One of my first inspirations in the suttas was the short book by Venerable Thanissaro, Mind Like Fire Unbound, which came out when I was a young monk in the early 90s. I read it while staying at the little hermitage on Poo Jorm Gorm in northeast Thailand. The book had an elegant and moving quality to it; something in the Venerable’s presence in the written word conveyed a sense of depth and assurance that left an impression that has lasted to this day. I read it when it came out, and to me at the time, his ability to find Vedic precursors to Buddhist ideas was like magic. Suddenly we could look at non-Buddhist context from their own texts so that things that the Buddha had said stood out freshly with new meaning. I had no idea how he could do this, and no context for assessing Venerable Thanissaro’s methods or conclusions. (I hope the reader will forgive me if I drop the “Venerable” for the rest of the discussion; no disrespect is meant.)
Over time, as I deepened my own understanding of the suttas, I came to reject his primary thesis, that nibbāna is a kind of unconditioned consciousness. But while myself and others have looked more closely at the Pali texts he cites, I am not aware that anyone has examined his use of Vedic texts. How plausible is the position he sketches? Does it support the conclusions he draws? While I am far from being an expert in the field, I feel I now have enough experience to look at these questions in a meaningful way.
This, then is an inquiry into methodology, and as such, should be evaluated according to the method proposed by the author:
The presentation here is more like a photo-mosaic than an exposition. Quotations have been aligned & overlapped so as to reflect & expand on one another.
This kind of approach is used in the suttas themselves, as the Buddha often illustrated a topic from many points of view. A critical reading must not expect a linear narrative, but seek to understand the ways in which Thanissaro presents “unifying patterns” to create his “cumulative effect”, “letting the texts themselves point the way with a minimum of interference”.
Thanks to Venerables Sunyo and Brahmali who offered valuable feedback on an earlier draft; I have adopted several of their suggestions. I have tried to check the accuracy of my work, but any remaining mistakes of course are my own.
One of the things I was impressed with when reading Thanissaro was his fluency with translations, not just of his own specialty, the Pali canon, but also the Vedic texts. Vedic Sanskrit is extremely difficult, yet he maintains a consistency of voice across a diverse range of texts. How does he do this?
The Vedic and Pali texts are listed under Abbreviations on page 5, where he says:
All translations are the author’s own.
As far as I can see, he does not qualify this anywhere. Yet a comparison with established Vedic translations reveals that there has been heavy borrowing. Let us look at a few examples from page 23, bringing in the recent Jamison/Brereton translation as a point of reference. Thanissaro’s bibliography notes the 1896 Ralph Griffith translation of the Rig Veda.
Rig Veda 10.80:
- Thanissaro: Agni pervades & decks the heaven & earth … his forms are scattered everywhere.
- Griffith: (1c) Agni pervades and decks the earth and heaven … (4d) to every place are Agni’s laws extended
- Jamison/Brereton: Agni roams widely through the two world-halves, anointing them completely … Agni’s domains are dispersed in many places.
The first phrase is lifted almost directly from Griffith. The second phrase, “his forms are scattered everywhere”, is from Raimon Panikkar’s 1977 The Vedic Experience, p. 362, which is mentioned in Thanissaro’s bibliography (thanks to Ven Dhammanando for this identification).
This quote, located at a key point in Thanissaro’s thesis, is intended to establish the all-pervading reality of Agni, yet as we can see the highly divergent translations make interpretation difficult. The Sanskrit term in question is dhāmāni, “houses, abodes”, and evidently refers not to Agni’s “forms” but to the places he “resides”, which, given that the line previously referred to oblations, probably means the fire altars.
Rig Veda 1.70.3:
- Thanissaro: He [Agni] who is the embryo of waters, embryo of woods, embryo of all things that move & do not move.
- Griffith: He who is germ of waters, germ of woods, germ of all things that move not and that move
- Jamison/Brereton: He who is the embryo of the waters, the embryo of the woods, and the embryo of the still, the embryo of the moving
This is a more straightforward text, but again Thanissaro has adapted Griffith. This is confirmed since he numbers the verse 1.70.2, the same numbering system as used in the Griffith translation.
Rig Veda 10.183.3:
- Thanissaro: In plants & herbs, in all existent beings, I [Agni] have deposited the embryo of increase. I have engendered all progeny on earth, and sons in women hereafter.
- Griffith: In plants and herbs, in all existent beings I have deposited the germ of increase. All progeny on earth have I engendered, and sons in women who will be hereafter.
- Jamison/Brereton: I placed the embryo in the plants, I within all creatures. I generated progeny on earth, I (will generate) sons for wives in the future.
This is a light stylistic modernization of Griffith’s work, not an independent translation. Note too that Thanissaro editorially ascribes this verse to Agni. But Jamison/Brereton say, “The final verse (3) is spoken by an unidentified spirit”, while the traditional commentary of Sāyaṇa says it refers to the hotā, the officiating priest, who generates fertility through the sacrifice.
Rig Veda 1.73.8:
- Thanissaro: You [Agni] have filled earth, heaven, & the air between, and follow the whole cosmos like a shadow.
- Griffith: Thou hast filled earth and heaven and air’s mid-region, and followest the whole world like a shadow.
- Jamison/Brereton: Like a shadow you accompany all creation, having filled the two world-halves and the space between.
Again the resemblance is obvious. For the next example, Thanissaro lifts Griffith virtually unchanged.
Rig Veda 10.88.14:
- Thanissaro: We call upon the sage with holy verses, Agni Vaiśvānara the ever-beaming, who has surpassed both heaven & earth in greatness. He is a god below, a god above us.
- Griffith: We call upon the Sage with holy verses, Agni Vaiśvānara the ever-beaming, Who hath surpassed both heaven and earth in greatness: he is a God below, a God above us.
- Jamison/Brereton: With mantras we address the poet Agni Vaiśvānara shining everywhere, the god who by his greatness encompasses the two wide (worlds) from below and from above.
Clearly the Rig Veda translations are not Thanissaro’s. What of other texts? It would be tedious to research them all, but here is one random example, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1.13–14 on page 24–5. Compare the 1921 translation by Robert Hume in his The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, p. 396.
- Thanissaro: As the material form of fire, when latent in its source, is not perceived—
- Hume: As the material form (mūrti) of fire when latent in its source [i.e. the fire-wood] is not perceived—
- Thanissaro: and yet its subtle form is not destroyed, but may be seized again in its fuel-source—
- Hume: and yet there is no evanishment of its subtle form (liṅga) but may be caught again by means of the drill in its source,
- Thanissaro: so truly both [the universal Brahmā & the individual soul] are [to be seized] in the body by means of [the meditation word] AUM.
- Hume: so, verily, both [the universal and the individual Brahma] are [to be found] in the body by use of Om.
- Thanissaro: Making one’s body the lower friction stick, and AUM the upper stick,
- Hume: By making one’s own body the lower friction-stick and the syllable Om the upper friction-stick,
- Thanissaro: practicing the drill of meditative absorption,
- Hume: by practicing the friction of meditation (dhyāna)
- Thanissaro: one may see the god, hidden as it were.
- Hume: one may see the God (deva) who is hidden, as it were.
Again Thanissaro’s rendering derives from Hume’s translation, sometimes verbatim, sometimes in a modified form. Hume’s work is not credited nor even mentioned in the Bibliography.
It is, of course, normal to rely of the work of previous scholarship, and no-one would really expect a Pali specialist to create new Vedic translations from scratch. The kinds of changes Thanissaro makes are typical of those that one might make when adapting an archaic work: replacing outdated terms, normalizing word order, removing excessive capitalization, etc. It is not the nature of the changes that is the problem. It is the trustworthiness of the work.
