Monthly Archives: December 2014

Potthapada Sutta (DN 9)

Talk presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, December 20, 2014

Potthapada the Wanderer

Digha NIkaya 9

At the time of the Buddha, Savatthi was one of the six largest cities of India. It was the capital of Kosala, ruled by King Pasenadi, a disciple of the Buddha. According to Buddhaghosa, the city had a population of almost 60,000 families, at a time when families were quite large. Even today, this would be a medium-sized city. It seems the Buddha spent slightly more than half of his time here. Anthapindika was the chief lay disciple of the Buddha. Extremely wealthy, he gave Jeta Park (or Grove) to the sangha. Queen Mallika was the wife of King Pasenadi. The tinduka tree must have been a popular meeting spot. The tinduka is also called the Gaub tree, Malabar ebony, black and white ebony, or pale moon ebony. Tinduka trees grew to 35 meters in height with a large black trunk, and a yellow, astringent fruit.  Impervious to insects, it had medicinal and other uses.

Often in the Pali Canon we read that the Buddha rose early, sometimes he is found to be awake in the early morning hours as well. Whether this was due to insomnia or awakening, we cannot say. In any case, it was too early to go to Savatthi for alms, so the Buddha stopped at the debating hall of Queen Mallika, which was presumably on the way. There Potthapada, a wandering religious mendicant or recluse (paribbajaka), was sitting with a crowd of wanderers, engaged in loud and boisterous talk. You will recall from a previous sutta than a wanderer or a paribbajaka was essentially a philosopher. When Potthapada saw the Buddha approaching, he shushed the wanderers out of respect for the Buddha. Pottahapada welcomes him as though he had hoped that he would see or meet him for a long time. It is not clear whether Pottahapada and Gotama know each other, but the Buddha must at least have known of Pottahapada, barring psychic powers, since the sutta says that the Buddha went to Jeta’s Gove with the intention of seeing Potthapada, and it may be that they were friends.

The Buddha asks Pottapada what he and the other wanderers were talking about. Instead, Potthapada wants to find out what the Buddha thinks of a hot topic of conversation among the ascetics and Brahmans, viz., the “higher extinction of consciousness” in the translation of Maurice Walshe. The word is abhisannanirodha. This is a Pali compound made up of abhi + sanna + nirodha. The concept is not necessarily Buddhist, but was used by certain wanderers. However, the Buddha seems to make the term ‘his own’  in his explanation of it. Abhi means ‘over,’ in the sense of ‘overcoming,’ ‘overlord,’ etc.; sanna is the cognitive perception of the senses that constitutes consciousness as it is experienced; nirodha is the annihilation that is the absolute and final form of freedom.  “Trans-sensory liberation” is something the Buddha might have had an opinion on.

The conversation turns on how this takes place. According to one view, “perceptions” arise and cease without cause or condition. Consciousness is just this arising of perceptions, unconsciousness (or “non-percipience,” according to Access to Insight) is the non-arising of perceptions. Therefore, abhisannanirodha is just random chance. This sounds like modern speculations about the origin of life. This is the first view put forward, which happens to be the view of Western secular materialism today. It is all just random. How little we have changed in 2,500 years!

According to another view, what I am calling “cognitive sensory perception” is itself the self. As the self comes and goes, so does cognitive sensory perception. Therefore, for example, during sleep the self leaves the body. Another theory is that consciousness is drawn in and out of the body by powerful ascetics, Brahmans, or devas. This last description sounds like shamanism, where shamans and spirits can wield powerful effects over the consciousness of man.

The Buddha categorically denies that perceptions arise without causes or conditions. Thus, the Buddha asserts the absoluteness of the law of karma, as in a previous sutta. This should tip one off immediately that karma is part of dharma, which, being coterminous with reality, is the only permanent “thing.”

However, and therefore, perceptions are amenable to training. Today we would call this “neuroplasticity.” This training consists of Morality followed by Meditation. In this classification, there are two divisions. Meditation consists of the eight jhanas. The word jhana is another of those words that defies translation. Etymologically, its English cognate is ‘gnosis’ or ‘knowledge.’ Jhana is the Pali of Sanskrit dhyana, meaning ‘attention,’ which became the penultimate trance prior to samadhi in Patanjali’s yoga. Jhana is therefore a kind of concentrated trance state in an ascending hierarchy of seven or eight modes, for there is no doubt that it is the same jhana throughout. Only the numbers and the names of the deva worlds to which they correspond indicate the separate jhanas. These modes are not “merely” psychological in the modern sense. They are also ontological, so the attainment of a mode is essentially the attainment of rebirth in the world corresponding to that mode. Thus, there is a correspondence of modes and worlds.

