What is Nirvana?

By Michael Quesada September 12, 2018

What is Nirvana?

Unraveling Nirvana

At some point or another, most people have heard the word “Nirvana” – either because of Buddhism or relatively similar religions, or because of the band.  Many people loosely use this term in their everyday vocabulary when they are in a state of bliss, for example.

However, despite how much it’s commonly used, not many people actually know what it means and what one should do to attain it.

Defining Nirvana

Nirvana is a state in which Jains, Hindus and Buddhists believe to be the ultimate goal.  It is a Sanskrit word that means “to extinguish” or “to blow out,” the context of which is about putting out a flame.  As a result, many non-practitioners misunderstood this and thought that nirvana is about eradicating oneself.

Of course, this isn’t the case at all.  Nirvana is actually a state of mind that is no longer afflicted by emotions such as greed, hatred and material attachment.  In other words, if one has reached nirvana, it means they have reached ultimate happiness, as they will no longer feel any form of suffering.

Born from Siddhartha Gautama’s philosophy, nirvana found its start in Hinduism. But eventually, it strayed away from Gautama’s beliefs and began to create its own principles. 

It’s an important thing to note, however, that nirvana is not a place that people go to when they die.  But Barbara O’Brien notes that many believers have thought of it as a place because of how complex and difficult it is to explain through words. 

What is Nirvana?

Brief History

Most, if not all, people are aware of who Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha was. He was a rich, young prince back in 563 B.C.  As he grew older, he decided to give up living a luxurious, pampered life because he started questioning the worth of these things.

He was determined to put away even his emotional attachments to his family and to his belongings, as he found these to only cause distractions.  He wanted to reach enlightenment, and he did so by completely living a detached, wandering lifestyle.

So much so that he reached a point of starvation, but he still wasn’t able to reach enlightenment.  Since the detached life he was living was not working out as he had planned, he decided to take the middle route – in-between luxury and poverty.

It was when he took this middle road that he finally found enlightenment.  He sat under a Bodhi tree and after 40 days of meditation, he was able to reach nirvana. After that point, he became the very first Buddha. 

Nirvana in Life

There are two types of nirvana, and the first one takes place when one is still alive. When one reaches nirvana while still alive, this means a person is no longer bogged down by awful human emotions such as hate.  A person will also be free from desire, attachment, and from ignorance.

On top of that, the man or woman will no longer manufacture karma, but they will still have the karma they had accumulated before attaining nirvana.  However, despite being free from emotions, an individual will still feel pain.

In fact, one can still get sick, age and die – this is a form of repayment for the bad karma one may have had.

What is Nirvana?

Nirvana After Death

When an awakened person dies, they are then able to reach the second type of nirvana: nirvana after death or parinirvana. It is common knowledge that Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, and these two go hand-in-hand.

To go a bit more in-depth about this topic, this cycle wherein one lives, dies, and then gets reborn is called “Samsara.” Just like the word “nirvana,” Samsara is a Sanskrit word that could be translated to “wandering through.”  Samsara is caused by karma and karma dictates what a person is reborn as.

However, when an individual is able to attain nirvana while they are alive, that means he or she is no longer required to undergo the endless cycles of reincarnation.  This is because all the bad karma or the “karmic debt” one has accumulated will have been fully paid. 

Theravada Nirvana

There are different branches of Buddhism and two of these are Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.  These two, specifically, have somewhat differing perspectives when it comes to attaining nirvana.

To these type of Buddhists, they believe that nirvana can only be achieved if one completely abandons the many distractions that life offers. Thus, Theravada Buddhists follow the Buddha’s teachings, where he says that the mind and body should be disciplined.

What is Nirvana?

The idea behind this is that when an individual disciplines their mind and body, they can eventually overcome desire and suffering.  As a result, he or she can experience a feeling of bliss and contentment similar to the state of nirvana.

To put it simply, Theravada Buddhists believe that it is easier for a person to reach nirvana when they are not attached to earthly things, as this allows them to be more self-aware and enlightened. Of course, this is admittedly not an easy thing to achieve.

A person has to constantly fight their inner wants as well as human nature. However, this will only help them in the long run.  As Rocco A. Astore puts it: “In Theravada Buddhism, Nirvana is the consequence of one’s dedication to extinguishing desire.”

 Mahayana Nirvana

On the other side of the coin, there is the Mahayana Buddhism.  For this branch of Buddhism, a very important factor to reaching nirvana is sincerity.  That is to say, when one is genuinely looking for enlightenment, then they are already one step closer than those who choose to stay ignorant.

When an individual truly wants to be more connected to everything and everyone around them, then they, in turn, can learn to abandon their own desires and selfish thoughts.  Contrary to Theravada Buddhism, the Mahayana school believes that nirvana can only be reached if one follows the life Gautama Buddha once lived.

The term for those who follow this ideology is “bodhisattva,” which means a person who is trying to reach enlightenment the same way the Buddha once did.  This is an important distinction between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, as the former believes that nirvana is easier to reach after dying.

On the other hand, the latter believes that it is possible to be as enlightened as the Buddha once was, even when one is still alive.

What is Nirvana?

How to Reach Nirvana

“My teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such.  I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.  A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon.  A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

- Gautama Buddha 

To the Buddha, everyone – both young and old – are all capable of reaching nirvana.  In fact, there are relatively easy steps to do so.  Before beginning on these steps though, it’s best to understand the Buddha’s belief system as well as how he walked the path to enlightenment.

When the Buddha reached enlightenment, he taught the Eightfold Path.  This contains a methodology that teaches one how to reach said awakened state.  Despite its name, it’s not necessarily a step-by-step process, but rather, a guide on how one should be living his or her life:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Intent
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

These eight steps guide a person and is something that one should always keep in mind, especially when aiming to reach nirvana.


Nirvana, a state of mind where one is free from pain and suffering, is a concept that many people believe in.  After all, finding eternal bliss, freedom and contentment is something that every one of us wishes for.

Of course, despite there being branches of Buddhism and their relatively different perspectives on nirvana, there is really no right or wrong way of reaching nirvana between the two.  In other words, the one is just as valid as the other.

On one’s journey to enlightenment, it’s always best to keep in mind the Eightfold Path, as these steps are surefire ways to achieve nirvana.  With the Buddha’s teachings, he has already paved the way to eternal happiness, the only thing left to do is take the first step.

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What is Nirvana?

Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.

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