Is Buddhism nihilistic?

During the life of the Buddha, his doctrine was sometimes characterized as being nihilistic. After his passing, Buddhism, especially the versions adhering closely to the Pali Nikayas, has also been characterized as being nihilistic. Here is one definition of nihilism: The rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. Certainly, Buddhism cannot be characterized as being devoid of religious and moral principles. But it might be characterized as adopting an approach to life that characterizes life as meaningless. If the goal of the Buddhist practitioner is to get off the wheel of birth and death in final extinction, or blowing out, what value does life hold? How is this different from the materialist who holds that the final destination of all living beings is death and oblivion, except that the Buddhist holds the process to require many lifetimes and the materialist considers only one life to complete the process?


The ultimate goal of a practitioner is to attain nibbana. The core of the dhamma, no doubt, is the 4NT. But around this core we can say there is another layer describing a mundane path: keep in mind that throughout history (and even today) there have been large numbers of Buddhists who were just trying to attain rebirth in a better realm (or at least not a worse realm). They practice by striving to apply moral precepts to everyday life, and by striving to maintain harmonious relationships that aid in moral development. For them, the meaning of life (if it can be put that way) is to live well and be rewarded for it.

Another point worth mentioning here is that the Buddha didn’t speak in terms of the meaning of life itself. It’s like asking “What is the meaning of a tomato?” I’m not sure how to answer that question. There are things and beings that exist, without an identifiable first cause all the way back at the beginning of everything. In the absence of an identifiable ultimate cause, it is difficult to speak about meaning… see what I mean? Meaning seems to be wrapped up in the intention someone had when making something. He spoke in terms of cause and effect. Do people get attached to things that are impermanent? Eventually, they’ll be gone. Do people get attached to life itself? Eventually that’ll be gone too. When we suffer because of things that aren’t there (or when we experience aversion to things that are), we need to change something in ourselves to stop being so… deluded. This is the most important level at which the Buddha was talking.

It seems you’re saying that nibbana and non-existence are equivalent. This is not an equivalence made in the suttas. While arahants are alive, they still exist, and talk, and walk around, etc. Their lives are described in the suttas. Even after death, they can be said to still exist, but their existential state is said to be beyond human comprehension:

As they do not grasp another birth the state they attain after final passing away has to be described as unborn (ajaata) . Similarly it is uncaused (asa"nkhata). As it is no ordinary death it is called the deathless state. It is beyond elemental existence, beyond brahmalokas, neither in this world nor the next, beyond the radiance of the sun and moon. It is beyond what we know of in the three worlds of kaama, ruupa, and aruupa . Therefore, as it is beyond the ken of ordinary human understanding, any attempt to define the state is bound to end in failure. The course of liberated ones cannot be traced like that of birds in the air. (Here)


[markedsel, ]

If the goal of the Buddhist practitioner is to get off the wheel of birth and death in final extinction, or blowing out, what value does life hold? How is this different from the materialist who holds that the final destination of all living beings is death and oblivion, except that the Buddhist holds the process to require many lifetimes and the materialist considers only one life to complete the process?


Of the 31 planes of existence the human plane is unique in providing the opportunity for complete escape from suffering because it contains an admixture of both happiness and suffering, whereas the others are either one or the other, so human existence is the most highly valued.

"It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole.

"It’s likewise a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state.”— SN 56.48


Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Thanks for that insight. I had wondered.

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Sorry, but that is a common belief without real basis in the suttas to my knowledge. Some suttas seem to suggest it, but more suttas suggest that heavenly birth is superior. Why else would most practices to lay people aim at a heavenly rebirth - to make it even more difficult to get enlightened? In the end the suttas actually don’t say which rebirth is better in terms of enlightenment.

So, @markedsel 's question is valid: no rebirth is supreme in Buddhism - the value implication about life is clear then.

It can be said, but not by the Buddha in the suttas. In fact, it is a hallmark of arahants who passed away that they are nowhere to be found, especially for Mara. In contrast to beings reborn above-Brahmas (who are also not to be found) arahants stay out of sight for good. It’s a difficult case to be made based on the suttas that arahants ‘exist somewhere’. Much easier and straight forward is the reading that they are indeed gone - as intended.


All Buddhas are born on the human plane as it has the grounds for enlightenment:

"Human beings, devas, and brahmas are the broad categories of beings in the “happy realms of existence.” The human world is marked by a pervasive admixture of happiness and suffering. This dual nature is the main reason why Buddhas are born here. The uneven quality of human life enables us to realize the unreliable nature of happiness and inspires in us a sense of urgency about the need to win deliverance from suffering.

Unlike the beings in the lower planes, few humans are overwhelmed by unmitigated and excruciating pain. We do, of course, experience physical pain and mental stress, but such experience is generally intermittent. For the most part our suffering is of a more subtle character. We can observe that every pleasure brings along some measure of dissatisfaction. Our contentment is unsteady and secured with difficulty. We must struggle to satisfy our needs and desires, but become anxious the moment we succeed. Even when we are relatively happy we are beset by a deep, subtle kind of suffering. This suffering, which lies below the threshold of painful feeling, stems from the momentary vanishing of all the conditioned formations of body and mind. In spite of our pain, human beings with an inclination for the Dhamma can make the effort to live by the Five Precepts of morality. We can find the energy to train our minds towards the concentration and insight required for awakening.

In contrast, devas see far less of the evident kinds of misery in their daily existence. Some brahmas meet no gross suffering except when they look down at beings on lower planes. Many devas instantly obtain whatever sense object they wish for. Brahmas dwell in sublime bliss and equanimity. In the fine-material and immaterial spheres ill will is suppressed, and without it there is no mental unhappiness.

