The Buddha claimed to have taught “dhamma-vinaya,” which refers to the “teachings and the path of renunciation,” the truth and its actualization. His teachings were later called Buddha Vacana, words of the awakened one.
In the words of Buddha.
The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment are often mistakenly interpreted to mean that one should not associate with others, renouncing love and friendship. However, renunciation in the Buddhist model does not entail shunning social relationships, but rather guarding against the passions that characterize so many bonds, whether jealousy, lust, anger, or others. Indeed, while the Buddha warned against the dangers of over-involvement and possessiveness in interpersonal relationships, he did not recommend the life of a hermit to all he taught. In fact, the Buddha speaks on the positive qualities of friendship on numerous occasions.
In the Kalyanamitta Sutta, he says “my Teaching is well proclaimed and it is the intimate friendship with good friends and good associates, not the intimate friendship with evil friends and evil associates” (SN 3.18).
Here the Buddha makes the distinction between true and false friends. True friends are trustworthy and thus worthy of friendship, but those who harbor ulterior motives while claiming that they are one’s friends are not to be thought of as friends at all.
In the Hiri Sutta, the Buddha comments on the qualities of false friends and true friends, saying that “he on whom one can rely, like a child sleeping on its mother’s breast, is truly a friend who cannot be parted from one by others” (Snp 2.3).
In fact, in the Upaddha Sutta the Buddha even goes as far as to say that friendship is the whole of the holy life, that a life free from suffering involves good friends: “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path” (SN 45.2). Also in the Upaddha Sutta, he says “And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life” (SN 45.2).
The Buddha not only gives advice about associating with good friends, but also on drawing inspiration from them, as is told in the Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: “There are these four qualities, TigerPaw, that lead to a lay person’s happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Being consummate in initiative, being consummate in vigilance, admirable friendship, and maintaining one’s livelihood in tune” (AN 8.54).
1. initiative / persistent effort (utthana-sampada)
2. vigilance / watchfulness (arakkha-sampada)
3. admirable friendship (kalyanamittata)
4. balanced livelihood (sama-jivikata).
Later in the same teaching, he remarks “And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.” (AN 8.54).
He even addresses many bhikkhus (male monastics), bhikkhunis (female monastics), upasakas (male lay-people), and upasikas (female lay-people) as “friend” when talking with them.
In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha again defines true and false friends. A friend is not someone who takes advantages of the friendship through access to the other’s material possessions, insincerity, flattery, or by causing any type of harm. A good friend, he says, is helpful, unconditional and unwavering in their friendship, good company, and sympathetic.
“These four, young householder, should be understood as warm-hearted friends: (1) he who is a helpmate, (2) he who is the same in happiness and sorrow, (3) he who gives good counsel, (4) he who sympathises.” (DN 31)
“The friend who is a helpmate, the friend in happiness and woe, the friend who gives good counsel, the friend who sympathises too — these four as friends the wise behold and cherish them devotedly as does a mother her own child.” (DN 31)
In the Itivuttaka, one of the sub-sections of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the Buddha says “A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful” (Iti 1.17).
In the Sambodhi Sutta, the Buddha says “If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk has admirable friends, admirable companions, admirable comrades. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening” (AN 9.1)
Emptiness as a term finds itself in frequent use in reference to the Buddha’s teachings, especially by Mahayana schools. Yet even in Theravada, emptiness is a core tenet. In fact, emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā) can be traced back to the earliest teachings of the Pali Canon, wherein it has its origins.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, emptiness is not a negative, not a nothingness, not nihilism as might be implied upon initial reading of the term, with all its connotations in the English language. Emptiness is a lack of inherent existence, an absence of self-nature Sanskrit: स्वभाव; svabhāva). It is a teaching of both non-eternality and non-annihilation, a teaching that all things are without a substance of their own and instead arise out of manifold causes and conditions.
