In my teens, I understood nirvana to mean “Buddhist heaven.” After a number of reincarnations as various living things, you finally live a blameless (e.g.) squirrel life and are admitted to a state of perfect bliss. It was Christian Heaven minus harps plus sitars and closed eyes and humming. And minus God: I somehow understood that Buddha was not on a throne in the center of nirvana.
In my 20s, it was briefly a band.
Not until my 30s did I learn the much more interesting version of nirvana — that it represents the utter annihilation of the self. Or even more interestingly, that enlightenment represents the realization that the self was an illusion to begin with, and that nirvana is the natural extinction of the “self” that follows.
Picture Wile E. Coyote suspended in midair. Seeing the ground is enlightenment, and then, a puff of smoke.
Notice I said it was interesting, not that it’s the “real” or “original” meaning. Like every religious concept, any discussion of nirvana quickly brings out multiple learned theses about what it “really” means. Like every human religion, Buddhism took the death of its founder as the starting bell for centuries of fracture and accretion, adding rites and superstitions and demigods and layers and polysyllabic theologies, driven mostly by [irony] human desire. And one of the most fervently argued points in Buddhist forums is whether nirvana is, in fact, “annihilationism.”
The argument for nirvana as annihilation typically starts with the translation of the Sanskrit word nirvana, which means “blown out” or “extinguished.” The argument against it typically starts with the statement that you can’t be annihilated when your existence was an illusion to being with.
But here’s the thing: Either way, you end up nowhere. And without playing the game of originalism, the fact that any iteration of a major world religion considers nonexistence to be not just our destination but the ultimate peace intrigued me. That’s when I stopped seeing Buddhism as “Asian Fusion Christianity” and much closer to my own naturalistic view.