The Life of Buddha and The Concept of Nirvana

The Life of Buddha

Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, lived between 563 and 483 BC in the area known now as the Indo-Nepalese region. As a bodhisattva, he had passed through thousands of existences before coming to Earth for his ultimate transmigration.

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This last lifetime he began as a son of the King of the realm Sakya,Sudhodana, who ruled at Kapilavastu, in Ancient India on the border of present-day Nepal, and was born in a village called Lumbini into the warrior tribe called the Sakyas (from where he derived the title Sakyamuni, meaning “Sage of the Sakyas”).

According to ancient tradition, Queen Maya, his mother, first had a dream of a beautiful white elephant coming down into her womb, and this was interpreted as a sign that the Buddha, or a universal emperor, was about to be born. When her time came, Queen Maya went into the garden and gave painless birth to the bodhisattva. He immediately walked, spoke, and was received by Brahma.

Five days after his birth, the young prince received the name of Siddhartha. When his parents took him to the temple, the statues of the gods prostrated themselves before him, great were the rejoicings of the people over the birth of this illustrious prince. Also at this time a devout old man named Asita came down from the Himalayas to meet the newborn prince. An ascetic of high spiritual attainments, Asita was particularly pleased to hear this happy news. Having been a tutor to the King, he visited the palace to see the royal baby. The king, who felt honoured by his unexpected visit, carried the child up to him in order to make the child pay him due reverence. To the surprise of all, the child’s legs turned and rested on the matted locks of the ascetic.

Instantly, the ascetic rose from his seat and recognizing in the young child the 80 signs that are pledges to a highly religious vocation, and foreseeing with his supernormal vision the child’s future greatness, saluted him with clasped hands. The Royal father did likewise. The great ascetic smiled at first and then was sad. Questioned regarding his mingled feelings, he answered that he smiled because the prince would eventually become a Buddha, an Enlightened One, and he was sad because he would not be able to benefit from the superior wisdom of the Enlightened One owing to his prior death and rebirth in a Formless Plane.

After seven days Queen Maya died, and her place as mother was taken by her sister, whose devotion and love became legendary.

When the young prince was in his twelfth year, the king called the wiseBrahmans in council. They revealed that Siddhartha would devote himself to asceticism if he cast his eyes on age, sickness, or death ~ and, if he were to meet a hermit.

Wanting his son to be a universal monarch instead, the king surrounded the palace with a triple enclosure and guard and proclaimed that the use of the words death and grief were forbidden. The most beautiful princess in the land, Yasodhara, was found for his bride, and after Siddhartha proved himself in many tournaments calling for strength and prowess, when he was 16, the two were wed.

Siddhartha was kept amused and entertained for some time by this privileged life behind the palace walls until one day his divine vocation awoke in him, and he decided to visit the nearby town. The king called for everything to be swept and decorated, and any ugly or sad sight to be removed. But these precautions were in vain for while Siddhartha was travelling through the streets, an old wrinkled man appeared before him. In astonishment the young prince learned that decrepitude is the fate of those who live life through. Still later he met an incurable invalid and then a funeral procession. Finally heaven placed in his path an ascetic, a beggar, who told Siddhartha that he had left the world to pass beyond suffering and joy, to attain peace at heart.

Confirmed in his meditation, all these experiences awakened in Siddhartha the idea of abandoning his present life and embracing asceticism. He opened his heart to his father and said, “Everything in the world is changing and transitory. Let me go off alone like the religious beggar.”

Grief-stricken at the idea of losing his son, the king doubled the guard around the walls and increased the pleasures and distractions within. And at this point, Yasodhara bore him a son whom he called Rahula (meaning “chain” or “fetter”), a name that indicated Gautama’s sense of dissatisfaction with his life of luxury, while the birth of his son evoked in him much tenderness. His apparent sense of dissatisfaction turned to disillusion when he saw three things from the window of his palace, each of which represented different forms human suffering: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, and a corpse.Yet even this could not stop the troubling thoughts in his heart or close his eyes to the realizations of the impermanence of all life, and of the vanity and instability of all objects of desire.