Thanissaro claims that all translations are his own, but he has borrowed extensively from previous translators without crediting them or indicating that the translations are anything other than his. This creates the impression, or at least it did for me, that he was expert enough in the Vedic field to make his own translations. Clearly this is not the case, and he is merely doing a light modernization of pre-existing work.
The main argument begins with Chapter 1 on page 21, which Thanissaro opens with a summary of his proposal.
The discourses report two instances where brāhmans asked the Buddha about the nature of the goal he taught, and he responded with the analogy of the extinguished fire. There is every reason to believe that, in choosing this analogy, he was referring to a concept of fire familiar to his listeners, and, as they had been educated in the Vedic tradition, that he probably had the Vedic concept of fire in mind.
Is there really “every reason” to think that these two individuals were familiar with Vedic concepts of fire? The sources that Thanissaro cites in this chapter—the Rig Veda and the Kauśītakī, Maitrī, and Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣads—are highly specialized texts. By this time, the Rig Veda was old, much of its content dating back half a millenium if not more. It is cast in an archaic form of Sanskrit, in extremely dense, allusive, and deliberately cryptic verse, requiring many years of specialized study to master. The Upaniṣads, several of which date from roughly the time of the Buddha (give or take), were advanced in-house secret teachings, not for the uninitiated.
We would not assume that a Buddhist was familiar with, say, the Mūlapariyāyasutta, or indeed, with any suttas at all, so why should the brahmins be any different? Brahmins did all kinds of things, and only a minority undertook scriptural study. Many brahmins, indeed, had joined the Buddhist Sangha. Perhaps these ideas had spread to the general population where they had become well-known and understood outside their original context. But Thanissaro does not establish this.
Let us consider, then, whether these two brahmins were likely to have been familiar with the teachings cited by Thanissaro. Thanissaro does not specify the passages he is talking about, but presumably they are Snp 5.7 with Upasīva and MN 72 and SN 44.9 with Vacchagotta, both of whom he quotes later in the chapter.
In the case of Upasīva, he was a long term Vedic student who, along with his fellow students, is said to be a master of the Vedas (Snp 5.1, brāhmaṇe mantapārage). As regards the Upaniṣads, if he did not know these exact texts he would have known texts of a similar type, as the discussions with his colleagues echo many Upaniṣadic phrases and themes. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose he might have been familiar with the ideas regarding fire.
But with Vacchagotta this is far from clear. His clan stems from the Vedic seer Vatsa, so he was a brahmin by birth. But the text does not, unlike Upasīva and many other brahmins, invoke Brahmanical lineages or ideas. He is, rather, a skeptic and an inquirer. In MN 71 he asks whether the Buddha claims omniscience, which is associated with non-brahmin ascetics (śramaṇa) such as Mahāvīra. He goes on to ask about the spiritual destination of Ājīvaka ascetics. In SN 44.9, the entire opening portion of the discourse deals with Vacchagotta’s questions regarding the various ascetic teachers, which then leads immediately on to the discussion of fire. Given Vacchagotta’s evident interest in the ascetic traditions, it is noteworthy that a certain Śayyambha Vatsagotra, father of Manaka, was said to be a direct disciple of Mahāvīra (Kalpasūtra 10.3), so we know at least one Vacchagotta followed the ascetics.
So while it is true that Vacchagotta was a brahmin by birth, we cannot say whether he was educated in the details of Vedic philosophy.
Further, if it were the case that the Buddha taught Vedic fire imagery to brahmins because they were educated in such ideas, it would seem to follow that he would avoid such imagery when speaking with those unfamiliar with Vedic ideas. But this is not what we find. Rather, the imagery of fire and extinguishment is used very widely with general audiences. This is shown in the very first quote Thanissaro gives here (Ud 8.1), which is an address to an audience of Buddhist mendicants. Many other examples appear throughout his essay.
It is one thing to argue that the Buddha invoked obscure Vedic details when speaking with Vedic experts. The Buddha studied Vedism under his former teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he used highly specific references in discussion with fellow-experts (see eg. Snp 3.4:7.3, DN 29:16.13, or MN 93:18.71). But in formulating his general teachings, he did so with a general audience in mind and avoided relying on such specialized knowledge.
Thanissaro does not establish that the Buddha used such fire imagery when talking to experts in Vedic philosophy. Nor does he establish that the Buddha did not use such imagery when talking with non-experts. Rather, the Buddha used imagery of fire and extinguishment in a general sense not restricted to brahmin specialists.
We have identified a sort of truthiness in Thanissaro’s presentation. It omits crucial context, so that claims with little logical force come to occupy a central place, conveying a sense of unwarranted confidence. MN 27 Cūḷahatthipadopamasutta warns us against reaching over-quickly for conclusions, as well as misrepresenting our inferences as established fact.
But let us not be too nit-picky. We all want to argue in favor of our thesis, and it is easy to overstate our case. Let us look further into Thanissaro’s methods.
Right after the previous passage, Thanissaro quotes the Vedic scholar Jan Gonda, one of the masters of mid-twentieth century Vedic studies. The purpose of Gonda’s thesis is not mentioned by Thanissaro, who quotes him without any context. Gonda’s “Gods” and “Powers” in the Veda posits the idea that Vedic texts distinguish between a god and their power. Sometimes a god has a personal link to power, as with Indra and his indriya. Other times there are a range of “power substances” that might manifest in different gods. So his thesis is not directly related to what Thanissaro is talking about.
Nonetheless, in the course of his book, Gonda discusses Rig Veda 6.48.5. A power-word (sahas) had been attributed by previous scholars to ordinary human energy, but he proposes that it was the power of Agni, the god of fire. Here is how Thanissaro cites Gonda (p. 21, emphasis mine):
The underlying theory must have been … that a man and his physical strength are by no means able to produce a god or potency of Agni’s rank. Only the cooperation or conjunction of that special principle which seems to have been central in the descriptions of Agni’s character, his power of subjugation, his overwhelming power, can lead to the result desired, the appearance of sparks and the generation of fire.
Here is the full passage with Gonda’s qualifications restored:
It seems however possible to interpret it as follows: “(Agni) who is generated, being produced (churned) by men with the co-operation, or by help of, or in conjunction with, the super-human power-substance sahas”. If this view is right, the underlying theory must have been based on the consideration that a man and his physical strength are by no means able to produce a god or potency of Agni’s rank. Only the cooperation or conjunction of that special principle which seems to have been central in the descriptions of Agni’s character, his power of subjugation, his overwhelming power, can lead to the result desired, the appearance of sparks and the generation of fire. This view of the process of generating fire, especially of sacred fire, if true, is in harmony with the results of modern anthropological research. The so-called primitive is convinced that various kinds of disaster would destroy gardens made or fields tilled without rites and without the cooperation of higher powers.
Gonda makes it abundantly clear that he is advancing a speculative theory. But Thanissaro, omitting the conditional opening “If this view is right …” completely changes the force of the dependent clause “… must have been”.
Thanissaro reinforces this confident tone when he declares that, “Sahas here is the potency, the power of subjugation, wielded by Agni himself”.
By omitting context, Thanissaro is able to make a speculative suggestion appear like a statement of fact. Perhaps, one might wonder, he has good reason for this; perhaps Gonda’s suggestion has been confirmed by other scholars? After all, there is no doubt that in other cases sahas does have the sense of a divine potency, a usage which Gonda documents at length. But Gonda cites older authorities that take sahas in this context as simply the work done by men, and the recent scholarship of Jamison and Brereton concurs.
sahasā yo mathito jāyate nṛbhiḥ pṛthivyā adhi sānavi
(Agni), who is born, when he is churned mightily by men, on the back of the earth.
