Nirvana & Non-Duality


Madhyamaka is just one school of Mahayana philosophy. Most Mahayana sects have been influenced by a combination of Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, etc.


This is true.

Speaking of Madhyamaka, though, consider another one of Venerable Nāgārjuna’s ‘non-dual’ statements, especially in light of the exchange I was lucky enough to have with Venerable Sujāto here, and I am using a Sinitic recension of the MMK, not the Sanskrit:

All Buddhas either speak of self or speak of no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect, within this, there is neither self nor no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect is defined as mental activity’s and spoken language’s ending.
There is no arising and no cessation, there is calm extinction, such is nirvāṇa.
All is real, all is unreal, all is both real and unreal,
all is neither real nor unreal: this is called all Buddhas’ dharma.


What do you think Venerable Nāgārjuna means by “is defined as mental activity’s and spoken language’s ending”?

I would like to recommend any readers further interested in MMK to these two Mādhyamika commentators I have quoted here before:

Ven Vimalākṣa Mādhyamikaśāstra

Some people teach that there is a soul, in which case it must be of two kinds. Either the five skandhas are themselves the soul, or the soul exists apart from the five skandhas.

If the five skandhas are the soul, then the soul will have the characteristics of arising and ceasing. Thus it says in the verse ‘if the soul is the five skandhas it will have the characteristics of arising and ceasing’, and why? Becuase once arisen, it will perish. Because they have the characteristics of arising and ceasing, the five skandhas have no permanence, and just as the five skandhas have no permanence, the two dharmas of arising and ceasing likewise have no permanence. Why is this? Because arising and ceasing also perish after they have arisen and hence are impermanent. If the soul were the five skandhas, then, since the five skandhas are impermanent, the soul would also be impermanent and would have the characteristics of arising and ceasing, but this is not correct

If the soul existed apart from the five skandhas, the soul would not have the characteristics of the five skandhas. As it says in the verse: ‘if the soul is different from the five skandhas, then it will not have the characteristics of the five skandhas’. Yet no other dharma exists apart from the five skandhas. If there were any such dharma apart from the five skandhas, by virtue of what characteristics, or what dharmas, would it exist? If you say that the soul is like empty space, separate from the five skandhas yet existent, this is also wrong, and why? We have already refuted empty space in the chapter on refuting the six elements. No dhama called ‘empty space’ exists.

If you assert that a soul exists because belief in it exists, this is not correct, and why? Belief is of four kinds; the first is belief in a manifest thing, the second is belief in something known through this manifest thing as when seeing smoke, we know that there is a fire. The third is belief by analogy as when, in a country with no copper, one uses the example of it being like gold. The fourth is belief in what is taught by saints and sages, as when they say that there are hells, heavens and uttarakuru. Without seeing anything, we believe the words of the holy men and thus know about them.

Such a ‘soul’ cannot be found amongst these beliefs. It is not found in belief in manifest things, nor in inferential belief, and why? Inferential knowledge means that having previously seen something, you thenceforth know (about) this kind of thing, as for example a man who has previously seen that where there is fire there is smoke, subsequently, seeing only smoke, knows that there is fire. The concept of ‘soul’ is not like this, for who could first have seen the soul in the combination of the five skandhas, such that afterwards, seeing the five skandhas, he knows that there is a soul?

Suppose you say that there are three kinds of inferential knowledge, the first being ‘like the original’, the second being ‘like the remainder’, the third ‘seeing together’. ‘Like the original’ means previously having seen that fire has smoke, seeing smoke now, you know that it is like the original which had fire. ‘Like the remainder’ means, for example, that when one grain of rice is cooked, you know that the remaining ones are all cooked. ‘Seeing together’ means, for example, that when you see with your eyes a person going from hereto another place, you also see his going. The sun is like this. It emerges from the east and goes to the west. Although you do not see it going, because a man has the characteristic of going, you know that the sun also has going. In the same way suffering, pleasure, hate, desire, and insight, etc. must also have whatever goes with them. For example, seeing subjects you know that they must rely on some king. But these are all incorrect, and why?

In belief through the characteristic of together-ness, having first seen a person combined with a dharma of ‘going’ who reaches some other place, when you subsequently see the sun reach another place you know that there is the dharma of ‘going’. But there is no prior seeing of the five skandhas combined with a soul, such that subsequently seeing the five skandhas you know that there is a soul. Therefore, no existence of a soul can be established by inferential knowledge of ‘together-ness’.

There is no soul to be found within the teachings of the saints either, and why? In the teaching of the saints, what they first see with their eyes, they subsequently expound. And since the saints teach other things which can be believed, we should know that when they speak of the hells, etc., these can be believed in, but it is not so with the soul, for there is no-one who, having previously seen a soul, subsequently speaks of it.

Therefore, you may seek for a soul within all beliefs such as these four types of belief, but you will not be able to find it. Since you cannot find a soul even though you seek for it, no distinct soul exists separate from the five skandhas.

