Subha, Kevaddha, and Lohicca Suttas (DN 10-12)

Talk presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, January 3, 2015.

Subha the Youth

Digha Nikaya 10

The location of this sutta is the same as the previous sutta: Jeta’s Grove in Anathapindika Park in Savatthi, except that instead of the Buddha it is Ananda and the Buddha is deceased. This is therefore a post-parinirvana sutta.  At the same time, Subha, the young son of the Brahman Todeyya, was also in Savatthi on some business.  Hearing of Ananda’s proximity, he sent his servant to invite Ananda to come to his house. However, Ananda demurs due to sickness and suggests that he come the following day. Early the next morning, Ananda makes his way to Subha’s home accompanied by the venerable monastic Cetaka for their breakfast.

Subha would like Ananda to tell him which things the Buddha praised and dispraised during his life. Ananda says that the Buddha praised three things: Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom, reiterating what we heard in sutta 1, that the practice of morality alone is insufficient. This is the Threefold Classification of the Noble Eightfold Path that we have discussed before. 

Kevaddha the Householder

Sigha Nikaya 11

The location of this sutta is Pavarika’s mango grove, in Nalanda, which almost a thousand years later would become the site of the first Buddhist university. Nalanda is described as rich, populous, prosperous, and strongly Buddhist. The householder Kevaddha, possibly a fisher, suggests that since the Buddha had so much support in the town already, if a monk were to perform some superhuman feat or miracle, that would increase the town’s faith in the Buddha even more. The Buddha rather sharply informs Kevaddha that this is not how he trains the monastics of the Buddhist order. When Khuddaka presses the Buddha, the Buddha says that he has declared three categories of miracle:

  • “Psychic” powers (iddhi);
  • Telepathy (adesana);
  • Instruction (anusasani).

Adesana, which Walshe translates “telepathy,” can also mean “prophecy.”

We have discussed the Buddhist acceptance of psychic powers in a previous talk. The distinction made here between psychic powers and telepathy seems to be between powers experienced, somewhat paradoxically, in the body (e.g., self-replication, invisibility, passing through solid objects, etc.), and the mind (i.e., telepathy). Perhaps “psychic” is a poor translation here, because in customary parlance telepathy is also a psychic power. However, one struggles to find a satisfactory alternative. Perhaps “magical powers,” which are referred to in the canon, might be better, but in English, the word “magical” also has connotations of sleight of hand and charlatanry. “Supernormal” or “supernatural” is even worse because, from the Buddhist perspective, these powers are perfectly natural. The word iddhi literally means “attainment.” Finally, the “miracle of instruction” is offered for comparison with these.

The Buddha says that he “dislikes and despises” miracles, such as psychic powers and telepathy, not because they do not exist or are intrinsically debased or debasing, but because those who see such a display of power may simply think that they are the result of some kind of personal power or some technical or magical procedure, rather than crediting the dharma that is the real cause of these things. Thus, they may be directed towards sorcery rather than salvation. In the West, we might call this “occultism.”

Against these, the Buddha posits the miracle of instruction or teaching. Why is “teaching” a miracle? The Buddha refers specifically to the power of truth. This doctrine appears from time to time throughout the Pali Canon, and especially in the Jataka tales, where truth itself, especially the truth of the dharma, the preeminent truth of reality, is intrinsically efficacious. In other suttas, the Buddha says that dharma and things related to the dharma are supremely efficacious. The Buddha makes it quite clear that we are discussing a philosophy: “Consider in this way, don’t consider in that; direct your mind this way, not that way, give up that, gain this and persevere in it.” In addition to philosophy, the Buddha refers to practices of renunciation and cultivation and refers to the significance of perseverance. Thus, one may speak of practice as involving a kind of “energy.”

Buddhist philosophy is, moreover, distinguished in this, that it requires action and that it leads to the highest goal. Buddhism is, pre-eminently, a philosophy of action. As we have seen before, this is attained by the attainment of the unity of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom, because of which one attains Cessation.  This is the supreme ontological attainment, the supreme “psychic power.” Although the Buddha says that he rejects them, he also says that he has mastered psychic powers and telepathy in addition to the third miracle of instruction. We have also seen how the Buddha teaches that spiritual realization leads to psychic powers as well, possibly the first Indian to make this association, as we discussed in a previous talk. There may also be other ways of looking at these, which we will discuss in later suttas.

