The temptation is always to substantiate, reify, turn something from a verb or transient state into a noun, something solid. This temptation also exists when speaking of nirvana, or enlightenment—to turn it into something permanent or lasting, whereas in fact it’s like everything else: dependently co-arising.
This quote from Sariputra, the Buddha’s eminent and enlightened senior disciple, shows that he is experiencing nirvana as a series of quickly passing experiences instead of a place or a permanent haven. Even the full sweet taste of nirvana as “cessation of becoming” is at the same time recognized by him as just a passing experience. In other words, he sees nirvana as a subjective mental event rather than according it ontological status as something separate from our ever-changing minds.
“Cessation of becoming is nirvana”: thus one perception arises in me, another perception fades out in me. Just as when a faggot-fire is blazing, one flame arises and another flame fades out, even so, one perception arises in me: “Cessation of becoming is nirvana” and another perception fades out in me: “Cessation of becoming is nirvana.” (Anguttara Nikaya 10:7)
Ah, this is arising, this is passing away. You still experience nirvana, but not as independent from your perception. It doesn’t have a separate existence. There is no place to go.
In the development of Buddhism, in the Abhidharma, nirvana came to be viewed as unconditioned. Many Buddhists consider this as part of the original teaching of Sakyamuni, but the Abhidharmist move contrasts with the early teachings, in which there is nothing that does not dependently co-arise. (See D. J. Kalupahana’s scholarly works for a detailed exposition.)
Everything is paticca samuppada (conditions arising together), even enlightenment, even nirvana. To my mind, this understanding makes for a more meaningful relationship with the possibility of enlightenment. It is not a separate realm divorced from my ordinary life. And when it arises out of conditions of my consciousness, I don’t have to sweat and groan to make it last—because I know it won’t.
One of the Buddha’s most common terms for the ultimate goal is nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). It is clear that nibbana is reached through the complete ceasing of clinging: “A bhikkhu without clinging attains nibbana” (Majjhima Nikaya 106:12). It is also certain that nibbana, as the ultimate goal, involves the ending of suffering: “What I teach is suffering and the end of suffering” (MN 22:38). However, almost no discussion exists in the suttas about what nibbana is. When it is described, it is explained by what it is not, by what is absent: “It is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions/attachments, the destruction of all craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana” (MN 26:19). It is likely that nibbana, like the other items in this list, refers to the absence of something.
Because the word nibbana is a noun, it is easy to assume it is a thing or state. However, it is an action noun describing “cooling, quenching, extinguishing and releasing.” Its likely etymological meaning is “unbinding.” The challenges of translating Pali into English often reinforce a tendency to see nibbana as a noun. This happens when enlightenment or awakening are used as translations for nibbayati, a frequently appearing passive verbal form of nibbana. As the word refers to the action of “being nibbanized,” its more literal meaning in English would be “to be cooled” or “to be released.”
Being that liberation is explained in terms of absence, it is difficult to describe what that absent state is actually like. Certainly, the suttas provide very little help with this. Perhaps this is because explaining it by what remains may not be the point. Perhaps freedom from clinging is experienced or described differently for the different people who attain it. Perhaps the same person may even experience it differently at different times. It may be like the condition of prisoners released from prison at the same time: each ex-prisoner shares the same freedom from incarceration, but each may vary widely in how they experience their life after being freed.
More important than what nibbana may or may not be is the function that it has for a practitioner. When we are in a burning room, what an open door is like is less important than how it helps us escape the fire. The attainment of nibbana functions as the ultimate escape from suffering. Once one has escaped, it might not be so important to know what nibbana is.