Relative Validity and Pragmatic Value of Concepts

That Knowing One who is fully emancipated from the root of all internal and external sickness, is also called nippapañco or nippapañcarato: one who delights in non-proliferation. Since he has cut off the tendencies towards the triple proliferation in concepts (chinnapapañco) he has brought about its allayment (papañcavūpasama), its cessation (papañcanirodha). He has rid himself of concepts subjectively tinged with papañca (papañcasaṅkhāpahāna).

The data of sense experience, both percepts and concepts, which enter his mind, are more or less summarily dealt with, as we saw in the exhortation to Bāhiya. They may enter through the portals of thought (vitakka), but they never reverberate through the corridors of his mind as echoes of conceptual proliferation by way of craving, conceit and views (tanhā-māna-diṭṭhi-papañca). They never interfere with the sublime quietude reigning within the inner recesses of his mind.

Freedom from papañca is the hallmark of the emancipated one, however much thoughts, deliberations and thoughts of a great man (vitakka, parivitakka, mahāpurisa-vitakka) he may be said to entertain. This gives the clue to the silence (mona) associated with the muni (the emancipated sage). The muni is silent not only when he does not speak; he is silent even when he does speak. Hence the seemingly incongruous statement of the Buddha: “Monks, I do not dispute with the world; it is the world that disputes with me.”

nāhaṃ bhikkhave lokena vivadāmi, loko ca mayā vivadati Puppha Sutta (SN 22.94)

Not only the Buddha, but the emancipated monk, too, has no dispute with the world but merely uses the worldly parlance without clinging to it. The Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18) and Sakkapañha Sutta (DN 21), as well as Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11), Cūḷaviyūha (Snp 4.12) and Mahāviyūha Suttas (Snp 4.13) of the Aṭṭhaka Vagga of the Sutta Nipāta, lay particular stress on this aspect of the muni. Strange indeed it might appear, when in numerous Suttas we find the Buddha and the Arahants vigorously debating with the heretics and refuting their views. Yet even in the thick of the debate the sage is silent within, and holds himself aloof, since he has no axe to grind—has nothing to gain or lose by it. He has no attachment (taṇhā) to his arguments, no conceit (māna) to be safeguarded and no views (diṭṭhi) to be dogmatically entertained:

“For him who hath renounced them utterly
Chains of illusion as to self or soul
Exist no more, scattered are all such bonds.
He, rich in wisdom hath escaped beyond
Conceits and deemings of the errant mind.
He might say thus: ‘I say’
or ‘They say it to me’.
So saying he; expert in usages
Of men; aware of the worth of common names
Would speak merely conforming to such use.” — Arahanta Sutta (SN 1.25)

Perhaps the most remarkable is the last mentioned. In many a context it is said that the muni has abandoned all views:

“One who has clingings enters into disputations amongst the dogmas. How and wherefore would one speak of him who is not obsessed with clingings? For by him there is nothing grasped or rejected. He has in this world shaken off every philosophical view.”
Duṭ­ṭhaṭṭha­ka­ Sutta (Snp 4.3)

He has no views because he has got rid of the point of view, that is, the illusion of the ego. Hence he neither formulates nor proffers any views:

“They neither formulate nor proffer theories. They do not say ‘this is the highest purity’. Giving up the bonds of attachment, they form no attachment anywhere in this world.”
Paramaṭ­ṭha­ka Sutta (Snp 4.5)

There is, however, a widespread tendency to define the word diṭṭhi in such contexts strictly to mean the traditional list of sixty-two false views micchā-diṭṭhi as given in the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1). This tendency is evident in the commentaries, which, while defining taṇhā and māna in a more elementary form as to be comprehensive, take great care to be more specific in the case of diṭṭhi. This may be due partly to a complacent belief that the list of sixty-two comprehends all possible forms of diṭṭhi, and partly also to a desire to safeguard Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi).

But it appears that this commentarial definition has created new problems. Diṭṭhi has thereby lost its fundamental significance as the deep-seated proclivity in the worldling’s mind to be beguiled by concepts. If by diṭṭhipapañca is meant merely the sixty-two false views, then it would be possible for the disciple of the Buddha to put an end to diṭṭhipapañca simply by giving up false views. But as we have shown above, it persists even in the disciple as the notion of an ego until he attains Nibbāna. Besides, the tendency towards diṭṭhi, in the sense of dogmatic involvement in concepts, can also become manifest through sammā-diṭṭhi in its theoretical aspect. It can assume the form of attachment to concepts which constitute sammā-diṭṭhi. It is precisely this danger that the Buddha forewarns against in the Parable of the Raft in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22). Therein the Buddha declares in unmistakable terms that he is preaching the Dhamma which is comparable to a raft, just for the purpose of crossing over the flood of saṃsāra, and not for grasping dogmatically. After crossing over, even the dhammas have to be discarded, not to speak of the adhammas (i.e. what does not pertain to Dhamma). The parable, which is so instructive as to merit analysis, runs thus:

“Monks, as a man going along a highway might see a great stretch of water, the hither bank dangerous and frightening, the farther bank secure, not frightening; but if there were not a boat for crossing by or a bridge across for going from the not-beyond to the beyond, this might occur to him: ‘This is a great stretch of water; suppose that I, having collected grass, sticks, branches and foliage, and having tied a raft, depending on that raft and striving with hands and feet, should cross over safely to the beyond?’ Then, monks, that man, having collected grass… and striving with hands and feet, might cross over safely to the beyond. To him crossed over, gone beyond, this might occur: ‘Now this raft has been very useful to me. I, depending on this raft and striving with my hands and feet, crossed over safely to the beyond. Suppose now that I, having put this raft on my head, or having lifted it on to my shoulder, should proceed as I desire’. What do you think about this, monks? If that man does this, is he doing what should be done with the raft?”

“No, Lord.”

“What should that man do, monks, in order to do what should be done with that raft? In this case, monks, it might occur to that man who has crossed over, gone beyond: ‘Now this raft has been very useful to me. Depending on this raft and striving with my hands and feet, I have crossed over safely to the beyond. Suppose now that I, having beached this raft on dry ground or having submerged it under the water, should proceed as I desire?’ In doing this, monks, that man would be doing what should be done with that raft. Even so, monks, is the Parable of the Raft, Dhamma, taught by me for crossing over, not for retaining. You, monks, by understanding the Parable of the Raft, should get rid even of right mental objects, all the more of wrong ones.” — Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22)

Thus the Parable of the Raft is a typical illustration of the relative and pragmatic value of the Dhamma. The raft is improvised out of the stray twigs and branches growing on the hither bank. By merely boarding the raft, by clutching at it, by decorating it with more twigs and branches one does not arrive at the farther bank. One has to exert oneself, having embarked for the beyond, and has gradually to cross over with the aid of the raft. Once he has reached the farther bank, he has to disembark; he has to abandon and disown the raft. He might, however, out of compassion instruct those living on the hither bank, as to how they should build similar rafts for themselves. But for his part, he no longer needs a raft. He has realized that the raft is useful and meaningful at the hither bank, as it is the product of the twigs and branches growing there.

