Time for a dumb question

I’m missing something here, I suspect. I don’t see why the Buddha couldn’t have said, “He is free from suffering. He has attained nibbana.”

They are different metaphors, though. We have wandering on and extinguishing a fire. Maybe the Buddha didn’t like to mix metaphors!

I find myself wondering if samsara and nibbana as terms were coined in different places, times, or circumstances. Maybe, for example, samsara was a popular (non-Buddhist) religious term in certain places, and so the Buddha made use of it there (defining it in his own way), but not elsewhere, where it wouldn’t be relevant to talk about?

I’m sure AI analysis of Buddhist texts will end up teaching us a lot about how terms evolved in or out of relationship with each other.


If samsara and nibbana were opposites then there is duality between the two……that itself cannot be correct. Think of where your standing and looking at it? It’s actually an impossible situation.

That would further mean either one of them is an extreme.

Nibbana is reached via the middle as per the teachings.

Samsara has all the duality issues but not Nibbana as it is a void……furthermore, the unborn……the origination!

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Not if you think in terms of Dependent Origination, in my opinion.
When a car is running and you want to switch off the engine you put a conditioned process into motion. As you turn the key you stop the sparks from igniting, which in turn stops the fuel from burning, which stops the pistons from spinning, which stops the engine. Now the car is off so it is the opposite of when the car was on, yet this was achieved through a conditioned process.
That’s what I mean by the term “opposite”.

@Bodhipaksa Anyway, one thing to consider in my opinion is the fact that the word samsara is used in the Suttas to mean the totality of transmigration for the entirety of sentient beings, it is not used individually AFAICS.
On the one hand it would not be correct to say that when one reaches Nibbana one puts and end to samsara as samsara is still there for all other beings. On the other hand it would be confusing in a teaching context to say that through reaching Nibbana one ends his/her samsara, as that would be appropriation of an impersonal process.
So, to use proper terminology for the opposite of Nibbana in an individual sense I think it’s useful to turn to Dependent Origination, where we do find Bhava which is used as opposite of Nibbana in the phrase “Nibbanam bhava nirodho”. Here it is clear that Bhava is individual as it is one of the chains of Dependent origination, while samsara isn’t.

So, in my opinion, it’s not that Nibbana and samsara are not opposites, as in the posts above the Buddha uses synonyms for these terms as opposites. But rather the two terms seem not to fit well next to each other for the reasons above.

Another thing to consider is that as you said Nibbana just means “extinguishment, quenching” and samsara means “wandering on”. The fact that we leave these terms untranslated is misleading because they would have meant very specific things in the context of the time. So saying that the quenching of a fire is the opposite of wandering in such context is just weird, and there are better ways to put it, which the Buddha used.

So the problem in my opinion is not wether the Buddha conceived of samsara and Nibbana as “opposites” or at least “different” or “contrasting”, as I think he probably did, the real question is why do we and later traditions use the terms samsara and nibbana as opposed to conditioned/unconditioned or suffering/deathless or whatever.

Personally my theory (and I think it could be interesting to investigate it) is that as tradition started to conceive of nibbana in eternalist terms (commentaries etc…), as a “realm” where arahants go when they die, then it makes sense to leave it untranslated as the name of that “realm”, and its opposite at that point becomes the name of the other “realm” that is not Nibbana, and the best name for that in the texts is samsara.

So I agree that the terms nibbana and samsara were seen differently at the time of the Buddha and therefore used in different contexts, but I don’t think that they are not “opposite” or “contrasting” or “different”, at least in a conventional sense.


Interesting. But why wouldn’t this apply to concepts like “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned,” which are posed in the suttas as if they were opposites? If you can say, “there is a conditioned … there is an unconditioned,” then why can’t you say “There is samsara, and there is nibbana”?


There is this from SN 22.53: Aparitassaṁ paccattaññeva parinibbāyati. “Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna.” -BB

I think it depends on what is being described. As I’m sure you are well aware, what’s most prevalent in descriptions of nibbana is emphasis on the presence of absence - it is a discernment characterized primarily by what it is not, or more specifically by that which is no longer obscuring the principal of Dhamma and freedom from suffering. And samsara, on the other hand, almost exclusively is described through what is present and conditioned and expanding - proliferation again and again. From this point of view, there can’t be a point of convergence that doesn’t imply just another conditioned thing.

No doubt the suttas tell us the element of nibbana is always available, but I think the key is that there is no direct transition from conditioned to unconditioned. The knowledge that the conditioned is an expanse that is subject to change is precisely what the unconditioned is not, but it is only through full dispassion and relinquishment that knowledge and vision of this can arise.

I’m rambling now, but I think the Buddha is very careful not to put things that are structurally incompatible too close together. These things are not just separate in meaning, but also developmentally. Putting them close runs the risk of implying convergence, and of implying that mere reason is enough to grasp the difference. Modern writers may not see the risk in pressing the terms together. Or perhaps I’m just overthinking the matter lol

Well, as everything depends on something else, under the mundane or conditional existence then your answer would be acceptable……but you are aware your answer is a conditional one based on conditions……merely based on justifications based on an existing engine and say on and off, to state opposites…… ……isn’t the teaching teaching one to see beyond these dualities ? Aren’t we here to seek the truth?

