Monthly Archives: April 2015

Aganna Sutta (DN 27)

Discourse on Origins

Digha Nikaya 27

Country: Kosala

Locale: mansion of Migara’s mother in the East Park, Savatthi (Shravasti)

Speaker: Vasettha, Bharadvaja, the Buddha

Savatthi, a.k.a. Shravasti, a prosperous trading centre located on the bank of the Aciravati (now West Rapti) river, and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, was one of the six largest cites in India at the time of the Buddha, with a population of 57,000 households. The Buddha spent twenty-four rainy seasons in Savatthi during his lifetime.

Vasettha and Bharadvaja are the two young Brahmans in sutta 13, where they were arguing about right and wrong paths. In this sutta, they are living amongst the monastics, hoping to become monastics themselves. In the evening, the Buddha comes out of “Migara’s mansion,” a sort of pleasance, having spent the day there in “secluded meditation,” and begins walking up and down in the shade. Vasettha, noticing this, suggests to Bharadvaja that they follow the Buddha in the hope of hearing a dharma talk from him, and they fall into step with him as he walks up and down.

The Buddha asks Vasettha and Bharadvaja if they get any grief from the other Brahmans for hanging out with the Buddha’s monastics. They affirm that they do receive grief from the Brahmans, who accuse them of abandoning the highest, fairest, purest Brahman caste who consist of the children of God (Brahma). Instead, they have gone over to the base caste of the Buddha’s disciples, described as “shaveling petty ascetics,” servants, and dark fellows born of Brahma’s foot. The Buddhist sangha of course made no distinction between the castes, so to the Brahmans the sangha was a mixed-race rabble with whom one should not associate. This makes the sangha the ultimately democratic organization.

There are several colour references in this sutta, associating the Brahmans with a fairer and therefore better caste of people. This Indian view of race is consistent with the Aryan migration theory, in which fairer Indo-European migrants came down from the north-west and assimilated into a local, darker, aboriginal people, who were looked down upon. There is no suggestion in the Pali Canon, however, that the Buddha shared this racial prejudice.

The Buddha replies that such an attitude shows that the Brahmans have forgotten their ancient tradition, an oft-repeated assertion of the Buddha. You will recall from other talks that the Buddha has identified himself as restoring the primordial Brahmanic tradition to its original purity and perfection, identified with the ancient Vedic rishis as well as a prehistoric lineage of perfected Buddhas. The Buddha points out that Brahman women menstruate, become pregnant, give birth, and suckle their young, just like the women of other castes. Therefore, the statement that Brahmans are “born from the mouth of Brahma” is a myth. As a lie, such an assertion earns much demerit (the Buddha says). Here the Buddha reveals his rationalistic side that was criticized by the Vedic traditionalists.

The Buddha gives an account of the castes, which he lists off as warriors (khattiyas), priests (brahmans), traders (vessas), and workers (suddas) The noble or warrior caste is placed above the Brahmans. This was their original and proper place in northeast India at that time, which the Buddha very likely identifies with the ancient tradition aforementioned, whereas the Brahmans had usurped the place of the khattiya caste in the west and there were the dominant group. In the Pali Canon, the Brahmans are generally portrayed as subject to the military rulers, although clearly favoured, as they often fulfilled such roles as governors of towns, which they practically owned.

The Buddha points out, however, that all of the castes are equally subject to karma, both negative and positive. Once again, alcohol is not mentioned in the list of what we otherwise recognize as pansil – the five precepts including not killing, not stealing, etc. We’ve talked about this before so I won’t go into it again here. Both bright and dark qualities – good and bad karma – are scattered indiscriminately among the four castes. Therefore, the claim of the Brahmans to supremacy is disproved by the fact that any one of any caste who destroys the corruptions that bind one to rebirth may be become emancipated through superknowledge and thus become an arhant, who is above all the castes. In the same way as the Shakyans submit to Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, so too does the king submit to the Tathagata.

