Talk presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, November 15, 2014.
Ambattha the Brahman
(Digha Nikaya 3)
This sutta takes place at Icchanankala, in Kosala, a monarchy. Northwest of Magadha, Kosala corresponds to modern Awadh in Uttar Pradesh in northeast India. Kosala was a great power, but had been weakened by a series of wars with Magadha, which annexed Kosala in the fourth century BCE, after the Buddha’s death circa 400 BCE. Kosala dominated and eventually destroyed the Buddha’s home country of Shakya, for which reason the Buddha is sometimes referred to as a Kosalan. King Pasenadi of Kosala was a lay follower of the Buddha who built many monasteries. He was eventually overthrown by a palace coup and died of exposure outside the capital city of Magadha while trying to get help from his powerful neighbour.
Icchanankala was a sacred centre of the Brahmans, who gathered here twice a year to recite the Vedas and discuss their interpretations of the meanings of the scriptures. Icchanankala was near Ukkattha, the domain of the Brahman Pokkharasati, to whom the king had made a gift of the town. This kind of political structure is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon and was clearly common at the time.
The Buddha was living in the dense woods outside Icchanankala, a rich agricultural area, when Pokkharasati heard of him, so Pokkharasati sent his pupil, Ambattha, to test the Buddha. Ambattha was a young student of the Vedas, who knew the mantras, expounded the rules, rituals, lore of sounds and meanings, oral tradition, philosophy, and physiognomy, and was regarded by his teacher as fully accomplished. The test was to consist in an evaluation of the marks of a great man.
One of the more curious traditions of India, fully accepted and recited throughout the Pali Canon, is that of the marks of a great or superior man. These are quite literally bodily marks that can be observed and were observed on the body of Gotama when he was born. Thus, they are irrespective of age. As Pokkharasati says, a man with the marks is destined to become either a “wheel turning righteous monarch of the law,” if he remains a householder, or, if he renounces the household life, he will become a fully enlightened Buddha “who draws back the veil from the world.”
In fact, there are thirty-two major marks and eighty minor marks of the great man. Interestingly, in Buddhism, 32 is also the number of parts of the body. In Cabala, it is the number of the “paths of wisdom,” which together describe the structure of reality, both macrocosmic and microcosmic. In Mahayana tradition, these characteristics describe the Buddha’s subtle energy body, the samboghakaya, not the physical form or nirmanakaya. Nevertheless, although much is often made of the incongruity of the signs with physical facts, most of them are not hard to visualize, with a little imagination. The thirty-two major marks (mahapursha lakshana) include flat feet; long, slender fingers; pliant hands and feet; finely webbed toes and fingers (extreme forms of this are a recognized medical disorder called syndactyly, but there is no need to suppose that the Buddha’s hands and feet were actually malformed since the Buddha is generally described as handsome); full-sized heels with arched insteps; thighs like a royal stag (perhaps strong yet shapely?); long arms; a small member; dark, curly hair; a clear, golden hued complexion; soft, smooth skin; rounded soles, palms, shoulders, and crown of the head; a leonine torso (full chested and muscular?); upright and erect; full, round shoulders; white, even, closely spaced teeth; leonine jaw (square and prominent?); ample saliva; long and broad tongue; deep and resonant voice; dark brown or deep blue eyes; long eyelashes; a tuft of white or grey hair between the eyebrows; and a topknot or other protuberance at the top of the head.
A few of the marks cannot be explained naturalistically. These include the sign of a thousand spoked wheel on the feet, ten-foot aura and forty teeth.
This is nothing other than a list of the ideal qualities of a male based on the best possible karma according to the Indian aesthetics of the Buddha’s time. In other words, the Buddha’s body conformed to the contemporary Indian standard of male perfection. The eighty minor marks give additional details concerning the hands, feet, walk, torso, skin, body, strength, head, hair, breath, etc. in much the same vein. The law of karma dictates of course that the being ready to be reborn (gandhabba) take a body with the characteristics corresponding to their karma. Today we would say he or she has “good genes.” Thus, Buddhism supports the notion that some people are better born than others, but this is less impressive than it sounds when one realizes that everyone is a stew of good and bad karma. In fact, a good birth might exhaust one’s good karma and thus expose one to the risk of a bad rebirth if something is not done in the current life. However, we are essentially free in terms of our intentionality, and it is intentionality that generates new karma. Therefore, the fact of a good rebirth is less karmically significant than one might otherwise be inclined to think, certainly far less significant than in Hinduism, where caste is life-long and the differences between the castes are strongly emphasized. The Buddha, on the other hand, admitted all Indian castes to the sangha and recognized all human beings as a single species.
