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NIRVĀA . About twenty-five centuries ago in northern India, Siddhārtha Gautama achieved nirvāa. That event ultimately changed the spiritual character of much of Asia and, more recently, some of the West. That something indeed happened is an indisputable fact. Exactly what happened has been an object of speculation, analysis, and debate up to the present day.

Nirvāa is both a term and an ideal. As a Sanskrit word (nibbāna in Pali), it has been used by various religious groups in India, but it primarily refers to the spiritual goal in the Buddhist way of life. In the broadest sense, the word nirvāa is used in much the same way as the now standard English word enlightenment, a generic word literally translating no particular Asian technical term but used to designate any Buddhist notion of the highest spiritual experience. Of course, Buddhism comprehends a diverse set of religious phenomena, a tradition with sacred texts in four principal canonical languages (Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese), and a spiritual following throughout the world. Not surprisingly, then, when referring to the ultimate spiritual ideal many Buddhist groups prefer to emphasize their own distinctive terms instead of nirvāa.

N irvĀa in the Early Buddhist and Abhidharma Traditions

In the Pali nikāyas and Chinese āgamas, works first written down or composed two or three centuries after the death of the Buddha, there is little philosophical discussion about the nature of nirvāa. Indeed, on technical points such as the enlightened person's status after death, the sūtras admonish that such metaphysical speculation is only an obstacle to achieving the ultimate goal. In a famous story found in the Majjhima Nikāya, for example, Mālukyāputta asked the Buddha several metaphysical questions, including whether the Buddha continues to exist after death. The Buddha responded that such questioning is beside the point; it would be comparable to a man struck by a poison arrow who worried about the origin and nature of the arrow rather than pulling it out.

Whether there is the view that the Tathāgata both is and is not after dying, or whether, Mālukyāputta, there is the view that the Tathāgata neither is nor is not after dying, there is birth, there is ageing, there is dying, there are grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair, the suppression of which I lay down here and now. (Horner, 19541959, vol. 2, pp. 100101)

In short, the early Buddhist texts primarily approached nirvāa as a practical solution to the existential problem of human anguish. Specifically, they maintained that by undertaking a disciplined praxis the Buddhist practitioner can achieve a nondiscursive awakening (bodhi) to the interdependent nonsubstantiality of reality, especially of the self. With that insight, it was believed, one could be released from the grips of insatiable craving and its resultant suffering.

In most cases nirvāa is described in negative terms such as "cessation" (nirodha ), "the absence of craving" (tākaya ), "detachment," "the absence of delusion," and "the unconditioned" (asaskta ). Although in the nikāyas and subsequent Abhidharma school commentaries there are scattered positive references to, for instance, "happiness" (sukha ), "peace," and "bliss," and to such metaphors of transcendence as "the farther shore," the negative images predominate. Indeed, the word nirvāa itself means "extinction," and other words used synonymously with it, such as moka and mukti, refer to emancipation. One difficulty with the early texts, however, is that they were not always clear or unequivocal about what was extinguished and from what one was emancipated. One prominent tendency was to understand nirvāa as a release from sasāra, the painful world of birth and death powered by passion, hatred, and ignorance. According to the early texts, the Eightfold Path leading to nirvāa is the only way to break free of this cycle and to eliminate the insatiable craving at its root. The Path is not merely a set of moral exhortations, but rather, a program of spiritual reconditioning that liberates one from the pain of sasāra.

The Buddhist view of sasāra developed as the notion of rebirth was taking root in ancient India. So enlightenment came to be understood as the extinction (nirvāa ) of what can be reborn, that is, as the dissolution of any continuing personal identity after death. This led to the need to distinguish between (1) the enlightenment of the person who has transcended in this world the suffering caused by craving, and (2) the perfect nirvāa achieved only when that person dies and is fully released from sasāra, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Pali texts, therefore, distinguished "nirvāa with remainder" (saupādisesa nibbāna ) from "nirvāa without remainder" (anupādisesa nibbāna ), or even more simply, enlightenment (nibbāna ) from complete enlightenment (parinibbāna; Skt., parinirvāa ).

The Abhidharma traditions interpreted the distinction in the following way. After many lifetimes of effort and an overall improvement in the circumstances of rebirth, the person undertaking the Path finally reaches the stage at which craving and its attendant negative effects are no longer generated. This is the state of "nirvāa with remainder" because the residue of negative karmic effects from previous actions continues. The enlightened person still experiences physical pain, for example, as a consequence of the mere fact of corporeality, itself a karmic "fruit." Once these residues are burned off, as it were, the person will die and achieve the perfect "nirvāa without remainder."

An ambiguity in the distinction between sasāra and nirvāa is whether the contrasted terms refer to psychological or ontological states. That is, are sasāra and nirvāa states of mind or kinds of existence? If sasāra refers to the psychological worldview conducive to suffering, then the transition from sasāra to nirvāa is simply a profound change in attitude, perspective, and motivation. If, on the other hand, sasāra refers to this pain-stricken world itself, then nirvāa must be somewhere else. Here the ancient metaphor of nirvāa as "the farther shore" could assume a metaphysical status. In effect, nirvāa could be understood as a permanent state of bliss beyond the world of birth, death, and rebirth. The reaction against such an interpretation influenced the Mahāyāna Buddhist views of enlightenment.

