The Udana 80 is a highly misunderstood text and a favorite of those who want find a god notion or some sort of metaphysical thingie in the early Buddhist texts. It just isn't there if we look at the context and grammatical structure of the text.
Udana 80:There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O monks, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore there is an escape from the born, originated, created, formed.'
For those who want to find some sort of god notion or metaphysical essence in the Buddha's teaching, this passage is always quoted but never is a careful exegetical analysis of it done to show that this mysterious concatenation of words is referring to some sort of god. It is most often simply quoted as if the words "an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed" all by themselves will mysteriously support the god contention. But never is the question asked of what do these "un" words mean in the contexts of how they are used.
The introduction to the whole of the Udana 80 passage clearly states that it is a discourse about nibbana/nirvana, not some sort of "Absolute," ground of being, godhead, or simply a god.
Both the words and the structure of this passage are important to fully understand what this passage is saying. We can start by looking at what is the most important of these words: "unformed," _asankhata_.
The word _asankhata_, "unformed/unconditioned," is of central importance, and its significance in the Buddhist texts is very easily seen. Sankhata means conditioned, compounded or formed--that is, it is that which is 'put-together,'and in a technical sense it is that which is put together by greed, aversion and delusion. In the Samyutta Nikaya III 87 we find: "Why does one say 'conditions' [_sanhkara_: the volitional conditions of greed, hatred and delusion]? Because they condition the conditioned [_sankhata_]." The _a_ in Pali, as in asankhata, is a privative and functions something like a minus sign (-), and its translation is dependent upon its context.
In S.N. IV 359 and S.N. 362 we find: "That which is the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion is _asankhata_." That is to say, it is the freedom from the conditioning, being without the conditions, of those three unwholesome factors. As an awake individual I am no longer conditioned -- I am unconditioned, asankhata --, by the volitional conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion. It is hard to find a more straightforward definition.
In the S.N. IV 251 and IV 321 we find: "That which is the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion is nibbana." Clearly nibbana/nirvana and asankhata are equivalent terms.
The "un" words are in Pali _ajatam_, _abhutam_, _akatam_, _asankhatam_. In the Pali texts when there is a list of words such as we have here, ajatam, abhutam, etc, they can be understood as synonyms. As we have already noted, each of these words starts with an _a_, which is a privative. The privative _a_ in Sanskrit/Pali is very much like the English privative _a_, for example, asexual reproduction -- that is, reproduction without sex. The privative _a_ in Sanskrit/Pali needs not be, as unfortunately it so often is, limited to being translated as "un," "not," or "non." Asankhata: unformed, or better: unconditioned, can be translated as free from conditions, without conditions, not conditioned, conditionlessness.
As we have seen, the word _asankhata_, a synonym for nirvana, tells us that one is no longer conditioned by hatred, greed, and ignorance. Each of the "a" terms, the "un" terms, of this passage, the Udana 80, are used in these forms or in variations to indicate nirvana.
Let me give you two further examples. The first is from the Majjhima Nikaya I 173 where _ajata_ is defined by nirvana/nibbana:
"Then the group of five monks, being thus exhorted, thus instructed by me [the Buddha], being liable to birth because of self, having known the perils in what is liable to birth, seeking freedom from birth [ajata, the unborn], the uttermost security from the bonds -- nibbana -- won freedom from birth [ajata], the uttermost security from the bonds -- nibbana...."
_Ajata_, unborn, freedom from birth is clearly defined as nibbana/nirvana."Knowing [natva] the destruction [khayam] of the formations [sankhara], you will know freedom from the made [akata, the uncreated; but better translated as _made_ rather than _created_]."
The first sentence in our Udana 80 "un" passage reads in Pali: "Atthi [There is] ajatam [unborn], abhutam [unproduced], akatam, [unmade], asankhatam [unconditioned]."
It is important to note that ajatam, abhutam, etc are adjectives, not nouns. The noun is implied. So we can ask, There is _what_? What is the implied noun? Since the early texts show that the Buddha did not indulge in a metaphysics of being, but rather was concerned with an "ontology" of becoming in terms of experiential states, it seems hardly likely that some sort of transcendent, metaphysical "entity" or "reality" are the concepts implied here. To assume that the Udana 80 text is referring to a metaphysical entity is to put this text outside of what the immediate and broader contexts show.
As to the question, "There is what," a word meaning "state" or "characteristic" rather than "entity" seems more likely and this is borne out by the Buddha in the Itivuttaka 39:"Whoever, by knowing this state/this characteristic [padam] that is _not conditioned_ [(asankhatam) by greed, hatred, and delusion], their minds released by the extinction of becoming's conduit -- They, delighting in extinction [of hatred, greed, and ignorance],
reach the pith of mental states. Those who are 'such' get rid of all becomings."
_padam_ is literally 'step,' and has, according to the Pali Text Society's dictionary modal meanings of 'state' and 'characteristic.' It is a word that signifies transition. It also can be rendered as: 'way,' 'path,' 'position,' 'standpoint,' 'place,' 'abode,' and 'home.'
_Ye etad-an~n~aaya padam(ng) asankhatam(ng)...._
could be translated as:"By knowing this unconditioned state/characteristic..."
or"By knowing the state/characteristic that is without conditions [of
hatred, greed, and ignorance]...."
or"By knowing this way/path/position/standpoint/place/abode/home that is
free of conditions...."
Let us not forget, unconditioned, asankhata, is a synonym for nirvana, which is to say: By knowing this place, this state, of the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion, their minds released.... "The extinction of becoming's conduit" is another expression for nibbana/nirvana.
But we can approach the question of the implied even more simply. The opening sentences of the Udana 80 identify the discourse as being about nibbana/nirvana, and as we have seen the "un" terms are synonyms for nibbana. So, the question "there is what?" can be easily be answered by nibbana. "There is nibbana, free from birth, free from becoming, free from making, free from conditioning...."
The Itivuttaka, 37-8, contains the above quoted section of Udana 80, and most importantly the Buddha offers a verse auto-commentary to this passage.
This said by the Blessed One, the Worthy One, was heard by me in this way: "Monks, there is freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning. For, monks if there were not this freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning, then escape from that which is birth, becoming, making, conditioning, would not be known here. But, monks, because there is freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning, therefore the escape from that which is birth, becoming, making, conditioning is known."
[Here the Buddha, The Blessed One, offers his own verse commentary on the above statement.] This meaning the Blessed One spoke, it is spoken here in this way:
That which is born, become, arisen, made, conditioned,
And thus unstable, put together of decay and death,
The seat of disease, brittle,
Caused and craving food,
That is not fit to find pleasure in.
Being freed of this, calmed beyond conjecture, stable,
Freed from birth, freed from arising, freed from sorrow,
Freed from passions, the elements of suffering stopped,
The conditioning [of greed, hatred and delusion] appeased,
This is ease [bliss].
Or this could be translated as:
"There is (a state, a standpoint) without birth, without becoming, without making and without compounding..."
"There is nibbana, free from birth, free from becoming, free from making, free from conditioning."
Translating _ajata_, etc, by "freedom from birth," etc. supplies the implied noun via the privative _a_ as in _a_sankhata.
We do not see in the Buddha's own commentary any reference to a god or some sort of essence, but we do see that "being freed of this" is a state of ease -- the "appeasement of conditions (sankharupasamo)," a variation of _asankhata_, nirvana -- is reached. If the Buddha had wanted to teach a god, he would not have been so oblique in his references to a god as those who want to find a god or an essence end up making him, and the Buddha certainly would not have passed up this opportunity to clarify the "un" passage in terms of a god or an essence if that is what he saw as reality.