Snp 5.7: the questions of Upasīva

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.


Just wanted to say I got a laugh out of this, considering the recent apprehension for your essay on this sutta and the quiet hint at your current view. I’m going to restrain myself and refrain from questioning further into this for now, assuming that you have a forthcoming essay with more detail!

This is a good point. If we take into consideration the idea that Upasīva may have conceived of the base of nothingness as the final goal, even without any notion of non-returnership he may simply be asking if one will truly remain in that state without being reborn. To me, then, the Buddha’s echo of the optative is where the idea of non-returner comes in: it’s possible if one is a non-returner, but it isn’t guaranteed based on the meditative attainment itself as was thought in some circles. Upasīva’s next question then would be if anything else happens to consciousness from there: would it go out eventually? Your point on this being potentially motivated by the previous answers to questions is interesting and a solid argument; even if not exactly that, he may have known the Buddha taught something similar or heard people saying so.

One could argue that it means practicing and abiding in that state for many years. If someone says “I’ve been swimming for 60 years,” we don’t interpret that as them saying they’ve been in a pool for 60 years non-stop swimming; it simply means they have been doing that activity for many years regularly and consistently. I don’t think this makes much sense in the sutta here, but it is a potential counter-point I suppose if someone were following Wynne’s argument.

I don’t think this is necessarily the reason. It’s odd for the Buddha to give someone advice to aim for awakening after death as a human, or to aim for non-returner. Rather, I’d argue that the Buddha is simply encouraging Upasīva to practice this same attainment, but with right view and right mindfulness, one can see into its conditionality and attain awakening on account of it. The base of nothingness is, in fact, the highest meditative attainment where this seems to be possible, and the Buddha recommends the same thing in DN 9: one goes up to nothingness, realizes its conditionality, and then realizes cessation.

This also agrees with the Buddha’s prior instruction to day and night look for the end of suffering. If he was advising him to attain non-returner and be reborn in that realm, he wouldn’t advise him to look for the cessation of suffering; if he were advising him to be ethical, restrained, mindful, and eventually see into the conditionality of things and, on account of his attainment, realize nibbāna, that would make sense.

Thanks for sharing the essay!

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Sorry, I’m not sure of the issue here?

For the record, the Niddesa here has:

Pūgampi vassānīti pūgampi vassāni bahūni vassāni bahūni vassasatāni bahūni vassasahassāni bahūni vassasatasahassāni bahūni kappāni bahūni kappasatāni bahūni kappasahassāni bahūni kappasatasahassāni.

Pūga normally means “association, guild, gang”, and its usage here is found in only one other place in the canon.

Petavatthu 42 has:

Bahūni vassasahassāni, pūgāni nahutāni ca;

The same term appears in Sanskrit, where the dictionaries say it means “many years”. The only context that I’ve been able to hunt down is the Bhagavata Purana, which as an extremely excellent online edition.

Thus all the universes remained thousands of aeons within the water [the Causal Ocean], and the Lord of living beings, entering in each of them, caused them to be fully animated.
varṣa-pūga — many years; sahasra-ante — of thousands of years

The second passage is more ambiguous:

Dhruva Mahārāja attained an exalted position at the age of only five or six years, after undergoing austerity for six months. Alas, a great kṣatriya cannot achieve such a position even after undergoing austerities for many, many years.
varṣa-pūgaiḥ — after many years

But the commentary explains it thus:

The lesson from the life of Dhruva Mahārāja is that if one likes, one can attain Vaikuṇṭhaloka in one life, without waiting for many other lives.

So anyway, as far as I can determine, the Indic consensus is that pūgavassa means “countless years in samsara”. In keeping with this, I should translate it with something stronger than “many years”. A literal translation would be “heaps”, which would be most acceptable to Australian ears! I think I’ll change it to myriad.

Sorry for the possible miscommunication! I was referring to the infamous passage in Snp 4.11. You seemed to hint that you interpreted it as referring to the domain of nothingness, but because of the quick/nonchalant insertion, I found it humorous for some reason because I’ve been apprehending your post on it.