Similarly Dhamma, which constitutes the theoretical content of sammā-diṭṭhi, is improvised out of the medium of language and logic in worldly parlance. By merely mastering it, by dogmatically clinging to it, by clothing it with more concepts, one does not reach the Goal.

“If you, monks, cling to, treasure, cherish, foster this view, thus purified, thus cleansed, then, monks, would you understand that the Parable of the Raft is dhamma taught for crossing over, not for retaining?” “No, Lord.” — Mahā­taṇhā­saṅ­kha­ya­ Sutta (MN 38)

One has to exert oneself spiritually, having mastered the Dhamma, in order to attain Nibbāna. Now, after his attainment, the pragmatic value of the Dhamma is lost for him, but as he is now convinced of its value for the suffering worldlings, he might preach it to them out of disinterested compassion. As for the truth value of the Dhamma, it has its validity from the worldling’s point of view, as it is presented through the media familiar to him. Thus the truth value of Dhamma—of sammā-diṭṭhi—pertains to the path, and it is essentially a view of the goal, and not the goal itself. Dhamma or sammā-diṭṭhi, we may add, is neither more nor less true of the Goal, than the raft is of the farther bank. Being a form of diṭṭhi or view, it presupposes a view-point, and it is, or ought to be, the view-point of the Ariyan disciple. As we have earlier pointed out, the emancipated sage has no viewpoint—indeed, he needs none as he has reached the Goal. He has transcended all views of Truth, and is in possession of a vision of it.

diṭṭhiñca anupagamma silavā dassanena sampanno — Metta Sutta (Snp 1.8)

Thus we arrive at another paradox, as in the case of the silence of the muni. The sage does not entertain any views—not only when he refutes micchā-diṭṭhi (wrong or false view), but also when he preaches sammā-diṭṭhi (right view). It may also be mentioned that sammā-diṭṭhi itself embodies the seed of its own transcendence, as its purpose is to purge the mind of all views, inclusive of itself. This dialectic aspect of the Dhamma, has had a staggering effect on the society to which it was first preached, and the Buddha himself refers to it in the Alagaddūpama Sutta:

“In this case, monk, the view occurs to someone: ‘This is the world, this is the self; after dying I will become permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to change, I will stand fast like unto the eternal’. He hears the Dhamma as it is being taught by the Tathāgata or by a disciple of the Tathāgata, for rooting out all resolve for bias, tendency, and addiction to view and causal relation, for tranquilizing all the preparations, for casting away all attachment, for the destruction of craving, for dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. It occurs to him thus: ‘I will surely be annihilated, I will surely be destroyed, I will surely not be.’ He grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast and falls into disillusionment. Thus, monks, there comes to be anxiety about something subjective that does not exist.” — Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22)

Thus sammā-diṭṭhi aims at the utter eradication of all views, together with propensities towards the same. The entire conceptual structure has to leave—though gradually—and in the final reckoning, even those concepts that have rendered us the greatest help in our spiritual endeavor have to make their bow. As such, one must be extremely cautious in regard to concepts pertaining to sammā-diṭṭhi. One might distinguish between the relatively true and false in theory, between the precise and the vague in terminology, between the scholastic and the wayward in phraseology, but one has to remember that as concepts they are all one. Nor should one seriously regard some concepts as absolute and inviolable categories in preference to others, and pack them up in water-tight cartons labelled paramattha. Indeed, he may regard some concepts as paramattha in the sense that they are more conducive to the attainment of the Goal than others—truer, more precise and more scholastic. In this connection we may also add that the word paramattha in its earlier and non-technical usage, actually meant the Highest Goal as the object of realization, and any words tending towards that goal were called paramatthasaṃhita 1 (‘connected with the Highest Goal’), irrespective of their precision or technicality. However the Buddha, for his part, was content to treat all of them as sammuti. For him, they were merely worldly conventions in common use, which he made use of without clinging to them.

“Citta, these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathāgata expresses himself but without grasping to them.” — Poṭṭhapada Sutta (DN 9)

One wonders whether this simple though profound attitude of the Buddha towards concepts, has been properly handed down in tradition, when for instance one comes across the following verse quoted approvingly by Buddhaghosa (source unknown) in his commentary to the Anaṅgana Sutta (MN 5):

“The Fully Enlightened One, the best of those who speak, declared two truths, the conventional and the absolute; there can be no third.

“Words of symbolic nature are true by reason of their existence in worldly parlance. Words of absolute significance are true by reason of the existence of elements.

“Hence, even though the Lord of the World, the Teacher versed in worldly parlance, makes use of such conventional speech, there arises no offense of falsehood for him.”

If one can appreciate the significance of the term nippapañca, one might realize that the Buddha could magnanimously afford to dispense with such naive defenses as the above, against any charges of his having violated the fourth precept.

Yet another deviation from the original position at the commentarial level is to be seen in Buddhaghosa’s interpretation of a passage in the Vinaya Chullavagga concerning the Buddha’s attitude towards language. At Vin. II 139 it is said that two monks named Yamelu and Tekula, who were brahmins skilled in the elegance of expression (kalyāyavācā kalyānavākkaraṇā), once complained to the Buddha that the word of the Buddha is being corrupted by those who, having entered the Order from various castes and tribes, were using their own dialects to study the Dhamma. Hence in order to stop that corruption, they sought the Buddha’s permission to apply the rigors of meter in fixing the text of the Buddha’s words. The Buddha, however, rebuked them, saying that the proposed method was not conducive to the progress of the Dispensation, and having rejected the offer, made an allowance for the liberal study of the Dhamma in one’s own language. Curiously enough, this last sentence in the Chullavagga passage, has been interpreted by Buddhaghosa to mean that the Buddha wished everyone to study the Dhamma in the Buddha’s own language.

Quite apart from the question of papañca, the very context itself points to the fact that the Buddha never subscribed to such a view. The Buddha’s rebuke of the two monks in rejecting their offer and the obvious implications of the two words sakāya niruttiyā (one’s own dialect—note that the same expression was used by the two monks) would go to prove that the Buddha allowed everyone to learn the Dhamma in his own language, as a measure conducive to its dissemination. How liberal the Buddha was, with regard to the dialects in worldly usage, may be clearly seen in the following passage of the Araṇavibhanga Sutta (MN 139):

“‘He should not insist on local language. He should not override normal usage.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said? And how does there come to be insistence on local language and overriding of normal usage?

“Here, bhikkhus, in different localities they call the same thing a dish (pāti) or they call it a bowl (patta) or they call it a vessel (vittha) or they call it a saucer (sarava) or they call it a pan (dhāropa) or they call it a pot (poṇa) or they call it a mug (hana) or they call it a basin (pisīla). So whatever they call it in such-and-such a locality, he speaks accordingly, firmly adhering to and insisting on that, ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ This is how there comes to be insistence on local language and overriding of normal usage.

“And how does there come to be non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage?

