Uddaka Rāmaputta and the Upanishads

In a previous discussion I said that Uddaka’s saying criticized by the Buddha in DN 29, “one sees but does not see”, referring to a razor’s edge, is reminiscent of Upanishadic teachings about the imminent Self.

I’ve just tracked down what I believe to be the specific source for this: Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.7.

This (universe) was then undifferentiated. It differentiated only into name and form—it was called such and such, and was of such and such form. So to this day it is differentiated only into name and form—it is called such and such, and is of such and such form. This Self has entered into these bodies up to the tip of the nails—as a razor may be put in its case, or as fire, which sustains the world, may be in its source. People do not see It, for (viewed in Its aspects) It is incomplete. When It does the function of living, It is called the vital force; when It speaks, the organ of speech; when It sees, the eye; when It hears, the ear; and when It thinks, the mind. These are merely Its names according to functions. He who meditates upon each of this totality of aspects does not know, for It is incomplete, (being divided) from this totality by possessing a single characteristic. The Self alone is to be meditated upon, for all these are unified in It. Of all these, this Self alone should be realised, for one knows all these through It, just as one may get (an animal) through its footprints. He who knows It as such obtains fame and association (with his relatives).

The Self is hidden like a razor in its case. People “see” the functions or attributes of the Self, but they do “not see” (na paśyanti) the Self as the whole underlying these aspects. The occurrence of the specific idea of the razor that is not seen, and the Self that is seen but not seen, are too precise to be a coincidence. This confirms that not only was Uddaka a Brahmanical rishi, but that he was familiar with this specific passage.


What do you think of the suttas and sutras tying the formless attainments and Uddaka with the annihilationists Bhante?

Uddaka Rāmaputta had this view and taught like this, “Existence is an illness, a tumour, a thorn. Those who advocate nonperception are foolish. Those who have realized [know]: this is tranquil, this is sublime, namely attaining the sphere of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.”

The Discourse on Uddaka [Rāmaputta] - MĀ 114

To him another says: ‘There is, good sir, such a self as you assert. That I do not deny. But it is not at that point that the self is completely annihilated. For there is, good sir, another self belonging to the base of infinite space, (reached by) the complete surmounting of perceptions of material form, by the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, by non-attention to perceptions of diversity, (by contemplating) “Space is infinite.” That you neither know nor see, but I know it and see it. Since this self, good sir, is annihilated and destroyed with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death, at this point the self is completely annihilated.’ In this way others proclaim the annihilation, destruction, and extermination of an existent being.



The explicit purpose of Uddaka’s teaching was to be reborn in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, so no, I don’t think he was an annihilationist.

Things get very subtle and hair-splitty in these matters, so who knows? The Upanishadic tradition includes the method of negation, denying the reality of the “self” until the “true” self is finally attained. Perhaps there is some confusion on this point.

Incidentally, I have looked for Brahmanic parallels to the other cited verse of Uddaka at SN 35.103, which is in the parallel for this sutta.

‘This for sure is the knowledge master!
‘idaṁ jātu vedagū,
This for sure is the conqueror of all!
idaṁ jātu sabbajī,
This for sure is the boil’s root dug out,
idaṁ jātu apalikhataṁ
never dug out before!’
gaṇḍamūlaṁ palikhaṇin’ti.

So far I can’t find anything.



It depends though on how those attainments were thought of. Were they thought of as being a place of eternal existence of the self, or were they thought of as being places where the self was annihilated? Venerable Anālayo and Venerable Bodhi make similar connections

DN 1 at DN I 37,1 and its parallels DĀ 21 at T I 93b20, T 21 at T I 269c22, a Tibetan discourse parallel in Weller 1934: 58,3 (§191), a discourse quotation in the *Śāriputrābhidharma, T 1548 at T XXVIII 660b24, and a discourse quotation in D 4094 ju 152a4 or Q 5595 tu 175a8. The same versions also attribute the arising of annihilationist views to the immaterial attainments (for Sanskrit fragments corresponding to the section on annihilationism see also Hartmann 1989: 54 and SHT X 4189, Wille 2008: 307).

ebms.pdf (uni-hamburg.de)

Bodhi (1978/1992, p. 30) reasoned that the position described in the Brahmajāla-sutta and its parallels would evidently

“not regard annihilation as the ineluctable fate of all beings, but as the ultimate destiny and highest good of the spiritually perfected saint. They may be formulatiotions of those mystical theologies which speak of the ‘annihilation of the soul in God,’ the ‘descent into the divine abyss,’ ‘the merging of the drop into the divine ocean,’ etc. as the supreme goal of their contemplative disciplines. On this interpretation, those beings who have not reached the summit will still be subject to continued existence, while those who reach the peak will attain the supreme good of annihilation in the divine essence.”

In other words, the idea appears to have been that, with the successful cultivation of the immaterial spheres, a realisation takes place that enables the practitioner to reach complete transcendence of selfhood at death. Hence, the aspiration “I might not be, and it might not be for me. I will not be, and it will not be for me.” Understood in this way, the first sentence would be particularly pertinent to those aspiring to reach the meditative attainment, the second sentence instead for those who have mastered it and are thus, in their view, assured of successful annihilation at death.

