What is Nibbāna?

Nibbāna (literally: “extinguishing” or “quenching”) is the unconditional happiness and clarity of mind which is the goal of Buddhist practice.

Rather than seeing suffering as the inevitable flip side of happiness, Buddhism sees suffering as an affliction caused by a specific condition within the heart, namely wanting the world to be other than the way that it is.

From this angle, there are two ways to achieve happiness: forcing the world to conform to our wishes or accepting things as they are.

These two methods for achieving happiness are, of course, unequal. Getting what we want is a fleeting happiness while letting go of our neediness leads to a lasting contentment. If we are fine however things turn out, then we will always be happy. Even when death comes for us, we can remain cool and unperturbed — leaving no “unfinished business.”

The mental “seeds” of “I want…” or “I meant to…” which normally lead us on are, in fact, only the seeds of suffering. By attending closely and continuously to the workings of our own mind, we can eventually see this directly: that grasping is painful. As this realization dawns, we naturally let go. The radiance of insight sterilizes the seeds of discontent.

This “dhamma eye of wisdom” opens when we see for ourselves that absolutely everything is impermanent and therefore unsatisfying. Seeing this danger in clinging to the things of the world, the practitioner begins the process of letting go. When she’s let go of everything, to her immense surprise, she experiences nibbāna: freedom from conditioned phenomena.


This course assumes prior knowledge about Buddhist practice. Familiarity with the early texts and Buddhist philosophy is recommended but not required.


A perilous flood has arisen
For those oppressed by old age and death
Let me declare an island to you
~ Snp 5.10

This free anthology will be our textbook for the class:

A compendium of ‘essence’ teachings on nibbāna, as they appear in the Pāli Canon and in contemporary traditions.

Listen to the book read by Ajahn Amaro here

This secondary monograph will be threaded through the course to help contextualize the historical developments:

Gives a thorough summary of how nibbāna evolved as a concept in ancient India as a reaction to the ideas of rival sects.

If you prefer audiobooks, you can find The Island read by one of its authors online here (or at the “mp3s” link above).

The Course

The course will simply go sequentially through The Island. As you read each chapter, please refer back here for some supplemental readings and a few talks.

Part 1: Seeds

In part one of our course, we do a deep analysis of the word “nibbāna” and try to understand its connotations and use. This section plants the “seeds” for our analysis of the philosophy, practice and fruits in the later sections of the course.

What is Nibbāna?

  • At its core, Nibbāna is the penetrative understanding of the Four Noble Truths which ends the cycle of rebirth.
  • This is also what makes someone “Enlightened”
  • The other basic definition of Nibbāna is as the destruction of Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. Here, the Buddha explains how the passing of these states gives us a taste of what the ultimate is like.
  • In this first utterance after he awakens, The Buddha describes what it is he awakened to: namely, dependent origination.
  • And the Buddha explains here how meditation leads to the breaking of Dependent Origination (and thus, rebirth).

The Introduction and Chapter 1 of Metaphor and Literalism (hereafter, “ML”)

  • Will give an introduction to this text and to the term “nibbāna
  • The sutta that, finally, explains this course’s epigraph.
  • A standard definition and straightforward typology of Nibbāna.
  • Sometimes we will talk about nibbāna as a philosophical entity and at other times as a psychological state, or even as a meditation experience. This essay gives a good outline of these different aspects. Useful to keep in mind throughout the course, that “Nibbāna” can refer to a few different things!
  • The beautiful sutta from which our textbook (The Island) gets its name.
  • “The Island” is, however, not the only synonym for the ultimate given in the early texts. This chapter from the Saṃyutta Nikāya lists 43 others to give us a better idea of its character.
Synonyms for Nibbāna According to Prajñavarman, Vasubandhu and Asaṅga – Peter Skilling (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • While sadly these forty synonyms were lost in the Chinese Tradition, Skilling shows that SN 43 (above) was preserved in Tibet.
  • An exultation of the Buddha and the enlightened state.

Fire, Heat, and Coolness

Chapter two of The Island gives us the basic metaphorical image behind the term “Nibbāna”.

ML: Chapter 2 - The Two Nirvana Theory

  • A discussion of the imagery of fuel and fire, and an analysis of the important “Two Nirvana Theory” curiously left out of The Island. What is “The Two Nirvana Theory”? Read this chapter to find out!

And if you’re still thinking that Nirvana is some heaven realm somewhere…

  • Bhante Ñāṇananda disabuses us of the notion that Nibbāna is a place by reminding us that “extinguishing” means the “letting go” of a fire’s fuel.
  • And Ajahn Geoff further explores ancient Indian physics to come up with a striking, new (old) take on this central metaphor. A long booklet, but well worth the read.

