Is satta a mere verbal gloss on tathāgata?

The Pali commentaries often gloss tathāgata (“realized one”) with satta (“living being”). This happens especially, but not solely, in the context of the tetralemma regarding the survival of the tathāgata after death.

Analayo (Comparative Study, vol 1. p 391) gives some examples:

In regard to the destiny of a Tathāgata after death, one of the two Saṁyukta-āgama parallels to the Aggivacchagotta-sutta (SĀ2 196 at T II 445a18) speaks of the destiny of the “self of beings” or the “soul of beings”. This presentation parallels an explanation found in the Pāli commentarial tradition, which understands occurrences of the word Tathāgata in the context of this fourfold presentation to stand for a “living being”.

On the last point he notes:

E.g., Sv I 118,1: satto tathāgato ti adhippeto. This explanation seems to be standard for commenting on the tetralemma, cf. also Ps III 141,21: tathāgato ti satto, a formulation found similarly in Spk II 201,4 and Mp IV 37,22; on this commentarial gloss cf. also Gnanarama 1997: 236-237, Karunadasa 2007: 7-12, and Manda 2005. When it comes to occurrences of the term Tathāgata in contexts not related to the tetralemma, the commentaries record two possible meanings, namely either a living being in general or else an arahant, cf., e.g., Ps II 117,13: satto pi tathāgato ti adhippeto, uttamapuggalo khīṇāsavo pi, an understanding also reflected in Nidd-a I 193,24 and PaEis-a II 453,24: tathāgato ti satto, arahan ti eke.

Why, though, is a “realized one”, a term well-established as indicating either the Buddha or arahants in general, glossed as if it meant any sentient being? In particular, why is this introduced in the context of the tetralemma, which seems to be precisely about the destiny of an awakened one?

The commentary often supplies mere verbal glosses, where it simply recasts the word in another way as a synonym. The words tathāgata and satta appear to be such a case.

  • Tathāgata has two elements. Tathā means “so, thus, true; real; actual”, while the suffix -gata means one who has come to be in such a state.
  • Satta likewise has two elements. The root as means “existent, true, real” and is thus a synonym of tathā. The word is formed with the addition of the abstract ending -tta indicating “one in the state (of being)”.

The two words are applied in very different ways. We never find satta by itself used for an enlightened being. Nor, despite the commentary, do we find tathāgata in the sense of any sentient being. Thus they are verbal synonyms but not semantic synonyms.

I wonder whether this gloss began life as simple verbal resolution to explain the compound tathā-gata as sa-tta, to which later the applied sense of satta as “sentient being” was imported.


It also seems a convenient way to sidestep some of the controversy around that particular tetralemma, no? :pray:

If tathāgata were taken as an epithet of the Buddha, the word satta may probably be a corruption of satthā (= Sanskrit: śāstā).

If it were actually talking about tathāgata as an epithet of any individual person (whether an arhat or not) then satta (= Skt. sattva) may probably make sense.

The questions in the tetralemma below (usually asked by non-Buddhists in the canon) wouldn’t make sense for someone to ask the Buddha unless it were generally applicable to any living being (whether the Buddha existed after his death would be pointless for anybody else, specially non-Buddhists, to care about).

  1. Does the Tathāgata exist after death?
  2. Does the Tathāgata not exist after death?
  3. Does the Tathāgata both exist and not exist after death?
  4. Does the Tathāgata neither exist nor not exist after death?

So presumably the historical/original questions may have been “Does the ātman exist after death…” etc - but it appears the word tathāgata here is used as a replacement for ātman - and not as an epithet of the living Buddha.

I’ve always taken it that the Tathāgata was given as example in all of those so-called thought experiments to represent the “truest”, “realist”, “most findable” example of a being so as to give the most powerful impact when even the Tathāgata cannot be found in or among the aggregates or anywhere at all.

That is, when these existential questions are posited - then substituting the Tathāgata as the premier or highest example of what a being could achieve - would give the most shocking impact when even this premier example can’t be found under analysis. If not even the Tathāgata can be found under analysis what hope do us lesser beings have to stand up to analysis?