Most people, at least those of us who were alive back then, remember the popular 90’s grunge-rock band from Seattle named Nirvana. Yes, it is true that they are named after a Buddhist term (Nirvana, Pali: Nibbana) which refers to an ultimate state of awareness and the second ultimate state, to paranirvana, of harmony. In fact, Kurt Cobain himself was actually very interested in both Buddhism and Jainism. A Buddhist monk chanted at his funeral while his daughter, Frances Bean, scattered her father’s ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, Washington.
The Dhammapada says that Nirvana is “the highest happiness”, as this is not the sense-based concept of happiness in everyday life. Instead, this refers to an enduring, transcendental happiness which is integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment (bodhi). Nirvana is free from any defilements (kilesa) such as lust, anger or craving; or any mental effluents (asava) such as sensuality, views, becoming, and ignorance. Thus it is a state of perfect peace unobstructed by psychological conditioning (sankhara). All forms of craving are extinguished so that one is no longer subject to dukkha (stress/suffering/dissatisfaction/etc.) or further states of rebirths in Samsara (vatta). Buddha describes the abiding in Nirvana as “deathlessness” (amata or amaravati) or “the unconditioned” (asankhata).
A lot of people think Nirvana is basically the Buddhist concept of Heaven. This isn’t true, as Nirvana isn’t a place and the concept of Heaven in Buddhism is called “sagga” or “deva-loka”. When one practices generosity and charity (dana) and develops virtue (sila), they will understand that there is a happiness which goes beyond, and is much more dependable, than any form of self-gratification could provide. With the break-up of the body at death, this superior form of happiness can lead to renewed existence or “rebirth” in “sagga” – or the heavenly abode of the devas. “Sagga” or “heaven” here can be seen as either literal or metaphorical. Some Mahayana Buddhist schools provide a path of rebirth in heavenly realms for those who are unable to realize Nirvana within this lifetime (which is often what Buddha suggested for lay practitioners), such as Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land and the surplus merit of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva allowing for rebirth in heavenly realms without ever falling into the suffering realms of hell, hungry ghosts, or animals.
However, when one has reached the stage of “sagga”, one begins to see the drawbacks (adinava) of even this kind of happiness. As great as renewed existence in heavenly abodes may be, this form of happiness is conditioned and is therefore not lasting. Upon seeing the drawbacks of “sagga”, one begins to realize that true happiness is not found within the physical and sensual realm. With this realization, one sees that the path of unconditioned happiness relies upon renunciation of the physical and sensual realm.
The stage of “nekkhamma”, or “renunciation”, is the release of sensuality and can be seen as “going against the stream” of our intrinsic cravings. This is simply giving up the lower forms of happiness for a more noble, pure, unconditional and lasting form of happiness. It is with this training that one is ready to receive the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the highest happiness, known as “Nibbana” or “Nirvana”.
According to the Sukhavagga:
“Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the hostile. Amidst hostile men we dwell free from hatred. Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the afflicted (by craving). Amidst afflicted men we dwell free from affliction. Happy indeed we live, free from avarice amidst the avaricious. Amidst the avaricious men we dwell free from avarice. Happy indeed we live, we who possess nothing. Feeders on joy we shall be, like the Radiant Gods.
“Victory begets enmity; the defeated dwell in pain. Happily the peaceful live, discarding both victory and defeat.
“There is no fire like lust and no crime like hatred. There is no ill like the aggregates (of existence) and no bliss higher than the peace (of Nibbana). Hunger is the worst disease, conditioned things the worst suffering. Knowing this as it really is, the wise realize Nibbana, the highest bliss. Health is the most precious gain and contentment the greatest wealth. A trustworthy person is the best kinsman, Nibbana the highest bliss.
“Having savored the taste of solitude and peace (of Nibbana), pain-free and stainless he becomes, drinking deep the taste of the bliss of the Truth.
Good is it to see the Noble Ones; to live with them is ever blissful. One will always be happy by not encountering fools. Indeed, he who moves in the company of fools grieves for longing. Association with fools is ever painful, like partnership with an enemy. But association with the wise is happy, like meeting one’s own kinsmen. Therefore, follow the Noble One, who is steadfast, wise, learned, dutiful and devout. One should follow only such a man, who is truly good and discerning, even as the moon follows the path of the stars.”