The Dichotomy of Annihilationism and Non-Annihilationism in Buddhism

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Introduction

Buddhism can be split into two distinct schools of thought: annihilationism and eternal rebirth. The argument that the state of nirvana is achieved through the blowing out of what fuels one’s self is the one generally accepted by most Buddhists and scholars. The minority who do not believe in this are called annihilationists. They are those that believe you must extinguish yourself, your thoughts, and all of your desires, in order to be freed from the endless cycle of rebirth. For the majority of the existence of Buddhism, the acceptance that nirvana was achieved through the extinguishment of one’s self was the predominant belief. ‘Blowing out’ is the literal meaning of nirvana, so naturally people assumed that they needed to get rid of, or ‘blow out’ their selves to achieve it. However, the common belief is one that focuses on a cycle of the eternal, spiritual rebirth of the self’s energy. This more widely accepted belief is antagonistic to the materialist annihilationist belief that we have no eternal self and that death is the end to which there is no succession and cycle.

Hamilton, a scholar of Buddhism, states in the book “Early Buddhism: A new approach” that, “in fact, this interpretation which represents the view of people called annihilationists (the self is annihilated at liberation) is strongly denied in the early Buddhist texts and was clearly wrong. Buddhists and scholars alike were thus able successfully to refute this error correctly pointing out that what nirvana refers to is the blowing out not of one’s self but of what fuels one’s continuity” (Hamilton, 2013). The idea that you are an abiding self has been successfully refuted by Buddhists and scholars to this day. They argue that what nirvana refers to is not the blowing out of one’s self, but of what fuels one’s continuity. Therefore, the interpretation that nirvana is achieved by the blowing out of one’s self is wrong. In order to achieve nirvana, you need to understand that you are not an abiding self. The idea of nirvana directly involving one’s self is inherently wrong since Buddhists and scholars alike believe that the idea that you are not an abiding self. Buddhists and scholars believe that what nirvana actually refers to is the blowing out of one’s cycle of rebirth. Blowing out what fuels one’s continuity is what will grant the release from endless rebirth.

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Annihilationist Buddhism

Annihilationist Buddhists pose a problem to Buddhists who believe that the key to nirvana includes getting rid of one’s materialistic qualities which fuel the self in order to stop the cycle. The problem being that annihilationists believe that it is not the materialistic qualities that must be rid of, but the physical and spiritual self themselves. Annihilationist beliefs align closely to that of the school of thought known as empiricism. According to the Rauhut text, “An empirist holds that our beliefs can be best justified in light of the evidence we received from the senses. We therefore can know something if we can justify it with respect to what we see, hear, and feel about the world” (Rauhut, 2011). The annihilationist Buddhists and scholars find their logic and evidence for their argument through their spiritual feelings, their interpretations of the ancient teachings that they read and study, and from the stories and teachings passed down to them from their teachers. In Buddhism, there are five Khandas, which are believed to be components of one’s self. “These five are one’s body, sensations, apperceptions, volitions, and consciousness” (Hamilton, p. 18). These closely match the belief of empiricism, effectively making them connected to one another.

Annihilationists believe that you must put to death these qualities of the self in order to enter the deathless state. They believe that the idea of extinguishing the self is a huge step forward in terms of Buddhist philosophy since the spiritual energy is not everlasting and can be erased completely if needed. Annihilationists propose the idea that there is no afterlife or rebirth and that death results when one’s self is completely physically and spiritually destroyed. This makes annihilationists extremely different from other beliefs in the sense that they acknowledge that the self can be destroyed and that there is nothing after death. “Annihilationists’, were materialists who held that a person was completely destroyed at death. In this, they were unlike the Brahmins, Jains, Ājīvakas, and Buddhists, all of whom believed that beings went through a series of rebirths, as humans, animals, or other kinds of beings” (Harvey, 2013). Annihilationists believe that their school of thought is the right one, and that eternalism of the self is an ill-informed belief that ignores the true ideals of Buddhism.

A western philosophical idea known as determinism can be used to compare annihilationists and non-annihilationists in Buddhism. “The Theravadin monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote, Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past” (Bhikkhu, 2011). Determinism means “the future is fixed by the past” (Rauhut, 2011). Since annihilationists believe that the cycle of rebirth is influenced by past lives, it is fair to assume that annihilationists want to, in order to prevent future rebirths, sever the cycle by extinguishing the self completely.

Non-Annihilationist Buddhism

Non-annihilationist Buddhists believe in neither determinism, nor indeterminism, as stated by O’Brien, a Buddhist researcher, “Our lives are deeply conditioned by cause and effect, or karma, refuting indeterminism. And we are personally responsible for our lives and actions, refuting determinism” (O'Brien, 2019). The fact that annihilationist and non-annihilationist Buddhists differ on the basic ideas of determinism serves to prove that they are very different. Walshe, a Buddhist scholar, gives an excellent argument against annihilationism, “the final attainment of [nirvana] should not be understood as mere annihilation in the materialistic sense” (Walshe, 2005). Walshe is implying that annihilationists are materialists, which is antithetical to Buddhism. Therefore, achieving nirvana in Buddhism isn't the blowing out of one’s self, for that self never existed. I think that the argument against annihilationism has solidified my idea of what I think achieving nirvana is. It is the ending of the five aggregates which are the result of greed, contempt, and illusion, these aggregates fuel the self. Nirvana is considered by many to be a condition of absolute harmony, and annihilationists believing that in order to achieve it you must destroy the self, is incorrect.  

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the concept of nirvana in Buddhism can be viewed from two different perspectives: annihilationism and eternal rebirth. While the majority of Buddhists believe that the state of nirvana is achieved by blowing out what fuels one’s continuity rather than the self, annihilationist Buddhists believe that one must extinguish both the physical and spiritual self to enter the deathless state. However, the interpretation that nirvana involves one’s self has been refuted by Buddhists and scholars, who argue that one needs to understand that they are not an abiding self to achieve nirvana. Annihilationist beliefs align closely with the idea of empiricism, which emphasizes the evidence received from the senses, while non-annihilationists believe in the cycle of rebirth being influenced by past and present actions. In the end, the true meaning of nirvana lies in the blowing out of one’s cycle of rebirth and not the self, as believed by the majority of Buddhists and scholars.

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