Therefore, Ambattha, with all the pride and arrogance of youth, went to look at the Buddha. We are told that Ambattha travelled by carriage with an entourage of young men [sic], then dismounted and had to walk into the dense jungle where the Buddha was living.
Arriving at the clearing, Ambattha finds a number of monks walking up and down in the open air, probably practising the Buddhist walking meditation.
If you have time, compare the Taoist variation of the same fundamental practice or exercise.
The monastics, thinking that the Buddha might enjoy conversing with “such a young man,” direct him to the Buddha’s hut, the door of which is closed and bolted. From the description, I infer that it is early afternoon, and the Buddha is taking his customary nap, lying on his right side, as was his wont. Therefore, Ambattha is instructed to go quietly to the door, cough, and knock on the bolt, which he does. The Buddha answers the door, and Ambattha enters along with his retinue of young men.
Ambattha’s friends sit down politely, but Ambattha paces up and down before the Buddha, who is seated, and utters some conventional words of politeness without sincerity. The Buddha is not impressed, and rebukes him with the words, “Well now, Ambattha, would you behave like this if you were talking to venerable and learned Brahmins, teachers of teachers, as you do with me, walking and standing as I am sitting, and uttering vague words of politeness?” Not one to be rebuked, Ambattha, replies, “No, Reverend Gotama. A Brahmin should … sit with a sitting Brahmin …. But as for those shaven little ascetics, menials, black scourings from Brahma’s foot, with them it is fitting to speak just as I do with the Reverend Gotama.” We can see that the Buddha was not popular with everyone! (Ambattha is alluding to the Buddha’s and other Shakyans’ status as mixed race non-Aryans, Shakya being outside the Vedic system.) However, the Buddha does not take the bait. Rather, he says, “Ambattha, you came here seeking something. Whatever it was you came for, you should listen attentively to hear about it. Ambattha, you have not perfected your training. Your conceit of being trained is due to nothing but inexperience.” The Buddha’s comment infuriated Ambattha, who “loses it” and hurls curses and insults at the Buddha. Ambattha’s interest in physiognomy seems to be related to racialism, for next, he attacks the Shakyans, the Buddha’s clan, as fierce, rough spoken, touchy, violent, and menial, and he complains that they do not respect Brahmans. This last comment is a reference to the fact that the caste system had not taken root in Shakya, which had not assimilated Western Brahmanic superiority.
The Buddha recognizes that the Shakyans had done something to offend Ambattha, so he asks him what that might have been. Apparently, while on a trip to Kapilavastu on some business for his teacher, Pokkharasati, he went to the meeting hall of the Shakyans and, rather than honouring him and offering him a seat as he expected, it seemed to Ambattha that they were laughing at him and making light of him, and he was offended and so acquired the grudge that Shakyans do not honour Brahmans, which may also be rooted in an historical fact. The Buddha suggests to Ambattha that he is overreacting and that the Shakyans can do what they want in their own meeting hall! Ambattha reminds the Buddha that the Brahmans are the innately superior caste, a fact not established in Shakya. Clearly, this is the crux of the issue, so the Buddha decides to turn the tables by asking after Ambattha’s own family lineage, which (he tells the Buddha) is Kanhayan.
The Buddha points out that the Kanhayan were subject to the Shakyans in times past and that Ambattha is descended from King Okkaka, as are the Shakyans, but through a slave girl named Disa, who had a black child, named Kanha (‘black’), by the king. Hence the name of his family. The name of the Shakyans, on the other hand, means, strong as teak (saka). The Shakyans descended from the four elder legitimate sons of King Okkaka, who intermarried with their own sisters to maintain the blood purity of the Shakyan line. In this way, the Buddha shows Ambattha that his birth is inferior to the Buddha’s, based on Ambattha’s own line of thinking. This is an excellent example of how the Buddha used common ground as a basis for communicating with his audience. At this stage, Ambattha’s friends erupt in anger, entreating the Buddha to honour Ambattha as his equal for he is well born. However, the Buddha tells the young men to allow Ambattha to speak if he is superior or, if he is inferior, as the Buddha has suggested, then they can speak on his behalf, the implication clearly being that because they spoke, Ambattha is in fact inferior. Intimidated, the young men shut up. When pressured by the Buddha, Ambattha acknowledges that Dasi, the king’s slave, was in fact the ancestor of the Kanhayans, at which his friends exclaim in shock that he is ill born.
Mission accomplished, the Buddha now defends Ambattha to his friends, pointing out that Kanha became a great and powerful rishi in the south, where he learned the mantras. Asking King Okakka for the hand of his daughter, Maddarupi, the king is outraged by the request, which he considers impertinent. Therefore, Kanha, now revealed as a powerful sorcerer (similar to the story of Milarepa), curses the land, and the king relents, allowing him to marry his daughter. This story also proves, incidentally, that any such theories of race superiority are completely alien to the Buddha’s thinking, who clearly uses these arguments to ambush Ambattha, not because he believes in them. This is an important point to recognize, because of the abuse of Buddhist ideas by right-wing followers of people like Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, Savitri Devi, Adolf Hitler, and others, who are more allied with Hindu caste theories than with Buddhism, despite their appropriation of the swastika, which is a Buddhist as well as a Hindu symbol.
The Buddha bore on, asking Ambattha what the caste of the son of Brahman and Kshatriya (Pali khattiiya) parents would be. Ambattha recognized that they would both be accepted as Brahmans, but not Kshatriyas, because of the mixed marriage. Thus, the Kshatriyas follow a stricter rule than the Brahmans, hinted at before in connection with the Shakyans, who intermarried with their sisters to preserve the purity of their bloodline. Similarly, a disgraced Brahman would be expelled from his caste, but the Brahmans would honour a disgraced Kshatriya. Either these strange rules originate in the laws of Manu, or they may be a Buddhist parody of the latter.
Finally, the Buddha finishes off by quoting the Brahma Sanankumara (Skt. Sanat Kumara) (“eternal youth”), who appears in the Janavasabha Sutta as an advocate for the Buddha: “The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan; / He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.” The Buddha declares that this is his view also. Sanat Kumara is one of the Four Kumaras, four sages or rishis who wander the universe together as divine children. They are the first mind-born creations and sons of Brahma. Contrary to Brahma’s wishes, they are celibate (brahmacharya) teachers. They are also listed amongst twelve great devotees (mahajanas) of bhakti, and are associated with Krishna and sometimes with Shiva. Sanat Kumara, along with his three brothers, named Sanaka, Sanatana, and Sanandana, is also mentioned in the Mahabharata as one of the seven sages (rishis), the transmitters of the Veda. The Sanatkumara Samhita is attributed to him. He is also a yoga preceptor and an advocate of the religion of inward contemplation (nivritti), referred to in the Bhagavadgita. In addition to advocating Buddhism, he is associated with Sankhya philosophy. Interestingly in this context, the Mahabharata represents Sanat Kumara as proposing a classification of beings from lowest to highest based on their colour, from black, brown, to red, yellow, and white. A living entity proceeds through the colours in his journey in order from black to white, whereupon he achieves liberation. One wonders if the Buddha’s reply to Ambattha is partly a parody of Sanat Kumara.
Having annihilated Ambattha’s arguments, Ambattha appears to be finally chastened and simply asks what is the knowledge and conduct that makes one best in the spiritual realm. This is the turning point in the conversation. The Buddha says that knowledge and conduct is attained by the abandonment of all notions of racial and class superiority and inferiority. Rather, it is identical with the dharma of a Tathagata. Referring to this dharma as the “unexcelled attainment,” the Buddha observes that there are four ways that one can fail to achieve it, depending on how one’s food is got: by windfalls, by digging tubers and roots, by tending the flame of a fire hearth at the edge of a village, and finally by building a guest house for those who have attained at a crossroads. The implication seems to be that a true spiritual aspirant does not gather food for himself, not even windfalls, referring presumably to the Buddhist practice of alms. The Buddha declares that since neither Pokkharasati nor Ambattha do this, they are incapable of attaining the unexcelled knowledge and conduct and that their claims to superiority are belied. The Buddha denigrates Pokkharasati and Ambattha as mere memorizers of sacred texts, “yet you do not thereby become a sage or one practised in the way of a sage – such a thing is not possible.” The implication is that the Tathagata’s knowledge and conduct do meet this criterion, and that therefore the Buddha’s dharma, which elsewhere he declares to be archaic and long forgotten, is identical with the way of the Vedic rishis. He then asks Ambattha whether those ancient sages were addicted to the pleasures of the five senses, eating fine foods, amusing themselves with women, riding about in chariots, or guarded by soldiers in cities, like themselves. Therefore, the Buddha concludes, neither Ambattha nor his teacher are sages nor trained in the ways of sages. They are charlatans, and as such not entitled to the veneration that they demand.
