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Nirvana

[nir-vah-nuh, -van-uh, ner-]

In sramanic philosophy, Nirvana (निब्बान, ; Prakrit: णिव्वाण) is the state of being free from both suffering and the cycle of rebirth. It is an important concept in Buddhism and Jainism.

'Nirvana' is a Sanskrit word that literally means "to cease blowing" or "extinguishing" as when a candle flame ceases to flicker (that is, of the uncontrolled passions) or "unbinding" (that is, of the fetters of the mind).

Nirvana in Buddhism

The Buddha described nirvana as the perfect peace of the mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states (kilesa). This peace, which is in reality the fundamental nature of the mind, is revealed when the root causes of the afflictive states are dissolved. The causes themselves (see sankhara) lie deep within the mind (that part of the mind that Western psychology calls the subconscious) but their undoing is gradually achieved by living a disciplined life (see eightfold path). In Nibbana the root causes of craving and aversion have been extinguished such that one is no longer subject to human suffering (dukkha) or further states of rebirths in samsara. The Pali Canon also contains two other perspectives on nirvana; for one, it is linked to the seeing-through of the empty nature of phenomena. It is also presented as a radical reordering of consciousness and unleashing of awareness. Scholar Herbert Guenther states that with nirvana "the ideal personality, the true human being" becomes reality.

The Buddha in the Dhammapada says of nirvana that it is "the highest happiness". This happiness is an enduring, transcendental happiness integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment or bodhi, rather than the happiness derived from impermanent things. The knowledge accompanying nirvana is expressed through the word bodhi.

The Buddha explains nirvana as "the unconditioned" (asankhata) mind, a mind that has come to a point of perfect lucidity and clarity due to the absence of volitional formations. This being is described by the Buddha as "deathlessness" (Pali: amata or amaravati) and as the highest spiritual attainment, the natural result that accrues to one who lives a life of virtuous conduct and practise in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path. Such a life dissolves the causes for future becoming (Skt, karma; Pali, kamma) that otherwise keep beings forever wandering through the impermanent and suffering-generating realms of desire, form, and formlessness, collectively termed samsara.

Overview

Nirvana in sutra is never conceived of as a place (such as one might conceive heaven), but rather the antinomy of samsara (see below) which itself is synonymous with ignorance (avidyā, Pāli avijjā). This said:
"'the liberated mind (citta) that no longer clings' means Nibbāna" (Majjhima Nikaya 2-Att. 4.68).

Nirvāna is meant specifically - as pertains gnosis - that which ends the identity of the mind (citta) with empirical phenomena. Doctrinally Nibbāna is said of the mind which "no longer is coming (bhava) and going (vibhava)", but which has attained a status in perpetuity, whereby "liberation (vimutta) can be said".

It carries further connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace. The realizing of nirvana is compared to the ending of avidyā (ignorance) which perpetuates the will (cetana) into effecting the incarnation of mind into biological or other form passing on forever through life after life (samsara).Samsara is caused principally by craving and ignorance (see dependent origination). Nirvana, then, is not a place nor a state, it is an absolute truth to be realized, and a person can do so without dying. When a person who has realized nirvana dies, his death is referred as his (Pali: parinibbana), his fully passing away, as his life was his last link to the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), and he will not be reborn again. Buddhism holds that the ultimate goal and end of samsaric existence (of ever "becoming" and "dying" and never truly being) is realization of nirvana; what happens to a person after his cannot be explained, as it is outside of all conceivable experience.

Luminous consciousness

The Buddha discusses, in the context of nirvana, a consciousness differing from the consciousness factor in dependent co-arising, which is defined in terms of the six sense media. This consciousness is described as:
Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around.
This "consciousness without surface" 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 it is directly known, without intermediary, free from any dependence on conditions at all. This consciousness, as experienced by an arahat, may be seen as identical with nirvana. A passage in the Majjhima Nikaya likens it to empty space. Individuals up to the level of non-returning may experience it as an object of mental consciousness. Certain contemplations while nibbana is an object of samadhi lead, if developed, to the level of non-returning or the gnosis of the arahant. 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 nibbana is fully experienced. For liberated ones the luminous, unsupported consciousness of nibbana is directly known without mediation of the mental consciousness factor in dependent co-arising, and is the transcending of all objects of mental consciousness.

