Nirvana Flickr photo by ePi.Longo

Ask a Buddhist: What is nirvana?

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by Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Q: What is nirvana? Is it just acceptance?

Nirvana is much more than mere acceptance. Shakyamuni Buddha himself said that “nirvana is the ultimate happiness” and is the ultimate goal of practice in the Buddhist tradition. The Sanskrit word nirvana is derived from the root meaning “to blow out,” meaning to extinguish the fires of the afflictions that defile our mind: mainly attachment (or craving), hatred, and ignorance. Nirvana, therefore, is a state of mind that is completely free of all wrong ideas and troubling emotions and, instead, is infused with pure wisdom, universal love, and great compassion.

How is this possible?

From the Buddhist view, the basic nature of the mind is pure and clear like water. No matter how much sediment is in a body of water, the dirt and other particles never enter into the actual nature of the water. Therefore they can be purified or removed from the water.

Similarly, the adventitious afflictions may accompany the mind, but they never enter into the very nature of the mind. When afflictions are purified or destroyed by the development of wisdom, the naturally pure, free, luminous, and joyful nature of the mind becomes apparent. One is no longer controlled by the afflictions and polluted karma to repeatedly cycle through birth, aging, sickness, and death.

Within Buddhism, there are different tenet systems that have slightly different presentations or interpretations of the subtle meaning of liberation and nirvana, which requires a longer discussion. But all agree that nirvana is an irreversible separation from the afflictions that cause cyclic existence through the application of antidotes.

Accepting our challenges and difficulties may help to reduce our immediate suffering. Such acceptance only leads to the state of nirvana, however, if we use those challenges to help cultivate the wisdom that frees the mind from all wrong conceptions.

About Ven. Thubten Semkye

Ven. Thubten Semkye was Sravasti Abbey's first lay resident.
A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the four requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring 2004.
Although she didn’t originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. She became the Abbey’s third nun in 2007. See her ordination photos. In 2010 she received bhikshuni ordination at Miao Fa Chan Temple in Taiwan.
Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey’s forests and gardens.

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