The profound teachings of Buddhism are often misunderstood, and this has been the case for thousands of years. For example, nirvana, the goal of all Buddhist practitioners, is mistaken by many people to simply be the same as death. Actually, nirvana is not death. It is a transcendent state that is completely different from death.

In most Buddhist temples, statues of the Buddha are generally portrayed in one of three positions: either standing, sitting, or lying down. His sitting position symbolizes meditative concentration and peace. His standing position symbolizes his active nature, by which he taught the Dharma. His reclining position symbolizes nirvana. This position embodies the unity of the Buddha’s peaceful and active natures. In nirvana, the Buddha has transcended time and space, all duality, all relative points of view, all delusion, all birth and death. In nirvana he is one with the Dharma realm, the great body of the universe. Nirvana is not death, nor is it the obliteration of consciousness. Nirvana is truth, the highest level of realization, and the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

The Meaning of Nirvana

In Sanskrit, the word nirvana means “cessation,” “liberation,” “tranquility,” and “non-arising.” The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, “The end of all defilement is nirvana.” The Treatise on the Great Compendium of the Abhidharma says that nirvana is, “The elimination of all afflictions, the extinguishing of the three fires [of greed, anger, and ignorance], the extinction of the three aspects of [arising, abiding, and ceasing], and the leaving of all realms of existence.” The Samyukta Agama says nirvana is “The eternal end of greed, the eternal end of anger, the eternal end of ignorance, and the eternal end of all afflictions.” Nirvana is the third of the Four Noble Truths: a world in which greed, anger, ignorance, wrong views, duality, and affliction are all extinguished. Nirvana is tranquility, purity, and the transcendence of the distinction between oneself and others.

When the Buddha attained awakening under the bodhi tree, he awakened to the truth of the universe and attained nirvana. Nirvana is our pure, intrinsic nature. It is the true “self.” Nirvana allows us to eliminate the tension between the self and others, and transcend the obstructions of space and time. We will not be bound by afflictions, suffering, duality, differentiation, and hardships, and we will not be trapped in the cycle of birth and death. If we can enter this awakened state, we will transcend birth and death into liberation.

Different Names for Nirvana

Nirvana is described in many ways throughout the Buddhist sutras and commentaries, and one of the most common ways is through describing what nirvana is not. The Treatise on Abhidharma-skandha-pada describes nirvana by saying it is “non-action, non-abiding, non-doing, without boundaries, without outflow, without arising, without expiring, without beginning, without defilements…” The Treatise on the Four Noble Truths describes nirvana by saying that it is “without destroying, without loss, without equal, without hindrance, without desire, without anything above it, without limit, without attachment…”

In terms of positive descriptions, the Treatise on Abhidharma-skandha-pada describes nirvana as “truth, the other shore, marvelous, tranquil, eternal, secure, supreme, the most wholesome, and unique.” The Treatise on the Four Noble Truths describes nirvana positively as “liberation, transcendent, the one and only, complete, pure, supreme, truth, suchness…” These are affirming descriptions that give nirvana broader interpretations.

In addition to these descriptions, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra says that nirvana is Buddha nature. The Flower Adornment Sutra says that nirvana is the intrinsic nature of all phenomena. The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra says that nirvana is “Prajna that is beyond common knowledge and knows everything.” The Surangama Sutra says that nirvana is “the truth in which activity and stillness cease.” The Vimalakirti Sutra says that nirvana is the “the ten grounds of Dharma method of non-duality.” The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Sutra tells us that nirvana is the “storehouse of the Tathagata” and “the inherently pure mind.” Nirvana is intrinsic nature that does not arise or cease.

Kumarajiva, the great translator of Chinese Buddhist texts, translated nirvana into Chinese as miedu (滅度). Mie means to extinguish the hindrance of defilements, and du means to cross the ocean of birth and death to the other shore. Xuanzang, another great translator, translated nirvana as yuanji (圓寂). Yuan means complete and perfect, and ji means tranquility. Though nirvana has been translated in many different ways, it simply means to possess all virtues and eliminate one’s afflictions and habitual tendencies.

Special Characteristics of Nirvana

Though there have been many different explanations and interpretations of nirvana over time, the truth of nirvana never changes. Nirvana is always our pure, intrinsic nature and the essence of reality. This nature and essence is not greater in sages, nor is less in ordinary people.

The Universal Parinirvana Sutra says that nirvana has eight characteristics:

  1. Ever present. Nirvana permeates the past, present, and future and always exists. It pervades in all directions and always abides in the universe.

  2. Cessation and tranquility. In the state of nirvana, birth and death are extinguished. It is a state of total tranquility.

