Monthly Archives: March 2015

Payasi Sutta (DN 23)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, March 29, 2015

Payasi the Prince

Digha Nikaya 23

The Evil Opinion

Buddha EmbryoThis week’s sutta is one of only two suttas in the Digha Nikaya where the Buddha is not present. The other is the Subha Sutta (DN 10), in which Subhda asks Ananda to summarize the things that the recently deceased Buddha praised. The Payasi Sutta records a sermon given by Kumara-Kassapa (‘Young Kassapa’), not to be confused with Mahakassapa, who convened the First Buddhist Council.  The Venerable Kassapa was the best preacher in the Buddhist sangha. That a sutta uttered completely independently of the Buddha was deemed to be canonical provides an important insight into the question of what constitutes dharma, a question that is addressed in other suttas also. Clearly, the Buddhavacana is not limited to the words of the historical Buddha. Therefore, the utterances of third parties can constitute an authentic, canonical dharma tradition. Thus, the view that only the words of the historical Buddha constitute the Buddhavacana is an a-dharmic hermeneutic.

The sutta makes extensive use of parables. Yeshua (Jesus) subsequently popularized the use of spiritual parables. In this talk, I will be focusing more on the intellectual content of the sutta rather than the stories, which are obvious. I will, however, include some references to the stories..

Travelling through Kosala with many monks, Kassapa came to be staying in the Simsapa Forest, north of a town called Setavya, described as a wealthy agricultural town that had been given by King Pasenadi of Kosala to Prince Payasi.

You may recall an earlier sutta where the main character, also the governor of a town, developed the “evil opinion” that unfettered selfishness is the highest good and that altruism ought to be abandoned. Clearly, this was an early incarnation of Ayn Rand! Now in this sutta we have Prince Payasi developing the evil opinion that there are no other world, no devas, and no karmic consequences. You can see in the civilization of 5th century n.e. India that dissident views, scepticism, and even materialism were flourishing, somewhat contrary to our conventional notion of ancient India. Walshe notes that these views were similar to those of Ajita Kesakambali.

The people of Setavya of all classes go out the north gate to visit Kassapa because of his reputation as a great teacher. The prince gets wind of this, and tells the people to wait, he will join them, apparently with the intention of refuting the view that there are another world, devas and karma. He describes the people of Setavya as foolish and inexperienced. Therefore, Prince Payasi and the people of Setavya went together to see Kassapa.

The prince tells Kassapa that there are no other world, no devas, and no karma. Kassapa opines that he has never heard such a view before – an unlikely assertion – so he asks the prince to explain himself.

First, Kassapa asks the prince whether the sun and the moon are in this world or another, and whether they are devas (spontaneously born) or humans? Previously I have mentioned that the word deva literally means ‘shining being.’ Tamilcube also has ‘sky, rain cloud, celestial being,’ so according to this view devas clearly include what we would call “inanimate” phenomena. Elsewhere the Buddha refers to the sun and moon as devas too. The Prince agrees that the sun and moon are in another world and that they are devas, not human beings. Although this isn’t the only argument that Kassapa makes, it is the first one.

Clearly, this question and the answer imply a way of thinking that is difficult for us to comprehend. It also clarifies the early Buddhist conception of devas. Although devas occupied higher worlds than that which we inhabit, there is an area of overlap where devas and humans interact. The conception of devas themselves clearly differs from our own, in that the sun and the moon are included in that category, as the etymology also implies. At the same time, other descriptions of devas in the Pali Canon – the majority – clearly imply that devas are sentient beings with individuality, somewhat different from our conception of the sun, moon, and stars. Of course, if mind or sentience is the underlying reality of everything, then everything is potentially sentient, even natural phenomena, rather as in the spiritual conception of the native Americans.

However, I don’t believe that we need to accept the sentience of stars to comprehend Kassapa’s argument. I don’t think that he is necessarily saying that the sun and the moon are devas. Rather, his argument is that they occupy a “higher” world,” therefore Payasi is incorrect in his fundamental assertion that there is no other world. Although that would appear to be the immediate implication, the fact that it does not convince the prince suggests that Kassapa is only making an analogy. Otherwise, it would be absurd for the prince to reject his argument. What Kassapa is saying, I think, is, look at the world around you. We look up into the sky and we see that there is a world above and a world below, and that the world above is populated by stars. In the same fashion, if we see that the world is like this, then it is logical to infer that there must be a higher world populated by superior beings. This is coming very close to Giordano Bruno’s assertion that there are other worlds populated by sentient beings, for which he was burnt at the take by the Romish Church. Perhaps the regularity of the movement of the sun, moon, and stars also suggested the law of karma to Kassapa. However, the prince does not agree. Consequently, Kassapa challenges the prince to give reasons for his denial. We see here a kind of formal dialectical structure playing itself out, similar perhaps to the pedagogical dialectics of the Tibetans.

In reply the prince tells Kassapa of an ingenious experiment he conducted in which he asked friends and family members, both good and bad, to come and tell him whether there are another world, devas, and karma, after they die and are reborn in the hell or heaven worlds. However, no one ever appeared to him. Therefore, he inferred that there is no such place.

Kassapa’s somewhat mischievous reply points out that it might not be physically possible for the deceased to return to the earth from the hell worlds, any more than it would be possible for a thief to delay his execution. Kassapa’s reply may imply that he believes that the hell worlds are guarded by actual wardens, or it may simply be a turn of speech. In any case, the obvious answer to the prince’s argument is that he can’t know that the conditions of rebirth in those worlds would allow such a return. Thus, the absence of a return may simply mean that it is not possible, not that such worlds do not exist. Materialists make similar arguments today.

With respect to the good people with whom the prince has made this pact, Kassapa suggests that the earth-plane and humans beings are so repulsive to spiritual beings that no one would return to the earth-plane to fulfil his pledge: “human beings are unclean, evil-smelling, horrible, revolting and generally considered to be so by the devas” (elsewhere, however, it is stated that a human birth is desirable to the devas). The prince rejects this argument too.

The next argument is similar to the former one, except that it specifies being reborn as a companion of the 33 gods specifically. Kassapa makes the fascinating response that this too is impossible because the rate at which time passes for the companions of the 33 gods is faster than it is for human beings, so that even after a very short time in the world of the 33 gods the prince himself will be dead. Kassapa even gives the ratio of time difference. One human century is equivalent to a 24-hour day in the realm of the 33 gods. That is a ratio of 1:36,525, that is, the number of days in a century. This means that the companions of the 33 gods vibrate at 0.9999999996252086 of the speed of light. This effect is called the Lorenz contraction. It is very interesting that this crazy idea that the rate at which time passes can vary according to “frequency” or “vibration” reappeared in 1905, 2,300 years after the parinirvana, when a 26-year old patent clerk named Albert Einstein proposed the theory of relativity. Time dilation has now been measured and is observed fact. The devas, of course, are luminous energy beings. Consequently, the faster they vibrate the more slowly time will pass for them in terms of the human frame of reference. Hence, the longevity of devas referred to in the suttas.

Kassapa points out that being unable to perceive a thing is no proof of its non-existence, any more than being blind proves that light and colour do not exist. Of course, this does not prove that they exist either, so Kassapa recurs to his first argument, stating that there are a sun and a moon, i.e., higher, luminous beings, therefore such beings do exist.

Furthermore, Kassapa tells the prince that the other world cannot be seen with the physical eye, but is seen with the “divine” eye, which is possessed by the ascetics and Brahmans of the forest. This eye, when “purified,” exceeds the powers of human sight and includes the other worlds and devas. Therefore, it can be experienced.

The prince is incorrigible. He rejects this argument too. However, the prince replies that if the higher worlds are so great, and the ascetics and Brahmans know this, why don’t they all kill themselves? That they do not do so shows that they do not have this knowledge.

