Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mahagovinda Sutta (DN 19)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, February 22, 2015.
Buddha Cave
Buddha Cave, Vulture’s Peak

In this sutta, the Buddha is staying at Vulture’s Peak (Griddhraj Parvat) in Rajagaha, the same place as at the opening of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Located near the village of Devrajnagar, it consists of four caves and is unique in the world for the large number of vultures that congregate there.

Shortly before sunrise, Pancasikha appears as a “splendid radiance.”This is the same Pancasikha as the previous sutta, described as a young boy, beloved by the devas. Here we learn that he is a gandhabba, an attendant of Dhrtarastra, the guardian of the east and god of music, harmony, and compassion, in the realm of the Four Great Kings. Sanat Kumara chooses to appear to the devas of the realm of the 33 Gods as the lowest rank of deva. Pancasikha is also a messenger between the realm of the 33 Gods and the Four Great Kings, who together monitor human progress, and probably a musician too. Gandhabbas are aerial, associated with flowers and trees, and dwell in the scents of bark, sap, and blossom, rather like fairies. His name means “five top-knots,” alluding to the style of his hair which he wore in the same style as when he died as a young boy. Pancasikha has some of the characteristics of Mercury in the Greek pantheon.


Pancasikha comes to the Buddha in his capacity as messenger, conveying to him the same story that we heard in the previous sutta in which Sakka, the chief of the realm of the 33 Gods, praises the Buddha in eight statements in which he declares that the Buddha is:

  1. Supreme among teachers in compassion for the world.
  2. Supreme amongst teachers for the quality of his dharma, described as “here and now, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise each one for himself” – a description which we have already encountered in sutta 18 and will not go into again here.
  3. Supreme amongst teachers for the quality of his moral and ethical teachings.
  4. Supreme amongst teachers for his explanation of Buddhist practice.
  5. Supreme among teachers for the quality of his sangha.
  6. Supreme amongst teachers for good reputation without conceit on his part.
  7. Supreme amongst teachers for the mutual coherence of his speech and his actions, a quality that we observed in sutta 16, where king Ajatasattu attempts to use the Buddha as an oracle to divine the outcome of his war with the Vajjians.
  8. Supreme amongst teachers for certainty of mind.

In response to such praise, some of the gods exclaim, “Oh, if only  four fully enlightened Buddhas were to arise in the world, and teach Dhamma just like the Blessed Lord!” In the last talk, I suggested that this sutta in which this assembly is documented describes a previous kalpa. However, this passage suggests that the Buddha of that time was in fact Kakusandha, who was succeeded by three Buddhas, Konagamma, Kassapa, and Gotama, and who is to be followed by Maitreya, five Buddhas in all (Kakusandha plus four more). Such an age is both rare and fortunate.

Sakka sets forth an important principle of Buddhist cosmology: that only one Buddha can exist in a single “world-system” at any given time. What this means in the context of modern cosmology is somewhat obscure. Is a “world-system” a dharma age, a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, or universe? All of these are world-systems, or kappas. 

The appearance of Sanatkumara is similar to the previous sutta, and I will not repeat myself here. Instead, Sanatkumara asks the 33 gods, “For how long has the Blessed Lord been one of mighty wisdom,” and proceeds to tell a tale based on that theme.

Govinda Krishna

The story is that of King Disampati, whose religious adviser (purohita) was called the Steward (Govinda, lit. “cowherd,” an epithet of Krishna). Although this was a Brahmanic religious office, the Steward was also an expert in business and managed all of the king’s worldly affairs too.  The king’s son’s name was Renu, and the Steward’s son was called Jotipala. Together with six other ksatriyas, they formed a group of eight friends. The king was becoming something of a dissolute, and just when he was beginning to abandon himself to the pleasures of the five senses the Steward died, to the king’s regret.  Renu recommends to Disampati that he allow Jotipala to manage his affairs, to which the king agrees. Jotipala fulfilled this royal function well, and became known as the Great Steward. As Disampati became decrepit with age and entered into his dotage, Jotipala went to the six friends and encouraged them to approach Renu and suggest that he share the kingship with them after his father’s death. After Disampati died, the Kshatriya assembly (another sign of nascent democracy) appointed Renu as a constitutional monarch, after which, like his father, he abandoned himself to the pleasures of the six senses. Jahampati sent the six nobles to remind King Renu of his duty. Therefore, King Renu had Jahampati divide his kingdom – which appears to have been identical with the Indian subcontinent – into seven parts, the central part for himself, and the remaining six parts for the six nobles.

