I was pointed at the following passage from UD8.2 during a discussion, which piqued my interest:
“It’s hard to see what they call the ‘uninclined’, for the truth is not easy to see. For one who has penetrated craving, who knows and sees, there is nothing.”
Of particular interest was the original pali behind the phrase ‘there is nothing’: natthi kiñcanan”ti.
These words have the following definitions:
natthi: it is not
kiñcana: something; anything; (as abstracted from akiñcana, interpreted as) an impediment or defilement
The word impediment, found alongside the words something and anything, for the definition of kiñcana set in motion an analysis that changed the way I think about dukkha (suffering) and nirodha (cessation). What follows is an articulation of this analysis, and its implications for the understanding of the five aggregates and, by extension, the unconditioned.
Things are known through impediments
How do we know that there is something present? It is because we are impeded by it in some way. For example, we know that a wall is present because we can’t see through it, or because we can’t go through it. We know that a mirage is present because it distorts our vision of what is behind it. In every case, the only reason that we know something is present is because that thing impedes us in some way.
Existence of things can be known, but non-existence of things cannot
We can know something is present because it impedes us in some way. Once we know that it is present, we can confirm that it exists.
But suppose that nothing impedes us. Does that mean that nothing is present? No it does not.
Suppose someone is following behind you. They are completely silent and are outside your visual field. You suspect someone is there, so you turn around. As you turn around, you see no one there because the person has quickly moved behind you again. You then decide to slowly walk backwards into a wall to pin your suspect between you and the wall. This fails as your back just meets the wall, because the person has climbed the wall. You look up, but once again the person can’t be seen because they are now behind the wall.
In this example, you cannot know whether or not a person is present. All you can know is that there is no person impeding you.
Thus, while the presence of an impediment lets you confirm that something exists, the absence of the impediment does not let you confirm that something does not exist.
Often, if the suttas describe something as having ceased (pali: nirodha), the thing is taken to no longer exist.
However, as shown above, we cannot know whether something exists or not. We can only know that it is no longer an impediment.
Thus, when something is said to have ceased, it is incorrect to conclude that it no longer exists. We can only correctly conclude that it is no longer an impediment.
Existence, non-existence, both, neither
For something that has ceased to be an impediment:
- Existence cannot be confirmed: Because there is no impediment by which it can be perceived.
- Non-existence cannot be confirmed: Because non-existence cannot be inferred from the lack of an impediment.
As such, it follows that the two below can’t be confirmed either:
- Both existence and non-existence
- Neither existence nor non-existence
The third noble truth is phrased in the following way (SN56.11):
Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. 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.
Idaṁ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhaṁ ariyasaccaṁ—yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo.
Based on the previous section, cessation must refer to the cessation of impediments as opposed to the cessation of existence.
If what ceases are impediments, then based on the third noble truth, dukkha/suffering and tanha/craving must be thought of as impediments.
It may be asked, what are dukkha and tanha impediments to? The implicit answer is that they are impediments to wellness.
Rethinking the cessation of the five aggregates
Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.
There are the five aggregates; then there are the five aggregates affected by grasping.
The five aggregates impede each other by being forces that shape and constrain themselves and other aggregates (e.g. one of your perceptions may affect the next perception that arises, or a perception may affect which forms you choose to look at or focus on). It is by virtue of this impediment that the existence of the five aggregates can be known.
The five aggregates affected by clinging additionally impede wellness.
This can be determined from the sutta above, which equate the five aggregates affected by grasping to dukkha/suffering. Dukkha, in the earlier section was shown to be an impediment to wellness. Thus, the five aggregates affected by grasping are also an impediment to wellness.
When a being gains awakening, the five aggregates cease being impediments to wellness because they are no longer affected by grasping.
This cessation happens in two stages:
While an awakened being is alive, the aggregates impede wellness at the physical level but not the mental level. Thus there is physical pain but no mental pain. The aggregates impede wellness at the physical level because the effects of former grasping have not run their course. The aggregates also continue to impede each other for the same reason, and thus can still be known to exist.
When an awakened being dies, the aggregates impede wellness neither at the physical level nor the mental level. Thus there is no physical pain and no mental pain. In addition, because the effects of grasping have run their course, the aggregates no longer impede each other, and thus their existence or lack thereof cannot be determined.