“Here, bhikkhus, in different localities they call the same thing a dish (pāti)… they call it a basin (pisīla). So whatever they call it in such-and-such a locality, he speaks accordingly without adhering, (thus): ‘These Venerable Ones, it seems, are speaking with reference to this.’ This is how there comes to be non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said, ‘He should not insist on local language. He should not override normal usage’.”

We feel that this decree is quite in keeping with the Buddha’s attitude towards dialects. It is very likely that the intention of Yamelu and Tekula was to safeguard the sanctity or purity of the Buddha’s words from possible infiltration of dialectical variants and phonetic decay. Hence the remedy cannot lie in merely translating the buddhavacana into Sanskrit. Those two monks probably had a sophisticated attitude towards language, which enthused them to seek the Buddha’s permission to stereotype the buddhavacana by resorting to metrical devices such as rhyme and accent. This was an attempt to bring the buddhavacana in its external form nearer the Vedic texts.

The value of the above exhortation would be greatly enhanced by the circumstance that herein the Buddha is describing one of the steps of the peaceful path (araṇapaṭipadā) which he recommends for the monks. This path is contrasted with the warlike path (saraṇapaṭipadā), an instance of which can be seen in the above passage itself when it refers to the dogmatic and extremist attitude towards dialects. The Ariyan disciple should avoid this latter, and should cultivate instead a moderate and tolerant attitude as regards the question of dialects. What inculcates in him such a liberal spirit is the very dialectical implications behind the Parable of the Raft.

Sammā-diṭṭhi (right view) may be regarded as unique among all forms of views owing to its peculiar dialectical element. A dramatic illustration of this unique character is reflected in the apparently drab and uninspiring opening of the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18). There we found Daṇḍapāḍi, the Sākyan, questioning the Buddha in order to ascertain the theory he preached. The Buddha’s reply, which we have discussed earlier, was rather periphrastic. Daṇḍapāḍi would have expected, like most of us, to get a reply in the form of some short label of a dogma. He was, therefore, dissatisfied with the Buddha’s reply which might have appeared to him as a piece of verbal papañca; and so he shook his confused head, raised his puzzled eye-brows, grimaced and went away. One might be tempted to show a similar response to the Buddha’s reply if one fails to appreciate its deeper implications. The Buddha had no theory to be declared other than that he had put an end to all theories, and all proclivities towards them. His purpose as a teacher was to indicate the path to the same Goal that he has attained.

One of the most important among those suttas which afford us a deeper insight into the enlightened attitude towards concepts, is the Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1)—quite deservedly counted as the first in the Majjhima Nikāya. It portrays for us the Weltanschauung of the following types of individuals:

  1. The uninstructed average person, taking no account of the noble ones, unskilled in the dhamma of the noble ones, untrained in the dhamma of the noble ones taking no account of the good men, unskilled in the dhamma of the good men, untrained in the dhamma of the good men.
  2. The monk who is a learner, not attained to perfection, but who lives striving for the incomparable security from bondage.
  3. The monk who is perfected and free from cankers, who has lived the holy life, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, attained his Goal, whose fetters of becoming are utterly worn away, who is freed by perfect profound knowledge.
  4. The Tathāgata, the perfected-one, fully self-awakened.

Of these four types, the last two may be conveniently treated as one since their Weltanschauung is the same, and thus we have here three basic types. In this Sutta, the Buddha sets out to preach the fundamental mode of all phenomena. He enumerates a list of twenty-four concepts and explains the attitude of the above-mentioned individual types towards those concepts. The list includes the following: earth, fire, air, beings, devas, Pajāpati, Brahmā, the Radiant Ones, the Lustrous Ones, the Vehapphala (Brahmās), the Overlord, the realm of infinite space, the realm of infinite consciousness, the realm of nothingness, the realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, the seen, the heard, the sensed, the cognized, unity, diversity, universality, Nibbāna.

For all the apparent diversity among these terms, they are all concepts. Now, the attitude of the uninstructed average person towards them is described thus:

“Herein, monks an uninstructed average person… cognizes earth as earth; having cognized earth as earth, he imagines earth (as such), he imagines ‘on the earth’; he imagines ‘from the earth’; he imagines ‘earth is mine’. He rejoices in earth. What is the reason for this? I say that it is not well comprehended by him.”
(The same is repeated for water down to Nibbāna.)

The monk who is a learner has the following attitude:

“Monks, whatever monk is a learner… he understands through higher knowledge earth as earth; knowing earth as earth, let him not imagine earth (as such); let him not imagine ‘on the earth’; let him not imagine ‘from the earth’; let him not imagine ‘earth is mine’; let him not rejoice in earth. What is the reason for this? I say it is because it should be well comprehended by him…”

The attitude of the Arahant and of the Tathāgata may be understood by the following passage (mutatis mutandis):

“Monks, whatever monk is one perfected… he too understands through higher knowledge earth as earth: knowing earth as earth, he does not imagine earth (as such); he does not imagine ‘on the earth’; he does not imagine ‘from the earth’; he does not imagine ‘earth is mine’; he does not rejoice in earth. What is the reason for this? I say it is because it has been well comprehended by him.”

The average person uninstructed in the Dhamma, with mere sensory perception to guide him, cognizes those twenty-four concepts as objects of thought. Having so cognized, he proceeds to imagine in terms of them in accordance with the flectional or grammatical pattern, and delights in those concepts. This is because he lacks clear comprehension. He is misled by naive sense-experience and by his tendencies towards taṇhā-māna-diṭṭhi-papañca. Having evolved a concept he proceeds to make it pliable and flexible. He resorts to inflection, which is an elementary feature in language. By establishing a correspondence between the grammar of language and the grammar of nature, he sets about weaving networks of papañca. The monk who is earnestly training himself on the path to Nibbāna has a refined and higher intuitive knowledge of those concepts in accordance with the Dhamma.

The distinction of meaning between abhijānāti and parijānati in this context is similar to the definition of the terms paññā and viññāṇa given in the Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43): “That which is intuitive wisdom, Your Reverence, and that which is discriminative consciousness among these states that are associated, not dissociated, intuitive wisdom is to be developed, discriminative consciousness is to be comprehended. This is the difference between them.”

He therefore endeavors to refrain from egoistic imaginings based on the flectional pattern. Of him, it is said that he might gain comprehension by his training. The Arahants and the Tathāgata, who have intuitively gained the higher knowledge, are not beguiled by the flectional or grammatical patterns of concepts so as to indulge in egoistic imaginings. Theirs is the full comprehension.

Though the Sutta makes no mention of the term papañca, Buddhaghosa has rightly discerned its relevance to the Sutta. Hence he draws attention to it thus:

“‘Having cognized earth as earth…’—means that he (the average person), having thus cognized earth in the form of a perverted sense-impression, afterwards imagines, speculates, fabricates mentally and in diverse ways grasps it wrongly with the gross papañcas of craving, conceit and views (herein called maññanā); as it has been said, saññānidānāhi papañcasaṅkhā: ‘Conceptual proliferation has perception as its cause’—Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11).”

