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Does modern Theravada accept that no real person ends with the break up of the body of a realized one? That the moment after the break up of the body of a realized one is the same as the moment before?

In SN 22.85 With Yamaka (sujato) and alternative translation Sariputta seems to rebut the notion that any substantial change happens during the break up of the body of a realized one:

Now at that time a mendicant called Yamaka had the following harmful misconception: “As I understand the Buddha’s teaching, a mendicant who has ended the defilements is annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death.”

Several mendicants heard about this. They went to Yamaka and exchanged greetings with him. When the greetings and polite conversation were over, they sat down to one side and said to him:

“Is it really true, Reverend Yamaka, that you have such a harmful misconception: ‘As I understand the Buddha’s teaching, a mendicant who has ended the defilements is annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death.’” “Yes, reverends, that’s how I understand the Buddha’s teaching.”

“Don’t say that, Yamaka! Don’t misrepresent the Buddha, for misrepresentation of the Buddha is not good. And the Buddha would not say that.” But even though admonished by those mendicants, Yamaka obstinately held on to that misconception and insisted on stating it.

After talking with Sariputta it seems Yamaka has a change of heart after this question by Sariputta:

“What do you think, Yamaka? Do you regard the Realized One as one who is without form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness?” “No, reverend.” “In that case, Reverend Yamaka, since you don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact in the present life, is it appropriate to declare: ‘As I understand the Buddha’s teaching, a mendicant who has ended the defilements is annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death.’?”

Here is the same portion in Venerable Bodhi's translation:

“But, friend, when the Tathagata is not apprehended by you as real and actual here in this very life, is it fitting for you to declare: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed is annihilated and perishes with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death’?”

So does this mean the break up of the body is just like any moment in this very life where moment to moment no person truly ends or changes because a real person doesn't truly exist in the first place?

EDIT:

I'm aware that orthodox Theravada tenet systems posit the selflessness of persons, but are either agnostic or outright reject the selflessness of phenomena. However, most pali canon suttas seem to stop at the coarse level of selflessness, but here Sariputta seems to be speaking about the subtler levels of the selflessness of persons if only in embryonic form. Is this true?

Also, if the body of a person is regarded as a real substantial thing in Theravada how about the consciousness of a person? Is that regarded as a real substantial thing?

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    In Theravada, all phenomena is empty of a self, including a chair, a tree, Nibbana and empty space. But it doesn't mean that they are not real. Apart from Nibbana, everything else is not constant and not permanent. – ruben2020 Aug 15 '18 at 13:43
  • I believe you mean that Theravada posits all phenomena is empty of a self of persons. ie., the body of a person is empty of a self of persons. the consciousness of a person is empty of a self of persons. Obviously, a chair is empty of a self of persons too. However, to my understanding Theravada does not posit that a chair is empty of a self of chair. Selflessness of phenomena means chair is empty of a self of chair and this is not found in Theravada, but only in Mahayana tenet systems AFAIK. At least this is what is taught in Mahayana monastic universities. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 13:49
  • What is "self of chair"? If a chair had a "self of chair", would it have a mind of its own? – ruben2020 Aug 15 '18 at 14:01
  • An intrinsic nature, essence or characteristic that is unique to some phenomena that can be described as that phenomena's self. The self of chair would be that intrinsic nature, essence or unique characteristic or set of characteristics that imbue chairness on a chair. Western philosophers might describe it as a platonic ideal. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 14:08
  • Based on this discussion, I started a new question. – ruben2020 Aug 15 '18 at 14:43
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I think you (the OP) have mistakenly assumed that the Pali Yamaka Sutta supports the Mahayana Madhyamika concept of emptiness that nothing is substantially real.

Actually, the Yamaka Sutta quote of the Bodhi translation indeed confirms emptiness, but it's the Theravada emptiness and not the Mahayana emptiness. And what is the Theravada emptiness? It's that all phenomena is empty of a self (see Suñña Sutta). Before parinibbana, there was no self (as in an eternal self or soul at the core of the Buddha's being) that has suddenly ceased to exist after parinibbana.

