“I’m trying to extinguish his greed, hatred, and delusion.”
First, it’s useful to know the literal meaning of the word nirvana. Nirvana literally means “going out”, as in the extinguishing of a flame, so in that sense, nirvana means “extinguishing”. But what is extinguished in nirvana? The most obvious thing that is extinguished, of course, is craving. Indeed, the Buddha equates nirvana with the “ending of craving”. Nirvana is also the extinguishing of greed, hatred and delusion (the original Pali words almost rhyme: lobha, dosa, moha), commonly known as the three poisons. In relation to craving: greed relates to the grasping aspect of craving, hatred relates to the aversion aspect of craving, and delusion is a necessary condition for the arising of craving, so the extinguishing of delusion guarantees the extinguishing of craving both now and in the future.
The three poisons are also known as the three fires. Early in the Buddha’s ministry, he met with a group of ascetics under the leadership of the three Kassapa brothers. After the meeting, the entire group of one thousand ascetics converted to Buddhism. The Buddha gave them a discourse, which was only the third one he had given. Those one thousand monks were all devoted to fire sacrifice before they became Buddhists, so the Buddha gave them a discourse based on the subject they were most familiar with: fire. It is the famous Fire Discourse. He started with, “Monks, all is burning. … Burning with what? Burning with the fire of greed, the fire of hatred and the fire of delusion.” For that reason, greed, hatred and delusion are also known as the three fires. Liberation from suffering, then, is the extinguishing of these fires. It was said that by the end of the discourse, all one thousand new Buddhist monks gained liberation. If the beer company Guinness had been keeping records at that time, that incident would have been recorded as the highest number of people reaching full enlightenment after a single discourse by the Buddha.
Nirvana is also often talked about as the escape from samsara. Previously, we talked about samsara as an endless cycle of suffering that entails repetitive cycles of birth, ageing, death and rebirth, including as gods, hell-beings, humans, animals and ghosts. Nirvana is breaking free from that endless cycle. That is why in the ancient Buddhist texts, one who gains full enlightenment often declares, “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.”
Since nirvana is escape from samsara, it’s easy to mistake nirvana for annihilationism. Indeed, even during the Buddha’s lifetime, there were people who claimed that what he taught was annihilationism. He rebuked that directly, saying,
I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmans thus: ‘The recluse Gotama is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being.’
If nirvana is escape from samsara but is not annihilationism, that creates a vexing question (vexing for an unenlightened fool like me): when a fully enlightened one passes away, does that one then exist or not exist? To my surprise, I found the Buddha actually gave an answer to this question. It is in a context of a conversation between the Buddha and a wanderer called Vacchagotta. Below is my rendering of the relevant parts.
Vacchagotta asked: Do you hold the view that when a fully enlightened one passes away, that he (1) exists, (2) not exists, (3) both exists and not exists, or (4) neither exists nor not exists?
Buddha replied: I hold none of these four views. Furthermore, these are all speculative views. Speculative views do not lead to liberation from suffering, hence I put them away.
Vacchagotta then asked in a different way: When a fully enlightened one dies, does he (1) reappear, (2) not reappear, (3) both reappears and not reappears, (4) neither reappears nor not reappears?
Buddha replied: None of the four applies.
Vacchagotta: Great, now I’m really confused.
Buddha: Let me ask you this. Suppose there is a fire. What does the fire burn in dependence on?
Vacchagotta: It burns in dependence on fuel.
Buddha: Suppose the fire dies out [because the fuel is used up], which direction does the fire go? North, south, east or west?
Vacchagotta: None of the four applies.
Buddha: In the same way, a fully enlightened one is liberated from reckoning in terms of all five aggregates: form, sensation, perception, volitional formations and consciousness. Hence, he is profound, immeasurable, and hard to fathom like an ocean. Therefore, none of the four [propositions involving reappearing, or not reappearing, or both, or neither] applies.
No, Vacchagotta didn’t actually say, “cool”, he instead praised the Buddha profusely and asked to be his disciple, I just decided to render two entire paragraphs of profuse praise with “cool”.
The key point the Buddha makes is that a fully enlightened one after passing away cannot be fathomed in terms of existence or nonexistence, hence existence, nonexistence, both, and neither; all do not apply. If you find that confusing, here is some additional teaching that may reduce your confusion, or add to it, or more likely, both (or neither). The Buddha once spoke about this topic in a different context. The Buddhist monk Kaccānagotta asked the Buddha for a clarification of what “right view” is, and the Buddha said to him:
Most people in this world [except for the enlightened ones] depend upon a duality— upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.
Medieval commentaries to the above passage clarify that “the notion of existence” (atthita) refers to eternalism (“I will forever be”) and “the notion of nonexistence” (natthita) refers to annihilationism (“I will forever stop being”). Hence, the above passage points out the limits of the unenlightened mind that is only capable of understanding phenomena in terms of existence or nonexistence.
How is one to understand this? Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh offers a beautiful analogy: think of the waves on the surface of the ocean. If a wave sees only this wave as her individual self, she will see her own arising and ceasing, existing and non-existing, birth and death. But if the wave can also experience water itself, then she also sees that there is a deeper reality that goes beyond both existing and non-existing. That is not to say that the wave has a separate, larger “self” that is the ocean, but that the wave can directly experience the water that is beyond both her existence and non-existence. That is a metaphor for nirvana.
Honestly, despite the Buddha’s and my teachers’ explanations, I still do not really understand what it means for one to be “unfathomable in terms of existence or nonexistence”. It takes an enlightened one to fully understand that, and last I checked (which was 7:13am this morning), I’m not it. In the meantime, I just need to be content with partial understanding until my practice catches up.
 Nyanatiloka Bhikkhu, Buddhist Dictionary. Buddhist Publication Society, 4th edition (1980).
 In many places, the destruction of craving is listed as a synonym for nirvana. Examples are Majjhima Nikāya 64, Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.32, and Saṃyutta Nikāya 43.14-43.
 Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.55.
 Saṃyutta Nikāya 35.28.
 Saṃyutta Nikāya 35.29 is one example.
 Majjhima Nikāya 22.
 Aggivacchagotta Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 72).
 Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.15.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. Harmony (1999).
Featured image by Colin Goh.