Monthly Archives: November 2014

Kutadanta Sutta (DN 5)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, November 29, 2014.

Kutadanta the Brahman

This sutta takes place in the Brahman village of Khanumata in Magadha, in Ambalatthika Park. The translator points out that this is not the same place as the royal park of Ambalatthika on the road between Rajagaha and Nalanda in the first sutta, but a place like it.  Khanumata is described as populous, full of grass, timber, water, and corn. King Bimbisara of Magadha – who you will recall from the second sutta was murdered by his son, Ajatasattu, thus establishing this sutta as earlier than the second sutta of the Digha NIkaya – had given Khanumata to the Brahman Kutadanta, a political structure, which was common at the time.

Kutadanta decided to make a great sacrifice, consisting of bulls, bullocks, heifers, he-goats, and rams, seven hundred each, 3,500 animals in total, all tied up to sacrificial posts. The translator suggests that this is the story told by the Buddha to King Pasenadi of Kosala in the Samyutta Nikaya (3.1.9). In any case, scholars do not accept it as an historical event. Nonetheless, it contains ideas that we can identify and evaluate.

As in the previous sutta, the mayor, if we may use that word, goes up to his verandah for the mid-afternoon nap, clearly the norm at the time. Like Sonadanda, he sees the streets filled with people heading toward Ambalatthika. Asking the reason, his steward tells him that they are going to see the Buddha. Perhaps this sutta was put after the previous one due to the similarity of the situation.

The absurdity of the story now reveals itself, for it occurs to Kutadanta to ask the Buddha about how to conduct the triple sacrifice with the sixteen requisites, a topic which Kutadanta, a Brahman, professes not to understand!

Ritual sacrifice is of course the heart of the Vedic religion. Before we continue, we will acquaint ourselves with this context by watching the preview to Altar of Sacrifice on YouTube. This will take nine minutes.

If you have seen the Thai movie, Angulimala (2003), then you have seen the extent of the Vedic practice of animal sacrifice, which may be compared to the animal sacrifices of the ancient Hebrews.

The intent of the story is clearly to insult the Brahman, who is made out not to know his own business so that the Buddha is seen to be the true Brahman, but it is also to show that Buddhism is the true Brahmanism.

If you attended my last talk, you will remember that Sonadanda resolved to visit the Buddha, and was accompanied by a large group of Brahmans, to whom he praised the Buddha. Almost the same scenario occurs in this sutta, which I will not go into in greater detail.

One of the Buddha’s teaching techniques, besides seeking common ground, is to tell a story set in the past, at the end of which the Buddha identifies people in the audience or people known to the audience as rebirths of the people in the story. Often the situation in the story reflects or embodies the current situation. Perhaps this became the basis of the belief that the Buddha possessed past life recall, despite the Buddha’s non-emphasis on psychic powers (the reality of which he never denied however). So the Buddha tells the Brahman the story of King Mahavijita (‘great conqueror’), which is subsequently revealed to be a past life memory of the Buddha himself.

Such stories are also indicative of two beliefs concerning karma: (1) that people who are involved with each other in one life are likely to become involved with each other in similar ways in subsequent rebirths, and (2) that underlying patterns or structures of events recur from birth to birth, based on karma. Finally, the phenomenon of past life recall itself, which is canonical, pervasive, and for which empirical evidence also exists, raises the interesting problem of the substrate in which these memories are preserved, as the brain is the substrate of memory in this life, but ceases to function at death. Clearly, the continuity of rebirth is also a continuity of memory, even if those memories are so subtle as to be indiscernible to any but the most penetrating awareness.

This sutta of the Buddha is organized around the declaration of two principles where the Buddha was far ahead of his time: cruelty to animals and the exploitation of man by the state. This important sutta therefore establishes the Buddha’s fundamental political philosophy, and his ethical views concerning animal rights, as well as providing further insights into this concept of an “inner Brahmanism” that is opposed to the Brahmanism of rites, rituals, and dogmatic beliefs. This doctrine further explains the ambivalent attitude that the Buddha appears to have towards Brahmans and Brahmanism, at times hostile and contemptuous, at other times collegial.

