This essay, from my introduction to the Suttanipata, is a little bit rough around the edges, but I post it here as a contribution to the previous discussion, which prompted me to revisit my essay and translation.
The Questions of Upasīva
Like Dhotaka, Upasīva humbly begs for help in crossing the flood (Snp 5.7), saying this is for one who is “free of sensual pleasures” (_kāmesu vītarāgo_). This is a term that usually describes a virtuous meditator, either Buddhist or non-Buddhist, who has achieved succes in jhāna but is not yet on the path to awakening. an6.54:18.1, an7.66:11.1, an7.73:2.6, an7.74:1.1, mn142:5.23, pli-tv-bu-vb-pc83:1.1.10, pli-tv-kd8:16.2.14.
The Buddha urges him to contemplate “nothingness”, and, being mindful, to cross the flood relying on the meditation “there is nothing”. This makes explicit the reference to the dimension of nothingness, which has been hinted at previously. Mindfulness is of course a crucial ingredient of all states of samādhi.
It is unusual for the Buddha to immediately recommend such a specific and advanced meditation attainment to a new student, implying that Upasīva was already practicing it. The Buddha is reassuring him that he has not wasted his time in meditating under his former teacher, as he can use his meditation as a foundation to realize Nibbāna. The curious thing is that, while practicing under Āḷāra Kālāma, the bodhisatta realized that this meditation state would lead only to rebirth in the corresponding dimension. This is because it was conceived as the final goal and hence became an object of attachment. Here, however, the Buddha recommends the same practice; the poem goes on to clarify why this is so.
Echoing the Kalahavivādasutta (Snp 4.11), Upasīva pushes the Buddha to explain more about the state of nothingness, here described as “the ultimate liberation of perception”. That this refers to the dimension of nothingness appears to be confirmed in the Pañcattayasutta (MN 102:4.4), where the Buddha declares that certain ascetics and brahmins practice the dimension of nothingness and declare that to be the “ultimate” of all perceptions. It is described in this way because the very highest states of meditation recognized by the Buddha are “neither perception nor non-perception” and the “cessation of perception and feeling”. Thus the dimension of nothingness is the highest of all states of perception, but not the highest state of meditation.
Upasīva wants to know whether such a person might “remain” in that place without “traveling on”. The Buddha answers that they might. This is explained in the Niddesa as meaning that they would last the full span of life in that dimension. However it seems more likely that “not travelling on” means “not continuing to be reborn in saṁsāra”. This means that the rebirth in the dimension of nothingness would be their last. This is an attribute of the non-returner, who is said to “become fully extinguished without returning from that world” ([an11.16:4.7]: _tattha parinibbāyī anāvattidhammo tasmā lokā_). It is interesting that in his reply, the Buddha echoes Upasīva’s use of the optative case (_tiṭṭheyya_), whereas normally he would answer with the more definitive present or future tenses. By saying that they “might” remain there without returning, the Buddha hints that some meditators might indeed return, namely those who have not practiced the path and still have attachments.
Previously, when speaking with Mettagū, the Buddha had revealed that the final goal leads to the ending of consciousness. Following up on this, Upasīva asks whether the consciousness of someone who “grows cool” after “many years” in such a state would “pass away”. By using the term “many years”, Upasīva confirms that he is asking about someone reborn in the realm of nothingness, rather than someone in the corresponding state of meditation, which cannot, of course, last for many years. Rebirth in the realm of nothingness is said to last for 60,000 eons, after which an ordinary person will pass away and fall to one of the other realms, whereas a disciple of the Buddha will realize Nibbāna in that very state (AN 3.116:3.3). This explains why the Buddha encouraged Upasīva to continue his practice of the dimension of nothingness. As a devoted practitioner of the path, Upasīva would be reborn in that realm and attain final awakening there.
The word for “pass away” (cavetha) is a standard term for someone who dies in one realm and is reborn in another. Upasīva wants to know if someone who is freed will still be subject to such a fate.
The Buddha answers with his famous simile of the flame going out. When a flame is tossed by the wind, it is removed from the source of fuel that sustained it, and it simply goes out. The Buddha employs the idiom na upeti saṅkhaṁ, where saṅkha is to reckon or count. Elsewhere the same idiom is used as a stock phrase when the Buddha is comparing something vast, like the Himalayas, with something tiny, like a few pebbles, which are so small they “don’t count”. In the same way, a sage “goes out” or “comes to an end” and no longer counts, or is beyond reckoning.
Here the Buddha uses the unusual term nāmakāya. This means neither nāmarūpa (“name and form”) nor manomayakāya (“mind-made body”). In DN 15 it refers to the mental phenomena responsible for designation. One is reborn in the dimension of nothingness due to letting go of any attachment to the physical (rūpa). Now the Buddha says that one in that realm also lets go of what is mental, i.e. the states of consciousness associated with that attainment.
The contrast between the Buddhist and Brahmanical views is well highlighted in comparison with a similar verse in Mundaka Upaniṣad 3.2.8. Here is the Pali with translation.
accī yathā vātavegena khittā,
As a flame tossed by a gust of wind,
atthaṁ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṁ;
comes to an end and no longer counts;
evaṁ munī nāmakāyā vimutto,
so too, a sage freed from mental phenomena
atthaṁ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṁ.
comes to an end and no longer counts.
And here is the Sanskrit.
yathā nadyaḥ syandamānāḥ samudre
As rivers flowing to the sea
astaṃ gacchanti nāmarūpe vihāya
come to an end, giving up name and form;
tathā vidvān nāmarūpād vimuktaḥ
so too, a wise one freed from name and form,
parāt paraṃ puruṣam upaiti divyam
enters the divine person beyond the beyond.
The opening line replaces the Buddhist image of the flame going out with the Upaniṣadic image of the water returning to the sea, an image that has been mistakenly associated with Buddhism ever since Sir Edwin Arnold used it to conclude his The Light of Asia. The middle two lines are roughly similar. For the conclusion, the difference could not be starker. The Buddha speaks of the going out of the flame, and repeats the same image, emphasizing the fact that for him, to speak of extinguishment was the goal itself. The Brahmanical verse makes its different philosophy quite clear, speaking of the “divine person” into which the sage enters; in other words the cosmic divinity of the Brahman. Whether these two verses are historically related I cannot say. But the fact that the Pali verse is in the Pārāyana, a dialogue with brahmins; and that the Mundaka uses the word para here suggests to me that it may have been a direct answer to the Buddhist verse.
Upasīva presses further, wanting to know whether that person ceases to exist, or whether they will exist eternally in a state of wellness. He is contrasting the two most common understandings of the fate of the individual: the annihilation of personal identity, or eternal life in a state of bliss. The prose suttas present this dichotomy as two “extremes” and the Buddha’s “middle teaching” of dependent origination as the way that avoids them (SN 12.47).
The Buddha explains why it is that such a person is “beyond reckoning”. Normally, language relies on identifying certain characteristic features of the thing in question. We identify a person by the details of their face, or the clothes they wear, or their voice. Based on that, we assign them a name, and we implicitly assume that the same name applies to the same “person”. Nibbāna, however, lacks any such identifying features. It has no “limit”, nothing by which it can be “measured” (pamāṇa). Here we find an early use of the word pamāṇa in the sense of “means by which something can be known”, which went on to become a central idea in later Indian philosophy. In Indian philosophy, the word for “limit” and the word for “way of knowing” are the same. This is not dissimilar to the English word “define”. Something can only be known by its limits, and we can only speak in terms defined by those limits. But Nibbāna has no such “measure” and escapes definition.