By “without substance,” what is meant is a full, self-existent, permanent nature, the existence of which the Buddha denies.
In the Pali, it is explained thus:
Atha kho āyasmā ānando … pe … bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: “‘ suñño loko, suñño loko’ti, bhante, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, bhante, suñño lokoti vuccatī”ti? “Yasmā ca kho, ānanda, suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño lokoti vuccati.
“Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”
“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty.”
Suñña Sutta (SN 35.85)
In the Buddha’s words, all phenomena are without self – “sabbe dhamma anatta.” There is nothing that can be said to be in any way solid and self-existent. All things depend on other things. Therefore, all things are said to be empty of self – “suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño lokoti vuccati.”
In the Phena Sutta, the Buddha compares the aggregates, the phenomena that comprise a person, to foam in a river, bubbles in water, a mirage, and other illusory, impermanent phenomena. They are all empty, he asserts: “However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately” (SN 22.95).
In the Lokavagga (“The World”) chapter of the Dhammapada, it is said, “One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, him the King of Death sees not” (Dhp 170).
Echoing the same sentiment, in the concluding chapter of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha describes impermanance thus: “So you shall view this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream” (Vajracchedika Sutra). Throughout the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha refers to things but denies the existence of a self in any of them.
Further, in the Lankavatara Sutra, this selfless or egoless emptiness is further characterized:
“By reason of the habit-energy stored up by false imagination since beginningless time, this world (vishaya) is subject to change and destruction from moment to moment; it is like a river, a seed, a lamp, wind, a cloud; [while the Vijnana itself is] like a monkey who is always restless, like a fly who is ever in search of unclean things and defiled places, like a fire which is never satisfied. Again, it is like a water-drawing wheel or machine, it [i.e. the Vijnana] goes on rolling the wheel of transmigration, carrying varieties of bodies and forms, resuscitating the dead like the demon Vetala, causing the wooden figures to move about as a magician moves them. Mahamati, a thorough understanding concerning these phenomena is called comprehending the egolessness of persons.”
(Lankavatara Sutra XXIV)
In the Godatta Sutta and Mahavedalla Sutta, the Buddha explains, “And what is the emptiness awareness-release? There is the case where a monk, having gone into the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or into an empty dwelling, considers this: ‘This is empty of self or of anything pertaining to self.’ This is called the emptiness awareness-release.” (SN 41.7, MN 43)
In the Sutta Nipata’s Mogharaja-manava-puccha (Magharaja’s Question), the Buddha gives this advice: “View the world, Mogharaja, as empty — always mindful to have removed any view about self.” (Snp 5.15)
We generally tend to identify with the body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness. None of these things (body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness) are in any way “full” in the sense of having a self. They are not self-existent. Instead, they depend on causes and conditions. To perceive a self in any of these things is like perceiving a mirage.
Emptiness is in actuality the realization that this conventional reality does not contain truly existent things. In fact, things expressly lack thingness, in that they contain no intrinsic nature. In the Buddha’s words, all things are empty of self or anything pertaining to a self.
The Buddha denied the existence of any permanent substratum to the universe, whether a soul or a God, even (and especially) a panentheistic God comparable to the Indian notion of Nirguna Brahman (God without attributes).
Despite his assertion that God belief and deity worship are distractions that can and should be done away with, the Buddha was not particularly concerned with refuting the existence of so-called gods, such as Brahma, Indra, Sakra, or major and minor devas. Just as with the undeclared or unanswered questions set aside by the Buddha, inquiries concerning whether or not God exists do not address the problem of suffering. God is irrelevant to the path and teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha did not have to actively deny the concept of God to deprive it of significance. Except he still did so by challenging the commonly held notion of God as omniscient, benevolent, omnipotent creator, characteristics which he demonstrated are not in actuality held by those beings who purport to hold them (e.g., manifestations of Saguna Brahman, God with attributes, including the popular Brahma).
