In the Theravada-tradition, nibbāna is regarded as an uncompounded or unconditioned (asankhata) dhamma (phenomenon, event) which is “transmundane”,[note 11] and which is beyond our normal dualistic conceptions. In Theravada Abhidhamma texts like the Vibhanga, nibbana or the asankhata-dhatu (unconditioned element) is defined thus:
‘What is the unconditioned element (asankhata dhatu)? It is the cessation of passion, the cessation of hatred and the cessation of delusion.
Furthermore, for the Theravada, nirvana is uniquely the only asankhata dhamma
(unconditioned phenomenon) and unlike other schools, they do not
recognize different unconditioned phenomena or different types of
nirvana (such as the apratistha or non-abiding nirvana of Mahayana).As noted by Thiện Châu, the Theravadins and the Pudgalavadins “remained
strictly faithful to the letter of the sutras” and thus held that
nirvana is the only unconditioned dhamma, while other schools also posited various asankhata dhammas (such as the Sarvastivadin view that space or akasa was unconditioned).
The Theravada tradition identifies four progressive stages.The first three lead to favorable rebirths in more pleasant realms of
existence, while the last culminates in nirvana as an Arahat who is a
fully awakened person. The first three are reborn because they still
have some of the fetters, while arhat has abandoned all ten fetters and,
upon death will never be reborn in any realm or world, having wholly
At the start, a monk’s mind treats nirvana as an object (nibbanadhatu). This is followed by realizing the insight of three universal lakshana (marks): impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and nonself (anatman). Thereafter the monastic practice aims at eliminating the ten fetters that lead to rebirth.
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, individuals up to the level of non-returning may experience nibbāna as an object of consciousness.Certain contemplations with nibbāna as an object of samādhi lead, if developed, to the level of non-returning. At that point of contemplation, which is reached through a progression of insight, if the meditator realizes that even that state is constructed and therefore impermanent, the fetters are destroyed, arahantship is attained, and nibbāna is realized.
The Theravada exegete Buddhaghosa says, in his Visuddhimagga:
is called nibbana (extinction) because it has gone away from
(nikkhanta), has escaped from (nissata), is dissociated from, craving,
which has acquired in common usage the name ‘fastening (vana)’ because,
by ensuring successive becoming, craving serves as a joining together, a
binding together, a lacing together, of the four kinds of generation,
five destinies, seven stations of consciousness and nine abodes of
According to Buddhaghosa, nibbāna is achieved after a long process of committed application to the path of purification (Pali: Vissudhimagga). The Buddha explained that the disciplined way of life he recommended to his students (dhamma-vinaya) is a gradual training
extending often over a number of years. To be committed to this path
already requires that a seed of wisdom is present in the individual.
This wisdom becomes manifest in the experience of awakening (bodhi). Attaining nibbāna, in either the current or some future birth, depends on effort, and is not pre-determined.
In the Visuddhimagga, chapter I.v.6, Buddhaghosa identifies various options within the Pali canon for pursuing a path to nirvana.[note 14][note 15]
According to Gombrich, this proliferation of possible paths to
liberation reflects later doctrinal developments, and a growing emphasis
on insight as the main liberative means, instead of the practice of dhyana.
The mind of the Arahant is nibbāna
related idea, which finds no explicit support in the Pali Canon without
interpretation, and is the product of contemporary Theravada practice
tradition, despite its absence in the Theravada commentaries and Abhidhamma, is that the mind of the arahant is itself nibbāna.
Modern Theravada views
K.N. Jayatilleke, a modern Sri Lankan
Buddhist philosopher, holds that nirvana must be understood by a
careful study of the Pali texts. Jayatilleke argues that the Pali works
show that nirvana means ‘extinction’ as well as ‘the highest positive
experience of happiness’.
Jayatilleke writes that despite the definition of nirvana as
‘extinction’, this does not mean that it is a kind of annihilation or a
state of dormant nonentity, for this contradicts the statements of the
Buddha that reject this interpretation. Jayatilleke holds that the early
texts clearly proclaim that nothing can be said about the state of the
Buddha after paranibbana
(the end of his psycho-physical personality) because “we do not have
the concepts or words to describe adequately the state of the
This transcendent reality which our normal minds cannot grasp is not
located in time or space, it is not causally conditioned, and beyond
existence and non-existence. Because trying to explain nibbana
by means of logic is impossible, the only thing to be done is to
explain how to reach it, instead of dwelling on what it “is”. Explaining
what happens to the Buddha after nibbana is thus said to be an unanswerable.
A similarly apophatic position is also defended by Walpola Rahula,
who states that the question of what nirvana is “can never be answered
completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too
poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate
Reality which is Nirvana.”
Rahula affirms that nibbana is most often described in negative terms
because there is less danger in grasping at these terms, such as “the
cessation of continuity and becoming (bhavanirodha)”, “the
abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these five
aggregates of attachment”, and “the extinction of “thirst” (tanhakkhayo).”
Rahula also affirms however that nibbana is not a negative or an
annihilation, because there is no self to be annihilated and because ‘a
negative word does not necessarily indicate a negative state’. Rahula
also notes that more positive terms are used to describe nibbana such as
“freedom” (mutti) and “truth” (sacca). Rahula also agrees that nirvana is unconditioned.
The American Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi
has defended the traditional Theravada view which sees nirvana as “a
reality transcendent to the entire world of mundane experience, a
reality transcendent to all the realms of phenomenal existence.”
The Sri Lankan philosopher David Kalupahana has taken a different position, he argues that the Buddha’s “main philosophical insight” is the principle of causality (dependent origination) and that this “is operative in all spheres, including the highest state of spiritual development, namely, nirvana.”
According to Kalupahana “later scholars attempted to distinguish two
spheres, one in which causation prevailed and the other which is
uncaused. This latter view was, no doubt, the result of a confusion in
the meanings of the two terms, sankhata (’compounded’) and paticcasamuppanna (’causally conditioned’).” Thus, even though nibbana is termed “asankhata” (un-compounded, not-put together) there is no statement in the early texts which say that nirvana is not dependently originated or is uncaused (the term would be appaticcasamuppana). He thus argues that “nirvana is a state where there is ‘natural or causal happening’ (paticcasamuppada), but not ‘organized,’ or ‘planned’ conditioning (sankha-rana)”, as well as “a state of perfect mental health (aroga), of perfect happiness (parama sukha), calmness or coolness (sitibhuta), and stability (aneñja), etc. attained in this life, or while one is alive.”
Mahasi Sayadaw, one of the most influential 20th century Theravada vipassana teachers, states in his “On the nature of Nibbana” that “nibbana is perfect peace (santi)”
and “the complete annihilation of the three cycles of defilement,
action, and result of action, which all go to create mind and matter,
volitional activities, etc.” He further states that for arahants “no new life is formed after his decease-consciousness.”
Mahasi Sayadaw further states that nibbana is the cessation of the five
aggregates which is like “a flame being extinguished”. However this
doesn’t mean that “an arahant as an individual has disappeared” because
there is no such thing as an “individual” in an ultimate sense, even
though we use this term conventionally. Ultimate however, “there is only
a succession of mental and physical phenomena arising and dissolving.”
For this reason, Mahasi Sayadaw holds that although for an arahant
“cessation means the extinction of the successive rise and fall of the
aggregates” this is not the view of annihilation (uccheda-diṭṭhi) since there is ultimately no individual to be annihilated. Mahasi further notes that “feeling [vedana] ceases with the parinibbāna of the Arahant” and also that “the cessation of senses is nibbāna” (citing the Pañcattaya Sutta). Mahasi also affirms that even though nibbana is the “cessation of mind,
matter, and mental formations” and even the cessation of “formless
consciousness”, it is not nothing, but it is an “absolute reality” and
he also affirms that “the peace of nibbana is real.”
Unorthodox interpretations, nibbana as citta, viññana or atta
In Thai Theravada,
as well as among some modern Theravada scholars, there are alternative
interpretations which differ from the traditional orthodox Theravada
view. These interpretations see nibbana as equivalent in some way with
either a special kind of mind (pabhassara citta) or a special consciousness called anidassana viññāṇa,
“non-manifest” consciousness which is said to be ‘luminous’. In one
interpretation, the “luminous consciousness” is identical with
nibbana.Others disagree, finding it to be not nibbana itself, but
instead to be a kind of consciousness accessible only to arahants.
Some teachers of the Thai forest tradition, such as Ajahn Maha Bua taught an idea called “original mind” which when perfected is said to exist as a separate reality from the world and the aggregates. According to Maha Bua, the indestructible mind or citta is characterized by awareness or knowing, which is intrinsically bright (pabhassaram)
and radiant, and though it is tangled or “darkened” in samsara, it is
not destroyed. This mind is unconditioned, deathless and an independent
reality. According to Bua, this mind is impure, but when it is purified
of the defilements, it remains abiding in its own foundation. Maha Bua
also publicly argued (in a newspaper in 1972) that one could meet with
and discuss the teachings with arahants and Buddhas of the past (and
that Ajahn Mun had done so) therefore positing that nibbana is a kind of higher existence. Prayudh Payutto,
a modern scholar-monk who is widely seen as the most influential
authority on Buddhist doctrine in Thailand, has played a prominent role
in arguing against the views of Maha Bua, strictly basing his views on
the Pali canon to refute such notions.
Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro, contemporary western monastics in the Thai forest tradition, note that these ideas are rooted in a passage in the Anguttara Nikaya (1.61-62) which mentions a certain “pabhassara citta“. Citing another passage from the canon which mentions a “consciousness that is signless, boundless, all-luminous” (called anidassana viññāṇa) they state that this “must mean a knowing of a primordial, transcendent nature.”
A related view of nibbana has been defended by the American Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu. According to Thanissaro, “non-manifestive consciousness” (anidassana viññāṇa)
differs from the kinds of consciousness associated to the six sense
media, which have a “surface” that they fall upon and arise in response
to. In a liberated individual, this is directly experienced,
in a way that is free from any dependence on conditions at all. In
Thanissaro’s view, the luminous, unsupported consciousness
associated with nibbana is directly known by noble ones without the
mediation of the mental consciousness factor in dependent co-arising,
and is the transcending of all objects of mental consciousness. The British academic Peter Harvey has defended a similar view of nibbana as anidassana viññāṇa.
According to Paul Williams, there is also a trend in modern Thai Theravada that argues that “nirvana is indeed the true Self (Atman; Pali: atta)”.This dispute began when the 12th Supreme Patriarch of Thailand published a book of essays in 1939 arguing that while the conditioned world is anatta, nibbana is atta. According to Williams, this interpretation echoes the Mahayana tathāgatagarbha sutras. This position was criticized by Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu, who argued that the not-self (anatta) perspective is what makes Buddhism unique. Fifty years after this dispute, the Dhammakaya Movement also began to teach that nibbana is not anatta, but the “true self” or dhammakaya. According to Williams, this dhammakaya
(dharma body) is “a luminous, radiant and clear Buddha figure free of
all defilements and situated within the body of the meditator.” This
view has been strongly criticized as “insulting the Buddha’s teaching”
and “showing disrespect to the Pali canon” by Prayudh Payutto (In his The Dhammakaya case) and this has led to fervent debates in Thai Buddhist circles.
Another western monastic in the thai forest tradition, Ajahn Brahmāli, has recently written against all of these views, drawing on a careful study of the Nikāyas.
Brahmāli concludes that the “most reasonable interpretation” of final
nibbāna is “no more than the cessation of the five khandhas.” Brahmāli also notes that there is a kind of samādhi that is attainable only by the awakened and is based on their knowledge of nibbana (but is not nibbana itself), this meditation is what is being referred to by terms such as non-manifest consciousness (anidassana viññāṇa) and unestablished consciousness (appatiṭṭhita viññāṇa).
Bhante Sujato has written extensively to refute this idea as well.
The term Nibbana
describes a state of freedom from suffering and rebirth, but different
Buddhist traditions have interpreted the concept in different ways. The
origin is probably pre-Buddhist, and its etymology may not be conclusive
for its meaning.
The term was a more or less central concept among the Jains, the
Ajivikas, the Buddhists, and certain Hindu traditions, and it may have
been imported into Buddhism with much of its semantic range from other sramanic movements.
Nibbana has a wide range of meanings, although the literal meaning is “blowing out” or “quenching”.
It refers both to the act and the effect of blowing (at something) to
put it out, but also the process and outcome of burning out, becoming
The term nirvana in the soteriological sense of “blown out, extinguished” state of liberation does not appear in the Vedas nor in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. According to Collins, “the Buddhists seem to have been the first to call it nirvana.”
However, the ideas of spiritual liberation using different terminology,
is found in ancient texts of non-Buddhist Indian traditions, such as in
verse 4.4.6 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism.
The prevalent interpretation of nirvana as “extinction” is based on the etymology of nir√vā to “blow out”. Nib is a negative, while ba is commonly taken to refer to “to blow”.
The term Nibbana is part of an extensive metaphorical
structure that was probably established at a very early age in Buddhism.
According to Gombrich, the number of three fires alludes to the three
fires which a Brahmin had to keep alight, and thereby symbolise life in
the world, as a family-man. The meaning of this metaphor was lost in later Buddhism, and other explanations of the word nirvana were sought. Not only passion, hatred and delusion were to be extinguished, but also all cankers (asava) or defilements (khlesa). Later exegetical works developed a whole new set of folk etymological definitions of the word nirvana, using the root vana to refer to “to blow”, but re-parsing the word to roots that mean “weaving, sewing”, “desire” and “forest or woods”:
- bâna, derived from the root word √bā which means “to blow”:
- (to) blow (of wind); but also to emit (an odour), be wafted or diffused; Nibbana then means “to blow out”;
- bāna, derived from the root vana or van which mean “desire”,
- Nibbana is then explained to mean a state of “without desire, without love, without wish” and one without craving or thirst (taṇhā);
- adding the root √bā which means “to weave or sew”; nirvana is then explained as abandoning the desire which weaves together life after life.
- bāna, derived from the root word vana which also means “woods, forest”:
- based on this root, vana has been metaphorically explained by Buddhist scholars as referring to the “forest of defilements”, or the five aggregates; Nibbana then means “escape from the aggregates”, or to be “free from that forest of defilements”.
The “blowing out” does not mean total annihilation, but the extinguishing of a flame. The term nirvana can also be used as a verb: “he or she Nibbāṇa-s,” or “he or she Parinibbānṇa-s” (parinibbāyati).
The term Nibbana,
“to blow out”, has also been interpreted as the extinction of the
“three fires”, or “three poisons”, namely of passion or sensuality (raga), aversion or hate (dvesha) and of delusion or ignorance (moha or avidyā). Another explanation of nirvana is the absence of the weaving (vana) of activity of the mind.
Paul Swanson states that some contemporary Buddhism scholars have
questioned the above etymologies and whether these are consistent with
the core doctrines of Buddhism, particularly about anatman (non-self) and pratityasamutpada (causality). Matsumoto Shirō, for example, states that the original etymological root of nirvana
should not be considered as nir√vā which means “extinction”, but should
be considered to be nir√vŗ, to “uncover”. The problem with considering
it as extinction or liberation, is that it presupposes a “self” to be
extinguished or liberated. According to Matsumoto, the original meaning
of nirvana was therefore not “to extinguish” but “to uncover” the atman from that which is anatman (not atman). Other Buddhist scholars such as Takasaki Jikidō disagree, states
Swanson, and call the Matsumoto proposal as “too far and leaving nothing
that can be called Buddhist”.
Nibbana is used synonymously with moksha (Sanskrit), also vimoksha, or vimutti (Pali), “release, deliverance from suffering”. In the Pali-canon two kinds of vimutti are discerned:
- Ceto-vimutti, freedom of mind; it is the qualified
freedom from suffering, attained through the practice of concentration
meditation (samādhi). Vetter translates this as “release of the heart”
which means conquering desire thereby attaining a desire-less state of
- Pañña-vimutti, freedom through understanding (prajña); it is
the final release from suffering and the end of rebirth, attained
through the practice of insight meditation (vipassanā).
Ceto-vimutti becomes permanent, only with the attainment of pañña-vimutti.
According to Gombrich and other scholars, these may be a later
development within the canon, reflecting a growing emphasis in earliest
Buddhism on prajña, instead of the liberating practice of dhyana;
it may also reflect a successful assimilation of non-Buddhist
meditation practices in ancient India into the Buddhist canon. According
to Anālayo, the term uttari-vimutti (highest liberation) is also widely used in the early buddhist texts to refer to liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Interpretations of the early Buddhist concept
As a cessation event and the end of rebirth
Most modern scholars such as Rupert Gethin, Richard Gombrich, Donald Lopez and Paul Williams hold that nirvāṇa (nibbana in Pali, also called nibbanadhatu, the property of nibbana), means the ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of greed, aversion, and delusion, and that this signifies the permanent cessation of samsara and rebirth.
According to Steven Collins, a synonym widely used for nirvana in early texts is “deathless” or “deathfree” (Pali: amata, sanskrit: amrta)
and refers to a condition “where there is no death, because there is
also no birth, no coming into existence, nothing made by conditioning,
and therefore no time.” He also adds that “the most common thing said
about nirvana in Buddhist texts is that it is the ending of suffering (dukkha).” Gethin notes, “this is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience” that frees one from rebirth in samsara. According to Collins, the term is also widely used as a verb, one therefore “nirvanizes.” Gombrich argues that the metaphor used in the texts of flames going out, refers to fires which were kept by priests of Brahmanism, and symbolize life in the world. Nibbana is also called “unconditioned” (asankhata), meaning it is unlike all other conditioned phenomena.
The cycle of rebirth and suffering continues until a being
attains nirvana. One requirement for ending this cycle is to extinguish
the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya). As Bhikkhu Bodhi states “For as long as one is entangled by craving,
one remains bound in saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death; but when
all craving has been extirpated, one attains Nibbāna, deliverance from
the cycle of birth and death.”
According to Donald Swearer, the journey to nirvana is not a journey to a “separate reality” (contra Vedic religion or Jainism), but a move towards calm, equanimity, nonattachment and nonself. In this sense, the soteriological
view of early Buddhism is seen as a reaction to earlier Indic
metaphysical views. Thomas Kasulis notes that in the early texts,
nirvana is often described in negative terms, including “cessation” (nirodha), “the absence of craving” (trsnaksaya), “detachment,” “the absence of delusion,” and “the unconditioned” (asamskrta). He also notes that there is little discussion in the early buddhist texts
about the metaphysical nature of nirvana, since they seem to hold that
metaphysical speculation is an obstacle to the goal. Kasulis mentions
the Malunkyaputta sutta
which denies any view about the existence of the Buddha after his final
bodily death, all positions (the Buddha exists after death, does not
exist, both or neither) are rejected. Likewise, another sutta (AN II 161) has Sāriputta
saying that asking the question “is there anything else?” after the
physical death of someone who has attained nirvana is conceptualizing or
proliferating (papañca) about that which is without proliferation (appapañcaṃ) and thus a kind of distorted thinking bound up with the self.
