Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85)

I had a question that was bothering me in regard to the Yamaka Sutta .

In this sutta, the mendicant Yamaka puts forth the wrong view:

After the Buddha corrects him, he reformulates the view as such:

When it is said that Parinibbana is the blowing out the flame, the cessation of the aggregates, etc, I can’t help but get the impression that it implies a kind of non-existence akin to what atheists believe happens after death. In other words, that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is non-existence, and that the reason we do not simply end our lives to achieve this is due to the problem of rebirth.

The Yamaka Sutta confuses me because it does not seem to negate the view, but rather says something akin to “there was no self to be annihilated in the first place, only the aggregates”. Being that experience itself is defined in terms of the aggregates, an existence beyond that would be inconceivable, and thus a kind of non-existence/non-experience seems to be implied.

I may be falling into papancha here, however it is helpful to have some pointer as to what the goal is. For example, if I was a Hindu, I might believe that the ultimate reality is “oneness”, and though I do not have a direct experience of it, I could have a sense of the general direction. Perhaps the mind has no choice but to conceptualize Parinibbana as either eternalism or annihilationism.

Anyway, I hope I was able to explain this clearly. Thanks!


I am, not only I am but I have more or less precise ideas about what or who I am. This self-image is build by the proces of self-identification with aggregates. But “I am” - asmimana, and self - atta are inseparable with notion of permanence - subjectivity is associated with perception of permanence.

This is an existential contradiction, my self which I take to be permanent, is identified with what is impermanent, and so inevitaby must lead to suffering.

Taking stance of Hindu, you have mentioned, Buddha says if you want to be immortal, you must stop identifiy yourself with what is impermanent, and see all things in time and space, everything which has duration, as: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self. If you succeed you will have what you want, immortality and permanent happiness :blush: The only problem, that it is not permanence of what has a beginning but:

What is eternal (nicca)? Only non-arising, non-passing-away, non-changing of what is present.
Nanamoli Thera

In other words, what is the subject of arising is also subject to cessation. And all states of being are dependently arisen and so impermanent.

There are three determined characteristics of what is determined: arising is evident, fall is evident, and alteration of what is present is evident. There are three undetermined characteristics of what is undetermined: no arising is evident, no fall is evident, and no alteration of what is present is evident.” A. 3:47

“There is that (external) base where no earth (is), or water or fire or air or base consisting of infinity of space or base consisting of infinity of consciousness or base consisting of nothingness or base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception or this world or the other world or moon or sun; and that I call neither a coming nor a going nor a staying nor a dying nor a reappearance; it has no basis, no evolu-tion, no support; it is the end of suffering.

“The Unaffected is hard to see;
It is not easy to see Truth.
To know is to uncover craving;
To see is to have done with owning.

“There is an unborn, an un-brought-to-being, an unmade, an undetermined. If there were not, there would be no escape made known here for one who is born, brought to being, made, formed. But since there is an unborn, an un-brought-to-being, an unmade, an understanding, an escape is therefore described for one who is born, brought to being, made, determined.”
Ud. 8:1-3

In terms of asmimana, or conceit I am, you must first stop to define yourself “I am this or that” which is so called sakkayaditthi. In other words you must find out what you are not. If you succeed with such total desidentification, what remains is asankhata dhatu, or un-determined element.

Welcome. In my studies, I have gained the impression the common Buddhist view that “annihilationism” refers to a “belief in no rebirth after death” is a view derived from the later Commentaries of Buddhaghosa. However, in my studies of the Suttas (e.g. DN 1, Iti 49, SN 44.10, SN 12.17, SN 22.81), I have only read the term “annihilationism (ucchedavāda)” refer to the view that a ‘self (attā)’ or ‘existent being (sato sattassa)’ is annihilated (ucchijjati) at death or is negated. In other words, the technical term “annihilated (ucchijjati)” seems always connected to having self-view. Therefore, in the Yamaka Sutta, when the not-self aggregates cease & end, this is not called “annihilation (uccheda)”. King regards :surfing_man:

There are some ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists. They assert the annihilation, eradication, and obliteration of an existing being

Santi, bhikkhave, eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā ucchedavādā sato sattassa ucchedaṁ vināsaṁ vibhavaṁ paññapenti…

‘This self has form, made up of the four primary elements, and produced by mother and father. Since it’s annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death, that’s how this self becomes rightly annihilated.’ This is the materialist view, which accepts only the coarse physical realm. This view is common today, but was also well known in the Buddha’s time.

