The suttas regularly state as a wrong view natthi mātā natthi pitā, which literally means “there is no mother, there is no father”. Of course that sounds very silly. Who would even have such a view? Therefore people have interpreted in various ways. For example, that it means there is no good in caring for one’s parents, or that there is no duty to one’s parents, like Venerable @Sujato has added in his translation. However, no sutta explains it as such.
I think the statement can simply be taken literally once we take into account that the present tense can refer to the future (and it seems this is especially the case with atthi). What it then means is after their death one’s mother and father will no longer exist. It reflects the view of annihilation, of there being no rebirth. This is clarified by all other statements surrounding it, which I think all refer to this materialist view. To suggest a translation:
“There is nothing given, donated, and offered [for the departed]. There is no ripening and fruit of good and bad acts [after death]. There is no life after death. One’s mother and father will no longer exist. There are no non-physical beings. There are no attained and practiced renunciants and brahmins who say there is life after death, having witnessed so for themselves with special power.”
I think it makes sense that one would generally worry about the fate of one’s mother and father after death, and less so the fate of one’s children, or fate of one’s siblings, for they are in general less likely to die before you. That would explain why only the mother and father are mentioned and not other people.
A sutta in the Samyutta on right view (SN24.5) further clarifies the view. And it would make sense if this all portrayed one broad, general idea, not various disconnected views.
"There is nothing given, donated, and offered [for the departed]. There is no ripening and fruit of good and bad acts. There is no life after death. One’s mother and father will no longer exist. There are no non-physical beings. There are no attained and practiced renunciants and brahmins who say there is life after death, having witnessed so for themselves with special power. The person consists of the four elements. After they die, the earth of their body returns to the general mass of earth, water to the general general mass of water, fire to the general mass of fire, and air to the general mass of air, and the faculties pass to the void. The dead body is carried away on a bier by four men. Their footprints only go as far as the cemetery where there’s just their bleaching bones. Offerings to them just end in ashes. It’s a doctrine of idiots, this giving. Any teaching of existence is just baseless, false nonsense. Both the foolish and wise are annihilated and destroyed after their body breaks down and no longer exist after death.”
Offerings to the departed is something very prominent in Buddhism today, in Brahmanism of both the Vedas and Upanishads, and probably in other religions of the Buddha’s time too. It maybe wasn’t as important to the Buddha, but it is mentioned here and there in the suttas, most clearly in Khuddapatha 7, an unknown sutta which is well worth a read: “Thus those who are compassionate give to their departed relatives, at the right time, pure, excellent, suitable drink and food. […] The departed in that place who have died, have to subsist on gifts.” So I think the phrase “there is nothing given, offered, and donated” also refers to this, also because some of the words here (like hutaṃ) mean specifically ceremonial offerings, not just any kind of giving. What it means is not that nothing is offered at all, of course, but, I think, that nothing is truly offered to the departed. Those who belief there is no life after death would naturally object to this as a doctrine of idiots.Such offerings they think just end up as ashes.
Just had these thoughts ten minutes ago as I type this, so I haven’t let it settle nor looked at what the commentaries might have to say, but it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? Any ideas or comments?
Be well everybody, and may your parents be well too.
Don’t you think that the “natthi mātā ti…” formula might reasonably be taken as expressing a similar meaning to the "nayidha paññāyetha mātā ti… formula of AN2.9 (where most translators feel similarly compelled to add some extra explanatory words)?
And if so wouldn’t this lend implicit support to renderings like venerables Thanissaro’s and Sujāto’s?
SN 24.5 above says the wrong view arises from grasping:
Mendicants, when what exists, because of grasping what and insisting on what, does the view arise:
However, MN 117 says the opposite meritorious right view also arises from grasping:
And what is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment? ‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There are duties to mother and father.
SN 24.5 then goes on to say the five aggregates are impermanent. Are you suggesting impermanence implies ‘rebirth’ rather than ‘cessation’ or ‘destruction’?
The above sounds like a Buddhaghosa idea. The suttas seem to equate the view of annihilation with the view a ‘self’ is annihilated at death. Again, SN 24.5 says the the view of annihilation arises from grasping and SN 24.5 later counters this wrong view with the right view of not-self.
Contrary to @Dhammanando’s idea, I think what may support your interesting idea is AN 5.159 refers to properly teaching Dhamma in the right sequence or step-by-step. Therefore, if we use a more literal translation, this stock phrase says:
There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed;
There is fruit and result of good and bad actions;
There is this world and the other world;
There is mother and father;
There are beings who are reborn spontaneously;
There are in the world good and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.’
So we can ask the question, why is the above taught in the above order?