NirvĀa in the Indian MahĀyĀna Buddhist Traditions

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhists minimized the opposition between nirvāa and sasāra, renouncing the suggestion that nirvāa was an escape from the world of suffering. Instead, they thought of enlightenment as a wise and compassionate way of living in that world. The adherents of the two major Indian branches of Mahāyāna philosophy, Mādhyamika and Yogācāra, each developed their own way of rejecting the escapism to which, it was thought, the Abhidharma interpretation led.

The Perfection of Wisdom and Mādhyamika traditions

One Mahāyāna strategy was to undercut the epistemological and logical bases for the sharp distinction between the concepts of nirvāa and sasāra. Without nirvāa there is no sasāra, and vice versa. How then could one be absolute and the other relative? This question was most clearly raised by the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) literature and philosophically analyzed in the Mādhyamika school founded by Nāgārjuna (c. 150250 ce).

In effect, Mādhyamika thought radicalized the Buddha's original silence on this critical issue by trying to demonstrate that any philosophical attempt to characterize reality is limited by the logical interdependence of words or concepts. Assuming an isomorphic relationship between words and nonlinguistic referents, Nāgārjuna reasoned that the interdependent character of words precludes their referring to any absolute, nondependent realities. To the very extent one can talk or reason about nirvāa and sasāra, therefore, they must depend on each other. Neither can be absolute in itself.

For the Mādhyamikas, the real cause of human turmoil is that through naming and analyzing one tries to grasp and hold onto what exists only through the distinctions imposed by the conventions of language. From this perspective, Buddhist practice frees one from this attachment to concepts by cultivating prajñā, a nondiscursive, direct insight into the way things are. Once one recognizes that the substantialized sense of ego is based on a linguistic distinction having no ultimate basis, an enlightened attitude develops in which one actively shares in the suffering of all other sentient beings. In this way, the wisdom of prajñā can also be considered a universal form of compassion, karuna. This prajñā-karuna ideal eventually became a major paradigm of enlightenment within the entire Mahāyāna tradition in India, Tibet, and East Asia.

Nirvāa in the idealistic and yogācāra traditions

The typical approach of such idealistic texts as the Lakāvatāra Sūtra and of its related philosophical school, Yogācāra, was to assert that nirvāa and sasāra had a common ground, namely, the activity of the mind. The terminology varied from text to text and thinker to thinker, but the thrust of this branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism was that the mind was the basis of both delusion (understood as sasāra ) and enlightenment (understood as nirvāa ). For many in this tradition, this implied that there is in each person an inherent core of Buddhahood covered over with a shell of delusional fixations. Sometimes this core was called the tathāgata-garbha ("Buddha womb, Buddha embryo," or "Buddha matrix"); in other cases it was considered to be part of a store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna ) containing seeds (bīja ) that could sprout either delusional or enlightened experience. In either case, Buddhist practice was seen as a technique for clarifying or making manifest the Buddha mind or Buddha nature within the individual. This notion of mind and its relation to Buddhist practice influenced the later development of Mahāyāna Buddhism, even the schools that first flourished in East Asia, such as Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan (Zen).

A problem raised by this more psychological approach to enlightenment was the issue of universality. Is the inherent core of enlightenment in one person the same as in another? Is it equally present in everyone? With such questions, the difficulty of the ontological status of enlightenment once again emerged. That is, if both nirvāa and sasāra are dependent on the mind in some sense, the problem for the Yogācāra philosophers was to explain the objective ground for nirvāa. Otherwise, truth would be merely subjective. Yogācāra thinkers such as Asaga (fourth century ce) and his brother, Vasubandhu, approached this problem by asserting a transindividual, mental ground for all experience called ālaya-vijñāna. Other Yogācāra thinkers such as Dignāga, however, rejected the existence of such a store-consciousness and tried to establish the necessary ground for objectivity within mental cognition itself, while denying the substantial reality of any object outside cognition. In general, the former approach persevered in the transmission of Yogācāra's philosophy into East Asia, where the idea of the ground of enlightenment or of the Buddha nature would become a major theme.

Buddhahood in devotional Mahāyāna Buddhism

Nirvāa 's ontological or metaphysical nature was also a theme in Mahāyāna religious practices quite outside the formal considerations of the philosophers. This development was associated with the rise of the notion that the historical Buddha who had died in the fifth century bce was actually only an earthly manifestation of an eternal Buddha or of Buddhahood itself. This line of thought developed into the construction of a rich pantheon of Buddhas and bodhisattvas living in various heavenly realms and interacting with human beings in supportive ways. These heavenly figures became the objects of meditation, emulation, reverence, and sup-plication.