In the early texts, the practice of the noble path and the four dhyanas
was said to lead to the extinction of the three fires, and then proceed
to the cessation of all discursive thoughts and apperceptions, then
ceasing all feelings (happiness and sadness).
According to Collins, Nibbana is associated with a meditative
attainment called the ‘Cessation of Perception/Ideation and Feeling’ (sannavedayitanirodha), also known as the ‘Attainment of Cessation’ (nirodhasamapatti)
In later Buddhism, dhyana practice was deemed sufficient only for the
extinguishing of passion and hatred, while delusion was extinguished by
As a metaphysical place or transcendent consciousness
has defended the idea that nirvana in the Pali suttas refers to a kind
of transformed and transcendent consciousness or discernment (viññana) that has “stopped” (nirodhena). According to Harvey this nirvanic consciousness is said to be “objectless”, “infinite” (anantam), “unsupported” (appatiṭṭhita) and “non-manifestive” (anidassana) as well as “beyond time and spatial location”. Rune Johansson’s The Psychology of Nirvana also argued that nirvana could be seen as a transformed state of mind (citta).
In the cosmology of Jainism, another sramana
tradition like Buddhism, liberated beings abide in an actual place
(loka) associated with nirvana. Some scholars have argued that
originally, Buddhists held a similar view.
Stanislaw Schayer, a Polish scholar, argued in the 1930s that the Nikayas preserve elements of an archaic form of Buddhism which is close to Brahmanical beliefs, and survived in the Mahayana tradition.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Theravada and Mahayana traditions may
be “divergent, but equally reliable records of a pre-canonical Buddhism
which is now lost forever.” The Mahayana tradition may have preserved a very old, “pre-Canonical”
and oral Buddhist tradition, which was largely, but not completely, left
out of the Theravada-canon. Schayer’s view saw nirvana as an immortal, deathless sphere, a transmundane reality or state. Edward Conze
had similar ideas about nirvana, citing sources which speak of an
eternal and “invisible infinite consciousness, which shines everywhere”
as point to the view that nirvana is a kind of Absolute.
A similar view was defended by M. Falk, who held that the nirvanic
element, as an “essence” or pure consciousness, is immanent within samsara. M. Falk argues that the early Buddhist view of nirvana is that it is an “abode” or “place” of prajña, which is gained by the enlightened. This nirvanic element, as an “essence” or pure consciousness, is immanent within samsara.
A similar view is also defended by C. Lindtner, who argues that in precanonical Buddhism Nirvana is:
… a place one can actually go to. It is called Nibbanadhatu, has no border-signs (animitta), is localized somewhere beyond the other six dhatus (beginning with earth and ending with vijñana) but is closest to akasa and vijñana. One cannot visualize it, it is anidarsana, but it provides one with firm ground under one’s feet, it is dhruva; once there one will not slip back, it is acyutapada. As opposed to this world, it is a pleasant place to be in, it is sukha, things work well.
According to Christian Lindtner, the original and early Buddhist concepts of nirvana were similar to those found in competing Śramaṇa (strivers/ascetics) traditions such as Jainism
and Upanishadic Vedism. It was not a psychological idea or purely
related to a being’s inner world, but a concept described in terms of
the world surrounding the being, cosmology and consciousness.
All Indian religions, over time, states Lindtner evolved these ideas,
internalizing the state but in different ways because early and later Vedanta continued with the metaphysical idea of Brahman and soul, but Buddhism did not. In this view, the canonical Buddhist views on Nirvana was a reaction against early (pre-canonical) Buddhism,
along with the assumptions of Jainism and the Upanishadic thought on
the idea of personal liberation. As a result of this reaction, Nirvana
came to be seen as a state of mind, instead of a concrete place.
Elements of this precanonical Buddhism may have survived the
canonisation, and its subsequent filtering out of ideas, and re-appeared
in Mahayana Buddhism. According to Lindtner, the existence of multiple, and contradicting ideas, is also reflected in the works of Nagarjuna,
who tried to harmonize these different ideas. According to Lindtner,
this lead him to taking a “paradoxical” stance, for instance regarding
nirvana, rejecting any positive description.
Referring to this view, Alexander Wynne holds that there is no evidence in the Sutta Pitaka
that the Buddha held this view, at best it only shows that “some of the
early Buddhists were influenced by their Brahminic peers”. Wynne concludes that the Buddha rejected the views of the Vedas and that his teachings present a radical departure from these brahminical beliefs.
Nirvana with and without remainder of fuel
There are two stages in Nibbana, one in life, and one final nirvana upon death; the former is imprecise and general, the latter is precise and specific.
The nirvana-in-life marks the life of a monk who has attained complete
release from desire and suffering but still has a body, name and life.
The Nibbana-after-death, also called nirvana-without-substrate, is the
complete cessation of everything, including consciousness and rebirth.
This main distinction is between the extinguishing of the fires during
life, and the final “blowing out” at the moment of death:
- Sa-upādisesa-Nibbāna (Pali; Sanskrit sopadhiśeṣa-Nibbāṇa), “nirvana with remainder”, “nirvana with residue.” Nibbana is attained during one’s life, when the fires are extinguished. There is still the “residue” of the five skandhas, and a “residue of fuel”, which however is not “burning”. Nibbana-in-this-life
is believed to result in a transformed mind with qualities such as
happiness, freedom of negative mental states, peacefulness and
- An-up ādisesa-Nibbāna (Pali; Sanskrit nir-upadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa), “Nibbana without remainder,” “Nibbana without residue”. This is the final Nibbana, or parinirvana or “blowing out” at the moment of death, when there is no fuel left.
The classic Pali sutta definitions for these states are as follows:
what, monks, is the Nibbana element with residue remaining? Here, a
monk is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, who has lived the
holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his
own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, one completely
liberated through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties
remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and
disagreeable, still feels pleasure and pain. It is the destruction of
lust, hatred, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana element
with residue remaining.
And what, monks,
is the Nibbana element without residue remaining? Here, a monk is an
arahant … one completely liberated through final knowledge. For him,
here in this very life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will
become cool right here. That, monks, is called the Nibbana element
without residue remaining
Gombrich explains that the five skandhas or aggregates are the bundles of firewood that fuel the three fires.
The Buddhist practitioner ought to “drop” these bundles, so that the
fires are no longer fueled and “blow out”. When this is done, the
bundles still remain as long as this life continues, but they are no
longer “on fire.” Collins notes that the first type, Nibbana in this life is also called bodhi (awakening), nirvana of the defilements or kilesa-(pari)nibbana, and arhatship while nirvana after death is also referred to as the nirvana of the Aggregates, khandha-(pari)nibbana.
What happens with one who has reached Nibbana after death is an unanswerable question. According to Walpola Rahula, the five aggregates vanish but there does not remain a mere “nothingness.” Rahula’s view, states Gombrich, is not accurate summary of the Buddhist thought, and mirrors the Upanishadic thought.
Nibbana is also described in Buddhist texts as identical to anatta (anatman, non-self, lack of any self). Anatta means there is no abiding self or soul in any being or a permanent essence in any thing. This interpretation asserts that all reality is of dependent origination and a worldly construction of each human mind, therefore ultimately a delusion or ignorance. In Buddhist thought, this must be overcome, states Martin Southwold, through “the realization of anatta, which is nirvana”.
Nibbana in some Buddhist traditions is described as the realization of sunyata (emptiness or nothingness).
Madhyamika Buddhist texts call this as the middle point of all
dualities (Middle Way), where all subject-object discrimination and
polarities disappear, there is no conventional reality, and the only
ultimate reality of emptiness is all that remains.
Synonyms and metaphors
A commonly used metaphor for nirvana is that of a flame which goes out due to lack of fuel:
as an oil-lamp burns because of oil and wick, but when the oil and wick
are exhausted, and no others are supplied, it goes out through lack of
fuel (anaharo nibbayati), so the [enlightened] monk … knows that
after the break-up of his body, when further life is exhausted, all
feelings which are rejoiced in here will become cool.
Collins argues that the Buddhist view of awakening reverses the Vedic
view and its metaphors. While in Vedic religion, the fire is seen as a
metaphor for the good and for life, Buddhist thought uses the metaphor
of fire for the three poisons and for suffering. This can be seen in the Adittapariyaya Sutta commonly called “the fire sermon” as well as in other similar early Buddhist texts. The fire sermon describes the end of the “fires” with a refrain which is used throughout the early texts to describe Nibbana:
he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released.
With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns
that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is
nothing further for this world.
