Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
is the foremost ease.
–The Dhammapada, verse 203
The Buddha taught that there is no lasting refuge in this world, but he contrasts this world with its impermanence and inconsistency with a concept called nirvana. Nirvana literally meant “blowing out” as in a candle flame. In the Buddhist context though, the candle flame is the endless passions that drive us to chase after things, even when our intellect knows it will give us no satisfaction. Thus, another translation for Nirvana is “unbinding”.
Nirvana is a supreme state of peace and freedom that comes from being a complete master of one’s self. One is no longer at the whim of passions, no longer troubled by the ups and downs of life, and no longer troubled by the opinions that others have of them. Because one is no longer subject to passion, one no longer generates karma, and thus no longer creates conditions for future rebirths.
But what is the state of Nirvana like? The Buddha was circumspect on this:
…Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise….Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata [the Buddha] is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea.”
–MN 72, The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta
Further, the state of Nirvana is a state that transcends phenomena we know such as birth and death:
There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.
–Ud 8.1, The Nibbāna Sutta
Thus, while the Buddha could only describe Nirvana in terms of what it is not, he emphasized that the Nirvana was the only true peace that one could rely upon.