Nagarjuna alluded to a passage regarding this level of consciousness in the Dighanikaya (DN 11) in two different works. He wrote:

The Sage has declared that earth, water, fire, and wind, long, short, fine and coarse, good, and so on are extinguished in consciousness. In this invisible, endless and all-powerful consciousness there is no place to be found for earth, water, fire, and wind. Here long and short, fine and coarse, good and bad, here name and form all stop.

A related idea, which finds support in the Pali Canon and the contemporary Theravada practice tradition despite its absence in the Theravada commentaries and Abhidhamma, is that the mind of the arahant is itself nibbana.

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 stained or pure. The Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" with nirvanic consciousness, though it plays a role in the realization of nirvana. 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.

Final truth

The Buddha did not give lengthy descriptions of "ultimate reality." According to Karel Werner,
Experience is ... the path most elaborated in early Buddhism. The doctrine on the other hand was kept low. The Buddha avoided doctrinal formulations concerning the final reality as much as possible in order to prevent his followers from resting content with minor achievements on the path in which the absence of the final experience could be substituted by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith, a situation which sometimes occurs, in both varieties, in the context of Hindu systems of doctrine.

He did say that "the ultimate noble truth is nirvana in its true nature. This formulation was also used by Nagarjuna in the Yuktisastika.

Nirvana and samsara

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, nirvana and samsara are said to be not-different in the sense that there is no metaphysical barrier between the two. An individual can attain nirvana by following the Buddhist path. If they were ultimately different this would be impossible. Thus, the duality between nirvana and samsara is only accurate on the conventional level. Another way to arrive at this conclusion is through the analysis that all phenomena are empty of an essential identity, and therefore suffering is never inherent in any situation. Thus liberation from suffering and its causes is not a metaphysical shift of any kind. For better explication of this thinking see two-truths doctrine.

The Theravāda school makes the antithesis of samsara and Nibbāna the starting point of the entire quest for deliverance. Even more, it treats this antithesis as determinative of the final goal, which is precisely the transcendence of samsara and the attainment of liberation in Nibbāna. Where Theravada differs significantly from the Mahāyāna schools, which also start with the duality of samsara and nirvana, is in not regarding this polarity as a mere preparatory lesson tailored for those with blunt faculties, to be eventually superseded by some higher realization of non-duality. From the standpoint of the Pāli Suttas, even for the Buddha and the Arahants suffering and its cessation, samsara and Nibbāna, remain distinct.

It is probably best to understand the relationship between nirvana and samsara in terms of the Buddha while on earth. Buddha was both in saṃsāra while having attained to Nirvāṇa so that he was seen by all, and simultaneously free from samsara.

Nirvana in Buddhist commentaries

Sarvastivādin commentary, Abhidharma-mahavibhāsa-sāstra, gives the complete context of the possible meanings from its Sanskrit roots:

  • Vāna, implying the path of rebirth, + nir, meaning leaving off' or "being away from the path of rebirth."
  • Vāna, meaning 'stench', + nir, meaning "freedom": "freedom from the stench of distressing kamma."
  • Vāna, meaning "dense forests", + nir, meaning "to get rid of" = "to be permanently rid of the dense forest of the five aggregates" (panca skandha), or the "three roots of greed, hate and delusion" (lobha, dosa, moha) or "three characteristics of existence" (impermanence, anitya; unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, soullessness, anàtma).
  • Vāna, meaning "weaving", + nir, meaning "knot" = "freedom from the knot of the distressful thread of kamma."

