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What Does Nirvana Mean in Buddhism?

Shalu Bhatti Mar 22, 2020
'Nirvana' is explained (often misinterpreted) by many spiritual followers. It plays important role in many religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism. Read to know what Nirvana means in Buddhism and how it is ultimate form of existence.
Walpola Rahula said, "He who has realized the Truth, Nirvāṇa, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all 'complexes' and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others....
...His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful."
Siddhārtha Gautama, the sole reason behind the existence of Buddhism, received enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree, eventually gaining knowledge and wisdom related to the past, present, and beyond.
He stated nirvana to be the ultimate truth of existence. The irony is that the word itself means to 'extinguish' or 'blown out'. Then how can one extinguish and exist at the same time?
Nirvāṇa (as it called in Sanskrit) or nibbāna (in Pali) literally means the "act of extinguishing" or "act of being blown out," just like fire extinguishes when the fuel supply is stopped, or when the wind blows out ceasing its flame. One needs to extinguish certain aspects of their lives so as to understand the true meaning of life.
These aspects are nothing but those that cause suffering and pain. According to Buddhism beliefs, it is only through nirvāṇa that one can experience eternal happiness (Sukha), by freeing oneself from the worldly sufferings (Dukkha). As the Dhammapada states: nibbanam paramam sukham.

Understanding the Meaning of Nirvana

The ordinary human soul is trapped in the cycle of birth, karma, suffering, death, rebirth, and so on. It is the effect of the karmas we accumulated in our previous lives that have resulted in the suffering we have been experiencing today. It is believed that unless a human being achieves complete nirvana, this cycle will continue to repeat.
Thus, to escape from the entire cycle of rebirth, it is important to take a spiritual path that frees one from the suffering of this world. The fire one needs to 'extinguish' is the fire of attachment (raga), ignorance (moha), and aversion (Dvesha). When one ceases to crave (Taṇhā) or thirst for the worldly bonds, it is then that he experiences nirvana.

Nirvana is to 'Extinguish' the Flame of Desires

When fire is extinguished, does it cease to exist, or is it very much a part of this world, only in another form? Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains, "According to the ancient Brahmins, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency.
Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and -- unbound from any particular fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to Brahmins of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn't burn:"
Therefore, by reading this excerpt, it is very much clear that nirvana isn't about ceasing to exist, or extinguish oneself; rather, it is a means to attain freedom. You see, when fire burns, it burns because it has been trapped, forced to cling to the elements that act as fuel that kindles it over and over again.
However, once the fuel supply ceases, it is released from the trap. It no longer needs to suffer or agitate, it no longer needs to cling to an element that makes it fierce. It can attain freedom and exist in its dormant state, diffusing in the cosmos.
This is what nirvana is. Freeing yourself from the fuel (attachments, worldly pleasures, suffering, ignorance, aversion, thirst) and experiencing true happiness.

The Types of Nirvana

There are two types of nirvana: Nirvana during life (sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa) and Nirvana after death (nir-upadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa). A person who experiences nirvana during life is called an Arahant, such as Buddha himself was. This type of nirvana is also called 'nirvana with remainder'.
Here, a person transcends to a different state of mind altogether, living in this very world, but not being a part of it. Here, although the person is still living, breathing, eating, sleeping, talking, and interacting with the non-enlightened beings of this world, his thought process is nowhere of this world.
His mind has attained peace. It is now free from bonds, negativity, and is non-reactive to the worldly changes. It is like the flame that has extinguished, but the ember hasn't lost its warmth.
When an Arahant dies, he gains the second type of nirvana after death. Also known as 'nirvana without remainder', this is the state where a being achieves complete nirvana. Now, he is free from the cycle of death and rebirth (Saṃsāra) and is no longer a part of it.
When Buddha himself was asked to explain what it is to experience nirvana after death, he indicated that no words in this world can explain this experience, because the vocabulary of this world is for the things and experiences confined in this world; what an Arahant experiences after death cannot be explained in any language.
We can say that complete nirvana is where the fire has extinguished and the ember has also cooled down. Now, there is nothing that binds it, nothing that it is attached to. Its existence is synonymous with freedom that has no entrapment in any form.
It is important to be very clear that nirvana isn't a thing (such as fire) but an experience of a being. Walpola Rahula clarifies this point saying, "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....
...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 Nirvāṇa, but the 'being' composed of the Five Aggregates who realized Nirvāṇa....
...This point has to be emphasized because many people, even some great scholars, have misunderstood and misinterpreted this simile as referring to Nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa is never compared to a fire or a lamp gone out."


What is most important to attain nirvana is to let go of wants and desires. The mind must be purified and the clutter that keeps one from attaining the ultimate happiness of existence must be cleared.
Buddha helped his followers walk in the same path through following the Noble Eightfold Path that consists of Right view, Right intention, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration.
Buddha said, "Just as the water of a river plunges into the ocean and merges with the ocean, so the spiritual path, the Noble Eightfold Path, plunges into Nibbana and merges with Nibbana."
Therefore, nirvana is more than enlightenment. It is freedom from the bonds of life, be it physical, spiritual, or emotional. It is an indestructible state of being that exists in its full capacity. There is nothing beyond nirvana; it is the ultimate destination of our existence.