Monthly Archives: January 2015

An American Pansil (The Karma of Amerika)

AmerikaThe destroyers will be terrorized.
The thieves will be impoverished.
The promiscuous will be diseased.
The liars will be deceived.
The heedless will be enslaved.

The ignorant mind, with its infinite afflictions, passions, and evils, is rooted in the three poisons. Greed, anger, and delusion.
– Bodhidharma

Mahanidana Sutta (DN 15)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Great Discourse on Causality

Digha Nikaya 15

KuruThe Buddha is staying among the Kurus, a country in the northwest. The Kuru Kingdom was an ancient Vedic Aryan tribal kingdom, the first one to emerge as a state, around 1000 BCE. Here the Vedic hymns were arranged into collections. Here Vedic ritual life was born. The Kuru kingdom was also oppressive and warlike. The great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, is set here. By the time of the Buddha, however, Kuru was in decline, and had acquired a reputation as a backwater.

The Buddha was staying in the jungle outside a market town called Kammasadhamma. In the Majjhima Nikaya, we learn that the people of Kammasadhamma are good Buddhists.

Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada)

Here we have a sutta featuring a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant for the final twenty-five years of his life. Ananda famously informs the Buddha how profound and clear he finds the doctrine of dependent origination (patticcasamuppada). We have had occasion to refer to this doctrine in a recent talk.

Ananda is clearly very pleased with himself, but the Buddha chastises his disciple, reprimanding him for thinking that the paticcasamuppada is clear. “Do not say that, Ananda, do not say that. This dependent origination is profound and appears profound.” The Buddha declares that “it is through not understanding, not penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a tangled ball of string, covered as with a blight, tangled like coarse grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin and the round of birth and death.”

On the other hand, it is through understanding dependent origination, therefore, that one untangles the string of samsara and so achieves emancipation. The Buddha’s implication is clearly that Ananda has not yet achieved emancipation. In fact, according to tradition, Ananda would not become an arhant until after the Buddha’s death.

Although the metaphor of the ball of string is applied to “this generation,” tangled, blighted, trapped in samsara, the image clearly also applies to the doctrine of dependent origination itself, in which everything is infinitely intervolved based on the operation of the law of karma. The Buddha’s attitude to Ananda’s generation is suggestive of the attitude of Yeshua (Jesus) to his.

In his search for the ultimate solution of the problem of dissatisfaction, the Buddha begins with aging and death. Thus, the Buddha’s inquiry is rational, and it starts with the immediacy of lived experience, rather than with an abstract metaphysical system or postulate as other ancient systems, including Indian philosophy, did. In this respect, the Buddha is exquisitely modern.

Relentlessly, the Buddha pursues the chain of cause and effect: ageing and birth (1) is conditioned by birth (2). The connection seems incontrovertible. Birth is conditioned by becoming (3). Becoming is conditioned by clinging (4). Clinging is conditioned by craving (5). Craving is conditioned by feeling (6). Feeling is conditioned by contact (7). Contact is conditioned by mind and body (8). Mind and body is conditioned by consciousness (9).

The Buddha identifies four kinds of clinging: sensuous clinging; clinging to views, which we might term dogmatic sectarianism; clinging to rituals; and clinging to the personality, which we might call ego (another translation of atta or ‘self’).

Together, mind-body and consciousness condition each other. Thus, mind and body conditions consciousness and consciousness conditions mind and body. The arrow of time originating in the double dyad of mind-body-consciousness develops through the chain of dependent origination until it results in birth, ageing, and death, only to recur eternally until the cycle is broken and one achieves emancipation.

The chain of dependent origination takes different forms in different suttas. Sometimes consciousness is conditioned by mental formations (sanskaras), which are in turn conditioned by ignorance (avijja), which is declared to be the root of the chain despite its cyclical nature. In this variation, there are nine links, and the root is declared to be feeling, the sixth link in the chain, counting from ageing and death. Note that the six sense bases, given in the version of this diagram that we encountered in the last talk, are missing in this version.

In this version, the Buddha is focused on the problem of craving, and declares that if the feeling born of sensory contact were to cease, so would craving. This word, ‘feeling,’ is Pali vedana – feeling, perception, sensation, pain, suffering. The context suggests that the Buddha is referring to the craving for pleasure and its corollary, the aversion towards pain. If there were absolutely no feeling towards pleasure and pain, the absence and cessation of feeling will break the chain of cause and effect that leads to craving, thus effecting emancipation.

