Enlightenment and Nirvana

Can you have one without the other?

Buddha with candle
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People often wonder if enlightenment and nirvana are one and the same or two separate things.

Put another way, if one realizes enlightenment, does one pop into nirvana immediately, or is there some lag time? Does an enlightened person have to wait until he dies before he enters nirvana?

It's a bit perilous to talk about enlightenment and nirvana, because these things are outside our "standard" experiences and the scope of conceptual thought. Some will tell you that to talk about these things at all distorts them. Please keep that in mind.

It's also the case that the two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, don't explain enlightenment and nirvana in exactly the same way. Before we can find an answer to our question, we must clarify terms.

What Is Enlightenment?

The only true answer to the question "What is enlightenment?" is to realize enlightenment. Short of that, we must come up with provisional answers.

The English word enlightenment sometimes refers to heightened intellect and reason. This kind of enlightenment is a quality that can be cultivated or possessed. But enlightenment in the Buddhist sense is not a quality, and no one can possess it. It can only be realized.

The original Buddhists used the word bodhi, which means "awakened." The word Buddha is derived from bodhi and means "the awakened one." To be enlightened is to be awake to a reality that is already present, but which most of us do not perceive.

And sorry to disappoint you, but enlightenment is not about being "blissed out."

In Theravada Buddhism, enlightenment is associated with the perfection of discerning wisdom into the Four Noble Truths, which brings about the cessation of dukkha (suffering; stress; dissatisfaction).

In Mahayana Buddhism—including traditions that practice Vajrayana—enlightenment is the realization of sunyata—the teaching that all phenomena are empty of self-essence—and the inter-existence of all beings. Some Mahayana sutras emphasize that enlightenment is the fundamental nature of all beings.

What Is Nirvana?

The Buddha told his monks that nirvana cannot be imagined, and so there is no point speculating what it is like. Even so, it is a word that Buddhists use, so it needs some kind of definition.

Nirvana is not a place, but rather is a state of being beyond existence and non-existence. The early sutras speak of nirvana as "liberation" and "unbinding," meaning no longer being bound to the cycle of birth and death.

Now let's get back to our original question. Are enlightenment and nirvana the same thing? The answer is, generally not. But maybe sometimes.

Theravada Buddhism recognizes two kinds of nirvana (or nibbana in Pali). An enlightened being enjoys a kind of provisional nirvana, or "nirvana with remainders." He or she is still aware of pleasure and pain but is not bound to them. The enlightened individual enters into parinirvana, or complete nirvana, at death. In Theravada, then, enlightenment is spoken of as the door to nirvana, but not nirvana itself.

Mahayana emphasizes the ideal of the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who vows to not enter nirvana until all beings are enlightened. This suggests enlightenment and nirvana are separate. However, Mahayana also teaches that nirvana is not separate from samsara, the wheel of birth and death. When we cease to create samsara with our minds, nirvana naturally appears. Nirvana is the purified true nature of samsara. 

In Mahayana, thinking in terms of "same" or "different" will nearly always get you into trouble. Some masters have spoken of nirvana as something that may be entered after enlightenment, but perhaps those words should not be taken too literally.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Enlightenment and Nirvana." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/enlightenment-and-nirvana-449967. O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). Enlightenment and Nirvana. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/enlightenment-and-nirvana-449967 O'Brien, Barbara. "Enlightenment and Nirvana." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/enlightenment-and-nirvana-449967 (accessed June 10, 2023).