Is Buddhism nihilistic?


Surgery for cancer (nibbida) vs killing off the patient, which is nihilism

A person without insight, doesn’t understand the depth of the problem like a person with ‘just’ a head ache, doesn’t know a brain tumour, lurking in his head. To that person trying to grasp the utility and dangers of brain surgery for ‘a headache’ isn’t a meaningful thing to do without proper understanding and furthermore, accepting the problems. The depth of the solution cannot be understood without knowing the depth of the problem.


Hi Mark! Wonderful questions and one of my favorite topics. I actually just wrote a paper about this recently from a Mahāyāna point of view (dealing with Prajñāpāramitā and śūnyatā) and came to the conclusion that Buddhism isn’t nihilist because the practices present within Buddhist actualize towards a very feasible/meaningful goal. I think this is true of most (if not all) strands of Buddhism, in that while nibbāna is a kind of extinction of ‘being,’ the process of attaining nibbāna is something that is done with great moral and spiritual purpose. So while ‘life’ is not necessarily what is valued in Buddhism, the path itself holds a positivity that is not in accordance with the concept of nihilism, which is centered more towards ontological negativity.


Hi Brenna, If I give you my email address, would you send me a copy of your paper? I promise not to exploit it in any way, only to read and appreciate it. Eager to read it if possible. With metta


Does cessation of the six sense base and no more arising of future existence equivalent to nihilism ? I would say most likely .

Namarupa sutta

When, bhikkhus, one dwells contemplating danger in things that can fetter, there is no descent of name-and-form. With the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of the six sense bases…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

“Suppose, bhikkhus, there was a great tree. Then a man would come along bringing a shovel and a basket. He would cut down the tree at its foot … he would winnow the ashes in a strong wind or let them be carried away by the swift current of a river. Thus that great tree would be cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated so that it is no more subject to future arising.


Nihilism has to be negative, in essence. It’s not a good outcome. So quotes like the above must be seen in their correct context.


Yes. That was exactly what I was saying. But, I think the difference between a toothache and life (merely ‘suffering arising and ceasing’ from a Buddhist point of view) is that life has no discoverable beginning whereas toothaches come and go. To put it another way toothaches are part of life, not the whole enterprise. When you say “If there was no life …”, the Buddhist response I guess would be “Well there is life, that’s the fact.”

For one who believes the Buddha when he says that there is no apparent start to ‘suffering arising and ceasing’ (and by implication that there is no natural end) to then believe that contained within that same incessant ‘suffering arising and ceasing’ is the path to end it, must be a great boon for them. That they can potentially achieve that ending would I imagine give their life meaning.


So it’s still basically: “I’m so grateful for this life, because it allows me to end it”? Hm…
But you’re right, in the end it comes down to believing that there is an afterlife. If it wasn’t for that then there would be little difference to materialism or ‘nihilism’ if you like. We should not confuse nihilism with depression or a lack of purpose or ethics. Not that nihilism is in itself joyful - but I can be a nihilist and still say “while I’m at it, let me be good to others and develop this otherwise futile mind. What does it matter that everything is gone after death”.

The regular nihilism-bashing reminds of the old Christian argument that one needs god in order to be good - which I’d say is proven wrong by now.

Also one should exclude another sub-type of ‘nihilism’ which is tiredness, weakness, and exhaustion. The idea of “Life is horrible, I just want it to end” - this is not a philosophical or spiritual position, it’s just a sad state of mind speaking.


Perhaps post the paper so those interested in this question could read it?


This is vibhava tanha, I believe. The desire not to exist.


Do the suttas clarify if they mean a philosophical life-end-wish, or a person in (mental) pain?


I’m wondering what the practical difference is between vibhava tanha and nibbida?


From reading the various comments, it seems most of us agree the Buddha considered a wholesome (kusala) life lived with morality and integrity, to be worth living as it benefited oneself and others. The ethical aspect of the dhamma as taught by the Buddha indicates that at least on a relative level, we are to value the wholesome life, which ultimately leads to liberation. So in this sense, it is difficult to see Buddhism as nihilistic.

Another topic which has emerged is that of annihilationism, which is not identical to nihilism. Buddhism was declared by its opponents and doubters to be annihilationist because it denied the atman or any permanent essence that would survive death. Even with the return of the individual consciousness in a lengthy cycle of rebirths, the ultimate aim was nibbāna, or extinction. Whether this is annihilationist is controversial, and perhaps we can address this issue.

On this subject I have below a quote from Saṃyutta Nikāya which may be apropos.

S 12.15 [PTS III.17] from Nidānavagga of Saṃyutta Nikāya Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi translation p 544


At Sāvatthi. Then the Venerable Kaccānagotta approached the blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘right view, right view.’ In what way, Venerable sir, is there right view?”

“This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends upon a duality-upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence with regard to the origin of the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence with regard to the world.

“This world, Kaccāna, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self’. He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge of this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccāna, that there is right view.

“’All exists’: Kaccāna, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle…”


Sāvatthiyaṃ-Atha kho āyasmā kaccānagotto yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami. Upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ nisīdi. Ekamantaṃ nisinno kho āyasmā kaccānagotto bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: '‘sammādiṭṭhi sammādiṭṭhī’'ti bhante vuccati, kittāvatā nu kho bhante sammādiṭṭhi hotīti?

Dvayaṃnissito kho’yaṃ kaccāna loko yebhuyyena atthitañceva natthitañca. Lokasamudayañca kho kaccāna yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato yā loke natthitā, sā na hoti. Lokanirodhaṃ kho kaccāna yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato yā loke natthitā, sā na hoti. Lokanirodhaṃ kho kaccāna yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato yā loke atthitā, sā na hoti. Upāyupādānābhinivesavinibaddho khvāyaṃ kaccāna loko yebhuyyena tañca upāyupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ na upeti, na upādiyati, nādhiṭṭhāti 'attā me’ti. Dukkhameva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī’ti na kaṅkhati. Na vicikicchati. Aparappaccayā ñāṇamevassa ettha hoti. Ettāvatā kho kaccāna, sammādiṭṭhi hoti.
Sabbamatthī’ti kho kaccāna, ayameko anto. Sabbaṃ natthī’ti ayaṃ dutiyo anto. Ete te kaccāna ubho ante anupagamma majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ deseti.


Immediately after this quote from Saṃyutta Nikāya , the Buddha gives a teaching on Dependent Arising, which I did not include.


Vibhava-tanha is a defilement to be overcome, and not the same as desire for repetitive samsara or suffering to come to an end. If a someone thinks and assumes ‘I exist’ and for whatever reason wishes that one doesn’t exist, that I understand as vibhava tanha or desire not to exist. It’s a suicide. The Buddha said only Arahanths, may faultlessly end their own lives, as their work is done and the weight ‘put down’, as otherwise if the causes of rebirth still exist suicide doesn’t resolve anything permanently and they may commit an unwholesome act.


But surely there is a difference between a spiritual or even Buddhist practitioner who sees life as a fundamental problem and wants to end it, in contrast to someone who just wants to die because of depression.


My experience of depression is a sense of hopelessness, not seeing the possibility of change or improvement. That’s clearly different to being on a spiritual path.


Sure. However, please note that I am just a humble Master’s student and I am by no means an expert on this topic.

Artinger Nihilism Paper.pdf (129.9 KB)


Thank you Brenna. Very kind. I will respect the Creative Commons copyright and just read it for my benefit.


BTW. The Wikipedia article on Nihilism has an interesting section on Buddhism


Thank you for pointing that out.