# Why is Buddhism not Nihilism?

I'm familiar with the concept of the middle way and how Buddhism is neither Eternalism nor Nihilism. Not being Eternalism seems straightforward to me - all things are impermanent. However Buddhism not being Nihilism takes a bit more thought, for me anyway.

So can anyone state for us why Buddhism is not Nihilism? When we start to get into concepts like voidness and emptiness it can start to seem like it is edging towards it. When I practice it seems like anything but Nihilism. However I think I would struggle to write down why that is.

Just to clarify the question could we take the existential view of nihilism so quoting from wiki

life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

• This is Nagarjuna's rejection of both and their conjunction and disjunction, right? I don't get it either. I plan to ask how the logic works someday. – MatthewMartin Jul 23 '14 at 1:56
• 'People who think that things are real are as stupid as a cow; People who think things are not real are even more stupid.' - Saraha – Rabbit Aug 11 '14 at 8:35
• @Crab Bucket - Bhuddism is Nihilism with an exit door. – user635 Aug 17 '14 at 15:07
• I have struggled with this often. There is so much discussion about impermanence and everything lacking a substantial core that it's very easy to think of it as nihilism. But that is not the entire doctrine. There IS something. It is the unconditioned, Nibbana. What does exist cannot be spoken about in logical words (what we can most easily understand), but what does not exist (Impermanence and the Five aggregates) can. This results in the Impermanent side of Buddhism being discussed far more than the permanent side, giving the incorrect feeling of Nihilism. – Parag May 26 '15 at 13:42

I think the confusion comes from the fact that Nihilism in philosophy has two meanings. The most used in philosofic discussion is defined as:

the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

Within this framework nothing has meaning, no wortwhile goals or useful morals exists. Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most famous philosopher accusing Buddhism as being Nihilistic.

On its face Buddhism shares some of the ideas with this philosophy in the sense that mundane things are in an eternal sense not valuable, but it differs in the way that it has a form of morality and sees spirtual goals as wortwhile. Both Friedrich Nietzsche and Schopenhauer knew about Buddhism and wrote about it, and have arguably been influenced by it, but ultimately rejected it in favour of their own rather pessimistic worldview.

The Eternalism vs Nihilism stance tends to be more of a discussion whether the soul is eternal, and whether things exist in an ultimate sense.

In the same way konrad01 is describing Buddhism holds the middle between the two, seeing objects as real but dependently originated, not self and unsatisfactory. Seeing mundane life as meaningless but reconizing spiritual goals as meaningfull.

Nietzsche on Buddhism:

http://marmysz.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/nietzsche-and-buddhist-philosophy/

Schopenhauer on Buddhism:

http://what-buddha-said.net/library/Wheels/wh_144_146.pdf

• The nihilist conception is that the flow of life is the sum of conditional phenomenons. This leads to no God, no purposes, no liberty, etc. Nihilism does not, however, recede as Buddhism does; but only moves forward. In that sense, Nietzsche is a real Nihilist; but he has not truly grasped the receding process of Buddhism. – user635 Aug 14 '14 at 11:56
• The Tumblr link is rotten unfortunately. – sampathsris Sep 13 '14 at 2:43
• Thanks for pointing that out, removed it and replaced it with another one, not exactly the same, but having roughly the same information. – DirkM Sep 13 '14 at 16:58

Buddhism is not Nihilism because it does not reject values, morals, and religious truth. Buddhism is not Annihilationism because it establish idea of karma (i.e. inheritance of actions). Actions are not destroyed at death and inherited in next birth. Thus, it is useful to do wholesome deeds and practice Teaching.

I believe it all comes down to the way one sees reality. One could argue that as everything has been changing since the beginninless time, everything is "Eternal", it is just changing shapes.

I believe the point regarding the middle way is how things exist:

Eternalism suggests things exist as they are. The chair is a chair, it has a "chair-nature", it goes against the dependent origination. Also the name 'chair' is just a convention, nothing more.

