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It is often stated particularly by Theravada Buddhism that Nibbana/Nirvana is unconditioned. In fact extensive metaphysical speculations have even been written about by esteemed monks.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/resonance.html

Where is this actually stated in the canonical scripture? This doctrine seems particularly important and should have extensive discourse by the Buddha.

In fact, it would appears that this doctrine is in contradiction with the doctrine of dependent origination. And it would not be clear how the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path arrived at an "Unconditioned Nibana".

When this is, that is.

From the arising of this comes the arising of that.

When this isn't, that isn't.

From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

It was said that Venerable Sariputta upon hearing the dependent generation stanzas out of his profound wisdom immediately became a stream winner, knowing the way to end suffering.

I believe the reasoning is as follows:

  • Things that arise due to causes and conditions cease with the end of those causes and conditions.
  • Suffering arise due to causes and conditions
  • Suffering therefore can be extinguish with the right causes and conditions.
  • The right causes and conditions are the Practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to Ethics, Concentration and Wisdom, removing the causes for suffering.

But this mean that even the cessation of suffering Nibana itself is conditional!

I did some research on Sutta Central and found the following

https://suttacentral.net/en/sn43.12

“Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to that….

“And what, bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the unconditioned.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Serenity: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned….

“Thus, bhikkhus, I have taught you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned…. This is our instruction to you.”

“Thus, bhikkhus, I have taught you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Whatever should be done, bhikkhus, by a compassionate teacher out of compassion for his disciples, desiring their welfare, that I have done for you. These are the feet of trees, bhikkhus, these are empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”

However, there is no correspondent parallel text in the Chinese Agama, and the content is lacking substance having no message apart from Buddhist practice leading to Unconditionality, and hence can be suspected to be a Theravadin innovation and a latter doctrinal addition.

Likewise with

https://suttacentral.net/en/ud8.3

Thus I heard: At one time the Gracious One was dwelling near Sāvatthī, in Jeta’s Wood, at Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then at that time the Gracious One was instructing, rousing, enthusing, and cheering the monks with a Dhamma talk connected with Emancipation. Those monks, after making it their goal, applying their minds, considering it with all their mind, were listening to Dhamma with an attentive ear.

Then the Gracious One, having understood the significance of it, on that occasion uttered this exalted utterance:

“There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, you could not know an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore you do know an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned.”

This sounds like an illogical tautology - circular reasoning supporting the unconditional Nibbana doctrine.

The fact that this would be said by someone as enlightened as the Buddha is extremely slim.

The main reason I can imagine this being used is the use of Nirvana (Cessation/Blown Out) as a negation, i.e. Nothing is Unconditioned, therefore Nirvana is Unconditioned.

I would appreciate it if anyone can provide canonical sources that explain the importance of unconditionality with respect to Nibbana and Nirvana. Particularly why is it even important and consistent with the rest of Buddhist teachings? Please feel free to point out where you think my own views might be mistaken.

  • What is the question? There is no question mark in the body of the text. There is a question mark in the title ("Where is Nibbanna/Nirvana being Unconditioned stated in the Canon?") but you answer that in the body (e.g. by referencing Udāna 8.3). Are you actually asking for a reference, or was that only a "rhetorical question" which doesn't need answering? Or are you perhaps asking for any explanation to the "illogical tautology" which you identified? But you also discount "metaphysical speculations by esteemed monks": so it's not clear to me at all what you are asking for. – ChrisW Apr 10 '17 at 11:06
  • I want more canonical references on unconditionality of Nirvana than merely "utterances" (Udāna) or statements. At the moment people just assume that Nirvana is unconditional. I would like to have textual explanation why this is so. – Yinxu Apr 10 '17 at 12:48
  • I think even "Unconditioned" is an incorrect/ only marginal acceptable English translation. The Chinese is 常; whilst the "Conditioned" is 無常. Just the negation of the negation, a versus. Phenomenal world is conditioned, so is our cyclical birth/death, Nirvana is unconditioned, it's constant, permanent, 常. – Mishu 米殊 Apr 12 '17 at 13:23
  • @Bhumishu No 常 and 無常 is permanence and impermanence. 有為法 is conditioned Dharma. 無為法 is unconditioned Dharma. – Yinxu Apr 12 '17 at 13:42
  • @Yinxu thanks. then it's confusing that Nirvana is a Dharma? Further, an Unconditional Dharma? There is no Dharma called Nirvana, Nirvana is not a Dharma, I think that's what the Buddha will be teaching. I think those flocks are talking about "Unconditional" they mean that's NOT subject to change and to have dependency - their Dependent Origin saying. It's so confusing... – Mishu 米殊 Apr 12 '17 at 14:01
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Where is this actually stated in the canonical scripture?

