Tevijja Sutta (DN 13)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Threefold Science

Digha Nikaya 13

Astute students may recognize two English words in the title of this sutta. Pali te is ‘three’ (or ‘threefold’), whereas vijja clearly is ‘vision’ or, more properly ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom.’ Thus, Walshe translates this as the ‘sutta of the threefold knowledge,’ the opposite of avijja, ignorance’ or ‘not knowing’ (‘no vision’), but with an ironic twist, as we shall see.

Kosala we have encountered before.

All I know about Manasakata is that it is the name of a village south of the river Achiravati, now known as the river Rapti. The name means ‘mind-begotten’ (Pali manasa + kata).   Sravasti (Savatthi) is also located on the bank of this river, located in mid-southern Nepal. The Buddha stayed at a mango grove on the bank of this river.

A number of Brahmans were staying in the town, described as rich and famous. One of these, Todeyya, is the father of Subha, who would later ask Ananda to explain to him the things that the Buddha praised and dispraised after the parinirvana in the Subha Sutta, which we have already discussed.

Two young Brahmans, Vasettha and Bharadvaja by name, began to argue between themselves while walking along the road about right and wrong paths leading to Union with Brahma. Vasettha advocated the philosophy of the Brahman Pokkharasati, while Bharadvaja defended Tarukkha.

Pokkharasati is the Brahman in the Ambattha Sutta (DN 3), whose student insults the Buddha. Concerning Tarukkha I have not able to find out anything. In any case, the two youths could not agree on whose teacher was right, each believing that their own teacher alone was the true one.

They agree to take the question to the Buddha, who is in the vicinity, and to abide by his decision as arbitrator.

The two complain to the Buddha about how many different paths there are, in the course of which they name five Brahmanic schools: the Adhariyans, Tittiriyans, Chandokans, Chandavans, and the Brahmacariyans (or Bavharijans). Walshe describes the first four as Vedic priests who relied on liturgy, sacrifice, or chant, contrasted with some ascetics who practised chastity. We can see the word ‘chanter’ in Chandoka (Chandoga) and ‘chastity’ in Brahmacariya. Tittiriya (Taittiriya) means ‘pupils of the Taittiriyans.’  A better Sanskritist than I might be in a position to cast further light on the meaning of these words.

Rather than choose one, the Buddha asks Vasettha whether any of these Brahmans, their ancestors, or even the rishis, the original makers and expounders of the mantras, have actually ever seen Brahma face to face? Compare the Biblical tradition of seeing God face to face. The Buddha names ten such rishis. This list also occurs in the Vinaya Pitaka (Mahavagga, I.245). In the latter, the Buddha declares that the true Veda was revealed to the rishis, but subsequently distorted by priestcraft. This is the view of the rishis to which I am coming also through my own study of the suttas. Clearly, the Buddha had great respect for the ancient Indian tradition and its antecedents but regarded Brahmanism as a decadent remnant of the original spiritual tradition. Concerning Atthaka, Vamaka, and Vamadeva I have not been able to find out anything useful, but the rest are great rishis, including six of the Seven Sages (Saptarishi) of Ursa Major, consisting of seven bright stars that point to the Pole Star or Axis Mundi. Interestingly, the Buddha’s parinirvana occurred just about one Ursa Major cycle (2,700 years) after the traditional date of the advent of the Kali Yuga, which would put his passing on in 402 BCE

The Seven Sages authored different parts of the Vedas as well as other things.

  • Atthaka (Atthako): ?
  • Vamaka (Vamako): ?
  • Vamadeva (Vamadevo): ?
  • Vessamitta (Vessamitto, Vishvamitra): Formerly a king, Vessamitta is venerated as a great and powerful rishi of ancient India, and the discoverer of the Gayatri mantra. The Gayatri mantra is a Vedic Sanskrit verse from the Rigveda (3.62.10). It is associated with Savitr, and is therefore called the Savitr mantra. Literally ‘impeller, rouser, vivifier,’ Savitr is the son of Aditi, the mother of the gods and the twelve signs of the zodiac. Savitr is also associated with the vivifying influence of Surya, the sun, just before sunrise.

[Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ]

tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ

bhárgo devásya dhīmahi

dhíyo yó naḥ prachodáyāt

Vivekananda (1915) translates this as “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds.”

