Existence after Death, Nihilism, and Anattā

I found a description of arahants that is weirdly similar to one of the views of a competing ascetic, Ajita Kesakambali. Maybe you can help me discussing & clarifying where the difference is:

Here the description of the arahant (SN 12.51):

He understands: ‘With the breakup of the body, following the exhaustion of life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here; mere bodily remains will be left.’

Problematic is that this passage about the arahant can only be found here in SN 12.51 and nowhere else.

And here the ‘nihilist’ position of Ajita Kesakambali (DN 1, DN 2, MN 72, MN 102, SN 12.17, SN 22.81, SN 44.10, AN 4.234, AN 8.11/12):

This human being is composed of the four great elements, and when one dies the earth part reverts to earth, the water part to water, the fire part to fire, the air part to air, and the faculties pass away into space… Fools and wise, at the breaking-up of the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death.

This topic obviously plays into the question of what happens to an arahant after death. Assuming that SN 12.51 represents right view (difficult to maintain because it appears only once), it would suggest that the arahant doesn’t exist after death - something that the Buddha very often refused to maintain… “The Tathagata exists / doesn’t exist / both / neither nor” (e.g. in AN 4.38, AN 7.54, AN 10.20, AN 10.93… …)

Usually we would explain this with dependent origination - he would not refuse it in order to not dialectically confirm it, not wanting to imply that a Tathagara “existed” in the first place. But here we find a more mystical refutation by Sariputta / the Buddha:

“Friend Yamaka, do not speak thus. Do not misrepresent the Blessed One. It is not good to misrepresent the Blessed One. The Blessed One would not speak thus: ‘A bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed is annihilated and perishes with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death.’”

"What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard the Tathāgata as in form?” – “No, friend.”…feeling…perception…samkhara…vinnana? “No”
“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’?” (only SN 22.85, SN 22.86/SN 44.2)

And so finally the question blends into attā/ātman. In other discussions among others also Ven. @Brahmali holds the sensible position “If there is no way to experience attā, even if it ‘existed’ in some un-experiencable other way, it would be completely irrelevant”. Don’t we find a similar status applied to the Tathāgata here? The sister-suttas maintain that not just the Tathāgata is ‘not-of-this-world’ - he’s beyond conceivable existence, yet he’s the most relevant.

Several questions appear here.
Is SN 12.51 authentic, or a nihilist corruption of the text?
Are SN 22.85 / SN 22.86 authentic? And if so, how does it affect our understanding of attā?


I don’t think we should assume SN 12.51 is right view in the sense it’s the kind of view we, as disciples and trainees, should make an effort to uphold. It’s the understanding of one without greed, hatred, and delusion tainting their mind. We’re still learning to add and subtract whereas they’ve mastered advanced math. IMO, we can’t legitimately extrapolate how they see things to how we view things.


The description at SN 12.51 does actually occur in a number of places, including SN 36.8, SN 22.88, SN 36.7, SN 54.8, and MN 140. I think this is an authentic and early Buddhist idea. I also think it fits well with the rest of the EBTs.

The view of Ajita Kesakambalī is just garden variety materialism. When you die, you cease to exist, regardless of whether you have practised the noble eightfold path or not. This is obviously not the case with early Buddhism, where you get reborn unless make a complete and final end of craving.

I understand the quote from the Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) to articulate precisely why the Buddha refused to deny the existence of arahants after death. It may seem a bit mystical (“not apprehended by you as real and actual here in this very life”), but I think this due to the fact you cannot deny the existence of the person as a changeable phenomenon. You can only deny the existence of a personal and permanent core. For this reason he uses a more complex sentence, including the words “real and actual”. I believe this is all there is to it. But the sutta is a one off, and as such we should not emphasise it too much.

So I think both SN 12.51 and SN 22.85 are authentic, but the latter marginally less so. And I cannot see that it affects our understanding of attā/anattā. Or perhaps I have misunderstood your point?


