Smells Like Nirvana

by | Nov 13, 2023 | Buddhism for All

Once upon a time, a fish and a turtle were friends.  The turtle returned from a visit to dry land, and the fish had a lot of trouble trying to understand this “dry land” place where the turtle had been.  So, the fish asked a series of questions, such as, “Is it all wet?”  “Can I move my fins about it and push my nose through it?”  “Does it ever rise up in waves with white foam in them?”  “Does it move in streams?”  To every question, the turtle answered, “No.”  Finally, the fish confidently concluded, “In that case, dry land must be nothing.”  There was nothing the turtle could say in response, because any description the turtle could come up with was entirely beyond the experience of the fish. [1]

That is the central difficulty of this chapter: trying to describe something indescribable.

In his first discourse, the Buddha made the assertion that it is possible to end suffering by ending craving.  This assertion is known in Buddhism as the Third Noble Truth..  Specifically, he said,

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.[2]

There is a one-word descriptor for the state of total freedom from all suffering: “nirvana[3].  The biggest problem in describing nirvana is that nirvana is basically indescribable.  It is like the turtle trying to explain dry land to the fish.  It is also like trying to explain the taste of honey to someone who has not tasted sweetness in his entire life, there is simply no way to satisfactorily describe it.  Actually, Soryu says it is incomparably harder than even that, because in the analogy, you at least still have a frame of reference, which is the experience of tasting, but nirvana has no frame of reference at all.  The Buddha says nirvana is “profound, hard to see and hard to understand, … unattainable by mere reasoning.”[4]  

The inherent problem in describing nirvana makes it easy for people to mistake it to be “nothingness”, in the same way the fish mistakes dry land for nothingness.  Fortunately, all hope is not lost.  Sometimes, it is possible to understand an unobservable phenomenon by observing and understanding its secondary, derivative aspects.  One example is black holes.  A black hole is a region of space exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing—not even light—can escape from inside it.  Since a black hole traps all light and all electromagnetic radiation, there is absolutely no way to directly observe it.  However, you can infer the existence of a black hole in at least two ways.  One is by observing its gravitational effect on surrounding bodies.  If a region of seemingly empty space exerts strong gravitation on surrounding stars, then it is likely a black hole is there.  Another way a black hole is indirectly observable is through an effect called Hawking radiation.  According to Stephen Hawking’s wildly popular book, A Brief History of Time[5], Hawking radiation happens when a matching particle and anti-particle pair is produced just outside the event horizon of a black hole.  For example, let’s say an electron and a positron are produced, the positron may then be sucked into the black hole while the electron escapes and is observed as thermal radiation.  In that way, even though the black hole itself is observed to be a region of empty space, radiation is produced in the space around it, and by observing the radiation, you can infer the black hole. 

In the same way, even though nirvana itself is unfathomable, indescribable and not directly understandable to one who is not fully enlightened, there are some aspects of it which are almost describable and almost understandable to an unenlightened person, and the Buddha did talk about those.  So, while there is no way to fully understand nirvana until you achieve full enlightenment yourself, it is possible to derive some degree of approximate understanding based on a combination of your meditation practice and what the Buddha says about nirvana.

In the next post, we will explore those aspects of nirvana.



[1] This story was first told by 19th century British Buddhist monk, Silacara Bhikkhu.  Recorded in The Buddha and His Teachings, by Nārada Mahāthera.

[2] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11).

[3] Or “nibbana” in the Pali language.

[4] Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[5] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books (1998).

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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