‘yato kho, bho, ayaṁ attā rūpī cātumahābhūtiko mātāpettikasambhavo kāyassa bhedā ucchijjati vinassati, na hoti paraṁ maraṇā, ettāvatā kho, bho, ayaṁ attā sammā samucchinno hotī’ti.

That is how some assert the annihilation of an existing being.

Ittheke sato sattassa ucchedaṁ vināsaṁ vibhavaṁ paññapenti.

DN 1

Hi @Tranquility !! Welcome to the forum!

Do you regard the Realized One as possessing form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness?”
rūpaṁ … vedanaṁ … saññaṁ … saṅkhāre … viññāṇaṁ tathāgatoti samanupassasī”ti?

“No, reverend.”
“No hetaṁ, āvuso”.

“In that case, Reverend Yamaka, since you don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact in the present life, is it appropriate to declare:
“Ettha ca te, āvuso yamaka, diṭṭheva dhamme saccato thetato tathāgate anupalabbhiyamāne, kallaṁ nu te taṁ veyyākaraṇaṁ:

‘As I understand the Buddha’s teaching, a mendicant who has ended the defilements is annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death.’?”
‘tathāhaṁ bhagavatā dhammaṁ desitaṁ ājānāmi, yathā khīṇāsavo bhikkhu kāyassa bhedā ucchijjati vinassati, na hoti paraṁ maraṇā’”ti?

So there is a few things to be aware of with this passage.

First and formost, @sujato has gone with “(not a) genuine fact” for anupalabbhiyamāne, this somewhat obscures the aspect of the term that is suggestive of “not being found”, such that the sense of the passage is perhaps better given like:
"since you can’t pin down what the Buddha is in the present, is it appropriate to declare “the Buddha is such and such” after this life?

Secondly, the argument itself is rare, anupalabbhiyamāne only occurs here and at the related sutta SN22.86 (the SA parallel refers to Yamaka by name, and SN44.2 is merely a reproduction, and Yamaka itself appears to copy and paste from Anuradha, giving the view as one about a monk, but giving the argument as being about the thathagata, as in SN22.86).

A more detailed argument is given at MN72 where existence, non-existence, both and neither are compared to the cardinal directions and the question “what cardinal direction did the fire go when the fire went ‘out’?”. So in that version of the argument it is never suggested that the fire is “not a genuine fact” or that it “cannot be found in the present” or anything like that, it is clearly the case that the argument is about the applicability of concepts of existence AND non-existence to things beyond their “range”. This more common argument is obscured by the rarer one, which IMO may be the glimmer of the beginnings of a kind of tathagatagarbha type of doctrine where an ineffable, indefinable or unspeakable buddha nevertheless “exists” beyond existence and non-existence.

But it literally is about negating that view, that is the view that is negated.

It does so IMO with a weaker and less coherant argument than the one at MN72, but in no way can it be read as endorsing a view of “a kind of non-existence/non-experience”.

Good luck with your journey.

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Hi, I believe this word is rendered as ‘since you don’t acknowledge’
(From the passive verb upalabbhati)

What’s not being acknowledged is the Tathagatha as ‘saccato thetato’. (as real and truthful). “as a genuine fact”.


Thanks @stephen, as ever you save me from my ignorance!!

No problem.
It’s a little dangerous to do Pali text studies without knowing Pali.

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your probably right! I have always been more interested in the philosophical arguments, but I am looking forward to improving my Pali skills in the future! :sweat_smile:

Regarding the original question, the first part of this thread may be helpful.


