A problematic reading in the Yamaka Sutta

The Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) contains an extensive discussion of not-self in relation to the five aggregates. It was provoked by a certain monk called Yamaka, who believed that an awakened being would perish at death. Venerable Sāriputta takes him to task for his misconception. Obviously there are subtle and important philosophical matters here, but this post is not about them, but about a problematic reading in the text.

The text goes through a typical series of permutations of seeing each aggregate as self or not. It finishes this series with a pair of passages that are somewhat unusual. I’m mostly concerned with the first of these, but will consider both, as they may have been intended as a mirrored pair.

Venerable Bodhi’s translation is as follows:

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness [taken together] as the Tathagata?”—“No, venerable sir.”

“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, venerable sir.”

I won’t give other translations here, as all of them are similar in essentials. This even applies to the Thai translation (although that adopts the commentarial idea that tathāgata means “sentient being”). All translations that I’ve seen take the first of these paragraphs to refer to the taking all aggregates together as the self. In addition, they do so without, so far as I have seen, any notes or acknowledgement of the issues.

I find this translation a bit odd. It just doesn’t strike me as being the way such questions are typically addressed. The main reason for this reading seems to be that the normal case, where the aggregates are considered individually, has been addressed earlier in the text.

When we look more closely at the various Pali editions, it seems there is no clarity on how this passage is intended. Let’s see how this passage is presented in various editions. The passage is repeated in the Anuradha Sutta at SN 22.86 and SN 44.2.

Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85)

Thai Royal edition (Vol 17, p 99)

taṁ kiṁ maññasi āvuso yamaka? rūpī. vedanā. saññā. saṅkhārā. viññāṇaṁ tathāgatoti samanupassasīti. no hetaṁ āvuso.

taṁ kiṁ maññasi āvuso yamaka? ayaṁ so arūpī avedano asaññī asaṅkhāro aviññāṇo tathāgatoti samanupassasīti. no hetaṁ āvuso.

ettha ca te āvuso yamaka …

Notes: Punctuation is exactly as text. In this edition, from what I can see, the ellipsis is not used, so the periods in the first sentence stand for ellipsis. Clearly the editors did not see the aggregates as “taken all together”.

To my mind, the use of rūpī seems plausible. Typically in the suttas rūpī comes before arūpī, and this would give the most satisfactory sense to the passage. However it is supported only by this one term; even the expected saññī is lacking. If we were to adopt this interpretation, the text would have “The Realized One possesses form, feeling … The Realized One does not possess form …”

Mahāsaṅgīti = VRI

“Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, āvuso yamaka, rūpaṃ … vedanaṃ … saññaṃ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṃ tathāgatoti samanupassasī”ti? “No hetaṃ, āvuso”.

“Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, āvuso yamaka, ayaṃ so arūpī … avedano … asaññī … asaṅkhāro … aviññāṇo tathāgatoti samanupassasī”ti? “No hetaṃ, āvuso”.

“Ettha ca te āvuso yamaka …

Note: The use of ellipsis here shows that, as in the Thai edition, the editors did not regard the aggregates here as “taken all together”.

Pali Text Society

Taṃ kim maññasi āvuso Yamaka || Rupā vedanā saññā saṅkhārā viññāṇaṃ tathāgato ti samanupassasīti || || No hetaṃ āvuso

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso Yamaka ayaṃ so arūpī avedano asaññī asaṅkhāro aviññāṇo tathāgato ti samanupassasīti || || No hetaṃ āvuso

Ettha ca te āvuso yamaka …

Note: This version is unique in giving the first four aggregates in what would appear to be nominative plural. But it’s impossible to reconcile the cases, so there is clearly some mistake here.

PTS Burmese variant

Taṃ kim maññasi āvuso Yamaka || Rupaṁ vedanaṁ saññaṁ saṅkhāre viññāṇaṃ tathāgato ti samanupassasīti || || No hetaṃ āvuso

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso Yamaka ayaṃ so arūpī avedano asaññī asaṅkhāro aviññāṇo tathāgato ti samanupassasīti || || No hetaṃ āvuso

Ettha ca te āvuso yamaka …

Note: This is essentially identical with the MS/VRI edition, which is to be expected, as they are Burmese. The omission of ellipsis here is not significant, as this is merely a reconstruction from a note on variant readings.

Buddha Jayanthi (Gretil)

Aññatra saṃkhāresu tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Aññatra viññāṇasmiṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Aññatra viññāṇā tathāgati’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

[omits]

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso yamaka, ayaṃ so arūpī avedano asaññī asaṃkhāro aviññāṇo tathāgatoti samanupassīti. No hetaṃ āvuso.

taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso yamaka, rūpaṃ vedanaṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso yamaka, rūpaṃ saññaṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso yamaka, rūpaṃ saṃkhāre tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi āvuso yamaka, rūpaṃ viññāṇaṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ āvuso.

