Is nirvana a conceptual construction - empty in that way? For any / only some Buddhists.

I'm just trying to figure out how extinction can avoid the extremes of eternalism and annihilation. If it is a conceptual construction in the sense of having no reality outside what it is in conventional designation (blissful etc.), that might be an answer. If some rock has no qualities that we cannot define, then maybe there is nothing to add to its existence, nothing to puzzle over and ask why or how.

8 Answers 8


"I'm just trying to figure out how extinction can avoid the extremes of eternalism and annihilation."

And therein lies your problem. If you are trying to figure it out, you are dealing in concepts, not nirvana. Every word you speak answers itself. It is a closed loop. A closed system. Step outside. How would you define a word without using language? See the following:

Case 5 of the Mumonkan Kyogen's "Man Up a Tree"

The Case:

Kyõgen Oshõ said, "It is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands grasp no bough, his feet rest on no limb. Someone appears under the tree and asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If he does not answer, he fails to respond to the question. If he does answer, he will lose his life. What would you do in such a situation?"

Mumon's Comment:

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no avail. Though you can expound the whole of Buddhist literature, it is of no use. If you solve this problem, you will give life to the way that has been dead until this moment and destroy the way that has been alive up to now. Otherwise you must wait for Maitreya Buddha and ask him.

Mumon's Verse:

Kyõgen is truly thoughtless;
His vice and poison are endless.
He stops up the mouths of the monks,
And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies.

Instead of worrying about concepts, search for the word that has neither sound nor meaning.

  • really great answer, thanks
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 4:44

Is nirvana a conceptual construction? For any / only some Buddhists

Of course it'd depend on who you ask. To a deep-sea fish, the fresh breeze of the open sky will remain a conceptual construction, but to a man on land, that's something possible to have first-hand experience of. Similarly, Nibbana will remain a conceptual construction until one's attained awakening like the Buddha and His noble disciples.

  • so your answer is "no"? a reference would help you here
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:13
  • "no" and "yes", depending on the group of people already specified.
    – santa100
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:14
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    hm interesting. but you seem to also be saying that the buddha claimed unambiguously it isn't
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:17
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    Again, whether it is or is not depends on the frame of reference.
    – santa100
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:19
  • ok cool. do you have a quote to support your claim that nirvana is not a conceptual construction to his noble disciples?
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:20

When language is involved, everything becomes a conceptual construct. That's the problem with language, you have to create a concept of something to explain something. The question in itself is unclear, but Nirvana is a goal, or a state. It's a state of freedom from suffering and rebirth. When you reach nirvana, your mind is free from the 3 fires. The fires of ignorance/delusion, attatchment/greed and aversion/hate. You do not experience rebirth anymore, as you have removed the attachment to life.


Nirvana or Nibbana is not a thought or concept of the mind. It is that which is experienced by the mind, when it is completely free of all fetters and defilements.

I quote from this answer below. Please see that answer for a detailed analysis including sutta quotes.

So, Nibbana is not a thought of the mind, not a concept of the mind, not a state of the mind, not a state of consciousness and also not a feeling. However, when the mind experiences this Nibbana, which is not conditioned, not compounded, not suffering, not impermanent, not arising, not ceasing and not changing, it experiences bliss. The mind can therefore experience Nibbana, but it cannot feel it or think about it.

Sukha or happiness for an unenlightened person is experienced when encountering pleasant feelings (from the six senses) or when encountering the cessation of painful feelings (from the six senses). But for an arahat, sukha or bliss (in this context) is experienced when encountering neutral feelings, no feelings and Nibbana.

Also from that answer:
From AN 9.34 (translated by Bhikkhu Sujato):

Ven: Sariputta: “Reverends, extinguishment (Nibbana) is bliss!

Ven. Udayi: “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

Ven. Sariputta: “The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

  • is that what conceptual construction means then -- a mere idea of empirical reality?
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:26
  • @satirical_buddhist It's simply the complete absence of dukkha (suffering / discontent).
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:29
  • of what though?
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:31
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    @satirical_buddhist Rocks do not have feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations. Plants do have feeling and maybe perception, but they do not have consciousness and mental formations. Only beings with all five aggregates who experience mental suffering, can attain Nirvana.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:42
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    @satirical_buddhist The sentient being that attains Nirvana has found a stable source of happiness - the only stable source of happiness there is.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:49

Obviously people have conceptions about it (and those conceptions are conceptual constructions).

I think that nibbana itself is defined as unconstructed -- or unconditioned -- or more literally, "undefiled", "extinguished", etc., are among its many attributes.

I think the idea is that because it isn't constructed, it is therefore not subject to decay and coming apart -- according to the "three characteristics", it's "sankharas" (i.e. constructed things) which are impermanent ... and nibbana isn't a sankhara.

I'm using "conditioned" and "constructed" here as synonyms, which perhaps isn't quite right, but I think it's along the right lines -- see also this answer (which says that the non-construction of something may depend on some condition, but that what's unconstructed isn't itself impermanent).


This is a good question. I have not experienced anything close to Nirvana. But from what Buddha has said we can understand it as a natural state of unborn , uncreate and as a state of unbecoming. It is grasped conceptually but once nirvana is achieved you don’t need to hold on to any concept. It is a natural state of unborn existence...


Are you asking about the referent of the word "nirvana"?

The referent of the word nirvana is a concept of nirvana, and the referent of that concept is ... WHAT?

The referent of that concept is the actual experiential liberation of the mind.

Liberation from what? Liberation from the confines of concepts and therefore from the dukkha that comes from the clash between concepts, or between the concepts on one hand and the ontological reality on the other.

Now you tell me, is this Liberation a conceptual construct? For you perhaps it is, because you are asking about it? For me - not anymore, because I attained it in practice.

Once attained, the concept of nirvana has no referent. One does not engage in semiotic games anymore. No bullshit like "nirvana" and "liberation".

  • Does the "reference/referent" duality exist in Buddhism, or is that (perhaps like "ideal/real") an artefact of western philosophy?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:38
  • i think we can do without bragging about attainment, but thank you for the answer
    – user2512
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:42
  • @ChrisW it's a common feature of Tibetan Mahayana treatises, it comes up quite a lot.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:45
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    It seemed to me refreshingly absent in the suttas -- with that absence being a welcome (and radical) simplification -- albeit perhaps implied by "conceptual proliferation" or some things like that.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 18:14

Some aspects of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka-karika could suggest that, but that is not the “orthodox” Madhyamika stance, at least amongst Tibetans

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