I’ve seen it argued that it would be the attainment of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, because in AN 10.29, some teachers are said to call that the highest purity of the yakkha (spirit), and because it is not considered a perception attainment, as Snp 5.7 seems to highlight. (The Burmese editions apparently have paramatthavisuddhim rather than paramayakkhavisuddhim there though; if you have any info on this I’d be interested!).

Good catch! Despite it already being a much weaker argument (Wynne’s, that this refers to the present life), I think this probably settles it as definitely referring to rebirth in that dimension itself. Maybe a footnote there could be good, IDK.



Ha ha, I’ve just written a footnote to that effect.

Incidentally, in the same verse, the optatives are out of control. Tiṭṭhe, sītisiyā, and cavetha are all optatives. Pity the poor Pali student!

Oh right, yes, I didn’t even consider that passage. Thanks for bringing this stuff to light! I did translate that as yakkha = spirit, let me go back and reconsider it, and I’ll post my Kalahavivada essay soon.


Well it’s interesting, because I have been looking at the Nimokkha Sutta SN 1.2 (there’s something about a link to the sutta I am to remember, but here forget) and Buddha’s response to the question: But how is it that you understand liberation, emancipation, and seclusion for sentient beings?

“Nandībhavaparikkhayā, saññāviññāṇasaṅkhayā, vedanānaṁ nirodhā upasamā. Evaṁ khvāhaṁ āvuso jānāmi, sattānaṁ nimokkhaṁ pamokkhaṁ vivekan” ti.

I have been looking at the meaning, and think I would understand this something along the lines of: the destruction of joy in becoming, the demolition of contact, and unperturbed tranquility.

Obviously, I have a radical interpretation, but it seems to me pretty close to a strong ascetic ideal for nibbana.

Apparently, these verses at the beginning of the SN likely pre-date Buddhism, and could come from wandering kavi.

But anyway, question - has anyone considered that nandibhava refers to the urge (and not simply duty) to have children? And could mean something like “randiness”? In later Hindu mythology, for sure, Nandi is Siva’s - secretary. He hangs around listening to Siva and Sakti make love and “bellows out” the Kama Sutra. Women still go and worship him if they want children. I don’t know, but when I see Nandi, that’s what I think, “let’s toss out Freud, hurrah!”

Ha ha, yes!

It’s certainly connected to the desire for children. They are a crucial part of how we continue to be, and were especially considered so in the brahmanical tradition.

So I just reviewed these details, it’s a tricky one.

It seems the Sinhala lineage has paramayakkhavisuddhi while the Burmese has paramatthavisuddhi. Ñāṇadīpa says the yakkha reading is found in all Sinhalese manuscripts.

The commentary, however, has uttamatthavisuddhi, which would seem to settle the matter. Normally it would gloss yakkha with puggala in such contexts.

However if we try to translate with attha it makes for an odd phrase: “the purification of the ultimate goal”? This is highlighted in Bodhi’s translation, where he renders the phrase “supreme purification”. Apparently he takes paramattha as a compound meaning “supreme”, and thus no different from just parama, but this seems unlikely. In the suttas, paramattha always means “ultimate goal”. Moreover, the usage of parama here clearly parallels paramadiṭṭhadhammanibbānaṁ in the following paragraph. Here and at DN 1 this must mean “the ultimate nibbana in this very life”.

It would be interesting to compare the commentary with a Sinhalese one, but I don’t have access to any.

Given that yakkha yields a more satisfactory meaning, perhaps the commentary originally read uttamattavisuddhi, “highest purification of the self”. I retain the sense of yakkha in my translation, but without any great confidence.

If we accept this, it certainly supports reading Snp 4.11 as referring to neither perception nor non-perception. This would nicely parallel the mention of nibbana in the next passage, which is found in both places. It does seem as if AN 10.29 is something of a prose version of the same ideas.