The Buddha points out that all of the members of the sangha, although they all come from different births, names, clans, and families, are all ascetics, followers of the Sakyan. This is also how they should refer to themselves if asked (he says). The Pali word is Sakyaputta, lit. ‘sons of the Shakyan clan.’ It could also mean ‘children of the Shakyans’ or even ‘children of those who are able,’ the literal meaning of Shakya. The Buddha thus elaborates this statement: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma,” thus appropriating to himself and the Dharma the role of Brahma. One often reads in the literature that the English term “Buddhist” does not correspond to a word that the Buddha used, but Buddhist, lit. “one concerned with the Buddha,” is not that far different from Sakyaputta (‘son of the Shakyan’), so we may say that Buddhists are “Shakyaputtans.”

The Buddha says that they may refer to themselves this way because the Body of Dhamma (dhammakaya) “designates” the Tathagata. This is a rare explanation in the Pali Canon of the meaning of Tathagata, the mysterious epithet of the Buddha that means something like ‘he who travelled the path,’ which we have discussed in previous talks. This term, also translated ‘truth body’ or ‘reality body,’ is one of the three bodies of the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, representing the highest, unmanifested, inconceivable aspect of a Buddha – yet another example of the Pali origin of a Mahayana doctrine. The Buddha glosses this phrase as “the Body of Brahma,’ “Become Dhamma,” or “Become Brahma,” meaning that the Buddha, as the Tathagata, has realized the highest truth. The other two aspects are the ecstatic body (sambhogakaya) and the created body (nirmanakaya).  The dharmakaya is the most inscrutable, immortal, and timeless essence of a Tathagata.

We have discussed Buddhist cosmology in previous talks, including in connection with sutta 1. Here the Buddha describes the contraction of the universe, when most beings are reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world, corresponding to the second jhana. The Abhassara realm refers to the ‘radiant’ devas, who are our own origin as human beings prior to being degraded to the level of rebirth on the earth plane.  This is the realm next above the Brahma world. The Buddha describes the residents of this world as “mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious,” and long-lived. After a very long time the universe begins to expand again, much as described by the so-called “big bang” theory of modern physics.  During the period of this expansion, most of the beings from the Abhassara realm are reborn in this world. Here they abide in the same fashion, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious.  This description is reminiscent of Plato’s bisexual luminous spheres that, he says, are the original nature of human beings, and implies a primordial, pre-hominid occupation of the earth by these luminous aerial beings. I have had occasion to refer to these phenomena in the Pali Canon before.

The Buddha proceeds to tell Vasettha a cosmogony, a myth about the origin of the world and life. The earth was originally entirely covered by water, and everything was blinding darkness. There were no sun, moon, stars, night, day, months, fortnights, years, seasons, or gender. Interestingly, scientists believe that the earth was originally a “waterworld,” almost entirely covered by water, about 2.5 billion years ago. The only life on earth at that time was sexless algae and bacteria. After a very long period, a skin formed on the surface of the water like the skin that forms over hot milk as it cools. In this passage, the Buddha demonstrates that he understands that the cause of the one world ocean at that time was the deep mantle of the earth, which was 200 degrees hotter than it is now, and also that it was cooling. As the deep mantle cooled, the continental crust formed must have been as described in the sutta.

During the waterworld era, any oxygen produced by photosynthesising bacteria would have been quickly used up through reactions with decaying organic matter in the oceans.

When the newly emerged land eroded, it produced sediment that washed into the oceans and buried the organic matter, preventing further reactions with oxygen, the scientists believe. As a result, oxygen was allowed to build up in the atmosphere and enable oxygen-breathing life to evolve and flourish.

The eroded sediment would also have fertilised the oceans with phosphorous, an important nutrient for living things.[1]

The Pali Canon calls this phosphorus “skin” rasa-pathavi (lit. ‘earth-sap’). Interestingly in view of the subsequent reference to luminance, phosphorus emits a faint glow when exposed to oxygen. It is also an essential element of the human genetic material, DNA and RNA.

Up until this time human beings were still like devas, even though they inhabited our universe. One of these devas tasted the “earth-sap,” and discovered that it was sweet like pure wild honey. This was the origin of craving. As a result, their self-luminance disappeared. As it did so, the sun and the moon revealed themselves, and night, day, months, fortnights, year, and seasons all appeared, restarting the evolution of the universe.

