Buddhist Enlightenment vs Nirvana -- by Kusala Bhikshu

- Photo, Bob Heide -

Disclaimer - Buddhist Enlightenment vs Nirvana... Is not an academic article, but simply a personal reflection on the unity and diversity found in Buddhism. My interpretation of Enlightenment and Nirvana is only a finger pointing and not the moon.


When I first started reading books on Buddhism back in the late 1970’s, I had trouble understanding *Nirvana and Enlightenment. These two words were often used interchangeably by authors writing on the *Theravada and *Mahayana traditions. Sometimes though, the meaning seemed to change depending on who was doing the writing.

I couldn’t understand why, for instance... In some Zen and Mahayana texts folks didn’t want Nirvana. Why did some choose one, and not the other? If they were not the same... What was the difference?

The first thing I did was define Enlightenment and Nirvana myself, in a way that made sense to me. My definition of Nirvana became- "The end of suffering"... and Enlightenment became- "The Wisdom of Emptiness."

Nirvana- The End of Suffering... In this lifetime and all future lifetimes.

The Buddha once said, “I teach the path to immortality.” As it turns out, he didn’t mean, not having to die, even Christ had to die. The Buddha was saying... Samsara, the perpetual cycle of birth and death ended in Nirvana, I could never be reborn again... I would exist and not exist at the very same time, forever. I would abide in Nirvana.

Enlightenment- The Wisdom of Emptiness... The wisdom that arises from the direct experience of all phenomena being empty of independent existence.

Knowing through personal experience (for example, meditation) that all things are interconnected and interdependent. That nothing in this world exists independently. All things are connected and conditional... In other words... All things exist because of other things.

I am here because my parents had lust and I had Karma. If both conditions hadn't come together in a very special way years ago, I wouldn’t be standing here today, but that’s only half the story.

In order for me to live in this world, the Buddha said I need... “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Medicine.” These are the four major conditions necessary for me to subsist. Some conditions were necessary for me to be born, other conditions are important for me to stay alive.

The whole story is... Certain conditions got me here, other conditions keep me here, and when all the necessary conditions come to an end, so do I. I do not live independent of conditions.

Enlightenment is a result of the direct experience, of conditional and interconnected reality.

Enlightenment is more than an intellectual understanding though, it’s also an intuitive knowing. It is a total transformation of the heart and mind.

A favorite Mahayana sutra on emptiness is the Heart Sutra.

The Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Perfect Wisdom clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and passed beyond all suffering.

Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness: Emptiness does not differ from form. Form then is emptiness. Emptiness then is form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, are also like this.

Sariputra, all Dharmas are marked with emptiness: not born and not dying, not stained and not pure, not gaining and not losing. Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, perception, volition or consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; nor form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or Dharmas; no realm of sight ‘til we come to no realm of consciousness; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, ‘til we come to no old age and death, and no ending of old age and death. No suffering, origination, extinction, or path. No wisdom, and no attainment, with nothing to attain.

Because the Bodhisattva is the Perfect Wisdom of emptiness, his mind has no hindrance. Having no hindrance, there is no fear and far from all fantasy, he is dwelling in Nirvana.

Because all Buddhas of the three times practice the wisdom of emptiness, they gain complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore know, that Perfect Wisdom, is the great holy mantram, the great bright mantram, the wisdom mantram, the unequaled mantram, which can destroy all suffering---truly real and not false. So he gave the Perfect Wisdom mantram, which goes;

Ga te Ga te, Pa ra Ga te,
Pa ra sam Ga te,
Bodhi Swaha.

When a Buddhist realizes Enlightenment... The “Great Compassion” cannot but arise in his or her heart. He is no longer able to view the world in the same way he did before his Enlightenment. He can now see, feel, know, and understand... If one person is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying in the world... There is a part of him that is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying. He no longer feels separate and safe. He views the world as a sea of suffering and is directly connected to each and every suffering being, in the same way the ocean connects to each and every wave.

It’s really a choice all Buddhist practitioners make... To change themselves in a way that is of benefit to all living beings, and not just their ‘Self.' This transformation is founded on the direct experience of “Enlightenment" in Mahayana Buddhism. The path that leads to “Enlightenment” is called the ‘Path of the *Bodhisattva.’