Kevaddha’s request to the Buddha to prove himself by means of psychic powers is impertinent. The Buddha tells him the story of another impertinent monk. This monk, who is not named, made samadhi (meditated or concentrated upon) the question, “I wonder where the four great elements – the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element – cease without remainder.” Today we would call this vipassana, which means something like ‘transcendent vision’ or ‘insight’ (lit. ‘true seeing, the seeing beyond sight, second sight’), but in this context, it is almost a kind of divination.

So intense was the monk’s concentration that a vortex opened before him, a way leading to the transcendent deva worlds. So he travelled vertically through the deva worlds,[1] including the realms of the Four Great Kings (the world of nature spirits); the Thirty Three Gods (essentially anthropomorphic deities, alluding originally to the Vedic pantheon); the Yamas (spirits of the air);  Tusita (the home of the bodhisattvas); Nimmanarati (creative spirits); Paranimmita-Vasavatti (spirits who parasitically delight in the creations of others; these are the capitalists of the kamaloka); the Brahma devas, who enjoy the first jhana, governed by the Great Brahma, who we would call simply God. He speaks to the inhabitants and the rulers of these realms, none of whom know the answer. Incidentally, we learn in the course of this sutta the names of the rulers of each of these realms, which I tabulate below.

Pali Name of Realm English Translation Name of Ruler(s)
The Form Realm (Rupaloka)
Brahma-Parisajja Retinue of Brahma Brahma[a]
The Sensual Realm (Kamaloka)
Paranimmita-Vasavatti Devas Wielding Power Over Others’ Creations Vasavatti
Nimmanarati Devas Delighting in Creation Sunimmita
Tusita Contented Santusita
Yama Blissful Suyama
Tavatimsa Thirty-Three Gods Sakka[b]
Catumaharajika Four Great Kings Four Great Kings[c]

a. Brahma is more of a title than a name. Several Brahmas are referred to in the Pali Canon, including Baka; Sahampati, who convinced the Buddha to teach the dharma; and Sanatkumara, of Theosophical fame.
b. Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Daksa, Amsa, Tvastr, Pusan, Vivasvat, Savitr, Indra, Vishu (12 “personified deities” or adityas); Ananda, Vijnana, Manas, Prana, Vac, Isana, Tatpurusa, Aghora, Vamadeva, Sadyojata, Atma (11 forms and followers of the god Rudra-Shiva, consisting of five abstractions, five names of Siva, and the Atma or ‘self’);   Prithivi, Agni, Antariksa, Jal, Vayu, Dyaus, Surya, Naksatra, Soma (eight deities of material elements, or Vasus); Indra, Prajapati (two solar deities). These are also not named in the sutta.
c. The names of the Four Great Kings, not given in this sutta,are Vaisravana, “he who hears everything”; Virudhaka, “he who causes to grow”; Dhrtarastra, “he who upholds the realm”; and Virupaksa, “he who sees all.”

To the theist, Indian or Semitic – and we must remember that Hinduism is theistic – the Buddhist view of God seems sacrilegious and, it appears, deliberately so, similar to the Gnostic demiurge, whether or not the latter is derived from the Buddhist idea, as suggested by Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels. One cannot escape the note of irony and humour in the Buddha’s story, which need not imply that the Buddha does not believe in the vertical dimension of reality or even the devas themselves.

Great Brahma is unpredictable – “we do not know when, how, and where Brahma will appear. However, when the signs are seen – when a light appears and radiance shines forth – then Brahma will appear. Such signs are an indication that he will appear.”

We have noted before the literal meaning of devas as “shining ones.” Note that Brahma himself is not identified with the radiant light. Rather, the radiant light is a prelude to the appearance of Brahma, who is invisible, unknown, and unpredictable. After a short time, Brahma appears and the monk asks him, “Friend, where do the Four Great Elements – earth, water, fire, air – cease without remainder?” The Great Brahma replies, “I am Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.”

However, the Great Brahma has not answered the question! The monk points this out. The Great Brahma merely repeats his declaration, rather like an automaton: “I am Brahma,” etc.  After one more try by the monk, Brahma takes the monk by the arm and leads him aside: “Monk, these devas believe there is nothing Brahma does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. But, monk, I don’t know where the four great elements cease without remainder.”

The Great Brahma is the Wizard of Oz! The Great Brahma does not know where the four great elements cease without remainder. God is not omniscient. The back-story to God’s ignorance is told in another sutta, which we will save for that occasion.

The Great Brahma then reprimands the monk for going behind the Buddha’s back: “you have acted incorrectly by going beyond [sic] the Blessed Lord, and going in search of an answer to this question elsewhere. Now, monk, you just go to the Blessed Lord, and put this question to him, and whatever answer he gives, accept it.” So stepping into the vortex once again, the monk appears before the Buddha and asks him his question.