The evolution of the Buddhist pantheon was consistent with the general Mahāyāna principle that a necessary component of enlightenment is compassion. The Buddha, it was believed, would not desert those who had not yet achieved nirvāa and were still in a state of anguish. Whereas the physical person of the Buddha was extinguished, the compassion of his Buddhahood would seem to endure. Following this line of reasoning, the historical Buddha was taken to be only a physical manifestation of enlightened being itself. This interpretation made moot the question of nirvāa as the release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. If Buddhahood continues even after the physical disappearance of the enlightened person, enlightenment must be more manifested than achieved. This way of thinking was conducive to Mahāyāna Buddhism's transmission into East Asia.

NirvĀa in East Asian Buddhist Traditions

The Mahāyānists were generally more interested in the truth to which enlightenment was an awakening than the pain from which it was a release. This emphasis on the positive aspect of enlightenment also caused to be diminished the importance of nirvāa as the release from rebirth. This perspective was well suited to Chinese thought. Because the Chinese had no indigenous idea of the cycle of rebirth, release from that cycle was not the existential issue in China it had been in India.

A second Mahāyānist idea readily accepted by the Chinese was that enlightenment is available to anyone in this very lifetime. The Abhidharma traditions generally assumed the path to enlightenment would take eons, and that the last rebirth in this progression of lifetimes would be that of a monk blessed with the circumstances most conducive to concentrating on the final stages of the Path. This view led to a distinction between the spiritual development of monastics and laypersons: Laypersons were to support monastics in their religious quest; such support would, in return, give the laypersons meritorious karman leading to successively better rebirths until they too were born into circumstances allowing them to reach the final stages of the Path.

The Mahāyāna ideal, on the other hand, was that of the bodhisattva, the enlightened (or, more technically, almost enlightened) being who chooses to be actively involved in alleviating the suffering of others by leading them to enlightenment. In other words, the bodhisattva subordinates personal enlightenment to that of others. Both Abhidharma and Mahāyāna Buddhism aim for the enlightenment of everyone, but whereas in the Abhidharma view enlightenment is achieved by one person at a time and the group as a whole pushes upward in a pyramid effect, supporting most the spiritual progress of those at the top, in Mahāyāna Buddhism the bodhisattvas at the top turn back to pull up those behind them until everyone is ready to achieve enlightenment simultaneously. Ultimately, the Mahāyāna model dominated in East Asia, partly because the collectivist viewpoint was more consistent with indigenous Chinese ideas predating the introduction of Buddhism.

When Buddhism entered China around the beginning of the common era, Confucianism and Daoism were already well established. Confucianism placed its primary emphasis on the cultivation of virtuous human relationships for the harmonious functioning of society. This emphasis on social responsibility and collective virtue blended well with the Mahāyāna vision of enlightenment.

Compared to Confucianism, Daoism was relatively ascetic, mystical, and otherworldly. Yet its mysticism was strongly naturalistic in that the Daoist sage sought unity with the Dao by being in harmony with nature. In Daoism, as in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the absolute principle was completely immanent in this world, accessible to all who attune themselves to it by undertaking the proper form of meditation and self-discipline. Because one of the root meanings of the term dao is "path," the Chinese found parallels between the Buddhist sense of the Path and the Daoist understanding of achieving oneness with the Dao.

Nirvāa in the Tiantai and Huayan schools

Eventually there arose new forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism distinctive to East Asia, schools either unknown or only incipient in India. The term nirvāa, possibly because it carried connotations of a foreign worldview replete with such ideas as rebirth and the inherent unsatisfactoriness (dukha ) of existence, tended to lose its privileged status in favor of such terms as "awakening" (chüeh ) and "realization" (wu ).

The Chinese Tiantai and Huayan traditions formulated their own sophisticated philosophical worldviews out of ideas suggested by Indian sūtras. Both schools emphasized the interpenetration of all things. In Tiantai terminology as developed by such philosophers as Zhiyi (538597), all the "three thousand worlds" are reflected in a single instant of thought. Reality's underlying, unifying factor was understood to be mind. For Tiantai followers the fundamental mind is itself always pure and does not contain, as most Indian Yogācārins held, both delusional and enlightened seeds.

The Tiantai assumption of an underlying, inherently pure, mind had two important consequences. First, the goal of its primary contemplative practice, known as "cessation and discernment" (zhiguan ), was explained as immersion into, rather than the purification of, mind. By ceasing to focus on the surface flow of ordinary phenomena, one can discern the underlying single mind at the source of all things. Second, because the underlying mind is pure or enlightened, it follows that all things, even inanimate ones, are endowed with Buddha nature. This corollary was first proposed by the ninth patriarch of the tradition, Zhanran (711782), who clearly articulated the view that the entire world, as it is, is already somehow enlightened. The goal, then, is to realize, awaken to, or manifest that enlightenment in one's own life. The relationship between inherent and acquired enlightenment became a central problematic in the Tiantai tradition and a major theme behind the development of the various schools of Japanese Buddhism in the Kamakura period (11851333) as well.

