TO BE OR NOT TO BE, the undeclared points in the 4 principle Nikayas:

A chariot, assuming its a real chariot, really is designated ‘chariot’.
A chariot, even a fictional one, is still, correctly, designated as ‘chariot’
A real, OR an imaginary or fictional chariot, if it is made of parts is still corectly refered to as ‘chariot’
A real or imagined chariot that is not made of parts, say machined from a single block of wood, so frictionless that the horses drag it along like its on ice would still be CORRECTLY called a (ice?) ‘Chariot’.

So it is ENOURMOUSLY UNCLEAR what people actually think they are pointing out when thet point out that the word ’ chariot’ means chariot.

Person, self, actor, agent, all these things can be real or fictional even in the everyday sense, all these things can have parts, I, the person joseph, have 2 arms, so what? How does my having 2 arms or a chariot having 4 wheels say ANYTHING AT ALL about the question of wether we are talking about a real or a fictiinal chariot? Or a real or imaginary joseph?

On this argument, EVERYTHING is a meaningless designation of mere convention: chariots, persons, dolphins, numbers, truth values, fact/falsity distinctions, nibanna, the aggregates, you, me ANYTHING is “mere designatiion”.

This vacuous argument, which appears in one poem in SN and the Milindapatha, that is that chariots arent real because they are made of parts and by analogy we should understand that people aren’t real because they are made with parts is not a valid argument by explosion QED.

It therefore can’t be the original valid argumnet of buddhism. QED.

it must be possible to think about what the buddha taught in such a way as to be led towards peace of mind and certainty rght now.

The buddha said that it was incorrect to hold the view:

The fire is real
The fir is not real
The fire has both real and unreal parts
The fire has niether real nor unreal parts

But correct to assert

The (real) fire really burns
Dependent on there really being fuel to burn.
With the exhaustion of fuel the fire is exhausted.
When its exhausted the fire isnt north south east or west.

If anything composed of parts is definitionally fictional and therefore false, everything is false and language is impossibility, without holding such a view it is possible to point out its flaw.

Thankfully I think it is only by late misinterpretation that the “fictionalist” argument gets in to buddhism and in the main the texts are scrupulous to avoid making such universalist and logical explosion prone ideas.

Remarkable. @josephzizys it seems we think of things both in a very similar way and also in a very dissimilar way, but I can’t claim to understand just where and how we diverge - only that we do. SN 22.86 is - for me - one of the key sutta in all of Pali canon and is of profound meaning. I’ve read now a good part of your essay and agree with much of it and find a lot of your statements well reasoned, but I still can’t understand why you think SN 22.86 is late or exactly what you think is wrong with it. To me, SN 22.86 is probably the closest sutta where I can stake a claim that the Buddha was intentionally constructive in his use of logic rather than admitting the usage of LEM. I also believe that SN 22.86 is one of the ways we can understand the Buddha and Nagarjuna to be in complete agreement. We both are students of the Buddha and Nagarjuna, but we seem to disagree profoundly on this sutta!

I’d go so far as to claim that there is an exact correspondence between SN 22.86 and the following verses of Nagarjuna’s MMK:

22.1 Neither the aggregates, nor different from the aggregates,
The aggregates are not in him, nor is he in the aggregates.
The Tathāgata does not possess the aggregates.
What is the Tathāgata?

22.13 One who holds firmly
That the Tathāgata exists
Will have to fabricate his nonexistence
After having achieved nirvana.

This is my best attempt to understand where we diverge: it is in the definition of the terms ‘real’ and ‘true’ and ‘genuine’ and so on, but we should probably go to the Pali here to make absolutely clear our intentions with definitions. In 22.86, the key words are “saccato thetato” which have been variously translated as ‘real’, ‘true’, ‘genuine.’ I hypothesize that if we use a frame of constructive logic to understand 22.86 it can be made formal what this phrase means and does not mean.

I deleted my original comment in this thread because I noticed you had a strong reaction to it and I was afraid I had upset you and figured there was no point in discussing further since we seem to have such a profound difference of understanding of SN 22.86 and feared there was no way to clear it up. Perhaps my fears were unfounded.

