Consider MN 72.
“But Master Gotama, when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where are they reborn?”
“‘They’re reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they not reborn?”
“‘They’re not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they both reborn and not reborn?”
“‘They’re both reborn and not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
“Well then, are they neither reborn nor not reborn?”
“‘They’re neither reborn nor not reborn’ doesn’t apply, Vaccha.”
If we are solely the aggregates, the Buddha could’ve easily told Vacchagotta that a Realized One is not reborn since “any form, feeling, perception, fabrication, or consciousness by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future.”
And yet, the Buddha says that ‘a Realized One is not reborn’ doesn’t apply.
To say that we are just the aggregates seems like a contradiction to what the Buddha was saying.
For some time, I was quite perplexed at the Buddha’s rejection of every scenario proposed by Vacchagotta. I didn’t make any sense! Every logical option had been exhausted – it had to be one of the four.
But then it occurred to me that perhaps the Buddha wasn’t engaging in logic at all. In fact, he basically said as much:
… this principle is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of logic, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.
He goes on to compare the death of a Realized One to a fire going out after consuming all its fuel and says that “a Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form, feeling, perceptions, fabrications, and consciousness. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom, like the ocean.”
‘Reckoning’ is an interesting word here because if you look up the definition, it means to calculate or estimate, which lines up nicely with the description of a Realized One as “deep, immeasurable, hard to fathom, like the ocean.” So, a Realized One is freed from measurements against the 5 aggregates.
See SN 23.2
Some may be inclined to say that annihilation would also lead to freedom from reckoning in terms of the aggregates because you can’t measure nothing. But allow me to point out that the Buddha compared a Realized One to an actual thing – the ocean. The ocean may be immeasurable, but it is definitely there.
It seems that just as someone would become frustrated in trying to describe something outside “the All”, so too a Realized One cannot be described (and thus logically comprehended).
See SN 35.23
One final point to consider… at the end of this sutta, directly after hearing about the freedom of a Realized One from such limits, Vacchagotta becomes excited. Would annihilation create this kind of joy in a person? Whatever “clicked” for Vacchagotta led to happiness.