The Buddha compares the monk to a land-sighting bird. A land-sighting bird, like Noah’s dove, returns to the ship if it does not find land. Similarly, the monk has returned to the Buddha in search of an answer to his question. It seems that another story has been inserted into sutta, and in the process, the first part of the story – when the monk was first with the Buddha – implied but never told, has been elided. Perhaps we’ll find it in another sutta. Perhaps the Buddha is refusing to answer the monk’s question, which, the Buddha says, is wrongly put.

It is not that the four great elements cease, but that they find no footing. The Buddha frames this as a “place” where duality is destroyed. The Buddha’s reply sounds almost like the riddle of the sphinx:[2]

Where do earth, water, fire, and air no footing find?
Where are long and short, small and great, fair and foul–
Where are ‘name and form’ wholly destroyed?

The binary unity of name and form, namarupa, the psychosomatic complex (subject and object), sometimes translated “mind and matter,” itself dual and trans-dual, refers to the Five Aggregates as well as the four nidanas of the chain of interdependent arising (paticcasamuppada).[3] Therefore, namarupa is destroyed by the realization of the trans-dual. The four great elements, which arise out of the interdependent unity of name and form, are sensory-cognitive modes and, as such, essentially dual in character, as is reason itself. The cessation of the four great elements suggests a physical place, whereas the Buddha’s answer pertains to mind, specifically, the transcendence of dualistic rational sense-bound consciousness. The answer, therefore, is “in the mind,” but even this is false if you objectify the mind, for the mind is not an “object.” The mind is the precondition of all objectification.

Where consciousness is signless (anidassinam), boundless, all-luminous (pabham),
That’s where earth, fire, water and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul –
There ‘name and form’ are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness this is all destroyed.

The Buddha’s reference to “both long and short, small and great, fair and foul” reminds us of chapter 2 of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching:

To be and not (to be) grow out of each other,
The ominous and the facile impale each other,
The eternal and the momentary mold each other,
Above and below topple each other,
Voice and instrument harmonize with each other,
Past and future follow each other. (author’s translation)

Trans-dual consciousness has three qualities:

  • Signlessness;
  • Boundlessness;
  • All-luminosity.

The first quality is anidassinam in Pali. It refers to the invisible or the unseen.

All-luminosity is Pali pabham. Pabham means “radiant” (pa implies direction, hence, the vector or ray). Walshe gives an alternative form of this word that presumably appears in some editions of the Pali Canon: paham. Paham is obscure and may mean the steps leading down into the cleansing water (of nirvana) or even “giving up entirely.” Although Buddhaghosa favours the latter interpretation, Walshe prefers the former.

These three characteristics suggest the tripartite Ein in the Cabalistic diagram of the Tree of Life (Etz Chaim), that constitutes the basis of the metaphysical system of the Western Esoteric Tradition, viz., Ein (Nothing), Ein Sof (Without Limit), and Ein Sof Ohr (or Ohr Ein Sof, Light Without Limit).

Apparently, Kevaddha delighted and rejoiced in these words of the Buddha, his answer found, his riddle solved. 

Lohicca the Brahman

Digha Nikaya 12

The location of this sutta is Salavatika, where the Buddha stayed during a tour of Kosala, accompanied by a large entourage. It is described as populous, full of grass, timber, water, and corn  – a standard description of a prosperous place – and was run (Access to Insight has “reigned over”) by the Brahman Lohicca, who had been given the town by King Pasenadi. All I can discover about Salavatika online is that it is a town.

Lohicca has become obsessed by the thought that altruism, as we would term it, is unskilful and an expression of attachment, “for what can one man do for another”? Therefore, whatever good[4] one gains, in the largest sense of wealth, possessions, property, knowledge, truth, expertise, etc. – in short, everything of value that one can take for oneself – should be kept to, for, and by oneself, giving nothing to and sharing nothing with others. This ethical philosophy of selfishness has enjoyed something of a renascence in “latter-day” capitalism in such ideologies as social Darwinism, capitalism, libertarianism, neo-conservatism, etc. Lohicca, however, must also have some doubts, for he seeks out the Buddha’s opinion by inviting him to breakfast with him through his friend,[5] the barber Bhesika. Bhesika told the Buddha about the “evil thought” of Lohicca. Despite Lohicca’s evil thought, he has sufficient reverence for the Buddha to serve him hard and soft foods himself (we’ll come back to discuss hard and soft food in a later sutta). The sutta tells us that Lohicca sat to one side of the Buddha on a low stool, an unusual detail.

