Sufferings are Nirvana

In Root Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says, “Samsara has nothing that distinguishes itself from Nirvana; Nirvana has nothing that distinguishes itself from Samsara. The limit of Nirvana is the limit of Samsara, there is not the slightest difference between the two.”

Samsara is a Indian word that refers to our mundane world of suffering, the world of birth and death. When Nagarjuna says “samsara is nirvana,” he is pointing to the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana.

The 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen put it this way in Shoji (On Life and Death): “Living and dying is what nirvana is.” In Bendowa (On Practicing the Way of Buddhas), he says, “You must realize that birth and death is in and of itself nirvana. Buddhism has never spoken of nirvana apart from birth and death.”

This is not just Dogen speaking figuratively, it is, to some extent, a literal fact, for the Buddha never taught that nirvana was outside of this world, or this life.

The word “nirvana” literally means “to blow out” or “to extinguish” and originally referred to the extinguishing of passion, desire, the blowing out of the flames that cause suffering.

According to the Western monk Nyanatiloka, who in 1952 complied a Buddhist,  in early Buddhism, nibbana [the Pali transliteration of nirvana] was seen as “The full ceasing of the groups of existence . . . ‘Nibbana without the groups remaining’, in other words, the coming to rest, or rather the ‘no-more-continuing’ of this physico-mental process of existence. This takes place at the death of the Arahat.” Nirvana/nibbana then was seen as the extinction of the human entity transmigrating through the cycle of birth and death.

But is that really what the Buddha had in mind? Professor Max Muller, quoted in Mind Unshaken by John Walters:

If we look in the Dhammapada [one of the early collection of scriptures or sutras] at every passage where nibbana is mentioned, there is not one which would require that its meaning should be annihilation, while most, if not all, would become perfectly unintelligible if we assigned to the word nibbana that meaning.”

The idea of annihilation, of checking out of the cycle of birth and death, of nirvana as some other-worldly realm, or as pure nothingness, is definitely not what the Buddha was teaching. Most likely it was layered onto the Buddha’s teachings after his passing, possibly to bring Buddha-dharma more in line with the mainstream of Indian metaphysical thinking. However, Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book, The Buddha, writes,

The third noble truth concerns cessation (nirodha), and it is that the cessation of suffering is a consequence of the cessation of craving. The word used in this connection – nirodha – is a synonym of nibbana (in Sanskrit, nirvana), the best known name for the goal which Buddhist teaching has in view. Nirvana is the cessation of all evil passion, and because evil passion is regarded in Buddhist thought as a find of fever, its cessation may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of health. In fact, in the Buddha’s time the associated adjective nubbuta seems to have been an everyday term to describe one who is well again after an illness. It is evident from this that  the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.

When Dogen used the phrase shoji soku nehan, or “birth and death are themselves nirvana”, he, like Nagarjuna, was saying that our sufferings and nirvana are interrelated. We can reach nirvana at any time. Actually, our sufferings are already nirvana, if we choose to look at it in that way.

We often talk about nirvana as being the other shore, about ferrying living beings across the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana – this is simile. We are already standing on the other shore, but we’re not sure about where we are because of the fog of delusion, pride, ego, attachment.

It’s not as simple as saying, “Okay, from now on I’ll see that sufferings are nirvana.” It is not a purely intellectual thing but rather an intuitive understanding that comes from the depths of one’s entire being. And we practice in order to be able to realize this intuitive wisdom.

We cool off the passions, then we recover from our fever and become healthy, whole – when our mind is clear and calm we see that sufferings are nirvana. Indeed, without suffering, there is no way that we could know joy or peace.

In the Kevaddha-Sutta, the Buddha is asked, “Where do earth, water, fire, and air come to an end?” And the Buddha replies, “The  answer is: In the invisible, infinite, all-radiant, consciousness (Vinnanam anidassanam).”  This term, Vinnanam anidassanam refers to consciousness in its undivided purity, no longer split into the duality of subject and object. This consciousness is said to be identical with nirvana.

We do not need to look any further beyond our own world, our own lives and our suffering to find peace and joy, nirvana, for it is always within our mind. As the Dalai Lama says,

Samsara-our conditioned existence in the perpetual cycle of habitual tendencies and nirvana – genuine freedom from such an existence- are nothing but different manifestations of a basic continuum. So this continuity of consciousness us always present.”