  • Yamataggi (Jamadagni, Jamdagni): One of the Seven Sages and a descendant of Bhrigu.
  • Angirasa (Angiras, Angiraso): Another of the Seven Sages, the reputed father of the ancestors of humanity, he is also credited as being a direct ancestor of the Buddha. He is said to have been born out of the divine intellect of Brahma. Brahma assigned to him the task of caring for the welfare of Brahma’s creation.
  • Bharadvaja* (Bharadwaja, Bharadwajo): A descendent of Angirasa and one of the Seven Sages, renowned for his scholarship and meditative accomplishments, including egolessness. Reputed author of the Ayurveda.
  • Vasettha* (Vasistha, Vassettho): Another of the Seven Sages, he is supposed to have authored a book on the Vedic system of electional astrology.
  • Kassapa (Kassapo): Another of the Seven Sages.
  • Bhagu (Bhrigu): Another of the Seven Sages, inventor of predictive astrology. Krishna compares Bhagu to the ‘opulence of God’ (Bhagavad Gita).

* Presumably the coincidence of name means nothing more than that the Brahmans were named after those rishis.

Six of these rishis belong to the Seven Sages (Saptarishi), but it is impossible to say who the missing rishi is, since different lists exist, none of which corresponds to the Buddhist list exactly. There are at least eleven possible candidates, therefore, one of whom, interestingly, is named Gautama.

Walshe describes these as the ten rishi authors of the Vedic mantras.

The rishis, whose number included both men and women, were ecstatic seers whose utterance inspired the Vedas, which were then transmitted orally from generation to generation. The rishis are enlightened householders, married with descendants. When recited aloud, their verses invoke the devas. It is reasonable to suppose that the hymns of the Rigveda were inspired by the devas when the rishis entered into ecstatic trance states.  A similar cult is associated with the ayahuasqueros of Peru. The rishis understood the art of travelling in a mental body, which involved the creation of an imaginal mind-body and its projection into higher dimensions of reality, with which they conversed with the devas and manifested their wisdom, power, and beauty in the form of song. Vivekananda called them ‘seers of thought.’

Even these divinely inspired seers had not seen Brahma face to face. Therefore, the Buddha declares, the entire Vedic Brahmanic conceit is ill founded, because it is speculative, not based on actual experience. The Buddha declares the Brahmans to be like the blind leading the blind: “The talk of these Brahmans learned in the Three Vedas turns out to be laughable, mere words empty and vain.”

Vasettha agrees with the Buddha that the Brahmans see the sun and the moon just like everyone else and that, although they may pray, sing praises to, and worship the sun and the moon, this does not mean that they know the path to union with the sun and the moon. We learned in the previous sutta that even the Brahmas could not predict when, how, or where Brahma would appear, therefore neither did the rishis and nor the Brahmans know this, nor do they know the way to Union with Brahma.

The Buddha compares the Brahmans, rather ludicrously, to a young man searching for the perfect girl, without knowing when, how, or where he will find her or even what she looks like; a man building a staircase going to nowhere; or a man trying to cross a raging river by beckoning to the other side.

Moreover, he says, the Brahmans neglect what they should do and do what they should not do. This criticism of the Brahmans for self-indulgence and general laxity is frequently levelled against them by the Buddha. The Buddha also rejects the method of deva invocation (including prayer) to attain Union with Brahma. Thus, the Buddha rejects the fundamental premise of religious theism, as we have discussed before. He says that the Brahmans are enslaved by sense desires, which are bonds and fetters. In addition, they are hindered by sensuality, ill will, sloth and torpor, worry and flurry, and doubt, encumbered by wives, wealth, hatred, ill will, impurity, and lack of discipline.

By comparison, the Buddha notes that Brahma is unencumbered by wives and wealth, hatred, ill will, impurity, and lack of discipline. If one does not possess the qualities of Brahma at death, then how can he be reborn as Brahma? The law of karma forbids it. “Therefore their threefold knowledge is called the threefold desert, the threefold wilderness, the threefold destruction.”

