When Time is conditioned, when Space is also supposedly conditioned, when all ‘phenomena’, in the strictest philosophical sense of the word, are conditioned, how can the unconditioned Nibbāna be ever defined?

When language itself is mired in conditionality, a slave to the world of perceptions and conceptualization, how can we even try to use it to convey the meaning of the unconditioned, asaṃskṛt Nirvāṇa? Isn’t it a semantic impossibility?

Was Nāgārjuna right when he subjected Nirvāṇa to the catuṣkoṭi logic and came out with strictest and most comprehensive negative answer, the ultimate via negativa, apophatic explanation?

Based on my understanding, I can thoroughly appreciate the following ‘definitions’:

"There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress." — Ud 8.1

"There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned." — Ud 8.3

Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing: There the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible, the moon does not appear, darkness is not found. And when a sage, a brahman through sagacity, has known [this] for himself, then from form & formless, from bliss & pain, he is freed. — Ud 1.10”

_(Courtesy, ATI)

But this is what I find difficult to accept:

"This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbāna." — AN 3.32

There's no fire like passion, no loss like anger, no pain like the aggregates, no ease other than peace.

Hunger: the foremost illness. Fabrications: the foremost pain. For one knowing this truth as it actually is, Unbinding is the foremost ease.

Freedom from illness: the foremost good fortune. Contentment: the foremost wealth. Trust: the foremost kinship. Unbinding: the foremost ease. — Dhp 202-205

The enlightened, constantly absorbed in jhāna, persevering, firm in their effort: they touch Unbinding, the unexcelled safety from bondage. — Dhp 23”

_(Courtesy, ATI)

Is a via positiva, cataphatic definition rationally, linguistically even possible? Could somebody help me understand Nibbāna better?

4 Answers 4


Nirvana isn't a thing.
Were it a thing it'd be subject to aging and death.
No thing exists
Without aging and death.

If nirvana were a thing,
It'd be compounded.
A non-compounded thing,
Doesn't exist anywhere.

If nirvana were a thing,
It'd be conditioned.
A non-conditioned thing,
Doesn't exist anywhere.

Nirvana isn't the absence of a thing.
How could it be the absence of a thing?
Just as it's not a thing,
It can't be the absence of a thing.

If nirvana were the absence of a thing,
How could it be non-conditioned?
Whatever is non-conditioned,
Can't be the absence of a thing.

The absence of a thing is dependent
Upon the thing of which it's the absence of.
Since things themselves are dependent,
Their absence is also dependent.

Things arise and cease
Dependent upon causes and conditions.
Nirvana as taught by the Buddha
Is independent of causes and conditions.

The Buddha taught relinquishing the
Becoming and passing away of things.
Therefore it should be understood that
Nirvana isn't a thing nor the absence of a thing.

"That which is neither a thing nor the absence of a thing"
Can only be established as a real and genuine fact,
If the things of which it speaks and their absences as well,
Can be established as real and genuine facts.

If even the Buddha himself
Can't be established as a real and genuine fact,
How can other lesser things,
Be so established?

The complete relinquishment of fabrications
Was taught by the Buddha as bliss.
Nirvana can't be established through the
Proliferation of fabrications.

Relying upon things as real and genuine facts,
Can't bring about the cessation of fabrications.
The Buddha taught that even the Tathagata,
Should not be relied upon as a real and genuine fact.

No real and genuine Buddha,
Taught a real and genuine Dharma,
To be relied upon by anyone, anywhere,
At any place or at any time.

  • "Nirvana isn't the absence of a thing. How could it be the absence of a thing?" Isn't this just a question, not an argument or an explanation? Is this contradicting AN 9.34 as quoted in ruben2020's answer?
    – ChrisW
    Jul 3, 2021 at 6:58
  • 1
    It is a rhetorical question and the explanation is given in the following verses. No, I don't think it contradicts AN 9.34.
    – user13375
    Jul 3, 2021 at 11:56
  • I've also added a verse to help erase doubts.
    – user13375
    Jul 3, 2021 at 12:05
  • Thank you that makes the logic and its implication a lot clearer.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 3, 2021 at 13:09
  • 1
    It is a poor paraphrase and creative endeavor relying upon verses from the middle and my own imperfect understanding.
    – user13375
    Jul 3, 2021 at 13:51

Both cataphatic and apophatic definitions of Nibbana are reconciled here:

At one time Venerable Sāriputta was staying near Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrels’ feeding ground.