14 thoughts on “Sufferings are Nirvana

  1. Alright, I think I’m going to disagree with you a bit, although I recognize that your better versed than I in both Pali and Sanskrit. However, I think the sources you cite are erroneous.

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his essay “Nirvana” writes: “We all know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it’s hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation.”

    But he goes on to say that this is a mistaken translation, that Nibbana is not anhiliation, but really is an image of freedom because the underlying Pali root in the term “nibbana” means “unbinding.”

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains further: “The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life. All input from the senses cools away and he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations of existence in space and time.”

    So this metaphor or attempt to say that samsara and nibbana are the same, that there is no other shore, that it’s the same shore, to me represents a fundamental distortion. And I can’t agree that the consciousness “is said to be identical with nirvana,” as the Buddha teaches clearly that consciousness is merely one of the Five Aggregates.

    Perhaps my learning is flawed. I neither know Pali nor Sanskrti; I haven’t even read the entire Majjhima Nikaya or Digha Nikaya. And my familiarity with Mahayana and Vajrayana texts is even more limited. But my gut reaction is that samasara and nirvana are as different as night and day because at the root, is not samsara conditioned and nirvana unconditioned? One may attain release in this lifetime, while in the samsaric world, but I think to conclude that because that is so, they are the same is specious.

    1. Well, I don’t really “know” either Pali or Sanskrit. I am familiar with some words and their meanings. I am constantly learning new words and terms, and since I have a number of dictionaries I am also able to cross-reference.

      What I was trying to do was contrast the notion of nirvana as being in the here and now with that of nirvana being annihilation. The Theravada view on this I have always found confusing. Nyanatiloka, in his long definition of nibbana, talks about the cooling of passions, ect., as does Thanissaro Bhikkhu in your quote, but then they go on to talk about the freedom that an arahant experiences, and I think that means “annihilation” in the end, because an arahant is no longer subject to rebirth. He or she checks out. They blow out. Don’t they?

      Maybe there is some nuance I’m missing. Like I said I have trouble understanding the Theravada view about this point.

      I don’t accept the idea that there is any end or escape to the cycle of birth and death. I don’t think Mahayana, in general, does either, and this fundamental difference from earlier Buddhist thinking is symbolized in the bodhisattva who foregoes entry into nirvana, mainly because there is no nirvana to enter. Nirvana is right here, right now.

      My sense of this comes from Nagarjuna, who held that there is samsara (mundane existence, conditioned becoming) and there is nirvana (the unconditioned reality) and that they are non-dual, “two but not two.” Nirvana is conditioned becoming/samsara in its unconditioned nature. For samsara and nirvana, or the conditioned and the unconditioned, to be separate, they would have to be independent entities, and there are no independent entities. Nothing can stand on its own side, unlinked or separate from other things.

      In the conventional view, nirvana and samsara are different because joy and suffering are not the same. In the ultimate view, they are just two sides of the same coin. Consciousness here that is identified with nirvana I think means pure unconditioned consciousness but I would have to go back and see it the proper context to be sure.

      Don’t know if I explained myself very well, but I’ve given it the old college try, and thanks for the response.

  2. When faced with questions like these, it can be helpful to remember that this is the path of liberation through not clinging. Speculation about the nature of nirvana, on the other hand, probably is not helpful.

    The issue at hand is how we engage with this samsara here and now, just as it is. The teaching about a lack of distinction between samsara and nirvana is meant to encourage us to engage with equanimity and awareness, in my opinion. This teaching is not intended to fuel speculation about the nature of nirvana.

    Is it helpful to compare and contrast samsara and nirvana as two potentially distinct things? I don’t think that was the intention of this teaching.

    We find that we are in this situation, here and now, with our five physical senses and our thoughts. How do we engage with that? Where is there clinging? Where is there not-clinging? This is the task at hand. We can have all the opinions we want about the nature of nirvana, but those opinions won’t get us very far if they distract us from this very samsara, right here and now.