Over a very long period, the devas continue to feast on the earth-sap and as they do so their bodies become coarser and more material, and their appearance begins to acquire individual differences. Beauty and ugliness arise, leading to pride, which in turn leads to the disappearance of the earth-sap (the connection is lost on me, however – perhaps as the beings become more material the more refined earth-sap becomes intangible to them?). In place of the earth-sap, a mushroom-like fungus appears (one is tempted to suggest that this might be a psychedelic, but the text says nothing to substantiate such an association other than that it is a food). So the devas start to feast on the fungus instead of the earth-sap, and their bodies continue to coarsen. This process of degeneration continues over eons. Each time the existing food disappears, and a new one appears. Thus, creepers, bamboo, and rice come after the fungus.

When rice becomes the predominant food, female and male sex organs appear and men and women begin to copulate. This is really the point at which human beings as we know them appear. People build houses in order to create the privacy needed to have sexual relations. Thus, the concepts of property and territoriality arise. Next people begin to exploit the wild rice and damage the environment. Sounds familiar, eh? As a result, the rice fields are divided up into fields with boundaries. Because of dividing the rice fields up into plots, people begin to steal each other’s property, and all kinds of civil strife appear, which in turn require repressive measures to suppress it. Because of this civil strife, the people appoint someone to keep order in exchange for a share of the rice.  This person was called the Mahasammata – lit. ‘great appointee,’ and was the precursor of the khattiya caste. Note that the premise here, then, is that the primordial state of humanity postulated by the Buddha is the direct democracy of the people – the original non-self-contradictory state. The khattiya caste and the title of raja (king) also appear, which together constitute the khattiya, the “first” or original caste.  

This protohistorical, step-by-step causal account of the progressive devolution of beings resulting in the appearance of property, territoriality, government, civil order and disorder, etc. is very similar to a specialized application of the paticcasamuppada, the doctrine usually translated as ‘dependent origination,’ which we have discussed in a previous talk.

The Buddha identifies the origin of each of the castes as a process of continuous degeneration: the Brahmans in ethical judgment, meditation, and scholarship; the merchant or trader class in sexuality and the settled householder life; and the artisans or workers in hunting and gathering. Finally, the ascetics appear out of all of the castes in response to fundamental ontological dissatisfaction. This is presented as a kind of historical development. All of the castes reap the consequences of negative and positive karma alike, and all can attain emancipation alike. Therefore, the ascetics are above all of the castes.

The Buddhist view of the tendency to degeneration is in striking contrast to the Western evolutionary bias, which tends to see the arrow of time progressing toward ever more positive and successful states. The Buddhist view is more akin to the scientific perspective that time is essentially entropic, but with negentropic modes or phases. However, properly speaking, Buddhism sees time as cyclical, alternating between periods of devolution and periods of evolution, on both human and cosmological scales.

Finally, the Buddha quotes the Brahma Sanankumara (Skt. Sanat Kumara). We’ve heard about Sanankumara before. He is one of the four mind-born sons of Brahma. “The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan, / He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.” The Buddha affirms that the sangha stands in relation to the spiritual life as the khattiyas stand in relation to society. It is clear, however, that the Buddha himself is not one of those who value clan, so he is not actually affirming the supremacy of any caste.


1. “Early Earth ‘Was Covered in Water,” Dec. 31, 2008, Metro News,


Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26)

Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

The Lion’s Roar of the Universal Ruler

Digha Nikaya 26

Country: Magada

Locale: Matula

Speaker: The Buddha

Type: sermon

Buddha lionThe motif of the “lion’s roar” (sihanada), which also refers to a “brave speech” – PED has “a song of ecstasy; a shout of exaltation” (p. 714) – recurs frequently throughout the Digha Nikaya. It appears in the title of three suttas (8, 25, and 26). It is used to refer to the Buddhavacana and the certainty that it creates, and it is also used ironically.  The second division of the Majjhima Nikaya, consisting of ten suttas, is also called the Lion’s Roar, as are two suttas in the set (11 and 12). The metaphor is obvious. Just as the lion is the lord of the forest, so too is the Buddha the lord of the sangha. Nanamoli and Bodhi say that “a ‘lion’s roar,’ according to MA, is a roar of supremacy and fearlessness, a roar that cannot be confuted.” In addition, the Buddha is reputed to be descended from the sun, and the lion is a universal solar symbol.

