Centre Bouddhique International

Le Bourget - France

The concept of Salvation

A Buddhist Perspective

By Bhikkhu Seelananda




In the world, there cannot be a religion without  Salvation.  The word Salvation means the act of saving. That is the ultimate in religion. It is the act of saving from sin and its consequences.


Buddhism is not a religion through which one is saved from one's sin and its consequences. Saving  from sin  and its consequences. In most religions the reference is to  saving  from sin. The  word sin in Pali is  Papa.  Now in Buddhism  sin is not an unconditioned  phenomena. In the Dhamma ,the  root  of sin is the  Kilesas, namely the defilements which are  another name for lobha which  is greed, Dosha which is hatred and  Moha which is  usually translated  as delusion. So  while most  other religions offer to save human beings from sin, what   Buddhism does, it  offers to save one from  the kilesas.


I  must  make clear the meaning of " offer to save" .The word  save has a  meaning which it is not  usual for the Buddha to use. It means an act  which is  done by someone, a positive act, including rescue. One saves  a person from drowning, but  the Dhamma saves not in that  sense. The Dhamma teaches the  human being to save  himself. It is not an act  that another can  do. It is what one does oneself.  Therefore the term  "Salvation" itself is not relevant in the Buddhist concept .The Buddhist concept is  Nibbana. 


The terms such as extinction, freedom, emancipation, liberation, release and deliverance are used as synonyms, instead of Salvation. As there is no interference of any agency in Buddhism, Buddhists do not like to use the term Salvation as a synonym to Nibbana. However for this study, we use the word "Salvation " as an umbrella term for Nibbana. Deliverance in Buddhism is release from bondage. According to Buddhism we all are bound to Samsara with ten fetters (dasa samyojana). The cause of attachment to the life process is craving led by ignorance. Being wise one can realize the Four Noble truths, which brings final Salvation. The method adopted for this purpose in Buddhism is insight meditation.
It is quite clear that Buddhism teaches that one is one's own refuge and one should never seek refuge in any external power. That means each person has to work out his own salvation. Therefore in Buddhism there is no Saviour who could save us from the samsaric fetters . Once the Buddha said that we are all bound to Samsara and there is neither a beginning nor an end to this samsara (anamataggo ayam bhikkhave samsaro pubbakoti na pannayati).


The term given in the Buddhist canon to Salvation is Nibbana. This term Nibbana in Pali or Nirvana in Sanskrit is composed of Ni+ Vana." Ni" is a negative particle meaning absence. "Vana" is a figurative expression for craving or lusting[1]. Thereby it means the absence of craving.


This definition is very popular among Buddhists and one always come across it in  Buddhist literature.  This very word Nibbana or Nirvana is a primal word in Buddhism.  In ancient India, Nirvana was apparently used as an everyday word for "being well" or "being healthy". But to be healthy in Buddhism is to have realized final release[2].


Buddhist Salvation is, figuratively, extinction of fire. In the Anguttara Nikaya it clearly elaborates that Nibbana is complete extinction of covetousness,(greed) complete extinction of aversion(hatred) and complete extinction of delusion, and it is to be realized within this life time itself. (Yato kho ayam brahmana anavasesam ragakkhayam patisam vedeti, anavasesam dosakkhayam patisamvedeti, anavasesam mohakkhayam patisamvedeti, evem kho brahmana sanditthikam nibbanamhoti akalikam ehipassikam opanayikam paccattam veditabbam vinnuhiti). In the Samyutta Nikaya it is stated that it is a flame blown out by wind. 
Acciyatha vatavegena khitto- Attam paleti na upeti samkham
Evam muni namakayo vimutto-Attam paleti na upeti Samkham. ( S.N. I. 170)
As  a flame blown out by the wind goes to rest and is lost to cognizance,  so  the sage who is released from name and  form(mind and corporeality), goes to rest and  is lost to cognizance.
As we said earlier  there are ten fetters  through which we are bound to Samsara. Nibbana  is defined as  a deliverance from these ten fetters.


