The chariot analogy in SN 5:10

Looking for an EBT interpretations of SN 5:10:

Why now do you assume ‘a being’?
Mara, have you grasped a view?
This is a heap of sheer constructions:
Here no being is found.

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.’

It’s only suffering that comes to be,
Suffering that stands and falls away.
Nothing but suffering comes to be,
Nothing but suffering ceases.

I think this is usually interpreted using the concept of conventional and absolute reality, but this isn’t found in the EBTs.

I personally find it difficult to fully understand this excerpt because of the following:

  1. The sutta tries to explain the lack of a being by making an analogy with a chariot: a being would bear a relation to the aggregates just like a chariot would to its parts. The problem, though, is how to make sense of the contradictory statements: “this is a heap of sheer constructions: here no being is found” and “when the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a being.’” The first one sounds to me like, “if x is made of parts, then x can’t be a being,” while the second one sounds like “it’s the union of the aggregates that’s called ‘a being.’” An answer to this could be, “the aggregates are only conventionally called ‘a being,’” yeah, ok, but so it is with absolutely any word. We use them to refer to some things rather than others out of conventions, and that’s what gives them meaning.

  2. Another problem is that the relation between a being and the aggregates is different from the relation between a chariot and its parts in a fundamental way: when the chariot’s parts cease, the chariot ceases as well. However, when the aggregates cease, we can’t say that the person ceases as well since this is regarded as an evil-view, right?

  3. Why is the word “being” used instead of “self”? Would exchanging the words change the meaning of the sutta?

IMO, what the sutta means is just that there’s no “being” in a self-like sense (something unified, stable, permanent, controllable, or satisfactory), but that we still don’t need to give up the word ‘being’ since we may use it to refer to the union of the aggregates. Under this interpretation, “a being” (a human being, a deva, etc.) would indeed cease in parinibbana, but that wouldn’t mean that something about his identity ceased since there’s no self. This wouldn’t contradict the fact that “the Tathagata doesn’t exist after death” is wrong-view because “being” is different from “self”. For example, dogs are piles of aggregates that, usually, bark, have two ears, a tail, four legs, and so on; It’s still gonna be a dog if all their aggregates change but maintain the structure and behavior of a dog. Therefore, the fact that the aggregates are always arising and fading away proves that there isn’t a self, but it doesn’t prove that there aren’t beings (i.e. piles of aggregates), since beings are said to be piles of aggregates, not piles of stable aggregates.

These are my current thoughts on this, but I’m not sure tbh. What are yours?

Hi Mike

This is Ajahn Thanissaro’s rendering of the same sutta, which I find easier to use to address the points raised.

“What? Do you assume a ‘being,’ Māra?
Do you take a position?
This is purely a pile of fabrications.
Here no being
can be pinned down.

Just as when, with an assemblage of parts,
there’s the word,
chariot,
even so when aggregates are present,
there’s the convention of
a being.

For only stress is what comes to be;
stress, what remains & falls away.
Nothing but stress comes to be.
Nothing ceases but stress.”

On point 1:

It is not so much that there is no being, as much as if you investigate you can’t point to a solid mass called ‘being’. This is the same with a chariot. None of its component parts taken individually is a chariot. Neither is it a chariot if just taken together - because the parts could be strewn all over the place. Even if the component parts were to be put together in the right way, if the wheels were jammed then it might arguably not be a chariot either. Supposing the wheels moved, if it was so heavy as to be immovable it may arguably not be a chariot either… and so on and so on.

The verse is preceded by a question by Mara to the effect of “who creates a being, when does it cease etc.”. The verse side steps Mara’s line of enquiry with a different question - what do you suppose a being is; and then proceeds to show that defining it is not easy. Finally, Mara is asked to put it aside as it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is how suffering arises and ceases.

On point 2

I think the more appropriate analogy is to compare a chariot whose parts are replaced with a being who’s aggregates also decay and are replaced. On whether that identity (chariot or being) has ceased, that would depend entirely on your definition of what that identity was. But it would be impossible to construct an identity so precisely that it could be used indiscriminately in all contexts. Therefore whether it has ceased or not is context driven also.

On point 3

I can’t be sure, but this probably has to do with the Pali word that was used in the sutta. In general, multiple distinct pali words have all been translated into ‘self’, which I think is misleading. E.g.