His mind made up, he awoke one night and, casting one last look at his wife and child, mounted his horse Kataka and rode off accompanied by his equerry Chandaka. At the city gates Siddhartha turned over his horse to Chandaka, then he cut off his hair, gave up his sumptuous robes, and entered a hermitage where the Brahmans accepted him as a disciple. Siddhartha had now and forever disappeared. He became the monk Gautama, or as he is still called, Sakyamuni, the ascetic of the Sakyas.

For many years Gautama studied the doctrines until, having felt the need to learn more elsewhere, he traveled and fasted. His two teachers had showed him how to reach very deep states of meditation (samadhi). This did not, however, lead to a sense of true knowledge or peace, and the practice of deep meditation was abandoned in favour of a life of extreme asceticism which he shared with five companions. But again, after five or six years of self-mortification, Siddhartha felt he had failed to achieve true insight and rejected such practices as dangerous and useless.

Resolved to continue his quest, Siddharta made his way to a deer park atIsipatana, near present day Benares. Here he sat beneath a tree meditating on death and rebirth. Discovering that excessive fasts destroy strength, he learned that as he had transcended earthly life, so must he next transcend asceticism. Alone and weak, he sat beneath the sacred Bodhi tree of wisdom, and swore to die before arising without the wisdom he sought.

Mara, the demon, fearful of Gautama’s power, sent his three beautiful daughters to distract him. When that failed, Mara sent an army of devils to destroy him. Finally Mara attacked Gautama with a terrible weapon capable of cleaving a mountain. But all this was useless, and the motionless monk sat in meditation.

It was here that Siddharta attained a knowledge of the way things really are; it was through this knowledge that he acquired the title Buddha(meaning “awakened one”). This awakening was achieved during a night of meditation, which passed through various stages as the illumination that Gautama had sought slowly welled up in his heart. He knew the exact condition of all beings and the causes of their rebirths. He saw beings live, die and transmigrate. In meditating on human pain, he was enlightened about both its genesis and the means of destroying it.

In this first stage he saw each of his previous existences, and then understood the chain of cause and effect. In the second he surveyed the death and rebirth of all living beings and understood the law that governs the cycle of birth and death. In the third he identified the Four Noble Truths: the universality of suffering, the cause of suffering through selfish desire, the solution to suffering and the way to overcome suffering. This final point is called the Noble Eightfold Path, this being eight steps consisting of wisdom (right views, right intention) ethics (right speech, right action, right livelihood), mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), which ultimately lead to liberation from the source of suffering.

When day came, Gautama had attained perfect illumination, and had become a Buddha. The rays emanating from his body shone to the boundaries of space. He stayed in meditation for seven more days, and then for four more weeks he stayed by the tree. Through his process of enlightenment he discovered that all sentient beings in this universal life possess buddhahold, and all are future potential buddhas.

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From that time he had two alternate paths: he could enter Nirvanaimmediately, or else he could stay and spread enlightenment. After Brahma came in person to beg him to preach the law, Buddha yielded and stayed on the earth. For many years he traveled and taught his wisdom about the force of love and the destruction of all desire.

Although initially hesitant to share his insight on the grounds that humanity might not be ready for such a teaching, the Buddha decided to communicate his discovery to those willing to listen. His first converts were the five ascetics with whom he had lived when he himself followed the lifestyle of the ascetic. To these he preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Benares, outlining to them the Four Noble Truths. Out of this small group the community of monks (or Sangha) grew to about 60 in size and came to include Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, and his son, Rahula. Later the Buddha was persuaded by his stepmother and cousin to accept women into the sangha.

The remaining 45 years of the Buddha’s life were spent journeying around the plain of the Ganges, teaching and receiving visitors.

“There are two extremes which are to be avoided: a life of pleasure ~ this is low and ignoble, unworthy and useless, and runs counter to the affairs of the spirit; and a life of fasting ~ this is sad, unworthy and useless. Perfection has kept its distance from these two extremes, and has found the middle way which leads to repose, knowledge, illumination, and Nirvana. So here is the sacred truth about pain: birth, old age, sickness, death, and separation from that which one loves, are pain. And this is the origin of pain: it is thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for impermanence. And here is the truth about the suppression of pain: it is the extinction of that thirst by the destruction of desire.

