Does Nirvana exist?

Kenneth Leong
8 min readFeb 17, 2024

A Buddhist friend recently posted something from the Buddhist philosopher, Buddhaghosa, which wrote in the very influential book, Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification). In this book, there is a discussion on the Third Noble Truth. The Third Noble Truth is about Nibbana (or Nirvana). I will excerpt the passage as follows:

[DISCUSSION ON NIBBĀNA] 67. [Question 1] Is Nibbāna non-existent because it is unapprehendable, like the hare’s horn? [Answer] That is not so, because it is apprehendable by the [right] means. For it is apprehendable [by some, namely, the nobles ones] by the [right] means, in other words, by the way that is appropriate to it, [the way of virtue, concentration, and understanding]; it is like the supramundane consciousness of others, [which is apprehendable only by certain of the Noble Ones] by means of knowledge of penetration of others’ minds. Therefore it should not be said that it is non-existent because unapprehendable; for it should not be said that what the foolish ordinary man does not apprehend is unapprehendable. 68. Again, it should not be said that Nibbāna does not exist. Why not? Because it then follows that the way would be futile. [508] For if Nibbāna were non-existent, then it would follow that the right way, which includes the three aggregates beginning with virtue and is headed by right understanding, would be futile. And it is not futile because it does reach Nibbāna.

–Buddhaghosa, Visuddimagga

Let me summarize the points Buddhaghosa is making here:

  1. Nibbana exists because it is apprehendable by the right means–through virtue, concentration and understanding.
  2. Nibbana is apprehendable only by certain Noble Ones.
  3. What the foolish ordinary man does not apprehend is not unapprehendable.
  4. If we say that Nibbana does not exist, then the way would be futile.
  5. The path does reach Nibbana.

I like Buddhaghosa. I think there are many gems in his book, Visuddhimagga. But I will disagree with him here. What do we mean when we say that Nirvana “exists”?

Before we discuss the “existence” of Nirvana, we should first establish that there are a variety of interpretation of Nirvana among the different Buddhist schools. More specifically, while…

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Kenneth Leong

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