However, the Pali suttas do not explicitly support the Mahayana Madhyamika concept of emptiness. The Buddha's body was considered to be real but not constant or permanent. It is subject to change, arising and ceasing. But that does not mean that it's not real in Theravada.

To prove this, I'll quote Itivuttaka 44:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "Monks, there are these two forms of the Unbinding property. Which two? The Unbinding property with fuel remaining, & the Unbinding property with no fuel remaining.

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. (Note1)

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." (Note2)

Note1 and Note2 by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
With fuel remaining (sa-upadisesa) and with no fuel remaining (anupadisesa): The analogy here is to a fire. In the first case, the flames are out, but the embers are still glowing. In the second, the fire is so thoroughly out that the embers have grown cold. The "fuel" here is the five aggregates. While the arahant is still alive, he/she still experiences the five aggregates, but they do not burn with the fires of passion, aversion, or delusion. When the arahant passes away, there is no longer any experience of aggregates here or anywhere else.

Next, to answer the question:

OP: So does this mean death is just like any moment in this very life where moment to moment nothing truly ends or changes because it doesn't truly exist in the first place?

Before and after the Buddha's final passing, all phenomena is empty of a self. The Buddha's five aggregates existed and was subject to change, arising and passing. Nibbana existed and does not change, arise or pass away. But the self (in the sense of an eternal self or soul at the core of our being) never existed at any time, in all phenomena, including the five aggregates and Nibbana. This is the interpretation according to Theravada.

Your interpretation appears to be different and based upon the concept of Mahayana emptiness.

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    Very good answer Ruben, where Mahayana vs Theravada emptiness are distinguished. This is also the essence of my answer. – Dhammadhatu Aug 14 '18 at 21:32
  • @ruben2020, see edit. I'm aware of the differences between orthodox Theravada tenet systems and those found in Mahayana schools. That's why this question is posed to Theravada accounts. BTW, I think you should edit your answer to say, "And what is the Theravada emptiness? It's that all phenomena is empty of a self of persons (see Suñña Sutta)." To be clear, Theravada does not posit the selflessness of phenomena only the selflessness of persons in all phenomena. Right? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 12:55
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    No. In Theravada, all phenomena is empty of a self, including a chair, a tree, Nibbana and empty space. But it doesn't mean that they are not real. Apart from Nibbana, everything else is not constant and not permanent. – ruben2020 Aug 15 '18 at 13:41
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    @YesheTenley Do you accept that the path laid out in Theravada is sufficient to guide one to Arahantship (but possibly not Buddhahood)? If yes, then this is in fact the objective of Theravada - to guide the practitioner to Arahantship. – ruben2020 Aug 18 '18 at 13:48
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    @YesheTenley OK. I just posted this question to ask for details on the Mahayana view. You could answer there. – ruben2020 Aug 18 '18 at 14:04
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Imo, the idea that the idea of "death" ("marana") is applicable to a Realised One is also part of the wrong view of Yamaka.

This being said, the termination of life (not "death") of a Realised One is described as follows (in my correct alternate translation):

‘Friend, form is impermanent; what is impermanent is unsatisfying (unsatisfactory); what is unsatisfying has ceased and passed away. Feeling… Perception… formations… consciousness is impermanent; what is impermanent is unsatisfying; what is unsatisfying has ceased and passed away.’ Being asked thus, friend, I would answer in such a way.

As for the question, it appears lost in the "spell" of translation and particularly the term "anupalabbhiyamāna" found in "saccato thetato tathāgate anupalabbhiyamāne" ("don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact").

Since Sariputta instructs Yamaka at the beginning about "not-self" and since Sariputta provides an analogy about "not-self" at the end; the term "anupalabbhiyamāna" (which is found in this stock phrase in many suttas) probably needs to be examined deeply before answering this question.

Below is merely a guess but I guess the term māna must be important because it has the connotation of "self".

an + upalabbhati + māna

To conclude, I think the core message of the sutta is the Tathagata is not a self, person or being. Not being a "self", "death" does not happen at the termination of life. All that happens is the ending of the impermanent aggregates.

