What is wrong with a positivist interpretation of Nibbana?

I understand Nibbana isn’t a self or the true source of the world or a magical realm. However, I’m curious why interpreting Nibbana as a blissful “reality” for lack of a better word would be wrong? The way I picture it is is Nibbana and samsara are like Parallel lines that can never meet because the unconditioned can’t be conditioned. @sujato has said in a thread here Nibbana translates to extinguishment and is meant to invoke a meaning closer to Annihilationism.

That makes sense considering the end goal is destruction of suffering. So evoking a final end to what is suffering makes a lot of sense. The Buddhas simile of a fire blown out is perfect to explain this. In that same vein wouldn’t his simile of Nibbana being like a great ocean refer to this blissful, permanent aspect of Nibbana?

I’m just wondering if there is an issue with this line of thinking? I’m struggling to see the point of Nibbana if it isn’t the greatest bliss there could possibly be.

I don’t remember any sutta which criticizes a positivist interpretation of Nibbāna, maybe I am wrong here?

Instead, I remember SN 43.12-44 where the Buddha listed 33 ways to describe Nibbāna.


Good point @Clairity.

From Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to Chapter IX of In the Buddhas Words:

But what exactly is meant by Nibbāna? The suttas explain Nibbāna in a number of ways. Some define Nibbāna simply as the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion. Others, such as the series in SN43, employ metaphors and images to convey a more concrete idea of the ultimate goal. Nibbāna is still the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion, but as such it is, among other things, peaceful, deathless, sublime, wonderful, and amazing. Such descriptions indicate that Nibbāna is a state of supreme happiness, peace, and freedom to be experienced in this present life.

In his talks, Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that these synonyms can be classified into different aspects. The following was my attempt to sort out his classification:

Destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion.
the destruction of craving …
dispassion …
the taintless …
nonattachment …

Experiential state
the end of suffering (3rd Noble Truth)
the peacefull
the sublime
the secure

The unborn, unmade, unbecome,
the deathless
the deathless
the truth
the stable

the island
the shelter
the asylum
the refuge
the destination and the path leading to the

Ones I had difficulty classifying…
the subtle
the very difficult to see
the unaging
the undisintegrating
the unmanifest
the unproliferated
the auspicious
the wonderful
the amazing
the unailing
the unailing state
the unafflicted


You bring up an interesting point with that sutta. Considering the sutta in English says “the constant” as one of the terms listed. I’m wondering why Sujato said this:

  • Even if one believes (as I do) that a positivist reading of Nibbana contradicts the bulk of early Suttas, such a translation is not necessarily incorrect, if this is understood as a later passage. That is to say, it could be a correct representation of an incorrect view.

When it seems like it doesn’t contradict the suttas? There’s something I’m missing here :thinking:

The greatest bliss is the cessation of all dukkha, meaning the final ceasing of all the khandhas with the death of an arahant. For example in AN9.34:

"At one time Venerable Sāriputta was staying near Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrels’ feeding ground.
There he addressed the mendicants:

“Reverends, extinguishment is bliss!
“sukhamidaṁ, āvuso, nibbānaṁ.
Extinguishment is bliss!”
When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him,
“But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”
“The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

The Buddha also indicates this in MN59 with the temporary ceasing of all feelings, perceptions, and consciousness, (saññavedayitanirodha).

Also, it’s important to distinguish between nibbāna with residue while the arahant is alive and final nibbāna with the death of an arahant, in which all the khandhas cease, without rebirth.
The adjectives describing nibbāna as an island, as bliss, etc. can be applied while an arahant is alive.
With the full cessation of all the khandhas in final nibbāna , they no longer apply.

Hope this is helpful. :pray:


This Pāli SN 43 Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta has forty-four discourses. Its corresponding Chinese version SA 890 is just one, a very short discourse.

See Choong Mun-keat, “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of Jhāna Saṃyutta, Asaṅkhata Saṃyutta, and Abhisamaya Saṃyutta: early Buddhist discourses on concentrative meditation, the uncompounded, and realisation”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2021 (21), pp. 10-43.

