Dear Laurie,

I am a highschool student currently taking an online class about Eastern Philosophies and Religions and our current assignment is to interview an expert about a religion/philosophy we are interested in and my particular favorite to learn about is Buddhism. Some questions I have about Buddhism are How Long would it take one to achieve Nirvana? in terms of times reincarnated I realize everyone has a different path to enlightenment but for some does a couple of lifetimes do it and for others could it be Centuries? Must one go through all five realms to reach enlightenment? And In terms of karma, Is everything that happens to us directly correlated to our past actions or can Karma impact us quicker than that? And is Mediating in a group or Sesshin more effective than meditating individually? I greatly appreciate your help and am very excited for your reply.

Sincerely, Patrick Brothers

Hello Patrick –

Thank you so much for letting me answer your questions.

You ask some good questions, that’s for sure.

First off, though that is the name of the website, I am by no means an expert.  I have been practicing Buddhism since 2001 but there is a TON of stuff I need to learn and understand before I would call myself an expert.  

That said, I will be happy to answer your questions to the best of my knowledge.

As far as your first question. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever given a specific time table on how long it takes to achieve Nirvana. All I can do is tell you what you need to practice and perfect in order for you to get there.  

I think first you have to have faith in yourself and the teachings of the Buddha.  Achieving Nirvana or as the Tibetans call it, the state  beyond sorrow requires that you let go of all your negative mind states (like anger, attachment, jealousy, craving, etc. ) that keep you coming back again and again (rebirth) into Samsara, or the uncontrolled cycle of death, bardo and rebirth. And you have to be able to have a non conceptual direct view of emptiness; which means that you can see and understand the way the world really works and not how our deluded mind think it works. To do this, you have to cultivate Samadhi. This means you have to be able to train your mind to rest single pointedly on an object without distraction, becoming too agitated or too tired for as long as you wish. Once you can do that, you can have the direct view of emptiness.

Achieving all the things listed above takes a lot of time and good merit.  You have to have a lot of positive karma in order to achieve those things mentioned above.  So, first you have to have done enough good things to get enough merit to be able to have conditions to do the practices listed above and then you have to actually achieve them.  

Also what is needed is sincere renunciation.  Renunciation is the realization that Samsara sucks – that living life after life being reborn and growing up and dying and suffering is such a horrific thought that you are intensely motivated to get out of the cycle of rebirth, death and bardo and therefore practice constantly to attain Nirvana.  Imagine life after life of puberty.  For me that is a pretty frightening thought.  But not everyone is motivated enough or believes in reincarnation enough to have true renunciation.  Therefore, it will take longer for folks who have no desire to get out of Samsara.

So when one has true renunciation and one has enough merit to be born into lives that allow us to practice things like meditation in order to achieve Samadhi, and/or one has enough imprints from doing it in past lives, and one then practices and achieves these things, then one will reach Nirvana.

So, as you can see, knowing how long it takes to achieve Nirvana is based on lots of causes and conditions and is, I believe different for each person.

As far as your reincarnation question – I am going to assume it was a stand alone question and not connected with the first question about Nirvana.  It is a common view with other spiritual groups that if we reincarnate, we do it in a rather well ordered fashion and keep getting better and better each time we are reborn. So it might be possible just to have a few rebirths while others might be reborn lots of times.

The Buddhists don’t believe that.  The belief in reincarnation for the Buddhists is founded in logic. And the logic goes something like this.  Every cause that is produced has to have an effect and logically every effect must be produced by a cause.  It would be illogical and not really possible for there to be an effect without something that happened to cause it.

So this very moment of life is an effect that was caused by the previous one.  Again logic says that like must produce like.  Just like you cannot plant an orange seed and get a watermelon plant, you this moment of life (mental one- we know physical bodies have their own cause and effect) must be produced by something that was like it; a previous moment of mental continuum.  So we can trace this moment to the moment before, to the moment before, to the moment before and suddenly, we’re in last week.  And we can take all the moments of last week which were the effect of moments last month.  And we can use this logic to go backwards, effect/moment from cause/moment, from effect/moment from cause/moment until you were 10 years old.  And then till you were 5 years old.  And then till you were 1 year old.  And then until your mind was in the womb. Okey – you’ve gone this far and have billions of mental continuum cause and effect moments.  So, logically, the mental continuum effect moment at the moment of conception had to come from a previous moment of mental continuum; meaning your mental continuum was in an intermediate state before you were born and before that it was in another body and before that it was in another intermediate state and before that in another body.  So then it appears that all effects have causes.  This is logical.  Therefore we have to ask – where is the first cause?  The answer in Buddhism is that there cannot be a first cause.  There cannot be a time when your mental continuum was not an effect produced by a cause produced by an effect produced by a cause.  Therefore, Buddha states that logically our mental continuum is beginningless since no first cause can be found.  And therefore we have had a beginningless number of lives.

