Can someone help me to understand the Yamaka Sutta (SN 22:85)?

Hello friends and thank you for taking time to read, consider, and respond to my post. I am greatly perplexed by what happens to a Tathagata after death and I need your help wrestling with the Yamaka Sutta.

See, it’s very easy to understand who we are in terms of the aggregates. It makes sense, doesn’t it? There’s no permanent self because we are comprised of ever-changing parts. The truth of this reasoning is so apparent that it’s hard to argue. But seeing ourselves in this way leads to an issue: how can we experience Nibbana without remainder if the aggregates fall away at death of a Tathagata?

It is for this reason that the Yamaka Sutta is very interesting to me because Yamaka was convinced that Pari-nibbana results in the end of our existence.

I understand that on some level, there can be no annihilation of a self because there is no self and yet, there is something that is being annihilated, no? I like to use an example of someone’s house being destroyed in a tornado… We can’t expect to be of much comfort to them should we say that their house never really existed. After all, isn’t a house just an aggregate of pipes, wires, wood, insulation, and brick? None of those things have been destroyed – they’ve just been scattered about.

In this example, nothing is technically annihilated but it’s not the parts that matter, it’s the structure in which we live. Similarly, if the aggregates fall away at the death of an enlightened being, then there is no more being.

So Yamaka has this understanding (and I’m right there with him) but apparently its a wrong understanding because a bunch of monks try to dissuade him from it and when they fail, they ask a senior Monk, Sariputta, to help Yamaka.

Sariputta comes to Yamaka and asks him if he can describe the Tathagata in terms of the aggregates or apart from them. Yamaka can’t do it and Sariputta points out that its unwise to make declarations about a Tathagata after death if declarations can’t be made about them while they’re alive. It’s this realization that helps Yamaka abandon his view, but I have a difficult time following the conversation and seeing where Yamaka makes the switch.

See Sariputta asks him like this:

  1. Do you regard any of the aggregates to be the Tathagata?
  2. Do you regard the Tathagata as being inside or outside of any of the aggregates?
  3. Do you regard the Tathagata as the sum of the aggregates?
  4. Do you regard the Tathagata as being apart from the sum of the aggregates?

To each of these questions, Yamaka answers “no” but that’s where I lose him. Isn’t who we are a composite of the aggregates? I would’ve answered “yes” to number 3. But if someone wanted to argue that death is not the end for an enlightened being then logically, the answer would have to be “yes” to question number 4.

The only way that there can be any kind of existence for a Tathagata after their death is if there is some other part to us besides and beyond the aggregates. Right? I know that this “something” is never identified (and maybe such a notion is explicitly condemned) but if there isn’t anything more to us than the aggregates, then I don’t see any logical way to state that the death of an enlightened being isn’t the end of their existence.

Please help me to understand! I have wracked my brain about this issue.

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I think the point is that the aggregates are all individually impermanent and not-self, etc, so their totality doesn’t somehow acquire the property of selfhood either.

What the sutta is trying to tell us is that a Buddha, Tathagata etc is not a real thing/genuine fact or self that exists in actuality even during the Buddha’s life, let alone after it- this is the premise of Ven. Sariputta’s argument.

It’s pointless discussing whether things that don’t actually exist end or not. The point isn’t that the Buddha goes on to have some kind of post-mortem experience. There is no consciousness outside of the aggregates.


I will attempt an answer drawn from my current understanding :smiley:. Take from it what you will, if it doesn’t help, let it go. :pray: :rose:

Have you seen self driving cars? There appears to be a ‘driver’ driving it, right?
Have you interacted with AI systems such as Siri? There appears to be an ‘agent’ which answers your questions, performs requested actions etc, right?

Let’s consider carefully the exact nature of that AI ‘driver’ or ‘agent’.

One might dismissively say … “Oh, that’s just a computer!” But is it?
Is it the CPU or the memory storage or the input/ output devices that is the actual specific ‘decision maker’?

One might then say that … “Oh, that’s just the algorithm/ software!” But is it?
Which specific module? Which line of code?

Can the algorithm run without hardware? Can either run without electricity?

And so you have an analogy for namma - rupa - vinnana.

Let’s get back to our AI ‘agent’ / ‘driver’ / ‘decision maker’ eg Siri and try and answer Sariputta’s questions in this context.

  1. Do you regard any of these specific hardware / software modules or the powering electricity to be ‘Siri’?
My answer

No. See above for explanation.

  1. Do you regard ‘Siri’ as being inside or outside of any of these specific hardware/ software modules or powering electricity?
My answer

No. ‘Siri’ is not a real ‘thing’.

