Nirvana is the extinction of rebirth, and birth is its arising. Right?

Is the debate throughout Buddhism on the "difference" between samsara and nirvana one of how to explain, rather than describe or reach etc., the two? So that when we read the Buddha say the two are the same, that means that they are explained in the same way, not that they appear to be the same thing.

From the beginning of the wikipedia article

In the Buddhist tradition, Nirvana has commonly been interpreted as the extinction of the "three fires", or "three poisons", passion (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidyā). When these fires are extinguished, release from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) is attained.

I believe all extant Buddhist traditions, including theravada, believe that we are reborn from moment to moment: a lifetime as much as the aggregates at an instant. Also, see 'dependent origination'.

Both the Sarvāstivāda [the Mahayana's tripitaka] and the post-canonical Theravāda constructed a radical doctrine of momentariness (Skt., kṣāṇavāda, Pali, khāṇavāda) that atomizes phenomena temporally by dissecting them into a succession of discrete, momentary events that pass out of existence as soon as they have originated

This is true of the Abhidhamma, see Karunadasa:

in the Pali Suttas, unlike the Abhidhamma, the notion of change is not presented either as the doctrine of momentariness or as a formulated theory of moments... the Pali suttas say that it is peculiar to the Abhidhamma.

And this from Charles Bartley

After the death of an enlightened one there is no rebirth

Or this from Keown

At the age of 80 he passed away into final nirvana, from which he would not be reborn

Moreover, non-abiding is likewise the end of rebirth. Tharpa:

Non-abdiding in nirvana in the irreversible cessation... of all rebirth

The Buddhists personalists -- which no longer exist and shared in much the same sutta basket -- believed not just that only a sentient being could create -- in series -- a new mind-body after death -- all Buddhists claim this -- but that something was the same during its life.

it is the pudgala that appropriates and sustains a body for a certain amount of time.

  • Thank you for the edit and the quotes are clear. I'm not sure I understand the question though. You asked, "Do Buddhists explain birth and extinction in the same way?" -- does that mean simply, Do all Buddhists and all schools of Buddhism have the same way of explaining what 'birth' means? Plus do they all agree on how to explain 'extinction'?"
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 11:11
  • You mention Mahayana and the difference between between samsara and nirvana. I guess that derives from Nagarjuna's saying "nirvana is samsara". As such that's not a topic which "all Buddhists" (nor all Buddhist doctrine, all explanation) are concerned with (especially "non-Mahayana" suttas), so ... for that reason too I didn't understand the question, where it's asking about "all Buddhists"?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 11:14
  • ok i tried to edit it to clarify, sorry. it's quite a strange question, really
    – user2512
    Jan 4, 2020 at 11:26
  • how / why has such a well referenced and clear question been downvoted so much?
    – user2512
    Jan 4, 2020 at 17:40
  • 1
    I can't tell you. People downvote for all sorts of reasons. Maybe one downvote was left-over from when it was less clear, maybe another one was (I can only guess) due to its asking about Mahayana or rebirth or something, which wasn't what somebody to see in a question.
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


There is no difference in manner or extent between the rebirth we experience from moment to moment and the rebirth we experience from life to life. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the subtlest meaning of the Buddha's teachings on emptiness or anatta.

Therefore, think about what this means for your question. When an enlightened one first becomes enlightened and reaches nirvana does an enlightened one continue to exist from moment to moment? Does he not exist from moment to moment? Both exists and does not exist? Neither exists nor not exists? Whatever the answer... then to that exact same extent and manner an enlightened one will continue to exist from life to life. To say otherwise is to assert that something has materially changed such that after nirvana an enlightened one continues in that very life, but utterly ends or is annihilated at the end of that life. This cannot be the case. It would mean an enlightened one substantially existed or inherently existed in some way and that this ended or was annihilated at death.

It is important to know the manner in which the three poisons end. The real liberation comes through knowledge or the extinction of ignorance. From this, the other poisons are extinguished as they rely upon ignorance to sustain them. Nirvana is nothing more than waking up to the knowledge of reality as it really is rather than by perceptions and conceptions clouded by ignorance.

Think about what Nagarjuna is saying here:

  1. It is not asserted that the Blessed One exists after his passing away; nor is it asserted that he does not exist, both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist.
  2. Even while he is living, it is not asserted that the Blessed One exists; nor is it asserted that he does not exist, both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist.
  3. There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.
  4. The limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara: one cannot even find the slightest difference between them.

Verse 17 and 18 assert that there is no distinction between the way an enlightened one exists from moment to moment as compared to life to life.

