Dharma Data: Nirvana

The most common of several names that the Buddha gave to the goal of his religion, some of the others being the Excellent (Pantam), Security (Khemam), Purity (Suddhi), the Island (Dipam) Freedom (Mutti) and the Culmination (Paryanam). The word Nirvana comes from the root meaning ‘to blow out’ and refers to the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. When these emotional and psychological defilements are destroyed by wisdom, the mind becomes free, radiant and joyful and at death one is no longer subject to rebirth. Buddhist philosophers have long debated about whether Nirvana is absolute cessation or an ineffable transcendental state. During the Buddha’s lifetime he was sometimes accused of being a nihilist, a charge he strongly denied, adding

“One thing and only one thing do I teach, suffering and the cessation of suffering”. It would seem therefore that Nirvana is neither complete nothingness or existence being in the way that these words are usually used. One thing is certain though, it is not a heaven state and it is not the absorption of the individual soul into an Absolute, an idea that is more indicative of Hinduism. However, whichever way it is understood, the Buddha’s saying that “Nirvana is the ultimate happiness” (nibbanam paramam sukham) makes it clear that it is a worthwhile goal. Several criticisms of the doctrine of Nirvana are sometimes expressed. If, it is asked, desire, wanting and craving causes rebirth then how could one ever attain Nirvana because in wanting to attain it one would be strengthening the very thing that prevents it from being attained? This comment fails to understand that Nirvana is not an object that one acquires by wanting and then pursuing, rather it is the state of being utterly without wanting.

Another criticism is that Nirvana takes so long to attain and so few can do it. Neither of these criticisms correspond with the Buddha’s view, on the contrary he asserted that anyone can attain Nirvana and that if his instructions are followed sincerely and carefully one could do it within the present life. On this point Theravada, Mahayana and Tantrayana agree. Mahayanists who have taken the bodhisattva vow, however, deliberately postpone that goal so they can remain in samsara to help all beings.

Johansson, R. The Psychology of Nirvana. Garden City, 1970;
Tillekeratna, A. Nirvana and Ineffability. Colombo, 1995;
De Silva, L. Nibhana as a Living Experience, Kandy, 1995.