Khandasutta(SN 56:13): who or what is the subject

Hi I’m working my way through Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pali. For the last several months I have been stuck on who or what is the subject in the definition of the third noble truth.

“Katamañca, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ? Yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo. Idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ‘dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ.’

E.g., who or what is letting go or giving up? In Bhikkhu Sujato’s rendering, the subject is clearly the monastics to whom the Buddha is speaking. But Bhikkhu Bodhi’s rendering is more ambiguous, e.g., “its giving up”.

It feels important to me to appropriate the sense of agency here if that’s the case.



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As in SN 56.13:

And what is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering?
Katamañca, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhaṁ ariyasaccaṁ?

It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.
Yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo—

This is called the noble truth of the cessation of suffering.
idaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhaṁ ariyasaccaṁ.

Now to your question:

In my opinion:

It’s not the “who” here. It’s more of the “what”. As highlighted in bold in the sutta quote above, the “what” here is the third noble truth. That means, the third noble truth (nibbana) is the subject.

The third noble truth IS the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; (IS) giving it (craving) away, letting it (craving) go, releasing it (craving), and not adhering to it (craving) .

This is probably because the agency changes with the progression of the path, and Bikkhu Bodhi would not want to speak wrongly about the higher arahant stage, where self has been relinquished. For western lay practitioners it means the self.

How the Buddha-to-be investigated the second & third noble truths is set out in Majjhima Nikaya 19, an important text for the WLP level.

This principle of level and meaning is an important topic applying to all suttas, and can be identified by the personnel involved. The Buddha usually speaks at the arahant level (unconditioned) which can be confusing for beginners, as the path is conditioned, as pointed out in Majjhima Nikaya 44, another sutta suitable for WLP, as it is delivered by a nun to a layperson.

The necessity of developing skills in bringing factors to their culmination:

" There the transcendent paths and their fruitions take over. This is the sense in which even the path of right practice must eventually be abandoned, but only after it has been brought to the culmination of its development.

Many people have misunderstood this point, believing that the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment require that one relinquish one’s attachment to the path of practice as quickly as possible. Actually, to make a show of abandoning the path before it is fully developed is to abort the entire practice. As one teacher has put it, a person climbing up to a roof by means of a ladder can let go of the ladder only when safely on the roof. In terms of the famous raft simile [§§113-114], one abandons the raft only after crossing the flood. If one were to abandon it in mid-flood, to make a show of going spontaneously with the flow of the flood’s many currents, one could drown."


The Buddha addressing a layperson:

“And what sort of practice is the practice leading to the cessation of skillful habits? There is the case where a monk generates desire…for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen…for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen…for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…(and) for the…development & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. This sort of practice is the practice leading to the cessation of skillful habits.”

—Majjhima Nikaya 78

Thanks for this clarification! It still seems helpful to understand the subject of the verbs. Not just for me as a practioner but as a teacher. The way you’re describing it, I am getting the experiential part of it but a sense of agency is important for me if this is in fact what the Pali is saying. I realize there may be no definite answer.

Thanks for this thought! My challenge there is that, throughout the SN 56 Discourses that Bhikkhu Bodhi selects, I haven’t noticed such subtleties around the self. The Discourses seem rather straightforward about the practitioner making the effort to understand and break through to the four noble truths. I’m figuring out, over these last several months of study (and Bhikkhu Bodhi says it himself) that the subject is often assumed in Pali and thus not stated (so long as the conjugation works out?). So e.g. below:

‘‘Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, ‘idaṃ dukkha’nti yogo karaṇīyo, ‘ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo’ti yogo karaṇīyo, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodho’ti yogo karaṇīyo, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā’ti yogo karaṇīyo’’ti.

It’s really clear here (to me anyway) that this refrain is referring to “you” (plural) as the subject.


I have said in my post:

Maybe you are not convinced yet. However, that’s my answer to your question.

Hi, you may wish to have a look at K.R. Norman’s paper, “The Four Noble Truths”

The term ‘ariyasaccam’ there does seem out of place.

