Nibbana by Bhikkhu Bodhi, edited by Wisdom Quarterly
The Third Noble Truth has two dimensions, one psychological, another philosophical.
The Buddha's teaching reverses the common assumption that happiness can be found by satisfying our desires. Careful examination of the "happiness" that comes from trying to satisfy a desire reveals that such happiness is unreliable, insecure, and hollow. That is, our desires are not really satisfied. We know this because we continue to crave, even when we have gotten the thing. Either we want more and more of the same object (possessiveness) or we thirst for something new and better, something we imagine will finally satisfy this craving that oppresses us.
But the end of all kinds of suffering has a more wide ranging meaning than this. Craving drives us on over and over in Samsara, the "wheel of repeated births and deaths." When craving is eliminated, our actions no longer build up karma. Thus, the wheel is brought to a halt. This is the state of final deliverance, nirvana, the aim of the Buddha's teaching.
What is nirvana?
The state of final deliverance from all suffering is called nirvana (Pali, nibbana). Nirvana literally means the extinguishing of a flame in Sanskrit. The word as used by the Buddha means the extinguishing of the flame of craving. Another way to understand it is as the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion -- the roots of karma that lead to suffering now and in the future.
Regarding the nature of nirvana, the question is often asked, Does nirvana merely signify the end of suffering? That is, is it only the extinction of mental defilements and liberation from Samsara, or does it signify some reality existing in itself?
As a Buddhist technical term, dharma signifies actual realities, the existing realities as opposed to conceptual things. There are two types of dharmas, conditioned and unconditioned.
- material form
- mental formations (or volitions)
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as an ayatana. This means base, realm, plane, or sphere. But it is a sphere where there is not anything at all that corresponds to our mundane experience. It therefore is often described by way of negations. (See the story of the turtle and the fish). That does not make it "nothingness." But this is exactly how many well meaning and sincere people interpret what cannot be conceived of in familiar and tangible terms.
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as a dhatu or element. It is the "deathless element" (amata-dhatu). He compares the element of nirvana to an ocean: Just as the great ocean remains at the same level no matter how much water pours into it, without increasing or decreasing, so the nirvana element remains the same, no matter how many or how few people attain nirvana.
The Buddha also refers to nirvana as a "state" (pada). He calls it amata-pada, the "deathless state" and accuta-pada, the imperishable state.
Another word used by the Buddha to refer to nirvana is sacca, which means "truth," an existing reality. Nirvana as truth means it is a reality that the Noble Ones (who have entered upon the stages of enlightenment beginning with stream entry) have directly experienced.
Now a trick question may be asked: "If nirvana is attained by the practice of the Path, doesn't this make it something conditioned, something produced by the Path? In other words, Doesn't nirvana become an effect of a cause (literally, the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path)?
As a precaution, it must be repeated that nirvana can not be understood through words or examples, expressions or study. Nirvana can only be understood by realization. However, in order to convey some idea of the goal to which the Buddha's teaching points, he resorts to words and expressions. He uses both negative expressions and positive ones:
There is another point of confusion for those caught in a thicket of views debating rather than experiencing. The attainment of nirvana comes in two stages, referred to as the two elements of nirvana. One is with residue remaining, the other without residue remaining.