This is a very good question by Gabriel. I have tried to understand this in the past.
The only way I will find the answer to this question is by becoming an Arahant.
Considering the fact that I am still struggling to keep the five precepts Nibbana is a long- haul flight for me.
I think this question come to our mind as we still think in terms of existence and non-existence. We see things as subjects and objects.


I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.
Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct.
Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants.
Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

Which of those do you find difficult? Don’t kill, Don’t steal, Don’t sleep around, Don’t lie, Don’t take intoxicants.

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I don’t think there is pātimokkha recitation for lay people.:grin:

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Buddhas & arahants appear to be not subject to ‘death’ (‘marana’). It would follow such questions about arahants not existing after death (marana) are irrelevant or non-sequitur. To quote:

“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

Dhp 21. Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful die not. The heedless are as if dead already.

The same as Vakkali in SN 22.87 , Yamaka in SN 22.85 appeared to believe the Buddha to be a ‘person’ or ‘self’ that is subject to ‘death’ (‘marana’). Sariputta appeared to straighten out Yamaka’s wrong view by explaining the termination of life (not ‘death’) of an arahant is simply the ending of the aggregates. Thus, it appears ‘aggregates end’ rather than a ‘self dies’.

If we examine closely the various nihilistic views in the suttas, we should hopefully find each nihilist view includes a ‘self-view’, such as ‘puriso’ or ‘atta’. Example, Iti 49:

How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed, and disgusted by this very same being and they rejoice in (the idea of) non-being, asserting: ‘In as much as this self, good sirs, when the body perishes at death, is annihilated and destroyed and does not exist after death—this is peaceful, this is excellent, this is reality!’ Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach. Iti 49

Ajita Kesakambali’s wrong view is especially evil because it is not only existentially nihilistic but it is also morally nihilistic, in that it denies results of kamma & benefits of giving.


[quote=“Mkoll, post:2, topic:5468”]I don’t think we should assume SN 12.51 is right view in the sense it’s the kind of view we, as disciples and trainees, should make an effort to uphold.

The view in SN 12.51 is the right view for a trainee (sekkha). The Buddha referred to many kinds of followers & disciples and not all followers are ‘trainees’ (sekkha).

MN 1 appears to suggest a trainee (sekkha) trains to abandon ‘self-view’; that if there is no practise of abandoning ‘self-view’, there is no training & no traineeship. To quote:

Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is in higher training (sekkho), whose mind has not yet reached the goal, and who is still aspiring to the supreme security from bondage, directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he should not conceive himself as earth, he should not conceive himself in earth, he should not conceive himself apart from earth, he should not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he should not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he must fully understand it, I say. “He directly knows water as water…He directly knows all as all…

He directly knows Nibbāna as Nibbāna. Having directly known Nibbāna as Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself as Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself in Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself apart from Nibbāna, he should not conceive Nibbāna to be ‘mine,’ he should not delight in Nibbāna. Why is that? Because he must fully understand it, I say.

MN 1


At Savatthī. Then a certain bhikkhu approached the Blessed One…. Sitting to one side, that bhikkhu said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘a trainee, a trainee.’ In what way is one a trainee?”

“Here, bhikkhu, one possesses a trainee’s right view … a trainee’s right concentration. It is in this way that one is a trainee.”

SN 45.13 : Sekkhasutta

The issues in the opening post relate to ‘self-views’ (‘sakkaya ditthi’) held by nihilists. This is the distinguishing feature & a straightforward matter a ‘sekkha’ must be familiar with & must discern, as part of the training.

Kind regards :seedling:


I’m not pretending having an answer but I’m much more at ease with these kind of questions since I see everything as processes in constant transformation.
Once “my” particular set of processes will be free from the causes to becoming then “I” really don’t care what would happen to something that has never existed in the first place, an non-objet called alaber.
“My” job is to extinguish the causes for becoming then at parinibana the usual rebirth process will not occur and that’s what really matters. What’ll happen then was not taught by the Buddha and he may have good reasons for not saying it. You may be right to say we’ll know by becoming an Arahat.
Today it’s not useful to know the answer as it could deturn us from the priority of finishing the job.