The traditional commentary by Sāyaṇa (as quoted by Gonda) also agrees, saying balena mathitaḥ san, “produced by being churned with strength”. The simplest reading of the phrase is just a reference to the energetic actions of men in churning the fire-sticks to produce flame. Gonda may well be right that his reading is possible, but this is hardly the basis of a theory whose aim is to establish a new way of understanding the goal of Buddhist practice.
Thanissaro’s presentation of Gonda, like the reference to “two brahmins”, has an air of truthiness. What he says is not exactly wrong, but not exactly right either. Rather, he omits context, creating a sense of confidence that, on closer examination, is unwarranted.
These details, to be sure, are not crucial for Thanissaro’s thesis. In fact this discussion at the start of his work seems like something of a byway. But it is difficult to establish what, exactly, is crucial. Thanissaro describes his method as establishing a pattern of association, rather than logical deduction. He doesn’t try to establish specific links, to test his ideas, or to seek multiple independent details pointing in the same direction. To make his case persuasive, he tries to build up a set of associations that appear convincing in the reader’s mind. What, however, are we to make of his conclusions when the argument omits necessary context?
Thanissaro argues that the Buddha was drawing on aspects of Vedic ideas when discussing fire with Vedic experts. But what kind of idea are we talking about? He says (p. 21):
Now, although the Vedic texts contain several different theories concerning the physics of fire, there is at least one basic point on which they agree: Fire, even when not manifest, continues to exist in a latent form.
In point of fact the Vedas contain precisely no theories of physics. Vedic poetry is not about physics, it is about using play, allusion, connection, patterns to evoke and entice the gods; it is about seeing the divinity in a flicker of flame reflecting the same divinity that we call the “sun”. No-one would argue that Shakespeare had a “theory of physics”, though surely physical ideas are found there. Modern scholars can look at the way such patterns are expressed in the poetry and relate it to our ideas about “theory”, but the work itself does not contain “theory”.
Thanissaro is prone to a similar mistake when discussing “aesthetic theory” in relation to Pali verse, saying in multiple essays things like, “the Dhammapada has a fairly complete body of ethical and aesthetic theory behind it” (Thanissaro, Dhammapada introduction). The rasa theory he alludes to is first attested in a few pages over half a millennium later, only to be ignored for over half a millennium more before receiving its first commentary. If he wanted to say that it is illuminating to view the Dhammapada through the lens of such theory, that would be one thing. But he is clearly asserting that the aesthetic theory was a pre-existing guide to the creation of these works, and this is simply unhistorical.
There is no shortage of passages suggesting that Agni, the god of fire, was held to be immanent in the diverse, local expressions of fire, whether the sun, the lightning, the domestic hearth, or the ritual. But to argue that there is a theory of physics underlying this belief is to go too far, creating a misleading rhetorical impression. A theory of physics is a form of evidence-based knowledge accepted by all, having nothing to do with religious affiliation. It would be more accurate to say that the Vedic texts play with theological speculations concerning the actions of the fire-god as embodied in the various manifestations of physical fire. But to argue that the Buddha drew on religious speculations to depict the final goal of his practice would be less convincing than saying he drew on a theory of physics.
We should not underestimate the strangeness of Vedic ideas. There is a vast gulf between them and the modern-sounding voice of the suttas. Rig Veda 10.51, for example, says that Agni hid in the waters in a “caul” like an embryo in the womb, temporarily shirking his duties in the sacrifice. When discovered, he explains that he was afraid of being tied down to the sacrifice, i.e. he did not want to be stuck in the same boring job. So the gods granted him immortality and homage so that he could serve the sacrifice without harm.
These wild stories were never meant as theories of physics. Rather, they created an imaginative narrative that served a purpose. The story of Agni hidden in the waters solves a ritual problem for the Vedic priests. They worship Agni as a god whose immortality is proven by the fact that his prime source, the sun, is immortal. Yet it is apparent to all that fires come and go, and burn only in dependence on fuel. So there must be a reason why the fire is sometimes not there, yet is ready to re-appear when needed. Hence Agni must be hiding in embryonic form, his immortality uncompromised by the mere fact that fires go out.
The immanence of fire is a theological solution to a theological problem: how do we reconcile the ever-changing and ephemeral reality of fire with the immortality of its divinity? In a way this is a variety of the problem of evil, the consequences of reconciling the perfection and eternity of divinity with the messiness and pain of the world in which we live.
Needless to say, this was not a problem for the Buddha; it was his starting point. For the Buddha, fire is impermanent. It is a conditioned phenomenon, created by certain causes and ceasing when those causes cease. The suttas treat the “fire element” in exactly the same way as all the other elements (from MN 28:17):
There comes a time when the exterior fire element flares up. It burns up villages, towns, cities, countries, and regions until it reaches a green field, a roadside, a cliff’s edge, a body of water, or cleared parkland, where it’s extinguished for lack of fuel. There comes a time when they go looking for a fire, taking just a chicken feather or a scrap of sinew as kindling. So for all its great age, the fire element will be revealed as impermanent, liable to end, vanish, and perish.
Thanissaro sets his view up as avoiding the fallacies of seeing fire as extinguished and seeing it as a wholesale adoption of the Vedic idea. To be clear, he is using “Vedic” to include the Upaniṣads, as he is referring here to Maitrī Upaniṣad 6.34.
To understand his rhetorical strategy here, we have to consider the wider context of Thanissaro’s beliefs. He believes that nibbāna is a kind of unconditioned consciousness, an “unfabricated dimension” separate from the aggregates. This view sounds notably similar to that of the Upaniṣads, so he needs to differentiate his view. While his book presents itself as a historical study of early Buddhism, Thanissaro’s conception of nibbāna was shaped by certain teachers of the Thai forest tradition, whose views he seeks to reconcile with the suttas.
Some Thai forest masters refer to what they call the “original mind”, a term that is used in different ways by different teachers. Ajahn Thate regarded it as a kind of samadhi, while Ajahn Chah called it cessation. It is worth quoting his views in full, as they illuminate several aspects of this discussion. (The following is from a discussion between Ajahn Chah and some western students at Wat Gor Nork on the 14th August 1979, translated by Ajahn Ñāṇadhammo).
Ajahn Chah: The mind must truly become like this. It must be seen in your own heart in this way. Don’t be just empty talk! Then wherever we are we own nothing. Whatever arises ceases, arises then ceases, that’s all, there is no more dependence on a speculative mind running after this.
Q: This is the original mind or primordial mind, isn’t it?
Ajahn Chah: Hey!
Q: The original mind.
Ajahn Chah: The what?
Q: Is there anything outside these five aggregates? Is there anything at all that can be called the original mind?
Ajahn Chah: They can call it “original”. But it’s all gone. Just there, it’s all gone.
Q: You couldn’t call this the original mind, could you?
Ajahn Chah: Label it that if you like. You could call it that. If we don’t give words to things then we will have to stop talking. We don’t have any words to communicate about this. There would be nothing to talk about. (Ajahn Chah picks up a cup and moves it away, pointing to its original position saying:) That was its origin. That space was its primal original position. There now, is nothing of the cup there. This spot contains nothing. That which can be spoken of is all a part of conventional reality, that’s all. The primordial, the original, that’s just a way of speech. Without such conventional descriptions there can be no understandable communication. We would just sit speechless and stare at each other, not understanding anything. But we can begin to understand something by giving it a defining word.
Ajahn Chah makes a clear link between the cessation of the mind and the ineffable nature of nibbāna. Just because we can’t talk about it doesn’t mean that there must be something there. It is nothing but the tendency of the proliferating mind to imagine something in nothing.
