Nibbana: Points of Controversy

Points of Controversy

Nibbāna and the Self

Let us look once more at the ques­tions about self (attā), in par­tic­u­lar the claim that the Buddha’s rejec­tion of the five aggre­gates as self indi­cates that he wished for us to dis­cov­er a true self beyond the body/mind, and the ques­tion as to whether Nib­bā­na is the Self.

All beliefs about the self or soul spring from bha­va-taṇhā: the desire for eter­nal life. This desire incites one to seize some­thing as sta­ble and last­ing, lead­ing to sup­po­si­tions, beliefs and the­o­ries on self. Ini­tial­ly, one takes the body as self, but soon it is clear that the body can­not sat­is­fy one’s desire and one search­es for some­thing else. When even the mind can­not ful­fil one’s desire, one goes fur­ther, grasp­ing say the exalt­ed states encoun­tered in jhā­na as the true self. Some define attā in a broad­er sense than the ego, as the source of all things or an immor­tal spir­it. But no mat­ter how refined these con­cepts of self, they are essen­tial­ly the same, in that they sat­is­fy the crav­ing for eter­nal life.

The error here does not lie with the objects sur­mised as self, which fol­low their own nature in line with caus­es and con­di­tions and are not affect­ed by attach­ment. The error lies with the crav­ing for being which gives rise to ideas of self. When one grasps at some­thing, real or imag­i­nary, the per­cep­tion of that thing gets dis­tort­ed. This dis­tort­ed per­cep­tion is pre­cise­ly the (image of) self, which is then attached to. Ideas of self depend on the rela­tion­ship between crav­ing and the object tak­en to be self. The self is asso­ci­at­ed with such an object but does not exist sep­a­rate from the crav­ing for being: the source of these beliefs.

Self per­cep­tions (atta-saññā), self views (atta-diṭṭhi) and the grasp­ing that leads to repeat­ed asser­tions of self (atta-vādupādā­na) are accu­mu­lat­ed so habit­u­al­ly that they become deeply lodged in the mind. When these views are con­tra­dict­ed, peo­ple tend to look for a loop­hole and search for some­thing else to call self. The search for a replace­ment is proof of the urgency in main­tain­ing a self. When the orig­i­nal per­cep­tion of self is threat­ened or ruled out, the per­son fears anni­hi­la­tion and reach­es for a new con­cept of self. The basic crav­ing for exis­tence and self views are still ful­ly intact, and noth­ing essen­tial­ly changes by attach­ing to a new object. The idea of self is mere­ly expressed in a more elab­o­rate and detailed way. One may grasp onto an aspect of truth in this way, but it will result in a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of that truth. Grasp­ing at Nib­bā­na as self results in a dis­tort­ed image of Nib­bā­na that is masked by desire, indi­cat­ing that one has not yet real­ized true Nibbāna.1 Any viable solu­tion to this prob­lem is pre­vent­ed by the inabil­i­ty to aban­don crav­ing. One may acknowl­edge that one’s self view is false, but deep down this idea still con­flicts with crav­ing and the accep­tance of it is there­fore not com­plete. When one belief is inval­i­dat­ed the ten­den­cy is to search for anoth­er belief to take its place. One may also swing to the oppo­site side: the the­o­ry of nihilism.

Solv­ing this dilem­ma is not a mat­ter of iden­ti­fy­ing the true self, but rather cor­rect­ing the very belief in self and address­ing the root of the prob­lem: the crav­ing which cre­ates ever more elab­o­rate ideas of self. One must uproot self-view (atta-diṭṭhi or attānudiṭṭhi), reject the belief in an endur­ing self or soul (atta-vāda), and aban­don the crav­ing for exis­tence (bha­va-taṇhā). When this crav­ing is aban­doned, the self or the ideas of self in which one invests so much impor­tance are also relin­quished. With this relin­quish­ment the ques­tion of self is con­clud­ed; one need not affix a con­cept of self onto some­thing else. The self ceas­es auto­mat­i­cal­ly with the destruc­tion of this native craving.2 Noth­ing more needs to be said about the self; the self becomes meaningless.

The extreme and con­tro­ver­sial inter­pre­ta­tion that Bud­dhism rejects the five aggre­gates as self, and that Nib­bā­na is the true self, is an error result­ing from mis­di­rect­ed focus. Pro­po­nents of this view pay too much atten­tion to what the Bud­dha reject­ed as self, rather than how he reject­ed the self and how he reject­ed the attach­ment that gives rise to the self.

