What Is Nirvana?
The End of Suffering
When people ask about Nirvana, they may have strange ideas about what it is. Often they think everything has completely ceased – not only suffering, but also the person who is trying to gain that state as well.
Nirvana is just the experience of being completely free from suffering. Suffering has ceased; it is that state of cessation. The aim of the entire Buddhist practice is not to cease the continuation of the person him or herself. It is to cease suffering and the causes of suffering.
While we are on the path, our entire practice is the antidote to ignorance and delusions, not to the person who is experiencing those sufferings and delusions.
Nirvana – cessation – is not out there somewhere in space. It does not drop down from the sky. We cannot go and reach it. Cessation will emerge from within our development of wisdom.
Most of us have some sort of notion of enlightenment, or Buddhahood, as being some external state – and subconsciously we have that kind of feeling as well. This is really the wrong view.
Rather, Buddhist teachings claim that Buddhahood is a state here within. We practise and we will reach that place.
The question of nirvana also addresses our human potential. From the Four Noble Truths, the first two – the Truth of Suffering and the Truth of Origin – we can understand that the Buddha was really talking about our present life.
However, with the other two truths – the Truth of Cessation and the Truth of the Path – is it really possible to have that kind of result? Can the path that the Buddha described really lead to the complete cessation of suffering? Or, is this merely Buddhist dogma, something we are being asked to accept unquestioningly simply because the Buddha said it?
What the Buddha was talking about when he described True Cessation is the potential we all have to completely fulfil that fundamental, instinctive feeling to be happy. First of all, we need to look at the first set of cause and effect, which is our everyday life, and see how that works. We then need to approach the second set and see if the path really does ease any of our everyday problems.
Then eventually we need to act, to completely eradicate the problems and difficulties which we are facing.
Note: One of the main differences between the Theravadin and Mahayana traditions is the concept that, according the Theravadin tradition, when an individual practitioner achieves full liberation, or Nirvana, that person will completely cease. When through practice they manage to overcome all suffering they literally die, they become completely extinct.
In the Mahayana tradition that is not really accepted. The Mahayana tradition says the mind continues, free of defilements. It is these defilements which have ceased. The cessation of suffering is a state, it is permanent. The mind is free of suffering, but that does not mean it ceases to exist.
Source: Adapted from Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Vol. 1, with a foreword by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, ed. Gordon McDougall (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 20-22; 38.