Is Buddhism Nihilistic?

With the idea in Buddhism of No-Self or Non-self, there is a thought and concern that Buddhism is Nihilistic, denying any existence or meaning in life.

It’s sometimes criticism of Buddhist philosophy, and we have questions as we investigate Buddhism.

Illusion and Non-existence

One reason why such an accusation of forwards is the Buddhist idea of No Self. The thought that there is no enduring existence to anything or anyone.

With such impermanence, do we even exist? How can anything have meaning or value? Hence the Nihilism.

In Buddhism, there is the Chariot simile. Chariots have parts, change those parts and does the chariot still exist?

Non-self is the idea there is no enduring existence with changing parts. 

If we keep the analogy going, break it down into smaller parts. What seems to result is nothing exists, so nothing matters. Hence the suspicion of nihilism in Buddhism.

However the Buddha doesn’t say things don’t exist. The Self is an illusion. Think of a mirage.

distant mirage

The image is that of water on the surface. We know there is no water on the surface; it is an illusion. But the illusion persists despite that knowledge.

The Self is like the water on the surface. It shows that Non-Self doesn’t mean non-existence; the mirage is there, that’s real enough. But it implies reality is not quite what it appears.

The fixed Self we think exists only appears as an illusion like the water on the surface.

Is shows that Buddhism accepts existence; it’s just that how we think of existence is wrongheaded.


Nihilism is the rejection of values and meaning, yet Buddhists don’t reject these either.

Buddhism values compassion; it points out that since everything is interconnected, everything has meaning.

With such understanding and enlightenment, all our lives and actions have importance. Everyone is important, and compassion for all sentient creatures is part of Buddhism ethics.

Buddhist value insight and enlightenment into the true nature of reality because such understanding helps us deal with our suffering.

The aim of philosophy

The purpose of philosophy.
I think the accusation of Nihilism comes from people who ask cling to the idea of a knowable, fixed truth as the basis of reality. Further, they believe this is the aim of Buddhism.

Not everyone needs to know why we exist or what’s the basis of reality. We don’t need to know the metaphysics of the cosmos to live a happier life. What does that say about the people who are desperate to find such answers?

In the West, science, philosophy, and religion are there to find the unchangeable basis of reality – the Atomos, or uncuttable and fixed basis of existence.

Scientific materialism, this was called the Atom as is the basis for Newtonian Physics. In religion, the Atomos is a God. The ground of being as well as the cause of the cosmos.

However, the Buddha’s teaching doesn’t appear to have the same goal here; the aim is to address our suffering. A more pragmatic approach to existence doesn’t concern itself with asking questions that may not have any answers. TIt makes Buddhism similar rot other philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism.

The questions are to live a better, healthier, happier life, not to find the metaphysic of the entire cosmos. Some that we may not be able to discover.


What we have here is a larger issue. One is the role of philosophy and religion. Is it to find the answer to the big questions or help us live a happier life?

I think the accusation of nihilism comes down from people who are still grasping for a fixed self for answers, for a bedrock to existence, this is Hypostasis. We search for a fixed self out of fear and hope; however, the world doesn’t owe us anything.

People seem to think the world is obligated to make sense, but that is an insecure ego talking.

Buddhism doesn’t deny existence; we must remember that all reality is change. Existence is change.

The problem lies in asking Buddhism and Daoism to answer the questions it never intends to answer. Some expect Buddhism to be like western philosophy and search for a bedrock existence. I feel the Buddha cared little for such great, ultimately futile answers. Indeed such question is the source of our suffering.

Nihilism is the attitude that nothing matters, but in Buddhism, with interconnectedness, the attitude is the opposite; everything matters.

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