Nāgārjuna’s Nirvana

Nāgārjuna’s stance on Nirvana is best illustrated in his Magnum Opus, The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. In Sanskrit it is translated as “Root Verses on the Middle Way”. The work is comprised of 448 verses in twenty-seven chapters. Chapter twenty-five is on Nirvana. As a whole this philosophic-wonder is an inexorable analysis of many of the most central categories of Buddhist thought, exposing them to a scrutiny that disclosures the absurd consequences that follow from envisioning any of them to be real in the sense of possessing an independent and intrinsic nature (Svabhāva). Nāgārjuna drives-home the realization that all these categories exist only relationally but do not exist in an Absolute sense. In the Twenty-fifth chapter, he subjects Nirvana to a similar critique, finding it to be neither existent, nonexistent, both existent and nonexistent, nor neither existent nor nonexistent. These, of course, are his “four alternatives” or tetralemma. Hence, Nirvana like Samsara is self-empty of that intrinsic nature. In this sense there is no-difference between them. This chapter consists of 24 aphorisms that concisely strips-down Nirvana bare and reveals for us what it is and is not. The rest of this blog will present each of these with accompanying commentary.

I. If everything is relative,
With no-thing arising nor cessating,
How then can Nirvana possibly be conceived?

If there is no arising or passing away from the ultimate scheme of things, how can nirvana arise or samsara pass away? This is a refutation of the Theravadin notion of Nirvana. If everything is relative and no-thing really originates on its own, then no-thing disappears and with it the source of both illusion and desires. Hence what need of any Nirvana that banishes them both away through extinction?

II. If all this is non-empty to begin with, once again there is neither any real creation nor destruction. Hence what need for Nirvana as the great extinguisher?

Nāgārjuna replies here that if we instead believe there are things that are non-empty, then we shall be unable to explain how nirvana is even possible. According to this model the realization of nirvana requires some form of dependence due to the impermanence of thingness; in reality everything is grounded in emptiness.

III. Never abandoned or acquired,
Never annihilated or eternalized,
Thus never created nor destroyed,
This, then, is Nirvana.

These predicates need to be portrayed in a negative light. Otherwise Nirvana would need to be some form of existent phenomenon. Nāgārjuna insists that it needs to be undefinable. Just keep coming back to the realization that it is Pure Quiescence and no-thing more.

IV. The Fyodor Shcherbatskoy translation runs as follows:
Nirvana, first of all, is not a kind of Ens,
It would then have decay and death.
There altogether is no Ens
Which is not subject to decay and death.

Ens= an existing or real thing; an entity.
Shcherbatskoy continues in the commentary:
Our Master Nagarjuna now examines the consequences of the theory which determines Nirvana as a kind of existence. Nirvana is not a positive thing he says. Why? Since it would follow that it must possess the characteristics of decay and death, because every existence is invariably connected with decay and death. He means, it would not then be Nirvana, (the Absolute), since like our life it would be subject to decay and death.

V. If Nirvana were considered to be existent, then it would also be conditioned. This would be the case since no existent is present without consequently being conditioned.

All apparent phenonmenal manifestations are subjected to causal origination, a preset duration, and subsequent dissolution. This is known as causal conventionality. Hence, Nirvana is not existent, even in a conventional sense.

VI. If Nirvana were an Ens
It could never be considered to be non-dependent.
For all substratum subsists on being codependent.

Shcherbatskoy: If, in your opinion, Nirvana is a positive entity, it must repose on a substratum, it must have a root in the totality of its own causes. But such a definitely located Nirvana is accepted by nobody. On the contrary, Nirvana is the Absolute. It does not repose on any substratum. Therefore, if Nirvana is an Ens, how can it be an Ens without any substratum ?

*In light of this, Nirvana issues forth no state of concrescence. It is never dependent upon parts since it is reflective of the Absolute Whole.*

VII. If Nirvana were considered to be non-existent,
Will it then be a non-Ens?
Recollect that wherever there is an absence of Ens
There could never be any sense of being nonexistent.

This is directed at those philosophers (Sautrāntikas) who considered Nirvana to be a mere absence. Nirvana is never contingent upon such a predication.

VIII. If Nirvana were not existent,
How could it be nondependent?
Whatever is nondependent Is not nonexistent.

If Nirvana were considered to be such a thing as an absence, then one must conclude that its occurrence is dependent on other things, i.e. those things which experience an absence of something other.