  1. Do you regard ‘Siri’ as being the sum of these specific hardware and software modules or powering electricity?
My answer

This was a tough one, until I realized that effectively the same personalized ‘Siri’ can be transferred to run on handsets different from the specific one under discussion. Therefore ‘Siri’ cannot be said to be the sum of these specific hardware/ software modules and powering electricity (in the sense of being tied down to these specific aggregates).

  1. Do you regard ‘Siri’ as being apart from the sum of hardware/ software modules and powering electricity?
My answer

No, ‘Siri’ cannot exist independently of the hardware/software modules and powering electricity.

My opinion of what these answers indicate

‘Siri’ is a process, that depends on the active functioning of hardware and software modules, powered by electricity. This process is not however restricted to this specific hardware and software module with its specific electric supply. It can just as easily transfer and carry on running on other hardware/software modules … provided that the currently running process initiates the appropriate action viz’upload to cloud/ other device’ at the time of final shutdown. This can be coded to be an automatic process (when a new handset is activated, the ‘new’ Siri has access to data from the ‘old’ Siri for instance… aka memories of linked past lives :grimacing: :thinking:), however if a future ‘Siri’ version was capable of rewriting its algorithm (as humans are)… ‘it’ might not choose to do so. In that case, what would happen to the process referred to as ‘Siri’ which was running dependent on this specific hardware/software module powered by electricity? ‘It’ would just go out.



It may help to understand there is a difference between the aggregates of clinging and the aggregates (Samyutta Nikaya 22.48). The suttas frequently say pondering what happens to the Tathagata after death is not profitable, but turning to the contemplation of the difference between conditioned and unconditioned reality is very much so.

" “There is the case, monk, where a monk has heard, ‘All things are unworthy of attachment.’ Having heard that all things are unworthy of attachment, he directly knows every thing. Directly knowing every thing, he comprehends every thing. Comprehending every thing, he sees all themes[2] as something separate. [3]”—Samyutta Nikaya 35.80

I would say it is literally impossible to understand who we are in terms of the aggregates, and am reminded of the joke; “Persons are the fictional things made up of five (real) aggregates”.

There is no way to make the above sentence into a coherent philosophy and you will drive yourself nuts trying.

“we are comprised of ever changing parts” is practically the opposite of the Buddhist position.

the whole argument is that ever changing parts could not be said to comprise something that is itself stable, happy and permanent. ipso facto there is no “we” to be comprised.

I think that you have the argument right apart from that, Sariputta is using a kind of reducto to show that there never was a “Buddha” (misconceived as an “existing real person”) to begin with so it doesn’t make sense to talk of a non existent thing ceasing to exist.

I would just sound a note of caution, there is another sutta where the Buddha uses the analogy of a fire and it’s fuel, and compares asking “existence” questions to asking questions about which cardinal direction the fire went to when it went out.

I would observe that this analogy does NOT rely on the idea that “there never really was a fire”. it also does NOT conclude that in extinguishment the person ceases to exist in the way the fire ceases to exist, it in fact critiques the applicability of “exists” “doesn’t exist” “both” and “neither” as going beyond the scope of language (being like the cardinal directions for the fire).

So some people would say (me, but not just me) that there is a tension here between the Sariputta argument and the Buddha argument, and some people say that SN more commonly makes the “never really existed” argument while DN and the first half of MN more often make the “scope of language” argument.

To what extent the arguments are really incompatible or compatible, reflect different “levels” of understanding or are meant for different or the same audiences, whether or not they are from the same period, which one is ultimately the most congruent with the suttas as a whole, etc etc, opinions differ.

Oh and just as kind of an addendum, there are of course multiple ways one might take the anatta doctrine, and some of them may in fact harmonize the sariputta argument with the buddha argument, for instance, you may take it to be that Anatta is a teaching that there is no Atman - that is the “self” in the “not self” doctrine is just the idea that there is a stable, existing, permanent, happy and pure ground from which all phenomena emerge and which we in reality “are”, called the Atman or Universal Self or whatever and Anatta is simply the doctrine that that idea is false. So when Sariputta says there never really was a Buddha, he means a Buddha conceived as something like that, more or less. This might be made compatible with the “unanswered questions” Buddha by allowing us to actively deny the existence of false conceptions of Self while also adopting a quietist response to the metaphysical problem of the continuity of persons and the possibility of liberation, and thus the Yammaka and the Vachagotta suttas harmonize. However one can also read Anatta as the positive assertion that persons are fictions, and that is a gloss that many Theravada and many contemporary western scholars give it. This position makes reconciling the Buddhas silence fiendishly difficult, reducing defenders of it to painting the Buddha as deliberately misleading or obtuse (after all he could have just told Vacchagotta that he did in fact believe persons where fictions instead of keeping stum)

Anyway, my advise is that if you are embracing Buddhism for personal spiritual growth and to lessen the suffering in your life, then undertake sila, practice anapanasati, cultivate generosity and kindness, and read and discuss the suttas, but don’t trouble yourself too much over Anatta, after all your not a Brahmin anyway :slight_smile:

If on the other hand you feel a deep need to really understand the phiosophical position implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the EBT’s then I recommend reading the Nikayas, reading the Upanishads, reading the early Jain works, reading a solid course of western philosophy, taking some classes in philosophy, and i dunno, thinking about it all A LOT, because despite what some people here might tell you, it’s really not that simple, and apologies to @faujidoc1 it’s definitely not as simple as saying people are like Siri.