The Interdependence of Craving, Territoriality, Property, Money, and War

At this point in the sutta, the Buddha segues into another application of the doctrine of the paticcasamuppada, commencing from the faculty of craving. “And so, Ananda, feeling conditions craving.” Now the Buddha creates a new paticcasamuppada, showing that the doctrine is not the diagram but the principle or method, and that many paticcasamuppada sequences are theoretically possible. In this segue, craving, therefore, conditions seeking, seeking conditions acquisition, acquisition conditions decision- making, decision-making conditions lust, lust conditions attachment, attachment conditions appropriation, appropriation conditions avarice, avarice conditions possessiveness, and because of possessiveness there arise violence, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying, and other evil unskilled states” (emphasis added). In a remarkable anticipation of communism, the Buddha identifies property as the root cause of all of the rest.

In this way, the Buddha applies the doctrine of the paticcasamuppada to the problem of the origin and development of human society and social organization. In the Buddha’s analysis, property, money, and war are interconnected, and are negative factors, connected to the factor of craving, which is in turn the cause of bondage to samsara. We have discussed the Buddha’s politics in previous talks as well, where I have identified the Buddhist political position with what we would today call social democracy. The Dalai Lama, as I have also mentioned before, calls himself a Marxist. Although the Buddha positions himself in relation to the mercantile economy of his time, there are also favourable references to communism in the Pali Canon, but Marxist materialism is inconsistent with the Buddhist point of view.

The Buddha’s analysis is suggestive of that of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, for example:

If there were no rulers, there would be no wars.
If there were no treasures, the people would not commit crimes.
If there were nothing to excite desire, the heart of the people would be content.
Truly, in order for the sage to heal, he makes his heart empty,
Fills the belly, weakens the will, strengthens the bones.
If the people are ignorant, they will not covet.
It would not be wise to oppose this:
Acting without action, ruling without rule.
(author’s translation)

Craving, moreover, has two aspects: craving in itself, which serves as the basis of rebirth, and craving in action, or craving-seeking (samudacara-tanha).

The Interdependence of Namarupa and Vijnana

We have discussed the duality of the psychosomatic complex, consisting of nama (mind or ‘name’; cf. Laozi) and rupa (‘matter,’ ‘form,’ or ‘image’) and vijnana (‘consciousness,’ ‘life force,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘discernment’). PED refers to namarupa as a dyadic unity, so that the duality of namarupa and vijana becomes a second or “double” dyad, and therefore a kind of quaternary.  In this complex, which Bhikkhu Bodhi describes as a “vortex,” nama and vijnana both refer to the mental aspect, which together constitute the nama-kaya (lit. ‘name-body’). Similarly, the physical aspect is the rupa-kaya (lit. ‘form-body’). In both of these constructions, ‘body’ has the connotation of an aggregate or assemblage. The Buddha observes that in the absence of mental “properties, features, signs, or indications,” the mind does not grasp at body, nor does the body grasp at sensory reaction by the “mind-factor.” In his concept of “properties, features, signs, or indications,” the Buddha is getting at the same concept as Laozi’s ming:

The speech that can be spoken is not the true speech.
The name (
ming) that can be named is not the true name.
The nameless creates heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, he who desires not sees the subtle,
Whereas he who desires much sees the commonplace
. (author’s translation)

The Buddha implies that it is the vijnana that “enters into” the mother’s womb, whereas the psychosomatic complex (namarupa) develops there. Thus, vijnana or consciousness is the originating non-corporeal principle, whereas the psychosomatic complex is associated with the body. Thus, vijnana is the psychic element, whereas nama is akin to what we ordinarily call bodily consciousness or mind immersed in the somatic element. “Thus far then, Ananda, can we trace birth and decay, death and  falling into other states and being reborn, thus far extends the way of designation, of concepts, thus far is the sphere of understanding, thus far the round goes as far as can be discerned in this life, namely to body and mind together with consciousness.”

The Self (Atta)

From consciousness, the Buddha segues to various conceptions of the self: as material and limited, material and unlimited, immaterial and limited, or immaterial and unlimited, thus defining the self in terms of the two axes of materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. The Buddha then adds a third axis: time. Either the self is now or will be in the future. The Buddha contrasts all of these theories with the negative form of the same propositions, thus positing a sort of tetralemma, the logical quaternary formulation that we discussed in connection with the first sutta.

