Nirvana as a subjective mental event
One of the Buddha’s most common terms
for the ultimate goal is Nibbana (Nirvana in
Sanskrit). It is clear that Nibbana is reached through
the complete ceasing of clinging: “A bhikkhu without
clinging attains Nibbana”
(Majjhima Nikaya 106:12). It is also certain that
Nibbana, as the ultimate goal, involves the
ending of suffering: “What I teach is
suffering and the end of suffering” (MN 22:38). However,
almost no discussion exists in the
suttas about what Nibbana is.
temptation is always to substantiate, reify, turns
something from a verb or transient state into a noun,
something solid. This temptation also exists when
speaking of Nirvana, or Enlightenment - to turn it into
something permanent or lasting, whereas in fact it’s
like everything else: dependently co-arising.
This quote from Sariputra, the Buddha’s eminent and
enlightened senior disciple, shows that he is
experiencing Nirvana as a series of quickly passing
experiences instead of a place or a permanent heaven.
Even the full sweet taste of Nirvana as “cessation of
becoming” is at the same time recognised by him as just
a passing experience. In other words, he sees Nirvana as
a subjective mental event rather than according it
ontological status as something separate from our
“Cessation of becoming is Nirvana”: thus one perception
arises in me, another perception fades out in me. Just
as when a faggot-fire is blazing, one flame arises and
another flame fades out, even so, one perception arises
in me: “Cessation of becoming is Nirvana” and another
perception fades out in me: “Cessation of becoming is
Nirvana.” (Anguttara Nikaya 10:7)
Ah, this is arising, this is passing away. You still
experience Nirvana, but not as independent from your
perception. It doesn’t have a separate existence. There
is no place to go.
In the development of Buddhism, in the Abhidharma,
Nirvana came to be viewed as unconditioned.
Many Buddhists consider this as part of the original
teaching of Sakyamuni, but the Abhidharmist move
contrasts with the early teachings, in which there is
nothing that does not dependently co-arise. (See D.J.
Kalupahana’s scholarly works for a detailed exposition.)
Everything is paticca samuppada (conditions arising
together), even enlightenment, even Nirvana. To my mind,
this understanding makes for a more meaningful
relationship with the possibility of enlightenment.
It is not a separate realm divorced from my ordinary
life. And when it arises out of conditions of my
consciousness, I don’t have to sweat and groan to make
it last - because I know it won’t.
One of the Buddha’s most common terms for the ultimate
goal is Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit). It is clear that
Nibbana is reached through the complete ceasing of
clinging: “A bhikkhu without clinging attains Nibbana” (Majjhima
Nikaya 106:12). It is also certain that Nibbana, as the
ultimate goal, involves the ending of suffering: “What I
teach is suffering and the end of suffering” (MN 22:38).
However, almost no discussion exists in the suttas about
what Nibbana is. When it is described, it is explained
by what it is not, by what is absent: “It is hard to see
this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the
relinquishing of all acquisitions/attachments, the
destruction of all craving, dispassion, cessation,
Nibbana” (MN 26:19). It is likely that Nibbana, like the
other items in this list, refers to the absence of
Because the word Nibbana is a noun, it is easy to assume
it is a thing or state. However, it is an action noun
describing “cooling, quenching, extinguishing and
releasing.” Its likely etymological meaning is
“unbinding.” The challenges of translating Pali into
English often reinforce a tendency to see Nibbana as a
This happens when Enlightenment or awakening are used as
translations for Nibbayati, a frequently appearing
passive verbal form of Nibbana. As the word refers to
the action of “being nibbanized,” its more literal
meaning in English would be “to be cooled” or “to be
Being that liberation is explained in terms of absence,
it is difficult to describe what that absent state is
Certainly, the suttas provide very little help with
this. Perhaps this is because explaining it by what
remains may not be the point. Perhaps freedom from
clinging is experienced or described differently for the
different people who attain it.
Perhaps the same person may even experience it
differently at different times. It may be like the
condition of prisoners released from prison at the same
time: each ex-prisoner shares the same freedom from
incarceration, but each may vary widely in how they
experience their life after being freed.
More important than what Nibbana may or may not be is
the function that it has for a practitioner. When we are
in a burning room, what an open door is like is less
important than how it helps us escape the fire. The
attainment of Nibbana functions as the ultimate escape
from suffering. Once one has escaped, it might not be so
important to know what Nibbana is.