Therefore, Mahavijita, like Kutadanta, wants to make a big Vedic sacrifice to produce merit, and approaches his purohitam, his family priest, which Walshe translates as ‘chaplain,’ for instructions. Instead of answering him directly, the priest segues into a discussion of the state of the kingdom: “Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. If your Majesty were to tax this region, that would be the wrong thing to do.” The situation described probably reflects the social situation in northeast India at the Buddha’s time. The land was dangerous; the monarchies and military dictatorships were ruthless; wealth was moving from the monarchs to the merchants, resulting in heavy taxation by the monarchs; the laws were arbitrary and cruel; wars and political violence were common; brigands and gangs haunted the roads; there was widespread dissatisfaction and widespread spiritual yearning.

I am reminded, as I am frequently when reading the words of the Buddha, of the poems of Laozi concerning government, thieves, and taxes. For example,

The people starve because the privileged ones eat (too much). Truly, too many taxes are causing famine. (75)

The vicious man taxes others. (79)

Because cunning governs the state,
The country is beset by thieves. (65)

The chaplain continues,

Suppose our Majesty were to think, ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by execution and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment,’ the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague. To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service, assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent in their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in open homes.

In this remarkable passage, redolent of later political theories, the Buddha sets forth the basic thesis of classic social democratic economics, in which the state supports agriculture, capital, and a well-paid bureaucracy. In other words, the state is responsible for maintaining the common infrastructure, which in turn supports the civil society that depends on it, the prosperity of the latter resulting from the actions of the former making the taxes that the state spends to maintain the infrastructure affordable. Elsewhere, the Buddha envisages democratic government and even kings abdicating their thrones and fortunes in favour of the people. The Buddha saw that a high-tax, law-and-order agenda would intensify the cycle of violence, culminating in social breakdown – an issue that we see in our own time. Ashoka put policies like this in place during the third century BCE. Ashoka’s benevolent public works included charitable hospitals, poverty relief, tree planting, travellers’ inns, parks and gardens, wells and tanks, clinics for birds and animals, and a ban on animal sacrifice. Clearly, humanity has not progressed much in 2,500 years, though much is always promised.

Having reformed his kingdom, Mahavijita reiterated his desire to perform a great sacrifice, so his chaplain, who is unnamed, gives him instructions to perform the sacrifice that are clearly allegorical. According to this allegory, the eight accessories for the sacrifice are the king’s birth, beauty (we might say “fitness”), wealth, power, generosity, knowledge of the mantras, linguistic skill, and his understanding of the workings of the law of karma. Similarly, the chaplain himself, being a Brahman, is well born, versed in the mantras, virtuous, and learned. One is reminded of the doctrine of the marks or characteristics of the great man. The three modes of the sacrifice are not to regret the cost of the sacrifice in the past, present, or future. The ten conditions refers to ten precepts, starting with the familiar five precepts of pansil, viz., not taking life, not taking what is not given, not indulging in sexual misconduct, not engaging in wrongful speech,  not coveting, not harbouring ill will, and not having wrong views.  By my count this is seven items, but possibly the text includes calumny, harsh, and frivolous speech as three additional items, making ten. The sutta makes these out to be sixteen, viz., the four assenting groups, the eight endowments attributed to King Mahavijita, and the four endowments of the chaplain – altogether sixteen, in three modes.

Finally, the chaplain gives sixteen reasons why the sacrifice will be successful, including:

  1. Inviting the Kshatriya (Pali khattiya) caste;
  2. Inviting advisers, counsellors, Brahmans, and householders;
  3. Being well born on both sides; and
  4. His chaplain being well born.

Again, the numbering seems very strange. By my count this is four items, unless the sixteen reasons include the ten conditions and we divide the advisers and counsellors, Brahmans and householders, into two, and being well born by two (for both sides of the family), in which case we get sixteen, but that seems very far-fetched.

Finally, the chaplain points out that the sacrifice was carried out with ghee, oil, butter, curds, honey, and molasses; no animals were slaughtered; no trees or plants were hurt; and no slaves or servants were required to do anything that they did not want to do.

Kutadanta asks, “Why is this sacrifice better?” The Buddha points out that arhants and stream winners – those who have attained the arhant path – would not attend a sacrifice involving beatings and throttlings, but such would attend a sacrifice that does not involve killing living things, thus implicitly producing merit for the “sacrifice” by their presence.