Buddhaghosa explains each of the different forms of maññanā given in the Sutta with reference to one or more of the three papañcas. He is therefore somewhat puzzled at the concluding phrase paṭhaviṃ abhinandati, which he treats as a repetition. Observing that the Theras of Old (porāṇā) have not given any explanation for this ‘repetition’, he ventures to give his own:

“‘He rejoices in earth’—that is to say that he rejoices in, cherishes and clings to earth with taṇhā, diṭṭhi and the like, as it has been already explained. When the phrase ‘he imagines earth (as such)’ by itself conveys this sense, what is the justification for the above phrase? This point has not been commented upon by the porāṇas. This is my personal opinion: (The justification is) that it reflects the Buddha’s discursive style in preaching, or else emphasizes the evil effects (of maññanā).”

The concluding phrase appears as a repetition because Buddhaghosa himself has explained the preceding forms of maññanā from the standpoint of taṇhā-, māna- and diṭṭhi-papañca. But when we regard those four forms of maññanā as an illustration of the worldling’s commitment to the grammatical structure, as we have indicated above, the problem of repetition or redundancy will not arise. On the contrary, the Sutta would thereby gain in depth and significance. The aim of the Buddha in preaching this Sutta is to point out the elementary modes in which all phenomena present themselves to the mind of the four individual types (sabbadhammamūlapariyāyam). The grammatical structure of the language is the most elementary mode of presentation. It is here that the concepts are invested with the necessary flexibility and set on their tracks to proliferate as taṇhā, māna and diṭṭhi papañca. The uninstructed average person succumbs to it; the disciple training on the Ariyan Path resists it; and the Emancipated One transcends it.

The commentary tells us that the immediate purpose for which the Buddha preached this Sutta was to dispel the conceit of five hundred monks who were proud of their theoretical knowledge (pariyatti) of the Dhamma. It also says that their conceit was due largely to the fact that they were formerly Brahmins, well versed in the three Vedas. Although the Sutta is not explicit as to the authenticity of this tradition, it is probably true, for the Sutta ends with this unusual sentence: ‘Thus spoke the Buddha, and those monks did not rejoice at his words’. In view of the fact that we hardly find any other Sutta of this proportion which was not rejoiced over by the monks to whom it was specifically addressed, the commentarial tradition may be granted. As we have shown above, the Sutta in fact exposes the nature of the totality of concepts and their syntactical relations. Conceptsbe they material or spiritual, worldly or transcendental—are not worthy of being grasped dogmatically. They are not to be treated as ultimate categories and are to be discarded in the course of the spiritual endeavor. If this is the true significance of the Sutta, then there is no wonder that those conceited monks were crestfallen on hearing it. The commentary, however, tells us that they were displeased because they did not understand this abstruse discourse. On the contrary, we might say that they were displeased because they did understand the discourse. Hence it is not the abstruseness of the discourse that dispelled their conceit, as the commentary asserts, but it is the very dialectical insinuations underlying it that humbled them.

How tenaciously the Upaniṣadic soul-tradition clung to this flectional pattern can be seen at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.7.3, where a list of concepts is so molded in that pattern as to posit an Immortal Inner Controller: “He who inhabits the earth, yet is within the earth, whom the earth does not know, whose body the earth is, and who controls the earth from within—He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.” The other concepts in that list are; water, fire, sky air, heaven, sun, the directions, moon and stars, space, darkness, light, beings, breath, speech, eye, ear, mind, skin, intellect, organ of generation. If the more or less parallel formulation in the Mūlapariyāya Sutta is the Buddha's challenge to this Upaniṣadic doctrine in particular, the impact of the Sutta on those 500 monks becomes all the more understandable. See also Samug­ghāta­sārup­pa­ Sutta (SN 35.30) The significance of this parallelism was pointed out to me by Ven. Nyāṇaponika Mahāthera. 

This is no doubt a disquieting revelation to most of us, and the immediate reaction cannot be a happy one. Even Buddhaghosa seems to have been rather reluctant to appreciate fully the implications of this Sutta, and we have a curious hint as to this in his comment on the word Nibbāna occurring as the last in the list of twenty-four concepts. While commenting he hastens to add that Nibbāna here refers only to the five heretical concepts of Nibbāna. This narrowing down of the meaning is obviously incongruous with the spirit of the Sutta. It, however, reflects a desperate attempt, on the part of the commentarial tradition, to salvage the orthodox concept of Nibbāna, so dear to our religious consciousness.

See Amatārammaṇakathā (Kv 9.2)

That the emancipated sage (muni) no longer clings even to such concepts as Nibbāna or detachment (virāgo) is clearly indicated in the following verse of the Sutta Nipāta:

“For the Brahmin (the Muni) who has transcended all bounds, there is nothing that is grasped by knowing or by seeing. He is neither attached to attachment nor is he attached to detachment. In this world, he has grasped nothing as the highest.” — Sud­dhaṭṭha­ka­ Sutta (Snp 4.4)

Mahāniddesa however explains rāgarattā as ‘those attached to the five kinds of sense-pleasures’ and virāgarattā as ‘those who are attached to the attainments in the Realms of Form and Formless Realms’. (Nid. I, 100). See Khaj­ja­nīya­ Sutta (SN 22.79). 

The Mūlapariyāya Sutta does not stand alone when it stresses the value of developing a detached attitude to all concepts, so that one can disown them without regrets when the occasion demands it. It was the burden of the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22) which we have discussed above. It is also the moral that rings through the phrase sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāya: “Nothing is worth clinging to”— Cūḷa­taṇhā­saṅ­kha­ya­ Sutta (MN 37). The theme comes up again in the following verse:

“When one sees with insight that everything is not-self, then one finds no relish in all that is Ill. This is the path to purity.” — Dhammapada 279

Thus we arrive at the uncompromising position that as a concept, Nibbāna is no more real or absolute than other concepts. It merely symbolizes conceptually the transcendental experience in negative terms. All definitions of Nibbāna have validity only from the worldling’s point of view and take the form of negations of various aspects of worldly existence either explicitly or implicitly.

Thirty-three synonyms are given at Anata Sutta (SN 43.13), Nibbāna being one of them.

Now, if the most predominant and pervasive characteristic of the world is prolific conceptualization, it follows that the transcendental experience of Nibbāna could be defined as the non-prolific (nippapañca) or the cessation, the appeasement, of conceptual proliferation (papañca-nirodha, papañca-vūpasama). Hence it is that very often in those Suttas which refer to the consciousness of the Arahants, we are baffled by a string of negations in some form or other. The consciousness of the Arahant is said to be so ineffable that even the gods and Brahmas are incapable of discovering its basis or support. He has the ability to attain to a unique Samādhi in which he has no recourse to any of the data of sense experience normally considered essential for a jhāna or samādhi.