Reconnecting to the world in this very special way, does not end the Bodhisattva’s suffering, however... In some ways Bodhisattva's may suffer more, but each time they help end the suffering of another being, their suffering is also eased. Each time they feed someone, clothe someone, shelter someone, comfort someone... Their suffering is transformed.

The path of the Bodhisattva is very difficult... There is no time out, they never take a vacation. Where would they go? Where is the place, no one suffers?

In the Theravada tradition, the Buddha was a Bodhisattva numerous times in his past lives and seemed to achieve Enlightenment many times before his Nirvana. The story of the Buddha's life as a Bodhisattva is found in an Early Buddhist text called the ‘Jataka Tales.'

In the Mahayana Tradition, the focus is on ‘Enlightenment,’ not Nirvana. The goal is to become a Bodhisattva, and then a Buddha. The Bodhisattva ends his/her suffering only in Buddhahood, and not before. In the Mahayana, it’s not so much... Do what the Buddha says... But, do what the Buddha did.

In the Theravada tradition, the focus is on Nirvana... Here and now. By following the teachings of the Buddha, he/she can become an *Arahant. Having crossed over the sea of suffering and landed on the other shore... The Arahant not only ends his suffering, but gains the ‘Compassion and Wisdom' of a Buddha to help end the suffering of others.

As with the Bodhisattva, the Arahant’s life is fully dedicated to the end of suffering. There is no rest so long as one person suffers. There is no place to go and nothing to do, other than be of service. The activity of the Bodhisattva and the Arahant is not determined by Self or ego, but by compassion and wisdom.

When all is said and done, are the path's of the Bodhisattva and Arahant the same? I don't think so, they appear to be different... But they both end and/or reduce suffering in the world.

Is Enlightenment the same as Nirvana? I think they mean different things. In my mind, the future Bodhisattva strives towards Enlightenment, and the future Arahant towards Nirvana.

In the Theravada tradition, the focus is on Nirvana, doing what the Buddha taught, and following the path of the Arahant to the ‘End of Suffering.’

In the Mahayana tradition, the focus is on Enlightenment, doing what the Buddha did, and following the path of the Bodhisattva to the ‘Wisdom of Emptiness.’

Before I end this portion of the presentation... One last point needs to be made... I have tried to share with you how Enlightenment and Nirvana may be different... But they are very much the same in this sense.

That in the end... In the Ultimate reality of Buddhism... Both the path of the Bodhisattva and the Arahant lead to the end of suffering. Just as the Buddha’s many past lives as a Bodhisattva finished in Buddhahood. Every path found in Buddhism will ultimately end in Nirvana!

I hope my explanation of Enlightenment and Nirvana will help you read the teaching’s of the Buddha with more clarity and insight.

Bodhisattva... Arahant... Enlightenment... Nirvana... The Wisdom of Emptiness... The End of Suffering... The choice is up to you!


* Mahayana
The Great Vehicle. This form of Buddhism emerged somewhere between 150 BCE and 100CE. Its distinctive features include the new emphasis given to compassion and the Bodhisattva ideal, the three-bodies of the Buddha doctrine, emptiness and skill in means.

* Bodhisattva
Enlightenment Being. This is a being whose Buddhahood is assured but who postpones his/her own entry into Nirvana to help all other sentient beings attain to it first. The Buddha himself was described as a Bodhisattva in stories of his previous lives.

* Theravada
The Theravada school of Buddhism was the first one to emerge after the Buddha's parinirvana (Death). Over the centuries, it has retained its unique approach to the search for Nirvana, relying closely on the word of the Buddha as it appears in the Pali Canon.

* Arahant
Noble one. An arahant is an individual who has realized Nirvana, brought an end to his own suffering and the cycle of birth and death.

* Nirvana
To cease blowing. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, the third noble truth. In nirvana, the suffering and the desire that causes suffering have come to an end, as has the cycle of birth and death. Sometimes nirvana is referred to by the Buddha as 'unborn' and 'unconditioned', in contrast to the phenomenal world we experience in our unenlightened state.

Enlightenment; What a Trip - Posted 3/2008 - 32 min - MP3 - 7.5 MB //
A talk on what Enlightenment and Nirvana might be like according to Buddhism.

Also by Kusala

How I Became a Buddhist

Do Buddhists Go to Heaven

Do Buddhists Believe in God

The Problem with Sex in Buddhism

A Buddhist Approach to Health Care