Translation of Snp 5.7 Question

Alexander Wynne, in “The Origin of Early Buddhist Meditation,” discusses the Questions of Upasīva and some variations in its translation. I was wondering if Bhante @sujato or another Pāli translator familiar with these verses could offer some opinions on their choices for some of these examples.

Previously, I had interpreted the passage as essentially about the Buddha telling Upasīva to continue practicing the contemplation/base of nothingness mindfully with restraint. Upasīva then asks if someone free of sensual desire would be reborn in that realm, to which the Buddha says yes. He then asks if that person—in the liberation of domain of nothingness—would eventually grow cool (attain final liberation) and if they’d lose consciousness as well, to which the Buddha describes the going out of the flame and likens it to the inconceivability of the sage / lack of reckoning.

Alexander Wynne calls some of this into question. First, he points to the fact that the early commentarial literature across traditions—the Niddesas / references to it—all refer to 'dhimutto rather than vimutto in reference to the saññāvimokkhe (i.e. the domain of nothingness). He reasons that vimutto is likely a corruption, and that this should be referring to someone who is concentrated (attained to) the highest liberation of perception (nothingness); in other words, that Upasīva is asking about someone who has stabilized and perfected the attainment of that base, rid of sense desire, without falling to any lower attainments (anānuyāyī). There too he argues that the question is about whether someone can truly stabilize and maintain the base of nothingness, as opposed to asking if one is reborn there.

Part of the reason he argues this is related to the rest of the book where he discusses how early Brahminical soteriology was a kind of post-mortem merging with the unmanifest (ātman, brahman, etc.), and was not attained while living. Meditative attainments were a kind of anticipation of that eternal state, but this was only completed at death. He also shows that Upasīva introduces the term “sītisiyā (vimutto)” to the conversation—a term which has parallels in Brahminical literature as referring to this final merging with the immortal unmanifest (at death of worldly existence). Because Upasīva, a brahmin, is introducing this concept and not the Buddha, it would seem that in the next stanza he is asking the Buddha if someone who has firmly attained to nothingness will grow cool and be liberated (at death), and if their consciousness will pass away when this happens (again, at death).

The problem, according to Wynne, is that this doesn’t really make sense if Upasīva is in the school of thought where nothingness is equated to the highest unmanifest state that one will merge with at death. In the stanza before the one about growing cool, he mentions if one will stay/stand/remain in that domain, and then he asks about one being liberated and growing cool from there. But should not the going to the realm of nothingness be the same as growing cool? Wynne interprets the question about remaining “anānuyāyī,” then, as asking if one can truly stabilize and perfect that base without falling away, and then in the next stanza, Upasīva asks if that person, when ‘growing cool’ (i.e. being liberated at death), will be without vijñāna (which was seemingly a relevant question and matter of debate at the time in regards to final liberation; the Buddha seems to have rejected it, whereas sages such as Yājñavalkya promoted a permanent consciousness).

He then sees the Buddha respond in a typical Buddha-swip-swap way, where he doesn’t take liberation to be a mere post-mortem state, but rather one can attain the deathless and cross to the far shore in this very life; as in the Aggi-vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha talks about how he has “gone out” (atthangato—the same verb used in Snp 5.7) even in this very life, and cannot be reckoned by any phenomena (as he also says in Snp 5.7). Therefore, the Buddha is referring to the person who attains nibbāna via the domain of nothingness in this very life, thus ‘growing cool,’ rather than what happens to them after death. He describes them as being freed of all reckoning or categories of naming, and thus any notions of them existing or being annihilated do not compute, shutting off the speculations about them after death. This parallels other suttas (such as SN 35.229, the aforementioned Aggi-Vacchagotta S., Snp 5.5, etc.) where the sage is said to be free of birth/death, reckoning, consciousness, etc. even in the present life.