Nihilism as we know it is a recent phenomena. The name has a Latin origin, so in the time of the Buddha Nihilism didn't exist like today. It was more related to ascetic practices of thinking that the world is a illusion and nothing exists at all. So the Buddha was trying to explain that things DO exist, but not as we think. There IS a chair, but it does not own a chair-nature. It is something transitory, impermanent with a dependent origination that we perceive with the eye-consciousness

• Is this against the "Yogacara" teaching that everything is a product of mind? Isn't a chair not a product of the mind and unreal? – Gokul NC Feb 10 '16 at 16:41
• @GokulNC I believe so. Most of the later schools ran afoul of the Buddha's teachings in some way or other. – Tharpa Jan 6 '18 at 3:01

(Since the question seems to be referring to Annihilationism and not Nihilism, I suggested an edit to it. I'm responding with this change in mind.)

Plainly, Annihilationism assumes a self that is destroyed after death. Buddhism doesn't assume a self.

For references, see DN 1, Brahma­jāla-sutta, especially the Annihilationism section and the ending section.

• I've heard this translated as nihilism such as here awakeningtoreality.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/… so I would prefer the question to stay as it is. If the problem is in translation then great - then that is the answer – Crab Bucket Jul 22 '14 at 7:05
• Briefly, it is not the translation, it's the meaning. Both words have the same root 'nothing' (nihil) so they are roughly equated (Annihilationism has the prefix ad-) but their meaning in English is different. See Nihilism & Annihilationism for the difference. Bear in mind, they can co-exist, but they are not the same. For example, 'if their is nothing after death (annihilationism) then my actions are meaningless and purposeless (nihilism)'. – Unrul3r Jul 22 '14 at 10:16
• The Pāḷi word is Ucchedavāda and it's meaning, as you can verify in the discourse I mentioned above, is the same as Annihilationism. That's why I suggested the change in the question. – Unrul3r Jul 22 '14 at 10:17
• I'm with @Unrul3r on both terminology and the answer. – Andrei Volkov Jul 23 '14 at 18:24

Nihilism is even worse than eternalism. Because eternalists can still do good deeds and reach heavens. Nihilists are said to be destined for hells. There's also a version of nihilism which is said to be even worse than the Ananthariya Karmas(matricide, patricide etc.). It is called Niyatha Micca Ditti. It is said that they won't be able to escape even when the world ends. They will be born in a hell called the Lokantarika Naraka, which is located at the center of where 3 universes meet.

Key beliefs of the person with Niyatha Micca Ditti are,

1. No benefit in offering alms
2. No purpose in caring for parents
3. There is no merit or demerit in deeds
4. There aren't any ascetics who preach the Dhamma with direct knowledge
5. There is no rebirth.
6. No spontaneous becoming i.e. becoming of gods, brahmas and hungry ghosts etc.
• Lokantharika Naraka sounds extremely like the hell in Abrahamic religions. Do you have canonical proof that there is a description of Lokantharika Naraka in Thripitaka? To be honest this sounds like a fairy tail invented in post Buddhist era. – sampathsris Sep 13 '14 at 0:28
• @Krumia, here's a reference:metta.lk/pali-utils/Pali-Proper-Names/lokantaraniraya.htm if you don't have faith, anything you can't see can sound like a fairytale, including regular hells and heavens – Sankha Kulathantille Sep 13 '14 at 2:37

Your definition of nihilism seems to me to ignore the four noble truths: that suffering (dukkha) exists, and, can cease.

You define nihilism as "life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value", however isn't "cessation of dukkha" (i.e. third noble truth) the 'purpose' of Buddhism (see also 'sentient beings')?

Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

• But being (possibly) "the 'purpose' of Buddhism" - in which relation does such an idea stand to some "purpose of life" (from the "definition" of nihilism)? – Gottfried Helms Mar 3 '15 at 14:18
• The only definition of nihilism I know is the one in the OP. I assumed that "what is the purpose of life?" means something like, "why is my purpose in life, why do I do things, what is my intention?", and that Buddhism's answer to that question is, "our purpose, our intention, our actions are directed towards reducing suffering." In particular I think that's the purpose of Buddhism's teaching about emptiness: it's a teaching whose purpose is cessation of dukkha. – ChrisW Mar 3 '15 at 14:33
• Well, while I can share that, it seems to me, the asker asks in the spirit of "what is the purpose of life" (referring to the wiki-quotation) - not of cessation of dukkha etc, which are only circumstances of the "life" or even better: remedies for someone who recognizes the life as dukkha-bound. I think, there is an widespread attitude of thinking, which poses itself "outside" the life and asks then: "what is the purpose of that funny thing there what I'm looking at: 'life' "? – Gottfried Helms Mar 3 '15 at 15:09
• widespread attitude of thinking, which poses itself "outside" the life That reminds me of what this essay describes as, "the language of thought that seeks objectivity". Still I don't think that Siddhārtha Gautama was "outside the life". – ChrisW Mar 3 '15 at 21:06
• A late response... "Still I don' think that Siddhartha Gautama was 'outside the life'" Yes, that's why in a plenty of discussions (... phew, sigh...) I always liked to take the stance of the Buddha and not that of the discutant with the (...)widespread attitude(...) – Gottfried Helms Jan 3 '16 at 22:57

Because it does not deny or reject conventional reality, and conventional experience. Buddhism reaches emptiness via the dependent origination of apparent objects. It does not negate the conventional existence of them, just examines their absolute or final nature.

Because of this acceptance of conventional reality and truth, Buddhism examines causality, morality, and consequence, specifically in the light of human suffering and liberation. This is far from nihilism, which is essentially the view that there is no consequence.

Because it offers an escape and the path leading to the escape from the impermanent, the substance less and the sorrowful. Nihilism offers no such escape.

Buddhism is not nihilism because the Buddha clearly posits the Deathless as the goal of nirvana.

Buddhism contains optimism and pessimistic view points on life. On the positive side, there is the celebration of merit (virtue, alms giving, helping one another etc). There are the four sublime states of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. But it is a religion which points out that there is a field of unhappiness as well as a field of merit/happiness. This field of unhappiness contains painful human circumstances/woe and the woe of beings in hungry ghost realms, animal realm and ultimately hells. But salvation is Nirvana which is (the realisation) of emptiness but which is said to be a completely blissful state of being. So the goal of Buddhism isn't nihilistic. There is something "in" the aim. It is the promise of a pleasurable/transcendant state of being as a reward for good actions of body speech and mind and following the 8-fold path. But the religion could be construed as nihilistic in the sense that Buddha didn't directly, as far as I am aware, offer an explanation of why we suffer or why the law of karma exists. He merely states that that is how life is, in Samsara, the wheel of life and death/ cycle of becoming.

So can anyone state for us why Buddhism is not Nihilism?

One can argue that from the Ego's point of view Buddhism is nihillisim .Because practicing Buddhism fully, inevitably leads to the destruction of the ego.Buddhism helps shatter the ego's solidity.So quite understandably the ego freaks out at some stage of the practice.

Fortunately,we're not the ego.Buddhism is not nihilistic because we're not the five aggregates which we continuously mistaken ourselves to be.

• FWIW, the only thing the Buddha said about ego (atta) is that it doesn't exist. The view that it has a point of view came later, and is falling into the Wrong View of a self, atta. – Tharpa Jan 6 '18 at 3:05

Buddhism is perhaps not a philosophy that can be easily compared with nihilism. Buddhism (and I can only speak of Zen) is a way of being that essentially problematises the inherent dialectic of thought and the governance of reason. Nihilism represents an extreme doctrine within the philosophic tradition wherein one's subjective/analytic sense of emptiness becomes axiomatic of synthetic/objective emptiness. The Buddhism I admire would smile at the childish certainty of such notions.

Put another way, the false notion of a separate 'I' - a core idiom of Western thought - is the root of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism may represent the analytic fruit of this ontology. Buddhism names the Way wherein self, as something separate, is dissolved. In such a state of being - so full in its emptiness - nihilism has no meaning.

