...as per the title.

In the Theravada literature, the Buddha is seen as someone who found an end to suffering and taught that for all his life, urging his disciples to apply themselves to it, to not waste the opportunity and regret later.

While there are many interpretations of what exactly is Nirvana in this tradition (and what is/is-not a tathagata after death etc), it's perhaps universally accepted by it's adherents that embarking on this doctrine culminates in the permanent cessation of suffering. Some may speculate or say more about Nirvana, but others might be silent and not add anything that the texts don't say.

But what about Mahayana's Nirvana?

  • Is it the same same? Or is it more elaborated, like a realm where beings (Buddhas?) actually live?
  • Does it have the same requirements as the Theravada nirvana (e.g. elimination of the ten fetters, realization of four noble truths & dependent origination)?

3 Answers 3


Warning: To not make it too long, I avoided quotes. In addition, this is merely a summary. Just like with Theravada, there are interpretations. Since I present things in a traditional way, please do not take it personal when I seem to despise so-called Hinayana tenets or practices.

We say that a Hinayana arhat still has limitations, obstacles that prevent him from achieving the welfare of others as well as his own. On the other hand, a [fully enlightened] buddha abandoned all obstacles and thus is able to achieve the welfare of others, and achieved his own. This is because there are two obscurations that a buddha has abandoned:

  1. Afflictive obscurations
  2. Knowledge obscurations

Since a Hinayana arhat has uprooted ignorance - the root of samsara - he has abandoned afflictive obscurations. This is because ignorance, anger, desire, etc. are afflictive obscurations, and once the root has been abandoned, all the other afflictions as well. However, a Hinayana arhat has not abandoned knowledge obscurations. Only a buddha has abandoned both obscurations.

There are four divisions of nirvana but I will speak of two. A Hinayana arhat achieved abiding nirvana. We also call it 'individual liberation' or 'solitary peace.' We say that this abiding nirvana is the extreme of peace. According to Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi and other texts, after some time, the buddhas wake them up from their blissful individual liberation and tell them that more is to be done.

A buddha abides neither in the extreme of peace (abiding nirvana), nor the extreme of samsara. He achieved a non-abiding nirvana. He has abandoned the two obscurations and is, in this sense, beyond limitations. Therefore, he is able to benefit all sentient beings.

The way to abandon afflictive obscurations is by generating the wisdom of emptiness. Different Mahayna tenets posit emptiness differently, but they all posit the two selflessness: emptiness of person and emptiness of phenomena. As the Heart Sutra puts it:

Phenomena also are empty.

The way to abandon knowledge obscuration is by having the wisdom of emptiness conjoined with Bodhicitta. By generating spontaneous bodhicitta, one enters the Mahayana path of accumulation. On the Mahayana path of seeing, the wisdom of emptiness is conjoined with bodhicitta. When wisdom is imbued with bodhicitta, the mind becomes powerful and vast enough to abandon knowledge obscuration. We often refer to the following analogy: The wisdom of emptiness is like an axe cutting through the two obscurations, while bodhicitta is a strong arm. Without bodhicitta, one's arm is not strong enough and can not abandon the two obscurations, thus achieving buddhahood. A Hinayana arhat has abandoned afflictive obscurations, but since he did not generate bodhicitta, he has not abandoned knowledge obscuration.

There are two divisions of knowledge obscurations:

  1. The imprints of ignorance, and
  2. The appearance of true existence that is caused by the imprints of ignorance.

Only a buddha is free from the appearance of true existence. Therefore, when a conventionality appears to a buddha, it does not appear together with the appearance of true existence and he realizes both truths simultaneously and with the very same mind: the omniscient mind of a buddha. On the other hand, whenever a conventionality appears to a sentient being (i.e. a non-buddha), it appears together with the appearance of true existence. Consequently, a sentient being cannot realize the two truths directly and simultaneously.

The omniscient mind of a buddha (the wisdom truth body dharmakaya):

  • Directly realizes the two truths, simultaneously
  • Is free from conceptualization, and unmistaken
  • Knows all existent, past, present and future

In addition, according to Mahayana, a buddha obtained the four bodies (kayas). There are ways of dividing the kayas into two, three, four, or five but we generally speak of four. A buddha has a mental body that is seen only by Mahayana aryas and that teaches them only the Mahayana Dharma. It is called Enjoyment body (Sambhogakāya). A buddha has body that is seen even by ordinary beings and this is the Emanation body (Nirmanakaya). We say that Shakyamuni Buddha was a supreme emanation body because he taught he possessed the 32 marks and the 80 signs. A buddha has an omniscient mind that we call "wisdom truth body". It gives birth to the teachings that emanate from it, like the rays of the sun emanate from the sun. It is by emanating in this way that he benefits all sentient beings (even though not all sentient beings interact with his teachings, but that is another subject of debate.)