In the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta,
the third noble truth of cessation (associated with nirvana) is defined
as: “the fading away without remainder and cessation of that same
craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, letting it go, not clinging to
it.” Steven Collins lists some examples of synonyms used throughout the Pali texts for Nibbana:
end, (the place, state) without corruptions, the truth, the further
(shore), the subtle, very hard to see, without decay, firm, not liable
to dissolution, incomparable, without differentiation, peaceful,
deathless, excellent, auspicious, rest, the destruction of craving,
marvellous, without affliction, whose nature is to be free from
affliction, nibbana [presumably here in one or more creative etymology,=
e.g., non-forest], without trouble, dispassion, purity, freedom,
without attachment, the island, shelter (cave), protection, refuge,
final end, the subduing of pride (or ‘intoxication’), elimination of
thirst, destruction of attachment, cutting off of the round (of
rebirth), empty, very hard to obtain, where there is no becoming,
without misfortune, where there is nothing made, sorrowfree, without
danger, whose nature is to be without danger, profound, hard to see,
superior, unexcelled (without superior), unequalled, incomparable,
foremost, best, without strife, clean, flawless, stainless, happiness,
immeasurable, (a firm) standing point, possessing nothing.
In other Buddhist schools
The later Buddhist Abhidhamma
schools gave different meaning and interpretations of the term, moving
away from the original metaphor of the extinction of the “three fires”.
The Sarvastivada Abhidharma compendium, the Mahavibhasasastra, says of nirvana:
As it is the cessation of defilements
(klesanirodha), it is called nirvana. As it is the extinction of the
triple fires, it is called nirvana. As it is the tranquility of three characteristics,
it is called nirvana. As there is separation (viyoga) from bad odor
(durgandha), it is called nirvana. As there is separation from destinies
(gati), it is called nirvana. Vana means forest and nir means escape.
As it is the escape from the forest of the aggregates,
it is called nirvana. Vana means weaving and nir means negation. As
there is no weaving, it is called nirvana. In a way that one with thread
can easily be woven while one without that cannot be woven, in that way
one with action (kamma)
and defilements (klesa) can easily be woven into life and death while
an asaiksa who is without any action and defilements cannot be woven
into life and death. That is why it is called nirvana. Vana means new birth
and nir means negation. As there is no more new birth, it is called
nirvana. Vana means bondage and nir means separation. As it is
separation from bondage, it is called nirvana. Vana means all
discomforts of life and death and nir means passing beyond. As it passes
beyond all discomforts of life and death, it is called Nibbana.
According to Soonil Hwang, the Sarvastivada school held that there were two kinds of nirodha (extinction), extinction without knowledge (apratisamkhyanirodha) and extinction through knowledge (pratisamkhyanirodha), which is the equivalent of nirvana. In the Sarvastivada Abhidhamma, extinction through knowledge was equivalent to nirvana, and was defined by its intrinsic nature (svabhava), ‘all extinction which is disjunction (visamyoga)’. This dharma is defined by the Abhidhammakosha as “a special understanding, the penetration (pratisamkhyana) of suffering and the other noble truths.” Soonil explains the Sarvastivada view of nirvana as “the perpetual
separation of an impure dharma from a series of aggregates through the
antidote, ‘acquisition of disjunction’ (visamyogaprapti).”
Because the Sarvastivadins held that all dharmas exist in the three
times, they saw the destruction of defilements as impossible and thus
“the elimination of a defilement is referred to as a ‘separation’ from
the series.” Soonil adds:
That is to say, the acquisition of the defilement is negated, or technically ‘disjoined’ (visamyoga),
through the power of knowledge that terminates the junction between
that defilement and the series of aggregates. By reason of this
separation, then, there arises ‘the acquisition of disjunction’ (visamyogaprapti) that serves as an antidote (pratipaksa), which henceforward prevents the junction between the defilement and this series.
The Sarvastivadins also held that nirvana was a real existent (dravyasat)
which perpetually protects a series of dhammas from defilements in the
past, present and future. Their interpretation of nirvana became an
issue of debate between them and the Sautrantika school. For the Sautrantikas, nirvana “was not a real existent but a mere designation (prajñaptisat) and was non-existence succeeding existence (pascadabhava).” It is something merely spoken of conventionally, without an intrinsic nature (svabhava). The Abhidharmakosha, explaining the Sautrantika view of Nibbana, states:
The extinction through knowledge is, when latent defilements (anusaya) and life (janman) that have already been produced are extinguished, non-arising of further such by the power of knowledge (pratisamkhya).
for the Sautrantikas, nirvana was simply the “non-arising of further
latent defilement when all latent defilements that have been produced
have already been extinguished.”
Meanwhile, the Pudgalavada
school interpreted nirvana as the single Absolute truth which
constitutes “the negation, absence, cessation of all that constitutes
the world in which we live, act and suffer”. According to Thiện Châu, for the Pudgalavadins, nirvana is seen as
totally different than the compounded realm, since it the uncompounded (asamskrta)
realm where no compounded things exist, and it is also beyond reasoning
and expression. One of the few surviving Pudgalavada texts defines
truth is the definitive cessation of all activities of speech (vac) and
of all thoughts (citta). Activity is bodily action (kayakarman): speech
(vac) is that of the voice (vakkarman); thought is that of the mind
(manaskarman). If these three (actions) cease definitively, that is
absolute truth which is Nibbana.
Comparison of the major Sthavira school positions
|Conception of nirvana or the asankhata
||The cessation of the triple fires of passion, hatred and delusion.
|Existing separately (patiyekka) from mere destruction
|A real existent (dravya)
|Non-existence, a mere designation (prajñapti)
|A real existent different
than samsara 
|The “fuel” or “remainder” (upādi)
||The five aggregates
||The five aggregates
|Life faculty (jivitendriya) and homogeneous character of the group (nikayasabhaga)
|Momentum (avedha) of the series of aggregates
|The five aggregates
|Nirvana with a remainder of clinging
||The cessation of the triple fires of passion hatred and delusion
|The cessation of defilements (kilesa)
|The disjunction (visamyoga) from all impure (sasrava) dharmas
|Non-arising of further latent defilements (anusaya)
|The cessation of defilements (klesa)
|Nirvana without a remainder of clinging
||The cessation of the five aggregates. Its ontological status is an unanswerable (avyākata).
|The cessation of the five aggregates
|The disintegration of the series of aggregates
|Non-arising of further life (janman)
|The cessation of the aggregates.
The pudgala (person)
cannot actually be said to
be existent nor non-existent and it is neither the same nor different than Nibbana.
According to Andre Bareau, the Mahāsāṃghika school held that the nirvana reached by arhats was fundamentally inferior to that of the Buddhas. Regarding the nirvana reached by the Buddha, they held that his longevity (ayu), his body (rupa, sarira) and divine power (tejas) were infinite, unlimited and supramundane (lokuttara). Therefore, they held to a kind of docetism which posited that Buddhas only appear
to be born into the world and thus when they die and enter nirvana,
this is only a fiction. In reality, the Buddha remains in the form of a
body of enjoyment (sambhogakaya) and continues to create many forms (nirmana) adapted to the different needs of beings in order to teach them through clever means (upaya).
According to Guang Xing, Mahāsāṃghikas
held that there were two aspects of a Buddha’s attainment: the true
Buddha who is omniscient and omnipotent, and the manifested forms
through which he liberates sentient beings through his skillful means. For the Mahāsāṃghikas, the historical Gautama Buddha was merely one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmāṇakāya).
Bareau also writes that for the Mahāsāṃghika school, only wisdom (prajña) can reach nirvana, not samadhi. Bareau notes that this might be the source of the prajñaparamita sutras.
Regarding the Ekavyāvahārika branch of the Mahāsāṃghikas, Bareau states that both samsara and nirvana were nominal designations (prajñapti) and devoid of any real substance. According to Nalinaksha Dutt, for the Ekavyāvahārika, all dharmas are conventional and thus unreal (even the absolute was held to be contingent or dependent) while for the Lokottaravada branch, worldly dharmas are unreal but supramundane dharmas like nirvana are real.
In Mahayana Buddhism
The Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) tradition, which promotes the bodhisattva path as the highest spiritual ideal over the goal of arhatship, envisions different views of nirvāṇa than the Nikaya Buddhist schools.
Mahāyāna Buddhism is a diverse group of various Buddhist traditions and
therefore there is no single unified Mahāyāna view on nirvāṇa. However,
it is generally believed that remaining in saṃsāra in order to help other beings is a noble goal for a Mahāyānist. According to Paul Williams, there are at least two conflicting models on the bodhisattva’s attitude to Nibbāṇa.
The first model seems to be promoted in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtta and it states that a bodhisattva postpones their nirvāṇa until they have saved numerous sentient beings, then, after reaching Buddhahood,
a bodhisattva passes on to cessation just like an arhat (and thus
ceases to help others). In this model, their only difference to an arhat
is that they have spent aeons helping other beings and have become a
Buddha to teach the Dharma. This model seems to have been influential in the early period of Indian Buddhism. Etienne Lamotte, in his analysis of the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, notes that this text also supports the idea that after entering complete nirvāṇa (Parinibbāṇa),
a bodhisattva is “able to do nothing more for gods or for men” and
therefore he seeks to obtain “wisdom similar to but slightly inferior to
that of the Buddhas, which allows him to remain for a long time in saṃsāra in order to dedicate himself to salvific activity by many and varied skillful means.”
The second model is one which does not teach that one must
postpone Nibbāṇa. This model eventually developed a comprehensive theory
of nirvāṇa taught by the Yogacara school and later Indian Mahāyāna, which states there are at least two kinds of nirvāṇa, the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding).
