A follower of mine on Twitter asked what are the differences between ‘nirvana,’ ‘parinirvana,’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ This is a very good question, but to answer it in Twitter is like walking with the feet tied together, so I have to answer this in more detail here. I have already gave an answer in Twitter, but my tweets there are necessarily too short. This might not be clear enough, especially for those who are new to Buddhism.
Nirvana is the goal of Buddhist practice. This is why people became a Buddhist in the first place, and it is the goal that the Buddha taught everybody to pursue since he began his teaching career soon after he had attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Etymolotically, ‘nirvana’ means ‘extinguished,’ like when a fire is extinguished, in Sanskrit one would say the fire is ‘nirvana.’ This sense of ‘being put out’ then is transferred to refer to the state where the suffering is ‘put out’. There is no more suffering. Thus, one gains total liberation from samsara.
‘Parinirvana’ literally means ‘being put out all around;’ that is, it is all extinguished. In this sense it means the same as nirvana, only that there is the emphasis on being totally extinguished. However, it is more commonly used to refer to the dissolution of the body of one who has already entered nirvana. So when one has entered nirvana while one is alive, his ego attachment is completely dead, and when that one finally ‘dies,’ it is said that he enters ‘parinirvana.’ In Theravada tradition this is only used for the Buddha.
‘Enlightenment’ is the state where one gains complete Knowledge. This is what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree that enabled him to become a Buddha. A ‘Buddha’ means ‘one who is awakened.’ Those of us in samsara are not awakened because we live in the dreamworld of thought construction and conceptual fabrication, believing that they are real. So we believe that our egos, our “I’s” are real and so on. The Buddha, on the other hand, realizes that this is an illusion, and in reality there is nothing but pure state of naken, unadorned, expansive being. This is what an enlightened being knows. In Pali one says, sammasambodhi, meaning perfect, complete Knowledge (actually I have to put in the diacritical marks on the Pali or Sanskrit terms, but it takes time to do that and I don’t think it’s really necessary here as we are focusing more on the meaning.) ‘Knowledge’ here, by the way, does not refer to one’s ordinary, commonplace knowledge that relies on concepts, but the complete knowledge obtainable only when one lets go of all concepts. Thus ‘Knowledge’ with the capital ‘K’ refers to the state of complete knowledge, or the Buddha’s state of Enlightenment, and ‘knowledge’ with a small ‘k’ to refer to ordinary, conceptual knowledge.
Since all sufferings are caused by not realizing this truth, the state of complete Knowledge here is their direct antidote. So one who is enlightened naturally is free from any and all sufferings. So in a sense Enlightenment and nirvana mean the same in that they refer to the same situation. But literally they mean differently.
Now, there is still another distinction between those who have attained nirvana and have totally abandoned samsara, and those who, though they have attained nirvana but chose instead to remain in samsara to help beings. This is a key idea in Mahayana Buddhism. In Theravada, the goal of practice is to eliminate all causes of suffering and entered nirvana, becoming an ‘arahat.’ In Mahayana, on the other hand, that goal is commendable, but it is not the complete or ultimate goal of one’s practice. The aim of a Mahayana practitioner is not just to liberate oneself from samsara, but to be able to help all sentient beings to attain nirvana also. Thus the goal of the Mahayana practitioner is to become a Bodhisattva, or one who has the aspiration to attain Buddhahood, that is to become a fully enlightened Buddha, in order to be able to help beings.
So this is all for now. I’ll write more about all these in later posts. Those who would like to know more might want to read my earlier post on Nirvana and Samsara.