Jhanas

Deva Worlds (simplified) Properties

The Formless Realm

7 Sphere of No-thing Transcends dimension of infinite consciousness
6 Sphere of Infinite Consciousness Transcends dimension of infinite space
5 Sphere of Infinite Space Transcends perceptions of physical form, perceptions of resistance disappear, perceptions of diversity not heeded, perceives infinite space

The Form Realm

4 Five Pure Abodes of the Arhants Abandons pleasure and pain
3 Glorious Devas Rapture fades, equanimous, mindful, alert, senses pleasure with body
2 Radiant Devas Stills directed thoughts and evaluations
1 Brahma Worlds

Withdraws from sensual pleasures and unskilful mental qualities

Perhaps the seven or eight jhanas were the basis of Buddhist cosmology, which was subsequently elaborated into the 31 planes of existence. The essential faculty present in this aspiration is sakasanni hoti, which Walshe translates as “controlled perception.” In Pali, this is our familiar sanna, cognitive sense perception, qualified by saka, ‘own, proper, self,’ and followed by hoti, ‘being, becoming’ – perhaps the nature of the self’s self-sense, reflexivity. This is the seed that develops through stages into the “limit of perception.” At this stage one transcends thinking altogether, the coarse perceptions cease and one achieves the complete annihilation of consciousness.

The Buddha’s answer shows intimate acquaintance with the meditation asked about. It also describes the process of meditation itself; despite the fact that the Buddha rejected his first two teachers, he continues to teach their methods to some extent. Thus, sakasannihoti is beyond the seventh jhana, the highest “perception attainment,” which begs the question of its relationship to the eight jhana, which is not included in this description.

Potthapada repeats the gist of the Buddha’s comments on abhisannanirodha: “from the moment when a monk has gained this controlled perception, he proceeds from stage to stage until he reaches the limit of perception. He attains cessation, and that is the way in which the cessation of perception is brought about by successive steps.” Thus, the cultivation of sakasanni hoti (controlled perception) is the essential task of meditation. This cultivation is moreover a continuous and progressive process, a.k.a. the Gradual Path. Literally ‘becomes own-perceiving,’ more properly, ‘own-cognitive sensory perception becoming,’ Walshe interprets this as implying increasing control, as in Concentration. Moreover, the essence of Concentration is Mindfulness. Thus, the reflexivity of consciousness dissolves the gross sensations in perception, which dissolves into consciousness itself and so disappears in the act of reflexive self-becoming. This is the whole process of Mindfulness.

Potthapada then asks the Buddha about “the summit of perception,”[1] presumably the same as the “limit of perception” and the goal of sakasanni hoti that automatically is transformed into its opposite, abhisannanirodha: Is it one or many? Does perception arise before knowledge? Is perception a person’s self? Is the world eternal? Is the soul the same as the body? Does the Tathagata exist after death?

The Buddha begins by answering Potthapada’s questions, which contradicts the common view that the Buddha has no ontology and always refuses to answer metaphysical questions. Rather, the Buddha posits metaphysical trans-dualism – a mental world characterized by infinite differentiation and non-differentiation, the latter the ineffable essence of sentience itself. This world is real. Hence, perception precedes knowledge, a fact that has been proved by neuroscience. Potthapada wants to know whether perception is the self, or is the self something else? The Buddha shows Potthapada that no matter how he thinks about the self – whether as the physical body, a mental (or “astral”) body, or formless – perceptions and the self have to be different. Perceptions change continuously, but the ‘i-dentity’ is permanent.

Potthapada then wants to verify this empirically. How can he know the non-perceptual self? The Buddha implies that one must know the dharma in order to know this. So far, the Buddha has been happy to answer all of Potthapada’s questions. Rather than penetrate the dharma, Potthapada shies away and begins to ask the Buddha unrelated speculative questions about cosmology, the soul, and the post-mortem state.

The Buddha’s attitude towards Potthapada changes. He tells Potthapada that he refuses to discuss these questions because they are not conducive to enlightenment. Potthapada had his chance when he was discussing the nature of the self with the Buddha – surely a metaphysical question! However, he blew it when he decided that the question was too difficult for him, meaning he was not willing to step outside the frame of reference of ‘his own’ sect as the Buddha was implicitly inviting him to do. Some think that the Buddha’s use of the tetralemma here implies that the questions are intrinsically meaningless, but the Buddha never says that, only that he has “not declared that.” Rather, he says, he has declared the Four Noble Truths. Of course, the Four Noble Truths are ontological statements too.