• This answer has potential but is incomprehensible to someone not familiar with academic jargon. Can this answer be made more accessible? – Anthony Mar 3 '15 at 15:04
• Thank you for your comments Anthony. I have attempted to rephrase my thoughts on the question. – Oroonoko Mar 4 '15 at 1:22
• IMO adding a paragraph that's slightly easier to read doesn't make the answer more accessible to a general audience. Still, maybe someone more intelligent than myself will find this answer helpful in its current form :-) – Anthony Mar 4 '15 at 2:33
• Hmm, just in case I came across as rude, what I mean is that your answer may have value in its uniqueness, and that it doesn't have to satisfy everybody. – Anthony Mar 4 '15 at 2:35
• Buddhism is not easy to understand or articulate, because it is not accessible via the intellect. Language can point the way, but it is only at the collapse of analytic meaning that satori awakens. I suppose the very context of this discussion to some extent alienates one from this understanding. – Oroonoko Mar 4 '15 at 3:50

In Nihilism, as noted, there is a sense of self which is 'lost' upon death, and is absorbed into a vacuum, as it were. In buddhism there is no inherently-independent existence of a self, so upon death nothing is lost and nothing is gained. This in fact reflects physical reality much more than nihilism does, regardless whether you consider it from an agnostic or buddhist perspective.

However the philosophical implications of this are, 'you' don't lose anything. Ergo, a nihilist is someone who is attached to there being a sense of relative meaning in life, because they still believe in an inherently-existing self. Whereas a buddhist is someone who strives to be free of the false view of an inherently-existing sense of self, and hence avoids the depression, negative attachment to life, and ultimately, despair, that the nihilism view ultimately entails.

If you take the buddhist view, the sense of 'self' ultimately becomes dispersed, and even in early stages, 'wider'.

Dhamma is not a philosophy, it's a path of practice to go beyond and to see what is reality for one self. What happens is one does not use it simply like this is good described in Iti 49

(Note: this answer has not been given with the agreement to be means of trade or the purpose of trade and keep people trapped and bound. How you handle it lies in your sphere, but does not excuse the deed here either.)

Sometimes there are translation issues. When people say that Buddhism is not nihilistic, they are not exactly talking about the definition you gave. One can say that the Buddha never said anything about nihilism (according to the definition you gave) one way or the other. The Buddha avoided the three wrong views, eternalism, hedonism and what is usually translated as nihilism, the view that "nothing is".

Strictly speaking, the experience of emptiness (sunyata) provides experiential insight about one’s basic relationship with the universe, with others, and with oneself. It is an experience that establishes beyond any doubt that we give meaning, purpose, and value to life and to experience. It is somewhat like making a distinction between sensation and perception: Sensation is the given and the real, while perception is what we add to or understand about that sensation. Perception, understanding, value, and motivation, of course, are real but in a “relative” way. The experience of sunyata provides a valuable perspective on what is true or wise, because it teaches us to be more careful about what we add to experience. We become more careful by acquiring a deeper understanding of what is “relatively” true. Relative truth is based upon evidence. In other words, truth is objective and not arbitrary. It is on this point that Buddhism and nihilism takes opposite positions on the nature of existence.

Loosely, They say the Buddha was asked: - What is the happiness there where there are no sensations? - Just that is the happiness there.

The answer to OP question is in the definitions there, it is the core of the teaching on mechanics of reality. The sole postulation of existence of that something supposedly makes the teaching definitely not nihilistic unless there would be contradictions in that doctrine, there are no such contradictions. Surely someone couldve formed a more or less coherent argument if there were.

As simply as i can:

All or Everything that is, gains footing in the Deathless. In a fashion of unbinding, All that has a cause or supportive condition can cease, whilst that in which it used to gain footing, in that sense unafflicted.

The Deathless as i wrote it is to be understood as a Name for and a quality of that something apart from Everything/All. It is the ultimate Reality.