However, Kassapa replies that they do not kill themselves because of “hidden dangers,” presumably associated with the consequences of karma. He compares killing oneself to a pregnant woman cutting open her belly to discover the gender of her child:

the lady took a knife and, going into an inner room, cut open her belly, thinking: ‘If only I could find out whether it is a boy or a girl!’ And thus she destroyed herself and the living embryo,[1] and the wealth as well, just as fools do who seek their inheritance unwisely, heedless of hidden danger.

The implication is that such an act would actually undermine the accomplishment that is being sought. Instead, the ascetics and Brahmans wait for that to ripen which will ripen, in its own time, creating ever-greater merit, for the welfare of others, out of compassion for the world. The description is nearly that of a bodhisattva:

Those ascetics and Brahmins who deserve morality and are well-conducted do not seek to hasten the ripening of that which is not yet ripe, but rather they wisely await its ripening. Their life is profitable to those ascetics and Brahmins, for the longer such moral and well-conducted ascetics and Brahmins remain alive, the greater the merit that they create, they practise for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the profit and benefit of devas and humans.

In another sutta, some of the monastics actually did kill themselves while the Buddha was on retreat, an action that the Buddha condemned upon his return.

The prince is still not convinced. Kassapa yields to the prince and asks him to present another reason. Kassapa’s rather gruesome example amounts to his not seeing the soul leave the body at death, even when the deceased has died in a sealed container (the details are in the sutta). Therefore, the soul should be sealed in the container with the body until it is opened, but when it is opened, nothing is seen. Kassapa’s response implies a shared belief that the soul leaves the body during dreaming sleep. The prince is a napper, and when he naps during the afternoon on the roof of his palace, hunchbacks, dwarfs, young girls, and maidens attend him – an interesting glimpse of a life of a governor of a town in the 5th century BCE n.e. India![2] Yet, Kassapa points out, no one sees his soul entering or leaving his body at this time, so why would they see anything at death?

The prince, still not convinced, gives another reason for his disbelief. The prince says that a live man is lighter, softer, and more flexible, whereas a dead man is heavier, stiffer, and more inflexible. He contests that this can be proved by weighing the man before and after his death. Why this disproves the other world is not clear to me.  Possibly the text is corrupt. Kassapa argues that the prince’s own example proves the opposite: that the fact that the lightness, softness, and flexibility have gone out of the body shows that something has left the body, just as an iron ball is lighter, softer, and more flexible when it is hot, burning, and glowing. This is reminiscent of claims by some spiritualists and others that experiments have shown that the body loses a minute amount of weight at death. These claims are highly contested, however, even within the realm of parapsychology.

The prince is still not convinced. He cites another example, similar to the one he cited before, concerning seeing the soul emerging from a man half dead, even when he is beaten in various ways. Moreover, although he has senses he does not see the other world (presumably, he was still able to speak and was cooperative). However, Kassapa argues from the same example that in the absence of life, heat, and consciousness (which he compares to a man, effort, and wind) the body is not animated, thus proving the reality of another world.

Once again, the prince is not convinced, and produces another argument. This argument is nearly identical to the former one. In this case, instead of being a half dead man, they progressively strip away a man’s body parts, starting with his skin, obviously killing him in the process, yet no soul is found.

Finally, Kassapa, frustrated perhaps, tells the prince that his way of conceptualizing the other world is faulty, which is why all his arguments come to naught. The prince is clearly a materialist, because his arguments only work if matter were the only reality. Even in that context, the argument has little merit since material things pass through other material things all the time (a gas through a membrane, fish through a net, etc.). Even matter exhibits degrees of “subtlety.”

The prince now seems to recognize the legitimacy of Kassapa’s viewpoint, but at the same time he refuses to give up his opinion because it has been noised abroad and giving it up will damage his reputation. At this point, the argument changes fundamentally. Kassapa turns his attention to Payasi himself, and tells him a series of stories designed to discredit him personally, including the story of a foolish caravan leader who, being told by an untrustworthy stranger that there were plenty of grass, water, and wood ahead, discarded his supplies and perished.

After some further exhortations by Kassapa, the prince finally admits that all he was really looking for from Kassapa was a good argument. At least, this seems to be Walshe’s interpretation. In summary, the prince’s argument amounts to little more than the assertion that because he has not seen or heard any evidence of the other world, he disbelieves in it, whereas Kassapa’s best argument is that it is known and seen by those who know where  to look and how. The prince converts and takes refuge as a lay follower of the Buddha.

The Great Sacrifice

The question of the existence of the other world, devas, and karma resolved, the prince goes on to ask Kassapa for instructions on how to prepare a great sacrifice, presumably to honour his conversion to the dharma. Kassapa tells Payasi that animal sacrifice has no merit if the participants follow the wrong path, the antithesis of the Noble Eightfold Path. In a strange anticipation of Yeshua’s parable of the seeds, Kassapa tells the story of a farmer who sows bad seeds in a bad place. On the other hand, a sacrifice where nothing is killed and the participants follow the Noble Eightfold Path has great merit. What kind of sacrifice this is not explained, but it seems Kassapa is referring to the sangha, the members of which conduct the great sacrifice of collective renunciation.

Subsequently, the prince established a charity, but grudgingly, not with his own hands, and without proper concern. When Uttara, his Brahman administrator, who distributes the prince’s largesse, grumbles about the quality of the merchandise, Payasi tells him he expects to be rewarded for his generosity and tells Uttara to do it if he wants to. Because of his stinginess, Payasi is born in the world of the Four Great Kings, in the empty Serisaka mansion (vihara). Search as I might, I could not find any information on Serisaka online and Walshe does not footnote it. In any case, Uttara was born in the higher realm of the 33 gods. This story is known because the Ven. Gavampati, one of the Buddha’s early converts, had the habit of napping in the lower heavens (an allusion to lucid dreaming?). He encounters Payasi in the empty Serisaka mansion, and Payasi tells him the story.

The sutta ends with the pious advice to the reader to be ungrudging in generosity in order to obtain a better rebirth.

Assessing the Arguments

Payasi’s arguments that the other world, devas, and karma do not exist boil down to the argument that he has never seen physical evidence of such things, including a soul leaving the body at death, therefore they do not exist.

These arguments are not too dissimilar from similar arguments that are made today, based on the view that only matter is real.  On the other hand, Kassapa argues that the other world, devas, and karma are observed in the heavens, and ascetics and Brahmans perceive them with the “divine” eye. Therefore, such things do exist. In fact, in modern terms, there is good circumstantial evidence for ghosts (Robert Almeder, Death and Personal Survival), “devas” (UFOs) (Jacques Vallee), and rebirth (Ian Stephenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation).


1. The reference to the “living embryo” suggests the tathagatagarbha (lit. “buddha embyro”) , in which case Kassapa’s parable is an allegory of the spiritual consequences of trying to achieve transcendence through suicide. Similarly, the third rule that entails defeat in the Vinaya is killing: ” Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying,): ‘My good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life,’ or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in affiliation.” Killing also violates the First Precept. Therefore, the idolatry of “samadhi suicide,” especially by the Theravadins, who actually establish mummies in their temples as objects of worship, or the Tibetan practice of self-immolation, also alluded to in the Pali Canon, are a-dharmic and lead to spiritual self-annihilation, if we take Kassapa’s parable literally: “you, Prince, will come to ruin and destruction if you foolishly and unwisely seek the other world in the wrong way.” According to the Vinaya, anyone who engages in these practices, or advocates them, is automatically excommunicated.

2. The sutta also suggests that beheading was practised as a form of capital punishment during the time of the Buddha. Beheading is also mentioned in sutta 26.


Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

Talk presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, March 22, 2015.