However, the question in Snp 4.11 is, “how does form disappear”, to which the answer must be, “with the attaining of the formless meditations”.

Personally I wouldn’t want to push the exact identification of the meditations spoken of in the Kalahavivadasutta much beyond “the formless attainments”. This could of course imply that they reach as far as neither perception and non-perception, thus retaining the identification of the yakkhavisuddhi with AN 10.29. It’s quite possible also that the prose sutta may be later and deliberately disambiguate the poetry.

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Interesting—a lot of variant readings here!

I’d agree yakkha in the sense of ‘spirit,’ or something related to the self (atta) seems most plausible, but it is a slight mystery.

What do you think of the final line “saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā”? This seems to be pointing directly to the fact that this would not be a perception attainment; if there were perception (nothingness being the highest of all perceptions), then there could still be papañcasaṅkhā. In fact, we know there was plenty of this in regards to the formless attainments for those who thought they had attained union with ātman-brahman and so forth. Different perceptions in deep meditation continue to be one of the major factors in people deluding themselves into thinking they are awakened.

As for the unanswered question on pleasure/pain, I don’t think it was left unanswered. The formless attainments are ‘imperturbable,’ and have only asukhamadukkha feeling, and thus there is no sukha or dukkha.

‘The formless attainments’ in a general sense makes sense to me given the context, but I find the final line about saññā / papañca strange if these had saññā, especially with all of the emphasis on saññā in the description. I still think that this description could very well fit the description of the meditation for the ‘thoroughbred horse’ in AN 11.9 which also talks about the fading of perception. This meditative state crops up every now and then, and I feel it makes sense here as well, and that the interlocutor—still unfamiliar with Buddhadhamma—wondered if this was the highest goal for the self, or perhaps if it was neither-perception-nor-non-percetion (or something akin to it), to which the Buddha responds that ideas of self [eternalism]/annihilation are caught in extremes and the sage sees beyond them. Just a possibility I see here.


It’s intriguing, but hard to interpret. As so often in these verses, the general idea is clear, but it is very tricky to pin down precisely.

It’s worth noting that the third and fourth lines in the Arthapada Sutra seem to be quite different:

Cutting off all consciousness (= “perception”), detached doth one get,
For in consciousness lies the root of all that is travail.

Allowing for the approximations of translation, it seems the third line in particular must have a different original.

My interpretation always starts with the knowable. In this case, that is the ending of rūpa: very straightforward, it must mean the formless attainments. Papañca and its relation to specific meditation attainments is not nearly so well defined.

The line as it stands doesn’t say that there would be no papañca there.

I think it all makes a lot more sense when it is understood as a process rather than a state. The question is about how form disappears, which is a question about the process. Compared to AN 11.9, there are many similarities, but also a striking difference: vibhūta vs. vibhoti. AN 11.9 is talking about a state where these things have disappeared, while Snp 4.11 is talking about the process whereby they come to disappear. Rather than being defined in terms of one who has achieved the very highest state possible, it is talking about getting to that state.

I guess you could say it is answered by implication.

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Yeah. The quote from the Arthapada got me thinking. First, as a side note, apparently the Mahāsamghika Vinaya (in Chinese translation) recommends new monks learn 5 texts: the atthakavagga, pārāyanavagga, khaggavisāna sutta, anavatapta-gāthā, and an unidentified 5th. This adds to these texts being known in Northern / pre-sectarian schools and as being ascribed similar importance—reminded me of the recent discussions of the sutta nipāta.

As for this: it reminded me of Ven. Ñānadīpa’s interpretation of the “saññānidānā papañcasankhā.” It struck me as rather odd and bold, but he interpreted ‘saññānidānā’ as ‘viññānapaccayā’ and ‘papañcasankhā’ as a poetic replacement for ‘nāmarūpa.’ Perception and consciousness being so closely linked and inseparable, he took saññā to be approximating that, but in this specific context the concern is perception / perception attainments or meditative states (where stations of consciousness and perception are near identical).