The rea­son the Bud­dha chose the five aggre­gates as the focus in the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics, assert­ing that they are insub­stan­tial and not tru­ly con­trol­lable, is because the aggre­gates are all that ordi­nary peo­ple are able to know and con­ceive of.3 They com­prise all things that are gen­er­al­ly held to be self, includ­ing expe­ri­ences in jhā­na. The Buddha’s rejec­tion of the aggre­gates as self was not an encour­age­ment to find some­thing else to grasp. The aim of his teach­ing is pre­cise­ly to erad­i­cate self-view, self-attach­ment, and crav­ing for exis­tence, not mere­ly to know the insub­stan­tial­i­ty of the aggre­gates. If the Bud­dha want­ed us to reject the aggre­gates as self in order to adopt some­thing else as the true self, he would have made it amply clear what that is. He would not have left us guess­ing and disputing.

Non-self as part of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics is usu­al­ly referred to in the scrip­tures in the phrase: ‘All con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na are imper­ma­nent, all con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na are dukkha, all things are non-self (anat­tā).’ This phrase shows that anat­tā has a range of mean­ing broad­er than anic­ca and dukkha. The first two claus­es refer to con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na (saṅkhāra or saṅkha­ta-dham­ma), while the third refers to all ‘dham­mas,’ nor­mal­ly defined as both con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na and the Uncon­di­tioned (saṅkha­ta-dham­ma and asaṅkha­ta-dham­ma, or saṅkhāra and visaṅkhāra). And the fol­low­ing pas­sage in the Parivāra of the Vinaya-Piṭa­ka clear­ly demon­strates that Nib­bā­na is includ­ed in the clause ‘all things are non-self’: ‘All for­ma­tions are imper­ma­nent, dukkha, and non­self; Nib­bā­na and des­ig­na­tions are nonself.’4 Although evi­dence shows that the Parivāra is a lat­er text in the Tip­iṭa­ka, one must con­cede that this is an inter­pre­ta­tion from ear­ly, pre-com­men­tar­i­al Bud­dhism. In any case, although such text mate­r­i­al exists one ought to define anat­tā with caution.

The Bud­dha showed cau­tion when dis­cussing attā/anat­tā. His approach can be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows: First­ly, when the lis­ten­er had an ade­quate basis of under­stand­ing, the Bud­dha would explain the nature of the object held to be self and the grasp­ing that needs to be aban­doned, as can be seen in his ref­er­ences to the five aggre­gates and twelve sense bases in the teach­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. Sec­ond­ly, if some­one asked him the iso­lat­ed meta­phys­i­cal ques­tion whether the self exists or does not exist, the Bud­dha remained silent and would not answer:

At one time the wan­der­er Vac­cha­got­ta approached the Bud­dha and asked: Is there a self? The Bud­dha was silent. Vac­cha­got­ta resumed: Then, is there no self? The Bud­dha remained silent. Vac­cha­got­ta then rose from his seat and depart­ed. Lat­er, Ven­er­a­ble Ānan­da said to the Bud­dha: Why is it that when the Blessed One was ques­tioned by the wan­der­er, he did not answer? The Bud­dha replied: If I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been sid­ing with those who are eter­nal­ists. If I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been sid­ing with those who are anni­hi­la­tion­ists.5

In the first man­ner of teach­ing about non-self stat­ed above, the Bud­dha points out how the things a per­son iden­ti­fies with as self can­not be held in any real way. When a per­son rec­og­nizes this mis­ap­pre­hen­sion, the dan­gers of grasp­ing and advan­tages of let­ting go become appar­ent. One under­stands the mean­ing of free­dom and knows how to con­duct one­self appro­pri­ate­ly in the world, liv­ing with pur­pose rather than drift­ing aim­less­ly and allow­ing crav­ing to devel­op into a more seri­ous men­tal com­plex. By gain­ing under­stand­ing, a prac­ti­tion­er removes self-views and reduces the crav­ing for exis­tence. At the same time ques­tions about self grad­u­al­ly dissolve.