I would be open to exploring with you how exactly we diverge and on what points, but I’m not sure the proper forum for doing so or how exactly to begin. Maybe it should wait until I’ve had a chance to write up my own essay(s) which will in large part be about the understanding of both SN 22.86 and those verses of Nagarjuna’s above in terms of constructive logic. :pray:

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I think there are two different ways of looking at this and interpreting said suttas, and much of this (long historical) debate centers around these two:

  1. The Realized One cannot be said to actually exist. There are just the aggregates, and as a collection of parts we apply the label “person” or “realized one”. At paranibbana, there is just the extinction of the aggregates. Nothing else. There is no self. (This sort of naturally leads into the two truth doctrines.) Nibbana is not some “dimension.”

  2. Saying that “there is no self” and “the Realized One doesn’t actually exist” goes too far. The point instead is that the Realized One has become undefined and gone beyond all categories of language (and logic!) including existence, non-existence, neither non-existence nor existence, both non-existence and existence, self, not-self, neither self nor not-self, and both self and not-self. There is some Nibbana dimension, but nothing can really be said about it, other than that it is really good! Or maybe it is even incorrect to say “there is some Nibbana dimension,” but it is also incorrect to claim the opposite.

I never read Wittgenstein in detail, but he set out to describe the limits of logic and language. As for those things which lay outside this range, “we must remain silent.”

Both readings seem consistent to me. Many people probably don’t neatly fit into one of the two camps above, I have just noticed that the two sets of views I have listed above tend to form clusters of people. The monastics on this forum tend to cluster in the first camp.


I think there is a middle way between these two options and that it is hard to see. Those two above seem like the only options because of reasoning analogous to the principle of the excluded middle. One important clue is that the Buddha did not say “there is no self” which is a positive affirming statement of falsehood, but rather said a “self” cannot be found. Precisely because a self cannot be found it is improper to then go on to say that the Tathagata exists/doesn’t exist after the breakup of the body.

The statement “there is no self” can only be known through either direct knowledge which does not rely upon logic OR an indirect proof which is only allowed when you insist upon the principle of the excluded middle. If you do away with the principle of the excluded middle, then it is not proper to conclude “there is no self” based on indirect proof of the fact that one cannot be found.

In SN 5.10 Vajira did not say “there is no being.” Instead she asked Mara why he assumed a being:

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.

I think the distinction is of profound import. A ‘view’ might very well be a form of indirect proof that is arrived at from the principle of the excluded middle.

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Yes, okay, I understand your viewpoint. Interesting!

You have made a few posts on SC the last few days circling around this topic. Perhaps you could write an essay uniting all of your thoughts and post a new thread? I think at the beginning you could just state upfront that you are assuming the Buddha never used the LEM, and taking this as a postulate proceed.

All the best


Haha! No @yeshe.tenley I was excited! I have a terrible habit of vitriol and hyperbole when i am intellectually excited by an argument (and when i say that i always mean both the side of the argument I percieve myself to be on, and the “other” side :slight_smile:

My main thought rught now is that I may simply be overreacting to the tenor of the english renderings, however I guess my critique of said engliah renderings is this;

MN72 applies the abayakata (my prefered term for the tetralemma, undeclared points, 4fold negation etc) to a situation where the fire is dependent on the fuel and the abayakata do not apply to where the fire has gone, that is it is not existing or not existing, both or niether.

The argument there is not that there was a fictional fire and fictional fuel, but that there where fictional view impeding clear understanding that is:

  1. Fire exists
  2. Fire does not exist
  3. Fire posesses both existant and non-existent parts
  4. Fire posesses niether existant nor non-existant part

This is contrasted to the right way to think about it which is “dependent” (this is i think the connecting link to dependent type theory) i.e:


If there is a fire then
That fire depends on its fuel
With the elimination of fuel
The fire is eliminated

So the rejected concepts, see DN1 etc are:

Doesnt exist




And the accepted concepts are:

If we grant there is a defined term
That term is defined by its dependencies
Elimination of dependants implies elimination of the term
QED There is a path from introduction of the term to its elimination.

