Is there a contradiction in the Kevatta Sutta?

In the Kevatta Sutta (DN 11), there is a story about a ‘monk’ who appeared to still have faith in Brahma & Brahmanism, who approached Brahma to ask the question: “Where do these four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property and the wind property — cease without remainder?”.

Of note: In the teachings of the Buddha, the term ‘rupa’ is defined as ‘the four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property and the wind property’.

After failing to obtain a satisfactory answer from Brahma, the monk asks the Buddha the same question and the Buddha replies:

Your question should not be phrased in this way: Where do these four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property and the wind property — cease without remainder? Instead, it should be phrased like this:

Where do water, earth, fire & wind
have no footing?
Where are long & short,
coarse & fine,
fair & foul,
name & form (nama & rupa)
brought to an end?

Consciousness without feature,
without end,
luminous all around

It appears above the Buddha said in luminous consciousness: (i) the four elements do not cease without remainder but have no footing; and also (ii) rupa (form) is brought to an end (literally ‘destroyed’).

Since ‘rupa’ (form) is defined as ‘the four elements’, is the Buddha contradicting himself in his statement here? Or is there another explanation?

You can read Bhante Sujato’s article about this sutta here:ṇa-is-not-nibbana-really-it-just-isn’t/

The article seems to conclude:

1. The Buddha rephrases the original question.

2. the syntax of the answer would be expressed thusly:…the four material elements cease temporarily in the formless attainments.

3. the Buddha’s real teaching is not to temporarily escape materiality, but to reach an ending of suffering…even the infinite consciousness has to go.

4. Long and short, small, gross, fair and ugly, name and form cease without remainder with the cessation of viññāṇa. This is where this all ceases.

5. The errant monk had asked where the ending of the four elements was – which is of course the formless attainments. But the Buddha said the question was wrongly put, as this would merely lead beyond the form realm of Brahma to the formless realms.

6. The real question is what lies beyond that, with the cessation of consciousness. It is not enough for matter to be transcended, one must also transcend mind as well. If not, one ends up, apart from all the other philosophical problems, with a mind/body dualism.

If the rephrasing of the question by the Buddha only points to the formless attainments, why would the Buddha have rephrased the question?

If name and form (which per definition include the four elements) cease without remainder with the cessation (nirodhena) of viññāṇa, it appears the original question was phrased correctly &, to answer the question, the Buddha simply had to answer: ‘the four great elements cease without remainder with the cessation of consciousness’.

The article seems to raise more questions for me rather than answers them. That said, the article was complex and I may not have comprehended it clearly.

Actually definition of rūpa is found in Sammādiṭṭhisutta (MN 9) and it is:

The four great elements and the material form derived from the four great elements—these are called materiality.

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This is the definition I am referring to. Posting it does not alter my question about the Kevatta Sutta.

The question is: “If the Buddha said the four elements have not footing in luminous consciousness, why did he soon after state, in luminous consciousness, nama & rupa come to an end?”

In SN 12.67, it is said: “From nama-&-rupa as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes nama-&-rupa”. Therefore, how can nama-&-rupa come to end in a luminous consciousness that has not come to an end?

MN 9 states: “With the arising of consciousness there is the arising of mentality-materiality. With the cessation of consciousness there is the cessation of mentality-materiality”. Therefore, how can nama-&-rupa come to end in a luminous consciousness that has not come to an end?

I think one possible interpretation the luminous consciousness described in the verse is the consciousness of an arahant. An arahant doesn’t see ‘beautiful and ugly’, he’s beyond any description, beyond language and knowledge, and even if he or she operates with these notions, it is only to help us achieve his or her state. This luminous consciousness, even though it it is participating in maintaining the psyhcophysical entity we call ‘arahant’ during this lifetime, provides no footing for the four elements so that the re-birth process can occur, and the arahant’s death is the final end: ‘With the cessation of viññāṇa [divided-knowing] all this is brought to an end,’ i.e. the viññāṇa ceases, the four elements that have found no footing in this viññāṇa cease, the re-birth process stops. Parinibbana. Why is the original question wrong? Well, even if you are reborn as a formless being and are having no rupa, you will die and be re-born again, because the four elements ‘are having a footing’ in your consciousness in the meaning that they are like latent upakilesas or asavas and will spring up again as soon as they can, so you can’t really say that th four great elements have ceased without remainder.

Another possible explanation is that of bhante Sujato. As he writes in the article, the four material elements temporarily cease in the immaterial attainment sphere, but I think the idea that ‘the errant monk had asked where the ending of the four elements was – which is of course the formless attainments’ is not quite exact. Can you really say the four material elements have ceased without remainder if they are present in arupa loka as latent tendencies? Just as your asavas, if some of them cease without remainder, you become a stream-enterer. If they cease temporarily, the odds are you are experiencing a jhana.