These became known as the seven Bharat kings, Bharata being the original term for India, after Bharata, the mythological emperor and founder of the Bharata dynasty. Thus, Jotipala became the Great Steward of the seven kings. He also taught the mantras to seven notable Brahmans and 700 advanced students.

Jotipala himself became so notable that he acquired the reputation of conversing with God (Brahma). Although this was not in fact true, Jotipala decided to undertake the metta meditation during the rainy season (July to October) to try to be worthy of his own reputation. The metta meditation is of course the meditation on loving kindness, which the Buddha introduced in sutta 13 as the way to achieve Union with God, the goal of Brahmanism. We encountered the famous metta meditation in sutta 13, so I don’t think we need to go into it further here. Therefore, Jotipala took leave of his 40 wives and withdrew to a building that he had built east of the city to withdraw into meditation and no one came near him except to bring him food. However, at the end of this time, the Great Steward had not experienced any success and was dissatisfied, whereupon Sanatkumara appeared before him in a splendid, glorious, and divine vision. Jotipala offers a seat, water for the feet, and cakes to Sanatkumara, who in return offers Jotipala a boon – an archetypal mytholological theme that we find repeated worldwide, and which underlies the ngondro practice of mandala offering in Tibetan Buddhism.

Jotipala asks Sanatkumara how mortals can achieve the deathless Brahma world, noting that he asks both for himself and for others. This is of course the Brahman view of the Brahma world, not the Buddhist view, which holds all worlds and their inhabitants to be subject to mortality. Sanatkumara replies that to reach the deathless Brahma world he must abandon the householder life and enter into homelessness, abandoning his possessions and family; live alone in the forest, at the foot of a tree, in a mountain glen, in a rocky cave, in a charnel ground, in the jungle, or on a heap of grass in the open; develop concentration; suffuse the whole world with living kindness; and abandon anger, lying, fraud, cheating, avarice, pride, jealousy, coveting, doubt, harming others, greed, hatred, stupor, delusion, and lust.

Jotipala goes to the king and resigns his office as Steward, whereupon the king declares that he will follow Jotipala into homelessness. He compares Jotipala to a beryl, a semi-precious stone that we have encountered before in connection with the Precious Jewel. Here it is a metaphor for mindfulness. The six nobles, however, try to bribe Jotipala, thinking that he is like other Brahmans of that time, first with money, then with women. Their attempt fails, and they too declare that they will follow Jotipala into homelessness if he is willing to wait seven years.

Jotipala refuses to wait seven years, however, declaring that wisdom is won by means of mantra (mantaya), which Walshe glosses as “wisdom.” The literal meaning of this word is, however, relevant here, because it reinforces other references to mantra in the Pali Canon that clearly indicate Buddhism’s recognition of the efficacy of mantra in addition to the salvific importance of wisdom. Finally, Jotipala agrees to wait seven days for the nobles to join him in homelessness.

At the end of the seven days, Jotipala shaves off his hair and beard, donned yellow robes, and enters into homelessness. Note that putting on robes, which we associate with Buddhist monasticism, was in fact adopted by the Buddhists from the samanas, and that such entering into homelessness did not require any organizational approval but was a purely individual decision. This is of course exactly what the Buddha did when he abandoned the householder life, there being no sangha for him to join. Thus, Jotipala and Gotama were both self-ordained, which was the original form of ordination for the same reason that democracy was the original form of government in the Buddhist view. The seven kings, seven Brahmans, 700 advanced students, 40 wives, several thousand Kshatriyas, several thousand Brahmans, and several thousand householders, including some harem women (prostitutes), joined him in this state.

Therefore, Jotipala wandered the streets, begging for food, and practising the metta meditation. Because of his fame and influence, many people were born in a higher state, ranging from the gandhabbas in the realm of the Four Great Kings to the Brahma world itself.

Pancasikha asks the Buddha if he remembers this story. The Buddha affirms that he does, and that he was Jotipala in that life. Thus, the Mahagovinda Sutta is a past life story of the Buddha, which may also be found in the Jatakas. However, he declares, “that holy life does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace to super-knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana, but only to birth in the Brahma world, whereas my holy life leads unfailingly to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace to super-knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, namely Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right mindfulness, Right Concentration.” Last week I think it was somebody asked me what the “holy life” refers to, so here is your answer. We have of course encountered the NEP before and will not discuss it again here. Therefore, the Buddha reveals to Pancasikha the dharma that goes beyond Brahmanism, with its religious goal of rebirth in the Brahma heaven, much like Semitic religiosity, and leads to the qualitatively ultimate accomplishment, transcendent emancipation from all of samsara itself. The Buddha further declares that those of his disciples who have “fully mastered my teaching” achieve super-knowledge (i.e., gnosis), the destruction of the corruptions, and uncorrupted freedom of heart and mind, i.e., loving kindness and mindfulness. He then recapitulates the various gradations of attainment, including (1) rebirth as a deva, (2) once-returners, and (3) stream winners, achieved by the destruction of (1) the five lower fetters, (2) three fetters and the reduction of greed, hatred, and delusion, and (3) the destruction of three fetters, respectively.  The three fetters refer to belief in a self, doubt, and attachment to rites and rituals. Adding sensual desire and ill will to these make the five lower fetters.


