The Middle Path Between Nihilism & Eternalism

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If you try to convert me,
I’ve thought about heaven and hell,
I’m prepared to face either,
if either of them exists.

– Lee Kuan Yew
(The Straits Times, 06.09.11)

But is it possible for anyone to truly imagine or to ever be prepared to face the endless terrors of eternal hell, if it really exists? Can one be extremely prepared for the extremely unknown? If we contemplate the possibilities of the afterlife as being simply nothing other than the extremes of eternal heaven or hell, and consider that being sufficient thinking, we are being extremely simplistic — because how can anyone do enough of any good and evil in a limited lifetime to deserve extreme reward or extreme retribution? Between such extreme ends, not that they are real, there should naturally be a spectrum of other possible and temporal states (realms or planes) of the afterlife for those who are neither extremely good nor evil – us. Many agnostics have not reflected on this thoroughly, while they might believe they have already done so, thus dismissing the need for further reflection.

There are two extreme misconceptions about the afterlife, as highlighted by the Buddha, which agnostics, free-thinkers and even some religionists might oscillate between, both of which we should avoid. The first misconception is Nihilism (断灭见), which proposes that since there is nothing after this life, that there is no state of existence hereafter and no rebirth, and nothing we do now to ensure a better (or worse) afterlife will ever matter. But how can something become nothing, when even scientists cannot destroy energy? Energy can only transform from one state to another. The mind or consciousness is very definite and powerful energy – that cannot simply fizzle out into ‘nothingness’. The second misconception is Eternalism (常见), which proposes that the state we are in after this life will be eternal – as an unchanging heaven or eternal hell.

What the Buddha realised is that the truth lies on the Middle Path between these two erroneous views. There is the phenomenon of ongoing rebirth for the unenlightened. Between the idea of ‘fixed nothingness’ in Nihilism, and the idea of ‘fixed somethingness’ in Eternalism, lies constant change of ‘everythingness’ via rebirth – from life to life. Agnostics should thus reconsider the laws of cause and effect, of how what one does now can karmically affect the afterlife, which is more likely to exist than not. We need to guard our thoughts, speech and deeds now – because they will lead us to somewhere and not nowhere. And when that somewhere is reached, we need to continue being mindful as what we do there will lead elsewhere!

If there is karmic afterlife, you will have a good rebirth if you do good.
If there is no karmic afterlife, you will live happily now if you are free of ill will.
If evil befalls the evil, you will not be affected if you do no evil.
If evil does not befall the evil, you will be pure both ways if you do no evil and do good.

(rephrased from Kalama Sutta)

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  • For most who are religious (including many ‘Buddhists’), cannot blame for for being attached to ‘Eternalism’ because this is what their teachers proclaimed and offered them – Heaven (God), Western Paradise (Amitabha), Brahma, etc.

    For most Agnostics and Atheists, their scientific inclination of ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ led them to an easy way out by assuming this is the only life, hence Nihilism.

    Only the profound and uniqueness of the Buddha’s original teaching of ‘Dependent Origination’ provides the answer to both extremes of Eternalism and Nihilism. Understanding ‘Dependent Origination’ requires not one to be religious or non-religious because Absolute Truth has nothing to do with religion or no religion.

  • Pureland teachings are NOT eternalism. Lifespan in Purelands are as long as needed for enlightenment – NOT forever. The Pureland teachings are also founded on Dependent Origination.


  • You are correct on PureLand teachings and I am NOT implying Pureland teachings is not Buddhist.I am questioning the way Western Paradise has been made out to be by the teachers of Pureland. The BIG question is how many of the Pureland practitioners understand, including their teachers took the pain and trouble to explain to their followers that Pureland teachins are founded also on Depenedent Origination and that residence at Western Paradise is ‘skilful means’, NOT eternal.

  • Nihilists should look more deeply into evidence found by Dr Ian Stevenson and such: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson

    I can’t speak for others, but for my Pureland classes, I always make it a point to clarify that the lifespans of beings in Pureland is immeasurable due to Amituofo’s immeasurable blessings latched with practitioners’ will to continue practising the Dharma; it is not endless life, as Pureland is a school and everyone graduates one day – even the slowest student.