After only a quick search I don't find many references other than the two you already mentioned (assuming you're only looking for suttas and not for example the Visuddhimagga).

There's another here: The Nibbāna-element.

There's also (the famous) Dhamapada verse 154 (which says visaṅ­khā­ra­ rather than asaṅkhata).

But this mean that even the cessation of suffering Nibanna itself is conditional!

Yes I think that's so: that cessation (i.e. transition from suffering to non-suffering) is conditional ... it's conditional on the removal of the fuel of suffering.

I think the understanding is that, after the condition for suffering have been removed, then the non-suffering (i.e. the non-arising of further suffering) is unconditioned. For example if you look at an empty fireplace (empty of fuel), then I think you can say "that fire is never going to light again there ... because there is no fuel." You could bring more fuel, I suppose (so you could say it's conditional on the not-bringing of more fuel), but apparently an Arhat has learned better than to want to do that (and I think might even be unable to do that: unable to see the non-desirable as desirable, for example)

As you say, though, maybe it's not an especially important assertion, and is metaphysical.

I think that there other places where "following the path" is given as a condition for arriving; but that, having arrived, those conditions no longer applicable; for example:

A raft, well-made,
has been lashed together.
Having crossed over,
gone to the far shore,
I've subdued the flood.
No need for a raft
is to be found:
so if you want, rain-god,
go ahead & rain.

A raft is also mentioned in MN 22:

Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.

Or the Bhikkhuni Sutta, which says that,

This body comes into being through [food, craving, and conceit]. And yet it is by relying on [food, craving, and conceit] that [food, craving, and conceit] are to be abandoned.

This sounds like an illogical tautology - circular reasoning supporting the unconditional Nibanna doctrine.

Logically, yes, that does seem to be begging the question.

I think it's worth asking, not whether it's a good logical proof for the existence of "the unconditioned", but whether it has an effective pedagogical result, e.g. whether it helps the students to understand emancipation from the conditioned.

That reminds me of another fallacy, i.e. Zeno's paradoxes of motion which "prove" that you can never arrive somewhere. Something like that paradox is addressed in the Brahmana Sutta (in that sutta I think that "park" means "monastery").

  • The problem with the focus on unconditionally is that it leads to the wrong focus and goal for the practice, that is you see practitioners looking for some magical unconditional state where causality and conditionality no longer applies, when the practice should be utilizing causality and conditionality as much as possible to end suffering. – Yinxu Apr 11 '17 at 0:38
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The path is conditioned:

Monks, among all things conditioned, the Noble Eightfold Path is reckoned to be the best of them all. Those who have faith in the Noble Eightfold Path have faith in the best; and for those who have faith in the best, the best result will be theirs. AN 4:34

The destination is unconditioned:

Monks, among things conditioned and unconditioned, dispassion is reckoned to be the best of them all: the crushing of all infatuation, the removal of thirst, the uprooting of attachment, the cutting off of the round, the destruction of craving, dispassion, Nibbāna. Those who have faith in the Dhamma of dispassion have faith in the best; and for those who have faith in the best, the best result will be theirs. AN 4:34


There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, you could not know an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore you do know an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned. Ud 8.3

For example, a fire burns conditioned by wood. The same fire is extinguished, by using water. Using water to extinguish the fire is conditoned. But what remains, namely, the absence of fire, is not conditioned by the water because it is not dependent upon the water. When the fire is extinguished, the subsequent evaporation or absence of the water is not the condition for the absence of fire. The fire had a cause (e.g. lightning striking a tree); the extinguishing of the fire had a cause (e.g. hosing with water) but the staying out of the fire is not conditioned by the water. It is the absence of fire that is Nibbana.

