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.

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