Going Out Like Fire Quenched

Thanks again for a great essay! It goes to show, once again, how careful one has to be in evaluating seemingly persuasive work. On one issue, however, I think you could have been even stronger.

Well, yes, but I think this gives too much credibility to Ven Thanissaro thesis. As it stands, it suggests it is reasonable to think that the Buddha would have “invoked obscure Vedic details when speaking with Vedic experts”. But is it really reasonable? There are a number of reasons to suggest that it is not.

(1) The metaphysical idea that fire somehow exists after it has been put out does indeed seem obscure. It is not mentioned at all, for instance, in the long Wikipedia article on Vedism. Moreover, the brahmins are known to have kept their teachings secret. Combine the rarity of the idea with the secrecy of the brahmins and you get the chance of a non-brahmin knowing about it. It seems to me that the chance must be very low.

(2) As you point out, we know from the suttas that fire is spoken of in a naturalistic way, for instance, at MN28: “So for all its great age, the fire element will be revealed as impermanent, liable to end, vanish, and perish.” From this we can deduce that ordinary people spoke about fire in a regular way, not with a hidden Vedic meaning. Because the Buddha is a non-brahmin, the brahmins would expect him to speak about fire in a regular way.

(3) In fact point (2) is not strong enough. Whereas the population at large was presumably immersed in the Vedic culture, the Buddha is part of the samaṇa movement that was directly opposed to the brahminical orthodoxy. It is to be expected that such a person does not tacitly use brahminical ideas in any context, but perhaps especially not when speaking with brahmins. And crucially, that is what the brahmins would have expected too.

A straightforward explanation is always to be preferred over a hidden a meaning, unless you have an especially strong argument to the contrary. Instead, Ven. Thanissaro’s evidence is weak. In the present case, the Buddha would have to state explicitly that he was using a Vedic idea to make Thanissaro’s argument persuasive. As a matter of fact, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. In my view, this is enough to reject his thesis.


Obscure, or not, it is quite obvious that Lord Buddha uses metaphor of fire to denote the states of greed, hate and delusion, and extinction of fire simply points out to the state of total absence of greed, hate and delusion.

If one insists on validity of such “obscure” or "confusing " concept, he says that such states nevertheless… In fact it is hard to say what he wants to say, but even if he doesn’t want to say it, he unwillingly admits lack of understanding of dependently arisen nature of fire.

“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: ‘When that fire before you was extinguished, to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?’—being asked thus, what would you answer?”“That does not apply, Master Gotama. The fire burned in dependence on its fuel of grass and sticks. When that is used up, if it does not get any more fuel, being without fuel, it is reckoned as extinguished.” MN 73

Such concepts as Eternal Heart, or Original Mind, are just verbal expressions, and very likely most of people who use them simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Perhaps some monks by these terms describe their direct experience. After all these concepts have no any meaning apart one prescribed to them. So it would be good to inquire what is the meaning of these terms in Sutta’s vocabulary. After all notion of eternity isn’t incompatible with nibbana, but again one has to be careful to provide exact definition of such eternity:

Nanamoli Thera: What is eternal (nicca)? Only non-arising, non-passing-away, non-changing of what is present.

But most certainly simile of fire cannot be used to justify them.

The phrase is identical to that used in the Mantramañjarī, a Vedic anthology by the Spanish Catholic priest Raimundo Panikkar. Ven. Thanissaro does mention this work in his bibliography, under the title The Vedic Experience.


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Absolutely. Building a large house on a weak foundation is not a good idea, and it feels like that is what’s going on here. It’s one thing to have clever theories and ideas, it’s another to build something on top of them.

We should also always be wary when someone brings in material from outside their subject specialty. It doesn’t mean that they are wrong. But we can’t assume their expertise in one field necessarily extends to others.


Yes, well once someone has accepted that the aggregates as a group (mind+body) cannot be accepted as a self, then usually the response is to break it up into one of these:

  1. The body is an allusion to the self and this ends at death so there is no rebirth
  2. The mind is an allusion to the self and this ends at paranibbana so there is no more rebirth
  3. The mind is an allusion to the self and this never actually ends

At least that is my hypothesis for the most common next steps, but of course sentient beings are myriad and probably some go in completely different orders and/or invent more elaborate rube goldberg contraptions to hold onto views of the self. I’m probably in the latter of these - making up elaborate rube goldberg devices - such a bad habit :joy:


Hah, thanks, nicely traced! I did look a little into Panikkar while researching this, he seems like an interesting fellow.

I’ve added this reference to the OP, with acknowledgement.


It’s not just reasonable, I cited numerous passages where the Buddha does exactly that. I think you’re misunderstanding my point here. I’m saying there are other cases where this happens, which are unlike the case Thanissaro presents.


