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    Buddhist Philosophy

Buddhist Philosophy

  1. Prelude
  2. Causality
  3. Diversification
  4. Nirvana
  5. Hinayana/Mahayana
  6. Madhyamaka and Nagarjuna
  7. Yogacara and Vasubandhu
  8. Avatamsaka - Hua-yen
  9. Buddhist Logic
  10. Buddhism in China
  11. Sukhavati: Pure Land Buddhism
  12. Kyoto School of Philosophy


If there is one term in Buddhism that has given rise to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, it must be nirvana. Nirvana, "the Great Nothing or Void as Supreme Bliss", is such an image that has more become - from Schopenhauer until present - a western pseudo-myth than the central concept of Buddhist soteriology.

The negative appreciation of nirvana as destruction of existence is in fact the result of a dichotomous approach. Although it is true that nirvana is in a sense a negative expression, it must be said that that which is negated does not belong to the domain of ontology, not even the domain of general metaphysics. It is most certainly not a negation of "being", nor of "non-being". In Buddhism, 'being' and 'non-being' can neither be affirmed nor denied: they are concepts that do not belong into the soteriology. Sakyamuni Buddha himself classified questions of this nature in the category of theoretical irrelevancies.

The sense of nirvana therefore must be searched for within another domain. Time and again, the Buddha - and many masters after him - has emphasized that nirvana should be approached and interpreted in an (in a certain sense) epistemological, and primarily in a pragmatic-soteriological sense.

If we look at the etymology of the term we find that nirvana is a compound of the prefix ni[r]- (ni, nis, nih) which means "out, away from, without", and the root vā[na] (P. vāti) which can be translated as "blowing" as in "blowing of the wind", but also as "smelling, etc"

The compound 'nirvāna' therefore undeniably has the meaning of "blowing out, putting out, extinguishing (of a lamp or of fire), setting (of the sun)". Used as an adjective it can mean "quiet, stilled, tamed, departed". MMW adds to this lemma that for Buddhists and Jains the term means "the absolute extinction or annihilation of individual existence or of all desires and passions". Nirvana thus means the "settling of the wind, the extinguishing of the fire". As a medical term it is also used as "stopping of the fever or stress".

Although all Buddhist schools in a way agree on this basic meaning of the term, diverse interpretations and connotations appear. Grosso modo we can make a distinction in interpretations between those of the Hinayana (especially the Sautrantika and Sarvastivada schools) and those of the Mahayana schools.

The Smaller Vehicle sees nirvana primarily - and almost exclusively - as an ethical event, attainable in this life (at least in theory) through the practice of morality, contemplation and insight. It is only within the Abhidharma-literature that the meaning of nirvana will somehow extend to a certain realm of existence of passionlessness, peace, etc.

Such an approach must necessarily lead to a strictly negative formulation, e.g. that of Udana viii. There, nirvana is described as the realization of the fourth proposition of the logical tetralemma: "neither [this]....nor [not this]....", with by the way a truly Nagarjunian sense for expression.

This negative formulation will be less the case in Mahayana-texts. Often, nirvana is here equated with sunyata (emptiness), which - one should keep in mind - for a Buddhist is a positive term, equivalent to 'availability' and even - especially in later Mahayana - 'totality'. Nirvana in this sense can be approached in a positive way as 'Enlightenment' (bodhi), Buddhahood (buddhata), etc.

The situation becomes more clear when nirvana is in the first place seen as the opposite of samsara: the world of suffering as the cycle of birth-and-death. Since samsara is in a sense "propelled" by karma-formations (volitional activity conditioned by desire, aversion and delusion), nirvana means - as the opposite of samsara - the halting of these (causative) karmic formations and therefore also the exhaustion of their karmic 'fruit' (results of volitional actions). The realization of nirvana is therefore the cessation of the karma-causality.

Mostly the commentators agree when it comes to the 'attributes' that can be ascribed to nirvana, this despite the fact that they - paradoxically enough - keep stressing that nirvana is "inconceivable, unthinkable, indescribable'. So, it is said that nirvana is the 'unconditioned' (asamkrita), peaceful (santa), unarisen (anutpada), etc.

Moreover distinctions were made between a 'temporal, created nirvana' (nirvana seen from the human condition, and therefore as a relative truth), and the 'perfect, definitive, uncreated nirvana' which belongs to the experience of ultimate (absolute) truth.

Or, a distinction is created between a 'place bound' nirvana (pratisthita-nirvana), which is realized in this existence and with this present body, and the 'nirvana of no-abode' (apratisthita-nirvana). Only this nirvana is complete as the realization of Buddhahood.

D.T.Suzuki (in his translation of the Kyogyoshinsho, note 90) says that nirvana "....is the annihilation of the notion of ego-substance and of all the desires that arise from this erroneous conception. But this represents the negative side of the doctrine, and its positive side consists in universal love or sympathy (karuna) for all beings."

Nirvana then is not an 'individual' event or state, but the cessation of every illusion or conceptual form of (individual) personality. The Lotus Sutra states: "But he (the Buddha) does not teach a particular Nirvana for each being; he causes all beings to reach complete Nirvana by means of the complete Nirvana of the Tathagata."

Among the Buddhist philosophers there were - and still are - those who held/hold different, sometimes diverging opinions concerning the nature of nirvana. Yet, there remains a unanimity concerning the 'nirvanic' nature of the cessation of the condition of suffering. Remarkable however is the fact that it is exactly the European Buddhologists (among whom we find names as de la Vallée-Poussin and Theodore Stcherbatsky) who have started the polemics on the subject.


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