Note: Your logical analysis was an example of this teaching in proper sequence.
I usually see these 10 as basis for wholesome actions.
Basis for generosity.
Basis for kamma, which underlies most Buddhist morality.
Basis for rebirth.
Basis for filial piety. This is not trivial, there’s a lot of people nowadays who has the view that children do not owe their parents anything because it’s the parents who chooses to bring the children into this world.
Basis for rebirth, and different realms of existence other than animal and humans.
Basis for the possibility of experimental verification, or testimony of others if one is not one of those recluses and brahmins who has divine eye. Thus, this makes kamma and rebirth not part of speculative metaphysics which is never able to be verified by any means.
Comparing say a devoted Christian vs a secular, materialist atheist influenced by selfish gene philosophy on their morality and views, the Christian would have more ticks on the mundane right view list.
Ven. @Sunyo, would the positive version of “there are no mother and father” be an eternalistic idea then? Could the idea that “mother an father really/truly exist” be called ‘right view with defilements’?
Whenever this is brought up I can’t help, but think of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ and the “Myth of Metals.” Each person born into the state is of the state the mother and father (neither of which are to be considered as real) only acting as conduit of the ‘divine hierarchy.’ An over simplification certainly, but a perversion of the truth without question. It is described and created as a lie in the first place, i.e. “Noble Lie.”
I will always welcome the discovery of the Pali to it’s exact meaning, I just always thought this idea of the mother and father being real as an important one. Wanted to throw that in the mix, great conversation.
That’s a really interesting proposal. I’ve never been exactly satisfied with the traditional explanation.
Of course the ideas are not unrelated: one (has no duties) for parents (who have died) because they don’t exist.
It certainly feels like a more coherent set of doctrines. Clearly “no ripening” refers to after death.
My first question would be: yes, the present can refer to the future, but is it idiomatic to have a list like this, all using the same verb, where some items refer to the present and some to the future? It feels odd. Are there any clear examples of this pattern?
More subtly, what exactly is our relationship with parents in the present? Well, it depends. For some, their parents are already dead, so to say that they “will not be” seems redundant.
Perhaps we should be reading atthi in more of an “eternal existence” sense, “mother and father do not survive”. But then it’s hard to see how this relates to natthi dinnam.
Hmm. I’d want to check commentaries and parallels before deciding. @cdpatton or @Suvira do you know of any translations of this passage in Chinese?
The commentaries explain both “no giving” and “no parents” in terms of phalābhāvaṃ, i.e. the non-existence of the fruit.
Which gives several arguments against the proposition that sentient beings come from parents (as examples of fallacious arguments advanced by those with wrong view). I think they are quite intriguing. To paraphrase some of them very loosely, for example, if beings come from parents, why don’t parents live forever (常生=长生不老)? if beings come from parents, why aren’t we all hermaphrodites? Why do we look and act differently to our parents? It is an impossibility…if beings come from parents, why don’t children die if the parents die? What about moisture born and spontaneously produced beings? What about birds?
They think: a peacock hears the sound of thunder and becomes pregnant. Another example is the green sparrow, which drinks the urine of the male bird and becomes pregnant. Like a Jīvajīvaka bird, if you see a male dance, you get pregnant.
This text seems to read it as that it is the very existence of parents and that beings come from parents which is the point in question.
Admittedly, this is not a question which I myself have ever asked. Maybe these arguments were just too obviously false to have made much of an impact on history.
Edit: the more I think about it, I guess that “believing that beings come from parents” does require a degree of faith in unseen causality, as no-one ever observes conception itself…
Good catch, @suvira! That’s an interesting passage from the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra. It looks like it is indeed using this EBT heretical view as an outline, giving us a meandering commentary on the sorts of fallacious reasoning that leads to different parts of it. The Buddha isn’t being serious with each of those items in that passage. He’s demonstrating how intelligent people estranged from the Dharma end up denying the efficacy of religious practice, etc.
The upshot for the discussion here is that, yes, the commentary provided does take “no mother and no father” sort of literally. It argues that mother and father are misnomers because they aren’t the real cause for their offspring, they only appear to be. The line of reasoning that leads to that is a general outline of the EBT passage being discussed, though. It begins with attacking the idea that giving gifts brings good results and segues into the arguments about parents, and then afterward moves on to attacking the idea that there are sages in the world. (Again, all of this is the Buddha giving us examples of wayward reasoning.)