“Charity, knowledge and virtue are possessions that cannot be lost. To do a little good is worth more than accomplishing works of a difficult nature. The perfect man is nothing unless he pours out kindness on his fellow creatures, unless he consoles the abandoned. My doctrine is a doctrine of mercy. The way of salvation is open to all. Destroy your passions as the elephant would trample down a reed hut. But I would have you know that it is a mistaken idea to believe that one can escape from one’s passions by taking shelter in hermitages. The only remedy against evil is healthy reality.”

And so Buddha travelled and preached. He performed many miracles, and converted his family and many followers. During his life the Buddha had taught that no one was to succeed him as leader of the Sangha. Instead, his followers were to take his teaching and rule as their sole guides. By the time he reached the age of 80, Sakyamuni began to feel old. He visited all of the monasteries he had founded and prepared to meet his end.

Before the Buddha’s death, he became severely sick. He journeyed northwest to the banks of the river Hiranyavati, walking with his disciples, and ate the food offered by a blacksmith. His illness had progresses, and at the end, he came to the river and took a bath. Then he made a rope bed among eight sal trees, with each direction having two. He lay down on his side, right hand supporting his head, the other resting on his body. All later reclining Buddhas (called Buddha’s Nirvana) are in the same posture.

The Buddha’s disciples kept watch on him after they were told the Buddha was going to nirvana. At night, a scholar of Brahman went to see the Buddha, but was stopped by the Buddha’s disciple Ananda. Hearing this, the Buddha called the scholar Subhadda to his bed and spoke him. Thus the scholar became the Buddha’s last disciple. The final exhortation of the Buddha to his disciples was that they should not be sorry for losing their tutor. (See the last sermon of the Buddha for further elaboration.)

Growing weaker, he spoke one last time: “Do not say we have no master now. The doctrine I have preached will be your master when I have disappeared. Listen, I beg you: ALL CREATIONS ARE IMPERMANENT; work diligently for your liberation.”

Having pronounced these final words, Buddha went into the jhana stages, or meditative absorptions. Going from level to level, one after the other, ever deeper and deeper, he reached ecstacy. Then he came out of the meditative absorption for the last time and passed into nirvana, leaving nothing whatever behind that can cause rebirth again in this or any other world.and finally passed into Nirvana.

After his death, Buddha’s remains were cremated, as became the Buddhist tradition. The passing away, or the final nirvana, of the Buddha occurred in 483 BC on a full moon day in the month of May, known in the Indian calendar as Wesak.


The Concept of Nirvana From a Psychological Point of View

by Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

The concept of Nirvana is more than 2500 years old. Throughout the centuries various scholars and philosophers tried to explain this concept using their limited knowledge. In fact the concept of Nirvana is much more wide and difficult to explain in mundane terms. The Nirvana concept is often misunderstood and sometimes misused ( eg – Nirvana Rock Band, Nirvana Night Club) in the western world. Some Western scholars have tried to interpret it as a sensational feeling or like orgasm which was incorrect.

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The concept of Nirvana was originally explained by the Lord Buddha (566 – 486 B.C.). His lordship reached Enlightenment, at the age of 35, awakening to the true nature of reality, which is Nirvana (Absolute Truth). The word Nirvana comes from the root meaning ‘to blow out’ and refers to the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. When these emotional and psychological defilements are destroyed by wisdom, the mind becomes free, radiant and joyful and at death one is no longer subject to rebirth . “Nirvana is the ultimate happiness.

The Buddha describes the abiding in nirvana as a state of ‘deathlessness’ and as the highest spiritual attainment, the reward for one who lives a life of virtuous conduct. Nibbāna is meant specifically as pertains gnosis that which ends the identity of the mind with empirical phenomena.

Nirvana can only be explained to the ‘unenlightened’ by negation. Thus the Buddha tries to explain this deep concept to one of his disciples. He asks whether the fire, when it is extinguished, can be said to have gone north, south, east, or west. Nirvana, however, cannot be described as existing, not existing, both existing and not, or neither existing nor not.

Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula explains the concept of Nirvana as

..The only reasonable reply is that it can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvana. Language is created and used by masses of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense organs and their mind. A supramundane experience like that of the Absolute Truth is not of such a category. Words are symbols representing things and ideas known to us; and these symbols do not and cannot convey the true nature of even ordinary things. Language is considered deceptive and misleading in the matter of understanding of the Truth. So the Lankavatara-sutra says that ignorant people get stuck in words like an elephant in the mud. Nevertheless, we cannot do without language.