So as far as i can tell, if we read Snp4.2 etc and Snp5.2 etc as being borderline skeptical, so much so that its pretty hard to read them as belonging to the same tradition as the sutta pitaka, and then look at DN1 and DN2 as being a clarification about what kind of logic was still within the sphere of both buddhists and non buddhists, then i think we see, in the 4 truths formulation, a defence of dependant logic as valid even in a world where things like objects that could bear properties like whole/part existing/nonexisting etc, do not hold.

I also think that on this picture we definitely have to grant that buddha recognised at least 3 truth values, true, false, and abayakata, applying to propositions that where deemed to lead to absurdity regarless of which of T or F you judged them to be.

This is i think clearly stronger than the sceptical claim that there are Ts, Fs and Us (for unknowns) but rather Ts, Fs and As (for Abayakata! Or Absurdity producing).

Whether or not the buddha thought there where all of ts fs us and as i dont know.


As i read it the argument “can you identify the buddha/fire with some particular form-feeling-perception-awareness-disposition or some collection of them, no? Therefore there was never a buddha/fire identifiable then, and so theres no buddha/fire identifiable now” just doesnt look like the same argument as MN72 etc

The fire depends on fuel.
And “I do not exist” is the delusion of fools who have gotten bored of the delusion “i exist”.


Anyway, please forgive my hyperbole and invective! I want to say so much more thatn i can fit in and i compensate with exaggerated language i think.


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I very much look forward to your essay !!

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so 1. simply cannot be true because if the aggregates are real, while collections of parts are unreal lables, firstly aggregates literally are collections, thats what the word means, so the aggregates themselves, as collections of parts, would just be unreal labels, secondly, if the realised one never existed anyway, then there was never anyone suffering, and never anyone who liberated themselves from suffering, so why do we care what they think? thirdly if the aggregates are real and the aggregates are form, feeling, perceptions, consciousness and choices, then suffering is not real to begin with either, in fact the only things that are real are forms feelings perceptions consciousness and choices which leads to the fourth point, that the parinibanna is therefore not real as the absense of the aggregates is by definition not itself an aggreagte and therefore by your 1. “there are just the aggregates” there is no such thing as nibanna or parinibanna, fifthly and I guess I will leave it at that, this prinicple applies to literally anythingwhatever, which must always have some characteristic that distinguishes which particular form -feeling-perceptoipn etc we are talking about in any given instance, which we cannot do, because any thing said of any of them that is not itself begging the same question must be the aformentioned 5 things or not real.

  1. "the realised one cannot be said to “exist” is NOT IN DISPUTE here, in the sense that as a rep of the “option 2” crowd, we AGREE that it is a wrong view to hold: “the buddha exists” (after death, though thats frankly a misdirection). We merely point out the MANY MANY suttas where it says that it is wrong to hold the view “the buddha does not exist” OVER AND OVER AGAIN, in the list that opens this thread.

the “option 1” crowd are left it seems to me with explaining how aggregates are “real” and where such claims are made in the ebt, and how we are to understand for eg MN43 in relation to the seemingly rigid designation of 5 aggreagtes. they are also left to explain or explain away all the occurrences of “the buddha does not exist after death is a wrong view” as being somehow about phrasing, or implicit assumptions, or brhaminical atmans etc, when the option 2 crowd have no such problems.

I would also jsut state for the recortd that the overwhelming evidence is that the abayakata, inclusive of the “doesn’t exist” limb, is early, and uniformly spread across all four nikayas and both the pali and chinese, I think that the evidence for the substantial points in option 1 are confined almost entirely to SN/SA when looked at in overlap and francly even there find only weak and infrequent support compared to the universal (S included) acknowlegment of the abayakata as significant doctrine.

What precisely do you mean when you assert that the aggregates are real? You seem to repeat this point and use the word real quite a bit in this essay and discussion. Can you define your term as it is not obvious to me what you are actually asserting.

When I use the word ‘real’ I take the common definition as meaning it actually exists exactly as it appears to exist. This has the benefit of being in accord with the Buddha’s usage in the Pali canon as well. For something to be real, its appearance and mode of existence must be in complete accordance with no deceptive nature. Is this your definition as well?