Atta (in Anatta) - self
Sakaya (in sakaya-ditthi) - self

The literal meaning of sakaya is ‘true body’ (sat - true, kaya - body). So it is often translated as identity or embodiment, rather than self.

In general though, questions about the self or beings falls into the category of identity so most formulaic descriptions are quite similar. The crux of many arguments in the suttas is that finding an end to suffering takes precedence over defining or describing an identity. An identity is defined and used only to the extent that it allows one to develop skillful actions. Outside of this context, questions around identity serve no purpose.

E.g. if you see a tornado coming towards you, you identify it as a tornado to get out of the way. So in this case, the identity given to the tornado is adequate enough to take the skillful action of getting out of the way. Rumination on the tornado for reasons other than taking skillful action is pointless.

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My impression is the above terms are often interchangeable, as found in DN 1, where DN 1 refers to various wrong views about eternalism, annihilationism and here-&-now nibbana, where both “self” & “existent being” are used together to indicate the core wrong view.

“A being” is the subject of SN 23.2.

The phrase in SN 5.10 about “only suffering arising & ceasing” is also found in SN 12.15, about “attracted, grasp, and commit to the notion ‘my self’”.

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But does the semantic range of X na upalabbhati (“X does not obtain”, “X is not to be found”) really extend to Ajahn Ṭhānissaro’s “X can’t be pinned down”?

“To pin down”, when applied to a thing (e.g., the putative attā in MN22, where the same verb is used) means to identify it clearly or specifically.

There is no indication in Margaret Cone’s dictionary that the verb bears any such meaning. Here is her entry for upalabhati (of which upalabbhati is the 3rd person passive singular form):

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Thank you, Bhante, for posting Ms. Cone’s entry.
Is found, exists, perceived, exists,
seems to express the range of meaning very well

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@Dhammanando, thank you for the screenshots of definitions.

I believe pinned down works rather well with the definition of obtains for upalabhati.

The order of definitions given by Margaret Cone for upalabhati is as follows:

  1. obtains
  2. finds
  3. perceives
  4. understands

If the author intended to present the definitions in order of most common to least common usage, then pinned down would be an arguably better definition than found. One must pin something down or grasp it to obtain it.

The definition of obtain from oxford languages: get, acquire, or secure (something).

I also just came across an interesting definition for the word find in Oxford Languages:

Summon up (a quality, especially courage) with an effort.

This also works quite well with my take on @Mike_0123’s point 1:

“What? Do you assume a ‘being,’ Māra?
Do you take a position?
This is purely a pile of fabrications.
Here no being
can be summoned up.

The implication being very similar to Ajahn Thanissaro’s rendering. You cannot summon up something that you cannot adequately define.

Similarly with Margaret Cone’s perceives. You cannot claim to perceive something that you cannot adequately define, as the element of recognition would be absent. Finally, with Margaret Cone’s understands; you cannot claim to understand something you cannot adequately define because understanding requires one to pin down the essential qualities of that thing.

Note that in all these cases, what I mean by define is to determine or identify the essential qualities or meaning of a thing (Mariam Webster).

These renderings all work on the basis that defining the being in an absolute sense is impossible because identity is context dependent and context is not constant. This means that, by extension, statements about existence and non-existence in an absolute sense also won’t apply, as the object in question cannot be adequately defined in manner that is free from context.

So this another reason why I prefer pinned down to found. The former leaves less room for the reader to speculate about whether a being really exists or not.

Thanks for your thorough reply.

A chariot whose parts are replaced is a good analogy for the process of rebirth, but I was referring to parinibbana, where all parts (aggregates) cease. Tbh, it’s not as if it entirely depends on your definition of what that identity is because actually there’s no form of identity that wouldn’t imply that a being would be annihilated in parinibbana, except for distorted views of parinibbana, like those consciousness-outside-of-the-aggregates interpretation.

Isn’t an end of suffering only made after one gets away with conceit and identity-view? The way you’re talking about it sounds like the Buddha was somewhat agnostic about the existence of the self, and we should just give up thinking about it rather than having insight into its non-existence. May I ask if you hold Venerable Thanissaro’s interpretation of anatta?