Once again, the reason that existence and non-existence cannot be known is because:
- An impediment is the means by which the existence of a thing can be discerned. If something doesn’t present an impediment, you can’t confirm that it exists.
- Once something stops presenting an impediment, all you can know is that the impediment is gone. You cannot confirm that the thing doesn’t exist.
Note that, due to the above, the fourfold analysis of existence, non-existence, both and neither cannot be applied to the aggregates.
Once the two stages of cessation are complete, all that can be known is that:
- The impediments of dukkha and tanha have ceased.
- The aggregates no longer impede each other.
The five aggregates after parinibbana
Can anything be said about the five aggregates after parinibbana, if they cannot be confirmed to exist or not exist?
Yes, within limits:
- Because grasping has ceased, no new intentions arise. Thus nothing new is fabricated.
- As fabrication is not grasped at, cognition in relation to fabrication does not occur. Thus, the notion nothing is being fabricated does not occur.
- As nothing new is fabricated, no new forms arise.
- As form is not grasped at, cognition in relation to form does not occur. Thus, the notion there is no form does not occur.
- As nothing new is fabricated, no new feelings arise.
- As feeling is not grasped at, cognition in relation to feeling does not occur. Thus, the notion there is no feeling does not occur.
- As nothing new is fabricated, no new perceptions arise.
- As perception is not grasped at, cognition in relation to perception does not occur. Thus, the notion there is no perception does not occur.
- As form, feeling, perception and fabrication are not grasped at, consciousness pertaining to them does not arise.
- As consciousness is not grasped at, cognition in relation to consciousness does not occur. Thus, the notion there is consciousness does not occur.
- Consciousness of unimpeded wellness occurs. However, the notion there is unimpeded wellness does not occur. In other words, unimpeded wellness is known but not objectified.
A final note. The fact that no notion about the aggregates arises means that questions framed in terms of existence and non-existence not only cannot be answered, but also do not apply:
- From an outside observer’s perspective, existence and non-existence cannot be known (due to reasons discussed above).
- From the subject’s perspective, no notion pertaining to existence or non-existence arises (due to the lack of grasping).
Understanding cessation in terms of the cessation of impediments, as opposed to the cessation of existence allows the seemingly contradictory descriptions of the unconditioned to be reconciled:
UD8.2: About Extinguishment (2nd)
“It’s hard to see what they call the ‘uninclined’, for the truth is not easy to see. For one who has penetrated craving, who knows and sees, there is nothing.”
“It’s hard to see what they call the ‘uninclined’, for the truth is not easy to see. For one who has penetrated craving, who knows and sees, there is no impediment.”
MN72: With Vacchagotta on Fire
“But Master Gotama, when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where are they reborn?”
“‘They’re reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they not reborn?”
“‘They’re not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they both reborn and not reborn?”
“‘They’re both reborn and not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they neither reborn nor not reborn?”
“‘They’re neither reborn nor not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
The above is an exploration about existence and non-existence phrased in a different way. An outside observer would not be able to discern whether an awakened being is reborn or not. To the consciousness post parinibbana, it would not occur to ask any question pertaining to rebirth.
“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you: ‘This fire in front of you that is extinguished: in what direction did it go—east, south, west, or north?’ How would you answer?”
“It doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. The fire depended on grass and logs as fuel. When that runs out, and no more fuel is added, the fire is reckoned to have become extinguished due to lack of fuel.”
“In the same way, Vaccha, any form … feeling … perception … choices … consciousness by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future.
A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form … feeling … perception … choices … consciousness .
They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom, like the ocean. ‘They’re reborn’, ‘they’re not reborn’, ‘they’re both reborn and not reborn’, ‘they’re neither reborn nor not reborn’—none of these apply.
The five aggregates, as described in the first sentence can be recognised as stand-ins for the five aggregates affected by grasping. This is because they are described as the way in which a Realised one can be described.
To describe someone using the aggregates, the aggregates need to be perceived. This can only be done if the aggregates are affected by grasping, and thus present an impediment. Since a Realised One has eliminated all impediments, the aggregates can no longer be perceived and thus cannot be used to describe the Realised One.
This is why a Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form … feeling … perception … choices … consciousness (second sentence in bold).
Once again, it cannot be said that the five aggregates cease to exist. All that can be said is that they are no longer an impediment.
