Enlightenment vs Nirvana --
- Photo, Bob Heide -
- Buddhist Enlightenment
vs Nirvana... Is
not an academic article, but simply a personal
reflection on the
diversity found in Buddhism. My interpretation
of Enlightenment and Nirvana is only a finger pointing and not
I first started reading books on Buddhism back in the late 1970s,
I had trouble understanding *Nirvana and Enlightenment. These
two words were often used interchangeably by authors writing
on the *Theravada and *Mahayana traditions. Sometimes though,
the meaning seemed to change depending on who was doing the
I couldnt understand why, for instance... In some Zen
and Mahayana texts folks didnt want Nirvana. Why did some
choose one, and not the other? If they were not the same...
What was the difference?
The first thing I did was define Enlightenment and Nirvana myself,
in a way that made sense to me. My definition of Nirvana became-
"The end of suffering"... and Enlightenment became-
"The Wisdom of Emptiness."
Nirvana- The End of Suffering... In this lifetime and
all future lifetimes.
The Buddha once said, I teach the path to immortality.
As it turns out, he didnt mean, not having to die, even
Christ had to die. The Buddha was saying... Samsara, the perpetual
cycle of birth and death ended in Nirvana, I could never be
reborn again... I would exist and not exist at the very same
time, forever. I would abide in Nirvana.
Enlightenment- The Wisdom of Emptiness... The wisdom
that arises from the direct experience of all phenomena being
empty of independent existence.
Knowing through personal experience (for example, meditation)
that all things are interconnected and interdependent. That
nothing in this world exists independently. All things are connected
and conditional... In other words... All things exist because
of other things.
I am here because my parents had lust and I had Karma. If both
conditions hadn't come together in a very special way years
ago, I wouldnt be standing here today, but thats
only half the story.
In order for me to live in this world, the Buddha said I need...
Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Medicine. These are
the four major conditions necessary for me to subsist. Some
conditions were necessary for me to be born, other conditions
are important for me to stay alive.
whole story is... Certain conditions got me here, other conditions
keep me here, and when all the necessary conditions come to
an end, so do I. I do not live independent of conditions.
Enlightenment is a result of the direct experience, of conditional
and interconnected reality.
Enlightenment is more than an intellectual understanding though,
its also an intuitive knowing. It is a total transformation
of the heart and mind.
favorite Mahayana sutra on emptiness is the Heart Sutra.
Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra
Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Perfect Wisdom clearly
saw that all five Skandhas are empty and passed beyond all suffering.
Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness: Emptiness does
not differ from form. Form then is emptiness. Emptiness then
is form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness,
are also like this.
Sariputra, all Dharmas are marked with emptiness: not born and
not dying, not stained and not pure, not gaining and not losing.
Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, perception,
volition or consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or
mind; nor form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or Dharmas; no realm
of sight til we come to no realm of consciousness; no
ignorance and no ending of ignorance, til we come to no
old age and death, and no ending of old age and death. No suffering,
origination, extinction, or path. No wisdom, and no attainment,
with nothing to attain.
Because the Bodhisattva is the Perfect Wisdom of emptiness,
his mind has no hindrance. Having no hindrance, there is no
fear and far from all fantasy, he is dwelling in Nirvana.
Because all Buddhas of the three times practice the wisdom of
emptiness, they gain complete and perfect enlightenment.
Therefore know, that Perfect Wisdom, is the great holy mantram,
the great bright mantram, the wisdom mantram, the unequaled
mantram, which can destroy all suffering---truly real and not
false. So he gave the Perfect Wisdom mantram, which goes;
te Ga te, Pa ra Ga te,
Pa ra sam Ga te,
When a Buddhist realizes Enlightenment... The Great Compassion
cannot but arise in his or her heart. He is no longer able to
view the world in the same way he did before his Enlightenment.
He can now see, feel, know, and understand... If one person
is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying in the world... There is
a part of him that is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying. He no
longer feels separate and safe. He views the world as a sea
of suffering and is directly connected to each and every suffering
being, in the same way the ocean connects to each and every
Its really a choice all Buddhist practitioners make...
To change themselves in a way that is of benefit to all living
beings, and not just their Self.' This transformation
is founded on the direct experience of Enlightenment"
in Mahayana Buddhism. The path that leads to Enlightenment
is called the Path of the *Bodhisattva.
