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.”