Sutras says that there is nothing to attain: but is there a beginning to attaining nirvana?

See e.g. the heart sutra

No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

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    A beginning is one who set off the mind of attaining perfect enlightenment. It could happen right now, or it happened in the past life/lives but has been forgotten... The quoted refers to the suchness. Realizing there is no learning then all the learning is completed, so to speak :) – Mishu 米殊 Dec 23 '18 at 15:24

The teachings that describe how there is nothing to attain can easily be misleading. I think, the answer to your question is twofold.

  1. Nirvana is not something that can be attained. This is simply because when you experience the highest truths, you realize that there is no self.
  2. Since there is no self, there is no one present to attain anything.

For the illusory self who has not yet experience enlightenment, it appears as if there is a path to walk. It begins as soon as you choose to learn who you are. The illusory self will learn things and practice meditation. Then, the illusory self will see itself as a farce.

Do not get caught up in the trap that some do when reading these quotes. The Buddha very specifically tailored his teachings to the level of understanding those listening had. These quotes are not useful for people who are still experiencing suffering. They are an arahants understandings, meant for other enlightened beings. They are very easy to be misunderstood.

Someone commented on your post and said something id like to clarify. When it is said "Realizing there is no learning then all the learning is completed", what is being referred to is not the path of the illusory self, but what occurs once enlightenment occurs. If you still believe you are this and not that, there is still more to learn. If you still feel suffering, there is still more to learn.

The bottom line is, be careful while reading some of these teachings. Know who they were meant for, because although they may be true from a perspective that holds specific knowledge, that may not be the readers perspective.

  • well i agree that these statements carry different meanings depending on their context. i disagree that all they mean is anatta, and i don't find that helpful. but thanks for returning to the question! – user3293056 Jan 29 at 19:07

The way I understand you realise Nibbana. It is perhaps something like by realising the world is not flat and you are not fall off the edge if you walking straight on the ground. Understanding Aniccca, dukkha and anatta are the main realisation hence you eliminate attachment aversion and ignorance. Noble Eightfold Path is the way to realize Nibbana.


No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

It's important to see the full context by reading the full paragraph:

This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, conception, synthesis, or discrimination. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts. There are no forms, sounds, scents, tastes, sensations, or dharmas. There is no field of vision and there is no realm of thoughts. There is no ignorance nor elimination of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death, nor elimination of old age and death. There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, or a path. There is no understanding and no attaining.

So basically, all those "no's", like no eyes, ears, nose, etc. are attributes pertaining to that dimension of emptiness/suchness, which an un-enlightened being is yet able to experience. Sorta like us 4-dimensional beings are yet to experience what lies beyond our 4 dimensions. So in order to get there, there is a need for cultivation, there is a need for exerting effort, there is a need for practicing Sila, Samadhi, Panna. If there was "nothing to attain", the Buddha wouldn't have gone into great length teaching us all the details about cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the 37 Aids to Enlightenment, in which there's one key component called the Four Right Exertions


I'm going to answer the question creatively, and so not make a standard (scholastic) response.

One way of reading the phrase "nothing to attain" could be via the lotus sutra, which details the immeasurable life span of the buddha and time as a bodhisattva

In this way, since my attainment of Buddhahood it has been a very great interval of time. My life-span is incalculable asatkhyeyakalpas [rather a lot of aeons], ever enduring, never perishing. O good men! The life-span I achieved in my former treading of the bodhisattva path even now is not exhausted, for it is twice the above number. Yet even now, though in reality I am not to pass into extinction [enter final nirvana], yet I proclaim that I am about to accept extinction. By resort to these expedient devices [this skill-in-means] the Thus Come One [the Tathagata] teaches and converts the beings

If we take that to be an expression of emptiness, then, working forwards, nirvana is empty because it is not (coherently) final. And then, working backwards, the same is twice as true of beginning to attain nirvana!

In Tenadi Buddhism each of the nobles truths is just as empty as the other, the path is empty in the exact same was as extinction is. Though, interestingly, Tendai seems to claim the opposite of yoagacara Buddhism (that the path is not one and the buddha nature), straw man or not. I'll get a reference for that later.

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