SN 12.15 says,

'Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle

We know that by the Buddha's time, the early Upanishads propounded some sort of "everything is existence" or "everything is the Self" doctrine.

But who propounded the latter doctrine ("Everything doesn't exist") in the Buddha's time? Certainly not Carvakas or Lokayatas, who were simply materialists. So who exactly was propounding this during the Buddha's time?

  • Although , I have no proof & knowledge regarding ,"who propounded" , in brief ,SN 12.15 is about right view which comes when Meditator or truth seeker knows food(aahaar) ,pain(dukh), thirst(tanha) , ... Sankhara (Samskara) ,Ignorance(avidya) , Their Origin , Their End and Path to End .In this way , Truth-Seeker knows everything can never Exist and Everything can never be in non-existence because it originates and end. Kindly read Sammaditthi Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya ( सम्मादिट्ठी सुत्त , मज्झिम निकाय ) to understand SN 12.15 in detail.
    – user17220
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 7:43
  • @TempoItan Please don't post a comment as an answer to a question -- post an answer instead. Post a comment if (for example) you don't understand the question. Please see this help section, which includes "When to comment" and "When not to comment".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 8:16
  • @ChrisW ok! But above comment is not an answer to question , just a foot note for questionnaire.
    – user17220
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 12:02

5 Answers 5


Perhaps it's a bit too frank, I think the OP asked an invalid question. A doctrine of everything doesn't exist cannot be uttered. It's like, a dead man cannot say "I'm dead", or you tell someone in the face "I'm not here". Making up such question is just an indication the questioner trapped by the trick of the mind - we called intellectual capacity.

This is the same trick for making up the phrase like the "groundless ground", the "egg-less egg", or the "valueless value"... the list can go on and on. You are simply making up another seemingly wisdom-infused phrase "non-existing existence". The Buddha has vivid and fun examples to dismiss, said, these people are talking about and debating on the "horns of a rabbit" and "hair of the tortoise". These things are mere constructs, the mind's game (戲論).

Let me make it more prominent: how can a question be made if all doesn't exist? What is to be discussed about since everything doesn't exist?

In ancient India, at Buddha's time, the study of Hetu-vidya and Catuṣkoṭi are prerequisites of establishing any doctrine. With all doesn't exist the whole proposition simply cannot be established, no learnt master would propound it.


I have great doubt on the OP's quoted Pali Sutta SN 12.15, the accuracy of the translated wording "everything exists" + "everything doesn't exist". Perhaps due to this misleading wording the OP asked the unnecessary question.

The corresponding Agama read as this (excerpt):





...Ven. Kātyāyana, "...what is right-view?..."

The Buddha told Kātyāyana, "There are two fixations in the world, if exist or if non-exist, due to attachment on contact. For attaching on contact, either fixate on exist, or fixate on non-exist. If one doesn't have any attachment, tames the mind made it not attach, not dwell, not involve the self. Suffering arisen as it arises, suffering ceased as it ceases. In it don't doubt, don't faze. Not depending on other but known it yourself, that is called right-view. This is called the right-view taught by the Tathagata. Why is that so? The aggregating of the world is known and seen as it is; if the world non-existed it is not existing now. The cessation of the world is known and seen as it is, if the world really existed it is not ceased existing now. This is called avoiding the two sides teaching the middle way. It is what called, this exists therefore that exists, this arises therefore that arises, called saṃskāra (activities) caused by ignorance... cessation."
... ... ... .. ... .

(the quoted italic text is corresponding to the OP quote.)

The Agama is much clear, concise and precise. Reading SN 12.15 ties a big knot in the head got lost in the bushes.

