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.


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.


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.