Janavasabha Sutta (DN 18)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.

The Buddha is staying at the Brick House in Nadika, where he also stayed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. You will recall that the Buddha foretold the rebirths of many people in that community. This sutta elaborates that story, as the previous sutta elaborated Ananda’s objection to the Buddha dying near Kusinara. As Walshe points out in a footnote, the Magadhans were not mentioned initially. Ananda points this out as a defect, since many Maghadans were Buddhist, including King Bimbisara, recently killed by his son, Ajatasattu, as I have mentioned in a previous talk. Ananda also notes that the Buddha became enlightened in Magadha, at Bodh Gaya. The ability to discern the karmic fate of individuals is the ninth power of a Buddha, called the Divine Eye.

After completing his alms round, perhaps late in the morning or just after noon, the Buddha sits down in meditation in the Brick House and determines to discern the future lot and destiny of the Magadhans as Ananda requested, including King Bimbisara. In the early evening, when the sun is still able to cast a shadow, the Buddha comes out and sits in the shade. Ananda comes to him and notes that his face is “bright and shining,” a characteristic that is associated in other suttas with meditative attainment and death. Here Ananda associates it with the Buddha’s mind being tranquil.

The Buddha tells him that during his meditation he heard the voice of a yaksha, a class of nature spirit that guards natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots. There are two kinds of yaksha. This one is a nature fairy, associated with woods and mountains. (A darker version is a kind of ghost that haunts wilderness areas and waylays and devours travellers.) In Buddhist cosmology, they attend Vessavana, the guardian of the northern direction, in the realm of the Four Great Kings, next above our own world.

The yaksha identifies himself as Janavasabha. Afterards, the Buddha asks Ananda if he has heard of him. Although Ananda has not, for some reason the name excites in him both fear and respect. The yaksha appears before the Buddha, in what is termed a “noble vision,” and identifies himself as the dead King Bimbisara. He tells the Buddha that this is his seventh rebirth in the realm of the Four Great Kings, as a king and a messenger of the Guardian of the North. Interestingly, Bimbisara/Janavasabha mentions that he can recall 14 rebirths. Thus, although devas typically recall their past lives, such recall is limited, presumably according to their station in the deva worlds. Human beings only rarely recall their past lives.

Bimbisara/Janavasabha identifies himself to the Buddha as a stream enterer (“winner” in Walshe’s translation), who will achieve nirvana within seven human rebirths, and tells the Buddha that he desires to become a ‘once-returner.’ A once-returner has but one human rebirth remaining before achieving emancipation. The Buddha is astonished by Bimbisara/Janavasabha’s claim: “On what grounds can he know of such an august specific attainment?” Bimbisara/Janavasabha says that it is by the Buddha’s teaching that he knows, referring perhaps to the Mirror of Dharma practice described in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, whereby one knows that one has entered the stream. The stream enterer is identified as being free from all future states of woe and subhuman rebirths by having stricken off the three fetters of belief in a self; belief in rites, rituals, morality, and uncaused salvation; and doubt.

Triple Jewel

Bimbisara proceeds to tell the Buddha the story of an assembly of the devas in the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods on the full moon uposatha of the rainy season (vassa), probably in July, “in earlier times.” Seated in the Sudhamma Hall (“Hall of Good Counsel”), including many other devas and devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings and 2,400 devas who had been Magadhan disciples of the Buddha of that time. The faces of the devas that were disciples of the Buddha were brighter than the others were, causing the Thirty-Three devas to rejoice that the ranks of the devas are increasing while the ranks of the asuras are declining.

The War of the Gods

In order to decode the previous reference to the devas and the asuras, to which this appears to be the first reference in the Digha Nikaya, we must discuss the war between the devas and the asuras.