The segue into the topic of parents is a little interesting. The last argument against there being good results from giving is an example in which a benefactor dies before giving a Buddha or deva image, and their parents do it for them. The argument then goes that the benefactor wouldn’t get any benefit, so it doesn’t really exist. Then, the arguments about “no mother and no father” begin, I guess to establish that they can’t have any connection to the benefactor. They are different people altogether. Maybe there was a belief that parents could transfer merit to their offspring? It seems to sort of suggest that.
This heretical view does occur in the Agamas in a few places. As @suvira says, they aren’t very instructive on how to understand that particular bit of the passage because they translate it like it is in Pali. And there’s no verb tenses provided to indicate that it’s future tense. I’d assume it’s just ordinary present tense without any indicators. However, I notice that these various versions do differ in whether they include certain parts of the view’s litany.
The part “no mother, no father, no sentient beings” seems a piece of it that varies quite a bit. Only the Dirgha Agama reads like the Pali, but it’s more elaborate, giving some examples of “non-physical beings.” Maybe it was an addition that lost its original context and left commentators kind of scratching their heads in later times? There’s also some disagreement about the end, whether it’s arhats that the world lacks or ascetics and priests in general who are self-realized.
Below are examples from each Agama collection, translated off-the-cuff. Please pardon the typos.
“No gift, no communion, no teaching, no good or bad destinations as a result of deeds, no present world or another world, no father or mother, no arhats in the world who correctly arrive and correctly go, who directly know of themselves, whether in this world or another world, that they’ve realized the complete life: ‘My births have been ended, the religious life has been established, and the task has been done,’ knowing they won’t be subject to a later existence.”
“There’s no gift and no giving, and no sacrifice. There’s no good or bad and no good or bad rewards. There’s no present world and no later world. There’s no father, no mother, no gods, no conjurations, and no sentient beings. There are no ascetics or priests in the world who practice the same. None of them who are self-realized and disseminate it to other people in the present life or an afterlife. Their words are all false.”
EA’s parallel to DA 27 (Fruits of the Ascetic Sutra) doesn’t mention parents when Purana Kasyapa tells Ajatasatru:
“There’s no merit, no gift, and no good or bad results in the present world or a later world. There are no arhats in the world who accomplish anything.”
But it does in a different passage in EA 35.7, attributing it to a heretic in Rajagrha:
“There’s no gift, no giving, nothing received, nor is there any good or bad results. There’s no present world or later world, and no father or mother. The world has no ascetics or priests who accomplish anything, who in the present world or a later world who are self-realized who travel about teaching.”
“There’s no gift, no purification, and no incantations. There are no good or bad deeds, no good or bad results of deeds, no present world or another world, and no father or mother. The world has no realized person who goes to a good destination, who goes well and who’s headed well. [Nor] do they know, realize, and accomplish themselves in the present world or another world.”
I see this passage as a warning against Nihilism. The tendency to Nihilistic views such as these is likely to arise even in Buddhists who grasp the doctrine of anatta in an improper way.
This is how my reasoning goes…
If the Self is an illusion and does not truly exist and its all just a collection of aggregates, then the logical conclusion is that there is no actual ‘person’ who can claim to be mother / father … it is just the impersonal interaction of the aggregates conventionally termed as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ which has engendered this particular set of aggregates conventionally termed as ‘Me’. The rest of the beliefs mentioned are rational consequences of holding this nihilistic viewpoint.
Even a person of the stature of Ven Amaro has fallen into this trap - he directly mentioned it as a wrong grasp of Anatta in one of his Dhamma discourses at Amravati a few years ago (though I don’t remember which one, off the top of my head). Paraphrasing from memory he said that very early in his monkhood he 'felt quite superior in the newly embraced view of not-Self… so much so that 'I told my mother “You’re not really my mother, you know!” Of course, his mum brought him quickly down to Earth. That struck a chord in me at the time, because I was leaning in the same direction!
IMO, the point where such an analysis of Anatta has gone wrong is that even though there may from an Ultimate Truth point of view be no Real, Permanent, Immutable Self; for the being that has not made an end of Craving and lives within Conventional Reality a sense of ‘Self’ is non -optional. As long as the tendency to craving and the other defilements remains, the Being will continue to be reborn and the laws of kamma etc will remain applicable. Denying this on the basis of a purely intellectual grasp of Anatta without actually making an end of the Defilements goes against Conventional Reality, leads to Suffering and is thus Wrong View. Which is the whole point of the two kinds of Right View with / without defilements (MN117).
So, IMO the statement is pretty meaningful as it stands.
It would make sense, but what is 而 doing there? It’s usually either marking the last of a series of verbs or it’s marking an if clause, placed immediately after its subject. I think that’s why CBETA punctuated the sentence that way. Otherwise, it would make sense to read 命過父母 as a third item in the list.
