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‘Eternalism’ & ‘nihilism’

‘Eternalism’ & ‘nihilism’
6/16/16 7:00 AM
In the Pali suttas, there are passages about two popular (non-Buddhist) views called ‘eternalism‘ (sassatavada) &  ‘annihilationism‘ (ucchedavada ), which are generally interpreted as follows: 

Eternalism…is concerned with eternal life or with eternal things…that there is an abiding entity which could exist forever…by preserving the eternal soul…

Nihilism is…the view held by the nihilists who claim that there is no life after death.

Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

However, a careful reading of the Pali suttas appears to show that ‘eternalism’ &  ‘annihilationism’ are wrong views because they are ‘self-views’ (rather than views about life after death, per se).

Below are some relevant quotes from the Pali scriptures:

He speaks thus: ‘The self and the world are eternal, barren, steadfast as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar. And though these beings roam and wander, pass away and re-arise, yet the self and the world remain the same just like eternity itself.

Herein, a certain recluse or a brahmin asserts the following doctrine and view: ‘The self (attā), good sir, has material form; it is composed of the four primary elements and originates from father and mother. Since this self, good sir, is annihilated (ucchijjati) and destroyed with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death, at this point the self (attā) is completely annihilated (samucchinno).’ In this way some proclaim the annihilation (ucchedaṃ), destruction (vināsaṃ) and extermination of an existent being (sattassa).

Brahmajāla Sutta
And how, bhikkhus, do some hold back? Devas and humans enjoy being, delight in being, are satisfied with being. When Dhamma is taught to them for the cessation of being, their minds do not enter into it or acquire confidence in it or settle upon it or become resolved upon it. Thus, bhikkhus, do some hold back.

How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed and disgusted by this very same being (bhaveneva) and they rejoice in (the idea of) non-being (vibhavaṃ), asserting: ‘In as much as this self (attaṃ), good sirs, when the body perishes at death, is annihilated (ucchijjati) and destroyed (vinassati) and does not exist (na hoti) after death (parammaraṇā) — this is peaceful, this is excellent, this is reality!’ Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach.

Iti 49

The Yamaka Sutta below shows how the death of an Arahant is not annihilationism (i.e., not the absence of life after death) but, instead, mere selfless impermanence of the five aggregates.

Don’t say that, friend Yamaka. Don’t misrepresent the Blessed One. It’s not good to misrepresent the Blessed One, for the Blessed One would not say, ‘A monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated (ucchijjati), perishes (vinassati) & does not exist (na hoti) after death (parammaraṇā).’

Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?

Thus asked, I would answer, ‘Form is impermanent… Feeling… Perception… Fabrications… Consciousness is impermanent. That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory. That which is unsatisfactory has ceased and gone to its end.’

Very good, my friend Yamaka. Very good.

Yamaka Sutta

The Acela Sutta below shows  ‘eternalism’ &  ‘annihilationism’ used in a context that is not related to life after death but, instead, about believing oneself creates oneself suffering or believing another self creates oneself suffering. 

Note: In ultimate reality, it is the element of ignorance rather than ‘selves’ that create suffering. 

What you, Kassapa, first called ‘suffering caused by oneself’ — this amounts to the eternalist theory (vadaṃ sassataṃ)….and ‘suffering caused by another’ — this amounts to the annihilationist theory (vadaṃ ucchedaṃ).

Acela Sutta

Lastly, the Kaccaayanagotto Sutta (below) uses the words ‘atthitañceva’ & ‘natthitañca’.

‘Atthi’ appears to mean “to be” or “to exist” & related to the word ‘asmi’ (“I am”). ‘Atthitā’ is said to mean ‘state of being’ (where ‘ta’ means ‘state’) and to be an abstact of ‘atthibhāva’. The word ‘natthi’ naturally has the opposite meaning.

Whilst not explicitly translated to be ‘self-views’, ‘atthitañceva’ & ‘natthitañca’ appear to be such, since the entire Kaccaayanagotto Sutta (including its conclusion about Dependent Origination) is about ‘self-view’.  

The world in general, Kaccaayana, inclines to two views, to existence (atthitañceva) or to non-existence (natthitañca). But he does not go along with that system-grasping, that mental obstinacy and dogmatic bias, does not grasp at it, does not affirm: ‘This is my self.’ He knows without doubt or hesitation that whatever [self-view that] arises is merely dukkha that whatever [self-view that] passes away is merely dukkha and such knowledge is his own, not depending on anyone else. This, Kaccaayana, is what constitutes right view. 

Kaccaayanagotto Sutta

In summary, the above passages from the Pali suttas appear to show that the various views about ‘eternalism’ & ‘nihilism’ of the Buddha are not explicitly related to life after death (even though they traditionally, i.e., before Buddhism, may have been). Instead, the emphasis in the Pali suttas is ‘eternalism’ & ‘nihilism’ are wrong views because they are both forms of ‘self-view’.