But what, asks the Buddha, is the self? What are its specific characteristics? Here the Buddha explores various identifications of the self, as feeling or not feeling. With respect to feeling, he points out that feelings – pleasant, painful, or neutral – are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen. This transitoriness (anicca) is incompatible with the idea of “self” as a permanent identity, so it is not proper to say that feeling is the self.

On the other hand, the view that the self is not feeling is self-contradictory because in such a state there is no idea of “I am.” Similarly, if the self is asserted to feel but not be identical with feeling, in the absence of feeling there is no idea of “I am this.” Therefore, it is not proper to say that the self is not feeling (“impercipient” in Walshe’s translation).

Thus, “when a monk no longer regards feeling as the self, or the self as being impercipient, or as being percipient and of a nature to feel, by not so regarding, he clings to nothing in the world; not clinging, he is not excited by anything, and not being excited he gains personal liberation.” That is to say, he gains liberation for himself alone. There is no salvation of others, no “vicarious atonement.”

The Post-mortem Status of the Tathagata

One question that arose in early Buddhist thought is of course the post-mortem status of a Tathagata, a perfectly enlightened Buddha who will never again be reborn. Thus the Buddha says, “if anyone were to say to a monk whose mind was thus freed, ‘The Tathagata exists after death,’ that would be seen by him as a wrong opinion and unfitting.” Thus, it appears at first that there is no post-mortem state for a Tathagata, despite the Buddha’s persistent references throughout the Pali Canon to “the deathless.” Thus, this passage appears to affirm a form of nihilism, except that the Buddha continues, “likewise, ‘The Tathagata does not exist … both exists and does not exist … neither exists nor does not exist.” Thus, the Buddha sets up a tetralemma, refuting every logical variation concerning the Tathagata’s existence or non-existence after death, including the statement that “the Tathagata does not exist,” which is equally declared to be false. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that this is because the premise of the question, that there is a self, is mistaken, which raises a whole host of different problems (and is probably false). However, right after this statement the Buddha explains why all logical variations of this axiom are false, viz., “As far, Ananda, as designation and the range of designation reaches, as far as language and the range of language reaches, as far as concepts and the range of concepts reaches, as far as understanding and the range of understanding reaches, as far as the cycle reaches and revolves – that monk is liberated from all that by super-knowledge.”

Thus, the Buddha makes it clear that the inscrutability of the Tathagata’s post-mortem state is neither because he does not exist nor because of the non-existence of a self, but rather due to the limitations of rational linguistic understanding. Clearly, “super-knowledge” (abhinna) is beyond designations, language, concepts, and (rational) understanding, which is based on static and dualistic conceptualizations of existence, non-existence, both existence and non-existence, and neither existence nor non-existence. The post-mortem status of a Tathagata, therefore, can only be known non-dualistically and trans-dualistically, and therefore no rational, dualistic statement concerning it can be true.  Similarly, the Buddha rejected static, finite, dualistic conceptions of the self. There is, moreover, a fundamental difference between conceptualization and experience. In the words of Alfred Korzybki, the founder of General Semantics, “the map is not the territory.”

 Seven Stations of Consciousness

The seven “stations” of consciousness correspond to the planes of existence classified according to body and perception. In previous talks, we have discussed the thirty-one planes of existence, of which the seven stations are a simplification.

The Seven Stations of Consciousness

Station Deva(s)
Jhana
Body Perception
1 Human beings, some devas, some in states of woe N/A Different Different
2 Brahma’s retinue 1 Different Alike
3 Abhassara (Streaming Radiance) 2 Alike Different
4 Subhakinna (Radiant Glory) 3 Alike Alike
5 Infinite Space N/A N/A Transcendence of the perception of matter, vanishing of perception of sense reactions, non-attention to the perception of variety
6 Infinite Consciousness N/A N/A N/A
7 “No-thingness” N/A N/A N/A

In addition to the seven stations, the Buddha identifies two “realms” or spheres (ayatanani), consisting of the Unconscious Beings and the inhabitants of the plane of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception, the latter being the highest plane of samsara, above the seventh station of “No-thingness.”  The Unconscious Beings refers to the Mindless Devas, one of the deva realms corresponding to the fourth jhana, corresponding to a realm of beings that have bodies without consciousness. Rebirth in this plane results from a meditation in which consciousness is suppressed, based on the mistake that the suppression of consciousness is equivalent to liberation. Inhabitants of the plane of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception have consciousness but no body and are unable to hear dharma. I assume that these two are grouped together because they represent different kinds of non-perception.