The Buddha’s quest for Nibbāṇa, a relief in Vietnam
Illustrated Lotus Sūtta scroll, “Universal Gateway,” Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutta.
The classic Mahāyāna Yogacara view posits that there are at least two types of nirvana, holding that what is called ‘’apratiṣṭhita-Nibbāṇa'’ (”non-abiding”, non-localized”, “non-fixed”) to be the highest nirvana, and more profound than ‘’pratiṣṭhita-Nibbāṇa'’,
the ‘localized’, lesser nirvana. According to the classic Indian
theory, this lesser, abiding nirvana is achieved by followers of the
“inferior” vehicle (hinayana)
schools which are said to only work towards their own personal
liberation. From this perspective, the hinayana path only leads to one’s
own liberation, either as sravaka (listener, hearer, or disciple) or as pratyekabuddha (solitary realizer).
According to Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, ‘’apratiṣṭhita-nirvana'’ is the standard Mahāyāna view of the attainment of a Buddha, which enables them to freely return to samsara
in order to help sentient beings, while still being in a kind of
nirvana. The Mahāyāna path is thus said to aim at a further realization,
namely an active Buddhahood that does not dwell in a static Nibbāṇa,
but out of compassion (karuṇā) engages in enlightened activity to liberate beings for as long as samsara remains. Apratiṣṭhita-nirvana is said to be reached when bodhisattvas eradicate both the afflictive obstructions (klesavarana) and the obstructions to omniscience (jñeyavarana), and is therefore different than the nirvana of arhats, who have eradicated only the former.
According to Alan Sponberg, apratiṣṭhita-Nibbāṇa
is “a nirvana that is not permanently established in, or bound to, any
one realm or sphere of activity”. This is contrasted with a kind of
nirvana which is “permanently established or fixed (pratiṣṭhita) in the transcendent state of nirvana-without-remainder (nirupadhisesa-Nibbāṇa).” According to Sponberg this doctrine developed among Yogacara
Buddhists who rejected earlier views which were based on an individual
liberation aimed at a transcendent state, separated from the mundane
sphere of human existence. Mahayana Buddhists rejected this view as
inconsistent with the universalist Mahayana ideal of the salvation of
all beings and with the absolutist non-dual Mahayana perspective that
did not see an ultimate distinction between samsara and Nibbāṇa. Sponberg also notes that the Madhyamika
school also had a hand in developing this idea, due to their rejection
of dualistic concepts which separated samsara and nirvana and their
promotion of a form of liberation which was totally without duality.
Though the idea that Buddhas remain active in the world can be traced back to the Mahasamghika school, the term apratiṣṭhita-nirvana
seems to be a Yogacara innovation. According to Gadjin Nagao, the term
is likely to be an innovation of the Yogacaras, and possibly of the
scholar Asanga (fl. 4th century CE). Sponberg states that this doctrine presents a “Soteriological Innovation in Yogacara Buddhism” which can be found mainly in works of the Yogacara school such as the Sandhinirmocana-sutra, the Lankavatarasutra, the Mahayanasutralamkara, and is most fully worked out in the Mahayana-samgraha of Asanga. In Chapter IX of the samgraha, Asanga presents the classic definition of apratiṣṭhita-nirvana in the context of discussing the severing of mental obstacles (avarana):
This severing is the apratiṣṭhita-Nibbāṇa of the bodhisattva. It has as its characteristic (laksana) the revolution (paravrtti) of the dual base (asraya) in which one relinquishes all defilements (klesa), but does not abandon the world of death and rebirth (samsara).
his commentary on this passage, Asvabhava (6th century), states that
the wisdom which leads to this state is termed non-discriminating
cognition (nirvikalpaka-jñana) and he also notes that this state is a union of wisdom (prajña) and compassion (karuna):
The bodhisattva dwells in this revolution of the base as if in an immaterial realm (arupyadhatu). On the one hand—with respect to his own personal interests (svakartham)—he is fully endowed with superior wisdom (adhiprajña) and is thus not subject to the afflictions (klesa) while on the other hand—with respect to the interests of other beings (parartham)—he is fully endowed with great compassion (mahakaruna) and thus never ceases to dwell in the world of death and re-birth (samsara).
to Sponberg, in Yogacara, the Buddha’s special wisdom that allows
participation in both nirvana and samsara, termed non-discriminating
cognition (nirvikalpaka-jñana) has various aspects: a negative
aspect which is free from discrimination that binds one to samsara and
positive and dynamic aspects which intuitively cognize the Absolute and
give a Buddha “access to the Absolute without yielding efficacy in the
Paths to Buddhahood
Most sutras of the Mahāyāna tradition, states Jan Nattier, present three alternate goals of the path: Arhatship, Pratyekabuddhahood, and Buddhahood. However, according an influential Mahāyāna text called the Lotus Sutta, while the lesser attainment of individual nirvana is taught as a skillful means by the Buddha in order to help beings of lesser capacities; ultimately, the highest and only goal is the attainment of Buddhahood. The Lotus sutta further states that, although these three paths are seemingly taught by Buddhas as separate vehicles (yana), they are really all just skillful ways (upaya) of teaching a single path (ekayana), which is the bodhisattva path to full Buddhahood.
Thus, these three separate goals are not really different at all, the
‘lesser’ paths are actually just clever teaching devices used by Buddhas
to get people to practice, eventually though, they will be led to the
one and only path of Mahāyāna and full Buddhahood.
The Mahāyāna commentary the Abhisamayalamkara presents the path of the bodhisattva as a progressive formula of Five Paths (pañcamārga). A practitioner on the Five Paths advances through a progression of ten stages, referred to as the bodhisattva bhūmis (grounds or levels).
The end stage practice of the Mahāyāna removes the imprints of delusions, the obstructions to omniscience (sarvākārajñatā),
which prevent simultaneous and direct knowledge of all phenomena. Only
Buddhas have overcome these obstructions and, therefore, only Buddhas
have omniscience knowledge, which refers to the power of a being in some
way to have “simultaneous knowledge of all things whatsoever”. From the
Mahāyāna point of view, an arhat who has achieved the nirvana of the Lesser Vehicle
will still have certain subtle obscurations that prevent the arhat from
realizing complete omniscience. When these final obscurations are
removed, the practitioner will attain apratiṣṭhita-nirvana and achieve full omniscience.
Some Mahāyāna traditions see the Buddha in docetic
terms, viewing his visible manifestations as projections from its
Nibbanic state. According to Etienne Lamotte, Buddhas are always and at
all times in nirvana, and their corporeal displays of themselves and
their Buddhic careers are ultimately illusory. Lamotte writes of the
They are born, reach
enlightenment, set turning the Wheel of Dharma, and enter nirvana.
However, all this is only illusion: the appearance of a Buddha is the
absence of arising, duration and destruction; their nirvana is the fact
that they are always and at all times in Nibbāṇa.’
This doctrine, developed among the Mahāsaṃghikas, where the historical person, Gautama Buddha, was one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmāṇakāya), while the essential Buddha is equated with the transcendental Buddha called dharmakāya. In Mahāyāna, this eventually developed into the doctrine of the “Three Bodies” of the Buddha (Trikaya).
This doctrine is interpreted in different ways by the different
Mahāyāna traditions. According to Reginald Ray, it is “the body of
reality itself, without specific, delimited form, wherein the Buddha is
identified with the spiritually charged nature of everything that is.”
An alternative idea of Mahāyāna nirvana is found in the Tathāgatagarbha sūttas. The title itself means a garbha (womb, matrix, seed) containing Tathagata (Buddha). These Suttas
suggest, states Paul Williams, that ‘all sentient beings contain a
Tathagata’ as their ‘essence, core or essential inner nature’. The tathāgatagarbha doctrine (also called buddhadhatu, buddha-nature),
at its earliest probably appeared about the later part of the 3rd
century CE, and is verifiable in Chinese translations of 1st millennium
CE. Most scholars consider the tathāgatagarbha doctrine of an ‘essential nature’ in every living being is equivalent to ‘Self’,
and it contradicts the “no self” (or no soul, no atman, anatta)
doctrines in a vast majority of Buddhist texts, leading scholars to
posit that the Tathagatagarbha Suttas were written to promote Buddhism to non-Buddhists. The Mahāyāna tradition thus often discusses nirvana with its concept of the tathāgatagarbha, the innate presence of Buddhahood. According to Alex Wayman, Buddha nature has its roots in the idea of an innately pure luminous mind (prabhasvara citta), “which is only adventitiously covered over by defilements (agantukaklesa)” lead to the development of the concept of Buddha-nature, the idea that Buddha-hood is already innate, but not recognised.
The tathāgatagarbha has numerous interpretations in the various schools of Mahāyāna and Vajrayana Buddhism. Indian Madhyamaka philosophers generally interpreted the theory as a description of emptiness and as a non implicative negation (a negation which leaves nothing un-negated). According to Karl Brunnholzl, early Indian Yogacaras like Asanga and Vasubandhu referred to the term as “nothing but suchness in the sense of twofold identitylessness“. However some later Yogacarins like Ratnakarasanti considered it “equivalent to naturally luminous mind, nondual self-awareness.”
The debate as to whether tathāgatagarbha was just a way to refer to emptiness or whether it referred to some kind of mind or consciousness also resumed in Chinese Buddhism, with some Chinese Yogacarins, like Fazang and Ratnamati supporting the idea that it was an eternal non-dual mind, while Chinese Madhyamikas like Jizang rejecting this view and seeing tathāgatagarbha as emptiness and “the middle way.”