The Manual of Cultivating the Great Attention

Digha Nikaya 22


 I. Theory

Tree of LifeThis week’s talk is widely regarded as one of the most important suttas in the Pali Canon, if not the most important. It appears again in nearly identical language in the Majjhima Nikaya as the Satipatthana Sutta. Since this sutta is so important, I’d like to start by taking the time to analyze the title, which happens to include the central concept of the sutta, satipatthana. PED defines satipatthana as — ‘intent contemplation and mindfulness, earnest thought, application of mindfulness.’

Mahasatipatthana breaks down into maha + sati + patthana:

MAHA: Great

* SATI: Memory, mindfulness; recollection; active state of mind, fixing the mind strongly on any subject, attention, attentiveness, thought, reflection, consciousness.

SATI is the most important word here.

paṭṭhāna (nt.) Setting forth; putting forward; a starting point.

PATTHANA: Aiming at; aspiration; desire.

The Sanskrit equivalent is smṛtyu + pasthāna:

* SMRTYU: Memory, awareness, remembering, remembrance, reminiscence, thinking of or upon memory, calling to mind, mindfulness

PASTHANA: Leading or guiding cattle, formed, modelled, wrought

My proposed title for the sutta therefore is the Manual of Cultivating the Great Attention, based on sutta, ‘discourse,’ plus patthana, ‘a setting forth or a putting forward,’ combined with ‘aiming at the starting point, or beginning,’ of what is clearly a system of practice, thus a manual for cultivating awareness that aims at or aspires to the starting point or goal by means of the practice of attention or attentiveness. The word “attention” can also be readily pluralized (i.e., the Four Attentions). To my mind, this title incorporates all of the meanings summarized above in the broadest yet most succinct and accurate way. This sutta has the appearance of an early comprehensive guide to meditation for practitioners, including theory and practice that works through a series of graduated insights that cultivates the dual practice of meditation and wisdom in order to achieve final emancipation.

The Buddha is staying in a market town of the Kurus called Kammasasdhamma. This is the same place as in Mahanidana Sutta, the Great Discourse on Origination (DN 15). Kuru was the name of an ancient Vedic tribal union in the n.w. region of the mahajanapadas. They became the first known South Asian state about 1000 BCE. There the Vedic hymns were arranged in collections, developing the orthodox rituals of Brahmanism. The legends and traditions of the Mahabharata are based on the Kurus.  Its culture and politics dominated the Middle Vedic period, but after about 850 BCE its influence waned, and by the Buddha’s time, it had become something of a backwater.  It’s significant that two major doctrines of the Buddhadharma, dependent origination and mindfulness, were taught here. Bhikkhu Nanamoli remarks that Kammasadhamma may have been near modern Delhi.

Unlike most other suttas, the Buddha is not represented as conversing with a visitor, but rather delivering a sermon directly to the monastics. The sutta simply records his sermon. No other sutta in the Digha NIkaya is like this, except for the 26th sutta, which presents the Buddha’s famous advice to the monastics to be islands and refuges unto themselves with no other refuge other than the dharma, affirming that the path to emancipation, like emancipation itself, is individual. Interestingly, the Buddha says in the 26th sutta that the way to do this is by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness!

The Buddha declares the ekayano maggo that leads to the purification of beings from angst, the woe of existence, dukkha in Pali. This was of course the Buddha’s original purpose when he abandoned the life of the world at the age of 29. This phrase is a compound of eka + yano + maggo:

EKA: Same; certain; unknown (used for the indefinite article). One.

YANA (YANO): Carriage, vehicle, going.

MAGGO: Trace , track ; road , path , course , passage.

This fascinating phrase has been variously translated as ‘this one way,’ ‘the only way,’ ‘the one and only way,’ ‘one going,’ and ‘a path that goes one way only.’ (cf. “direct path,” “right path”). Star Trek fans may note with satisfaction that the Pali word naya, here translated as ‘the right path’ can also be translated as ‘logic.’  It has long been my contention that Mister Spock (who died recently) was a Buddhist and Vulcan, Tibet. This ‘singular way’ consists of “the four foundations of mindfulness,” so-called. The Pali word is satipatthana, which we discussed above. The word “foundation” is an interesting interpretation, but lacks the directed aspect of the Pali that surely characterizes the ‘certain going.’ – setting forth, putting forward, starting point. I have therefore preferred to refer to the Four Attentions, or consciousness vectors. These consist of directing attention to the body, the feelings, the mind, and mind objects.

Body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects seem to be associated purposely, in a kind of sequence that leads form the most “outward” level of experience, including our intuition of “embodiment”; to feelings, sentient mind itself, and finally the mental corollary and polarity of “body” – mind-objects, referring to such things as numbers, logic, the Jungian archetypes, UFOs, patterns of experience, meanings, etc., that are definitively “real” but intrinsically non-physical, although they may influence the physical through a kind of feedback loop. Jung called these four qualities the four functions and the totality that they embody the psyche. Thus, body is sensation; feelings are feelings of pleasure, pain, and moral and aesthetic judgments; mind is thinking; and mind-objects are intuitions, immediate mental apprehensions that, like sensation, are simply “given.”

There is also a somewhat forced correlation of the Four Attentions with the Five Aggregates of form, feeling, consciousness, perception, and mental formations, so-called.

The sutta is a meditation manual. One might even liken it to a ngondro. It lists and describes no less than 21 different specific meditations, organized according to the Four Attentions – body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects in what appears to represent an intentional progression towards a goal. The core message of the sutta, however, appears in a recurring “insight,” as Walshe, Nanamoli, and Bodhi all call it, which is repeated at the end of each meditation as a kind of refrain:

[1] So he abides contemplating body as body internally, contemplating body as body externally, contemplating body and body both internally and externally. [2] He abides contemplating arising phenomena, abides contemplating vanishing phenomena in the body, he abides contemplating both arising and vanishing phenomena in the body. [3] Or else, mindfulness that “there is body” is present to him just to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. And that, monks, is how a monk abides contemplating body as body. (emphases added)

This text is repeated nine times throughout the sutta, thus dividing the practices up into the following divisions:

  1. Breathing
  2. {Four Postures, Clear Awareness, Reflection on the Body, Four Elements, Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations}
  3. Feelings
  4. Mind
  5. Five Hindrances
  6. Five Aggregates
  7. Six Sense Bases
  8. Seven Factors of Enlightenment
  9. Four Noble Truths

1 and 2 pertain to the body, 3 to feelings, 4 to mind, and 5 through 9 refer to mind-objects.

As one can see from the description, the starting point is the grossest level – the body – of what is immediately apprehensible – the internal. As I have mentioned in previous talks, making this the basis of meditation is an innovation of the Buddhadharma, as pointed out by Buddhaghosa.  As one becomes established in one’s meditation at each level, one progresses from the internal to the external, thence to both internal and external, in a sort of dialectic by which one realizes the underlying unity in duality. In the second exercise one converts the intuition of embodiment to the processes that constitute its content, contemplating phenomena as processes in their appearance and disappearance, and finally in both as complementary poles of a single process. Finally, one realizes the same meditation as the direct apprehension of body without any additional thought or consideration, i.e., without content. In this state, one experiences dispassion.

The same methodology is applied to the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects through a series of 21 practices. This is an example of the graduated path, by which one cultivates the qualities of enlightenment individually in the same manner in which one might build a house.

The final exercise in this path is the Fourth Jhana, which is a state of mindful equanimity characterized by indifference toward feelings of pleasure/pain, gladness/sadness, and all similar emotional dichotomies. This state is identified with dispassion and emancipation itself.

Thus, this sequence of tasks lays bare the whole structure of the Buddhist path as understood by the anonymous redactors of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta.

