Sunday, October 10, 2021

KN Snp 5, the Buddha knew about the ambiguities of the word 'body' (kāya) and he spoke accordingly

In the famous  KN Snp 5 chapter on 'the way to nirvana', the Buddha talks to 16 brahmans who are already skilled in jhana (before meeting the Buddha), and some of them skilled in formless attainments as well.  

Of the 7 perception attainments (4 jhanas are the first 4), The base of nothingness is considered the highest. Of the 16 suttas where the Buddha talks to the 16 brahmans, the two suttas that talk about the base of nothingness in most detail, sheds light on what 'kāya' means. 

Those two suttas are:


First we look at 5.15, which contains a description similar to the standard base of nothingness formula, but contains a very interesting bit about the kāya body not in the standard formula.

♦ 1119.
♦ “vi-bhūta—rūpa-saññissa,
regarding one who is devoid of form perceptions,
who has abandoned their entire body,
♦ ajjhattañ-ca bahiddhā ca,
[both the] Internal [consisting of their own anatomical body] and external [forms and bodies],
natthi kiñcīti passato.
[for one who abides in the formless dimension of nothingness and] sees: “There (is) nothing”:
♦ ñāṇaṃ sakk-ānu-pucchāmi,
I ask [Buddha], the Sakyan, for Knowledge of this.
kathaṃ neyyo tathā-vidho”.
How should [the meditator] be led further?

Next, we compare with 5.7 section which calls out not 'kāya' unqualified, but 'nāma-kāya'

♦ 1078.
(upasīvāti bhagavā)
The Buddha:
♦ “sabbesu kāmesu yo vītarāgo,
all sensuality, one free-of-passion (for that),
♦ ākiñcaññaṃ nissito hitvā maññaṃ.
Nothingness; relying (on that), letting-go (of) all-else,
♦ saññā-vi-mokkhe parame vimutto,
(among) Perception-emancipations, (this is the) highest emancipation:
tiṭṭheyya so tattha anānuyāyī”.
staying {there} he is unaffected.
♦ 1079.
♦ “tiṭṭhe ce so tattha anānuyāyī,
(if) staying there unaffected,
pūgampi vassānaṃ samanta-cakkhu.
for many years, All-around Eye,
♦ tattheva so sītisiyā vimutto,
right there, would he be cooled & emancipated?
cavetha viññāṇaṃ tathā-vidhassa”.
Would his consciousness be like that?
♦ 1080.
(upasīvāti bhagavā)
The Buddha:
♦ “accī yathā vāta-vegena khittā VAR,
(a) flame, just-as-if (by) wind-force overthrown
♦ atthaṃ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṃ.
goes to an end that cannot be classified,
♦ evaṃ munī nāma-kāyā vimutto,
Like-that (the) sage, (from the) name-body (is) emancipated,
atthaṃ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṃ”.
goes to an end that cannot be classified,

Why does the Buddha call out 'nama-kaya' in the 2nd sutta, but only refer to 'kaya' in the first?

You should think about that carefully. Try to solve it on your own, before reading on.


It's because by default, 'kāya' (unqualified, not designating rupa-kaya, or nama-kaya for example) refers to the physical body made up of 4 elements and 31 body parts (blood, bones, skin, etc.). 
See MN 119 for example, that shows kaya in the many meditative contexts that unequivocally show that kaya must be referring to a physical body (including 4 jhanas). 

The quoted and highlighted Snp 5.15 passage is describing one entering the nothingness attainment, where the mind is separating from the body, but the mind is still percipient, aware of itself and its objects. So it's understood 'kaya' has to be physical body being abandoned here, and one doesn't have to qualify it as  'rupa-kaya' because one can not be also abandoning the mental body if one is still percipient. 

In the second quoted passage, Snp 5.7, the brahman is asking if a meditator who is skilled in the nothingness attainment will automatically realize nirvana after a long time. In this context, the Buddha needs to qualify that it's not just the 'kaya' of physical body, it's the mental body 'nama-kaya' that one is liberated from when realizing nirvana. 

By virtue of being in the nothingness attainment, one is already temporarily liberated from the physical body. So the Buddha needed to emphasize that for nirvana, one is not just temporarily liberated from the physical body, but from all future rebirth where vinnana conciousness can bind with the nama rupa forming the experience that includes a physical human body. 


1. In most contexts, especially meditation contexts, when you see 'kāya' alone, unqualified, it's understood we're talking about the physical body. 

This should not be surprising. How often and easily can one ever experience a state of mind that is separated from the physical body? Lucid dreams are probably the only well known phenomena where people can experience this. Formless meditation is not an easy skill to develop, most people will never be able to do it. 

