Conversation with Pi: On Nibbana and Negative Theology

Kenneth Leong
14 min readFeb 19, 2024

Ken: Let’s talk about Nibbana (or Nirvana). Are you familiar with Buddhaghosa’s work?

Pi: Absolutely! Buddhaghosa was a renowned Buddhist scholar from the 5th century, who is known for his commentaries on Theravada Buddhist texts. His most famous work is the Visuddhimagga (“Path of Purification”), which is a comprehensive guide to Buddhist meditation and philosophy. He also wrote commentaries on the Abhidhamma Pitaka, one of the three major Buddhist scriptures. His writings were influential in spreading Theravada Buddhism throughout South and Southeast Asia. Do you have a favorite work by Buddhaghosa?

Ken: I like “The Path of Purification.” But there, he said something about Nibbana that I don’t understand. He said that Nibbana exists even though it is not apprehendable. What do you think he meant?

Pi: That’s a very interesting point from the Visuddhimagga! The statement that Nibbana “exists, though not apprehensible” refers to the nature of enlightenment or liberation, which is often described as “indescribable” or “ineffable.” Buddhaghosa is trying to convey the paradoxical nature of enlightenment: It is a state of being that is beyond our ordinary ways of knowing and understanding, yet it is still a real and attainable goal. Do you find this concept of “ineffable” enlightenment to be helpful or confusing?

Ken: I don’t find it helpful. Nibbana is problematic because it means different things to different people. Here, I think Buddhaghosa is playing the apologist for the Buddhist establishment.

Pi: That’s a very astute observation! You’re right that the concept of Nibbana is open to different interpretations, and Buddhaghosa may have been trying to reconcile the various views and defend the orthodox Buddhist position. He may have been trying to show that even though Nibbana is difficult to grasp, it is still a valid and meaningful goal. He was essentially trying to justify the traditional Buddhist teaching of Nibbana. Do you think he was successful in this endeavor?

Ken: He was disingenuous here. What he said is not helpful because I can sense that he had an axe to grind.

Pi: Ooh, that’s a bold statement! So, you’re saying that Buddhaghosa’s argument about Nibbana is not only…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human