  • Akin to Majjhima Nikaya 74.. But if you believe in nothing, surely you believe in that! Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 20:38
  • Haven't checked Majjhima Nikaya 74. I've found the corresponding Agama to SN 12.15. IMAO the Agama is an explicit instruction on how to practice the Dharma. The ending was Kātyāyana became an arhat only listening to Buddha talking about the world really existed or not, and how to destroy the world :D! What do you think, is the Agama better textbook for we the student @IlyaGrushevskiy ?? Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:15
  • Do you really think ,Mishu ,that question is wrong . 'Who propounded ' ,can be found in Bhagwad Geeta of Hinduism but I am confused of it's authenticity whereas hindus claim it to be more than 5000/- years old. As per this book , everything that is ,'Nature or Natural' is prakriti and this prakriti is completely Delusion/Maya of lord . You might wish to modify your answer now...÷)
    – user17220
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 1:05
  • @Tempo Itan you've mis-read my answer. Note the note of my answer. The problem is wrong Pali Sutta text or the English translation - "everything doesn't exist" this statement is a fallacy. The Chinese Agama renders it as "if the world really exist or not" . The Geeta or Hindic is "everything doesn't really exist" [but all are illusion/Maya]. See the difference? My before edited answer pointed out Indic belief doesn't say "everything doesn't exist" but said "the world isn't real" same elaboration. Now I just replaced with Agama text to show the Pali text/translation is misleading, see? Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 4:21
  • Ok! ... "Everything doesn't exist" is Hindic doctrine ... as per the geeta , "Nothing is real , even 'I' the one you are seeing now isn't real ,Arjuna. I call it my Maya & is my servant." Only my true form which is parmatma is real, everything else is prakriti ,is unreal... " . .... ::I m not answering because of my doubt on authenticity of the geeta, still it gives answer to question. Maya , as per hinduism means "Unreal or seems to exist ,in reality , doesn't exist if one focuses on Lord".. buddha rejected such self-contradicting thoughts... u can add it , I won't answer - doubt of authentic
    – user17220
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 5:09

The doctrine 'Everything does not exist' is Nihilism and nothing to do with Buddhism. The Mahayana doctrine is 'Nothing really exists', which is a very different statement.

The word 'really' in this statement allows us to avoid extreme views. Things would exist in just the way they seem to, as dependent phenomena, but by reduction they would not. 'Nothing exists' would be an extreme view and the Buddha taught that we must avoid such views.

I've never come across anyone teaching that nothing exists.

  • 1
    The Mahayana Heart Sutra appears to say nothing exists. Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 19:42
  • @Dhammadhatu - Interesting. I don't have a copy available. Could you quote the text? I suspect it's a matter of interpretation.
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 13:13
  • Heart Sutra says all dharmas are empty, meaning they are mere rough descriptions of approximate observations, delineated within the framework of the interpreting observer. Entirely different meaning than "nothing exists".
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 12:56
  • 1
    @AndreiVolkov - Thanks. It somewhat baffles me where this 'nothing exists' idea comes from.
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 14:02

In relation to the translation "All Does Not Exist (Sabbaṃ Natthi)", SN 12.15 refers one duality of the world called "Non-Existence" ("Natthitā").

Similarly, the closest Pali term to the Western philosophical term 'nihilism' appears to be natthikavāda. It seems natthikavāda can cover many types of wrong views found in the Pali sutta, such as:

  1. Sole reliance upon the dimension of nothingness, as taught by Alara Kalama in MN 26. As described in the suttas, the view of the dimension of nothingness is "There Is Nothing" ("Natthi Kiñcī").

  2. The idea a "self" or "being" "dies", as found in Iti 49, SN 22.85 & DN 1 (ucchedavāda; annihilationism).

  3. The idea a 'self' that used to exist no longer exists (as believed by Vacchagotta in SN 44.10).

  4. The view another self/person causes oneself to suffering (SN 12.17).

  5. Moral nihilism, as found in MN 60, MN 117 and DN 2 (Ajita Kesakambala's doctrine), as follows:

There are some contemplatives & brahmans who hold this doctrine, hold this view: 'There is nothing (natthi) given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no (natthi) fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no other world, no (natthi) mother, no father, no spontaneously arisen beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the other after having directly known and realized it for themselves.'

MN 60; MN 117

When this was said, Ajita Kesakambalin said to me, 'Great king, there is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no other world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously arisen beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the other after having directly known and realized it for themselves. A person is a composite of four primary elements. At death (kālaṃ karoti), the earth (in the body) returns to and merges with the (external) earth-substance. The fire returns to and merges with the external fire-substance. The liquid returns to and merges with the external liquid-substance. The wind returns to and merges with the external wind-substance. The sense-faculties scatter into space. Four men, with the bier as the fifth, carry the corpse. Its eulogies are sounded only as far as the charnel ground. The bones turn pigeon-colored. The offerings end in ashes. Generosity is taught by idiots. The words of those who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated (ucchijjanti), destroyed (vinassanti). They do not exist after death (paraṃ maraṇā).'

DN 2

At least three matters should be noted from the quotes above:

  1. From MN 60, the verse does not necessarily refer to 'reincarnation' because the words 'world' & 'spontaneously arisen' are not necessarily something 'physical'. Instead, what is definitely certain is MN 60 is referring to both kamma & the results of kamma ('other worlds'). In other words, why 'Nihilism' is different to 'Buddhism' is because Nihilism does not believe in good & evil actions & results. For example, Nihilists are not grateful when they are taught the Dhamma. Instead, Nihilists believe: "there is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed". This is Natthikavāda.

