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The word "deathless" is used sometimes.

What does it mean? Are there non-obvious or non-English meanings to the words translated as 'death' and/or 'deathless'?

Similarly what does "attaining the deathless" mean, in this Upatissa-pasine, for example ...

Whoever attains the Deathless first will inform the other

... how are they supposed to recognize when they "attain the deathless"?

Is "deathless" predicated on the idea that practitioners are trying to escape some dukkha associated with death, or escape death itself? Does that sutta conflate "deathless" with "sorrowless", or are the two distinct?

I notice there's also a word Timeless. Deathless is a different word (amata instead of akalika), does the word 'deathless' have a different meaning and/or different usage?


The expression is used in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta:

So I said to them, 'Don't address the Tathagata by name and as "friend." The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained.

That suggests to me (I may be wrong) that deathless might be associated with an ultimate stage of enlightenment (or perhaps that it's specifically intended/designed for the five in that audience, e.g. perhaps the Buddha knew that they were seeking "the deathless").

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    A more literal translation would be "undead", interestingly enough; the sense should be "undying", i.e. that which, because it is not involved with arising, is also not involved with ceasing. – yuttadhammo Aug 22 '15 at 3:32
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    Here's some further description (adjectives and nouns which refer to Nibanna): Nibbana is an existing reality – ChrisW Aug 22 '15 at 9:03
  • The Deathless = Unbinding (nibbana / nirvana), which gives release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Mindfulness is the way to the Deathless (Nibbana), unmindfulness the way to Death. Those who are mindful do not die, and those who are not are as if already dead. – Swapnil Mar 18 '17 at 12:00
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What does deathless mean?

The Deathless is a synonym for Nibbana. The Deathless state is the state where one is freed from birth and thereby death. Conditioned phenomena constantly arise and fall. In other words: They must die. Nibbana is unconditioned, unborn, it does not arise and fall and therefore must not die.

Here are some quotes from the Majjhima Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya where the Buddha talks about The Deathless state in relation to Nibbana. There are also some notes from the author (Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi):

"He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: "This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana"

-- MN 64: Mahamalunkyaputta Sutta, p. 540, Bodhi translation

Another quote:

"Then at that point the Blessed One uttered this exclamation:

The greatest of all gains is health,

Nibbana is the greatest bliss,

The eightfold path is the best of paths

For it leads safely to the Deathless."

-- MN 75: Magandiya Sutta, p. 613, Bodhi translation

Sutta notes:

"The eleven "doors to the Deathless" are the four jhanas, the four brahmaviharas, and the first three immaterial attainments used as bases for the development of insight and attainment of arahantship."

-- Notes to sutta 52, p. 1252

Sutta notes:

MA: He "turns his mind away" from the five aggregates included within the jhana, which he has seen to be stamped with the three characteristics. The "deathless element" (amata-dhatu) is Nibbana.

-- Notes to sutta 64, p. 1266

Sutta notes:

"MA says that the arahantship of the dry-insight meditator is intended. MT adds that arahantship is called "the Deathless" because it has the flavour of the Deathless, being attained on the basis of Nibbana the Deathless."

-- Notes to sutta 106, p. 1312

Here is a quote from the Samyutta Nikaya:

"This is what the Blessed One said. Having said this, the Fortunate One, the Teacher, further said this:

"One who desires merit, established in the wholesome, Develops the path to attain the Deathless; He who has reached the Dhamma's core, Delighting in destruction, Does not tremble thinking, 'The King of Death will come."

-- SN 55: Sotapattisamyutta, p. 1829, Bodhi translation

Another quote:

"Bhikkhus, I will teach you the taintless and the path leading to the taintless. Listen to that ...

"Bhikkhus, I will teach you the truth and the path leading to the truth ... I will teach you the far shore ... the subtle ... the very difficult to see ... the unaging ... the stable ... the undis­ integrating ... the unmanifest ... the unproliferated ... the peaceful ... the deathless ... the sublime ... the auspicious ... the secure ... the destruction of craving ... the wonderful ... the amazing ... the unailing ... the unailing state ... Nibbana ... the unafflicted ... dispassion ... purity ... freedom ... the unadhesive ... the island .., the shelter ... the asylum ... the refuge ...

-- SN 43: Asankhatasamyutta, p. 1378, Bodhi translation

Sutta notes:

"The removal of lust, etc., is a designation for the unconditioned, deathless Nibbana element. The destruc­tion of the taints is arahantship. The removal of lust, etc., is a name for arahantship too."

-- Notes to sutta 45, p. 1893

The Dhamma Wiki has a list of "33 Synonyms for Nibbana".

