There are many interpretations of what Nirvana is and the following relies on one definition. Nirvana is simply the end of rebirth. In one vision of the Buddhist canon, there is a wheel of rebirth and we are born into many lives until we inevitably reach Nirvana. Why anyone would want to never be born again i’m sure the reasons vary. Important for now is this cycle of birth and death.
A common view of reincarnation is one in which there is a soul which is linked to many lives. The physical body is born and eventually perishes, but something continues into the next life referred to as the soul. So this soul is constant in that it does not change between lives. Whether or not the soul ends at nirvana is unclear and the Buddha himself would probably deny to answer such a question. Here however we’re going to entertain a different view of lives, one in which you’re likely aware of and have had experience of many lives already.
Have you ever reminisced with a friend and when talking about the past used the common phrase “That feels like it happened a lifetime ago”? Well what if it really was a lifetime ago? In life we go through many role changes. The cookie-cutter journey looks like transitioning from being a child, to a student, to a single adult, all the way to being a grandparent. Likewise with the overcoming of large obstacles there is a distinction of a before and after in relation to the history of ourselves. Much like the literal B.C. and A.D. in historical time, many of us can point to a specific time in our lives and say “Before this, I was a different person.”
This idea of the ‘person’ we are is important as it is attached to the current life we are living. As a person, we may be currently interested in things which we may not be in the future. As a person, as our lives are changing we are also changing. The idea of the soul as being constant is inherent when we say things such as “I was a different person back then.” This expression shows clearly that there is a difference between the person we are, and the real us. To say we were a different person back them is not to say that the person we are now is any more real. In 5 years we may say the exact same thing.
As a person, we are constantly being reborn throughout this one life. With our primitive definition of Nirvana as the end of rebirth, it is possible to understand what that means for us in this context. First of all when relating a birth to a temporal identity, it is very easy for us to understand that on some level there is something about us now which has not changed regardless of identity. The ‘me’ that looks out from these eyes now is the same as the one who looked out in my youth. Yet with our definitions I am not the same person. So this sameness is the soul, or that in us which is not subject to change.
An extremely important Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, said something which changed how Nirvana was perceived. In a way his statement would be a benchmark for future Buddhist philosophy which always must be resolved. It was previously thought that Nirvana was always somewhere else, a destination, and maybe in many many lives we would get there. Nagarjuna made the claim that “Nirvana is Samsara.” Namely that the end of rebirth is same as the current life we are living. This is extremely important.
A thought experiment to reiterate this idea of sameness further would require for at least a moment, we believe in heaven. Interestingly heaven is lightly defined as eternal life. That which is eternal has no end but most importantly no beginning. So we cannot, at least technically speaking, arrive in heaven because that would be the beginning of our eternal life. Eternal life cannot be given to us unless we already have it in some way. The only way we could seem to arrive in heaven is if we were to come to know in what way we are eternal. When we realize something, we do not come across something new and this is paramount. So how would we know we were in heaven? Even if we’d theoretically been given different sense capacities, different bodies, whatever your vision of heaven is like. You would know you were in heaven by the same capacity you currently have which allows you to know you’re right here. For if it were by some other capacity which you currently do not have, you wouldn’t know it was you who were in heaven.
I proposed earlier that the soul is present throughout our many personal identities and never changes. We can see that we are living on two levels at once in this way. On the one hand we are a person, doing what we do in our lives and constantly evolving and changing. On the other hand we are somewhat untouchable, unnameable, yet present at all times. Always at hand. This soul aspect of ourselves is present before our next personal identity comes into being, and exists after our last life ended. Even though you used to be a different person back then, you’re still ‘you’ in this way. It is a silly goal to attempt to live life without thinking, or without being a lover in order to attain Nirvana. Regardless of if you think about your roles or not, other people will do it for you. A monk may be to himself thoughtless and clear, but to everyone else he is still a monk who will die just like the rest of us. The importance of the soul lies in not being reliant upon a particular personality. All those things you think you need to do in order to attain Nirvana, are irrelevant in this view. In this view your every day soul is itself Nirvana.