The prominent teacher Ajahn Maha Bua, on the other hand, regarded the original mind as an indestructible state of transcendent consciousness, one which nonetheless retains some kind of personal dimension whereby arahants could be visited by the Buddha and past arahants.
Now, in the Vedic (and later literature) there are, famously, many different theories and speculations about the nature of the soul. Thanissaro is doubtless correct to describe some Vedic views as “a pleasant eternal existence for a tranquil soul”. But consider the following representative passage (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 7, translation by Kenneth Jaques):
That is known as the fourth quarter: neither inward-turned nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together; not an indifferentiated mass of consciousness; neither knowing, nor unknowing; invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the Ātman, the Self; this is to be realised.
To describe this as “a pleasant eternal existence for a tranquil soul” is inadequate at best. Thanissaro’s representation of the Vedic view focusses on the simple and conventional ideas rather than the advanced Upaniṣadic philosophy whose ideas sound so much like his own. But it was under such advanced philosophers that the Buddha studied, and it was to assert his rejection of their views that he asserted that consciousness, no matter how subtle, is not self.
Note that when referring to “the Upaniṣadic view”, I mean views like this, which in Pali are expressed in many ways, for example, as so attā so loko (“the self is identical with the cosmos”), esohamasmi (“I am that”), or viññāṇaṁ me attā (“consciousness is my self”). Such views are themselves diverse but for the sake of this little essay I lump them together.
As to how the Buddha differed from the Vedic view, Thanissaro says that (p. 26):
[the Buddha] approached the Vedic idea of latent fire from another angle entirely: If latent fire is everywhere all at once, it is nowhere in particular.
Bear in mind that Thanissaro has not established that the Buddha was even aware of the Vedic idea of “latent fire”, let alone that he was using it in his own teaching. Nonetheless, the basic idea here is that Agni, as the omnipresent and immortal embodiment of energy, is found in all things. However, Agni also manifests in particular fires at particular times. That is the case in passages cited by Thanissaro (p. 24) such as Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1.13:
As the material form of fire, when latent in its source …
Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1.15—not cited by Thanissaro—goes on to elaborate this point (Hume’s translation):
As oil in sesame seeds, as butter in cream, as water in river-beds, and as fire in the friction-sticks
The “latency” of fire in its fuel is a regular fact of nature, no more mysterious than butter in cream. The idea of the fire’s “source” (yoni) in which it lies latent is repeated in another verse quoted by Thanissaro a little later (p. 25, Maitrī Upaniṣad 6.34; Thanissaro is once again adapting Hume’s translation):
As fire through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source …
The “source” in both these cases is the place where the fire is born, i.e. the wood in the hearth or altar. Thus the Vedic view is that the fire that has gone out lies latent in its source, whether wood or other fuel.
This does not contradict the notion that Agni (fire or energy or sacred force) is immanent in all things. Compare the modern view. A physicist would agree that energy is immanent in all things (since e = mc²). At the same time, the energy of a fire is contained in the chemical bonds of the wood, regarded as a source of potential energy. Thus on the one hand, fire/energy is immanent in all things, and on the other hand, the latent fire, or potential energy, of a particular fire is located in the wood.
When the Buddha asks “where does the fire go when it goes out” he is talking about a specific individual fire, not the abstract notion of immanent energy. And so, according to the passages quoted by Thanissaro, the Vedic answer to the Buddha’s question is that when fire goes out it returns to its source, the fuel of the fire, ready to be called forth once more by the actions of man and the power of the gods.
This being so, it raises the question as to why Upasīva and Vacchagotta, if they were understanding the Buddha’s questions in terms of the Vedic imagery, did not give the answer stated in that imagery, that the flame had returned to its source in the wood.
When the Vedas describe Agni as fleeing to the waters, hiding in a latent state, they are making a coherent and indeed necessary argument within their point of view. The argument begins with the assumption that Agni is immortal, derived from the observation of the sun. Seeing that terrestrial fire goes out and may be rekindled, they infer that between these two observable states Agni must exist in an unobservable (na dṛśyate) latent state without losing his fundamental nature or potency (naiva ca liṅganāśaḥ), from which he can burst forth at any time.
This cannot apply in the Buddhist context. No-one, so far as I know, thinks that nibbāna is an eternally existing state of inert consciousness that can simply spring back to life at any moment. But what else could “latent state” even mean?
To further differentiate the Buddha’s view from the Vedic, Thanissaro says (p. 26):
instead of using the subsistence of latent fire as an image for immortality, he uses the diffuse, indeterminate nature of extinguished fire as understood by the Vedists to illustrate the absolute indescribability of the person who has reached the Buddhist goal.
We have already noticed one problem with this argument. Why would a Vedic scholar regard extinguished fire as ineffable, when they have a perfectly sensible definition of it in their own philosophy? Fire that is extinguished is simply Agni returned to his embryonic state in the wood.
The point here is the rhetorical inadequacy of the argument. To you or I, the notion of fire returned to a latent state might seem indescribable. But the Vedic traditions have no problem with describing it. Nor, as I have noted already, is it regarded as ineffable or mysterious in modern physics.
That is not to say, however, that the Vedic traditions have no notion of an ineffable goal. We have already seen that Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 7 describes the fourth stage as ineffable (avyavahārya). The same idea appears in Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.4.1 and 2.9.1 (my translation):
He who knows the bliss of divinity, from where speech and mind turn back without reaching, fears nothing ever.
The above is cited by Śaṅkara when commenting on the following passage, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.7 (Swāmī Mādhavānanda translation):
This (universe) was then undifferentiated. It became differentiated only into name and form—it was called such and such, and was of such and such form. So to this day it is differentiated only into name and form—it is called such and such, and is of such and such form. This Self has entered into these bodies up to the tip of the nails—as a razor may be put in its case, or as fire, which sustains the world, may be in its source.
The undifferentiated divinity, which is both the primordial state of the universe and the goal of spiritual practice, lies before the emergence of “name and form” (i.e. words to name things and things to be named). The latent state of fire in its source (the wood or other fuel) is one of the primary examples of how the unitary self manifests in the particular, differentiated and describable, features of the world.
The brahmins had a clear notion of ineffability as applied to the goal of their practice, but they did not apply this to the state of a fire that has gone out. For them this was no mysterious diffused state, but rather a key example of differentiation. Thus the argument on a fire going out to an undefined state would have no rhetorical force for them.
We have investigated Thanissaro’s handling of Vedic sources, as well as modern scholars, and found them to have a pervasive sense of truthiness to them. It is the responsibility of a scholar to ensure that their use of sources accurately reflects their texts, and that has not been the case so far. But what of texts from the Pali canon, an area of specialization shared by both Thanissaro and myself?
One of the key passages in Thanissaro’s discussion of ineffability is where the Buddha uses fire imagery in discussion with the brahmin student Upasīva (Snp 5.7). Thanissaro introduces this by saying (p. 31):
the mind that has attained the goal cannot be known or described from the outside because it is completely free of any dependency
Thanissaro misunderstands the entire passage, as he takes it to refer to an arahant who has a “mind” that has an indefinable experience of the state of nibbāna. In fact the passage he cites is about what happens when an enlightened being passes away. His reading is only made possible by a series of mistranslations.
The context, omitted by Thanissaro, is of a meditator who is practicing the dimension of nothingness—one of the highest states known to the Brahmins—and becomes reborn in such a dimension; this is the goal as taught by Āḷāra Kālāma.
Upasīva says they might stay there for many years “without moving on” (anānuyāyī), mistranslated by Thanissaro as “unaffected”.
Thanissaro, in line with the commentary, construes the question as twofold:
“If he stays there, O All-around Eye,
unaffected for many years,
right there would he be cooled & released?