  3. Eternity. Because it does not move, change, increase, or decrease, it is said to be eternal.

  4. Deathless. Since nirvana never arises and never ceases, it is without death.

  5. Purity. Nirvana is a state in which all hindrances have been purified.

  6. Ubiquity. Because it permeates everything without difficulty, nirvana is omnipresent.

  7. Non-action. Nirvana is the most wondrous state beyond all action. Therefore, it is called “non-action.”

  8. Joy. There is no more suffering from birth and death in the state of nirvana, and only eternal happiness remains.

In the Buddhist sutras, similes and metaphors are also used to describe the state of nirvana. Ten of these comparisons are:

  1. Nirvana is like a lotus flower. A lotus flower cannot grow away from mud, but it is also not soiled by the mud. Nirvana is like the lotus flower. It is not defiled by any afflictions, but it cannot be attained apart from the cycle of birth and death.

  2. Nirvana is like water. Nirvana has the refreshing and cleansing qualities of water; it can extinguish the fire and suffering of afflictions. Just as water can quench thirst, nirvana can end all desires.

  3. Nirvana is like an antidote for all poisons. Nirvana is like the medicine that can cure all afflictions. Therefore, nirvana is the refuge for all sentient beings who are suffering from the poisons of defilements and afflictions.

  4. Nirvana is like the great ocean. The great ocean can embrace all things without differentiation. Nirvana too has no attachment to love or hatred, and as such is far away from defilement. The ocean is vast and does not differentiate between this shore and that shore, and it can embrace a thousand rivers without ever becoming full. Likewise, nirvana is also vast and without boundaries. It can embrace all sentient beings without ever becoming full.

  5. Nirvana is like food. Food can satisfy our hunger and sustain us. Similarly, nirvana can wipe out the hunger and weaknesses of our suffering, and calm the worries and anxieties of sentient beings.

  6. Nirvana is like space. Nirvana is a state that is without birth and death, without coming and going, and without attachments. Likewise, space is without boundaries and limits. It abides nowhere and pervades everywhere. It does not depend on anything, but everything relies on it.

  7. Nirvana is like a mani pearl. It can radiate a virtuous glow and bring joy to all sentient beings.

  8. Nirvana is like sandalwood. Sandalwood is a kind of precious wood. Nirvana is like sandalwood in that it can give off the fragrance of the precepts, with which nothing can compare. Nirvana exceeds all other things in the world.

  9. Nirvana is like the wind. A gust of wind can carry a sailboat across the sea. Likewise, the wonderful quality of nirvana can blow people towards awakening.

  10. Nirvana is like a mountain peak. It stands firm amidst the wind and storms, and stands so tall that the thieves of defilement cannot climb up to the top. On the peak, the seeds of suffering and ignorance cannot grow.

The Different Kinds of Nirvana

There are different kinds of nirvana, and the different schools of Buddhism categorize nirvana in more than one way. The following section examines the classifications of nirvana from the Tiantai and the Consciousness-Only schools.

Threefold Nirvana of the Tiantai School

The Tiantai School classifies and interprets nirvana from three aspects: its essence, appearance, and function.

  1. Pure nirvana of inherent nature. The essence of nirvana is the same as all phenomena: it is pure, and does not arise or cease.

  2. Perfectly pure nirvana. In appearance nirvana is perfectly pure, for it is the fruit of cultivation in which the nature of all phenomena is truly realized and all defilements are completely purified.

  3. Skillfully pure nirvana. In terms of function, nirvana is the skillful means by which the Buddha teaches all sentient beings. To liberate sentient beings, the Buddha’s manifested body taught the Dharma in accordance with the different conditions of sentient beings. When the right conditions ceased, his manifested body entered nirvana. But, in reality birth is not truly birth and death is not truly death. Birth and death are simply aspects of the skillful means of nirvana.

Fourfold Nirvana of the Consciousness-Only School

The Consciousness-Only School categorizes nirvana into four kinds:

  1. Pure nirvana of inherent nature. Though all phenomena are shrouded by defilment, the nature of phenomena is always pure and unchanging, and does not arise or cease. Intrinsic nature has immeasurable merit and virtue, and is equally possessed by all sentient beings. Intrinsic nature is different from all phenomena, and is also not different from all phenomena. Sentient beings need not seek pure intrinsic nature from outside.

  2. Nirvana with remainder. Those who have attained nirvana with remainder have cut off the defilements of the three realms and create no new karma. However, their physical body that resulted from past karma still exists, though it is no longer influenced by hunger, cold, suffering, or joy. Those who have attained nirvana with remainder always maintain a state of tranquility.

  3. Nirvana without remainder. Those who have attained nirvana without remainder have not only cut off all defilements, but the physical body no longer exists. All remnants of past karma are gone.

  4. Non-abiding nirvana. Those who have attained non-abiding nirvana have cut off the hindrance of attachment to knowledge, and have realized the truth that there is no difference between the cycle of birth and death and nirvana. Therefore they have no aversion to the cycle of birth and death. They return to suchness, and have no attachment to abiding in nirvana. They use their great compassion and wisdom to benefit all sentient beings.

