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.