In some Tantric Buddhist texts such as the Samputa Tantra, nirvana is described as purified, non-dualistic ’superior mind’.
In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the debate continues to this day. There are those like the Gelug school, who argue that tathāgatagarbha is just emptiness (described either as dharmadhatu, the nature of phenomena, or a nonimplicative negation).
Then there are those who see it as the non-dual union of the mind’s
unconditioned emptiness and conditioned lucidity (the view of Gorampa of the Sakya school). Others such as the Jonang school and some Kagyu figures, see tathāgatagarbha
as a kind of Absolute which “is empty of adventitious defilements which
are intrinsically other than it, but is not empty of its own inherent
According to some scholars, the language used in the tathāgatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language. Kosho Yamamoto translates the explanation of nirvana in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinibbāṇa Sūtta (c. 100-220 CE) as follows:
good man! We speak of “Nibbāṇa”.
But this is not “Great” “Nirvana”. Why is it “Nirvana”, but not “Great
Nibbāṇa”? This is so when one cuts away defilement without seeing the
Buddha-Nature. That is why we say Nirvana, but not Great Nirvana. When
one does not see the Buddha-Nature, what there is is the non-Eternal and
the non-Self. All that there is is but Bliss and Purity. Because of
this, we cannot have Mahaparinirvana, although defilement has been done
away with. When one sees well the Buddha-Nature and cuts away
defilement, we then have Mahaparinirvana. Seeing the Buddha-Nature, we
have the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure. Because of this, we can
have Mahaparinibbana, as we cut away defilement.”
man! “Nib” means “not”; “ba” means “to extinguish”. Nibbāṇa means “non-
extinction”. Also, “ba” means “to cover”. Nibbāṇa
also means “not covered”. “Not covered” is Nibbāṇa. “Ba” means “to go
and come”. “Not to go and come” is Nibbāṇa. “Ba” means “to take”. “Not
to take” is Nibbāṇa.” “Ba” means “not fixed”. When there is no
unfixedness, there is Nibbāṇa. “Ba” means “new and old”. What is not new
and old is Nibbāṇa.
“O good man! The disciples of Uluka [i.e. the founder of the Vaishesika school of philosophy] and Kapila [founder of the Samkhya school of philosophy] say: “Va means characterisitic”. “Characteristiclessness” is Nibbāṇa.”
“O good man! Ba means “is”. What is not “is” is Nibbāṇa. Va means
harmony. What has nothing to be harmonised is Nibbāṇa. Va means
suffering. What has no suffering is Nibbāṇa.
“O good man! What has cut away defilement is no Nibbāṇa. What calls
forth no defilement is Nirvana. O good man! The All-Buddha-Tathagata
calls forth no defilement. This is Nibbāṇa.
— Mahayana Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Chapter 31, Translated by Kōshō Yamamoto
In the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sūtta, the Buddha speak of four attributes which make up nirvana. Writing on this Mahayana understanding of Nibbāṇa, William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous state:
‘The Nibbāṇa Sutta claims for
nirvana the ancient ideas of permanence, bliss, personality, purity in
the transcendental realm. Mahayana declares that Hinayana, by denying
personality in the transcendental realm, denies the existence of the
Buddha. In Mahayana, final nirvana is both mundane and transcendental,
and is also used as a term for the Absolute.
names of the founders of Hindu philosophy, along with Rishaba of
Jainism, as well as Shiva and Vishnu, are found in the Chinese versions
of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.
Further notes on “different paths”
- See Thanissaro (2000).
Verse 290 of this sutta is translated by Thanissaro as: “The Blessed
One said this: “This is the direct path for the purification of beings,
for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of
pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for
the realization of Unbinding—in other words, the four frames of
translator Jeffrey Hopkins provides the following analogy:”If you put
garlic in a vessel, it deposits some of its odor in the vessel itself;
Thus when you seek to clean the vessel, it is necessary to first remove
Similarly, a consciousness conceiving inherent existence, like garlic, deposits predispositions in the mind that produce the appearance
of inherent existence; Thus, there is no way to cleanse the mind of
those predispositions, which are like the flavor of garlic left in the
vessel of the mind, until one removes all consciousnesses conceiving of
inherent existence from the mind. First, the garlic must be removed;
then, its odor can be removed.
For this reason, according to the Consequence School, until one has utterly removed all the afflictive obstructions,
one cannot begin to remove the obstructions to omniscience. Since this
is the case, a practitioner cannot begin overcoming the obstructions to
omniscience on any of the seven first bodhisattva grounds, which are called “impure” because one still has afflictive obstructions to be abandoned.
one begins abandoning the obstructions to omniscience on the eighth
bodhisattva ground, and continues to do so on the ninth and tenth, these
three being called the ‘three pure grounds” because the afflictive
obstructions have been abandoned.”
Further notes on quotes
footnote: On the notion of ’skill in means’ see Michael Pye, Skilful
Means (London, 1978); Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism, 143–50.
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to Gombrich, the use of the term “three fires” alludes to the three
fires which a brahmin householder had to keep alight, and tend daily. In
later Buddhism, the origin of this metaphor was forgotten, and the term
was replaced with “the three poisons.
- Not only the three fires, but also the extinction of the defilements and tanha are mentioned as nirvana:
- “Calming of all conditioned things, giving up of all
defilements, extinction of “thirst”, detachment, cessation, Nibbāna.”
(Saṃyutta-nikāya I (PTS), p. 136)
- “O Rādha, the extinction of ‘thirst’ (Taṇhakkhayo) is Nibbāna.” (Saṃyutta-nikāya I (PTS), p. 190)
- Sutta-nipata: “Where there is nothing; where naught is
grasped, there is the Isle of No-Beyond. Nirvāṇa do I call it—the utter
extinction of aging and dying.”
- Majjhima Nikaya 2-Att. 4.68: “The liberated mind (citta) that no longer clings’ means nibbāna.”
- Even Buddhaghosa, the great Theravada commentator, ignored the original etymological meaning of the word, and presented an interpretation of nirvana based on the root √vā, “to weave.”
- Gombrich explains that the five skandhas or aggregates are the bundles of firewood that fuel the three fires. The Buddhist practitioner ought to “drop” these bundles, so that the fires are no longer fueled and “blow out”.
[解脱] (Skt; Jpn gedatsu ). Emancipation, release, or liberation. The
Sanskrit words vimukti, mukti, and moksha also have the same meaning.
Vimoksha means release from the bonds of earthly desires, delusion,
suffering, and transmigration. While Buddhism sets forth various kinds
and stages of emancipation, or enlightenment, the supreme emancipation
is nirvana, a state of perfect quietude, freedom, and deliverance.”[web 3]
- See Digha Nikaya 15, Mahanidana Sutta, which describes a nine-fold chain of causation. Mind-and-body (nama-rupa) and consciousness (vijnana)
do condition here each other (verse 2 & 3). In verse 21 and 22, it
is stated that consciousness comes into the mother’s womb, and finds a
resting place in mind-and-body.
- M. Falk (1943, Nama-rupa and Dharma-rupa
- According to Alexander Wynne, Schayer:”referred to passages in which “consciousness” (vinnana) seems to be the ultimate reality or substratum (e.g. A I.10) 14 as well as the Saddhatu Sutra,
which is not found in any canonical source but is cited in other
Buddhist texts — it states that the personality (pudgala) consists of
the six elements (dhatu) of earth, water, fire, wind, space and
consciousness; Schayer noted that it related to other ancient Indian
ideas. Keith’s argument is also based on the Saddhatu Sutra as
well as “passages where we have explanations of Nirvana which echo the
ideas of the Upanishads regarding the ultimate reality.” He also refers
to the doctrine of “a consciousness, originally pure, defiled by
- Cited in Wynne (2007) p.99.
- In the Dhammapada, the Buddha describes nirvāṇa as “the highest happiness”, an enduring happiness qualitatively different from the limited, transitory happiness derived from impermanent things.
to Peter Harvey, the Theravada-tradition tends to minimize mystical
tendencies, but there is also a tendency to stress the complete
otherness of nirvana from samsara. The Pāli Canon
provides good grounds for this minimalistic approach, bit it also
contains material suggestive of a Vijnavada-type interpretation of nirvāṇa, namely as a radical transformation of consciousness.
- These four stages are: Stream-enterer (Sotapanna), Once returner (Sakadagami), Non-returner (Anagami), Worthy one (Arhat)
- See for example the Jhana Sutta, Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism.
number of the suttas referenced below as well as Buddhaghosa himself
refer not explicitly to nirvana but to “the path of purification” (Pali:
Visuddhimagga). In Visuddhimagga, Ch. I, v. 5, Buddhaghosa notes: “Herein, purification should be understood as nibbana, which being devoid of all stains, is utterly pure” (Buddhaghosa & Ñāṇamoli, 1999, p. 6.)
- These include:
- By insight (vipassana) alone [a]
- By jhana and understanding (see Dh. 372)
- by deeds, vision and righteousness (see MN iii.262)[b]
- By virtue, consciousness and understanding (7SN i.13);[c]
- by virtue, understanding, concentration and effort;[d]
- By the four foundations of mindfulness.[e]
- There is a clear reference in the Anguttara Nikaya to a “luminous mind” present within all people, be they corrupt or pure, whether or not it itself is pure or impure.