He notes sankhā as being an occasional synonym for nāma, and talks about how papañca—in its most average sense of ‘expanse’—relates to the elements (rūpa). What he didn’t mention is Snp 3.6 where papañcanāmarūpa is mentioned. This seems to have been rendered by most translators as papañca (in the Buddhist, mental proliferation sense) + nāmarūpa (as a separate compound smashed together); personally, I think this is likely wrong (and would love your feedback as an expert in this). Nāmarūpa is related to prapañca in non-Buddhist ideologies, and it relates to the expanse of the manifest world [of nāmarūpa], i.e. the proliferated/proliferation of creation (as opposed to Agni, the Creator, Brahman, the Absolute, etc.). I think it may mean something like “the expanse of name and form” here, especially considering this is a conversation with a non-Buddhist ascetic (who seems to almost certainly be Brahmanical).

As far as I know, though this may be anachronistic(?), papañca sometimes stands in just for the manifest/proliferated things without needing ‘nāmarūpa.’ If it’s all of the forms, i.e. the rūpa-s, and their names / reckonings (sankhā-s), then papañcasankhā could perhaps be nāmarūpa, and saññānidānā could be saying that all of that relies on there being perception. There’s further justification for this referring to general consciousness in these stanzas because the preceding lines all use -saññī which really is referring to both ‘conscious of/perceptive of’ in a broad sense (as is often the case in Indic texts). So for saññā to be calling back to all of those saññī from the previous lines makes a lot of sense to me, and if this is supported further by the Chinese, I see more reason to think Ven. Ñānadīpa may have been on to something; we also add in the context that this is referring to 1) rūpa, and 2) phassa, which is right before said to be conditioned by nāmarūpa.

Even if papañcasankhā were not exactly identical to nāmarūpa (nor saññā to viññāna), I think the point is that this concept is extremely similar but applied to a particular context. More precisely, papañcasankhā may just be the ‘expanse of reckonings/names’ or the ‘expanse [of things] and [their] reckonings.’ All of that is tied up with saññā, which in some ways harkens back to DN 1 where the Buddha talks about all of peoples views being conditioned by phassa (and therefore perceiving things) and then reckoning it and coming to conceptualize it in certain ways (the question in Snp 4.11 being about where contacts do not contact, which the Buddha is said to have transcended).

This is great insight. Perhaps Snp 4.11 is describing how one gets to the state of AN 11.9 (which may need to work through the various perception attainments to some degree and formless attainments). In order to gradually escape from contact and/or saññā which is tied up with papañcasankhā, one gradually relinquishes these perceptions—be it the elements, jhānas, formless attainments, or what is thought over (etc.) by the mind. This is nearly identical to what the Chinese parallel states too, giving more potential credence to this rendering of the Pāli.

If you know a good place to find the Arthapada Sūtras(s) that would be great. I found an ebook on Amazon by Kevin Hush Anderson that’s only a couple dollars, but I don’t know how reliable it is.

EDIT: Found this ancient PDF by Bapat, and the lines here:

"Neither conscious, nor with consciousness of the formless
Neither unconscious, nor with consciousness inactive;
Cutting off all consciousness, detached doth one get.
For, in consciousness lies the root of all that is travail.”

I don’t know how accurate this translation is. If @cdpatton knows of another source for this or has any critiques (and is available) it would be great. Given the context of the question in the parallel as well (“the mind attached—how does it completely cease?” and the statement that “when [worldly] objects exist, contacts assail”), it seems to further point to this being more profound than just the formless attainments and also further linking papañcasankhā to nāmarūpa (‘all that is travail’ and ‘worldly objects’). The parallel also closes with this all referring to nibbāna (akin to AN 11.9), thus furthering the potential that the final questions were based on a misunderstanding by someone who is still caught in self-view or eternalism [vs. annihilationism].

