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Asking the Clergy: What is Nirvana?

From left, Narinder Kapoor of Multi-Faith Forum of

From left, Narinder Kapoor of Multi-Faith Forum of Long Island, Bhante Kottawe Nanda of Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, and Nitin Ajmera of Parliament of the World's Religions. Credit: Narinder Kapoor; John Roca; Nitin Ajmera

Nirvana Day, a festival celebrated on Feb. 8 and 15 by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, commemorates the attainment of enlightenment by the Buddha on his death at age 80. This week’s commenters discuss why nirvana is central to their religious beliefs.

Nitin Ajmera of Plainview

Chairman, board of trustees, Parliament of the World’s Religions

Nirvana in Jain philosophy is a state of infinite bliss, infinite knowledge and infinite perception that a soul attains when it gets rid of all its karmas.

Once the soul attains this stage, it is no longer subject to the cycle of life and death and remains in this happy state forever. According to Jainism, all living beings are mortal because of their karmas, pathos and ethos that bind them to infinite cycles of life and death. Individuals need to work on their self-restraint and control of emotions as well as guide their feelings toward a neutral state, thereby stopping the influx of karmas.

Through constant meditation and penance, the soul also gets rids of its karmas, slowly and steadily rising to this pristine and pure state, where no karma particles remain attached to the soul. This state is nirvana. Once a soul reaches this stage, it lives in happiness that is not momentary, but continuous.

Think of it like eating chocolate: We feel pleasure for some time, but if we eat a lot, the law of diminishing returns applies. In state of nirvana, however, there is no law of diminishing returns; the source of happiness is infinite and continuous.

Narinder Kapoor

Member, board of directors, Multi-Faith Forum of Long Island

Although ancient texts such as the Vedas and early Upanishads don't mention nirvana, the term is found in the Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, the profound treatise of Hinduism. Nirvana is the eternal peace attained by those whose sins have been washed away, whose doubts have been dispelled by knowledge, whose minds are firmly established in the belief in God and who are actively engaged in promoting the welfare of all beings.

Hindus believe that there is a cosmic energy in the totality of creation. For us, nirvana literally means merging back into that cosmic energy. We also call this moksha, a word derived from Sanskrit that means the liberation of the soul from the cycle of birth and death. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, nirvana can be achieved through the three spiritual paths or practices: bhakti yoga (loving devotion toward a personal deity), karma yoga (unselfish action) or gyaan yoga (the path of self-realization).

In Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna describes nirvana as an experience of "blissful ego-lessness," an eternal peace in which one is "illuminated by the inner-light" and "becomes one with God."

Bhante Kottawe Nanda

Head monk, Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, Riverhead

Nirvana is the ultimate blissful state that any living being can achieve. But it is one of the most difficult phenomena to understand even though the path in achieving nirvana has been well explained in Buddhism.

In the Udāna Text, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, each accompanied by the story that occasioned it, nirvana is defined as that dimension "where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world … just the end of suffering." Nirvana cannot be explained by any known dimension. Attaining it is an intellectual process leading to wisdom where there is no greed, hatred or delusion.

Buddha explains that form and suffering are impermanent. Buddha continues, "What is suffering is non-self. What is non-self should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom, thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself." When one sees this as it really is, with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from attachments which cause suffering.

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