Would [his] consciousness become like that?”
But this is unlikely; the question as translated is quite unclear. The verse is, rather, asking about whether someone who has been reborn in the dimension of nothingess will become freed in that dimension and then pass away while in that state.
Thanissaro renders the final line, with the actual question, as “Would [his] consciousness become like that?” Here he accepts the variant reading bhavetha (“become”). But, as K.R. Norman notes, cavetha (“pass away”) is the accepted reading in both the Niddesa and the commentary to this passage (Group of Discourses, note to verse 1073).
Thanissaro is also mistaken in pairing “consciousness” with “like that”, the latter of which is a genitive referring to the one who has attained such a state; if bhavetha were accepted it would be instead, “Would the consciousness of one such as that grow?”
Correcting the dense thicket of errors in this single verse we have:
“If they were to remain there without travelling on,
even for myriad years, All-seer,
and, being freed, were to grow cool right there,
would the consciousness of such a one pass away?”
Now the question becomes clear, as does the Buddha’s answer. But once again we must first correct Thanissaro’s translation.
“As a flame overthrown by the force of the wind
goes to an end not fitting to classify,
so the sage freed from naming (mental) activity
goes to an end not fitting to classify”
The phrase “goes to an end” renders atthaṁ paleti. Now, in such cases the Pali attha has the sense “end, finish”. Paleti here is simply a poetic variant of the standard idiom which which find in the usual form just below (atthaṅgatassa). This is one of the many Pali terms for cessation (eg. SN 22.85:13.9: yaṁ dukkhaṁ taṁ niruddhaṁ tadatthaṅgataṁ). Thanissaro’s rendering “goes to an end” (or “reached the end” in the next verse) does not really convey the sense of “cessation” at all, but rather suggests that the person goes to a place that cannot be classified. In English, to “go to an end” is not a synonym for “cease”, but to “come to an end” is.
Thanissaro also errs in translating nāmakāyā as “naming (mental) activity”, since neither nāma nor kāya conveys the sense “activity”. It is rather a term for mental phenomena collected as a group, and its cessation is part of dependent origination, where all mental phenomena cease together with consciousness. Thanissaro’s rendering conveys the sense that a person’s mental activity has ended, i.e. they have a peaceful mind in meditation, which is not what is meant.
Finally, the phrase na upeti saṅkhaṁ (“not fitting to classify”) applies to the fire and the sage, not to the goal. It is a common idiom; for example a single stone “does not count” next to a whole mountain (MN 129:9.4).
Here is a corrected translation:
“As a flame tossed by a gust of wind,”
replied the Buddha,
“comes to an end and cannot be reckoned;
so too, a sage freed from the set of mental phenomena
comes to an end and cannot be reckoned.”
Upasīva’s next verse is mostly fine, so let us look at the final verse by the Buddha, rendered by Thanissaro thus:
“One who has reached the end has no criterion
by which anyone would say that—for him it doesn’t exist.
When all phenomena are done away with,
done away are all means of speaking as well.”
He renders the first two lines as a single phrase, whereas Norman, Bodhi, and myself all render these as two distinct statements. For the second line, compare with the similar phrases at Snp 4.10:12.1 and SN 1.20:21.3, which likewise stand alone (see Bodhi’s note on this latter verse in Connected Discourses). All three of these contain a construction like yena naṁ vajjuṁ … taṁ tassa … (“That by which they might speak … that for him …”). In order words, the relative pronoun phrase yena naṁ coordinates with taṁ tassa in the same line, not with the previous line.
Thanissaro speculates (p. 32):
the line, ‘for him it doesn’t exist,’ can mean not only that the person experiencing the goal offers no criteria to the outside by which anyone else might describe him/her, but also that the experience offers no criteria from the inside for describing it either.
This is grammatically unsupportable, as those who are said to be unable to describe are plural (vajjuṁ) and clearly refers to other people; Thanissaro obscures this point by translating as indefinite singular “anyone”. This is even more apparent when the same phrase is used of an ascetic’s imperviousness to criticism at Snp 4.10:12.1.
Thanissaro’s speculation is based on an over-literal rendering of the Pali idiom, “that does not exist for him” (taṁ tassa natthi). Thanissaro’s rendering invites the subjectivist reading that somehow such things do not exist “for him”, i.e. that reality is relative to the person. But this is not implied by the Pali at all. Pali has no word for “to have” so possession is expressed by saying something like “it is for him”, i.e. “he has it” (as indeed Thanissaro has rendered the first line). The line is saying that one who has ceased has no criteria by which others might define or limit them. Thanissaro diverts attention from this plain meaning because he treats the passage as somehow applying to an ongoing state of consciousness.
Thanissaro says (p. 33) that his subjectivist reading is supported “by a number of other passages in the Pali Canon referring explicitly to the inner experience of the goal.” He cites the verses from DN 11 which begin by talking about an exalted state of consciousness. It strikes me as curious that he should use the word “explicitly” here, since these verses say nothing about any “inner experience of the goal” and it is rather famously left up to the commentary to say that “consciousness is a name for nibbāna”. But the commentary is wrong, as the opening verse explicitly qualifies consciousness as “infinite”, clearly in reference to the formless dimension of the same name, which is most definitely not the goal of Buddhism. One reading Thanissaro’s translation would be forgiven for not knowing that, for here he has “consciousness … without end”, while in the next quote on the same page it is “the infinitude of consciousness”. The verses do, however, speak explicitly of the goal; but this is in the final couplet, where, as usual, it is “with the cessation of consciousness”, misleadingly rendered by Thanissaro as “with the stopping of [sensory] consciousness”.
Returning to Upasīva, the third line, when “all phenomena are done away with” directly contradicts Thanissaro’s primary thesis, a problem that he does not discuss. The word samūhata means to “eradicate completely” as, for example, unskilful roots (Snp 2.13:11.2), rebirths (Thag 1.67:1.2), the net of craving (Thag 4.10:4.2), and so on. Here it is very dramatically applied to “all things” (sabbesu dhammesu) in a sense that can hardly be mistaken. Clearly any form of “mind” or “awareness” is a dhamma and is included here.
“One who has come to an end has no measure,”
replied the Buddha.
“They have nothing by which others might describe them.
When all things have been eradicated,
eradicated, too, are all ways of speech.”
When Thanissaro’s mistakes are corrected, the verses with Upasīva yield a straightforward sense. One who has ceased is indescribable, like an extinguished flame. The verses conclude with a powerful statement on the eradication of all things, leaving the Buddha’s view quite clear.
To forestall the idea that nibbāna means mere extinguishment, Thanissaro argues that the word nibbāna is best understood in accordance with Buddhaghosa’s explanation in the Visuddhimagga (p. 44):
There he derives the word from the negative prefix nir, plus vāna, or binding: “Unbinding”.
This derivation is in fact older than Buddhaghosa, as it is found in the canonical commentary Niddesa (Cnd 14:24.1), where the “binding” or “weaving” (vāna) is identified with craving.
As Thanissaro explains, the Buddhist tradition speaks of two aspects of nibbāna. There is the attainment of arahantship in this life, which occurs with the ending of craving. Then there is the death of the arahant, which signifies the final cessation of the aggregates, including all forms of consciousness. The problem is clear: if nibbāna means “the end of craving”, then how does it apply to the cessation of the aggregates? After all, craving has already ceased beforehand.
The commentaries do not do etymology in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they attempt to draw out the didactic meaning of a word by playing with similar-sounding words. Often, of course, those words do indeed share a common historical basis and are useful for etymology. But equally often they are fanciful plays on unrelated words. Modern linguists, therefore, are judicious in how they read commentarial explanations, rejecting the commentary in this instance and agreeing that nibbāna is derived from the verb vāyati (“to blow”). It does the commentaries no service to treat them as (bad) etymologists when their purpose was, rather, to teach Dhamma.
