It has been said that the reason the Buddha did not answer Vacchagotta was because the discussion was not about the doctrine & terminology of the Buddha, but rather about the illogical doctrine of Vacchagotta:

“Sir, why didn’t you answer Vacchagotta’s question?”

“Ānanda, when Vacchagotta asked me whether the self exists absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self exists absolutely’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not exist absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self does not exist absolutely’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.

When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self exists absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self exists absolutely’ would that have helped give rise to the knowledge that all things are not-self?”

“No, sir.”

“When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not exist absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self does not exist absolutely’, Vacchagotta—who is already confused—would have got even more confused, thinking: ‘It seems that the self that I once had no longer exists.’”

SN 44.10

It's also been said that the Buddha did answer the question about what happened to Pukkusāti after a cow killed him even though it was asked by ignorant monks who presumably were - just like Vacchagotta - not using the doctrine & terminology of the Buddha:

But while he was wandering in search of a bowl and robes, a stray cow took his life.

Then several mendicants went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him, “Sir, the gentleman named Pukkusāti, who was advised in brief by the Buddha, has passed away. Where has he been reborn in his next life?”

“Mendicants, Pukkusāti was astute. He practiced in line with the teachings, and did not trouble me about the teachings. With the ending of the five lower fetters, he’s been reborn spontaneously and will become extinguished there, not liable to return from that world.”

MN 140

This seems inconsistent. Why is it that the Buddha did not answer Vacchagotta, but did answer the monks if both were premising their questions with ignorant understandings of the view of the self?

  • There is not much point asking questions that include questionable translations by Sujato. First, the phrase: Tassa kā gati, ko abhisamparāyo translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi as: "What is his destination? What is his future course?” may need to be investigated. For example, samparāyikā in Iti 44 cannot mean "future life". It means "future". Therefore, questions: 1. what is the difference between samparāyikā & samparāyo? and 2. what is the meaning in MN 140 of the word "gati" ("designation"), which as myriad meanings, such as simply "progress in understanding". Jun 6 at 21:10

The questions are similar in that the existence of self appears to be discussed.

In Vacchagotta's question, a nonsensical demand about the question of existence of self is simply ignored as nonsense.

However, in the case of the monks, they are simply using the convention "he" as a proxy for "that aggregate known as Pukkusāti". And the question is about kamma, not self. The monks are not asserting Pukkusāti's literal existence any more than saying "what will happen to this piece of toast tomorrow?" Indeed, if the monks had asked "where has Vacchagotta been reborn in the next life?", the answer might not be so bright. Vacchagotta's rebirth might be a bit like the plastics in the ocean. Not extinguished, entangled in notions of a self.

  • If I understand you correctly, you're saying that while it is possible to have the view that a piece of toast is hypostatically existent when speaking, "what will happen to this piece of toast tomorrow?" that it isn't necessarily so? And had the Buddha thought the monks were speaking of Pukkusāti as hypostatically existent, he would have rebuked them or not answered them just like he did Vacchagotta? Does that match what you are saying? If so, then I think I can accept this answer! :) Jun 8 at 1:34
  • Erm. I had to look up hypostasis. My goodness what a word. And my head hurts, but I think that, if we can agree that hypostatical existence is "this or that bag of bones or elements", then that is what Vacchagotta and Pukkusati and toast and Oyamist and Yeshe Tenley are. Views of self are described as traps in DN1, The Prime Net. Vacchagotta is lost in The Prime Net asking the wrong question. The Buddha only teaches the Four Noble Truths about suffering.
    – OyaMist
    Jun 8 at 16:55
  • 1
    NOTE: I've selected this particular definition for hypostasis per Merriam Webster: something that settles at the bottom of a fluid. Hello fellow precipitate.
    – OyaMist
    Jun 8 at 17:07
  • 1
    NOTE: Funny :) This is however what I had in mind: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypostatize ie, to reify something as "real and actual" is to believe it has hypostatic existence. Jun 8 at 19:37

I don't see the similarity

Vaccagotta asks whether there is a self or not and i assert that meaning is close to whether there is a soul-consciousness.

Bhikkhus ask where was Pukkusati reborn.

A person can be said to be reborn without there being an assertion of the persistence of consciousness.

Like knowledge is transferred from a teacher to student or how a family lineage is perpetually upheld without there being same anything transmigating from one to another but yet we say it is the same knowledge being transferred or same lineage being upheld.

So monks too can say that a being is reborn without making the redundant assertions because when one speaks of a being one speaks in terms of the doctrine of self, whether this doctrine is agreed upon as being a grasping with wrong view is what separates ariya from common people.