Nibbana is like infinite things, and from a certain perspective–nothing!

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Holding a view and preliminary experience of nibbana from the beginning is essential because it forms the foundation for an opposition structure to samsara. For the layperson this experience is described in Anguttara Nikaya 11.12 where they are exhorted to develop a “sense of the goal.” Later they are instructed to consolidate this sense by discriminating between pleasure of the flesh and not of the flesh. In his search for awakening the Buddha-to-be faced the crucial question “Why am I afraid of pleasant feeling?” (Majjhima Nikaya 36). Cultivating pleasant feelings not of the flesh enabled awakening. Consequently this is the main stabilizing issue encountered by the intermediate level practitioner, and is the reason for Bikkhu Bodhi’s examination of legitimate sources of joy in life in an upcoming online retreat. Identifying these resources is the necessary nutriment for progress.

Great answer. I was gonna comment the same.

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The Buddha affirms Nibbāna’s existence in Ud 8.3



Saṃsāra offers you suffering, i.e. the things the Buddha listed in the first noble truth. On the other hand, it also offers you happiness, i.e. the things opposite to what is listed in that first noble truth.

Imagine that you are in a prison, but not necessarily a really bad one. You still can have some fun there, but still it is a prison where you can experience sufferings as well.

Now, it depends how intolerant are you to those sufferings. If your level of intolerance to them is high enough, you will strive in finding a way to get out from that prison and not wanting to get thrown back in there ever again.

IMHO, realising arahantship is like obtaining the eternal ‘Get Out of Jail Free card’. By realising it, you will:

  1. know that your mind is freed eventhough you are still there. You will still feel physical pleasant, painful and neutral feelings, but you feel them detached (SN36.6); and
  2. know this is the last time you are in a prison. After this one, you will never get thrown back in there again. This actually also means that there will be no more painful feelings.

Saṃsāra has bliss and misery, while nibbāna is totally absent from both of them. Emphasizing on the absent of misery and also depending on one’s personal preferences, they may conclude that nibbāna is the greatest ‘bliss’ there could possibly be.

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This is an exquisite piece, however, does it not merely affirm the “existence” of “un” in the same mundane way as the “born”?

That is; if billy had never been born, then his thumb wouldnt hurt.

There is the un-becoming of things, we see things dissapear, so what “beyond” that needs to “exist” for extinguishment (of desires)?

The truth of the statment “Unconditional freedom is possible” implies the truth of the statement “there is an unconditional” if the first statement is true.

If there was no unconditional
There could be no unconditional freedom

But in terms of “existing” “outside” beings being born and dying, “nibanna” strikes me as a fairly vacuous version of an Atman theory where the illusiary self disolves into the “nibanna element” or whatever.

It just means extinguished. Like when the fires of passions are extinguished and not refueled, we are unconditionally free of those fires.

No spooky action at a distance by supra-exitentual capital N “really its an untranslatable concept!” Nibanna mysterianism required.

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Hmm I don’t see how something absent from bliss would be all that desirable if thats’s the case. I’d probably just want to stay in the prison in your scenario rather then feel nothing at all.

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The problem is that we have a sense of self which wants to exist. We are deluded, confused, unable to see clearly what is happiness and where it is. We can’t truly see how extinguishment, the ending of all contact, no sense impressions at all, non existence, is preferable to existing because we like to have contact - we attach and seek happiness from it. We have a deep longing and desire to live on in a happy state of existence. That is what Buddhism challenges. A spiritual path that changes your whole world view is supposed to be challenging to the view you have now.
The Buddha clearly defined final extinguishment in this way. It’s throughout the early suttas. It is the going out of a flame. Poof! Gone. No more suffering. No more existing. Anywhere.
If you want some reassurance, just think about your meditation – the more things disappear, the more happy you are. No more body, no more will, on and on it’s clearly a pattern that it is more preferable the more things vanish. You can gain confidence in this way.


Without the unconditioned there is not conditioned. Still dont know why other sutta is interpeted as Full Nibbana not being the source of life?

Maha Boowa would, i think, confirm this, but explain this differently, in the sense that there is really bliss in state of pure knowingness.

