Nibbāna 11: Dilemma and Tetralemma

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Even in the Vedic period there was the dilemma between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’. They wondered whether being came out of nonbeing, or non-being came out of being. Katham asataḥ sat jāyeta: “How could being come out of non-being?” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1–2) In the face of this dilemma regarding the first beginnings, they were sometimes forced to conclude that nāsadāsīt no sadāsīt tadānīm: “In the beginning there was neither non-being nor being” (Ṛgveda X.129, Nāsadīya Sūkta). Or else in their confusion they would leave the matter unsolved, saying that perhaps only the creator knew about it.

This shows how much confusion these two extreme concepts sat and asat — being and non-being — created for the philosophers. The Buddha completely reappraised the whole problem of existence and presented a perfect solution: the Middle Way. He pointed out that existence is a fire dependent upon the fuel of grasping — so much so that when grasping ceases, existence ceases as well.

In fact the fire simile holds the answer to the tetralemma included among the ten unexplained points often mentioned in the Suttas. It concerns the state of the Tathāgata after death — whether he exists, does not exist, both or neither. The presumption of the questioner is that one or the other of these four must be true.

The Buddha dissolves this presumptuous tetralemma by bringing in the fire simile. He points out that when a fire goes out with the exhaustion of the fuel, it is absurd to ask in which direction the fire has gone. All that one can say about it is that the fire has gone out. Nibbuto tveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati: “It comes to be reckoned as ‘gone out’.” — Aggivacchagotta Sutta (MN 72)

A reckoning is just an idiom, a worldly usage which is not to be taken too literally. This illustration through the fire simile drives home to the worldling the absurdity of his presumptuous tetralemma of the Tathāgata’s existence after death.

In the Sutta Nipāta we find these profound verses:

“Like the flame blown out by the force of the wind reaches its end, it cannot be reckoned. Just so the Sage free from the mental body goes to rest and can no longer be discerned.”

“The one who has come to rest, is he then nothing? or is he actually eternally healthy? Please explain this to me, O Sage, for this Teaching has been understood by you.”

“There is no measure of the one who has come to rest there is nothing by which they can speak of him, when everything has been completely removed, all the pathways for speech are also completely removed.” — Upasīvamāṇavapucchā (Sn 1074)


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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