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Translations of
acinteyya อจินฺเตยฺย
Sanskritacintya อจินฺตฺย
Paliacinteyya อจินฺเตยฺย
Tibetanbsam gyis mi khyab pa
Glossary of Buddhism

Acinteyya (Pali) is a Buddhist term that is commonly translated as imponderable or incomprehensible. It denotes four issues that should not be thought about, since this distracts from practice, and hinders the attainment of liberation.


The Sanskrit word acintya means "incomprehensible, surpassing thought, unthinkable, beyond thought."[web 1]

In Indian philosophy, acinteyya is

[T]hat which is to be unavoidably accepted for explaining facts, but which cannot stand the scrutiny of logic.[1]

It is also defined as

That which cannot or should not be thought, the unthinkable, incomprehensible, impenetrable, that which transcends the limits of thinking and over which therefore one should not ponder.[web 2]

The term is used to describe the ultimate reality that is beyond all conceptualization.[2] Thoughts here-about should not be pursued, because they are not conducive to the attainment of liberation.[2] Synonymous terms are avyākṛta[2] "indeterminate questions,"[3] and atakkāvacara,[4] "beyond the sphere of reason."[4]

Four imponderables[edit]

The four imponderables are identified in the Acintita Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 4.77, as follows:[5]

  1. The Buddha-range of the Buddhas [i.e., the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a Buddha];
  2. The jhana-range of one absorbed in jhana [i.e., the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in jhana];
  3. The [precise working out of the] results of kamma (Karma in Sanskrit);
  4. Speculation about [the origin, etc., of] the cosmos is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about (SN 56.41 develops this speculation as the ten indeterminate).

Ten indeterminate questions[edit]

Nirvana is atakkāvacara, "beyond logical reasoning".[6] It is difficult to comprehend with logic or reason, since it is not a concrete "thing."[6] It cannot be explained with logic or reason to someone who has not attained it by themselves.[7] This is illustrated in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta,[6] "Discourse to Vatsagotra on the [Simile of] Fire," Majjhima Nikaya 72,[web 3] the Buddha is questioned by Vatsagotra on the "ten indeterminate question:"[3] avyākrta[2]

  • Is the cosmos eternal, non-eternal, finite, infinite?
  • Are the soul and the body (jīvam & sarīram) similar or different?
  • After death, a Tathagata exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, neither exists nor does not exist?

The Buddha refuses to answer the questions, avoiding getting entangled in debate, but answers with a simile:[3]

"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.[web 3]

Hindrance to liberation[edit]

Pondering over the four acinteyya is a hindrance to the attainment of liberation. Sacca-samyutta, "The Four Noble Truths", Samyutta Nikaya 56:[web 4]

Therefore, o monks, do not brood over [any of these views] Such brooding, O monks, is senseless, has nothing to do with genuine pure conduct (s. ādibrahmacariyaka-sīla), does not lead to aversion, detachment, extinction, nor to peace, to full comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbāna, etc.[8]

And the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, "Discourse to Vatsagotra on the [Simile of] Fire," Majjhima Nikaya 72:

Vaccha, [any of these views] 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.[web 3]

The Buddha further warns that

Whoever speculates about these things would go mad & experience vexation.[web 5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dasgupta 1991, p. 16.
  2. ^ a b c d Buswell & Lopez Jr. 2013, p. 14.
  3. ^ a b c Buswell & Lopez Jr. 2013, p. 852.
  4. ^ a b Sujato 2012, p. 291.
  5. ^ Bhikkhu Thanissaro 2010, p. 58.
  6. ^ a b c Kalupahanna 1976, p. 79.
  7. ^ nath 1998, p. 622.
  8. ^ Samyutta Nikaya 56.41


Printed sources
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu (2012), A History of Mindfulness, Santipada
  • Bhikkhu Thanissaro (2010), Wings to Awakening: Part I (PDF), Metta Forest Monastery, Valley Center, CA
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2000), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Boston: Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-331-1
  • Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez Jr., Donald S., eds. (2013), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press
  • Dasgupta, Surendranath (1991), A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 4, Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
  • Kalupahanna, David J. (1976), Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis, University of Hawaii Press
  • nath, Samir (1998), Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Buddhism. Volume 3, Sarup 7 Sons