After the Buddha leaves, the wanderers mock Potthapada for kowtowing to the Buddha, protesting that they did not understand why he refused to answer Potthapada’s questions about cosmology, the soul, and the post-mortem state. Apparently, such questions were standard fare for other teachers. Potthapada agrees that neither does he understand the Buddha’s reticence, but that nonetheless his practice is sound so why should he not acknowledge that?

Two or three days later Potthapada went to visit the Buddha along with Citta, the son of an elephant trainer. Potthapada tells the Buddha what the wanderer’s said, to which the Buddha replies by calling them “blind and sightless.” The Buddha explains that questions about cosmology, the self, and the post-mortem status of a Tathagata are declared to be “uncertain” because they are not conducive to nirvana. On the other hand, the Four Noble Truths are truths that are conducive to nirvana. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes between “uncertain” or “undeclared” dharmas and dharmas that are conducive to nirvana. The Buddha compares his way to ascetics and Brahmans who speculate based on beliefs, the implication being that the Buddha’s way is directly experienced and empirical – a yoga, in effect.

I see this whole difference as less of a dogmatic refusal to discuss certain categories of philosophical questions as two different attitudes towards metaphysical knowledge, one ontological and speculative (identified here with the “Brahmanic”) and one phenomenological, in the sense of being grounded in the experiential immediacy of the object.

Potthapada has already alluded to three ways of thinking about the self – as a physical body, a mental body, or a formless self; now the Buddha recurs to this topic, confirming to Potthapada that there are three kinds of “acquired” self – gross, mind-made, and formless. The Pali for ”acquired self” in Walshe’s translation is atta-patilabha. Atta is of course “self, body, person, individuality; life, mind soul; in a non-Buddhist sense the paramātman or Universal Soul.” In other suttas, the Buddha famously denies the absoluteness of the atta. However, it also means self in the conventional sense, or ego-identity. Patilabha is “attainment, acquisition, obtaining,” perhaps – architectonic. The person, therefore, perhaps the “psyche,” is “built up” of three “levels” – the gross material body, composed of elements and dependent on food; the astral body that duplicates the form of the physical body as a kind of template of the latter (a.k.a. kinesthetic body); and formless perception, i.e., consciousness itself, in a sort of pyramidal structure.

Some people might be surprised to learn that the Pali Canon has explicit references to a “mind-made self” that is a perfect duplicate of the physical body. This seems to be the root of the Tantric concepts of multiple bodies and energy bodies. This mental body is a universal paradigm in almost all if not all human spiritualties, including Buddhism, and seems to have its origin in shamanism. The Pali Canon says that this body can be separated from the physical body in the fourth jhana, and that in this body one can travel anywhere, including other stars, planets, and worlds, and that this body has all the same senses as the physical body but without physicality. The “acquired self” is acquired in the sense that karma is acquired, and therefore has the connotation of ego or psyche rather than perfect or ideal self.  The “self” is not absolute, but is subject to continuous change in its essence. Therefore, it is malleable. It is the willing self of experience, unlike the vain ontological speculations of the Brahmans.

The Buddha teaches a doctrine for “getting rid of” (the Access to Insight translation has “abandoning”) the “gross acquired self,”  thus purifying the mind of defiling mental states. As a result the purity and perfection of wisdom arises spontaneously, wisdom beyond wisdom that Walshe translates as “super-knowledge” (abhinna).[2] The Buddha contrasts this dharma wisdom with the speculative sophistry of the Brahmans, and declares that it is a state of perfect happiness, in contrast to those who think of spiritual states as purely negative and without affect.

Similarly, the Buddha teaches a doctrine for “getting rid of” the mental body and the formless body too, as they are experienced. Thus, the Buddha says, “This is the gross acquired self … mind-made acquired self … formless acquired self for the getting rid of which we teach a doctrine.”  Thus, the Buddha implies, his dharma is entirely based on experience, on what is demonstrable and knowable, and therefore one can follow its methods with confidence, knowing that they are based on sound experiential principles and not theories.

Citta, the son of the elephant trainer, having heard this exchange, wants to know if the three bodies always coexist and if one is fundamental. The Buddha says that only one body is experienced at one time, just as only the ‘now’ is experienced, not the past or the future which nevertheless exist. The Buddha says that these terms – gross material acquired self, mind made acquired self, and formless acquired self – are merely labels, which the Tathagata uses without misconstruing their inherent emptiness.