This way of explain­ing dif­fers great­ly from try­ing to answer meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions about the self, which spring from people’s bha­va-taṇhā or vib­ha­va-taṇhā (crav­ing for extinc­tion). The crav­ing is tied up with fixed views: either a vari­ant of eter­nal­ism (sas­sa­ta-diṭṭhi) or anni­hi­la­tion­ism (ucche­da-diṭṭhi). Answer­ing or repu­di­at­ing these kinds of ques­tions to some­one with fixed beliefs is risky and leads to con­fu­sion. No mat­ter how one answers, the per­son will base his con­cep­tions upon estab­lished beliefs. If the answer is con­sis­tent with his views, he will take this as con­fir­ma­tion of his spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing. If incon­sis­tent, he will con­clude the oppo­site. For exam­ple, if one answers that the self exists the view of a lis­ten­er biased towards eter­nal­ism will be rein­forced. If one negates the self he will go to the oppo­site extreme and inter­pret this as a form of anni­hi­la­tion­ism. He may then devel­op the mis­guid­ed idea that since no self exists, per­se­cu­tion has no con­se­quences; since no-one acts, no-one receives the fruits of action and there­fore why should one per­form good deeds? Some peo­ple may devel­op a pho­bia of extinc­tion. Some may con­clude that Nib­bā­na equals extinc­tion and give up prac­tis­ing the Dham­ma out of fear. Such reac­tions and views are extreme­ly unfor­tu­nate. Respond­ing at this lev­el to these ques­tions of self can cause con­fu­sion. Peo­ple form con­clu­sions accord­ing to their crav­ings and fixed opin­ions; these con­clu­sions inevitably result in the extreme views of eter­nal­ism or anni­hi­la­tion­ism, nei­ther of which is embraced by Buddhism.

When some­one asks whether things exist or do not exist, nei­ther answer ‘they exist’ or ‘they do not exist’ is suit­able, because such answers main­tain the views of eter­nal­ism and anni­hi­la­tion­ism. One should not answer cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly; one should state that things exist or do not exist con­di­tion­al­ly since things arise mutu­al­ly depen­dent on one anoth­er (paṭic­ca-samup­pan­na). The Bud­dha there­fore did not answer with a sim­ple affir­ma­tive or neg­a­tive; he referred to the process of orig­i­na­tion. This form of response aims to dis­pel our mis­con­cep­tions of things. The word anat­tā func­tions to remove self-con­cepts fab­ri­cat­ed by crav­ing and wrong view. With the release of attach­ment, the self or self-con­cepts cease auto­mat­i­cal­ly. If one com­pre­hends anat­tā as the com­mon (i.e. unawak­ened) belief of ‘no self’, how­ev­er, then one falls into the wrong view of anni­hi­la­tion­ism. In the Sut­ta-Nipā­ta the Bud­dha often char­ac­ter­izes enlight­ened beings as hav­ing nei­ther attā nor nirat­tā: hav­ing nei­ther ‘a self’ nor ‘an absence of self.’6 They have no thirst for being (bha­va-taṇhā) which seeks a self, nor do they hold a view of exis­tence (bha­va-diṭṭhi), which leads to self-view (atta-diṭṭhi) or self-extinc­tion (ucche­da-diṭṭhi). Anoth­er def­i­n­i­tion is that they believe nei­ther in an ‘exist­ing self’ nor an ‘expired self’: the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a fixed self iden­ti­ty fol­lowed by the belief that the self has vanished.7

In con­clu­sion, although the Bud­dha declared the truth, the truth must always be linked to prac­tice. He wished that those who receive his teach­ings apply them and ben­e­fit. The way of explain­ing anat­tā by exam­in­ing the objects a per­son iden­ti­fies with and their rela­tion­ship to crav­ing intends to free the lis­ten­ers from harm­ful views and attach­ments, enabling them to have a lib­er­at­ed heart and to pros­per. Meta­phys­i­cal respons­es, when indulged in, add to con­fu­sion and deep­en wrong view. As the Bud­dha said: ‘I do not see any doc­trine of self that would not arouse sor­row, lamen­ta­tion, pain, grief, and despair, in one who clings to it.’8

What Happens After an Arahant’s Death?