Verse 19 and 20 draw on the prior verses to show there is no distinction between nirvana and samsara. Nothing has materially changed except where before there was ignorance now there is knowledge.

It is like waking up from a dream even as the dream perceptions continue... there is no longer any doubt that one is perceiving a dream. Not one iota of doubt. The ignorance of the dreamer has been replaced with the sure knowledge of an awakened one.

  • this is a good answer, thanks. i agree with it. but it is also the buddha's "last life" -- am i not right there?
    – user2512
    Feb 4, 2020 at 1:35
  • +1 In short for Mahayana all distinctions are conceptual, and this would include Samsara-Nirvana, It requires the reduction of all categories of thought. .
    – user14119
    Feb 4, 2020 at 13:21
  • Short answer is no sorta_buddhist. If you post a new question I can try to elucidate a longer answer, but I'm wary of adding a lot in the comments as it is discouraged for a good reason.
    – user13375
    Feb 4, 2020 at 14:15

I know really little of Mahayana doctrine, sorry.

For a start some people talk about "perception" rather than "appearance".

The "appearance" of a thing sounds like it's some inherent property of that thing -- which is contradicted by the doctrine on emptiness, isn't it?

Whereas "perception" talks about how (and/or whether) you perceive it -- if "appearance" sounds like it's "objective" then "perception" sounds more "subjective".

And I don't know but I guess that "nirvana is samsara" is a statement about perception -- that "nirvana" is a dualistic and value-laden statement, and therefore etc.

And is the vedanā doctrine related to that, or is that quite different?

But anyway that is (about "perception"), as well as possibly about "appearance" -- which I guess means (in a Mahayana context), "where do you draw boundaries which distinguish one thing from another?"

And the first part of the question asked about the difference between "explanation" and "description" -- but I guess I see no practical or significant difference between those two words, so, no go there.

You mentioned "reaching" too.

That might be a temporal statement. For example SN 56.11 talks about things which are "to be done" (in future), "are done" (presently), and "have been done" (see also "Perfect (grammar)").

The suttas talk of a gradual training (and step-by-step explanations).

I think that ("gradual") is true of Tibetan Buddhism too -- but it can be a subject of debate, so maybe different schools etc.

There's some Buddha-nature doctrine: I think one might consider whether that means that things 'can' have -- or whether they 'already' have -- that nature.

You might see also this answer for one description (from Shin) -- possibly the Brahmana Sutta (about "going to the park") from the Pali suttas.

As for this ...

I believe all extant Buddhist traditions, including theravada, believe that we are reborn from moment to moment

... then, "maybe yes, something like that ..." -- but that's possibly not the only truth. I think that traditional Buddhists see it (whatever it is) as being true over several time-scales -- moment-to-moment, life-to-life, even aeon-to-aeon.

Perhaps one (educated) view is that if rebirth is moment-to-moment, then "death" too is something of a fiction. Something like this answer -- What's the value or harm of a literal belief in rebirth? -- which I think is Theravada, might be orthodox even if some people concentrate more or only on what's "evident" etc. I don't much want to get into describing what or who is reborn. I think that the Pali suttas suggests that's "only suffering" -- Vajira Sutta. Also "identity views" or "self-views" (including "I do or I don't exist") are an origin of suffering, and a thicket of views and a product of unwise attention. Whether and when the Tathagata "exists" is famously "undeclared".

And that too might be "gradual", at least according to the Theravada doctrine, see e.g. How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?

In Mahayana (and perhaps before) the existence or body of the Buddha came to be associated with the Dharmakāya.

  • this is a long answer, and it's not clear if you are trying to correct the question -- which i don't think does have any mistakes in it
    – user2512
    Jan 4, 2020 at 17:45
  • Perhaps I was trying to address the question, as I read it -- but given your comment perhaps I still don't understand the question as you intended it.
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 18:03
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    @sorta_buddhist That sounds to me like a Physics question. :-) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_of_time
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 18:25
  • ok well it comes down to a question on philosophy: whether we can explain the direction of irreversible events philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/69398/… because if not then birth and death -- as universals -- i'm sure have the same explanation. which in turn may suggest other key buddhist beliefs.
    – user2512
    Jan 4, 2020 at 18:28
  • I think the Buddhist doctrine is that "sankharas are anicca" -- i.e. that "things-put-together are impermanent" -- which agrees with "entropy". Plus "dependent co-arising" about how things are constructed. Plus "emptiness" which (amongst other things) suggests that our definitions/perceptions of "things" are themselves fabrications (and to be viewed wisely).
    – ChrisW
    Jan 4, 2020 at 18:31

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