This, Walshe notes, became the basis of the Buddhist doctrine of two truths, ultimate and conventional. This is of course also referred to in the famous first line of the Tao Te Ching, “the speech that is spoken with certainty is not always true. The name that is named with certainty is not always spoken” (author’s translation). In Walshe’s translation names are also called “expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata uses without misapprehending them.” Korzybski, the originator of General Semantics, expresses this in the aphorism, “the map is not the territory.” Language inherently distorts reality. Thus, the Buddhist project is to access the intuitively immediate pre-linquistic experiential consciousness. Because this consciousness is real, it is inherently ontologically valid.

Potthapada the wanderer becomes a lay follower of the Buddha. Does this mean he has renounced the wandering life and become a householder? Interestingly Citta, the son of the elephant trainer, who appears out of nowhere but is clearly metaphysically inclined, asks to join the sangha and is given the “going forth” and ordained by the Buddha. Citta goes into seclusion and, after a short time, attains arhantship.

Note

1. The Jhana Sutta describes the summit of perception as “the deathless element … This is peaceful, this is sublime [the summit],  that is, the stilling of all activities, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana” (Jhana Sutta, in Angutta Nikaya, 9.36).

2. The Pali word abhinna is composed of abhi, ‘over-‘ or ‘super-,’ plus jna in Sanskrit, ‘wisdom’ or ‘knowledge.’ The word is nearly a synonym for psychic powers, but might also refer more broadly to transcendent knowledge or realization, an association which, as I discussed in the last talk, Buddhism appears to have introduced to Indian civilization.

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Mahasihanada Sutta (DN 8)

The Speech of the Great Lion’s Roar

(Digha Nikaya 8)

Great Lion's RoarThe location of this sutta is the deer park of Kannakatthale in Ujunnaya. I have not been able to find any more information about Ujunnaya or Kannakatthale online. There are several Kassapas referred to in the Pali Canon, including the third Buddha of the current age (kappa) and Mahakassapa, the disciple foremost in asceticism, who convened the First Buddhist Council shortly after the Buddha’s passing on (parinibbana). However, this Kassapa is identified as a naked ascetic. Kassapa wants to know whether it is true as the wanderers of other sects have been saying that the Buddha disapproves of austerity and self-mortification, presumably because these are the practices to which Kassapa himself adheres.

These are the kinds of practices in which the Buddha himself engaged during the six years that he practised asceticism prior to his enlightenment, including urinating and defecating openly; licking the hands; not coming or standing still when requested; not accepting food in many circumstances, including from a pregnant or nursing woman or one living with a man; living on windfalls; vegetarianism; abstaining from alcohol; eating only once a day or less; wearing coarse hemp or mixed material, shrouds from corpses, rags, bark garments, antelope skins, grass, shavings, human hair blankets, horse hair, or owls’ wings; devoting oneself to the practice of plucking out the hair and beard; sleeping on thorns or alone in a garment of wet mud; living in the open air; accepting whatever seat is offered; living on filth; not drinking cold water; and bathing three times at the end of the day. These practices were common amongst ascetics in the Buddha’s time as they are in India today. There are various rationales for them, including breaking the bondage of attachment to the body by torturing the latter, and to society by breaking the rules of the latter, similar in fact to certain Tantric practices that grew out of them; perhaps paradoxically, not harming living beings; cultivating mental concentration and clarity; and self-purification.

Perhaps surprisingly, since we know that the Buddha did disapprove of these practices, the Buddha states that Kassapa’s sources are not telling the truth and are in fact slandering him with lies. Rather, the Buddha states that practitioners of such mortifications may be reborn in a good or a bad state. Similarly, those who do not practice such mortifications may also be reborn in a good or a bad state. Thus – the Buddha declares – since practitioners of self-mortification may be reborn in a good state, how can it be said that he disapproves of all such austerities? At least, this is the apparent implication of the Buddha’s somewhat obscure response to Kassapa’s question. However, as it turns out, the Buddha has his own definition of asceticism, so the Buddha’s response may be understood in that way also.

