Vibhava tanha in the Agamas

Hello everyone,

I was quite surprised to find that there is not much discussion anywhere (scholarly or informal) around the absence of the concept of vibhava tanha in the Chinese Agamas.

In the Pali tradition the concept is listed as one of the 3 types of craving that leads to future rebirth in the standard exposition of the 2nd Noble Truth (MN 141, SN 56.11 etc…)
But in the parallel versions of these texts (T 1450) we only find 2 types of craving that lead to future rebirth: craving for sensual pleasures and craving for existence (kamatanha and bhavatanha).

Initially I was considering the possibility of vibhava tanha being a later addition to the Pali texts in order to counterbalance annihilationist tendencies that can arise from a misunderstanding of the Buddhist path (as in MN 22, 20.1-20.9), but then I realized that the concept of vibhava tanha has major implications in many different facets of Buddhist thought, as Bhikkhu Analayo nicely explains in his entry for Vibhavatanha in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (

Interestingly, I was comparing Ud 3.10 with one of its parallels Uv Kg 32 and found that the line about not being able to escape existence through annihilation is absent in the Chinese that instead seems to repeat the previous line where one is not able to escape existence through existence. I found it a bit puzzling.

What to make of this? Are there any instance of vibhava tanha being mentioned anywhere in the Agamas?


Interesting. Let me yeah @cdpatton who is over of the key translators of Agama active here. Maybe he has more info on that. :slightly_smiling_face:


Some things that may be relevant to this discussion:

One thing is the difference in how the annihilationist view is described in the Pali vs. Chinese:

AN 7.55:

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.’

MA 6 (parallel to AN 7.55):

The Buddha said, “What are the seven? A monk’s practice ought to be thus: ‘I have no self, and nothing is mine. In the future, there’ll be no self, and nothing will be mine.’

The MA seems a bit more explicit, no?

Another thing is that this annihilationist views is:

  1. SN 24.4 has it as a wrong view that is overcome at stream-entry (see also SN 22.153):

    “Mendicants, when what exists, because of grasping what and insisting on what, does the view arise: ‘I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine’?”

  2. In suttas like AN 7.55, this view is described as a practice that can lead to arahatship:

    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.’

On the surface, this seems a bit contradictory to me. I would love to know if anyone has looked at this in detail.

One thing I would like to ask @cdpatton is whether the Agamas also have the annihilationist view as a practice leading to awakening states and as a wrong view from grasping.


SN 22.81:

Perhaps they don’t regard form or feeling or perception or choices or consciousness as self. Nor do they have such a view: ‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After passing away I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, and imperishable.’

Still, they have such a view: ‘I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine.’ But that annihilationist view is just a conditioned phenomenon.

The parallel is SA 57, which is untranslated.

It would be interesting to see if SA 57 here is the same as MA 6 :slight_smile:


Here is the google translate version of the Indonesian translation of SA 57:

“[Or] he does not see himself as being in consciousness, but he further embraces the view of destruction, the view that continuity will be destroyed. [Or] he does not espouse the view of destruction, the view that continuity will be destroyed, but he is not free from self -pride. Someone who is not free from self -pride still sees an “I”. Seeing an “I” is a formation.

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The way I see it is that one finds it contradictory only if one doesn’t notice the fact that the Buddha is utilizing a readaptation of the annihilationist aspiration “I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine”, which is still subject to the delusion of the self, to “It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be, and it will not be mine”.

So the version with the “I” is the wrong view, while the correct way to put the statement and therefore the path is with the “It”.

There is a nice recent article by Analayo about it:


From Bhikkhu Bodhi’s note to this formula in AN 7.55:

no cassa no ca me siyā, na bhavissati na me bhavissati

This cryptic formula occurs in the Nikayas in two versions. One is ascribed to the annihilationists; the other is the Buddha’s adaptation of it. The annihilationist version reads: no cassaṁ no ca me siyā, na bhavissāmi na me bhavissati, “I may not be, and it may not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine.” … The Buddha transforms the formula into a theme for contemplation …


In Chinese, it is “無有愛”.


Ah! I didn’t even notice that. Thanks to both of you :slight_smile: !

I wonder if the translators of the Agamas opted for the more explicit “I have no self, and nothing is mine” because the original (subtle difference between I and it) did not make enough sense in a Chinese context, or because the translation doesn’t work so well in Chinese language-wise.


Ok thank you! In what sutras can I find it?

