Skt., lit., “extinction” (Pali, nibbāna; Jap., nehan); the goal of spiritual practice in all branches of Buddhism. In the understanding of early Buddhism, it is departure from the cycle of rebirths (samsāra) and entry into an entirely different mode of existence. It requires complete overcoming of the three unwholesome roots—desire, hatred, and delusion, and the coming to rest of active volition. It means freedom from the determining effect of karma. Nirvāna is unconditioned (asamskrita); its characteristic mark is the absence of arising, subsisting, changing, and passing away.
In Hīnayāna two types of nirvāna are distinguished: nirvāna with a remainder of conditionality, which can be attained before death; and nirvāna without conditionality, which is attained at death.
In Mahāyāna, the notion of nirvāna undergoes a change that may be attributed to the introduction of the bodhisattva ideal and an emphasis on the unified nature of the world. Nirvāna is conceived as oneness with the absolute, the unity of samsāra and transcendence. It is also described as dwelling in the experience of the absolute, bliss in cognizing one’s identity with the absolute, and as freedom from attachment to illusions, affects, and desires.
In the West nirvāna has often been misunderstood as mere annihilation; even in early Buddhism it was not so conceived. In many texts, to explain what is described as nirvāna, the simile of extinguishing a flame is used. The fire that goes out does not pass away, but merely becomes invisible by passing into space; thus the term nirvāna does not indicate annihilation but rather entry into another mode of existence. The fire comes forth from space and returns back into it; thus nirvāna is a spiritual event that takes place in time but is also, in an unmanifest and imperishable sphere, always already there. This is the “abode of immortality,” which is not spatially localizable, but is rather transcendent, supramundane, and only accessible to mystical experience. Thus in early Buddhism, nirvāna is not seen in a positive relation to the world but is only a place of salvation.
In some places in the sūtras an expression is used for nirvāna that means “bliss,” but far more often nirvāna is characterized merely as a process or state of cessation of suffering (duhkha). This should not, however, be regarded as proof of a nihilistic attitude; it is rather an indication of the inadequacy of words to represent the nature of nirvāna, which is beyond speech and thought, in a positive manner. As a positive statement concerning nirvāna, only an indication concerning its not being nothing is possible. For Buddhism, which sees all of existence as ridden with suffering, nirvāna interpreted as the cessation of suffering suffices as a goal for the spiritual effort; for spiritual practice it is irrelevant whether nirvāna is a positive state or mere annihilation. For this reason the Buddha declined to make any statement concerning the nature of nirvāna.