The literal translation of the word Nirvana tends to cause, I feel, a certain amount of misunderstanding. The word Nirvana literally means extinction, such as of a flame. This does not mean extinction of self. Rather the extinction of afflictions. This is because the purpose of Buddhism is liberation from suffering. Transcendence.
Within Buddhism afflictions are broadly grouped together into three categories. They are desire, aversion and delusion. Collectively they are known in Buddhism as The Three Poisons. It is these afflictions that prevent peace and happiness and you can read a lot more about them by clicking the link.
When our afflictions are extinguished we liberated from them. This is Nirvana. Generally speaking we are afflicted by the drive to repeat pleasant sensations. We are afflicted by our rejection of unpleasant sensation. And we are afflicted by our confusion as to the nature of things. Specifically many people are confused by a sense of limited identity that is conditioned by limited physical senses when really there is interdependence and oneness.
An important point about the affliction caused by the desire for mental and physical pleasure is that the problem is the hankering for such thing. Not the pleasures in themselves. Pleasure in itself is not evil. It is just a sensation. It is our hankering for pleasure that causes us to suffer.
Implications for the Experience of Bliss During Meditation
Some have a negative opinion of the experience of bliss during meditation. The bliss is not in itself a bad thing. I think it is a misperception that spirituality is supposed to be harsh, austere and difficult. Remember it was only after the Buddha gave up his extreme austerities to practice the middle way did he achieve Nirvana and become a Buddha.
Initially the experience of bliss during meditation can help encourage us to continue with our practice. If we continue as before with mindfulness meditation but with the added encouragement of enjoying bliss we will eventually reach beyond an sort of attachment to that bliss. I see it as a process. There may be sudden leaps but it is still a process that requires persistence and the experience of bliss can aid in this.
Similarly when it comes to the affliction of aversion it is the aversion itself that causes our suffering. Not the thing we feel aversion for. The frantic rejection of pain causes a great deal of suffering while on the other hand pain when not rejected is simply physical sensation not unlike pleasure. The distinctions come from us not from things in and of themselves.
So, it is through the practice of the Buddhist path that we can be able to enjoy pleasant things without feeling frustrated when the pleasant things cannot be had. Likewise, while we will always naturally avoid hurt there is no need to feel imposed upon when harm is unavoidable.
Nirvana is what life feels like to a person for who no matter how assailed, anger need not arise. No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise. No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise. Such a person is in a position to live exuberantly, to experience life fully, and also to fully experience death.
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