Nirvana, Buddhism, and the Path Explained
Nirvana is a central concept in Buddhism, and one that can be confusing. It is the ultimate goal of practice, referenced repeatedly in the suttas, and even used as a colloquial term outside Buddhist circles.
Nirvana is common in many different types of Buddhism, and the teaching may be found in both Theravada and Mahayana schools. It is a foundational teaching, the goal of practice, and really the center of the dharma.
Many people have questions about nirvana in Buddhism, as it is quite a different teaching than what we are accustomed to in everyday life. However, the idea of nirvana is relatively simple, although sometimes hard to understand.
We will cover the traditional viewpoint on nirvana in Buddhism, and offer our personal thoughts from a more modern and Western perspective.
The Cycle of Samsara
Samsara in Buddhism is the cycle of suffering and rebirth that we all experience. The cycle, at its most basic, consists of birth, living, death, and new life. The word is Sanskrit, and roughly means “wandering through.”
The Buddha taught that we wander through our cycles of life and death with ignorance. We don’t see this cycle clearly, and just continue to be subjected the living, suffering and rebirth brought about by samsara.
Samsara, like nirvana, is caused by karma. Karma is the Buddhist law of cause and effect, and teaches us that we reap what we sow. As we cultivate wholesome qualities, we move out of this cycle of suffering over lifetimes.
What is Nirvana?
So this brings us to nirvana, or nibbana in Pali. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, nirvana comes from the Pali word meaning “to be extinguished,” as we may do with a fire. Specifically, we are extinguishing the fire of suffering and samsara.
It’s important to start by understanding that nirvana is not a place. Like freedom, it is a state. There was once a verb in Pali, nibbuti, to describe the act of extinguishing. This is just pointed out to help us understand that achieving nirvana is a process.
The Buddha mentioned that nirvana is impossible to describe to somebody who has not achieved awakening themselves, but also pointed toward nirvana as freedom from suffering. This suggests we need not ponder what it feels like, but rather the way it is achieved.
Reaching this state of liberation does not mean we don’t experience unpleasant phenomena. Instead, we no longer create suffering in our lives. The Buddha himself experience unpleasant things after his awakening, but did not suffer. As such, nirvana is a state of non-clinging, non-aversion, and clarity into the nature of reality.
How to Reach Nirvana in Buddhism
So, we know that nirvana is what we are working toward. But, how do we actually reach nirvana? Let’s take this step-by-step, starting with the most basic answer. We awaken by ending suffering and the cycle of samsara.
The Four Noble Truths
Let’s look first at the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble truths tell us that suffering is a part of our experience, there is a cause to our suffering, cessation of suffering is possible, and there is a way to end suffering. This is really the most direct and clear teaching on ending suffering and liberating ourselves.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Truths start by telling us there is suffering and a cause. So then, how do we end suffering? We cultivate the factors on the Noble Eightfold Path and end attachment, ignorance, and aversion. These are known as the Three Poisons, or Three Unwholesome Roots.
They are the causes to suffering, and we must work to eliminate them. The Buddha gave the Eightfold Path as the way we free ourselves from these. The Noble Eightfold Path is commonly broken up into three sections to better understand the path, although each factor is intimately interwoven with others.
Morality or Ethics
The first section on the path is sīla, which is often translated as ethics or moral virtue. This includes Wise Speech, Wise Action, and Wise Livelihood. These are qualities cultivated and utilized in daily living, and encouraged through other factors on the path.
These qualities serve to create conditions conducive to awakening, and are practiced by doing things like observing the Five Precepts. By creating a community with wisdom in speaking, acting, and earning a living, people can find nirvana more easily. These qualities both help us meditate and see clearly, and help others have access to nirvana.
The second grouping on the path is samādhi, which is a Pali word meaning stillness of mind. This portion is often described as the meditation part of the path, and includes Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration.
Wise Effort involves cultivating wholesome seeds and qualities, and not feeding the unwholesome ones. This is done through meditation practice, noticing when qualities arise that lead us toward liberation, and when qualities arise that lead us toward suffering. We water the seeds of awakening, and starve the seeds of suffering and samsara.