“Monks, when a monk’s mind is freed thus, the devas—those with Indra, those with Brahmā, those with Pajāpati—do not succeed in their search so as to conclude: ‘It is on this that the consciousness of the Tathāgata depends.’ What is the reason for this? I, monks, declare that a Tathāgata is untraceable here and now.” — Cūḷahatthi­padopama (MN 27)

“He muses not dependent on earth, water, fire, air, the realm of infinity of space, the realm of infinity of consciousness, the realm of nothingness, the realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception; he muses not dependent on this world… on the world beyond… on whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, traversed by the mind—dependent on all that he muses not, and yet he does muse. Moreover, Sandha, to him thus musing, the devas with Indra, with Brahmā and with Pajāpati even from afar bow down, saying:

“We worship thee, thou thoroughbred of men,
We worship thee, most excellent of men.
For what it is whereon depending thou
Art musing—that we cannot comprehend.”
Khaj­ja­nīya­ Sutta (22.79)

“For whom there are no accumulations, who have comprehended the nutriments, and whose range is the deliverance of the void and the signless—their track is hard to trace as that of birds in the sky.”—Dhammapada 92. The commentary explains gati by citing various forms of possible rebirth, but the word does not necessarily refer to being born. Here the reference is not to the after-death state of Arahants, as is commonly supposed. It merely suggests the void and signless range (gocara) of movement or the extraordinary mental compass of the Arahants, which defies all definition. Similar allusions to this transcendental consciousness are found in Dhammapada 93, 179 and 180. 
Buddha called this Samādhi aññāphala, the Fruit of Knowledge—Ānanda Sutta (AN 9.37); or ānantarika: immediacy—Dasuttara Sutta (DN 34). Commentaries often refer to this as arahattaphala-samādhi. See samādhinā tena samo na vijjati: “A concentration like unto that, there is not.”—Ratana Sutta (Snp 2.1) See also Mahāpadā­na­ Sutta (DN 14); Samiddhi Sutta (SN 1.20). 

The emphatic note with which it is said that although the Arahant has excluded from his mind all those possible objects of musing (or meditating), yet he does muse, is highly significant. In a number of thematic Suttas—

Ānanda Sutta (AN 9.37), Samādhi Sutta (AN 10.6), Sāriputta Sutta (AN 10.7), Saññā Sutta (AN 11.7), Manasikāra Sutta (AN 11.8), Samādhi Sutta (AN 11.18)

—we find monks, notably Ānanda among them, questioning the Buddha and Sāriputta about the possibility of such a meditation. The question almost always smacks of doubt and wonderment. “Could there be,” it runs, “such a samādhi in which a monk is neither conscious of earth nor of water… and yet is conscious?”

“‘This is the Noble Truth of Suffering’ — thus, O monks, in regard to things unheard of in tradition, there arose in me the eye, the insight, the wisdom, the knowledge, the light… the mind ‘luster-become’ and ‘gone-to-Fruit’”—Nandiya Theragāthā (Thag 1.25).

And the reply is always, “There could be such a samādhi wherein a monk is neither conscious of earth nor of water… and nevertheless is conscious.” A counter question follows as a rule: “In what manner and how, Lord, could there be…?”— in reply to which some indication as to the nature of the samādhi is given. For instance, we find the Venerable Sāriputta declaring in reply to Venerable Ānanda that once he attained to such a samādhi when he was at the Andhavana, and he proceeds to explain it thus:

“One perception arose in me: ‘Cessation of becoming is Nibbāna.’ Another perception faded out in me: ‘Cessation of becoming is Nibbāna’. Just as, Your Reverence, from a fire of splinters, one flame arises and another flame fades out, even so in me one perception arose: ‘Cessation of becoming is Nibbāna’ and another perception faded out in me: ‘Cessation of becoming is Nibbāna’. Yet at the same time, Your Reverence, I consciously perceived.” —Sāriputta Sutta (AN 10.7)

The unique feature of this samādhi is its very fluxional character. In it there is no such fixity as to justify a statement that it depends on (nissāya) some object (ārammaṇā) as its support—hence the frustration of gods and men who seek out the basis of the Tathāgata’s consciousness. Normally, the jhānas are characterized by an element of fixity on which consciousness finds a footing or a steadying point (viññāṇaṭṭhiti). It is on this very fixity that the illusion of the ego thrives. In the above jhāna of the emancipated one, however, the ego has melted away in the fire of wisdom which sees the cosmic process of arising and cessation. Not only has the concept ‘I’ (papañca par excellence) undergone combustion, but it has also ignited the data of sensory experience in their entirety. Thus in this jhāna of the Arahant, the world of concepts melts away in the intuitional bonfire of universal impermanence.

See avitakka-samādhi: Subhūti Sutta (Ud 6.7); avitakka-jhayi: Mārudhīta Sutta (SN 4.25); avitakkaṃ-samāpanno: Kha­di­ra­vaniya­re­vatat­ Thera­gāthā (Thāg 14.1); jhāyati anupādano: Kāḷi­godhā­putta­bhaddi­yat Thera­gāthā (Thāg 16.7). 

This brings us to the classic phrase which refers to the Buddha’s attainment of wisdom (paññā) as a kind of illumination (āloka).

“‘This is the Noble Truth of Suffering’ — thus, O monks, in regard to things unheard of in tradition, there arose in me the eye, the insight, the wisdom, the knowledge, the light.” — Dhamma­cakkap­pa­vat­ta­na­ Sutta (SN 56.11); obhāsajātaṃ phalagaṃ cittaṃ: “the mind ‘luster-become’ and ‘gone-to-Fruit’” Nandi­yat Thera­gāthā (Thāg 1.25).

It is often said that in that illumination the darkness of ignorance perished (tamo vihato). The concepts which we have concocted, and which are thus invested with varying degrees of substantiality or stability, cannot stand up to the radiance of wisdom. Hence they pale away and shrink into insignificance, as do twilight stars on the advent of the moon, or the moon at sunrise. Yet, in its luster, wisdom supersedes even the sun, for the Suttas tell us that even the latter pales before it:

“There, where earth, water, fire, and wind no footing find,
There are the stars not bright, nor is the sun resplendent,
No moon shines there, there is no darkness seen.
And then when he, the Arahant, has in his wisdom seen,
From well and ill, from form and formless, is he freed.” — Bāhiya Sutta (Ud 1.10)

The above uplifting verse (udāna) occurring at the end of the Bāhiya Sutta was uttered by the Buddha with reference to Bāhiya who—as we saw above—met with a sudden death, having attained Arahantship. At the Buddha’s behest, monks cremate his body and erect a cairn (thūpa) in honor of him, and at last question the Buddha regarding details of Bāhiya’s rebirth. Then he revealed the fact that Bāhiya, being of mature wisdom, attained the goal with the minimum of instruction in the Dhamma. The verse quoted above which the Buddha thereupon utters is actually an inspired utterance of admiration at Bāhiya’s unique feat, and not a part of the Buddha’s reply proper. The monks, when they raised that question, were not aware that Bāhiya died as an Arahant. Hence the above reply would have proved sufficient for them. These facts seem to have been overlooked by the commentator Dhammapāla who takes the verse to be a description of the actual anupādisesa nibbāna-dhātu (Nibbāna with no clinging left) as the destiny of Bāhiya after his death. He seems to imply that the Buddha is here elaborating on that aspect of Nibbāna in reply to those monks.