Similarly, when the fire is extinguished due to the lack of fuel, all that can be known are the following:
- There is no longer any fuel
- The fire is no longer bound to the fuel
- There is no longer any burning or agitation
It cannot be said that the fire ceases to exist.
Finally, the third sentence in bold: They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom, like the ocean.
This makes a lot more sense in context of cessation of impediments, as opposed to cessation of existence.
Supposing that a Realised One ceased to exist, they would be pretty easy to fathom because one simply say they were composed of the five aggregates and the aggregates have been destroyed.
In contrast, a Realised One who’s impediments have ceased is hard to fathom because they cannot be fathomed within a framework of existence. This is because it is only by means of impediments that existence is discerned; and when the impediments are absent, existence cannot be discerned. Further, when impediments are absent, non-existence cannot be discerned.
DN11: With Kevaḍḍha
“Sir, where do these four primary elements cease without anything left over, namely, the elements of earth, water, fire, and air?”
This is how the question should be asked:
“Where do water and earth,
fire and air find no footing?
Where do long and short,
fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
where do name and form
cease with nothing left over?”
And the answer to that is:
invisible, radiant all-around—
that’s where water and earth,
fire and air find no footing.
And that is where long and short,
fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly;
that’s where name and form
cease with nothing left over—
with the cessation of consciousness,
that’s where they cease.”
Here, Kevaḍḍha phrases the question by asking where the four elements cease, in an objective sense. In essence, he is asking where they cease to exist.
As the earlier analysis shows, non-existence cannot be known. All that can be known is whether an impediment pertaining to something is present or absent.
Thus, the Buddha rephrases Kevaḍḍha’s question:
- From: Where do these four primary elements cease without anything left over?
- To: Where do water and earth, fire and air find no footing?
In other words, he changes the question
- From: Where do the elements cease to exist?
- To: Where is it that these elements cannot reach?
The Buddha likely infers at this point that what Kevaḍḍha really wants to know is where he will be free from impediments. Kevaḍḍha assumes the impediments to be the four elements, but the Buddha knows that this is not so. Thus, he adds an additional question:
Where do long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly; where do name and form cease with nothing left over?”
Note that the entirety of the list of long, short, coarse etc. are encompassed by the five aggregates affected by grasping.
Having asked the additional question, the Buddha proceeds to answer the first question:
Infinite consciousness, invisible, radiant all-around— that’s where water and earth, fire and air find no footing.
Here, infinite consciousness (also translated by Ajahn Thanissaro as consciousness without surface) describes the consciousness of an awakened being that is unimpeded. This interpretation now completely aligns with the other suttas describing cessation because it is not that the aggregates cease to exist, but rather that the impediments by which they are perceived cease (i.e. the impediments of grasping and mutual interference). This leaves room for a consciousness that is free from impediments.
The four elements find no footing here because nothing is fabricated.
Having answered the first question, the Buddha proceeds to answer the second one:
And that is where long and short, fine and coarse, beautiful and ugly; that’s where name and form cease with nothing left over— with the cessation of consciousness, that’s where they cease.
Since we know that it is only cessation of impediments that can be known rather than the cessation of existence, the answer to the second question is that this is the place where the aggregates, including consciousness, are no longer an impediment.
Specifically, consciousness does not cease to exist. It becomes imperceptible because, as grasping has ceased and any residual effects have run their course, consciousness does not impedes itself, other aggregates, or wellness.
In this way, the Buddha provides a first an answer relevant to Kevaḍḍha’s question and a second answer to address Kevaḍḍha’s likely true concern.
SN12.64: If There Is Desire
If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for contact as fuel … If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for mental intention as fuel … If there is no desire, relishing, and craving for consciousness as fuel, consciousness doesn’t become established there and doesn’t grow…
Suppose there was a bungalow or a hall with a peaked roof, with windows on the northern, southern, or eastern side. When the sun rises and a ray of light enters through a window, where would it land?”
“On the western wall, sir.”
“If there was no western wall, where would it land?”
“On the ground, sir.”
“If there was no ground, where would it land?”
“In water, sir.”
“If there was no water, where would it land?”
“It wouldn’t land, sir.”
