything else a way to assist sentient beings to
enter "nirvâna". Like the system of Plotinus, it entails direct spiritual
experience and thereby mental healing. It does not focuss on elaborating a complex conceptual
system. The Buddhadharma does not pontificate.
We cannot access "nirvâna" because of our afflicted emotions &
mental delusions. Eliminate the latter (let the fuel burn away), and
passing beyond sorrow is an immediate, natural, spontaneous fact. Once realized, we are liberated from the
world and never return to any state experienced as "lower" or "less" holy.
Awakened, we are of benefit to all sentient beings. The dualities between "higher" & "lower", "pure" & "impure" etc. abide in
a pansacral station-of-no-station.
Personal liberation is just that. The
Arhat has destroyed all foes. Liberated, one's personal "samsâra" no
longer appears. Taking this a step further, the Mahâyana Bodhisattva also
eliminates the subtle, innate traces of self-grasping (attributing
inherent existence), and by doing so enters omniscient
Here, the intent is to let all sentient beings enter true (inner)
Entering "nirvâna" is not like going to or being somewhere else, but to
experience something else. Not only during meditation, but in every
moment of conscious awareness, always. The distinction is hence
ontological. It involves a radical change of mind (cf. "metanoia"),
or, as the Lankâvatâra Sûtra wants it : "turning
about in the deepest seat of consciousness". The ontological ground of "nirvâna" is not some alternative
"happy" inner or outer supramundane reified reality or state (linked with
Supreme Creator-God), but identical with the ontological ground of "samsâra",
namely absence of inherent existence, or process-like reality.
Directly experiencing (prehending) suchness is to enter the supramundane Body of Truth
of all the Buddhas ("Dharmakâya").
Nirvâna in the Lesser Vehicle.
Hînayâna, the views on "nirvâna"
are rather diverse. Sarvâstivâdins see "nirvâna" is something
positive, but unmanifest & imperishable, reached by overcoming the
passions. It has a kind of hypostatic quality. For the Sautrântikas,
it is just the disappearance of the passions, nothing more. The
Vâtsîputrîyas, positing a permanent "person" ("pudgala"), "nirvâna" is a
positive state in which a person continues to exist. In the Mahâsânghika
school, the precursors of
Mahâyâna, "nirvâna" has a remainder of
conditionality. The Buddha renounced remainderless extinction and was free
of attachment to the world. The Low Vehicle teaches one's own personal "nirvâna"
or liberation as
being the ultimate attainment. Hence, compassion is a secundary
feature of the path, not the primary motivation like equanimity.
In the Lesser Vehicle, "nirvâna" is liberation from cyclic existence. A
superior being who enters "nirvâna" is an Arhat, a "Worthy
being a Foe Destroyer, destoyed ignorant craving. The fruition of Arhathood is
"sopadhishesha-nirvâna", or "nirvâna" with a vestige of conditions. At
physical death, the Arhat immediately enters "parinirvâna" or "nirvâna"
after death ("nirupadhishesha-nirvâna").
Nirvâna in the Great Vehicle.
Focusing on the ideal of the
Bodhisattva, attainment of
one's personal "nirvâna" or liberation moves somewhat to the background.
However, Bodhisattvahood is never the ultimate goal. The difference
between both Vehicles is not based on
wisdom (insight into reality), but
on method (mode of cultivation & its effect). In the Lesser Vehicle, the
wish to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings or
generated. Concern for others could obstruct equanimity, the final
achievement. This point should be understood. In the Lesser Vehicler
practitioner, limitless compassion is present, but the Four
Immeasurables (joy, love, compassion & equanimity) are practiced for
the sake of equanimity, considered to be the most subtle attitude &
beneficial state of mind. Moreover, although these practitioners realize
the emptiness of the self, they do not realize the emptiness of outer
In the Great Vehicle, the opposite holds true. Equanimity is the first
step, compassion the last. More importantly, the Four Immeasurables &
Perfections (or "pâramitâs" : generosity, ethics, patience, diligence,
concentration, wisdom) are cultivated for the sake of the enlightenment
of all sentient beings. In the view of the
Perfection Vehicle, the chief obstruction to the simultaneous
cognition of the Two Truths ("śûnyatâ" and "samsâra") or "omniscience", is
precisely this lack of motivation on the
side of the Lesser Vehicle to enlighten all sentient beings. As the
Bodhisattva generates "Bodhicitta" or the "mind of enlightenment" for the
sake of all sentient beings, all non-afflictive interests in the self (or
subtle self-cherishing), and all self-grasping (both learned & innate) are also
eliminated, boosting the potential to clean the mind and achieve
final enlightenment or
liberated Foe Destroyer has only eliminated all afflictive
interests). This is due to meditations on the emptiness of all possible
In the Greater Vehicle, "nirvâna" is equated with Buddhahood, the simultaneous
realization of conventional phenomena and their emptinesses. The concept of "nirvâna" is
enlarged, for in the Mahâyâna, the ultimate attainment is impossible
without Bodhicitta. A Buddha is an omniscient "awakened one" who has
simultaneous knowledge of all things (past, present & possible future). He or she
is therefore of benefit to all sentient beings.
The collections of both merit &
wisdom of the Great
Superior (Mahâsattva) Bodhisattvas (at work
beyond the Seventh Bodhisattva Ground) exceed those of the Lesser Vehicle
Arhats. Also liberated from cyclic existence, they do not rest in the
They complete their training and attain Buddhahood in this life !
At physical death, Superior Bodhisattvas (from the First Ground upward) are free to move to the Pure
Lands, may retire some time in the absorptions, or may return to their
disciples by manipulating a new incarnation to complete
their Bodhisattva training. Their methods to continue to work for others
What more can be said of Buddhas ?