The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, the polar centre of the physical universe, used to be inhabited by the antigods (asuras), which now stand midway between the hells and ghosts, but the asuras were expelled in prehistory due to their competitive and desirous nature (this story is also found in the Middle Eastern legends). The chief of this realm is Sakra, a Buddhist variation of Indra, the Hindu chieftain god, who cast the antigods out. Nevertheless, it is considered a beneficent dimension. The inhabitants of this realm are also involved in human affairs. The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods is similar to ‘heaven’ in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with the realm of the antigods corresponding quite closely with ‘hell.’ Both the Semites and the Aryans believed that gods and other supernatural beings walk among us, usually invisibly, but are capable of assuming a physical presence. This was the basis of the ancient custom of hospitality.

Whereas human beings inhabit four great continents in the one world ocean that surrounds the base of Mount Sumeru, the asuras inhabit the ocean itself immediately around the base. The word ‘a-sura’ was interpreted to mean “non-sura,” i.e., not a sura, a synonym for deva (literally, a “shining being” or energy being of light). Deva can also be translated “celestial dweller” or “star.”

Asura is often translated ‘Titan, demigod, anti-god,’ or ‘demon.’ The asuras are described as addicted to the passions of wrath, pride, envy, insincerity, falseness, boasting, and bellicosity. They are dominated by ego, force, and violence. At least some asuras are actually malevolent. As with all of the six classes of sentient beings, asuras may be reborn as human beings, and human beings may be reborn as asuras. Because humans and asuras occupy essentially the same plane, i.e., the one world ocean surrounding the base of Mount Sumeru, there is considerable friction between them. Asuras enjoy a much more pleasurable life than humans do, but they are plagued by envy for the devas.

Asuras and human beings are alike in that we both have shared a similar fate. Both human beings and the asuras originally occupied a much higher realm in the Buddhist hierarchy. Asuras originally lived in the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods on the peak of Mount Sumeru, but they were cast down to the foot of the mountain due to their drunkenness. Thus the asuras and the devas of the Thirty-Three Gods engage in constant conflict, in which human beings also become embroiled.

Asuras perceive devas in the same way that animals perceive humans. Humans perceive animals consistently, unless they are very small, but devas and asuras only rarely. Asuras are often confused with hell beings.

The asuras were not always regarded as evil beings. In the Rig Veda (1500–1000 BCE), asuras were a type of deva, such as Asura Varuna, the god of the celestial ocean, the underwater world, and law and order, moral and societal affairs, and nature. Asuras (lit. ‘lord’) were originally a term associated with individual devas, not a class of beings in their own right. Asuras become a distinct class of being during the late Vedic period (1000 BCE–500 BCE).

Originally the asuras were the older and stronger siblings of the devas, powerful and beneficent. The later Vedic texts begin to document a conflict between the asuras and the devas, in which the asuras were invariably victorious. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the asuras are described as vicious, proud, arrogant, conceited, angry, harsh, and ignorant. This reflects a growing conflict between the older, dominant cult of asura worship and a newer but rising cult of deva worship.

Originally, the asuras were non-anthropomorphic and formless gods, in contradistinction to the more anthropomorphic devas. The asuras were the guardians of the natural and moral laws of rita, the great principle of cosmic order that regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe, comparable to dharma and karma. The deva worshippers, on the other hand, were concerned with power, might, fear, submission, and the status quo. Interestingly, it was also during the late Vedic period that women were stripped of their traditional rights and privileges and demoted to the status of property, something the Buddha opposed but which was reinstated immediately after his death (parinirvana) about 400 BCE by the arhants of the First Buddhist Council.

The division between the asura and deva worshippers appears to correspond to a social schism that occurred during the late Vedic period and culminated in the samana counterculture of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. This schism was associated with two classes of Vedic deity, the asuras and the devas (a.k.a. suras).

Originally the asuras (lit. “lord”) were a class of superior devas who inhabited the realm of the 33 gods (trayastrimsa) on top of Mount Meru. In Buddhism, the asuras are seen as inferior deities who are never satisfied and who always strive to improve themselves. This is paradoxical, because the Buddha opposed the Brahmanic establishment based on caste, supported by the deva worshippers, as a degenerate remnant of the primordial tradition that the Buddha sought to restore.

This schism reflects a conflict between the adherents of the old gods that continues today. One finds a similar conflict in Egyptian mythology, in which the old gods, like Set, now associated with evil, were originally not regarded as evil at all. This principle of cosmic conflict became entrenched in later religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Christianity, as well. In the Iranian tradition, the asuras, especially Asura (Ahura) Mazda, the personification of Wisdom, retained their privileged status and it was the devas who were demonized and cast down.

