The Clouds, The Moon and Nibbāna

In the Visuddhimagga, when discussing conformity knowledge and change-of-lineage knowledge Ven. Buddhaghosa makes use of the following metaphor:

  1. Herein, conformity is able to dispel the murk of defilements that conceals the truths, but is unable to make Nibbána its object. Change-of-lineage is only able to make Nibbána its object, but it is unable to dispel the murk that conceals the truths.
  2. Here is a simile: [674] A man with eyes went out at night, it seems, to find out the conjunction of the stars, and he looked up to see the moon. It was invisible because it was concealed by clouds. Then a wind sprang up and blew away the thick clouds; another blew away the medium clouds; and another blew away the fine clouds as well. Then the man saw the moon in the sky free from clouds, and he found out the conjunction of the stars.
  3. Herein, the thick, medium and fine kinds of darkness that conceal the truths are like the three kinds of cloud. The three kinds of conformity consciousness are like the three winds. Change-of-lineage knowledge is like the man with eyes. Nibbána is like the moon. The dispelling of the murk that conceals the truths by each kind of conformity consciousness is like the successive blowing away of the clouds by each wind. Change-of-lineage knowledge’s seeing the clear Nibbána when the murk that concealed the truths has disappeared is like the man’s seeing the clear moon in the sky free from cloud.
  4. Just as the three winds are able only to blow away the clouds that conceal the moon but cannot see the moon, so the three kinds of conformity are able only to dispel the murk that conceals the truths but cannot see Nibbána. Just as the man can only see the moon but cannot blow away the clouds, so change-oflineage knowledge can only see Nibbána but cannot dispel the defilements. Hence it is called “adverting to the path.”
  5. For although it is not adverting, it occupies the position of adverting; and then, after, as it were, giving a sign to the path to come into being, it ceases. And without pausing after the sign given by that the change-of-lineage knowledge, the path follows upon it in uninterrupted continuity, and as it comes into being it pierces and explodes the mass of greed, the mass of hate, and the mass of delusion never pierced and exploded before (cf. Paþis II 20).

CHAPTER XXII Purification by Knowledge and Vision … on2011.pdf

This ties in with the Theravādin view that nibbāna is an externally existing dhamma which is cognised at the mind base. One that exists right now, but is obscured by the defilements. Interestingly, in the Paṭisambhidāmagga section on mindfulness of breathing we find this stanza:

Whose mindfulness of breathing in
And out is perfect, well developed,
And gradually brought to growth
According as the Buddha taught,
'Tis he illuminates the world
Just like the full moon free from cloud.

Which is a direct quote from the Mahākappinattheragāthā (Thag 10.3):

One who has fulfilled, developed,
and gradually consolidated
mindfulness of breathing
as it was taught by the Buddha:
they light up the world,
like the moon freed from a cloud.

So here we have a metaphor found in the Teragāthā that relates to the meditator who perfects mindfulness of breathing, which is then lifted by the Paṭisambhidāmagga in its own discussion of ānāpānasati. By the time we get to the Visuddhimagga this metaphor has changed somewhat, as it is now used to refer directly to awakening itself. The “moon” is now being taken as a direct metaphor for nibbāna, rather than the original usage of referring to the actual meditator. A quick search on SuttaCentral also returned the Upakkilesa Sutta (AN 4.50), which also makes use of the cloud and moon imagery in relation to defilements and the mendicant rather than nibbāna itself.

It would be interesting to see if this metaphor is also found in the northern sutras or Abhidharma texts, and if it ever relates to nibbāna rather than simply referring to the defilements and the meditator. Does this imagery of moon and clouds show up in the northern texts?


The Northern tradition is very fond of Dharma-fables concerning a) fingers pointing at the moon, and b) reflections of moons in clear still pools. I’ve definitely seen parables comparing bodhi and the mind in dhyāna to a cloudless sky with the moon hanging in it. I think from Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, but I’m not sure. I will look to find.


I can find the metaphor of the full moon emerging from clouds in a few places in Chinese sources, but haven’t seen it deployed with the moon representing Nirvāṇa after a couple quick text searches. Similar metaphors do appear in various texts ranging from Agamas to Abhidharma and Mahāyāna texts.

In the Samantapāsādikā, a commentary on Vinaya translated by a Sarvâstivādin monk, the exact same metaphor you’ve quoted at Thag 10.3 occurs at T1462.748b4, just not in verse. It occurs, instead, in an answer explaining meditation.

The Ekôttarika Agama (EA 15.6) has a verse passage (T125.721a29) that says a person who previously did evil but later stops lights up the world like the moon emerging from clouds, and a monk old or young who cultivates the Buddha’s path also lights up the world in the same way. The same thing also occurs in verse in the Saṃyukta Agama (SA 1077; T99.281a26). These verses made it into the Chinese Dharmapāda, too.

A similar metaphor occurs in the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa at T1509. 419a7, but it describes the radiance of the Buddha when he emerged from his mother’s side as like the moon emerging from clouds. The Dirgha Agama (DA 2; T1.14a6, which is the *Mahāparinirvāṇa Sutra) has a verse that likens the Buddha’s radiance to the moon emerging from clouds, too (but generally, not just at birth).