The Buddha then states that sometimes his views correspond to the views of other sages, sometimes they do not. He then describes in detail his pedagogical method of consensus, which I have mentioned in previous talks: “On approaching them I say, ‘In these things there is no agreement, let us leave them aside. In these things there is agreement: there let the wise take up, cross-question and criticize these matters with the teachers or with their followers, saying, ‘Of those things that are unskilful and reckoned as such, censurable, to be refrained from, unbefitting a Noble One, black, and reckoned as such – who is there who has completely abandoned such things and is free from them: the ascetic Gotama, or some other venerable teachers?” In other words, identify common ground, analyze it rationally, and apply that analysis critically. The word translated ‘unskilful’ is akusala, the negative of the Pali and Sanskrit word kusala, meaning, “clever, skilful, expert, good, right, meritorious,” referring especially to any thought, word, or action productive of good or positive karma. In conclusion, he asserts that there is a course of training that leads to direct knowledge of these things, viz., the Noble Eightfold Path, the eight stages of which we have summarized in a previous talk. “This is the path whereby one may know and see for oneself: ‘The ascetic Gotama speaks at the proper time, what is true, to the point’ – the Dhamma and the discipline.”

With respect to the specific practices that we have already itemized, the Buddha qualifies his previous statement that he does not disapprove of austerities and self-mortification by saying that a practitioner of self-mortification in whom three things are not developed or brought to realization is not an ascetic or a Brahman. These three things are:

• Morality;
• Heart;
• Wisdom.

Specifically, morality refers to non-enmity and non-ill will. “Heart” refers to loving kindness (metta).[1] And wisdom means abandoning the corruptions of sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. Thus, he “realizes and dwells in the uncorrupted deliverance of mind, the deliverance through wisdom, having realized it in this very life by his own insight; then, Kassapa, that monk is termed an ascetic and a Brahmin.”

This whole dialogue is another example of the Buddha’s pedagogical method, whereby he finds common ground, agrees with the questioner, and then “reframes” the question through critical analysis in order to arrive at a different and more profound conclusion.

Kassapa says that it is hard to be an ascetic and a Brahman. To this the Buddha replies that the list of mechanical practices to which we have alluded can be practised by anyone – even by a slave girl who draws water, thus gravely insulting Kassapa’s doctrine. But, the Buddha says, there is a completely different kind of asceticism that is truly hard, and that the monastic who practices this kind of asceticism is the true ascetic and the true Brahman. This asceticism is of course the practice of morality, heart, and wisdom just mentioned.

Kassapa replies that it is hard to understand an ascetic and a Brahman. Similarly, to his previous response, the Buddha says that these mechanical practices are easy to understand.

Rather obtusely, since the Buddha has just told him twice, Kassapa asks the Buddha to explain the development of morality, heart, and wisdom, so the Buddha reiterates the perfections of morality, heart, and wisdom already expounded in the previous suttas, asserting that there is nothing beyond this. These include the moral or ethical practices, guarding the sense doors, attaining the four jhanas, attaining the various insights, and finally the cessation of the corruptions just mentioned.

Finally, the Buddha declares that of all of the ascetics and Brahmans known to him he has achieved the highest morality, austerity, wisdom, and liberation. This declaration is the “lion roar” of the Buddha, which he qualifies according to ten criteria:

1. He teaches the wanderers of other sects, rather than retiring into seclusion;
2. He speaks confidently, not diffidently;
3. He allows himself to be questioned;
4. Being questioned, he gives answers;
5. His answers are convincing;
6. His answers are pleasing;
7. Those who hear him are satisfied with his teachings;
8. Those who hear him behave as though they were satisfied;
9. They believe him to be telling the truth;
10. They are satisfied with the practices.

Altogether, these ten criteria establish the truth or validity of the Buddha’s speech (Buddhavacana). Thus, “The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, in company and confidently, they question him and he answers, he wins them over with his answers, they find it pleasing and are satisfied with what they have heard, they behave as if they were satisfied, they are on the path of truth, and they are satisfied with the practice.” Of particular interest is the emphasis on questioning. Despite clear indications elsewhere that the dharma is also beyond reasoning, it is also clear that it can be rationally apprehended, discussed, and criticized. Here we see another indication of trans-dualism, in this case the simultaneous rationality and trans-rationality of the dharma. In fact, the entire Pali Canon turns on this characteristic, most if not all of the suttas revolving around a dialogue in which the Buddha is asked questions and he answers.

Kassapa is so impressed with the Buddha that he converts on the spot and seeks admission to the sangha, but the Buddha advises him that as a member of another sect he must wait four months, after which he may be ordained by “the monks who are established in mind.” However, the Buddha makes an exception because of Kassapa’s declaration that, let alone four months, he would gladly wait four years to receive the Buddha’s ordination. The Buddha ordains him immediately. Kassapa goes into seclusion and, after a short time, attains arhantship, a formula that we will see repeated throughout the suttas.

