Is Buddhism nihilistic?


Hi Brenna, I read your paper and found it to be quite good and very interesting. of course, it is a large topic, but you did very well in a few pages. I have practiced both Mahayana and Pali-based Buddhism so I can appreciate the distinctions you were drawing between the two traditions. I think the Buddhism of the Pali suttas appears not to be nihilistic because of its great emphasis on ethics and the positive impact of dhamma practice on both individuals and society. The positive impact includes both temporal and spiritual positive outcomes. This is in keeping with the Buddha’s emphasis on suffering and the end of suffering, and making the path available to all who wish to travel it. As far as the Mahayana, I believe you are correct that emptiness is not a total negation of everything and has a positive outcome in practice for the bodhisattva and for all beings whom he or she assists. I have found that the scheme of bodhisattva practice in Mahayana is quite different from the actual practice. in the theoretical conception, the bodhisattva delays entry to Nirvana until all beings are saved. But in practice, this concept is mainly for skillful means in developing great compassion. In fact, the Bodhisattva cannot really effectively help sentient beings until he or she is enlightened. so the actuality is to become enlightened as soon as possible so as to help others, rather than delaying, so as to help others. this is relative bodhicitta. And in the view of ultimate bodhicitta, there is no self and no others to save. So ultimately it is skillful means, not a description of a cosmic reality. What do you think?


Hi Mark,

So sorry for not replying sooner.

Thank you!

This is so interesting, I didn’t know that! As a student I am mostly taught theoretically, i.e. what the texts say, so (especially with Mahayana) I am not so aware of what is done in practice vs. conceptually.

Would you mind clarifying what ultimate bodhicitta means in this sense? Do you mean that one’s level of desire to become enlightened/attain Buddhahood becomes so great that the self and other merge together?


Hi Brenna. No problem for any delays. I seldom look at Sutta Central. So I am slow on my end as well. I have written a rather long answer. I hope it is helpful. It will follow.


The source of suffering is the deep-seated belief that ‘I’ am separate from others. This is avijjā (avidya), which is the first factor in Dependent Arising and with avijjā as condition arises the saṅkhāra (saṃskāra) which is our accumulation of habitual patterns leading to dukkhā (duhkha), repeated suffering in cyclic existence.

The ‘I thought’ is the basis of the arising of the world, at least as we know it. Once the first person (‘I’) is established, the second person (‘you’) and the third person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’) follows. The world of the arising and passing of endless phenomena is all contingent upon this establishment of a separate ‘I’. this is the world of relativity, and relative truth operates within this world, based on the delusion of ‘I’.

With the removal of the ‘I’, our constructed world collapses, disappears. Then there is true love rather than what goes by the name of love in our relative world, which would be better termed as infatuation. This relative love comes and goes, depending upon changing conditions.

True love does not come and go as it does not ‘come’ from anywhere. It just is.

The Buddha recognized this fundamental problem and taught the practice of the Four Brahmavihāra (loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity) as a way to fundamentally transform the base of the mind by letting go of the barriers between self and others. The Buddha seems to have laid much greater emphasis on this practice than upon any other, except perhaps the keeping of the precepts, which is the foundation for the brahmavihāras. They are not two practices, but two aspects of one practice.

All other practices, such as mindfulness of breathing, samatha, and vipassana depend upon this practice of loving kindness (compassion…). Loving kindness melts the ice of the heart. It allows us to see all beings as our very self. Without melting the ice in the heart, we can spend years in mindfulness practice, or in deep jhāna, and all the while it will be ‘I’ as mindful of the breath, or ‘I’ feeling great peace in deep absorption.

The ego can get on board the enlightenment project. It can have a more aware self, a more peaceful self, a better version of ‘me’. This ego-based practice is impossible with deep practice of loving kindness, which destroys the barriers. I believe this is why the Buddha laid such emphasis upon the brahmavihāras. Someone has counted the times this practice is laid out in the Majjhima Nikāya, and in sheer terms of number, the practice is mentioned many times more often than, for instance, mindfulness of breathing.