Chinese Huayan Buddhism also affirmed the interdependence among, and harmony within, all things. Unlike the adherents of Tiantai, however, the Huayan philosophers did not think of mind as the underlying, unifying entity. Fazang (643712), for example, preferred to deny any single unifying factor and used the phrase "the nonobstruction between thing and thing" (shishi wuʿai). In other words, each phenomenon itself was thought to reflect every other phenomenon. Zongmi (780841), on the other hand, favored the phrase "the nonobstruction between absolute principle and thing" (lishi wuʿai). Thus, he regarded principle (li) as the fundamental unifying substrate, even the creative source, of reality.

In all these Tiantai and Huayan theories is found a recurrent, distinctively East Asian, interpretation of nirvāa. Just as the Confucians sought harmony within the social order and the Daoists harmony within the natural order, the Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists understood enlightenment in terms of harmony. Rather than emphasizing the painful aspect of the world and the means to emancipation from it, the Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists focused on recognizing the intrinsic harmony of the universe and feeling intimately a part of it.

Nirvāa in the Chan (Zen) school

Chan (Kor., Son; Jpn., Zen) is another school with roots in India, but it developed into a full-fledged tradition only in East Asia. It is distinctive in its de-emphasis of the role of formal doctrine and religious texts in favor of a direct "transmission of mind" from master to disciple. Chan focused most on the interpersonal aspect of the enlightenment experience. Enlightenment was considered a stamp embodied in a particular lineage of enlightened people going back to the historical Buddha, and the personal encounters of great masters and disciples were recorded in order to serve as the object of meditation for future generations.

One topic of debate about enlightenment in the Chan school concerned the issue of whether enlightenment was "sudden" or "gradual." The Northern school emphasized the inherent purity of the mind and, therefore, advocated a practice intended to remove delusional thoughts covering over that intrinsically undefiled core. Then, it was assumed, the inherent enlightenment of the mind could shine forth ever more brilliantly. According to the Platform Sūtra, a text of the Southern school, this position was expressed in a poem by Shenxiu (606706) as follows:

The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect. (Yampolsky, 1967, p. 130)

The members of the Southern school, on the other hand, accused their Northern school counterparts of reifying enlightenment into an independently existing thing. In the expression of Huineng (638713) also recorded in the Platform Sūtra :

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clear and pure;
Where is there room for dust? (ibid., p. 132)

In other words, enlightenment should be manifest at all times in all one's activities. It is not a separate state or seed to be nurtured or cared for. The goal for the Southern school, therefore, was to make enlightenment manifest while going about one's daily affairs. This viewpoint eventually led some Southern masters, especially those in the lineage of Mazu (709788), to de-emphasize simple meditation in favor of the shock tactics of shouting, striking, and using the gongan (Jpn., kōan ). These special techniques were all ways of making the disciple realize and manifest Buddha nature in a sudden manner.

Another approach to the sudden/gradual issue was originally taken by the previously mentioned Huayan (and Chan) master Zongmi, and later developed extensively by the great Korean Sŏn master, Chinul (11581210). Their view was that the Southern school (which eventually dominated for political as much as religious or philosophical reasons) was correct in maintaining that enlightenment, the awakening to one's own Buddha nature, had to be a sudden realization. Yet Zongmi and Chinul also maintained that realization had to be gradually integrated into one's life through a continuously deepening practice of spiritual cultivation. Thus, their position is known as "sudden awakening/gradual cultivation," rather than "sudden awakening/sudden cultivation." This distinction exemplifies the importance Chan philosophers accorded the need to define as precisely as possible the relationship between practice and enlightenment. Dōgen (12001253), the founder of the Japanese Sōtō Zen tradition, addressed the problem of how enlightenment could be inherent and yet practice still necessary. That is, if people are already primordially enlightened why should anyone bother to sit in meditation? Dōgen understood practice to be enlightened activity itself: one does not sit in meditation in order to achieve enlightenment, but rather, one's enlightenment is expressed as one's sitting in meditation.

For virtually all the Chan (and Sŏn and Zen) traditions, enlightenment is more than an insight or even a sense of harmony. It is also a mode of behavior to be continuously enacted and tested in everyday life. Much of the interpersonal dynamics between master and disciple is designed to challenge the person to make nirvāa manifest in such ordinary activities as talking, working, eating, and washing, as well as meditating.

Nirvāa in the Pure Land traditions

All forms of Buddhism discussed up to now have assumed that one can only achieve nirvāa through years (or even lifetimes) of concentrated practice. The Pure Land tradition, especially as developed by Shinran (11731262) in Japan, radically reinterpreted the notion of Buddhist practice, however.

Pure Land Buddhism is another Mahāyāna tradition that had its basis in Indian sūtras but that only fully blossomed in East Asia. It began with a rather otherworldly orientation: The present period of history was considered so degenerate that it was thought to be no longer possible for human beings to practice genuine Buddhism and to achieve nirvāa. A bodhisattva named Dharmākara (Hōzō in Japanese), however, vowed not to allow himself to achieve full Buddhahood if people who called on his name with faith were not reborn in a Pure Land, a place ideally suited for Buddhist practice. In that Pure Land, people could attain enlightenment and even come back into the world as bodhisattvas to aid in the spiritual progress of others. The Pure Land sūtras go on to explain that Dharmākara became the Buddha Amitābha/Amitāyus (Jpn., Amida). Therefore, he must have fulfilled his vow, and thus if people can call on that Buddha's name with complete faith in his compassion and power to help they will be guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land.

