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Nirvāṇa

A Sanskrit word meaning, literally, “out-blow,” often mistranslated as “extinction.” The Pāli equivalent would be nibbāna. The term is used to indicate the complete quiescence of one’s often rather acquisitive emotional nature (called KĀMA-MANAS in theosophical literature), which is likened in Theravāda Buddhist writings to a fire, such as in Buddha’s “Fire Sermon.” It is not equivalent to the common Christian notion of Heaven or the Northern Buddhist notion of Sukhāvatī, since it is always defined negatively, being beyond ordinary verbal description. It is equivalent rather to the original meaning of “Kingdom of Heaven” as spoken of in the gospels, as well as to the Hindu moka, or liberation. Nirvāna as a term is pre-Buddhistic, as it is also found in the Bhagavad-Gitā and the Mahābhārata. In the former it is equated with union with Brahman, and referred to as Brahman-Nirvāna.

Nirvāna as a negative state has often been erroneously translated as “annihilation.” It is a transcendent state beyond our ordinary mode of existence or experiencing. It represents a state where greed, hate, delusion, attachment or similar qualities have been extinguished, and thus there is no more rebirth, since there is no more thirst for physical existence. This ineffableness is expressed by Edwin Arnold in The Light of Asia thus:

If any teach Nirvana is to cease,
Say unto such they lie.
If any teach Nirvana is to live,
Say unto such they err.

Nirvāna has often been put in opposition to samsāra or the phenomenal universe. But, as the philosopher Nšgšrjuna has pointed out in his analysis of Theravāda categories, since both samsāra and nirvåna are dynamic conditions, both are empty (śunya) of permanent, unchanging reality. Put in the form of an equation, samsāra = 0 = nirvāna. In that sense, paradoxically, both samsāra and nirvāna are similar, even though they are obviously not exactly the same. In other words, when one attains to nirvāna, one does not “go” anywhere, it is one’s perception toward and attitude about the world and the things in it that have changed. But the causes of one’s samsāra no longer exist.

Nirvāna is classified into two kinds: sopādhi-ea nirvāma and nirupādhi-ea nirvāna. The former is the attainment of nirvāna while still retaining a vehicle or body (upādhi), while the latter is not. Similarly, nirvāna is also distinguished from parinirvāna (parinibbāna [P], or “complete nirvāna”), which is the attainment of final nirvāna upon the death of an enlightened person such as a Buddha. The term mahāparinirvāna (mahaparinibbāna [P]) is used in a similar sense.

In theosophical literature, these two terms, Paranirvāna and Mahāparanirvāna, refer to certain transcendent states of consciousness or attainment not necessarily connected with physical deaths of Arhats or Buddhas. Helena P. Blavatsky speaks of Paranirvāna as the state of rest or pralaya after the great Manvāntara of 311,040 billion years. It is equivalent to the “Day-Be-With-Us.” Thus it is equated with ParaŠishpanna, the Absolute Perfection, or the unmanifested state of the universe (SD I:42). The Mahatma Letters state that Buddhas can pass periodically into Paranirvāna. In the writings of Charles W. Leadbeater, the paranirvānic consciousness resides in the Anupādaka plane, while the Mahāparanirvānic consciousness is in the Adi plane (Man Visible and Invisible, ch. II).

In the Voice of the Silence, Blavatsky spoke of two paths. The Open Path leads to nirvāna, while the Secret Path, through renunciation of nirvāna, leads to paranirvāna bliss at the end of numerous kalpas (VS, Fragment II). This is the bodhisattvic ideal, the path taken by Nirmānakāyas, who, though without a physical body, remain in their intermediate bodies in order to help suffering mankind.

See Buddhism; Theravšda Buddhism.

 

R.W.B./V.H.C.

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