The guests also brought funds to contribute to the ceremony, but the king rebuffed them, so they put their gifts to the east, south, west, and north of the sacrificial pit as offerings.

Esoteric BuddhismThis interpretation clearly establishes Buddhism as an esoteric tradition, from Greek esotero, “more within.” First used in English with reference to the Pythagorean doctrines, esotericism explores the hidden meanings and symbols in various philosophical, historical, and religious texts, especially texts that are central to mainstream religions. Thus, the esotericist finds “more within” the traditional religious texts. As we will see as we explore the suttas of the Pali Canon, this is exactly the method of the Buddha with respect to the mainstream practices of Brahmanism. He doesn’t’ merely reject Brahmanism. Rather, he finds an ethical and perhaps a spiritual meaning within Brahmanism that has been forgotten by the Brahmans themselves. Historically, we know that this “forgetting” characterized the late Vedic period, from about 1000–500 BCE, especially with regard to the nature of the soma sacrifice. I have discussed this in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.”

Another meaning of “esoteric” is “for the few.” Thus, when the Buddha attained enlightenment in his 30s, at first he hesitated to teach, concerned that most people would be unable to comprehend his doctrine, but the Brahma Sahampati persuaded him to teach for the sake of the few. Thus Buddhism was an esoteric tradition from its inception.

Kutadanta, clearly impressed, asks the Buddha if there is another, simpler, more powerful practice – note the counterintuitive association of simplicity and power, which we also find in quantum physics, where the nuclear potential of a volume of matter is far greater than the mechanical potential of the same volume of matter, and that the energy of empty space (the so-called “vacuum energy”) is far greater than either of these. Just as this tells us that the materialistic understanding of nature is not accurate, so it says that the Brahmanic understanding of spirituality is not accurate. It is the interior, not the exterior, that is efficacious. It is not that ritual has no efficacy, which is a naïve misinterpretation of the Buddha’s view, but rather there is something else within ritual that is efficacious, just as there is something else within ethics that is efficacious, viz., intention. The Buddha responds by giving a list of seven progressively subtler and more powerful practices, viz., giving to virtuous ascetics; providing shelter for the sangha; going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; undertaking the five precepts; morality; the insights, and finally the cessation of the corruptions. Beyond that, the Buddha says, “there is nothing further in this world.” Note the qualification – he refers only to “this world,” he does not say that there is nothing further in another world: “beyond this there is no sacrifice that is greater and more perfect.” This may be read in two ways. Each of these things is a sacrifice in the pure sense of converting matter to energy in the service of a higher intention. This is a universal law of sacrifice that is the central principle of the science of spirituality.

You will notice that Maurice Walshe’s translation of the fifth precept is “to refrain … from taking strong drink and sloth-producing drugs” (5.26). This translation appears to contradict a statement I made in an earlier talk concerning the translation of this precept, in which I stated that there is no textual basis for the prohibition of drugs. Rhys Davids’s English version of this verse has “abstention from strong, intoxicating, maddening drinks, the root of carelessness.” Notice the absence of any reference to drugs. Therefore, I decided to look up the Pali original of this text. The phrase in question is the same as that used elsewhere in the Pali Canon – surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇiṃ (Kutadantasuttam, 352, fourth paragraph). In Pali, words are often run together so the actual breakdown of this phrase is: sura meraya majja pamada-tthana veramanim. Sura, meraya, and majja are three types of alcoholic drinks. Sura was used as a medical anaesthetic during the fourth century BCE. Majja may have been a kind of mead. Other alcoholic drinks that were known are not included in this list, including sīdhuariṣṭamadhu (related to majja), madirā and āsava. We recognize the English words “mead” and “madeira” here. According to Tamilcube, sura is distilled liquor and meraya is fermented liquor. Majja also appears to refer to a brewage. Thus, the Buddha does appear to be prohibiting a range of alcoholic beverages, from weak (brewed) to strong (distilled). Pamada means ‘negligence,’ ‘indolence,’ ‘remissness,’ ‘carelessness,’ from mada, ‘pride,’ ‘intoxication,’ ‘conceit,’ ‘sexual excess.’ Veramani means ‘abstinence.’ On the other hand, according to Tamilcube, the English word “drug” is osadha or agada (agado), whereas we find neither of these words in this phrase. Therefore, the exact translation should be “to refrain from drinking distilled and fermented liquors and mead (wine?) that cause (or lead to) negligence and indolence.” Perhaps one could make this out to refer to spirits, beer, and wine, but drugs? That is not what the Buddha said. He does not refer to “drugs,” with all the redolence that word communicates in modern English, yet this “translation” is widespread through the popular Buddhist literature, even scholarly translations. I have also referred to this inaccuracy in other talks. Some scholars claim that the original precept prohibited going to drinking establishments, not drinking per se.

