Is the Tathāgata profound, like the ocean? (MN72)

Summary: perhaps liberation is what is “deep and hard to fathom like the ocean”, not the Tathāgata.

Hi all, :slight_smile:

A while back I was reading MN72, the famous discourse on the fire simile spoken to a wanderer from the Vaccha clan. I realized something when I reached the following sentence:

rūpa­saṅ­khā­ya­ vimutto kho vaccha tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho seyyathāpi mahāsamuddo. (Similar in SN44.1.)

The following translation by Bodhi and Ñānamoli more or less represents the standard interpretation of this sentence. I’m using it just as an example. (I’ve taken “Vaccha” out for clarity. In the original it follows “form”.)

The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form, he is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean.

This has always puzzled me. What exactly is profound about a Tathagata? Why is a Tathagata hard to fathom yet a normal unenlightened person supposedly not? After all, both are just five aggregates, so both are just as hard to get to the bottom of. Or do you somehow become an immeasurable ocean when you get enlightened?

But if I just change the word “he” into “which”, it becomes intelligible:

The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form, which is profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom like the ocean.

You see what that did? Liberation is now what’s “profound and hard to fathom”, not the Tathāgata!

Grammatically this is possible, as far as I can tell. I see I’ve structured it as (A = B) = C instead of A = B = C but I don’t think there is a fundamental problem with that. Please correct me if I’m wrong. (For people new to Pāli I’ll explain. The sentence in Pali has no verb “is” in it. It basically says: “from reckoning-material-form liberated Tathāgata profound, immeasurable, hard-to-fathom like ocean.” The translator has to interpret the sentence and decide which things are to be linked with “is” in English.)

Contextually this also makes sense, for only a few paragraphs before, the Buddha said:

For this Dhamma [i.e. principle/truth], is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, Vaccha …

That is all I have say, basically. I hope it makes sense. But while I’m at it, I might as well suggest linking “profound” (or ‘deep’) and “immeasurable” with “ocean” more directly:

The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form, which, like the ocean, is hard to fathom, deep and immeasurable.


The Tathāgata is liberated from reckoning in terms of material form, which is as hard to fathom, as deep and as immeasurable as the ocean.

I have further opinions about the word choices in this translation. For example, I think saṅ­kha is what we’d call ‘identification with’, not ‘reckoning in terms of’. But to not distract from my main point I’ll leave those opinions for another time, perhaps.

If people are interested, I may also share some other thoughts on this sutta; on “reappear doesn’t apply” and such. Let me know if you are interested. Perhaps I’ll even be brave enough to attempt a translation.

So what do you think? Is the Tathagāta profound? Or is liberation profound?

Or am I missing the obvious? That shouldn’t be surprising, since all translations I know have “the Tathagatha is like the ocean” … So, friends, especially fellow Pali geeks, please tell me if I’m wrong, or let me know if you think I may be right. (A ‘love’ I count as confirmation!)

Thanks for reading. :slight_smile:


Please don’t count my “love” as “confirmation”; I’m really not a Pali expert. But I still like your article and find you are making a good point!


Can you really neatly separate out the Tathagata from liberation?

I think that an ordinary person, although their mind may be complicated and twisted up, has drives and emotions that we can basically understand (they are seeking sense pleasures, or are angry at someone, frustrated etc…). But what is going on in the mind of the Tathagata? Difficult (impossible?) to say! (at least for the ordinary person). How is it that he came to be perfectly enlightened through his own self efforts? Seems pretty profound to me!

That being said, I know nothing about the translation issue in question, but I’m impressed by your knowledge and attention to detail.


How about SN 22.86?


Reading this sutta I am wondering whether this also can be understood as the Tathagāta being “profound, hard to fathom, like the ocean”?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

But maybe “the Buddha-range of the Buddhas” is not to be equated with the Tathagāta but rather describes the qualities that make them a Buddha, the qualities of a liberated mind. So it might again be rather liberation and not the Tathagāta that is meant here.

