Is Nirvāṇa the Ultimate Reality?

Nirvāṇa /nɪəˈvɑːnə/ is an impersonal term [i] that refers to an ever-present possibility to be realised in the body (Brown and O’Brian, 1989); a reality totally beyond the four elements of matter and saṃsāra [ii] and its dependent and conditioning factors that lead to the countless cycles of life and death. Even beyond the cosmos and the four formless heavens. It is a state where only mind occurs and Duḥkha ends.


A monk of Burma (Myanmar) reads Trpitaka.
© Design Pics / Stuart Corlett / Getty Images

Schools of Thought

For early Buddhists and Theravada school, Nirāṇa is the third of the Four Holy Truths  [iii] that marks their attainment of the Ultimate Reality. It is an ever-present blissful unconditioned state experienced by the arhats during life. Or one could perhaps say that it is the ‘participating in’ of arhats to the unborn, unconditioned blissful reality (Ulanov, 2002, 14). However, this is no longer a common aspiration in Theravadins. Their monks rather aim now to be reborn in a better state till the presence of next Buddha Metteya who would actually guide them to attain Nirvāna.

While for Mahayana Buddhists, it is a state that can be achieved and thus understood during life only by the advanced bodhisatvas of stage 7 onwards who remain in heavenly realm of saṃsāra which is no different from Nirvāṇa for them (Harvey, 1990, 95-104; Williams, 1989, 37-76). This state marks the re-union of Nirvāṇa and saṃsāra  and enters the boddhisatva into the realm of no-duality (Cronze, 1954) where he neither rest content in samsara nor do he abandon it to rest content in Nirvāṇa (Holm & Bowker, 1994, 21).  His mind fluidly move between both to accumulate merit for Buddhahood. Hence for the Mahayana Buddhists, the Ultimate Reality neither rests in the attainment / realization of Nirvāṇa nor in the detachment from saṃsāra, but to attain Buddhahood.

– – – – – – –

[i] Not personalized as a single  god.

[ii] the world we live in is called samsara, which is bound to limitations. It is a realm of Duḥkha i.e. rebirth and constant change and suffering.

[iii] The Four Holy Truths are: 1- Duḥkha (suffering/ unsatisfaction), 2- craving (the reason behind Duḥkha),  3- Nirvāṇa (cessation of Duḥkha), 4- the Holy Eightfold Path (way to the end of Duḥkha).


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