One of the more prominent ideas about Buddhism in terms of its goals of enlightenment, commonly phrased as nirvana in Sanskrit, nibbana in Pali, is that this idea of extinction or blowing out of desire, is nihilistic. This is based on a number of conceptions we have, usually from our ideas of monastics or just the general popular portrayal of Buddhists as very detached from the world. From these we get a stereotype that they deny the world exists or that it matters. That’s very much incorrect from my experience. Just because the world isn’t how we originally construct it doesn’t mean we still can’t find wonder and amazement at things and also have goals in mind to improve ourselves and others. There is virtually no reason to think Buddhism is anything like the nihilism you hear about through Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, though there may be more in common than we think. But the nihilism that leads to depression, suicide and other negative thoughts and behavior is certainly not what Buddhism advises or teaches. Gautama even advocates against it, as I spoke about in part in “Moderate Beliefs Lead to Moderate Practice” , in the balance between eternalism and nihilism and annihilationism by association. Life is not strictly over absolutely when one dies, but that’s not to say we live forever either. There is a great variety to nihilism, so let’s start with parsing that out.
Now I could do a whole series on the types of nihilism, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll try to focus on those that work with Buddhism and those that don’t. For instance, moral and epistemological nihilism are in conflict, because Buddhism doesn’t deny that there is the distinct realization of moral and epistemological objectivity through practice and contemplation. There are things that are objectively true, but there is also flexibility. Metaphysical nihilism is another one that doesn’t sync with Buddhism, but is commonly misinterpreted to be so due to a misunderstanding of Buddhist metaphysics, the nature of existence. Just because one says things are illusory does not mean you claim they don’t exist. When we perceive any illusion, it doesn’t negate the reality of the things that actually do exist behind the illusion. Whether they be visual, auditory, or any other sensory input, it is not unreasonable to still trust that our senses are reliable in most situations. Sometimes illusions are just a matter of our minds playing tricks on us, such as when we look at a Magic Eye picture. But there are illusions that are synonymous with hallucinations in that we see or hear things that literally are not there. But if we focus on the issue of illusions, the point remains that there is still substance behind what our minds mistakenly understand in some sense and this can apply to hallucinations as well in that there’s still a world you interact with, even if you’re adding to it. When I see what I think to be a monster, but am incorrect in believing so, then this doesn’t mean that what actually existed is literally not there, but simply isn’t processed by my mind in an accurate way. This is where the idea of maya, commonly translated as illusion, has relevance, though the term vipallasa, translated as distortion, is more relevant to Theravada Buddhism, which is usually understood to be the more classical school, which I also lean more towards in my practice and thought. Both of these ideas do not suggest that Buddhists don’t believe in things, for they very much do. It’s more psychological problems that inspire the beliefs of Buddhists that Westerners commonly interpret as negative and reality denying in nature. We misperceive, we misinterpret, we are misguided by our own minds and our bodies as well. But this does not lead to cynicism or pessimism, but can actually make us more optimistic that we can see reality as it is, and that becomes our goal in life. That understanding, that ideal, is what nirvana is. But I’ll get into some more nuanced ideas that are called nihilistic that might actually work with Buddhism.
Existential nihilism and mereological nihilism are the only two that even remotely fit. Nietzsche’s form of nihilism affirming that we must forge our own path in a godless universe as entities always in flux meshes fairly well with Buddhism even though Nietzsche himself criticizes Buddhism as he understood it to be passive nihilism. Existential nihilism affirms that we have to determine our own destiny and purpose to a great extent, though Buddhism’s claim that we all are potential buddhas doesn’t conflict with that, since it’s a naturally good thing to want to become more knowledgeable and experienced about the world. It’s just that we aren’t fated or given a purpose from outside ourselves in any sense of the word. Change comes from within, as the aphorism goes in Dharmic traditions. We walk the path, the path doesn’t walk us. Mereological nihilism is much more complex, since it gets into issues that I only briefly spoke about in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” . Mereology is the study of the relationship between wholes and their parts as well as parts with each other, which sparks a strong relevance of Buddhist metaphysics where those relationships are very much interdependent. The whole depends on the parts, but the parts together create a whole. But mereological nihilism takes this a step further and says objects without parts do not exist. That is, there is no such thing as an object unto itself, but always in relation to a set of parts, such as elements to molecules and so forth down to the most “basic” particles like quarks. Even they, according to this thesis, may be related to smaller parts. Or perhaps there is a simple building block of all things, but we have not strictly found it. The basic assertion of mereological nihilism is that objects that have parts do not exist, though I would suggest that we interpret this in the same way we interpret the claim that existence is illusory or distorted in our perception. This doesn’t mean that objects without parts are said to have no substance, for that would get into metaphysical nihilism. In this sense, the claim is that the objects themselves do not properly exist unto themselves, since they are related by parts, but exist as we conceptualize them. A table is not a table always, nor is even a person strictly that person always, but is constantly changing on a subatomic or psychological level respectively, amongst other considerations. So there is also a deep connection, however indirect, to the truth of impermanence, in saying nothing is absolutely substantial or remaining forever, as I spoke about in “Flux and Flow,”
I spoke about how emptiness is not anything like nothingness in the Western sense in "Nothingness and No-thingness", Emptiness is potential, it is not the end of all things. The void in a cup is what allows it to be filled, and the lack of heat in cold is what makes the heat able to emerge through the motion of atoms. No-thingness is like this as well. Just because the identity of things is not consistent and always changes by entropy, perspective and the like, does not mean there is not significance in the meaning we grant things in each moment, each instance, each context. Even kindling from a table has purpose and meaning. We do not just trash things, and even if we do, they still remain in one sense or another. Nihilism in the normative sense of absolute meaning and absolute existence might be applicable, however mistaken it is to claim that Buddhism believes either of them, but absolute or radical nihilism in no way coincides with Buddhism, where life has purpose because you are alive and can recognize existence in part and learn more. The potential, the emptiness we initially feel, can be filled with wisdom, with love, with all things in good moderation. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.