Further, because of the refutation of seeing, seer and seen in the chapter refuting the six sense faculties, the soul is to be refuted in the same way. For if even an eye seeing coarse dharmas cannot be found, how much less can we find a soul by empty delusions, imagination and so forth? For these reasons, we know that there is no self.

‘Mine’ exists because ‘I’ exists. If there is no I, then there is no mine. Through putting into practice the holy eight-fold path and extinguishing the causes of I and mine, one attains the firm insight of no I and no mine.

Question: Even though non-self is the truth, what is wrong with teaching, merely as a convention, that there is a self?

Reply: Non-self exists by virtue of the negation of the dharma of self. No fixed self can be found, so how could there be non-self? If there were a fixed non-self, then annihilation of if would give rise to attachment and craving. As it says in the Prajñāpāramitā, if a bodhisattva has a self, he cannot act, and if he has no self, he cannot act.

Question: If it teaches neither self nor non-self, neither emptiness nor non-emptiness, what does the Buddha-dharma teach?

Reply: The Buddha teaches the true character of all dharmas, and within that true character there is no path for verbal expressions, for it extinguishes all mental activity. Mind arises because of the characteristic of grasping, exists because of the rewards and retribution of karma in a previous world, and cannot therefore see the true character of dharmas. The Buddha teaches the cessation of mental activities.

Question: Even though an unenlightened person’s mind cannot see the reality, surely a saint’s mind can see the reality? Why does he teach the cessation of all mental activities?

Reply: The true character of dharmas is nirvana, and cessation means nirvana. It is in order to point towards nirvana, that cessation is also termed cessation. If one’s mind were real, what use would be such ways to liberation as emptiness, etc? Why, amongst all the samadhis would the samadhi of cessation be regarded as the highest, and why ultimately reach nirvana without residue?

Therefore we should know that all mental activities are empty deceptions, and as empty deceptions, should cease. The true character of all dharmas surpasses all dharmas of mental phenomena, has no arising and no ceasing, and has the characteristic of calming and extinction solely.

Question: In the sutras it says that all dharmas, having from the beginning the characteristic of calm extinction are themselves nirvana. Why do you say that they are like nirvana?

Reply: Those who are attached to dharmas classify dharmas into two kinds, some being worldly, some being of nirvana. They say that the nirvana dharmas are calm and extinct, but do not say that the worldly dharmas are calm and extinct. In this treatise it is taught that all dharmas are empty in nature and have the characteristic of calm extinction. Since those who are attached to dharmas do not understand this, nirvana is used as an example. Just as with your assertion that the characteristic of nirvana is emptiness, with no characteristics, calm extinction, and no vain thoughts, so it is with all worldly dharmas.

Question: If the Buddhas do not teach self, non-self, and the cessation of all mental activities and the cutting-off of ways of verbal expression, how do they make people understand the real character of dharmas?

Reply: All the Buddhas have unlimited powers of skilful means, and dharmas have no fixed characteristics. In order to save all living beings, they may teach that everything is real, or they may teach that everything is unreal, or that everything is both real and unreal or that everything is neither unreal nor not unreal. If you search for a real nature of dharmas, you will find that they all enter into the ultimate meaning and become equal, with identical characteristics, which is to say no characteristics, just like streams of different colour and different tastes entering into a great ocean of one colour and one taste, which is to say no taste. At the time when one has not yet penetrated into the true character of dharmas, each one can be contemplated separately as unreal, existing merely by the combinations of conditions. There are three levels of living beings; superior, average and inferior. The superior person sees that the characteristic of dharmas is that they are neither real nor unreal. The average person sees the characteristics of dharmas as either all real, or all unreal. The inferior man, since his powers of perception are limited, sees the characteristics of dharmas as a little real, and a little unreal, regarding nirvana, because it is an inactive dharma and does not perish as real, and regarding samsara, because it is an active dharma, empty and false, as unreal. Neither unreal nor not unreal is taught in order to negate ‘both real and unreal’.

(T1564.24a15, translator Brian Christopher Bocking)

Ven Candrakīrti Mūlamadhyamakavṛttiprasannapadā

To quote: “Whatever is most familiar to one is most effective for him naturally. If one is bewildered how can one receive the truth? As it is not possible to make a foreigner understand by a language not his own, so the unenlightened person (loka) cannot be made to comprehend except by means of the everyday.”

As the illustrious one said: “The unenlightened person is at variance with me; I am not at variance with the unenlightened person. What is accepted by the unenlightened is accepted by me; what is not accepted by the unenlightened is not accepted by me.” Thus the scripture. The illustrious one always treated the elements of personal existence, the senses and their objects, and the types of consciousness as “real” (tathyam). These are thought to be real when perceived by those who are to be guided - those suffering from the optical defect of primal ignorance — in whom has been aroused the desire to learn about the various natures of the things generally accepted as real. And this with an eye on the higher truth and with a view to arousing the faith of the ordinary man in himself.

“This holy man is aware of every last happening in the world, he is omniscient and all-seeing; he possesses the knowledge of the inanimate world from the infinity of space to the coursing of the winds and he knows the uttermost limits of the world of beings; he knows incontrovertibly the many kinds of origin, existence and end, what is cause, what is effect, what is pleasurable, what is painful.”