In the Brahmajala Sutta we find five kinds of “nibbāna in the present life” based on either sensual stimulation or one of the four jhanas. The terms “self” and “existent being” clearly distinguish these views from the Buddha’s. Obviously one could not say that enjoying hedonistic pleasures was equivalent to the ending of craving. Here, rather, the blissful feeling is felt to be the extinguishment of suffering.
The same applies with Māgaṇḍiya at MN 75:19.16:
“This is that freedom from disease, Master Gotama, this is that extinguishment! For I am now healthy and happy, and have no afflictions.”
Māgaṇḍiya is using nibbāna to refer to the state of freedom from the suffering of disease. Again, it has nothing to do with ending craving.
In both these cases we see that, from the time of the Buddha, nibbāna was used by hedonists of the sensual or spiritual kind to indicate their happiness due to being freed from suffering or oppression. This usage clearly rules out any intrinsic relation with the idea of the ending of craving, which is purely a didactic meaning invented by commentaries.
In later times, too, nibbāna was not restricted to Buddhism. The Jains regularly use nibbāna (nivvāna) as equivalent to “liberation” (mokṣa) to describe the death of an enlightened being, whose soul is freed to ascend to the highest plane of omniscience. Later Brahmanical texts follow suit, using nibbāna (nirvāṇa) as a word for the ultimate divinity (see the Wisdomlib page for nirvana for references). These are textbook examples of eternalists, who in their different ways are using nibbāna to describe their concept of an eternally blissful state of being. The common thread in all these instances is the extinguishment of suffering.
So regardless of the original meaning of nibbāna, local native speakers had no difficulty in using it to denote an eternal state. This is a straightforward historical fact that does not require any analogical reasoning.
The reason people say that the goal of Buddhist practice is the cessation of all things, including consciousness, is because this was stated clearly and unambiguously in the suttas, located in central doctrines like dependent origination. See for example SN 12.51:
Sabbaso vā pana viññāṇe asati, viññāṇanirodhā …
And when there is no consciousness at all, with the cessation of consciousness …
Or Snp 3.12:
All the suffering that originates
is caused by consciousness.
With the cessation of consciousness,
there is no origination of suffering.
Knowing this danger,
that suffering is caused by consciousness,
with the stilling of consciousness a mendicant
is hungerless, extinguished.
The word nibbāna is one of many different sets of terms and ideas used to express this. For example, the Buddha taught that there are three “fires” of greed, hate, and delusion (SN 35.28). This metaphor is a response to the Vedic notion of fire as used in ritual (AN 7.47). Such fires are to be “extinguished” or “quenched” so as to be free of the suffering they create. Clearly this means their total elimination, and accordingly good practitioners become “extinguished without remainder” (asesaṁ parinibbanti; Iti 93; see too Tha-ap 219:2, Tha-ap 393:116).
In this passage, the “going out” of the fires of greed, hate and delusion, and the “going out” of the practitioner are clearly constructed as parallel. Greed, hate, and delusion do not return to a latent state in their source, and nor does the mind of the practitioner. They just cease. Thanissaro therefore correctly translates the causative form nibbāpeti as “put out” (the fires of greed, hate, and delusion, p. 17), and accordingly, that the practitioner will “go, without remainder, totally out”. But he simply passes over the fact that this straight up contradicts his thesis.
We don’t need obscure arguments on imagistic history to understand a basic teaching of the Buddha. On the contrary, the Buddha taught his main doctrines explicitly and unambiguously, many times, in central doctrines that are repeatedly explained. The etymology and imagery of nibbāna is intriguing and evocative, but the Buddha did not leave his central teachings up to poetic imagery.
Thanissaro uses the word “mind” in his title, representing the Pali citta or viññāṇa. He wants to establish that the state of an arahant after death is also a kind of “mind”. This is a huge leap, as the conditioned nature of the mind is fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings, as well as any kind of experience. How does he make this leap?
In the fourth chapter he quotes a number of passages that speak of the practitioner whose mind is released from attachments and therefore free and still. These passages refer to the arahant while he is still alive.
He then shifts to the standard sequence of dependent origination, which says that consciousness stops (p. 102). To get around this, he translates the passage:
With the stopping of fabrications, [sensory] consciousness stops.
Once again his explanation is truthy. Yes, sensory consciousness stops. But because the Buddha defined the senses very broadly as the “all”, this includes any kind of consciousness whatsoever (yaṁ kiñci viññāṇaṁ). By including the qualifier, Thanissaro leaves open the possibility that some form of consciousness does not stop.
If you go carefully through the quotes in this passage, a pattern emerges. Those passages that speak of a practitioner “knowing” nibbāna are speaking of an arahant’s experience in this life. But when the Buddha speaks of the state of nibbāna after death, there is no mention of knowing or any other term for the mind.
This is apparent in Ud 8.3, the famous passage on freedom from what is born, become, made, and compounded, where there is no mention of “mind”. The same is true at Ud 8.4.
In chapter 2, Thanissaro starts to lay the groundwork for his distinction between “sensory” experience and an unconditioned experience or knowing (p. 35):
The dimension of non-objectification, although it may not be described, may be realized through direct experience.
Thanissaro omits the context, however, for the passage he goes on to quote. It is a teaching on sense restraint, the purpose of which is for a meditator to understand that all experience is impermanent. The meditator’s mind, like that of the bodhisatta before awakening, might drift to sensual experiences of the past, present, or future. They are urged to guard and protect the mind with mindfulness so that this does not happen.
The text says that the “dimension” where the six senses cease “should be known”. (The passage is cited by Thanissaro as SN 35.116, but it is SN 35.117 on SuttaCentral). Thanissaro translates (p. 35):
that dimension should be experienced where the eye [vision] stops and the perception [label] of form fades
Thanissaro wants us to think there is a “direct experience”, i.e. a form of mind or consciousness, that persists when the six senses have ceased. But the word he translates as “should be experienced” (veditabba) cannot establish his case. It’s a common, everyday term, which is frequently used in such contexts as AN 3.4, where three characteristics of a fool are “to be known”. Clearly it refers to an understanding that is inferred from observation, not to a direct experience. All forms of Indian philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, regard both direct experience and inference as valid means of knowledge, and unless the context makes it clear, words can be used in either or both senses.
The second problem is the emphasis on “that dimension” (se āyatane). That this passage is enigmatic even in the Pali is shown by the fact that it is one of the few cases where, after the Buddha gave the teaching and left, the monks did not understand it and went to seek clarification, in this case from Venerable Ānanda. Ānanda explained:
The Buddha was referring to the cessation of the six sense fields when he said: ‘So you should understand that dimension where the eye ceases and perception of sights fades away …’
So there is no call to reify an ongoing state of existence when speaking of “that dimension where the eye ceases”: it is just another way of talking about cessation.
Thanissaro goes on to argue for a link between this “direct experience” and nibbāna after death. But the passages he cites that actually talk about nibbāna after death say nothing of experience or knowing or consciousness. Rather they speak of the ending of rebirth and the cessation of existence.
Thanissaro’s argument pivots on blurring this distinction. On the one hand, he emphasizes that the arahant has a freed mind that is not bound to rebirth, and experiences stillness and peace. This is true, well-known, and uncontroversial. He then wants to show that the same kind of unconditioned consciousness persists after the death of an arahant. But nothing in the suttas says this. So he proceeds by separating quotes from their contexts and presenting them as a mosaic, blurring the distinction between the two, and creating an impression of his own making.