Norman mentions the translator Woodward, who noticed a long time ago that “the word ariya-saccam should be omitted, since what the Buddha meant was that the origin of pain should be given up, not the truth about it. “

Then we have a description of what the cessation of dukkha is.
(Yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho etc etc).

In the first sentence, the subject dukkhanirodha is declined to match the neuter saccam.

So I would say the subject is ‘dukkhanirodho’.

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Not speaking necessarily about you but, in general, when people start to practice the Dhamma, they often have a strong sense of self and they interpret the teachings through the “lens” of “who” and “what.”
This is understandable and, actually, can be helpful with respect to taking care about about the kammic seeds that are being planted – whether wholesome or unwholesome. As Ven. Thanissaro has written, a provisional sense of self can keep folks “on track” in this way.

Looking into DO, we see the selfless processes that lead to dukkha and sam.sāra. In these processes, there is no “who” or “what”, and so the question doesn’t arise; rather, processes based on ignorance and craving, lead to bhava, jati, and “the whole mass of suffering.” Some examples: SN12.20, DN15, MN38, with many other examples that are available with regard to this selfless arising of dukkha. And as well as the selfless processes leading to its ending, SN12.23.

Just another offering for a way to work with your question.
Hope this is helpful. :pray:

Thank you so much…this is very clarifying for me and I’ll check out Norman’s paper!

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Thank you, Jasudho, for your thoughtful response. Well, I’ve been a dedicated practitioner for 12 years and have been leading a meditation group since 2016. Of course, in deference to “beginner’s mind” I certainly wouldn’t want to put myself at a more mature level than I really am. And not to downplay my master’s degree in a non-English language. I am simply trying to understand the most likely subject for a list of verbs. None of my students (virtually all of whom start as complete beginners) would have any idea what DO means without a deep meditation practice, which I am trying to help them develop.

I will do my best to ignore the patronizing tone. I’m hopeful your intentions are sound.


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Very sorry if my reply came through as patronizing. It was not intended that way!

That’s why I wrote

I was just trying to offer a general response to your question about “who” and “what.”


I mean, who among us can be utterly clear about this issue before attaining the wisdom and clarity of an arahant?


Norman’s article is fascinating. I can accept that there may have been transmission errors that led to the Pali formula we now use. Maybe there’s a theory of mind somewhere that accounts for why we (native English speakers anyway) gloss over the illogical idea that we abandon the noble truth of the cause of suffering and instead assume that we abandon the cause of suffering instead :thinking: On the subject of the four verb forms “cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo” – who or what is the subject – Bhikkhu Sujato’s translation rings clear for me, i.e., the subject is the practioner. I am “giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.” Or the assumed second-person You. It seems to me that if the subject were “dukkhanirodho” then it would still imply an equivalency statement, e.g., “…regarding this same craving…the cessation of dukkha is equivalent to the practitioner giving it away…” It’s an important distinction for me because (my) agency is required to achieve cessation (or at least remission!) of dukkha.

By the way, I also just reviewed Woodward’s translation: “Verily it is the utterly passionless cessation of, the giving up, the forsaking, the release from, the absence of longing for this craving.” Here, “cāgo paṭinissaggo” clearly require the second-person pronoun as the subject whereas “mutti anālayo” come across as equivalency, i.e., cessation = mutti, cessation = anālayo.

It is impossible for me to convey to meditation students how to appropriate the third noble truth with any practical clarity without understanding this a bit. Or to appropriate it for myself.

Otherwise, for me, Buddhism continues to remain some obscure, impractical maze of hypothetical mental conjecture for anyone who is coming into relationship with it from the outside. Thanks, Stephen, for these really useful thoughts.


Thanks, fellow practitioner. If interested see my reply to stephen. After thinking this through with you all these last 24 hours I’ve decided to go with Bhikkhu Sujato’s translation where the subject is clearly the second-person pronoun (plural, I guess). Which effectively conveys agency.

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Hi, I’m glad you found reviewing Norman’s article interesting, there’s definitely something strange about how this is expressed, at least in Pali.

