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Asking the Clergy: What does nirvana mean to your faith?

From left, David Listen, Buddhist meditation instructor and

From left, David Listen, Buddhist meditation instructor and lecturer; Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhist scholar-monk; and Anu Jain, executive board member of Jain Center of America in Elmhurst, Queens. Photo Credit: David Listen; Bhikkhu Bodhi; Aishwarya Jain

What is nirvana? It’s not just a rock band. For Buddhists, it’s a state of religious enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. On Feb. 15 and in May, various Buddhist traditions will commemorate key events in the Buddha’s life, including his death and attainment of nirvana. This week’s clergy discuss what it means to reach the supreme goal of the Buddhist path. 

David Listen

Buddhist meditation instructor and lecturer, Greater New York City

Nirvana Day is a commemoration of the Buddha’s passing from this world, sometimes also referred to as the moment of complete extinction. In a general sense, nirvana refers to the dissolution of mental distress of any kind, brought about by the practice of moral discipline, meditative stability and insightful observation.

In the context of Nirvana Day, it refers to the complete extinction of the burden of a living being — in particular the human body — as a product of attachment. When a fully awakened being passes away (enters nirvana), they realize the full release from life and death, and go beyond all kinds of existence, including heavenly being. They enter, so to speak, that which is beyond form or even formlessness, beyond conceptualization, neither one with nor separate from all existence — neither something nor nothing. This can be called nirvana without remainder. However, further development of Buddhist thought explains that great nirvana can be realized in the midst of birth and death, while having a body and engaging actively in helping living beings free themselves from mental distress.

Most importantly, when Buddhists celebrate Nirvana Day, it’s not only to remember the Buddha’s realization of nirvana but to remind oneself that the potential for liberation is within one’s own mind — right now.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

Buddhist scholar-monk, Chuang Yen Monastery, Carmel

Nirvana is the supreme goal of the Buddhist path. Different Buddhist traditions describe nirvana in different ways. In the Early Buddhism tradition that I follow, nirvana is considered from two angles. From one angle, it is the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion — the root defilements that drive the cycle of repeated birth and death. As long as these defilements remain in the mind, a person will repeatedly undergo the suffering of birth, old age and death. When the defilements are uprooted, the state that follows is called the nirvana element with residue, the residue being the psychophysical complex acquired through past karma. This is nirvana experienced during life, a state of perfect beatitude — blissful, peaceful, secure from all bondage. When the liberated one passes away, the cycle of rebirth utterly ends. This is called the nirvana element without residue, also called the deathless and the unconditioned. This state transcends all the finite, limited categories of human thought.

The Buddha said that one who has attained the unconditioned nirvana is indescribable, because none of our words and concepts adequately apply to one who has passed from the cycle of repeated birth into that state that transcends birth and death.

Anu Jain

Executive board member, Jain Center of America in Elmhurst, Queens

In Jainism the simplest way to achieve nirvana, which we also call moksha, is by a complete detachment from all materialistic things and any kind of emotion, including love, hate, pain and sorrow. Nirvana is liberation from the karma that cripples the inherent powers of the soul. (Karma is the person’s intentions and actions from past and present.) A person only will obtain real and everlasting happiness when the karmas are completely removed from the soul. Even though a person is imperfect at present, it is quite possible to be rid of the karmas by personal efforts.

Nirvana is the highest happiness. It allows escape from the cycle of births and deaths and liberation of the soul. Attaining nirvana requires the three jewels of Jainism: Samyag-darsana (right belief), Samyag-Gyan (right knowledge) and Samyak-charitra (right conduct), all of which must be present together and emphasized equally to constitute the path to nirvana. The three jewels are a true and firm belief in the seven principles of Jainism without any perverse notions; knowledge of the nature of things exactly as they are and with certainty; and conduct according to the rules of discipline, which restrain all censurable movements of speech, body and mind, reduce and destroy all passionate activity and lead to nonattachment and purity.

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