Nirvana and other terms


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

NIRVANA (a word that is hardly encountered in Zen schools of Buddhism) 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.

KENSHO, is more commonly used in Zen Buddhism (ken, ‘seeing’, and sho, ‘nature or essence’) – that is, ‘seeing into the nature of things’ (Dharma – the way things are) – realising that all things are transitory and empty of self-existence. Kensho, is a sudden illumination, a sudden experience – and the literature of Zen is full of accounts, or attempts to evoke, moments of realisation. For instance many haiku have the quality of sudden insights into how things are – eg. Basho’s: FROG POND PLOP; or, summer on the blue rocks – a fly scratches; or, in the dark forest – a leaf falls; or, in the morning frost – the cats step slowly.

ENLIGHTENMENT – contains the following elements – LIGHT – to see clearly; LIGHTEN – as in, to let go of the burden of craving, clinging, fixation and 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 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 passes. Being open, awake, attentive – alert and vibrant (not passive).

Paradoxically, zazen, has no purpose other than to let go of purpose, attachment, wanting, – it is neither DOING nor NOT-DOING but 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, 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 our practice.

If we imagine nirvana as being the top of a mountain, the end of a long hard climb, kensho is the realisation that enlightenment is here at the bottom of the mountain and at any point on the climb – so long as we are open to it.