I have to admit I haven’t thought about a pronoun being required here, and saw it more like a formula, eg: ‘what is the solution to horrible climate change? It’s (the solution is) the reduction of carbon, the drastic cutting back, the total elimination of emissions…’

So there isn’t a doer required there, to state the remedy. Certainly the job requires a doer to get it done, though.

I’ll have to think more about this, thanks for the interesting discussion.

Many people have provided you with answers for your question and you have arrived by your own at a particular answer. Because you are going to spread that answer to many other people with your teacher role, I think it should be wise to consult learned monks/nuns.

My answer to your question is still the same. Nibbana is the subject.

This will be my last contribution to this thread. I hope that a learned monk/nun will give you a better answer soon.

Yes, as nibbana is dukkhanirodho, a good point.

This discussion has been very useful for me.

Per a previous comment re: remedy provided, vs. a doer performing the remedy, I revisited Bhikkhu Bodhi’s generalized explanation:

"While English generally inclines to representing the subject of a sentence in an active role, as the agent of the action, Pāli often features the logical subject — the agent of an action, observation, or thought — in a passive role relative to the grammatical subject of the sentence. The logical subject becomes one to whom a thought occurs, one to whom an event happens, one to whom an object appears, with the thought, the event, or the object becoming the grammatical subject…

…In the following (p. 106), instead of saying that one who knows and sees the four noble truths attains the destruction of the influxes, the destruction of the influxes functions as the grammatical subject occurring to the actual agent — represented by two dative present participles — as if the agent were passively undergoing the attainment:

“‘Idaṃ dukkhan’ti, bhikkhave, jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti.” “It is, monks, for one knowing and seeing, ‘This is suffering,’ that the destruction of the influxes occurs.”
–end Bhikkhu Bodhi quote

In a mundane example (via footnote), Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

“Logical subject” refers to the subject of a sentence other than in a grammatical (or “syntactic”) sense. Sentences with a logical subject (as well as a grammatical subject) usually have a passive verb. For example, in the sentence “The burglar was arrested by the policeman,” the grammatical subject is “the burglar” but the logical subject (the doer of the action referred to, the arresting) is the policeman.
–end Bhikkhu Bodhi (BB) quote

This creates complexity for people like me whose native language does not generally function with a logical subject in a passive role. In the burglar/policeman example, my attention focuses first on a burglar, then on an arrest, finally on a policeman (doing the arresting).

In the text on the influxes, it’s easier for me to immediately assume the subject (“one”). But BB then goes on to provide more complex examples that take me back to the burglar/policeman conundrum.

There is a fundamental-- more than nuanced-- conclusion for me from this ongoing study. One commenter aptly used the remedy scenario with “climate change”. If the remedy (third noble truth) = reducing fuel emmisions, I can meditate on this time and again and experience its rightness. I might even watch the self fall away with such focused attention.

However, until I assume agency, it does not change anything except my own realization. I wonder whether there’s conflation of a basic Pali grammatical model with a modern cultural propensity to evade agency through intellectual and spiritualized means.

For my own ongoing practice, I can’t envision the Buddha evading agency for fear it would reify a sense of an enduring self. The turban-on-fire simile effectively says as much to me. I suppose I’m heading into Bodhisattva plus ethical territory here without having really intended to when I posted a couple of days ago with the original question.

I will keep my eyes open for any other insight on this topic and bow to the wholesome intentions that saturate this forum.


I am uncertain what is the nature of your question, whether your interested is on the first place in Pali grammar, or you just use grammar as a tool for better understanding of Dhamma. I am certain that I could learn from you something about Pali grammar, but also I am certain that I am the subject to whom Dhamma is directed and it is my task to renounce…

Nanamoli Thera:

Now the Buddha has described the world (that is not just the external world but the consciousness that cognizes it, and not only other peoples’ consciousness objectified, but mine, too, and not only mine (of) past and future objectified but mine committed to it now—no matter who ‘I’ am.). His description of the way it works is the first two truths, while the last two deal with the escape from it.

