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Nirvana and the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment

Nirvana is a core teaching of the Buddha Dharma, and it's commonly misunderstood. Some people think  Nirvana refers to a Buddhist version of the Christian heaven. And while there are countless heaven (and hell) realms in Buddhism, none of them are called Nirvana.

Similarly, some people think that Nirvana is synonymous with enlightenment. But this is also incorrect. Nirvana is an important step towards the realization of enlightenment, however, it is a separate thing.

If we want to have a good understanding of Nirvana, we must put our pre-conceived notions aside, and look at how Buddha defined the term. Then we can use that knowledge to develop a praxis (practical application) of this term in daily life.

In the Nirvana Sutra, Buddha describes this state of being by saying:

Good man, what is analogous is when a man or woman wants to light a lamp they fill it with oil, regardless of its size. As long as there is oil, its light will be present. When the oil has been exhausted, the light will also be exhausted. The disappearance of the light is a metaphor for the disappearance of the defilements

Of course, this begs the question, what are the defilements, and what is being defiled. The dictionary defines the word defile as, "to make foul, dirty, or unclean; pollute; taint; debase. And in the Buddhist context, the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are the defilements that we are most concerned with.

All of human suffering is caused by some combination of these three things, and the major push of Buddhist training is learning how to remove them from our psyches. This is expressed in the passage by the extinguishment of flame.

Additionally, we must pay attention to the oil in the analogy.  The oil represents our actions, which can potentially grow our defilements.  When we behave in an unskillful manner, by breaking the precepts for example, we give fuel to the fires of greed, anger, and ignorance, and move farther away from Nirvana.

This is why the practices of right speech, right action, and right livelihood, are so important.  They remove oil from our metaphorical lamps, and dim the flames of our defilements.

But we still haven't determined what is being defiled.  To answer this question, we must understand the Buddhist teaching of original enlightenment.  Put simply, the original nature of all sentient beings is one of goodness and compassion.  We are all enlightened at our core as evidenced by the, Awakening of Faith Sutra, wherein Aśvaghoṣa states:

The essence of Mind is free from thoughts. The characteristic of that which is free from thoughts is analogous to that of the sphere of empty space that pervades everywhere.  The one [without any second, i.e., the absolute] aspect of the world of reality (dharmadhatu) is none other than the undifferentiated dharmakaya, the "essence body" of the Tathagata. 

[Since the essence of Mind is] grounded on the dharmakaya, it is to be called the original enlightenment.  Why? Because "original enlightenment" indicates [the essence of Mind (a priori) in contradistinction to the essence of Mind in) the process of actualization of enlightenment; the process of actualization of enlightenment is none other than [the process of integrating] the identity with the original enlightenment.

In other words, our human mind is birthed from the Dharmakaya, the "essence body" of enlightenment, so it is naturally enlightened in the same way that a wave is naturally made of water because it comes from the ocean.

However, because we have physical bodies that are subject to the defilements, our conventional identities pull away from our originally enlightened nature.  That is to say, we are enlightened beings, but we don't act like it.  Instead, we act on the greed, anger, and ignorance that has defiled our mind and covered over our original goodness.

Thus, the purpose of Buddhist practice, is to help us actualize our enlightened nature or Buddha-nature as it is sometime called, by reintegrating our conventional identity with the Dharmakaya.  And the  process of cleansing our minds of defilements, attaining Nirvana, is how we do this.

We can understand how this works by imagining ourselves in a dark room with one window that leads to the outside world.  The sun is shining outside, but we can't see it because the window is covered over with dirt.  However, if we clean the dirty window, the sunlight will come through it and illuminate the room.

In this analogy, the dark room is our everyday life, the window is our mind, the dirt is our defilements, and the sun is our original enlightenment.  When we clean the window of our mind through Buddhist practice, we actualize our enlightenment by allowing it to shine into the "room" of our daily life.

When our mind-window is free of dirt, and our life-room is filled with sunshine, this is Nirvana.

Namu Amida Butsu

If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!


1. Bodhisattva, A., & Hakeda, Y. S. (2005). The awakening of faith. Berkeley (CA): Numata center for Buddhist translation and research.

2. Blum, M. L. (Trans.). (2018). The Nirvana Sutra (Vol. 1). Moraga, California: BDK America.

Nirvana and the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment


  1. Thank you so much for leading me to further understanding.


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