IX. Any movement to and fro constitutes dependency and a constant state of flux. When this movement is absent, this is said to be Nirvana.

When the continuity of birth and death (samsara) has ceased, with the consequence of their being neither relations nor causality, this same ideation as motionless and eternal is then called Nirvana.

X. The Buddha declared the exclusion of coming into and going out of existence. Therefore, Nirvana is neither existent nor nonexistent.

When one perceives the constant arising and ceasing of phenomena, one is in conjunction with samsara. When the great reification is totally abandoned, then one is in league with Nirvana.

XI. If Nirvana were both Existent and Non-existent
Final Liberation would also be both,
This is an impossibility.

Contradictory properties at work. The same thing cannot arise and end at the same time. Both are incompatible with Nirvana.

XII. If Nirvanạ were both
Existent and nonexistent,
Nirvānạ would not be non-dependent.
Since it would be dependent on both of these.

Shcherbatskoy: If Nirvana would have the double character of an Ens and a non-Ens, it would be then dependent, it would be relative to the totality of its causes and conditions, it would not be the Absolute. Why? Because both these Ens and non-Ens are conditioned. Considering that the Ens is the counterpart of the non-Ens and vice versa the non-Ens is the counterpart of the Ens, both Ens and non-Ens are necessarily dependent existences. They are not absolute. If Nirvana were not the absolute, it could then be partly an Ens and partly a non-Ens. But it is not so. Therefore this is impossible.

XIII. Could Nirvana possibly be both existent and non-existent? This is a falsehood since the latter two are compounded together. Nirvana is completely uncompounded.

It is the nature of existents not only to be compounded but are completely constitutive of being comprised of causes. Nirvana is devoid of causal effects and is never dependent upon compounded reality.

XIV. Nirvana could not possibly be both existent and non-existent. The latter two can never be in the same location at the same time, like in Light vs. Darkness.

Darkness is the absence of light; hence, to proclaim that Nirvana is both positive existent and negative non-existent is like issuing the belief that light and darkness co-exist in the same location at precisely the same time.

XV. When it’s stated that Nirvāṇa is neither existent nor a non-existent, the statement is only established if there were both an existent and non-existent.

This can never be established “since we neither know what an Ens nor a non-Ens really are, [not viable phenomena] we can neither understand their negations. Therefore the result at which we have arrived, viz that Nirvana is neither an Ens nor a non-Ens, even this negative result cannot be accepted as logically consistent. This also must be rejected.” (Shcherbatskoy)

XVI. If Nirvana is neither existent nor non-existent, by whom is this declaration revealed to be true?

This gets down to the bare-bones of the matter. What imagined entity is claiming ownership of this fallacy? Stated emphatically, this is a false claim in empirical consciousness. It’s merely a psychophysical conceptual anomaly.

XVII. What is the nature of the Buddha after his Nirvana?
Does he exist, or does he not exist?
Or both or neither?
We never will conceive the answer.

XVIII. It can never be asserted that the Buddha “exists” while in the world.
Nor “does he not exist” nor “both exists and does not exist,” nor “neither exists nor does not exist”—none of these can be asserted.

None of the four tetralemma possibilities can be asserted since the Buddha in his Absolute Nature (Dharmakaya) transcends all such formulations.

XIX. There is no difference at all
Between Nirvana and Samsara,
There is no difference at all
Between Samsara and Nirvana.

At this junction, Nāgārjuna draws the most astounding conclusions of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: Just as there is no difference in beingness between the conventional and the Absolute, there is no difference in beingness between Nirvana and Samsara. Nirvana is Samsara when observed without attachment or delusions. The reason why one cannot say anything about Nirvana as an [independent, non-samsaric entity], is not that it is such an article, but that In Itself it is ineffable and unknowable.

XX. What makes the limit of Nirvana,
Is also then the limit of Samsara.
Between the two we cannot find
The slightest shade of difference.

The phenomenal world in its Real Essence is nothing but the Absolute. Under this dictum it is impossible to imagine either its origin, or its dissolution.

XXI. [Shcherbatskoy] Insoluble are antinomic views
Regarding the existence beyond Nirvana,
Regarding the extinction of this world.
Regarding its beginning.

“All the theories about these questions are inconsistent (antinomies) Since the phenomenal world and the Absolute are naturally merged quiescent in the Unity of the Whole.” Shcherbatskoy

XXII. Since all dharmas are empty,
What is finite or infinite?
What is finite and infinite?
What is neither finite nor infinite?