An inevitable ques­tion that aris­es in the dis­cus­sion of Nib­bā­na is: ‘What hap­pens to an ara­hant after death?’ or: ‘Does a per­son who has real­ized Nib­bā­na exist after death or not?’ In truth, this ques­tion is cen­tred around self-view: the devo­tion to self is act­ing as a cat­a­lyst in pos­ing the ques­tion. This attach­ment to self or to the label of self (attavādupādā­na) is firm­ly embed­ded in the hearts of unen­light­ened peo­ple, sup­port­ed by the thirst for being (bha­va-taṇhā) and based on igno­rance (avi­jjā). The Bud­dha did not encour­age debat­ing this ques­tion if one has not elim­i­nat­ed igno­rance and crav­ing. He encour­aged knowl­edge through appli­ca­tion rather than conjecture.

No mat­ter how one responds to these inquiries, the latent root attach­ment to self inevitably leads to a biased under­stand­ing. The ques­tion­er will incline towards a wrong view of Nib­bā­na as either an endur­ing self or an erad­i­ca­tion of self. It is easy for anni­hi­la­tion­ists to view Nib­bā­na as extinc­tion, because Bud­dhism empha­sizes dis­en­tan­gling from the wide­spread belief in eternalism.9 As for eter­nal­ists, when their idea of self is inval­i­dat­ed, they search for a sub­sti­tute to com­pen­sate for the sense of void or to restore the idea of a sta­ble self. When they encounter a teach­ing that advo­cates uproot­ing the fixed belief in self, it can seem to them that the self van­ish­es. They may then seize Nib­bā­na as a haven for the self or equate Nib­bā­na as eter­nal life or the Promised Land. Many esteemed and wise indi­vid­u­als who are free from almost all forms of attach­ment get caught in these views. The escape from this net leads to com­plete lib­er­a­tion. The Bud­dhist teach­ings admit that such free­dom is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to achieve and refer to this sub­tle attach­ment to views as ‘the Brah­ma-ensnar­ing web’ (brah­ma-jāla): an entan­gle­ment for the vir­tu­ous and wise.

Nib­bā­na and the prac­tice for Nib­bā­na have noth­ing to do with destroy­ing the self because there is no self to destroy.10 It is the attach­ment to the con­cepts of self that must be destroyed. One must remove the attach­ment to self-asser­tions, self-views and self-per­cep­tions. Nib­bā­na is the end of these mis­un­der­stand­ings and the end of the suf­fer­ing caused by attach­ment. When the yearn­ing for self ceas­es, all the­o­ries of self auto­mat­i­cal­ly lose their sig­nif­i­cance. When the attach­ment to self is uproot­ed, things will be seen as they tru­ly are; there is no need for fur­ther spec­u­la­tion about self. When the desire which gives rise to self ceas­es, the mat­ter of self van­ish­es of its own accord. Nib­bā­na is the ces­sa­tion of suf­fer­ing, not the ces­sa­tion of self, since there is no self that will cease. Reflect on the Buddha’s words: ‘I teach only suf­fer­ing and the end of suffering.’11 In order to shift the empha­sis from the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Nib­bā­na and philo­soph­i­cal debate, the Bud­dha usu­al­ly referred to Nib­bā­na in the con­text of prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion or the relat­ed ben­e­fits for every­day life, as demon­strat­ed in pas­sages of the Tipiṭaka.

Rather than give lengthy expla­na­tions on the sub­ject of what hap­pens to ara­hants after they die, some teach­ings of the Bud­dha are list­ed below for consideration:

A) This teach­ing offers a basic under­stand­ing on the sub­ject of self, pre­sent­ing the two extreme views of eter­nal­ism and extinc­tion. It also elu­ci­dates the mean­ing of bha­va-taṇhā and vib­ha­va-taṇhā:

Bhikkhus, both devas and humans are pos­sessed by two views. Some are bogged down, some over­reach, while those with vision see. And how, monks, are some bogged down?

Devas and humans delight in becom­ing (bha­va), rejoice in becom­ing, take plea­sure in becom­ing. When the Dham­ma is being taught for the ces­sa­tion of becom­ing (bha­va-nirod­ha), the hearts of those devas and humans do not leap for­ward, do not gain con­fi­dence, do not become set­tled, do not yield. Thus are some bogged down.

And how, monks, do some overreach?

Some devas and humans are afflict­ed, depressed, and dis­gust­ed by becom­ing. They delight in non-becom­ing (vib­ha­va: extinc­tion), say­ing: ‘My good sir, with the break­ing up of the body at death, this self is anni­hi­lat­ed, destroyed, and no longer exists. This state is supreme, excel­lent and true.’ Thus do some overreach.

