Nibbāna === saṃsāra?

I only found two suttas that use the words “saṃsar-” and “nibban”:

1 kn/cnd/cnd22_root-pli-ms.json
2 kn/snp/vagga3/snp3.12_root-pli-ms.json

Sadly, that doesn’t exactly answer your question…


= Nothing = Śūnyatā ?


Samsara=Nibbana= Sunyata in the final reckoning if we pursue this line of logic.

That said, I strongly suspect that the Buddha would not have approved of this line of thinking… It leans too much towards Nihilism/Fatalism…the “One is already enlightened, one just doesn’t know it” kind of thinking…

I imagine that the Buddha of the EBTs would probably have said to Nagarjuna…

“The sage has known both ends,
and is not stuck in the middle.
He is a great man, I declare,
he has escaped the seamstress here”

"Contact, mendicants, is one end. The origin of contact is the second end. The cessation of contact is the middle. And craving is the seamstress, for craving weaves one to rebirth in this or that state of existence. That’s how a mendicant directly knows what should be directly known and completely understands what should be completely understood. Knowing and understanding thus they make an end of suffering in this very life.”

… And advised him to put aside his conceit/ attachment to metaphysical Views and work on the abandonment of Craving!


Bhikkhu Bodhi doesn’t seem to approve non-duality either.

Moreover, in the same way that I have difficulty identifying Nibbāna with infinite consciousness, I have difficulty identifying it with emptiness, because the Buddha speaks of these two planes of existence and does not make them the Absolute but mere planes elevated in the pyramid of Being.

(…) Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the dimension of infinite space and the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of nothingness. (…) Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness and the perception of the dimension of nothingness—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. (…)

On the other hand, the end of the sutta (SC 12.1-SC 13.5) seems to prove me wrong and imply that nothingness and emptiness are not the same thing, the second being the Absolute, Nibbāna…


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I think of Samsara and Nibbana simply as two descriptions :slight_smile:
If our current life is a ‘vessel’, Samsara is when it is full of the conditioned, and Nibbana is when it is empty of the conditioned. Pari-Nibbana is when the vessel itself is destroyed while empty. Complete cessation :slight_smile:


That’s right. They aren’t places or people. It’s like saying “full === empty?!” Obviously not. They are opposites. But they do describe the same thing: in this case a container. The container for saṃsāra and nibbāna is the heart. Saṃsāra is the heart that is fettered and nibbāna is the heart that is free. That’s all.


Thanks so much for supplying links to original sources! And also, while we’re at it, may I just remember the work of Rahul Sankrityayan, who discovered this and many other manuscripts from Tibet and made them available. This is how we can see precisely what Nagarjuna said in the original Sanskrit.

Let’s look at what these passages say and don’t say. If there is one thing about Nagarjuna that we should bear in mind, it is that he was extremely subtle and precise in his phrasing, and deliberately worded his terse sayings to provoke a response. The key to grokking his method is to realize that he is engaging in a historical dialectic; specifically, critiquing the Abhidharma project.

16:10: na nirvāṇasamāropo na saṁsārāpakaṣaṇam
There is no addition of nirvana nor removal of samsara

Like so many things Nagarjuna says, this is an interesting way of looking at it, but seems uncontroversial. When someone becomes enlightened, they neither add to nirvana nor take away from samsara. He comes at things from a sideways angle, challenging us to see old truths in new ways. Here, he is echoing old Sutta imagery about, say, the fact that the earth or the ocean is neither increased or diminished. He wants to get you on board, to nod your head and take at least this step with him.

But why is this an issue? What point is Nagarjuna making? He is, of course, setting us up!

yatra kastatra saṁsāro nirvāṇaṁ kiṁ vikalpyate
This being so, what distinction is there between samsara and nirvana?

He does not say there is no distinction. He asks, quite reasonably, on the basis of what we are to make a distinction.

The term vikalpyate has a connotation of discriminative, limited thinking. He is posing apparent paradoxes to force the mind into accepting the limits of rational knowledge and open up to a different way of seeing. The methods of discrimination, i.e. the methods of the Abhidharma, are inadequate for understanding the central profundities of the Buddha’s teaching. In other words, he is echoing the Buddha’s saying that nirvana is difficult, hard to see, beyond the scope of reason (atakkāvacara).

And yes, the (much later) koan school of Zen drew directly from this method.

On to the next passage!

25:19: na saṁsārasya nirvāṇāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ
Samsara has no detail at all to distinguish it from nirvana.
na nirvāṇasya saṁsārāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ
Nirvana has no detail at all to distinguish it from samsara.

(Note, I’m using “detail” for kiṁ cid, keep it in mind, it comes up next verse, too.)

Here again, the key term is viśeṣa “distinction”. It is also a term of logic and rationality. A huge part of the Abhidhamma project was to nail down the specific details that differentiate one thing from another.

Rhetorically, what he is saying is: “It’s ultimately impossible to find absolute conceptual distinctions between things. Even in the case of samsara and nirvana, which we all understand are the furthest things apart from each other, such attempts fail a close scrutiny.”

But what kind of difference is Nagarjuna talking about? The following passage illustrates his point.

25:20: nirvāṇasya ca yā koṭiḥ koṭiḥ
The limit of nirvana is also the limit [of samsara]
na tayor antaraṁ kiñcit susūkśmam api vidyate |
there’s not the slightest detail at all found between them.

This harks back to the Sutta saying, which all Nagarjuna’s audience would have known well, that there is no “first point” (pubbakoti) of samsara. We all know that. But of course, unless a being is in samsara, they cannot realize nirvana. So the first point of samsara is the first point of nirvana. But the first point of samsara is unknowable, and hence the first point of nirvana is also unknowable. This illustrates the previous point, that there is nothing by which we can differentiate the two.