It is incorrect to think that Nirvana is the natural result of the extinction of craving. Nirvana is not the result of anything. If it would be a result, then it would be an effect produced by a cause. It would be ‘produced’ and ‘conditioned’. Nirvana is neither cause nor effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state, such as dhyana or samadhi.

People often ask: What is there after Nirvana? This question cannot arise, because Nirvana is the Ultimate Truth. If it is Ultimate there can be nothing after it. If there is anything after Nirvana, then that will be the Ultimate Truth and not Nirvana.

He who has realized Truth, Nirvana, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all ‘complexes’ and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.

As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such ‘defilements’, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulated nothing, because he is free from the illusion of self and the ‘thirst’ of becoming.

Nirvana and Human Mind

A man is composed of six elements: solidity, fluidity, heat, motion, space and consciousness. All human knowledge is founded on particles and forces in Space and Time, which assumes the existence of four separate things. This causes many problems for Humanity because the necessary connection between these things is unknown.

The Mind-Body dual is known as the “psychophysical” problem and has been concisely formulated by the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes in his “Meditations”, published in 1641. Descartes observed that the world consists of two basically different substances: mind and matter. Matter occupies 3-D space, mind does not. He could not explain satisfactorily how these two substances, mind and matter; interrelate. Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) saw mind and body as two attributes of the same substance, “processes of one and the same thing expressed in two different ways.

What is the connection between human body and human mind? Can human mind gain higher neurological functions through evolutionary process? What does the theory of evolution has to say? Darwinian explanation is based on the extraordinary amount of data collected by the sciences, which is tied together by a number of hypotheses: the Earth and life develop through various physical, chemical, and biological processes, over billions of years. Man evolved from the apes by the purely physical process of “ natural selection “; the same process through which all life evolved. The Scientific cosmology is thus one of continual development and progress through tremendously long periods of time. Homo sapiens have achieved a greater success in this regard. Their brain developed in to a higher juncture.

The human mind has no limitations. The contemporary science had not discovered even 5% of the human brain and its cognitive abilities. Every day Neuro psychologists discover new schemas, and superior brain functions. They are of the view that human mind is an extraordinary system which is million times advanced than the newest computers. According to Buddhism, there is no division between physical and psychological aspects of life. The experience of the one influences the other.

Nirvana is cognizable by mind. In other words human mind can be trained in higher cognitive functions. When the mind reaches higher state it can understand advanced logical reasoning, high moral issues and so forth. Realization of Nirvana is a form of achieving superior mental state. It is a state in which one experiences the unity and wholeness of everything as it is. This unity and interconnectedness of all things is, from a Buddhist perspective, objective reality.

Consciousness and Nirvana

The brain, thus, might not be pictured as a series of neural connections, but rather as a matter wave “system” that resonates in particular regions and dampens in yet others. What we call consciousness and memory may be pictured as the collective resonances and dampening of the entire brain-system. Consciousness and perception may also be a resonance of the brain matter-wave system; an effect of the brain-system interfacing with the outside world. The degree of consciousness that one may have might depends upon the collective degree of the brain wave-system being in-phase with the environment. The more interactive and resonant the brain-system is with the environment through the senses, the greater may be the degree of consciousness.

The Buddha taught that consciousness arises only out of conditions; without the presence of conditions there is no consciousness. Consciousness depends on form, feelings, perceptions and impulses for its arising and cannot exist independently of them. It is essentially an observing function.

Harmonization of Unconscious and Conscious

An individuated individual is one in whom the unconscious and conscious are harmonized, and ego is decentralized. This is achieved by getting in touch with the unconscious, without allowing the ego to be overwhelmed by it. Ego has an explicit value. Functions which exist below the threshold of consciousness need to be brought above that threshold, repressed shadow contents need to be acknowledged, and the major archetypes of the collective unconscious.

In the human psyche, according to Buddhism, nine levels of consciousness exist. The first five correspond to the five senses and are called: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness. The remaining four are levels of mind consciousness. The sixth level of consciousness controls the perception of the outer and material world. The seventh level concerns our inner and spiritual world and guides our capacity for thought and judgment. The eighth level is the “store” of karma (alaya). The ninth level of consciousness is the basis of all spirituality and is called Amala, which means pure and uncontaminated.

