nirvana buddhism

Nirvana is from a Sanskrit word that means “extinguishing.” It is also spelled nibbana. The idea of nirvana is found most prominently in Buddhism, although Hinduism alludes to the idea. Buddhist doctrine includes the idea of karma (one’s actions), dukkha (suffering), and samsara (reincarnation). Buddhists live a life filled with karma, acquired through positive and negative actions. When a Buddhist dies, the life is contin­ued through rebirth; the condition of the rebirth is determined by the karma acquired in previous lives. In addition, Buddhism teaches that life is filled with dukkha. The acknowledgment of duk- kha ties a Buddhist to the stream of samsara. By realizing that the essence of a Buddhist is not the accumulated lives lived but instead is separate from the experiences of the past and present lives, a Buddhist experiences enlightenment, which leads to nirvana. Through a reduction in karmic actions plus an awareness that a state of being exists beyond the physical one of samsara, the Buddhist can attain nirvana.

Nirvana is neither a physical nor a spiritual place; therefore it is beyond questions of where and when. No description of nirvana has been given, although descriptions of its attributes exist. In the Dharmapada Sutra, the Buddha described nirvana as the highest happiness (or bliss). Yet this happiness and bliss is not to be confused with that state experienced while in the process of transmigration, but with a state of calmness that transcends the earthly experience. A Buddhist who is “in” nirvana will not “leave” nir­vana; death does not again occur. Siddhartha Gautama (or Gotama; 5th century BCE) realized how to reach enlightenment without aid and so became the Buddha. Upon the death of his last life (or his “cessation”) Siddhartha entered into a state of nirvana. He is currently “in” nirvana and will no longer die or return to a physical form.

Entrances into nirvana, and the definition of nirvana itself, differ between the two larger groups within Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada (“doctrine of the elders”) Buddhism teaches that each Buddhist must attain nirvana individually. The Buddha left teachings that can guide Buddhists toward reducing suffering and negating karma, but these must be attained alone. In addition, only a monk can attain enlighten­ment. Upon being enlightened, that is, upon real­izing that illusion of rebirths and of suffering, the Theravada Buddhist becomes an arhat, or one who will not be reborn and enters into nirvana. Consequently, Theravada Buddhism necessitates a long period of rebirths in which to reach nirvana. For this reason, it is also known as Hinayana, or “lesser raft” Buddhism, because of the smaller number of Buddhists who reach the state of nir­vana during a set time period.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that each Buddhist has help from those who have been enlightened and decide to remain in the physical world of rebirths in order to aid other Buddhists. These previously enlightened individuals are called bodhisattvas (as opposed to arhats in Theravada Buddhism.) Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, gives these bodhisattvas the name of lama, with the chief lama being known as the Dalíai Lama. The highest goal in Mahayana Buddhism is to reach enlightenment yet decline to enter into nirvana, instead choosing to return in future rebirths. These bodhisattvas experience death and rebirth, but it is their choice to delay entrance into nirvana in order to aid others.

Within the Mahayana Buddhism tradition exists a writing known as the Nirvana Sutra (or Mahaparinirvana Sutra or Maha-nirvana Sutra). Mahayana Buddhists believe this is the last teach­ing of the Buddha. This writing teaches a different understanding of nirvana. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra also draws a distinction between nirvana and mahaparinirvana. Nirvana is the realization that suffering is an illusive aspect of one’s physical lives. Mahaparinirvana is the realization of one’s Buddha-nature. This idea of the Buddha-nature is unique to Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha-nature exists in everyone and is the capacity of understand­ing reality. Therefore, the state of Mahaparinirvana consists of realizing the true nature of suffering plus an awareness of one’s Buddha-nature.

The word nirvana is found in Hinduism. Hinduism also teaches the doctrines of karma and rebirths. The idea of a break in the cycle of rebirths differs from Buddhism, though, for in Hinduism one is connected with Brahman, the impersonal spirit. The word nirvana as a Hindu idea occurs primarily in the Mahabharata, an epic poem within Hinduism, and specifically a writing within the Mahabharata called the Bhagavad Gita. Within the Bhagavad Gita, the idea is linked with the Hindu idea of moksa or “release” from the rebirths: “Only that [one] whose joy is inward, inward his peace, and his vision inward shall come to Brahman and know nirvana. All-consumed are their imperfections, doubts are dispelled, their senses mastered, their every action is wed to the welfare of fellow-creatures: Such are the [ones] who enter Brahman and know nirvana.” Thus, the Hindu ideal is for liberation from the passions and acknowledgments of a physical life; when this occurs, one experiences moksha or nirvana, and is united with Brahman. Consequently, the idea of nirvana as found in Hinduism differs from the nirvana as taught in Buddhism, although both are similar in that nirvana is the experience of and result from being released or enlightened.

Buddhist doctrine also includes the concept of parinirvana. Parinirvana is the term given to the death of one who has been enlightened yet chooses to remain in a physical state a while lon­ger. In Mahayana Buddhism, the day that cele­brates the Buddha’s final death is known and celebrated as Parinirvana (or Nirvana) Day. The Buddha died in present-day Kushinigar, India, where today exists a parinirvana temple com­memorating the site where the Buddha left his last physical life (died). Inside the temple lies a statue of the Buddha at his moment of parinir- vana, or moment when he ceased his earthly lives and entered into nirvana.

Mark Nickens

See also Buddhism, Mahayana; Buddhism, Theravada;

Buddhism, Zen; Hinduism, Mimamsa-Vedanta;

Hinduism, Nyaya-Vaisesika; Hinduism,

Samkhya-Yoga; Reincarnation

Further Readings

Harvey, P. (1990). An introduction to Buddhism:

Teachings, history and practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rahula, W. (1974). What the Buddha taught. New

York: Grove Press.

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