The Buddha on Not Getting Caught in Metaphysical Speculation

The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta is one of the Buddha’s teachings that I have come back to again and again when I have found myself entangled in metaphysical speculation and argument with myself—and with others!

In this sutta, the Buddha answers the questions of the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta on the nature of existence and uses the simile of extinguished fire to try to describe the indescribable—nirvana.

Vacchagotta is increasingly bewildered by the Buddha’s answers, which seem to indicate that Buddha doesn’t have any view whatsoever, only rejection of all views! But even that is not right, because the Buddha’s replies have one supreme goal—that of actually ending the cycles of suffering.
The Buddha is not interested in articulating metaphysical world-views, which he explains only leads to speculation and entanglement in further suffering and confusion.

Read the sutta for yourself. The message is profound and points to something beyond all words.  This outstanding translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes the sutta very readable and accessible. You can almost feel what it might have been like to have been there watching the dialog between the Buddha and the ascetic!  ~  Steve Goodheart

Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

(Note: the word “Tathagata” means one who is fully awakened to the Deathless and is beyond all coming and going in conditioned being.)

“I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul & the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul is one thing and the body another: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata exists: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if he holds the view ‘the cosmos is eternal…’… ‘after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless,’ he says ‘…no…’ in each case. Seeing what drawback, then, is Master Gotama thus entirely dissociated from each of these ten positions?”

“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views.

It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

“The position that ‘the cosmos is not eternal’…

“…’the cosmos is finite’…

“…’the cosmos is infinite’…

“…’the soul & the body are the same’…

“…’the soul is one thing and the body another’…

“…’after death a Tathagata exists’…

“…’after death a Tathagata does not exist’…

“…’after death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist’…

“…’after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’… does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.”

“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

“But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?”

“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”

“In that case, Master Gotama, he does not reappear.”

“‘Does not reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”

“…both does & does not reappear.”

“…doesn’t apply.”

“…neither does nor does not reappear.”

“…doesn’t apply.”

“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if the monk reappears… does not reappear… both does & does not reappear… neither does nor does not reappear, he says, ‘…doesn’t apply’ in each case. At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured.”

“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know.

That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, ‘This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“…I would reply, ‘This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.'”

“If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”

“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.

“Any feeling… Any perception… Any mental fabrication…

“Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.”

When this was said, the wanderer Vacchagotta said to the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, it is as if there were a great sala tree not far from a village or town: From inconstancy, its branches and leaves would wear away, its bark would wear away, its sapwood would wear away, so that on a later occasion — divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood — it would stand as pure heartwood. In the same way, Master Gotama’s words are divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood and stand as pure heartwood.

“Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama has — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html
© 1997–2010
For any student of Buddhism, the Access to Insight website is an incredible resource for teachings of the Buddha from the original Pali canon.

If this sutta has proved helpful to you, I recommend these posts for further amplification and insight into this subtle teaching:

The Importance of Getting Into the Emptiness Mode

Samsara—It’s a Verb Not a Place

Nirvana Is a Verb Not a Place

♡♡♡

 

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Mind like Fire Unbound-the Fire Metaphor for Nirvana « Metta Refuge - 2010/04/28

    […] In an earlier post, The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta-the Buddha on the Nature of Existence and Nirvana, the Buddha explains how nirvana is like the extinction of a […]

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