    I think we need to be very careful about viewpoints such as “sufferings are nirvana.” If we hold to such a viewpoint, does it help with the task at hand? Likewise, I think we need to be very careful about making any declarations at all about nirvana.

    1. To Morning Star Dhamma: Thanks for your response. Actually I think you point out another reason why we should view samsara as nirvana. Speculation about the nature of nirvana, as you say, is not that helpful. Samsara is nirvana puts an end to that. We shouldn’t cling to the notion of nirvana, or have expectations about it. We don’t have to speculate but we also don’t need to view nirvana as apart from where we are right now and what’s we’re doing right now. This teaching helps us deal with the samsara here and now. there is nothing else but the present moment. Understanding nirvana in this way removes yet another screen that prevents us from seeing reality as it really is, and seeing what the job at hand , as well.

  3. But viewing samsara as nirvana can be a way of trying to get a grasp on nirvana. What is it we’re trying to grasp? That very action is what then deserves scrutiny.

    Look again to the text you quote from Nagarjuna. “Samsara has nothing that distinguishes itself from Nirvana; Nirvana has nothing that distinguishes itself from Samsara.” I can see how a person might step from this statement to the additional conclusion that “samsara is nirvana,” but that’s not what Nagarjuna is saying. There’s a subtle difference here that’s easy to overlook.

    Here’s an excerpt from at article by David Loy that appeared in the Winter 2006 edition of Tricycle : The Buddhist Review:

    ‘Nagarjuna never actually claims, as is sometimes thought, that “samsara is nirvana.” Instead, he says that no difference can be found between them. The koti (limit, boundary) of nirvana is the koti of samsara. They are two different ways of experiencing this world. Nirvana is not another realm or dimension but rather the clarity and peace that arise when our mental turmoil ends, because the objects with which we have been identifying are realized to be shunya. Things have no reality of their own that we can cling to, since they arise and pass away according to conditions. Nor can we cling to this truth.’

    It’s important to remember that these teachings are meant to be put into practice. They are not presented to us for the purpose of dissecting points of cosmology or philosophy. Not all teachings are relevant to all people at every point in their practice. That’s why we see forms of the Buddha’s teachings that can seem to be in conflict.

    If you feel that it is helpful for your practice at this moment to hold to the viewpoint that samsara is nirvana, then may you be successful in your practice. You may wish to speak with your teacher about this.

    Best wishes.

    1. To Morning Star Dhamma: I suppose that, as someone else once said, it depends on what “is” is. If you interpret Nagarjuna’s statement as meaning one and the same, then yes, “is” is not operative. If “is” means there is nothing that distinguishes one from the other, then “is’ is tenable.

      I’m afraid you misunderstand the intent behind this concept. Nagarjuna states it quite clearly prior to the passage I cited, that his intent is to put an end to clinging to nirvana. As Loy points out in the paragraph before the one you quoted, “This, ‘the end of conceptual elaborations (prapancha),’is how Nagarjuna refers to nirvana.

  4. “Samsara is Nirvana” – it’s simple as that when you fully understand sunyata. Those are only different sides of the same coin. You cant get one side without the other. When u realise this, its the end of clinging to nirvana.

    “Followers of the Way, as I see it, you are not different from Shaka (the Buddha)” – Línjì Yìxuán

  5. “I don’t accept the idea that there is any end or escape to the cycle of birth and death”

    Lol…what??!!! That’s the whole point of Buddhism and the Dharmic religions…to end the cycle.

  6. No, your post is confused. Samsara, in the Nikayas, is a process; Nirvana is the end of the process. They cannot logically be one and the same thing.

    People are confused by this because they approach Buddhism within the framework of process vs. Substance ontology. They miss the point made here:

    The teaching is avoiding these metaphysical categories, not because it is advocating some other metaphysical position (or advocating the viewpoint that these are untrue in some ultimate sense), but because it is a conditioned strategical conditioning that leads to the end of conditionings (I.e. transcendence).

    1. If I am confused, then so is Nagarjuna. You need to read my post carefully, for this is exactly what I am taking about, “cessation” as the wrong view of the right view. Forget what I said about reading my post, read some Mahayana literature instead, particularly Nagarjuna’s Mula-madhyama-kakarika. Thanks for leaving your comments.

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