Kutadanta is so impressed that he becomes a lay follower on the spot, setting free all of the 3,500 animals that he had collected. The Buddha gives Kutadanta a graduated discourse on generosity, morality; the higher planes, dimensions, worlds, or “heavens”; the evils of sense-desires; and the merit of renunciation, followed by a dharma talk in brief, viz., the Four Noble Truths. Immediately Kutadanta realized the truth of impermanence (anicca) and acquired the Dharma Eye, which you will recall is the equivalent of stream entry.

The next morning Kutadanta entertained the Buddha and his entourage at his home for the daily meal.

The Book of the Right Way of Laozi – 66.


All rivers lead to the sea with the power of one hundred valley kings
Because of their inherent potential.
Therefore, they act as one hundred valley kings.
Truly, because the sage
Wishes to govern the people, he must make himself subject (to them).
Desiring to lead, first he must listen (to them).
Truly, because the sage
Lives in the heights, the people do not see him.
(Because he) is ahead, the people are not afflicted by him.
Truly, for this reason he rises to the top.
Because they do not struggle,
Therefore, no one under the sun can oppose them.


1 river sea it place because act as 100 valley king person
2 because such good under it
3 therefore can act 100 valley king
4 truly because the holy man
5 desire on top people certainly because speak under it
6 desire first people certainly because body after it
7 truly because holy man
8 reside on top yet people not serious
9 reside before yet people not trouble
10 truly because heaven under happy push yet not loathe
11 because such not fight
12 therefore heaven under there is none who can together with it fight

Sonadanda Sutta (DN 4)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, November 22, 2014.

Sonadanda the Brahman

Digha Nikaya 4

King Bimbisara

This sutta was spoken at Gaggara’s Lotus Pond, Campa, in the land of the Angas, a kingdom that, like Kosala, was destined to be annexed by Magadha. The Angas were a mixed-race people, in the southeast part of the land occupied by the mahajanapadas, the sixteen great states. Literally the word means maha, ‘great’ + jana, ‘populated’ + pada, ‘lands.’ Historically, the Angas were looked down upon as a barbarous people who had annexed part of Magadha in the past. Bimbisara, the Magahdan king, who was a great friend and patron of the Buddha, had killed Brahmadatta, the last independent king of Anga and seized Campa. Bimbisara made it his headquarters and ruled over it as his father’s viceroy. The boundary between Magahada and Anga to the east can be seen in the Chanpan (Campa) River today. The capital, Campa, was located at the juncture of the Ganges and the Chanpan River. Campa was a great centre of trade noted for its wealth and commerce. A port city, merchants sailed from there to Suvarnabhumi. The location of Suvarnabhumi is a matter of debate. Some scholars identify it with Southern India, perhaps Sri Lanka, whereas others with Southeast Asia, near Java. The kingdom of Campa in present day Vietnam was traditionally thought to be descended from Campa, but anthropologists now believe that they came from Borneo.

