DN 9 Poṭṭhapādasutta begins with a discussion among various wanderers, and Poṭṭhapāda asks the Buddha about the cessation of perception. This launches an interesting discussion about how perception was seen by the various philosophers at the time, and how the Buddha responded to that.
It deals with a rather specific topic in a specific way. Why were these wanderers so concerned with the cessation of “perception” per se? Is this just a random topic? Later, the sutta distinguishes perception (saññā) from knowledge (ñāṇa); again, why is that here, as we do not find this distinction framed in this way elsewhere.
Even more interesting, why is the topic prefixed with abhi-? Previous translators have misunderstood this as having the sense “higher” cessation of perception. But here the prefix abhi- means not “higher”, but rather “about, concerning”. Compare the text here (abhisaññānirodhe kathā udapādi) with mn32:8.6: dve bhikkhū abhidhammakathaṁ kathenti (“two mendicants engage in discussion about the teaching”).
Just as abhidhamma means “about the Dhamma” in a specific sense, i.e. about the formal teachings of the suttas; and just as abhivinaya means “about the Vinaya”, i.e. concerning the patimokkha rules, etc. it seems that “about the cessation of perception” refers to a specific textual passage.
Of all the many passages in the vast corpus of Brahmanical literature, there is one that stands out as the most important, the most profound, the most cited and influential, and the one with the most pervasive set of connections with early Buddhist texts. And that is the dialogue between the sage Yājñavalkya and his wife Maitreyī on the occasion of his going forth. The passage is at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.12, repeated with small changes at 4.5.13. You can read it with text, translation, and commentary here:
To anyone familiar with early Buddhist texts, virtually every sentence and phrase will echo in some way with what is found in the suttas.
Yājñavalkya dismisses all of the phenomena of the world as mere symptoms rather than the Self, and in the culminating verse states clearly what the true Self is:
As a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves with (its component) water, and no one is able to pick it up, but whencesoever one takes it, it tastes salt, even so, my dear, this great, endless, infinite Reality is but Pure Intelligence. (The self) comes out (as a separate entity) from these elements, and (this separateness) is destroyed with them. After attaining (this oneness) it has no more consciousness. This is what I say, my dear. So said Yājñavalkya.
The word translated here as “intelligence” is vijñāna (Pali viññāṇa), normally translated as “consciousness”. This is, as in Pali, said to be ananta (“infinite”) but also, unlike Pali, apāra (“with nothing beyond”); for the Buddha, of course, Nibbana was beyond even infinite consciousness. And the word translated as “consciousness” is saṁjñā (“perception”, Pali saññā). It’s worth noting that at this point in Brahmanical literature, there was no readily standardized psychological vocabulary such as we find in Buddhism.
Let me give a more literal translation of the second half that uses the familiar terminology.
This great reality, infinite, with nothing beyond, is but a sheer mass of consciousness. Having arisen with these elements, one vanishes along with them. Having departed, there is no more perception.
Here we find the Buddhist ideas of arising and ceasing, but the “infinite consciousness” is that from which one arises with the diverse elements of conditioned reality, and into which one vanishes again.
The final statement about the ending of perception is challenging, and it might be read a number of ways:
- There is no consciousness after death, i.e. affirming an annihilationist view. One encounters this interpretation often, but it seems to me utterly implausible.
- Per the translation on the linked site, which follows the traditional commentary, it refers to the particular consciousness of the individual self, which vanishes for one who has realized the truth.
- Or it is equivalent to the Buddhist idea of parinibbana, i.e. what happens to a realized sage at death. The word pretya does indicate “after death”. I think it is saying that after death, one who has realized the truth of Brahma will no longer have any “particular consciousness” (saññā) but only the “infinite consciousness” (viññāṇa).
Let’s assume this last reading is correct, for now at least.
Clearly this statement was not easy, for even the wise Maitreyī interrupted to object. (From here, let me insert the standard translations for clarity).
Maitreyī said, ‘Just here you have thrown me into confusion, sir—by saying that after attaining (oneness) the self has no more perception.’ Yājñavalkya said, ‘Certainly I am not saying anything confusing, my dear; this is quite sufficient for consciousness, O Maitreyī.’
Then he makes the final statement of the whole passage, ending on a note of solemnity and profound insight.
Because when there is duality, as it were, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, one cognizes something. (But) when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one speak and through what, what should one think and through what, what should one cognize and through what? Through what should one cognize That owing to which all this is cognized—through what, O Maitreyī, should one cognize the cognizer ?
Philosophy tends to work in cycles. Questions once answered are asked again, and answers to hard problems rarely satisfy everyone. We know that Maitreyī struggled with this point, and it is unlikely she was the only one. The extensive commentary is evidence of the liveliness of interpretation.
Yājñavalkya makes a profound philosophical statement, but he does not really address the questions as to why the limited self should arise from a mass of consciousness, and how is it that we might return. And this, I believe is the discussion “about the cessation of consciousness” that is recorded in the Poṭṭhapādasutta.
Now, it seems clear that Yājñavalkya is implicitly distinguishing between viññāna as “infinite” (= vi-) knowing and saññā as “constrained” (saṁ-) knowing. The former is identified with the supreme cosmic Self, while the latter is the delusional personal self.
Some opine that perception arises and ceases by chance, or by identity with the self, or by the power of a sage or a god. The Buddha of course rejects all of these, though he only treats the first case in detail.
He treats perception as a purely psychological process that is developed through meditation. The entire discourse reframes the normal meditation teaching in this way. Ultimately, they “touch cessation”, but the Buddha avoids saying that perception ceases by absorption into the ocean of infinite consciousness. It just ceases.
There is much more of interest in this sutta, and many more connections with Yājñavalkya that might be traced, but I think the outline is clear.
Yājñavalkya made a brilliant psychological and philosophical insight about the relativity of the personality in its relation to perception. But it was still bound by his commitment to the metaphysics of the Self. Moreover, he left open the practical questions of how to realize such a state. This stimulated ongoing discussions in the leading Brahmanical communities, some of which is recorded in the Poṭṭhapādasutta. The Buddha adopted the distinction between the limited awareness of perception as compared to infinite consciousness, but rejected the metaphysical aspects, instead supplying a detailed psychological praxis that showed how to surmount perception through meditation.
It would be worth revisiting such meditation states as “neither perception nor non perception” in this light also.