And how, monks, do those with vision see?

In this case, a monk sees becom­ing as becom­ing.12 When he sees becom­ing as becom­ing, he prac­tis­es for dis­en­chant­ment(nib­bidā), dis­pas­sion (virā­ga), and ces­sa­tion (nirod­ha) in regard to becom­ing. Thus do those with vision see.

Who­ev­er sees becom­ing as becoming,

And sees the state beyond becoming,

Sur­ren­ders to the Truth,

Through the exhaus­tion of lust for existence.

With full under­stand­ing of becoming,

One is free from craving,

For both exis­tence and extinc­tion (abha­va).

With the end of what has come to be,

A monk comes not to fur­ther birth.13

B) The Buddha’s repu­di­a­tion of the view that con­scious­ness leaves the body and takes a new birth is of par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the study of rebirth. Although the sub­ject of rebirth is not direct­ly linked to Nib­bā­na, exam­in­ing the teach­ings on rebirth may add to an under­stand­ing of Nibbāna.

On that occa­sion a wrong view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sāti, son of a fish­er­man, thus: ‘As I under­stand the Dham­ma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same con­scious­ness that runs and wan­ders through the round of rebirths, not another.’…

The bhikkhus were unable to detach him from that per­ni­cious view, so they went to the Bud­dha and told him all that had occurred…

(The Bud­dha then called the bhikkhu Sāti) and asked him: ‘Sāti, is it true that the fol­low­ing per­ni­cious view has arisen in you: “As I under­stand the Dham­ma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same con­scious­ness that runs and wan­ders through the round of rebirths, not another?”

Exact­ly so, ven­er­a­ble sir…’

What is that con­scious­ness, Sāti?’

Ven­er­a­ble sir, it is that which speaks and feels and expe­ri­ences here and there the result of good and bad actions.’

Mis­guid­ed man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dham­ma in that way? In many dis­cours­es have I not stat­ed con­scious­ness to be depen­dent­ly arisen, since with­out a con­di­tion there is no orig­i­na­tion of con­scious­ness? But you, mis­guid­ed man, have mis­rep­re­sent­ed us by your wrong grasp and injured your­self and stored up much demer­it; for this will lead to your harm and suf­fer­ing for a long time.’

Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus thus: ‘Bhikkhus, con­scious­ness is reck­oned by the par­tic­u­lar con­di­tion depen­dent upon which it aris­es. When con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the eye and forms, it is reck­oned as eye-con­scious­ness; when con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the ear and sounds, it is reck­oned as ear-con­scious­ness; when con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the nose and odours, it is reck­oned as nose-con­scious­ness; when con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the tongue and flavours, it is reck­oned as tongue-con­scious­ness; when con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the body and tan­gi­bles, it is reck­oned as body-con­scious­ness; when con­scious­ness aris­es depen­dent on the mind an mind-objects, it is reck­oned as mind-con­scious­ness. Just as fire is reck­oned by the par­tic­u­lar con­di­tion depen­dent on which it burns… it is reck­oned as a log fire… a wood­chip fire… a grass fire… a cow­dung fire… a chaff fire… a rub­bish fire….14

C) This teach­ing cor­rects the mis­guid­ed view that ara­hants are anni­hi­lat­ed after death:

On one occa­sion the fol­low­ing wrong view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Yama­ka: ‘As I under­stand the Dham­ma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed is anni­hi­lat­ed and per­ish­es with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death.’

A num­ber of bhikkhus unsuc­cess­ful­ly tried to rid him of this wrong view. They there­fore asked the Ven­er­a­ble Sāriput­ta for assis­tance. Ven­er­a­ble Sāriput­ta approached Yama­ka and con­duct­ed the fol­low­ing conversation:

Is it true, friend Yama­ka, that such a per­ni­cious view as this has arisen in you: “As I under­stand the Dham­ma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed is anni­hi­lat­ed and per­ish­es with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death”?’

Exact­ly so, friend.’

What do you think, friend Yama­ka, is form per­ma­nent or impermanent?’

Imper­ma­nent, friend.’

Is feel­ing… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness per­ma­nent or impermanent?’

Imper­ma­nent, friend.’

There­fore, any kind of form… feel­ing… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness what­so­ev­er, whether past, future, or present, inter­nal or exter­nal, gross or sub­tle, infe­ri­or or supe­ri­or, far or near… should be seen as it real­ly is with cor­rect wis­dom thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” See­ing thus, [one’s mind] is liberated….