The Buddha asks Lohicca if what he has heard is true, that Lohicca has developed an evil argument, etc., as described above. Lohicca affirms it. Therefore, the Buddha asks Lohicca, “if anyone should say, ‘The Brahman Lohicca resides at Salavatika, and he should enjoy the entire fruits and revenues of Salavatika, not giving anything away to others’ – would not anyone who spoke like that be a source of danger to your tenants?” Lohicca agrees that such a person would be dangerous. Thus, the Buddha takes Lohicca through a progression from being a source of danger – not being solicitous of their welfare – a heart full of hatred – wrong view – rebirth.

Finally, the Buddha declares, wrong view leads to an evil rebirth (nirayam va tiracchana-yonim va). Walshe conventionally translates this as “hell or an animal rebirth,” noting, however, that “it is doubtful whether either term originally meant what it was later taken to mean,” referring I assume to the objectification of hell (niraya) and animal (tiracchana). “Rebirth” is the Pali yoni.

The first thing to note here generally is that the Buddhist concept of “hell” differs significantly from the Semitic concept. (BTW, when I say “Semitic” I am referring to the so-called Abrahamic tradition, which includes Islam, instead of the more limited term Judaeo-Christian, which arbitrarily excludes Islam.)  As is often the case, using a Semitic English word to translate a Buddhist concept is misleading for an English reader, with all of the historical associations that the use of such words implies. We encounter this problem repeatedly in many English translations of the Pali Canon, including modern ones.

Second, as Walshe points out, in the Pali Canon the concept of “hell” is far less hellish than in later Buddhist iconography (a similar phenomenon occurs in Christianity). For example, in the Angulimala Sutta being beaten up by a small crowd is equated with “many thousands of years” of hell. This relates to other references that the Buddha makes, referring to the efficaciousness of the dharma.  Nirayan is equivalent to Vedic nirrti, ‘adversity, dissolution, bottom or lower depths of the earth, evil, calamity, destruction, death or the genius of death.’

Tiracchana only means ‘animal’ by implication. Literally, it means ‘not erect.’ Finally, yoni is a word rich in significance in Indian spirituality and refers to the ‘womb.’ A better translation of this sentence, therefore, might be “Truly, Lohicca, I declare that (this) groundless opinion dooms one to one of two rebirths – to be born in a wretched or a brutish state!” (Micchādiṭṭhissa kho aha, lohicca, dvinna gatīna aññatara gati vadāmi – niraya vā tiracchānayoni). Walshe’s concern for modern sensitivities notwithstanding, it’s clear from the Pali Canon that the Buddha saw all sentience as a universal continuum that includes the six classes of rebirth, and therefore implies that any one class may be reborn as any other class, either ascending or descending, so “hell-beings” and animals are obviously included. I declare that anyone with a pet will understand this perfectly, and this doctrine provides a logical basis for the ethical prohibition against cruelty to animals, which has not always been the case and which has little logical basis otherwise. Indeed, providing a logical, which is to say, an ontological, basis for ethics is one of the great contributions of the Buddha to philosophy.

Incidentally, “hell-beings” is a poor term to describe an inhabitant of the Buddhist purgatories, but what is the English word for an inhabitant of purgatory? I’m not sure English has a precise alternative. Nevertheless, they are a distinct class of being, distinct from asuras (“anti-gods,” another hard word to translate), humans, and ghosts, who suffer intensely as their negative karma ripens; they are reborn in temporary states of enormous suffering and woe, through which they purge themselves of negative karma and, when positive qualities preponderate, they may be reborn as devas or even human beings.

The Buddhist hells have such charming names as “burst blister,” “shivering,” lamentation” “chattering teeth,” “black thread,” “crushing,” “great screaming,” and “great heating.” Others sound less threatening, such as “lotus,” “reviving,” and “uninterrupted.” The lotus naraka is so cold that it makes the skin turn blue (like a lotus) and crack. The “reviving” naraka has ground made of molten iron. Inhabitants of the “uninterrupted’ naraka are roasted in an oven for an antarakalpa, a Buddhist cycle of time equivalent to 4.25 x 10 to the 17th years long. Despite these names, the doctrine of karma requires proportionality, in which effects are proportional to causes and positive and negative effects precisely cancel each other out, so that each rebirth is precisely calibrated to the net karmic quality at the instance of death.   Although human beings do not usually remember their past lives, devas, ghosts, and hell-beings do. Since it seems doubtful that animals remember their past lives, this places humans closer to the animals in terms of conscious development. The Buddhist view concerning the closeness of humans and animals is in striking contrast to the Semitic religious worldview, in which angels (devas) and humans reflect the Godhead but animals and the earth itself exist only as objects to be used by humans, and are inherently soulless; the Buddhist view is strangely prophetic of the doctrine of biological evolution.