Bhikkhu, ‘I am’ is a conceiving; ‘I am this’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall not be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be possessed of form’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be formless’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be percipient’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be non-percipient’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be neither-percipient-nor-non-percipient’ is a conceiving. Conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumour, conceiving is a dart. By overcoming all conceivings, bhikkhu, one is called a sage at peace. And the sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die; he is not shaken and does not yearn. For there is nothing present in him by which he might be born. Not being born, how could he age? Not ageing, how could he die? Not dying, how could he be shaken? Not being shaken, why should he yearn?

MN 140

  • Would you agree that the Theravada position is, "The self of persons exist, but is not a real genuine thing?" – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 13:30
  • Theravada says "self" is a "disease"; a "cancer"; merely the arising of suffering. – Dhammadhatu Aug 15 '18 at 21:36
  • @YesheTenley Do you have a source for what you call the Theravada position? I've never seen that one before. And no one I know would agree with that statement. I'm curious and puzzled. – Medhiṇī Aug 18 '18 at 13:16
  • @Medhini, Ruben gives this account here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/28737/13375 and Shariputra attested that the Realized One was not a real and genuine fact in SN 22.85 which is highlighted above in the OP: “since you don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact in the present life” – Yeshe Tenley Aug 18 '18 at 13:33
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I think SN 22.86 is very similar but simpler.

I read it as saying:

  • It is inappropriate to associate a "self" with the aggregates
  • It's inappropriate to say that a Tathagata exists after death, doesn't exist, neither, or both -- IMO that makes it one of The unanswered questions -- instead pay attention to what the doctrine does say (e.g. that it is inappropriate to associate a "self" with the aggregates)

See also for example MN 22:

And how is a mendicant a noble one with banner and burden put down, detached? It’s when a mendicant has given up the conceit ‘I am’, cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, exterminated it, so it’s unable to arise in the future. That’s how a mendicant is a noble one with banner and burden put down, detached.

When a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, the gods together with Indra, Brahmā, and Pajāpati, search as they may, will not find anything that such a Realized One’s consciousness depends on. Why is that? Because even in the present life the Realized One is undiscoverable, I say. Though I speak and explain like this, certain ascetics and brahmins misrepresent me with the false, baseless, lying, untruthful claim: ‘The ascetic Gotama is an eradicator. He advocates the annihilation, eradication, and extermination of an existing being.’ I have been falsely misrepresented as being what I am not, and saying what I do not say. In the past, as today, what I describe is suffering and the cessation of suffering. This being so, if others abuse, attack, harass, and trouble the Realized One, he doesn’t get resentful, bitter, and emotionally exasperated.

Or if others honor, respect, revere, or venerate him, he doesn’t get thrilled, elated, and emotionally excited. He just thinks: ‘They do such things for what has already been completely understood.’ So, mendicants, if others abuse, attack, harass, and trouble you, don’t make yourselves resentful, bitter, and emotionally exasperated. Or if others honor, respect, revere, or venerate you, don’t make yourselves thrilled, elated, and emotionally excited. Just think: ‘They do such things for what has already been completely understood.’

So, mendicants, give up what isn't yours. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. And what isn’t yours? Form isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. Feeling … perception … choices … consciousness isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. What do you think, mendicants? Suppose a person was to carry off the grass, sticks, branches, and leaves in this Jeta’s Grove, or burn them, or do what they want with them. Would you think: ‘This person is carrying us off, burning us, or doing what they want with us?’” “No, sir. Why is that? Because that’s neither self nor belonging to self.” “In the same way, mendicants, give up what isn't yours. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. And what isn’t yours? Form … feeling … perception … choices … consciousness isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness.