True. With that in mind:
If the the arahant is nothing more than a conditioned process, it would mean that he completely ceases to exist at death. If that is the case and if materialism is true, it would mean that the ultimate aim of buddhism (parinibbana) is ultimately made redundant.

Because Mara uses the reverse psychology.

Sorry I don’t get this. Thanks for explaining.

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Generally, people are trying to escape from suffering by either falling to existence and non-existence. So Mara catches you in both ends.


It seems to me that the passages are consistent, and that taken together they entail a principled agnostic position about the post-mortem existence of the arahant. We have the following consistent claims:

  1. The life of the arahant’s body is eventually exhausted.

  2. Once the life of the arahant’s body is exhausted, it decays and breaks up.

  3. With the breakup of the arahant’s body, the arahant no longer possesses feeling.

  4. The nature of the arahant cannot be apprehended.

  5. Since the nature of the arahant cannot be apprehended, there is no basis for affirming of any arahant either that he exists after death or that he does not exist after death.

Putting it all together, perhaps it amounts to something like this:

The arahant’s worldly life can only be apprehended by others through his speech, bodily movements, etc. The arahant only apprehends his own worldly life through the same such such external signs, and also internally through his mental formations, thoughts, intentions etc. By right understanding, we come to understand none of these things to be the arahant. Everything we can mentally apprehend is not-self and thus not the arahant. Does that mean the arahant exists in some way, and possesses an underlying nature that cannot be apprehended, and that exists beyond the apprehensible skandhas? Maybe. Or does it mean the arahant has no independent existence at all, and has a conditioned existence depending entirely on the skandhas? Maybe. No matter which might be true, we have no basis for affirming either one side or the other. Since the possible post-mortem existence of the arahant depends on which alternative is true, we have no basis for affirming or denying the post-mortem existence of the arahant. Even the arahant himself doesn’t know.

But one thing we can say is that for an arahant like Sariputta, suffering has come to an end. This means that the fully liberated Sariputta had no remaining cravings for any state of future being or non-being. Sariputta no longer cared whether he would or would not continue to exist in some way after the breakup of his body.

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There are 3 differences between buddhism and materialism:

  1. Materialism claims all ends at death, weather you practice the noble 8thfold path or not

  2. Materialism claims there is a self that ceases to exist at death. Buddha claimed there was never a self to begin with

  3. From a materialist point of view, the “dissappearing without reminder” of the 5 aggregates looks neutral. From a buddhist point of view it is pleasant.

There is a sutta where Buddha explains how an ordinary person is scared by cessation of the 5 aggregates, but a wise person is very happy that such a thing is possible.

And why is there such a difference in perception in regards to nibbana when it comes to normal people and advanced people ? Because besides the non-existence of a self that an advanced person will understand, an advanced person has also practiced the 6 contemplations to be done by a stream enterer, contemplation that is one of the most repeated things along the suta pitaka. (seeing everything as impermanent, perceiving what is impermanent as suffering, what is suffering as no-self)

The perception that the existance of the 5 aggregates is good is a distorted perception. When delusion is gradually removed, they will not appear like that anymore. They will appear as they really are in reality - as suffering. And the cessation of them that may look unpleasant or neutral to us due to the same delusion, will look as very pleasant.

There he said to the monks, “This Unbinding is pleasant, friends. This Unbinding is pleasant.”

When this was said, Ven. Udayin said to Ven. Sariputta, “But what is the pleasure here, my friend, where there is nothing felt?”


Note that these contemplations are recommended to be done after one becomes a stream enterer in order to be done properly. So we need to first start with the basics and become a stream enterer and only then start practicing these 6 contemplations to be done by a stream enterer.

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As I see it, the materialist believes in the annihilation of an existing being. There is a self, there is a true “me”, there is an inner essence that makes me what I am, but it exists in dependence on a configuration/function of matter. It need not be a formulated belief, but he has not seen directly with wisdom the lack of any self in the khandas.

