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Samsāra & Nirvana

Samsāra & Nirvana

You could argue that Buddhism is about freeing yourself from samsāra and reaching nirvana (nibbāna). But what do samsāra and nibbāna really mean?

Samsāra can be translated as ‘the endless wandering’. First, a few words from the Buddha himself (SN 15:3 and 15:13):

“What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—or the water in the four great oceans?

“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.”

“What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?”

“This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.”

“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.”

Samsāra is the overarching problem. It denotes the endless aspect of dukkha.

There is no beginning, no matter how far back you look, and even death, the Buddha teaches, is not an end.

There is no heavenly existence, no matter how beautiful, that offers a permanent solution.

Sooner or later things change.

Ahba teaches that it is important to recognize that we are trapped in this continuous cycle of life and death, constantly subject to suffering, as a result of desire.

At first, this may be just a postulate to reflect on from time to time, but through sustained contemplation combined with experience and insight as a result of concentration meditation, this cycle can become a source of energy and determination, culminating in the thought (AN 2:5):

“Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence.”

Dukkha is inherent in all existence. Only the end of the conditioned, of becoming, i.e. Nibbāna, is permanent.

The liberation from the deepest unsatisfaction by the irrevocable destruction of desire, hatred and ignorance – the liberation from the endless wandering that is samsāra – that is what in Buddhism is called the attainment of Nibbāna.

Nibbāna can be translated as extinction, the extinction of the fire of desire, hatred and ignorance.

When one then considers that in ancient India the extinction of burning wood was also seen as a away of liberating the fire, it is not strange that Nibbāna means both extinction and liberation.

Nibbāna is the ultimate goal of the Dhamma and although, as said, it equals liberation and extinction of something, it is also a reality in itself, as the Buddha said:

“Of all Dhamma’s, whether conditioned or unconditioned, the most excellent Dhamma, the highest Dhamma, is Nibbāna.”

Dhamma in this context means ‘ultimate phenomenon’, an existing reality that can be expirienced as an object by the mind.

The Buddha himself never said what Nibbāna is.

If you had to explain to someone who has never eaten a mango what a mango tastes like, you would soon fall short.

You would make comparisons with what is known to describe the texture, the sweetness, the acidity, and so on. Still, the only way to find out what a mango tastes like is to taste it yourself.

If it is already almost impossible to explain the taste of a mango, a worldly object and to some extent comparable with things around us, to make comparisons then for the supernatural Nibbāna which lies beyond any experience is impossible.

What we do know is that Nibbāna, unlike all other phenomena in the world, is unconditioned (not conditioned and not creating new conditions) and permanent, but like everything else, Nibbāna is without a self (anattā).

It cannot be repeated enough, the attainment of Nibbāna is not the merging of a self with something higher, Nibbāna is anattā, without self.

If we look in the Pali Canon for what the Buddha does say about Nibbāna, we find for example (AN 3:32):

“This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all activities, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.”


This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma


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