The Brahman Vasettha’s rather unlikely response is that he has heard that the Buddha knows the way to Union with Brahma. The assertion that the Buddha has this reputation itself is interesting. When Vasettha tells the Buddha this, the Buddha says:

What do you think, Vasettha? Suppose there were a man here born and brought up in Manasakata, and somebody who had come from Manasakata and had missed the road should ask him the way. Would that man, born and bred in Manaskata, be in a state of confusion or perplexity?

Vasettha answers that he would not.

And why not? Because such a man would know all the paths.

The implication is that the Buddha is the one who knows all the paths. Elsewhere the Buddha compares the dharma to an overgrown path leading to the abandoned ruins of a long forgotten city in the midst of an ancient forest – perhaps a ‘mind-begotten’ city? Moreover, the Buddha knows more than the Brahman speculators do. He himself has travelled this path and knows the path of practice that leads to Union with Brahma.

Finally, the Buddha makes his point. The way to Union with Brahma, the Buddha says, consists in the attainment of three things:

  • the practice of morality;
  • first jhana; and
  • the practice of metta meditation, the contemplation on loving kindness.

The Buddha describes this meditation thus:

With his heart filled with loving kindness, he dwells suffusing one quarter, the second, third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upwards, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with loving kindness, abundant, unbounded, without hate or ill-will. …

Then with his heart filled with compassion, with sympathetic joy, with equanimity he dwells suffusing one quarter the second, the third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upward, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with equanimity, abundant, unbounded, without hate or ill will.

In this doctrine of meditation on compassion leading to rebirth in the kingdom of the heaven of the Brahmas, the Buddha is setting forth a teaching that would be echoed four hundred years later by Yeshua (Jesus), the great Jewish bodhisattva of Galilee, along with many other elements of the dharma. Nevertheless, rebirth in the Brahma worlds is not the goal of dharma, which aims much higher. Indeed, dharma aims beyond anything that is able to be conceptualized, though one must reach that point of transcendent realization through the cultivation of wisdom.

Interestingly, the Buddha adds this easily overlooked detail: “he leaves nothing untouched, nothing unaffected in the sensuous sphere. This, Vasettha, is the way to Union with Brahma.” This point corresponds to the Buddha’s emphasis on mindfulness of the body, which we discussed in a previous talk.

The Buddha invites Vasettha to compare the qualities of Brahma with the qualities of the Buddhist monastic. Vasettha agrees that they possess identical qualities Thus, the Buddha implies, it is the monastic who attains Union with Brahma.

Vasettha and Bharadvaja take refuge as lay householders in Gotama, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

This sutta is often interpreted as though the Buddha did not really mean it, that the whole sutta is an elaborate ruse to trick Vasettha and Bharadvaja into the right path. I think this conclusion implies a lack of respect and even a shady nature that I do not believe that the Buddha had. Rather, the Buddha is revealing to Vasettha and Bharadvaja the inner meaning of their own premises. The Buddha is also revealing a way of religion suited to the Brahmans and lay householders, whereas the Buddha intimates that the monastics possess an even more subtle and profound interpretation that reveals the ancient and archaic heart of the dharma, long lost by and forgotten to the Brahmans whom he addresses and berates for their superficial character, not because he is opposed to Brahmanism as such, but rather because he is opposed to the orthodoxy of exotericism that had come to dominate the religion of the late Vedic period, characterized as it was by ritualism and dogmatism. Against this, the Buddha posits the way of the rishis, whose religion was grounded in direct knowledge based on immediate ecstatic experience.


The Tevijja Sutta is the last sutta of the first division of the Digha Nikaya, entitled the Moralities. Those of you who have been following along in the Walshe translation will know that this collection of thirteen suttas is highly repetitive, referring again and again to self-restraint, the jhanas, the insights, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and nirvana from various angles. In addition to this exploration, we have gleaned many insights into the nature of the Buddhadharma. To conclude this talk I will briefly summarize what we have learned in the course of discussing the first thirteen suttas.

The first thing we learn in the first sutta of the Suttapitaka is that the moral rules and regulations may impress people but are in themselves not sufficient or adequate to describe the Tathagata or to attain awakening or emancipation itself. Ethics and morality are “elementary and inferior.” Thus, the Suttapitaka begins with an extensive exploration of what the dharma is not. In particular, the dharma is not ethics or speculation. We are also introduced to the centrality of rationality in the spiritual quest. All speculative views are rejected because dualistic rationality cannot possibly penetrate the mystery of dharma, which is transcendent, trans-rational, and trans-dual. Realization is only attainable by direct intuitive experience. Therefore, any view that can be conceptualized as a world is a trap that leads to rebirth in just that sort of world. True awakening is beyond all views and beyond rationality itself, and is therefore an uncharacterizable mystery.

