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Does Nirvana Mean Death to Everything?

Question:

I have a question and am hoping you may have some comments: What happens to Earth when all beings reach Nirvana? If all beings progress to enlightenment, then they won’t be coming back, right? If so, then the Earth dies… everything from us to krill would be gone, at least physically. I don’t see that this would be a good thing, since to me, the world is a magnificent phenomenon -irrespective of our human experience of living on it. I love this Earth and feel lucky to have experienced its natural beauty. I wonder about this. Would it be possible to be enlightened and live on Earth too? It is a real sticking point for me. Any comments would be GREATLY appreciated.

Answer:

If you take it that Nirvana means that you exit the cycle of samsara, then that happens after death. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened person who is willing to skip that and stick around on Earth to help others reach enlightenment. Theoretically, eventually, someday every being will reach enlightenment and it would indeed be time for all creatures to move on.

To us here, now, the Earth is a beautiful thing that must be protected for future generations, I believe. However, attachments are something that we will give up after attaining Enlightenment, and that includes being attached to the world. No matter how beautiful it may be, an enlightened person would be willing to let it go if that meant that all suffering would be ended.

You ask, “Would it be possible to live on Earth and be Enlightened too?” Technically, yes, if you return as a Bodhisattva, then you can stay behind, at least until that far-off future when everyone has reached Nirvana. However, it could also be that such a strong attachment to the Earth might keep you from getting there in the first place.

Attachments and irrational grasping/desire are what causes suffering. Attachments, even to things that are otherwise good and wonderful, are still attachments, and will cause suffering eventually.

16 comments to Does Nirvana Mean Death to Everything?

  • A few things to add:

    Since Samsara is posited as a permanent phenomenon, it will still theoretically exist once all beings have achieved Nirvana. This is interesting because, within my limited understanding, I believe the Tibetan response to “if a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a firm “No”. Perhaps the fundamental problem is conceptualizing (ha, THERE’s the fundamental problem!) Nirvana as a distinct, separate physical place.

    When asked about the origins of Samsara, the example of the arrow is given: when struck by a poisoned arrow, it does not help you to wonder where the poison came from, what kind of wood is this arrow made of, etc. The priority is to get it out and heal. I think this may also apply to a time of pervasive Enlightenment – that is, why think about it now? Indeed, even at that point, who will feel the need to think about it (or anything, in that way)?

    Ultimately, as Brian says,

    “However, attachments are something that we will give up after attaining Enlightenment, and that includes being attached to the world. No matter how beautiful it may be, an enlightened person would be willing to let it go if that meant that all suffering would be ended.”

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    You need to realise that the end of the earth is definitely coming. Our sun has another 4.5 billion years (plus/minus a few hundred million years margin of error) before it runs out of hydrogen. At this point it will balloon out beyond the earth orbit before contracting again to re-igniting possibly as a “red dwarf” star … by that stage there will be no life as we know it left on earth… what ever your religion.

    Like the Buddha (and Brian) says nothing stays forever / everything constantly changes – there is no point to attach yourself to any particular thing

    Oh and if you worry about the end being neigh – 4.5 billion years is a very very long time: a generation is normally counted as covering 25 years – and humanity has existed for 100,000 generations – this would mean there was time for another 180 million generations… theoretically anyway :-)

  • Majid

    Edit: I’m not sure Samsara is a permanent phenomenon, anymore.

  • Abe Simpson

    I’ve interpreted The Buddha’s teaching of Nirvana not to be a physical place, but a state of absolute truth of living in the unconditioned mind, or buddha nature.

    I do think Brian’s message about attachement is crucial to the response though.

  • Abe Simpson

    For me, samsara, like Nirvana, is not a place, its a process. Samara is the answer to the question, “What are we doing”, not “Where are we”. We don’t leave samara and go to nirvana, we stop samsara and start nirvana.

  • I do not mean to be political here, but attachment to the earth leads to various emotions–one being greed. I am reminded of our attachment to oil, natural gas, and other elements sustaining us in this contemporary, industrial realm. If we view the root cause of our full attachments to this earth, we are truly stuck in this paradigm of clinging. Therefore, the environmental movement perhaps could play into the Buddhist’s Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. The earth is a metaphor for ourselves. We consume the earth and are unconscious of these “natural” desires. (They are natural because we have viewed oil and other fossil fuels as part of daily life.) When we become comfortable in our daily life, we are not being mindful of the true nature of our consumption. So, being close to nature (the good parts, such as the wind and trees) is the grand delusion of its opposite: our clinging to the good parts and our remembering the consumption and waste.

    Don’t know if I am making sense, but I think there is a need for an environmentally conscious Buddhist.