The Brahman Sonadanda essentially owned the town, having been given it, a prosperous and populous place, by Bimbisara. One afternoon he went to the roof of his residence for a nap, only to see the streets filled with throngs of people, all going to see the Buddha. The Brahman tells his steward to ask the crowd to wait for Sonadanda. One wonders how exactly this was done, since it took Sonadanda some time to prepare to leave, probably several days. We know this because the rumour of his intention to visit the Buddha reached the ears of a group of Brahman visitors who had gathered in Campa to conduct some business, and they visited Sonadanda to confirm that he intended to visit the Buddha. Clearly at least a few days had passed. Perhaps the throng was not so numerous, or perhaps the steward declared an edict that no one should visit the Buddha before Sonadanda, or perhaps Sonadanda simply joined the crowd. It seems likely that he simply issued an edict, despite the courteous tone of the sutta. In any case, the traditionalist Brahmans thought Sonadanda was lowering himself by going to visit the Buddha, and they suggested that the Buddha should visit him instead, warning him that his reputation might be damaged by such a venture. More Brahman pride! Interestingly, in the list of positive qualities of Sonadanda that the Brahmans recite at great length, physical beauty is mentioned as one of the necessary attributes of a great man, indicative of his good karma. The text also states that Gotama has “newly gone forth as a wanderer” (italics added), suggesting that this sutta is relatively early. In addition, the Brahman Pokkharasati, who we encountered in the previous sutta as an older Brahman who converts to become a lay follower of the Buddha, is a friend of Sonadanda. Sonadanda retorts that since Bimbisara and Pokkharasati honour the Buddha, as well as King Pasenadi of Kosala, and the rule of hospitality obliges him, he will visit the Buddha, citing in rebuttal all of the Buddha’s good qualities, and finally declaring that the Buddha is “beyond all praise.” Clearly, Sonadanda is one with Bimbisara and Pokkharasati where the Buddha is concerned.

Sonadanda’s list of the good qualities of the Buddha includes the interesting statement that “the ascetic Gotama, while youthful, a black-haired youth, in the prime of his young days, in the first stage of life went forth from the household life into homelessness” (italics added). This reference to “the first stage of life” alludes to the Vedic theory of four life stages, the first of which is the “student” stage. According to one explanation, the student stage of life is a twelve-year initiatory cycle that begins at adolescence, any time between 8 and 12, and therefore ends between 20 and 24 years of age. According to a modern explanation, the age of 96 is divided into four equal periods of 24 years (or 100 and 25 years respectively). Thus, the first stage of life ends between 19 and 25. The original theory appears to be the basis on which Nichiren states that the Buddha left home at the age of 19, whereas the prevalent view is that the Buddha left home at the age of 29. However, the Buddha only requires that a monastic be at least 20 to be considered for ordination, thus himself appearing to favour 19 or 20 as the end of the first stage of life. According to this Northern Buddhist view, the Buddha attained enlightenment after eleven years, at the age of 30, and taught for fifty years. An eleven-year interval seems to fit the events between the renunciation and the enlightenment better too.[1]

However, the householder stage begins with marriage. Since the Buddha had already married at 16, he was technically also a householder, and was certainly in the second stage of life at the age of 29! The Buddhacarita, a non-canonical first century CE biography of the Buddha that draws on traditional sources, implies that Rahula was at least a few years old when the Buddha left home (not a newborn, as the conventional story says), which seems more consistent with a younger than an earlier age, based simply on the facts of nature. The Buddhacarita also implies that Gotama renounced during “the first stage of life” (5:40). This passage says that Gotama left “his grieving parents with tear-stained faces,” which is supported by the Buddhacarita and which I have argued elsewhere makes more sense than the stock story.

Another interesting detail that might be easily overlooked is the reference to the Buddha being a teacher of gods (devas) and men. We have already encountered this detail in the stock description of a Tathagata in sutta 1. Sonadanda says that “many thousands of devas have taken refuge with him.” The first thing that strikes one about this statement is the reference to “thousands.” Buddhist cosmology involves enormous numbers, such as one followed by 140 zeroes, yet the sutta refers to “many,” implying that the number is large. The deva worlds and their inhabitants are both vast and long-lived, and the Pali Canon has a clear tendency to exaggerate, yet mere “thousands” have taken refuge in the Buddha? This seems to be a small number, which suggests (1) the dharma is not popular in the deva worlds, (2) the original conception of the deva worlds was more limited than the later texts suggest, or (3) this is a very early sutta and the dharma had not yet penetrated very far, yet I prefer the third because it builds on what we already know about this sutta. One could put forward reasonable arguments for all three views. As I have discussed before, “gods” is a very poor translation of devas. “Shining” or “luminous beings” would be the literally correct translation. These are real, advanced spiritual beings with greater knowledge, beauty, longevity, and power than human beings have, and who occupy higher dimensions of reality than humanity, but the lower orders of devas take an interest in humanity and interact with them, especially with superior men like the Buddha. We will have occasion to refer to the devas throughout this series of talks, including a race of devas who invisibly coexist with men.

