Buddhism: The path to Nirvana

Nirvana is a Sanskrit word for the goal of the Buddhist path: enlightenment or awakening. In Pali, the language of some of the earliest Buddhist texts, the word is nibbana; in both languages it means literally “extinction” (like a lamp or flame) or “cessation.” It refers to the extinction of greed, ill will, and delusion in the mind, the three poisons that perpetuate suffering. Nirvana is what the Buddha achieved on the night of his enlightenment: he became completely free from the three poisons. Everything he taught for the rest of his life was aimed at helping others to arrive at that same freedom.

That’s the basic idea, but there are of course many nuanced interpretations. In the Theravada tradition, for instance, nibbana is the way out of the endless cycle of rebirth and death known as samsara; it is a state that exists beyond space and time, impossible to describe. But a person who has attained nirvana is completely out of the woods of suffering and stress.

In Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and other types of Mahayana Buddhism, the state of nirvana is synonymous with becoming a buddha, or realizing one’s innate buddhahood or buddhanature. In some schools, it’s believed that everyone’s basic nature is inherently enlightened, but since it is cloaked in ignorance—like clouds in front of a brilliant sky—we don’t recognize it. From this perspective, freedom from suffering and getting out of the round of birth and death aren’t the only goal: once you become a buddha, you can stay on hand to help until all sentient beings are freed from samsara.


The Buddha began and ended his teaching career with a discussion of the eightfold path, guidelines for living ethically, training the mind, and cultivating wisdom that brings an end to the causes of suffering. He spoke of the path in his first sermon immediately after his awakening and in the last teaching he gave on his deathbed 45 years later. The eightfold path is the fourth noble truth, the way to awakening.

The Buddha is often described as a great physician or healer, and the eightfold path (also called the noble eightfold path, “noble” because following it can make us better people, like the Buddha) can be viewed as his prescription for relief. Suffering is the disease, and the eight steps are a course of treatment that can lead us to health and well-being; we avoid the extremes of self-indulgence on the one hand and total self-denial on the other. For this reason the Buddha called the path “the middle way.” The eight steps are:

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

The path begins with right view, also called right understanding. We need to see clearly where we are headed before we begin. Right intention means the resolve to follow this path. Right speech and right action refer to what we say and do—to not harming other people or ourselves with our words and behavior. Right livelihood means how we live day to day, making sure our habits and our work don’t cause harm to ourselves and others.

Right effort refers to focusing our energy on the task at hand. Right mindfulness means awareness of the mind and body with discernment. With mindfulness, we might pause and consider whether what we are doing is harmful to ourselves or others. Finally, right concentration refers to dedicated practice, whether it is meditation or chanting. In other words, once we have directed our minds and lives toward awakening, we can proceed. Though the eightfold path is always listed in this order, it is not strictly sequential, and does not need to be followed in only this order.

The eight steps can be divided into three areas for training: ethical conduct (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna.) Right speech, right action, and right livelihood concern ethical conduct. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration relate to the practice of concentration. Right view and right intention are related to the development of wisdom.

The eightfold path may not always be easy to follow, but we make the effort because we believe it will lead us out of suffering.

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