I hope my thoughts have been helpful :slight_smile:

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Possibly. But the formless realm still has ‘nama’. To quote MN 111:

Sariputta entered & remained in the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. Whatever qualities there are in the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness — the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention — he ferreted them out one after another.

As I rephrased my query: How can nama-&-rupa come to end in a luminous consciousness that has not come to an end?

Wait a second, the original question was about the four great elements, i.e. the rupa alone. The Buddha’s reformulated question was about the rupa as well. Ven. Sujato’s article and my humble comment provided two possible interpretations to how the rupa may be absent from the mysterious luminous consciousness. How come the nama is suddenly relevant?

An interesting question is how the ‘infinity of space’, ‘infinity of consciousness’, ‘nothingness’ and ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception-ness’ should be classified in terms of khandhas. They are obviously not rupa, they are not nama (feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention), so what are they, actually?

Since cessation of feeling and perception is usually listed after them, I would think they are nama…

Could you please clarify it a little bit? I am afraid I don’t quite understand :sweat:

What I mean is that there are a lot of suttas where a bhikkhu first goes through the 4 jhanas, then the 4 immaterial jhanas and then cessation of perception and feeling. Couldn’t find any with the complete succession with a quick search on SC, but the important bit did come up in AN 8.120:

So the immaterial attainments seem to be all about perception (and feeling and conciousness I guess). Not so sure about volition.

Oh, that does make sense! Thanks a lot for this clarification! :anjal:

For me, it has become apparent there are now two possible contradictions. The sutta states:

Consciousness that is signless, limitless, all-illuminating,
Then water, earth, fire, & wind find no footing,
Then long & short, small & large, pleasant & unpleasant -
Then “name-&-form” are all brought to an end.

The suttas (MN 9; SN 12.2; etc) define ‘nama’ as ‘feeling, perception, intention, (mind) contact & attention’. Each of these ‘nama-dhamma’ are constituants of the immaterial meditations, as described in MN 111 (previously quoted).

Therefore, the Kevatta Sutta gives the impression of describing a consciousness existing without any nama objects to give rise to that consciousness. This appears contrary to the basic principles of the suttas about the co-dependency of at least consciousness & nama.

And there are also at least two follow-ups to the original post:

Nibbana is still not Viññāṇa
Nibbana remains not Vinnana

I think there is something we should ask Ven. @sujato or any other Pali expert about: are there any punctuation marks in the pre-19th century Pali manuscripts or are there any such scans of such mansucripts available online? Any information would be greatly appreciated :anjal:

Besides, we should probably ask @llt what this verse from DA 29, the Chinese counterpart of DN 11, says (just a rough translation would do :slight_smile:):

「『何由無四大, 地水火風滅?
何由無麤細, 及長短好醜?
何由無名色, 永滅無有餘?
應答識無形, 無量自有光。
此滅四大滅, 麤細好醜滅,
於此名色滅, 識滅餘亦滅。』」

Again, any help will be greatly appreciated :anjal:

My idea is that probably the verse was parsed in a wrong way. Due to the possible absence of the punctuation marks the following lines were thought of as referring to the ‘luminous consciousness’, mentioned in the above verse:

Ettha dīghañca rassañca,
aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ;
Ettha nāmañca rūpañca,
asesaṃ uparujjhati;

It may be that they are actually referring to ‘viññāṇassa nirodho’:

Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
etthetaṃ uparujjhatī’”ti.

(Notice how these lines have ‘ettha’ and ‘uparujjhati’ in common)

Fortunately, this hypothesis is totally falsifiable and can be disproved or proved with the help of the information that Ven. @sujato or @llt or other specialists could hopefully provide. If it proves to be true, everything would fall in line. The Buddha knew that when Kevaṭṭa asked him about where the four elements cease without remainder, he thought the answer would be ‘in the luminous limitless consciousness’, i.e. in the arupa jhanas. A very Brahminical idea, isn’t it? Instead the Buddha reformulated the question to show that the luminous consciousness is merely the sphere where the four elements don’t have a firm footing. After that, he proceeded to discussing ‘where’ the namarupa actually ceases without remainder: ‘with/by the cessation of consciousness’. Note how the Pali ettha actually means both ‘where, in which place’ and ‘now, then’. The whole verse would read this way, then:

‘Here/Then long & short, small & large, pleasant & unpleasant -
Here/Then “name-&-form” are all brought to an end:
With the cessation of viññāṇa
Here/Then this is brought to an end.’’