“In the same way, if there is no desire, relishing, and craving for solid food, consciousness does not become established there and doesn’t grow. …
Here we have a simile that compares consciousness to a beam of light. Consciousness affected by grasping is a beam of light that lands on something. In landing on something, it is both impeded and becomes an impediment. It is impeded because it reflects off what it lands on and must change direction. It becomes an impediment because it illuminates things that should not be illuminated, as illumination leading to further grasping.
In contrast, consciousness that is not affected by grasping does not land on anything. Not landing on anything, it is neither impeded, nor becomes an impediment. All concerns are left alone and it remains free, unbound and unscattered.
… that bhikkhu said to the Blessed One: … “Is there, venerable sir, any consciousness that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and that will remain the same just like eternity itself? …
bhikkhu bhagavantaṁ etadavoca: … Atthi nu kho, bhante, kiñci viññāṇaṁ, yaṁ viññāṇaṁ niccaṁ dhuvaṁ sassataṁ avipariṇāmadhammaṁ sassatisamaṁ tatheva ṭhassatī”ti?
Then the Blessed One took up a little bit of soil in his fingernail and said to that bhikkhu: “Bhikkhu, there is not even this much consciousness that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and that will remain the same just like eternity itself. If there was this much consciousness that was permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, this living of the holy life for the complete destruction of suffering could not be discerned.
Ettakampi kho, bhikkhu, viññāṇaṁ natthi niccaṁ dhuvaṁ sassataṁ avipariṇāmadhammaṁ sassatisamaṁ tatheva ṭhassati. Ettakampi kho, bhikkhu, viññāṇaṁ abhavissa niccaṁ dhuvaṁ sassataṁ avipariṇāmadhammaṁ, na yidaṁ brahmacariyavāso paññāyetha sammā dukkhakkhayāya.
But because there is not even this much form that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, this living of the holy life for the complete destruction of suffering is discerned.
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhu, ettakampi viññāṇaṁ natthi niccaṁ dhuvaṁ sassataṁ avipariṇāmadhammaṁ, tasmā brahmacariyavāso paññāyati sammā dukkhakkhayāya.
Typically, the above passage is taken to imply that consciousness ceases to exist when an awakened being dies, and that the resulting state of non-existence is nibbana. This implication is derived from the view that cessation means cessation of existence.
However, as shown above, non-existence cannot be known; only the lack of impediments can be known. When the sutta is interpreted in light of the cessation of impediments, a different picture emerges.
Before we start, the translation requires some clarification.
The question by the bikkhu starts with is there…; in pali atthi nu kho. The answer by the Buddha starts with there is not…; in pali, natthi.
The word atthi means exists or is found. Natthi is the opposite of atthi.
Therefore, in this context, the word is is equivalent to exists / present while the words is not are equivalent to does not exist / absent.
From this we can understand that the question is only about types of consciousness that are within the scope of existence.
Consciousness within the scope of existence can only be found / known to exist when its associated impediments are present. Therefore, if it was known that some part of consciousness was constant, permanent and eternal, it would only be because its associated impediments were constant, permanent and eternal as well.
If these impediments were constant, permanent and eternal, we would be doomed to suffer in perpetuity on account of them. This is why the Buddha says that if consciousness was constant, permanent, and eternal, the destruction of suffering could not be discerned.
Supposing that the impediments related to consciousness change even for a moment throughout eternity, the notion of a constant, permanent and eternal consciousness is undermined. The Buddha knows that these impediments do indeed change. Thus, the Buddha knows that a constant, permanent and eternal consciousness cannot be found within the scope of existence. (Note that, in general, non-existence cannot be known because the absence of impediments does not mean something doesn’t exist. Non-existence, in the present case, is only known because it is a special situation where observing changes to the impediments is enough to invalidate existence).
So what does this mean for consciousness after parinibbana? This type of consciousness is outside the scope of existence. This is because, being free of impediments, existence, non-existence, both and neither do not apply to it. Since the nature of the question in the sutta limits the question’s scope to existence, consciousness after parinibbana is excluded from consideration.
The analysis provided allows us to account for variation in the presentation of themes seen in the suttas without trying to change the meaning of some suttas to better align them with others.
Having written it, I’ve found that the analysis allows me to explain much more variability in the suttas than I initially set out to do. I am optimistic that this unexpected serendipity is a good sign.