The names of many asuras refer to natural abstractions, rather as in Native American spiritualism, Indus Valley civilization, etc. A new cult of deva worship emerged during the late Vedic period that declared the asuras demonic and began to persecute the older group of asura worshippers. The new deva worshippers were authoritarian. They supported the superiority of the Brahmans, the caste system, and they were misogynistic. The conflict between the asura and deva worshippers was mythologized. In the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent the deva worshippers achieved pre-eminence, whereas in the west the asura worshippers maintained their prestige, demonizing the devas in return. The latter became the foundation of Zoroastrianism in Iran, with the supreme god Ahura (Asura) Mazda, the god of Wisdom, at its head.

This period was also a period characterized by a great mythological war between two groups of divinities, the devas (“shining ones”) and the asuras (literally “lords” but interpreted based on an etymology which means “anti-gods”). The asuras seem to be associated with vast cosmic and natural powers older and more powerful than the devas (the explanation for why the devas were able to overcome them and cast them down from the Plane of the 33 Gods is that they were drunk, suggesting a connection between the downfall of the asuras and the forgetting of soma?). The asuras were cast down into the cosmic ocean where, together with the devas, they churn the cosmic ocean for soma.

If we identify the devas of the Thirty-Three Gods with the force of negentropy, the tendency to order, and the realm of the asuras with the force of entropy, the tendency to disorder, we see that the war of the devas and the asuras is a metaphor for the dualistic dynamic of the universe, raging between energy-information-negentropy and matter-ignorance-entropy. The dharma therefore represents the action of the negentropic principle in a universe ruled by entropy. R. Buckminster Fuller was perhaps the first modern to recognize that humans fulfill a natural negentropic function within the universe.

The Assembly of the 33 Devas

In the course of their deliberations, a light appears in the north. Sakka declares, “when such signs are seen, such light is seen and such radiance shines forth, Brahma will appear.” We have encountered this association of the imminent appearance of the chief of the Brahma worlds with unpredictable luminous phenomena before. Reminiscent of the near-death phenomenon (NDE), all the devas declare, “Let us find out what comes of this radiance, and having found the truth of it, we will go towards it” (italics added). Kumara also means “gold,” and the sutta says that he outshone the devas like a gold statue outshines the human figure.

The Brahma Sanankumara appears before the Assembly of the 33 Gods.  Sanankumara has come up in previous talks, but I think this is his first appearance in the Digha Nikaya. Sanatkumara in Sanskrit, his name means “Eternal Child.” In himself, Sanatkumara was imperceptible, but by assuming a coarse form he was able to make himself perceptible to the Assembly. Brilliant to behold, he outshone all the other devas and encouraged them to follow the Buddhist dharma.

Sanatkumara is one of the Four Kumaras, four sages or rishis who wander the universe together as divine children. They are the first mind-born creations and sons of Brahma. Contrary to Brahma’s wishes, they are celibate (brahmacharya) teachers. They are also listed among 12 great devotees (mahajanas) of bhakti, and are associated with Krishna and sometimes with Shiva. Sanatkumara, along with his three brothers, named Sanaka, Sanatana, and Sanandana, is mentioned in the Mahabharata as one of the seven sages (rishis), the transmitters of the Veda. The Sanatkumara Samhita is attributed to him. He is also a yoga preceptor and an advocate of the religion of inward contemplation (nivritti), referred to in the Bhagavadgita. In addition to advocating Buddhism, he is associated with Sankhya philosophy.

The form that Sanatkumara assumes is that of Pancasikha, a male youth beloved of the gods, floating cross-legged in the air, who praises the Buddha and the dharma. Since no one offers him a seat, he multiplies himself into 33 duplicates of his physical form, each of which sits down on the seat of each of the 33 gods. Therefore, each god-form assumes the god-form of Sanatkumara/Pancasikha. He declares that those who take refuge in the Triple Jewel and follow the precepts will be reborn in one of the realms of the World of Sense Desires but no lower than the Four Great Kings. This is unusual in that other suttas declare that human rebirth is the best for as aspirant, but perhaps that this is included is implicit in the fact that he is a stream enterer. The voice of Brahma is described as distinct, intelligible, pleasant, attractive, compact, concise, deep, and resonant. Each of the Thirty-Three devas, on whose seats Sanakumara was sitting, feels that he speaks to them alone.

The Four Roads to Power

Sanakumara reunifies his form and sits on the seat of Sakka. He declares that the Buddha has discovered the four Roads to Power. These consist of four practices:

  1. Concentration of Intention;
  2. Concentration of Energy;
  3. Concentration of Consciousness;
  4. Concentration of Investigation.

Each of these practices is accompanied by an effort of will.

Sanakumara presents this practice as the universal key to realization practised by all ascetics and Brahmans of the past, present, and future. Thus, here we have in this sutta a declaration of the essential key of dharma practice. Moreover, these practices are all directed towards the development of psychic powers (iddhis) in addition to realization. Here we see another sign of a proto-Tantric element in the Pali Canon.