So, to come back to your initial observation about how Kevaṭṭa’s question was essentially correct. True, it was correct, but the answer he expected to hear was wrong, so the Buddha reversed his expectations by providing a correct question for this answer. To give you an example of how it could work in another context:

“What is the most delicious cuisine?”
“Giuseppe, that’s a false question. The right question would be ‘Which cuisine makes the best use of basil and tomatoes?’. The answer is the Italian cuisine. And the most delicious cuisine is Thai.”

So, waiting for help :flushed:

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[quote=“Vstakan, post:15, topic:3084”]
Besides, we should probably ask @llt what this verse from DA 29, the Chinese counterpart of DN 11, says…[/quote]

Can going forward in time to a hundreds years later transmission to Chinese be helpful? I think it could possibly be more helpful to go back in time rather than forward in time. Where did the term ‘nama-rupa’ come from? Is it a term specially unique to Buddhism, such as ‘aryiya-sacca’, ‘dukkkha-nirodha’ or 'paticcasummupada? Or is nama-rupa a term with special central meaning in Brahmanism?

Since the impression is that Kevatta was a Brahman, with faith in Brahma & was probably not well-versed in the Buddhist teachings, when the Buddha spoke the term ‘nama-rupa’ to Kevatta, what do you believe Kevatta understood the term ‘nama-rupa’ to mean? If appears obvious Kevatta was not aware of the teaching of Dependent Origination therefore how would Kevatta have understood the meaning of ‘nama-rupa’ as defined in Dependent Origination or elsewhere in the newly created Buddhism?

For example, when the Buddha used the term ‘nama-rupa’ to the brahman Jata Bharadvaja in SN 7.6, do you think the brahman Jata Bharadvaja knew the Buddhist teachings? If the brahman Jata Bharadvaja was not fluent in the Buddhist teachings then how would the term ‘nama-rupa’ have been understood by the brahman Jata Bharadvaja & thus in what context did the Lord Buddha speak the term?

At Savatthi. Then the brahman Jata Bharadvaja went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After this exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he addressed the Blessed One with a verse:

A tangle within,
a tangle without,
people are entangled
_ in a tangle._
Gotama, I ask you this:
_ who can untangle this tangle?_

[The Buddha:]
A man established in virtue,
_ discerning,_
developing discernment & mind,
a monk ardent, astute:
_ he can untangle this tangle._

Those whose passion,
_ aversion,_
_ & ignorance_
_ have faded away,_
arahants, their effluents ended:
_ for them the tangle’s untangled._

Where name-&-form,
_ along with perception_
_ of impingement & form,_
totally stop without trace:
_ that’s where the tangle_
_ is cut._

When this was said, the brahman Jata Bharadvaja said to the Blessed One, “Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, & to the community of monks. Let me obtain the going forth in Master Gotama’s presence, let me obtain admission.”

Wait a second, this is a transmission of an old Indic text of the Sarvastivada school. The main contents of the text are highly probably of a pre-sectarian origin and stem from the same proto-version as the Pali discourse. Any descrepancy between this text and the Pali version will lend significant credence to my hypothesis, while if its semantics correspond to the Pali version one-to-one, my hypothesis will be refuted. You can’t deny the efficiency of using Chinese Agama texts because it would mean that almost the entire fruitful research by Ven. Analayo (some of his books and articles are available here) and a large chunk of Ven. Bodhi’s work were made in vain, which I honestly think is a point hard to prove. Moreover, if it turns out there is no or little punctuation in the ancient Pali manuscripts there will be literally no way to find out how one should punctuate the verse apart from looking into the Chinese version hoping it will be helpful. Finally, denying that you can use a later translation to clarify unclear points in the hypothesized original text equals to saying you cannot use the Septuaginta in the Bible studies, which is, honestly (and I am sorry if I sound rude), absurd.

It is not. Please kindly read the abstract provided for this book.

Moreover, one of the current theories regarding DN texts is that they were primarily directed at the non-Buddhist audience with the proselytizing purposes (just listen to the opening discourse of the Ven. Bodhi’s series of lectures on the MN or read pretty much any more or less scholarly book on the structure of the Nikayas). As such, they had to meet at least two requirements: they had to be understandable for Non-Buddhists and they had to be entertaining. The latter point explains why there is so much palaces and magic jewels and lute-playing gods in the DN. Refuting a Brahmanical householder in a quasi-dispute situation using a brilliant rhetoric device is certainly something that the audience could dig a great deal. But in order to appreciate it, they had to understand what ‘this Buddha’ was actually saying to the poor Kevaṭṭa. Now, this is all purely hypothetical, as I don’t have any hard evidence and don’t claim to be an Indologist, but that would certainly explain the form this Sutta is having now.