No, I don’t think so. Just because one passage requires extra explanation, does not give added reason to add extra words elsewhere too. f suttas can be read as they are, I think that’s always preferable. Or at least it should be the first approach. Otherwise, what keeps us from adding explanations wherever we want?
And I think AN2.9 actually allows for some implicit words to be added. Paññāyetha could mean something like ‘recognize’, as in “recognizing Taiwan as a separate country”. To ‘recognize one’s mother’ or to ‘recognize the status of one’s mother’, as Sujato translates, don’t differ all that much in meaning, like ‘recognizing Taiwan’ and ‘recognizing the status of Taiwan’ don’t. (Of course it’s not the same context, but to get the general idea across.) So that added word ‘status’ I think helps clarify what is probably said already. I have no issues with that.
However, with natthi mātā the case is quite another. Here the difference between the literal and added-on versions is very big. We go from “there is no mother” to “there is no duty to one’s mother” (or whatever else is added), which mean something completely different.
And also grammatically it’s constructed very differently. Māta is in the nominative, so grammatically the mother is what is or isn’t. If the duty is what is or isn’t, then mātā would not be in the nominative, I would suspect. This is of course a bit of touch-feely, but unlike hoti the verb atthi is generally quite emphatic about what truly exists. (See Warder’s Introduction to Pali.) Why would the text leave out the very thing that exists (the duty) and place in its stead something else (the mother & father)?
And talking about atthi used emphatically for what truly exists: In DN23 (as a section title) and in MN60 shorter versions of the wrong view are called natthikavāda, which is commonly translated as ‘nihilism’. But the descriptions in these two texts definitely mention nothing about ethics; they only say there is no afterlife, so I think natthika can be translated quite literally as ‘non-existence’ or ‘non-survival’. And in the longer description I quoted before this wrong view denies atthikavāda (existence/survival). Then it uses this same verb atthi for ‘there is no mother, no father’. It would make sense if this means one’s parent’s don’t survive death, I think.
So atm I still think it’s about the ancestors existing or not existing after death. The forefathers, basically. In Brahminism the world where you go after death is called the world of the fathers, literally. So to say there is no father is denying the afterlife.
Also, my suggestion hits two birds with one stone. Seeing the whole “there is no” passage as a rejection of an afterlife instead of various disconnected nihilistic ideas on moralism and existence, solves not only the natthi mātā, but also “nothing given, etc.”, where translators often add words of their own as well—words quite different from “duty”, and equally different from what is said literally or grammatically. What I think it means is there is nothing given to the departed.
We have to imagine living in those times. The donations to forefathers and gods was such an important thing, at least to vedic brahmanism, that it was intrinsically connected to a belief in an afterlife. For those unaware, read the Rig Veda and you’ll see food offerings everywhere. And this idea found its way into the suttas in various ways. Kp7, most clearly, which I quoted before. Often saddha means offering to the dead. In SN6.3 an offering is meant as food for Brahma. Then in Kp4 there is the phrase, “all beings [including immaterial ones] subsist on food” which is almost verbatim found in the Upanishads: “From food are born all creatures; they live upon food.” (TaiU2.2.1) The idea of having to feed one’s departed relatives with food is even what the four nutriments are derived from, I belief—the four nutriments for rebirth.
Btw, on implicit words, while earlier I bracketed “to the departed” in “there is nothing given, sacrificed, and offered [to the departed]”, I’m starting to think that ‘departed’ (or gods) is even implied by huta and yiṭṭha. The’re not an ordinary gift, not in this context anyway. It implies something very religious, an afterlife or other world of sorts. Huta is for example used in the aggi-hutta/-homa (agnihotra), the fire sacrifice where the brahmins throw food in the fire. (E.g. SN7.9) In the Vedas this is done (among other reasons) to keep the ancestors and gods alive literally. In DN3 Walshe translates yañña, the noun form of yiṭḥa, as “offerings to the gods” in a line with similar words: “feast offered to the dead, food boiled in milk, offerings to the gods, food sent as a present”. Commonly yañña, is translated as ‘sacrifice’ but of course a sacrifice always has a recipient too.
So that’s huta and yiṭṭha. About dinna, the verses of Kp7 use it in the famous Ānumodana: evameva ito dinnaṁ petānaṁ upakappati, “what is given here goes to the departed”. That’s just the thing I think is rejected in natthi dinnaṃ, natthi yiṭṭhaṁ, natthi hutaṁ. It rejects offering to another world, not that there’s no moral fruit of giving to one on earth.