    Jon

  • The Zennist

    To resonate with samsara means to be locked into rebirth and redeath. To resonate with pure mind, which is really the meaning behind nirvana, means to be free of rebirth (= mind seeking itself through many different forms). And NO, nirvana is not the death of everything – far from it. Things are just harmless wave-phenomena on the pure Alaya ocean when you realize nirvana.

  • I think that to answer this question you have to define what you think happens when you become enlightened and what you believe about positive and negative karma, and reincarnation (or rebirth or re-manifesting… whatever you want to call it when you are reborn and inherit some effects from past karmic actions). I think of nirvana and the ending of samsara differently from the previous posts. This may be a little long, but bear with me, if its too crazy, just stop and go to the next post. Sorry if its too weird.

    We are all created from the energy that is in the Universe. The energy that makes us up is organized into packets that cause us to exist as solid human beings. Speaking as a biochemist, (which is one of the things I used to be) those packets may be metabolic pathways or structural proteins or whatever, but our bodies are made up of fats, proteins, nucleic acids and small molecules that contain energy. Every chemical bond contains energy, so the organization of all those chemical bonds requires a lot of energy from the universe; it takes a lot of energy to pull that all together into a sentient being. Entropically, all that organization is unfavorable, meaning that the universe has to put a lot of energy into us to get it all to hold together. When we die, the universe gets all that energy back; all those organized chemical bonds break down and release their energy back into the universe. Physically that is what is happening.

    Here’s where I start getting weird: There is another part of that energy that biochemists can’t measure, maybe string theory can explain it, but I think that all that energy that keeps us together as sentient beings has some character that reflects the karmic actions that we have inherited from previous sentient beings, and that energy also inherits some character from what we do in our present lives.

    Our minds are still slightly attached to that universal energy, (the more spiritual the more attached) and becoming enlightened and reaching nirvana happens when we are able to merge our energy back into the universal source. We become one with the universe. When we die, our energy merges back into the universal energy. Buddhas who chose not to come back to the cycle of birth and death manage to keep all that energy merged with the universe. (Back when I was an undergrad, we used to say that Einstein didn’t die, he just solved Shoedinger’s equation for his body and merged with the universe, but that was in the 60′s and there was probably a Sandoz character to all that talk) (Sandoz pharmaceutical made LSD). Bodhisatttva’s are enlightened people who have chosen, because of their great compassion, to be reborn again and again until samsara can cease. They inherit packets of energy that reflect mostly (only?) good actions. Tulku’s are bodhisattvas who inherit all or almost all their energy from a single previous existence.

    This energy has a character that reflects negative karma or virtuous actions. When we are born, the energy that we inherit carries with it the spins that it acquired in past lives. Not all our energy comes from one past life, nor does the energy that we give up when we die necessarily stay together to be inherited by single sentient being, but depending upon whether we are virtuous or non-virtuous, we impart our own spins on the packets of energy that we are using right now.

    When the rest of us are reborn, its kind of like someone filling a bucket with universal energy, you get a sampling of energy that is not quite random in character. There has to be some weighting function that makes positive energy packets stick together so that people who inherit packets with virtuous spins, can mark more packets with positive actions, so that eventually all your energy has positive spins on it. At that point you have reached enlightenment. (I guess the opposite is true too, but I imagine that energy bundles with too much negativity end up being reborn into one of the hells that are out there). You know all things that are knowable and see all your past lives and all your karmic acts. You become a Buddha. When you die, you have a choice about whether you want to be reborn into samsara, or whether you want to stay united with the universal energy. Bodhisattvas have chosen to come back until all samsara can cease… when everyone will have reached enlightenment. We have no need to be reborn into bodies because we are one with the universe. The earth is just part of the universe but it only exists because we need it to.

    I know that all sounds like I’ve jumped off into the deep end or something, but this is what I feel happens. Pretty weird for someone who has spent the last 30 years as a molecular biologist, eh? It feels that way to me to, but I had stage 4 throat cancer a couple of years ago, and it started me thinking about all this stuff. That is when I got back into Buddhism.

    I think the answer to the question that I started on (whether the earth will exist when we all reach enlightenment) is that it doesn’t make any difference. The earth is just part of the universal energy. It is part of the energy now and so are we, but we are chained into our conventional bodies, so we recognize the earth as something solid in the universe. I’m sure that Buddhists with more experience could express this better, including inherent existence, emptiness, and all that, but that’s what I think is going on. I think that when you gain a direct understanding of emptiness, you understand this with all your heart and you lose your fear of death. I hope.

    srlasky

  • Subjectivity9

    Nirvana is not a place that can be reached, as in moving from here to there, as if Nirvana is a place. One might even say that Nirvana is right here when seen correctly. Perhaps that is why Nirvana is spoken of as simply being awake. The dreamer wakes up to what is eternally present but was overlooked in his/her state of sleepwalking. So does the earth die, well in a sense if you were to say that a mistaken notion dies when we see through it and see correctly.