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I think you are not the only one. Bhikkhu Bodhi also mentions in his (quite lengthy) note that the two versions are sometimes confused in manuscripts.

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Compassion for the future PhD students when they discover that Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has already written a lengthy note that answers all the main research questions of their thesis :rofl:


Yes, it does. It’s in the Dharmaguptaka Saṅgīti Sutra (DĀ 9). It occurs in the list of three cravings:

[T1.50a21] 復有三法,謂三愛:欲愛、有愛、無有愛

Again, there are another three things, which are three cravings: Craving for desire, craving for existence, and craving for no existence.

The same list reoccurs in the other Abhidharma-like sutras of DĀ (10 and 11), and it’s in the Sarvâstivāda’s Saṃgītiparyāya. So, it wasn’t unknown to two other schools of Buddhism. It doesn’t, however, occur in the Saṅgīti sutra that I suspect is from one of the Mahāsāṃghika schools.

有 means either “to have” or “to exist.” And it can be read as a noun “existence” (bhava). 無 is its opposite, here meaning “no” (vi-), so 無有 = vibhava. 愛 is a common translation of tanha, meaning an intense desire like passionate love or addiction. So, when read as a literal translation of an Indic compound noun, it means “non-existence craving.”

However, a more normal reading of the same expression in Chinese would take 無有 as an adj. meaning “none” or “having no,” and 愛 as the noun. Then, it means “having no craving.”

[Edit: Still another way it can be read is: “no craving for existence.” I see a case or two of that.]

A quick text search for 無有愛 comes up short of passages in MĀ or SĀ using vibhava tanha as a concept. The Chinese expression is used in it’s normal sense of having no craving.

In EĀ (sutra 49.5), the list of three cravings occurs one as a definition of craving in the chain of dependent origination. That’s still another instance of the Abhidharma list, but not a passage it was sourced from.

So, vibhava tanha may have been rendered differently if it exists in other Āgama passages. I would need to look for alternative translations, which would take some time. I take it most of the parallels to Pali suttas lack mention of vibhava tanha?

Part of the problem is that we don’t actually have an entire Āgama canon for a single school of early Buddhism. We have bits of one, bits of another, a bit of a third one. We, for instance, don’t have the Sarvâstivāda’s Ekôttarika Āgama or the Dharmaguptaka’s Madhyama or Saṃyukta Āgama, which would have looked quite different than what we have in Chinese. I think if we had a full copy of the Dharmaguptaka canon, it would look remarkably similar to the Pali canon, judging by how close DĀ is to DN in terms of sharing the same sutras.


Yes, these passages occur in Chinese parallels, though I’ve never looked at them so closely to realize there is this subtle re-wording between the wrong view and the passages instructing monks. I took it to be telling them to have a detached attitude towards anything they thought about.

There is this tension between annihilationism and the Buddhist goal of exiting rebirth. We see that clearly when someone decides that an arhat or the Tathagata is annihilated when they enter Nirvana. The reaction is rather strong that this isn’t the case at all. The Buddhists were working with a subtle philosophy that didn’t fall into the categories of existence and non-existence. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t simply to avoid the charge, “You are annihilationists!” or “You are eternalists!” But, in the end, it gave rise to the philosophy of non-dualism and the sunyavada, I think.


Awesome, thx!

The frustrating thing is that most parallels to the Pali texts have the 4 noble truths abbreviated with “…” so they don’t seem to go into the details of each truth.

TBH, after looking through the Pali texts that include it and the Chinese parallels, I’m feeling like it’s a very late addition to MN 141, in which someone has inserted what became the standard Abhidharma definition of craving, in the same way it’s inserted into EA 49.5 when craving comes up in the links of dependent origination. Abhidharma conceptualized many of these ideas as it summarized and systematized the Dharma, and then those writings in turn influenced the way sutras were maintained going forward. So, we see these things that appear added in.

The thing to bear in mind, though, as I pointed out earlier, is that we don’t have all the Agamas that ever existed to check. It may be there was an early tradition, like the Dharmaguptakas, who had this in their sutras early on like the Pali suttas do.

For example, when I look at the Sarvâstivāda versions of SN 56.11, they lack any real definition of the four truths, but when I look at the Dharmaguptaka version that’s in their Vinaya (T1428), it does have the brief definition of the second truth that identifies craving as the root of suffering:

[T1428.788a20] 何等為苦集聖諦,緣愛本所生,與欲相應愛樂,是謂苦集聖諦。

What is the noble truth of suffering’s formation? Conditioned by craving that arose in the past, one associates with desires and enjoys them. This is said to be the noble truth of suffering’s formation.