We have seen that in quoting Vedas, commentaries, and modern studies, Thanissaro conveys a sense of truthiness that relies on omission of crucial context. I first noticed this tendency many years ago in the context of his discussion of sutta passages on not-self. So while the cases I have considered thus far are mostly new to me, this is one I have written about previously.
Thanissaro says that, despite the great emphasis on not-self in the suttas, “the Buddha did not, however, hold to a theory that there is no self” (p. 80).
He quotes once again from a dialogue with Vacchagotta. Vacchagotta asks if there is a self or not, and when the Buddha does not answer, gets up and leaves. Thanissaro once again does not supply any context, so let me fill that in.
Vacchagotta was continual questioner of the Buddha, who came to him time and again seeking answers to metaphysical speculations. With such a student, there comes a time when merely giving more answers serves no purpose. In one sutta, Vacchagotta asks why the Buddha refuses to answer such questions where other philosophers do not hesitate (SN 44.8). The Buddha said that they answer because they identify the aggregates as self, which the Buddha does not. That sutta (SN 44.8) is shortly before the one cited by Thanissaro (SN 44.10) and thus helps set the scene. When the Buddha is silent, it is not that he is failing to teach Vacchagotta. His silence is full of meaning, which both he and Vacchagotta are well aware of: Vacchagotta’s question is driven by attachment to the aggregates.
Ānanda was with the Buddha at the time, and after Vacchagotta’s departure he asked why the Buddha was silent. Let us see how Thanissaro translates his answer (p. 81).
“Ānanda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self, were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those contemplatives & brāhmans who are exponents of eternalism [i.e., the view that there is an eternal soul]. And if I… were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those contemplatives & brāhmans who are exponents of annihilationism [i.e. that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I… were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“And if I… were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self that I used to have, now not exist?’”
Thanissaro inserts in square brackets his own interpretations of eternalism (“the view that there is an eternal soul”) and annihilationism (“that death is the annihilation of consciousness”). Both of these are subtly truthy.
As to the description of eternalism, we have already noted that while the Upaniṣadic view can be said to posit the survival of an eternal soul, the impression this conveys is inadequate. Better, it is the notion that what we take to be the individual self is, and always has been, the sheer consciousness of cosmic divinity, and enlightenment removes the veil that hides this truth.
And as to the description of annihilationism, annihilationists posit, not the annihilation of consciousness per se, but of the self, not matter how it is conceived.
Thanissaro refutes certain people who disagree with him, without naming them (p. 81):
Those who hold that the Buddha took a position one way or the other on the question of whether or not there is a self have to explain away the Buddha’s silence, and usually do so by focusing on his final statement to Ānanda. If someone else more spiritually mature than Vacchagotta had asked the question, they say, the Buddha would have revealed his true position.
Who is he talking about here? One of the principles of scholarship is that one should always contest the strongest possible argument against one’s own, and not invent straw men. If arguing against someone, we have to say who it is so we can check their own work and assess if the criticism is fair. But that is not possible here, so let me develop my own response to this. (For another take, see Venerable Bodhi’s note on this passage in his Connected Discourses.)
Thanissaro does not really grapple with the logical force of the passage. How is it siding with eternalists to say that the self exists? There’s nothing problematic with the idea that there is a self that exists, but it perishes at death. That is, in fact, the view of many people in the Buddha’s day and our own. Likewise, how does saying there is no self agree with annihilationists? The primary example of annihilationism is from DN 1 Brahmajala and it clearly posits a self:
This self has form, made up of the four primary elements, and produced by mother and father. Since it’s annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death, that’s how this self becomes rightly annihilated.
The difference between eternalists and annihilationists, then, is not over whether there is a self that exists: they both assert this. It is whether such a self continues to exist eternally (typically meaning “after death”). It would seem then that the statements that the “self exists” or that the “self does not exist” don’t really support the argument in the sutta. What then is going on?
Compare the following passage from MN 90 (see also MN 100). It uses the exact same phrasing, but instead of asking “does the self exist?” (atthi attā) it asks “do gods exist” (atthi devā). King Pasenadi asks the Buddha:
“But sir, do gods survive (/exist)?”
“But what exactly are you asking?”
“Whether those gods come back to this state of existence or not.”
“Those gods who are subject to affliction come back to this state of existence, but those free of affliction do not come back.”
I’ve translated atthi in such passages as “survive” rather than “exist”, and here you can see why. Pasenadi is not asking about whether gods exist in an abstract sense, but about whether they are reborn. But the phrasing is unclear, so even the Buddha requires clarification. This shows that the verb atthi, while often having the simple sense of “exist” can also carry a philosophically pregnant sense of “continue to exist”, “exist forever”, or more simply, “survive”.
We find a similar question posed to Yama, god of death, by the student Naciketa in Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.20. Naciketa wonders what happens to a man after he dies, as “some say he survives, while others say he does not survive” (astīty eke nāyam astīti caike). Yama initially refuses to answer such a difficult question. Pressed, he reveals that those who insist there is only this world simply fall under his sway (2.6), but one who knows the subtle true Self realizes the ultimate goal.
This lets us make better sense of the conversation with Vacchagotta. He is asking whether a self survives after death (eternalism) or whether it does not survive after death (annihilationism). Both cases are of the “do you beat your wife often?” variety, as they assume a self. It also shows that the problematic aspect of Vacchagotta’s question is not the notion of a “self” but the ambiguous verb atthi.
Thanissaro goes on to argue for his cardinal doctrine of not-self as a strategy rather than an ontological statement; in other words, this fundamental axiom of the Buddha’s teaching is not so much about what is true but about what is useful for me. Of course, most Buddhists would say that not-self is useful precisely because it is true. The whole point of the Buddha’s path of practice is to learn to see things as they are, not through the projections of our desires and fears.
He does so by contrasting Vacchagotta’s dialogue with a quote from Snp 5.16, where Mogharāja asks how to see the world so as to escape death. The Buddha says to see it as empty, uprooting any view of self. Thanissaro comments (p. 82):
The fundamental difference between this dialogue & the preceding one lies in the questions asked: In the first, Vacchagotta asks the Buddha to take a position on the metaphysical question of whether or not there is a self, and the Buddha remains silent. In the second, Mogharāja asks for a way to view the world so that one can go beyond death, and the Buddha speaks, teaching him to view the world without reference to the notion of self.
The “fundamental difference”: Thanissaro is making a strong stand. But once again he omits crucial context. We have already seen how Vacchagotta was in the habit of approaching to Buddha for questions. In this case, not receiving an answer, he immediately got up and left. But what of Mogharāja? Here is how he opens his question:
Twice I have asked the Sakyan,
but you haven’t answered me, O Clear-eyed One.
I have heard that the divine seer
answers when questioned a third time.
The narrative is spelling out quite explicitly the difference between the two: Mogharāja was patient and bided his time, whereas Vacchagotta was impatient and left. Thanissaro simply leaves out this context. It turns out that his “fundamental difference” is not needed at all.
Thanissaro uses the word “metaphysical” to criticize the view he opposes. However, he does not explain what he means by this notoriously unstable term nor why he thinks it applies to the views he opposes rather than to his own view. Let us look more closely.
The contrast between the “metaphysical” and the “empirical” was developed by the great Sri Lankan scholars K.N. Jayatilleke and his student David Kalupahana, both of whom described the Buddha’s teachings as “empirical” in the sense that they remain close to what is knowable by direct sense experience or what can be inferred from sense experience. “Metaphysical” ideas, in contrast, are those that are inherently unknowable and exist only as empty postulates of language.