I agree with this, thank you.

So in the Pali suttas “annihilationism” has a somewhat technical meaning.

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To add, it seems there are other Pali technical terms that refer to disbelief in the “other world” or ‘rebirth’, such as ‘natthikavāda’ found in MN 60. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Yes, I suppose this is a technical term too, translated as “the doctrine of nihilism”.

Today other things could be described as ‘nihilism’ , so it’s important to look at the Pali and the context.

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Analayo gives this as a translation of the chinese parallel SA104:

[Sāriputta] asked again: “Is the Tathāgata without bodily form … feeling … perception … formations … consciousness?”

[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”

[Sāriputta said]: “In this way, Yamaka, the Tathāgata as existing truly here and now cannot be gotten at anywhere, cannot be designated anywhere. Why do you say: ‘[As] I understand the Dharma taught by the Buddha, an arahant, with the influxes being eradicated, will not exist anywhere after the body breaks up at the end of life’? Is that properly spoken?”

[Yamaka] replied: “No, venerable Sāriputta.”

I note that this seems remarkably similar to the Pali, however our own @cdpatton gives of the same passage:

  1. Again, he asked, “Does something other than form possess the Tathāgata? Does something other than feeling … conception … volition … consciousness possess the Tathāgata?”

He replied, “No, Venerable Śāriputra.”

  1. “So it is, Yamaka. The Tathāgata sees the teaching that’s true and abides according to it without obtaining or postulating anything. How can you say, ‘As I understand the Bhagavān’s teaching, an arhat who has ended the contaminants won’t exist when his body breaks up and his life ends’? Is that an appropriate statement?”[2]

He replied, “No, Venerable Śāriputra.”

turning to the AI DeepL as an arbitrator, it renders the passage:

“Again, he asked, Isn’t there a tathāgata in form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness?”,

“He replied, No, Venerable Śāriputra!”,

So it is, Yamaka!",

“The Tathāgata sees things as they really are and thus abide. They have no acquisition or attachment whatsoever. How can you say, “I understand and know what the World-honored One has said:”,

“When the contaminants end, the arhat’s body breaks up and his life ends, there’s nothing to be possessed.'”,

“Is it taught at the right time?”,

“He replied, No, Venerable Śāriputra!”,

I note that the machine translation renders the passage in a similar way to @cdpatton and that it does not support Analayo’s gloss.

So the chinese parallel seems to have something like “one thus gone sees things as they really are and abides thus, they have no properties or attributes whatsoever” so attributing “existence” or “non existence” is incorrect.

I note that this argument isthe same as MN72, and different from the argument as it is made in SN22.85

Make of these things what you will.

Analayo does somewhat better with the relevent part of SA106, the parallel to SN22.86:

[The Buddha asked again]: “Is feeling … perception … formations … consciousness permanent or is it impermanent?”

[Anurādha] replied: “It is impermanent, Blessed One.”

As spoken fully in the Discourse to Yamaka, up to: “Is consciousness the Tathāgata?”

[Anurādha] replied: “No.”

The Buddha said to Anurādha: “One who speaks in this way is in accordance and in line with all that has been declared [by me], he does not misrepresent the Tathāgata and does not come to be [speaking] out of order. He speaks as the Tathāgata speaks and is in order with all teachings. On being closely questioned by others who have come, there is nothing capable of being criticized. Why is that?

“I understand bodily form as it really is, I understand the arising of bodily form … the cessation of bodily form … the path to the cessation of bodily form as it really is. [Feeling … perception … formations … consciousness is also like this].

“Anurādha, if one leaves behind what the Tathāgata has done and claims he is without knowledge and without vision, then this is not correctly spoken.”

When the Buddha had spoken this discourse, Anurādha, hearing what the Buddha had said, was delighted and received it respectfully.

So neither of the parallels make the “not a genuine fact” argument.


