When you hear the phrase ‘Nirvana for everyone’, you may shake your head in disbelief. People in general believe that nirvana is a special place where there is no suffering, only happiness, the place usually being reached after death by those who have already achieved perfection in thousands of incarnations. Buddhist ordinands mostly pay lip service to their request to be ordained for the sake of realising nirvana. Old monks [in Thailand] sometimes say that nirvana can no longer occur today.
Nirvana has become a mystery which no one pays any attention to, and the subject has become sterilised in the Buddhist scriptures, only to be mentioned at times without understanding. The truth is, however, that without nirvana, Buddhism cannot exist. If we are not interested in nirvana, then we are not interested in Buddhism. I believe that the time has come to pay attention to nirvana and to match the practice with the meaning of it as the supreme ennobling virtue, or the highest objective of living things.
Nirvana is not related to death in any sense; the word means ‘cool’. In dharma language it refers to the coolness one attains from the extinction of defiling fire or vices of conduct. In the Pali Canon, nirvana has never been applied to death. When discussing death, either the word ‘marana’ or ‘parinirvana’ is used.
Nirvana is a natural condition which has two aspects—the state of mind that is free from defilements and thus cool, while the body and sense faculties are not cool, and the state of mind wherein the sense faculties have cooled down. The first state of cool mind may be compared to brightly burning charcoal which, once extinguished, is still too hot to touch. We need to wait for it to become completely cool so that we can touch it.
The word ‘nirvana’ was changed to mean ‘death’ by people in later generations. This is now a common interpretation. Thai people often use the word in this way. As a schoolboy I was taught that ‘death’ was the meaning of ‘nirvana’, and as a newly ordained monk I still believed that that was what the word meant. I went on to teach others the incorrect meaning. Only after studying the Pali Canon did I discover that nirvana is a different event to death; it is life without death, and it is nourishing to all living things. Even though the body may yield to death, the mind in a state of nirvana does not die.
Other religions in India that were contemporary to Buddhism also used the word ‘nirvana’. Leaders of these religions used to send their men to ask the Buddha about his version of nirvana. Their meaning might have been ‘death’ (these were the peoples of south India). We may conclude, therefore, that nirvana was the most important subject of these people. One such group might have interpreted the word as ‘death’ and taught that as the meaning in Southeast Asia before Buddhism spread throughout the area. It was probably the same in the case of the word ‘atman’ (self).
The Buddha went in search of nirvana—in the sense of total extinction of suffering, rather than in the sense of it meaning death—with the help of leaders of various religious sects existing in India during that period. The highest realm he found was ‘the realm of neither-perception-nor-nonperception’, that is ‘the calmness of the mind wherein there is neither death nor nondeath’. This he did not accept as being the ultimate, and continued in his search. Finally, he reached nirvana, the cool state of mind resulting from the extinction of defilements, and he termed it ‘the cessation of suffering’. The more one’s defilements decrease, the more the coolness increases. This continues until the greatest degree of coolness is reached after all of one’s impurities have been extinguished. Nirvana is the coolness resulting from the extinction of defilements whether they become extinct of themselves or by one’s effort.
Defilements are compounded things—they have birth and they have death. According to the Pali Canon, this fact is an indication that something is a defilement. When causal conditions are not present, defilements simply become extinct. Even though the extinction may be temporary, even though there is only temporary coolness, the phenomenon has the real sense of nirvana. Hence, temporary nirvana does exist for those who have some impurities left; temporary nirvana nourishes all sentient beings. If defilements were with us day and night without ceasing, who would ever stand them? Living things would either die, or become insane first and then die. One survives because there are periods when the fires of defilements do not burn. Periodical nirvana keeps all of us alive and well, and is a nourishing condition, normal to life.
