What is the difference between enlightenment/awakening and nibbana/nirvana? And how do these terms relate to parinibbana/parinirvana?

3 Answers 3


Enlightenment, or Bodhi, refers to coming to a direct realization of the truth. Nibbana is the timeless state of perfect peace and happiness which occurs as a result of attaining Enlightenment, and it will occur immediately after attaining any of the four stages of enlightenment, and can be re-cultivated as well.

Parinibbana in common usage today refers to when a fully enlightened Arahat (one who has overcome all attachment and will not be reborn) undergoes bodily death. Instead of being reborn, they enter into Nibbana again, only this time they stay that way.

  • Does it mean that "to be enlightened" and "to be in the state of nibbana" refer to exactly the same state?
    – michau
    Aug 29, 2014 at 21:31
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    @michau I'm not so sure about other traditions, but in the Classical texts of the Theravada school, the direct seeing of the truth occurs slightly before the attainment of Nibbana itself. The time lapse is inconceivably small though, so there really isn't any practical time difference. However, even though they are conjoined, they still refer to different things. Just as the taste and the texture of an apple occur along side one another inseparably and yet are different things, Enlightenment and Nibbana are distinct things that always go together.
    – Bakmoon
    Aug 29, 2014 at 21:36
  • Thanks, but how come can they be distinct, if one is a translation of another (according to this answer: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/2565/760)?
    – michau
    Aug 30, 2014 at 8:38
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    @michau I think that answer was using the term somewhat loosely. The translation of Nibbana is extinguishment (of craving, according to context.) Enlightenment is a translation of Bodhi, not Nibbana.
    – Bakmoon
    Aug 30, 2014 at 16:29
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    @SankhaKulathantille Nibbana itself is uncaused. However, the attainment of Nibbana is caused. I was talking specifically about the actual attainment of Nibbana, so it is correct to speak of it as arising from a cause.
    – Bakmoon
    Aug 31, 2014 at 14:52

[A Mahayana perspective]

There are two components to Enlightenment: Realization (insight, awakening, Bodhi) and Liberation (unbinding, Nirvana, loss of form).

Very strong and talented people, with very few mental/emotional obscurations, determined on becoming Enlightened, and therefore diligently cleansing their minds from even slightest traces of unenlightened tendencies, attain both Bodhi and Nirvana at the same time. We call this "Sudden Enlightenment". Gautama Buddha and some famous Zen masters of the past belong to this category. When such person dies, we call it Parinirvana.

People of middling capacity(for enlightenment), with predominantly emotional obscurations, determined on unraveling the mystery of Enlightenment, and therefore diligently doing their own independent analysis, but slightly lazy about their practice, attain Realization first. Informed by the insight into the nature of phenomena, they continue working on their Liberation asymptotically, often for decades. We call this "Sudden Awakening / Gradual Cultivation". Most of the modern realized teachers belong to this category. When speaking of these we prefer to not use the honorary terms Enlightenment/Nirvana/Parinirvana.

  • Nice delineation of what has always seemed to me to be a spectrum.
    – user2341
    Dec 10, 2017 at 15:52

Nirvana is a direct perception of emptiness and liberation from samsara. In the Mahayana tradition, a fully enlightened being such as Shakyamuni Buddha has gone beyond nirvana, removing all subtle obscurations, and has become omniscient. A more direct answer to your question is one difference between nirvana and enlightenment is omniscience.

  • I have been trying to understand what 'omniscience' would mean practically. One definition would be literally "knowing everything" which seems self-contradictory. Another would be "able to see in to anything one puts one's mind on", which seems plausible, aside from seeing into closed spaces no one has ever perceived, etc.
    – user2341
    Dec 10, 2017 at 15:57
  • In Theravada I think (my ill-informed impression is that) it might mean "knowing anything" (though not "everything at once"), especially anything that might help to teach someone (knowing someone's current state), and anything past (to understand kamma), though possibly not everything future.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 10, 2017 at 16:46
  • In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says "I know the mind of every sentient being in all the host of universes, regardless of any modes of thought, conceptions or tendencies." This is possibly what is meant by omniscience.
    – jacknad
    Dec 16, 2017 at 19:34

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