We will encounter the phrase “the lion’s roar” two more times in the Digha Nikaya, in Sutta 25, the Great Lion’s Roar to the Udumbarikans, and the Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel (Sutta 26).

Note

1. Interestingly, this list reflects the Threefold Division of the Noble Eightfold Path consisting of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom, except that Heart replaces Meditation (or Concentration). Although this order of the Threefold Division is popular amongst religious and fundamentalist Buddhists, who prefer to emphasize Virtue and regard Wisdom as something to be attained mainly through Meditation based on a foundation of Virtue (i.e, the monastic life), this is not how the Noble Eightfold Path is presented in the Pali Canon. Rather, the Threefold Division was invented by a female monastic, Dhammadinna (in the Culavedalla Sutta), who the Buddha declared to be the nun foremost in wisdom. These became the Three Higher Trainings that (the Buddha said) supersede the rules of the Vinaya. I believe that the Buddha adopted this formula in the middle of his teaching career. This implies that the order of the steps of the path was not the Buddha’s overriding concern. Nevertheless, the Noble Eightfold Path implies a sequence, whereas the Three Higher Trainings do not. Therefore, we should not ignore the order of the steps: Wisdom, Virtue, and Meditation. This implies that the experience of Gnosis is the foundation of Virtue, because one acts in accordance with what one knows, with Meditation as the culminating step. Thus, the first phase of the Mahayana, contemporary with the codification of the Pali Canon, was the Prajnaparamita. This presentation of the path corresponds exactly to the way the Buddha’s practice is presented in the Pali Canon, and has the effect of opening up the path up to householders. Although the Buddha described many different meditative and ethical practices, the primacy of Wisdom as the essential salvific principle pervades the Pali Canon like a refrain.  This becomes obvious when one reads the Canon in its entirety. Many lay people, when they heard the Buddha speak, became stream entrants (or “winners”) whereby they retired into seclusion to practice meditation. The act of hearing the Buddha speak was central. The Buddha said that depending on their karma it is possible to attain arhantship in five or seven days at the least. Thus, the function of meditation appears mainly as a secondary process of self-purification (renunciation), which can also be directed in specific ways and with specific intentions. Thus, it is also a generator of beneficial karma, analagous to merit but more subtle and therefore more powerful.

Mahali Sutta (DN 6)

Talk presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, November 6, 2014.

Mahali the Licchavi

Digha Nikaya 6

VesaliThe sixth sutta of the Digha Nikaya takes place at the Gabled Hall of the Great Forest in Vesali or Visala, at the same location as the present village of Basrah in Vaishali District, Bihar State. Vesali was the capital city of the Licchavi, the dominant ethnic group in the Vajjian (Vrijji) Confederacy, one of the mahajanapadas, and the birth place of Mahavira, the great Jain reformer who was contemporary with the Buddha. The Vajjians were located northeast of Magadha, and were a very early example of quasi-democratic government. The Licchavi system of government was based on 7,707 rajas, the male heads of households of the dominant Kshatriya (Pali khattiya) caste. These met annually to elect a ruling chief raja and a Council of Nine to assist him, including a deputy chief and a chief of the army, and the chancellor of the exchequer. Both executive and judicial authority was concentrated in the ruling chief. We would call this some sort of responsible patriarchal despotism, but by the standards of the time it was democratic.

At the time of the Buddha, Vesali was large, rich, prosperous, populous, beautiful, and green. A famous courtesan, Amrapali, the royal courtesan and dancer who became an arhant, was a friend of the Buddha, and entertained him and his entourage at her home, as we shall see in a later sutta. In this sutta, we see a familiar theme as the theme of the ‘Brahman emissaries in town on some business’ recurs. They hear of the Buddha and where he was staying, and go to him to visit him themselves. At the time of this story, Nagita was the personal attendant of the Buddha. The reference to Nagita ostensibly places this sutta before Ananda, in the first twenty years of the Buddha’s ministry, although the translator also finds evidence of a late date of composition in the “intolerably laboured repetition” of the sutta.

The Brahmans arrive at the Gabled Hall during the day, but Nagita is unwilling to give them access to the Buddha, who is in “solitary meditation.” The Brahmans sat down and indicated that they would wait, which sounds like afternoon. We know that the Buddha also liked to take a nap in the afternoon. Otthaddha the Licchavi then arrived with a large entourage. Told the same thing, he too indicated they would wait. The novice Siha suggested to Nagita that with so many people waiting, they should be allowed to see the Buddha, so in a very human interlude Nagita says, “Then you tell him.” Nagita did not want to be responsible for disturbing the Buddha! However, the young novice Siha had no such compunction.

