The concept of nirvana (Sanskrit) or nibbana (Pali) might be translated thus: ‘extinction’, ‘blowing out’, ‘freedom from desire’, the absence of dukkha or to cease. But those words or phrases really don’t explain nirvana. In fact, it is a concept that is almost unexplainable.
“No Buddhist tradition draws a definite conclusion for the meaning of nibbana,” writes Sayadaw U Dhammapiya, Ph.D., in his book Nibbana in Theravada Perspective, the very best book on the subject that I have ever come across. Venerable Dhammapiya is a most honored and respected Burmese monk from Myanmar, presently abbot of Mettananda Vihara Dhamma Yeiktha, a temple and Vipassana (insight) meditation center in Fremont, California. He is also a good friend.
“No single expression in any language can fully cover the true meaning of nibbanic experience without practice,” he writes. “The mere interpretations sometimes mislead readers to absorb different meanings.” I agree with Ven. Dhammapiya, that it is only through meditation that nibbana can be truly understood.
Trying to explain nirvana is somewhat like trying to explain the taste of sugar to one who has never tasted it, or trying to explain a color to one who is and was born blind. It is difficult, if not impossible.
Clever answers may be given to the question, what is nirvana. Answers may be explained in glowing terms, but no words can really give us an answer. Nirvana is beyond words, logic and reasoning. It is easier and safer to speak of what nirvana is not. It isn’t nothingness or annihilation of self, because the dharma teaches there is no self to be annihilated.
In our attempt to explain it we use words which have limited meanings. It isn’t heaven; it isn’t purgatory, it isn’t Pure Land, and it isn’t the end. Nirvana is the Absolute Reality, which is realized through the highest mental training and wisdom. It is beyond the reach of the spoken or written word.
The Buddha said:
“It occurred to me, monks, that this dhamma I have realized is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, beyond mere reasoning, subtle and intelligible to the wise. . . Hard, too, is it to see this calming of all conditioned things, the giving up of all substance of becoming, the extinction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana. And if I were to teach the dhamma and others were not to understand me that would be weariness, a vexation for me.”
This is a clear indication from the Buddha himself that the extinction of desire (nirvana) is difficult to see, difficult to understand.
Buddhists call nibbana the Supreme Happiness, that it is the total absence of dukkha, that it is truth and reality.
Ven. Dhammapiya concludes, “Finally it is my contention that although a partial understanding is possible with a philosophical approach, without having personal experience of the meditative practice, one will not truly understand what the word nibbana really means.”
One last comment: One doesn’t have to die to experience nirvana. Most of us already have had momentary glimpses of it. I am partial to this quotation from the famous Lebanese – American writer Kahlil Gibran:
“Yes, there is a Nirvana: it is in leading your sheep to a green pasture, and in putting your child to sleep, and in writing the last line of your poem.”