Hello yeshe (what should I call you?),

The definition of “reality” that you linked to does not include the phrase “as it appears to.”

It says that reality is ‘the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them’ which to me conveys the meaning ‘the world or state of things that actually exist as they appear to exist’ in a non-deceptive manner. This is in contrapose to an illusion or a dream which does not exist as it appears to exist, but rather appears in a deceptive manner.

Yeshe is fine :pray:

Hmmm I disagree. In fact, I think our “idealistic notions” are often “the way things appear to be. “

So reality would be opposed to the way things appear to be, and reality may not be idealistic.

I think you would be hard pressed to find any philosopher who would define reality as “that which exists exactly as it appears to” - in fact many philosophers and physicists argue that our sense of reality is deceptive.

You disagree with what?
That reality is non-deceptive?
That the world is deceptive?
That what is non-deceptive should be known as truth?
That what is deceptive should be known as false?

“See how the world with its gods
imagines not-self to be self;
habituated to name and form,
imagining this is truth.

For whatever you imagine it is,
it turns out to be something else.
And that is what is false in it,
for the ephemeral is deceptive by nature.

Extinguishment has an undeceptive nature,
the noble ones know it as truth.
Having comprehended the truth,
they are hungerless, extinguished.”
Snp 3.12

Is the world real and nibbana unreal?
Is the world true and nibbana false?

If you say reality is deceptive, then you leave nothing left and make no room for the non-deceptive.

Maybe you are conflating ‘reality’ with ‘our sense of reality’? Clearly the two are very different. I think philosophers, physicists and the Buddha would all agree that reality and our sense of reality are very different. :pray:

I disagree with your definition of reality.

“the world or state of things that actually exist as they appear to exist

I disagree with the last bit.

Both are real.

It seems to me like you are conflating the two, so I think we are misunderstanding each other (respectfully). :blush:

I somehow missed this essay when you posted it. Just wanted to say ‘Nicely done!’. Thank you

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Venerable Yeshe. When I read the suttas, the Buddha is always teaching the aggregates are impermanent & not-self. This assumes the nature of the aggregates is unambiguous. If the nature of an aggregate was deceptive, it could not be classed as an aggregate. In Khajjaniya Sutta, each aggregate is undeceptively defined.

The aggregates do not read as though they are a dream or an illusion. It reads as though only false qualities (such as permanence, happiness, self) attributed to aggregates are a dream or illusion. I think the teachings of Tsongkhapa are not the same as the Buddha. I remember some people saying Phena Sutta says there are no aggregates however this must be a misunderstanding. Phena Sutta is teaching there are aggregates however the aggregates are fleeting & lack substance.

Venerable Yeshe. This quote you posted does not read as though it is about the aggregates. It reads as though it is about deceptions of self & permanence.

As much as I love my thread being bumped to the top od discuss and discover again, perhaps @Dunlop and @yeshe.tenley you could start another thread or find another more relevant thread to discuss the nature of the aggregates, as this thread is for the discussion of the abayakata.

Of course! For what it is worth, I have not attempted to engage in such a discussion nor have I mentioned the teachings of anything but the EBT’s. It would seem some are interested in engaging with me on non-EBT discussion based upon my username, but I am trying to discourage this to the best of my ability on threads such as this where the context is not appropriate. :pray:

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To be or not to be: that is the answer.


Excellent pun, however I think its worth pointing out that this is precicely not the answer early buddhism advocates:

Kaccāna, this world mostly relies on the dual notions of existence and non-existence.
dvayanissito khvāyaṁ, kaccāna, loko yebhuyyena atthitañceva natthitañca.

But when you truly see the origin of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of non-existence regarding the world.
Lokasamudayaṁ kho, kaccāna, yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya passato yā loke natthitā, sā na hoti.

And when you truly see the cessation of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of existence regarding the world.
Lokanirodhaṁ kho, kaccāna, yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya passato yā lok

“All exists”: this is one extreme.
Sabbamatthīti kho, kaccāna, ayameko anto.

“All does not exist”: this is the second extreme.
Sabbaṁ natthīti ayaṁ dutiyo anto.