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Nirvana and Samsara

Updated on August 5, 2015

Can nirvana be Achieved in Samsara?

“Because there is no attainment,

the Bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect Understanding,

find no obstacles for their mind,

Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,

liberating themselves forever from illusion, realizing perfect Nirvana.”

According to Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, if there is no attainment and no desire of attainment then Nirvana will be achieved. The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra is one of the most famous sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. The main them of Heart Sutra is emptiness. This emptiness rejects every achievement, every accomplishment, every individuality of the samraric world (desire related world) and understanding the emptiness Nirvana would be achieved. But in this samsaric world, is it possible being undesired being? Is it possible to feel totally emptiness or be totally empty? My paper will focus on the question that, achieving Nirvana is possible in Samsara or not.

To experiment about samsara and nirvana it is important to talk about birth and death first. In central Asian religion, such as Islam or Christian, after death of the human is hell or heaven. On the other hand, most of the Indian religion and philosophy explain reincarnation. Thus, atman (the sole) passes several times of birth and death. The atman (the sole) came again and again into a body to fulfill its desire.

Samsara is the period when atman gets the body on the earth. The translation of Samsara is “wonder, journey and bondage”. (P. 134, Michael P. Ryan) In Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shikism “Samsara (also pronounced and written Sansara) is the world of craving, lust, suffering, death, rebirth, and disease. Indeed, anything that could be considered objectionable in our lives is a part of Samsara. Delivering from this Samsara world is the responsibility of the individual. This deliverance is contingent upon one’s karma, a moral causality, which helps the spiritual-minded justly his own plight”. (P. 133, Michael P. Ryan)

On the other hand, the word nirvana came from ‘ni’ (means ‘away from’) and ‘vana’ (means arrow, bondage, desire, thirst). Therefore, the meaning of nirvana is away from bondage, desire, thirst. In Buddhism, the word nirvana is used to explain a state of sole where the sole become free from Samsaric desire, craving and bondage. In Indian philosophy nirvana is the ultimate goal of the sole. Moksha, kaivalya, mukti etc. are used in different Indian practitioner as nirvana.

Theravada Buddism says that to get nirvana the Arhant need to leave from samsara, the worldly existence physically and mentally. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism says that if someone wants nirvana they need to leave from Samsara psychologically not always physically. There are many philosopher talks about Samsara and nirvana in Buddhism. Nagarjuna is one of them and he was the Mahayana Buddhist scholar. He says that,

“There is no difference at all between samsara snd nirvana;

There is no difference at all between samsara and nirvana.” (Nagarjuna)

From Nagarjuna’s perspective getting nirvana is possible in samsara because there is no difference between samsara and nirvana. However, the contrast argument of Nagarjuna is, there is difference between Samsara and Nirvana. Because Theravada Buddhism says that, "In the Arahant, In this person, monks, all of the fetters ['saṃyojanāni'] are gotten rid of that pertain to this world, give rise to rebirth, and give rise to becoming." (P. 137, Woodward, Frank Lee) Arahant, who obtains nirvana, doesn’t have rebirth in Samsara. Again a woman never be Arahant. Next birth she needs to born in a mail body then practice according to Theravada Buddhism and then in the next birth she will born with male body and get nirvana. The argument shows that, nirvana is possible only getting rid of becoming from the Samsara the existent world. So, ultimately they want to prove that achieving nirvana is not possible in samsara.

On the other hand, Nagarjuna says that, “There is no difference between samsara and nirvana;” and again he says the same sentence to emphasize the sentence more. Why?

To answer the question, we need to go to the ancient time. It is considered that six orthodox philosophy is stand in Veda: Shamkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsha and Vetanta. Buddhism came after vedic period. Thus, how Indian vedik Philosophy talks about Samsara and Ninvana is important. Zimmer said in his Philosophies of India that,

These two (Sankhya and Yoga) are regarded in India as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. Sāṅkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements, analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage ("bandha"), and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release ("moksa"), while Yoga treats specifically of the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or "isolation-integration" ("kaivalya"). Zimmer (1951), p. 280

This quote says that

The concept of get rid bondage is so old in Indian philosophy and the ancient philosophy, Sankha, introduce the nature of bondage and through Yogic practice one can be free from the bondage. In samkhaya, all element of the world is composed by pirusha (energy, ultimate atman, Brahman) and prakrity (mater). They are living together in every living element. Detachment from prakrity is koibollo of purusha and detachment of purusha is kobollo of prakrity. If the energy leaves from meter then there is no life. In shankha, it is not possible to get koibollo or nirvana in samsara. Because every living element needs purush (energy) and prakritty (meter) together. However, with the practice of Yoga, human can identify the quality of purusha and prakrity and they can find out their sorrows. After identifing identify the quality of inner purusha and prakrity through yougic practice they acquire the way of such living where they connect with ultimate purusha and ultimate prakrity of the whole world.

Therefore, in Buddhism, nirvana is getting rid of worldly desire and gets rid of ultimate sorrow. Though I never achieve nirvana therefore I want to approach some question to know the ultimate essence of nirvana.

My first question is, is nirvana a feelings like pleasure or sorrow? I am happy because I am surrounded by unhappy person or sad person or I am sad because I am surrounded by happy person. If someone will get nirvana, how do I major that? By other person whom don’t get nirvana? But nirvana is not that type of state that is measured by someone else. Can I assume that nirvana is indifferent state like tree where someone is not bothered about her/his pleasure or sorrow as well as other pleasure or sorrow? Thus, when a poet get insight of poetry or when Van Gogh drew his ‘Stary Night’, does they get nirvana? If that is nirvana, so we can say that nirvana can be got in the Samsara. Therefore, there is no difference between samsara and nirvana.

My second question, is nirvana is like anything that we can get though our panchoindrio (five senses, smell, see, touch, hear, test)? Nirvana can be achieved by meditation. If someone focus on individual sense, for example hearing sound, in his/her whole live and gradually s/he know more and more things about sound, then will s/he get nirvana? But most of the Buddhist argues that nirvana is not related with panchoindrio. Because, to get nirvana someone need to stop his/her five sense’s and focus on other sense that is called sixth sense.

My last question is that, if the concept of nirvana came in samsara why can’t someone get nirvana within Samsara?

I want to conclude my paper with one song of Rabindranath Tagor that “Majhe majhe tobo dekha pai/ chiridin keno pai na” meaning I see you very rare/ why don’t you show yourselves for forever? Nirvana could be this kind of state that comes sometime but doesn’t last forever. Or it might be last forever with long term yougic or Buddhist practice as Nagarjuna said, “There is no difference at all between samsara and nirvana”.

Note and work Cited:

1. Discussions of the historical documentation on Nāgārjuna and analyses of works credited to him are found in K. Venkata Ramanan (ed.), Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Mahā-Prajñāpāramitā-Śāstra (1966, reprinted 1987); Richard H. Robinson, Early Mādhyamika in India and China (1967, reprinted 1978); and T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Mādhyamika System (1955, reissued 1980).

2. Samsa and Samsara: Suffering, Death, and Rebirth in "The Metamorphosis"

Michael P. Ryan

The German Quarterly , Vol. 72, No. 2 (Spring, 1999), pp. 133-152

Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German

Article Stable URL:

3. Woodward, Frank Lee. The Book of the Gradual Sayings : (Anguttara-Nikāya) or More-numbered Suttas. Oxford: Pali Text Soc., 2008. Print.

4. Zimmer, Heinrich Robert. Philosophies of India;. [New York]: Pantheon, 1951. Print.


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