by Gil Fronsdal, from Tricycle, Fall 2006, “Nirvana: Three Takes”

Nibbana is the ultimate good news of Theravada Buddhism: it means complete liberation. Naturally, people want to know about the nature of nibbana, but from the Theravada standpoint, knowing how a person is transformed in attaining nibbana is more important than understanding what it is.

When a person is thirsty, what’s important about water is not its chemical properties, but that it quenches thirst. Similarly, for someone who is suffering, what’s important about nibbana is not so much its nature but that its attainment extinguishes suffering.

Nirvana (Sanskrit) and Nibbana (Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts) literally mean “to go out”-like a fire-and “to cool.” Applied to the mind, it refers to extinguishing the fevers of greed, hate, and delusion, the three roots of suffering. The Buddha’s choice of this term was intimately tied to the imagery of his famous Fire Sermon. Here he said: “Everything is on fire; the eyes are on fire; sights are on fire; visual perception is on fire. . . ; the ears are on fire. . . ; the nose is on fire. . . ; the tongue is on fire. . . ; the body is on fire. . . ; the mind is on fire…. They are on fire with greed, hate, and delusion” (from the Mahavagga of the Theravada Vinaya).

In the language of the Buddha, the word for fuel and for clinging is the same: upadana. The Buddha understood that suffering arises from and is fueled by clinging. When the fuel is removed, suffering is extinguished. By understanding how deep-rooted and subtle clinging is in our own unliberated minds, we come to appreciate the mind of nibbana as refreshingly cool and peaceful.

Nibbana is the end of samsara. Contrary to a popular misunderstanding, neither nibbana nor samsara is a place. In attaining nibbana we don’t escape from one location to another. For the Buddha, samsara is the process by which clinging gives rise to suffering which, in turn, gives rise to further clinging. He understood that this self-perpetuating process continues over lifetimes as the “fuel” for rebirth, just as the fire from one burning house is carried to a neighboring house by the wind. Nibbana is what is realized when the clinging of greed, hate, and delusion is brought to an end.

Some later Buddhist traditions equate nirvana and samsara. However, they likely attribute very different meanings to these words than those understood by the earliest Buddhist tradition. In Theravada teachings, samsara cannot be nibbana any more than a clenched fist can be an open hand, any more than burning ember in your fist can be the same as letting it go. For the Buddha, nibbana had quite positive associations-after all, it is a simile for ultimate freedom and awakening. At times he used other similes to describe this state: “the blissful, the secure, the pure, the island, the shelter, the harbor, the refuge, the ultimate.”

Other, more perplexing, synonyms include “the unconstructed, the ageless, the deathless, the featureless.” These refer to the idea that nibbana does not exist as something that can be made, shaped, or willed. It is not a “ground of being” from which anything subject to death can arise. Although there is a consciousness, “featureless, infinite, and luminous all around,” that is associated with nibbana, it is not dependent on the conditioned world. Nor does it produce the conditioned world. Rather, it is a dimension of consciousness totally independent of circumstances in the world or in one’s personal life. Because nibbana is independent, people who fully realize it are said to be “unestablished”-in other words, free from any clinging that would confine their consciousness to any point in space or time.

Experiencing nibbana is like taking a dip in a refreshing pond. A quick dip and we are slightly refreshed. With a long soak we are thoroughly refreshed. Even the first, brief dip into nibbana is a powerful lesson in the possibility of a great happiness, freedom, and peace not dependent on the conditions of the world. As long as someone believes happiness can only be found through the right conditions, it makes sense to cling to those conditions-even when knowing full well that all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. But when there is a direct, visceral experience of an alternative, the enchantment that fuels this clinging lessens dramatically.

The function of attaining nibbana is to reduce and finally end all clinging. In Theravada Buddhism, the desire to walk the path to nibbana has an honored place. Once that desire is fulfilled, it naturally subsides and the mind clings to nothing, not even to nibbana itself.

Walking the path toward the complete ending of clinging and suffering is the noblest thing a person can do. It opens the fist of the mind, and allows a person to walk in the world with gift-bestowing hands.