Why don’t we know or feel thankful for this kind of nirvana? Fortunately, it is our instinct to acquire it. Whatever has any heart and mind will look for periods when defilements, or strong desires, are absent. If a living thing maintains unceasing desire, it will have to die. Therefore, an infant knows how to suck milk and a mosquito knows how to suck blood, in order to keep itself alive. Our instincts inherently have such a quality; that is to say, we instinctively go in search of spans of time when the mind is free from defilement or desire. Whenever it happens, a little nirvana always comes in. And the phenomenon will continue until one learns how to convert it into permanent or complete nirvana. This will not be death, but nondeath, especially of one’s mind. Those who see this truth will realise by themselves that we all survive because of this kind of nirvana, and not solely because of food with which we are infatuated.
The coolness and calmness which everyone wants is the meaning of nirvana, but most people misunderstand it and go towards fiery sensual pleasures instead. What they then receive is false nirvana. Such practices have been in existence since the time of the Buddha or even before that period as seen in the sixty-two views of the Brahmajala sutta.
The supreme state of nirvana is attained when all the fires of defilement are extinguished. The highest attainment in Buddhism, as stated by the Buddha, involves the extinction of lust, anger, and delusion. That is the ultimate extinction of all the fires, and the subsequent coolness is as supreme as life can attain.
Nirvana is not the mind, but the state which the mind can achieve. The Buddha referred to it as a sphere to be reached by mindfulness and wisdom. Visible objects, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects are of the material sphere, the physical sphere. The sphere of unbounded space and other spheres up to the sphere of neither-perception-nor-nonperception are mental spheres that the mind can reach. However, nirvana is a sphere of wisdom which mindful, wise people may perceive or attain. Nirvana, therefore, may be considered to be something that nature holds for human beings of a higher spiritual level. We should consider this fact in order that both nirvana and all of us do not exist in vain. Every one of us has the mindfulness and the wisdom to sense nirvana. Please don’t let it all go to waste.
The sphere of nirvana is something that naturally exists for people to attain. It is like precious medicine which can extinguish all kinds of suffering. No ordinary medicine can ever relieve the real suffering or disease which exists, disease caused by defilements which can only be cured by the extinction of those defilements. This sickness is the utmost ailment of the soul, hidden secretly in us and secretly tormenting us. Whoever extinguishes it will be the one who reaches the pinnacle of being human.
Synonyms of nirvana are numerous: ‘deathlessness’, ‘permanence’, ‘peace’, ‘the state of being without fear or danger’, ‘health’, ‘the state of being without disease’, ‘freedom’, ‘emancipation’, ‘the shelter’, ‘the refuge’, ‘the stronghold’, the float for people who have fallen into the water’, ‘the highest gain’, ‘the highest bliss’, ‘the further shore’, ‘the place one will reach in the future when the physical and mental constitution of the body comes to an end’, and so on. The expression which best conveys the meaning of nirvana is ‘the cessation of suffering’, but it is not interesting enough for those who do not feel that they are suffering. For them, there is no suffering to extinguish. Once they are told that nirvana is a new life, a life in which there is a quenching of thirst, or a life which is beyond the positive or negative, then they become extremely interested. For each individual we must have a particular translation of the word ‘nirvana’, which is not at all easy. Deep down, everybody wants nirvana, but they are not conscious of that fact.
It is possible to study nirvana in our daily lives. Through that we gain more understanding of its significance and thereby grow to be contented with it. When we see that fires burn out and that hot things cool down, we realise the meaning of nirvana. When we take a bath, or eat something made of ice, we are able to determine the meaning of nirvana. Once a fever subsides, or the swollen area goes down and the headache is gone, we can detect the meaning of nirvana. These examples are lessons which can help us understand the nature of nirvana every time they occur. Whenever you find some coolness in your feeling, keep conscious of that coolness in your mind and then breathe in and out. Taking it in is cool and so is letting it out. Do this for a while—it is a good lesson for one who wishes to realise nirvana more quickly.
Other posts by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
Published in the February 2005 Buddhism Now.