The sutta also backtraces a version of DO (eerily similar to DN 15). We get to nāmarūpa, and of course the next step would be viññāna—the escape from nāmarūpa being the cessation of viññāna being a major theme in the Snp as a whole. To back trace all the way back to the stations of consciousness (/perception) into the ‘cutting off’ of consciousness like a palm-stump and the cessation of all stations of consciousness would fit in with the DO structure of the sutta quite well.

It’s also still plausible to me that this could be nevasaññānāsaññā if it’s not taken to be the climax of the sutta/relating to nibbāna before the final question on the nature of liberation. Going out on a limb and looking at the striking similarities to DN 15 (which almost reads like a prose version of this same sutta / from the Atthakavagga), that sutta ends with a section on meditation as well (the attha vimokkha). In my recent post on these, I discussed the high likelihood that they are an earlier list of Brahmanical practices adopted over by the Buddha, and a huge component of them is the formless attainments. Having a section on transitioning into the formless attainments then could make sense with this shaky parallel. I find this explanation a bit more ‘random’ in terms of this specific meditation attainment being mentioned here and in a spot the parallel associates with nibbāna no less, but considering it can’t be called a perception attainment, there’s no form, etc., it gets really close to the descriptions and has justification.

This remains speculative and on shaky translation grounds though, so I’m just thinking out loud.


Bapat Taisho 198
"Neither conscious, nor with consciousness of the formless 不想想不色想、
Neither unconscious, nor with consciousness inactive; 非無想不行想,
Cutting off all consciousness, detached doth one get. 一切斷不著者 ,
For, in consciousness lies the root of all that is travail.” 因想本戲隨苦。

Bapat is translating P. saññā (想) as “conscious(ness)” throughout, drops some words, and the last line is just kind of butchered to me.

I would translate it as something like this:

Not perceiving perceptions, not perceiving forms,
Not without perception, nor forming perceptions:
All being stopped, one is detached.
Because of the root of perception, one leans towards (or “speculation leads to”)* pain.

* Early Chinese translations of P. papañca used a word 戲 that could mean “to play” (which sometimes was paired with 論 to mean something like “idle speculation”) or “to lean towards”. Needless to say, neither is like the modern dictionary reads for P. or S. equivalents, suggesting it was used with an idiomatic meaning in ancient times.

When I compare the Chinese and Pali, they are remarkably similar, but there are key words that are clearly different in each line, and the third line is somewhat different.

Snp 4.11v13 T198.10v13 Note
Na saññasaññī na visaññasaññī, 不想想不 Ch. has P. rūpa (色) instead of visañña
Nopi asaññī na vibhūtasaññī; 非無想不 Ch. has 行 instead of vibhūta, perhaps something like P. saṅkhata
Evaṁ sametassa vibhoti rūpaṁ, 一切斷不著者, It seems a stretch but perhaps P. sametassa means “altogether/combined”
Saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā”. 因想本戲隨苦。 Not sure what Indic 隨苦 would be - something like P. yāva dukkha?

Thank you very much for this! This is helpful.

A quick note: This reminded me of a somewhat strange portion of the verse in the Dvayatānupassanā Sutta:

Knowing this danger,
Etamādīnavaṁ ñatvā,
that suffering is caused by saṅkhārā;
dukkhaṁ saṅkhārapaccayā;
through the stilling of all saṅkhārā,
and the stopping of saññā,
saññānaṁ uparodhanā;
this is the way suffering ends.
Evaṁ dukkhakkhayo hoti,

I know 行 is the word used for saṅkhāra, so ‘forming’ / constructing perceptions makes a lot of sense here. After all, the advanced meditative states are said to be willed/produced by saṅkhārā, and insight into this leads to liberation. This section of Snp 3.12 used to confuse me, but I think it makes a lot more sense now: sankhārā drive the stationing of consciousness / perception to different stations (and then rebirth); the stopping of all that means no more produced establishments of consciousness.