This doesn’t say anything about the Pali grammar in your sentence, though.



What I think you mean is that that sutta talks about the wrong view that there is such a thing as ‘the Tathagata’, a self, that can either continue or cease after death (or both or neither). And that this “Tathagata” is what’s deep and difficult to understand, and such. Am I right?

That might make sense if the sentence didn’t use the term Tathagata in the conventional way by saying ‘the Tathagata is liberated from, etc’.

This is exactly what may be slightly dubious about the sentence if taken in context, which is indeed that in reality there is no such thing as a Tathagata.

This led me to read Analayo’s comparative study on it. It seems confusion on how to interpret the sentence is not a new thing:

The Aggivacchagotta-sutta [MN72] continues by noting that the four modes of the tetralemma are not applicable to the Tathāgata, who is profound and unfathomable like the ocean. This explanation and the image of the ocean are not recorded in the other versions. One of the two Sayukta-āgama discourses does, however, mention the qualities “profound” and “boundless”, apparently referring to the Tathāgata, so that a similar statement could have been found in an earlier version of this discourse and may have been lost during the course of transmission or translation.

Bhikkhu Bodhi seems to agree with my suggestion conceptually:

The words “profound, immeasurable, hard to fathom” point to the transcendental dimension of the liberation attained by the Accomplished One


No, they’re not. The five aggregates are not-self.

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That’s a good point, actually. It comes down to what I said before @sylvester.

How to understand “the Tathagata is deep etc.” if there is no Tathagata in the first place?

I was just using convenient language, but the Buddha wouldn’t be tempted to do that as easily, especially in context of the sutta, which is indeed that there is no Tathagata.

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Hi Bhante

Yes, you understand my position correctly.

But I treat the Pali version as a standard periphrastic construction with the copula hoti silent. The governing verb starts with the participle vimutta and all the other adjectives stand in periphrasis with the silent copula.

Might you know of a grammatical treatment that would account for the silence of the subject in the next sentence (the subject being “this liberation”)?

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“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.” SN 22.87

The Tathagata in this case could refer to Dhamma (= liberation) which is hard to fathom, deep and immeasurable.

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You mean the next sentence Upapajjatīti na upeti?

Hi Bhante

Poor choice of word on my part. I should have said cluster of adjectives and simile as in the italicised -

rūpa­saṅ­khā­ya­ vimutto kho vaccha tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho seyyathāpi mahāsamuddo.

I see you’re proposing that the adjectives are in a nexus, predicating liberation. My point was that the grammatical subject liberation is not mentioned in that cluster, leaving only Tathagata as the subject.

Yeah, that’s the crux of the matter: is it grammatically sound? I should have said earlier that I’m not sure. :frog:

By head I don’t know another nominal sentence that is not simply a string of adjectives. I mean, one that works like this.

I’ll keep my eyes open.



When the aggregates are no longer misapprehended as ‘Tathagata’, the question is who (or what) is then sitting in front of Vaccagotta? The answer is that Vaccagotta isn’t able to see it, at least immediately… the aggregates (not ‘subject to clinging’, anymore) and Nibbana-dhatu is present. They are not atta. They are Dhamma, hence 'those who see the Dhamma, sees ‘me’ '. Understandably it is hard to fathom, and deep. The Buddha in his enlightened state, just sees the four noble truths; not a Self. It isn’t clear how Vaccagotta finally comes to understands the Buddha’s deep statement. Did the Buddha give a graduated discourse (anupubbiya kata) to him, or use a supernormal ability to make him see what the Buddha saw; it isn’t clear.

The Buddha is using the term Tathagata in a conventional sense, as he is speaking conventionally to Vaccagotta.

with metta

Both are not just five aggregates.
Differences are one knows and cannot be tracked down as it is released and the other doesn’t know and can be tracked down as it is Unreleased.

I love that emptiness is replying to sunyo here. :joy:


They both even use an ensō for their pic.

What is the sound of two clapping emptinesses?


:penguin: :cactus: