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Nirvāa is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, although there has been disagreement among Buddhists concerning its nature and the means of attaining it. The word derives from a Sanskrit verbal root meaning "to blow" and a prefix meaning "out." The underlying meaning of the word is traditionally explained as expressing one of two metaphors. The first is that the term means the act of blowing out or extinguishing, as of a flame. The second is that it means the act of being cooled down, as by a breeze. The two metaphors have in common the notion of fire or heat as a source of pain that is alleviated by a breeze. So the principal characteristic of nirvāa is relief from pain and the prevention of future pain through the eradication of its root causes. It is, in other words, the permanent release from the conditions that make pain possible, both physical pain and forms of psychological suffering such as sadness, grief, despondency, melancholy, frustration, and anxiety. Traditionally nirvāa is said to occur in two stages: the extinction of the causes of rebirth and the end of rebirth itself. For ease of exposition, the latter will be discussed first.

NirvĀa as the end of Rebirth

The Buddhist doctrine of nirvāa arose in the context of a view of the world that was common throughout India at the time when Buddhism was founded, in the sixth century BCE. According to that view, the world is both beginningless and endless and constantly changing. Among the many kinds of change in this world are the various stages undergone by a living being, or, more properly, an individual continuum of conscious. Such a being is born, matures, decays and eventually dies. When a living being dies, it does not cease to exist; rather it is transformed into another living being that also undergoes birth, maturity, decay and death. The cycle of rebirths that any given being undergoes is beginningless. The doctrine of Buddhism, and of many other systems of thought in ancient India, asserts that the cycle can, however, come to an end, provided that the conditions that keep the cycle going are eliminated. The name that is given to the end of the cycle of rebirths for any given continuum of consciousness is final nirvāa. It is described in Buddhist texts as the cessation of the process of being reborn into any kind of existence in any realm in the cosmos. Since all kinds of existence are at least potentially painful, the only way of eliminating the very possibility of experiencing physical or psychological pain is to stop existing altogether.

NirvĀa as the Extinction of the Causes of Rebirth

According to Buddhist doctrine, the ultimate cause of rebirth is simply the desire to continue existing. When a deity or human being or animal dies wishing that life could continue, life does continue. The consciousness of the dying person then finds itself associated with a different body, which may or may not belong to the same biological species as the body that has just died. The type of body with which the continuing consciousness finds itself associated is determined by the overall mentality of the consciousness continuum at the time of the death of the previous body. What all rebirth has in common is the desire to continue existing, and this is the consequence of delusion, a fundamental misunderstanding about the real nature of existence. The real nature of existence is that every existing thing is characterized by impermanence. Because of this impermanence, nothing that anyone experiences endures, and therefore nothing, however pleasant it may be, can be a source of enduring satisfaction. Because every satisfactory experience comes to an end, it is ultimately disappointing and unsatisfactory.

These two characteristics of existence, impermanence and disappointment, give rise to a third feature of existence, namely, that no existing thing is part of an abiding self, and nothing can ever be owned. The delusions that fuel the desire to continue existing, therefore, are the erroneous beliefs that anything can be permanent, satisfactory, and either part of oneself or a potential piece of property that one can own. Nirvāa, then, is the elimination of those delusions by understanding existence as it really is. This correct understanding is called awakening or enlightenment. All of Buddhist doctrine and practice, then, can be seen as a process of working toward the state of enlightenment that makes final nirvāa possible. Enlightenment is therefore described as a name that is given to the absence of specific delusions, in the same way that final nirvāa is a name given to the absence of further rebirth.

Stages Leading to NirvĀa

According to most schools of Buddhism, the path to enlightenment is incremental. One does not rid oneself of all delusion at once, because delusion itself is part of a complex mentality that consists of various vices that are caused by and that in turn reinforce the habit of having a naive and superficial perspective on one's experience. Although the specific manifestations of superficiality and its attendant vices differ for every individual, there is said to be a general pattern of how progress to enlightenment is made.

To understand the stages along the way to nirvāa, it is helpful to know that Buddhist tradition enumerates ten mental habits that obstruct peace of mind. They are

(1) the opinion that complex objects are real,

(2) suspicion or intense doubt,

(3) abiding by rules and vows for the sole purpose of gaining merit for oneself,

(4) desire for sensual pleasure,

(5) malevolence,

(6) passion for material things and for material forms of existence,

(7) passion for spiritual or nonmaterial things, such as meditative states, and for nonmaterial forms of existence,

(8) conceit, which is explained as the habit of constantly comparing and measuring oneself against others,

(9) agitation or excitement,

(10) misconception or ignorance, which includes any kind of failure to see things as they really are.

