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?