The Cult of Nothingness

to understand better the sociological persistence in the West of the wrong identification of nibbana with a nihilist nothingness, this book investigate its historical roots, and is quite useful:

“The Cult of Nothingness: the Philosophers and the Buddha”. Roger-Pol Droit, 2003.

What kind of operation was it, after all, that allowed this Buddhism to be imagined as a cult of nothingness? Throughout the period where Buddhism was called nihilistic, silence got confused with negation, or, if we prefer, suspension with refusal, or abstention with destruction. Buddhism, thus, a religion “without” God, became “atheistic,” denying God. The absence of God, his defacto inexistence, if we may put it that way, saw itself transformed either into something missing from which the Buddhists were supposed to suffer even without knowing it, or into a hostility, a destructive activity, an adoration of nothingness in the place of God. The worship of nothingness, evidently, was not freedom of thought, but rather a negative worship. Adoring nothingness meant not adoring anything. It was, at best, a case of fetishizing inexistence, of transforming inanity into an object of fantasy, of wishing to disappear. At worst, it was wanting evil, activating destruction, wanting the other, the world, and oneself to disappear.

It was the same with nirvana. Out of this salvation without qualities, someone tried to fashion annihilation. Nothing can be said about it? Then it is nothing at all! It cannot be imagined, or described? Then it must be destruction! It has no cause? That is an unending death! Everything happened as if, at each turn, the “negative path” were being confused with negation, with ineffability, with absolute nothingness. The same procedure took place with the soul. The Buddha was silent on the subject; was he refusing to say if the soul existed or not? If it was, or was not, immortal? The conclusion was that he was refusing its existence. On the political level there was the same confusion, the same sliding, but in a different place: indifferent to the hierarchy of castes, but refusing it only as regards salvation, the Buddhist path to deliverance was reputed to be revolutionary, subversive, egalitarian.

The Sautrantika of old also thought that Nibbana was nothing, that final Nibbana was a true and final death.


yes. I believe it was the only case, and these premises disappeared as also the school diluted into other schools, If I’m not wrong. Maybe you know better this point

I don’t think other early traditions claimed this, no. For Theravada and Sarvastivada and others nibbana was a real existent, but it was beyond comprehension. For Yogacara too nibbana really is something, but it’s beyond concepts. Obviously Madhyamaka doesn’t assent to either.