Consequently, such terms as water, earth, fire, air, stars, sun, moon and darkness, assume a certain degree of grossness and banality in his interpretation. It is said that water, earth, fire, and air do not find a footing in that ‘Nibbāna-element’, and that neither the planets nor the mighty sun nor the charming moon appear therein to illuminate it. His explanation of the phrase tamo tattha na vijjati (there is no darkness seen) exposes the inadequacy of his interpretation. He asserts that the phrase serves to forestall a possible doubt that if all these luminary bodies were not there in that ‘Nibbāna-element’, it would be utterly dark like the purgatory. Now, to return to the imagery of the darkness of ignorance and the radiance of wisdom, we may say that it is precisely because there is no darkness (in the emancipated mind) that the stars, the sun and the moon do not shine. They have paled away, their luster having been superseded by the intuitional effulgence.

The sense of fading away or desaturation implicit in the word virāgo (detachment). See Dhātu­vibhaṅ­ga­ Sutta (MN 140), Jaṭā Sutta (SN 1.23) Chandarāga Sutta (SN 22.25; Dutiyarāga Sutta (Iti 57). 
“Monks there are these four radiances (pabhā). What four? The radiance of the moon, the radiance of the sun, the radiance of fire, the radiance of wisdom… Monks, among these four, the radiance of wisdom (paññā-pabhā) is indeed the most excellent.”—Ābhā Sutta (AN 4.141). Also see Natthi­puttasa­ma Sutta (SN 1.13). 

Be it noted that the three verbs used in connection with the stars, the sun and the moon, convey the sense that they do not shine there—not that they are physically non-existent in any mysterious realm beyond. Thus the allusion here, with its touch of imagery (a feature as apt as it is recurrent in such inspired verses) is most probably to that transcendental consciousness of the living Arahant in which the concepts such as earth, water, fire, and air, stars, sun, moon, darkness (of ignorance), realms of form and formless realms, happiness and unhappiness, have lost their substantiality, in more than one sense.

After what has been said above, we are now poised to examine the following much-vexed verse:

“Consciousness which is non-manifestative, endless, lustrous on all sides,
Here it is that earth and water, fire and wind, no footing find.
Here again are long and short, subtle and gross, pleasant, unpleasant,
Name-and-form, all these are here cut off without exceptions,
When consciousness comes to cease, these are held in check herein.”
Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11)

Here too some acquaintance with the context will be helpful. A monk conceives the riddle, “Where do those four great elements—earth, water, fire and air—cease altogether? To get a suitable answer, he develops psychic powers and goes from heaven to heaven, querying gods and Brahmās in vain. At last he approaches the Buddha, and when the riddle is put to him, he remarks that it is not properly worded and therefore reformulates it thus, before giving his solution in the verse quoted above:

“Where do earth and water, fire and wind—
long and short, fine and coarse,
Pleasant and unpleasant, no footing find—
Where is it that name-and-form
Are held in check with no trace left?” — Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11)

According to the Buddha’s reply, earth, water, fire and air do not find a footing, and long, short, subtle, gross, pleasant, unpleasant and name-and-form are completely cut off in a consciousness which makes nothing manifest and which is infinite and lustrous all-round.

For this particular sense of the term anidassana, see Kakacūpama Sutta (MN 1. 127): “This sky, Lord, is non-material and non-illustrative, it is not easy to paint a picture there or to make manifest pictures there.” Nidassana in its popular sense of illustration means something that makes clear what is not already clear. Also see Paṭhamakosala Sutta (AN 10.29): “The flax flower, blue, blue colored, manifesting blue, shining blue.”
The radiance of wisdom in its all-encompassing and penetrative aspects, which make it a vision and not a view. Reference to a lustrous mind is also found in the Accha­rā­saṅghā­ta­vagga (AN 1.51): “This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by taints that come from without. But this the uninstructed manyfolk understand not as it really is, wherefore for the uninstructed manyfolk there is no cultivation of the mind, I declare. This mind, monks, is luminous, and it is cleansed of taints that come from without. This the instructed noble disciple understands as it really is. Wherefore, for the instructed noble disciple there is cultivation of the mind, I declare.” 

It is very likely that the reference again is to the aññā-phala samādhi (the fruit-of-knowledge concentration) of the Arahant. Though less obvious, the string of negations is in general agreement with those that occur elsewhere in like contexts. Terms like long and short, subtle and gross, pleasant and unpleasant as well as name-and-form could easily be comprehended by the standard phrase ‘whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after and traversed by the mind’. The last line of the verse stresses the fact that the four great elements do not find a footing, and that name-and-form (comprehending them) can be cut off completely, in that anidassana-viññāṇa (non-manifestative consciousness) of the Arahant, by the cessation of his normal consciousness which rests on the data of sense experience. This is a corrective to that monk’s notion that the four elements can cease altogether somewhere — a notion which had its roots in the popular conception of self-existing material elements.

In place of the verb nirujjhati in the original question, the Buddha makes use of the verb uparujjhati. Hence we have to distinguish between the meanings of these two. It is not improbable that nirujjhati conveys the sense of complete cessation (as in saññā-vedayita-nirodha) whereas uparujjhati implies holding in check or cutting off. This word would thus go well with the statement that the four elements do not find a footing (na gādhati) in the jhānic consciousness of the Arahant. For this suggested sense of uparujjhati see Mahāsaccaka Sutta (MN 36): “And I, Aggivessana, cut off in-breathing and out-breathing through the mouth and nose.”

The Buddha’s reformulation of the original question and this concluding line are meant to combat this wrong notion. It must also be mentioned that the first and the last lines are basic in this verse (question and answer) since they stress that the anidassana viññāṇa is a state of affairs similar to (though not identical with) the one envisaged by the question of that monk, could at all be expected. This consciousness of the Arahant is one that manifests nothing out of our world of concepts. It does not ‘il-lustrate’ (Latin lustro, bright) anything though (or because) it is itself all-lustrous, for darkness can never be illustrated or made manifest by light. With his penetrative insight the Arahant sees through the concepts.

See Kālakārāma Sutta (AN 4.24)

Now, an object of perception (ārammaṇa) for the worldling is essentially something that is brought into focus—something he is looking at. For the Arahant, however, all concepts have become transparent in that all-encompassing vision, to such a degree that their boundaries, together with their umbra and penumbra, have yielded to the radiance of wisdom. This, then, is the significance of the word anantaṃ (endless, infinite). Thus the paradoxically detached gaze of the contemplative sage as he looks through concepts is one which has no object (ārammaṇa) as the point of focus for the worldling to identify it with. It is a gaze that is neither conscious nor non-conscious, neither attentive, nor non-attentive, neither fixed, nor not fixed—a gaze that knows no horizon.

“By what track can you lead that Awakened One who is trackless and whose range is endless and to whom there is not that entangling net of craving to lead anywhere?” — Dhammapada 180 “Hard to see is the ‘endless’—it is not easy to see the truth. Pierced through is craving—and naught for him who knows and sees.” — Dutiya­nib­bā­na­paṭi­saṃ­yutta­ Sutta (Udāna 8.2)

The traditional interpretation as given by Buddhaghosa follows a different line altogether. To begin with, he presumes that the Buddha reformulated the question of that monk because the latter implied both the organic and the inorganic spheres by the terms earth, water, fire and air, whereas the question should—so he observes—legitimately refer only to the organic sphere. He therefore holds that the question as reformulated by the Buddha narrows down the field to the organic. This explanation does not appear plausible when we consider the fact that the Buddha and his disciples dissolve the dichotomy between the organic and the inorganic in matter repeatedly in the Suttas.