    Pureland is not a retirement home. It is training ground, for preparation to re-enter Samsara better equipped to guide other beings to liberation.

  • The impediment to further spiritual development and final liberation is that most ignorant Pureland practitioners are caught up with the notion that ‘Western Paradise’ is their final goal (like Heaven) and this obsession has driven them to the extent thinking that all they need to do is to chant ‘Omituofo’ and they have completely neglected the development of Prajna as a prerequisite for spiritual progress towards liberation.

  • Hmmm… It’s not very useful to merely lament so. We should just do what we can to correct the situation. Here in Singapore, there are some working hard to share the precious Pure Land teachings properly. We need more Buddhists to do the same.

    Namo Amituofo

  • Brother, Sadhu X 3 for sharing. Please continue with your effort to help Pureland practitioners attain ‘般舟三昧’, or at least ‘念佛三昧‘。

  • A note: It is not true that samadhi must be attained for birth in Pure Land. If it is attained, it is excellent. But even if not, it is still possible to reach Pure Land if the Three Provisions are adequate. This is clearly so, as stated in the Pure Land sutras. Also, the Amitabha Sutra says Amituofo will arrive before the dying practitioner to lift up the person’s mind to an upright state even if there was no samadhi attained before he comes. Such experiences can also be experienced when alive and well if you practise well.

    Do study the Pure Land sutras in depth, before suggesting samadhi is crucial to anyone for birth in Pure Land – which will be slander of the Pure Land method, which is the method that is meant to last the longest time. If the Pure Land method demands samadhi from all practitioners, it would not be a method that can benefit the most number of beings in our time, as prophecized by the Buddha. Amituofo




    好!放掌。“极乐无为涅槃界”:这句话是总体解释前面七宝池、八功德水,鸟也说法、树也说法、风也说法、四宝围绕等等。这样的境界,善导大师用七个字来形容——“极乐无为涅槃界”。那么,这么高的境界: “随缘杂善恐难生”:这是解释“不可以少善根福德因缘得生彼国”,大家听起来很明了。什么叫做少善根福德因缘呢?善导大师就用“随缘杂善”四个字来形容。“随缘杂善”,随着他的缘不一样,修学各种善法回向往生,听到别人说三时系念好,就跑去三时系念;听到别人说诵《普门品》好,就去诵《普门品》;听到别人说诵《地藏经》好,又去诵《地藏经》;听到别人说诵《金刚经》好,又去诵《金刚经》;听说有人来教咒,这个咒没学过,又跑去学咒……,种种的修行、种种的法门、这个咒、那个咒,这些通通叫做“随缘杂善”。为了往生极乐世界,离开六字名号之外,所修行的种种法,叫做随缘杂善。善导大师说这个不能往生,很困难!“恐难生”讲得客气一点,其实就是不能往生。

    那么,怎样能往生呢? “故使如来选要法”:就是释迦牟尼佛告诉我们“闻说阿弥陀佛,执持名号”,这叫做“选要法”。选了一个最重要的法门。什么法门?执持阿弥陀佛名号的法门:“教念弥陀专复专”:教我们要执持名号;怎样执持名号?“专复专”。所谓“专复专”,就是解释“若一日……若七日……,一心不乱”这段话。一辈子专修不改变,叫若一日……若七日,若八日、若九日、若十日……。经文后面有省略号。我们听到这个法门,如果明天就死了,我们就若一日一心不乱念佛专复专,如果过七天往生,叫若七日称念名号专复专。“若”是不定词,或者一天,或者两天,或者三、四、五、六、七天,或者八、九、十天,或者一个月、三个月、七个月,这后面有省略号,经文把它省略了。总之,是我们遇到这个法门,直到死不改变,这个是不是专?(莲友答:“是。”)这个是专。在这一段时间之内,我们都是一心不乱的。





  • Nothing else matters for a person who is nihilistic. However, the Buddha teaches that it is the greatest delusion to think that there is no afterlife. Pureland is a world system where there is no hell and suffering, but you need a whole load of good Karmic imprints in order to be reborn there.

  • Continuing the work of Dr. Stevenson on rebirth: LIFE BEFORE LIFE
    A Scientific Investigation Of Children’s Memories Of Previous Lives

    Jim B. Tuck
    St. Martin’s Press

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