II. Praxis 

  1. Mindfulness of the Breathing 

The first group of practices is called contemplation of the body, and the first exercise in this group is called mindfulness of breathing. This exercise is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon and has a big reputation. The Buddha referred to it as “the Tathagata’s dwelling,” and practised it himself, even after his enlightenment experience. The Buddha said that the practice of mindfulness of the breathing is sufficient by itself to carry the aspirant all the way to emancipation, which raises the question of why the Buddha taught 84,000 meditative techniques, including the 21 highlighted in this sutta? The traditional answer is that different techniques are suited to different types of people, based on their personal needs and where they are on the path, i.e., their karma. For example, not all techniques lead to the highest goal. Thus, metta meditation only leads to rebirth in the Brahma realm. However, the fact that one technique alone is sufficient for enlightenment qualifies our understanding of the gradual path, which includes the notion that a sequence of yogas must be mastered before advanced practice can even begin (e.g., the Tibetan approach). While such a hierarchical structure may have value for some people, it is going too far to say that it is mandatory. At best, one might say that progressive practices are valuable and effective for some people. Others may pursue a single essential practice with equal efficacy.

The first step in the first practice is to enter into a state of seclusion, whether in the forest, at the foot of a tree, or in an empty place. Second, one sits down cross-legged, in the archetypal yoga posture that goes back to Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE). One holds the body erect, and “establishes mindfulness before him.” Walshe suggests that this means focusing the attention on the breath, long associated with the vital principle of life, energy, and creativity in many primordial traditions (e.g., Sanskrit prana). Thus, “mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out.” Without restraining or interfering with the breathing in any way, he observes the length of the breaths as he breathes in and out, whether long or short. To this awareness, he adds awareness of the whole body, calming the whole bodily process.   This is the practice of mindfulness of the breathing.

  1. The Four Postures

The second exercise applies the principle of mindfulness of the body to the activities of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. This may be the origin of the famous walking meditation.

  1. Clear Awareness

The third exercise, Clear Awareness, extends this principle of mindfulness to going or looking forward or back, bending, stretching, carrying objects, eating, drinking, chewing, savouring, defecating, urinating, walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, speaking, and staying silent. Clear Awareness appears to be a development of the Four Postures, both in terms of range of activities and in terms of intensity. For example, Walshe uses the word “know” in the Four Postures,  whereas in Clear Awareness he uses the phrase “clearly aware of what he is doing” (sampajana-kari hoti).

  1. Reflection on the Parts of the Body

The reflection on the parts of the body consists of an incisive and exacting self-analysis. In other suttas, the cultivation of revulsion towards the body is recommended. It may however be argued that revulsion or repulsion is simply another form of attachment (active dislike as distinct from indifference), in which case this exercise would have to be regarded as compensatory and intermediary rather than cultivating a final goal or state.[1]

  1. The Four Elements

This exercise continues the foregoing by analyzing the body in terms of its elemental states – extension, cohesion, temperature, motion (distension), corresponding to earth, water, fire, and air. A more intuitive interpretation might be to regard the body as consisting of solids, liquids, heat, and breath.

  1. The Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations

Finally, in the context of the contemplations of the body, the nine charnel ground contemplations refer to the progressive contemplation of corpses in varying states of decay, ranging from a few days dead to the bones rotted away to powder, and all the intermediate states of decay that one can imagine. In contemplating the corpses in these states, one reflects on and realizes the fact that there is no essential difference between one’s own body and fate and the bodies and fates that one observes. The presumed goal of this practice is the development of revulsion towards the body, culminating in indifference.

  1. Contemplation of Feelings

The second contemplation is directed toward the feelings, in the exact Jungian sense of “sensations” of pleasure, pain, or neutral. Here he simply identifies continuously a feeling as pleasure, painful, or neutral and as sensual or non-sensual.

  1. Contemplation of Mind

This practice is very similar to the previous one on feelings, except that here one cultivates awareness of mental states, including lust, hatred (including therefore what we would call emotions apparently), delusion, contraction, distraction, developed, surpassed, concentrated, and liberated or their opposites. The sequence of states seems to be progressive.

  1. Contemplation of Mind-Objects

As I have mentioned in previous talks, Buddhism considers the mind to be a sense, exactly as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body are. Each sense has its correlative objects, which are all equally real (in the conventional sense). Accepting that the mind is a sixth sense, rather than merely an epiphenomenon of the other five, the mind must also have its correlative objects, which are as real as what we call matter is. These are the dhammas, phenomena as they are. Today we might call this philosophy patternism.

Thus, each sense is threefold, consisting of the internal or subjective aspect (which is merely a thought and has no more reality than a mirage), the external or objective aspect (the object itself, as we would say), and the phenomenological moment that joins the two like glue and constitutes experience.

The Buddha prescribes five exercises for contemplation of mind-objects: the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six internal and the six external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths. All of these refer to psychic facts – laws, if you like – that constitute the metaphysical fabric of experience and are the primary object of dharma, just as physical laws, the laws of nature, co-called, constitute the experiential fabric of metaphysics and are the primary object of science.

Practising mindfulness of the hindrances educates one to ignore the emotions of sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, worry and flurry, and doubt that hinder one from attaining emancipation. Ignored, they disappear, because they are created by the mind. The meditator cultivates awareness of each hindrance, e.g., sensual desire. One discerns whether or not it is present in oneself, its arising and vanishing, and how to abandon attachment to the hindrance that in turn results in its ceasing to come about in the future. In other words, one interrupts the karmic causal sequence by consciously interrupting the flow.

The practice of the five aggregates similarly cultivates awareness of the arising and vanishing of the aggregates that are the objects of grasping, craving, or desirous attachment. These are forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations (sankhara-khandha), and consciousness.  The mental formations are of course the factors that underlie karma, including volition (cetana) or intention.

I’ve already explained the threefold character of the senses in Buddhism. The practice of the six internal and external sense bases is simply the cultivation of awareness of this structure, especially the significance of the phenomenological moment in which subjectivity and objectivity are joined. The text refers to ten fetters that arise in connection with this “joining,” viz., sensuality, resentment, pride, wrong views, doubt, desire for becoming, attachment to rites and rituals, jealousy, avarice, and ignorance. Ditthi, ‘wrong views’ can also mean ‘dogma.’ Having identified each fetter as it arises in the space between subjectivity and objectivity, one abandons it.

Having abandoned the fetters of the senses, the aggregates of grasping, and the five hindrances, the practitioner learns to identify and cultivate the seven factors of enlightenment through self-observation.  Thus, he observes the presence, absence, arising, and development of mindfulness, investigation of states, energy, delight, tranquility, concentration, equanimity. “Energy” is Pali viriya, lit. ‘manliness,’ same root as virile and virtue. The oldest known representation of the cross-legged posture by what appears to be a shaman or yogi also exhibits an erect phallus. Similarly, the word ‘jhana’ can be translated as ‘ecstasy.’ The first three jhanas are characterized as states of delight, pleasure, or happiness. Nirvana itself is clearly an ecstatic state. Viriya also refers to Right Effort, the sixth limb of the Noble Eightfold Path and the first of the final three limbs that designate the end of the path.

Finally, the exercises of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta conclude with the application of the Four Noble Truths to experience: this is suffering, this is the cause of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the cause of the cessation of suffering. The Buddha describes the various kinds of suffering, including birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain and sadness, distress, being attached to the unloved, being separated from the loved, and not getting what one wants.

Given so much suffering, it is not surprising that one might not wish to be born ever again, but, the text informs us, “this cannot be gained by wishing.”

Craving can only be extinguished by dispassion, not by desire directed to existence or non-existence. This text refutes the widely held but mistaken notion that the Buddha advocated the pursuit of non-existence.