From the classifications described above, we can see that one does not need to wait until death to achieve the state of nirvana. The life of the Buddha provides a good example of this. When the Buddha was thirty-one years of age, he achieved nirvana while sitting under the bodhi tree. However, his physical body that was the result of past karma still existed. This came to be known as “nirvana with remainder.” When he was eighty years old, he passed away under twin sala trees, achieving nirvana without remainder. During the forty-nine years of traveling to various places to teach the Dharma and liberate sentient beings, he lived a life without delusion and without attachment. This is non-abiding nirvana.

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says about himself, “I became a Buddha many kalpas ago. From that time on, I have stayed in this world to teach the Dharma and liberate others. I also traveled to countless other worlds to guide and benefit sentient beings.” That the Buddha was born, renounced, defeated the Mara, attained Buddhahood, taught the Dharma, and entered nirvana is a function of “skillfully pure nirvana.” This is also the state of non-abiding nirvana. So, if we are seeking to attain nirvana, we must find our intrinsic nature. This is the “pure nirvana of inherent nature.”

The State of Nirvana

Every day, sentient beings suffer from their own ignorance and desire for wealth, sex, fame, food and drink, and sleep, as well as the six sense objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas. But in what state do Buddhas and bodhisattvas who have attained nirvana dwell? According to the Nirvana Sutra of the Northern Tradition, nirvana has four qualities:

  1. Permanent. Nirvana is an awakened state that never changes. It is permanent.

  2. Blissful. Nirvana is said to have four kinds of bliss: the bliss of no suffering, the bliss of great tranquility, the bliss of great wisdom, and the bliss that cannot be destroyed. In the ordinary world, happiness is conditional, as it is tempered by suffering. The state of nirvana transcends both suffering and happiness. It is the absolute, perfect bliss of being free from suffering. Nirvana is also beyond language, words, and thought. There is bliss with great tranquility because nirvana transcends the confusion and chaos of different points of view. After the Buddhas and Tathagatas attain nirvana, they gain great wisdom. Free from delusion, they can truly understand the truth of all teachings. After the Tathagatas attain nirvana, their Dharma body becomes as indestructible as a diamond, and cannot be destroyed.

  3. Pure. In nirvana, delusions and defilements are extinguished. This state is perfectly clear and pure.

  4. True Self. When one attains the state of nirvana, the self is completely free, without limits or attachments. This kind of self is the true self.

Nirvana is without arising, without abiding, without a temporary self, and lacks nothing. It is the ultimate state that ends the accumulation of all suffering. It is the world that eliminates craving, abandons clinging, and ends desires and afflictions. To enter nirvana is to enter the blissful land of complete virtue.

How to Attain Nirvana

Nirvana transcends all duality. It cannot be attained through worldly experience, knowledge, or learning. It can only be attained through one’s own cultivation and realization. From the teachings of the Buddhas who attained nirvana, we know that there are three ways to reach this state:

  1. Rely on upholding precepts. The Questions of King Milinda Sutra says, “If those seeking the Way are settled in upholding precepts and diligently cultivate, they can attain nirvana no matter where they dwell, just as people who have eyes can see the sky no matter where they stand. Therefore, nirvana relies on upholding precepts.” To reach nirvana, we should take the precepts as our teacher and diligently cultivate.

  2. Rely on the three Dharma seals. If we want to achieve Buddhahood, we have to follow the Buddha’s teachings. We must contemplate the three Dharma seals: All conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are without an independent self, and nirvana is perfect tranquility. The essential point is to understand that all phenomena are empty, and not to have thoughts of attachment or fear regarding phenomena. We must cut off and end all delusions, and be without attachment and clinging. If we accomplish this we will reach the state of nirvana in which all phenomena abide in tranquility and attachments are eradicated.

  3. Rely on the threefold training, the four means of embracing, and the six perfections. To attain the state of nirvana, we need to settle the body and mind with the threefold training: morality, meditative concentration, and wisdom. In our practice, we must also use the four means of embracing—giving, kind words, altruism, and empathy—to liberate other sentient beings. Lastly, even in our most trivial activities, we should diligently cultivate the six perfections of giving, morality, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and prajna-wisdom. Each day we should be mindful of doing what is right, and be always transforming our ignorance into awakening.

As one of the three Dharma seals, nirvana is the ultimate goal in Buddhism. After the Buddha attained awakening, he saw clearly that all sentient beings generate negative karma because of their ignorance, and as such suffer as they travel the cycle of birth and death. With great compassion, he sought to help sentient beings free themselves from delusion and the suffering of birth and death, eliminate their negative karma, and finally achieve the ultimate state of tranquility. This is why the Buddha taught that “nirvana is perfect tranquility.”

In this world, human life is fleeting, and only lasts for a few decades of winters and summers, and the human body scarcely grows more than seven feet tall. We face a life with limitations, but if we attain nirvana, we will be able to transcend the limitations of time and space. We will overcome the fear of birth and death and the fear of impermanence. Our “life” will then permeate space and time, and we can achieve the state of absolute and complete happiness. Every day we should direct the mind to attaining nirvana and finding the true self. We do this by treasuring every second of every minute and diligently cultivating the mind.