Wynne summarizes the sutta as such:

1069-70: Upasīva asks what meditative object one should practice in order to escape suffering. The Buddha answers that one should observe nothingness mindfully; the word satimā appears to mean that this practice combines meditative absorption with the practice of mindfulness.
1071-72: Upasīva asks if this state of meditation can be sustained without falling away from it, probably because he was surprised to hear that one must observe ‘nothingness’ and practice mindfulness at the same time. The Buddha answers that this state of meditation can be sustained without falling away from it.
1073-74: Upasīva asks if consciousness disappears for the one who, after sustaining this state of meditation for some time, attains liberation at death (‘becomes cool’). For the Buddha, the issue is not in question because the state of the living liberated person cannot be reckoned.
1075-76: Upasīva asks if the one who is liberated/dead exists in a state of eternal bliss, or ceases to exist. The Buddha again denies the possibility of answering such a question, because all modes of speaking do not apply to this living person [and thus referring to them after death is a form of mistaken identity view]. The conceptual framework upon which the dichotomies of existence and non-existence are based has ceased to function for the sage, even when alive.

In sum, he sees this as a complicated exchange where the Buddha is undermining the questions and thinking process of Upasīva by re-forming the ideas of liberation in terms of freedom from all notions of existence and non-existence, unconcerned with any “sage” who is eternally well or annihilated at death. The Buddha focuses on the present life liberation of one who attains to the state of nothingness and realizes Nibbāna with it as support, thereby adapting the Brahminic ideas and metaphors employed originally by Upasīva in his questions concerned with how this all relates to the final liberation at death and how the post-morten state of the sage works in relation to it (as was typical of Brahminic mysticism).

Any thoughts on this? Some of it is compelling, some of it seems perhaps overly complicated. But then again, these are very complex and dynamic texts. I think Wynne may perhaps have confused annihilation with the cessation of consciousness and therefore thought that the Buddha refused to answer an unanswerable question, which is not the case; I’m not certain though. I’d love a more informed opinion, especially considering that Bhante Sujato’s translations of the Sutta Nipāta in SuttaCentral have taken a lot of prior translations into consideration to try and find the most appropriate meaning in the texts as of yet.


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Hi. I could only find one single text about the above, here: SuttaCentral However, the “dhimutto” text is here: Parayanavaggo-06: The Young Man Upasiva’s Questions

Maybe. However, MN 43 refers to at least 5 types of liberation: 4th jhana; boundless (metta); nothingness; signless; emptiness.

‘dhimutto’ is also in DN 19: “karuṇedhimutto”

Common idea but seems largely unsubstantiated by the Suttas. I have not found the Hindu doctrine of ending craving & attachment for the Atman merging with Brahman in the Suttas. This Hindu doctrine logically seems to be based on Buddhism, where Nibbana was replaced with Brahman. We either have faith in the Suttas or have faith in Secular & Hindu scholars about the dating of the Upanishads.

How does Wynn show this? The sītisiyā doctrine is also part of Buddha, such as in MN 140 or Iti 44:

For them, everything that’s felt, being no longer relished, will become cool right here.

Tassa idheva, bhikkhave, sabbavedayitāni anabhinanditāni sīti bhavissanti.

Iti 44


  1. cool; cold. (neuter) coolness; cold

PTS Pali English Dictionary


see sīta. The word sītisiyāvimokkha Ps.ii.43, must be artificial, arisen from the pāda, sīti-siyā vimutto Snp verse 1073 (on which see expln at Cnd.678).


Wynne seems pretty much immersed in various doctrines. Wynne seems to be establishing a premise based on his fixed ideas about Upanishad/Hindu doctrines that unlikely existed when the Buddha was alive. It seems the problem for Wynne is a high esteem towards Hinduism rather than merely reading Snp 5.7 on its face value.

While both Thanissaro & Sujato seem to have translated Snp 5.7 as such, for me, this is questionable. For me, the Buddha is simply saying “rely on nothing”. If the sphere of nothingness was the foundation of this sutta then why all the talk about giving up sensual pleasures? Surely, one who can abide in the sphere of nothingness does not need to concern themselves with giving up sensual pleasures.

Mmm… probably not. The Suttas seem to say in a number of places the sphere of nothingness is conditioned (MN 140) thus impermanent. In other words, it is inevitable the mind falls away from that sphere. This is probably another reason to not assert Snp 5.7 is about the sphere of nothingness (‘7th jhana’).