They are:
1. Belief in personal  entity
2. Sceptical doubt
3. Clinging to mere vows and ceremonies
4. Craving for sense-pleasure
5. Ill-will
6. Craving for material existence
7. Craving for immaterial existence
8. Conceit
9. Vanity
10. Ignorance[3].


Nibbana is the Summum Bonum of Buddhism. For the  realization of Nibbana  one has to accept  existence of unsatisfactoriness, as  an indispensable fact. The cause of the existence of  unsatisfactoriness  is that we are  attached to what is changing. We are craving for conditions that arise  which are  characterized by change. Thus we are craving for what is fleeting, disappearing, for  what  is in short a process. All existence is  characterized  by the feature of  unsatisfactoriness  because existence is undergoing change. Craving can  be realized through  penetrative  wisdom developed by insight meditation .The eradication of craving is the cessation of unsatisfactoriness  and resultant . There is a  path to be followed for  eradication. It is  the Noble Eight-fold Path. Once the Buddha said  "It is the  cessation without a remainder the  complete fading away and  extinction of craving, the abandonment of it, the forsaking of it, the release from it and non attachment to it"(yo tassayeva tanhaya asesa viraga nirodho cago patinissaggo mutti analayo) [4].


In the Dhammapada it is  said ,  just as  a tree  though  cut   down, sprouts up  again if its  roots  remain uncut and firm, even so until  craving that lies  dominant, is rooted cut, suffering springs up again and again.


Yathapimule anupaddave dalhe- Chinno pi rukkho punarevaruhati
Evam tanhanusaye anuhate - nibbattati  dukkha midam punappunam ( Dh. 338)
The  path  to deliverance  leads to  insight, to higher wisdom ,to peace and to Nibbana. For the highest  perfection  Nibbana, the seven stages  of purity  are very much needed. Those seven are as follows :


1. The purity of good conduct or morality
2. The purity of consciousness or  mind
3. The purity of right view  regarding  personality
4. The purity brought about by escaping  from all doubts
5. The purity of  insight which discriminates between  "path" and "not path "
6. The purity of  insight arises from  the path and  progress in it
7. The purity  of insight brought about the knowledge  and  vision of  the four  paths and their fruit.[5]


According to  the Mulapariyaya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the one  whose fetters of becoming  are utterly worn away(parikkhinabhava samyojana) recognizes  Nibbana as Nibbana; having recognized Nibbana as Nibbana, he  does not think of  Nibbana , he does not  think of  himself in Nibbana, he does not  think of himself as Nibbana, he does not think Nibbana is mine, he does not  rejoice in Nibbana. That is because it is thoroughly understood by him.[6] As a religion which is based on anthropology and psychology, Buddhism teaches "Salvation" through perfection, giving prominence to wisdom. But on the other hand ,in theological religions such as  Christianity, "Salvation" is based on faith. Dr. Shanta Ratnayaka very clearly and categorically shows the difference between wisdom and  faith (in Buddhism and Christianity), in his work "Two ways of perfection Buddhism and Christian". He  writes " Perfection is seen as a gradual progress because  both insight  wisdom in  Buddhism and faith in Christianity belong to the  process of character development. Wisdom is like a seed which brings to grow through insight meditation. When it mature one reaches the seven purification, at the end of which one sees Nibbana and becomes a Perfect One" (p.156).


Perfection in Buddhism  is something  developmental and real. Buddhism does not accept any type of  metaphysical or non verifiable reality, but only  an empirical reality. The  truth, Salvation or Nibbana, is  to be realized by each and every individual in this very lifetime itself,(ditthevadhamme) –not after death- .The Perfected One or  the Enlightened  One is an  free of bias  and unfettered .  He is psychologically and ethically fully  developed; and lives within  society  rendering a tremendous service to man.