Of course there is. If there wasn’t, don’t you think the Buddha would’ve used them interchangeably? You have the experience of “being a self”, for lack of a better way of putting it. When that experience is there, there is a self. It’s real as such. But if you look for it in the components of that experience, you won’t find a “thing” that stands for it. To say there is no self, or specifically to teach that there isn’t, wouldn’t make right understanding impossible. With that view, one would “see not self with self” at best. The reasoning in your quote logically ends in the conclusion that nothing exists.

I am guessing you are referring to this:

Alright, so first of all, from what you are quoting here, let me say that it does seem as if the Buddha knew quite a bit about Vedic scriptures and practices. So perhaps the probability that he knew about the Vedic metaphysical theories of fire are not as remote as I had thought. Still, the three references you supply here are quite different in their implications from the going out of the fire. And so, so far as I can tell, my overall argument holds.

With Snp 3.4, I assume you are referring to the Sāvitrī Mantra, which the Buddha evidently knows well. The point here, however, is that there is no scope for any alternative explanation; it must be a reference to a brahmanical mantra. The problem with the fire going out is precisely that there is a far more obvious and naturalistic explanation.

The second reference concerns a saying by Uddaka Rāmaputta, the Buddha’s former teacher. Uddaka may well have been a brahmin ascetic, but that does not make his saying a traditional Vedic teaching. This could just be an idiosyncratic teaching of Rāma or Rāmaputta, as the case may be. In fact the Buddha is quoted as calling it Uddaka’s saying.

The third reference does seem to contain a very specific reference to Vedic rituals (“pick up the last spoonful”). I have no reason to doubt you on this point. But again, it is not clear that it could have any meaning apart from the Vedic context. With the fire going out, the Vedic idea is non-obvious by comparison, to say the least.

So, why would the Buddha, a non-brahmin, be referring to a Vedic concept, when everyone apart from the brahmins (or some of them) thought of fire in the usual way? The brahmins themselves would expect the Buddha to speak using the normal sense of the word.

Sorry to bang on about this! (Actually, not all that sorry. :grinning:)


I have pondered this for some time, I hope my response makes sense and is appropriate here.

Thanissaro distinguishes two mental states, as present on the commentary on AN 1.49-52 featuring the luminous mind. He refers to DN11 and MN49 in relation to Viññanam anidassanam which he sees as fundamental different, outside the “all”, which is defined in SN 35.23 (Sabba Sutta, access to insight, might deviate from sutta central numbers).

If I address DN11 first, I do not come to the same conclusion.
The Buddha reframes the original question, then answers on where water/earth/fire/wind have no footing, being one of the formless meditative states.
It then expands to long & short. coarse & fine, fair & foul and name & form coming to an end in that state.
This is linked to the cessation of consciousness and with that separate.

The same applies to MN49, where the the “all” ends in “conscious where nothing appears” which is again one of the formless states. The Buddha takes the opportunity to teach about the danger of (continued) existence, which will come to an end.

To this point we agree.

This however brings me to @sujato saying:

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 )

As well as:

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.

I think this requires some elaboration before I can agree.
MN121 gives insight in the processes leading up to signless immersion.
The neither/nor state is clarified as: There is only this that is not emptiness, namely that associated with the six sense fields dependent on this body and conditioned by life. This is, as far as I recall, also the notion of an arahant after liberation. Yet this liberation comes from cessation, and the realisation afterwards: ‘Even this signless immersion of the heart is produced by choices and intentions.’ They understand: ‘But whatever is produced by choices and intentions is impermanent and liable to cessation.’

The question remains: is signless immersion (cessation) equal to a form of consciousness or not?
If we look at An10.7, the answer appears to be yes.
I’m not entirely happy with the translation though. It’s too elaborate. The essence is that the process of becoming and cessation turn into one (just like the flame) and in between the freedom related to “not becoming nor cessation” is experienced.
From SN41.6 we know even more, being that “the faculties” are very clear. That’s certainly not an unconscious mental state.

I consider that Thanissaro places this experience “outside” the six senses.
The six senses require a point of focus, which is not present in signless immersion.

Yet, as I’ve already pointed out above, that would not imply that this is a lasting state (experience) for an arahant.
Even more, the notion that the state is willed, produced by choices and intentions and thus liable to cessation" should give rise to disenchantment (disillusionment) and dispassion, which are key to knowledge and vision of freedom.

I know that Thanissaro is not consistent in his notion about the consciousness of an arahant after death. And that ven. Maha Bua pressed even further in his teachings about the citta (specially when writing about ven. Mun).
I however like to keep in mind that they both, with their limitations, attempt(ed) to describe the experience of cessation and the experience of an arahant. Where these limitations might be our our side, the listener, as well.

This brings me to the last item I like to address:

Is there really a meaningful difference between saying “all things are not self” and “there is no self”? It’s tenuous at best.