At this point, the Buddha gets up, goes outside and begins to walk up and down himself so that Ambattha, following, could examine his body for the marks of a great man, which, you will recall, was his original purpose. All of these were visible to Ambattha except two: the small penis and the large tongue. The Buddha obliges him by showing these to him as well. At this point, Ambattha, mission accomplished, withdraws.
Ambattha returns to the town and reports to Pokkharasati, who was waiting for him in a park with a group of brahmans, that the Buddha has all of the signs of a great man. Then he told his teacher the whole story, at Pokkarasati’s request. Pokkarasati is incensed that Ambattha had been so rude to the Buddha, and is so angry that he kicks Ambattha, knocks him down, and makes to go to see the Buddha himself, but the Brahmans note that it is too late to go to see the Buddha that day, and advise him to go the next day. Instead, Pokkharasati goes home, directs that a meal be prepared, and then leaves for where the Buddha is, assisted by the light of torches, first by chariot, and then by foot.
Pokkharasati goes to the Buddha and asks him about the conversation he had with Ambattha, so the Buddha tells him. Pokkharasati asks the Buddha to excuse the rudeness of his young and foolish student, which the Buddha does. Confirming the fact of the marks of a great man for himself, Pokkarasati invites the Buddha to come to his home for his morning meal. By this time, the text implies, it is well after midnight, so the Buddha takes his robe and bowl and the entire order travels back to Pokkharasati’s house for the morning meal. Since there is no suggestion of sleeping, it seems that Pokkharasati and the Buddha spent the early morning hours talking together.
After eating their fill, the Buddha gives a graduated discourse followed by a sermon on the dharma in brief. There are, therefore, three types of talk: graduated, brief, and extended. The graduated discourse is intended as a lead in to a dharma talk proper, which is given when the hearer is ready, indicated by pliancy of mind, freedom from the hindrances, joy, and calm. Graduated talks concern general matters pertaining more to the householder than to the monastic life, including the virtue of generosity, morality, heaven, sense desires, and the value of renunciation – matters that we might call “religious.” The subject matter of the dharma talk in brief and the extended dharma talk is, as Peter Masefield points out, indistinguishable except for length and perhaps occasion. The dharma talk in brief often preceded a hearer’s going forth, sometimes accompanied by the hearer’s spontaneous awakening. In this sutta, the dharma talk in brief corresponds to a sermon on the Four Noble Truths, but it can be about any topic. As the Buddha speaks, the dharma eye (equivalent to stream entry) spontaneously arises in Pokkharasati, accompanied by the realization that all samsaric things are impermanent (anicca). Pokkharasati converts on the spot, and becomes a lay follower of the Buddha.
1. “They are in part adaptations to a man of poetical epithets applied to the sun, or to the personification of the mystic human sacrifice; partly characteristics of personal beauty such as any man might have; and one or two of them – the little wart, for instance, between the eyes with white hair on it, and the protuberance at the top of the head – may possibly be added in reminiscence of personal bodily peculiarities which Gotama actually had.” T.W. Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1899), http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/dob/dob-03tx.htm.
2. It is also half the number of codons in the genetic code, which is similar among all organisms and can be expressed in a simple table of sixty-four cells.
3. This passage supports other passages and suttas that imply that the Buddha believed in the power of truth and the efficacy of mantras. Mantrayana (Vajrayana or Tantra) subsequently developed based on these premises.
4. “Hofrath Bühler has pointed out that in the Mahâbhârata III, 185 (Bombay edition) there is an interesting passage where Sanat-kumâra (the Sanskrit form of the name Sanam-kumâra) is actually represented by the Brahmans themselves as having uttered, as referee in a dispute on a point similar to the one here discussed, not indeed the actual words here imputed to him, but others of a very similar import. See the whole article in the J. R. A. S., 1897, pp. 585-588. “ Op. cit.
5. A blue or “sky” race race is also referred to.
Levman, Bryan. “Cultural Remnants of Indigenous Peoples in the Buddhist Scriptures.” Buddhist Studies Review, 30(2) (January 2014), 145-80. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276914202_Cultural_Remnants_of_the_Indigenous_Peoples_in_the_Buddhist_Scriptures.