There is no indication that Siha woke the Buddha up. He simply entered his room and explained the situation to him. The Buddha instructed Siha to prepare a seat in the shade outside in the shade of the building.

The Buddha goes outside, and the Brahmans and Licchavis sit before and beside him. Otthaddha prostrated before the Buddha, and sat down to one side, but rather than exchanging courtesies with him, as did the Brahmans, he rudely broke right in with a question: “Lord, not long ago Sunakkhatta the Licchavi came to me and said, ‘Soon I shall have been a follower of the Lord for three years. I have seen heavenly sights, pleasant, delightful, enticing, but I have not heard any heavenly sounds that were pleasant, delightful enticing.’ Lord, are there any such heavenly sounds, which Sunakkhatta cannot hear, or are there not.” Sunakkhatta the Licchavi is famous for rejecting the Buddha in sutta 24 of the Digha Nikaya because the Buddha did not perform miracles or teach the beginning of things (in fact, the Buddha taught the non-beginning of things, so the objection here is not that the Buddha did not teach ontology, but that his ontology was non-creationist).  Sunakkhatta also expressed admiration for dubious ascetics, such as Korakkhattiya the “dog-man.”

The somewhat technical question itself provides a valuable insight into what ordained monastic practitioners of Buddhism at the time of the Buddha were experiencing. The phenomena described – pleasant, delightful, enticing, heavenly sights – are a type of phenomenon that one associates with the practice of yoga. The reference to three years provides an interesting insight into how long it took the Buddha’s followers to develop their practice to this level. In parapsychology, this phenomenon would be called “clairvoyance.” Otthaddha also alludes to heavenly sounds (clairaudience). It shows that the Buddha’s followers were engaged in cultivating altered states of consciousness.

You will recall from the Samannaphala Sutta, the second sutta of the Digha Nikaya that the Buddha recognized the reality of psychic powers (iddhis): self-multiplication, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, weightlessness, levitation, and the projection of the mental body (2.87). According to the Wikipedia, this was the first historical reference in India to the idea that psychic powers are produced by spiritual states (jhanas). It is customary to say that the Buddha disapproved of psychic powers, but he never denied they existed and exhibited at least some of them himself, especially the recollection of previous lives. The latter is strongly emphasized throughout the Pali texts. Here again we see evidence of a proto-tantric thread in the Pali Canon.

Otthaddha asks the Buddha if there are such sounds and, if there are, why Sunakkhatta cannot hear them. The Buddha’s answer is complex, and refers to the psychology of spiritual practices, but in essence, the Buddha distinguishes between two types of samadhi, one-sided and two-sided, in the first of which only heavenly sights or sounds are experienced, and in the second of which both spiritual sights and spiritual sounds are experienced. There is no actual explanation of how one and two-sided samadhi differ from each other other than by this fact. Thus, they are merely labels. Clearly, such states were both known to the Buddha and approved by him, since he does not disapprove of them. Rather, he explains them by situating them in their appropriate context, which is the path.

samadhiA word is in order concerning the use of the word, ‘samadhi.’ It turns out that this is an almost impossible word to translate, but must mean something like “bringing the whole mind into perfect coherence with itself,” from sama, ‘just’ + dhi, ‘mind.’ In the Hindu system, represented by the classic Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, samadhi is the goal of yoga, characterized by the ecstatic concentration of mind, but in Buddhism it is merely the beginning of the path, more or less synonymous with meditation. The practice of samadhi purifies negative karma, generates merit (punya), creates energy (virya), confers insight (prajna), and ultimately carries the practitioner to the exalted heights of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, which lead to nirvana.

Otthaddha asks the Buddha if these samadhi states are the goal of Buddhist monasticism. The Buddha answers that the samadhi states are not the goal, but that there are other, higher, and more perfect states to which they aspire. Otthaddha asks the Buddha what these are. The Buddha’s response is very instructive. Rather than deny the value of the samadhi states, the Buddha appears to recognize and accept them as an inferior but necessary stage of the path, which is followed by a superior stage that is the dharma way proper. However, he never disparages the samadhi states in any way; he simply places them in their appropriate context, which is the path (not delusion). Therefore the path itself has a lower and a higher aspect.