I have the idea that the problem lies in defining what is vinnana and what is mind? is there a difference?

I am quit sure that the Buddha would not agree that someone unconscious has no mind or is mindless at that moment. I think there is enough reason to conclude vinnana is not exactly the same as mind, but an aspect of mind.

I personnaly feel that it is a nice intepretation that vinnana refers to the manifestation aspect of mind. Mind can manifest feelings, colours, odours, tactile sensation, intentions, emotions etc. Mind is forerunner. But what does it mean when those manifestations cease, does all cease?
For example when you become blind, deaf, without smell and taste, do you cease as the one who knows? Are we eye-vinnana? Ear-vinnana? tactile vinnana? Mental vinnana? smell-vinnana, taste vinnana? One of them, or all? If we are eye-vinnana we must certainly cease when we become blind? But we do not cease.

I personally believe, but i do not know, that the mind can reach a state in which vinnana ends but not all ends. A pure knowing remains. This is without feeling and this is bliss. I think the sutta you mention refers to this.

I feel it is not in lign with Dhamma to talk about peace and bliss when there is in fact no peace and bliss. That is even misleading, i feel.

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For me this sense of the goal lies in a sense for a non-contructed reality. A non build up reality. The unfabricated. That what is not seen arising, ceasing and changing. Something that is not buid-up and does not desintegrate. A kind of stable element in life.

But, this is what others see as the nightmare, wrong view, and believe this is the same as a doctrine of atta. That is not true, i believe. Because the acknowledgement of a stable element is not the same as the acknowledgment that this stable element is an entity like thing and in controll.

Knowing and seeing this unconditioned element is in EBT seen as a must (MN115). One does not have to take this wording ‘element’ literally. It just refers to seeing that an aspect of life is stable and another is unstable.

I never had the impression that Buddha says that there is only instability to see, discover and know.

But, i see that a lot of people believe that to postulate something stable, something that is not seen arising and ceasing, is the same as having a doctrine of atta. I do not believe this. Atta has a totally different meaning and the anatta lakkhana sutta reveals this.

I also do not believe this is a eternalist view or a partly eternalist view like believing that ones soul is eternal.

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Hello Venerable,

But is its existence really affirmed?
Atthi” can convey a strong sense of indicating “something” – but then everything else in the sutta is described in negatives, as non-existences.
It’s as if the Buddha was starting with a Brahmanical assertion of a permanent kind of Self and then pulled the rug out with all the descriptors being negations.
In either case, the emphasis of the sutta seems to lie in these negations.

Also, as KR Norman and Venerables Brahmali, Sunyo, and Sujato have written, the negating “a” prefix before words like jāti here are likely privatives that point not to an existence like “an unborn” but rather to “freedom from birth” or “without birth.” In other words, a complete absence of “x.”

When translated and understood in this way, nibbāna is not reified into a kind of existence, but rather fits with the Buddha’s many teachings on cessation.



No one denies bliss and peace. Nor do the suttas I quoted which specifically addressed bliss.
The sutta’s teachings on bliss may not align with a person’s personal wishes or opinions about final nibbāan and bliss – but consider: if there’s not even nothing, what dukkha can be present?
And the Buddha’s teachings are about the final cessation of all dukkha, yes?

True. But this applies only when a being is alive – meaning all the khandhas are present. Not after all the kahndhas cease with final nibbāna.

Also, the khandhas are selfless processes, so:
When processes change so that the processes of vision are no longer present, the processes of the other senses and the khandhas are still present – and so a conditional being can be said to remain. Meaning the processes of dukkha remain.

But not after final nibbāna.

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Practically what is the difference between an unborn and freedom from the born? Those sound like the same thing. In Buddhist terms existence being the continuation of craving and clinging I don’t think we could call Nibbāna a “existence”. However does this really negate their being an unconditioned element or “thing” for lack of a better word.

Without that I feel like I’m having real doubts about my faith, because freedom from birth can just as easily be accepted by a materialist doctrine. A YOLO doctrine also provides freedom from birth and death sort of.