Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) – Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation but End of Suffering

May 23, 2019

The Pāli version of the Yamaka Sutta can be found at: “Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85)“. This is an important sutta which clearly explains what Nibbāna is and what the Buddha’s description of a living being is. It makes it clear that a “living being” exists “in this world” only as long as its craving for the five aggregates exists (which is inevitably accompanied by a lot of suffering). There is no “real person” to be annihilated.

On one occasion the Venerable Sāriputta was dwelling at Sāvatthi in Jetavanārāma built by Anathapiṇḍika. At that time the following wrong view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Yamaka: “As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu who had attained the Arahantohood is annihilated and does not exist after death.”

A number of bhikkhus heard that such a wrong view had arisen in bhikkhu Yamaka. They approached the Venerable Yamaka and exchanged greetings with him, after which they sat down to one side and said to him: “Is it true, friend Yamaka, that such a view as this has arisen in you: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and does not exist after death’?”

“Exactly so, friends. As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and does not exist after death.”

“Friend Yamaka, do not speak thus. Do not misrepresent the Blessed One. It is not good to misrepresent the Blessed One. The Blessed One would not speak thus: ‘A bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and does not exist after death.’”

Yet, although he was admonished by other bhikkhus in this way, Ven. Yamaka still held on to that wrong view and declared: “As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and does not exist after death.”

Since those bhikkhus were unable to detach the Venerable Yamaka from that wrong view, they left and approached Venerable Sāriputta, and told him all that occurred, adding: “It would be good if the Venerable Sāriputta would approach bhikkhu Yamaka and explain to him out of compassion for him.” Venerable Sāriputta consented by silence.

Then, in the evening, the Venerable Sāriputta emerged from seclusion. He approached the Venerable Yamaka and exchanged greetings with him, after which he sat down to one side and said to him: “Is it true, friend Yamaka, that such a wrong view as this has arisen in you: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and and does not exist after death’?”

“Exactly so, friend.”

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, is form (rupa) nicca or anicca (can or cannot be maintained as one likes)?”—“anicca, friend.”…“If something is anicca does it lead to sukha or dukha?’— “It leads to dukha, friend”.

“If something is of anicca, viparināma nature (cannot be maintained as one likes and is subjected to unexpected changes), is it appropriate to take that as me, as mine, or my attā (“self” is the translation used in English)?” – “That is not appropriate, friend”.

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, is vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna – are they nicca or anicca?”—“anicca, friend.”…“If something is anicca does it lead to sukha or dukha?’— “dukha, friend”.

“If something is of anicca, viparināma nature, is it appropriate to take that as me, as mine, or my attā?” – “No, friend”.

(My comment: Thus it is clear that it does not make sense to take any or all five ENTITIES of rupa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna as me, as mine, or my attā. Now Ven. Sariputta goes one step further).

“Whatever kind of form there is, Yamaka, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: this is called the form aggregate (rupakkhandha). It is not appropriate to take any of those as “me, as mine, or my attā“. The same is true for the other four aggregates”.

“When one comprehends this Yamaka, one will not take any of those five aggregates as “me, as mine, or my attā“. Then one will be liberated”.

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard body (part of rupakkhandha) as a living being?”—“No, friend.”—“Do you regard vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, or viññāna as a living being?”—“No, friend.”

(My comment: Thus it is clear that it does not make sense to take any or all five AGGREGATES of rupa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna as me, as mine, or my attā. Now Ven. Sariputta goes one step further).

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard a living being as in its body?”—“No, friend.”—“Do you regard a living being as apart from its body?”—“No, friend.”—“Do you regard a living being as in its vedanā? As apart from its vedanā? As in saññā? As apart from saññā? As in its sankhāra? As apart from sankhāra? As in its viññāna? As apart from its viññāna?”—“No, friend.”

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard rupa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna taken together as a living being?”—“No, friend.”

“What do you think, friend Yamaka, do you regard a living being as one who is without rupa, without vedanā, without saññā, without sankhāra, without viññāna?”—“No, friend.”

But, friend, when a living being is not understood by you to be real and actual here in this very life, is it appropriate for you to declare: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, a bhikkhu whose āsavās are destroyed is annihilated and does not exist after death’?”

“Formerly, friend Sāriputta, when I was ignorant, I did hold that wrong view, but now that I have heard this Dhamma teaching of the Venerable Sāriputta I have abandoned that wrong view and have made the breakthrough to the Dhamma.”

(My comments:
1. This is the main point of the whole sutta. It is not possible to talk about the destruction or annihilation of a “person” or a “living being” that does not truly exist.
2. We conventionally talk about a person, but in reality there is no such “person”, just a collection of five aggregates that keeps CHANGING at every moment according to Paticca Samuppāda; see,Paticca Samuppāda – Overview“).
3. This incessant continuation of the five aggregates hopping from one realm to another among the 31 realms can be called a “lifestream”. The Buddha said that he could not see a discernible beginning of such a lifestream; we all have existed from a beginning that cannot be traced back (and have suffered so much in the four lower realms). We could say that death of an Arahant is the end of that “lifestream” (and end of suffering!); see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“).

“If, friend Yamaka, they were to ask you: ‘Friend Yamaka, when a bhikkhu is an Arahant, one whose āsavās are destroyed, what happens to him with the breakup of the body, after death?’—being asked thus, what would you answer?”

“If they were to ask me this, friend, I would answer thus: ‘Friends, form is of anicca nature; anything of anicca nature leads to suffering and passing away. In the same way, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna are all of anicca nature; anything of anicca nature leads to suffering and passing away. I would answer that way”.

Sādhu Sādhu, friend Yamaka!”

There is more in the sutta. But the main point is in the above section.

This is why the Buddha rejected both extremes of existence of an existing “self” or denial of an existence.

  • At every moment there is an existence, complete with vedanā (suffering/pleasures); those vedanā arise momentarily and pass away; but there is no attā or a “self” that is unchanging.
  • But the problem is that those vedanā are real, and for the most part are dukha vedanā, not sukha vedanā, in the long run in the rebirth process.
  • In order to stop any dukha vedanā from arising, one MUST terminate the continuation of the arising of the five aggregates, i.e., rebirth process. It is not possible to have sukha vedanā AND to be free of dukha vedanā anywhere in the 31 realms.
  • Arising of the five aggregates is inevitable as long as there is avijjā. The Paticca Samuppāda process cannot be stopped until avijja is removed, i.e., paññā (wisdom) is optimized at the Arahant stage.
  • For an Arahant with that optimized paññā, this vision becomes crystal clear. Thus he/she would not grasp (upādāna) a new bhava at the cuti-patisandhi moment. That is how this incessant continuation of a lifestream comes to an end. It is not an annihilation of a “person”; it is the end of suffering!

The moment-to-moment change of the five aggregates happens automatically (based on one’s gati), via the “Idappaccayatā Paticca Samuppāda” process.

  • This is why it is important to learn Buddha Dhamma, get rid of “bad gati“, and to cultivate “good gati“: “9. Key to Anapanasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gathi)“. Then one’s five aggregates will automatically evolve in the direction of Nibbāna.
  • That is the same as following the Eightfold Path: Sammā Ditthi, Sammā Sankappa, …Sammā Samādhi.
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