On atammayatā, “not determined by that”

The abstract noun atammayatā and the adjectival form atammaya appear in the suttas a few times as the desirable opposite of tammayatā.

I have commented on the meaning before:

It occurs in an interesting passage on MN 47. Pali students, check this one out and weep:

etaṁ pathohamasmi, etaṁ gocaro, no ca tena tammayo

This was translated by Ven Bodhi as:

They are my pathway and my domain, yet I do not identify with them.

“Them” being the purified states which he has developed.

If you look at the grammar, it seems a bit odd. (A)hamasmi is an emphatic assertion of identity, “I am”, commonly found in the Upanishads. Yet in Bodhi’s translation it indicates not identity but possession (“my”). Also, how do we construe the pronoun in accusative with the main clause in nominative?

His translation becomes clearer in light of the commentary:

esa mayhaṃ patho esa gocaro
Mine is that pathway, that domain.

So it seems the commentary has normalized the grammar, and Ven Bodhi has translated the commentary. That’s not great, but look, it happens. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and the commentary brings a huge weight of understanding to its interpretations. But let’s see if we can figure out something that stays closer to the text.

Let’s start at the end, with tammayo “made of that” or “made by that”. Since we’ve already noted the Upanishadic flavor of the passage, it should come as little surprise to find this is in fact an Upanishadic term. As per my recent analysis of sakkāya and the Jain astikāya, one case where the Buddha is likely to draw on prior art is in the context of wrong views or ideas to be rejected.

Now in this case we do not need to look far, for the Upanishadic precedent is one of the most important Upanishadic passages, and one that had an incalculable influence on Buddhism. I’ll quote it in full, rendering maya as the literal made with. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.5:

sa vā ayamātmā brahma vijñānamayo manomayaḥ prāṇamayaścakśurmayaḥ śrotramayaḥ pṛthivīmaya āpomayo vāyumaya ākāśamayastejomayo’tejomayaḥ kāmamayo’kāmamayaḥ krodhamayo’krodhamayo dharmamayo’dharmamayaḥ sarvamayastadyadetadidaṃmayo’domaya iti; yathākārī yathācārī tathā bhavati—sādhukārī sādhurbhavati, pāpakārī pāpo bhavati; puṇyaḥ puṇyena karmaṇā bhavati, pāpaḥ pāpena | atho khalvāhuḥ kāmamaya evāyaṃ puruṣa iti; sa yathākāmo bhavati tatkraturbhavati, yatkraturbhavati tatkarma kurute, yatkarma kurute tadabhisaṃpadyate
That self is indeed Brahman, made with consciousness, the mind and the breath, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air and the space, with fire, and what is other than fire, with desire and the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything—and as is well known, made with this and with that. As it does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing wickedness it becomes wicked—it becomes good through good acts and wicked through wicked acts. Others, however, say, ‘The self is made with desire alone. What it desires, it resolves; what it resolves, it works out; and what it works out, it attains.’

This is perhaps the earliest explicit description of the law of karma. Yājñavalkya centers the performance of moral actions rather than ritual. Note too that the passage presages the distinction, fundamental to Buddhist psychology, between the motivation (desire) and the deed. The alternative view at the end, in particular, lies very close to the Buddhist understanding.

While by far the most important, this is not the only place we find Yājñavalkya using such language. He uses etanmaya in the same sense in such passages as follows.

Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa

“that (self) is made with hymns, sacrifices, breaths, and divinities”
candomaya stomamayaḥ prāṇamayo devatāmayaḥ sa etanmaya

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.5.3:

“that self is made with this: speech, mind, and breath”
etanmayo vā ayam ātmā | vāṅmayo manomayaḥ prāṇamayaḥ.

  • Here the term is etanmaya, in 4.4.5 it is idaṃmaya, whereas in the Pali it is tammaya. The difference is merely in the choice of pronoun forms and does not affect the meaning.

All of these cases emphasize the active force that shapes or determines the nature of the self. By practicing well, whether it be keeping the rituals, or living an ethical life, one determines or conditions the self in such a manner. Thus the literal force of the word, “made by/of/with that” is still prominent, and should be represented in translation. Bodhi’s “identification” (which I have used previously) lacks this specificity.

Now let us return to the phrase as a whole, and the the other linguistic difficulty here, the accusative pronoun etaṁ that really feels like it should be nominative? Luckily we have the incomparable O.H. de A Wijesekera’s magisterial Syntax of the Cases in the Pali Nikayas to help us. It seems this is an example of the “accusative of relation”.


A striking example of this is found in the stock passage

taṃ kho pana bhavantaṃ Gotamaṃ evaṃ kalyāṇo kittisaddo abbhuggato D I.87; M II.83
“to this effect has the good report arisen concerning that venerable Gotama”,

Thus this functions in a manner more familiar from the locative of relation, establishing an oblique relation between the main clause and the secondary, which we can render with “about”, “concerning”, “of”, etc.

We can therefore render our passage:

etaṁ pathohamasmi, etaṁ gocaro, no ca tena tammayo
Concerning that, I am the range and the territory, but by that I am not determined.

Or more idiomatically:

I am the range and the territory of that, but I am not determined by that.

It’s still a striking and unique phrase, but both the syntax and the sense are now clear. The Buddha exemplifies those good qualities, he “is” their scope, but he is not determined or limited by them, i.e. he is not conditioned by that good karma, but has gone beyond all conditions.


This sounds like something Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was talking about in 1988 & 1989.

Why does Tan Ajahn Buddhadāsa call atammayatā the “last word and final sword of Buddhism”? Based on the above interpretation, he puts atammayatā at the transition point between the dhammaṭṭhiti-ñāṇa​ (insights into the state, or reality, of nature) and the nibbāna-ñāṇa​ (insights regarding liberation and the realization of Nibbāna). He explains this with a list of nine “eyes” (the Thai meaning of taa) or insights. The nine taa, or ñāṇa​, are:

aniccatā = impermanence

dukkhatā = unsatisfactoriness

anattatā = not-selfhood

dhammaṭṭhitatā = naturalness

dhammaniyāmatā = lawfulness

idappaccayatā = conditionality, interdependence

suññatā = voidness

tathatā = thusness

atammayatā = unconcoctability

The realization of these facts about the state of nature leads to the fruits of liberation, which can be described by the following ñāṇa (insight knowledges):

nibbidā = disenchantment

virāga = fading away of attachment

nirodha = quenching of dukkha

vimutti = release (liberation)

visuddhi = purity

• Nibbāna = coolness (the spiritual goal)


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Good find and interpretation, thanks.

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Indeed, yes, he was the first person to identify this as a term of doctrinal importance.

Thank you!