On the meaning of ‘tathāgata’ in the tetralemma
The primary use of the word tathāgata in the discourses is as an epithet of the Buddha. Iti 112 gives an extended discussion of why this epithet is appropriate to him:
This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “The cosmos [§159] has been fully awakened to by the Tathāgata. From the cosmos, the Tathāgata is disjoined. The origination of the cosmos has been fully awakened to by the Tathāgata. The origination of the cosmos has, by the Tathāgata, been abandoned. The cessation of the cosmos has been fully awakened to by the Tathāgata. The cessation of the cosmos has, by the Tathāgata, been realized. The path leading to the cessation of the cosmos has been fully awakened to by the Tathāgata. The path leading to the cessation of the cosmos has, by the Tathāgata, been developed.
“Whatever in this cosmos—with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, its generations with their contemplatives & brahmans, their royalty & common people—is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect, that has been fully awakened to by the Tathāgata [§46]. Thus he is called the Tathāgata.
“From the night the Tathāgata fully awakens to the unsurpassed Right Self-awakening until the night he is totally unbound in the unbinding property with no fuel remaining, whatever the Tathāgata has said, spoken, explained is just so (tatha) and not otherwise. Thus he is called the Tathāgata.
“The Tathāgata is one who does in line with (tathā) what he teaches, one who teaches in line with what he does. Thus he is called the Tathāgata.
“In this cosmos with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, its generations with their contemplatives & brahmans, their royalty & common people, the Tathāgata is the unconquered conqueror, all-seeing, the wielder of power [these are epithets usually associated with the Great Brahmā]. Thus he is called the Tathāgata.” This is the meaning of what the Blessed One said. — Iti 112
Many of the attributes listed in this discourse apply solely to the Buddha, but a few passages in the discourses—at MN 22 (see below), MN 72 [§190], and SN 22:85 [§183]—use the term tathāgata to denote any person fully released, whether a Buddha or an arahant disciple. In either case, the word, as used in the discourses, has a high and exalted meaning.
In general, the Commentary follows this understanding of the term tathāgata in its explanations of the discourses. In fact, whenever the term first appears in each of the major nikāyas, the Commentary to that nikāya expands on the list given in Iti 112 to provide even more reasons for why the Buddha is termed the Tathāgata, and why this is a term of exalted status. However, when treating the tetralemma—the four unacceptable ways of describing the Tathāgata after death—the Commentary gives two different definitions for the term tathāgata. When discussing the tetralemma in SN 44:1 [§191], it defines tathāgata in the standard way, as meaning the Buddha (“the all-knowing Tathāgata”); but in five places—when discussing the tetralemma as it appears in DN 29 [§185], MN 63 [§176], SN 16:12, SN 22:85 [§193], and AN 7:51 [§178]—it defines tathāgata as satta, or being. According to this latter explanation, the question of the existence, non-existence, etc., of any being after death is one that the Buddha would put aside.
The Commentary does not define the term tathāgata in this way in any other context, provides no reason for why it does so in these locations, and makes no note of the fact that it defines the term differently even though the context—the tetralemma—is the same. And as the Commentary to SN 44:1 points out, it is precisely because the Tathāgata cannot be classified as a being that the four alternatives in the tetralemma do not apply to him:
“Deep”: Deep through the depth of his disposition & through the depth of his qualities. Given that the all-knowing Tathāgata is so deep in his qualities, and through the non-existence of that in dependence on which there is the description, “The Tathāgata is classed as a being,” for one who sees the non-existence of that description, the statement, “The Tathāgata, classed as a being, exists after death,” isn’t fitting, doesn’t apply. The statement, “The Tathāgata doesn’t exist after death,” etc., isn’t fitting, doesn’t apply. — Commentary to SN 44:1
For these reasons, many scholars have called into question the Commentary’s definition of tathāgata as satta in its other explanations of the tetralemma. Recently, however, a justification for the Commentary’s usage has been proposed: The tetralemma actually functions in two contexts, with the term tathāgata carrying different meanings in each. When the tetralemma appears as part of the ten undeclared questions, it concerns the post-mortem fate of any being; when it appears on its own, it concerns the post-mortem fate of a fully awakened person.