The arahant knows directly that that all phenomena lack self, whether it be a commander inside the head who oversees the body or a philosophical essence that confers identity or whatever other kind of view of self we humans have concocted. He even knows that the term arahant is void of identity conferring substance, and only derives its meaning from distinguishing the present state – where the five hindrances have been abolished and no remnant of self-view remains – with a previous state where they were not and when a view of self, or the remnants there of, remained.



Mara catches you in both extremes, He also catches you in the ‘middle’.

Many people think Dependent origination or the Noble Eightfold Path is the middle of existence and non-existence.

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Thanks Bhante, I referred to the whole quote, including “mere bodily remains will be left” which would express the similarity to (not identity with) Ajita’s view. The first part of the quote appears in the suttas you mentioned (plus AN 4.195), but don’t have this explicit addition.

Let’s see, I’ll try again… A common description regarding attā is

The uninstructed wordling regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form…
The instructed noble disciple does not regard form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form…

Our regular conclusion from this is --> complete anattā, there is no attā, it’s wrong and irrelevant. Now it seems to me that the same logic is employed in SN 22.85 regarding the Tathāgata, bringing it into the same form would be

The uninstructed wordling regards form as the Tathāgata, or the Tathāgata as possessing form, or form as in the Tathāgata, or the Tathāgata as in form…
The instructed noble disciple does not regard form as the Tathāgata, or the Tathāgata as possessing form, or form as in the Tathāgata, or the Tathāgata as in form…

Now, do we draw the same conclusion here? Do we conclude a complete ‘a-Tathāgata’, “there is no Tathāgata, the Tathāgata is irrelevant”?

Is it clearer now what I meant? We take the “doctrine of no-self” as a core of Buddhism, but we don’t talk of a “doctrine of no-Tathāgata” even though a similar way of inference is used (in those three suttas). Instead we see the Tathāgata as a mysterious appearance but wouldn’t attā be an equally mysterious appearance?

Buddha answered in that way regarding existence/non-existence of the tahagatha because the person who asked it would have understood that there was a self that now is no more, when in reality there never was a self to begin with. And this is explained at the end of the very sutta when Buddha is asked why he responded like that.

A very common mistake about a self not existing is understanding that the 5 aggregates that make up a being don’t exist either. Let’s take for example a tree or a computer. They don’t have a self, yet the wood, the metal, the plastic, etc. do exist. Not having a self does not imply non-existence of the aggregates.

Buddha said the 5 aggregates that make up a person are no-self and compared them to the scattered leaves and branches of a forest. If someone would gather up all the fallen leaves and branches of a forest and set them on fire, would you feel that “they are gathering and burning myself up” ? He said the aggregates that make up a being should be seen in the same way.

There are 5 animals that have a sense of self, the others can not recognize themselves in a mirror. And it is the same for children under age 2. For those beings, there is no self that suffers, there is just suffering that arises. Like the smoke eliminated by a car, or the sound of a musical instrument (to quote Buddha). There is no one that suffers, there is just suffering that arises dependent on conditions. For more developed beings there is a sense of self that appears just like suffering appears. And the perception of “my self suffers” or “this is myself” appears. And this is again just like the smoke of a car, the sound of a musical instrument. It is just a feeling that “this is myself” that arises due to conditions in that moment, it is not a real self that suffers. And this gives rise to the wrong view that there is a self. Self-view is eliminated at stream entry after properly understanding the “higher dhamma”. But conceit, meaning that sense of self, is a tendency (called the tendency for conceit) that will disappear at arahantship.

That list of precept resolutions (in DaoYaoTao 2017-05-28 09:56:37 UTC #5) is identical to the list recited in weekend retreats (for lay people) at the Tathagata Meditation Center (San Jose, Calif, run by Mahasi/Pandita monks).

That is, except they use Abrahmacariyā (“non-chastity”?) instead of Kāmesumicchācāra (“craving wrong behavior”?) in the 3rd, and they also recite “8 Precepts”, adding refraining from food after midday, from entertainments and adornments, and from “using high and luxurious seats or beds”.

This is not, however, taking the precepts for living in general (outside of retreat), which may be what SarathW1 is referring to.