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The short answer: nirvana is the state of having eliminated all our disturbing emotions and distorted attitudes so that they can never arise in us again. This comes about through generating the wisdom necessary for realizing the nature of reality. Imagine: no matter what someone else says or does, you won’t get angry because the seed of anger in you has been forever eliminated. You will remain calm and clear and able to deal with the situation effectively. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
The longer answer: From a Buddhist perspective, nirvana describes the state of freedom, release or liberation from “samsara,“ or cyclic existence. To fully understand nirvana or liberation, we must first understand cyclic existence — the cycle of recurring problems in which we are continuously born, experience various problems such as aging, sickness, lack of satisfaction and contentment, and then die. To understand cyclic existence, we need to understand who or what it is that cycles in samsara. Therefore, we must understand what it means to be a person dependent on a body and mind controlled by “karma” and afflictions.
The Buddha said that the mind is the creator of our happiness and suffering; the mind is the creator of our samsara and our nirvana. But we are largely unaware of how this is so.
You see, as human beings, we like to think that we’re in control of our lives, and to some degree we are. We can decide to go here and there and pursue the things that we like. But doing even five minutes of breathing meditation quickly shows us how wild and uncontrolled our minds are. Most of us find it challenging to focus on an object without distraction for more than a few seconds at a time, thus the term “monkey mind.”
On one hand, we could say that our mind is pure, pure in the sense that it simply observes things that come into its field of awareness much like a mirror reflects an object in front of it. The eye consciousness knows the various shapes and colors of forms; the ear consciousness cognizes sounds; the nose, tongue and body consciousnesses know smells, tastes and tactile sensations respectively. And the mental consciousness knows the mental images of our thoughts and memories. What is it then that causes the mind to find some things we encounter as pleasant and others not, or to distinguish an object as good or bad, or to cause attachment to one person and aversion toward another?
Our minds are also influenced by the various adventitious mental states that accompany them. Some mental states are positive, such as love, compassion, wisdom and the like; some are afflicted or disturbing in some way, such as anger, attachment, jealousy, and arrogance; and others are neutral. These mental states never enter into the nature of the mind. But when a positive mental state accompanies the mind, the mind becomes positive, and tends to engage in positive physical, verbal and mental actions. And when a negative state of mind accompanies the mind, that mind is influenced and becomes negative or distorted and then it’s very hard not to get involved in negative ways of thinking, acting and speaking. Is that your experience?
These positive and negative actions or “karmas” leave energetic traces (karmic seeds ) on our mind that later give rise to compatible karmic results such as taking different rebirths, or having strong habitual tendencies, or predisposing us for similar future experiences, and so forth.
Underlying all of our actions is a kind of ignorance, a misunderstanding about how we and all the things, people and situations that we engage with exist. We have a mistaken conception of who we are: we appear to be independent of anything else, yet depend on our causes, our parts and being labeled “me.” Things we engage with appear to exist one way (as inherent or independent of anything else) yet actually everything exists dependently, dependent on their causes or their parts, or dependent on being labeled by our mind. These subtle misconceptions lead to all the other afflictions and contaminated ways of thinking, like attachment for things that appear pleasant to us and aversion for those that don’t.
Since ignorance apprehends things in a contrary way to how they actually exist, we can oppose and eliminate ignorance by developing the wisdom which realizes the actual nature of reality. By cultivating the wisdom and realizing the ultimate nature, we can gradually eliminate all of the coarse and subtle types of ignorance and other afflictions in our mind. A person who has completely eliminated ignorance and afflictions has achieved nirvana and now abides in a liberated state of continuous bliss. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
If you’d like to read more about this topic, I would suggest a wonderful book by Venerable Thubten Chodron called “Open Heart, Clear Mind.”