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.