  • Thank you for sharing this detailed answer and tradition.
    – user2424
    Apr 8, 2017 at 11:45
  • What is the origin of Heart Sutra, and where are the original copies? Who drafted them and who is the author of Heart Sutra? Apr 8, 2017 at 14:35
  • 1
    From a "religious" viewpoint, as His Holiness the Dalaï-Lama says, "The Mahayana teachings are rooted in the sermons that the Buddha taught primarily at Vulture Peak." The Heart Sutra is one of them. It has 3 parts: (1) words that were permited by the buddha (2) words that were inspired by the buddha (3) the words of the Buddha's own mouth. There is much to say, even from a historical perspective. I suggest you create a question is you are interested. Apr 8, 2017 at 14:49
  • Fom this answer I understand that nirvana/arahatship has the same requirements in both traditions. But parinirvana is not soteriological, or final, in Mahayana? In other words, for theravada it's not said much about parinirvana, usually no more than final freedom of suffering. But for Mahayana, after parinirvana, the Buddhas will wake that arahat and, once awaken, he will find that there's more to be done. So that blissful peace of his parinirvana is temporary? So final (really final) peace in Mahayana is when all beings attain nirvana? Is it correct to say that this Mahayana soteriology then?
    – user382
    Apr 8, 2017 at 19:29
  • 1
    Abiding nirvana is arhatship, but non-abiding nirvna is full enlightenment. Indeed, most Mahayana traditions posit that there is one final vehicle and that this final vehicle is the Mahayana vehicle. This "doctrine" of the one final vehicle is referred to as Ekayana. We believe that [Hinayana] arhatship is temporary, and that all arhats will have to enter the Mahayana path eventually to achieve buddhahood. Does it answer your question? Apr 8, 2017 at 19:42

You know, mya ngan las ‘das pa zhi ba’o means basically something like “Enlightenment is peace”. Sometimes it is considered like that. Peace. This of course misleads lots of people, thinking peaceful in the sense of – you know the standard peaceful like Koi Pond, Zen Garden, mountain, nobody bothering you. Weekend situation for instance. Or a holiday excursion to Hawaii, where you will not be bothered. Or also not only that, just even the religious sort of peace, like smiling, walking gently, brushing your teeth gently and with a mindfulness. All of that. That kind of peace, we talk about that kind of peace a lot.

Mya ngan las ‘das pa zhi ba’o, nirvana is peace. That peace has to go beyond that. In this case what is peace. Nonduality. Because the duality is the violence. The moment you create the duality it is a violence. It is a violence and it creates a lot of violence.

Let’s go back to our mirror situation. The moment you differentiate, the moment you divorce between the appearance of your face and the emptiness of your face in the mirror there is a violence. Why? Because when you divorce these two you are bound to fall into on of the extremes, either nihilism or eternalism. If you fall into that, then you will construct thesis. You will construct approach. And this is how it becomes violent. Nirvana on the other hand has deconstructed all the dualism, therefore actually the real peace, real ahimsa, I am say it is maybe under the second category. The peace, the nirvana peace is actually when you reach the nonduality, experience of the nonduality is the real peace.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche


This topic is covered more than adequately in Wikipedia, see:


Of Early Buddhism it is said: "Most modern scholars such as Rupert Gethin, Richard Gombrich, Donald Lopez and Paul Williams hold that nirvāṇa (nibbana in Pali, also called nibbanadhatu, the property of nibbana), means the 'blowing out' or 'extinguishing' of greed, aversion, and delusion, and that this signifies the permanent cessation of samsara and rebirth.[34][35][36][37][38][quote 6]

According to Steven Collins, a synonym widely used for nirvana in early texts is "deathless" or "deathfree" (Pali: amata, sanskrit: amrta) and refers to a condition "where there is no death, because there is also no birth, no coming into existence, nothing made by conditioning, and therefore no time."[46] He also adds that "the most common thing said about nirvana in Buddhist texts is that it is the ending of suffering (dukkha)."[47] Gethin notes, "this is not a 'thing' but an event or experience" that frees one from rebirth in samsara. According to Collins, the term is also widely used as a verb, one therefore "nirvanizes."[46] Gombrich argues that the metaphor used in the texts of flames going out, refers to fires which were kept by priests of Brahmanism, and symbolize life in the world.[48] Nirvana is also called "unconditioned" (asankhata), meaning it is unlike all other conditioned phenomena.

The cycle of rebirth and suffering continues until a being attains nirvana. One requirement for ending this cycle is to extinguish the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya). As Bhikkhu Bodhi states "For as long as one is entangled by craving, one remains bound in saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death; but when all craving has been extirpated, one attains Nibbāna, deliverance from the cycle of birth and death."[49]"

As to the Mahayana conception of Nirvana it is stated:

"Nirvana is also described in Buddhist texts as identical to anatta (anatman, non-self, lack of any self).[95][96][97] Anatta means there is no abiding self or soul in any being or a permanent essence in any thing.[98][99] This interpretation asserts that all reality is of dependent origination and a worldly construction of each human mind, therefore ultimately a delusion or ignorance.[98][100] In Buddhist thought, this must be overcome, states Martin Southwold, through "the realization of anatta, which is nirvana".[100]

Nirvana in some Buddhist traditions is described as the realization of sunyata (emptiness or nothingness).[101] Madhyamika Buddhist texts call this as the middle point of all dualities (Middle Way), where all subject-object discrimination and polarities disappear, there is no conventional reality, and the only ultimate reality of emptiness is all that remains.[102]"

In otherwords, Theraveda emphasizes the extinguishing of afflictive obscurations, but the main thing to understand about the Mahayana view is the awakening to the realization of anatta, No Self, or Sunyata, Emptiness.

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