You’re welcome :slight_smile:

Oh I see. In this case, the chariot analogy would still work. Suppose that the chariot was burned until nothing remained. Could we say that the chariot ceased if we still retain its perception in our minds? Is the perception we hold separate from the chariot or the same as it? Is it within the chariot or is the chariot within it? Within a given context we could say that the chariot ceased (e.g. I have no chariot to take me from A to B). But not in a an absolute sense.

Comparing it to an Arahant at Parinibbana, does the Arahant cease just because they are not reborn? The person asking the question can still perceive the Arahant in their minds through imagination. Again, within a given context the person could say that the Arahant ceased (e.g. I can no longer find the bundle of aggregates I associate with the Arahant in any plane in which I can perceive the aggregates). But again not in an absolute sense.

One thing does, however separate the chariot from a being in that a being is capable of experiencing suffering and its absence while a chariot is not. So even if, in a given context, one decides that the Arahant has ceased it would be a mistake to extrapolate that experience to every being and say I guess if I become an Arahant I shall cease as well; because that is the same as pondering cessation in an absolute sense.

The Buddha described Nibbana not only in the negative (i.e. the end of suffering) but also the positive (the deathless, the sublime etc.) so Nibbana is not the end of experience. However, if you question along the lines of existence you still end up in a quandry. Is experience separate from a being or the same as it? Is experience in a being or is the being in experience? These questions can’t be answered adequately and trying to answer them distracts from skillful action.

Hmm… it really depends on what you mean by agnostic. Let’s imagine you have a hunter in a hunter/gatherer tribe who uses a spear. They are actively involved with the spear; they protect it from the elements, hone the blade and use it to hunt animals. However, they will rarely ponder about whether the spear actually exists and under what condition one could say that it has ceased. They will conceptualise it only to the extent that they can use it to feed and protect themselves. If, during a fight with a wild animal, the spear breaks the hunter may still use the broken spear to continue fighting. It is unlikely that they will think in the following manner:

I’ve defined the spear as something that has a long handle, and this no longer has a long handle. Therefore I now have no spear and am now defenseless.

The hunter is preoccupied with the spear only to the extent that it is useful to them. Further, they will recognise that the spear is a changeable thing and quite happily discard a perception that is not useful. For example, if the spear breaks, they may change their perception from this long handled weapon is my spear to this short handled weapon is my spear.

This now links in nicely with sakaya-diththi. If we take its literal meaning true body view, we can get a flavour for what is abandoned. The true denotes that the view we hold about our self is reliable and unchanging. But however we define our self, such a definition cannot hold because the context within which it makes sense will inevitably change. Therefore we go from holding onto a view of a self that persists despite changes in context to understanding that whatever view of a self we hold is context dependent. In understanding this, we don’t suffer when the aggregates change in a way that is contrary to our unconscious definition of our self.

As in anatta is a strategy rather than a declaration that the self doesn’t exist? Yes I do, but on the basis that this is true of any identity and is not peculiar to just the self.

For example, we could say that a cup doesn’t really exist. It’s just a bunch of electrons and quarks whizzing around. What we perceive to be a cup is an illusion. However this kind of postulating doesn’t serve a useful purpose.

On the other hand, we can use perceptions of ‘cup’ and ‘not-cup’ strategically. We ask the following questions:

Is water drinkable or undrinkable? It is drinkable.
Is a flat object capable of holding water or incapable of holding water? Incapable of holding water.
Therefore, is it fitting to regard a flat object as a ‘cup’? No it is not.
Therefore, regard flat objects as non-cup.

By regarding flat objects as non-cup, you don’t make the mistake of trying to use a flat piece of sheet metal to try and hold water. We maintain and use these kinds of strategic perceptions all the time, which is why we ignore everything that is flat when we are thirsty and are looking for a cup to drink with.

This is very similar to the Anatta Lakkhana sutta:

Is form… feeling… perception… mental formations… consciousness permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”

“No sir”

“You should truly see any kind of form… feeling… perception… mental formation… consciousness… with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’”

Anatta is a perception to be applied to that which causes suffering. I.e. don’t take that which causes suffering as the self, because you would suffer on that account.

Yep, we could. Our memory is different from the thing itself. Actually, what remains isn’t even a perception of the thing, but rather the memory or the perception of the memory of the thing. If we were to equate these things, we wouldn’t be able to say that an arahat doesn’t have mental suffering, since they still have the memories of mental affliction.