I think there's more doctrine about "the support of consciousness" in SN 12.64:

Suppose there was a bungalow or a hall with a peaked roof, with windows on the northern, southern, or eastern side. When the sun rises and a ray of light enters through a window, where would it land?” “On the western wall, sir.” “If there was no western wall, where would it land?” “On the ground, sir.” “If there was no ground, where would it land?” “In water, sir.” “If there was no water, where would it land?” “It wouldn’t land, sir.” “In the same way, if there is no desire, relishing, and craving for solid food, consciousness does not become established there and doesn’t grow. …

See also for example Why is the Buddha described as trackless?


I'm not sure of ruben2020's answer, saying, "Before parinibbana, there was no self called Buddha that has suddenly ceased to exist after parinibbana".

I think it's true to say "there was no self that has suddenly ceased to exist".

I'm not sure whether it's true (whether it's Theravada orthodoxy) to say "there was no self called Buddha" -- see How is it wrong to believe that a self exists, or that it doesn't? -- there is doctrine in the suttas including "it's inappropriate to associate the self with the aggregates", and "'I am' is a conceit" and "'am I?' is a result of attending inappropriately" -- but see also e.g. "Buddha never denies the existence of the self" (and that answer's being upvoted and disputed in comments) -- and there's an Abhidhamma answer which I think says it depends on context and convention.

  • Given @ruben2020's seemingly clear understanding of Middle Way, I think he's saying that, "Before parinibbana, there was no real self called Buddha that has suddenly ceased to exist after parinibbana" – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 13:32
  • I'm not sure what you mean by "real", "genuine", "substantial", "true", or "subtle", or even "Middle Way". I guess that when you say "no real self that ceases" you mean "any fictional self that ceases is a product of our own imaginations and attachments". – ChrisW Aug 15 '18 at 15:10
  • I'm think I'm using the words, "real" and "genuine" in much the same way as Sariputta uses them here and as the Buddha used "substantial" in SN 22.95. As for "true" I'm using that as synonymous with inherent existence. And "subtle" as opposed to coarse. "Middle Way" is used analagous to @ruben2020's explanation here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/28651/13375 which is excellent – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 15:20
  • The suttas say (I paraphrase) that it's inappropriate to view the aggregates as self -- but I'm not certain everyone agrees that "there is no self", because I think I've seen some people say that "there is no self" may be a step too far. And, regarding the Tathagata, I don't remember anyone saying that "the Tathagata doesn't exist", but only that "the Tathagata is trackless", for example -- questions about "the self of the Buddha" maybe just don't come up, or are avoided as "unanswered" or "that's the wrong question". – ChrisW Aug 15 '18 at 16:20
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Does any real existent or genuine thing end with parinibbana?

Yes. Suffering. Suffering ends with parinibbana. Suffering is real and genuine. Buddha says now and in the past he had only taught suffering , its origination and its cessation. There are some undeclared or unanswered questions because they do not lead to cessation of suffering but that doesn't mean that they can not be answered. It is just that those questions are not conducive to the cessation of suffering. In SN 22.85 (the same sutta you quoted ) it is clear that it is the suffering which ends after nibbana:

“Reverend Yamaka, suppose they were to ask you: ‘When their body breaks up, after death, what happens to a perfected one, who has ended the defilements?’ How would you answer?” “Sir, if they were to ask this, I’d answer like this: ‘Reverend, form is impermanent. What’s impermanent is suffering. What’s suffering has ceased and ended. Feeling … perception … choices … consciousness is impermanent. What’s impermanent is suffering. What’s suffering has ceased and ended.’ That’s how I’d answer such a question.”

  • Would you also agree that the body is real and genuine and that it ends at the break up of the body? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 13:00
  • @YesheTenley Body is not absolutely unreal. If you believe in the body as you or your own then it becomes real with real suffering. It is conditional. At the break up of the body if there is craving left for body then rebirth occurs and new body is found. – Dheeraj Verma Aug 15 '18 at 13:58
  • So we render that which is unreal to be real by craving for it? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 '18 at 14:25
  • @YesheTenley Yes.Unfortunately it is so. However it should be clear what craving is ? Understanding craving is crucial to the cessation of suffering. – Dheeraj Verma Aug 15 '18 at 14:36

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