Ettha ca te āvuso yamaka…

Note: This edition is the most eccentric. It entirely omits the main passage we’re considering. In addition, the previous passage has rather chaotic spelling. Finally, it adds an additional passage, without parallel in any other text.

Anuradha Sutta (SN 22.86)

MS/VRI, Thai

identical

PTS

omits

BJT

Aññatra viññāṇā tathāgatoti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ bhante.

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi anurādha, rūpaṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti? No hetaṃ bhante. Vedanā tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti no hetaṃ bhante. Saññā tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti no hetaṃ bhante. Saṃkhārā tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti no hetaṃ bhante. Viññāṇaṃ tathāgato’ti samanupassasīti no hetaṃ bhante.

Taṃ kimmaññasi anurādha, ayaṃ so arūpī avedano asaññī asaṃkhāro aviññāṇo tathāgato’ti samanupassasiti? No hetaṃ bhante.

Ettha ca te āvuso yamaka …

Note: This version fills in the passage completely, giving the usual reflection on the aggregates individually, exactly as previously in the text.

Anuradha Sutta (SN 44.2)

MS/VRI

rūpaṃ, vedanaṃ, saññaṃ, saṅkhāre, viññāṇaṃ tathāgatoti

Note: ellipsis is omitted.

PTS

Rūpaṃ vedanā saññā saṅkhārā viṇṇāṇaṃ [sic!] tathāgatoti …

Variant:

Rūpā vedanṁsaññaṁ

BJT

Note: As per previous BJT Anuradha Sutta, i.e. it spells out the full passage.

Discussion

Although the translators agree in taking this passage to refer to the aggregates “taken all together”, this interpretation is not clearly supported in any of the editions that I’ve seen. Most editions indicate that the items are to be taken independently (Thai, MS/VRI, BJT). The only edition that doesn’t support this is the PTS, but that is corrupt. SN 44.2 in the MS edition doesn’t include the ellipsis, but this is probably not significant.

This leaves unresolved the question as to how this passage is to be distinguished from the earlier treatment of the aggregates independently. The most obvious reading, which is made explicit in the BJT edition of SN 22.86, is to simply repeat the passage. This is not very satisfactory, but maybe it is what it is. It could have been an early corruption, which has prompted the various editors to cope with it in various ways.

A more satisfactory interpretation would be to follow the hint given in the Thai edition, and adopt the reading rūpī, etc. But this enjoys little manuscript support; and it could well be just another attempt at normalizing the text.

Another possibility is that, as in the BJT edition, the passage should be simply omitted. Perhaps it began as a copyist’s error, simply repeating another line by mistake. But the same edition does contain the passage in the Anuradha Sutta.

If we look to the commentary, it seems that this is where the notion of “taking them all together” comes from.

Rūpaṃ vedanā saññā saṅkhārā viññāṇanti ime pañcakkhandhe sampiṇḍetvā ‘‘tathāgato’’ti samanupassasīti pucchati.
Form, feeling, perception, choices, consciousness: the question is whether these five aggregates lumped together are regarded as the Realized One.

This of course raises the question as to why the various editions seem to disregard the commentary here.

While there is no obviously correct course as far as translations go, we should avoid the temptation to base any philosophical interpretations on such an unclear passage.

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Bhante, you haven’t mentioned the parallel at SA 104, which supports your suggestion that the idea of “taken together” may not be original. Here is the relevant extract from Ven. Analayo’s translation:

[Sāriputta] asked again: “How is it, Yamaka, is bodily form the Tathāgata?”
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”
[Sāriputta asked again]: “Is feeling … perception … formations …
consciousness the Tathāgata?”
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”
[Sāriputta] asked again: “How is it, Yamaka, is the Tathāgata distinct
from bodily form? Is the Tathāgata distinct from feeling … perception
… formations … consciousness?”
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”
[Sāriputta] asked again: “Is the Tathāgata in bodily form? Is the Tathāgata
in feeling … perception … formations … consciousness?”
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”
[Sāriputta asked again]: “Is bodily form in the Tathāgata? Is feeling …
perception … formations … consciousness in the Tathāgata?” 27
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”
[Sāriputta] asked again: “Is the Tathāgata without bodily form … feeling
… perception … formations … consciousness?”
[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”

And in footnote 27 he says:

This inquiry is not found in SN 22.85, which instead at SN III 111,32 reports the inquiry if the Tathāgata is equivalent to the five aggregates together. The exposition in SĀ 104 thus follows more closely the pattern of the twenty modes of identity view, sakkāyadiṭṭhi.

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Oh, thanks, I forgot about this translation.