Student: I listened again to the [recording of the ] seminar and [the Buddhist teacher and academic] says that in early Buddhism the goal was Nirvana and he contrasts that, the elimination of passions, with the goal of the Mahayana of enlightenment which is not the elimination of the passions, but the evocation of the passion of compassion. A bodhisattva would not then be seeking nirvana but enlightenment, or acting out of enlightenment. Could you say a bit about your understanding of Nirvana? Do bodhisattvas pursue Nirvana or enlightenment?
Konin: The question of Nirvana (Sanskrit) or Nibbāna (Pali) is such an fascinating one. The records that we have quote the Buddha as having said these three things about it, many times, in many of his discourses:
"This is truly peace, this is the Highest, namely the end of all kamma (karma) formations, the forsaking of every substratum of rebirth, the fading away of craving, the detachment, the extinction, Nibbāna."
"Enraptured with lust (desire, greed), enraged with anger, blinded by delusion, overwhelmed, with mind ensnared, man (a human being) aims at his [her, their] own ruin, at the ruin of others, at the ruin of both and he [she, they] experiences mental pain and grief. But, if lust, anger and delusion are given up, man aims neither at his own ruin, nor at the ruin of others, nor at the ruin of both, and experiences no mental pain and grief. Thus is Nibbāna, immediate, visible in this life, inviting, attractive, comprehensible to the wise."
"The extinction of greed, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of delusion: this, indeed, is called Nibbāna."
So, as you can see, there is Nibbāna described as something that seems to be possible only at or after death, a cessation of the rounds of rebirth. It is likened to the flame of a candle going out, not being passed to another candle. When the Buddha died, he said that he was passing into Mahaparinibbāna, meaning great, final extinction or cessation.
Interestingly, he also speaks of a realm he called "the deathless." He is quoted as saying this about it:
"Truly there is a realm where there is neither solid, nor fluid, neither heat, nor motion, neither this world, nor any other world, neither sun, nor moon. This I call neither arising nor passing away , neither holding still, being born, or dying. There is no foothold, no development, no basis. This is the end of suffering. There is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed. If there were not this unborn, this unoriginated, this uncreated, this unformed, release from the world of the born, the orginated the created, the formed would not be possible. But since there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed, there is release from the world of the born, the created, the created, the formed."
What is this realm? What is the deathless?
However, Nibbāna had already happened for him in the second and third senses described above - the sense of freedom from the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, complete rest in the mind. The Buddha said he dwelt in Nibbāna after his awakening/enlightenment, and his students who reached the highest ideal of awakening were called Arahants (Pali) or Arhats (Sanskrit). They were called that after having achieved this same freedom from the three poisons, again, called Nibbāna. This, he seems to have said, is available to everyone during their lifetime, and is a peace beyond any peace you can presently imagine. That is, until you have a taste of it. We can for brief periods be free from the three poisons, in moments of profound, bright clarity. That is a taste peace of mind, and that too is an experience of Nibbāna in this lifetime.
As regards a bodhisattva, it is really important to remember that the bodhisattva ideal as a path also exists within the Theravada, or so called Hinayana, teachings. The Buddha referred to himself as a bodhisattva before his awakening. During the early periods of the Mahayana, practitioners were just beginning to take up the Buddha as a role model, rather than as a teacher. They chose to take up the attainment of Buddhahood as their goal, not the Arahant as a goal. Still, they ordained, lived and practiced in the same monasteries as those practicing the teachings we now know as Theravada [Sthaviravada, Sravakayana or Hinayana], who took the Buddha as a teacher who advocated the Arahant path. Yet it's really important to notice that, even though the Buddha was a bodhisattva, he didn't keep coming back to human form forever to help beings. He said that after his death he would be gone from any realm of rebirth forever. He goes on helping beings forever through the legacy of his teachings, which he said were sufficient for everyone to wake up by.
As I understand it, it was much later that the bodhisattva path came to be understood as coming back forever to keep helping beings. However, when it gets expanded in that way, then it makes sense that a bodhisattva wouldn't seek the final Nibbāna that the Buddha experienced and advocated for his students, because that would mean that their rebirths would come to an end.