The other thing is that the entire C. stanza seems to emphasize all perception generally as well. With visañña replaced by P. rūpa, the first line points to all general perceptions; the second to not forming/willing perception which is characteristic of higher meditative perceptive states; ‘all being stopped’ is clear (and matches with Snp 3.12); and the final line has P. saññā as the root of papañca (used idiomatically perhaps) → dukkha.

Perhaps, in regards to the final line and my above comments on papañcasankhā, this is referring (loosely) to how saññā (and being established within it) is the root of being entangled in the manifest [samsāra]/all kinds of proliferation → dukkha. The gradual cessation of perception and the force of sankhāra which drive consciousness to be established within it is the cessation of all that entanglement. As for the comparison to DN 15 and Snp 4.11, this would trace us neatly back to the ‘vortex’ between nāmarūpa/viññāna and tie this with the rebirth aspect, and is still quite similar to the 8 vimokkha (which mention form and formlessness → cessation extensively, and relate this to the stationing of consciousness). This further parallels Snp 5.7, incidentally, which refers to freedom from the ‘nāmakāya’ (which is mostly perception/feeling). More speculation.

As you say though—remarkably similar. The message seems to be almost identical practically speaking, although in the C. it is much more explicitly climactic and referring to awakening.

Thanks again! Mettā

EDIT: Looks like Norman also renders papañca as referring to ‘diversification’ here — relatively identical to ‘expanse’ or the proliferated ‘manifest.’ He renders it:

for that which is named ‘diversification’ has its origin in perception

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Hi Bhante, :slightly_smiling_face:

Great points, and I like the comparison with the Upanishadic verse. It’s very similar indeed.

Some thoughts on the “defining”:

To me “no longer counts” is not a very good way to convey this idea. It sounds like something existing, while the point is that it has “come to an end”, i.e. disappeared.

I see now the translation on the main site does not have “count”, and has “beyond reckoning” instead. But I think “beyond reckoning” sounds the flame still exist in some form, some form which is beyond reckoning. The point, however, is that the flame has ceased (“came to an end”) and therefore no longer can be defined or talked about.

Saṅkhaṁ upeti is an elevated form of saṅkhaṁ gacchati. Which is more commonly used in this sense, iirc, the sense of not able to be defined. (Just like atthaṁ paleti is an elevated form of atthaṁ gacchati.)

so too, a sage freed from mental phenomena
Evaṁ munī nāmakāyā vimutto,
comes to an end beyond reckoning.”
Atthaṁ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṁ”.

Here you have “beyond reckoning” (na upeti saṅkhaṁ) qualify “end” (atthaṁ), so you treat atthaṁ as a nominative. But atthaṁ is an accusative, since it is the object of paleti already. In other words, na upeti saṅkhaṁ should qualify munī vimutto instead. It is the muni that can not be defined, not “an end”.

So in case you want to stick with “beyond reckoning” (although I don’t like it much, as I just explained), you’d need to have “comes to and end and is beyond reckoning”.

It seems at the end the verses are about parinibbana, not nibbana at enlightenment, considering that Upasiva just asked about whether consciousness “of such a one” would pass away. Therefore, perhaps instead of ““They have nothing by which one might describe them”, something which conveys this idea better. Because this again sounds like they do (still) exist, which is exactly the opposite of the point the Buddha makes.

To me these suggestions clarify the point that is being made, which is that a flame that goes out disappears and no longer exists, but also was not a solid thing to begin with. Similar with enlightened beings that pass away.

To clarify my points, my draft translation of the final verses is:

The Buddha:

“Upasīva, just as one can not identify ‘a flame’
that disappears, blown out by a gust of wind,
so one can not identify ‘a sage’
who disappears, liberated from the immaterial.”


“They who disappeared, do they not exist anymore?
Or are they eternally at ease?
Please explain this to me, O sage,
for you have understood it.”

The Buddha:

“You can not define ‘they who disappeared’.
Whatever you try to describe ‘them’ by, it no longer exists.
When everything is eradicated,
all descriptions are eradicated as well.”