The major lesson in this account for Pure Land Buddhists like Shinran was that human beings today cannot achieve nirvāa by their "own power" (jiriki ). Rather than help themselves through the practice of calculated, self-conscious actions (hakarai ), people should simply resign themselves completely to the "power of another" (tariki ), that is, the power of Amida's compassionate vow. Even this act of the "entrusting heart and mind" (shinjin ) must itself be an expression of Amida's vow and not an effort on one's own part. In this way, Shinran maintained that enlightenment could ultimately only be achieved by first releasing oneself to the spontaneousness "naturalness" (jinen hōni ), the active grace of Amida's compassion as this world itself. "Amida Buddha is the medium through which we are made to realize jinen " (Ueda, 1978, pp. 2930). By subordinating even Amida and his vow to the principle of spontaneous naturalness in this way, Shinran removed the otherworldly traces in Pure Land teaching, making it more suitable to its East Asian, particularly Japanese, context.

Nirvāa in the Esoteric traditions

The Esoteric, Vajrayāna, or Tantric forms of Buddhism can be generally viewed as extensions of Mahāyāna. In general, however, Esoteric Buddhism was most permanently influential in Tibet (including the Mongolian extensions of Tibetan Buddhism) and in Japan. In both cases, Esotericism merged its practices and doctrines with the indigenous shamanistic, archaic religions of, respectively, Bon and Shintō.

In terms of their understanding of nirvāa the Esoteric traditions added an important dimension to their otherwise generally Mahāyānistic outlook, namely, that enlightenment should be understood as participation in the enlightenment of the Buddha-as-reality (the dharmakāya ). From this viewpoint, sacred speech (mantras), sacred gestures (mudrā s), and sacred envisioning (maala s) constitute a Buddhist ritualistic practice having an almost sacramental character. That is, in performing the rituals outlined in the Tantras, the Esoteric Buddhist believes that one's own speech, action, and thought become the concrete expression of the cosmic Buddha's own enlightenment.

This notion found a particularly clear formulation in the Japanese Shingon Buddhism established by Kūkai (774835). According to Kūkai, the fundamental principle of Shingon practice and philosophy is that of hosshin seppō, "the Buddha-as-reality [dharmakāya ] preaches the true teaching [dharma ]." In making this claim, Kūkai rejected the exoteric Buddhist notion that only a historical Buddha (nirmāakāya ) or a heavenly Buddha (sabhogakāya ) can preach. All of reality in itself, according to Kūkai, is the symbolic expression of the dharmakāya Buddha's enlightened activity and, as such, is the direct manifestation of truth. The way to grasp this symbolic expression is not to be an audience to it, but rather to take part in it directly through Esoteric rituals. The individual's own enlightenment was considered an aspect of the cosmic Buddha's enlightened activity. Kūkai identified the Buddha-as-reality or the cosmic Buddha as the Great Sun Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai (Skt., Mahāvairocana).

Kūkai's view of enlightenment was, therefore, summarized in the phrase "attaining Buddha in and through this very body" (sokushin jōbutsu ). Through the ritualized, physical participation in the world, the person could become a concrete expression of Dainichi Buddha's enlightened action. Kūkai expressed this intimacy between the individual and Dainichi Buddha as "the Buddha enters the self and the self enters the Buddha" (nyūga ganyū ). In effect, the Mahāyāna Buddhist's identification of nirvāa with the world was taken to its most radical conclusion. That is, from the Shingon perspective, this very world is the Buddha Dainichi. This means that enlightenment is not inherent in the world, but rather, the world itself is the experience of enlightenment.


As this article has shown, there is no single Buddhist view of nirvāa. The Buddhist ideal varies with the culture, the historical period, the language, the school, and even the individual. Still, one does find in the Buddhist notions of nirvāa what Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called a "family resemblance," that is, a group of characteristics that no single family member entirely possesses but that all members share to such an extent that the members of one family are distinguishable from the members of another. In this case, the Buddhist conceptions of nirvāa share a set of qualities that can be summarized as follows.


Nirvāa is the release from ignorance about the way the world is. Because one does not understand the nature of human existence and the laws affecting human life, one lives in either a state of outright suffering or in a state of disharmony. Nirvāa is ultimately acknowledging and living by the truths of the world. In that respect, its orientation is this-worldly.


The knowledge achieved by nirvāa is not merely intellectual or spiritual. Nirvāa is achieved through a process of psychological and physical conditioning aimed at reorienting and reversing ego-centered forms of thinking and behaving. Nirvāa is achieved through and with the body, not despite the body.


One is not alone on the Path. There is support from texts, philosophical teachings, religious practices, the Buddhist community, the examples of masters, and even the rocks and trees. Most of all, there is the power of compassion that one receives from others and that grows stronger the more it is offered to others.


