Nirvana is a Sanskrit word for the goal of the Buddhist path which means enlightenment or awakening. In the Pali language of some early Buddhist texts, the word is nirban, in both languages it literally means extinction (like a lamp or flame) or cessation. It refers to the extinction of greed, malice and delusion in the mind, the three poisons that perpetuate suffering. Nirvana is what Buddha attained on the night of his enlightenment. He became completely free from the three poisons. Everything he taught throughout his life was aimed at helping others reach the same freedom.
This is the basic idea, but of course, there are many nuanced interpretations. In Theravada traditions, for example, liberation is the way out of the endless cycle of rebirth and death, called samsara. It is a state that exists beyond space and time, which is impossible to describe. A person who has attained Nirvana is completely out of the forest of sorrow and tension.
What is Nirvana?
The concept of Nirvana holds a unique place in Buddhism. Not only because it represents the culmination of the Buddhist path, and not only because it represents the best imaginable place to be, but also because of the way it spans the two sides of Buddhism.
On one hand, there is the natural side of Buddhism, which has ideas that can easily fit into a college psychology or philosophy curriculum. Ideas about the nature of the mind, about the causes of human suffering, and how we should live our lives, live in the light of these realities. These are the ideas that form the core of secular Buddhism that is practised by many in the West. In fact, so naturalistic, so secular, is this set of ideas that some people view Buddhist meditation as more of a therapeutic than a spiritual undertaking. This is a particularly common view of the Buddhist meditation.
The most fascinating side of Buddhism, which includes supernatural, or at least psychically spiritual ideas. These ideas include various cosmic realms and deities, but the most famous idea is reincarnation. Nirvana certainly has its external aspects as well. According to traditional Buddhist belief, achieving this means being free from the endless cycle of rebirth. This story is about nirvana and how you can actually escape from recurring life cycles. Nirvana is a more natural state than our existing state, which is about suffering and contentment.
The Nirvana Of The Buddha
Young Siddhartha, who renounced all worldly things in search of ultimate truth and knowledge, is popularly known as Gautam Buddha, one of the world’s greatest religious leaders. After leaving his kingdom, Siddhartha, after wandering here and there for years, day and night, found himself near a big peepal tree. Sitting under that tree, he resolved to meditate till he got the answers to all his questions. “And I will not move until I have my answers. Even if my skin rots and my body rots, I will not move until I see the light,” he said to himself. He sat in the position of Kamalasana, closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. As the night passed, he went through many different emotions. At first, the evil demon Mara came to him. Mara tried his best to shun Gautam from his search. He painted portraits of wealth and beauty. He tried to frighten him with terrifying images of hunger and death. But Gautam remained adamant, neither giving in to temptation nor afraid. In the end, Mara gave up and left.
Gautam was sitting in deep meditation. He felt as if he was swimming. Suddenly, he could see the world from afar, far away. Along with seeing himself, he saw that he had died many times before and was reborn. He also saw all his past lives. He looked at all the things he had done in his life – good and bad.
Then Gautam Siddhartha realized that people are born again when they desire things. Specifically, the bad things they do in their former lives lead them to return to Earth in a new life, as if to heal them. But those who realize this and free themselves from desire—those who need nothing from life—are finally freed from the cycle of birth and death. Only then they reach Nirvana, the perfect heaven.
Of course, all this was in Gautam’s mind, while his body sat still, shining brilliantly from within. At that time, Gautam became the Buddha and had seen the light. For the next seven weeks, the Buddha sat silently, allowing his mind and soul to understand what he had just seen. During the first week, Buddha was happy and content, feeling true peace for the first time.
During the second week, he felt deep gratitude towards the peepal tree that had sheltered him in his search for light.
During the third week, the Buddha saw the devas. Not sure if they were gods, he built a golden bridge in the air and went across it to heaven.
During the fourth week, he built a special room in which he meditated. His mind and body became so pure that bright rays of six different colors – blue, orange, red, white, yellow and a combination of these five colors started emanating from him. These colors symbolize purity, confidence, wisdom, lack of desire and purity. The five colors stood together for all these qualities. This is the reason why Buddhist flags contain these six colors.
During the fifth week, three beautiful girls appeared, who tried their best to distract the Buddha and drive him away from his thoughts. Their names were Raga, Rati and Tanha but Buddha remained adamant.
During the sixth week, the Buddha went to meditate under the Mukalinda tree. It started raining and the wind started freezing. Then a huge king cobra named Mukalinda appeared and coiled around the Buddha seven times. Then he raised his hood and covered the Buddha keeping it warm and dry.
During the seventh week, two merchants named Tapusa and Bhallika appeared. By then Buddha had fasted for forty-nine days, sitting under the Rajayatan tree. They brought rice and honey to help him break his fast. When the Buddha explained what he had experienced, they were fascinated. They became his first followers, and the Buddha gave him a strand of hair from his head as a symbol.
Nirvana in Buddhism
According to Buddhism, Nirvana literally means to extinguish or to blow out. The way a candle flame is extinguished. What does to get extinguished here mean? Is it someone’s soul, someone’s ego, someone’s identity? Here extinguishing or blowing cannot be interpreted to mean blowing up the soul, as Buddhism denies that such a thing exists. Nor does the ego or sense of one’s identity disappear, although nirvana certainly involves a radically transformed state of consciousness that is free from the passions of “I” and “Mine”. What is actually extinguished is the triple fire of greed, malice and attachment which leads to rebirth. Indeed, the simplest definition of nirvana in this life is the end of greed, hatred and delusion. It is clear that Nirvana is a psychological and moral reality in this life. It is a transformed state of personality characterized by calmness, deep spiritual bliss, compassion and refined and subtle awareness. Negative mental states and emotions such as doubt, anxiety and fear are absent from the enlightened mind.
Nirvana And Reincarnation
What happens to such a person at the time of death? It is in relation to final nirvana that the problems of understanding arise. When the flame of craving is extinguished, rebirth ends, and an enlightened person is not reborn. So what has happened to him? There is no clear answer to this question in the early sources. The Buddha said that asking about the whereabouts of an enlightened person after death is like asking where a flame goes when it is extinguished. The flame, of course, has not gone anywhere. It is only the process of combustion that has stopped. Removing craving and ignorance is like taking away the oxygen and fuel that a flame needs to burn. However, the image of him rising out of the flame does not suggest that the ultimate nirvana is destruction. The sutras make absolutely clear that this would be a mistake, as would the conclusion that nirvana is the eternal existence of an individual soul.
Buddhism is a package of wisdom and liberation. Nirvana forms the most important aspect of this package. Indeed, knowingly or unknowingly, Nirvana is the goal of every individual and every sentient being.