To evaluate this proposal, we have to address three questions:
1) Does the Commentary itself observe this distinction between the two contexts?
2) Is there any evidence that the Canon recognizes a distinction between the meaning of the tetralemmas in the two contexts?
3) Is there any reason to accept the Commentary’s proposal that the Buddha would have put aside the question of whether an ordinary being exists, doesn’t exist, both, or neither after death?
1) The answer to the first question is a simple No. The Commentary to DN 29 [§185] and to SN 16:12 both equate tathāgata with satta, and yet the tetralemma discussed in those discourses appears on its own, and not in the context of the ten undeclared questions.
2) As for whether the Canon itself recognizes a distinction between the meaning of the tetralemmas in the two contexts, the major arguments for saying Yes are these:
a) In MN 72 [§183], Vacchagotta the wanderer asks why the Buddha doesn’t take a stand on any of the ten undeclared questions, and the Buddha responds by saying that each of these ten positions 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, self-awakening, unbinding.” In other words, he gives the basic list of pragmatic reasons for not taking a stand on these views. This answer apparently satisfies Vacchagotta. Later in the same discourse [§190], however, Vacchagotta questions the Buddha about the post-mortem fate of a monk whose mind is released. This, according to the argument, shows that when Vacchagotta had asked the Buddha about the tetralemma earlier in the discourse, he intended the term tathāgata to mean any being in general, for if he had intended it to mean an awakened being in that context, he wouldn’t have repeated his question about the fate of the monk whose mind was released.
b) The Canon, when explaining the reasons for rejecting the tetralemma in the context of the ten undeclared questions, uses what we have identified as the basic list of pragmatic reasons, but when explaining the reasons for rejecting the tetralemma on its own, it never uses this list, but instead uses other sets of reasons: that the questions derive from unskillful mind states (what we have identified as part of the strong list pragmatic reasons), or that the terms of the questions simply do not apply (the argument based on the meaninglessness of the questions). At the same time, the fact that the questions of the tetralemma derive from unskillful mind states shows that, from the Buddhist point of view, they are meaningless. Thus the reasons for putting aside the questions of the tetralemma on their own are of a different order: The argument from meaninglessness is always used, and the argument from pragmatic reasons, never.
c) The tetralemma in the context of the ten undeclared questions is part of a general questionnaire of issues discussed among the many competing philosophical groups of the time. Because some of those groups denied the existence of awakened beings, this would not have been a topic they would have addressed. Also, there is no evidence that any other schools used the term tathāgata to mean an awakened being in their teachings, and so that meaning would not have been part of the general questionnaire.
When the tetralemma is addressed on its own, however, it is always in the context where a person has just heard the Buddha’s teachings, and so it deals with the post-mortem fate of the tathāgata as understood in those teachings: i.e., as a fully awakened being.
In response to these arguments, we can cite the following points:
a) As we noted in Chapter Eight, the pragmatic reasons for rejecting the ten undeclared questions leave open the issue of whether or not they could be answered. Thus, in MN 72, when Vacchagotta hears these reasons, he could easily assume that the Buddha might have had private answers to these questions, but for pragmatic reasons refused to divulge them publicly. After the Buddha again brings up the topic of the released mind, Vacchagotta might have seen his chance to gain access to those private answers. What confuses him is the new set of reasons that the Buddha gives for not answering the tetralemma: that the various alternatives are meaningless and so do not apply. Thus the argument in point (a), above, is inconclusive.
b) Without going into the issue of whether the reasons in the strong list should be classed as pragmatic or dealing with meaninglessness, we can simply note that DN 29 [§185] and SN 16:12, when discussing the tetralemma on its own, do use the basic list of pragmatic reasons for explaining why the Buddha puts these questions aside. In fact, these are the only reasons these discourses list. This in itself is enough to disprove the argument in point (b), that the Canon never uses the basic list of pragmatic reasons when discussing the tetralemma on its own.