Eight Liberations

Finally, the Buddha identifies eight “liberations.” The translator notes that these represent a sequence of steps that are necessary in order to attain final liberation.

  1. Possessing form, one sees forms.
  2. Not perceiving material forms in oneself, one seems them outside.
  3. Thinking, “it is beautiful,” one becomes intent on it.
  4. Completely transcending all perception of matter, by the vanishing of the perception of sense-reactions, and by non-attention to the perception of variety, thinking, “space is infinite,” one enters into and abides in the sphere of infinite space. This corresponds to the fifth station.
  5. Thinking “consciousness is infinite,” one enters and abides in the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness. This corresponds to the sixth station.
  6. Thinking, “there is no thing,” one enters and abides in the sphere of “no-thingness.” This corresponds to the seventh station.
  7. Transcending the Sphere of “No-thingness,” one reaches and abides in the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception. This corresponds to the first “realm” in Walshe’s translation.
  8. Transcending the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception, one enters into and abides in the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. This is nirodha-samapatti (lit. ‘attainment of annihilation’), a synonym for nirvana, from which it is possible to “break through” (Padmasambhava refers to a “leap”) to the state of a non-returner or an arhant.

Concerning this, the Buddha says, “when once a monk attains these eight liberations in forward order, in reverse order, and in forward and reverse order, entering them and emerging from them as and when, and for as long as he wishes, and has gained by his own super-knowledge here and now both the destruction of the corruptions (the asavas, consisting of sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and ignorance), and the uncorrupted liberation of heart and liberation by wisdom, that monk is called ‘both ways liberated’ … there is no other way of ‘both ways liberation’ that is more excellent or perfect than this.” Similarly, as we shall see in connection with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which we will be discussing next week, when the Buddha died he “rose” through the planes and descended them again, then re-ascended to achieve the ultimate state of parinibbana. Similarly, the paticcasamuppada has two “directions.” The “natural” order is that from ignorance or, in the variation presented in this sutta, consciousness, to birth, old age, and death, which is the cycle of samsara, whereas the order that is “against the current,” leading from birth, old age, and death to ignorance/consciousness, leads to liberation. We would call these entropy and negentropy respectively. I would also point out the emphasis on the “here and now,” the present moment, which alone is real, as I have discussed in my series of talks called Fundamental View in connection with the problem of past and future in the context of samsara.

The liberation of heart refers to dispassion, based on the factor of desire. The liberation by wisdom refers to the antithesis of ignorance, the root factor of the paticcasamuppada in the complete, 12° variation previously discussed. The former refers to the liberation of the arhant, whereas the latter refers to the liberation of a bodhisattva. Together, they constitute the liberation of an Arhant Buddha, which is the perfect liberation. As the correspondence with the thirty-one planes of existence, the basis of Buddhist ontology, clearly shows, these attainments are not merely psychological; they are also ontological.

Reference

Bodhi. Great Discourse on Causation.: Mahanidana Sutta and Its Commentaries. 2nd ed. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1998.

Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Great Tradition

Digha Nikaya 14

The Mahapadana Sutta is the first sutta of the second division of the Digha Nikaya, called the Great Division. Almost all of the suttas in the Great Division have maha (‘great’) in the title, although three do not, and there are suttas outside of the Great Division that have maha in the title (only one in the Digha Nikaya, but many more in the Majjhima, once again indicating the inconsistent organization of the Sutta Pitaka).

Although Walshe translates the sutta as the “Great Discourse on the Lineage,” a more literal translation might be, “The Sutta of the Great Transmission” [lit. ‘giving,’ ‘bestowing’].

In this sutta, the Buddha is at Savatthi, in the Kareri hutment, which is located in Anthapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove. We encountered Savatthi in the Potthapada Sutta (9), where the Buddha discusses the “higher extinction” of consciousness with Potthapada.

A number of monks gather in the late morning at the Kareri pavilion, after the daily meal, and are discussing past lives. Whereupon the Buddha joins them and asks them what they are talking about.