Enlightenment results from the state where the conscious mind is depotentiated of energy through long practice and discipline, working with meditation . Nirvana the ultimate goal of Buddhism is a state in which there is no suffering or desire, and no sense of self. It is a state of perfect happiness.

Doctrinally Nibbāna is said of the mind which no “longer is coming and going but which has attained a status in perpetuity, whereby “liberation can be said ergo the freed mind is equal to Nibbana in Buddhist doctrine. Elsewhere the Buddha calls nirvāna ‘the unconditioned element.

Beyond Freudian Theory

Basically Freud explained about the pathological mind. Psychoanalytic theory is based on the conscious and unconscious psychological proceses.Freud developed a theory of behaviour and mind, its urges or drives also thoughts.Unconscious motivation is the is the key idea of psychoanalysis. In the psychoanalytic perspective super mundain concept like Nirvana is difficult to explain. The theory of ultra super ego ( read Psychoanalysis with Clinical Evidence by Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge- Sarvodaya Vishva Lecha Publishers 2004 Colombo Sri Lanka) gives some background ideas about the functions of superego and the ultra super ego in people who have a developed psyche. People with highly developed psyche have diminished levels of id functions and their spiritual dimension is prominent.

Existentialism and the concept of Nirvana

Comparisons between Buddhism and the various schools of existentialism have revealed a number of parallels. Such studies have frequently centered on each tradition’s metaphysical approach and the fact that they all appear to share some form of phenomenological methodology.

Existential Psychology deals with basic issues of existence that may be the source of present conflict within a person. These concerns are universal and inherent in the human condition: death, freedom, and essential alonenss and meaningless. The emptiness ‘is the human condition to which both Buddhism and Nietzsche respond. The word Dukkha gives a deep philosophical meaning of suffering and emptiness. Dukkha is the Sanskrit word commonly translated as ‘suffering’. The most important type of Dukkha, however, is sankhara-dukkha, an existential incompleteness due to spiritual ignorance.

Existential Psychology addresses the meaning of life and human freedom. The Buddha used Nirvana more as an image of freedom. Nirvana names the transcendent and singularly ineffable freedom that stands as the final goal of all the Buddha’s teachings.

“This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving ; dispassion; cessation; Nirvana”

Gestalt psychology and the concept of Nirvana

The word Gestalt means a unified or meaningful whole, which was to be the focus of psychological study instead. Gestalt psychology is based on the observation that we often experience things that are not a part of our simple sensations. In perception, there are many organizing principles called gestalt laws. People cannot see the multidimensional reality because human senses are limited to three dimensions, yet the higher-dimensional environment has a more substantial reality than our world. This is so because our three-dimensional world is only a subset of the multidimensional system. An interrelated set of holistic principles is developed. The multidimensional world is then explored with this holistic logic system. This leads to common-sense interpretations of quantum physics effects and provides plausible answers to many unresolved questions, such as the whole versus parts problem, mind-body interaction, the inner structure of the human psyche, the beginning of life, and the creative nature of evolution.

The experiments of quantum physics showed that the atoms, the presumed fundamental building blocks of the universe, were, at their core, essentially empty. Quantum physics has thus brought about a radical new understanding both of the particles and the void. In subatomic physics, mass is no longer seen as a material substance but is recognized as a form of energy.

In Dhamapada the notion of Nirvana is explained in thus.

“There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress .”

Gestalt Psychologists believe in intuition or Aha experience. This can be explained as an insight or rather sudden perception of critical relationship. Understanding the Nirvana sometimes achieved like Aha experience. Advanced cognitive abilities can grasp and understand some of the complex questions within seconds.


An important facet of Nirvāna in general is that it is not something that comes about from a concatenation of causes, that springs into existence as a result of an act of creation or an agglomeration of causative factors: it was never created; it always was, is and will be. But due to the moral and mental darkness of ordinary, samsarically benighted sentient beings, it remains hidden from unawakened perception.

Source: – The Life of Buddha – The Concept of Nirvana From a Psychological Point of View