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Question
Is this right? The bodhisattva practicing to realize enlightenment vows not to attain enlightenment until al sentient beings are enlightened.    Also sometimes in prayers it is said that "We request you not to enter para-nibbana so you can continue to help sentient beings". Please explain what para-nibbana is and why this enlightened person can't be of help. Thanks.

Answer
Dear Tom,
The concept of parinirvana belongs to the sutra division of Buddhism, and in particular is something talked about in the "small vehicle".

The basic idea is this:
"Nirvana" itself just means that something has stopped. When somebody has stopped their craving, anger, stupidity and so on, they have stopped the causes of suffering for themselves. They no longer *have* to be reborn, as they have gone beyond the cycle of suffering. But they are still alive, they can teach, they can set an example, and so forth. The presumption made in this division of Buddhism is that when such a person (probably somebody called an "arhat") comes to the end of their bodily life, they may perfectly well enter "parinirvana" (you might loosely say super-nirvana). And that is that no more rebirth, no more teaching, no more nothing. It is important to stress at this point that this is not simply an "extinction". It is taught that worrying about the question of whether such people continue to exist or not in any sense after death is a waste of time.

But although I have said that it is not exactly an extinction, it is obviously a little bit like one, and in other branches of autism it is taught that this is in fact an illusion. Such a person may rest in that kind of released state for many ages, but eventually will wake up and will move forwards towards a fuller kind of Buddhahood in which they work compassionately for the happiness (enlightenment, if you like) of other beings.

Does that help?

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Alex Wilding

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I have practiced and studied Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions since the early 1970s, and have a good knowledge of theory, history and of the struggles of trying to practice the teachings, including meditation, while leading a normal, modern life. I am also available to provide background information for journalists.

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I have been a practitioner since the early 1970s; have run a small Buddhist centre in the English Midlands and was vice-president of Kagyu Benchen Ling e.V. in Germany, for whom I managed three large Buddhist summer-camps. More importantly, I maintain a habit of personal practice. I am the "owner" of the Kagyu list at Yahoo.

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