If we are interested in ‘being’ we must look to the Dependent Origination (D/O), of which ‘being’ (bhava) is the tenth member. (A Thinker’s Note Book)

But subjectivity is not unambiguous term. It may refer to merely an individual point of view, as in the case of arahat, who is puggala -an individual - but in terms of dependent arising arahat is described as bhava nirodha, in other words he is an individual (puggala) without personality (sakkaya); or to puggala - an individual - who carries a burden (bhārahāra) of sakkaya.

Suttas recognise 9 kinds of puggala, between arahat and puthujjana we have 7 kinds of sekkha.*

Since arahat is beyond training, it is a puggala - an individual - who consider himself as a person (sakkaya) who is the main subject of Dhamma, and teaching him Dhamma Buddha tries to transform his experience of the person living in the world into impersonal state of puggala without conceit “I am” (asmimana)

  • Situation of sekha as a subject is also ambigious. He shares with puthujjana ignorance on pre-reflexive level - conceit I am", but is free from sakkayaditthi, and doesn’t consider himself as a person (sakkaya) or doesn’t interprete experience in terms of self and world. (attā ca loko ca)

Nanavira Thera:

The sekha, like the two-faced Roman god Janus (whose month this is), is looking both ways, to the past and to the future. The past is anuloma, and the future is patiloma, and if it is too late to include the sekha in anuloma it is too early to include him in patiloma. Or if you wish he is something of both. L 149

(The sekha—no longer a puthujjana but not yet an arahat—has a kind of ‘double vision’, one part unregenerate, the other regenerate.) As soon as one becomes a sotāpanna one is possessed of aparapaccayā ñānam, or ‘knowledge that does not depend upon anyone else’: this knowledge is also said to be ‘not shared by puthujjanas’, and the man who has it has (except for accelerating his progress) no further need to hear the Teaching—in a sense he is (in part) that Teaching.

So far, then, from its being a Subject (immortal soul) that judges ‘all things are dukkha’ with reference to an objective sukha, it is only with subsidence of (ideas of) subjectivity that there appears an (objective) sukha with reference to which the judgement ‘all things are dukkha (for the commoner)’ becomes possible at all. L145

Sorry if I misunderstood the nature of your question, but since you mentioned that you teach Dhamma, ability to distinguish between puggala and sakkaya is very useful and not at all as common as it should be.

With metta

Thank you. You have described my intention well: to use grammar as a tool for better understanding of Dhamma. I have also noticed the benefits of the deepening practice of chanting the suttas outloud.

As a trained linguist (among other mundane disciplines), I truly was seeking a linguistics-oriented response in my original question. As it happens, in the last two or three days – per a commenter’s recommendation – I have been reading much academic research regarding the particular syntax of Pali and similar languages.

Long story short, my finding is that it is characteristic of Pali (and related) syntax to have a logical subject of a verb (referred to as an agent) that is unstated but inferred from the syntax of a given sentence or phrase. My original question was asking, in effect, if this is the syntax we’re seeing in the Khandhasutta.

Looping back to paragraph #1 in my current reply: Inadvertently this discussion thread has prompted an inquiry for me about “agency” beyond the grammatical point. It feels (for me) like you’re helpfully delving into this when you say:

“But subjectivity is not unambiguous term. It may refer to merely an individual point of view, as in the case of arahat, who is puggala -an individual - but in terms of dependent arising arahat is described as bhava nirodha, in other words he is an individual (puggala) without personality (sakkaya); or to puggala - an individual - who carries a burden (bhārahāra) of sakkaya.”

I observe the scale of human and planetary suffering from greed, hatred, and delusion. I see the world on fire and resolve to help alleviate the suffering by practicing the noble eightfold path. For me, this necessarily requires agency. If this means that I am puggala who carries a burden of sakkaya, then perhaps the most expedient way for me to see this and release it is through approaching the fire. Every day I get up – whether I’m at home or on retreat – and the world is on fire.

Thank you, fellow practitioner.


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