The Three Gateways to Bliss

He declares the three gateways to the bliss of a Buddha, viz.,

  • disassociation from sense desires and unwholesome conditions;
  • allaying the gross tendencies of body, speech, and mind;
  • knowing what is right and wrong, based on the law of karma.

The three gateways to bliss develop gladness and knowledge.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

He declares the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in which one contemplates:

  • Body as body;
  • Feelings as feelings;
  • Mind as mind;
  • Mind-objects as mind-objects.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness develop concentration, calm, serenity, knowledge, and vision.

The Seven Requisites of Concentration

He declares the Seven Requisites of Concentration, viz.,

  1. Right View;
  2. Right Thought;
  3. Right Speech;
  4. Right Action;
  5. Right Livelihood;
  6. Right Effort;
  7. Right Mindfulness.

The similarity to the Noble Eightfold Path is obvious.  A question that has arisen in past talks with respect to the Noble Eightfold Path is the significance of the numbered sequence as a sequence, i.e., do the tasks corresponding to the “limbs” of the Noble Eightfold Path represent a graduated path?  This has been contrasted with the Threefold Classification, attributed to the nun Dhammadinna, which appears to imply a different order from the Noble Eightfold Path. I’m not going to discuss this again here, but I would note the strong emphasis on the sequence of the Seven Requisites for Concentration, which clearly correspond to the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path.  Each requisite establishes the necessary basis for the next, so the requisites clearly must be attained in order, confirming Peter Masefield’s and my hypothesis that the proper sequence of the Threefold Classification is Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation, culminating in the higher concentration, knowledge, and liberation. From right mindfulness arise right concentration, right knowledge, and right liberation, corresponding to the eighth limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, right concentration. The Seven Requisites of Concentration give us greater insight into the construction of the Noble Eightfold Path.

He declares that the dharma is timeless, capable of rational apprehension and analysis by each individual for himself, and progressive. He reiterates a continuous refrain of the Pali Canon, “Open are the doors of the Deathless!”, which decisively negates any notion that the Buddha taught anything less than personal immortality: “For indeed, my Lords, the Dhamma is well-proclaimed by the Lord, visible here and now, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be comprehended by the wise, each one for him or herself, and, too, the doors to the Deathless are open!”

Interestingly, access to the doors to the Deathless appears to be non-gender-specific, assuming that Walshe’s translation is faithful to the Pali. I plan to look more closely at this, as well as the Pali underlying he intriguing phrase, “leading onward.” In what sense does dharma “lead onward”? Is dharma attractive? Does it induce an evolutionary tendency or direction? Is it educational or therapeutic? Is it ontological?

Finally, Sanakumara affirms the doctrine of the Buddha lineage, viz., that Buddhas have arisen in the past, and will arise again in the future.


Unlike most other suttas in the Pali Canon, this sutta is an explicit spirit teaching, like similar productions in Tibetan Buddhist and Taoist traditions especially. The teaching of Sanakumara is transmitted to the 33 devas, who transmit it to Vessavana, who relates it to his followers, including Janavasabha. Janavasabha is King Bimbisara of Magadha, reborn as a king in the realm of the Four Great Kings. Janavasabhva, noticing (to a spiritual being, the minds of human being are open books) what the Buddha is thinking about (i.e., the future rebirths of the Magadhans, including King Bimbisara), he transmits it to the Buddha, who confirms its coherence with his own realization (note!) and transmits it to Ananda. Ananda transmits it to male and female monastics and lay followers or householders, emphasizing (we see) the inclusion of both genders. Clearly, the concept of initiatory transmission is implied, which we also find in later traditions of the Tantric type especially.

The end of the sutta is also unique. Most suttas end with the phrase “Thus the Lord spoke” or an utterance or an incident, often a conversion, an awakening, or a summary verse. The Janavasabha Sutta ends with the words, “And so the holy life waxed mighty and prospered and spread widely as it was proclaimed among mankind.” One expects this sort of revelatory ending from a communication of this type.

I consider this sutta further confirmation of my thesis that there is a proto-Tantric element in the Pali Canon.


Audiopedia (accessed 2014, Nov. 29). Magadha.

Mahasudassana Sutta (DN 17)

Talk presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, February 8, 2015.