What do you think, friend Yama­ka, do you regard form as the Tathā­ga­ta?’15 ‘No, friend.’

Do you regard feel­ing… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness as the Tathā­ga­ta?’ ‘No, friend.’

What do you think, friend Yama­ka, do you regard the Tathā­ga­ta as in form?’ ‘No, friend.’

Do you regard the Tathā­ga­ta as apart from form?’ ‘No, friend.’

Do you regard the Tathā­ga­ta as in feel­ing… apart from feel­ing… as in per­cep­tion… apart from per­cep­tion… as in voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… as apart from voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… as in con­scious­ness… as apart from con­scious­ness?’ ‘No, friend.’

What do you think, friend Yama­ka, do you regard form, feel­ing, per­cep­tion, voli­tion­al for­ma­tions and con­scious­ness [tak­en togeth­er] as the Tathā­ga­ta?’ ‘No, friend.’

What do you think, friend Yama­ka, do you regard the Tathā­ga­ta as one who is with­out form, with­out feel­ing, with­out per­cep­tion, with­out voli­tion­al for­ma­tions, with­out consciousness?’

No, friend.’

But friend, when the Tathā­ga­ta is not appre­hend­ed by you as real and actu­al here in this very life, is it fit­ting for you to declare: “As I under­stand the Dham­ma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed is anni­hi­lat­ed and per­ish­es with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death”?’

For­mer­ly, friend Sāriput­ta, when I was igno­rant, I did hold that per­ni­cious view, but now that I have heard this Dham­ma teach­ing of the Ven­er­a­ble Sāriput­ta I have aban­doned that per­ni­cious view and have made the break­through to the Dhamma.’

If, friend Yama­ka, peo­ple were to ask you: “Friend Yama­ka, when a bhikkhu is an ara­hant, one whose taints are destroyed, what hap­pens to him with the breakup of the body, after death?”—being asked thus, what would you answer?’

If they were to ask me this, friend, I would answer thus: “Friends, form is imper­ma­nent; what is imper­ma­nent is dukkha; what is dukkha has ceased and passed away. Feel­ing… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness is imper­ma­nent; what is imper­ma­nent is dukkha; what is dukkha has ceased and passed away.” Being asked thus, friend, I would answer in such a way.’

Good, good, friend Yama­ka….’16

D) In this teach­ing the Bud­dha, while con­vers­ing with the wan­der­er Vac­cha­got­ta, com­pares the death of an ara­hant with the extin­guish­ing of a fire:

When a bhikkhu’s mind is lib­er­at­ed thus, Mas­ter Gota­ma, where does he reap­pear [after death]?’

The term “reap­pears” does not apply,17 Vaccha.’

Then he does not reap­pear, Mas­ter Gotama?’

The term “does not reap­pear” does not apply, Vaccha.’

Then he both reap­pears and does not reap­pear, Mas­ter Gotama?’

The term “both reap­pears and does not reap­pear” does not apply, Vaccha.’

Then he nei­ther reap­pears nor does not reap­pear, Mas­ter Gotama?’

The term “nei­ther reap­pears nor does not reap­pear” does not apply, Vaccha.’

Here I have fall­en into bewil­der­ment, Mas­ter Gota­ma, here I have fall­en into con­fu­sion, and the mea­sure of con­fi­dence I had gained through pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tion with Mas­ter Gota­ma has now disappeared.’

It is enough to cause you bewil­der­ment, Vac­cha, enough to cause you con­fu­sion. For this Dham­ma, Vac­cha, is pro­found, hard to see and hard to under­stand, peace­ful and sub­lime, unat­tain­able by mere rea­son­ing, sub­tle, to be expe­ri­enced by the wise. It is hard for you to under­stand it when you hold anoth­er view, accept anoth­er teach­ing, approve of anoth­er teach­ing, pur­sue a dif­fer­ent train­ing, and fol­low a dif­fer­ent teacher. So I shall ques­tion you about this in return, Vac­cha. Answer as you choose.

What do you think, Vac­cha? Sup­pose a fire were burn­ing before you. Would you know: “This fire is burn­ing before me?’”

I would, Mas­ter Gotama.’