There he addressed the mendicants: “Reverends, Nibbana is bliss! Nibbana is bliss!”

When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him, “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

“The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.
AN 9.34

Please read the rest of this sutta.

Nibbana is experienced by the mind when it is completely free of defilements.

It is bliss because it is free of suffering and discontent.

It's the experience of the lack of dukkha that makes it a pleasure.

If you can understand what is dukkha (suffering and discontent) then you can use that to understand Nibbana a little more easily.

Nibbana is the extinguishment of dukkha or unbinding to dukkha.

OP: When language itself is mired in conditionality, a slave to the world of perceptions and conceptualization, how can we even try to use it to convey the meaning of the unconditioned, asaṃskṛt Nirvāṇa? Isn’t it a semantic impossibility?

Both Nibbana and dukkha are empty of inherent substance or svabhāva (that is given to it by the mind) according to Nagarjuna.

That means it's not what you think it is.

What you conceptualize with your mind is papanca.

So trying to describe Nibbana with words would be like trying to describe the sweetness of a mango with words, to someone who has never tasted a mango and worse still, by someone who has never tasted a mango himself.

And that's the genius of Nagarjuna.

He slaps you philosophically and wakes you up to understand papanca.

The true Nibbana is also the complete and permanent end of papanca. This can be found in MN 1.

  • now that you have studied Nagarjuna extensively, do you identify yourself with the Mahayana?
    – user13375
    Jul 2, 2021 at 20:39
  • @YesheTenley Actually I don't know much about what Nagarjuna taught. I identify with Theravada and not Mahayana because I prefer to stick close to the original teachings of the historical Buddha. This doesn't include the second and third turning of the wheel.
    – ruben2020
    Jul 3, 2021 at 1:06
  • @ruben2020 You said: "Nibbana is 'experienced by the mind' when it is completely free of defilements." That is what I am driving at : We can at best talk about the 'experience of the mind', Nibbana ‘as experienced', not 'as it is in itself', because that is an impossibility. In itself, as described so wonderfully by Nagarjuna, it is indefinable, ineffable. That is why all the cataphatic definitions like, 'Nibbana is bliss; Nibbana is peace, etc.', I feel, are only ‘this-worldly’, second-hand explanations of the transcendental inexplicable. Jul 4, 2021 at 7:20
  • @SushilFotedar Nibbana is not bliss in the way that a cheesecake is bliss. Nibbana is bliss in the sense that the absence of dukkha is bliss.
    – ruben2020
    Jul 4, 2021 at 8:45

impermanence or disintegration is the lack of a thing being able to endure into the next moment thru its own power

therefore the ending of the thing is the nature of its production.

like that ur death is uncaused by virtue of ur having been born. u need nothing else and so ur death is unconditioned.

similarly nirvana is this but applied to your mind and its afflictions. once u can perceive negation/unconditioned/absences on command accurately u are well on the way to nirvana.

  • here in sautrantika negation are as unconditioned as nirvana since unlike theravada they know how to posit negations by way of mere imputation instead of not knowing how to do that and therefore needing to rely on causes to establish them as conditioned negations which is far inferior
    – bw tho
    Jul 2, 2021 at 14:45
  • It is possible to click the edit link below your answer if you need to add any further information to your question. ;-)
    – user17652
    Jul 2, 2021 at 20:16
  • thanks i know but i wanted it more like a footnote :p
    – bw tho
    Jul 4, 2021 at 13:22

I found this answer helpful.

The experience I asked about in the question, i.e. the thought or experience which prompted the question, could be phrased as a positive ...

"I'm glad I did X which was a good thing!"

... but when I experienced it, it was more precisely phrased as a negative ...

"I'm glad I didn't do Y which would have been a bad thing!"

Perhaps that's analogous to AN 9.34 quoted in ruben2020's answer

The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

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