Nirvana (निर्वाण, Sanskrit: nirvāṇa; Pali: nibbana, nibbāna) is the goal of the Buddhist path. The literal meaning of the term is "blowing out" or "quenching". Nirvana is the ultimate spiritual goal in Buddhism and marks the soteriological release from rebirths in saṃsāra. Nirvana is part of the Third Truth on "cessation of dukkha" in the Four Noble Truths, and the summum bonum destination of the Noble Eightfold Path.
In the Buddhist tradition, nirvana has commonly been interpreted as the extinction of the "three fires", or "three poisons",[note 1] greed (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha). When these fires are extinguished, release from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) is attained.
Nirvana has also been claimed by some scholars to be identical with anatta (non-self) and sunyata (emptiness) states though this is hotly contested by other scholars and practicing monks. In time, with the development of the Buddhist doctrine, other interpretations were given, such as the absence of the weaving (vana) of activity of the mind, the elimination of desire, and escape from the woods, cq. the five skandhas or aggregates. Buddhist scholastic tradition identifies two types of nirvana: sopadhishesa-nirvana (nirvana with a remainder), and parinirvana or anupadhishesa-nirvana (nirvana without remainder, or final nirvana). The founder of Buddhism, the Buddha, is believed to have reached both these states.
Nirvana, or the liberation from cycles of rebirth, is the highest aim of the Theravada tradition. In the Mahayana tradition, the highest goal is Buddhahood, in which there is no abiding in nirvana. Buddha helps liberate beings from saṃsāra by teaching the Buddhist path. There is no rebirth for Buddha or people who attain nirvana. But his teachings remain in the world for a certain time as a guidance to attain nirvana.
The concept of nirvana is also present in older Indian religions, including Vedic culture, Hinduism and Jainism. It is also present in Sikhism and Manichaenism.
The origin of the term nirvana is probably pre-Buddhist, It was a more or less central concept among the Jains, the Ajivikas, the Buddhists, and certain Hindu traditions. It generally describes a state of freedom from suffering and rebirth. The ideas of spiritual liberation using different terminology, is found in ancient texts of non-Buddhist Indian traditions, such as in verse 4.4.6 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism. The term may have been imported into Buddhism with much of its semantic range from these other sramanic movements. However its etymology may not be conclusive for its meaning.
Release and freedom from suffering; moksha, vimutti;
Nirvana is used synonymously with moksha (Sanskrit), also vimoksha, or vimutti (Pali), "release, deliverance from suffering". In the Pali-canon two kinds of vimutti are discerned:
Ceto-vimutti, freedom of mind; it is the qualified freedom from suffering, attained through the practice of concentration meditation (samādhi). Vetter translates this as "release of the heart" which means conquering desire thereby attaining a desire-less state of living.
Pañña-vimutti, freedom through understanding (prajña); it is the final release from suffering and the end of rebirth, attained through the practice of insight meditation (vipassanā).
Ceto-vimutti becomes permanent, only with the attainment of pañña-vimutti. According to Gombrich and other scholars, these may be a later development within the canon, reflecting a growing emphasis in earliest Buddhism on prajña, instead of the liberating practice of dhyana; it may also reflect a successful assimilation of non-Buddhist meditation practices in ancient India into the Buddhist canon. According to Anālayo, the term uttari-vimutti (highest liberation) is also widely used in the early buddhist texts to refer to liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Extinction and blowing out
One literal interpretation translates nir√vā as "blow out", interpreting nir is a negative, and va as "to blow"., giving a meaning of "blowing out" or "quenching". It is seen to refer to both to the act and the effect of blowing (at something) to put it out, but also the process and outcome of burning out, becoming extinguished. The term nirvana in the soteriological sense of "blown out, extinguished" state of liberation does not appear in the Vedas nor in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. According to Collins, "the Buddhists seem to have been the first to call it nirvana.
The term nirvana then became part of an extensive metaphorical structure that was probably established at a very early age in Buddhism. According to Gombrich, the number of three fires alludes to the three fires which a Brahmin had to keep alight, and thereby symbolise life in the world, as a family-man. The meaning of this metaphor was lost in later Buddhism, and other explanations of the word nirvana were sought. Not only passion, hatred and delusion were to be extinguished, but also all cankers (asava) or defilements (khlesa). Later exegetical works developed a whole new set of folk etymological definitions of the word nirvana, using the root vana to refer to "to blow", but re-parsing the word to roots that mean "weaving, sewing", "desire" and "forest or woods":
vâna, derived from the root word √vā which means "to blow" (to) blow (of wind); but also to emit (an odour), be wafted or diffused; nirvana then means "to blow out"; vāna, derived from the root vana or van which mean "desire", nirvana is then explained to mean a state of "without desire, without love, without wish" and one without craving or thirst (taṇhā); adding the root √vā which means "to weave or sew"; nirvana is then explained as abandoning the desire which weaves together life after life. vāna, derived from the root word vana which also means "woods, forest": based on this root, vana has been metaphorically explained by Buddhist scholars as referring to the "forest of defilements", or the five aggregates; nirvana then means "escape from the aggregates", or to be "free from that forest of defilements".
The term nirvana, "to blow out", has also been interpreted as the extinction of the "three fires", or "three poisons", namely of passion or sensuality (raga), aversion or hate (dvesha) and of delusion or ignorance (moha or avidyā).
The "blowing out" does not mean total annihilation, but the extinguishing of a flame. The term nirvana can also be used as a verb: "he or she nirvāṇa-s," or "he or she parinirvānṇa-s" (parinibbāyati).
Popular Western usage
L. S. Cousins said that in popular usage nirvana was "the goal of Buddhist discipline,... the final removal of the disturbing mental elements which obstruct a peaceful and clear state of mind, together with a state of awakening from the mental sleep which they induce.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu argues that the term nibbāna was apparently derived etymologically from the negative prefix, nir, plus the root vāṇa, or binding: unbinding, and that the associated adjective is nibbuta: unbound, and the associated verb, nibbuti: to unbind. He and others use the term unbinding for nibbana. (Bhikku argues that the early Buddhist association of 'blowing out' with the term arose in light of the way in which the processes of fire were viewed at that time - that a burning fire was seen as clinging to its fuel in a state of hot agitation, and that when going out the fire let go of its fuel and reached a state of freedom, cooling, and peace.
Cessation of the weaving of the mind
Another interpretation of nirvana is the absence of the weaving (vana) of activity of the mind.
Matsumoto Shirō (1950-), of the Critical Buddhism group, stated that the original etymological root of nirvana should be considered not as nir√vā, but as nir√vŗ, to "uncover". According to Matsumoto, the original meaning of nirvana was therefore not "to extinguish" but "to uncover" the atman from that which is anatman (not atman). Swanson stated that some Buddhism scholars questioned whether 'blowing out' and 'extinction' etymologies are consistent with the core doctrines of Buddhism, particularly about anatman (non-self) and pratityasamutpada (causality). They saw a problem that considering nirvana as extinction or liberation presupposes a "self" to be extinguished or liberated. However other Buddhist scholars, such as Takasaki Jikidō, disagreed and called the Matsumoto proposal "too far and leaving nothing that can be called Buddhist".