Escape becomes possible through the realization of the universal fact of transitoriness, consciousness of which has been cultivated by the foregoing practices on mindfulness of the arising and non-arising of phenomena. Since everything is transitory, the experience of samsaric bondage itself must be transitory. 

The Origin of Craving 

The Buddha identifies how the craving that leads to rebirth arises and establishes itself wherever there is anything agreeable and pleasurable, including the senses, sensory consciousness, sensory contact, feeling, perception, volition, craving itself, thinking, and pondering. Including craving in the list of the causes of craving indicates a profound awareness of what today we would call a “feedback loop.” The peculiar intensification of craving is due to the way in which craving takes itself as its own fuel.

The cessation of suffering arises in the abandonment (not repression, note) of craving, resulting in dispassion. The Buddha reviews the list of places where craving establishes itself, this time in relation to cessation, the opposite of craving.   

The Noble Eightfold Path 

The Noble Truth of the Way of Practice Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is, of course, the Noble Eightfold Path.  I don’t think anyone here needs an explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of View, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, or Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation. In this sutta, View is equated with the Four Noble Truths just discussed. Thought is equated with renunciation. Speech is equated with the Fourth Precept of Pansil. Action summarizes the first three precepts, whereas once again as I have discussed in other talks we see that the Fifth Precept, prohibiting alcohol, is absent here as it frequently is in the Pali Canon. The inclusion of Livelihood in the NEP is very interesting, since monastics are forbidden from carrying on a livelihood because of receiving alms. The only possible interpretation of this fact is that the path is accessible to householders, whereas the livelihood of the monastic may be non-livelihood. Since the Buddha says that nirvana is only present where the NEP is present, and vice versa, this is an extraordinarily significant fact that has not been mentioned by anyone else as far as I know. Some might argue that the three stages of meditative practice are above livelihood, and therefore restricted to monastics, but the ubiquity of householders attaining emancipation throughout the Pali Canon argues against this, as does the Buddha’s preaching against the “closed fist.” However, I have mentioned in previous talks how the evidence of the stories of the Pali Canon themselves, taken as a whole, without necessarily implying that any of the stories is historically factual, is that householders were very involved with the sangha and were able to aspire in their own right and even attain emancipation, at which time they would conventionally enter the sangha.  Therefore, we really need to get past the notion, prevalent in some sects of religious Buddhism, which assigns a secondary or inferior status to the householders, and an exaggerated status to the monastics, many of whom were and are still puttujana monastics. There are also Buddhist schools that do not do this. This view of householders may be compared to the view of women, another group that is virtually excluded by certain Buddhist groups but not by the Buddha himself.

Right Effort is vayama in Pali, the mental factor behind which is viriya, which we have already encountered as the third of the seven factors of enlightenment, generally translated as ‘energy.’ Right Effort refers to striving and will. Right Mindfulness is identified with the Four Attentions that we have discussed – body, feeling, mind, mind-objects. Finally, Right Concentration is identified with the Four Jhanas, the process of the progressive refinement of consciousness that we have also discussed in past talks. The First Jhana is produced by the cultivation of detachment. The Second Jhana is produced by the cultivation of concentration. The Third Jhana comes about because of the fading away of delight. The Fourth Jhana is brought about by the abandonment of pleasure and pain, the two characteristics of feeling. Thus, by abandoning feeling, one attains Right Concentration and the Cessation of Suffering.

Here we see the incredible cohesion of early Buddhist thinking. The Buddhadharma is not merely a haphazard collection of lists. Rather, it is a profoundly coherent philosophy that implies an original philosopher, the Buddha, which was then carried forward by his immediate disciples much as Plato carried forward the ideas of Socrates.

III. Seven Days to Emancipation 

In conclusion, the Buddha explores the relationship between meditation, emancipation, and time (samsara), and declares that if one were to practice the exercises of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta for seven years, one will definitely attain either the state of an arhant or the state of a non-returner. Here we see very clearly that the sutta is a kind of manual for monastics and meditators. We have discussed these states before of course.  The arhant has attained final release from the process of rebirth, i.e., time itself, and has attained the non-temporal, trans-dual, immortal deathless state to which the Buddha frequently alludes. The Buddha himself is the highest type of arhant, thus introducing the concept of “types of arhant,” just as there are types of Buddhas. This topic has come up from time to time in past talks also. The non-returner will never again be reborn as a human being, but is born in the Five Pure Abodes, the five highest planes of the Rupaloka from which he will attain arhantship in the future, after he completely purifies himself.

It would, however, be a mistake to read the reference to “seven years” as the time required to complete the 21 meditations of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, which would work out to four months per practice, although it is easy to misread the text in this way. It is, rather, the maximum time. For then the Buddha says that if one were to practice for six years one’s attainment of the state of an arhant or a non-returner is guaranteed. But then he says, wait, even five years is enough time to attain one of these two states. He continues in this vein, whittling the required time down to four years, three years, two years, one year. That means that each exercise can only take seventeen days. Perhaps seventeen days is long enough one were to meditate all day. But wait, the Buddha is still counting: seven months (note the adhesion to the symbolic number “7,” whereas one might have expected him to start at 12 months). The Buddha then mentions 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 month and half a month. 21 practices in a month is only one practice a day! Maybe even that is doable by a monastic or on a retreat. But the Buddha hasn’t stopped counting: “whoever should practice these four foundations of mindfulness for just one week may expect one of two results: either Arahantship in this life or, if there should be some substrate left, the state of a Non-returner.” This statement parallels other suttas in which the Buddha says that one week (or even five days) of practice is sufficient to attain emancipation.

Note the threefold repetition of the number 7: 7 years, 7 months, 7 days. Interestingly, the sum of three sevens is 21, the number of exercises described in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. The number appears in the sutta as the number of the factors of enlightenment. In the Cabalistic tradition, 777 is the number of salvation. The significance of the number 7 is widespread in Buddhism. For example, 7 x 7 is 49, the number of days one remains in the bardo before being reborn.

The literal meaning of this passage, then, is that by the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, elaborated in the 21 practices of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, one will achieve either emancipation or arhantship after between 7 days and 7 years of practice, depending on the amount of “substrate left.”

The first thing we would note about this passage is the minimum time in relation to the number of exercises. Assuming one slept six hours per day, in seven days one would be able to practice 126 hours at most, allowing just six hours per exercise. This seems impossible. The nine charnel ground meditations alone could not be completed in less than a year. Therefore, the 21 practices must be regarded as adjuvants or aids to the main practice, the cultivation of the four attentions themselves. However, underlying the cultivation of the four attentions is the practice of mindfulness itself. Presumably, this is the essential practice to which the Buddha refers when he says that practising the four foundations of mindfulness can lead to arhantship or the state of a non-returner in as short a time as seven days, which is implicit in all of the practices yet identical with none of them. You will remember that in the beginning the Buddha alludes to the “one way.” I propose then that this phrase has a double meaning: i.e., the singular or essential practice or technique that includes all other practices and techniques, and the key to the nature of this practice itself, which is “oneness’ – self-unification, self-integration, concentration, “one-pointedness,” “at-one-ment,” etc. The practices in this manual of meditation combine the essential technique of attentiveness with the cultivation of wisdom, especially the realization of the nature of the body, feelings, mind, the hindrances, aggregates, senses, enlightenment, the four noble truths, and mindfulness itself, in a progression that culminates in emancipation.

The period of one week also seems very short until we consider two facts: first, the qualification that one may achieve either the state of an arhant or the state of a non-returner, thus enlarging the field significantly, and, second, the reference to a “substrate.” Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya version of this sutta use the phrase “trace of clinging.”   The Pali word is upadi. The dictionary meaning of this word is the ‘fuel of life.’  PED has ‘stuff of life, substratum of being, khandha (the khandhas are the five sensorial aggregates – forms, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, which constitute the basis of craving).