If some­one were to ask you, Vac­cha: “What does this fire burn­ing before you burn in depen­dence on?”—being asked thus, what would you answer?’

Being asked thus, Mas­ter Gota­ma, I would answer: “This fire burn­ing before me burns in depen­dence on grass and sticks.”’

If that fire before you were to be extin­guished, would you know: “This fire before me has been extinguished?”’

I would, Mas­ter Gotama.’

If some­one were to ask you, Vac­cha: “When that fire before you was extin­guished, to which direc­tion did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?”—being asked thus, what would you answer?

That does not apply, Mas­ter Gota­ma. The fire burned in depen­dence on its fuel of grass and sticks. When that is used up, if it does not get any more fuel, being with­out fuel, it is reck­oned as extinguished.

So too, Vac­cha, the Tathā­ga­ta has aban­doned that mate­r­i­al form… feel­ing… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness by which one describ­ing the Tathā­ga­ta might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, done away with it so that it is no longer sub­ject to future aris­ing. The Tathā­ga­ta is lib­er­at­ed from reck­on­ing in terms of mate­r­i­al form… feel­ings… per­cep­tion… voli­tion­al for­ma­tions… con­scious­ness, Vac­cha, he is pro­found, immea­sur­able, unfath­omable like the ocean. The term “reap­pears” does not apply, the term “does not reap­pear” does not apply, the term “both reap­pears and does not reap­pear” does not apply, the term “nei­ther reap­pears nor does not reap­pear” does not apply.

Fol­low­ing this con­ver­sa­tion faith arose in the wan­der­er Vac­cha­got­ta and he declared him­self a lay fol­low­er.18

The Ratana Sut­ta describes ara­hants as follows:

With pre­vi­ous [birth] exhaust­ed, and no new birth aris­ing, the mind dis­en­gaged from future birth—the seeds of exis­tence destroyed, with no impulse to grow again. Those wise ones are extin­guished even as this lamp.19

At the final pass­ing away (parinib­bā­na) of Ven­er­a­ble Dab­ba-Mal­la­put­ta, the Bud­dha uttered this verse:

Bro­ken is the body, all per­cep­tion has ceased,

Feel­ings are stilled, voli­tion­al for­ma­tions calmed,

And con­scious­ness has reached its end.20

The Bud­dha recount­ed the events of this pass­ing away to the monks and uttered this verse:

Just as the des­ti­na­tion of a blaz­ing spark of fire

Struck from the anvil, grad­u­al­ly fading,

Can­not be known—so in the case of those

Who have right­ly won release and crossed the flood

Of bind­ing lusts, and reached unshake­able bliss,

Their des­ti­na­tion can­not be defined.21


1 This is a very impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between Bud­dhism and reli­gions that avow a soul or an eter­nal god. The absolute truth as pre­sent­ed by some reli­gions and branch­es of the­ol­o­gy can appear almost iden­ti­cal to that of Bud­dhism. The dif­fer­ence is that these faiths define the high­est real­i­ty in terms of a Self or Supreme Being. Although adher­ents of these faiths may reach pro­found states of con­scious­ness, they are still caught up with the latent yet insis­tent need for a self. When dis­cussing one of these pro­found states, they look for an angle or ref­er­ence to label it as self in the hope that they will con­tin­ue to exist in some endur­ing, con­stant way, which indi­cates that they still have bha­va-taṇhā. In Bud­dhism this mech­a­nism is called ‘the mas­ter-ensnar­ing net’ (brah­ma-jāla: ‘the net that traps Brah­ma’; see the Brah­ma­jāla Sut­ta: D. I. 12–46). More impor­tant than any con­cept of self is the desire for self, which breeds all pur­suit for and debates over self.

2 On the appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion between kam­ma and anat­tā see chap­ter 5 (sec­tion 4) of Bud­dhad­ham­ma on kam­ma, espe­cial­ly the Buddha’s state­ments quot­ed there (‘Good, Evil & Beyond’, trans. by Bruce Evans, Bud­dhad­ham­ma Foun­da­tion, 1993, pp. 89–98). 

3 The 12 sense spheres (āyatana) are also fre­quent top­ics of analysis.

4 Vin. VI. 86.

5 S. IV. 400. If the Bud­dha had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been incon­sis­tent with the aris­ing of the knowl­edge that ‘all things are non­self.’ If he had answered, ‘There is no self,’ Vac­cha­got­ta, already con­fused, would have fall­en into even greater con­fu­sion, think­ing, ‘It seems that the self I for­mer­ly had no longer exists.’