Vipassi Buddha

The Buddha proceeds to give the monastics a dharma talk on past lives. The Buddha names eight Buddhas who have appeared in the world hitherto, shown in the following table:

Buddha Time Ago Caste Clan Lifespan (years)
Vipassi 91 eons Khattiya Kondanna 80,000
Sikhi 31 eons Khattiya Kondanna 70,000
Vessabhu 31 eons (same as Sikhi) Khattiya Kondanna 60,000
Kakusandha Current eon Brahman Kassapa 40,000
Konmagamana Current eon Brahman Kassapa 30,000
Kassapa Current eon Brahman Kassapa 20,000
Gotama Current eon Khattiya Gotama 100

Interestingly, the inclusion of Gotama creates a slight predominance of Khattiya over Brahman Buddhas, at least out of the most recent seven (there are of course many more). The lifespan of human beings at the time of Gotama is described as “short, limited, and quick.”

This lack of longevity may have something to do with the nature of the Buddha Gotama’s teaching, which (he says) is far more limited and narrowly focused than the whole teaching.

The text goes on to describe the different trees under which all of the different Buddha’s attained enlightenment; the names of each Buddha’s two noble disciples; the size of each one’s sangha of arhants; the name of each one’s personal attendant; the name of each one’s mother and father; and the name of the royal capital. These names are not likely to mean much to us, except of course for our own Buddha, Gotama, so I append the list as it pertains to Gotama alone:

Tree: Assattha (ficus religiosa)

Noble disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana

Number of arhants: 1,250

Personal attendant: Ananda

Father: Suddhodana

Mother:  Maya

Capital: Kapilavatthu

By comparison, the number of arhants of the previous Buddhas ranges from 6.98 million to 20,000. Both the lifespans and the number of arhants fall in each subsequent eon. This expresses the doctrine of degeneration, or as we would say, the law of entropy, “the arrow of time,“ which is fundamental to the Buddhist sense of history.

The age, epoch, or eon (kappa; Skt. kalpa) to which the Buddha is referring appears to be the antahkappa, which is the time it takes for human beings to descend from 80,000 to ten years and back to 80,000 years again. There is no need to take this literally in order to realize that a period is implied. The extraordinary durations associated with Hindu and Buddhist kalpas only seem to appear in the later literature. In this sutta, no rate is given that would allow us to calculate the duration of an antahkappa. However, it must be at least 90,000 years, this being the sum of the ages of the first three Buddhas of the current eon, but is certainly many multiples of that. Buddha births being rare occurrences, the previous Buddha are therefore prehistoric, perhaps even non-terrestrial. We shall have occasion to return to this topic in connection with a later sutta, in which a rate of progression is implied.

At this point, the Buddha goes for his afternoon siesta, during which it was his custom either to nap or to meditate, whereupon the monastics fall into an ongoing discussion of whether the Buddha obtained this knowledge because of his own realization or communication with devas (the ‘shining ones’ that we have discussed from time to time in previous talks). After the rest period, perhaps mid-afternoon, the Buddha returns to the pavilion and again asks the monastics what they are discussing.

The Buddha’s response is extremely informative. He tells them that this knowledge comes both from his own “penetration of the principles of dhamma” and from the devas themselves, implying not only memory of past lives, but also communication with spiritual beings. In the Burmese and Thai editions of the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s communication with devas is reiterated at the end. The latter appears almost as a vindication of the former, and suggests the poetic deva invocations of the rishi-shamans, which we discussed in the previous talk. Similarly, “spirit communications” became part of a hybrid Buddhist-Taoist canon (eg., the Qingjing Jing of Xo Hsien). Unlike the ecstatic mythopoeia of the rishis, however, the Taoist spirit writings are metaphysical in character, more like the “penetration of the principles of dharma” to which the Buddha refers.

Having set forth the path of the arhant in sutta 6 (Mahali Sutta), here the Buddha sets out the path of the Bodhisattva, which presupposes that of the arhant and yet remains in the background of the Pali Canon. Nevertheless, as Bhikhu Bodhi acknowledges, the doctrine of the Bodhisattva pervades the Pali Canon and is logically presupposed by the doctrine of the Arhant, which as I said dominates the Pali Canon.