The Canon does not support the identification of the “luminous mind”
with nirvanic consciousness, though it plays a role in the realization
Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, “the
shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out” of it, “being without object
or support, so transcending all limitations.”
Tibetan teacher Pabongka Rinpoche presents the path in three levels (or
scopes. The first stage indicates a level of understanding or ethical
conduct for non-Buddhists, and the second two stages are nirvana and Buddhahood.
Pabongka Rinpoche: “The subject matter of these teachings can be
included in the various paths of the three scopes. The small scope
covers the causes to achieve the high rebirth states of the gods and
humans: the ethics of abandoning the ten nonvirtues, etc. The medium
scope includes the practices that will cause one to gain the definite
excellence of liberation— such practices as abandoning [the first two of
the] four truths, engaging in [the last two of these truths], and the
practice of the three high trainings. The great scope contains the
practices that bring about the definite excellence of omniscience— such
practices as the development of bodhichitta, the six perfections, etc.
Hence, all this subject matter forms a harmonious practice that will
take a person to enlightenment and should be understood as being
completely without contradiction.”
Hinayana path is sometimes equated with the modern day Theravada
tradition, a classification which the Theravada-tradition rejects.
Walpola Rahula: “We must not confuse Hinayana with Theravada because the
terms are not synonymous. Theravada Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during
the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no Mahayana at all. Hinayana sects
developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of
Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. Today there is no Hinayana sect in
existence anywhere in the world. Therefore, in 1950 the World Fellowship
of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo unanimously decided that the term
Hinayana should be dropped when referring to Buddhism existing today in
Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. This is the brief
history of Theravada, Mahayana and Hinayana.”[web 7]
- Wayman and Wayman have disagreed with this view, and they state that the Tathagatagarbha is neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality.
- See Dh. 277, and dhp-277 Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Buddharakkhita (1996a)
In the Paramattha-mañjūsā (the Visuddhimagga commentary), vv. 9-10, it
adds the following caveat regarding this option of “insight alone”: “The
words ‘insight alone’ are meant to exclude, not virtue, etc., but
serenity (i.e., jhana),
[…] [as typically reflected] in the pair, serenity and insight […]
The word ‘alone’ actually excludes only that concentration with
distinction [of jhanic absorption]; for concentration is classed as both
access [or momentary] and absorption […] Taking this stanza as the
teaching for one whose vehicle is insight does not imply that there is
no concentration; for no insight comes about with momentary
concentration. And again, insight should be understood as the three
contemplations of impermanence, pain and not-self [see tilakkhana]; not contemplation of impermanence alone”.
- See Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Thanissaro (2003).
Verse 262 of this sutta is translated by Thanissaro as: “Action,
clear-knowing, & mental qualities, virtue, the highest [way of]
life: through this are mortals purified, not through clan or wealth.
option expressed by SN i.13 is the basis for the entire rest of the
Visuddhimagga’s exposition. It is the very first paragraph of the
Visuddhimagga and states: “When a wise man, established well in virtue,
develops consciousness and understanding, then as a bhikku ardent and
sagacious, he succeeds in disentangling this tangle. In the Visuddhimagga, Ch. I, verse 2, Buddhaghosa comments that this tangle refers to “the network of craving.” In verse 7, Buddhaghosa states that develops consciousness and understanding means “develops both concentration and insight.”
- SN i.53)Buddhaghosa & Ñāṇamoli
(1999), p. 7, translate SN i.53 as: “He who is possessed of constant
virtue, who has understanding, and is concentrated, who is strenuous and
diligent as well, will cross the flood so difficult to cross.
“It is found in dictionaries as an English word, nirvana, and has
acquired a patina that makes many assume its meaning is obvious. Yet, it
is a word about which Buddhists themselves have never reached
“The Sanskrit term nirvana is an action noun signifying the act and
effect of blowing (at something) to put it out, to blow out, or to
extinguish, but the noun also signifies the process and outcome of
burning out, becoming extinguished, cooling down, and hence, allaying,
calming down, and also taming, making docile. Technically, in the
religious traditions of India, the term denotes the process of
accomplishing and experiencing freedom from the unquenchable thirst of
desire and the pains of repeated births, lives, and deaths.
“I hope it is not too farfetched to suggest that this may have
contributed to an important development in the Mahayana: that it came to
separate nirvana from bodhi, ‘awakening’ to the truth, Enlightenment,
and to put a lower value on the former (Gombrich, 1992d). Originally
nirvana and bodhi refer to the same thing; they merely use different
metaphors for the experience. But the Mahayana tradition separated them
and considered that nirvana referred only to the extinction of craving,
with the resultant escape from the cycle of rebirth. This interpretation
ignores the third fire, delusion: the extinction of delusion is of
course in the early texts identical with what can be positively
expressed as gnosis, Enlightenment.
Bodhi: “Etymologically, the word nibbāna — the Pali form of the better
known Sanskrit nirvāṇa — is derived from a verb nibbāti meaning “to be
blown out” or “to be extinguished.” It thus signifies the extinguishing
of the worldly “fires” of greed, hatred, and delusion. But the Pali
commentators prefer to treat it as the negation of, or “departure from”
(nikkhantatta), the entanglement (vāna) of craving, the derivation which
is offered here. For as long as one is entangled by craving, one
remains bound in saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death; but when all
craving has been extirpated, one attains Nibbāna, deliverance from the
cycle of birth and death.
Gethin: “Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’,
although Buddhist commentarial writings, by a play on words, like to
explain it as ‘the absence of craving’. But where English translations
of Buddhist texts have ‘he attains nirvāṇa/parinirvāṇa’, the more
characteristic Pali or Sanskrit idiom is a simple verb: ‘he or she
nirvāṇa-s’ or more often ‘he or she parinirvānṇa-s’ (parinibbāyati).
What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event
or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and
- Rupert Gethin: “Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or
‘extinguishing’ […] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily
indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of
greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood
suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its
cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for
all who reach awakening,[i]
and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete
‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and
delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience.[ii]
- Paul Williams: “[Nirvana] means ‘extinguishing’, as in ‘the
extinguishing of a flame’, and it signifies soteriologically the
complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion
(i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara.”
- Paul Williams: “Nirvana is broadly speaking the result of
letting-go, letting-go the very forces of craving which power continued
experiences of pleasure and inevitably suffering throughout this life,
death, rebirth, and redeath. That, in a nutshell, is what nirvana is. It
is the complete and permanent cessation of samsara, thence the
cessation of all types of suffering, resulting from letting-go the
forces which power samsara, due to overcoming ignorance (thence also
hatred and delusion, the ‘three root poisons’) through seeing things the
way they really are.”
- Donald Lopez: “[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of
desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and
- Damien Keown states: “When the flame of craving is extinguished, rebirth ceases, and an enlightened person is not reborn.”
- Nibbāṇa during life and beyond death:
- Donald Lopez states: “Two types of nirvana are […] described.
The first is called ‘nirvana with remainder.’ […] The second type is
called ‘nirvana without remainder’, or final Nibbāṇa.”
- Peter Harvey states: “The first aspect of Nibbana is described as ‘with remainder of what is grasped at’ (sa-updadi-sesa), meaning that the khandas, the result of past grasping, still remain for him; the second is described as ‘without remainder of what is grasped at’ (an-upadi-sesa) (It.38-39).
Gethin: “Like the Buddha, any person who attains nirvāṇa does not
remain thereafter forever absorbed in some transcendental state of mind.
On the contrary he or she continues to live in the world; he or she
continues to think, speak, and act as other people do—with the
difference that all his or her thoughts, words, and deeds are completely
free of the motivations of greed, aversion, and delusion, and motivated
instead entirely by generosity, friendliness, and wisdom. This
condition of having extinguished the defilements can be termed ‘nirvāṇa
with the remainder [of life]’ (sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa/sa-upādisesa-nibbāna): the nirvāṇa that comes from ending the occurrence of the defilements (kleśa/kilesa) of the mind; what the Pali commentaries call for short kilesa-parinibbāna.[iii] And this is what the Buddha achieved on the night of his awakening.”
- Freedom from negative states:
- Walpola Rahula: [one who has achieved nirvana is] “free from all ‘complexes’ and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others.”
- Damien Keown: “Nirvana […] involves a radically transformed state
of consciousness which is free of the obsession with ‘me and mine’.”
- Rupert Gethin: “Any person who attains nirvāṇa […] continues to
think, speak, and act as other people do—with the difference that all
his or her thoughts, words, and deeds are completely free of the
motivations of greed, aversion, and delusion, and motivated instead
entirely by generosity, friendliness, and wisdom.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “The state of perfect peace that comes when craving is eliminated is Nibbāna (nirvāṇa).”
- Joseph Goldstein states: “It is also described as the deathless, absolute peace, freedom, and so forth.”
- Lama Surya Das states: “Nibbāṇa is inconceivable inner peace, the cessation of craving and clinging.”
