I would like to discuss three (Pāli) words that I think are often misunderstood in the Buddha’s teachings. These are saṃsara, nirvāṇa, and saṃvega. They are closely related.
Saṃsara is sometimes defined as a place. It literally means “wandering” or “wandering on.” Thus, it is not a place but an activity. According to the Buddha’s teaching, we have been wandering on throughout limitless time, being reborn over and over again. We are reborn in a given realm depending on what karma manifests at the time of rebirth.
Saṃvega is the realization that this wandering on is pointless and futile. Put this life into a bigger space, a much bigger space. Suppose that life is pretty good for you right now. But as the young Buddha-to-be realized, nonetheless, we are all subject to aging, illness, and death. And when you die, who knows where you end up? All living beings have good and bad karma. You may be a good person, someone who has accumulated a lot of good karma in this life. You may have done a lot of good and avoided doing harm.
That still does not mean that bad karma cannot manifest at the time of death and rebirth and that you cannot end up somewhere very unpleasant. And even if you end up with tens of thousands of years of good rebirths, unless you have attained at least the level of stream-entry, all beings eventually fall from grace into very bad places:
Saṃvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word saṃvega into our language.
– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Affirming the Truths of the Heart, The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada]
It is saṃvega that drove Prince Siddhartha to abandon a life of luxury, become a homeless spiritual seeker, and pursue the goal of liberation from the rounds of rebirth, saṃsara. Imagine that happening today. Imagine that someone who is rich and famous, who has a lot of power, a politician or a movie star or a billionaire business leader, giving up that life and ordaining as a monk. In addition, Prince Siddhartha did not even know that liberation was possible. He only postulated that it was. We at least know that a) it is possible and b) how to get there.
This brings us to the third term, and that is nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa literally means “blowing out,” “quenching,” or “extinguishing.” It is like blowing out the flame of a candle. Once again, nirvāṇa is not a place, but an event.
In general, if you think of all of the Buddha’s activities in terms of processes, activities, or – linguistically – as verbs, you will be on the right track. Our conditioning leads us to think in terms of solid objects and places. But the world that the Buddha described is causes and results, and those results become causes for more results. It is an ocean of activity, and from the standpoint of consciousness, it is ethically conditioned. Wholesome actions have wholesome results, and unwholesome actions have unwholesome results.
Further, the karmic quality of our actions is conditioned by our motivations and our intentions. This is why the Buddha taught us to cultivate wholesome states of mind like compassion, kindness, generosity, love, and wisdom. Sadly, some schools of Buddhism think you can do an “end run” (Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu) around the law of karma. I would not want to be the person to test that hypothesis.
In order to understand nirvāṇa, it is helpful to look at the Second Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of craving. This is the cause of our suffering. The Pāli word that the Buddha used for the Second Noble Truth is taṇha. Taṇha also means “thirst.” We are not just craving in a passive way, but that our senses are constantly looking for something on which to feed. This is one reason that it is so hard to get the mind to quiet down. It has been conditioned throughout limitless time to look for something on which to feed. It is this feeding that keeps us wandering throughout the cosmological realms lifetime after lifetime after lifetime.
Nirvāna is when that feeding stops. It is extinguished.
Notice again that what happens – precisely – is that we stop feeding the addictive, habitual patterns that lead to rebirth and perpetual suffering. Further, we don’t just stop the suffering, we experience boundless joy:
Drinking the nourishment,
of seclusion and calm,
one is freed from evil, devoid
refreshed with the nourishment
of rapture in the Dhamma. – [Dhp 205]
These are important but subtle points. Nirvana is the moment when you free yourself from the rounds of rebirth, from “wandering on.” The “cessation” of the Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering and the cessation of the feeding. You “awaken” – “bodhi” – to transcendent, ultimate reality, and that reality is “rapture in the Dhamma.”