Psychological aspect of  Salvation


Buddhist Salvation is thoroughly Psychological transcendence within  this world(lokanirodha). According to early  Buddhism, the  whole world could  be  reduced to  five  categories ,namely Form (body),Sensation  (vedana), Perception (sanna), Volitional formation(Sankhara) and Consciousness(vinnana). Within this  category vedana is  the affective dimension, sanna and vinnana  come under the cognitive dimension and  sankhara comes under the  conative dimension. These five categories cannot be separated from one another but may be  distinguished from each other. Affective, cognitive and conative are the psychological dimensions.  Our consciousness consists of these three dimensions.  When one makes an effect to  realize Salvation or Nibbana one strives to purify these three dimensions. Of the three cognitive is  dominant and could be modified and developed into  a complete realization of Nibbana. According  to the  Dhammapada, the  one who  psychologically transcends  this world is like  water  on a lotus leaf, like a mustard seed on  the point of a needle; he clings not to sensual pleasures.[7]


In early Buddhist psychology there are two major aspects, namely:


1. Causal genesis of consciousness i.e. apart from the condition  on which  it depends there is no arising of consciousness (annatra paccaya natthi vinnanassa sambhavo)
2. Reciprocal dependence of consciousness i.e. mind and matter depend on consciousness and consciousness depends on mind and matter(namarupa paccaya vinnanam vinnana paccaya namarupam).


Therefore it is obvious that  mind is not an independent entity. So the psycho-physical faculties are inseparable. On the other hand , consciousness cannot be  recognized as a permanent entity(atman). It is a stream of thought (vinnanasota). Our mind or  consciousness is something manipulable so that it  can to be developed and  ,purified,  in order to attain  Nibbana. The  wise are those who categorically comprehend the cause for existence of  the five faculties and strive  hard to develop them great faculty of consciousness by weakening the dominance of sensation, perception  and volitional formation or conation .


As a result of  such a gradual process of control , he transcends this world and moves to a higher level of mind. The final goal of   purification  of mind  is  the cessation of craving and the psychological brightness of an illuminated mind. Now he has  no more accumulation  of volitional causation (kamma) which  is  found in every thought unit. Now he is psychologically a Perfected One. In the Samannaphala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya his mental powers are described as follows:.


" O king, as if in a mountain fastness there were a  pool  of water, clear, translucent and serene ; and a man , standing on the  bank ,and with eyes to see ,should perceive the oysters and the shells, the gravel and  the pebbles and the shoals of fish, as  they move about or lie within it.He would know: ' This pool is clear, transparent, and serene and there within it are  the oysters and the shells, and the sand and gravel and the  shoals of fish moving about   or lying still" (D.N.  1. p.84). 
In  the same way , the Enlightened One perceives the whole world  the beings  who come to be born in this world and  who depart from this world. Psychologically he is  completely unequalled and  unencumbered. He is the  Enlightened One i.e. the Buddha.


Ethical Aspect of Salvation


Buddhist ethics is fully endowed with the capacity  to achieve the ultimate goal, Nibbana . As an ethico-philosophical teaching, it develops man's moral behaviour in daily life and uplifts  him  to the  bliss of Nibbana. Ethics teaches us  how to  conduct  a good  or moral life. The result of such a moral life is the gaining or  the supreme bliss or  realization of Nibbana; the Summum Bonum.


The  minimum resulting consequence  of  ethics is a calm  and peaceful life, and the maximum is the highest happiness(Paramam Sukham). There is a   commendable  and laudable ethical code  in Buddhist teaching. Step by step it takes one  to the highest truth. It starts with  generosity and morality. The Buddha however, advises us to  investigate things in the world . It is very significant because it  discourages blind faith. Faith  based on fact (akaravati saddha) however ,is highly  praised by the Buddha while faith without  facts ( amulika saddha)is condemned .In the  Canki Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya , the Buddha  pointed out  two qualities of the monks to  be investigated.
These  two are:


1. Conduct of body – Kayasamacara
2. Conduct of speech –Vacisamacara


Investigating these two one develops faith ,and having faith one goes to the resort of monks (saddhajato upasankamati). Then  starts an association with  monks,  while associating  one listens to them . Thus one gets an  opportunity to listen to the Dhamma . Listening  to the Dhamma one  keeps it in his mind and then   examines it.  Then one can  understand  well and  develop a desire for more Dhamma.  This desire helps one to make  an effort . Thus one  turns round in one's mind  and reflects and reflection leads  one to meditate ,and meditation helps  one  to understand the Noble Truths completely, even totally with body and mind, this is called understanding of Truth.


