Madhyamaka and Nagarjuna
Yogacara and Vasubandhu
Avatamsaka - Hua-yen
Buddhism in China
Sukhavati: Pure Land Buddhism
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
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.