- Walpola Rahula states:
“He who has realized the Truth, Nibbāṇa, is (…) joyful, exultant,
enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene
- Damien Keown states:
“It is clear that nirvana-in-this-life is a psychological and ethical
reality, a transformed state of personality characterized by peace, deep
spiritual joy, compassion, and a refined and subtle awareness. Negative
mental states and emotions such as doubt, worry, anxiety, and fear are
absent from the enlightened mind. Saints in many religious traditions
exhibit some or all of these qualities, and ordinary people also possess
them to some degree, although imperfectly developed. An enlightened
person, however, such as a Buddha or an Arhat, possesses them all
- Phillip Moffitt states:
“Nibbana literally means “cooled” and is analogous to a fire that’s no
longer burning. Thus, when there is cessation, your mind no longer burns
in response to the arising of pleasant and unpleasant in your life; it
isn’t reactive or controlled by what you like or dislike.”
- Ringu Tulku explains:
“Someone who has attained […] the state of nirvana, will no longer
react within the pattern of aversion and attachment. The way such a
person sees things will be nondualistic and therefore non-conceptual.
[…] When this dual reaction is gone, nothing is haunting or fearful
anymore. We see clearly, and nothing seems imposing, since nothing is
imposed from our part. When there is nothing we do not like, there is
nothing to fear. Being free from fear, we are peaceful. There is no need
to run away from anything, and therefore no need to run after anything
either. In this way there is no burden. We can have inner peace,
strength, and clarity, almost independent from circumstances and
situations. This is complete freedom of mind without any circumstantial
entanglement; the state is called “nirvana” […]. Someone who has
reached this state has gone beyond our usual way of being imprisoned in
habitual patterns and distorted ways of seeing these things.”
Gethin: “Eventually ‘the remainder of life’ will be exhausted and, like
all beings, such a person must die. But unlike other beings, who have
not experienced ‘nirvāṇa’, he or she will not be reborn into some new
life, the physical and mental constituents of being will not come
together in some new existence, there will be no new being or person.
Instead of being reborn, the person ‘parinirvāṇa-s’, meaning in this
context that the five aggregates of physical and mental phenomena that
constitute a being cease to occur. This is the condition of ‘nirvāṇa
without remainder [of life]’ (nir-upadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa/an-up
ādisesa-nibbāna): nirvāṇa that comes from ending the occurrence of the
aggregates (skandha/khandha) of physical and mental phenomena that
constitute a being; or, for short, khandha-parinibbāna.
Modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict ‘Nibbāṇa’ to the awakening
experience and reserve ‘parinirvāṇa’ for the death experience.”
Rahula: “Now another question arises: What happens to the Buddha or an
Arahant after his death, Parinibbāṇa? This comes under the category of
unanswered questions (avyākata).
[Samyutta Nikaya IV (PTS), p. 375 f.] Even when the Buddha spoke about
this, he indicated that no words in our vocabulary could express what
happens to an Arahant after his death. In reply to a Parivrājaka named
Vaccha, the Buddha said that terms like ‘born’ or ‘not born’ do not
apply in the case of an Arahant, because those things—matter, sensation,
perception, mental activities, consciousness—with which the terms like
‘born’ and ‘not born’ are associated, are completely destroyed and
uprooted, never to rise again after his death. [Majjhima Nikaya I (PTS),
Rahula: “An Arahant after his death is often compared to a fire gone
out when the supply of wood is over, or to the flame of a lamp gone out
when the wick and oil are finished.[Majjhima Nikaya I (PTS), p. 487]
Here it should be clearly and distinctly understood, without any
confusion, that what is compared to a flame or a fire gone out is not
Nibbāṇa, but the ‘being’ composed of the Five Aggregates who realized
Nibbāṇa. This point has to be emphasized because many people, even some
great scholars, have misunderstood and misinterpreted this simile as
referring to Nibbāṇa. Nibbāṇa is never compared to a fire or a lamp gone
Gombrich, who studied with Walpola Rahula, notes: “[T]here is one point
where the great scholar monk has let us down: his account of nirvana,
in Chapter IV, is unclear and, to my mind, even at points
self-contradictory […] In proclaiming (in block capitals) that ‘Truth
is’, Rahula has for a moment fallen into Upanisadic mode.
- In the Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.58), the monk Sariputta
teaches that to state that a person who attains nirvana “does not
exist” after death is not the correct view; the correct view is that nirvana-after-death is outside of all conceivable experience. The only accurate statement that can be made about nirvana-after-death is “That which is stressful (dukkha; suffering) has ceased and gone to its end.”
The Aggivacchagotta Sutta
states that the state of being after death cannot be described as
either being reborn after death, not being reborn, being and not being
reborn, or neither being nor not being reborn. The sutra concludes: “Any
fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being
unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered
any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).
Even so […]
any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata [the Buddha]
would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root
destroyed, made like a palmyra
stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for
future arising. Freed from the classification of form […] the
Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’
doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does
not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’
Rahula: “Nibbāṇa is beyond all terms of duality and relativity. It is
therefore beyond our conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong,
existence and non-existence. Even the word ‘happiness’ (sukha) which is
used to describe Nirvāṇa has an entirely different sense here. Sāriputta
once said: ‘O friend, Nirvāṇa is happiness! Nibbāṇa is happiness!’ Then
Udāyi asked: ‘But, friend Sāriputta, what happiness can it be if there
is no sensation?’ Sāriputta’s reply was highly philosophical and beyond
ordinary comprehension: “That there is no sensation itself is
Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro: “The Buddha avoided the nit-picking pedantry
of many philosophers contemporary with him and opted for a more
broad-brush, colloquial style, geared to particular listeners in a
language which they could understand. Thus ‘viññana’ here can be assumed
to mean ‘knowing’ but not the partial, fragmented, discriminative (vi-)
knowing (-ñana) which the word usually implies. Instead it must mean a
knowing of a primordial, transcendent nature, otherwise the passage
which contains it would be self-contradictory.” They then give further
context for why this choice of words may have been made; the passages
may represent an example of the Buddha using his “skill in means” to
teach Brahmins in terms they were familiar with.
Gethin: The Mahāyāna sūtras express two basic attitudes towards [the
nirvana of the Lesser Vehicle]. The first [attitude] is that the path of
the disciple [sravaka] and the path of the pratyeka-buddha do lead to a
kind of awakening, a release from suffering, nirvāna, and as such are
real goals. These goals are, however, inferior and should be renounced
for the superior attainment of buddhahood. The second attitude,
classically articulated by the Lotus Sūtra, sees the goal of the
disciple and the pratyeka-buddha as not true goals at all. The fact that the Buddha taught them is an example of his ’skill in means’ (upaya-kauśalya) as a teacher.[vi]
These goals are thus merely clever devices (upāya) employed by the
Buddha in order to get beings to at least begin the practice of the
path; eventually their practice must lead on to the one and only vehicle
(eka-yāna) that is the mahāyāna, the vehicle ending in perfect
- From the Mahayana point of view, the nonabiding (apratiṣṭhita) nirvana is superior to the Nibbāṇa of the Lesser Vehicle:
- Thubten Thardo (Gareth Sparham) states: “The term “non-abiding
nirvāṇa” indicates that a fully awakened buddha is utterly free from
saṃsāra, yet due to compassion has not entered into a more restricted
form of nirvāṇa that precludes continued activity within the world.”
- Erik Pema Kunsang states (based on teachings by Tulku Orgyen
Rinpoche and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche): “The lesser nirvana refers to the
liberation from cyclic existence attained by a hinayana practitioner.
When referring to a buddha, nirvana is the great nondwelling
state of enlightenment which falls neither into the extreme of samsaric
existence nor into the passive state of cessation attained by an
- Thrangu Rinpoche states: “The samadhi with the union of samatha and
vipasyana fully developed will free one from the bondage of samsara so
one attains a state of nonabiding nirvana, which is Buddhahood.
- The Padmakara Translation Group states: “It is important to realize
that the term [nirvana] is understood differently by the different
vehicles: the nirvana of the Basic Vehicle, the peace of cessation that
an Arhat attains, is very different from a Buddha’s “nondwelling”
nirvana, the state of perfect enlightenment with awsareness that transcends both samsara
- Peter Harvey states: “An advanced Bodhisattva who has experienced
Nirvana does not rest content with this. He turns again to samsara in
the service of others, which the Mahayana-samgraha calls his
‘non-abiding’ (apratiṣṭhita) Nirvana, not clinging either to samsara or
to Nirvana as something supposedly separate from this (Nagao, 1991).”
- Rupert Gethin states: “For the Mahayana becoming a Buddha generally
involves attaining what is characterized as the ‘unestablished’ or
‘non-abiding’ (apratiṣṭhita) Nibbāṇa: on the one hand the knowledge of a
buddha that sees emptiness, is not ‘established’ in saṃsāra (by seizing
on birth as an individual being, for example), on the other hand the
great compassion of a buddha prevents the complete turning away from
saṃsāra. So ultimately he abides neither in saṃsāra nor in Nibbāṇa.”
- Duckworth: The Lesser Vehicle does not result in the practitioner
becoming a complete buddha; rather, the aim is to achieve a personal
nirvana that is the total extinction of existence. The Great Vehicle,
however, does result in becoming a complete buddha. A buddha remains
actively engaged in awakened with awareness activity to liberate beings for as long
as samsara remains. Thus, those who accomplish the Great Vehicle do not
abide in samsara due to their wisdom that sees its empty, illusory
nature. Further, unlike those who attain the nirvana of the Lesser
Vehicle to escape samsara, they do not abide in an isolated nirvana due
to their compassion. For these reasons, in the Great Vehicle, Nibbāṇa is
said to be “unlocated” or “nonabiding” (apratiṣṭhita), staying in neither samsara nor Nibbāṇa.