It seems this is also the reason why the Mahāyāna teachers emphasized bodhicitta above all other practices, and as a foundation to other practices. It may be that the practice of the brahmavihāras was being neglected for other practices during the centuries leading to the Mahāyāna. Hence the charge that the arahants were being selfish. I find this charge of selfishness to be ludicrous. No arahant is selfish, but rather holds all beings in his or her heart. But practitioners can be on the track of self-improvement rather than the path of awakening. Hence the emphasis on bodhicitta.

The Lotus Sūtra unfortunately set the tone for disparagement of the arahant, and the upholding of a superior kind of enlightenment. This is ludicrous, but unfortunately was enshrined in many Mahāyāna Sūtras. It is a relic of an old controversy about how to properly practice which is now obsolete, and divides Buddhists rather than uniting them. The cosmology of the Bodhisatto Gotama having practiced the perfections (paramitas) over eons so as to become a Buddha was applied by the Mahāyāna to all practitioners, and replaced the aspiration to become an arahant. There is no basis in the original teachings of the Buddha for such a change.

This aspiration to become a Buddha in order to help all beings is skillful means, to create a deep sense of universal love and indeed, responsibility towards others. Maybe people believe it (the cosmology) to be true.
But such conceptions and cosmologies belong to the relative world of self and other. They have no ultimate truth or validity. But they do have the virtue of loosening the grip of ignorance and conditioned patterns. They can begin to melt the ice in the heart. It is not a problem to adopt such provisional beliefs as long as we are humble about our beliefs and do not cling to them. If we cling to them, they become views, which embed us deeper into saṃsāra. When we cling to views, we come into conflict with other people with different views. Not recommended by the Buddha.

Yes, intensity of practice can help transform relative bodhicitta into ultimate bodhicitta. Such intensity is indicated in such works as Śāntideva’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (The Way of the Bodhisattva), and the King of Prayers of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra in the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra. Such intensity can help transcend relative bodhicitta which is created by the mind and touch ultimate bodhicitta which is pure universal love.

As for the actual practice in Mahāyāna, my experience is with Tibetan practice and with Zen. In Tibetan practice, at the beginning of each sadhana, first there is refuge taken in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, followed by bodhicitta aspiration prayers. These bodhicitta prayers are taken directly from the brahmavihāras as given by the Buddha in the Pali tradition. One of the most widely used is the Four Immeasurables. It is as follows:

May all sentient beings, boundless as the sky, have happiness and the causes of happiness. This is loving kindness (metta).

May all sentient beings, boundless as the sky, be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. This is compassion (karuna).

May all sentient beings, boundless as the sky, have that endless joy which is free from suffering. This is joy (mudita).

May all sentient beings, boundless as the sky, rest in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.

These are called immeasurable for a number of reasons. One is that the qualities created in the aspirant are limitless, that is without boundary. As in the practice as given by the Buddha in the Pali suttas, the aim here is boundless mind, boundless love (compassion, joy, equanimity).

The following prayer is also for taking refuge and for developing bodhicitta:

In the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha I take refuge until enlightenment is reached. By the practice of generosity (dāna) and the other paramitas, may I quickly attain highest perfect enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings.

As we can clearly see from this prayer, there is no delay in reaching enlightenment. One is aspiring to enlightenment as soon as possible as no effective help can be given to sentient beings while remaining in delusion.

In addition, when there is awakening, one sees all others as oneself. It is clearly seen that all others are already fully awakened, only that they are not aware of it. They are identifying with the ego consciousness which is always deluded and remains so. It is a consciousness modified by time and space.
All beings are, at this very moment, manifesting awakened consciousness, but it is obscured by the mind of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, with which they identify. The awakened consciousness is not created, nor is it sometime in the future. It is here and now. to speak of it as a consciousness is using relative terminology, and should not be taken literally. It is the uncreate which the Buddha speaks of. It is never created, nor is it ever dissolved. Hence, all beings are delivered, but they must awaken to realize it.

This would be ultimate bodhicitta.

