SAKKAPANHA SUTTA (DN 21)

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.

Papanca

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.

Praxis

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.

Notes

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.

References 

http://www.pressbox.co.uk/detailed/Arts/Longest_Poem_In_The_English_Language_Published-_Maz_zaroth__1167515.html

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