AvalakitesvaraThe Buddha proceeds to identify sixteen rules (dhammata) concerning the appearance of these great beings, of which he himself is one:

  1. Every Bodhisattva is reborn from the Tusita plane in their mother’s womb.
  2. At their conception, an immeasurable, splendid light-energy-information wave manifests everywhere in the universe and beyond, creating a great evolutionary temporal vibration.
  3. Four protective devas of the four quarters appear.
  4. The Bodhisattva’s mother becomes spontaneously virtuous.
  5. The Bodhisattva’s mother becomes spontaneously pure.
  6. Nevertheless, she delights in the five senses, but without taint of sensuality.
  7. The mother of the Bodhisattva has no sickness (associated with gestation) and experiences the Bodhisattva in her womb.
  8. The mother of the Bodhisattva dies seven days after his birth and is reborn in the Tusita plane.
  9. The term of the mother of the Bodhisattva’s gestation is exactly ten lunar months.
  10. She gives birth standing up.
  11. When the Bodhisattva is born, devas welcome him first, followed by humans.
  12. When he is born, the Bodhisattva does not touch the earth.
  13. When he is born, the Bodhisattva is not defiled by anything impure.
  14. Two streams of warm and cold water bathe them both.
  15. The newborn Bodhisattva faces north, takes seven strides under a white sunshade, scans the four quarters, and then declares, with a voice like a bull: “I am chief in the world, supreme in the world, eldest in the world. This is my last birth; there will be no more re-becoming.” [sic]
  16. At his birth, the immeasurable, splendid light-energy wave again manifests everywhere in the multiverse and beyond, as in #2.

The Tusita (lit. ‘joyful’) plane is the home of the Bodhisattva prior to his final rebirth as a human being. His conception initiates a negentropic information wave that radiates out indefinitely in all directions from the point of origin. Buddhas are of course being born all the time in different places in the universe, so the universe is pervaded by such waves. We see this in the generalized evolutionary tendency that occurs within a dominant overall devolutionary, involutionary, or entropic tendency, the so-called ascending and descending arcs.

The sixth point, that the mother of the Buddha rejoices in the creation, complements the Buddha’s emphasis on metta meditation, loving kindness, and mindfulness of the body, discussed in connection with the previous sutta. Similarly, the Joyful plane is the penultimate home of the Bodhisattva, who also has healing powers. The Bodhisattva is clearly associated with a luminous, vitalistic, energetic, negentropic, spiritual dynamic, distinct from the Arahant, that implies the appearance of an evolutionary arc within the overarching devolutionary cycle.

Pole Star and Ursa MajorIn gesturing toward the North, the infant Bodhisattva identifies himself with the North or Polar Star, the chief star, supreme above the world, which represents the summit or zenith of the world mountain, the axis mundi, the point of transcendence.

In his commentary on the Digha Nikaya, Buddhaghosa takes all this symbolically. Standing on the earth represents the four roads to power. Facing north refers to the multitude to be won over. The seven steps symbolize the seven factors of enlightenment. The sunshade is liberation. Looking about refers to knowledge without obstruction. The voice of the bull represents the turning of the wheel. In declaring his last birth, he proclaims the future fact of his arhantship.

The Buddha tells the story of Prince Vipassi, the first Buddha in this list who flourished ninety-one eons ago. Essentially this is the story of the Buddha retold, including:

  • The examination of the child by the Brahmans skilled in signs;
  • The thirty-two marks of a great man, which we have discussed at some length in connection with a previous sutta;
  • The prophecy concerning becoming a World Ruler or a World Teacher, a Buddha;
  • Being raised in pleasure, including living in the female palace during the rainy season, surrounded by female musicians;
  • The Four Sights: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a pabbajita, a renunciate;
  • The going forth into homelessness;
  • The realization of dependent origination (paticcasamppada);
  • The realization of the inherent duality of name-form (mind-matter) and the mutually dependent duality of mind-matter and consciousness, which in some versions of the paticcasamuppada is the fundamental principle instead of ignorance (avijja);
  • The realization of the origin of suffering or angst (dukkha);
  • The realization of transitoriness (anicca), culminating in freedom from the corruptions without remainder;
  • The realization of Cessation.
  • The decision to teach as a result of the merit-seeking behaviour of God (Sahampati);
  • The teaching of the preparatory path of religion and the path of dharma proper;
  • The creation of the sangha;
  • The dharma transmission (sending forth the monastics for six years);
  • The recitation of the Vinaya at the end of six years. Since the Vinaya developed over time as a body of tradition was built up in response to actual situations, this was presumably the time during which this process occurred. Thus, we may say that the original codification of the Vinaya took place when the Buddha was 41.