The Great Splendour

Digha Nikaya 17

This discourse takes place at Kusinara shortly before the parinivrana, which is perhaps why it follows the MahaparinibbanaSutta that we discussed last week. Kusinara (Kushinagar) is of course where the Buddha passed on. The sutta is an expansion of the conversation referred to between Ananda and the Buddha in which Ananda entreats the Buddha not to allow himself to die “in this miserable little town of wattle and daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond.” To refute Ananda’s typification of the town, the Buddha tells the story of King Mahasudassana, whose name means “Great King of Glory.” This story also occurs in the Jatakas. Under the name of Kusavati, Kusinara was the capital of the king’s realm. The Buddha compares it to a deva city, Alakamanda.

One uposatha (new or full moon) – we don’t know the month – the king is fasting on the roof of his palace when he has what can only be described, in the light of contemporary information, as a close encounter with a UFO: It appears to him as the disk of the sun, thousand-spoked, complete with rim, hub, and all appurtenances. In other words, he experiences a celestial solar wheel similar in appearance to the wheels of the Ezekiel, plunging in and out of the sea. According to the account, the wheel indicates to the king where he should conquer and expand his territory, which he did with great success. The countries that the king invades surrender without resistance, and the king establishes a society based on the principles of dharma.  Once the king’s new dharma kingdom is established, the UFO comes to hover over the king’s palace!

Ezekiel's UFOIn other words, the UFO, the phenomenology of which is clear, is identified with the dharma. It doesn’t matter whether this story be fabricated or not. Perhaps it is prophetic. That is not the point. The point is that at this remote place and period we find exactly the same mythologem that we find repeated throughout human history, in all times and climes, and that is still being propagated today as the story that today we call “the UFO phenomenon.” Other civilizations of course may have seen it differently and given it different names, but the phenomenology is clear by whatever name you choose to refer to it.

The sutta gives the familiar list of five precepts – do not kill, do not steal, do not commit sexual misconduct, do not lie, do not drink strong drink, together with a sixth, “be moderate in eating.” Walshe admits that the meaning is uncertain, but it seems like the householder equivalent of the monastic vow to eat only one meal in the morning.

After establishing his kingdom, the king is presented with a succession of six treasures. These symbolize the characteristics of the ideal monarch:

Seven Jewels of Royal Power

  1. The Elephant Treasure (AKA Precious Elephant): mental strength, noble gentleness, and calm majesty. The name of the Precious Elephant is Uposatha, the Indian lunar holiday symbolically associated with soma (amrita).
  2. The Horse Treasure (AKA Precious Horse): transcendence of worldly existence, Valahaka (“Thunder Cloud”) by name. This horse has the head of a crow!
  3. The Jewel Treasure (AKA Precious Jewel): omniscience (the jewel is like a crystal ball in which everything is seen, which also appears in the symbology of Dzogchen). The jewel is a beryl, literally “precious blue-green colour of sea water stone,” cut into eight facets. In Sanskrit, it is Vaidurya, “brought from Vidura.” Vidura is a character in the Mahabharata, renowned as a paragon of truth, dutifulness, impartiality, and steadfastness. The Sanskrit name originally referred to lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone.
  4. The Woman Treasure (AKA Precious Queen): radiating, piercing joy, characterized by a more than human, deva-like beauty.
  5. The Householder Treasure (AKA Precious Counsellor): the power to provide wealth and also strength of will.
  6. The Counsellor Treasure (AKA Precious General): the power to overcome enemies.

We have already identified the Precious Wheel with the dharma.

Described in minute detail suggestive of visionary phenomena, these “treasures” are “the Seven Jewels of Royal Power.” They are also found in the mandala offering ritual, in which one offers the entire universe to the Buddhas.  Mandala offering is the fourth inner preliminary of ngondro, which purifies attachment (and thus represents the attainment of dispassion). This shows the close tie between Tibetan ritual and the Pali Canon. By analogy, the treasures also represent the qualities of the spiritual practitioner.

The king is also endowed with the Four Accomplishments (iddhi) of personal beauty, longevity, health, and reputation. The king beautified his city with lotus ponds, and built public baths, food banks, plumbing, clothing dispensaries, public transportation, hostels, even places where one could find a wife or obtain money (the very opposite of brothels and banks!). The aristocrats were so satisfied with the king’s rule that they wanted to build him a palace, but Sakka, the ruler of the Gods, stepped in and had his personal architect, Vissakamma, build him a fabulous palace. This was called the Palace of Dharma, which is described with the same attention as the precious treasures. These surreal, highly detailed, symbolic, and aesthetic descriptions suggest the paradises in Pure Land Buddhism or the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism. Walshe suggests that the description influenced the description of Sukhavati, the Western Land of Bliss, in Pure Land Buddhism. These vivid architectonic descriptions also suggest the psycho-ontological allegories of Padmsambhava.

The king then makes a Dharma Lake to complement the Dharma Palace.