But even if it were a specific Buddhist term, it would be far from rational to think that the Pali discourses are literal transcriptions of the talks between the Buddha and some other people. The are rather re-tellings, second-hand accounts circulating for centuries in mostly Buddhist culture where you don’t have to explain to people what ‘khandha’ or ‘namarupa’ means. This is why I am sometimes surprised by how people conclude ‘the five khandhas’ might be of the pre-Buddhist origin because the Buddha didn’t explain the term to his first five disciples. I mean, it is possible, but the absence of an explanation in a text doesn’t mean anything. The Buddhists as the primary audience of these discourses for centuries didn’t need any explanation, so it could easily be deemed redundant. You don’t explain the priest to explain in each and every sermon or each and every theological text what ‘sin’ or ‘purgatory’ means.

Some very interesting discussions here, and I’m sorry I can’t contribute more, but just on a couple of details.

There might be some punctuation; even in Brahmi there is punctuation. Devanagari uses | and ||. However manuscript editions would use little or no punctuation. Here’s a closeup of a Burmese palm leaf manuscript.

No real punctuation. Manuscripts typically didn’t even observe line-ending conventions. They just broke the word whenever they ran out of space.

Early printed editions quickly adopted western punctuation conventions. See here a page from the Rama 5 edition of Thailand, late 19th century.

It uses quote marks, paragraphs, and so on. These are added at the editor’s discretion. I am currently working closely with the Mahasangiti edition, which on the whole is probably the best edited of any modern Pali text. However there are still quite frequent punctuation errors and inconsistencies.

Sometimes, yes. We can only know after checking the specifics. In a case like this, we need all the help we can get, and both the pre-Buddhist texts and the Chinese are useful.

But to answer your question, nāmarūpa is a pre-Buddhist term, and in fact it is clearly used by the Buddha in response to and critique of Brahmanical ideas. The Kevaddha Sutta itself is one example of this.

To put yourself in the brahmins’ shoes, think of it something like this. The rūpas are the diverse manifest forms that appear in the world; the “things”, if you will. The nāma are the “names” we give to those forms; i.e. the inner concepts that map onto the external realities.

These are felt to have a fundamental connection. This connection is, in fact, the basis of magic. By naming something or someone, you have a power over it. A name, in other words, is not just an arbitrary symbol assigned to something (as held by Buddhists and by science) but is part of its essence.

The brahmins believed that language—real language, i.e. Vedic Sanskrit—was created by the divinity; more, it is the living expression of divinity in the world. This belief system dominated older Brahmanical thought.

Not long before the Buddha, however, a new generation of more sophisticated philosophers arose, most importantly Yajnavalkya, and the made a radical new proposal. All the “forms” of the world and their corresponding “names” are in reality just expressions of the underlying divinity, which is the true self, i.e. consciousness (vijnāna). Just as all the individual rivers, with their specific “shapes” and “names” disappear when they merge into the ocean, so too all the individual “names” and “forms” which we mistakenly (neti! neti!) take to be our self disappear when they return to the ocean of vijnāna.

Thus we no longer merely participate in the expression of divinity (by reciting Vedic texts), we become that divinity (by meditative absorption in infinite consciousness).

The Buddha’s teachings are specifically phrased as a refutation of these views. This is why he emphasizes that viññāṇa and nāmarūpa are interdependent, and equated Nibbana with the cessation of consciousness.


Thanks a lot, bhante. :anjal: So it may be the case that the text was wrongly punctuated with European characters when it was prepared for the first punctuated editions. Considering the state of the Pali scholarship back then and the complexity of the verse, it is plausible. So, the Chinese translation would now be especially interesting :flushed:

By the way, here’s a nice digital library of Northern Thai manuscripts:
and the less user-friendly but still very useful digital library of Lao manuscripts:

If you ever need the very old texts in your work, you know where to go :slight_smile:

So, here’s a link to a monolingual Pali mansucript. The verse from the Kevaddha Sutta is supposedly :sweat: on p. 65 (see the picture below).

This one is a bilingual Pali-Lao manuscript with the relevant verse being supposedly on p. 68 (see the picture below).

If my identification of the relevant places in the manuscripts is wrong - and that is totally a possibility - more competent people are always welcome to correct me :slight_smile: anyway, I don’t really see any punctuation at all, so false punctuation of ‘Ettha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ’ as referring to the ‘luminous consciousness’ was not impossible.

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