“And whatever earth-element that is in oneself and whatever earth-element that is external to oneself, (in both cases) it is just the earth-element." — Mahā-hatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28) 

How trivial the reformulated question becomes when Buddhaghosa’s stipulation is granted can best be exemplified by quoting him:

“‘Long-short’: derived matter in terms of (a person’s) stature is meant here. ‘Subtle-gross’: small or big: by this too, just the appearance of derived matter is implied. ‘Pleasant-unpleasant’: comely and ugly; derived matter again. Why? Is there anything called comely and ugly in the case of derived matter? No. Just the pleasant and unpleasant as objects (of perception) are meant. ‘Name-and-form’: name and the (physical) form of said description, viz., long, etc.”

According to this explanation, the terms long and short, pleasant and unpleasant, refer to an individual’s bodily characteristics. Nāma is his name and rūpa is his body possessing the above characteristics. We need hardly point out that the significance of the question has failed to emerge in this explanation. But as we shall see presently, this explanation begs the question. The explanatory verse of the Buddha is now interpreted as an allusion to Nibbāna as the actual after-death destiny of the Arahant. The term viññāṇa is explained simply, though not convincingly, as Nibbāna in the sense that ‘it-must-be-known’ (viññātabban’ti viññāṇaṃ) and anidassanaṃ as that which cannot be illustrated by examples (nidassanābhāvato). Pabhaṭ is taken as a variant form of papaṭ (ford). Thus sabbato-pabhaṭ (with fords all-round) connotes the accessibility of Nibbāna through any one of the thirty-eight objects of contemplation. ‘Having arrived at’ this Nibbāna all these organic manifestations of matter ‘cease altogether’.

Buddhaghosa fails to make any distinction in sense between nirujjhati (complete cessation) and uparujjhati (holding in check).

It should be now sufficiently clear that the narrow redefinition of the elements of matter has enabled Buddhaghosa to interpret the verse in this manner. In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta the first line of the above expository verse recurs in a manner which corroborates the interpretation we have advanced:

“Consciousness which makes nothing manifest, infinite and all-lustrous; it does not partake of the extensiveness of earth, the cohesiveness of water, the hotness of fire, the movement of air, the creaturehood of creatures, the devahood of devas, the Pajāpatihood of Pajāpati, the Brahmāhood of Brahmā, the radiance of the Radiant Ones, the luster of the Lustrous Ones, the Vehapphalahood of the Vehapphala-Brahmas, the Overlordship of the Overlord and the Allness of the All.” — Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49)

There can be little doubt that at least here we have to regard the list of terms beginning with the four great elements in an abstract sense as concepts.

Note the similarity of this list to that found in the Mūlapariyāya Sutta (MN 1). The quality referred to here probably corresponds to the first mode of maññanā (imagining), e.g. paṭhaviṃ maññati (imagines earth to be earth).

In the commentary to this Sutta, Buddhaghosa seems to have revised his interpretations to some extent. While sticking to his former rendering of the term viññāṇa, he explains anidassana somewhat differently: “It (Nibbāna) is anidassana in the sense that it does not approach the range of visual consciousness.” Again, the word anantaṃ is rendered as in the Kevaṭṭha Sutta, but his comment on the expression sabbato-pabhaṃ shows an improvement here. Preference is given here to the implications of pabhā as luster: “more lustrous than anything else, since there is nothing more luminous or purer or whiter than Nibbāna.”

sabbato pabhāsampannaṃ — This analysis of the compound to give a comparative sense is not very apt. 

The second alternative meaning given is that “it is either the lord above everything or that it is not nonexistent anywhere, for it should not be said that Nibbāna is not to be found in any one of the (four) quarters such as the east.” The interpretation in terms of a ford is here relegated to the third and last place, whereas it was given the pride of place in the commentary to the Kevaṭṭha Sutta. The very fact that Buddhaghosa advanced alternative explanations to the above expression shows that he was in doubt as to its true significance. His lack of consistency and the inherent defects in his explanations in this respect, are no less indicative of his doubts.

Two oft-quoted passages in the Udāna, over whose interpretation a wide divergence of opinion prevails, may now be taken up.

“There is, monks, that sphere wherein there is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air, wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space, nor that of infinite consciousness, nor that of nothingness, nor that of neither-perception nor-non-perception; wherein there is neither this world nor a world beyond, nor moon and sun. There, monks, I declare, is no coming, no going, no stopping, no passing away, no arising. It is not established, it continues not, it has no object. This, indeed, is the end of suffering.” — Paṭhamanibbāna Sutta (Ud 8.1).

“Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that not-born… were not, there would be no escape here from what is born, become, made, compounded. But since, monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded, therefore there is an escape from what is born, become, made, compounded.” — Tatiyanibbāna Sutta (Ud 8.3)

Saṅkhata denotes what is compounded, concocted or put together. In the last analysis, it is the mind that does this, through its conative activities impelled by the ego-illusion (abhisaṅkhataṃ, abhisañcetayitaṃ) The Arahant pacifies completely this tendency towards compounding and concocting (sabbasaṅkhāra-samatha). Since herein mind is the maker, to see penetratively the made (kata) as made, is to unmake it (akata), and to see penetratively the compounded (saṅkhata) as compounded, is to decompose it (asaṅkhata). Where there is no fresh putting together or compounding, there is no falling apart or decomposition, and thus the Arahant abides in the Uncompounded element (asaṅkhata-dhātu) which itself is the Deathless (amata). See “By knowing the destruction of preparations, be thou, O Brahmin, one who knows the unmade.” — Dhammapada 383

Both passages are presented as exhortations on Nibbāna with which the Buddha inspired the assemblage of monks. Both begin with an emphatic affirmative (atthi) and proceed in the form of a series of negations. While discussing the nature of aññā-phala-samādhi (the Fruit-of-Knowlege concentration) with the help of a specimen out of a number of thematic Suttas, we have observed the note of diffidence and wonderment ringing through the questions. We have seen the emphatic tone characterizing the replies. The paradox posed by that peculiar samādhi of the Arahant also came up for discussion. Hence the emphatic affirmative prefixed to these two Sutta passages need not surprise us. As for the two series of negations in the respective passages, there does appear—prima facie—considerable divergence in formulation. We shall therefore examine them singly.

The former passage speaks, first of all, of an āyatana (sphere) in which the four material elements, the four formless realms, this world, the world beyond, and the sun and moon are not found.