Good luck with your journey.



if there is no intrinsic essence to the parts or the whole, then what can be ‘annihilated’?

your house analogy is a good one - the house is just a concept. in actuality there is no real stable essence, not certain definition of it. all the parts are impermanent, liable to change, without any intrinsic essence. the bricks and wood are deteriorating in this very moment. the tornado simply hastens that process, just as death simply triggers the more rapid alteration of the body and it’s contents. but in actuality, both house and body were changing all that time prior to the tornado and death respectively.

the buddha also says elsewhere that this is not the case either. if you think about it, the same argument against annihilation applies for the persistence of an identity after death.

the essence of your issue is that the buddha is directing you to a solution that is different to the question you seek answered. the buddha’s path is solely for the ending of suffering - it doesn’t speak to what truly exists or does not exists. these are question the buddha doesn’t address because answering them doesn’t lead to the ending of suffering.

hope this is helpful. best wishes.

DN 1 defines the term “annihilationism”, which seems to mean the view that a “self” or “existent being” is annihilated.

My impression is SN 22.85 is saying an Arahant is not a “self” or “existent being” therefore they cannot be “annihilated” when their life ends.

Regards :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:t2:


If I may add a couple more…

If you’re fairly au fait with analytic philosophy and are not going to be put off by terms like “non-reductive mereological supervenience” (as a description of the Pudgalavāda view) or “mereological nihilism” (for Abhidharmism), then consider spending a few months sweating over Mark Siderits’ Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy – Empty Persons. But make sure you get the second (heavily revised) edition.

But if you’re more comfortable in the grey area that lies between philosophy and poetry, then consider investing in Steven Collins’ early work, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism.


The issue for me is that this line of thinking makes Buddhism unappealing and something I don’t want to pursue. I guess a bit of background might help you to understand where I am coming from…

I used to be a Christian but left it some years ago. For a time, I considered myself an Atheist and was happy to be rid of religion but then despair started to grow. I saw all the suffering in life and began hoping that there was something more.

In Atheism, the death of our bodies is the end of our existence and the Buddhism you describe is not so different. The only difference is that in Buddhism, the end doesn’t come until Pari-nibbana. To me, it’s just not very inspiring.

Wouldn’t knowing that there is some eternal, blissful experience for a Tathagata after their death be more encouraging?

It is the structure that is annihilated. It is true that the structure may not have any “essence”, but it nevertheless exists. Thats why I use the analogy of a house. When first time homeowners move into their home, they aren’t excited about the bricks or the wiring or the pipes, etc. They’re happy about the structure.

Similarly, if a homeowner loses their house in a fire or a tornado, they will be sad not for the wood or the insulation; they will be sad to have lost the structure.

In much the same way, I am not arguing that I have a permanent “self”. My self is indeed a structure lacking any essence, and I will certainly morph and change overtime just as my parts morph and change overtime, but I am still anxious about my death.

It is for this reason that telling me “There was no real house” is uninspiring. This kind of Buddhist answer offers the same amount of hope as Atheism. It’s just that Atheism promises extinction of our structure after one life whereas Buddhism promises extinction of our structure if we work for it over many lives.

the essence of your issue is that the buddha is directing you to a solution that is different to the question you seek answered. the buddha’s path is solely for the ending of suffering - it doesn’t speak to what truly exists or does not exists. these are question the buddha doesn’t address because answering them doesn’t lead to the ending of suffering.

But doesn’t concern about our future existence cause suffering? If someone tells me that the way to stop death-anxiety is to ignore it or to just stop loving life, I wouldn’t find those answers compelling. On the other hand, if someone told me that I can let go of this life, precisely because there is something beyond it, that would encourage and inspire me. But I am having trouble getting that response from Buddhism.

Please help me to see how I am wrong… I need hope.

The Buddha doesn’t offer you an eternal and blissful existence somewhere. He offers you the total peace of final cessation, where the misery of life and existence can be brought to an end for good. Go looking for some blissful existence and the cycle just repeats itself, because there is no such thing.

But your statement doesnt make sense- if the bricks and wood are just concepts then they can’t deteriorate, concepts aren’t subject to deterioration, things in actuality are.