6 See: Sn. 154, 157, 168, 180; elu­ci­dat­ed at: Nd1. 82, 107–8, 247, 352–53.

7 Note the teach­ing in the Visud­dhimag­ga: ‘There is no doer of a deed, or one who reaps the deed’s results…. For here there is no Cre­ator God, no Cre­ator of the round of births; phe­nom­e­na alone flow on, depen­dent on the mar­riage of con­di­tions.’ This match­es the teach­ing in the Sam­mo­havin­odanī: ‘When no being can be found, there is nei­ther sub­stan­tial­i­ty nor extinc­tion’ (Vism. 602–3; VbhA. 194). The use of expres­sions such as ‘inflat­ed ego’ and ‘destroy the ego’ are sim­ply idioms of speech. They are often used in the con­text of inten­si­fied lev­els of cling­ing to self. It is the cling­ing which should be erad­i­cat­ed rather than the self, since no self exists to erad­i­cate. The thought of erad­i­cat­ing the self is linked to an anni­hi­la­tion­ist view. The self is mere­ly a men­tal con­cept fab­ri­cat­ed by bha­va-taṇhā and super­im­posed on some­thing which occurs nat­u­ral­ly on its own. The self does not exist inde­pen­dent­ly and there­fore has no inher­ent real­i­ty. Fur­ther­more, the term attavādupādā­na sug­gests clear­ly that cling­ing exists mere­ly for the word (or idea of) ‘self,’ since no real self exists to be clung to (Vism. 569; Vis­mṬ.: Dutiyo Bhā­go, Paññāb­huminid­de­savaṇṇanā, Taṇhāpaccaya-upādānapadavitthārakathāvaṇṇanā).

8 M. I. 137.

9 Note the Buddha’s remark that despite anni­hi­la­tion­ism (vib­ha­va-diṭṭhi) being wrong view, it is clos­er to Bud­dhism than oth­er views (A. V. 63). 

10 West­ern­ers with an inad­e­quate study on the sub­ject of Nib­bā­na tend to con­clude that Nib­bā­na is self-extinc­tion, which is an anni­hi­la­tion­ist perspective.

11 S. III. 119 = S. IV. 384.

12 I.e., he sees its true nature. The word for becom­ing here is bhū­ta, mean­ing ‘what has become,’ ‘what exists,’ or ‘what has come into being.’ It shares the same root as bha­va. The com­men­taries define it as the five aggre­gates (ItA. I. 179).

13 It. 43–44; Ps. 1. 159; although the clos­ing vers­es seem to com­ple­ment the main pas­sage, the com­men­taries ren­der them as fol­lows: ‘Noble dis­ci­ples, who see the true nature of the five aggre­gates and see the Path tran­scend­ing the aggre­gates, find release in Nib­bā­na, the Absolute, through the exhaus­tion of lust for exis­tence. By ful­ly under­stand­ing the aggre­gates, they are free from lust for planes of exis­tence, both high and low. Free of the aggre­gates, they come to no fur­ther birth.’ (ItA. I. 180); also, com­pare the Buddha’s words on the two extremes at Ud. 71–72. 

14 Mahā­taṇhāsaṅkhaya Sut­ta: M. I. 256–260.

15 The Buddha.

16 S. III. 109–112; this dia­logue is fol­lowed by a lengthy sim­i­le; the com­men­taries inter­pret the term tathā­ga­ta here as mean­ing a being or per­son (SA. II. 310).

17 Na upeti (the com­men­taries use na yuj­jati): does not ‘go with’ or is ‘incon­gru­ent’ with this subject. 

18 Aggi­vac­cha­got­ta Sut­ta, espe­cial­ly the con­clud­ing sec­tions (M. I. 486–89); lat­er, the wan­der­er Vac­cha­got­ta was ordained as a bhikkhu and became one of the ara­hants (M. I. 497); the Bud­dha and Vac­cha­got­ta have anoth­er inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion in which the Bud­dha says: ‘Just as a fire burns with fuel, but not with­out fuel, so I declare rebirth for one with fuel, not for one with­out fuel… Crav­ing is [the] fuel’ (S. IV. 398–400).

19 Sn. 41–42.

20 Ud. 93.

21 Ibid.