Sonadanda also says that “whenever he stays in any town or village, that place is not troubled by non-human beings.” This interesting attribute implies that the Buddha has a spiritual power about him, a charisma or “numen” perhaps similar in quality to the power of truth, that repels negative spiritual beings and forces, referring presumably to asuras, ghosts, and demons, as well as the social fact of the experience of such trouble, similar to the possessing demons that Yeshua encountered and that Laozi describes. This kind of psychosomatic (or “psychoid”) trouble appears to be a common feature of ancient humanity, and even today we frequently see people possessed by a wide variety of “bad spirits.” Possessing such a quality of course implies a belief in the existence of such a quality. We are beginning to see in these and other similar references the root axioms of Tantra.

The Buddha is also “consulted by the chiefs of the various leaders of sects,” emphasizing his universality and the non-exclusive, non-sectarian character of his dharma. Apparently convinced, the Brahmans agree to go with Sonadanda to the lotus pool.

As Sonadanda approaches and sits beside the Buddha, he begins to get “cold feet,” thinking, “What if I screw up in talking with the Buddha? My reputation and therefore my income may be negatively affected.” The conspiracy theorist in me would like to see the repetitive reference to “reputation,” originally put in Sonadanda’s mind by a group of Brahman businessmen who are visiting the city, as a planned attempt to discredit the Buddha based on the threat that they might not do further business there. It is certainly true that the Buddha was not popular everywhere, and there was at least one plot against his life.

RishiThe Buddha, sensing his anxiety, asks Sonadanda a question: “What is a Brahman?” Sonadanda breathes a sign of relief. An easy question! Sonadanda answers by giving the five qualities of a Brahman: according to the Vedic religion:

  1. Racial caste purity documented to seven generations;
  2. Knowledge of the mantras;
  3. Appearance;
  4. Virtue;
  5. Wisdom.

Then the Buddha asked Sonadanda, “Could any of these qualities be left out and one still be considered to be a Brahman?” Sonadanda admitted that appearance was relatively unimportant and might be ignored. Then the Buddha pressed Sonadanda. Could anything else be left out? Sonadanda conceded that mantras could be left out, for after appearance they were relatively unimportant (a surprisingly statement for a Brahman to make). The Buddha pressed further, and Sonadanda stated that birth could be left out, for what is birth compared to virtue? Wisdom and virtue are the two mutually irreducible qualities of a Brahman. Thus, Sonadanda says, “wisdom is purified by morality, and morality by wisdom.” This combination he identifies with the highest good, and the Buddha concurs.

In this text, wisdom consists of the jhanas, the insights (body-consciousness, mental body, psychic powers, past lives, and the law of karma, which together make up the divine eye), and the cesssation of the corruptions (asavas, consisting of sensuality, clinging to rebirth, wrong view, and ignorance).  Virtue consists of not taking life, not taking what is not given, not committing adultery (wrongful sex), not telling lies, and not drinking strong drink.

Ultimate concepts in the Buddhist system are often expressed in terms of codetermining dyads. Here we see wisdom and morality as the two mutually purifying aspects of the highest good. In the chain of cause and effect (paticcasamuppada, nidana) the namarupa conjoins the opposites of mind and matter, within which the mutually irreducible codetermination of samskara and vijnana is concealed. In the system of samsara, samsara itself is divided between nirvana and samsara, the formless and form worlds, and the world of neither perception nor non-perception. Samsara itself exists in relation to reality. Similarly, karma itself conceals a dyad of cause and effect within it, simultaneously dual, singular, and empty, depending on the point of view. The knowledge of a Buddha is “superknowledge,” i.e., knowledge that is beyond merely rational knowing, which is constrained by objectification and duality. Superknowledge is non-separate and non-dual or trans-dual mind. It is logical and intuitive, analytic and synthetic, experiential and objective, metaphysical and natural.