Nirvāa is achieved by penetrating and dissolving the slashes or virgules separating humanity/nature, self/other, subject/object, and even nirvāa/sasāra. The particular pairs of opposition vary from place to place and time to time as Buddhism attacks the special dichotomies most destructive in a given culture during a specific period. Nirvāa entails a recognition of the inherent harmony and equality of all things.


Nirvāa has an intrinsically moral aspect. By eliminating all egocentric ideas, emotions, and actions, the enlightened person approaches others with either complete equanimity (wherein self and others are treated exactly the same) or with a compassionate involvement in alleviating the suffering of others (wherein self is subordinated to the needs of those less fortunate). Morality can be considered the alpha and omega of nirvāa. That is, the Path begins with accepting various rules and precepts of behavior, whereas nirvāa culminates in the open, moral treatment of other people and things.


Although in any given context, one viewpoint is emphasized over the other, generally speaking, nirvāa can be understood from either a psychological or ontological perspective. Psychologically viewed, nirvāa is a radical change in attitude such that one no longer experiences the negative influence of egocentric thinking. If this perspective is misunderstood and overemphasized, however, it leads to a psychologism that holds that truth is simply in the mind without any connection to an external reality. The remedy for this distortion is to assert the ontological aspect of nirvāa.

Ontologically speaking, nirvāa is the affirmation of the inherent goodness of the world and even of human nature. In this sense, nirvāa is not merely a kind of experience (as depicted by the psychological view) but is also the content or even ground of an experience. If this ontological viewpoint is overemphasized, on the other hand, it can lead to the distorted idea that diligence and practice are arbitrary or even unnecessary. The remedy is, conversely, to neutralize that distortion with more emphasis on the psychological side of nirvāa.

In short, both the psychological and ontological views contain truths about the nature of nirvāa, but if either position is developed in such a way as to exclude the other, the result is a distortion of the Buddhist Path. For this reason, the two views coexist throughout Buddhist history, one view always complementing the other and checking any distortions that might arise out of a one-sided perspective.

See Also

Ālaya-vijñāna; Amitābha; Asaga; Bodhisattva Path; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Esoteric Buddhism; Buddhist Ethics; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Buddhist Philosophy; Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Chan; Chinul; Confucianism; Daoism, overview article; Dignāga; Dōgen; Eightfold Path; Fazang; Huayan; Huineng; Karuā; Language, article on Buddhist Views of Language; Mādhyamika; Mahāvairocana; Nāgārjuna; Prajñā; Shingonshū; Shinran; Soteriology; Tathāgatha-garbha; Tiantai; Vasubandhu; Yogācāra; Zen; Zhenyan; Zhiyi; Zongmi.


As the fundamental ideal of Buddhism, nirvāa is discussed in a wide variety of works: sūtras, commentaries, and secondary critical works by scholars of various traditions. Any bibliography must be, therefore, incomplete and, at best, highly selective. The following works have been chosen for their particular relevance to the issues discussed in the foregoing article.

Nirvāa in the Indian Buddhist Traditions

Of the many references to nirvāa in the early Indian texts, certain passages have traditionally received the most attention. For example, in the Pali scriptures, the status of the Buddha after death (parinibbāna ) is handled in various ways. Most prominent, undoubtedly, is the traditional account of the Buddha's passing away described in chapter 6 of the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta. A translation of this text by T. W. Rhys Davids is readily available as Buddhist Suttas, volume 11 of "The Sacred Books of the East," edited by F. Max Müller (1881; reprint, New York, 1969). An interesting feature of this account is its clear distinction between the Buddha's nirvāa and his meditative capacity to cause the complete cessation (nirodha ) of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. This passage is often quoted, therefore, against any claim that the early Buddhist view was simply nihilistic and world-renouncing. Notably absent in this text, however, is any detailed treatment of the classic distinction between nirvāa with remainder and nirvāa without remainder. That distinction is more clearly presented in Itivuttaka, edited by Ernst Windisch (London, 1889), esp. pp. 3839. An English translation by F. L. Woodward is in the second volume of Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, edited by C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London, 1935).

Another commonly analyzed theme is the Buddha's own reticence to describe the status of the enlightened person after death. On this point, there are two particularly provocative textual references. One is the above-mentioned story about Mālukyāputta in Majjhima-Nikāya, 4 vols., edited by Vilhelm Trenckner, Robert Chalmers, and C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London, 18871925), sutta s 6364; the other is in The Sayutta-Nikāya of the Sutta Pitaka, 6 vols., edited by Léon Freer (London, 18841904), vol. 3, p. 118. English translations of these two complete collections are, respectively, The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings, 3 vols., translated by I. B. Horner (London, 19541959), and The Book of Kindred Sayings, 5 vols., translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward (London, 19171930).

As already mentioned, descriptions of nirvāa are for the most part posed in negative terms; the interested reader can find a multitude of examples by consulting, for example, the excellent indexes in the collections of early Pali texts cited above. One particularly striking exception to this rule, however, is found in The Sayutta-Nikāya, vol. 4, p. 373. This passage gives a rather lengthy string of mostly positive equivalents to nirvāa, including terms that mean "truth," "the farther shore," "the stable," "peace," "security," "purity," and so forth. Such positive characterizations of nirvāa are found elsewhere, but never in quite so concentrated a list.

