Buddhism A–Z
What is Nirvana (Nibbana) in Buddhism?

In Theravada Buddhism, nirvana (Sanskrit; nibbana in Pali) is the ultimate goal of spiritual practice: enlightenment and the end of suffering. In the earliest Buddhist traditions, it is understood to be a state of liberation, enlightenment, and transcendence from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth known as samsara. Nirvana translates as “extinction” and symbolizes the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance, and often represents the cessation of birth and death.

The term was used by the historical Buddha in his first talk after attaining enlightenment, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma,” and indeed, the Third Noble Truth—the truth of cessation—is a reference to the ultimate cessation of mental and/or physical suffering, also known as dukkha.

In Mahayana Buddhism, however, nirvana is not considered the state of full and final enlightenment. While representing the full attainment of personal peace and freedom from suffering attained by the arahat, it does not include the dedication to the enlightenment of all beings that is central to Mahayana Buddhism. Those who take up the path of the bodhisattva, in fact, vow to forgo their own entrance into the state of ultimate cessation, choosing instead to be continually reborn so long as other beings for whom the bodhisattva can offer support and guidance remain.

For some traditions, nirvana is seen as a gradual process attained through diligent spiritual practice, while for others, it can be attained suddenly. In any case, one’s dharma practice is undertaken in order to break from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Nirvana is a state in which suffering is absent and, as such, may be considered the ultimate peace, free from Buddhism’s “three poisons” of attachment, aversion, and ignorance.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.