Speaking of the Nirvāṇa Sutra, the Mahāyāna version (which is completely different from the Nikaya/Agama version), says liberation is like the full moon without clouds obscuring it (T375.634b7). That’s getting close to the moon as a metaphor for Nirvana. It deploys the metaphor of clouds covering the sun and moon in a number of passages in different ways, with clouds being delusion or defilement preventing correct knowledge.

At T1509.698b2, the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa also uses clouds as a metaphor for defilements of the sky, which is fundamentally pure, in an explanation of the emptiness of nature. When the clouds are blown away by the wind, then its purity is revealed. People say the cloudy sky is unclear and the cloudless sky is clear, but the clear sky was always behind the clouds. This same metaphor is used at T1509.334a15 to explain how the real nature of things is revealed when the kleśas like avidyā are removed that create false impressions.

There are also metaphors of wind blowing away clouds. In the Chinese Dharmapāda (T210.569b17), there’s a verse that likens wisdom eliminating the floods (asavas) to wind blowing away clouds.

There’s even a passage in the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (T1509.510b1) that deploys some of the subtleties that Buddhaghoṣa does with those two knowledges he discusses, saying that the teachings of the five aggregates up to the 18 special qualities of the buddha can create the conditions for prajñā but can’t actually produce prajñā. This is likened to how a strong wind can reveal the sun and moon by blowing away the clouds that cover them, but it doesn’t create the sun and moon.

So, these are cherrypicked examples I can find with a text search of CBETA looking for “moon,” “cloud,” and “wind.” A person could write a thesis on all the variations of these metaphors, I’d imagine.


Wow. Thank you. It would also be interesting to see if this metaphor can be found elsewhere, such as in the Vedas or Upanishads. I’ll check it out.

From Mahaprajnaparamitopadesa:

  1. Although the bodhisattva creates for himself a buddha body, he is unable to completely fill the universes of the ten directions; the body of the Buddha, on the other hand, fills innumerable universes completely.
  2. To the beings whom he converts, the bodhisattva shows a buddha body comparable to the moon of the fourteenth day: brilliant as it is, it is not like the moon of the fifteenth day.

The translator in the footnotes links this to a Ratnakuta scripture, namely the Kāśyapapariparta, for the opposite moon imagery – this time a new moon:

Tad yathāpi nāma Kāśyapanavacandro namaskṛyate sā ceva pūrṇacandro na tathā namaskuryate |
evam eva Kāśyapa ye mama śraddhadhaṃti te balavaṃtataraṃ boddhisatvaṃ dmamskartavya |
na tathāgataḥ tat kasya heo bodhisatvanirjātā hi tathāgataḥ

O Kāśyapa, just as one venerates the new moon rather than the full moon, so those who believe in the self must venerate the Bodhisattva more than the Tathāgata. And why? Because the Tathāgatas derive their origin from the Bodhisattva.

The last footnote references a Gayāśīrṣasūtra. I had never heard of this sutra. Looking at it, it looks similar to the Akasagarbhasutra, being namely a guide to beginner’s bodhisattva practice, but that is just on a glance. It speaks of the generation of bodhicitta as a moon. It is either this footnote or the later Udanavarga quote that I was thinking about earlier:

“[In the bodhisattva’s career], what are the four minds (citta)?

  1. The first [production of the mind of bodhi (prathamacittotpāda);
  2. the mind of the path of the practices (caryāmārgacitta);
  3. the mind of the irreversible bodhisattva (avaivartikacitta);
  4. the mind of the bodhisattva separated from buddhahood by one single lifetime (ekajātipratibaddhacitta)…

The prathamacittotpāda is like the new moon (navacandra); the caryāmmargacitta is like the fifteenth day moon (variant: like the moon of the fifth or seventh day of the month); the avaivartikacitta is like the moon of the tenth day; the ekajātipratibaddhacitta is like the moon of the fourteenth day; the wisdom (prajñā) of the Tathāgata is like the moon of the fifteenth day. By the prathamacittotpāda, the bodhisattva transcends the śrāvaka stage; by the caryāmārgacitta he transcends the pratyekabuddha stage; by the avaivartikacitta, he transcends the unstable bhūmis (aniyatabhūmi, i.e., the first seven bhūmis); by the ekajātipratibaddhacitta he is established in the stable bhūmi (niyatabhūmi, i.e., the tenth bhūmi).”

This schema is likely one of the ones where sravaka-arhats are placed beneath bodhisattva stream-entrants on terms of wisdom and emancipation. Compare these with schemata that place the arhat at the 7th or 8th bhumi, well-beyond bodhisattva stream-entry at the 1st bhumi.

Leaving that and entering into the EBTs, we have SN45.146-148 “The Moon”

“The radiance of all the stars is not worth a sixteenth part of the moon’s radiance, so the moon’s radiance is said to be the best of them all. …”

This is comparing the moon with the Buddha. Then, moving on to Mil 7.4.7:

‘Venerable Nāgasena, those five qualities of the moon which you say he ought to have, which are they?’

