Buddhism is not a religion of despair, but of hope and freedom. It is very optimistic about the possibility of ending suffering. The Buddha declared that despite of so much suffering all around, there was no need for despair and that the suffering could be ended eventually through an intelligent path of action. He found the solution in the problem itself.
Suffering ends when the craving ends. It ceases to exist, only when the beings achieve complete liberation from it. The seeds of this reverse process are sown when a monk or a follower of the Buddha becomes aware of the impermanent and distasteful nature of the world and its objects.
There are five stages in this process of this liberation. They are, the extinction of craving, the extinction of clinging, the extinction of the effects of karma, the extinction of rebirth and the extinction of rebirth, cessation of decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, grief and despair.
When a person passes through these five stages, his craving ceases and he finds permanent freedom from all forms of suffering. He becomes liberated from the world of impermanence and change. He does not return nor re-enter into the wheel of existence.
The path to Nirvana goes through two stages. The first phase happens when a person is still alive on earth. During this phase, all the impurities of the seeker are removed and he becomes an Arhat or a holy person. At this stage the ego is no more nourished, but remains on earth in a very diminished state. The second stage is set in motion when the fivefold process comes to an end and the Arhat leaves this world. At this stage the ego is completely dissolved, without any trace, bringing an end to the five fold process.
When the Arhat or the holy one passes away, he attain the realm where there is nothing, where there is “neither solid nor fluid, neither heat nor motion, neither this world nor any other world, neither the sun nor the moon.” This is called the cessation of becoming which is “neither arising, nor passing away, neither standing still nor being born, nor dying.” It is Nirvana, which is unborn, without source, uncreated and unformed real into which escape is possible for the beings through cessation of craving.
The Buddha discouraged all forms of speculation about this final state. He did not clarify what would happen to the monks when they became Arhats. He did not answer whether they would continue to exist or cease to exist. He did not even clarify what would happen to the Buddha himself when he passed away into the nothingness of Nirvana. Would he continue to guide, and provide inspiration to his followers from somewhere above, in some inexplicable state of existence, or simply dissolve himself into an unfathomable void of non-becoming and nothingness, leaving the monks to their own fate?
Perhaps the Buddha did not define what could not be defined. Perhaps he was aware that to define and describe truth would be to limit its scope and distort it. Perhaps he felt silence as the best solution to such matters, which could be better understood through personal experience rather than the speculative theories of idle minds.