Once , referring to the Buddhist moral code, the great scholar Max Muller said “ All testimonies from hostile and  from friendly sources agree that it is one of  the most perfect moral codes that the world has  ever known” In the same manner,  Sir Radhakrishnan says  that  the  supremacy  of  the  ethical  is the  clue  to the teaching of  the Buddha ; whatever may be their expressions, it is more logical and reasonable to examine the Buddha’s own  words  on Buddhist ethical code. Every now and then  he  explained this method  of  character  formation in his  famous  discourses, such as   Malunkyaputta and  the Maha Govinda. In  the Malunkyaputta  Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya(M.N. 63), disclosing  what he  has explained he says , "This is  anguish   has  been explained by me, this is  the arising of  anguish has  been explained by me, this  is the stopping of  anguish has  been explained by  me and this is the  cause  leading to the stopping of anguish has been  explained by me.  It is because  it is  connected with the goal; is  fundamental  to the Brahma- faring and  conduces to  turning away from passion  to  dispassion ,stopping, calming, super knowledge, awakening and Nibbana."


Whatever he teaches ,the Buddha had  an aim. It  tells us  that  His  aim   is  mainly to produce wholly and solely detachment,  passionlessness, cessation of craving,  peace,  understanding,   insight into  the highest stages of  the path and  to Nibbana.


The Buddha condensed  his  whole teaching into four lines as follows:
Sabbapapassa akaranam- kusalassa upasampada
sacittapariyodapanam- etambuddhana sasanam (Dh.183)


Which means  "not to do evil, to cultivate good ,to purify one’s mind", this is the advice  of all the Buddhas. From his early days, i.e. within  the first two decades  the Buddha advising the  monks  said “ speak no ill, do no harm, restrain yourself with  moderation in eating, a life in solitude and devotion to meditation” . In the Anguttara Nikaya  he  says abundantly “: Monks  do ye  abandon evil ,it is possible . If it were impossible  I would not  bid  you  do so. Cultivate the good, it is possible . (A.N. I. 53) This  ethical character formation undoubtedly   gradually leads to Nibbana ( Iti kho Ananda kusalani silani  anupubbena aggaya parenti).


One brilliant  scholar of Sri Lanka,  Dr. Gunapala  Dharmasiri, in his  work “Fundamental of Buddhist Ethics” , clearly points out  that the  Enlightenment is a result of morality and wisdom, which are interdependent. He says “ Attainment of Nibbana is the  result of Enlightenment. Enlightenment is a result of morality and wisdom which are inter-dependent in the sense  that they cleanse each other”(p/139) Now it should be  patent  that Buddhist Salvation  or Nibbana is  a sort of  character formation which is based on  sila (virture)  samadhi(concentration) and panna(wisdom).


The Negative aspect of Salvation


 Nibbana is a complete eradication of attachment(raga) of ill-will(dosa)  and  of delusion (moha).In other words it is  the removal of all impurities(kilesa) which get one deeper and deeper into samsara and  further and further from the goal of Nibbana . Some  scholars even prefer to see  Nibbana  in the light of negation.  In one sense  that is not incorrect because    the Buddha himself has said   that    Nibbana is the cessation of suffering . (Dukkha Nirodha) .In the first Sermon itself he pointed out  that  Nibbana is the cessation of suffering.  Therefore it is clear,  in this context, that  Nibbana can be negative. He expounded that  samsaric existence is full of  suffering and all conditioned things are impermanent, subject to change and without  permanent  substance or entity i.e. noumena behind  phenomena. Impermanence, unsatisfactoriness ,and soullessness  are the three main characteristics taught in Buddhism . One of the epithets given  in the text to Nibbana is   absence of  suffering (Dukkhakkhaya).So one can come to a conclusion  that    Nibbana is  a kind of  negation of  suffering. What is  suffering? In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta it is said that  birth is  suffering, sickness is suffering ,death is suffering ,association  with  the un-pleasant is suffering ,  dissociation from the  pleasant  is suffering ,not to  receive  what one  desires is suffering;  in brief,  the five aggregates of grasping  are suffering. On one occasion by   explaining  his own experience,  the Buddha said that he himself  being subject  to birth ,old age, sickness, death, sorrow and impurity and knowing his subjection to them  as evil, he  sought  the highest security(yogakkhema) i.e. Nibbana, which is free from all these and succeeded in attaining Nibbana .So I hope  I have  made clear in what sense Nibbana is negative. There is  nothing to be seen in Nibbana (anidassanam) and nothing to be grasped.