The implication is that the “fuel of life” is exhausted by meditation on mindfulness, in which renunciation and the absence of arising of any new craving causes the existing fires of karma to burn themselves out.  I am reminded of a metaphor used by both Padmasambhava and Aleister Crowley, of the master being consumed in the intensity of his attainment, leaving only a residue of ash that is then blown away by the winds of prana.

This implies in return that the state of mindfulness is not the same as complete emancipation, but that one who accomplishes mindfulness must attain final emancipation within seven rebirths. Mindfulness appears as a discrete accomplishment in its own right. Otherwise, it makes no sense to refer to a period of time during which a substrate is “left.” Meditation burns karma, but how long it takes depends on how much karma there is. Of course, the accomplishment of mindfulness might simply be mindfulness itself, so that the reference is to the beginning of practice. In this case, seven days is indeed a short time but would presumably only apply to saints. Here we face a paradox, however, because a saint by definition is a person who is already well advanced in the practice of mindfulness! These are they to whom Sahampati referred when he implored the Buddha to teach for the sake of those whose eyes are covered with only a thin coating of dust.

Thus the suttas refer to a nirvana and a parinirvana, only the second of which constitutes final emancipation. In Gotama’s case, the substrate contained enough karmic “fuel” to sustain his life for another 80 years. For others this period may be extended to seven rebirths. But no one can attain in less than seven days, which is the period that the Buddha remained in continuous ecstasy after his enlightenment.

The Buddha concludes, “There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realization of Nibbana – that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness, and it is for this reason that it was said.”


1. Cf. Nyanaponika and Hellmuth Hecker (1997), Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (Boston: Wisdom), p. 284.


Sakka’s Questions

Indasala Cave
Indasala Cave

The Buddha is staying in Indasala Cave. The sutta identifies the exact location of this cave on Mount Vediya, near a village called Ambasanda, east of Rajagaha, in the country of Magadha. I can do no better than to quote the description on the Buddhanet website:

This remote and beautiful cave is the place where the Buddha delivered one of his most profound discourses, the Sakkapanha Sutta. He also uttered verses 206, 207 and 208 of the Dhammapada while staying here. Followers of Tibetan Buddhism will be interested to know that Buddhasrijnana, the famous commentator on the Guhyasamaja Tantra also once lived in this cave. The Indasala Cave is at the base of a sheer cliff halfway up the side of Giriyek Mountain….

There are two other things of interest in this area. At the end of the mountain you will notice a flight of stairs leading to a cave where an old swami lives. He doesn’t speak English but he is a mellow old fellow and friendly to visitors. Further up on the very top of the mountain is the Hansa Stupa, the most complete still existing in India. It is a difficult climb through the thorn bushes but offers a fine view. Hiuen Tsiang visited this stupa and recorded the interesting story behind its construction.

This sutta is another segue from sutta 18, in which Sakka and ultimately Sanatkumara, in the form of the young boy Pancasikha, preside over a council of the devas of the realm of the 33 gods. Sakka resolves to visit the Buddha in order to learn the secret of success in the spiritual quest, and, discerning his location,[1] Sakka informs the gods of the realm of the 33 gods of his intention and invites Pancasikha along. Pancasikha, who is a musician, brings his yellow beluva-wood lute. So Sakka and Pancasikha as Sakka’s attendant, surrounded by the 33 gods, instantly teleport themselves to Mount Vediya. They appear as an aerial luminous display: “Then a tremendous light shone over Mount Vediya, illuminating the village of Ambasanda.” Apparently, this display was so bright that the inhabitants of neighbouring villages were filled with dread. Once again we see the UFO phenomenonology, right down to such minute details as the mountain appearing to be on fire – a common UFO account – as well as the universal apprehension of dread.

Sakka, concerned that he might not be able to approach the Buddha, who was meditating (the text says “enjoying the bliss of meditation”) in seclusion, so he suggests to Pancasikha, who was renowned among the gods for his beauty (and therefore their favourite), that he approach the Buddha and charm him. The Pali word is pasidati, from pa + sad. The dictionary meaning is ‘to become bright, to brighten up, to be purified, reconciled, or pleased; to be clear and calm, to become of peaceful heart; to find one’s satisfaction in, to have faith.’ Related words refer to ‘gladdening, inclining one’s heart, adorning, decorating,’ etc. The Sanskrit prasad, means ‘to purify, become clear or distinct, gladden, fall into the power of, become satisfied, pleased, or glad; make serene; settle down; be gracious or kind; grow clear and bright; be successful; become placid or tranquil; settle down, gladden, render clam, make clear, soothe, ask a person to or for, and make serene.’

Consequently, Pancasikha goes to the cave with his lute, he stands near the entrance, plays his lute, and sings a song to the Buddha of the Buddha, the dharma, the arhants, and love.  Walshe refers to “attracting the ear” of the Buddha, which creates a rather odd image. Rhys Davids has “win over.” In any case, Pancasikha’s intention is to charm the Buddha with his song as a prelude to Sakka’s visit. Although nothing untoward is implied, it is hard to escape the note of homoerotism. The friendship of David and Jonathan in the Book of Samuel of the Hebrew Bible comes to mind, which has been described as a romantic friendship. David, of course, was also a musician and a singer.

The song praises the beauty of Bhadda Suriyavaccasa, the daughter of Timbaru, who are mentioned in sutta 20 in the list of the deva hosts who visit the Buddha and the monastics in Kapilavastu. Her name means “sunshine.” Pancasikha compares her to the dharma and entreats her for release from the flames of desire, which he proposes to expunge by plunging into her sweet bosom like an elephant plunging into a pool of water [sic]. The phallic connotation of the elephant is not lost on us. The Buddha is also compared to an elephant in the Pali Canon, with erotic overtones as discussed by John Powers in A Bull of a Man.  Declaring that his mind is transformed by his love of her:

Come, embrace me, maiden fair of thighs,
Seize and hold me with your lovely eyes,
Take me in your arms, it’s all I ask!
My desire was sight at first, O maid
Of waving tresses, but it grew apace,
As grow the gifts that Arhants receive.

However, Bhadda is already smitten by Sikhaddi, the son of Matali the charioteer. He expresses the wish that he might convert the merit he has accrued by giving to the sangha into her love, an interesting transposition of the dedication of merit principle, which he seeks with the same ardour as the Buddha seeks immortality (“deathlessness”) (according to tradition, this sutta was uttered shortly before the Buddha’s enlightenment). He compares the bliss of enlightenment to actual coitus with Suriyavaccasa that, he says, he craves.  Alternatively, Pancasiklha suggests that Sakka might grant him the boon of her love. We have discussed the archetypal significance of the boon in a previous talk.

This remarkable verse has many parallels in Mahayana and Vajrayana, with their veneration for female bodhisattvas; dakinis, female dancing spirits; and the Tibetan yabyum (lit. ‘father-mother’), depicted as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva in sexual union with a female consort (shakti), representing the primordial union of wisdom and compassion, heart and mind. Interestingly, Suriyavaccasa is also associated with dancing in the sutta! We may regard this song as an early precursor of the cult of Tara, for example, as well as the Tantric doctrine that the force of desire can be transmuted into enlightenment itself. The association of erotic feeling and enlightenment is unmistakable. This has correspondences in other traditions, too, where the spiritual idea assumes a female form, including the Shekinah (Judaism); the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary (Christianity), the latter evidenced in the cult of Mariolatry; numerous similar female figures in Gnosticism; and the Shakti in Hinduism in all her multitudinous guises. The sutta seems definitely non-Buddhist to us, yet here it is, included in the Pali Canon, despite the redaction of the Sri Lankan monastics who gave it its final shape and, to all appearances, inserted pious forgeries into the Pali Canon to convince the reader that the Buddha was a misogynist. It is considered one of the most profound suttas of the Pali Canon. This reminds one of the Song of Solomon of the Hebrew Bible. In contemporary literature, Aurobindo’s Savitri, which, at 26,000 lines (208,000 words approx.), seems to be the longest English epic poem, also comes to mind.[2]

Aroused from his meditation, the Buddha compliments Pancasikha for the pleasing harmony of his voice and music. The Buddha asks Pancasikha when he composed this song. Pancasikha tells him that it was when the Buddha was dwelling on the bank of the river Neranjara, under the goatherd’s banyan tree, shortly before the Buddha’s enlightenment experience. Apparently, the song was inspired by Pancasikha’s unrequited love for Bhadda, the daughter of King Timbaru. Because of the song, Pancasikha finally wins her love through their shared love of the Buddha.