Nirvana in the Sūtra

The nature of nirvana assumes a differently aspected Mahāyāna focus in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra or Nirvana Sutra, which alleges to be the final of all Mahāyāna sutras, delivered - the sutra indicates - by the Buddha on his last day of life on earth. Here, as well as in a number of related "tathagatagarbha" sutras, in which the Tathagatagarbha is equated with the Buddha's eternal Self or eternal nature, nirvana is spoken of by the Mahāyāna Buddha in very "cataphatic", positive terms. Nirvana, or "Great Nirvana", is indicated to be the sphere or domain (vishaya) of the True Self. It is seen as the state which constitutes the attainment of what is "Eternal, the Self, Bliss, and the Pure". ("Great Nirvana") thus becomes equivalent to the ineffable, unshakeable, blissful, all-pervading and deathless Selfhood of the Buddha himself - a mystery which no words can adequately reach and which, according to the Sutra, can only be fully known by an Awakened Being - a perfect Buddha - directly. The "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of "sunyata" (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices; the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.

The Buddha of the Sutra gives the following definition of the attributes of nirvana, which includes the ultimate reality of the Self (not to be confused with the "worldly ego" of the five skandhas):

The attributes of nirvana are eightfold. What are these eight? Cessation (nirodha), loveliness/wholesomeness (subha), Truth (satya), Reality (tattva), eternity (nitya), bliss (sukha), the Self (atman), and complete purity (parisuddhi): that is nirvana.

He further states: "Non-Self is samsara (the cycle of rebirth); the Self (atman) is ."

An important facet of nirvana in general is that it is not something that comes about from a concatenation of causes, that springs into existence as a result of an act of creation or an agglomeration of causative factors: it was never created; it always was, is and will be. But due to the moral and mental darkness of ordinary, samsarically benighted sentient beings, it remains hidden from unawakened perception. The Buddha of the insists on its eternal nature and affirms its identity with the enduring, blissful Self, saying:

It is not the case that the inherent nature of nirvana did not primordially exist but now exists. If the inherent nature of nirvana did not primordially exist but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints (āsravas) nor would it be eternally (nitya) present in nature. Regardless of whether there are Buddhas or not, its intrinsic nature and attributes are eternally present ... Because of the obscuring darkness of the mental afflictions (kileśas), beings do not see it. The Tathāgata, endowed with omniscient awareness (sarvajñā-jñāna), lights the lamp of insight with his skill-in-means (upāya-kauśalya) and causes Bodhisattvas to perceive the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure of nirvana.

Vitally, according to these Mahāyāna teachings, any being who has reached nirvana is not blotted out or extinguished: there is the extinction of the impermanent and suffering-prone "worldly self" or ego, comprised of the five changeful skandhas, but not of the immortal "supramundane" Self of the indwelling Buddha Principle [Buddha-dhatu]. Spiritual death for such a nirvana-ed being becomes an utter impossibility. The Buddha states in the "" (Tibetan version): "Nirvana is deathless ... Those who have passed into nirvana are deathless. I say that anybody who is endowed with careful assiduity is not compounded and, even though they involve themselves in compounded things, they do not age, they do not die, they do not perish."

Paths to nirvana in the Pali canon

In the Visuddhimagga, Ch. I, v. 6 (Buddhaghosa & , 1999, pp. 6-7), Buddhaghosa identifies various options within the Pali canon for pursuing a path to nirvana, including:

  1. by insight (vipassana) alone (see Dh. 277)
  2. by jhana and understanding (see Dh. 372)
  3. by deeds, vision and righteousness (see MN iii.262)
  4. by virtue, consciousness and understanding (7SN i.13)
  5. by virtue, understanding, concentration and effort (see SN i.53)
  6. by the four foundations of mindfulness (see Satipatthana Sutta, DN ii.290)

Depending on one's analysis, each of these options could be seen as a reframing of the Buddha's Threefold Training of virtue, mental development and wisdom.

