Are there specifically Buddhist arguments against the eternal return of the same?

There seems like there should be. However, I'm highly confused by what a "final nirvana", complete extinction, could amount to, so the concept of what happens at the end of our rounds of rebirth isn't helping me.

  • Eventually everyone should become enlightened, right? So that's when the same would stop. Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 23:25

4 Answers 4


Nietzsche's eternal return is a view that there are certain inevitabilities in life: growing-up, maturity, epiphanies, that happen in generally the same way no matter how many times life is lived.

As Emrys Westacott writes, this links to the idea of a positivity towards life:-

the ultimate expression of a life-affirming attitude: to want this life, with all its pain and boredom and frustration, again and again. This thought connects with the dominant theme of Book IV of "The Gay Science," which is the importance of being a “yea-sayer,” a life-affirmer, and of embracing amor fati (love of one’s fate).

This is also how the idea is presented in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." Zarathustra’s being able to embrace eternal recurrence is the ultimate expression of his love for life and his desire to remain “faithful to the earth.”

Buddhism on the other hand, tends to focus on detachment as a method of creating a calm and subsequently positive attitude. A calm person can better embody the four sublime states.

Meditations leading to detachment can have quite a different style compared to Nietzsche's yea-saying, although both lead to a kind of acceptance of the world.

From the Discourse to Girimananda Thera, the ten contemplations:-

  • Contemplation of impermanence.
  • Contemplation of anatta (absence of a permanent self or soul).
  • Contemplation of foulness (asubha).
  • Contemplation of disadvantage (danger).
  • Contemplation of abandonment.
  • Contemplation of detachment.
  • Contemplation of cessation.
  • Contemplation of distaste for the whole world.
  • Contemplation of impermanence of all component things.
  • Mindfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing.

Eternal recurrance of the same implies a fixed unchanging essence, but Buddhist ontology is clear that things lack unchanging self-nature, and holds that everything is impermanent. See the Brahmanjala sutra (section 3, part 1) for the argument against any kind of eternalism.

Note that for Mahayana Buddhism (broadly, Tibetan & Chinese), personal enlightenment is foresworn until every being is enlightened, this is called the bodhisattva path. Comparison here might be drawn with free embrace of nearly-endless recurrance. There are various theological subtleties on this in the Mahayana tradition, along the lines that it is delusion which ceases or is extinguished rather than all existence ceasing, but there are conflicting interpretations (karmic causation ceases at awakening, but previous karma remains to be dealt with).

What happens to a Buddha after death, and so to all beings for Mahayana Buddhists on completion of the bodhisattva path, is one of the 'unexpounded questions'. For everyone else they will be recur not as the same being (reincarnation), but as beings inheriting their karma, like a candle being lit by another candle. We replay our conflicts and tensions until we resolve them, or are reconciled to them.

Heidigger points out that in Nietzsche's first mention of eternal recurrance in The Gay Science:

"The way Nietzsche here patterns the first communication of the thought of the 'greatest burden' [of eternal recurrence] makes it clear that this 'thought of thoughts' is at the same time 'the most burdensome thought'"

I would argue that Buddha's teachings often use thought experiments, like the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the poison arrow. Metaphorical, rather than literal truths. The Buddha took the cultural furniture of his era, reincarnation concerned with a soul's karma, and reworked it into a doctrine of rebirth concerned with rebirth of causes and conditions in a situation of no-self, anatta. Mahayana Buddhism took that further, to concern for causes and conditions of all beings. This can be seen as useful to contemplate in the way the thought-experiments are. And Nietzsche's eternal return properly used, is also valued for it's effect in contemplating it, rather than literal truth.

Now, then people of a physicalist-materialist bent say, but which and what can be literally true? Rebirth? Recurrance of a reconciled being, a boddhisattva? Modern physics is contending with the idea of Many Worlds, of a higher dimensional probability landscape. Buddhists hold that there have been multiple universes, and that karma and minds have been around infinitely long. Could that be an intuition of a larger view of reality and causality? I think there is space in understanding of consciousness through the Penrose-Hameroff model of consciousness as occurring at a quantum level, for recignising that we are companions with, shaped and reflected by, all our possible selves. In this sense there may be a larger truth reconciling Buddhist thought and science, which we will I think we will need techniques from both to understand.

You might find this article helpful, which draws a comparison between Nietzsche and one of Buddhism's deepest thinkers Nagarjuna, in their philosophical techniques.


Eternal Return would accommodate both the nonsubstantiality of an autonomous ego, and be the ideal context for the aggregated ego of each moment to arise in perfect equanimity. The Buddha's objection to eternalism was the fact of non-stasis. But Eternal Return is never static. My book, The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time, culminates in Eternal Return.

  • For those not familiar with Buddhism, the terms used in your answer need explanation Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 3:48
  • 1
    Looks interesting. I just bought your book. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 11:41

I would suggest there's no need for any such argument. Eternal recurrence would clash with the entire doctrine. Manifestation would be cyclic but not repetitive. But I must concede that I've never given this question a moment's thought before today.

'Final Nirvana' may be an unfortunate phrase. 'Extinction' might be better, indicating no recurrence. For a more than usually accessible discussion of this final destination I'd recommend Sri Ramana Maharshi who many people would say arrived at it and who is a wonderfully clear and rigorous speaker.

  • the question is why. nothing wrong with 'final nirvana', it's used throughout buddhism.
    – user34654
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 20:48
  • @user3293056 - Fair enough. I feel it can be misunderstood quite easily in other contexts but no matter. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 12:15
  • maybe, i don't know!
    – user34654
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 13:08
  • Ramana Maharshi was not a Buddhist though, so his explanation cannot be expected to be relevant to this question. There is great subtlety about words in Buddhism. For Mahayana Buddhists Nirvana is a state which is not remained in, for the sake of all beings. Yet boddhisattvas do attain unshakeable liberation, and awakening (to the true nature of things), which are used as synonyms.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 23:09

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