Nirvana literally means “quenching” or “blowing out,” in the way that the flame of a candle is blown out. But what are we blowing out, here? Is it one’s soul, one’s ego, one’s identity? It cannot be the soul that is blown out, since Buddhism denies that any such thing exists. Nor is it the ego or one’s sense of identity that disappears, although nirvana certainly involves a radically transformed state of consciousness which is free of the obsession with “me and mine.”
What is extinguished, in fact, is the triple fire of greed, hatred, and delusion which leads to rebirth. Indeed, the simplest definition of nirvana-in-this-life is “the end of greed, hatred, and delusion”. It is clear that nirvana-in-this-life is a psychological and ethical reality. It’s a transformed state of personality characterized by peace, deep spiritual joy, compassion, and a refined and subtle awareness. Negative mental states and emotions such as doubt, worry, anxiety, and fear are absent from the enlightened mind.
Saints in many religious traditions exhibit some or all of these qualities, and ordinary people also possess them to some degree, although imperfectly developed. An enlightened person, however, such as a Buddha or an Arhat, possesses them all completely.
What becomes of such a person at death? It is in connection with final nirvana that problems of understanding arise. When the flame of craving is extinguished, rebirth ceases, and an enlightened person is not reborn. So what has happened to him? There is no clear answer to this question in the early sources. The Buddha said that asking about the whereabouts of “an enlightened one” after death is like asking where a flame goes when blown out.
The flame, of course, has not “gone” anywhere. It is simply the process of combustion that has ceased. Removing craving and ignorance is like taking away the oxygen and fuel which a flame needs to burn. The image of the blowing out of the flame, however, does not suggest that final nirvana is annihilation. The sources make quite clear that this would be a mistake, as would the conclusion that nirvana is the eternal existence of a personal soul.
To question Nirvana
The Buddha discouraged speculation about the nature of nirvana and emphasized instead the need to strive for its attainment. Those who asked speculative questions about nirvana he compared to a man wounded by poisoned arrow who, rather than pulling the arrow out, persists in asking for irrelevant information about the man who fired it, such as his name and clan, how far away he was standing, and so forth.
In keeping with this reluctance on the part of the Buddha to elaborate on the question, the early sources describe nirvana in predominantly negative terms. These range from “the absence of desire” and “the extinction of thirst” to “blowing out” and “cessation.” A smaller number of positive epithets are also found, including “the auspicious,” the good,” “purity,” peace,” “truth,” and “the further shore.”
Certain passages suggest that nirvana is a transcendent reality which is unborn, unoriginated, uncreated and unformed. It’s difficult to know what interpretation to place upon such formulations. In the last analysis the nature of final nirvana remains an enigma other than to those who experience it. What we can be sure of, however, is that it means the end of suffering and rebirth.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.