What transmigrates in the Payasi sutta (DN 23)?

DN 23 describes a series of debates between a monk and a prince, with the prince subscribing to something akin to a materialist position. In one of the sutta’s many similes, the prince describes an experiment he claimed to have performed which seemingly disproved the existence of a soul.

“Suppose they were to arrest a bandit, a criminal and present him to me, saying, ‘Sir, this is a bandit, a criminal. Punish him as you will.’ I say to them, ‘Well then, sirs, place this man in a pot while he’s still alive. Close up the mouth, bind it up with damp leather, and seal it with a thick coat of damp clay. Then lift it up on a stove and light the fire.’ They agree, and do what I ask. When we know that that man has passed away, we lift down the pot and break it open, uncover the mouth, and slowly peek inside, thinking, ‘Hopefully we’ll see his soul escaping.’ But we don’t see his soul escaping. This is how I prove that there’s no afterlife.”

What I find interesting here is the monk’s response. Instead of arguing that the prince’s assumption that future lives require the existence of some atta which transmigrates, he seems to accept that there is something that transmigrates and merely refutes that that soul must be something visible to people:

“Well then, chieftain, I’ll ask you about this in return, and you can answer as you like. Do you recall ever having a midday nap and seeing delightful parks, woods, meadows, and lotus ponds in a dream?”
“I do, sir.”
“At that time were you guarded by hunchbacks, dwarves, midgets, and younglings?”
“I was.”
“But did they see your soul entering or leaving?”
“No they did not.”
“So if they couldn’t even see your soul entering or leaving while you were still alive, how could you see the soul of a dead man? By this method, too, it ought to be proven that there is an afterlife, there are beings reborn spontaneously, and there is a fruit or result of good and bad deeds.”

How should we understand this? What is this “soul” that both interlocutors take for granted if there is a life after this one?

Because: This is still in the middle of the sutta. That’s the reason why you see Venerable Kassapa the Prince went gently with the discussion.

He just simply supposed for the sake of discussion that there were such a “soul” that transmigrates. He simply pointed out 1 inconsistency in the flow of logic in chieftain Pāyāsi’s argument to break it: Supposed there were such a “soul”, then, your method of discovering such thing was wrong from the start for a materialist. Because a materialist can’t see beyond physical realm.

The purpose in the middle part of the sutta is to bring down the wrong view from chieftain Pāyāsi and also to bring down his conceit: There is still so much more he doesn’t know yet and there is still so much more he doesn’t see yet.

When chieftain Pāyāsi realized he is just a fool and his conceit is washed away, you can look further down to see at the end of the whole sutta.

You will see, finally, Venerable Kassapa the Prince pointed out (with the simile of the horn and the fire) that: There is no such thing that “transmigrates” between lives, there were only dependent conditions between lives.

Let go of this harmful misconception, chieftain, let go of it! Don’t create lasting harm and suffering for yourself!”

So back to your original questions about “What transmigrates in the Payasi sutta (DN 23)?”
My answer is: There are only dependent conditions for the next life to arise. Nothing really “transmigrates” as you originally thought.

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I don’t see how these similes are at all suggestive of Ven. Kassapa rejecting that that something transmigrates. Reading the similes on face value without trying to interpret them with assumptions drawn from either other places in the pitika or our own ideas about the Dhamma, their argument appears far simpler than you suggest: Ven. Kassapa is simply pointing out that Payasi is looking for the soul in an incorrect manner, just as in the similes they were using the horn or fire sticks incorrectly. Can you point to any language in the sutta that explicitly suggests that "there is no such thing that “transmigrate?”

  1. The reason you don’t see so is because that was not the original question posed to Venerable Kassapa.

  2. Also, the wrong view and the conceit of chieftain Pāyāsi are the ones needed to be washed away first. Those are at priority compared to the knowledge regarding dependent origination, the cloth needs to be washed away first before gotten properly dyed with colors.

  3. You don’t see Venerable Kassapa directly rejected that something transmigrates. However, you will NOT find either in the sutta that Venerable Kassapa confirms that anything transmigrates.

Of course, we rarely can understand the Dhamma by just reading one sutta, can we?

There is a coherent picture, and if a suggestion does not contradict or does not break the coherent of such picture, should we not take such a suggestion at least worthwhile for careful thought?

Maybe MN38 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhayasutta can satisfy your curiosity?

hi. The Pali here is “jiva”. It seems “jiva” is generally used in the Pali to mean the “life force” however I have the vague recollection it was possibly one of the more primitive conception of “the soul” or “Atman” in Brahmanism. In the Suttas, “jiva” is at times paired with “sarīra”, as follows:

Mendicant, if you have the view that the soul and the body are the same thing, there is no living of the spiritual life.