The Great Lion’s Roar (DN 8) demonstrates the Buddha’s claim to Buddhahood and his path being the supreme dharma. In the Great Lion’s Roar to the Udumbarikans (DN 25), the Buddha proclaims the true dharma that transcends the dharma of the wanderers. In addition, in the Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel (DN 26), the Buddha reveals the secret of how to access the power of the dharma that confers emancipation.

This sutta feels like a manual, much like the Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (sutta 22).

The Dharma Refuge

We find the Buddha in Matula, Magadha. This place is not described in the sutta nor have I been able to find out anything about it, other than that it was a town. Here the Buddha recites his famous pronouncement, which highlights and distils similar expressions that we have found expressed elsewhere in the suttas: “Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be a refuge unto yourselves with no other refuge. Let the Dhamma be your island; let the Dhamma be your refuge, with no other refuge.” Walshe notes that there is a possibility that the word (Pali dipa) translated “island” (Skt. dvipa) in this passage may actually mean “lamp” (Skt. dipa). The word also means ‘help, support,’ which actually seems to be the most plausible meaning given the subsequent reference to “refuge.” It’s also possible that the Buddha was employing a double entendre. Implicitly, the Buddha is identifying self and dharma.

 The Four Attentions

The Buddha then asks: How does one dwell as a refuge unto oneself? The answer is that the monastic observes the Four Attentions. We have discussed these in connection with the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22). These consist in cultivating naked attention directed toward the body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects.

 The “Ancestral Haunts”

He then concludes with the following advice: “Keep to your own preserves (gocare), monks, to your ancestral haunts (pettike visaye). If you do so, then Mara will find no lodgement, no foothold. It is just by the building-up of wholesome states that this merit increases.” What is the Buddha actually saying here? I was intrigued by the phrases “pastures” and “ancestral haunts,” and so decided to look a bit more deeply into these words. Gocara means “suitable place.” Similarly, visaya means “locality,” and pettika, from peta, ‘gone before,’ means ‘paternal.’ The Buddha may be alluding to the forest, the traditional residence of Buddhist monastics, which the Buddha recommends frequently throughout the Pali Canon, the implication being that in the absence of temptations, good states and merit increase. This is also the place where the Buddha overcame fear.

This is the actual end of the sutta, to which, as we have seen a few times before, a story has been spliced on, in this case with no segue whatsoever. 

The Sacred Wheel Treasure

The story concerns a king called Dalhanemi, described as “a righteous monarch of the law, conqueror of the four quarters, who had established the security of his realm and was possessed of the seven treasures.” We’ve encountered a wheel-turning monarch before, being King Mahasuddassana of Kusinara, made famous for Ananda’s calling it “a miserable little town of wattle and daub” shortly before the Buddha’s death in the Mahasudassana Sutta (DN 17). We discussed the meaning of the seven treasures in connection with that sutta. Here, as there, we are mainly interested in the Wheel Treasure. When the Wheel treasure “slips from its position,” the king will die soon. The king appoints his eldest son, the Crown prince, to take over running the state, and joins the sangha in anticipation of his death. Seven days later, the Wheel Treasure vanishes. His son goes to the “royal sage” and tells him that the Wheel Treasure has vanished. The king explains that the Wheel Treasure is not a hereditary possession, but that his son must earn it. If he does so, then on the uposatha day that Wheel Treasure may appear to him too. Incidentally, for those who might have seen Scorsese’s movie Kundun, about the young Dalai Lama, you may remember a golden wheel, quite large and heavy-looking, presented to the Dalai Lama at his coronation. This is the Wheel Treasure, which identifies the Dalai Lama as a “royal sage.”  Sometimes this is translated as “prince-priest.”