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  • Yes it seems like merely a synonym i.e. another word for the same thing, i.e. a new word with no new meaning. I was hoping it might be more, e.g. a separate attribute or a new description. – ChrisW Aug 21 '15 at 14:35
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    Does its being in the Sotapatti-samyutta imply it's associated with stream-entry, and not only "an ultimate stage of enlightenment"? – ChrisW Aug 21 '15 at 14:37
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    Answer updated. Good question. Sotapanna is one of the 4 stages of enlightenment so if you mean as a "part" of nibbana then maybe you can say that. But i'm not sure about it. – Lanka Aug 21 '15 at 14:46
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    A good, fairly comprehensive answer. – Jayarava Aug 21 '15 at 17:37
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    @ChrisW Although they all refer to Nibbana, all of them describe distinct qualities of Nibbana. So it is not just a new word with no different meaning. ex: taintless and deathless describe 2 different qualities. – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 21 '15 at 17:49
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"Deathless" typically translates amrita (lit. "no-death"), also translated as "the nectar", using the useful parallel with Greek mythology. Another translation of "to attain deathless" is "to partake of the nectar" - just another metaphorical way to refer to The Fruit. I suppose we could compare this with the modern American idiom "drank the Kool-Aid" - although the latter has rather satirical connotations.

More specifically "the deathless aspect" (amrita-dhatu) is (seems to be?) a synonym with what Mahayana calls "the absolute truth" -- the perspective of Three Marks Of Existence, Emptiness, and Pratityasamutpada -- as opposed to "the conventional truth" -- the perspective of Rebirth, Karma, and Samsara vs. Nirvana dichotomy.

  • imo the American "drinking the kool-aid" is a reference to the Jonestown massacre (i.e. not a happy parallel). Thank you for connecting Amata to Amrita for me: I didn't expect that connection! I read the Rig Veda once (in translation) but scarcely understood it. I suppose the term is therefore aimed at ... contemporaries for whom the term was significant. Maybe I should understand it more as a metaphor, name, or title rather than as a description. – ChrisW Aug 21 '15 at 17:08
  • Sanskrit amṛta or Pāli amata. – Jayarava Aug 21 '15 at 17:37
  • I thought it was an LSD/Pranksters reference, no? – Andrei Volkov Aug 21 '15 at 17:37
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    Well as a modern idiom I think it means an unthinking or enthusiastic cooperation with a (e.g. corporate or political) culture or party-line; but imo (and google confirms) that "(don't) drink the kool-aid" is a reference to Jonestown; so yes satirical I guess, but a strain to compare it with "deathless". – ChrisW Aug 21 '15 at 21:30
  • The way it is used in USA where I live, I think it means a sudden and surprising change of perspective as a result of someone adopting someone else's point of view. – Andrei Volkov Aug 22 '15 at 12:01
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Lanka's answer strikes me as comprehensive. Except for the etymology of the word. Pali amata and Sanskrit amṛta derive from the root √mṛ 'die'. The form here is a past participle used as adjective - mṛta means 'died, dead'; compounded with the 'a', amṛta means 'undying, deathless'.

Ultimately it probably comes from Vedic, as the Upaniṣads more frequently speak of the cyclic afterlife as punarmṛta 're-death' or punarmṛtyu 'repeated dying'. It's this repeated death that makes the fact of cyclic existence ultimately unbearable and motivates the search for the deathless. And the opposite of repeated death is no death, the deathless. It can mean "immortality" in Vedic, in the sense that one's ātman exists permanently and once one transcends repeated death, then ātman rejoins and attains union with the universal principle of being, Brahman. Notably in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta it is Brahmā, the personification of Brahman, who urges the Buddha to teach after he opens the doors to the deathless.

But as Lanka says, in Buddhism it is one of many synonyms for nibbāna.

  • Thank you for the clarification about the etymology of the word. – Lanka Aug 21 '15 at 18:51
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In Buddhism, to be deathless means you have realized Nirvana and are liberated from samsara and will have no more rebirths and thus no more deaths. This does not mean you cease to exist for that would be nihilism and the Budha was clear that to say his teachings were nihilist was heresy.

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To break through to even so much as Metta (Lovingkindness), is a taste of the deathless (for as long as it's sustained).

So all these definitions above are helpful, but you can't truly know what the deathless is until you practice the 8-fold path enough that a Brahmavihara (or higher) occurs as a resultant. Experiential knowledge is "Knowledge" in Buddhism, not mere book-reading, intellectual-level "knowledge".

I feel it's important for this distinction to be mentioned. It's a feeling (which is "not of the flesh", as opposed to a "worldly feeling"), and not a concept.

