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It is widely understood across all Buddhist traditions that the Buddha often spoke of persons and used words like 'I' and 'person' and 'self' and this is not seen as problematic or contradictory to the doctrine of anatman.

Just as it is said by the bhikkhuni Vajira:

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates exist,
There is the convention ‘a being.’

SN 5.10

It is also self-evident that the Buddha would associate a proper name with individual beings and use this name conventionally over time to identify specific individuals. This is also not controversial for any Buddhist tradition that I'm aware.

However, there were times when "the self" was discussed in such a way that the Buddha would not answer such as the famous case of Vacchagotta. It is widely understood that the Buddha found Vacchagotta's questions or mindset about those questions as problematic. Specifically, he held that Vacchagotta was confused or had some invalid presuppositions about the self that directly violated or contradicted the doctrine of anatman.

Vacchagotta held to the notion that the self necessarily had hypostatic existence. Other words for this include "intrinsic", "inherent", "substantial", by different traditions of Buddhism.

There are some on this forum who 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 forbidden as always contradicting anatman and necessarily presupposing hypostatic existence.

Why 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 some 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?

Why is it that some believe we can speak faultlessly of persons in this life and identifying them across various points in time in this life, but we are foreclosed of speaking faultlessly of persons in next lives or in past lives?


Update: trying to make this more clear given discussions in answers below...

Consider the Yamaka Sutta:

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness taken together as the Tathagata?”—“No, friend.” “What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard the Tathagata as one who is without form, without feeling, without perception, without volitional formations, without consciousness?”—“No, friend.”

“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’?”

SN 22.85

From this we can draw four conclusions:

  1. It is not appropriate to regard the Tathagata as possessing or consisting of the aggregates taken together

  2. It is not appropriate to regard the Tathagata as not-possessing the aggregates or without them taken together

  3. The Tathagata is not to be regarded as "real and actual" aka hypostatically existent

  4. This is true both for future lives (the focus of Yamaka's question) as well as the present life

If this is so, then it was entirely appropriate to refer to the Tathagata as existing in his present life, but not to do so with the presupposition that the Tathagata was hypostatically existent aka 'real and actual', right? It was faultless to refer to the Tathagata as merely existing conventionally, right?

If this is so, then why is it a fault to refer to the Tathagata as merely existing conventionally in a future life? Indeed, Yamaka was rebuked for denying this very thing, right?!

With this question I'm interested in the perspective and answers from all the Buddhist traditions.

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I must read the entire question later. However, to answer the title of the question: the Pali suttas have a number of examples of speaking about the 'conventional self' in past and future lives (eg. MN 81, MN 123 and MN 143).

Personally, I regard all of this as "fake dhamma" composed under the ambitions of King Ashoka, when probably the Jataka, Buddhavamsa and Apadana (which are all about literal past lives) were composed. For example:

  • MN 81 (which says "I was" in a past life) contradicts SN 22.79 (which says any recollect of the past is not-self and mere aggregates).
  • MN 81 includes the phrase 'ahaṃ tena samayena') found numerously in the later day Buddhavamsa.
  • MN 123 (where a new born infant says "I am") contradicts MN 64 (which says a new born infant cannot have "identity").
  • MN 143 contradicts other suttas that say Anathapindikovada was a stream-enterer. If Anathapindikovada was a stream-enterer, he obviously understood the dhamma of non-attachment spoken in MN 143, which MN 143 says Anathapindikovada never heard before.

It is both from chronological point of view and as a class of poetical composition, [that] the Pali Apadāna ranks with the Buddhavaṁsa and Cariyāpiṭaka. According to the traditional enumeration of the Buddhist canonical texts, these are reckoned as the last three works of the Khuddaka Nikāya. Even from the doctrinal point of view the three works together show the Mahāyāna [OMG!] Buddhism in the making.

Buddhakhetta and Buddhāpadāna by Mr. Dwijendralal Barua, M.A

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  • Hmm, I'll let you take your time, but are you saying MN 140 is also likely "fake dhamma" in your view? I also fail to see how MN 81 contradicts SN 22.79... Jun 6 at 22:16
  • SN 22.79. is properly translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, here: suttacentral.net/sn22.79/en/bodhi. It does not use the word "lives". The Pali nivasa does not mean "lives". SN 22.79 says the past is mere aggregates and not self. Therefore, cannot be "my past", as MN 81 says. Jun 6 at 23:05
  • I don't understand how you think it is contradictory? Do you think the Buddha was incapable of remembering his past as Gotama after he sat under the tree and became enlightened? Was he not able to say "my past" as Gotama faultlessly? Jun 6 at 23:17
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This is a lot to take in and i've tried to read as carefully as i can.