I don’t think so, but for a completely different reason. Even if everybody forgot the arahat, that would still not mean that he was annihilated. To say that he was would imply that he’s identical to his aggregates, which would be wrong.

Hmm… that’s tricky, isn’t it? I mean, can the cessation of ear, sounds, eye, sights, nose, smells, tongue, tastes, body, touches, intellect, ideas, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness be an experience? I think it’s just nibbana (i.e. extinguishment).

I used to have a more positive view of nibbana as well before because of suttas that talk about a meditation state where an arahat focus on parinibbana, but venerable Brahmali got a great objection to it:

This samādhi is sometimes said to take Nibbāna as its ‘object’,12 i.e. taking the equivalent of final Nibbāna as its object. However, I cannot see how this explanation can be correct. Final Nibbāna by definition is other than saṁsāra , which means it is other than the six sense bases and their six corresponding classes of objects. In the Nikāyas , consciousness is always defined by the object it takes and consequently there are precisely six classes of consciousness. for Nibbāna to be an object of consciousness, an entirely new class of consciousness would be required, going beyond the established Nikāya taxonomy

I would therefore propose an alternative interpretation of this passage. It is not Nibbāna as such, but a perception that is based on the ariya’s direct knowledge of the nature of Nibbāna . That is, it is not a perception of Nibbāna but a perception about Nibbāna .

That makes sense. I think anatta is more like a negation of the self since the Buddha said that everything is devoid of a self or anything belonging to the self, so the perception of anatta is actually a true perception, while the perception of a self is wrong.

The simplest explanation is that the two truths is an EBT idea. I would also argue momentariness is too, but that’s a different topic.

A being (satta) is clearly defined in the suttas:

An arahant has no such upādāna. Just as the Tathāgata cannot be found to be real in the present life, neither can any arahant in the sense of ‘they are X.’ One can be identified or reckoned by that which they cling to in the suttas (all throughout SN 22). If there is no clinging in regard to anything, there is no means of reckoning for the arahant. No ‘being’ can be found.

Mettā

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May I ask how this definition of being relates to the way the sutta that I quoted explains it? The former explains beings in terms of clinging, while the latter explains them in terms of the aggregates. Are these two ways consistent?

It explains a being in terms of clinging to the aggregates. It’s the pañcupādānakkhandhā vs. the pañcakkhandhā. If there are just aggregates without clinging in them, there’s no being to be found there.

Mettā

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I’m referring to SN 5:10:

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.’

There’s no reference to clinging in it.

Yes, in SN 5.10. But my point is that this is further clarified in SN 23.2 and throughout the Khandhasamyutta where a ‘being’ is just the identification / clinging in regards to the aggregates. When there is no more of that, then one can say that, in truth, there is no ‘being’ to be found (as the Bhikkhunī Vajirā does), and that the term ‘being’ is nothing more than a mere designation or convention for the remaining aggregates.

Just as people say “the arahant” or “the Tathāgata” despite those terms no longer applying to them because they can no longer be reckoned, ‘being’ is the generic word for the exact same concept. The aggregates are called a ‘being’ conventionally, but the word ‘being’ itself implies underlying connotations of referring to a person that is reckoned by the aggregates, which no longer applies for the arahant.

Mettā

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There were questions above about the translation choice ‘being’, and relation between a ‘being’ and the aggregates.

So there’s a being insofar as there’s clinging, but when it ceases, we have no being, but we may still use the word “being” to refer to the aggregates. Do I represent you correctly?

Yep. The simile given is of a fire burning. Upādāna means “fuel” as well, as you may know. And the aggregates may very well come from the term aggikkhandha—a great fire—as Prof. Richard Gombrich discusses, for instance. Either way, bhava—saṁsāric existence—is a fire burning with the aggregates ablaze with clinging/grasping/delight/greed. When people think of a being—as Māra was thinking there in SN 5.10—they tend to be thinking of something that exists and will either continue or will be annihilated. But it is really just a dependent state/process, and with the cessation of its condition (upādāna), the fire goes out. From that point on, the aggregates hang around until the final parinibbāna—total extinguishment—where nothing is left over. In that time, we may still use “being” conventionally, as in “an awakened being” for instance. But there is not actually a being that has attained nibbāna; if anything, there is just the absence of any more “being” to attain anything.

Mettā

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