The Role of the Aryan Wheel Turning Monarch

The duty of a wheel-turning monarch is fivefold: to (1) honour the Dharma by maintaining the state based on the legal, ethical, and political philosophy of the Buddhas, (2) establish the security of the state, including protecting the environment, (3) establish justice, (4) provide welfare for those in need, and (5) advise the sangha on matters of practical policy. Thus, it is explicit that Buddhism, like Islam, is a political-spiritual philosophy, not merely spiritual (in fact, most spiritual philosophies have some sort of political implication, but in the case of Buddhism and Islam it is explicit). The equal emphasis on security, justice, and welfare sounds positively modern! The role of the wheel-turning monarch in connection with ethics is interesting. The king seems to be a supremely enlightened householder, whose legal and ethical character is unimpeachable – ideally, of course! – so that in relation to the sangha he exercises the role of a worldly advisor, like a chaplain but in reverse. This establishes once again what the Buddha also established by making the sangha dependent on the people for alms, so that the sangha would always be subject to the people and not the reverse. The Buddha was not trying to establish a theocracy.

King Dalhanemi’s son rules righteously, and one day when the king is on his verandah at the top of his palace after having washed his head, observing the uposatha, the Wheel Treasure appears to him: “the sacred Wheel Treasure appeared to him, thousand-spoked, complete with feloe, hub and all appurtenances.” Those of you who attended my talk on sutta 17 will remember how King Mahasudassana conquered his neighbours peacefully through the power of dharma, led on by the Wheel Treasure, which appeared as a luminous flying object that guided him from place to place, as though it had intelligence. Here the story is basically the same. This story is clearly an allegory for the idea of the power of the state being governed by ethics, identified with dharma, and expanding to include neighbouring states under the same regimen, thus eventually establishing a pacific global dharma empire. King Dalhanemi’s dharma society was based on six precepts:

  • Do not murder.
  • Respect property.
  • Do not commit adultery.
  • No drunkenness.
  • Be moderate in consumption.

Establishing a society based on these principles is less obvious than first appears. Our society, for example, violates every one of them, thus bringing upon itself the same karma that it imposes on others. One also finds the idea of establishing a dharma society in the Kalachakra.

Moderation in eating is of course one of the most important precepts of the Vinaya for the monastics.

This story reminds me of the story of Moses bringing down the tablets of the law in Exodus.

The Buddhist View of History

           The Doctrine of Dharma Decline
           The Devolution of Society and the Arising of Property
           Human Longevity
           Downward and Upward Cycles
           The Buddhist Apocalypse

King Dalhanemi’s son dies and is succeeded by a succession of wheel- turning kings, being seven in all (the text does not count King Dalhanemi himself as one).

The last royal sage in this succession, which obviously lasted many thousands, perhaps even millions, of years,[1] is told that the Wheel Treasure had slipped from its position. In accordance with the custom, the royal sage ordains in the sangha and prepares to die. Seven days later, the Wheel Treasure disappears.

The eighth successor does not consult his predecessor concerning the duties of a wheel-turning monarch. Instead, he decides to govern based on his own views, resulting in an overall reduction of the prosperity of the people. Clearly, the Buddha is interested in economic ways of thinking. In response to the criticism of his ministers and others, he consults them on the duties of a wheel-turning monarch, and based on their advice he establishes “guard and protection,” but he does not establish a welfare system. A conservative, presumably. As a result, the Buddha traces a logical progression, similar to other progressions we’ve studied in connection with the paticcasamuppada, in which not giving property to the needy results in widespread stealing. Because of the increase in stealing, the king is forced to give property to those who steal. As a result, an epidemic of stealing breaks out! The Buddha clearly understands the intricacies of effective statecraft and the concept of “unintended consequences” in addition to the law of karma! In response to the epidemic of stealing, the king institutes beheading, a punishment to which we have alluded in a past talk. As a result, people begin to steal other people’s property and cut off their heads [sic], resulting in gangsterism. As a result, the longevity and beauty of the people falls. Over time, the “lifespan” falls from 80,000 to 10 years. We have discussed this longevity cycle in previous talks too. Also lying, gossip, adultery and sexual misconduct, harsh speech and idle chatter, covetousness and hatred, false opinions, incest, greed, “deviant practices,” and lack of respect for authority have all been progressively increasing all through historical times.