As i understand it, when you say hypostatic you mean something close to 'a background element which is instrumental to knowledge & vision or simply something upon which a person's experience inherently depends, as a soul, an invisible personal element apart from this worldly phenomena, it is transcendental to the world & nature itself.

I don't understand why you assume this;

speaking of the self in other lives in the same continuity is strictly forbidden as always contradicting anatman and necessarily presupposing hypostatic existence.

Isn't this what the Bhikkhus did when speaking of Pukkusati being reborn? Were they not there speaking about a being in a future existence by the name of a previous birthname and were not censored for this? This happens more in the Sutta;

'Venerable sir, Anathapindika the householder is diseased, in pain, severely ill. ...'It would be good if Ven. Sariputta would visit Anathapindika's home, out of sympathy for him.'" ...[so they visit him]... Then Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Ananda, having given this instruction to Anathapindika the householder, got up from their seats and left. Then, not long after they left, Anathapindika the householder died and reappeared in the Tusita heaven. Then Anathapindika the deva's son, in the far extreme of the night, his extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta's Grove, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, bowed down to him and stood to one side. As he was standing there, he addressed the Blessed One with this verse:

This blessed Jeta's Grove, home to the community of seers, where there dwells the Dhamma King: the source of rapture for me.

Action, clear-knowing, & mental qualities,[1] virtue, the highest [way of] life: through this are mortals purified, not through clan or wealth.

Thus the wise, seeing their own benefit, investigating the Dhamma appropriately, should purify themselves right there.

As for Sariputta: any monk who has gone beyond, at best can only equal him in discernment, virtue, & calm. That is what Anathapindika the deva's son said. The Teacher approved. Then Anathapindika the deva's son, [knowing,] "The Teacher has approved of me," bowed down to him, circled him three times, keeping him to his right, and then disappeared right there.

Then when the night had past, The Blessed One addressed the monks: "Last night, monks, a certain deva's son in the far extreme of the night, his extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta's Grove, came to me and, on arrival, bowed down to me and stood to one side. As he was standing there, he addressed me with this verse:

This blessed Jeta's Grove, home to the community of seers, where there dwells the Dhamma King: the source of rapture for me.

Action, clear-knowing, & mental qualities, virtue, the highest [way of] life: through this are mortals purified, not through clan or wealth.

Thus the wise, seeing their own benefit, investigating the Dhamma appropriately, should purify themselves right there.

As for Sariputta: any monk who has gone beyond, at best can only equal him in discernment, virtue, & calm. "That is what the deva's son said. And [thinking], 'The Teacher has approved of me,' he bowed down to me, circled me three times, and then disappeared right there."

When this was said, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "Lord, that must have been Anathapindika the deva's son. Anathapindika the householder had supreme confidence in Ven. Sariputta."

"Very good, Ananda. Very good, to the extent that you have deduced what can be arrived at through logic. That was Anathapindika the deva's son, and no one else." https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.143.than.html

I think think is close as they refer to a certain 'Deva's son' as Anathapindika. Maybe you can clarify the controversy for me and tell whether i am close with hypostatic meaning.

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  • Don’t dwell too much on the words “hypostatic existence” other than to say it’s meaning generality is the same as what you might call “inherent existence” or “intrinsic existence” or “real genuine existence” such as referenced in the Yamaka sutta. Jun 6 at 20:52
  • As for “Isn't this what the Bhikkhus did when speaking of Pukkusati being reborn? Were they not there speaking about a being in a future existence by the name of a previous birthname and were not censored for this?” ... No, I don’t think that is what they did and I do not read the sutta as the Buddha rebuking them in any way at all. Rather, he answered their straightforward question with a straightforward answer that also did the same. The Buddha correctly answered about what happened to Pukasatti after he was killed by a cow. Jun 6 at 20:57
  • I will try to amend the question to provide more clarity... Jun 6 at 20:57
  • yeah, I don't think this question is meant for you as you don't ascribe to the controversy. i'd rather it answered by those who genuinely believe conventional rebirth can not be faultlessly spoken of. Jun 22 at 0:52

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