That strikes me as the most likely explanation. I imagine it would sound weird to have those two different metaphors contrasted.

I wonder how often the Buddha combined the two metaphors of the world being aflame and the goal as extinguishment? Unfortunately I haven’t found a way to do a Boolean AND search on this site so that I can check.


You can say that there is a “link” that relates to both condition/unconditioned……but opposites certainly not true.

On the subject of samsara v nibbana, again there is the “link” but they are different….in that samsara being all we experienced so far and it can be related directly by what we say or do……BUT nibbana differs in that it can only be experienced by oneself so it cannot be shown…….as it says: one must see it for oneself!

The words “middle way” is your answer to your question.

Also samsara is temporary which isn’t real, as it’s based on conditions……but nibbana is real !

Yes I am, the path is conditioned. The teachings are conditioned. Dependent origination is conditioned (which the Buddha teaches, not me). Do you realize you also think in dual terms when you make the distinction dual vs non-dual?

In AN 4.34 the Buddha says that “The noble eightfold path is said to be the best of all conditioned things.”
So nothing wrong in using conditioned things to arrive at the unconditioned, which is only possible if you think in terms of conditionality i.e. dependent origination.

Anyway this is a bit off topic so it’d be better to start a new thread.

Well……dual v non-dual is the same as samsara v Nibbana.

Actually, It isn’t a duality because samsara isn’t real!

I don’t know if that’s the reason behind this motivation, but I believe that is true. The Buddha tends to be very explicit with his metaphors and the transitions between metaphors, with the closest thing to an exception being when he rapid-fire lists metaphors (but even then, I am not aware of him mixing them, and there’s still clear separation).

Also, a reminder that the metaphor of nibbana is between the spatial positioning of an extinguished flame, and the existence or non existence of a tathagata after death. It’s a very very subtle metaphor that is easily misunderstood even without being mixed with a metaphor that compares spatial positioning with something else

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They are. I think you are focusing on terms which are not used so many times compared to others such as Sankhata and Asankhata of conditioned realities (all of them, from material to mind made) and unconditioned reality (ie Nibbana). If you check for this you will see they are in direct contrast with such exactly duality.

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In Theravada samsara and nibbana are always opposites:


From the point of view of learners it is necessary to use contrast of opposites:

“Monk, the property of light, the property of beauty, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of space, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the property of the dimension of nothingness: These properties are to be reached as perception attainments.[2] The property of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception is to be reached as a remnant-of-fabrications attainment. The property of the cessation of feeling & perception is to be reached as a cessation attainment.”[3]"—SN 14.11

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I agree with you, however in my opinion it would be useful to point out that as far as I’m aware there is no indication in the suttas that this approach only applies to learners.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi points out in the essay, even the Arahants maintain these distinctions very clearly, the only difference is they have dispassion towards them.

My impression is that samsara is a much less common term than nibbana (though SN 15 comes to mind as a place where the term occurs a lot). Plus they do not seem like clean opposites to me. In nibbana’s sense as the extinguishment of greed, hatred and delusion, perhaps this triplet should be considered its opposite? Or, in the context of the four noble truths, would craving, the source of suffering, be its opposite? Would suffering there be a closer synonym of samsara? Then there’s the complication of nibbana with residue (still in samsara) and nibbana without residue (after the death of an arahant), and the partial enlightenment of the different path stages (and still some time to be spent in samsara for some of them). Samsara and nibbana do seem to be opposites but, for example, the constrast between sankhata and asankhata seems cleaner and more binary.


There does seem to be a development over the centuries from samsāra seen as simply this activity of wandering from life to life (transmigration/wandering on) to actually being a realm of sorts. Similarly, nibbāna develops from being just the end of greed, hatred, and delusion, into a sort of state of being or separate realm of existence.


Thank you bhante!
That was exactly the point I was trying to make in my previous posts and in my comment about samsara not being a thing. You put it in much clearer terms! :sweat_smile:

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Yes indeed. Perhaps the analogy of practice as a path makes thinking that way almost inevitable. And an unfortunate side-effect of thinking of samsāra and nibbāna as separate places is that enlightenment becomes remote and almost literally other-worldly. The idea that nibbāna can be realized here and now becomes a casualty of this way of looking at things.

Well, the thing is that they aren’t, although other terms are.

Thanks. Yes, I’m aware that conditioned/unconditioned are contrasted as opposites. My interest is specifically in the terms samsāra and nibbāna — how and why they don’t appear together in the texts. Secondarily I’m interested in the consequences for us of taking as opposites two things that the Buddha doesn’t seem to have juxtaposed in that way.

@Bodhipaksa I believe in Tibetan Buddhism there is a sense that samsara and nirvana are “the same”. There is a general idea in Mahayana traditions of attempting to create a Unity of experience (Buddha Nature for e.g.). Is this what is guiding your desire for wanting to see them posited as opposites in the EBT? I am just curious…
Perhaps the Agamas would be a good place to search?