Incidentally, I don’t take this human longevity index ranging from 80,000 to 10 years and back again any more literally than I take the gross domestic product. The way I take it is that these numbers are indicators of the overall quality of life, of which longevity is only one indicator. Quality of life is expressed in years as a convention, similar to bond durations in finance.

Miccha-dhamma is translated by Walshe as “deviant practices,” apparently influenced by the commentary. The dictionary definition of dhamma is ‘doctrine, nature, truth, the Norm, morality, good conduct.’ Miccha is ‘untruth, falsehood, false, wrongly, wrong.’  To my ear, “deviant practices” has a connotation that is not borne out by these definitions: “false beliefs or wrong behaviour” seems like a more accurate rendering. 

This brings us to the extended present of history, when the human lifespan is about 100 years. According to the Buddhist world-view, the continuing decline of dharma will result in a future deterioration in the quality of human life, till human morality itself disappears and humans revert to the animal state – “all will be promiscuous in the world like goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, dogs and jackets. Among them, fierce enmity will prevail one for another, fierce hatred, fierce anger and thoughts of killing, mother against child and child against mother, father against child and child against father, brother against brother, brother against sister, just as the hunter feels hatred for the beast he stalks.”

You’ll notice that the progression in this succession of world-turning monarchs, beginning with 80,000 years, falls at a regular rate, from 80,000 to 40,000; 20,000; 10,000; 5,000; 2,500/2,000; 1,000; 500; 250/200; and 100 years. Each step represents a halving, with a break at 2,500 and 250, where (the text states) some beings only lived for 2,000 and 200 years respectively, thus allowing the halving to continue. Between 100 and 10 years, the steps are left out, but can be inferred as 50, 25/20, and 10. Since the duration between the ages must be equal to the ages themselves, since each world-ruling monarch succeeds each other on his predecessor’s death, assuming each monarch lives out a full lifespan, change accelerates exponentially as the lifespans fall.[2]

The low point of this process is the advent of the satthantarakappa (Pali sattha + antarakappa), when the majority of human beings will kill each other off in a very short time, “mistak[ing] one another for wild beasts,” as the text says, nearly destroying human civilization. This enantiodromia is designated by the term sattanatarakappa. Walshe translates this as “sword-interval,” but the primary meaning of sattha is ‘science.’  We may therefore translate the name as ‘the age of science.’[3] Clearly, we are currently living in the descending arc of this cycle.

There is a common view that a Buddha always appears at the low point of the historical cycle. However, this view is not borne out by the texts.

Two Kinds of Beings

For the duration of the sword interval, a remnant of those humans who eschew violence will survive in remote, inhospitable, and inaccessible places.  After the majority of the race has destroyed each other, these people will emerge and establish a new civilization based on the precepts of the dharma, which has clearly not been forgotten. Interestingly, this is exactly the scenario that resulted in the emergence of mammals including Homo sapiens as a result of the Fifth Mass Extinction (about 65 million B.P.). As a result, the “longevity” increases from 10 to 80,000 years. At the end of this evolutionary arc, greed, fasting, and old age will be the only diseases known. Jambudipa (Skt. Jambudvipa) – the Indian subcontinent – identified with the realm of humans and the dharma itself, will be powerful and prosperous, with numerous highly populated villages, towns, and cities.  Using the same methodology as above, the time from the sword interval to the beginning of the final phase of the evolutionary arc is about 80,000 years in the future, after the “age of science,” a 144-year interval that occurred which occurred between ca. 1543 and 1687.[4] If we identify this period with the sword interval, then we must consider ourselves to be on the threshold of the evolutionary arc.  Further population die-offs and economic disruptions seem probable because of climate change and environmental devastation generally, with the possibility of local nuclear attacks or accidents always present.  This process has already begun of course. The First World War saw 16,403,000 casualties. The Second World War saw 12 million dead. The Holocaust added another 11 million. To this, we must add the slave trade, the modern history of which began in the 17th century, not long after the advent of finance capitalism, and which has afflicted untold millions right up until the present day.  It seems we are hell-bent on destroying the planet and each other as soon as possible. It also seems that the only way to stop this is a global catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

The Coming of Metteyya

The age, perhaps roughly 80,000 years hence, when humanity has finally achieved greatly enhanced human longevity, disease is nearly unknown, and prosperity is universal, characterized by high-density housing and a large population with many cities (the text says that it is as crowded as hell!), will be a veritable golden age. Women will enter puberty at the equivalent age of one year. This vision is of course exactly the scientific utopian vision of the future, which one also finds in the Kalachakra prophecies concerning the dharma society of the future, Shambhala. This may surprise those who believe in a kind of neo-Taoist Buddhism of “return to nature,” though he two views are not necessarily incompatible.