    I agree with you that the earth is a magnificent phenomenon, but could it not be that what we come to see is even more magnificent? Nirvana may not be so much what we experience but ‘How’ we experience it.

    All through history there are examples of persons who are enlightened continuing to live upon earth. I don’t believe that any of these are pictured as persons at war with the earth. In fact I think when seen correctly everything falls into a peaceful co-existence, or everything just being what it is.

  • EL

    From my understanding, Nirvana is a state of mind on neutral. You neither want nor do not want anything, and you do not feel for anything. That is why buddha said nirvana is a state that has eliminated crave, hate and delusion, the root creation of our existence.

    To the question what happen after you died after attaining Nirvana, I believe you just cease to become any being. You would not be re-born anywhere or as anything as you do not crave to be re-born. Whatever that source or soul of yours would just be part of the nature/universe which exist in a neutral state with no harm or benefit to anything, with no ability to do or undo anything.

  • Wunderkind

    So if Nirvana is the cessation of all suffering with no rebirth or redeath, no happiness, no sadness… no feeling at all, what separates it from a materialistic view of death, that is, that one ceases to “exist” after death, or at least ceases to perceive anything, that you just become a lifeless skeleton in the ground, is that not a cessation of all feeling, of all suffering?

  • s123

    Buddha Shakymuni talked about layers of heaven. He said that the lowest level of heaven is at such and such distance above the earth, and each successive higher level was twice as high as the previous level. Hence the height of heavens increases exponentially. Higher the level, the subtler is the substance that composes that realm and hence we’ve been to moon but saw nothing like a heaven. But Going by this measurement, the height of the highest heaven does not exceed what one may call the boundary of solar system(you can check from reliable sources, and do the calculations for yourself) The layers of worlds beyond that were not revealed by Buddha.It could be possible that there are subtler heavens higher than that. Just imagine how huge the cosmos is! After studying buddhism, many people started regarding jesus as inferior to buddha. They beleived that “jesus” or “god” is a deva, and the christian heaven is one of the brahmalokas, temporary and subject to suffering. But if there are heavens higher than brahmalokas, then maybe it is true that nirvana is a place and the heaven that jesus talked about was indeed existing in a realm beyond the brahmalokas (the highest heaven described by buddha).

  • s123

    I haven’t definitively stated anything, i’ve merely pointed out my opinion.

  • s123

    I practice Falun Gong, and after studying it I’ve realized some misconceptions and limitations existing in the Buddhism as we know it today. It could be that the original meaning of Buddhism is now lost. First of all, Buddha taught how to conduct ourselves and how to enter samadhi. In this way our mind comes to a state where there’s no new karma created. But what about the karma that we’ve created in thousands of lifetimes before? Who will extinguish that karma? For Shakyamuni’s original disciples, it will be done by Buddha himself. This Buddha did not explain clearly. That’s why Christianity talks about the need of a savior. Buddhism did not explain the origin of living beings & how they ever got trapped in the vicious circle of samsara. He did not explain WHY there is a system of justice in the cosmos. The reason behind this, according to my practice system, is that the universe is like a huge living being, an intelligent entity having buddha-nature(the nature of a buddha). This entity has restraint over the cosmos, although it does not tamper with human free will. Therefore, the universe by it’s very nature( the buddha nature is always good) maintains justice. This entity indeed created all living beings, and reaching the highest level in self-cultivation means assimilating “one with the cosmos”.”One with the cosmos” is nothing mystical, it means having the same characteristic (buddha nature) as that of the cosmos, and also having the same abilities as that of the universe. The universe is divinely powerful, being in full control of its material manifestation. It’s powers are limitless. This entity is indeed the lord of the cosmos, and cosmos itself. You can say that the material cosmos is the body of this being. The above reflects my understanding of it.

  • s123

    @EL
    “That is why buddha said nirvana is a state that has eliminated crave, hate and delusion, the root creation of our existence.”
    When the world did not exist,there were no living beings to crave for anything. Then how did craving result in the formation of our world?

  • s123

    The flaws of buddhism dont seem to end. actually, they are not flaws of buddhism but flaws of what we’ve come to understand from buddha’s words. The philosophy that there is no self and nirvana is complete extiction was never buddha’s own words. The sutras don’t contain such things. Later, monks recompiled the sutras and gave them a rigid philosophical form. Therefore the deeper, inner meanings of buddha’s words became lost. Such negative philosophies are only found in the philosophical treatises.

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