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Thanks for setting these passages side by side. I would say the Chinese translation has confused all of us in one way or another. I will have to revisit it at some point to fix mine. Also, the DeepL translation was probably partially trained with my translation, so it’s … not exactly a neutral arbitrator to check my work! It’s likely reproducing it to one degree or another. As the saying goes in IT, “garbage in, garbage out”.

One of the problems that pop out at me is that the Chinese 見法, which I translated as “sees the teaching,” looks like it corresponds literally to diṭṭheva dhamme, which is the Pali idiom for “the present life.” In Chinese, this is usually translated as 於現法, and I wasn’t looking at the Pali, so this slipped by me. It’s not hard to imagine 見 could be a typo here.

The other part that I think I didn’t understand well is 如住. It’s probably something like S. tathatā-sthita or sthātṛ. The first expression is also the name for one of the 108 samadhis in the Prajnaparamita Sutra. It’s interpreted to mean “abiding in thusness” - which means “knowing the reality of all things and not seeing anything beyond them.” Sthātṛ means firmly in place, immovable, trustworthy. It would correspond to P. thetata, which is acting as a synonym for saccata in this passage. So, it’s the most likely candidate for the underlying Gandhari, I guess.

So, yeah, not one of my better translations. Needs work.

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I thought of this after I had posted!! lol, its a small world after all.

Well, classical Chinese is definitely not on my radar, is there a BDK version? anyone else we can appeal to?

I am not totally convinced that even the Pali makes an argument to the effect that the Buddha is a fiction even in this life, rather it may be an argument around the Buddha not being “definable” here or there, but i think put that way it leans too far in the opposite direction, allowing the “oh well then the indefinable Buddha exists even beyond death!” which just makes the same error in reverse, so it’s probably a tricky thing to put into even the language I myself speak, and I doubt I will ever feel confident enough in another one to be sure of it form the perspective of terminology, it just seems so obvious to me what is meant philosophically if we demand that the EBT’s do in fact present a consistent philosophy. that is that the predicates exist, not-exist, both, neither cannot apply to phenomena absolutely, only within the framework of conditionality, and that the unconditional is not really predicable at all.

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Yes, it starts to sound a bit too much like dissembling. However, in the bigger picture of Buddhist thought, there was a problem of knowledge that they were trying to express. I.e., what’s in our minds is not exactly right compared to the independent reality outside of human thought. There’s a loss of fidelity, so to speak, when experience is turned into knowledge. It’s an imperfect replica or simulation of reality. Something like that.

And this line of thought is what the authors of the Prajnaparamita Sutras picked up and ran with. Passages like this were their inspiration. There’s clearly a relationship between these EBT passages and what exploded in the Mahayana via negativa mysticism that tries to negate any and all concepts imaginable. Some of their texts will go on and on negating long lists of concepts or categories, especially when they are talking about the Buddha, the Dharma, or reality. Then, they turn around and claim that everything is the same as these perfect things. So, nirvana is samsara, which are both nothing definable. It’s very much like a philosophical version of leveling everything with a wrecking ball. It’s an attempt to escape the conceptual framework that had built up since the Buddha’s time, I think.

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The point of the Yamaka sutta is to reveal the middle way of the self (both Buddha’s and ours). The self is a label or conception applied to the aggregates. It’s not real, it’s just a name given to the aggregates. Because the aggregates are changing constantly (like a fire) there is no stable self. In fact there is no self that is a “noun”. Like a fire, the self is just a process, more like a “verb”. Thinking of the self, the aggregates, or anything else as a “noun” is just a way of freezing these things in our memory, it’s mixed with a sense of permanence.

You literally just said that the self was a name for the aggregates.

That is what noun means.


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It’s true that a noun,
“in grammar, a name; word that denotes a thing (material or immaterial),“

But it does not have to point to a real, existing thing. The ‘self’ is a process, not an object.

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Yes, but I am not especially happy about that distinction here either, I cannot recall one single passage in the EBT’s that makes the claim “self as object does not exist but self as process exists” either of those selves are not fit to be considered my self.