XXIII. What is identical and what is different?
What is permanent and what is impermanent?
What is both permanent and impermanent?
What is neither?

Again Nāgārjuna uses negative tetralemmas to emphasize that while conventional entities a good deal can be said as long as they are considered in a conventional sense, when we take the turn and attempt to realize them in their true all-encompassing Absolute nature, all such assertions are rendered null and void. In the end, all such metaphysical attempts are doomed to failure.

XXIV. The cessation of all cognition is in the end most blissful.
In light of this No-Dharma was ever taught by the Buddha.

The following conclusion as stated by Shcherbatskoy needs to be included.

Our view is that Nirvana represents Quiescence, i e. the non-applicability of all the variety of names and non-existence of particular objects. This very Quiescence so far as it is the natural (genuine) quiescence of the world, is called bliss. The Quiescence of Plurality is also a bliss because of the cessation of speech or because of the cessation of thought. It is also a bliss because, by putting an end to all defiling agencies, all individual are stopped. It is also a bliss because, by quenching all defiling forces, all instinct (and habits of thought) have been extirpated without residue. It is also a bliss because, since all the objects of knowledge have died away, knowledge itself has also died.
When the divine Buddhas have entered blissful Nirvana in which all Plurality has vanished, they are like regal swans soaring in the sky without any support; they are hovering in the wind produced by their two wings, the wing of accumulated virtue and the wing of accumulated wisdom, or they are hovering in the wind of Space, that Space which is the Void. Then from this elevation, all separate objects having become undistinguishable. The Buddhas have not preached, neither about the defiling elements of life, nor about its purifying elements, neither in the divine worlds, nor in the human world, neither to gods, nor to men. This should be realized.

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5 Responses to Nāgārjuna’s Nirvana

  1. emaho says:

    My Dear Vajrayogini & all Kind Friends

    Reading this series again reminds me of a recent awakening of sorts.

    Walking one day in quiet contemplation last winter one early morning at dawn, whilst listening to an audiobook of some passages by Nāgārjuna; a strange thing occurred. I cannot put it properly in words, but it was as if a hole was punched in the fabric of all time and space. A fleeting glimpse of the Unborn behind the veil of all appearances suddenly became manifest and everything including my illusory human form just evaporated into the Unborn radiance and Source of all.

    Almost as if whatever imageless part of me still intact could travel throughout the cosmos with a vajra leap with equanimity and great bliss.

    As if the blessed Dakini yidam cut the root with one swift gesture of her Kartika.

    Indescribable and forever life-changing.

    I know I’m not the smartest or the quickest by a long shot; but I am one determined student at least.

    I owe you folks a debt of gratitude that would take a galaxy or two at least to even begin to repay the Light transmitted.

    गते गते पार गते पार संगते बोधि स्वाहा

    In Undying Metta


    • Vajragoni says:

      There’s a Dakini sitting on your shoulder. 🙂

      “Almost as if whatever imageless part of me still intact could travel throughout the cosmos with a vajra leap with equanimity and great bliss”–this is your manomayakaya kicking in.

      Thanks for this delightful share.

      btw the correct spelling is Vajragoni

  2. scott says:


    Sorry about the typo on your name. Eyesight not what it used to be these days. Will proofread a bit more carefully from here on in.

    Thanks so much for the heartwarming encouragement.

    I just love this place and the spirits who gather here beyond words.

  3. n. yeti says:


    I just came across this quote from David Crow, from his autobiography “In Search of the Medicine Buddha” which reminded me somehow of your comment and the transformative power of the dharma:

    “When the Buddha taught, our world became a celestial abode. The power of his articulated wisdom made it possible for those present to see beyond mundane reality, into the inherent purity and cosmic presence that eternally surround us. The mandala that appeared around him is a vision of humanity’s potential: enlightened mind in harmony with nature, working for the benefit of all. It is the archetypal pristine world inhabited by beings living in a golden age of spiritual achievement: heaven on earth.
    It is our world, after the gloom of ignorance and confusion of mental defilements have been removed by the lights of purifying awareness, and the glorious prosperity of nature renewed by treating the earth as a sacred garden of medicine.”

    • emaho says:

      Thanks for sharing that wonderful passage n. yeti!

      It is so beautiful and so true. Wish the whole world could only really see.

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