So, after those who are to be guided have realized the omniscience of the illustrious one, at a later time it is explained that everything is not real (na tathyam) as naively taken. At this point what is real is what does not change. But all compounded things change in fact because they perish by the moment. Therefore, because of this fact of change, they are not real either. The word “or” means “and”; it is to be taken as joining the two views. That is: “Everything in this world can be taken as real and as not real.”

For some it is explained that everything in the world is both real and not real at the same time. For the unenlightened everything in the world is real; for those who have started on the way everything is false because not perceived in its naive reality (evam anupalambha).

There are those however who, from long practice, see things the way they really are, who have eradicated the obstructions (avarana) virtually completely like the roots of a tree; for them it is explained that everything in the world is neither real nor not real. In order to remove what remains of the obstructions, both alternatives are rejected even as one rejects predicates like black and white for the son of a barren woman.

This is the teaching of the illustrious Buddhas. It leads men from byways and establishes them on the right way. In the interests of gradual instruction and of adapting to those who are to be led, the teaching is flexible.

All the teachings of the illustrious Buddhas, who are possessed of universal compassion, ultimate insight and practical wisdom, are intended to be a means of penetrating (avatara) to the eternal way of things (tattvamrta). The perfectly realized ones have not uttered one word which was not in fact a means of penetrating to the eternal way of things. They administer medicine suited to the illness. They have the urge to succour those who need guidance and they teach the truth accordingly. To quote from the Four Hundred Verses: “Things are real, things are not real, things are both real and not real: all this is said variously. Indeed all cures as such are cures for a specific desire.”

But, you ask, what is the nature of “the way things really are” which the teachings of the revered ones are intended to penetrate to? This is explained in the verse “When the object of thought is no more, there is nothing for language to refer to.” When this obtains what further questions can there be? Though this is so, none the less the way things are really must be spoken of. This is done by speaking in a second sense (samaropatah). One accepts the everyday (laukika) terms “real”, “not real” and so on which are drawn from the world of transactional discourse (vyavaharasatya).

Nagarjuna expresses it this way.

(Darbhaga 1960, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 10: tatra - yadyadyasya priyaṃ pūrvaṃ tattattasya samācaret na hi pratihataḥ pātraṃ saddharmasya kathaṃcana iti tathā ca bhagavatoktam - loko mayā sārdhaṃ vivadati nāhaṃ lokena sārdhaṃ vivadāmi yalloke’sti saṃmatam, tanmamāpyasti saṃmatam yalloke nāsti saṃmatam, mamāpi tannāsti saṃmatam [etc.], translation Mervyn Sprung)


You are muddling up different concepts and schools here, and Nibbana and Nirvana are described in different terms. In the EBTs Nibbana is described as “unconditioned”, which just means it is not subject to conditions - “non-duality” looks like a red herring in this context, or at least a fishy equivalence.

No, the fourth Dharma seal says that Nirvana is beyond description.


The term “non-duality” has a range of meanings, so could you specify in which sense you are using it here? See here: Nondualism - Wikipedia


Some śrāvakāḥ are dualists (their Magic: the Gathering game is lit, tho). IMO you would see the response on DhammaWheel the second you posted something that said “non-dual”.


I’ve already quoted Rev. Walpola Rahula that Nirvana, as the unconditioned, is “beyond all terms of duality and relativity.”

Is there anyone on this forum who can legitimately claim to be a better scholar of Buddhism than Rev. Walpola Rahula?

That might depend on which translation you are reading.


That doesn’t tell us very much, particularly because “non-duality” has a wide range of meaning.

Could you please explain precisely what you mean by “non-duality” in the OP? Is it one of the meanings in the Wiki article I posted above?

And how does your definition of “non-duality” relate to descriptions of Nibbana in the EBTs?

It feels like you are muddling up ideas from different traditions, which can get quite confusing.


One thing I might be able to say for sure is that I am not a perennialist. I believe that Mahayana Buddhism is the true religion, with Theravada a close second.

I also see and appreciate the similarities between Buddhism and other Eastern religions like Taoism and Hinduism, though I don’t see them as equal to Buddhism.


Its not a religion, more of a structured set of expert practices which leads to the end of suffering as opposed to fruitless philosophising.


OK. I would still appreciate your definition of “non-duality”.


re·li·gion (rĭ-lĭjən)
a. The belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers, regarded as creating and governing the universe: respect for religion.
b. A particular variety of such belief, especially when organized into a system of doctrine and practice: the world’s many religions.
c. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order: a widow who went into religion and became a nun.
American Heritage Dictionary Entry: religion

All of the Buddhism applies to Buddhism, including Theravada, as a religion.

While Buddhism isn’t based on belief in a theistic god, belief in Dharma, karma, rebirth, etc., as well as various practices and rituals constitute a religion. There’s nothing wrong with that.


The chapter on the Flower Ornament Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations explains non-duality pretty well, as well as other chapters:


That’s a very long document which I don’t have time to wade through.

I was hoping you could provide a pithy definition of what you mean by “non-duality” in the OP.