There is a common view that Buddhas make their appearance near the low point of human civilization. While this was true of Gotama, it was not true of the Buddhas before him, nor will it be true of Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya), the Coming Buddha, who will appear during the age of the 80,000-year “lifespan,” at the height of human civilization. Says the sutta,

In that time of the people with an eighty thousand year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the Worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods (devas) and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now. He will thoroughly know by his own super-knowledge, and proclaim, this universe with its devas and maras and Brahmas, its ascetics and Brahmins, and this generation with its princes and people, just as I do now. He will teach the Dhamma, lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in its ending, in the spirit and in the letter, and proclaim, just as I do now, the holy life in its fullness and purity. He will be attended by a company of thousands of monks, just as I am attended by a company of hundreds.

Many people throughout history have identified themselves with Metteyya, beginning with Wu Zetian (624–705), the only ruling female emperor in the history of China, who ruthlessly persecuted her opponents in the royal family by cutting off their arms and legs and inserting them in jars, and most recently, Ram Bahadur Bomjon (b. 1990), a Nepalese nicknamed “Buddha Boy.” However, it is clear, disregarding the improbably extended longevity of human beings, that the essential conditions of Metteyya’s coming, viz., a global human die-off followed by a cultural revolution, the establishment of a dharma society, and the appearance of a universal golden age, have yet to be fulfilled. According to the sutta, all of these conditions are preconditions of Metteyya’s appearance, not the result of it. Metteyya will teach the Buddhadharma in its perfection, both exoteric and esoteric, but his sangha will be ten times larger than that of Gotama. This will only come about, in accordance with the law of karma, when the conditions are right.

The Dharma Refuge

The Buddha reiterates the advice to the monastics to be refuges unto themselves, with no other refuge than the Dharma itself.

Once again, the Buddha emphasizes that emancipation is an endeavour of, for, and by the individual. One is not saved by anyone or anything outside of one’s self, which raises an interesting quandary for those who believe that the Buddha denied the existence of a self, as distinct from a certain sort of self or a certain way of seeing the self.  He even says that the individual alone is their own refuge, with no other refuge – a startling thought given the great religious solemnity of the Threefold Refuge. Have Buddhists been taking refuge in the wrong thing all this time? Taking refuge in oneself is then identified with taking refuge in the Dharma. Note the singularity of this formula – taking refuge in the Buddha and the sangha are not mentioned! Some scholars have observed that there appear to be references to a unitary refuge formula in which one takes refuge in the Dharma only, which is consistent with this advice and similar advice expressed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The threefold formula appears to be a later innovation, as Buddhism became more focused on the deification of the Buddha and the sangha was establishing its hegemony.[5]

The Four Attentions

He then reiterates the Four Attentions and the Ancestral Haunts, already discussed.

The Four Roads to Power

By remaining in the forest, according to my interpretation of “ancestral haunts,” the Buddha says that the quality of life, beauty, happiness, wealth, and power will all increase. Each of these attainments seems to be associated with a specific practice or set of related practices. Presumably, then, these are the practices in which a forest-dwelling monastic engages in order to produce the fruits described in the sutta. Specifically, quality of life is attained by a set of four related practices called the Four Roads to Power. Beauty is attained by Right Conduct. Happiness is attained by the cultivation of detachment. Wealth is attained by the cultivation of loving kindness. Finally, Power is attained by a practice called the liberation of heart and wisdom. It seems that the Buddha has adapted these four goals, since beauty, wealth, and power seem rather ill-suited to monastics. Thus, the Buddha asks, what do these goals mean for a monastic.