Imo it is most evident in questions Buddha would ask to have one pin down the existence of self.

  • Are the body/intellect/feelings/perceptions a self? No
  • Is the self without body/intellect/feelings/perceptions? No
  • Is the self in, apart from or is the body/intellect/feelings/perception taken together? No

So, one asserts the terms of the doctrine but it does not align with inferable elements and is therefore a lie basically or a grasping with wrong view of some sort.

When it comes to inferable elements this is the very basis for the doctrine of dependent origination.

In it's most basic form there is a discussion or pondering about "something" because there is a pondering and it has an object and the object's particulars which can be agreed upon due to inference and demonstration.

It can agreed upon that there is seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, tasting & thinking and it can be agreed upon that these depend on certain requisite conditions.

Seeing depends on the eye, when there is no eye there is no seeing. Seeing depends on the visible form, when there is no lights forms do not become visible. Seeing depends on the eye-consciousness, an unconscious person doesn't see even if there is an eye & light by which forms are made visible.

We know even from QM physics or philosophical paradoxes that the eye in no way persists over time so why would one assume this about consciousness.

Yet one can speak about an eye persisting or a person getting a new eye without any issues and likewise it is in the texts.

  • There are some on this forum with idiosyncratic views of anatta and rebirth and how they are to be understood. I say idiosyncratic because they do not seem to be widely shared among the Buddhist traditions from what I can tell. In particular, they hold that speaking of the self in this life - when it is merely for conventional communication - is fine and not in contradiction to anatman, but speaking of the self in other lives in the same continuity is strictly verboten as always contradicting anatman. Jun 6 at 15:59
  • They believe that Vacchagotta was contradicting anatman by speaking of the self in this life (not out of mere convention, but rather believing in the hypostatic existence of the self) while the monks were contradicting anatman by speaking of the future self of Pukkusati in a future life after he died which always presupposes hypostatic existence. Jun 6 at 16:00
  • It is the view of hypostatic existence that they believe is what contradicts anatman. In this, I am in agreement. Jun 6 at 16:01
  • However, I do not understand why they insist that all discussions of future or past lives necessarily entails the presupposition of hypostatic existence. In short, why is it that hypostatic existence is only sometimes the basis for discussions in this life, but always the basis for discussions about past or future lives. Why do they hold so dearly that the Buddha could not be speaking of future lives in the very same conventional manner that the Buddha often used the word "I" to refer to himself in his present life... merely as a means of communicating the truth to worldly beings. Jun 6 at 16:03
  • This question is for those people. If you do not believe that this is the case or hold to this idiosyncratic idea, then this question is not for you. I hope this clarifies the intent of the OP. Jun 6 at 16:04

In MN 140, the monks asked the question: "Tassa kā gati, ko abhisamparāyo". There is an exact sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, namely, MN 68, which ends with the Buddha explaining why he answers this very question. MN 68 says, per Horner translation:

The Tathāgata, Anuruddha, does not have the purpose of defrauding people nor the purpose of cajoling people nor the purpose of gains, honour, fame and material advantages, nor the thought: ‘Let people know me thus’ when he explains the uprising (upapattīsu; noun; locative case) in which are disciples who have deceased and passed away, saying: ‘Such and such a one has uprisen (uapanno; verb; past participle) in one, such a one has uprisen (upapanno) in another.’ But there are, Anuruddha, young men of family who have faith and are of great enthusiasm, of great joyousness, and who, having heard this, focus their minds on suchness. Anuruddha, this will be for their weal and happiness for a long time.

In summary, the question by the monks is answered for the sake of explaining the Path progress of the deceased for the purpose of generating faith in the community. The question is not answered for the purpose of generating belief in reincarnation or self.

Where as Vacchagotta was a befuddled wanderer and his question was not related to any aspect of the Path.


Note: Ven. Sujato translates MN 68 as:

"What advantage does the Realized One see in declaring the rebirth of his disciples who have passed away:

kaṁ atthavasaṁ sampassamāno tathāgato sāvake abbhatīte kālaṅkate upapattīsu byākaroti:

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates "upapattīsu" here as "reappearance".

The above appears more evidence supporting the assertion of Ven. Yuttadhammo on BSE and also DD there is no Pali word that means "rebirth" because when the Buddha declares a deceased disciple is an Arahant obviously this is not a declaration of a "rebirth" or "reappearance" because Arahants are not subject to any "rebirth" or "reappearance".

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