314. What is ‘Nirvana’?

There’s a common belief that Nirvana is the reward for practice. So, as it were, if we put in the hard yards of meditation, at some point we attain Nirvana. It’s something we attain, like we would attain Enlightenment, on the same kind of thinking: attain and keep. We go from our ordinary, fallen human condition to the state of Nirvana. Nirvana is a noun. Paired with that is often an image of blowing out a candle – Nirvana is like blowing out a candle.

This is an almost complete misunderstanding of what Nirvana originally meant. For that, we need to go back to the Buddha’s first three sermons after his awakening. He gave the first two of these to the five ascetics whom he practiced with, before taking a different path. 

In the first sermon he outlined the truth of suffering. He talked about the four noble truths  and the noble eightfold path. In the second sermon he talked about No Self. Throughout, he talked to this small group of practitioners in a straightforward way.

The third sermon was different. It was given to a much larger group of practitioners, and is known as the Fire Sermon. The reason why it’s called that is because the Buddha used the metaphor of fire to describe our ordinary human condition. So he said that our eyes are burning, the objects of our eyes are burning, our mind is burning, our hearing is burning, and so on. Burning is the common theme, and the fires that he describes are what later became known as the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.

To understand this metaphor you need to understand that the Sanskrit and Pali word for fuel (i.e what keeps the fire going) and the word for attachment are the same. The word is upadana. The suggestion of the metaphor is that the fires of greed, anger and ignorance which consume our lives are generated and sustained by the fuel of attachment –  attachment to a self, and to all the things which your self believes it requires.

The word Nirvana has two parts to it: the prefix NIR means out and VANA means blowing. So at first glance we think, ‘oh, that fits in quite well with the image of the candle being blown out,’ but we need to understand two things. Firstly, the word vana has a much broader meaning than our word ‘to blow’, which we would think of as a person blowing out. We wouldn’t think of it as a person breathing in, and we certainly wouldn’t think of it in terms of a general movement in the air – though figuratively we would understand if someone said ‘the wind is blowing’.

The contemporary Theravada monk and translator, a wonderful and generous man called Thanissaro Bhikkhu, renders ‘Nirvana’ as not-blowing. On his reading of it, Nirvana is not blowing on the flames with a bellows, with the breath, or with something similar, a blowing which will keep the fire going. It’s not doing that. However, this isn’t quite right. ‘Nirvana’ is transitive; there’s nobody doing the blowing, and there’s nobody refraining from blowing. In fact, the reference is to the fire blowing. In other words the fire – of greed, anger and ignorance – which is sustained by our attachment, is ‘blowing’. It is drawing in the air which helps to sustains it. The consequence of us not continuing to give fuel to the fire is that the fire gradually dies down, and when it does so it’s not ‘blowing’- and that’s Nirvana.
But you can see how this original metaphor could gradually change into the metaphor of blowing out the candle, and who else would blow out the candle other than the practitioner? But this is almost a complete reversal of the original meaning, and throws attention onto what the practitioner will get, rather than what they need to stop.