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.