To me there is a huge difference.
Saṅkhārā carry both dukkhā and aniccā, but the experience described above contains neither. It’s not something the mind fabricated (made up).
However, with it being dhammā it still requires an effort to achieve/maintain. And it’s this effort which creates an affliction (I want my mind to be like that all the time).
It’s by taking the experience as it was, by recollection and anticipation, and making an effort to achieve just that, that dhammā is turned in saṅkhārā, something it’s not.

The notion “there is no self” is a similar saṅkhārā when not approached from precisely the right angle.
It’s interesting how the Buddha challenged various people into pointing him out by the aggregates, and they had to come to the conclusion they can’t. Resulting in notions such as … when the Buddha dies, the aggregates come to an end. Or … there is stress, it’s origin, it’s cessation, and the path to this cessation of stress.
There is no answer to the self/no self question, just as there is no answer to the question “when a flame goes out, in which direction did it go?”. The question itself was wrong, and on self/no-self the various degrees of answers show that the Buddha assessed knowledge based on the question and responded to that by silence (you lack fundamental understanding), reframing the question (this is more appropriate to ponder) and answering from various perspectives (this understanding leads to that, such understanding to such answer).

From a practical perspective: when I slam my finger with a hammer, there is pain. When I add mental notions of “I am hurting” to it, I add additional layers of stress on top.
The same goes for the notion “I am”, since that can lead to pondering such as “what will happen when I am not…?” which can turn rather stressful. Yet the same notion “I am not” can lead to similar stress.
I get the impression that the Buddha was very wary about “ultimate truths”, to the point that even his main teaching contains four components: stress, it’s origin, it’s cessation and the path leading to cessation of stress. When you see the end, how can you say there is stress? If you see the beginning, how can you say there is no stress?

Thank you for your elaboration on Thanissaro’s book.
And I hope my response adds some clarity instead of confusion.


Dear Jos, thank you for these sincere and thorough comments. Saying that, do they not belong in the spin-off thread on self/non-self? I, for one, deeply appreciate Bhante Sujato’s essay (and ongoing thread) with its clearly stated objective (my italics):

A selfish attempt on my part, I suppose, to encourage lean expression – and on-topic – for everyone other than the experienced, engaged teachers and monastics.

With all respect and warm wishes.


What is ‘lean expression’ ?

Refraining from going into lots of detail and personal contemplations for the sake of giving more space to those with, arguably, more experience to do so. When the situation is warranted, such as an essay by Bhante on a quite narrow question. Otherwise, people like me tend to ignore the thread as it gets bogged down. That’s why I noted it’s a selfish motivation on my part.


Hi Bethi,

Since I am the bad apple that forced all the shifting, I thought I should respond to your post. The thread is for those who have read the book, for whatever reason took credence in it, find this matter relevant and can respond in a meaningful way to the essay. It seems to me Jos meets all those requirements.


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I feel like you’re arguing for the same point that I am making in the essay?

It’s a state of meditation which lasts for a while and then ends. Ergo, it is impermanent and conditioned. The only thing that is not is Nibbana, which is not a state of meditation or consciousness at all.

The idea that there is an ambiguity here is, as I explained above, caused by a misreading of the relevant passage, which deals with, not the existence of the self in a philosophical sense, but the survival of the self after death.

Thanks! There’s a place for open-ended conversation, but if every conversation is open-ended, it means nothing specific ever gets discussed.


Yes, it is similar. It was just that one sentence:

My point is that even in this case the matter is contextual. He may invoke Vedic details or he may not. The context will decide. It follows that one should not make a blanket argument. I would prefer a phrasing such as:

It is one thing to argue that the Buddha under special circumstances invoked obscure Vedic details when speaking with Vedic experts.

Anyway, enough!


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Very interesting essay, I just have a small note on one part:

I’m not qualified to comment on the Vedic context, but in general this is not what physics means. Physics is just a theory of the principles which govern substances in the world, regardless of that theory’s origin.

For example, the Stoic Physics included the idea that Zeus in a primordial fire set the universe into motion, that the equator was on fire, that every object was coextensive with a pneuma, determinism, a theory of elemental properties, and eternal regress. Other schools had a similar mix of claims (“wild” and sensible seeming, evidence- “logic”- or revelation- based) in their systems of physics.

Your claim would be similar to asserting “medicine is based on evidence” when, just as an example, chiropractic medicine was supposedly based on the revelations of an American ghost. Evidence-based medicine exists, but it’s not the only thing we call medicine.

Most people throughout most of history were wrong about a lot of things, and based their opinions about several topics, including physics, on things other than verifiable reproducible evidence.

Again, I’m not making any claims about the vedas - I don’t read Sanskrit and haven’t even got through them in translation. I’m totally open to the idea that they don’t contain any physics (most texts don’t), and that someone might be confusing a different genre for physics. But lacking evidence based / accurate physics isn’t the same thing as lacking physics.