The Buddha’s Pre-awakening Practices and Their Mindful Transformation (uni-hamburg.de)

If Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta then were Annihilationists, then it would also help inform why the Buddha thought they would easily understand his message, for we are told elsewhere that out of all of the other ascetics of the time it was the annihilationists who were closest to his teachings, rather than the eternalists (as they were closer to dispassion). The implication then would be that the Buddha actually started out his career as an Annihilationist, rather than being in the Upanishadic tradition. Of course it’s possible that some confusion has occurred. Even in early texts like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Yājñavalkya’s message is made to sound like an annihilation of the self, through it’s union of Brahman whilst in the Māṇḍukya Kārikā Gauḍapāda states that some fear union with Brahman, because in it they see a loss of their self. Even today, over at DhammaWheel, we have a rather colourful individual who dislikes Advaita Vedānta because in it he sees annihilation of his soul. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta did teach the annihilation of the small self (ego) in favour of merging with a Higher Self (Brahman), so in a way were teaching annihilation and eternalism. Either way, I think there is a strong possibility that the Buddha’s first two teachers could have been annihilationists in the normal sense, albeit an annihilation of a kind that had to be achieved through renunciation and meditative practices.

As a last note, I think it’s possible the annihilationists of the Buddha’s time were likely quite varied in their views. Some no doubt would have been materialists, with annihilation awaiting all at death, but others might have had more complex views. Sadly, we just don’t know enough about them.


To continue this, there is the quite interesting passage at MN 106:

“Ānanda, take a mendicant who practices like this:‘It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be, and it will not be mine. I am giving up what exists, what has come to be.’ In this way they gain equanimity. They approve, welcome, and keep clinging to that equanimity. Their consciousness relies on that and grasps it. A mendicant with grasping does not become extinguished.”

“But sir, what is that mendicant grasping?”

“The dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.”

This is admittedly the edited version of the statement (from ‘I’ to ‘it’) attributed to the annihilationists, but if someone is grasping the state resulting from the contemplation it’s functionally identical. The dimension of neither perception nor non-perception is, of course, that which the Buddha said Uddaka Rāmaputta was teaching.

Perhaps when the Buddha realized “this practice actually only leads to rebirth in the realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception,” (in his autobiographical account of leaving his former teachers), he was realizing that with these subtle practices there was not a full cessation of suffering; he realized that there was actually an extremely subtle basis of consciousness remaining in the mind, and therefore left his teachers.
(This also answers some questions about his insights into rebirth before being awakened or inquiring on his own; had this been the basis of his goal, it would be a perfectly reasonable—albeit extremely profound—realization before attaining the threee knowledges).

This line of thought would also make sense in terms of first leaving Alara Kalama and moving on to Uddaka Rāmaputta. The dimension of nothingness is a less subtle station of consciousness than neither-perception-nor-non-perception, and thus it is easier to have the realization that this state is not the true cessation of perception/personal consciousness (perhaps called ‘saññā’ in certain Upanisadic passages). At some point, the Buddha may have realized that whatever practices they were doing resulting in this state—believed to lead to the cessation of all suffering and personal consciousness —were actually still leaving a trace of perception behind, namely, the perception of nothingness. This caused him to realize consciousness was still personal, grasped, and being stationed, hence not an escape from a form of existence. He then went to Uddaka Rāmaputta who taught an even more subtle state, not even a ‘station’ but a base of consciousness (c.f. DN 15), and not necessarily a state of perception (by definition). Therefore, it was only after further practice that the bodhisatta realized that Uddaka’s teaching too was just a form of rebirth / stationing of one’s personal consciousness.

Eventually of course the Buddha, reflecting on dependent arising, realized that all consciousness was itself dependently arisen and it was the grasping that kept this stationing going, held in place by the very notions of a concept of self (attavadupadana, etc.). Therefore he realized the cessation of suffering is not annihilation, but relinquishing the notion of being annihilation and trying to do practices to station the mind into a state of self-annihilation; relinquishment was the true path. Therefore he used the jhānas, especially the fourth which is based in upekkhā, to see clearly into the structure of experience and the conditioning of consciousness, able to relinquish all ignorance and grasping, and the āsavā (such as bhavāsavā—the current of mind trying to go to or remove oneself from forms of existence).

This is extremely relevant for Bhante @sujato’s post on DN 9 and perhaps nevasaññānāsaññā, and the cessation of perception.

Excuse the clunky writing! Lots of ideas coming together and converging here though.

Mettā :pray: :blush:


Just as these flowing rivers that have the sea as their goal, get absorbed after reaching the sea, and their names and forms are destroyed, and they are called merely the sea, so also these sixteen parts (i.e. constituents) of the all-seeing Purusha, that have Purusha as their goal, disappear on reaching Purusha, when their names and forms are destroyed and they are simply called Purusha. Such a man of realisation becomes free from the parts and is immortal.(Prashna Upanishad)

I see this as equal to saying the unmanifested. Which everything comes out from. Because this whole creation truly has one end. Its not a beginning. Its a end. Like a book. The ending is under. You dont start from the ending to understand the book. You have to go through the whole book. Which will have languages and images. But end when close the book. Which last a moment. Before starting activity in the brain again. There is nothing. A moment of utter pause for the brain. What is left is only a book. One thing. One truth.

I couldn’t agree more with you here. That’s essentially how I’m viewing these matters at the moment.