Walshe notes that the Buddha declared non-belief in the doctrine of rewards and punishments for good and evil deeds to be particularly reprehensible. Thus, the Buddha equates Lohicca’s doctrine of active self-interest (“discovers some good dharma”) as equivalent to immoralism itself.

The Buddha clearly sees the outcome of such a system, when one or another actor has taken all the available good up. In a scenario in which every actor seeks only their own good and no one else’s, and seeks to maximize and retain as much good as he can for themselves, without regard for any other consideration – a system that today we would call capitalism – such a system would fall into increasing competition for the diminishing quantity of good that is still available, until the only good that is available is the good of others. At this point, all of the actors begin to prey upon each other with increasing ferocity until only one actor remains, through a process of vicious struggle. Thus, capitalism leads to increasingly tyrannical monopolies until eventually we are left with a global dictatorship, in which the arbitrary desire and self-interest of the dictator determines the whole system of social organization.

At this point the Buddha neatly segues from a discussion of a wrong teaching (Lohicca’s evil argument) to a discussion of wrong teachers. The Buddha identifies three types of blameworthy teacher:

  • A teacher who has not attained the goal of asceticism, and his disciples don’t listen to him;
  • A teacher who has not attained the goal of asceticism, but his disciples do listen to him;
  • A teacher who has attained the goal of asceticism, but his disciples don’t listen to him.

The fourth teacher is the blameless one who has attained the goal of asceticism and his disciples listen to him. The Tathagata is the supreme example of this. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, the Buddha says that attaining the first jhana is the qualification to teach dharma.

Lohicca sees the error of his ways, and immediately takes Refuge in Gotama, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The reference to “as long as life shall last” shows that the ideal expectation is that one does not leave the order. This is also true of the monastic order, although the Vinaya provides a way for the monastic to withdraw without dishonouring himself should he choose to do so.


1. In the Western Esoteric Tradition this is called “Rising on the Planes.”

2. “It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asks all passersby the most famous riddle in history: ‘Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?’ She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer.” (Wikipedia)

3. Pali paticca, ‘following from anything as a necessary result’+ sam, ‘together’+ pada, ‘cause.’ At least 12 English translations have been proposed, none of which has less than six syllables. There are already two English words that have approximately this meaning: ‘codetermination’ and ‘coproduction.’ Personally, I prefer either of these to such tongue torturers as   ‘interdependent origination’ and ‘interdependent co-arising.’ The essential meaning of the phrase is that effect and the cause are mutually involved – there is no effect without a cause, there is no cause without an effect. Therefore, they are the same. Hence, the unity of cause and effect is paticcasamuppada. From this various inferences follow, including the beginninglessness of samsara, the “now,”  non-locality, and trans-duality. The term also refers to a specific ‘chain’ (nidana) of 12 cause/effects that shows samsara as an essential, though illusory, aspect of reality. Although the “wheel” of samsara seems to represent a closed system, two links are subject to will, i.e., ignorance (avijja), the root of the whole system, and craving (tanha), resulting in two paths to transcendence – the primary path of wisdom, corresponding to ignorance, and the secondary path of dispassion, corresponding to desirous attachment. The former is the path of the bodhisattva, which leads to Buddhahood, the latter the path of the stream entrant (sotapanna), which leads to Arhantship.

4. The Pali phrase that Walshe translates as “good doctrine” is kusalam dhammam. From the examples that the Buddha gives – enjoying the entire fruit and revenues, not giving anything away to others, not being solicitous of their welfare, being uncompassionate – it is clear that the implication of kusalam dhammam extends far beyond doctrine. The word dhamma has a wide range of meanings, including (according to the PED) ‘thing,’ while the basic meaning of kusala is productive of merit (i.e., value). Therefore, a kusalam dhammam is a ‘valuable thing.’

5. The term ‘friend’ (avuso ‘friend, brother’) was also used in the sangha during the Buddha’s lifetime, but was changed to “Lord” or “Venerable Sir” (when referring to a monk of greater seniority, or to any monk when a nun) after the Buddha’s passing (parinibbana). The term appears to be a conventional mode of polite address, as amongst the Quakers, or the use of “comrade” by communists.