The path removes what is hidden. But the path does not create or cause what is hidden.

Similarly, cutting down a tree is dependent upon (conditioned by) an axe. But once tree is cut down, what remains is not dependent upon the axe. Thus what remains is 'unconditioned' since what remains has always been there but the tree covered what was always already there.

Bhikkhus, this bhikkhu is called one whose cross-bar has been lifted, whose trench has been filled in, whose pillar has been uprooted, one who has no bolt, a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered.

And how is the bhikkhu one whose cross-bar has been lifted? Here the bhikkhu has abandoned ignorance, has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, done away with it, so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is one whose cross-bar has been lifted.

And how is the bhikkhu one whose trench has been filled in? Here the bhikkhu has abandoned the round of births that brings renewed being, has cut it off at the root…so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is one whose trench has been filled in.

And how is the bhikkhu one whose pillar has been uprooted? Here the bhikkhu has abandoned craving, has cut it off at the root…so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is one whose pillar has been uprooted.

And how is the bhikkhu one who has no bolt? Here the bhikkhu has abandoned the five lower fetters, has cut them off at the root…so that they are no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is one who has no bolt.

And how is the bhikkhu a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered? Here a bhikkhu has abandoned the conceit ‘I am,’ has cut it off at the root so that it is no longer subject to future arising. That is how the bhikkhu is a noble one whose banner is lowered, whose burden is lowered, who is unfettered.

Bhikkhus, when the gods with Indra, with Brahmā and with Pajāpati seek a bhikkhu who is thus liberated in mind, they do not find anything of which they could say: ‘The consciousness of one thus gone is supported by this.’ Why is that? One thus gone, I say, is untraceable here and now.

MN 22

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In fact, it would appears that this doctrine is in contradiction with the doctrine of dependent origination. [...] I believe the reasoning is as follows ...

It seems you are conflating causes and conditions as if they were the same? For example, it's not true that a certain thing ceases when it's cause ceases -- not in Buddhism and not in the real world. Causality, strictly speaking, is a very subtle subject, and Buddhism approach it mostly through moral karma.

The subject in discussion, however, is not really causality, but conditionality. It's conditionality that dependent origination (D.O) deals with:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Consider a person who lights a candle. What caused the fire to light up? This is a very difficult question. Was it the person? The lighter? His parents who gave him birth? Certainly not the candle wick.

But it's the candle wick (or generally, the fuel) in the Buddha's analogies, that stands for the condition for the fire to keep burning. In other words, that which, when present, keeps the flame going, and when absent, have the fire to cease -- that's the Buddha strategy for closing up on the problem of dukkha. Not the events that led the flame to become (e.g. the person lighting it up), nor the events that led the fire to cease (e.g. water thrown at it).

In D.O. terms, the sense of vision does not arise when there is not a healthy organ like an eye. Simply as that. But when eye is present, and eye-consciousness is present, and forms are present, contact is subject to arising. With the absence of any of the three, say, any present contact cease and there is no possibility for a new contact to arise.

Thus, provided that dukkha is dependent (not caused by) craving and D.O. holds, if one finds a way to cease craving without reminder, than dukkha won't ever find support again. The question then, is whether or not one believes it's possible to cease craving without reminder. But it should be clear that if the relations hold, there's no possibility for dukkha to rise again.

Whether Nirvana is "caused" by the practitioner practicing or not, and what this says about Nirvana is irrelevant -- the "unconditional" quality that buddhists refer to and assign to Nirvana has no relation to this "causality", after all.