  2. From DN 2, some of the views of Ajita Kesakambalin, such as a person is a composite of four primary elements, have similarities to what the Buddha taught (example, in SN 35.204). Therefore, not 100% of Ajita Kesakambalin's doctrine is different to Buddhism. What makes Ajita Kesakambalin's doctrine different to Buddhism is it is a doctrine of moral nihilism and also probably contains self-views.

  3. Puthujjana Buddhists, obsessed with reincarnation or meta-physics, often say ucchedavāda (annihilationism) means the view of no life/no reincaration after death. However, annihilationism is simply the view a 'self' ('atta') or 'existent being' ('satta') is annihilated at 'death'. Therefore, ucchedavāda (annihilationism) does not mean 'no reincarnation' but, instead, refers to a 'self-view'. The Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) says:

There are some ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists. They assert the annihilation, eradication, and obliteration of an existing being on seven grounds.

Santi, bhikkhave, eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā ucchedavādā sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññapenti sattahi vatthūhi.

And what are the seven grounds on which they rely?

Te ca bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā kimāgamma kimārabbha ucchedavādā sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññapenti sattahi vatthūhi?

There are some ascetics and brahmins who have this doctrine and view:

Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā evaṃvādī hoti evaṃdiṭṭhi:

‘This self is physical, made up of the four primary elements, and produced by mother and father. Since it’s annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death, that’s how this self becomes rightly annihilated.’

‘yato kho, bho, ayaṃ attā rūpī cātumahābhūtiko mātāpettikasambhavo kāyassa bhedā ucchijjati vinassati, na hoti paraṃ maraṇā, ettāvatā kho, bho, ayaṃ attā sammā samucchinno hotī’ti.

That is how some assert the annihilation of an existing being.

Ittheke sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññapenti.

DN 1

  1. SN 22.85 is a complex but excellent sutta, where a monk is admonished for having wrong view because he believes an Arahant is annihilated at death. This is wrong view because an Arahant is not "a being" ("satta") or a "self" ("atta") and thus does not experienced "death" ("marana"). Instead, SN 22.85 say at the termination of life (not "death"), the aggregates of an Arahant simply cease or end. SN 22.85 shows the term ucchedavāda (annihilationism) does not mean no reincarnation or no rebirth (but means the self-view that a self is annihilated).

  1. Lastly, while not explicitly related to the question, in later times, I think the Mahayana Heart Sutra is a perfect example of a doctrine: "All does not exist".
  • This seems a very good answer to me, but as per our other discussion I'd like to see where it is said so unambiguously 'All does not exist'. As written this looks like nihilism. .
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 14:40
  • Heart Sutra says all dharmas are empty, meaning they are mere rough descriptions of approximate observations, delineated within the framework of the interpreting observer. Entirely different meaning than "nothing exists".
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 12:59

This refers to the old Indian classification of astika vs nastica.

Roughly speaking, astika are the ones who believe in standard Hindu religious concepts (reincarnation of souls, karma, asceticism, liberation, the power of rituals, sacrifice, demons & spirits, other worlds etc.) while nastika are the ones rejecting that.

Buddhism is neither astika nor nastika, because instead of accepting or denying these religious ideas, it explains how consciousness develops and works, and then maps it back to some of these preexisting religious concepts, for convenience.

The most famous Nastika tradition at Buddha's times was called Ajivika.

The other obvious Nastika tradition is the naive materialism, the view of regular worldly people.

  • The link you gave does not suggest that Ajivikas propounded the doctrine that nothing exists. Neither did ancient Indian materialists propound this doctrine. Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 16:00
  • I'm saying "nothing exists" is a bad translation of "nastika".
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 16:21
  • Please read Pali original, Sabbam atthi...sabbam natthi.."nothing exists" is an accurate translation of the latter. Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 16:34
  • Yeah, yeah. I saw that. Sabbam atthi = Sarvam Asti. Natthikavada= Nastika-vada. Nothing in this case means "none of that stuff everyone's talking about", not literally nothing.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 17:47
  • Existence & non-existence are the 1st words of the Rig Veda. I agree SN 12.15 probably addressed pre-existing non-Buddhist doctrines. Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 5:58

There were many kinds of views in Buddha's time. This is discussed in Brahmajāla Sutta.



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