Nirvana and other terms


In this short talk, I am going to share some thoughts on a few key words in the Buddhist and Zen vocabularies. I hope this will help you to develop and clarify your own thoughts on these terms.

The word, BUDDHA, derives from the Sanskrit root, ‘Budh’, meaning ‘to awake, to be aware, to know’. So, the Buddha is someone who is aware, or woken up to, how things are (Dharma) – how the world is in all its impermanent, interdependent splendour.

NIRVANA is a Sanskrit term meaning, ‘to extinguish’, by removal of fuel – as in extinguishing a candle flame or fire by removing oxygen. Nirvana is a state of being that is realised when craving, clinging and wanting things to be other than how they are, are extinguished. Some schools of Buddhism describe nirvana as a state of transcendence – an other-worldly experience, the top of a mountain.

In Japanese Zen, the word, SATORI, is often used instead of nirvana – to refer to sudden awakening – and satori can happen at any moment, wherever we are, even at the bottom of the mountain. Satori is a profound realisation of the nature of things – a wordless experience of tathata or suchness – the miracle of being-here.

In my view, nirvana is not the goal or terminus of Buddhist practice – sukha, wellbeing & peace is – that is, the alleviation of suffering/dukkha – and this is something to be cultivated and realised in everyday life with our everyday mind – here and now.

In Zen Buddhism the term nirvana is little used, instead the word, KENSHO, is often employed. It comprises two roots: ken, ‘seeing’, and sho, ‘nature or essence’ – that is, ‘seeing into the nature of things’ (Dharma – the way things are) – including ‘seeing into one’s own nature.’ That is, realising that all things are transitory, interdependent and empty of separate, self-existence. Kensho, is a sudden illumination or insight – a transformative experience – and the literature of Zen is full of accounts of, or attempts to evoke, moments of realisation – a profound boundless experience of being-here. In Japanese literature and other traditions of poetry, many haiku have the quality of sudden insights into how things are – for example, Basho’s:



summer on the blue rocks – a fly scratches;


in the dark forest – a leaf falls;

or, this one is by Jack Kerouac,

in the morning frost – the cats step slowly.

The term, ENLIGHTENMENT – contains the following elements – LIGHT – to see clearly; LIGHTEN – as in, to let go of the burden of craving/clinging/fixation/habit – to let go of the desire for permanence, substance and fixed essences – to feel lighter, less burdened; ENLIGHTENMENT – to experience the passing interdependent nature of things – to be AWAKE, to BE.

In Zen Buddhism another name for ZAZEN (sitting meditation) is, SHIKANTAZA, literally meaning, ‘just sitting’. It was emphasised by the Japanese teacher, Dogen (1200-1253) as a primary method of awakening. Just sitting can also been interpreted as ‘just being’, ‘being here’ – alive to everything that comes and goes. Being open, awake, attentive – alert and vibrant (not passive). Zazen, has one purpose – to sit and be present – letting go of other intentions, attachments, wants & desires. It is neither DOING nor NOT-DOING but BEING-HERE. And as Dogen says, ‘neither thinking, nor not-thinking’ – just being.

While in some Buddhist traditions nirvana is considered as a permanent state of being that is the culmination of practice and discipline, in Zen, satori and kensho are regarded as an ongoing process of realisation. In my view most people have experienced moments of just being – moments when all cares and desires, fears and dissatisfactions, opinions and beliefs, fall away, and we are left with a profound feeling of peace, calm and connectedness – a vibrant sense of being alive and being related to everyone and everything. If we don’t value these moments, we just move on and forget them. In Zen Buddhism these moments are to be treasured, remembered and developed as a vital part of practice.

Of course, kensho and awakening need to be cultivated by individuals and communities alongside mindful ethics in order to develop wellbeing for all beings – working towards peace and sukha and away from conflict and dukkha. Developing mindful awareness and compassionate, caring, action are the keys to wellbeing and a ‘good’ life.

To return to the climbing metaphor – instead of nirvana being thought of as something that happens at the top of a mountain – the end of a long hard climb – kensho involves the realisation that enlightenment can happen here at the bottom of the mountain and at all points on the climb – so long as we are awake and open – in other words, so long as we are mindful – anywhere, anytime. Being present, clear-sighted and unburdened by prejudices and attachments, means we may be better able to act in a more balanced, wise and compassionate manner.