Time for a dumb question

One of the things I’ve become interested in is the way in which repeated exposure to standard introductory presentations about Buddhism conditions us so strongly that as we read the suttas we don’t even notice that the suttas and what we’ve learned from later sources aren’t in agreement.

For example, in just about every introductory book on Buddhism you’ll read, there’s a contrast made between samsara and nibbana. To us, they’re obvious opposites. We’re in samsara. We (or at least Buddhists) want to attain nibbana.

A few years ago I noticed that I’d never actually seen this pairing of terms (as opposed to the general concepts of suffering/freedom from suffering, conditioned/unconditioned) in the suttas. I did a fair amount of searching, going through the indexes of the books I had on hand. I think I maybe found one instance of samsara and nibbana being mentioned close to each other. There may be more, but I’m pretty sure they’re uncommon in the suttas. If I’m wrong, I’d love to see examples. (A quick search here revealed the pairing in some later texts, like the Vimānavatthu, but not in earlier texts.)

I assume that for the Buddha and the compilers of the EBTs, these two concepts were not seen as being naturally paired with each other in the same way as they are for us. I’ve no idea what this means, but I’d welcome some informed speculation (or knowledge, if you have it).


You’re sticking this topic to samsara/nibbana or more general theme of what’s in the intro to Buddhism books, but not in the suttas?

I think an easy way to render samsara/nibbana difference is in the 1st vs 3rd noble truth. 1st Noble truth: samsara (rounds of rebirth) is suffering. 3rd Noble truth: Nibbana is end of suffering, end of rebirth.

Clear opposite.

As for the filtering effect of intro to Buddhism courses/books, I think it’s unavoidable. One cannot really expect beginners to start from the suttas, of which many would find boring, repetitive, too deep etc. Also, without grounding from the beginner’s courses, one might misread a lot of things in the suttas.


I think you are very right in stating that introductions to Buddhism without prior knowledge of the suttas strongly conditions us. This is very similar in many traditions as for example if you’re a Catholic you’d tend to read certain passages in the Gospels according to what you were taught in Catechism, when in fact upon closer inspection and an effort to discern our own conditioning you realize the passage has nothing to do with with whatever later tradition claims.

However, I don’t think the example about samsara/nibbana fits in this context as it is quite clear to me that these two categories are frequently presented as polar opposites in the Suttas:

It is actually only in later traditions that there was an effort to reconcile the two, without any basis in the Suttas IMO.

Samsara and nibbana, as you say, are “clear opposites.” My question is, why aren’t they treated that way in the suttas?

1 Like

The example you provided contrasts “conditioned phenomena” with “unconditioned phenomena.” It doesn’t mention either the terms samsara or nibbana. It’s the lack of contrast between those terms that interests me.

1 Like

Here the Buddha defines the “unconditioned” as the ending of greed, hatred and delusion:

Here the Buddha defines Nibbana (with remainder) as the ending of greed, hatred and delusion:

Therefore it seems to me “The Unconditioned” and “Nibbana” are synonyms for the same concept.
Samsara is by definition (see Dependent Origination) a conditioned process, so it lies opposite to The Unconditioned, i.e. Nibbana.

I think it can be a waste of time to try to find out why the sutta didn’t include all the repackaging of Buddhism we have seen in so many introduction to Buddhism books. As long as the repackaging is only on changing the packaging, contents are the same, I think it’s reasonable.

Of course, going deeper, it’s best to have the same phrase and meaning exactly as the suttas.

1 Like

Again, I’m interested in discussing why the terms samsara and nirvana don’t occur together as a contrasted pair in the suttas. They’re such an “obvious” pairing, and yet although the underlying concepts are posed as opposites (something that’s so well-known that I really don’t need examples, although thank you for providing them), the terms themselves aren’t. And yet the suttas must be comprised of millions of words. I find that interesting.

1 Like

I’m sorry you think I’m wasting my and your time by asking this question. But to clarify, I’m not asking why the suttas don’t “include all the repackaging of Buddhism we have seen in so many introduction to Buddhism books.” I’m asking if anyone has any thoughts about why these two terms aren’t found together in the suttas. (Or maybe they are, and I haven’t found them?)