In the second sutta we learn what are the fruits of the monastic life, which include four meditative accomplishments (the jhanas), culminating in perfect insight; five psychic powers, culminating in the Divine Eye whereby one perceives the karma of others; and, finally, perfect mindfulness, awakening, and emancipation. In addition, we learn of the centrality of the mindfulness of the body in Buddhist practice.

In the third sutta, we learn that caste and race are irrelevant.

In the fourth sutta, we begin to see that the Buddha’s dharma corresponds to the ancient Indian religion of which contemporary Brahmanism is merely a degenerate remnant, and that the true Brahman is the spiritual practitioner based on his or her spiritual qualities alone.

In the fifth sutta, we learn how the Buddha reinterpreted Brahmanic ritualism in ethical and spiritual terms, and the Buddha’s social and political philosophy, which today we would call social democracy.

In the sixth sutta, we see how Buddhist spirituality was practised and experienced, including the reality of altered states of consciousness and psychic powers. The Buddha also sets out the path of the arhant and alludes to the mind stream (santana) and the intuition that the body as sentience.

In the eighth sutta, the Buddha declares that the practices of asceticism are superficial, mechanical observances that can be performed by anyone, but that true asceticism is an asceticism of the mind, as well as ten criteria that establish the truth of the Buddha’s speech.

In the ninth sutta, the Buddha asserts the absoluteness of the law of karma. Nothing that occurs is causeless, or fails to have its effect. Further, the Buddha sets out the whole process of mindfulness (beginning with controlled perception and leading through stages to the limit of perception and cessation). He teaches that no worlds are excluded from suffering, and therefore the attainment of emancipation transcends all worldly conceptions, including “heaven.” He reveals that there are three kinds of acquired self – gross, mind-made, and formless – corresponding to the three worlds of sensuality, form, and formlessness.

In the tenth sutta, the Buddha discusses the Threefold Classification of the Noble Eightfold Path and reiterates that morality is inadequate, that more needs to be done to attain awakening.

In the eleventh sutta,  the Buddha declares that there are three types of miracle – psychic powers, telepathy, and the miracle of dharma teaching or instruction, which is the greatest miracle of all, because it confers emancipation. The first category of miracle includes such powers as self-multiplication, invisibility, passing through matter, etc. Although these powers are only exceptionally witnessed in this world, interestingly, there are three contexts in which they are experienced: dreams, the psychedelic experience, and the UFO phenomenon. It stretches credulity to suggest that this association is accidental. The miracle of teaching relates to the power of truth. We also see that meditative concentration (samadhi) can be used to gain access to the deva worlds to answer spiritual and metaphysical questions, and that God is fake! Finally, trans-dual consciousness, where material forms find no footing, is characterized by signlessness, boundlessness, and all-luminosity, similar to the Cabalistic trinity of Ein, Ein Sof, and Ein Sof Or.

In the twelfth sutta, the Buddha rejects the philosophy of egoism and advocates a philosophy of social responsibility based on altruism.

Finally, in the thirteenth sutta, the Buddha declares that the true Veda was revealed by the rishis – male and female shamans, married householders, whose spirituality was grounded in ecstatic experience, unlike the Brahmans who no longer have any connection to experiential spirituality, but rely on liturgy, sacrifice, and chant. Elsewhere we have discussed how the spirituality of the rishis was based on the soma sacrifice, which originally consisted in consuming a psychedelic sacrament, not unlike the ayahuasca cult of Peru. The Buddha also reveals the way to Union with Brahma, which consists of self-control, jhana, and meditation on loving kindness (metta) directed toward the whole sensual creation and all created beings, and declares that only he who is like Brahma will attain to rebirth in the Brahma worlds. This is, however, not the goal of Buddhism.

Next week we begin the second division of the Digha Nikaya, called the Great Division, consisting of  ten suttas. These suttas are longer than the suttas of the Moralities, consisting of sixteen pages on average, compared to nine pages.