What is Nirvana?

What do we mean by Nirvana? What is this concept? It is talked about a lot and it is a part of our vocabulary. You can speak of all sorts of things as being as Nirvana and generally they are quite positive and pleasurable. That is the popular idea about Nirvana.

Nirvana as a Negative Concept

The truth is that it is not positive in a quite obvious way. Actually, if you think about the meaning of the word, the etymology of the word it’s quite a negative concept. Nirvana means literally to blow out. To extinguish the flame of a candle.

So, you might say that Nirvana is the cessation, is the extinction of the fire that burns constantly from one life to the next. It is important to realize that Nirvana is a hard image and in many respects quite a cold image.


The comparison that I use when I talk about this comes from a experience I had quite a while ago. Once when I was on vacation, I went to a great Roman church, the Thursday night before Easter, when the lights inside the church were extinguished.

I have to say that that experience was very moving for me. We were in this great dark church, it was nighttime, it was early in the spring. There was a line of Italian choir boys walking out of the service when it was over, each one of them carrying a big candle. As they walked out, each one blew out the candle. One after another. And when the last candle went out, the church was plunged into darkness.

Then everyone left the church, in silence. It was quiet, it was dark, it was deeply moving. That’s not unlike Nirvana. Nirvana is the extinction of the flame of desire, the flame of existence.

Two Nirvanas

For us to understand the technical concept, to dig more deeply into what’s going on here, we have to understand that Nirvana comes at two moments in the Buddha’s life. It comes first in the moment of his awakening. That’s the first moment of extinguishing, the first time when he realizes that the fire will eventually go out.

At the moment of his awakening, he understands thoroughly what the causes are of the process of death and rebirth that he knows he is not fueling anymore. That’s Nirvana number one. It is called Nirvana with residues, because there is still karma from past lives that needs to be worked out.

Eventually, forty years or so later, he has the experience of Parinirvana at the end of his life. The complete extinction, when all of it burns out. The Buddha is released completely from the cycle of death and rebirth.

These two moments are called Nirvana with residues and Nirvana without residues. Nirvana without residues is also called Parinirvana.

What's so Great About This?

With the concept of Nirvana we now face a dilemma that is similar to the dilemma we faced earlier with the concept of suffering. Nirvana is spoken of in the Buddhist tradition as being extremely desirable, something we would really like to seek. And yet we have to confront it initially as being a rather harsh concept, a concept that has to do with the extinction of things that for many of us are pretty desirable in the normal understanding of human life.

We have to ask ourselves a basic question. Why the Buddhists treat this as being a desirable goal? What’s so great about this? Why would you ever want to seek Nirvana if it involves the extinction of all these things that are desirable?

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

Copyright © Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes
Question or Comment? Do not doubt to contact me.
Template by bloggertheme