Part 2: Terrain

This is the main section of the course. We’ll cover the rest of Metaphor and Literalism and the core philosophical dimensions of nibbāna.

This, That, and Other Things

ML: Chapter 3 - Developments of the Two Nirvana Theory

  • The Abhidharma Tradition took Nirvana from a metaphor and turned it into a physical reality (“dhatu”).
  • This leads to some problems, particularly how this “ultimate reality” differs from the “ultimates” postulated by other religions.
  • This booklet helps to answer that very question, by explaining the middle way and contrasting it to the influential Vedāntic theology.

I personally find that The Island occasionally leans on the side of eternalism (or at least doesn’t argue against it to my satisfaction), so the above chapter and booklet will be especially good to read and keep in mind.

All That is Conditioned

We will return to Metaphor and Literalism in a few chapters, but first let us talk for a while about nibbāna’s opposites: conditioned reality and suffering (dukkha).

  • How does an arahant relate to the world?
  • The Enlightened don’t make an object of anything.
  • How does an arahant see the world?
  • An Arahant is one whose mind is consolidated and beyond conditions.
Comments on the Anuruddha Sutta – John D. Ireland (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • To an enlightened being, even sensual pleasures are seen as painful for how fleeting they are indeed!

To Be or Not to Be

  • What is the difference between an Ordinary and an Enlightened being?
  • What makes one truly renounced?
  • How is “extinguishing” the Middle Way? How is it not nihilism? How is “extinguishing” different from “annihilation”?
  • How is it that we both long for and fear freedom?

Not Made of That

  • Nibbāna can be seen as the purification of the aggregates: washing them of clinging.
  • Letting go is hard to see for those with craving.
  • What is “non-duality” and, more importantly, how does one practice it?

Attending to the Deathless

  • Is “the deathless” the same as “nothingness”? What knowledge eradicates ignorance?
  • An excellent, clear summary of the path and its fruit, connecting the dots between mindfulness meditation and the attaining of nibbāna.

Unsupported and Unsupportive Consciousness

Note The Island’s understanding of Viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ here as being a description of nibbāna is popular but incorrect (as the following essays explain)…

  • It is very important (and very difficult!) to understand that the “experience” of nibbāna is no experience at all!
  • Ajahn Brahmali here argues the other side of the “debate” from The Island, explaining how “anidassana viññāṇa” should be understood, not as a hidden, pure, or non-dual consciousness, but as something else entirely…
  • In this brilliant essay, Bhante Sunyo proposes a elegant solution to the problem in this verse.
  • And Ven. Sujato puts the final nail in the coffin by putting this sutta back into its historical context.

The Unconditioned and Nonlocality

  • A short, enigmatic description of conditioned phenomena (saṃsāra) and unconditioned phenomena (nibbāna).
Nibbāna and Abhidhamma – L. S. Cousins (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • If experiences, not metaphysical “elements,” were the point of Early Buddhism, how did nibbāna develop into the “unconditioned element”?

Metaphor and Literalism: Chapter 4 - Nibbāna in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition

  • We return to ML and the analogy of fire in order to better understand the Theravada developments to the doctrines of nibbāna and anatta.

The Unapprehendability of the Enlightened

The Buddha gives pithy answers to Upasīva about the path to liberation and the status of anāgāmīs and arahants.

  • Even in the Buddha’s day (all the more so later) people tried to attribute omniscience to the Buddha: a claim he rejected.
  • In this sutta, the Buddha explains that, rather than omniscience, it’s right view and renunciation that make nibbāna “unapprehendable” by ordinary people.

ML Chapter 5 - The Northern Schools

  • If you are interested in the Northern schools of Indian Buddhism (which came to be part of the Mahayana), you may want to read Chapter 5 at this point. If you’re uninterested in the Mahayana, however, you will probably want to skip this chapter of Metaphor and Literalism

‘Reappears’ Does Not Apply

  • “everything becomes cool when nothing is relished”
  • The two Nibbāna elements.
  • On what it feels like to transcend the categories
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the nature of Buddhist enlightenment in order to defend using the English term “enlightenment” to describe it at all.
  • Key to his argument is that complete liberation is described as the arising of true knowledge. Once ignorance is destroyed, it will never appear again.

Metaphor and Literalism: Conclusion and Translations

  • The Conclusion is worth a read to tie together our study of Nirvana’s history.
  • Those interested in the primary sources may also wish to read the translations in Part Two. Even a quick skim may be helpful to get a general impression of the genre, but don’t worry: this part won’t be on the final exam!