Reconnecting to the world in this very special way, does not
end the Bodhisattvas suffering, however... In some ways
Bodhisattva's may suffer more, but each time they help end the
suffering of another being, their suffering is also eased. Each
time they feed someone, clothe someone, shelter someone, comfort
someone... Their suffering is transformed.
The path of the Bodhisattva is very difficult... There is no
time out, they never take a vacation. Where would they go? Where
is the place, no one suffers?
In the Theravada tradition, the Buddha was a Bodhisattva numerous
times in his past lives and seemed to achieve Enlightenment
many times before his Nirvana. The story of the Buddha's life
as a Bodhisattva is found in an Early Buddhist text called the
In the Mahayana Tradition, the focus is on Enlightenment,
not Nirvana. The goal is to become a Bodhisattva, and then a
Buddha. The Bodhisattva ends his/her suffering only in Buddhahood,
and not before. In the Mahayana, its not so much... Do
what the Buddha says... But, do what the Buddha did.
In the Theravada tradition, the focus is on Nirvana... Here
and now. By following the teachings of the Buddha, he/she can
become an *Arahant. Having crossed over the sea of suffering
and landed on the other shore... The Arahant not only ends his
suffering, but gains the Compassion and Wisdom' of a Buddha
to help end the suffering of others.
As with the Bodhisattva, the Arahants life is fully dedicated
to the end of suffering. There is no rest so long as one person
suffers. There is no place to go and nothing to do, other than
be of service. The activity of the Bodhisattva and the Arahant
is not determined by Self or ego, but by compassion and wisdom.
When all is said and done, are the path's of the Bodhisattva
and Arahant the same? I don't think so, they appear to be different...
But they both end and/or reduce suffering in the world.
Is Enlightenment the same as Nirvana? I think they mean different
things. In my mind, the future Bodhisattva strives towards Enlightenment,
and the future Arahant towards Nirvana.
In the Theravada tradition, the focus is on Nirvana, doing what
the Buddha taught, and following the path of the Arahant to
the End of Suffering.
In the Mahayana tradition, the focus is on Enlightenment, doing
what the Buddha did, and following the path of the Bodhisattva
to the Wisdom of Emptiness.
Before I end this portion of the presentation... One last point
needs to be made... I have tried to share with you how Enlightenment
and Nirvana may be different... But they are very much the same
in this sense.
That in the end... In the Ultimate reality of Buddhism... Both
the path of the Bodhisattva and the Arahant lead to the end
of suffering. Just as the Buddhas many past lives as a
Bodhisattva finished in Buddhahood. Every path found in Buddhism
will ultimately end in Nirvana!
I hope my explanation of Enlightenment and Nirvana will help
you read the teachings of the Buddha with more clarity
Bodhisattva... Arahant... Enlightenment... Nirvana... The Wisdom
of Emptiness... The End of Suffering... The choice is up to
The Great Vehicle. This form of Buddhism emerged somewhere between
150 BCE and 100CE. Its distinctive features include the new
emphasis given to compassion and the Bodhisattva ideal, the
three-bodies of the Buddha doctrine, emptiness and skill in
Enlightenment Being. This is a being whose Buddhahood is assured
but who postpones his/her own entry into Nirvana to help all
other sentient beings attain to it first. The Buddha himself
was described as a Bodhisattva in stories of his previous lives.
The Theravada school of Buddhism was the first one to emerge
after the Buddha's parinirvana (Death). Over the centuries,
it has retained its unique approach to the search for Nirvana,
relying closely on the word of the Buddha as it appears in the
Noble one. An arahant is an individual who has realized Nirvana,
brought an end to his own suffering and the cycle of birth and
To cease blowing. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism,
the third noble truth. In nirvana, the suffering and the desire
that causes suffering have come to an end, as has the cycle
of birth and death. Sometimes nirvana is referred to by the
Buddha as 'unborn' and 'unconditioned', in contrast to the phenomenal
world we experience in our unenlightened state.
Enlightenment; What a Trip - Posted 3/2008 - 32 min - MP3 - 7.5 MB //
A talk on what Enlightenment and Nirvana might be like according to Buddhism.
Also by Kusala
I Became a Buddhist
Buddhists Go to Heaven
Buddhists Believe in God
Problem with Sex in Buddhism
Buddhist Approach to Health Care