On the issue of the transcendent, mystical, or metaphysical aspect of nirvāa in the early Buddhist tradition, a pivotal textual reference is in Udāna, edited by Paul Steinthal (London, 1948). An English translation also occurs in volume 2 of Woodward's Minor Anthologies, cited above. On pages 8081 of Udāna, there is found an indubitable reference to a state of mind or a place beyond birth and death, beyond all discrimination and ordinary perceptions. Controversy still continues over the proper interpretation of the passage. In Rune E. A. Johansson's Psychology of Nirvāa (London, 1969), for example, there is a sustained discussion of the enlightened state of mind as being a mystical, transempirical, nondifferentiated state of consciousness. The passage from Udāna naturally figures prominently in Johansson's argument. On the other hand, this viewpoint is severely criticized in David J. Kalupahana's Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, 1976), chap. 7. By interpreting this passage as referring to the state of cessation (nirodha ) just prior to the Buddha's death but not to ordinary nirvāa in this world, Kalupahana argues that early Buddhism consistently maintained that the achievement of nirvāa does not require, or entail, any transempirical form of perception. In this regard, Kalupahana is expanding on the theory that early Buddhism was primarily empirical in outlook, an interpretation first fully developed in Kulitassa Nanda Jayatilleke's Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London, 1963).

Another controversial issue among modern scholars is the relationship between early Buddhism and the contemporary form of Hinduism. Whereas Kalupahana's approach sharply distinguishes the early Buddhist view of nirvāa from the contemporary Hindu ideal of the unity of ātman with brahman, Johansson tends to see a common mystical element in the two. A generally more balanced and convincing position on this point can be found in the thorough discussion of Kashi Nath Upadhyaya's Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgītā (Delhi, 1971).

A good introduction to the modern view of nirvāa from the standpoint of the only living tradition of Abhidharma, the Theravāda, is Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed. (Bedford, U.K., 1967), chap. 4. This small work is highly regarded for its ability to explain the gist of centuries of Abhidharmic analysis in a straightforward, accurate, and yet nontechnical manner. On the way nirvāa actually functions today as an ethical ideal in Theravāda daily life, see Winston L. King's In the Hope of Nibbana: An Essay of Theravada Buddhist Ethics (La Salle, Ill., 1964). For a more historical and specialized approach to the development of the early Abhidharma views of nirvāa, see Edward Conze's Buddhist Thought in India (1962; reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1970), esp. sections 1.5 and 2.3. Although this book is poorly written and organized, it still contains some information not readily available in English elsewhere.

For Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamika school, the locus classicus is Nāgārjuna's discussion in chapter 25 of his Mūlamadhya-makakārikā. The complete Sanskrit original and English translation of this work with extensive commentary is found in David J. Kalupahana's Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way (Albany, N.Y., 1985). A good discussion of Nāgārjuna's basic position with respect to nirvāa also appears in Frederick J. Streng's Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York, 1967), pp. 6981.

For studying the Yogācāra and idealist position, the reader may wish to consult The Lakāvatāra Sūtra, translated by D. T. Suzuki (1932; reprint, Boulder, Colo., 1978). The identifications of nirvāa with the pure ālaya-vijñāna or the tathāgata-garbha, as well as with the mind released from delusional discriminations are particularly discussed in sections 18, 38, 63, 74, 77, and 82. For the more systematically philosophical developments of the Yogācāra tradition, the reader may refer to the following works. Asaga's Mahāyānasagraha has been translated and edited by Étienne Lamotte in La somme du Grand Véhicule d'Asaga, vol. 2 (Louvain, 1939). Translations of Vasubandhu's Viśatikā and Triśikā by Clarence H. Hamilton and Wing-tsit Chan, respectively, can be found in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N. J., 1957). Sylvain Lévi's Matériaux pour l'étude du système Vijñaptimātra (Paris, 1932) remains the definitive discussion on Vasubandhu's writings. For an analysis of Dignāga's thought, see Hattori Masaaki's Dignāga, on Perception (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).

For a straightforward and detailed discussion of Indian Buddhist theories of nirvāa, see Nalinaksha Dutt's Mahāyāna Buddhism (rev. ed., Delhi, 1978), chap. 7. Although sometimes biased against the Abhidharma traditions, his account of the differences among the Indian Buddhist schools is very good. For a thorough and fascinating discussion of the attempts of Western scholars to interpret the idea of nirvāa as found primarily in the Pali texts, see Guy R. Welbon's The Buddhist Nirvāa and Its Western Interpreters (Chicago, 1968). Welbon includes a good bibliography of works in Western languages. His book culminates in the famous debate between Louis de La Vallée Poussin (18691938) and Theodore Stcherbatsky (Fedor Shcherbatskii, 18661942). Both were noted as first-rate commentators on Mahāyāna Buddhism, but their own personalities and temperaments led them to take distinctively different views of Buddhism and its intent. Thus, in examining the same early Buddhist texts, the former emphasized the yogic and religious aspects whereas the latter favored the philosophical. Despite their limitations, however, La Vallée Poussin's Nirvāa (Paris, 1925) and Stcherbatsky's The Conception of Buddhist Nirvāa (Leningrad, 1927) remain classic works on this subject.