And lastly, as to “there’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds”: In the suttas you have to try really hard to find places where kamma refers to this life. It’s here and there, but the vast majority of cases are about what happens after death. So we can assume that’s the case here too, especially given the context. As Sujato said:
It’s the suttas’ view:
[King Ajātasattu:] “Ajita Kesakambala said to me: ‘There is nothing given, sacrificed, and offered to the departed. There is no result and fruit of good and bad acts. There is no life after death. One’s mother and father will no longer exist. There are no non-physical beings. There are no attained and practiced renunciants and brahmins who say there is life after death after seeing so for themselves with special power. The person consists just of the four elements. After they die, the earth in their body returns to the general mass of earth, the water to the general general mass of water, the fire to the general mass of fire, and the air to the general mass of air, and the faculties pass into the void. Four men carry the dead body on a bier. Their footprints only go as far as the cemetery. There will just be bleached bones. Offerings to spirits just end in ashes. It’s a doctrine of idiots, this giving. Any teaching of survival is just baseless, false nonsense. Both the foolish and wise get annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks down and will no longer exist after death.’ So, your reverence, when I asked Ajita Kesakambala about a fruit of renunciant life that’s visible in this life, he answered with this doctrine of annihilation.” (DN2)
Which actually shows that all views mentioned, including “there is no mother”, describe the view of annihilation. Ajita Kesakambala did not deny moralism, didn’t deny duties to parents or meaning in giving. Because annihilation doesn’t necessarily deny such things. You can easily belief in a single life and still think there’s a duty to one’s parents, for example. Duties to one’s parents has little to do with the view of annihilation, but one’s parents no longer existing after death, which I propose is what’s meant, very much does.
In MN76 the same long passage is also effectively countered by, “But I do not say that both of us are cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body, that after death we shall not exist. […] I, who live in a house crowded with children […] shall reap exactly the same destination [after death], the same future course, as this good teacher?” Again, there’s nothing mentioned about morality or duties here. It’s all about what happens after death.
With that the commentaries disagree, though. Here’s Venerable Bodhi’s translation of DN2’s commentary:
“There is no giving.” CY. He says this intending that there are no fruits of giving, offering, and liberality. […]
“No mother, no father.” CY. He says this intending that there are no fruits of right and wrong conduct towards parents.
I’m not at all convinced by the comy, though. Why would anyone say “there is no mother” if you actually mean to say there is no fruits of right conduct? And why mention one’s parents specifically? Is there then fruit of conduct for other people, just not one’s parents? …
Well the way it’s phrased it’s obviously just a word-by-word negation of the wrong view of annihilation. I don’t think it means like one’s mother and father exist forever.
Well, it’s called annihilation in DN2, not nihilism. And as I said natthika also can well mean non-survival instead of nihilism. Also, this is not the wrong view on anatta not of an over-striving Buddhist, but simply the view of other wanderers. I think we should be careful not to see everything in the suttas in terms of anatta. Especially since the language of this passage is just about ordinary beliefs of the time and doesn’t mention any very deep doctrine about a self. Hence to say “one’s mother still exists” also doesn’t have to become a view of eternalism. It just means they still exist after death.
Well, there is nothing given can perhaps refer to the gifts not existing in the afterlife, so it’s kind of about the future. As you said, the fruits of good actions are about the afterlife too.
We can also take it all as present tense and say “there is no mother [in the afterlife]” and so on.
If it happen so the object of offering of the donor is a Buddha image , a deva image or the deceased parents , then there would be no recipient , if without recipient then that are supposed to be without karmic ripening 。。。。。。。。。
I had deleted my earlier post because I was a bit reluctant to argue with the CBETA punctuation (i.e. the one that is managed via Taiwan) without really thinking it through. But now that @vijja is here to back me up, I feel less shy.
I generally tend to take the CBETA punctuation as a “suggestion” only.
If the commentary is right, then my proposal would be that the phrase would likely be of an allusive shorthand type, referring in brief to the proto-Cārvāka doctrine of Ajita Kesakambalin. There’s suggestive evidence in the suttas that the rival samaṇa communities were broadly acquainted with each other’s characteristic doctrines. It’s likely that when criticizing rival doctrines they would have resorted, for convenience’ sake, to some shorthand summation of the doctrine being criticised, for this is a near-ubiquitous feature of religious polemic. What’s also very common is that the meaning of shorthand phrases of this kind, while readily understood by the participants in the dispute, will be meaningless to outsiders, or else conveying a wrong meaning if the words be taken literally. E.g., “everything exists” for the Sarvāstivāda’s doctrine that dharmas persist through the three periods of time, “purification through saṃsāra” for Makkhali’s characteristic doctrine, “there’s no merit” for Pūraṇakassapa’s, etc.