To further illustrate, if we apply the same reasoning of "causes as conditions" you gave to show that Nirvana is conditioned, we can reach even more absurd conclusions. For example, are our parents the cause we were born? Then, according to D.O., should we fall on the ground and die as soon as our parents die? Or is our birth caused by their intercourse? So, should we have ceased to be as soon as they stopped that intercourse as per D.O.? If what caused me to know arithmetic is studying, should I forget everything about it once I take a break? And so on...

“There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, you could not know an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore you do know an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned.”

The circularity is just in appearance due to language habits. For instance, if we understand the Buddha was providing a justification for something, say, for the question "how can we know there's an escape?". In this case, then we are trapped by the options he gave and we might end up making the circular reasoning with what has been offered. However, he is just stating some simple propositions and relations:

  • There's X.
  • With X being, we can do Y.
  • If there wasn't X, we could not do Y.

...which, by the way, has the same format of D.O.

  • Thanks for the input. I don't personally think it is wrong in my statements to group causes and conditions together. Now I am certainly not saying they are identical, but in fact conditions are merely secondary causes which result in different outcomes when interacting with the primary causes. As you know the world is a complex system of interaction between all kinds of causes with all kinds of conditions. The ever changing causes and conditions are what causes impermanence of phenomena. – Yinxu Apr 11 '17 at 0:45
  • Buddhists should be making good causes as much as possible while avoiding negative causes - Right Effort. Looking for a magical unconditional state seems to go against the very grain of Ethics, Concentration and Wisdom that the Buddha is teaching. – Yinxu Apr 11 '17 at 0:45
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All conditioned things have an arising, ceasing, and turning otherwise characteristics.

Nibbana does not have these marks.

http://seeingthroughthenet.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The-Law-of-Dependent-Arising_LE_Rev_1.0.pdf

At page 348 this is said with copious quotes from Pali.

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Nirvana is (in Chinese) 常樂我凈, the English term "Unconditional" trying to convey this 常 meaning is insufficient and prone to lead to wrong understanding thus wrong view. There are too many incorrect terms with the similar problems, spreading via the English media, it would be horrible to see into the future how this trend has led to the decline finally destruction of Buddha's authentic teachings. The decline may be symptomized a short-lived sudden glistening for it caught the world's attention by conversing in English. The Pali Canon I tried hard to read some but it's so repetitive so painful to read. Those I read from the online sources and sometimes I read from this forum the quotes are so plank I can't extract any "juice" from the words, maybe they are in fact so sophisticated that's beyond my understanding, maybe, maybe, I don't know.

  • I believe Nirvana is 涅槃 in Chinese? – Kyoma Apr 15 '17 at 9:35
  • @Kyoma Yes. The attributes for Nirvana is 常樂我净。I edited to make it more explicit, thanks. – Mishu 米殊 Apr 16 '17 at 8:23
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So I realized I have been far too harsh in judging Theravada Buddhism in the doctrine of unconditionality. I was asking my Mahayana teacher whether unconditionality is one of those deluded "confused imagination" described in the Heart Sutra. She replied: to not reach the unconditionality is to have "confused imagination". I was stunned by the answer and decide to do some reflecting. What could be unconditional?

Then I made a realization, the Dharma, that is the Law, the Truth of Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, Impermanence, Emptiness are unconditional. Truth itself is unchanging. Change itself is unchanging. Impermanence is permanent. Certainly how we perceive and experience truth is changing and conditional, but it remain the Truth no matter whether anyone realize it or not.

With this in mind, we can surmised that Nirvana is unconditional as the Truth of Cessation of Suffering. If we have made the complete realization of Nirvana, we would be able to end any suffering that may arise. This would correspond well in line of the cultivation of wisdom factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. The subjective experience of this truth is conditional, but the Truth itself was always present.

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    But see also this answer ("Other schools have disagreed on what is unconditioned"). I don't know the theoretical arguments (about whether dharmas are unconditioned), maybe it's supposed to be a practical statement: if you look at the second-last big paragraph of MN 36 for example, it says "Just as a palmyra cut off at the crown is incapable of further growth etc." – ChrisW Apr 14 '17 at 8:57

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