Compare that to SN 56.11:

Idaṁ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhasamudayaṁ ariyasaccaṁ—yāyaṁ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṁ—kāmataṇhā, bhavataṇhā, vibhavataṇhā.

Now this is the noble truth of the origin of suffering. It’s the craving that leads to future rebirth, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure in various different realms. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence.

Notice how similar they are? The Dharmaguptaka version, which was translated during the 5th century CE, is simpler and lacks the Abhidharma list of three cravings. But we don’t have their version of MN 141, which might well have been expanded further to include the three cravings. We just don’t know without a copy to look at.


Very interesting, thanks!

So it seems in order to investigate wether the list of the three cravings isn’t a late Abidharmic influence (which is also possible not to be, as in an oral tradition listings are important mnemonic strategies) we need to find mention of vibhava tanha apart from the list of the three cravings, maybe in a more discursive context.

Since I don’t know Chinese, can you take a look at MA 162 and tell me if it mentions the line in MN 140 “They neither make a choice nor form an intention to continue existence or to end existence”?

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It does, though the passage reads somewhat differently:

[691c29] 比丘!若有比丘於此四處以慧觀之,知其如真,心不成就,不移入者。彼於爾時不復有為,亦無所思,謂有及無,彼受身最後覺,則知受身最後覺,受命最後覺,則知受命最後覺,身壞命終,壽命已訖,彼所覺一切滅息止,知至冷也。

“Monk, if a monk wisely examines these four [formless] abodes and truly knows them, his mind doesn’t develop them, and he doesn’t move to enter them. At that point, he’s no longer conditioned (samskara) and intends nothing that’s called existence or non-existence. The body he has received is the last to be awakened, and then he knows the body he has received is the last to be awakened. The life he received is the last to be awakened, and then he knows the life he has received is the last to be awakened. When his body breaks up, his life ends, and his life span is finished, that one who was awakened is entirely ceased and at rest. We know he has cooled.”

It’s actually an interesting passage aside from the line we’re interested in. I can’t find many parallels for it.


I was looking at suttas that specifically mention the three cravings and in the Pali we have many (apart from the long expositions in the DN and MN): AN 6.116, Iti 58, SN 45.170, SN 38.10.
So in the Pali tradition the standard listing of the three cravings, including vibhava tanha, seems to be a really well established concept that is repeatedly found throughout many collections, which makes it hard to justify it as a later addition, however, no parallels are listed for ANY of these texts :thinking:

Then I found SN 12.63 where the three cravings are mentioned but not spelled out:

When mental intention as fuel is completely understood, the three cravings are completely understood.
When the three cravings are completely understood, a noble disciple has nothing further to do, I say.

This sutta is very discursive and full of metaphors so it doesn’t really show any signs of later Abhidhammic influence.
SA 373 is listed as the only parallel. @cdpatton can you take a look and see if the three cravings are listed there? Thanks :pray:


Yes, they are mentioned in the same way, though the text seems to say they are ended rather than completely understood. Beyond that, the two sutras are very close to each other.

I decided to search for three cravings to see if Xuanzang’s Iti had a parallel sutra (it doesn’t). I probably should have done this sooner, but we were focused on vibhava tanha, so I had been searching for that term specifically.

The three cravings occur in both MA and SA, just not with the same list as the Theravada. The three cravings are defined there as craving for desire, form, and formlessness in SA 298, 490, 895, and 1172 and MA 29 and 114. So, it would seem the Sarvastivadins took the three cravings for craving to be in one of the three realms of existence.

The Sangiti Sutra that I believe is Mahasamghika has this version of the list, too.

So, we have a Theravada-Dharmaguptaka version and a Sarvastivada-Mahasamghika? version. This would explain why it’s difficult to find vibhava tanha in the Agamas: We have very little of the Dharmaguptaka canon, and the Sarvastivadins disagreed with the Theravadins about what the three cravings were.


The Pali Sangiti Sutta DN 33 has 3 different lists of 3 cravings.


Yeah, it collects together lists that seem to come from all corners of Buddhism. It really looks like a non-sectarian text when I compared it to the Agama versions.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the Sarvastivadins have this version of the three cravings found in Theravada suttas in their Abhidharma as an alternative list. Perhaps it did exist in one of their sutras that we don’t have on hand to look at.