Taṁ jīvaṁ taṁ sarīranti vā, bhikkhu, diṭṭhiyā sati brahmacariyavāso na hoti.

If you have the view that the soul and the body are different things, there is no living of the spiritual life.

Aññaṁ jīvaṁ aññaṁ sarīranti vā, bhikkhu, diṭṭhiyā sati brahmacariyavāso na hoti.

Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One teaches by the middle way:

Ete te, bhikkhu, ubho ante anupagamma majjhena tathāgato dhammaṁ deseti:

SN 12.35

:dizzy: :dizzy:

To me, the replies of the monk here are not particularly convincing.

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Could you expand on this please?

Instead of arguing that the prince’s assumption that future lives require the existence of some atta which transmigrates, he seems to accept that there is something that transmigrates and merely refutes that that soul must be something visible to people. Also, I don’t understand the monk’s analogy of a dream; as though the “jiva” must leave the body to have a dream.

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I think this is an interesting and often overlooked point. When we dream we see and hear things that aren’t there- our eyes are closed, our body’s wrapped in blankets, yet we might find ourselves running through a wooded glen, laughing and shouting to our companions, how is this possible?

The ancient intuition seems to be that some mental thing leaves the sleeping body and actually visits really existing places, seeing and hearing those places with its mental senses or some such.

This is to my mind a pretty good theory, explaining several puzzling things about dreams.

The current theory seems to be that the brain creates the illusion of being somewhere else, this is to my mind a very poor theory, firstly because it’s basically the same theory one hears to explain what’s happening while we are awake, and secondly because it just transfers the mystery to some organ of the body without really saying anything about how a brain might achieve such an illusion, or to whom or what the illusion is presented, does the brain create the illusion for the brain? What would that even mean?


I remember it was one of the ancient India conception of the soul/ atta.
Atta is one little man inside the body. It can leave when we sleep, travel around, and went back inside when we awake. It is the explanation for dream.

It was described either in Veda or Upanishad, I don’t quite remember.

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Just fyi, the Payasi Sutta has a Jain parallel titled Paesi-Kahanayam (Story of Paesi), which forms the kernel of the Jaina Prakrit canonical book of Rayapaseniya (King’s Question).

It tells a story of Solar Deity Suriyabha who paid homage to Mahavira along with his retinue. Then, Mahavira’s close disciple Goyama or Gotama asked who Suriyabha was in his previous birth. Mahavira answered that he was a wicked materialist acting against the moral law (adhammiya / adharmika), called Paesi. The governor Paesi is described as having the view maintaing that the soul is the same as the body. While strolling in a park, he comes across Kesi Kumara, a Jain monk and disciple of Passa or Parsva, the previous tirthankara, who teaches that the soul exists and that there is life after death (i.e, the soul is different from the body).

Much like the Buddhist version, Paesi challenged the Jain monk in a debate in which he demonstrates that the soul doesn’t exist in empirical observation and conducted experiments. A turning point in the discussion when Paesi finally gives in is not a solid piece of evidence, a rational device or logical argumentation on the part of the Jaina monk, but rather his psychological stratagem: Kesi rebukes Paesi for his inappropriate behaviour towards (viz. the criticism against) such a respected monk as Kesi. Plagued with remorses and eventually convinced of his own error, Paesi renounces his materialistic view, adopts the Jain faith and becomes a lay follower.

According to a brief comparison of the Buddhist and Jain accounts, to a certain degree both versions contain the same elements and line of argumentation. The similarity is, however, largely structural and does not pertain to the linguistic or terminological layers, which is the reason to maintain that the Jains did not borrow the story from the Buddhists or vice versa. Thus, both versions probably go back to some common source, the core of which might perhaps date to, or even predate, missionary activities of Mahavira and the historical beginnings Buddhism in the fifth century BCE, viz. the times of the formation period of both religions.

[Source: Review of Willem Bollée’s The Story of Paesi (Paesi-kahanayam): Soul and Body in Ancient India, A Dialogue on Materialism: Text, Translation, Notes and Glossary by Piotr Balcerowicz]

So the question:

Is better understood if we take the debate between Payasi or Paesi and the Buddhist or Jain monk as discussing the nature of soul and body commonly accepted in mainstream Indian religious circle of the time, not specific Buddhist concept only.


Wonderful! Amazing!! Thank you so much!! What a fascinating and fantastic reply!


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Thanks for this, which I’d never heard of before.

I love Willem Bollée’s scholarship, especially his fascinating research on dogs in ancient India. He seems to have been German indology’s leading expert on this highly recondite field.

His monograph on the subject is available at Internet Archive:

Gone to the Dogs in ancient India