Chapter 14: Nirvana in a Nutshell

The rock group Nirvana, which became world famous in the early 1990s, wasn’t always known as Nirvana. In its early years it went under a series of other names. One of them was Bliss.

Some people might ask: What’s the difference? Aren’t nirvana and bliss the same thing? As we’ve seen, the answer is no. Nirvana does entail bliss, but it entails a lot more than bliss—most notably enlightenment. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the prolific translator of Buddhist texts, including many that characterize nirvana, described it as “a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding.”

Another difference between bliss and nirvana is how easy they are to attain. If you’re pursuing bliss, period, you can just take bliss-inducing drugs, an approach that is guaranteed to work for a while, though unlikely to work in the long run. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, became a heroin addict and committed suicide.

If you pursue nirvana rather than mere bliss, the approach is less straightforward and more arduous. And even if you’re diligent, you are, it is safe to say, less likely to attain nirvana than Cobain was to attain—however fleetingly—bliss. On the other hand, whatever measure of contentment you do attain will almost certainly be more enduring and stable than Cobain’s bliss was.

The concept of nirvana occupies a unique place in Buddhist thought—not just because it represents the culmination of the Buddhist path, and not just because it represents the nicest imaginable place to be, but also because of the way it straddles the two sides of Buddhism. There is the side of Buddhism this book has been about: the “naturalistic” side, featuring ideas that would fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course. And then there is the side of Buddhism featuring supernatural and exotic ideas that would be more at home in the religion department. Nirvana certainly has its exotic aspect: Buddhists who believe in reincarnation see nirvana as the thing that can free them from an otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. But this story about nirvana—the story about how exactly you find the escape hatch from endless rebirth—leads seamlessly to a more naturalistic story about nirvana, a claim about the mechanics of suffering and of contentment. And in the process of following one story to the other, you can see mindfulness meditation in a new light, a light that emphasizes what a radical undertaking it can be.

In ancient texts, nirvana is often described with a word that is commonly translated as “the unconditioned.” For years I heard this strange-sounding term and wondered what it meant, but I figured that understanding it without actually reaching nirvana was probably hopeless and, for my purposes, not all that important. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. The question “What is the unconditioned?” has a pretty clear answer and a very important one, an answer that forms a kind of intersection between the exotically metaphysical and the naturalistic….