c) The lack of evidence for how other philosophical groups addressed the questionnaire of ten questions to one another, and the lack of evidence for how they used the word tathāgata among themselves, cuts both ways. When reading the discourses, we must remember that we are reading how other sectarians addressed the questionnaire to the Buddha or to his followers, and it might be that those sectarians phrased their questions in terms that the Buddhists would have found familiar. Either that, or the Buddhists—when recording their conversations with other sectarians—did so using their own Buddhist terms. Whichever is the case, SN 44:2 [§192] portrays other sectarians addressing a Buddhist monk and using the term tathāgata in the sense of a person who has reached the highest goal:
On that occasion, Ven. Anurādha was staying not far from the Blessed One in a wilderness hut. Then a large number of wandering sectarians went to him and… said, “Friend Anurādha, the Tathāgata—the supreme person, the superlative person, attainer of the superlative attainment—being described, is described with [one of] these four positions: After death the Tathāgata exists; after death he does not exist; after death he both exists & does not exist; after death he neither exists nor does not exist.”
Although it is true that we have no evidence that other philosophical schools used the word tathāgata to mean an awakened being when talking among themselves, we also have no evidence of their using it to mean satta when talking among themselves. In fact, there is good reason to think that they would not have used it to mean satta, for if it had such an ordinary meaning among the sects of the time, why would the Buddha have adopted it as his primary epithet to express his exalted status and that of his fully awakened students?
And as for groups that did not believe in awakening—and these tended to believe that death was annihilation—they could have easily answered the questionnaire sarcastically by saying that regardless of how “awakened” you were, you were no different from anyone else: Death would be the end of you.
Thus there is no conclusive evidence that the Canon recognized a distinction between the meaning of the tetralemma in the context of the ten undeclared issues and that of the tetralemma when discussed on its own. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that this was not the case.
3) As for the question of whether there is any basis in the Canon for assuming that the Buddha would have put aside the question of the existence, non-existence, etc., of an ordinary being after death: The evidence clearly indicates that the Buddha would have treated this question as one deserving an analytical response. In other words, he would have given an answer after introducing an extra variable or two.
The variable he would have introduced here would have been his definition of “being” (satta) as passion, delight, obsession, or craving for any of the aggregates [§199-§200]. In this sense, a “being” in the Buddha’s terms is defined—measured—as an ongoing psychological process of attachment and obsession. Having given a definition in this way, he can then talk of the object of the definition as existing, not existing, both, or neither.
But before addressing the issue of that being’s existence after death, we have to add an important variable, noting that the Buddha’s definition of a being as a process differs from that of a being as a discrete metaphysical entity. This latter sort of definition is apparently what the Buddha meant by the phrase “existing being (sant satta)” in the following passage.
“And when the devas, together with their Indras, Brahmās, & Pajāpatīs, search for the monk whose mind is thus released, they cannot find that ‘The consciousness of the Tathāgata is dependent on this.’ Why is that? The Tathāgata is untraceable even in the here & now. [§192-§193]
“Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some contemplatives & brahmans (who say,) ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being [sant satta].’ But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable contemplatives & brahmans (who say,) ‘Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.’” — MN 22
Having introduced these two ways of talking about a being—as a metaphysical entity, which he does not adopt; and as a psychological process of self-definition through attachment and obsession, which he does—the Buddha would then be able to give an analytical answer to the question of whether such a being exists after death. From the perspective of mundane right view, the being as psychological process does exist after death as long as the process is supported by craving. And this, in fact, is how the Buddha often describes what beings do after death, most notably in the standard description of the “divine eye” given repeatedly throughout the discourses:
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away & reappearance of beings. I saw—by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human—beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with action: ‘These beings—who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views—with the breakup of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings—who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, & mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views—with the breakup of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’” — MN 19
“But, Master Gotama, at the moment a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, what do you designate as its clinging/sustenance then?”
“Vaccha, when a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, I designate it as wind-sustained, for the wind is its clinging/sustenance at that time.”
“And at the moment when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, what do you designate as its clinging/sustenance then?”
