Sonadanda Sutta (DN 4)

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

Sonadanda the Brahman

Digha Nikaya 4

Bimbisara
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.

Summary

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.

Note

  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.

References

“Advancing through Life’s Four Stages.” Nov. 27, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4mnAFwODOs.

“Ashrama (Stage).” Sept. 17, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashrama_(stage).

“Basic Introduction to Nichiren Soshu Buddhism.” Nov. 17, 2014. http://www.nstmyosenji.org/introduction-to-nichiren-shoshu-buddhism.

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