2. As these KN Snp passages show, the Buddha knew about the ambiguities of the word 'body' (kāya) and he spoke accordingly to differentiate them

Abhidhamma needs to ambiguate the word body 'kāya' to include mental body, in order to (futile attempt to) reconcile their complex Abhidhamma doctrine with the suttas.
If you read suttas on their own and remove all your preconceived ideas from Abhidhamma and Vism., you'll see the the Buddha was pragmatic and used 'kāya' in the same practical way any human being from any age, and time, and any culture would: 
'Body' unqualified means the physical body, and on the rare occasion when there's an ambiguity with some other type of non-physical body, then you qualify what kind of body it is.

3. If you're not convinced, try out both cases

case 1: Assume Vism. or Sujato is correct, that the Buddha  wasn't always clear headed and aware about the ambiguities of the word 'body', and it requires prophets and geniuses hundreds of years later after his death to clarify for the Buddha in each case which 'body' is meant. 

case 2: Assume the Buddha was awakened, clear, and knew exactly what he was saying, meant what he said, and said what he meant using words from a standard lexicon, not the ambiguated Sujato or Vism. lexicon. 

Now go through many of the prime passages where 'kaya' is used, and try out both cases:

Whichever is the correct solution, you should find that it works for all the suttas, not just a few. 
In other words, you should have coherence, a unified, internally consistent (across all pali suttas).

If you did the exercise correctly, you will find that case 2 results in coherence.

case 1 is not only incoherent within the suttas, it's even more wildly incoherent and inconsistent when you try to harmonize suttas with abhidhamma and Vism. scripture.

Forum Discussion

A post on Dhammawheel where they announce Sujato is teaching a class on  Snp 5:

Re: Bhikkhu Sujato: The Way to the Beyond: A Study of the Pārāyanavagga

Post by frank k » Fri Jul 15, 2022 3:12 am
Hi Mike,
Which part of my article was not clear?
I'm obviously not getting through to a lot of people, since no one else seems to publicly challenge some very gross and undisputable errors from Sujato on his jhāna interpretation, his ambiguation of kāya, vitakka & vicāra.

Especially egregious in Sujato's 3rd jhāna translation, where he takes kāya metaophorically as "he personally experiences".

How kāya in Snp 5 is being used, shows that the Buddha would have used 'nāma-kāya' (mental body) instead of 'kāya' (which by default is rūpa-kāya in the jhāna context if he wanted to refer to the mind divorced from the physical body.
Or he could have referred to 3rd jhāna as 'somanassa' instead of sukha, or any number of obvious ways talk about mental pleasure (as opposed to physical pleasure originating from the physical body).

Also not mentioned in my article, Snp 5.14 is the sutta right before Snp 5.15.
Suttas in sequence often show an important relationship to each other.
Snp 5.14 is all about the 4 jhānas.
Snp 5.15 is all about the formless attainments, especially dimension of nothingness (the highest perception attainment).
If The Buddha talks about abandoning the rūpa physical body in Snp 5.15, instead of  Snp 5.14, that should be telling you something.

Sujato should be consistent with how he interprets kāya in 3rd jhāna in Snp 5.15.
If "personal experience" is what 'kāya' is in the 3rd jhāna formula, then Snp 5.15 should read, "he completely abandons the mental body of personal experience", which would be ridiculous, since the dimension of nothingness still has a mental body, and perception of mental experience.

Snp 5 is entirely dealing with 16 jhāna meditators, many of whom also have formless attainments.
And when given a chance to show the 4 jhānas as a frozen disembodied stupor as Vism., Brahm, Sujato claim, in Snp 5.14, the most detailed sutta of the 16 in that chapter on 4 jhānas, the Buddha doesn't suggest anything like that at all. 

mikenz66 wrote: Sat Jul 16, 2022 1:50 pm...
frank k wrote: Sat Jul 16, 2022 3:12 amIt seems you want to avoid confronting Sujato on the issue because Snp 5 happens to be translated correctly (for kāya).
I'm not "avoiding confronting Sujato". That would imply that there was some issue which I understood better than him, and kept silent.

I didn't mean to single you out, I meant the whole Buddhist community.
You don't have to feel like you know something better than the teacher, to raise a question and get them to be accountable, transparent about their translation and interpretation.

Snp 5, along with many other places in KN pe Petakopadesa, DN 2, etc., are unequivocal in showing that the Buddha was aware of the ambiguity of the word 'kāya' in a meditation context, and he was careful to disambiguate and clarify what kāya is meant.

Sujato's mistranslation and misinterpretation of kāya in 3rd jhāna is especially perverse. Where the Buddha was specifically trying to disambiguate 'kāya' there, Sujato uses fallacious reasoning to ambiguate what the Buddha was trying to disambiguate.

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