Note: I'm a Buddhist monk, however I wish to remain anonymous. I am bound by Vinaya to not discuss any attainment's I might have, so please don't ask (if "I've ever experienced the deathless").

  • Hi Bhante and welcome to Buddhism SE. We have put together a Guide and a Resource section for new users that you might like. – Lanka Aug 22 '15 at 16:03
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I addressed this in my blog recently. Quotation follows:

The Buddha teaches the path of the arhant, the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of four levels of attainment of degrees of progressive realization or accomplishment: stream entrant, whereby one achieves emancipation within seven rebirths without ever experiencing a lower non-human rebirth; a once-returner, whereby one is reborn as a human being once more only; a non-returner, whereby one is never again reborn as a human being, but will be born as a deva being in the Five Pure Abodes; or an arhant, in which on death one achieves parinibbana (lit. ‘complete snuffing out,’ as of a fire) and subsequent ‘immortality’ (amata). This Pali word, amata, pervades the Pali Canon, and is generally translated as ‘deathlessness,’ but the PED makes it clear that the primary meaning is amrita, translated by Rhys Davids as ‘ambrosia’ or ‘water of immorality,’ from the Sanskrit root MR, ‘death.’ Amrita, which is also described in the PED as a “medicine,” is the Buddhist word for soma, the Vedic mind-altering beverage that is identical with the plant-based psychedelic that was worshipped by the early Aryans and inspired the rishis, including the Seven Sages, to write the ecstatic hymns of the Rig Veda. Mata means both ‘thought’ and ‘dead,’ so the state of amata is a state beyond both death and thinking. Paradoxically, a state of apparent ‘impercipience’ is identical with the realization of essential sentience itself. Hence, ‘deathlessness.’

http://palisuttas.com/2015/06/07/epitome-of-the-pali-canon/

  • According to pali.hum.ku.dk/cpd/search.html the word for "not apprehended by mind" is amuta not amata. According to the PTS dictionary the two mata words are from two different roots. – ChrisW Oct 4 '15 at 17:22
  • You are absolutely correct etymologically (PED, p. 517). However, the two 'matas' have identical spelling and pronunciation, raising the possibility of a homonym. I find this hermeneutic very useful in application to the Pali Canon. There are other examples. – user4970 Nov 10 '15 at 4:03
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My interpretation of the Buddha's teachings (with input from many teachers) is that he was not especially concerned with what came before or after this existence. He said that he taught "the end of suffering" and little else.

As someone said earlier, nibbana is the cessation of the need for rebirth, thus any death. The way I understand it is that the conditions for some following existence cease, like blowing out a candle, and there is just nothing. The aspect of some sort of permanent "bliss" is counter to the teachings, in which nothing is permanent. I believe that permanence aspect was added on later because followers could not let go of that need to continue on in some respect.

  • What needs (or better wants) to continue and in what respect, TonyCr, in the "earlier" idea? – Samana Johann Jan 8 '16 at 5:14
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The deathless element refers to the aspect of your existence which is persistent through all mental states and conditions. It is not death in the sense of physical life or death, but in the sense of being eternally persistent within all conscious existence.

In this interpretation, it shows that Nibbana is not a state to be attained, but is instead an element of being, which is to be recognized as ever-present and then aligned with. Through recognizing yourself only as the deathless element, and only as a witness to the conditioned phenomenon, you reach the state of Nibbana.

  • The Eternal Witness is related to Eternal Consciousness or even a Universal Consciousness, which is an idea of Hinduism (Brahman / Atman / Paramatman), that is rejected by the Buddha. According to the Buddha's description of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness etc. it is dependent on other things and not standalone, therefore, it is impermanent (not eternal). – ruben2020 Oct 4 '15 at 12:52
  • " within all conscious existence", How the ('all') suite here? considering "Kilesa" – Shrawaka Oct 6 '15 at 23:42
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There's an explanation on page 36 (page 10 of the PDF file) of Pita Tan's introduction to SN 56.11. The context is explaining the various types of dukkha ("birth is dukkha, death is dukkha, ..." and so on).

When we understand this, we have a good idea why nirvana—the final state of the Buddha and the arhats—are also “described” (for the convenience of the understanding of the unawakened) as being the opposites of birth, decay, disease and death—nirvana is thus non-birth, non-decay, non-disease and nondeath, that is to say:

  • ajāta or abhūta “birth-free” being unborn, being free of rebirth, hence, no redeath;
  • avyādhi or ajarā “decay-free” not subject to change, bodily or mental, or disease and dis-ease;
  • asoka or abhaya “fear-free” without craving, there is no fear, nor danger from the world;
  • amara or amata “death-free” without rebirth, there is no redeath, the cycle is finally broken.

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