In accordance with this, the Buddha presented not-self in an empirical way: wherever you look, however you try to find a self, you will never find one. And it is in accordance with this that the Buddha famously said “all things are not self”, where “things” (dhammā) are anything that is knowable.
Is there really a meaningful difference between saying “all things are not self” and “there is no self”? It’s tenuous at best. The Buddha framed his teaching from a particular lens, that’s all. To speak of what there is from a Buddhist perspective is to speak of what is knowable, for it is only that which is knowable that is relevant to suffering and hence to the path. No rational person would balk at saying, “unicorns don’t exist” when what we mean is that no-one has ever seen any evidence for the existence of a unicorn.
It’s a reach to say that such a slight variation of phrasing must in and of itself commit the speaker to a metaphysical view. On the contrary, the Buddha was a specialist, and it’s quite normal that specialists will employ a highly particular way of phrasing things that is not always observed in general usage.
A chemist might refer to “H²O” while an ordinary person might say “water”. Are they exactly the same? No, because “water” typically has things in it such as charged ions that are not H²O. Often this makes no difference. But if my science teacher says that H²O does not conduct electricity, and I decide to test that out by taking a bath and dropping a live hair dryer in it, I’m about to learn an excellent, if short-lived, lesson in why we should pay attention to the specifics of how experts use language. Nonetheless, the chemist will quite happily refer to “water” in ordinary language just the same as anyone else.
So are those who say there is no self falling into a metaphysical fallacy, making empty linguistic statements with no basis in experience or inference? By not citing those he opposes, Thanissaro does not give us the chance to evaluate them for ourselves. Indeed, it seems to me that the metaphysical postulation here is coming from the other side. Thanissaro is projecting a metaphysical view on his opponents in order to justify his own metaphysical view on the timeless persistence of a liberated consciousness.
When an atheist rejects the existence of God, they are not adopting a metaphysical stance, they are refusing to indulge in metaphysics. The notion of “God” is inherently metaphysical, since it cannot be observed or inferred from observation. Likewise, the idea of the “Self” is inherently metaphysical, since no entity with the properties of a self can be observed or inferred from experience. The assertion that there is no “Self” is not the adoption of a metaphysical view, it is the refusal to play the language games of the metaphysicians. Rejecting metaphysics is not a metaphysical position.
Thanissaro’s argument is grounded on the assertion that the Buddha never said, in so many words, that there is no self. He wants to set up an expectation in the reader that the Buddha should have given this teaching in this way. But this is an empty rhetorical gesture: we have no reason to expect that anyone at all, let alone an ancient spiritual text, should say the thing we want in the way that we want it.
I could equally argue that there is nowhere that the Buddha said that consciousness continues to exist after an arahant’s death in an unconditioned state of peace. It’s not a difficult concept to convey: the Upaniṣads explain it just fine. So why didn’t the Buddha? It’s interesting to try to understand why the Buddha spoke in certain ways and not in others. But we only have so many texts, and so much background and context, so we should avoid resting important conclusions on such speculative arguments from absence.
I have noted that Thanissaro’s unbound consciousness or Ajahn Maha Bua’s “original mind” bear a marked resemblance to the teachings of the Upaniṣads. To what extent is this true?
The Upaniṣadic thesis is one of the most powerful of all the deep philosophical notions of human transcendence. It directly inspired the Advaita (non-dual) form of Hinduism, which is often regarded as the most profound philosophical and contemplative branch of that great religion.
Similar ideas are found in later Indian Mahayana, where they are clearly influenced by Hindu non-dualism. Whether Mahayana as such endorses such a view is a difficult question, since for every passage describing a purified consciousness as eternal self we find another asserting the utter emptiness of all things. Mahayana is complex and diverse, and simple answers are rarely helpful. The same is not true of the modern Dhammakaya cult, which explicitly states that nibbāna is an eternally existing higher self.
Similar ideas have been developed in Taoism, mystical Christianity, and various western philosophies. They came into the English-speaking world via the occultist Theosophist and other teachers of the so-called Perennial Philosophy, from where they have become a standard view in New Age movements and the modern “consciousness” movement headquartered in California. Through these channels the astonishing insights of the Upaniṣadic sages have spread over the world to become in some ways the default view of those who do look for something more meaningful than either a personal heaven or annihilation at death.
When a view has spread so far over such a time among so many peoples, it cannot be said to be the same everywhere. Between each of these philosophies, and indeed within them, there is a tremendous range of variation.
It would be overreaching to say that Thanissaro’s unbound consciousness is exactly the same as the consciousness of the Upaniṣads. While he does not discuss the Upaniṣadic view of consciousness in this work, he makes it clear that he does not think the Buddha adopted the Upaniṣadic view in toto. Thanissaro does not identify his “mind unbound” with the cosmic Brahman and the unification of the individual self with the cosmos. Still, the avoidance of specific terminology does not settle the matter, as the brahmins themselves talked about their goal in many different ways.
What then is the relation between Thanissaro’s teaching on consciousness and that of the Upaniṣads?
I have documented many, probably hundreds, of links between the Buddha’s teachings and his Brahmanical contemporaries and predecessors. And one that stands out is the connection between the most refined of the contemplative brahmins and the notion of infinite consciousness. This starts with the Buddha’s first teachers and is reiterated many times, directly and indirectly. It is clear that the most advanced of the brahmins in the Buddha’s day believed that the self was ultimately one with infinite consciousness. The Buddha’s teachings on the formless attainments extend this idea in more detail.
This view can be traced to the revolutionary teachings of Yajñavalkya in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, where he used the method of negation to refute the idea that the Self was anything other than a sheer mass of consciousness. The range of contexts available from the suttas show without doubt that the Buddha was aware of this teaching. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the whole point of the Buddha saying that “consciousness is not self” is to directly and deliberately rebut the Upaniṣadic view, which the Buddha learned from his Brahmanical teachers.
Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 3.2.8 says that the individual rivers of “name and form” dissolve into the ocean of the “divine person”, losing their original identity and becoming one. This image was famously adopted into Buddhism in modern times by Edwin Arnold, who concluded his Light of Asia with the ecstatic, “The Dewdrop Slips Into The Shining Sea!” But the Buddha, deliberately opposing the Upaniṣadic view, said that “consciousness” and “name and form” are mutually interdependent. Neither has any ontological, metaphysical, or spiritual privilege: they both simply describe different aspects of how the mind works. Individuals are not absorbed like rivers or dewdrops in the ocean, they come to an end like a flame going out.
So it seems to me that while there are indeed differences between Thanissaro and the Upaniṣads, when it comes to the question of whether the state of liberation is to be equated with a form of liberated consciousness, they are similar. Moreover, it is precisely this idea that the Buddha was rejecting when he said that consciousness is not self.
Thanissaro notes that the Buddha said nibbāna is indescribable, then immediately describes nibbāna as a “mind unbound”. It would seem that ineffability only goes so far. To say something is a “mind” is to make a strong assertion about its nature. I set out to understand the methods and approaches that led Thanissaro to such a conclusion. While I have only delved into a fraction of the content of Mind Like Fire Unbound, this much is sufficient for me to sate my curiosity.
The Buddha never described the state of nibbāna after an arahant’s death as consciousness, since the mind’s very nature is to be conditioned. When he talked about the existence of nibbāna, the Buddha used an emphatic affirmation of negatives: there is freedom from birth, aging and death. And when he talked about it in order to encourage practice, he said it was blissful, sublime, peaceful. It is hard, but essential, to talk about the goal without overstepping these bounds.
The Buddha said, again and again and again, that all phenomena—including any form of consciousness at all, coarse or subtle, superior or inferior, all consciousness—is not-self, conditioned, impermanent, and liable to cease; and that their cessation is nibbāna. This much we know.