See “‘When shall I attain to and abide in that sphere (tadāyatanaṃ) which the noble ones now attain to and abide in?’ Thus as he cherishes a desire for the incomparable deliverances (anuttaresu vimokkhesu), anxiety arises in him due to desire.” — Salāyatana-vibhaṅga Sutta (MN 137)

We are now sufficiently familiar with such formulations to be able to identify them as referring to concepts and to resist the temptation to read into them any gross physical sense. It is further said that in this sphere there is neither coming nor going nor staying, neither dying nor being born. Here again we have a reference to abstract notions and not to actual facts implied by them. These notions are part and parcel of our phenomenal world of relative concepts, and come under the standard formula: ‘whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after and traversed by the mind.’ The last three significant terms in the passage—not established, not continuing, not having an object—are obvious allusions to the paradoxical gaze or the transcendental consciousness of the Arahant. These three terms—appatiṭṭhaṃ appavattaṃ anārammaṇaṃ—correspond respectively to his threefold deliverance (vimokkho): suññato (void), appaṇihito (free from longing) and animitto (signless).

See Dhammapada 92

Due to the penetrative vision of paññā (wisdom), concepts become transparent (animitta—signless) giving rise to utter detachment (appaṇihito) and the sage realizes the voidness of the world (suññatā). In the light of this transcendental vision he declares, as the Buddha did:

“Void is this world of anything that is self or of anything that belongs to self” — Suñña­ta­loka­ Sutta (SN 4.54).

The latter passage (Tatiyanibbāna Sutta) asserts that there is a state which is not-born, not become, not made and not compounded; for if there were no such state, there would be no possibility here of “stepping out from the born, the become, the made and the compounded.” This stepping out is effected here and now (idha in the passage) in that emancipated mind of the Arahant, to which the latter set of terms is inapplicable since all that is born, become, made and compounded can be subsumed under that comprehensive formula to which reference has already been made.

Neither of the two Udāna passages in question seems to refer to saññā-vedayita-nirodha-samāpatti (the attainment of cessation of perceptions and feelings) though in a sense it has an indirect connection with the aññā-phala. In the former, consciousness is in temporary abeyance, and since there is no ambiguity in regard to its content in terms of saññā, such negations as those we found in the first paragraph will be superfluous. However, it does have a relevance to aññā-phala-samādhi as it is a prelude to the final stepping-out effected through paññā. This fact would emerge from the following: “Friend Visākha, when a monk has emerged from the attainment of the stopping of perception and feeling, three impingements assail him: impingement that is void, impingement that is signless, impingement that is undirected.” — Culla Vedalla Sutta (MN 44)

For a better appreciation of the note of emphasis in this passage, one may also consider the Zeitgeist at the advent of the Buddha. This was the time when the Indian mind imbued with yogic traditions found itself in a dilemma: to be conscious or not to be conscious.

“Perception is a disease, a boil, a dart, and absence of perception is delusion. This is peaceful, this is excellent, that is to say, the realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.” — Pañcattaya Sutta (MN 102)

The fact that even the most rarefied realms of sense-perception were not reliable was sometimes realized and the possibility of a way out of the network of saññā (perception) was a favorite subject of discussion at the assemblies of ascetic groups, as we are told in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9). Some religious teachers of renown like Pokkharasāti were scornfully skeptical about such a possibility among human beings — Subha Sutta (MN 99). Hence the fact that there is a breakthrough here-and-now needs all the emphasis it rightly deserves.

“Renunciation is the stepping-out from sense-pleasures, the formless is the stepping-out from the (realms of) form. But whatever there is that is become, compounded and conditionally arisen, cessation is the stepping-out from it. These, monks, are the three elements of stepping-out.” — Itivuttaka

The negative terms which often characterize definitions of Nibbāna are significant of the detachment from all that is worldly and conditioned. It must be pointed out that whenever it is said that the five aggregates should be viewed as not-self, it primarily refers to those aggregates that are available for reflection to any specific individual. There can be considerable variation in the quality of the aggregates that any individual can muster for developing the momentum required for utter detachment.

Eleven basic types are given at Dasama Sutta (AN 11.17); Aṭṭhakanāgara Sutta (MN 54). See also Āneñjasappāya Sutta (MN 106) 

For instance, the aggregates reflected upon by one who makes the first jhāna his point of departure from saṃsāra would be qualitatively different from those utilized by another using the second jhāna as a base. As the canonical simile goes (Sappurisadāna Sutta AN 8.37), even as an archer or his apprentice first practices on a straw dummy or on a tablet of clay; afterwards, when he has mastered the art, shoots even long distances, renting asunder big objects by the light of a flash of lightning. Even so the aspirant practices detachment on his set of aggregates, reflecting upon their impermanent, sorrow-fraught, not-self character, and thereafter aims at the deathless element (Nibbāna) with the aid of a convenient phrase suggestive of the very antithesis of his present predicament. This is why the synonyms for Nibbāna, either explicitly or implicitly, connote the negation of worldly imperfections. The words and the phrases used serve as a target for his supreme detachment — a target which he does not grasp, but pierces through with the arrow of wisdom.

The monk who succeeds in detaching his mind from his present set of aggregates and aims at complete detachment, which is the deathless element Nibbāna, has one more hurdle to clear—a subtle one at that. Unless he looks sharp and keeps to the moral of the Parable of the Raft, he can sometimes conceive attachment (rāga) or delight (nandi) for those very concepts which he utilizes to attain Nibbāna. It is as if he were to hold on to the overhanging creeper with which he leaped across the stream, even when he is well above the farther bank.

A simile used by Buddhaghosa (Vism. XXII), though its implications do not seem to have been fully appreciated. For an illustration of the Anāgāmin's subtle attachment see Khemaka Sutta (SN 22.89).

The creeper hangs down from a tree on the hither bank, hence unless he lets go the firm hold with which he had grasped it, he will oscillate back again. Luckily for him, however, the Anāgāmin (non-returner) true to his name, has developed his mind to that point of no return (anāvattidhammo), where although he may hesitate for a brief while until the tension (saṅkhārā) ends, he lets go his hold before the creeper can swing him back again. To echo the exclamation of Ānanda in the Āneñjasappāya Sutta (MN ):

“Marvelous is it, O Lord, extraordinary is it, O Lord, that the Lord, the Exalted One, has preached to us the crossing of the flood by relative dependence.”

The noble disciple’s humble aspiration as he fares on the Noble Eightfold Path is: “Surely, there must be an end to this entire mass of suffering!”

appeva nāma imassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa antakiriyā paññāyethā’tiJīvika Sutta (Itivuttaka 91) 

When he says ‘entire’, he means it. He knows full well that even the concept or concepts which he provisionally takes hold of—all rafts, targets and creepers—are not worth clinging to once they have served their purpose. Hence he entertains no qualms concerning any form of absolute eternal existence, however subtle it may be. He puts an end to this entire mass of suffering at the price of all attachments, gross or subtle (anupādāparinibbāna). That done, his task is complete (kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ).

nāññatra sabbanissaggā, sotthiṃ passāmi pāṇinan’ti: “No weal for beings do I behold, save by their renouncing all.” — Subrahma Sutta (SN 2.17)

Path to Non-proliferation | CONTENTS | Papañca and Paṭicca-Samuppāda