We  may now direct our attention  towards the possibility of discovering some ideas regarding  the affirmative aspect  or the positive aspect of   Salvation in Buddhism.


Positive aspect


It would be correct to say  at the very out set that  Nibbana is more affirmative than negative because  it is full  of  compassion (karuna),  loving kindness(metta) and wisdom(panna) . The following  are some of  the other synonyms of Nibbana  which  manifest  its positivity. Peace(Santa), unchanging truth(Sacca),the state of bliss(Siva) , the deathless state (Amata),the state of permanence(Dhuva),the refuge  from  suffering ( Sarana), full destiny (Parayana) the  state free from fear( Khema) the absolute (Kevalam) the state of support(Pada) the supreme state (Pamita), the state free from  decay (Accuta) release liberation(Mutta) emancipation(Vimutti) Tranquility (Santi) purity(Visuddhi) and the state of coolness (Nibbuti).


In the Sutta Nipata it is declared as an inner peace (ajjhatta santi) ( 837 Vr).
According to that  it is not born of volitional effect nor is it a result of a cause. In the Rohitassa Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya  the Buddha  said  " It is in this one fathomed body with consciousness that I declare is found the  existence of  the world, its origin ,its  cessation, and  the  path leading  to  its cessation  of the world" (S.N. I.62).


Nibbana is not something mystic or spontaneous. One can work it out. Its something  empirical and  to be  realized .Unlike in some religions its  not  the returning to  the ultimate reality .i.e. absorption .There is no  permanent entity in  Nibbana.  It is  a state of one's  heart (nibbanam hadayasmin osiya- Theragata 119) . One can enjoy  it (ladda muda nibbutim bhunjamana).It is something  observable (nibbanam pariyesamanam) .This is peaceful ,this is  the  highest bliss, the calming of all activities, the rejection of all attachment, the destruction of craving , the freedom  of desire .


  Those who are  wise,  meditative ,strenuous and can advance  in insight  , attain this  supreme  happiness of Nibbana become free from all bondage and reach the incomparable. It is said  in the Dhammapada  verse No. 23


 "There is no measure of him who has  gone to rest , he keeps  nothing that could be named . When all dharma are abolished all paths of  speech are abolished. " 


In the  Chapter of the Patali  Village of the Udana ,there  is a very good explanation of   Nibbana where the Buddha explained the nature of Nibbana in negative terms. Salvation or Nibbana in Buddhism is  something  ineffable.[8]


Finally  may I  quote from a versatile  and erudite missionary monk of Sri Lanka , Ven. Narada, on realization of Nibbana. "Comprehension of Nibbana is  impossible by mere perusal of books. Nibbana is not something to be set down in print nor is it  a subject to  be grasped by intellect alone. It is  a supra-mundane  state  to be  realized  only by intuitive wisdom." [9]
[1] Ven. Paravahera Vajiranana Maha Thera, Buddhist  Meditation . P. 470
[2] Padmasiri de Silva,Buddhist and Western Philosophy P.21
[3] Encyclopaedia of Buddhism  P.361
[4] S.N.Sacca Samyutta 56 Sutta
[5] M.N. 24. D.N. 34. Buddhist Dictionary by Nanatiloka 233p. & Seven steps to Nibbana by Solomon Abysekara pp 9-10
[6] M.N. 1.p 4.
[7] Dhammapada  401 Vr
[8] Asanga Tilakaratna  Nibbana  and ineffability
[9] The Buddha and his teaching p.490






 Samadhi Bouddha Statue - Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka  IV-Ve Siècle