Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh explains what Nirvana is. According to him, Nirvana is the freedom from wrong ideas and perceptions and that views of any kind, such as birth and death, coming and going, being and non-being, do not represent reality.
The sacred texts say that after forty days the truth came to Siddhartha in stages. During the first night watch he achieved insight into all his past lives. During the second night watch he discovered the coherence of cyclical existences, the law of cause-and-effect, the movement of karma. During the third and last night watch he conquered the four mental poisons: sensual desire, attachment, wrong views and ignorance. That evening under a full moon of the month of May at the age of thirty five, he attained enlightenment, awakening, supreme knowledge, nirvana.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
Buddhism speaks of Nirvana, which is the cessation of all suffering. Nirvana means the cessation, the extinction, of all suffering. But our suffering comes from our wrong perceptions, Avidya, misunderstanding. And that is why the practice of meditation, the practice of looking deeply, has the purpose of removing wrong perceptions from us. If we are able to remove our wrong perceptions, we will be able to be free from afflictions and sufferings that always arrive from wrong perceptions.
You have wrong perception on your self and on the other. And the other has wrong perception on themselves and on you, and that is the cause of fear, of violence, of hatred. That is why trying to remove wrong perceptions is the only way to peace, and that is why Nirvana is, first of all, the removal or wrong perceptions. And when you remove wrong perceptions, you remove the suffering.
To meditate deeply, you find out that even ideas like being and non-being, or birth and death, or coming and going, are wrong ideas. If you can touch reality in depth, you realize that suchness, which means ultimate reality, is free from from birth, from dying, from coming, from going, from being, from non-being. That is why Nirvana is first of all the removal of notions, of ideas, that serve the basis of misunderstanding and suffering.
If you are afraid of death, of nothingness, of non-being, it is because you have wrong perceptions on death and on non-being. The French scientist Lavoisier said that there’s ‘no birth, there’s no death.’ He just observed reality around him and came to the conclusion that ‘rien ne se crée, rien ne se perd.’
When you look at a cloud, you think that the cloud has being. And later on when the cloud becomes the rain, you don’t see the cloud anymore and you say the cloud is not there. You describe the cloud as non-being. But if you look deeply, you can see the cloud in the rain. And that is why it is impossible for the cloud to die. The cloud can become rain, snow, or ice. But the cloud cannot become nothing. And that is why the notion of death cannot be applied to the reality. There is a transformation. There is a continuation. But you cannot say that there is death, because in your mind, to die means from something you suddenly become nothing. From someone you suddenly become no one. And so the notion of death cannot apply to reality, whether to a cloud or to a human being.
The Buddha did not die. The Buddha only continued by his samgha, by his dharma, and you can touch the Buddha in the here and the now. And that is why ideas like being born, dying, coming and going, being and non-being, should be removed by the practice of looking deeply. And when you can remove these notions, you are free and you have non-fear. And non-fear is the true foundation of great happiness. As so far fear is there in your heart, happiness cannot be perfect.
And that is why Nirvana is not something that you get in the future. Nirvana is the capacity of removing the wrong notions, wrong perceptions, which is the practice of freedom. Nirvana can be translated as freedom: freedom from views. And in Buddhism, all views are wrong views. When you get in touch with reality, you no longer have views. You have wisdom. You have a direct encounter with reality, and that is no longer called views.
About Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best known and most respected Zen, poet, and peace and human rights activist in the world today. Born in central Vietnam in 1926 he joined the monkshood at the age of sixteen. The Vietnam War confronted the monasteries with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and remain meditating in the monasteries, or to help the villagers suffering under bombings and other devastation of the war. Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both, helping to found the “engaged Buddhism” movement. His life has since been dedicated to the work of inner transformation for the benefit of individuals and society.
In Saigon in the early 60s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth Social Service, a grass-roots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. Despite government denunciation of his activity, Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University, a publishing house, and an influential peace activist magazine in Vietnam.
After visiting the U.S. and Europe in 1966 on a peace mission, he was banned from returning to Vietnam in 1966. On subsequent travels to the U.S., he made the case for peace to federal and Pentagon officials including Robert McNamara. He may have changed the course of U.S. history when he persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, and so helped to galvanize the peace movement. The following year, King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequently, Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
In 1982 he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community in exile in France, where he continues his work to alleviate suffering of refugees, boat people, political prisoners, and hungry families in Vietnam and throughout the Third World. He has also received recognition for his work with Vietnam veterans, meditation retreats, and his prolific writings on meditation, mindfulness, and peace. He has published some 85 titles of accessible poems, prose, and prayers, with more than 40 in English.
Thich Nhat Hanh continues to live in Plum Village in the meditation community he founded, where he teaches, writes, and gardens; and he leads retreats worldwide on “the art of mindful living.” (You can learn more about Thich Nhat Hanh and his work by visiting plumvillage.org.)