Nirvana: Freedom from Suffering and Rebirth in Buddhism

Nirvana is often confused with heaven, but it's different

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Phra Buddhasurintaramongkol, Isan, Thailand. © Design Pics / Chris Upton / Getty Images

The word nirvana is so prevalent for English speakers that its true meaning is often lost. The word has been adopted to mean "bliss" or "tranquility." Nirvana also is the name of a famous American grunge band, as well as of many consumer products, from bottled water to perfume. But what is it, really? And how does it fit into Buddhism?

The Meaning of Nirvana

In the spiritual definition, nirvana (or nibbana in Pali) is an ancient Sanskrit word that means something like "to extinguish," with the connotation of extinguishing a flame.

This more literal meaning has caused many westerners to assume that the goal of Buddhism is to obliterate oneself. But that's not at all what Buddhism, or nirvana, is about. The liberation really entails extinguishing the condition of samsara, the suffering of dukkha,. Samsara is usually defined as the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, although in Buddhism this is not the same as the rebirth of discreet souls, as it is in Hinduism, but rather a rebirth of karmic tendencies. Nirvana is also said to be liberation from this cycle and from dukkha, the stress/pain/dissatisfaction of life.

In his first sermon after his enlightenment, the Buddha preached the Four Noble Truths. Very basically, the Truths explain why life stresses and disappoints us. The Buddha also gave us the remedy and the path to liberation, which is the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism, then, is not so much a belief system as it is a practice that enables us to stop struggling.

Nirvana Is Not a Place

So, once we're liberated, what happens next? The various schools of Buddhism understand nirvana in different ways, but they generally agree that nirvana is not a place. It is more like a state of existence. However, the Buddha also said that anything we might say or imagine about nirvana will be wrong, because it is utterly different from our ordinary existence.

Nirvana is beyond space, time, and definition, and so language is by definition inadequate to discuss it. It can only be experienced.

Many scriptures and commentaries speak of entering nirvana, but (strictly speaking), nirvana cannot be entered in the same way we enter a room or the way we might imagine entering heaven. The Theravadin scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu said, 

"... neither samsara nor nirvana is a place. Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process."

Of course, many generations of Buddhist have imagined nirvana to be a place, because the limitations of language give us no other way to talk about this state of being. There is also an old folk belief that one must be reborn as a male to enter nirvana. The historical Buddha never said any such thing, but the folk belief came to be reflected in some of the Mahayana sutras. This notion was very emphatically rejected in the Vimalakirti Sutra, however, in which it is made clear that both women and laypeople can become enlightened and experience nirvana. 

Nibbana in Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism describes two kinds of nirvana-- or Nibbana, as Theravadins usually use the Pali word.

The first is "Nibbana with remainders." This is compared to the embers that remain warm after flames have been extinguished, and it describes a living enlightened being, or arahant. The arahant is still conscious of pleasure and pain, but he or she is no longer bound to them.

The second type is parinibbana, which is final or complete nibbana that is "entered" at death. Now the embers are cool. The Buddha taught that this state is neither existence--because that which can be said to exist is limited in time and space--nor non-existence. This seeming paradox reflects the difficulty that comes when ordinary language attempts to describe a state of being that is indescribable. 

Nirvana in Mahayana Buddhism

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva vow. Mahayana Buddhists are dedicated to the ultimate enlightenment of all beings, and thus choose to remain in the world in assistance to others rather than move on to individual enlightenment.

In at least some schools of Mahayana, because everything inter-exists,"individual" nirvana is not even considered. These schools of Buddhism are very much about living in this world, not leaving it. 

Some schools of Mahayana Buddhism also include teachings that samsara and nirvana are not really separate. A being who has realized or perceived the emptiness of phenomena will realize that nirvana and samsara are not opposites, but instead completely pervade each other. Since our inherent truth is Buddha Nature, both nirvana and samsara are natural manifestations of our mind's inherent empty clarity, and nirvana can be seen as the purified, true nature of samsara. For more on this point, see also " The Heart Sutra" and "The Two Truths."