The first stage on the path to nirvāa is reached when the first three of these obstacles have been eliminated, and it is claimed that all three of these first three are eliminated at the same time, since the second and third are effects of the first. This first stage is also said to be reached more easily when one keeps good company, that is, the company of others who have reached at least the first stage. For this reason, much of Buddhist practice centers on maintaining a community of men and women who are helping one another strive for nirvāa. Although much of that struggle requires personal effort and a thorough knowledge of one's own mentality, the individual's efforts are said to be nearly impossible without the support of a community of like-minded people.

The second and third stages of the path to nirvāa are reached when one reduces and then eliminates the fourth and fifth obstacles. The final goal, nirvāa itself, is reached when one has eliminated all ten obstacles, and especially the passions for both material and spiritual states of being. A person who has attained nirvāa is called an arhant (feminine arhatī ), which literally means "a person worthy of admiration." The arhant is someone who has all the characteristics of a buddha and differs from a buddha only in having required instruction to achieve nirvāa, whereas a buddha achieves nirvāa without ever having been taught how to attain it. All people who have reached any of these four stages that culminates in arhanthood are collectively known as nobles (ārya ), and the path to nirvāa is known as the noble path or the path of the nobles.

Knowledge of NirvĀa

According to a formula often repeated in canonical sources, when a person attains nirvāa, then he or she knows "what needed to be done has been done, and I shall never again be reborn in any realm in any form." This raises the difficult question of how one can know an absence and especially a future absence. Obviously, one cannot directly experience an absence, nor can one directly experience anything that takes place, or fails to take place, in the future. The knowledge of the absence of one's future rebirths, then, must be an inference of some kind. Even the knowledge that in the present life there will never again arise the ten obstacles enumerated above must be an inference of some kind. Just how such an inference might work and what kind of inference is involved occupied the attention of Buddhist scholastics from the time of Dharmakīrti on.

The Special Ontological Status of NirvĀa

According to Buddhist teachings, all conditioned things are impermanent, because the conditions upon which something depends can disappear, and when they disappear, so does anything that depends on them. nirvāa, however, is said to be a permanent achievement. If it is permanent, then it cannot be conditioned. From these considerations one of two possibilities follow. Either all things are conditioned, in which case nirvāa cannot be a thing at all, or nirvāa is an exception to the otherwise universal rule that all things are conditioned. Both of these possibilities have had their advocates among Buddhist scholastics. Those who regarded nirvāa as an unconditioned thing came to characterize nirvāa as a permanent entity that is constantly lucid and blissful, or as a state of being aware of a permanently lucid and blissful and essentially transcendent reality.

Later Doctrinal Developments: Nonabiding NirvĀa and Happy Realms

Several centuries after the founding of the Buddhist community, a movement arose that placed an emphasis on a kind of virtuoso known as a bodhisattva. The term itself originally referred to a person who was dedicated to becoming a buddha and thus referred to the Buddha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism) in his previous lives. In an extension of that original meaning, the term bodhisattva came to be applied to anyone who had come to realize that suffering is present in all realms of the universe, that the vast majority of sentient beings lack the capacity to achieve nirvāa on their own strengths, and that they therefore require the help of someone dedicated to helping others attain nirvāa. A bodhisattva is a person who not only realizes all that but also vows not to attain final nirvāa until all other sentient beings have also attained it. Texts dealing with the bodhisattva ideal say that a bodhisattva may either postpone his or her own attainment of nirvāa until others have attained it or, preferably, may attain nirvāa and then renounce it in order to remain among sentient beings in need of help. Attaining nirvāa and then renouncing it is said to be preferable because the bodhisattva who does this already knows the way and can therefore better show others. This nirvāa that the bodhisattva attains and then renounces is called nonabiding nirvāa.

Another doctrine that began with the realization that most beings are incapable of attaining nirvāa through their own discipline alone was the myth that some buddhas have attained final nirvāa only after establishing special realms in which there are no environmental obstacles to tranquility. In such a realm, known as a happy land (sukhavatī bhūmi ) or, following Chinese translations of the Sanskrit term, a pure land, all who abide there are surrounded by inspirational teachings. Even the babbling of brooks and the chirping of birds are discourses on virtue. In the absence of a painful external environment and in the presence of incessant sermons, the residents of the happy lands quickly attain final nirvāa. Two mythological buddhas who are said to have established happy lands are Amitābha and Akshobhya, the former of whom became the focus of an extensive cult in China and East Asia.

See also Buddhism; Mysticism, History of; Reincarnation.


Collins, Steven. Nirvāa and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Harvey, Peter. The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvāa in Early Buddhism. Surry, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1995.

Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Richard P. Hayes (2005)

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