It is difficult for deities to appreciate that everything changes and to recognize that their present pleasure and bliss do not last forever. Like Baka Brahma, many imagine that they are eternal. The subtler forms of suffering tend to escape them as well. Without help from a Buddha or one of his disciples, they do not understand that the impersonal conditions that will terminate their felicity are already in operation. Many of the higher beings, as we have seen, have no idea that they will die, that their worlds and lives are in flux, that they are not fully in control, but are decaying at every instant. So in spite of their excellent concentration and present opulence, they are even at a disadvantage compared to human beings, who are driven by pain and frustration to seek the path to deliverance.

How then can such beings be induced to meditate? Why should they become concerned with suffering and its cessation? We have indicated the answers to those questions in preceding chapters. This is the job of the Buddha as “teacher of the gods.”—"Teacher of the Devas", Susan Elbaum Jootla

SN 56. 102-113:

Happiness and suffering and their essential relationship to escape:

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From the point of view of materialist, we continously ,endlessley trying to find meaning and happiness to life in terms of sense pleasures. . Inability to find the solution resulted in suffering.out of ignorance we think this is the only life,have maximum pleasure and never die. In the processes we got attached to this body ,life,youth, and health. And our suffering intensifies when the body gets old, when it get deceases, when it dies and comes back again to do the same.
Instead of above if we follow eightfold path,we can live happy and meaning full life, might reach nibbana this life, gracefully passes through old age, sickness and death and comes back again to do the same to reach the ultimate state of happiness .Has definite purpose in life.
This I found the difference between materialistic life and bhudists life.

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I think that meaning is subjective, something added, an assumed purpose, often the result of culture and upbringing. Presumably for a Buddhist the purpose is liberation from suffering.

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I don’t understand how quoting a book would prove the point. Unless the author communicated with devas and brahmas. Fact is, few are the suttas in which divine rebirth is denigrated, many are the ones where it is presented as good (for lay people). Gods are presented as worthy of respect - not as much as Buddha and arahants, but still above humans.

We can of course have our own opinions, but I don’t see a sutta-based argument that says “If you have to be reborn, get reborn as a human, because as a god you won’t be able to properly practice the Dhamma”. If I can put it that simply, the Buddha could have put it for sure just as simply as well, but he didn’t.


Give the Brahmajāla Sutta a read.

Because the Brahma realm, the gods of streaming radiance and the gods replete with glory are all the pleasant rebirths (see DN33). And these rebirths ALL end. So they are temporarily “better”. Then back to demons and animals and what not. bleah

I believe there’s a number of different objectives of the Buddha:

  1. Rediscover nibbana and proclaim it.
  2. Teach what is spiritually beneficial (for the ‘afterlife’).
  3. Teach what is beneficial for ‘this life’ (materially, and psychologically).

Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful replies and various points of view. More opinions are most welcome. I will refrain from following up at this point, as the discussion seems quite fruitful as it is now flowing.

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Is it morbid for a doctor in training to become an oncologist to be interested in cancer or is it a requirement?

In the same paper ( " Teacher of the Devas", Susan Elbaum Jootla) that @paul1 quoted we find Iti83.

“It is human existence, bhikkhus, that is reckoned by the devas to be a good bourn. When a human being acquires faith in the Dhamma-Vinaya taught by the Tathagata, this is reckoned by the devas to be a gain that is good to gain. When faith is steadfast in him, firmly rooted, established and strong, not to be destroyed by any recluse or brahman or deva or Mara or brahma or by anyone else in the world, this is reckoned by the devas to be firmly established.”

But that is the devas own reckoning, which is not explicitly endorsed by the Buddha as far as I can see.


So is the idea that there are 4 possibilities here?

  1. Exist (delusion)
  2. Not exist (delusion)
  3. Dependant Origination (mundane wisdom)
  4. Unborn (supramundane wisdom)

Could you elaborate what you mean with these four categories? Do you mean that these are the possibilities and arahants would somehow fit in 3 and 4?

Is nibbida (disillusionment) relevant in a discussion about nihilism?

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I’m thinking in terms of the OP where it is asked:

I’m thinking that the materialist view would be bound within 1 and 2; existence or non existence as in SN12.15

But the Buddhist view would call that deluded and instead opt for 3 and 4; conditionality and the end of conditionality.

In the OP we get the question:

Would the answer then be: The value that life holds for the Buddhist is that it allows one to get off the wheel of birth and death. i.e, the only value of life is it (by kamma) allows for it’s own deconstruction, which is beneficial because life is characterised as purely suffering arising and ceasing.

Would that be a fair characterisation of what is being offered by the Buddha in the EBTs?


Absolutely :slight_smile: What is on your mind?

Stepping away from the convenient sutta-materialist, it is actually not difficult to craft a ‘materialistic Buddhism’ with its own dependent origination: Consciousness and hence identity are emergent phenomena based on matter (rupa --> nama --> salayatana --> phassa …). Along with these emergent consciousness and identity come attachment and suffering.

Once the true dharma has been realized - namely that all our issues are artificial by-products of matter-based consciousness - the tendency of the mind to plan, protect, defend, etc. vanish and the matter-based mind quietly awaits the dissolution of the body or breaks the machine voluntarily - the end. no afterlife.

In order to separate Buddhism from this kind of materialism/nihilism one would have to really work out the difference carefully. It is not enough to say “oh, so if everything is matter-based then why ethics? why meditation? why well-being at all?” Because the fact of suffering would still remain in such a shallow ‘acceptance’. Probably a big difference would be that Buddhism has a case against suicide, and this kind of materialism doesn’t.

I think this is a difficult proposition. Isn’t it like saying ‘the value of tooth-ache is that it can be healed’? If there was no life, there would be no need for an ending of life (and of dhamma) in the first place.