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Nirvana

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This article is about the philosophical concept. For other uses of the term Nirvana, please see Nirvana (disambiguation).

In the Indic religions: Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, nirvāṇa (from the Sanskrit निर्वाण, Pali: Nibbāna or Nibbāṇa -- Chinese: 涅槃; Pinyin: niè pán), literally 'extinction' and/or 'extinguishing', is the culmination of the yogi's pursuit of liberation. It is the summum bonum of Buddhism and goal of the Eightfold Path. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, described the Dharma as '... a raft used to cross the river. Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.' Hinduism and Jainism also use the word nirvāṇa to describe the state of moksha, and it is spoken of in several Hindu tantric texts as well as the Bhagavad Gita. The attainment of nirvāṇa marks the end of cyclic existence in saṃsāra, the condition to which it forms the antithesis, and in the context of which nirvāṇa has to be understood. Saṃsāra is thus the problem to which nirvāṇa is the solution.

Origins

The word nirvāṇa is formed from the negative prefix nir and a Sanskrit root which may be either vā, meaning to blow, or vṛ, meaning to cover. Both connote images of extinguishing a flame, in the first case by blowing it out and in the second by smothering it or starving it of fuel. Etymologically, nirvāṇa (Pali Nibbana) in sutra is 'bhavanirodha nibbanam' (The subjugation of becoming means nirvāṇa). Nirvāṇa in sutra is never conceived of as a place, but the antinomy of saṃsāra which itself is synonymous with ignorance (avijja). This said: 'the liberated mind/will (citta) which does not cling' means Nibbana'[MN2-Att. 4.68]. Nibbana is meant specifically as pertains gnosis which ends the identity of the mind (citta) with empirical phenomena. Doctrinally Nibbana is said of the mind which no 'longer is coming (bhava) and going (vibhava)', but which has attained a statis in perpetuity, whereby 'liberation (vimutta) can be said'.

In general, nirvāṇa is described in negative terms as the end or absence of undesirable things, such as suffering (duḥkha), although positive epithets also occur, notably the famous description of nirvāṇa as the 'Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed' found at Udāna 8. 3. It carries further connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace; the realizing of nirvāṇa is compared to the ending of avijja (ignorance) which perpetuates the will (citta/mind) from passing through saṃsāra life after life, which causes (and is caused by) among other things craving, consciousness, birth, death, greed, hate, delusion, ignorance. Nirvāṇa, 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 nirvāṇa dies, his death is referred as his parinirvana, his fully passing away, as his life was his last link to the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra), and he will not be reborn again. Buddhism holds that the ultimate goal and end of existence is realization of nirvāṇa; what happens to a person after his parinirvana cannot be explained, as it is outside of all conceivable experience.

Gautama Buddha sometimes refers to nirvāṇa as amata ('immortality'). Elsewhere the Buddha calls nirvāṇa 'the unconditioned element' (i.e., that which is not subject to causation). Nirvāṇa is impossible to define directly; it can only be experienced or realized. One may not even be able to say this, since saying this implies the existence of an experiencing subject--which in fact would not persist after full nirvāṇa. While some of the associated effects of nirvāṇa can be identified, a definition of nirvāṇa can only be approximated by what it is not. It is not the clinging existence with which man is understood to be afflicted. It is not any sort of becoming. It has no origin or end. It is not made or fabricated. It has no dualities, so that it cannot be described in words. It has no parts that may be distinguished one from another. It is not a subjective state of consciousness. It is not conditioned on or by anything else.

Calling nirvāṇa the complete 'opposite' of saṃsāra or implying that it is separate from saṃsāra is doctrinally inaccurate. They are in fact identical according to early Mahāyāna Buddhism. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Bodhisattva ideal diminishes the importance of nirvāṇa as a religious goal. This is because the Bodhisattva makes a vow not to enter nirvāṇa until all other beings have entered before him. Nirvāṇa thus becomes a collective endeavour rather than a personal one. Both in early Buddhism and by the time of Nāgārjuna, there are teachings of the identity of nirvāṇa and saṃsāra. However, even here it is assumed that the natural man suffers from at the very least a confusion regarding the nature of saṃsāra.

It should also be noted that the Buddha discouraged certain lines of speculation, including speculation into the state of an enlightened being after death, on the grounds that these were not useful for pursuing enlightenment; thus definitions of nirvāṇa might be said to be doctrinally unimportant.

Nirvāṇa in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra

However, in certain Mahāyāna teachings ascribed to the Buddha, nirvāṇa, or 'Great nirvāṇa' in particular (higher than 'ordinary' nirvāṇa), is said to be the sphere or domain ('visaya') of the True Self. In the 'Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra', as well as in a number of other important Mahāyāna sutras, Great nirvāṇa is seen as the state which constitutes the attainment of that which is 'Eternal, Self, Bliss, and Pure'. Maha-nirvāṇa 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 can only be fully known by an Awakened Being directly.

An important facet of nirvāṇa in general is that it is not something that comes about from a concatenation of causes, that springs into existence as a result of causes and conditions: it always was, is and will be. But due to the moral and mental darkness of ordinary, samsarically enmeshed sentient beings, it remains hidden from unawakened perception. The Buddha of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra insists on its eternal nature, saying:

It is not the case that the inherent nature of nirvāṇa did not primordially exist but now exists. If the inherent nature of nirvāṇa did not primordially exist but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints (asravas) 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 (kleshas), beings do not see it. The Tathagata, endowed with omniscient awareness (sarvajna-jnana), lights the lamp of insight with his skill-in-means (upaya-kausalya) and causes Bodhisattvas to perceive the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure of Nirvāṇa.

Vitally, according to Mahāyāna teachings, any being who has reached nirvāṇa is not blotted out or extinguished: there is the extinction of the impermanent and suffering-prone 'worldly self' or ego, but not of the immortal 'supramundane' Self of the indwelling Buddha. The Buddha states in the 'Mahāyāna Mahaparinirvana Sutra' (Tibetan version): 'Nirvāṇa is deathless … Those who have passed into nirvāṇa 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.' We must pass beyond this world, we must transcend time and space- ascend Jacob's ladder, enter the World of True Forms, of which Plato spoke. 'There we shall behold the archetypes, it is the Absolute Mind, the Universal Being.'