So as far as how many lifetimes it takes to reach enlightenment, it depends on the karma you create.  If you create the karma to have many precious human rebirths where you can meet the Buddha’s teachings, understand it, practice it and have the karma to perfect the teachings, then it may take as little as one lifetime, says the Buddha.  But if you have many lifetimes where you are not human, or if you are, are born where you don’t have time or ability to study the dharma or even be born in a place where they are practicing the dharma, and then if you are born with a precious human rebirth, you do many negative or unskillful things which ripen in future lives in the form of negative karma then it may take many, many lifetimes to become enlightened.  Buddha said, himself, it took three great countless aeons for him to become enlightened.

There is no rule that one must go through all realms ( and we believe there are 6 not 5 – Hell realm, hungry ghost realm, animal realm, demi god realm and god realm) to become enlightened but given that it probably has taken most of us many lifetimes to get the good rebirth and have enough merit and karma to become enlightened, then we probably all have gone through all the 6 realms along the way.  But not because we had to or we had to learn all the lessons of those realms; instead just by the shear number of rebirths we have had.

I do not exactly understand the last part of your question on karma but the first part is correct.  Yes, everything that happens to us is a result of the karma that we created.  Again Buddha, specializing in the logical approach, states that karma is definite and that if you do a positive action, you plant a positive seed in your mental continuum, if you do a neutral action, you plant a neutral seed and if you do a negative action, you plant a negative seed.  And when the conditions arise, the appropriate karmic seed will ripen.  Karma is just a law of nature. Just like gravity.  Gravity does not sometimes work and sometimes not, or only work in one place and not another.  So too with karma.  It is impartial. Each action we do, produces karma and each thing that happens to us is because a karmic seed has ripened.  

In re reading your question on karma, you might be thinking about instant karma.  Or wondering if some karma ripens quicker than others. The answer is yes, but not most of the time.  What I mean by that is that as I understand it, the higher evolved you are, the quicker your karma seems to ripen.  And with karma the object of what you did the karma to depends on how fast it ripens.  What I mean by that is if you purposely kill an ant, you will eventually get the karma for that action.  But if you accidentally kill someone who is about to become a Buddha, your karma will ripen quicker.  This is because the object of the action, the person who was about to become a Buddha is a more powerful object.  And that is not because Buddhas are better than ants but because when you become a Buddha you have perfected all your good qualities and let go of all your negative qualities and you become omniscient)  And because of those qualities, you are able to help sentient beings better and more effectively than if you were an ant.  Therefore killing someone who is about to be a Buddha, harms more than just that person.  It has the potential to harm all the other people that that Buddha was going to help.  So the person who killed the almost Buddha will have their karma ripen quicker.  That may not make total sense.  Karma is a tricky subject – it is called a most hidden phenomenon because in order to really know what karma goes with what action, we have to be very, very wise.

As far as your meditation question – I have been told that actions done as a group have more power than similar actions done singularly. And if I am not mistaken again that has to do with karma because more people are involved a good action like meditation for example the greater the positive karma that is created.  

That is about all the information I have –

I hope that these answers help in some way.  If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to let me know and in the mean time I wish you the very best in your Eastern Philosophies and Religions class.

Namaste - Laurie


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Laurie McLaughlin


I can answer questions about basic Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and meditation especially how the Buddha's teachings can help us in day to day living.


I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism and meditation since 2001. I have lead meditation classes and retreats for over 5 years. I have lived at a Buddhist retreat center for over 4 years and am currently ordained as a novice Buddhist nun. My nun name is Gyalten Yanghchen.

I hold a BA degree in technical theatre from the University of South Florida.

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.