I may have been unfair the other day in my post Sufferings are Nirvana with my characterization of the early Buddhist view, and that of present day Theravada, on nibbana. Richard, who blogs at My Buddha is Pink, pointed out in his thoughtful response that annihilation “is a mistaken translation . . . Nibbana is not annihilation, but really is an image of freedom because the underlying Pali root in the term ‘nibbana’ means ‘unbinding’.”
I am not convinced that annihilation or something on that order doesn’t figure in somewhere, however I will leave it for others to explain those teachings.
I would like to share a few more thoughts on how nirvana is viewed in Mahayana, specifically in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka or Middle Way philosophy, as far as I understand it.
I should point out that Madhyamaka looks at everything through the lens of the Two Truths: the conventional or relative truth (vyavahara) and the ultimate or absolute truth (paramartha). What is valid from the standpoint of the relative truth of our everyday world is not necessarily valid from the ultimate side. In the final analysis, though, the relative and the ultimate are neither different, nor identical. Nor does one stand independently of the other.
The same can be said of samsara and nirvana. In Madhyamaka, samsara represents the world of birth and death, the world of suffering, while nirvana represents realization of the ultimate truth, without which freedom from the bondage (bandhana) of suffering is not possible.
As noted above, one sense of nirvana is that of “unbinding.” In the Madhyamaka-karika or “Roots Verses on the Middle Way,” Nagarjuna says, “If binding, would exist prior to one who is bound, there would be bondage, but that does not exist.”
Binding/bondage belongs to the relative truth. In the ultimate truth, if binding existed prior to the bondage of a sentient being, then it would have inherent existence. Yet, ultimately, neither bondage nor anything else has inherent existence (Svabhava, own-being, self), and so release from bondage is not an inherently existent phenomenon either.
This is important because grasping onto the false idea of inherent existence is the primary cause for suffering. Nagarjuna felt that the term “nirvana” was useful for indicating spiritual release, but only if the term did not refer to something that could be an object for clinging. A few verses on, he says, “Those who grasp at the notion, ‘I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,’ have a great grasp on grasping.”
In The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield provides a good explanation of this:
It is [possible] to grasp after nirvana – to reify it as a state and to crave it as a phenomenon inherently different from samsara and as highly desirable since it is indeed characterized as liberation from suffering. But this grasping onto the end of grasping is itself a grasping and so precludes the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana requires, according to Nagarjuna, a complete cessation of grasping, including that onto nirvana itself. While that might seem paradoxical, it is not: To grasp onto something in this sense requires, inter alia, that one reify it. By refusing to reify liberation, in virtue of seeing it as the correlative of bondage, which itself is not inherently existent, it is possible to pursue the path to liberation without creating at the same time a huge obstacle on that path – the root delusion with regard to nirvana itself.
If things do not exist in themselves, then from the ultimate truth they are unreal, illusions. Nirvana, for Nagarjuna, if seen as something inherently existent, is only an illusion that will perpetuate more grasping, followed by more suffering.
There are no real distinctions in Madhyamaka philosophy because all things are considered empty of inherent existence or own-nature. For samsara and nirvana to be distinct from one another, they would have to be inherently existent things. But they are empty, and within this emptiness, they are without distinction.
Samsara and nirvana are only different in the relative sense, because they designate entirely different things. Again, in the ultimate sense, there is no difference, because of their emptiness. Everything is empty, including emptiness.
This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering. It is freedom.
Frederick Streng has written,
This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety which accompany attachment.
Without suffering, one can never know release. As long as we see freedom as something separate from our suffering, we are grasping onto an object, inviting more suffering. Just as we are related to our karma, we are related to our suffering, and nirvana, our freedom, is also related to our suffering.
If we can understand that samsara “is” nirvana in this way, in each moment, and know that suffering, ultimately related to our goal, is the very tool that allows us to reach the goal, then I think, we are one step closer to where we want to be. Of course, we need take that extra step of realizing that the goal of freedom is ultimately empty, for as long as we live we will experience suffering in one form or another. The goal of complete release is an illusion. There is only the Endless Further.