Suffering (dukkha) is a disease, the basic ‘ill’-ness of life, and because the Buddha offered an insightful diagnosis and effective treatment for this malady, he is called The Great Physician.
Every disease has a cause, and the cause for suffering, the Buddha taught, is the false sense of “self” and the passions this delusion inflames. The treatment he prescribed is the Eightfold Path, which we can summarize as ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Ethics I always feel is self-evident. Everyone, irrespective of religious considerations, should strive to live an ethical life. Meditation is the process that cools the fever of passion, and wisdom is the insight into and realization of no-self and all that goes with it.
The cure, then, we call Nirvana. The popular definition of this word is “blown out,” as in a candle being extinguished, and has sometimes been linked with the idea of extinction (of the entity of human life). However, its other and more relevant meaning has to do with the restoration of healthy conditions after the disease of suffering is treated.
There is the famous story of the maiden Kisagotami who from her balcony watched Siddhartha when he was a prince return home after he learned of his son’s birth. So taken by the prince’s beauty and glory, she spontaneously broke out in song: “Happy is the mother who has such a child, happy is the father who has such a son, happy is the wife who has such a husband!” The word she used for happy was nibbuta. Now, the future Buddha took this word, nibbuta, as a synonym for nirvana (nibbana) and transforms Kisagotami’s song in this way: “In seeing a handsome figure, the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana, the heart of a wife attains Nirvana.” Then he asks himself, of what does Nirvana consist? And the answer he arrives at is, “When the fire of passion is cooled, the heart is happy.”
Nirvana, that state said to be “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable” is actually, just plain and simple happiness, the transformation from a state of ill-ness into a state of health, and well-being. We can accept the idea of “complete nirvana” as allegory, for there are few more powerful images than that of the Bodhisattva who forgoes this ultimate state to stay in Samsara, the world of suffering, and liberate other beings.
But liberation in this sense is a metaphor, because suffering is a chronic disease. As long as we live in the world, we will experience suffering. Liberation, Nirvana, these words mean to maintain a state of well-being, balance, happiness, while in the midst of suffering, a sort of “grace under pressure.” In this way, the key to good health is simply listening to the physician, picking up the prescription, and following the directions.
In the case of sickness, one needs to diagnose it, remove its cause,
Attain the happiness of good health and use reliable medicine for it;
Similarly, with suffering, one should remove its cause, and recognize its remission
And the path of remission should be applied and attained.