The first goal of the Buddhist path beyond the samadhi states is the state of a stream entrant, which is attained by overcoming the Three Fetters (belief in a self, doubt, and attachment to rites and rituals). When these fetters are overcome, one will find awakening within seven rebirths. A stream entrant who reduces his greed, hatred, and delusion becomes a once returner, who will only be reborn as a human being once more before attaining awakening. The abandonment of the Five Lower Fetters, especially sensual desire and ill will, leads to opapatika, ‘spontaneous rebirth’ in a deva sphere, followed by awakening. This is the state of a non-returner. This incidentally addresses the question of whether devas can attain awakening. It is certainly true of arhants reborn as devas, and there are devas who are Buddhists, at least. Finally, a monastic who extinguishes the corruptions (craving for sensual pleasures, existence, and ignorance) experiences the “uncorrupted deliverance of mind, the deliverance through Wisdom, which he has realized by his own insight” (6.13). He becomes an arhant.

ArhantHere we encounter the path of the arhant, the path that the Buddha taught as the “fast path” to nirvana, even though this is not the path that he himself travelled. Despite its emphasis on the path of the arhant, the Pali Canon includes references to the path of the bodhisattva, which is the path of the Buddha, and a clear distinction is always made between the attainment of the Buddha, who discovered the dharma as a result of following the path of the bodhisattva, and the arhant, who follows the dharma discovered by the Buddha. As Bhikkhu Bodhi admits in his essay on “Arahants, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas” (2010), this distinction pervades the Pali Canon. Although the arhant too attains a kind of wisdom, his preëminent attainment is dispassion, based on the negation of desirous attachment, corresponding to the eighth and ninth nidanas of the chain of conditioned arising, whereas the preëminent attainment of the Buddha is Absolute Wisdom, the negation of ignorance, the ultimate root cause, the first nidana of the chain of conditioned arising. Therefore, if Buddhism has a God, it is Ignorance or ‘Not-‘nowing.’ Thus, both the path of the  bodhisattva and its superiority to the path of the arhant is explicitly recognized in the Pali Canon; this is not a Mahayana innovation. The distinction between the arhant and the Buddha corresponds to the distinction between desirous attachment and ignorance, which in turn correspond to the distinction between wisdom and virtue. The highest state is the mind, delivered by wisdom and insight, the cure of ignorance, the ultimate root cause of samsara.  Beyond this, there is only the path.

Otthaddha asks the Buddha if there is a path or method that leads to these higher states. The Buddha reveals the Noble Eightfold Path – “This is the path, this is the way to the realization of these things.”

The Noble Eightfold Path (Skt. āryāṣṭāṅgamārga, Pali ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo) is the True Eightfold Way that leads to the higher states. This way is a series, like any path, a point made by Dr. Peter Masefield, beginning with Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi), Perfect Wisdom, and ending with Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi), Perfect Attention, through three modes: Wisdom (prajna), Virtue (sila), and Samadhi. From the perspective of one approaching the path, the outer aspect of the path is Wisdom. Its inner aspect is Virtue. Its ultimate aspect is Samadhi.

The Buddha then told Otthaddha the story of an experience the Buddha had had in Ghosita Park, Kosambi. Mandissa and Jaliya, two wanderers, asked the Buddha, “is the soul (jiva) the same as the body, or is the soul one thing and the body another.” Jiva, here translated ‘soul,’ is a synonymn for atta that refers to the life of the body (cf. nefesh in Cabala), i.e., the questioner wants to know the Buddha’s opinion concerning the nature of animation, the difference between living and dead matter. Is there some vital animating principle that is distinct from the physical body, or is the life of the body simply an epiphenomenon and the body really all there is? The Buddha’s answer is subtle and nuanced: “I do not say that the [life] is either the same as or different from the body.” Although this threatens to turn into a tetralemma, it is not. This can be interpreted in various ways, as:

  1. A refusal to answer the question;
  2. An expression of agnosticism with respect to the question;
  3. A refusal to make the distinction implied (i.e., rejection of the premise);
  4. A statement that the question is meaningless and therefore there is no answer.

By not saying that life is the same as (reducible to) the body, the Buddha affirms the individual transcendent sentient continuity or “mindstream” (santana), whereas by not saying that the life is different form the body, he affirms the intuition of the body as sentience. Thus, the Buddhist practice par excellence is mindfulness of the body, which Buddhaghosa identifies as the unique and distinguishing doctrine of the dharma.

This story of Mandissa and Jaliya is repeated in the seventh sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Jaliya Sutta, so we just saved a week and next Saturday we will be discussing the Mahasihanada Sutta, “The Speech of the Great Lion’s Roar,” the eighth sutta of the Digha Nikaya.