Nirvana is not a Place

Following on from the blog a coule of days ago which hopefully clarifies tha Samsara (wheel of life and death) is a process, and not really a place, we can look at nibbana in a new light.


One Mahayana principle that is pointed as a criticism or superior teaching to Theravada Buddhism is that ‘Nirvana is in Samsara’.

There is a tendency for Buddhists, from misunderstanding the teachings, to project nibbana (=nirvana in Sanskrit) as a super heaven where the Buddha and arahants go. This then leaves the rest of the universe as ‘Samsara’ or the wheel of life and death. As blogged a couple of days ago – Samsara should not be understood in this way. It is a process of becoming and identifying based on ignorance. In psychological terms Samsara is your realm of constructs which trap you.

Nibbana is a ‘putting out’ of this process. That does not mean the body/person dies, but just that the process of becoming is put out. One does not ‘go’ anywhere, just as the flame of a candle does not go anywhere when it is put out.

Another way to imagine this, as given in the suttas, is as light coming through a window. It will be visible as light on the wall. If the wall is removed, it will be visible as light on the floor. If the floor is removed it will be visible as light on the ground. If the ground is removed it will not be visible. It will not be establishing itself in any place. So too with consciousness when enlightened. It does not establish itself anywhere – it just is.

Some people might be more familiar with Advaitia – or the theory of non-duality. While this is not mentioned by name in Buddhism it certainly fits the description of consciousness that is not ‘Samsara-ing’

There is no coming, no going, no here, no there, no inbetween. Consciousness is unestablished. The mind has no object (anarammana). That truly is the end of suffering

All of this is in the Pali canon. Whether Theravada Buddhists in ancient times after the Buddha were imagining nirvana as a super heaven or not it is hard to tell. But certainly the suttas – the original teaching of the Buddha, made no such claim or mistake.

The irony is then that while Mahayana claims that ‘Nirvana is in Samsara’ neither this view, nor the one that nirvana is a heaven, are supported by the original scriptures. And in fact there is a further irony – Mahayana went ahead and created a super-heaven anyway: Many Mahayana suttas such as the all important Lotus Sutra claim that the Buddha is waiting there with all his arahants to welcome you into Nirvana when you become Enlightened (which technically is impossible for a Mahayana follower anyway as they should have taken the Bodisattva Vow). Historically we know that the Mahayana suttas arose long after the Buddha himself – which is not to say they are without value.

[click here for many of the Mahayana suttas translated into English, including several versions of the Lotus Sutra, or here for a summary of the Lotus Sutra]

Now if we really are going to take Mahayana as a guiding principle, this very Lotus Sutra is a great place to start. It goes to great lengths to explain that there is no such thing as a Lesser, Greater or Diamond vehicle.

For a technical explanation of Nirvana as an end-of-process rather than a place there is a short article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who if you don’t know of him, is one of the world’s real Pali experts.

5 replies on “Nirvana is not a Place”

  1. An excellent explanation- I think the example of how it is like what happens to light after a wall is removed makes things very clear – I’ve never heard it explained this way before. Last year I was investigating what some of these new non-duality gurus have to say (people like Jed McKenna) and it was certainly interesting. There seemed to be this idea that there is some conflict between non-duality and Buddhism, but perhaps this is not the case at all; at least not with Theravada anyway.

  2. Yes, I gave a talk at the World Budhist University a while ago about Nibbaana and made the same point that it is not a place, but rather a way of experiencing – experience without greed, hatred and delusion. I tried also to make the point that it was not a “type” of experience.

    One thing I don’t agree with is speaking of the “wheel of *life* and death”, but rather the “wheel of *birth* and death”. 🙂 In the suttas you can read the Buddha saying he {and other arahats} had ended birth and death, but obviously he {and they} still had life.

  3. ‘Middleagedmuaythai’ hehe. How’d you come up with that one Paul?
    Nibbana is a tricky concept. Thanissaro’s article is pretty good, but he has several more peices on the topic on the Access to Insight website. This one provides all the quotations :

    Wheel of Birth and Death is better than ‘Life and Death’ yes 🙂

    I might mention that in the Dhammakaya school of Theravada, Nirvana is again spoken of as being ‘outside’ of Samsara, but still a definite destination where arahants reside.

    1. Hopefully 🙂 Although, I don’t really see what’s so bad about the concept of nibbana as a realm, so long as it spurs one on to practise. Anyway, next we have the question of ‘where’ arahants go after enlightenment.

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