Brahma, the creator deity of ancient Indian religion, reportedly visited the Buddha after his enlightenment to encourage him to teach. This anecdote exemplifies upaya, a frequent teaching strategy of the Buddha, otherwise known as skillful means. If the masses respected Brahma and Brahma supported the Buddha’s doctrine, the Buddha must be worthy of their ear. Many religions will say that their God would not support the heretical teachings of others, so followers are deterred from exploring another tradition. If, however, the self-proclaimed all-knowing Brahma did not object to the Buddha’s teachings, his alleged creations could explore the path of the Buddha without worry or concern of retribution.
Yet in accepting Brahma’s existence for pedagogical purposes, the Buddha dismisses Brahma’s existence for epistemic reasons. While speaking with the iniquirer Vasettha, the Buddha explains:
“Vasettha, just as with a line of blind men clinging to each others backs, the man at the front sees nothing, the men in the middle see nothing and the man at the end sees nothing, so the words of the Three Vedas Brahmins can be compared to a line of blind men. That is, the first group of speakers didn’t see Brahma, the next group of speakers didn’t see Brahma and the last group of speakers didn’t see Brahma. Thus, their words turn out to be ridiculous, low, vain and good-for-nothing.”
Tevijja Sutta (DN 13)
The Buddha explains that neither the Brahmins (holy men), none of their teachers, nor the authors of the Vedas (scriptures of ancient Brahmanism) had ever seen Brahma (God) face to face, nor known for themselves His qualities. The Buddha compares those who claim to know Brahma to men who, blinded by wishful thinking, build staircases to a mansion they have never seen but which they imagine is perched high amongst the clouds. Likewise, they are compared to men blinded by attachment, who without ever seeing a woman rumored to be the most beautiful in the land, vow to marry her. How can one proclaim allegiance to and faith in something one has never known for oneself?
For those claiming to know Brahma, the Buddha responds by claiming to know Brahma too. Except this Brahma, mistaken for a God, is really. In several encounters with Brahma, the Buddha demonstrates the fallibility of this supposed God, casting immense doubt on its claims to divinity.
For a brief overview:
In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) the Buddha refutes that God is eternal
In the Mulapariyaya Sutta (MN 1) the Buddha refutes that God is the creator
In the Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61) the Buddha refutes God’s benevolence
In the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha refutes God’s omnipotence, position as the first cause, and role as creator
In the Kevatta Sutta (DN 11) the Buddha refutes God’s omniscience
On one occasion, Brahma descends from the heavens to assert his power before a monk, who refers Brahma to the Buddha:
A second time, the Great Brahma said to the monk, ‘I, monk, am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.’
“A third time, the monk said to the Great Brahma, ‘Friend, I didn’t ask you if you were Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. I asked you where these four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, and the wind property — cease without remainder.’
“Then the Great Brahma, taking the monk by the arm and leading him off to one side, said to him, ‘These gods of the retinue of Brahma believe, “There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not know. There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not see. There is nothing of which the Great Brahma is unaware. There is nothing that the Great Brahma has not realized.” That is why I did not say in their presence that I, too, don’t know where the four great elements… cease without remainder. So you have acted wrongly, acted incorrectly, in bypassing the Blessed One in search of an answer to this question elsewhere. Go right back to the Blessed One and, on arrival, ask him this question. However he answers it, you should take it to heart.’
Kevatta Sutta (DN 11)
If Brahma were indeed God, then this exchange and others like it appearing throughout the Nikayas and Agamas would be case in point. Understandably, an immediate objection to the Buddha’s refutation of God is that he spoke with God himself, as did many of his disciples. Whether or not he actually spoke with God, the fact that the Buddha makes a fool of God should be proof enough that God has no place in his teachings or the path of liberation. Further, who is to say that Brahma is indeed God? Though commonly mistaken for God, Brahma is merely another deluded, high-ranking being, according to the Buddha.