Thus, the whole story of going through numerous births while perfecting the paramitas and culminating in becoming a Buddha is just part of the dream. However, as long as we believe in the world, believe that we are the body, believe that we are the mind, such stories may be helpful as skillful means to enable us to shake loose from the hold of the habitual conditioning and to wake up out of the dream. So relative bodhicitta for the practitioner of Mahāyāna, and the practice of the brahmavihāras for the follower of the Pali tradition, is very skillful means, very helpful.
Does this make any sense? Hah, hah!


For me, MN1 offered a slightly different perspective.

delight is the root of suffering --mn1/en/bodhi

It is slightly different in that one does not immediately see the self in delight.

For many many years I thought small delights free of suffering. And in finding suffering I slowly learned to moderate my delights. Yet no matter how much or subtly I restrained, I always found suffering in equal measure. So it came as a relief to read MN1. This one phrase made me laugh. It made me laugh at the joke I had played on myself.

Much later I learned about Dependent Origination and the building blocks of self and Identity View.

So yes, what you posted does indeed make sense. :pray:


Seeing the self in delight. Good one. I will reread MN 1, a very deep sutta, with this in mind. Thanks for the inspiration and for your helpful thoughts.

I realized that I neglected to explain how the Chan/Zen tradition handles the bodhisattva vows. Here it is:

In the Chan (Zen) tradition the distinction between elative and ultimate bodhicitta is also clearly shown, and on the level of practice there is no attempt to delay enlightenment in order to save all sentient beings. All efforts are made to attain enlightenment as soon as possible in this very life.
The most influential teaching on the subject is that of Hui Neng in the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, (六祖壇經, Liùzǔ Tánjīng). In chapter 21 of that sūtra, the Chan patriarch Hui Neng (惠能) guides his students in the Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva (四弘誓願) as follows,
Now that you have taken refuge in the threefold body of the Buddha, I shall set forth the four great vows for you. Good friends, recite in unison after me:
Sentient beings are without limit, I vow to save them. (眾生無邊誓願度)
The defilements (kleśa) are without limit, I vow to cut them off. (煩惱無盡誓願斷
The dharma gates are without limit, I vow to master them, (法門無量誓願學)
Unsurpassable is the Buddha Way, I vow to realize it. (佛道無上誓願成)
These four lines form part of the daily liturgy in Chan temples, so all ordained and lay practitioners recite these vows regularly. But Hui Neng’s subsequent teaching clarifies how the vows are to be viewed. He says,
Good friends, when I say ‘Sentient beings are without limit, I vow to save them,’ it does not mean the I, Huineng, will save you. Good friends, within their minds sentient beings must each save themselves within their own natures within their own bodies. What is meant by ‘saving yourself with your own nature’? Despite heterodox views, defilements, ignorance, and delusions, in your own physical bodies you have in yourself and originally awakened nature. It is just in regard to this originally awakened nature, that they can be saved with right views. Once they realize the wisdom of prajña, of right views, they will wipe away ignorance and delusion, and each will be saved by himself. If false views come, with right views you will be saved; if delusion comes, with awakening you will be saved; if ignorance comes, with wisdom you will be saved; if evil comes, with good you will be saved; if the defilements come, with bodhi you will be saved. Being saved in this way is known as true salvation.
‘Defilements are without limit, I vow to cut them off’ means with your own minds to cast aside the unreal and the false. ‘The dharma gates are without limit, I vow to master them’ means to master the unsurpassed true dharma. “Unsurpassable is the Buddha Way, I vow to realize it’ means always to act humbly, to practice reverence for all things, to be free from deluded attachments, and to give rise to the prajña within your awareness. When delusions are cast aside, you realize for yourself the completion of the Buddha Way, and put into practice the power of the vows.
For Huineng, all beings participate in our awakening due to their own undefiled Buddha nature. On the relative level, once the practitioner completes the Buddha Way, he or she can then put into practice the power of the vows, which is of benefit to those who have not yet realized their nature of enlightenment.
Thus, there is no delay in attaining awakening in the Chan (Zen) tradition. Hui Neng is clear in assigning responsibility for salvation to each and every being, who must attain salvation by him or her own realization. The language suggesting that one will save all beings is not to be taken at face value, but has a deeper meaning. Real ability to help sentient beings along the Way comes with attainment of awakening. The avid practitioner dedicates him or herself to immediately completing the Way of the Buddha.