Unless someone can conclusively correct my assumptions, for me, the issue lies at the start of the sutta. For me, the sutta merely says:

“Alone and independent, O Sakyan,”
“Eko ahaṁ sakka mahantamoghaṁ,
said Venerable Upasīva,
(iccāyasmā upasīvo)
“I am not able to cross the great flood.
Anissito no visahāmi tārituṁ;
Tell me a support, All-seer,
Ārammaṇaṁ brūhi samantacakkhu,
depending on which I may cross this flood.”
Yaṁ nissito oghamimaṁ tareyyaṁ”.

“Mindfully see there is nothing to have ”
“Ākiñcaññaṁ pekkhamāno satimā,
replied the Buddha,
(upasīvāti bhagavā)
depending on nothing, cross the flood.
Natthīti nissāya tarassu oghaṁ;
Giving up sensual pleasures, refraining from chatter,
Kāme pahāya virato kathāhi,
watch day and night for the ending of craving.”
Taṇhakkhayaṁ nattamahābhipassa”.


  1. the state of having nothing; complete absence of possessions
  2. the state of nothingness
  3. (adjective) associated with nothingness or with having nothing

present participle

  1. seeing; looking at

“Time flies, nights pass by,
“Accenti kālā tarayanti rattiyo,
the stages of life leave us one by one.
Vayoguṇā anupubbaṁ jahanti;
Seeing this peril in death,
Etaṁ bhayaṁ maraṇe pekkhamāno,
one looking for peace would drop the world’s bait.”
Lokāmisaṁ pajahe santipekkho”ti.

SN 2.27

In summary, for me, the practice goal of Snp 5.7 is watching for the ending of craving (rather than abiding in the sphere of nothingness/ākiñcaññāyatanaṁ). :slightly_smiling_face:

Yes, this is correct. Actually I got this wrong, I’ll fix it.

freed in the ultimate liberation of perception

should be

committed to the ultimate liberation of perception

This seems less plausible. To anuyāyati specifically means to “travel on”, “follow on” and there are perfectly good words to mean “fall away from”.

The next verse says they stay in such a state for “many years” so it cannot mean a meditation attainment.

This is an odd misconception. Mindfulness is always fundamental to samadhi, there’s no problem needing to be solved here, and hence

is not justified at all. Any form of jhana is founded on sati, it is literally the “grounds for samādhi” (samādhinimitta).

It is a difficult passage, and I’ll consider it more closely.


Yeah, I agree. It seems he had/has a misunderstanding of sati and its relationship to samādhi. Based on his discussion of it, it seems he conceives of it as a self-awareness of sense impressions as is quite common. It can often be quite close but not exactly right, especially when applied to samādhi

I may not have summarized well, although the meaning is about the same. This is an excerpt of his argument:

The first course of action ought to have been to attempt to derive an adequate meaning from the verb anu+yā, ‘to follow’. And a satisfactory meaning can be derived from the verb, for the translation ‘not following’ would simply refer to the fact that the subject of this verse has attained the state of nothingness and does not ‘follow’ or ‘attain’ other meditative states. This makes good sense, since in pāda (b) the person who has attained the state of nothingness is said to have abandoned ‘another’ (hitvā maññam). Norman notes that aññam could be an accusative plural that refers to meditative states other than ākiñcaññam. … The question posed by Upasīva in 1071d (titthe nu so tattha anānuyāyī) means: ‘would he remain there not following (i.e. being unaware of) other meditative object(s)?’ It seems that Upasīva wanted to know whether or not the person who has abandoned other states of meditation, and thus attained the state of nothingness, could sustain the state for an extended period of time without being aware of other states of consciousness. This interpretation is in part supported by Nidd II and Pj II.

He then goes on to discuss how he finds the Nidd claims about 60.000 eons and being reborn in that sphere as anachronistic. Although the attainments are the same factor-wise, he does not think that this is referring to that conception of the attainment in Buddhist thought. He says that it seems for the Buddha that the amount of time is confined to the person’s lifetime at the maximum in this conversation, because it is concerned with liberation in this life as he sees it, and because the Brahminical ideas would not have conceived of this state as an impermanent rebirth. So he agrees with the commentary that it refers to not following after other attainments, but not the time scale/change in setting to a new birth.

It is indeed quite the profound passage!