In the Buddha’s words:
“Again, monks, I [the Buddha] approached those ascetic and brahmins and said to them: ‘Is it true, as they say, that you venerable ones teach and hold the view that whatever a person experiences…all that is caused by God’s creation?’ When they affirmed it, I said to them: ‘If that is so, venerable sirs, then it is due to God’s creation that people kill, steal …[and otherwise act badly]. But those who have recourse to God’s creation as the decisive factor will lack the impulse and the effort doing this or not doing that. Since for them, really and truly, no (motive) obtains that this or that ought to be done or not be done….”‘
Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61)
Several additional, complementary remarks by the Buddha are as follows in the realm of ethics:
“If the pleasure and pain that beings feel are caused the creative act of a Supreme God [Issara-nimmana-hetu], then the Niganthas [Jains] surely must have been created by an evil Supreme God.” (MN II 222)
This rhetoric goes to show that creationist causality is morally faulty. God (Issara here) most certainly cannot be benevolent, as a benevolent God would not allow beings to suffer.
In the Tittha Sutta, the Buddha speaks thus, refuting the supposed benevolence of God
“Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that… ‘Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation,’ I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation?”‘ Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’ Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being’s act of creation. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being’s act of creation.’ When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests & contemplatives who hold to such teachings, such views.” (AN 3.61)
Elsewhere the Buddha states: “The universe is without a refuge, without a Supreme God.” (MN II 68). Given that there is no supremely benevolent creator, there is no use in seeking refuge in God.
The Jatakas contain the same sentiment in poetic form:
“He whose eyes can see the sickening sight,
why does not God set his creatures right?
If his wide power no limits can restrain,
why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood, – truth and justice fail?
I count your God unjust in making a world in which to shelter wrong.” (J VI.208)
“If God designs the life of the entire world — the glory and the misery, the good and the evil acts, man is but an instrument of his will and God alone is responsible.” (J V.238)
Thus, the moral uprightness of a supposed God is shattered, or at the very least brought under intense scrutiny. The Buddha’s rhetoric here serves to demolish the faulty notion of a benevolent force in the universe, a Supreme God, a Great God, Maha Brahma.
Most clarifying, the Buddha states that though Maha Brahma (i.e., the so-called Great God) may exist, it is not as it believes itself to be (i.e., a Great God).
‘As far as the suns and moons extend their courses and the regions of the sky shine in splendour, there is a thousandfold world system, in each single one of these there are a thousand suns, moons, Meru Mountains, four times a thousand continents and oceans, a thousand heavens of all stages of the realm of sense pleasure, a thousand Brahma worlds. As far as a thousandfold world system reaches in other words, the universe], the Great God is the highest being. But even the Great God is subject to coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be.’ (AN 10.29)
The question of causality is another blow to the notion of God in the Buddha’s framework. Things exist only in relation to other things. All things originate from something else. Even if a God were to exist, it would only exist due to other causes and conditions. This would therefore not constitute a substratum.
Thus, should there be a God, he is neither omniscient, nor eternal, nor the creator of all things, nor benevolent, nor omnipotent. What does that leave? A deluded being, just like the rest of us. Thus there can be no true God, only beings who imagine themselves to be such.
揭帝 揭帝 般羅揭帝 般羅僧揭帝 菩提 薩婆訶
mahā prajñāpāramita hṛdayam sūtra
oṃ namo bhagavatyai ārya prajñāpāramitāyai!
ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitā caryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhās tāṃś ca svābhava śūnyān paśyati sma.
iha śāriputra: rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ; rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ; yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā; ya śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ. evam eva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskāra vijñānaṃ.
iha śāriputra: sarva-dharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā, anutpannā aniruddhā, amalā avimalā, anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ.
tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatayāṃ na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānam. na cakṣuḥ-śrotra-ghrāna-jihvā-kāya-manāṃsi. na rūpa-śabda-gandha-rasa-spraṣṭavaya-dharmāh. Na cakṣūr-dhātur. yāvan na manovijñāna-dhātuḥ. na-avidyā na-avidyā-kṣayo. yāvan na jarā-maraṇam na jarā-maraṇa-kṣayo. na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-margā. Na jñānam, na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ.
tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharatyacittāvaraṇaḥ. cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrastro viparyāsa-atikrānto niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ.
tryadhva-vyavasthitāḥ sarva-buddhāḥ prajñāpāramitām āśrityā-anuttarāṃ samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhāḥ.
tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā mantro ‘nuttara-mantro samasama-mantraḥ, sarva duḥkha praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatāt. prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ.
tadyathā: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.
iti prajñāpāramitā hṛdayam samāptam.
One of the Buddha’s most important teachings deals directly with unimportant teachings. Any why unimportant? Because they do not lead to understanding, they do not lead to the cessation of suffering, instead only further stirring the already murky water of samsaric existence.
Which teachings are unimportant? Isn’t that a bit harsh? This is not to say that they are useless fodder, but rather that they were set aside by the Buddha and have no place in Buddhism proper.
Collectively referred to as avyakrtavastuni – the undetermined, unelucidated, unprofitable questions – they are usually listed as tenfold:
1. The cosmos is eternal.
2. The cosmos is not eternal.
3. The cosmos is finite.
4. The cosmos is infinite.
5. The soul and body are the same.
6. The soul and body are different.
7. The Tathagata exists after death.
8. The Tathagata does not exist after death.
9. The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death.
10. The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.
These ten are also occasionally referred to as antagahika micchaditthi – the ten wrong views not conducive to the path.
The Avyakata-Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya within the Sutta Pitaka deals with these positions undeclared by the Buddha. An overview is included here as introductory and contextualizing material.
In the Khema Sutta (SN 44.1), King Pasenadi, an esteemed political figure at the time, speaks with the nun Khema. When asked by the king whether the Buddha exists after death, Khema replies that no answer (e.g., yes, no, both, or neither) was given by the Buddha. The king, having his doubts, goes straight to the source for clarification. The Buddha confirms Khema’s response and states the same as she: that neither existence nor non-existence, nor both, nor neither, apply to an awakened being.
In the Anuradha Sutta (SN 44.2), a group of wanderers approaches the monk Anuradha to declare that they have heard the Buddha is described as existing, not existing, both, or neither after death. Anuradha corrects their misconception, stating the Buddha does not uphold any of these views, that none of them apply to him. Unconvinced, the wanderers refuse to believe Anuradha and depart, so later Anuradha visits the Buddha to ask how he should have responded. The Buddha begins by describing 1) the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness) as impermanent, 2) that which is impermanent as unsatisfactory, and 3) that which is unsatisfactory as empty of self. He then states that none of the aggregates should be regarded as defining a person. Any other definition of self outside the aggregates would also not suffice, nor would a definition of self as the sum-total of the aggregates. Therefore, he says, it is unhelpful to ponder the matter of existence or non-existence after death as it presumes some sort of self that either exists or does not exist, thus missing the point of the Buddha’s teachings pertaining to the transcendence of suffering.
In the Sariputta-Kotthita Sutta (44.3, 44.4, 44.5, 44.6), the monk Maha Kotthita visits the monk Sariputta, among the Buddha’s foremost disciples. Maha-Kotthita repeats the same questions regarding existence, non-existence, and so forth, but all are undeclared by the Buddha, says Sariputta. Bewildered, Maha Kotthita asks why this is so, and Sariputta replies that all such questions are mistaking the Buddha as one or a combination of the five aggregates, and the Buddha has taught that there is no self within the aggregates to either live eternally or to be annihilated. On the second occasion that this question is asked, Sariputta remarks that one who sees the aggregates as they actually are present, the origination, cessation, and the path leading to cessation, has no position on the matter. On the third occasion, Sariputta responds that one whose passion for the aggregates is removed sees no reason to speculate on matters of self. Finally, on the fourth occasion, when asked, Sariputta explains that only those who cherish the aggregates, cherish becoming, cherish clinging, cherish craving will have the thought of existence/non-existence/both/neither.