‘Just, O king, as the moon, rising in the bright fortnight, waxes more and more; just so, O king, should the strenuous Bhikshu, earnest in effort, grow more and more in good conduct and righteousness and virtue and the constant performance of duty, and in knowledge of the scriptures and study, and in the habit of retirement, and in self-possession, and in keeping the doors of his senses guarded, and in moderation in food, and in the practice of vigils. This, O king, is the first quality of the moon he ought to have. And again, O king, as the moon is a mighty lord ; just so, O king, should the strenuous Bhikshu, earnest in effort, be a mighty lord over his own will. well, or a mountain precipice, or a river in flood, would be abashed alike in body and in mind; so be ye, O brethren, as the moon in your visits to the laity. Holding alike in your outward demeanour and your inward spirit, be ye alway, as strangers on their first visit, retiring in the presence of the laity].”’

This one compares the brightening of the moon with a monk perfecting in practice.

And then we have AN 4.50, a sun-and-moon comparison, where bad mendicants and Brahmins don’t get to shine like the sun and moon when they engage in bad behaviour:

“Monks, there are these four obscurations of the sun and moon, obscured by which the sun and moon don’t glow, don’t shine, don’t dazzle. Which four? Clouds are an obscuration of the sun and moon, obscured by which the sun and moon don’t glow, don’t shine, don’t dazzle. Fog is an obscuration… Smoke and dust is an obscuration… Rahu, the king of the asuras, is an obscuration of the sun and moon, obscured by which the sun and moon don’t glow, don’t shine, don’t dazzle. These are the four obscurations of the sun and moon, obscured by which the sun and moon don’t glow, don’t shine, don’t dazzle. In the same way, there are four obscurations of contemplatives and brahmans, obscured by which some contemplatives and brahmans don’t glow, don’t shine, don’t dazzle. Which four? [etc.]

SN 2.9 is about a moon too, but appears to chiefly be a pedagogical myth about the Buddha’s power over the gods.

Then SN 16.3 compares the way monks should approach people to the way that the moon is always “new:”

At Savatthī. “Bhikkhus, you should approach families like the moon— drawing back the body and mind, always acting like newcomers, without impudence towards families. Just as a man looking down an old well, a precipice, or a steep riverbank would draw back the body and mind, so too, bhikkhus, should you approach families.

“Bhikkhus, Kassapa approaches families like the moon—drawing back the body and mind, always acting like a newcomer, without impudence towards families. What do you think, bhikkhus, what kind of bhikkhu is worthy to approach families?”

It seems people are more likely to be the moon than their minds or “things” like nibbana when it is postulated as a particular discreet dhamma, which you describe here:

This appears to be a Theravadin-specific version of the moon parable, likely matching up to Theravada-specific notions of nibbana. Interestingly enough, for all their disagreement, Madhyamaka will also say that nibbana exists right now, yet is obscured by the defilements, yet does not agree with Theravada concerning nibbana being a particularized discreet “thing/dhamma.”

Furthermore (and you can augment this by searching “moon” in the SuttaCentral database) we have more substantiation of this:


Moggallana Bhante upon seeing a deva, asked him a question.

Moggallana Bhante:

Dear Deva, you are living in a long-lasting mansion and your hands are decorated with various ornaments. You are mighty and shine like the moon in your mansion.

(Vv 80)

“Venerable sir, for one who has faith in regard to wholesome states, a sense of shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, and wisdom, whether day or night comes only growth is to be expected in regard to wholesome states, not decline. Just as, during the bright fortnight, whether day or night comes the moon grows in colour, circularity, and luminosity, in diameter and circumference, so too, venerable sir, for one who has faith in wholesome states, a sense of shame, fear of wrongdoing, energy, and wisdom, whether day or night comes only growth is to be expected in regard to wholesome states, not decline.

(SN 16.7)

Whoever was heedless before, but later is not heedless,
that one shines brightly on this world like the moon released from a cloud.
The one whose wicked deed is covered over by a good deed –
that one shines brightly on this world like the moon released from a cloud.

(Dhp 167-178, also in Uv Kg 16 & T211.10)

This last quote is ubiquitous to Udanavarga compilations.


That is great! Interesting. It is as I thought then. The metaphor has simply been modified and adapted to fit the Vism. idea of nibbana. Also interesting what you said about Madhyamaka, but I guess that is a different topic.

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Or, as a different way of phrasing it, the Vism is doing the same thing as the literature above and extending the comparison with the moon to various metaphorically “shiny” things, in the Vism’s case nibbāna. The verdict is not yet out on if the Buddha ever used the moon analogy to refer to nibbāna itself before Vism. The moon in the literature above is often used in comparison because it is the best of lights (in the night sky). Above, the Buddha is the moon because he is the best of lights. From a “classical” Theravāda (i.e. Ābhidhammika) POV, nibbāna could similarly be the “best of,” and most shiniest of, the dhammas, like the moon.

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