As suggested in this comment, we shall try to look more closely into this.

Does Nirvana have svabhāva in Madhyamaka?

Here, svabhāva is as defined in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka, and commonly translated as inherent existence, inherent nature or inherent substance.

Why conditioned things (the Pali term sankhara) do not have inherent existence (svabhāva) is explained in this answer, this answer, this answer and this essay.

However, Nirvana is unconditioned. So, does it have or not have svabhāva? And why?

  • 1
    don't some sutras claim it does have svabhava? your question seems so convinced that i'm not sure i'm right. i'll google it
    – user2512
    Feb 13 '18 at 16:57
  • Nirvana, the same as (selfless) phenomena, has sabhava. This question is merely a errored continuance of the errors it is based on; i.e., one error leading to another error. Feb 13 '18 at 19:44
  • Well, the question limits the scope to Nagarjuna's svabhava in Madhyamaka, in which case nothing including Nirvana has svabhava. Of course, when we broaden the scope, we may be able to find cases where Nirvana has svabhava.
    – ruben2020
    Feb 13 '18 at 23:58
  • 1
    Where do you find "Nirvana [does] not have Svabhava" in Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka? I'm sure Nagarjuna never made such proclamation in the Chinese Madhyamaka (the earliest survived version translated by Kumarajiva). Without proper supporting bases this your question then is illegitimate to construct by its current way. Or certain Tibetan schools/ Wikipedia "experts" said so? - please provide support. Feb 14 '18 at 10:24
  • @Mishu米殊 Perhaps it's more useful to rephrase the question to "Does Nirvana have svabhava in Madhyamaka?"
    – ruben2020
    Feb 14 '18 at 10:36

According to Madhyamika, whatever is dependent-arising is empty of svabhāva. As Nagarjuna says, the meaning of emptiness is dependent-arising; and dependent-arising is the meaning of emptiness. Each and every phenomena, be it permanent or impermanent, form, consciousness or non-associated compositional factor, lacks svabhāva.

There is a number of reasons supporting emptiness of svabhāva. In his commentary to Gyaltsab Je on Maitreya’s Sublime Continuum, Geshe Gyaltsen said:

There are specific reasonings to realize emptiness that are suitable for specific disciples, like the diamond slivers, the four possibilities, the king of reasoning that is the reasoning of dependent arising, and the reasoning of not being one or many.

In his commentary to Tsongkhapa's Special Insight Chapter of the Middle-Length Lam Rim, Geshe Gyaltsen explains dependent arising:

Dependent arising means that phenomena depend on something else to exist.

On the fact that both samsara and nirvana are empty:

The perfection of permanence [that is possessed by a buddha] refers to the equality of samsara and nirvana seeing both as empty of inherent existence.

All phenomena are dependent-arising. If it exists conventionally, it either a permanent or an impermanent phenomena. If it is a permanent phenomena, it does not depend on causes and conditions (the grossest level of dependent arising) but it still depends on other factors.

Even permanent phenomena such as space, emptiness (the absence of svabhāva), partial and complete cessations (such as nirvana that is the final true cessation) are dependent on part. Geshe Gyaltsen also says:

Since the aggregates are impermanent phenomena, it is correct to use causal dependent arising as a reason [for establishing its lack of inherent existence]. The second, dependence on parts, can be used as well. Also when the subject would have been uncompounded space the second kind of reason, depending on parts, would be a correct reason as well.

We do not even need to go into the third level of dependent arising (dependence on name) that is posited only by Prasangika to establish that nirvana is empty of svabhāva, is empty of true existence, is empty of existing by way of its own characteristics (all these are synonymous).

We do not need to know either that there is a terminological division of five types of nirvana: non-abiding, abiding, with remainder, without remainder, and natural.

To summarize, nirvana depends on factors that it is not, and without which it would not exist. You can apply this to any phenomena, including permanent phenomena: the person depends on factors (the body, consciousnesses, etc) that the person is not, but without which the person wouldn't be what it is.


There are at least four levels to this subject that I can see... Or four different Nirvanas if you wish...

On the simplest level, Nirvana is conditional and does not have svabhava. This is Nirvana that the deluded mind wants to escape to, defined as a state apart from and opposite to Samsara. It is conditional because it depends on its opposition to Samsara, and because it is (imagined to be) a state that depends on it being attained. It does not have svabhava because it is conditional, because it has beginning, and most importantly, because it does not exist.

On the next level, Nirvana is unconditional and has svabhava. This Nirvana is what's actually attained - the real nature of things, the unity of samsara and nirvana, the cessation of conflict between "should" and "is", the suchness of things as they are, and the resulting cessation of suffering. This Nirvana is thought to be unconditional because it's no longer defined in contrast with Samsara. It's svabhava is Emptiness. However, the weakness of this type of Nirvana is that it is useless until attained. One has to actually make effort to realize cessation of conflict between "should" and "is". Until that is done, this Nirvana is as good as nothing. This is why I prefer to call it quasi-unconditional.

The next type of Nirvana is truly self-existing Great Perfection. This type of Nirvana does not depend on cessation of conflict between "should" and "is". Instead, all forms, including appearances and attachments, including even confusion and conflict, and the very suffering itself, are (understood to be) primordially beyond contamination and purity. This Nirvana is truly unconditional and has no svabhava. It is unconditional because... well... there is nothing to be done or undone or found or lost - and it has no svabhava because it is not itself a phenomena, it is just a designation for suchness of all phenomena.

Finally, the absolute Nirvana is outside the realm of concepts altogether. When someone loses all ground, any notion of reference point, and any sense of achievement in one's real life, one can feel that it may be very difficult to be certain of anything. So while this absence of reference point provides no basis for arising of suffering, it also provides no basis for confidence. To be confident with this absence of ground, without creating a reference point, without craving for comfort of a reference point, is the real Nirvana. Is this Nirvana unconditional? Does it have svabhava? On this level we don't obsess with bullshit like that.


According to the parinirvana sutra

If a person is able truly to discern

that his / her intrinsic being possesses the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha-Nature],

Then you should know that such a person

Will enter into the Secret Matrix [ = the Tathagatagarbha].

Emphasis mine.

This sutra then seems to add that to learn the Buddha-nature is within the body is the eternal, nirvana.

Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973 from Dharmakshema’s Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374)

So, to "learn" "that" "persons" (which don't exist) "have" "their" "svabhava" (which doesn't exist) "within" "their" "body" "is" "nirvana".

Sorry for the excessive speech marks. It may be unclear what that amounts to? For me, in my ignorance, it means that nirvana has svabhava.

  • 1
    are you having fun yet?
    – Andrei Volkov
    Feb 13 '18 at 22:23
  • @AndreiVolkov not sure what you mean, but yes i am... i even look back fondly to the times i was baffled by buddhist scholarship and debate, too.
    – user2512
    Feb 15 '18 at 1:36
  • The Gelug answer to how this makes sense of this apparent contradiction is that you have to interpret this sutra as it is not of definitive meaning. See here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/26118/13375 Apr 24 '18 at 23:08

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