Most things that we read about in Buddhism describe aspects of the conditioned world: Three Marks of Existence, The Skandhas, The Hindrances, Defilements, and the practice to overcome these and gain insight into the true nature of reality and enter the unborn to gain final freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

I would like to read about the unborn: what it is, how/why conditioned existence comes into being (perhaps from the unborn?), etc.

I think this is one of the things which the Buddha left unanswered, but did he describe it indirectly perhaps? Are there descriptions in the sutras (from any school of Buddhism) about the unborn/deathless state?

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    A related topic: What does deathless mean?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 13:14
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    I didn't understand the phrase, "how/why conditioned existence comes into being from it" -- is that based on some doctrine, can you quote/reference the source from which you get that idea/definition (i.e. that "conditioned existence comes into being from the unborn")?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 13:26
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    @ChrisW Sorry I am probably mixing doctrines. In the Tantras of Shaivism, Shiva is considered to be the ground of reality and Shakti the creative power of Shiva who creates the manifest existence. The concept of the Unborn feels very similar to Shiva the ground of existence from which the manifest existence arises. I also read something in Dzogchen (I don't remember exactly what though) which felt very similar to the Tantras of Shaivism. Somehow from these connections I probably interpolated that the conditioned existence arises from the unborn.
    – Parag
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 15:48
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    I thought that your mentioning, "the things which the Buddha left unanswered", implied you might be looking for descriptions based on the Pali canon. I think I agree with you that "existence arising from the unborn" would (to the extent that it is a Buddhist tradition) be from a later tradition, perhaps for example "Buddha-nature".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 16:21
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    @ChrisW Thanks for pointing out how the question might come across. I have updated the question to reflect that I am looking for references from any tradition within the Buddhist schools. Yes Buddha-Nature and also Tathagatagarbha...
    – Parag
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 16:29

3 Answers 3


I think that in the Pali suttas:

  • "The deathless" is a synonym for nibanna (see this answer).
  • Samsara is conditioned and has no construable beginning (which, I think, means 'perpetual' but 'without an original creator')
  • Nibanna is (in contrast) unconditioned

I don't think there is (I don't know of any) doctrine which explains how/why conditioned existence comes into being from the unborn.

There is a theory of dependent origination which explains how one thing leads to another, i.e. how samsara is perpetuated.

And I think that Buddhism is seen as a way to escape from (to be liberated from) samsara.

Speaking of Siva, I've noticed that akalika (timeless) is given as one of the attributes of Dharma. Kali is a (Hindu) goddess of Time, consort of Siva, and associated with (among other things) Destruction.

So, conversely, perhaps it makes sense that that which is akalika is associated with what's Deathless (and Unborn).

My understanding of it in conventional terms is that "Born" means that 'it' comes into existence as a result of conditions, and Death means that it stops existing in the same way (see e.g. this essay, Anicca Vata Sankhara by Bhikkhu Bodhi) -- and thus, 'it' is impermanent.

Conversely the Unborn and the Deathless is not impermanent.

In its description of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism claims,

Th nirvana of the arhat is said to be merely the absence of the afflictions (KLESA) but with no awareness of the buddhadhatu. The nirvana of the Buddha is instead eternal, pure, blissful, and endowed with self, a primordially existent reality that is only temporarily obscure by the klesa; when that nirvana and buddhadhattu are finally "recognised," buddhahood is then achieved. The Buddha reveals the existence of this nirvana to boddhisatvas.

Incidentally it also says,

To assert there is no self is to misunderstand the true dhamma. The doctrine of emptiness (SUNYATA) this comes to mean the absence of that which is compounded, suffering, impermanent.

So if you're looking for doctrine about the "unborn" as something other than an absence of defilement, something with a self-existence, then you might want to be looking into later Buddhist doctrines, for example to do with Buddha-nature.

If you read the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra there's a lot of talk about Self, for example,

Kasyapa said to the Buddha: "O World-Honoured One! Is there Self in the 25 existences or not?" The Buddha said: "O good man! "Self" means "Tathagatagarbha" [Buddha-Womb, Buddha-Embryo, Buddha-Nature]. Every being has Buddha-Nature. This is the Self. Such Self has, from the very beginning, been under cover of innumerable defilements. That is why man cannot see it.

You're asking "what it is", which I think assumes that "it is": i.e. that there is an 'it', which is existent. That existent 'it' I suppose might be Buddha-nature (which I think the Pali sutta describe more as a non-it: not-born, not-dying, trackless, unconditioned, not suffering, etc.).

Even so I'm not sure that it's right to talk about the unborn as a creator or source of conditioned existence.

Apart from "Buddha-nature" there's another word from the later doctrine, Tathāgatagarbha,

The Tathāgatagarbha sūtras are a group of Mahayana sutras that present the concept of the "womb" or "embryo" (garbha) of the tathāgata, the buddha.

Calling it "womb" implies that maybe it's a creator of something, but I think that what it's said to be creating is Buddhahood rather than creating conditioned existence:

Every sentient being has the possibility to attain Buddhahood because of the tathāgatagarbha.

For example the Tathagata-garbha Sutra says,

"Or, kulaputras, it is like a kernel of wheat that has not yet had its husk removed. Someone who is impoverished might foolishly disdain it, and consider it to be something that should be discarded. But when it is cleaned, the kernel can always be used. In like fashion, good sons, when I observe beings with my Buddha cakshur, I see that the husk of kleshas covers their limitless Tathagata vision. So with appropriate upayas I expound the Dharma, to enable them to remove those kleshas, purify their jnana paramita (tenth bodhisattva stage) and to attain in all worlds the anuttara-samyak-sambodhi."

... and,

"Or, kulaputras, it is like the genuine gold that has fallen into a pit of waste and been submerged and not seen for years. The pure gold does not decay, yet no one knows that it is there. But suppose there came along someone with supernatural vision, who told people, 'Within the impure waste there is a genuine gold trinket. You should get it out and do with it as you please.' Similarly, kulaputras, the impure waste is your innumerable klesha. The genuine gold trinket is your tathagatagarbha. For this reason, the Tathagata widely expounds the Dharma to enable all beings to destroy their kleshas, attain correct perfect enlightment and perform Buddha deeds."

In summary I don't know of a doctrine which says that the conditioned comes into existence because of the unborn.

If anything perhaps it's the reverse, e.g. there's the image of the (pure) lotus which grows out of the (impure) mud.

Even so, attaining the unborn might change the way in which you see conditioned existence.


In Abhidhammattha Sangaha Sections on Supramundane Consciousness, Realisation of Nibbana, Rootless Consciousness, Nirodha Samapatti, Realization, Emancipation and Attainments cover aspects of Nirvana.

There are a few book which is based on this:

  • Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Bhikkhu Bodhi, general editor
  • Fundamental Abhidhamma, Dr. Nandamālābhivaṃsa
  • Handbook of Abhidhamma Studies by Sayadaw U Sīlānanda

You can consult them for further details. Also look directly at the source, viz., The Abhidhamma Pitaka which is available for from http://abhidhamma.com/.


The Dhammapada includes the following verse

Heedfulness is the Deathless path,
heedlessness, the path to death.
Those who are heedful do not die,
heedless are like the dead.

In Pali, deathless is called "Amara".

It is also called A-mara, free from the Evil One called Mara.

This is the related sutta that I've found in english: Samyutta Nikaya - Mara Samyutta

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