In the Moggallana Sutta (SN 44.7), the wander Vacchagotta questions the monk Maha Moggallana on whether the cosmos are eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, if the body and soul are different or the same, and whether the Buddha exists, does not exist, both, or neither after death. Maha Moggallana responds that none of these positions are declared by the Buddha, as one who understands clearly does not take any of the sense organs to be “me” or “mine.” Vacchagotta checks this declaration with the Buddha, who confirms it.
In the Vacchagotta Sutta (SN 44.8), Vacchagotta again approaches the Buddha with the same set of questions, and the Buddha explains how these positions arise from misidentifying the aggregates as the self. Vacchagotta then returns to the monk Maha Moggallana and the same is repeated, with Vacchagotta’s mistaken positions dismissed.
A primary reason for these non-answers when asked about existence, non-existence, and other such matters is that any answer will invite logical contradictions and metaphysical speculation that distracts from the path of renunciation and transcendence. As the Buddha explains to his disciple and attendant, the monk Ananda:
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”
Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10)
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the taintless and the path leading to the taintless.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the truth and the path leading to the truth.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the far shore and the path leading to the far shore.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the subtle and the path leading to the subtle.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the very difficult to see and the path leading to the very difficult to see.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unaging and the path leading to the unaging.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the stable and the path leading to the stable.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the undisintegrating and the path leading to the undisintegrating.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unmanifest and the path leading to the unmanifest.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unproliferated and the path leading to the unproliferated.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the peaceful and the path leading to the peaceful.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the deathless and the path leading to the deathless.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the sublime and the path leading to the sublime.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the auspicious and the path leading to the auspicious.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the secure and the path leading to the secure.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the destruction of craving and the path leading to the destruction of craving.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the wonderful and the path leading to the wonderful.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the amazing and the path leading to the amazing.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unailing and the path leading to the unailing.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unailing state and the path leading to the unailing state.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the extinction and the path leading to the extinction.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unafflicted and the path leading to the unafflicted.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the dispassion and the path leading to the dispassion.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the purity and the path leading to the purity.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the freedom and the path leading to the freedom.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unadhesive and the path leading to the unadhesive.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the island and the path leading to the island.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the shelter and the path leading to the shelter.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the asylum and the path leading to the asylum.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the refuge and the path leading to the refuge.
Nirvana is one of the many teachings of the Buddha that has often been inaccurately described in either eternalist or annihilationist terms. Any serious inquiry into Buddhism will reveal that the Buddha did not describe Nirvana as eternal bliss or immortality, presuming a self that once existed and continues to exist. Likewise, the Buddha never described Nirvana as obliteration into nothingness, presuming a self that once existed but ceases to exist. The Sanskrit term निर्वाण nirvāṇa, its Pali equivalent being निब्बान nibbāna, means to extinguish, like a fire, or literally “to cool.”
“What fire?” one may ask. Desire is the flame. The path taught by the Buddha, dhamma-vinaya, is the path of truth-discipline, culminating in wisdom-renunciation, extinction of fire.
Once this flame is extinguished, a being does not become immortal and transmigrate to another realm to spend an eternity, nor does a being disintegrate and disappear into nothingness or the fabled “void,” a mistaken reification of sunyata never taught by the Buddha. In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha describes Nirvana as the exhaustion of sustenance, like a fire no longer fed by grass and timber. Nirvana is the end of suffering, and suffering’s fuel is desire or craving – tanha.
Taṇhā (literally thirst) is the sustenance for the firey rounds of Samsara. Thirst is characterized by heat, dryness, burning. Nirvana is the blowing out, the dousing of this flame – the removal of thirst not through temporary means (a drink of water to quench one’s thirst, only to have it return), but for good.