Notice how dense Nagarjuna’s writing is. In these few lines, he is calling back Sutta imagery and ideas, while taking the reader by the hand over familiar ground, then pushing them into empty space. He employs a subtle philosophical argument, whose purpose is to show that philosophical arguments are useless, or at least, limited in application. He’s tying the Abhidharmists in knots, beating them at their own game.

To interpret these sayings in a positivist ontological sense is to fall into exactly the kind of thinking that Nagarjuna was trying to undermine. He does not say that “nirvana and samsara are the same thing”. On the contrary, his whole point is that such definitive statements hide implicit assumptions about the real existence of “things” that go beyond what either the Suttas or empirical evidence can support.

The Abhidharma movement, according to Nagarjuna, forgot the limits of knowledge. This is why he reminds them of this at this crucial juncture. In their relentless quest to pin everything down, to define and categorize, they lose the epistemic humility that was a hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching.


Human life is like a car.
When it drives, it’s samsara.
When it stops, it’s nibbana.
I think Nagarjuna is telling us that nibbana and samsara is the same car.
You are still you, but a stopped you.
Nibbana and samsara are nothing else but you.
Like 2 sides of a coin, nibbana or samsara, happiness or pain, it’s all up to you.


Excellent commentary. I think that is the better way to read Nagarjuna. He’s not simply asserting (or denying) ontological positions, but calling into question how they are made.

One thing I learned after following @satananda’s links was the connection between Greek Pyrrhonism and Nagarjuna. Now, that’s a rabbit hole to fall into at some point when I find time.


There also seems to be a possible and very interesting rapprochement with Whitehead’s process philosophy:



The separation between Samsara v Nibbana is the difference between conditioned and unconditioned!
Within this…there is no distance between the two…it is a pointless point.
Words merely points…the truth isn’t told…one must see it for oneself!


I just edited the second last paragraph, from:

his whole point is that there are no “things” about which we can make such definitive statements.


his whole point is that such definitive statements hide implicit assumptions about the real existence of “things” that go beyond what either the Suttas or empirical evidence can support


But of course, unless a being is in samsara, they cannot realize nirvana.

Bhante is that a typo? I understand your point. But either we as Modern Buddhist either forgot that there is Nirvana and Parinirvana.

While experiencing Nirvana on this earth Buddha and other still had to experienced their past karma.

When Parinirvana happens that’s when it can be finally said your out of Samsara.

So what if we understood bad? He is not using the word Parinirvana. He is using Nirvana.

And besides that. When someone is in the Path. Buddha has explained it’s like using the boat to crossover. You won’t put the boat on your back and take it home. It was used to crossovers. So the same Buddha says a different way in suttanipata when reach stay unattached.

So the point is samsara and nirvana you have to let go for it to truly lead to Parinirvana.

Nicely said. Not only that but I’m reading a Ghandhara book introduction to a Sūtra in the book. And I remembered reading what you said. This Sūtra Buddha explains the Spiritual Path like a log in the river slowly going to the ocean. Think it. River and Ocean. Log is you. The river can be a lot of waves. But when it reaches the ocean. Things can calm down. :bulb:

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Here is Sayadaw explanation of that sutta.

He says the river is samsara and ocean is Nirvana.

The Lord Buddha continued,

  • If that log is not caught on the near bank, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it is not caught on the far bank, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it is not submerged under the water, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it does not land on a small island in the middle of the river, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it is not taken away by a human being, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it is not taken away by a deity, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it does not sink into a whirlpool, it will reach the ocean.
  • If it does not become rotten, it will reach the ocean.

Here the Omniscient Buddha points out that if there is not any of these eight faults, the log will reach the ocean. Then, the Buddha said, "Why will this log reach the ocean? It is because the current of the river inclines towards the ocean. It will, therefore reach the ocean if it has none of these eight faults.

Read more here

This was a distinction made by later Buddhists. You cannot find it in Samyukta agama of Mula Saravastivadins. It is only found in Theravadin scripture. I love how @ Sujato unpacked Nagarjuna’s statement. It is brilliant.

The texts (MN98, SN1.55-57, SN15, AN4.9/10/49, AN5.55, SN48.50, SN56.21 ) use the word samsara almost any time to refer to the rounds of rebirth in which beings are roaming from one state to the other for very long. It does not refer to only humans.

This is the most common use of the word in the texts mentioned. In this sense samsara is not nibbana.

AN4.199, SN35.229 talks about samsara in the same context of the lower worlds, the bad destinations.

Short answer is ‘one has to realize Nibbana’ to truely know if they are same or not.

Thank you for the offer/idea “Nibbāna === Saṃsāra” but sorry I got too overwhelm of suffering to even entertain such an idea.

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The suttas are not a homogenous collection, so we have different conceptualizations or definitions of nibbana that are at times contradictory.

In some suttas, nibbana is an actual sphere or place the mind can go to, a state of consciousness to be accessed. In other suttas, nibbana is not a place so much as it the cessation of passion, greed, aversion, and delusion. Some suttas suggest consciousness or things like perception and feeling cease with nibbana while others strongly disagree.

For those who equate nibbana with samsara, it is more a deduction of sorts. If we look upon impermanent, dependently originated and selfless dhammas/phenomena and begin to crave them, name them, cognize them, identify with them, identify them as separate, treat them as having essences or selves, then we are in samsara. When we look upon impermanent, dependently originated and selfless dhamas and don’t do those things, it is nibbana. That is one explanation of the view of those who equate nibbana and samsara.

What’s the same or identical in both these cases are the impermanent, dependently originated and selfless dhammas/phenomena. In that sense, nibbana and samsara are referring to the same thing. But samsara has the extra baggage so to speak.

I am not saying I hold/not hold this view, but this is how it was once explained to me.

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