Thus, the highest good is resolved into a supreme dyad, as in the twelvefold chain of cause and effect, matter and consciousness. They are also the name that the Buddha gave at the end of his life to his philosophy, the dharma-vinaya (not “Buddhism”). Note the sequence. Wisdom takes precedence over virtue, because it is from wisdom that virtue follows, as the te follows from the tao, as ethics follows from metaphysics. As we shall see throughout the Pali Canon, wisdom is usually the essential salvific principle, despite the presence of an alternate interpretation of the dharma that emphasizes renunciation and appears to have competed with the wisdom interpretation to some extent. We will discuss this further when we encounter a relevant passage.

The other Brahmans vociferously declared that appearance, mantras, and birth should not be disregarded, finally revealing their true faces. Sonadanda defends the Buddha’s view, stating that appearance, mantras, and birth count as nothing if wisdom and virtue are not, yet he also states that he does not “decry appearance, mantras, or birth,” i.e., he does not deny their karmic significance.

Sonadanda takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but his vacillating character returns, and he frets over what others will think of him in the context of his social position. He worries again about reputation and income. The Buddha gives him a dharma talk, and he goes away converted, but without any of the realizations that are described in other suttas.


When we first encounter Sonadanda, he strikes us as a progressive, urbane Brahman who is strongly favourably predisposed towards the Buddha, although he is not a Buddhist. Clearly, the Buddha was popular with high-ranking Brahmans, but Brahmans that are more traditional also opposed him and he was not welcome everywhere or admired by everyone. Despite his initial hesitation, Sonadanda seems to be completely attuned with the Buddha’s worldview, accepting his arguments concerning appearance, mantras, and birth without hesitation, and defending him to the Brahmans. However, after converting to the Buddhadharma and taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the initial doubt sowed by the Brahmans in Sonadanda’s mind concerning his reputation and income – clearly important to Sinadanda – cause Sonadanda to vacillate. Nevertheless, the Buddha accepts him as a lay disciple and gives him a talk on dharma. However, there is no attainment of any deep transformative insight by Sonadanda, and he leaves the Buddha very much as he came. The translator refers to Sonadanda in a footnote as a puthujjana, the “many-folk” or average person that we discussed in connection with the first sutta of this series of talks.

VedaThe Buddha’s attitude towards the Brahmans is interesting. He appears to distinguish between an outer religion, associated with rites, rituals, and beliefs, and an inner religion, which flourished long ago but is now forgotten, which is identical with the essential principles of the outer but opposed to its superficiality. Sonadanda says of him, “he teaches action and the results of action, honouring the blameless Brahmin way of life.” Thus, he declares that the law of karma is the essence of the Buddha’s religion. The Buddha called this inner religion the wisdom and the discipline (dharma-vinaya), not, note, the vinaya-dharma. Wisdom comes first. As Sonadanda says, “a Brahmin is virtuous, because he is wise.” As we shall see in our journey through the Digha Nikaya, wisdom is repeatedly emphasized throughout the Pali Canon as the essential salvific principle. Another school of thought can also be discerned in the texts in which renunciation, dispassion, and monastic obedience trump wisdom, but this view seems to be a reaction to the first and therefore original view. This dyad of wisdom and virtue continued to divide the Buddhasangha for many centuries, until it finally split into the Hinayana and the Mahayana that we see today, though not without the promise of an ekayana.


  1. According to the suttas, the Buddha studied meditation under Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, mastering each system, one after the other; meditated alone in the forest, mastering fear; and practised asceticism for six years, starving himself to the threshold of dying. He then gave up asceticism, nurtured himself back to health, and practised the meditation that he spontaneously discovered as a child under the Bodhi tree, and at some point attained awakening. It seems impossible to cram all of these experiences into six years, whereas eleven years seems exactly right. The four stages of life are also described in terms of four equal divisions of the lifespan. Interestingly, 30 x 4 = 120, the Vedic lifespan that also refers to the genetically programmed human lifespan.


“Advancing through Life’s Four Stages.” Nov. 27, 2012.

“Ashrama (Stage).” Sept. 17, 2014.

“Basic Introduction to Nichiren Soshu Buddhism.” Nov. 17, 2014.