The way to make sense of how can something be said to be apart from everything, is to realize that ultimately everything can hardly be said to exist in first place.

It is similar to saying that hearing gains footing in the brain and brain gets footing in the Mind, which is of course no less confusing for we usually assume that mind gains footing in the brain.

Experiencing is definitely there and we can study that, that is a good start.

If it is nihilism then it isn't IMVHO degenerate passive nihilism of so called "western buddhism" (schopenhauer - i think).

We should be wary of saying that death is opposed to life

Nietzsche said...

Whether we see death as a rebirth or not, that does IMHO mean that release from suffering (even if we say that all life is suffering) is not opposed to life and not opposed to living.

In buddhism the self as in nirvana consciousness exists independent of the local brain. So if you swat a fly say that fly as a form dies but its consciousness exists still as you the swatter of the fly. Because the fly and swatter of the fly share the same empty consciousness.

• "...So if you swat a fly say that fly as a form dies but its consciousness exists..." - This view sounds like it belongs to the belief in Eternalism (sassataditthi) which is not part of the Buddha's teaching. You also mention "empty consciousness" which brings to mind the doctrine of Emptiness (sunyata) from Mahayana Buddhism. Is this what you are talking about? Please add clarification. Thank you. – Lanka Apr 24 '16 at 23:12

'Eternalism' does not mean 'permanence' & 'nihilism' does not mean impermanence. Instead, both Eternalism & Nihilism are forms of 'self-view'. 'Eternalism' is the belief "I" will exist after death. 'Nihilism' is the belief "I" will cease at death. This link called 'Held by Views' may help:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.2.042-049x.irel.html#iti-049

You may also read the Brahmajāla Sutta (if you enjoy reading), which defines these words clearly.

Discovering nirvana does not erase the self because nirvana is the self. Discovering nirvana is the seeing beyond local identity to the non-local source. So local and non-local become indistinguishably the field and its knower.

• The phrase "nirvana is the self" seems to me an unusual choice of words. Do you say that based on scripture (i.e. can you reference where you learned that), or is that based on your personal experience? – ChrisW Apr 24 '16 at 12:31
• If nirvana was self then there would be no suffering. You wouldn’t even need to meditate or do good deeds – TheDBSGuy Nov 3 '18 at 10:44

If you hold the view that the Buddha taught there is no eternal soul, then Buddhism is basically nihilism. If there is no transcendent self outside the scope of samsara, there is no rebirth, no enlightenment and no liberation from samsara because there is nothing that is being reborn, enlightened or liberated, just a phantom and an illusion. Fortunately this is absolutely something the Buddha DID NOT TEACH:

“Whatever form, feelings, perceptions, experiences, or consciousness there is (the five aggregates), these he sees to be without permanence, as suffering, as ill, as a plague, a boil, a sting, a pain, an affliction, as foreign, as otherness, as empty (suññato), as Selfless (anattato). So he turns his mind/will/spirit (citta, Non-aggregate) away from these; therein he gathers his citta (nous/spirit/mind) within the realm of Immortality (amataya dhatuya). This is tranquility; this is that which is the most excellent!” [MN 1.436]

• Please use > to format block quotes. Details of how to do all types of formatting are here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/editing-help#simple-blockquotes But quoting (and a blank line for paragraphs) are IMO the most necessary types of formatting. – ChrisW Dec 20 '16 at 16:20
• suttacentral.net/en/mn64/26.197-26.267 translates this passage as, "He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus". According to this topic, "deathless" is a synonym of nibbana. – ChrisW Dec 20 '16 at 16:30
• "He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus" In other words, mind ("citta") transcends the 5 aggregates – atman Dec 20 '16 at 21:59
• Are you a Hindu? Buddha said that all things are impermanent. If there is a soul then where is it when we need it. Why can’t we say “let my soul be thus, let my soul be not thus? Nirvana is not “Citta”. Nirvana is the ending or cessation of all phenomena. – TheDBSGuy Nov 3 '18 at 10:48

## protected by ChrisW♦Dec 22 '16 at 5:11

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