We’ve talked about the Buddha’s political philosophy already, when relevant texts come to the fore, as they seem to do frequently. It’s clear that the Buddha, living in a time of terrible corruption and violence, was seeking not only to instigate a spiritual or a cultural reformation, but a political one as well.

Having established himself in the Palace of Dharma, King Mahasudassana ruminates on the karma that brought him to this place, and he identifies three kinds of karma that are responsible:

  • The karma of giving, which returns to him in the form of wealth;
  • The karma of self-control, which returns to him in the form of political power;
  • The karma of abstinence, which returns to him in the form of great opportunity.

Entering the great gabled chamber, the king declares, “May the thoughts of lust, ill will, and cruelty cease,” rather like a mantra or an affirmation. Sitting down cross-legged on the golden couch, he bans all sense desires and unwholesome thoughts from his mind, and immediately enters the first jhana; he rapidly progresses through the second through fourth jhanas. He then leaves the great gabled chamber, enters the golden gabled chamber, and sits down on the silver couch, where he practises metta meditation, pervading the four quarters with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (called the “four divine abidings”).

PasupatiThere are several things we can take away from this description. First, the significance of the vow (power of truth). Second, the cross-legged posture, the asana of meditation that goes back as far the Indus Valley civilization. Third, the cultivation of dispassion, the key to the realization of jhana. Fourth, that a king or a householder can engage in these practices with success. Fifth, the supporting role of metta meditation.

A notable detail is that the king, having attained the fourth jhana, undertakes the practice of metta and is reborn in the Brahma world. However, the attainment of the fourth jhana is the attainment of an arhant who should be reborn in one of the Five Pure Abodes at least. To me this description is a prefiguring of the path of the bodhisattva,[1] who, having attained the jhanas, chooses to pursue metta rather than nirvana, thus ensuring his rebirth for an indefinite period. Elsewhere the Buddha specifically states that he has never been born in any of the Five Pure Abodes because that would prohibit his being reborn as a human being.

The story of King Mahasudassana takes place when humanity existed in a purer, more devic state, and the longevity of these devas is about 336,000 years, the age of King Mahasudassana when he died.[2] The king remained meditating in the great gabled chamber for 84,000 years until Queen Subdhadda, thinking that she had not seen him for several hundred thousand years [sic], came to the palace with her retinue of women. The king had his golden couch brought outside the great gabled chamber and lay down in the doorway on his right side, mindful and clearly aware, like the Buddha at his parinirvana. As I mentioned in the last talk, this posture is also an asana, a physical posture having spiritual symbolic significance.

ParinibbanaThe Queen noticed the clarity and brightness of the King’s complexion, and feared he might be dead. The Queen entreats the king to live, reminding him of his worldly possessions and responsibilities, but the king rebuffs her, saying, “All things that are pleasing and attractive are liable to change, to vanish, to become otherwise. … To die filled with longing is painful and blameworthy.” Shortly thereafter the king dies. The sutta points out, rather deliberately that “he felt the sensation of passing away,” and was reborn in the Brahma world.

The Buddha then reveals to Ananda that he, Gotama, was in fact King Mahasudassana in a previous rebirth. “Six times, Ananda, I recall discarding the body in this place, and at the seventh time I discarded it as a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king who had conquered the four quarters and established a firm rule, and who possessed the seven treasures. But, Ananda, I do not see any place in this world with its devas and maras [demonic beings] and Brahmas, or in this generation with its ascetics and Brahmins, princes and people, where the Tathagata will for an eighth time discard the body.” This passage attests both to the Buddha’ recollection of past lives and to the transcendent nature of a Tathagata, without clarifying the question of his post-mortem status that we have discussed in a previous talk.




1. A significant difference between the conception of the bodhisattva in the Pali Canon compared with the Mahayana tradition is that in the Pali Canon the bodhisattva is represented as a being striving for Buddhahood, which is achieved, albeit after a period of hundreds or thousands of rebirths (the Jatakas include 547 such stories, dating from the 4th century BCE, and are regarded as canonical by some early Buddhist sects), culminating in the attainment of Tathagatahood and the cessation of rebirth, whereas in the Mahayana the bodhisattva vows not to attain Buddhahood till all beings in samsara have attained emancipation (essentially forever). The former is called the king-like bodhisattva, the latter the shepherd-like bodhisattva. A third category is the boatman-like bodhisattva, who vows to attain Buddhahood along with all other sentient beings.

2. Elsewhere human beings are stated to live between 10 and 84,000 years, comparable to the longevity of the devas of the world of the Four Great Kings in the Vibhajyavada tradition.


“A View on Buddhism: General Buddhist Symbols.”