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.