Vipassi realizes that he has rediscovered the insight way to enlightenment. Insight or wisdom is the corollary of ignorance (avijja). The word “insight” refers to vipassana, and corresponds to jnana in Sanskrit. The reference to “unblinking concentration” comes from the same root. This identifies the Buddha as a jhana yogi. Buddhism is preeminently a Way of Wisdom, as I have mentioned in previous talks. This is clear throughout the Pali Canon as well as in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita.

PaticcasamuppadaIn a previous talk, we have discussed the meaning of the word paticcasamuppada, which in essence means ‘everything arising from causes.’ This word implies the absoluteness of the law of karma, i.e., that every cause produces an effect and that very effect arises from a cause, from which we may deduce the beginninglessness of samsara, the innate tendency of reality to differentiation, the universal intervolution of phenomena, the complementarity of mental and material causes, and the efficacy of volition or intention (the power of truth).

In addition to the universal principle of paticcasamuppada, the word alludes to a specific chain of linked causes and effects from which the Buddha deduces both suffering and its cure, the peculiar bidirectionality of cause and effect, one entropic and one negentropic, as well as revealing the two “weak links” in the chain that lead to the interrelated paths of wisdom and renunciation, as well as the primacy of the path of wisdom.

This chain can be shown in a table:

The Chain (nidana) of Cause and Effect (paticcasamuppada)

1. Ageing and death Jaramarana
2. Birth Jati
3. Becoming Kammabhava
4. Clinging Upadana
5. Craving Tanha
6. Feeling Vedana
7. Contact Phassa
8. Six sense-bases Salayatana
9. Consciousness Vinnana
10. Mind-body Namarupa

NOTE: Five aggregates (see below) shown in bold.

This 10° version of the paticcasamuppada differs from the standard 12° list of links in that the bottom two links that are in the standard list, viz., the karmic factors (sanskharas) and ignorance (avijja), are missing. In this analysis, which may be older, mind and body (a.k.a. name and form, namarupa) and consciousness is mutually interdependent dyad that underlies the whole system (whereas ignorance is fundamental in the complete list). Thus, beginning with what he knows, the Buddha works his way through a series of causes and effects, from birth and becoming through clinging and craving, feeling and contact, the six sense faculties (Buddhism counts the mind or brain as a sensory organ), and finally consciousness and the psychosomatic complex that as the fundamental double dyad (name-form/mind-matter).

The list also exhibits the property of directionality. If we begin with mind-body-consciousness, we can trace the progressive development of the individual culminating in birth, ageing, and death; sorrow; lamentation; pain; grief; and distress. It was the Buddha’s discovery that since everything is transitory, emancipation from causality itself is possible. Thus, the originating process itself can be transformed into a “ceasing” process that leads to emancipation. We would call this the “arrow of time,” with its two aspects, entropy and negentropy.

Not all effects are equal, however. Some fall outside the direct control of the volition due to the density of karma. Thus, we cannot simply transform our ageing process, death, birth, becoming, or our bodily form. Killing the body, for example, which arose as a heresy during the Buddha’s lifetime, does not disrupt the continuity of cause and effect at all, but merely adds the karma of killing to one’s karmic legacy. However, there are two “weak links” in this chain – the clinging-craving process and the consciousness process itself. Both are overcome by giving up desirous attachment through the concentration of and on consciousness. This causes us to see reality, realizing the essentially unsatisfactory nature of becoming, thus abandoning it once we recognize that it is the source of our suffering, since all beings desire happiness and no one seeks suffering. This is even clearer in the 12° version of the chain, in which the psychosomatic complex is itself dependent on unfruited karmic tendencies (the so-called sanskharas, similar to Becoming) which are in turn dependent on not-knowing or ‘ignorance’ (avijja). Thus, through the practice of renunciation, morality, or self-control and the cultivation of wisdom or gnosis one can disrupt and transcend the binding fetter of paticcasamuppada.

The Buddha even applies the principle of paticcasamuppada to an analysis of the origin of private property and government, which we will examine in its proper place.

Embedded within the nidanas is another set of principles, called the Five Aggregates of Clinging. It is through the contemplation of the rise and fall, appearance and disappearance, i.e., the transitoriness, of the Five Aggregates that Vipassi attains emancipation. The Five Aggregates are body, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. There are several analogues with the 10° or 12° chain. The body is form or matter, the mental formations correspond to the naming (or labelling) mind. Feeling is feeling. Perception refers to contact together with the six sense faculties. Consciousness is consciousness. Altogether, the Five Aggregates encompass the bottom (or originary) half of the paticcusamuppada.

