Nirvana as Freedom

Nirvana is sought because it the solution to the problem of Samsara, but it seems to me, as with the concept of Suffering, that this is not the whole story. It is not the full picture. Nirvana wasn’t just the moment of death for the Buddha, his Parinirvana. It was also that moment of his awakening that took place when he was a young man.

A Positive Life After Nirvana

He realizes at that moment that he was free from all the ignorance that drove the cycle of transmigration, and then he lived for forty years. A long, productive life. He moved through the roads of Northern India, reacting to the experiences of people around him, teaching them the Dharma, begging his food, building a community of disciples and setting in motion this remarkable religious tradition.

If you want to understand what is positive about Nirvana, the most important thing to do is to try to imagine what he was like. Try to know what that Buddha was like as he glided through the landscape of Northern India for forty years after his awakening.

What Was the Buddha Like?

I think that he was exquisitely free. He was free from desire, he was free from ignorance and there was nothing that troubled him or disturbed his heart. As the result of that, he was able to respond freely to the interests and needs of the people around him.

The story of Angulimala shows a remarkable image of the Buddha as a teacher and as somebody who was able to respond to the distinctive needs of a person, who for other people would be extraordinarily frightening. He was able to touch his heart and to convert him to a different way of understanding himself and the nature of the world.

He is free, he is unattached. He is able to touch people in a powerful and distinctive way. I think that you also have to say that he is wise. He understands what the world brings. There is nothing that is going to shake him in that sense. We can speak about the Buddha as being wise, as being unattached, as being free and able to act with spontaneity and clarity of mind in his relationship to others.


I think that also it is appropriate to say that he embodies a certain quality of compassion as well. A certain kind of compassion and ability to respond to other people’s needs. Although the concept of compassion is not one which we’ll begin to discuss in a technical sense, it would be extremely unwise to imagine that this Buddha was so rarified and so detached from the experience of suffering in the ordinary world, that he could not respond to the suffering of other people.

Nirvana is Freedom

It is important for us to understand Nirvana as a negative idea. In understanding it as a negative idea, we understand it in its Indian way, as a concept that responds to the particular challenges and needs of Indian civilization. But it is not a negative concept in its totality. It is negative in form, but positive in content.

The experience that you have of Nirvana is an experience of freedom, of detachment, of wisdom, and the ability to respond with clarity of mind to all the difficulties that life presents you. In that sense, you can really imagine that it is the Buddhist image of the perfection of a human person, because that is what the Buddha is.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha's Teachings.

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