Why do Buddhists argue that nirvana is nothing in addition to the skandhas? I found this, and I hope it suffices to demonstrate that's what the Buddha taught:

"What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata as being in form?... Elsewhere than form?... In feeling?... Elsewhere than feeling?... In perception?... Elsewhere than perception?... In fabrications?... Elsewhere than fabrications?... In consciousness?... Elsewhere than consciousness?"

"No, my friend."

"What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?"

"No, my friend."

"Do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?"

"No, my friend."

"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'?"

The quote seems to say that the Tathagata is not without form feeling etc..

If nirvana were something in addition to the aggregates, then I'm thinking the Tathagata would be without the aggregates. On the grounds that nirvana is all that the Tathagata is.

  • 1
    What should "saṅkhāra" in cessation? And yes, for a long long time you have been wandering on, is it not time to let go, since "the past" is also now? Present, or what ever one grasps, does not arise for a Tathagata or an Arahat.
    – user11235
    May 19, 2017 at 5:05
  • @SamanaJohann I'm really rational about things, or try to be. sorry.
    – user2512
    May 19, 2017 at 11:32
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    I still don't understand the phrase "nothing in addition to the skandhas"; are you saying that "the argument" is that: 1) nirvana exists, and 2) nirvana is nothing, and 3) nirvana is something extra than, something different from, the five aggregates? But I suppose that even if they don't understand that phrase, people can try to answer by explaining what that sutta means.
    – ChrisW
    May 19, 2017 at 12:01
  • @ChrisW I explained one reason.
    – user2512
    May 19, 2017 at 13:34
  • Vexing Question.
    – user2341
    May 21, 2017 at 13:03

2 Answers 2


In the Yamaka Sutta, Ven. Sariputta, made Yamaka to understand that the five skandas are anicca. If one truly understands this reality the extinction of the process happens in the form of ‘Nibbana’. If we willingly attach to these five skandas with the nicca sanna, then we suffer. Only in realizing that nothing can be maintained to one’s satisfaction in the long run, can we arrive at Nibbana.

Nibbana is not sunnata or emptiness. The person who attained Nibbana is only empty of the five upadanaskandas. The five skandas remain. It is like this. if we take a water bottle and pour the water out, we say we have an empty bottle. But in reality there is air in the bottle, so the bottle is empty only with regard to water; it is not empty regard to air.

Thus what is meant was that “it is empty of”. There is no absolute “emptiness”. At Nibbana one is empty of greed (raga), hate (dosa), and ignorance (moha). At Arahanthood, even the slightest bondage to anything material is discarded.

For one who has attained Nibbana, there is only "ditthē dittha mattan bhavissati- sutē suta mattan bhavissati- mutē muta mattan bhavissati” – There is only seeing in the ‘seeing’; only hearing in the ‘hearing’ etc. It is only you and I, that take nimithi & anu nimithi (impressions of objects) from what we hear or see.

As long as there is greed, ill will & delusion we retain impressions of objects (nimithi anu nimithi) of self & pleasurable things. The impressions stimulate our senses and thus we see people & things around us. Only the minds that are polluted with greed, hatred & delusion associate four elements. The one who sees arising ceasing nature of aggregates sees the emptiness of any inherent meaning & will not retain impressions thereby abandoning the defilements of greed hatred and delusion.

  • The water bottle analogy is lovely. "Empty with regard to..." We are meant to be empty with regard to views.
    – user2341
    May 21, 2017 at 13:07
  • As I often have to, I read your answer quite a few times before deciding how to vote. I think when you say that with nirvana there is "only seeing in the seeing" you're saying that nirvana is not something over or above, an entity in addition to, the skandhas
    – user2512
    May 22, 2017 at 16:33

I think that the topic of the sutta you referenced is anatta.

For example the discussion with Sariputta starts with,

"What do you think, my friend Yamaka: Is form constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, my friend."

"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"

"Stressful, my friend."

"And is it proper to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?"

An important part of Buddhist doctrine is to not identify in this way with form (nor any other skandha).

Another way to phrase this is that we shouldn't become attached (nor try to become attached to) to any specific view of self (the answer to the questions which you quoted was "no", and "no", and "no").

The suttas are full of this: they mention "clinging-aggregates" in the first noble truth of first sutta; "non-self" as the subject of the second sutta; questions involving views-of-self being described as "attending inappropriately" and leading to "a thicket of views" in MN 2; "being" being identified with suffering in SN 5.10, and so on.

Given that anatta is recommended for us, presumably the Buddha has perfected that practice. So in the same way that we should not have some fixed of self (and in particular shouldn't identify it with the skandhas, nor identify it with something other than the skandhas), a similar doctrine is appropriate for a view of the Tathagata (note that the "Tathagata" is a title or a description of the Buddha).

So I think that's a summary, a brief explanation, of the sutta you referenced. People talk about it a lot (there are 60+ topics on this site tagged , and others on the topic of "self" and "identity-view" and so on), but it's kind of fundamental, with not-self being one of the Three marks of existence.

You also quoted, "when you can't pin down the Tathagata" ... for more on a similar topic I recommend Why is the Buddha described as trackless?.

The last sentence of the question is, "On the grounds that nirvana is all that the Tathagata is".

I'm not sure it's right to identify the Tathagata with nirvana i.e. to say that the Tathagata is nirvana, nor than nirvana is the Tathagata.

Nirvana is commonly described by what it isn't, especially "not born", i.e. it's unconditioned (also "deathless" and so on), or perhaps more positively as liberation or as the end of stress.

There are suttas and essays about what nirvana is (e.g. here and here and here)

  • hmm i found the last part intriguing. i agree with your lead sentence, but would add that it's saying the tathagata is not a self, at least of that sort
    – user2512
    May 21, 2017 at 1:32

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