East Asian Traditions

For the reasons given in the essay, the idea of nirvāa is not discussed as explicitly in the East Asian as the South Asian traditions. When nirvāa is analyzed by East Asian Buddhists, the sharply etched distinctions among the various Indian Mahāyāna schools are softened. A clear example of this is D. T. Suzuki's Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (New York, 1963), chap. 13. In this chapter, and indeed throughout the book, Suzuki approaches the ideas of Mahāyāna Buddhists as coming from discrete traditions but involving an underlying common spirit.

For the view of the Tiantai school as developed by Zhiyi, the most thorough discussion in English is Leon N. Hurvitz's Zhiyi (538597 ); An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk (Brussels, 1962). For the impact of the Tiantai idea of inherent enlightenment on Japanese Buddhism in the Kamakura period, see the comprehensive study in Tamura Yoshirō's Kamakura shinbukkyō shisō no kenkyū (Tokyo, 1965).

Like Tiantai, the Huayan tradition has not yet been comprehensively studied in Western works. One of the better philosophical overviews of Huayan theory in relation to enlightenment is the discussion about Fazang in Fung Youlan's A History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton, N. J., 1953), vol. 2, chap. 8. Fazang is also central to the analysis in Francis D. Cook's Huayan Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, Pa., 1977). Essays on the history of Huayan practice are included in Studies in Chan and Huayan, edited by Robert M. Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu, 1984).

On the theory of the four realms of reality (fajie ), the culmination of which is the "nonobstruction between thing and things," a key text is Chengguan's Huayan fajie xüanjing, a translation of which is found in Thomas Cleary's Entry into the Inconceivable (Honolulu, 1983). One noteworthy point about the translation, however, is that it translates li as "noumenon" and shi as "phenomenon," a rendering popular in earlier English translations, but now usually replaced by terms less speculative and philosophically misleading, such as, respectively, "principle" and "event" (or "principle" and "thing").

On the Chan distinction between sudden and gradual enlightenment, the exchange of poems by Shenxiu and Huineng is recorded in the first ten sections of the Liuzu tanjing, a good translation of which is Philip B. Yampolsky's The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York, 1967). For Zongmi's view of sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation, as well as Chinul's elaboration on this point, see the discussion in The Korean Approach to Zen, translated by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (Honolulu, 1983). For Dōgen's view of the oneness of cultivation and enlightenment, see Hee-Jin Kim's Dōgen Kigen: Mystical Realist (Tucson, 1975), chap. 3, and my Zen Action/Zen Person (Honolulu, 1981), chaps. 67.

For an overview of the Pure Land tradition and, in particular, Shinran's view that enlightenment is unattainable through any efforts of one's own, see Alfred Bloom's Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (Tucson, 1965), still the only major objective study of Shinran in English. There are two good translation series of Shinran's works: the "Ryūkoku Translation Series" and the "Shin Buddhism Translation Series," both of Kyoto, Japan. Neither series is complete but, between the two, most of Shinran's works have been adequately translated. The quotation in the foregoing essay is from the first volume of the latter series, namely, The Letters of Shinran: A Translation of Mattōshō, edited and translated by Ueda Yoshifumi (Kyoto, 1978).

For Kūkai's view on the distinctiveness of Esoteric Buddhism, a key text is Benkenmitsu nikyo ron (On distinguishing the two teachingsExoteric and Esoteric). On the role of ritual in enlightenment, see his Sokushin jōbutsu gi (On achieving buddhahood with this very body) and Shōji jissō gi (On sound-word-reality). English translations of these works and others can be conveniently found in Yoshito S. Hakeda's Kūkai: Major Works (New York, 1972).

New Sources

Collins, S. Nirvāa and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire. New York, 1998.

Gombrich, R. F. Kindness and Compassion as Means to Nirvāa. Amsterdam, 1998.

Kasulis, Thomas P. "Nirvāa." In Buddhism and Asian History, edited by Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa and Mark D. Cummings, pp. 395408. New York, 1989.

Obermiller, E., and H. S. Sobati. Nirvāa in Tibetan Buddhism. Delhi, 1988.

Sukla, K. Nagarjuna Bauddha Pratisthanam, Nature of Bondage and Liberation in Buddhist Systems: Proceedings of Seminar Held in 1984. Gorakhpur, India, 1988.

Swaris, N. The Buddha's Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, 1999.

Thomas, E. J. The Road to Nirvāa: A Selection of the Buddhist Scriptures Translated from the Pali. Rutland, Vt., 1992.

Tilakaratne, A., and the University of Kelaniya. Nirvāa and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory of Reality and Language. Sri Lanka, 1993.

Thomas P. Kasulis (1987)

Revised Bibliography