Questions and Answers on Nibbana & Enlightenment

How is Nibbana different from the ever­lasting heaven, as taught in some religions?

Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit) is not a realm of existence or heaven. It is a state attained by the complete liberation from dukka, by the complete elimination of the root cause, which is craving (tanha). A person who has attained the state of Nibbana will no longer acquire kamma that keeps the cycle of life going, hence there will no longer be rebirth.

Nibbana cannot be described in terms of our normal experiences, which are so limited. Therefore Nibbana is generally described in negative terms such as 'extinction of desire', 'extinction of hatred', 'Unconditioned' (conditions that produce cause and effect), 'Cessation' (of continuity) etc.

A person who has attained Nibbana experiences a state of supreme joy that comes from being completely free from attachment, free from hatred, free from delusions.

Nibbana can be attained in this life, not after death. As this is a long and difficult process, the success of attainment in this life very much depends on whether the person had practised the path in his/her previous lifetimes. The Buddha and many of his followers attained this state during their own lifetimes.

What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is the ultimate state of spiritual development attained by the complete eradication of craving and release from the endless cycle of life. An enlightened person will have developed an intuitive wisdom (sati panna) which enables him or her to see clearly the true nature of the world, i.e. the three characteristics of existence, namely, dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence or the transient nature of things) and anatta (non-existence of a permanent soul).

An enlightened person enjoys a state of supreme joy which comes from being entirely free from cravings and attachments.

The path to Enlightenment is the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha.

One who has entered the first stage of enlightenment has a glimpse of Nibbana and is called a Sotapanna (Stream winner or enterer): the stream meaning the Noble Eightfold Path. At this stage, he has eradicated three of the ten fetters. That is, wrong views, doubts and adherence to wrongful rites and rituals. A Sotapanna will be reborn no more than seven times.

By continuing to develop Insight, he enters the second stage, Sakadagami (once-returner). He will be reborn in the human plane only once. At this stage, he has reduced two further fetters, sense desires and ill will. Thoughts of lust and anger may still be present, but to a lesser extent.

Continuing to progress, he reaches the third stage, in which above two fetters are completely eradicated. He is now known as Anagami (Non-returner). An Anagami will be reborn in a celestial plane (called a Pure Abode) before finally attaining Nibbana.

At the final stage of sainthood, the remaining five fetters are completely eradicated and he becomes an Arahant. The five fetters are: attachment to material planes of existence, attachment to immaterial planes of existence, pride, restlessness, and ignorance.

On death, an arahant attains the state of parinibbana (complete nibbana), and there is no more rebirth.

Can one become enlightened while being a family person?

One who follows the Noble Eightfold Path can enter the 'stream' leading to enlightenment and progress further in the spiritual path while leading an ordinary life. The life of a monk, free from responsibilities and toils of normal life will no doubt help the spiritual progress. The ancient texts describe many instances where lay persons have attained enlightenment at the time of the Buddha. Usually, such persons would have followed a path of spiritual development in their previous existences.

A person who has reached the final stages of enlightenment will no longer have any desire to continue in a domestic environment.

How should a Buddhist handle emotions like being insulted or provoked to anger?
Does an enlightened person feel angry at all?

Vippasana meditation develops awareness of thoughts such as anger or lustful desires when they arise. With practice, it will be possible to observe in a detached and objective manner these emotions as they rise and fall. By not reacting to these emotions as they arise, they will gradually dissipate and lose their power. It is important to realise this is not a case of suppressing emotion, which could lead to psychological problems. A fully enlightened being (an Arahant) has completely eradicated mental defilements such as anger, lust, ill will etc: such thoughts simply do not arise in him.