What happens to the flame? “It is classified simply as out, unbound,” the Buddha says (MN 72).
The Buddha makes clear that speaking of the enlightened person as if s/he reappears, disappears, both, or neither do not apply. To speak of existence or non-existence would invite obvious contradictions. Why concern oneself with metaphysical absurdities? The Buddha merely says the root is uprooted, the flame is blown out: the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, all of which play a role in craving, which conditions becoming, are cooled. Through Nirvana (blowing out, cooling), one leaves the fuel of craving (desire) behind, and thus extinguishes suffering for good.
The Buddha explains in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: “And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”
“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).” (MN 72)
In the Jambhukhadaka-Samyutta, it is explained: “Extinction of greed, extinction of hatred, extinction of delusion; this is called Nibbana” (SN 38:1). These flames no longer have craving as their fuel, and they therefore burn out. One can think of Nirvana as a fire that becomes cool.
In early Buddhism, nibbana was conceived of as the elimination of craving (tanhakkhaya) and thus had no transempirical content, meaning it is not above and beyond experience. It is not some sort of heaven, paradise, or other realm, as popularly believed.
Nirvana is often described as the uncompounded, the unconditioned.
In the Asankhata-Samyutta, the Buddha says “Monks, what is the uncompounded? Monks, that destruction of greed, hate and delusion is called the uncompounded.” (SN 43)
A distinction is sometimes made between nibbana and parinibbana. Also between “with effluents” and “without effluents.”
“And what is the Unbinding property with fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose fermentations have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, ended the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. His five sense faculties still remain and, owing to their being intact, he is cognizant of the agreeable & the disagreeable, and is sensitive to pleasure & pain. His ending of passion, aversion, & delusion is termed the Unbinding property with fuel remaining.
“And what is the Unbinding property with no fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose fermentations have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, ended the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. For him, all that is sensed, being unrelished, will grow cold right here. This is termed the Unbinding property with no fuel remaining.” (Iti 44)
Nirvana/nibbana is the exhaustion of craving and thus the extinguishing of suffering in this very lifetime, with effluents (subtle forms of fuel) and aggregates (the things that constitute a conventional self) remaining.
Parinirvana/parinibbana is the same but without the effluents or aggregates remaining, since upon death, there is the passing away of form, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.
In the Yamaka Sutta, Ven. Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, clarifies the matter to Ven. Yamaka:
“And so, my friend Yamaka — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘As I understand the Teaching explained by the Blessed One, a monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, & does not exist after death’?”
“Previously, my friend Sariputta, I did foolishly hold that evil supposition. But now, having heard your explanation of the Dhamma, I have abandoned that evil supposition, and have broken through to the Dhamma.”
“Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?”
“Thus asked, I would answer, ‘Form is inconstant… Feeling… Perception… Fabrications… Consciousness is inconstant. That which is inconstant is stressful. That which is stressful has ceased and gone to its end.”
Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85)
Nirvana is the cessation of suffering “with remainder/residue” in the form of the physical body, sensations, the capacity for recognition, emotion tinged thoughts, and cognitive faculties, or in other words, the five aggregates.
Parinirvana is the cessation of suffering “without remainder/residue,” because these pass away at death. “That which is stressful has ceased and gone to its end.”
Although nirvana seems to entail the blowing out of the flame, the Buddha emphatically condemned nihilism and annihilationism. Nirvana lies beyond all thought, which is why it is so difficult to imagine in anything other than nihilistic/annihilationist terms.