Having broken the ice, as it were, or smoothed the way, Pancasikha asks the Buddha if Sakka may come. The Buddha agrees, and Sakka and the 33 gods come to the cave and pay homage to the Buddha. There is very much a sense of transition, the cave is sacralized, not merely by the presence of the Buddha, but by his presence in the act of meditating, a spiritual gestation culminating in the emergence of the Buddha as a spiritual rebirth. The cave itself becomes resplendent, illuminated by the worshipful presence of the devas.

Then in the Indasala Cave the rough passages became smooth, the narrow parts became wide, and in the pitch-dark cavern it became bright, owing to the power of the devas.

The Buddha, in return, utters the famous aphorism, popularized by the Dalai Lama, “May all beings be happy, for all desire happiness.” The Buddha greets Sakka using an epithet of Indra. Sakka reiterates his statement, made in sutta 18, that when a Tathagata arises in the world the numbers of devas increase and the number of asuras decrease.

Sakka then tells the Buddha the story of a Shakyan girl named Gopika and a resident of Kapilavastu, whose faith and moral self-discipline cause her to aspire to be born in the higher state of a male. She is in fact reborn as a man in the Threefold Heaven, another name of the realm for the 33 gods, as Gopaka the devas’ son. She rebukes three monks who are born as mere gandhabbas, the lowest possible deva rebirth, because of their addiction to sensuality. Because of her rebuke, so intense was their shame that two of these instantaneously attained mindfulness and after a life of aspiration were reborn in the Brahma world, whereas the third remained addicted to sensuality. She reiterates that the dharma must be realized, “each for himself,” which we have heard before in other suttas. The point of this story seems to be that a devout female householder or, indeed, any lower-born spiritual being can attain a higher spiritual state than a male monastic or higher-born spiritual being who, although he appears to follow the Buddhist rule, is in fact addicted to sensual pleasures. The somewhat unusual point of this story, therefore, is that being a male monastic is no guarantee of realization. On the other hand, being a female householder does not mean that one is unrealized. This story universalizes the same principle by which the Buddha repudiated the caste system.[3]

A sorry sight it is to see
One’s Dhamma-fellows sunk so low
That, gandhabba-spirits, you
But come to wait upon the gods,
While as for me – I am transformed!
From household life, and female, I
Am now reborn a male, a god,
Rejoicing in celestial bliss.

The lesson is that those who do not follow out the Buddhist way will be reborn as menials.

Sakka’s Questions

Sakka asks the Buddha for leave to ask him 10 questions, to which the Buddha assents, based on the fact of Sakka’s purity.

  1. By what fetters are the various classes of being bound into mutually self-destructive dysfunctional patterns?
  2. What is the origin of jealousy and avarice?
  3. What is the origin of like and dislike?
  4. What is the origin of desire?
  5. What is the origin of thinking?
  6. What practice eliminates papanca?
  7. What practice leads to self-restraint?
  8. What practice leads to the control of the sense-faculties?
  9. Do all ascetics and Brahmans teach the same doctrine and practice the same practice?
  10. Are all ascetics and Brahmans proficient in the dharma?

These questions fall into three categories. The first six questions give a new paticcasamuppada. We have encountered this type of explanatory structure before in connection with how old age, suffering, and death result from ignorance, and how social discord results from craving. Here in the questions we learn how the fetters that bind us to hating and harming each other – social discord again, apparently an important theme to the Buddha – results from the ontological principle of “proliferation.”

Questions 6, 7 and 8 pertain to practice. Questions 9 and 10 pertain to the character of other ascetics and Brahmans.

A New Paticcasamuppada

You may remember from our discussion of the Mahanidaya Sutta (DN 15) how everything arises in interdependence with everything else, all chains of cause and effect creating infinitely differentiated and differentiating chains or cycles, all interacting with each other in endlessly varying and complex ways. This was called the paticcasamuppada, which is usually identified with a representation consisting of 12 links (nidanas), in which the Buddha progressively identifies the underlying causes of suffering – old age, sickness, and death – ending (and therefore beginning, logically) with ignorance. The paticcasamuppada is the process. Similarly, the Buddha applies the same method to identify a sequence that leads from social violence to craving, its root cause. This is the basis of the Buddha’s process theory of existence, in which infinitely intervolved series of causes and effects underlie the structure of samara, which he compares to a ball of hair.

Sakka asks the Buddha to explain the fetters that bind beings to dysfunctional relationships, so the Buddha traces the sequence of cause and effect from hatred, harmfulness, hostility, and malignancy to jealousy and avarice, to feeling (like and dislike), desire, thinking, and finally to the principle of papanca, its ultimate cause.


The final cause of the paticcasamuppada that began with the fetters by which beings are bound, is Pali papanca, which Walshe translates as the “tendency to proliferation.” Thus, as a result of the tendency to proliferation, thinking arises, suggestive of Padmasambhava’s “thinking’s thinking,[4] which leads in turn to desire, like and dislike (we might say, feeling), jealousy and avarice, the latter the immediate cause of the bondage to living in a state of hatred –clearly a reference to the political state of 5th century BCE India, which is not so different from our own time. The Pali word means ‘expansion, diffuseness, manifoldness,’ possibly related to Sanskrit prapanca, ‘expansion of the universe.’ The final term in any such series is, by definition, ontological. The ‘tendency to proliferation’ must be the original and innate sanskara. It also means ‘obstacle, impediment, a burden which causes delay, hindrance, delay; illusion, obsession, hindrance to spiritual progress; diffuseness, copiousness,’ the last two words relating to the etymology just given. However, Rhys Davids suggests that the more likely etymology is pada, obstacle (for the feet).   In any case, the word refers to the innate intentionality of reality/sentience itself, which inherently posits proliferation/differentiation. This is the condition on which all of the constructions arise and the appearances that create the pseudo-world of samsara and the desirous attachment thereto that obstructs spiritual progress, the quantum froth of reality.


The next three are really one question because they all have the same answer: what practice leads to the elimination of the tendency to differentiation, self-restraint, and controlling, not the senses, but the sense-faculties. The Buddha’s answer is that the cultivation of habits of mind and physical conduct that are wholesome is the practice that leads to both of these, begging the question of what constitutes wholesomeness.[5] In the context of the sense-faculties, that is, the eye, the ear, the nose, the mouth, the skin, and the brain, the Buddha recognizes that sensations do not merely “flow into” the mind through the senses, but the sense also “flow out” to the constructions through the senses. This is the literal meaning of the Pali word usually translated as ‘taint’ or ‘corruption,’ asava, lit. ‘that which flows,’ ‘a discharge from a sore.’ “Taint” or “corruption” unnecessarily hypostysize this word, which really refers to the quality of dynamic exchange that underlies sensory perception. Reception and perception are reciprocals of this dynamic process, which is unified in the asava, which may also be translated as ‘mental bias’ or ‘attention.’