Wisdom or Insight
Finally, we have paññā, which is often translated as insight or wisdom. This section is often presented as the final of the trio, but the first two of the eight. Consisting of Wise View and Wise Intention (or Wise Resolve), these are qualities which both help us to practice and are the ultimate goal of the Eightfold Path.
Wise View is a complicated subject, but it basically comes down to seeing the dharma clearly. This includes the Three Marks, the Noble Truths, the Five Hindrances, karma, and the nature of reality.
Wise Intention is exactly as it sounds: having wholesome intentions. This includes the intentions to awaken, the intentions to cause no harm, the intentions to create causes for liberation in others, and the intention of renunciation.
Our Thoughts on Nirvana
The traditional understanding of nirvana in Buddhism may seem a little complex or hard to related to at first glance. We talk these days about the benefits of meditation, and freedom from the cycle of rebirth tends to be left out.
Although this teaching may be hard for many Westerners to understand or get behind, we can really look at nirvana, samsara, and the dharma as a pragmatic instruction and teaching.
Samsara in Experience
Personally, I have found great freedom from the Buddha’s teachings over my years of practice. Many of the teachings have led to relief from suffering in a slow and steady way. I trust the Buddha, the teachings, and the path. However, I am not sure about rebirth and reincarnation.
This is okay, and doesn’t mean we can’t still work. Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro often encourages his students to keep reincarnation as a working hypothesis. We don’t need to believe it entirely, but keep it as a possibility. After all, we don’t know for sure.
In our own lives, we can see the cycle of samsara, of becoming, and of suffering over and over again. We latch onto experiences, build a “self” around them, and just propel ourselves through suffering repeatedly. We don’t see clearly, and get stuck in this cycle of creating suffering in our lives.
As a recovering addict, I find addiction to be the perfect example. I used, felt good, and craved more. Negative consequences came (suffering), but I continued to use to feel the pleasant feeling (craving). When I got sober, I stopped this specific cycle of suffering in my life.
However, I of course did not stop all cycles of suffering. Although you may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol, you may follow the same pattern. We all chase pleasant experiences and avoid the unpleasant ones by habit and nature. We believe thoughts, think an item will bring us lasting happiness, or try to control outside circumstances.
We can look at samsara as a pragmatic teaching in this way. How are we stuck in a cycle of suffering in our lives? Where are we clinging, averting, or falling into delusion often? We can begin to address these cycles through wisdom, insight, and taking action.
Nirvana and Freedom
In the same way, nirvana in Buddhism doesn’t need to be too esoteric or arcane. That is, we can understand it in our own lives easily. We’ve all experienced some sort of slight freedom from something. Whether it’s drugs, a harmful relationship with another person, or anxiety and depression, we probably have found freedom from some discomfort and suffering in our lives.
This certainly isn’t parinirvana, or the final awakening, but it is a form of awakening. As we begin to see clearly through practice, we free ourselves from these habit energies. Buddhism lays out a path and teaches us to address the ways in which we suffer and work toward freedom from suffering, or nirvana.
It may come in small doses, but we can recognize it when it happens. Just as we may notice the presence of the hindrances, difficulties, or unwholesome reactions, we can notice when we begin to respond with more wisdom, compassion, and ease.
Quotes about Nirvana in Buddhism
Many teachers talk about nirvana, or nibbana. Here are a few thoughts on awakening from various teachers.
“Why are we born?
We are born so that we will not have to be born again.”
“Suffering originates from various causes and conditions. But the root cause of our pain and suffering lies in our own ignorant and undisciplined state of mind. The happiness we seek can be attained only through the purification of our minds.”
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV
“Mindfulness is the root of all the methods that tame the mind. First it focuses the mind. Then it eases the mind. Finally it is the luminous nature, beyond thoughts.”
“We don’t meditate to see heaven, but to end suffering.”
“Health is the greatest gift, contentment is the greatest wealth, a trusted friend is the best relative, Nibbana is the greatest bliss.”
-The Buddha (Dhammapada, v 202)
“The Buddhist nirvana is defined as release from samsara, literally the Round of Birth and Death, that is, from life lived in a vicious circle, as an endlessly repetitious attempt to solve a false problem.”
“The extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. … The extinction of ‘thirst’ is Nibbāna.”
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