Knowing, Emptiness and the Radiant Mind

We wrap up this, the main, section of our course, with a brief word on the “Radiant Mind” and related perennial topics:

  • A short poem (which inspired the Visuddhimagga) on how the path creates “unentangled” knowledge.
  • Bhikkhu Analayo gives a careful, textual study of the supposedly “luminous” nature of the mind in early Buddhism. Is such a view supported by the early texts or is this a later development?
  • If the Arahants are beyond “suffering” can they still experience pain? What is the difference between the two? What about painful thoughts?
  • The curious case of an arahant committing suicide. Can someone who has attained the goal decide to kill themselves?

Part 3: Cultivation

The next two parts of the course shift from philosophical to more practical considerations: How is enlightenment achieved?

The Gradual Path

  • What is the relationship between the mundane and supermundane paths? How did these concepts develop?

Sudden Penetration

  • This deep sutta on the details of the meditative “experience” of nibbāna takes place as a discussion between the Bhikkhuni Dhammadinnā and her student, the layman Visākha. How is “the unconditioned” conditioned?
  • Ajahn Brahm celebrates their Bhikkhuni ordination with a talk on this sutta.

The Path and Goal

The Arahat – Bhikkhu Bodhi (.mp3)
  • An introduction to the final goal of Buddhist Practice.

Part 4: Fuition

We finally come to the last, but perhaps most important, part of our course: the experience of enlightenment itself. We will break it down into two lessons: on the first breakthrough and the final release.


Sotāpanna (or a Stream Winner) is someone who has attained the first stage of awakening. They have eliminated doubt and are firmly on the path to final deliverance. We will conceptualize this “turning point” in the spiritual career first with this work on the stages of insight that lead up to Stream Entry:

  • What does it feel like as we transition from ordinary to super-mundane practice?
  • A short talk on balancing faith and knowledge against expectations.
  • Those without “noble wisdom” are missing out.

“Ah, What Bliss!” — Conclusion

The citta of the Arahant is Empty – Luangta Maha Boowa (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • Ajahn Maha Boowa describes what it’s like to be an arahant in this short talk delivered near the end of his life.
  • A poetic description of the enlightened one as a spiritual “giant.”
The Arahant – John D. Ireland (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • A short, ecstatic poem from the SN.
  • “What’s next?” What happens after enlightenment?
  • Even children can get enlightened, though they may not show it…

With those final words of inspiration, our course is now finished. The rest is up to us.

Further Reading


To be female is to have the dukkha of a female. To be male is to have the dukkha of a male. […] If we deludedly think ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly.

… sexuality in its various manifestations is among the urges that are not intrinsically directed at specific objects and activities. Objects and activities come to play a role [only] because the mind has the tendency of keeping a record of objects and activities rather than of the states which are the real causes of satisfaction.

An extremely profound and exceptionally rare book, Arahattamagga gives an unfiltered first-hand account of what it’s actually like to walk the entire Path—from its tumultuous beginning to its extraordinary finish.

Canonical Works

is one a brahmin due to birth,
or else because of actions?

Take a mendicant who declares enlightenment: ‘I understand: “Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.”’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Rather, you should question them…

So this holy life, bhikkhus, does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood, and its end.

Mendicants, these seven perceptions, when developed and cultivated, are very fruitful and beneficial. They culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless. What seven? The perceptions of ugliness, death, repulsiveness of food, dissatisfaction with the whole world, impermanence, suffering in impermanence, and not-self in suffering.

‘When Master Gotama teaches in this way, is the whole world saved, or half, or a third?’ But when he said this, the Buddha kept silent.

If a bhikkhu seeks delight in [the senses], welcomes them, and remains holding to them, he is called a bhikkhu who has swallowed Mara’s hook. He has met with calamity and disaster, and the Evil One can do with him as he wishes.

‘I’ve developed the heart’s release by love… Yet somehow ill will still occupies my mind.’

A pithy and deep sutta on the true difference between the ordinary and the enlightened mind.


Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the MNS has provided the historical starting-point as well as the chief scriptural basis for enquiry into the problem of the Buddha-nature in China, and it would be difficult if not impossible to grasp the significance of the concept and its subsequent evolution in Chinese Buddhism without a proper understanding of the teaching of the MNS on the subject.

Kammaṭṭhāna meditation should be practised so as to reach Nibbāna, thereby escaping from all kinds of misery


Advanced Courses

Imagery in the Early Buddhist Texts
In this course, we illuminate and inhabit the thought world of the Buddha by continuing our close examination of the language, images, and metaphors of 24 other key doctrinal terms from the Early Buddhist Texts.
Tranquility and Insight
Bhikkhu Analayo walks us through a chapter of the Madhyama Āgama on the subject of how tranquility and insight work together to lead the mind to maturity.
Nibbāna: The Mind Stilled
A course by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda on Dependent Origination and the unraveling of Saṃsāra.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.