The Ascetics and the Brahmans

Sakka also wants to know whether the ascetics and the Brahmans all teach and practise the same thing, and whether they are all equally adept in their teaching? In other suttas, the Buddha has stated that he has rediscovered a forgotten primordial teaching. Here the Buddha tells Sakka that the world is made up of many elemental patterns to which beings can become addicted, declaring that their pattern alone is true and everything else is false. This is attachment to belief, which the Buddha warns against, thus warning us against sectarianism too. With respect to attainment, the Buddha declares that only those who have perfected the destruction of craving or desirous attachment, in other words, those who are perfectly dispassionate, are truly emancipated. His implication, therefore, is that other teachers have different paths that lead to different goals, and thus are not emancipated. The goal of final and complete emancipation, arhantship, requires dispassion as its essential precondition.

Sakka echoes the Buddha: “Passion, sir, is a disease, a boil, a dart. It seduces a man, drawing him into this or that state of becoming, so that he is reborn in high states or low.”

Sakka tells the Buddha that he asked these same questions of the other teachers, and so impressed were they that they immediately converted to his point of view, based only on the questions themselves, it seems.

The passage that follows is hard to follow but fascinating. The Buddha asks Sakka if he has ever experienced joy and happiness such as he is experiencing now (presumably, in the context of accepting the dharma and becoming a stream enterer, one destined to attain emancipation within seven rebirths). Sakka admits that he has just once before, when he was victorious in the war of the devas against the asuras. I’ve discussed this war several times in different talks and in connection with previous suttas in this series of talks, so I won’t go into more detail about this mytho-historical event except to say that the devas cast the asuras out of the realm of the 33 gods, demonizing the asuras, who appear to have been powerful primordial cosmic and telluric spirits, older and stronger than the devas, who were cast down into the one world ocean where they continue to struggle against the devas, including fomenting discord in the human world. Even the asuras, however, come to honour the Buddha in this sutta. Sakka refers to oja, translated by Walshe as “the food of the gods,” implying that the reason for the war was the desire of the devas to have the asuras’ share of this sacred substance. Thus, Sakka’s answer to the Buddha may be referring specifically to the oja. In other words, the joy and happiness of consuming oja is equal to the joy and happiness of a stream enterer. The two things are equated.

Oja does not appear in the PED, but in Tamilcube’s Pali English Dictionary it means ‘essence, juice, sap,’ as well as strength, sap of life, vitality.’  Walshe compares oja to a special divine essence of deva origin and the wondrous food served to the Bodhisattvas by Vimalakirti, a wealthy patron of the Buddha that is regarded as the model of the ideal lay disciple. It seems likely that this term is a synonym for soma, the psychedelic drink of the gods. You will recall that the asuras were drunk when they were expelled from the realm of the 33 gods. Drinking soma is the prerogative of the gods. It seems likely, therefore, that the war in heaven was a war over soma. “Whatever is now the food of the gods, and what the food of the asuras is, henceforth we shall enjoy both.” Consuming soma and entering the stream are equated. The sutta is saying that the dharma is the realization of the highest inspiration and truth, equivalent to that of the rishis. Nevertheless, Sakka declares that the happiness of the dharma is greater even than the happiness that he felt then, because of the passionate character of the former, so they both are and are not the same. The dharma both incorporates and transcends the original Vedic tradition. Interestingly, the soma continues to be produced by the churning of the one world ocean by both the devas and the asuras. The asuras continue to be necessary to produce soma!

As a result of entering the stream, Sakka will be reborn as a human being, which is, as we have discussed, a desirable rebirth for a deva; his human rebirth will be intentional, i.e., he will choose the circumstances of his future human rebirth; if he achieves enlightenment he will live as an enlightened being;[6] if he does not achieve enlightenment, he’ll be reborn as a deva on the highest plane, i.e., the realm, world, or abode of the Peerless devas, where the arhants are reborn prior to attaining nirvana; the Peerless devas are “more glorious than the devas.”

In the summary poem, we encounter the familiar “dart of craving” motif that is a major symbolic motif of Buddhism. The Buddha is praised as “mighty hero, kinsman of the sun (adichchabandhu)” referring to the lineage of the Shakyans, the Buddha’s clan. The Mahavamsa gives a whole genealogy of the Shakyans, tracing them back to king Okkaka (Pali; Sanskrit Iksavaku), whose ancestral kingdom, interestingly, was Kosala. King Okkaka himself was a descendant of Maha Sammata, the first world monarch and the founder of the Sakya dynasty. Maha Sammata himself was a descendant of the Solar Dynasty or the Solar Race (Suryavansha).  The Solar Dynasty is one of four ruling houses of the ksatriya caste, which includes a Lunar Dynasty as well.

The poem refers to worshipping the Buddha, not as a god, but rather revering him as a “peerless Lord.” We find the epithet, Shakyamuni, meaning “Skakyan sage,” referring to his clan name, in this sutta. Rare in the Pali Canon, it became popular in the Mahayana literature.

Sakka makes Pancasikha the king of the gandhabbas and gives Bhadda Suriyavaccasa to him as his wife out of gratitude for gaining access for him to the Buddha.

Sakka touches the earth with his hand – the same gesture as the Buddha used at his enlightenment – and recites what is to all intents and purposes a mantra, three times, in a kind of act of power: “Homage to the Blessed One, the arahant, the supremely Enlightened Buddha!” This mantra is chanted in Pali today in sets of three:

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā–sambuddhassa.

Homage to the Blessed One, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One.

At that moment, the Dharma-Eye arose in Sakka and he became a stream enterer, realizing that everything is transitory, along with 8,000 devas.


1. Although this is widely interpreted as an example of telepathy, it could describe querying a computer database just as well.

2. This may no longer be true, however. Apparently an anonymous poem called Maz’zaroth, an alternative history of the world, weighs in at 40,800 lines (367,000 words), and was published anonymously in 2013. Whether this work has the merit of Savitri, I cannot say, having not read it.

3. Sakka specifically associates meditation (“deep absorption”) with “spurn[ing] the gods.” Cf. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Genesis.

4. “When the mind thinks about something, desire arises; when the mind thinks about nothing, desire does not arise.”

5. The word translated as “wholesome” both here and in Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya is Pali kusala.  Access to Insight translates it as ‘skillful mental qualities.’ PED has ‘clever, skilful, expert; good, right, meritorious.’ Sanskrit has ‘proper, fit for, good, suitable, skilful, competent, healthy, well, able, adroit, in good condition, clever, right, prosperous, conversant with, religious merit, ability, well-being, virtue, benevolence, happily, cheerfully, happiness, cleverness, prosperous condition, welfare, competence, in a good manner, properly, well.’ Ironically, the literal meaning of wholesome is ‘of benefit to the soul.’  The Pali has nothing of the vague moralistic connotations of the English, but rather speaks directly to the law of karma as the foundational principle of Buddhist ethics.  Thus, when the Buddha says that the practice that leads to the cessation of the principle of proliferation is the pursuit of happiness based on the kusalas,  he is distinquishing between karmically beneficial and karmically non-beneficial pleasures. This is essentially identical with Buckminster Fuller’s theory of morality as an ongoing process of adjustment or adaptation to circumstances, in which one polarity leads to maximum functionality and the other to maximum dysfunctionality. The law of karma says that one experiences the same quality that inheres in one’s conduct. Therefore, if one wants to experience the quality of enlightenment, one should behave as an enlightened being. Such conduct is kusala.    

6. “As one-who-knows I’ll dwell, and there await my end” (Aññātā viharissāmi, sveva anto bhavissati). Lit. “living as one who knows, tomorrow the goal must be.”  “End” here does not imply annihilation, but rather the ‘end, goal, limit, the other side,’ i.e., transcendence. Bhavissati is the future tense of bhavi, to become.