“Vaccha, when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its clinging/sustenance at that time.” — SN 44:9
However, when the mind has no more attachments and obsessions, then—as noted by the passage from MN 22—there is no longer any basis for locating or defining the person fully released.
“But if one doesn’t stay obsessed with form, monk, that’s not what one is measured by. Whatever one isn’t measured by, that’s not how one is classified.
“If one doesn’t stay obsessed with feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness, that’s not what one is measured by. Whatever one isn’t measured by, that’s not how one is classified.” — SN 22:36
“Having shed classifications,
gone beyond conceit,
he has here
his bonds cut through,
though they search they can’t find him,
human & heavenly beings,
here & beyond,
or any abode. — SN 1:20
When one cannot be defined or located, one cannot be described either in this life or after death.
Just as the destination of a glowing fire
struck with a [blacksmith’s] iron hammer,
gradually growing calm,
Even so, there’s no destination to describe
for those who are rightly released
—having crossed over the flood
of sensuality’s bond—
for those who’ve attained
unwavering ease. — Ud 8:10
“I designate the rebirth of one who has clinging/sustenance, Vaccha, and not of one without clinging/sustenance. Just as a fire burns with clinging/sustenance and not without clinging/sustenance, even so I designate the rebirth of one who has clinging/sustenance and not of one without clinging/sustenance.” — SN 44:9
“And so, Anurādha—when you can’t pin down the Tathāgata as a truth or reality even in the present life—is it proper for you to declare, ‘Friends, the Tathāgata—the supreme person, the superlative person, attainer of the superlative attainment—being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: After death the Tathāgata exists; after death he does not exist; after death he both exists & does not exist; after death he neither exists nor does not exist’?”
“Very good, Anurādha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress.” — SN 44:2
Thus the Buddha would discuss the post-mortem fate of the being-as-process, because such a being could be defined; but he would not discuss the post-mortem fate of the awakened person, because such a person cannot be defined. In other words, questions about the Tathāgata’s post-mortem fate are in a category apart precisely because he/she cannot be defined as a satta. For these reasons, it appears that the word tathāgata—as used in the tetralemma wherever it is found in the discourses—has only one meaning: a person so fully released that he/she cannot be defined. And the Commentary’s equation of tathāgata with satta is clearly mistaken.
4) This, of course, leads to a further question: Why did the Commentary propose this equation to begin with? This is a matter of conjecture, but the following passage from the Commentary to SN 22:85 [§193] helps to throw some light on the matter. Here the Commentary is explaining what is wrong with Ven. Yamaka’s original position that “A monk with no more fermentations, with the breakup of the body, is annihilated, destroyed, & does not exist after death.”
If this thought had occurred to him, “Fabrications both arise & cease. There is the non-occurrence of the mere occurrence of fabrications,” that would not be called a view-standpoint (diṭṭhigata). It would be knowledge in accordance with the Teaching. But because the thought occurred to him, “A being is annihilated, is destroyed,” what is called a view-standpoint was born….
The Commentary then goes on to explain Ven. Yamaka’s answer after he has realized his mistake:
“That which is stressful has ceased”: What is stressful, only that has ceased. There is no being aside from that to cease. — Commentary to SN 22:85
In making this explanation, the Commentary is calling on the tradition that developed after the Abhidhamma (and is discussed above in the Chapter Nine) that there is no self (attā) or being (satta) in the ultimate sense of the term, that the terms self and being are simply conventional designations for what, in ultimate terms, is simply an occurrence of fabrications in the form of the five aggregates.
However, in taking this stand the Commentary is unwittingly providing an analytical answer to the tetralemma by adding the variables of conventional vs. ultimate existence: Yes, a being with craving and clinging exists after death in the conventional sense, but No, it does not exist in the ultimate sense. In other words, the tathāgata (defined as satta) both exists and does not exist after death.
Thus, because both the Canon and the Commentary give (different) analytical answers to the question of an ordinary being’s existence after death, we can safely stick with the conclusion given above, that tathāgata has only one meaning wherever it occurs in the tetralemma or in the Canon as a whole: a person so fully released that he/she cannot be defined either in this life or after death.