Vipassi concludes by identifying the path with self-control (morality) and mental self-purification through the cultivation of wisdom.

We must not make the mistake that Vipassi is the “first Buddha,” although he is the first Buddha to whom Gotama refers. Vipassi himself says, “This the Buddha’s teach.” Presumably, Vipassi has his own list. Such lists of Buddhas are merely lists of specific lineages, not all the Buddhas that ever were. So Gotama’s lineage originates with Vipassi, who establishes the paradigm for all future Buddhas in that Buddha lineage.

To this point, the narration of the sutta has been continuous. Now, however, it appears that a completely different narrative has been spliced into this sutta at the end. In this narrative, the Buddha is staying at a different place, Ukkattha, in the Subhaga Grove, sitting alone at the foot of a sal (shorea robusta) tree. In the Ambattha Sutta, this is described as a rich agricultural village.

It occurs to the Buddha that he has not visited the devas of the Five Pure Abodes for a very long time. This is the realm of the non-returners, stream entrants who have transcended the human condition and can never again be reborn on the earth plane. For this reason, the Buddha says, as a Bodhisattva he has never been reborn there. However, having been reborn as a human being for the final time, the Buddha resolves to visit the Five Pure Abodes, perhaps to complete his tour of samsara. The names of these abodes are: Devas Not Falling Away, Untroubled Devas, Beautiful Devas, Clear-Sighted Devas, and Peerless Devas. The Aviha devas inhabit the lowest of these realms. When the Buddha teleports himself to their location – much as we do in Second Life – they identify themselves as arhant followers of Vipassi. Other devas come forward who identify themselves as arhant followers of the other Buddhas – Sikhi, Veassabhu, Kakusandha, Konagamana, and Kassapa – the last three in the present “fortunate age.” (An age, epoch, or eon is considered “fortunate” if a Buddha is born in it, so our age is five times blessed, which may explain the many positive qualities that we find in it. According to multiverse theory, there are an indefinite but certainly vast number of multiverses that are essentially dead.) These then recognize the same paradigm in the Buddha. The Buddha had the same experience in each subsequent Pure Abode, where the Atapha, Sudassa, Sudassi, and Akanittha devas greeted him.

What is fascinating about this description is certainly not its literal truth, not even the concepts of Buddha lineages, a Buddha paradigm, and the generation of a mental body, which we clearly recognize, but the close similarity between the description of the Five Pure Abodes and psychedelic experiences of the highest order, associated with such hallucinogens as soma, ayahuasca, psilocybin, Salvia divinorum, etc. We know that experiences of this type underlie the whole Vedic spiritual tradition. Interestingly, psychedelics are also associated with recalling past lives.

In conclusion, Gotama declares that, as a Tathagata, he will not be reborn, because, having “penetrated the fundamentals of dhamma” and “cut through multiplicity,” he has remembered the lives of the Buddhas of the past. This is a distinctive twist on the theme of remembering past lives that appears elsewhere in the Pali Canon as a demonstration of the Buddha’s attainment.

The Pali phrases that Walshe translates as “fundamentals of Dhamma” and “cutting though multiplicity” are interesting in themselves. The first is Dhammadhatu, the second is papanca.

Dhamma or dharma, of course, has an extraordinary range of meanings, ranging from ‘thing’ to ‘truth.’ We have discussed this is previous talks. Dhatu means ‘element, natural condition, relic, root (of a word), bodily humour, sense faculty.’ Almost a synonym for dhamma, but more concrete, the dhatus are the component elements of which things are made (especially the four elements – fire, water, air, earth – which we would now refer to as “states” or “phases” of matter rather than as elements).

According to most Pali dictionaries, papanca means ‘obstacle, impediment, delay,’ perhaps ‘illusion, obsession, hindrance to spiritual progress,’ but Walshe follows an etymology, mentioned but not preferred by Rhys Davids in the PED, which means essentially ‘expansion, diffuseness, manifoldness,’ hence, ‘multiplicity.’

Thus, we might translate this passage, “so it is, monastics, that by his analysis of reality into its component patterns, the Tathagata recalls the past Buddhas who have attained final emancipation, cutting through the illusion of appearances, lightening a trail, have exhausted rebirth, having passed beyond angst.”