Quotations

  • Gautama Buddha:
    • "Nirvana is the highest happiness." [Dp 204]
    • "Where there is nothing; where naught is grasped, there is the Isle of No-Beyond. Nirvana do I call it -- the utter extinction of aging and dying."
    • "There is, monks, an unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated. If there were not that unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born -- become -- made -- fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn -- unbecome -- unmade -- unfabricated, emancipation from the born -- become -- made -- fabricated is discerned." [Udana VIII.3]
    • This said: ‘the liberated mind/will (citta) which does not cling’ means Nibbāna” [MN2-Att. 4.68]
    • “'The subjugation of becoming means nirvana'; this means the subjugation of the five aggregates means nirvana.” [SN-Att. 2.123]
    • In Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta the Buddha likens nibbana to the cessation and extinguishing of a fire where the materials for sustenance has been removed: "Profound, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise."
    • "There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress."
  • Said immediately after the physical death of Gotama Buddha wherein his mind (citta) is ==the essence of liberation:
    • [DN 2.157] “No longer with (subsists by) in-breath nor out-breath, so is him (Gotama) who is steadfast in mind (citta), inherently quelled from all desires the mighty sage has passed beyond. With mind (citta) limitless he no longer bears sensations; illumined and unbound (nibbana), his mind (citta) is definitely (ahu) liberated.”
  • Sutta Nipāta, tr. Rune Johansson:
    • Like a flame that has been blown out by a strong wind goes to rest and cannot be defined, just so the sage who is freed from name and body goes to rest and cannot be defined.
      For him who has gone to rest there is no measure by means of which one could describe him; that is not for him. When all (dharmas) have gone, all signs of recognition have also gone.
  • Venerable Sariputta:
    • The destruction of greed, hatred and delusion is nirvana.

Nirvana in Jainism

In Jainism, it means final release from the karmic bondage. When an enlightened human, such as, an Arhat or a Tirthankara extinguishes his remaining aghatiya karmas and thus ends his worldly existence, it is called parinirvana. Technically, the death of an Arhat is called nirvana of Arhat, as he has ended his wordly existence and attained liberation. Moksha, that is to say, liberation follows nirvana. An Arhat becomes a siddha, the liberated one, after attaining nirvana.

Nirvana in Jainism means :-

  1. Death of an Arhat, who becomes liberated thereafter, and
  2. Moksa (Jainism)

Description of nirvana of a Tirthankara in Jain Texts

Jains celebrate Diwali as the day of Nirvana of Mahavira. Kalpasutra gives an elaborate account of Mahavira’s nirvana.

The aghatiya Karma’s of venerable Ascetic Mahavira got exhausted, when in this Avasarpini era the greater part of the Duhshamasushama period had elapsed and only three years and eight and a half months were left. Mahavira had recited the fifty-five lectures which detail the results of Karma, and the thirty-six unasked questions (the Uttaradhyana Sutra). The moon was in conjunction with the asterism Svati, at the time of early morning, in the town of Papa, and in king Hastipala's office of the writers, (Mahivira) single and alone, sitting in the Samparyahka posture, left his body and attained nirvana, freed from all pains.” (147)

In the fourth month of that rainy season, in the seventh fortnight, in the dark (fortnight) of Karttika, on its fifteenth day, in the last night, in the town of Papa, in king Hastipala's office of the writers, the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira died, went off, cut asunder the ties of birth, old age, and death; became a Siddha, a Buddha, a Mukta, a maker of the end (to all misery), finally liberated, freed from all pains. (123)

That night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira died, freed from all pains, was lighted up by many descending and ascending gods. (125)

In that night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira, died, freed from all pains, the eighteen confederate kings of Kasi and Kosala, the nine Mallakis and nine Licchavis, on the day of new moon, instituted an illuminations on the Poshadha, which was a fasting day; for they said: 'Since the light of intelligence is gone, let us make an illumination of material matter!'(128)

Nirvana as Moksa

Uttaradhyana Sutra provides an account of Gautama explaining the meaning of nirvana to Kesi a disciple of Parsva.

There is a safe place in view of all, but difficult of approach, where there is no old age nor death, no pain nor disease. It is what is called Nirvâna, or freedom from pain, or perfection, which is in view of all; it is the safe, happy, and quiet place which the great sages reach. That is the eternal place, in view of all, but difficult of approach. Those sages who reach it are free from sorrows, they have put an end to the stream of existence. (81-4)

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