Or “that (of them) no longer exists” if you want to render tassa somehow more literally. I don’t know, it’s clumsy to do it literally. :slightly_smiling_face:


Thanks everyone, these are all great contributions, I’ll consider them further.

I agree, it works in some instances (like comparing seven pebbles with the Himalayas), but not here.

Clumsy tho. I’m aware of the grammatical issue, I just didn’t think it mattered. But I’ll look at it again.

Awesome, thanks.

IIRC the commentary explains this way. I never really accepted it until i looked more closely. The key, I think, is that sameta is a pp that corresponds to patipanna in the sense of an ongoing process.

It seems too much to me. I take Ñāṇananda’s analysis as canonical, and try to apply it throughout. Honestly, I’ve never seen a good argument against his reading.


Did you mean Ven. Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda here, bhante? If so, I agree (as is perhaps clear from my posting) that I find his interpretation—that this relates to AN 11.9 and climaxes in liberation, which the interlocutor then asks about in self-view based terms—very plausible—and even moreso considering the Arthapada parallel to the sutta. Trying to consider the different angles though and see what other interpretations could be at play. Correct me if you were referring to someone else though.


Yes, sorry for my lazy spelling!

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A blade is known by its form (long, thin) and function (sharp, with ability to cut). If that blade is melted into a lump of steel, it could be described in the following way:

  • The item no longer exists
  • The item can no longer be described by any of its distinguishing features

The former gives the impression that the steel is gone along with the blade, while the latter limits the vanishing just to the form and function of the blade.

There doesn’t seem to be anything definitive in the suttas that point to the vanishing of everything; only that which can be recognised by form or function. In the case of a being, what vanishes is that which can be recognised in relation to the aggregates.


I disagree. The aggregates themselves, which are conventionally ‘a being’ (SN5.10), cease at death. So do the six senses, which are also defined as ‘a being’. (SN35.66)

The point that there is no “defining” is that there is nothing left to define, plus the fact that there was no solid core or self in the “being” in the first place.

And also as to Snp5.7, the sutta in question here, a fire is specifically said to “come to an end” or “disappear” (attham paleti, elevated form of attham gacchati, see atthangato, which is used as a simile in this verse). This fire metaphorically refers to the aggregates or conventional “being”.

The idea that what vanishes is only the way to describe some “being” is not what these verses are about. That’s why I’m happy the translation on the main site no longer uses “no longer counts”. (I still have some gripes with “beyond reckoning”, though. :joy:)


Yes, but that is similar to saying that the form, function etc. of a blade cease.

To make the analogy more precise, we can think of the blade not as being melted (because the blade can be re-formed), but turned into photons via a quantum or nuclear reaction. The blade and all its distinguishing characteristics are gone, and the photons that are left can’t turned back into a blade again. But the photons are still there. The photons are neither the source of the blade nor the material it is made of. But they are not nothingness.

Nothing within the aggregates is constant, so the property of inconstance or no solid core is not peculiar to a being. Therefore that can’t be used to justify the position of the non-existence of a being while they are alive. Things exist, even if they don’t last. It is the same with beings.

Further, once the awakened being dies, to say that there is nothing left to define is conjecture. There is a difference between there is nothing left to define and whatever there is cannot be defined. I don’t know if any sutta that says there is nothing left.

There is no sutta that I know of where the Buddha speaks of Nibbana as the absence of experience. He only speaks of it as the absence of suffering.

If I recall correctly, there is a sutta in the agamas where the Buddha defines Nibbana as none of these:

  • Experience of existence
  • Experience of non-existence
  • Experience of both existence and non-existence

Notably, he does not mention experience of neither existence nor non-existence.

I will have to find that sutta to see what it said exactly. But even if it contained the full quartet (I’m pretty sure it doesn’t), that is a long winded way to say that experience itself ceases… and to impose this interpretation doesn’t make much sense.

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