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).


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.