A house is just as real as its bricks, they are both impermanent and subject to change, so the analogy with the standard Theravada gloss on the aggregates and the person simply doesnt hold, by that logic either perceptions and feelings are real and impermanent and so is the person, or perceptions and feelings are illusiory and so os the person, its incoherant to claim the impermanent bricks are real and the impermanent house is false.

The Buddha repeatedly denies an impermanent self that is subject to annihilation and calls it a wrong view, so the self is not like a house.

Or a charriot, despite what one early poem and one late text have to say, IMO.

My rough take is that existence and non-existence are terms applicable to the contents of experiential reality which is conditional, but are inapplicable to what is unconditional because language is conditional amd cannot be coherently applied to a “subject” that is unconditional.

That said i wrote this post on my phone having just woke up so i reserve the right to edit or just delete it :slight_smile:

The idea is that the concept “house” has no real referent. When we talk about a “house” what we are really experiencing, and so what’s really there, are bricks etc. Behind the concept of “house” there isn’t anything. Behind the concept of “brick” there is. Likewise, behind the concept of “atta” there isn’t anything. No referent at all. Instead there are aggregates, which are the referent of the concept “feeling” etc. This isn’t a perfect example of course, because according to Theravada bricks are also composed of parts but it gives the general idea. On such a view, it doesn’t then logically follow that if the aggregates are real and impermanent then the “person” is too. The “house” isn’t impermanent, because it doesn’t really exist. As it’s a concept, it does not arise and fall since pure concepts are unreal. For example, you can’t say a unicorn is born and dies because it’s a pure concept.

But on what basis is that being asserted? the house is made by human beings, and the bricks are made by human beings. The house is subject to dissolution and decay, the bricks are subject to dissolution and decay, on what basis are you claiming that the house isn’t real but the bricks are? Or are you just saying that the analogy doesn’t hold?

If the analogy doesn’t hold then what is the actual argument? is there an analogy that does hold?

This is my problem with a lot of this talk - I am constantly hearing dim and confused echos of the chariot argument from the milindapanha, which is a late text that appears to me incoherent precisely because BOTH chariots AND the wheels and axles that make them up are impermanent and subject to decay so it MAKES NO SENSE to say that wheels are real and chariots are false, the argument is either vacuous OR it is an analogy or gestural narrative that points to a deeper more coherent philosophy that must be uncovered hermeneuticlly by study of the sutta material.

Well Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda argue in part based on that sutta. At least for Theravāda, it informs their empiricism. When we eat an apple, for example, what do we actually experience? We experience hardness, redness, sweetness etc. Theravāda calls these the sabhāva-dhammas. These are what are actually experienced, and they are directly experienced beyond the concepts. As they exist independently of the mind, they are real. Out of these experiences we then form the concept “Apple”. The apple however has no referent. If it did, that would mean there was a substance which bore the characteristics. Substances are permanent hidden realities, the shadow of Ātman that is.

Anyway, I’m not trying to convince you of any of this. I’m merely pointing out that it doesn’t logically follow that if the impermanent parts exist then the whole must exist too. If you disagree, perhaps you could put your argument in logical form?


Thank you for the tip @Dhammanando !! I have a pdf of the first edition that I have been meaning to get to for years, now I will forgo it and get a copy of the second edition, maybe I will even manage to read it this time! (I am aware of the importance of Siderits, I just find his tone so… something i am consonantly throwing his book Buddhism as Philosophy at my floor before I can get through the second chapter.)

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Now we are getting somewhere!

So the analogy doesn’t hold in that case, houses and bricks are both unreal on that picture, but the hardness when i stub my toe on my stoop is real. good.

So the Theravada empiricism takes a view that the fundamental building blocks like “the experience of a hardness” and “the experience of a redness” and “the experience of a sweetness” as reals and all entities inferred from collections of such experiences, such as “apple” to in some sense be fictions, and unlike the more fundamental momentary experiences.

This would make “jo” (me) a fiction just like “house” “brick” “the self” “you” “grass” basically everything we impute to exist outside of these imputed units.

This seems to imply that “the aggregates” are a fiction, as is also “the path” and “the four truths” etc, is this the Theravada position?

It that is the case, Buddhism may not be for me.

The way I understand it there is no thing called “aggregates” but rather there is pain, cognition, intention, attention etc in a moment of experience. In relation to the earth element, Theravāda argues that apart from its characteristic or “nature” (sabhāva) there is no dhamma. There is no “earth element” which bears the characteristic of “hard”, as that would be a substance. Rather the earth element is nothing but “hardness”. In terms of the truths, dukkha is real because all sabhāva-dhammas share that nature. Craving is real because it is a sabhāva-dhamma. Nibbana is real because it’s a sabhāva-dhamma, whilst all of the constituents of the NEFP are also sabhāva-dhammas. Right Livelihood might be tricky. I’ve not looked into it before.

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