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Pali present tense referring to the future (and Vacchagotta's "there is no self")

Hi SC, :grinning:

A while ago @sujato wrote an essay on the meaning of n’atthi atta in SN44.10–the sutta on Vacchagotta’s questions on the existence of a self. That topic is old and has sparked many discussions already. I have a point related to it, but which is also wider, so I thought I’d open a new topic to make that point.

Sujato argues the verb atthi often describes what he calls “absolute existence”. This may be true, but atthi is far from always used in this sense, so maybe there is something else going on.

I think in this text the annihalationist view of n’atthi atta may better be interpreted as “the self will not exist” instead of “the self does not exist (absolutely)”. The present tense in Pali can have a future connotation, as indicated by AK Warder who says it implies to the “immediate future”, although perhaps it should be “certain (imagined) future”. We see this use of the present tense for example in na hoti param marana, “[the self] no longer exists after death”. (e.g. SN 44.7) Here hoti is a present tense, while the context is the future.

More examples:

  • AN 3.92: hoti so samayo, “there will come a time”.
  • AN 9.4: pajjati, “will attain” (translated this way by Bhikkhu Bodhi).
  • MN 140: na jīyati, na mīyati, “he will not get born, will not die”
  • AN 3.94, an example of atthi itself: Tasmiṁ ce, bhikkhave, samaye ariyasāvako kālaṁ kareyya, n’atthi taṁ saṁyojanaṁ yena saṁyojanena saṁyutto ariyasāvako puna imaṁlokaṁ āgaccheyyā. “If, bhikkhus, the noble disciple would pass away on that occasion [when he is in jhana], there is (i.e. will be) no fetter bound by which he might return to this world.”

In English there exists a similar use of the present tensen, as in "he arrives tomorrow”.‍

The Buddha says in SN44.10 that if he would teach n’atthi atta, he would be “siding with” the annihilist. And translating it as “there will be no self” makes the statement effectively identical to statements made by annihalists, such as “after death this self is (i.e. will be) destroyed” (Iti 49). It may cause other problems in English, that I don’t know, but as far as the Pali goes, I think that’s what it’s saying here. Either way, I think it creates less confusion than “the self does not exist absolutely”, which is a bit artificial and akward in my opinion. Also, this is not an annihilist statement per se.

This future use of the present tense also can be applied to other core doctrinal passages. For example, there are suttas stating “being enlightened, one is freed from suffering” (e.g. AN 8.6). But an arahant still suffers, so this might better be translated as “and being enlightened, one will be freed from suffering”. Or in dependent cessation we can have “when birth ceases, death will cease” instead of “when birth ceases, death ceases”, because obviously there will still be one last death after birth has ceased. :skull:

Maybe that is useful to you, but probably not!
Metta,
Sunyo

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Interesting points, Ven, and I will reconsider my translations of these passages.

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Hi Venerable!
Thanks for this thought provoking analysis!

I have one question…
Is it apropiate to translate or categorize dukkha vedana as suffering, even though it has the word ‘dukkha’ in it?
Are you saying that an arahant still suffers because he does still experience dukkha vedana?
If that’s the case, what’s Nibbana good for (i.e. what’s the incentive to look for it)? Is it only to reduce suffering?

I hope these questions make some sense.

Kind regards!

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I wonder if the parallels support this reading.

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It’s a bit off topic but the six senses are intrinsically dukkha, whether one is enlightened or not.

The point of nibbana is to remove desire and anger, and to end samsara.

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Hi , mind provide sutta reference for this ?

Thanks, Venerable!

This is incredibly interesting for me, because it is taking me to reconsider a lot of “facts” heard and assumed as the only one possible intepretation of the suttas.

I’ve heard a lot (I keep saying “a lot”, but I can’t remember any precise example, sorry about that) of buddhist divulgers saying that it is a common misconception to think that the Buddha tells that “life is suffering”. However, by reading this sutta and translating dukkha as suffering, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to reach that conclusion.

And, at the same time, I now see clearly why lots if people say that buddhism without rebirth is not buddhism anymore: if “life is suffering”, only the end of rebirth can fully stop suffering. But I’m now seeing that the relation between the effectiveness of the Dhamma, rebirth and dukkha depends in how does one decide to translate dukkha on each instance.

Kind regards!

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Thanks for reading, Venerable. :anjal:

As always, translation may be the hardest part. I think in the initial question Vacchagotta actually does mean the present tense (“Is there no self?”). But the Buddha refuses to reply “yes” not just because of Vacchagotta’s potential confusion, but also natthi atta would also imply “there won’t be a self”, which in term would imply there currently is a self. I.e. the annihationist position.

How to translate that properly into English, I don’t know. Perhaps the present tense is actually best, because as I pointed out the English present tense can also mean the future: “There is no self [after death]”… But of course it kinda obscures the matter (if indeed my assumption is the case).

PS. I briefly alluded to the same point I made in a connected topic over here.

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Like many common quotes, it’s kind of sort of right or not depending.

  • There’s no specific quote that says “life is suffering”. (Sujato’s rule number 27: beware someone who asks for information in a specific form and thinks they win the argument when they don’t get it!)
  • There are plenty of quotes that are of similar intent, most obviously sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, “all conditions are suffering”.
  • However, it would be misleading to say that “life is suffering (and nothing else)”. Obviously the Buddha talked about happiness a lot (even if worldly happiness is ultimately suffering, too!)

One of the ancient schools of Buddhism, a branch of the Mahasanghikas called something like Kukkulika (spellings vary), were apparently of the opinion that the Buddha taught that samsara was nothing but unrelenting and unremitting pain without exception, like burning coals. This view was rejected by other schools (and since we don’t have texts of this school it’s not clear exactly what they meant by this.) :smile_cat:

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