In a series of the Buddha’s teachings collectively referred to as the Nibbana Sutta found in the Udana, the Buddha conveys Nirvana thus:
“There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support (mental object). This, just this, is the end of stress.” (Ud 8.1)
“There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.” (Ud 8.3)
“One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no desire. There being no desire, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of stress.” (Ud 8.4)
Nirvana has often been described as the “remainder-less cessation of everything,” which conjures nihilistic/annihilationist imagery. Yet in this context, “cessation of everything” does not imply apocalyptic ends, but instead refers to the remainder-less cessation of the five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental impulses/fabrications/the thinking faculty, and consciousness, as can be deduced from the Sabba Sutta: The All. To identify the Buddha with any of the five aggregates would be a faulty basis for claiming his eternality or annihilation. These five aggregates cease and the “flame” is out, unbound, without eternally abiding (it is remainder-less, after all) yet without annihilating.
This is further founded in the Anuradha Sutta, when the Buddha says “tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, rupam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti? … Vedanam… sannam… sankhare… vinnanam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” which translates as “What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard form as the Tathagata (Buddha)? … feeling… perception… mental properties… consciousness as the Tathagata (Buddha)?” All questions are met with “no,” as the Buddha did not teach any such thing, any way to identify the self as an absolute.
Any reading of the preserved discourses demonstrates the Buddha maintained that none of the aggregates should be identified as self. Instead, he asserted, they are all without self, empty of self, without self nature. Why search for a self that cannot be found?
In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha says “rupam, bhikkhave, anatta… vedana anatta… sanna anatta… vinnanam anatta…” which means “form, bhikkhus (monks), is not self… feeling is not self… perception is not self… mental properties are not self… consciousness is not self…”
“Tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, rupam… vedana… sanna… sankhara… vinnanam tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” (What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?)
“Tam kim mannasi, Anuradha, ayam so arupi… avedano… asanni.. asankharo… avinnano tathagatoti samanupassasi ti?” (What do you think, Anuradha, do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?)
All such inquiries are met with “No hetam, bhante.” (No, venerable sir.)
Before concluding with the statement that his teachings all come back to the origins of suffering and its cessation, the Buddha remarks, “Ettha ca te, Anuradha, dittheva dhamme saccato thetato tathagate anupalabbhiyamane kallam nu te tam veyyakaranam— ‘yo so, avuso, tathagato uttamapuriso paramapuriso paramapattipatto tam tathagato annatra imehi catuhi thanehi pannapayamano pannapeti— hoti tathagato param maranati va… na hoti.. hoti ca na ca hoti… neva hoti na na hoti tathagato param maranati va ti?” which translates to “And so, Anuradha — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death’ (SN 26.86).
So what is Nirvana?
The Buddha gives 30 metaphors for nirvana/nibbana, an otherwise inconceivable (non-)state: the taintless, the truth, the far shore, the subtle, the very difficult to see, the unaging, the stable, the undisintegrating, the unmanifest, unproliferated, peaceful, deathless, sublime, auspicious, secure, the destruction of craving, wonderful, amazing, unailing, the unailing state, unbinding, unafficted, dispassion, purity, freedom, unadhesive, island, shelter, asylum and refuge. (SN 43)
sududdasam/the very hard to see,
apalokitam/the taken leave of,
nippapam/the without impediment,
tanhakkhaya/the destruction of craving,
anitikam/the freedom from harm,
anitikadhammam/the state of freedom from harm,
analayo/the done away with,
and parayanam/the ultimate goal.
Thus is Nirvana.
Nirvana is Thus.
Not In That Dead Body
“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist
Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.
Who are you?
Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.
Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents .
In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.
The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.
To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” . In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death , creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality .
Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.
What are you?
Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:
- Physical marks
When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.
The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.
Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.
Where is your soul or spirit?
Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.
As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?
As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering . Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.
It’s not in that dead body.
The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein” as he is otherwise called often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”
As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.
 Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
 Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.
 Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
Often considered a later development seeking to contrast itself against the “Hinayana” or “lesser vehicle” of self-liberation, Mahayana Buddhism, with its emphasis on being the “greater vehicle” intended to ferry all beings to the further shore, is not necessarily historically antecedent to its oft-considered forerunner, the Theravada or “teachings of the elders.”