I guess we can be curious about such things or find ways not to be curious…

1 Like

The way I see it is that “samsara” is actually a quite uncommon term in the suttas (correct me if I’m wrong) because it doesn’t really mean anything and it can be quite misleading, as it is not a THING, it’s an idea that describes the conditioned nature of existence. AFAIR it’s mainly used in poetic passages. Therefore you will find more often the term “conditioned” (sankhata) which is a much more accurate term in a teaching context, which then is contrasted with “unconditioned” as in the above passages.

1 Like

A search in all segmented texts of AN, SN, DN, MN, Ud, Dhp, Iti, Thig, Thag, Snp shows not a single segment where both the terms occur together.


That’s an interesting point about the term possibly being rare.

The search results on SC give the following numbers of results:
“nibbana” 598
“samsara” 196

So the term “samsara” is less common than “nibbana,” but it’s by no means rare. Caveat: those results aren’t limited to the suttas—things like Milinda’s Questions are included.

Dipping into the search results shows some uses of “samsara” in poetry, but many in prose.

I don’t think I want to get into your argument that samsara “doesn’t really mean anything and it can be quite misleading” :slight_smile:

Interesting. Thanks for confirming that. Is it possible to do advanced searches in SC, or did you do that elsewhere?

1 Like

I used scv-bilara. This is the search engine that underlies Voice and EBT-Sites. It only searches segmented texts, and olnly such texts that have segmented English translations.

Scv-bilara itself is also able to search Vinaya texts (i.e. those translated by Ajahn Brahmali), while Voice and EBT-Sites currently only search Suttas (and don’t include the Snp, as Bhante Sujato’s translation of this has not yet been completed and is not yet published).

It is possible that SC allows advanced search, but I don’t really know.

1 Like

Samsara is a wandering on with no first point. It is characterized by ignorance, which is also without a first point, but with a condition:

SN 22.99 says: A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.

AN 10.61 says: A first point of ignorance, bhikkhus, is not seen such that before this there was no ignorance and afterward it came into being.’ Still, ignorance is seen to have a specific condition.

…which is the not-knowing of the four noble truths.

Back to the end of SN 22.99, which goes through a breakdown of dependent origination, thus:

He is freed from birth, aging, and death; freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair; freed from suffering, I say.”

So both samsara and nibbana are there in that sutta, but since nibbana is not in that wandering on - having been discerned on account of its condition being removed - there has to be a clear emphasis on, for lack of a better word, that structural difference between them. So it would seem they can’t ever be mention too close together.

Is samsara strictly the polar opposite of nibbana? How from nibbana is one being reborn in the animal realm compared to a once returner?

In the interest of right speech, I would advise that in the future if you don’t want to get into an argument just skip over, please don’t passive-aggressively state so, especially after someone takes the time to answer your questions, which by the way you now edited to intend something very different from your original post (you spoke about disagreement between suttas and later sources, concepts of nibbana and samsara etc…). Anyway, if I am mistaken and that was not your intention I am sorry, just letting you know how it came across.

To attempt to stay on the specific topic of this thread, why we may not see the pairing of terms between samsara and nibbana in the suttas, is because perhaps they aren’t true opposites like gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain (AN 8.6). After all, the Noble Eightfold Path is a gradual path and the fetters which bind one to samsara are broken in a specific order. As these fetters are broken, one draws closer and closer to nibbana. Which is why I question the assumption and premise that samsara and nibbana are strictly opposites. I’m not clinging to my hypothesis. :smiley:


I definitely didn’t want to get sidelined in talking about the value of samsara as a concept, but at the same time I did want to flag your comment as questionable. I apologize if that came across as passive-aggressive. That wasn’t my intent.

I’d assumed it was obvious I was talking about the terms samsara and nirvana not being found in close proximity in the suttas; after all, the contrast between related concepts such as conditioned/unconditioned are well represented. But apparently I hadn’t made that as clear as I’d hoped and so I clarified my original question.

1 Like

That is interesting, although I can imagine (in a different world) the Buddha saying, something like “Nibbana has been gained. Samsara has been brought to an end.” That’s something I might say, if I was role-playing being the Buddha. But (leaving aside the whole “being enlightened” thing) he used these concepts differently from how we would and apparently didn’t say things like that.

Which might mean we should be endeavoring to use these terms differently as well — as you suggest, maybe we should see them less as being straightforward opposites.

I don’t even have a hypothesis to cling to at the moment!

1 Like