Those of you who attended my talk on the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 19) may remember the Buddha’s comment to Ananda that, had Ananda asked him to do so, the Buddha could have overcome his illness by an effort of will and lived out his full human lifespan of about one hundred years. Nevertheless, the technique by which this may be accomplished is called the Road to Power (a.k.a the Four Roads to Power), which is also described in sutta. 18. This is broken down into four specific concentration exercises: (1) concentration of intention, (2) concentration of energy, (3) concentration of consciousness, and (4) concentration of investigation. According to the text, each exercise is accompanied by an effort of will.  Perhaps this is as good a place as any to mention that while this and other meditative practices are alluded to in the Pali Canon, the actual methods are only discussed in the briefest possible way. Clearly, the techniques were more detailed and the texts must have been supplemented by verbal instructions that were given by the Buddha or his disciples directly to the monastics in person. This shows that the Pali Canon is not complete, but is merely a compilation of teachings that must have been elaborated in detail when the actual exercises were taught to the monastics. Alternatively, the absence of details might also imply that the redactors of the Pali Canon themselves were beginning to forget the details. Unfortunately, this aspect of the oral tradition has been largely lost to us over the course of time. David Chapman discusses this in the context of the Theravada in his blog, “Theravada Reinvents Meditation”  The Road to Power is especially interesting because it shows that at least some Buddhist meditations were not directed towards the direct attainment of enlightenment, but were concerned with the acquisition of the so-called iddhi, psychic attainments or even magical powers. This is why the later traditions have so much of value to contribute because they represent the fruits and insights of actual practice instead of a faded collective memory.

Right Conduct 

Before I mentioned that beauty, wealth, and power seem to be peculiar goals for a monk. Thus, the Buddha reinterprets beauty as right conduct, by which the rules of training are perfected. 


Happiness is interpreted as detachment by the Buddha, which is perfected by the practice of the Four Jhanas.

Loving Kindness

Wealth is another of those surprising goals, which is reinterpreted by the Buddha as loving-kindness, the familiar metta meditation, by which the monastic suffuses the whole world with compassion.

Liberation of the Heart by Wisdom

Finally, the Buddha identifies power with the destruction of the corruptions or taints, consisting of craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and ignorance, to which attachment to views was added by the commentaries. The literal meaning of the word translated as “corruptions,” asava, is ‘discharge from a sore.’ This power is the corruptionless liberation of heart by wisdom. Heart in Pali is citta, which means heart/mind, wisdom the salvific principle itself as I have mentioned. Heart also suggests calming meditation; wisdom, insight meditation, or wisdom based on a serene heart.

The Power of Mara

Interestingly, the discussion of the Road to Power, culminating in power, perhaps “empowerment” is better, culminating in the liberation of the heart by wisdom that is attained by realization segues into a discussion of the power of Mara. The commonalty is clearly power, which identifies this practice as proto-Tantric in character. Power (bala) in itself is neither enlightened nor unenlightened, both of which are ultimately dualistic concepts. The energy of enlightenment immediately posits the energy of unenlightenment.


The Buddha concludes with the statement that merit increases with the accumulation of wholesome states. The phrase translated as “wholesome’ is upaya kausalya, which literally translated means something closer to “effective” than the rather indefinite connotations of the English “wholesome.” Upaya means something like “strategy,” whereas kausalya is ‘skilful’ or even ‘capable.’ I think we see here another indication of the influence of the mercantile society, his largest constituency, in which the Buddha lived, on Buddhist thinking. Just as Buddhism resolves ethics into the ontological fact of the law of karma, so does it resolve morality into that which works. Buddhist ethics are ultimate pragmatism. Buckminster Fuller declared similarly that a moral or ethical system is simply an empirical fact that developed experientially as the most optimum or efficient human response to the environment. In the case of Buddhism, ethics are embedded in actuality, not in the form of an ‘ought,’ but in the form of a fundamental ontological fact – the law of causality, extended to include mind as a sense and mind-objects as the objects of the mental sense.


1. The period implied between successive appearances of the Wheel Treasures is described as “many hundreds and thousands of years.” The minimum therefore is 4,400 years and the maximum just shy of a million years. Eight periods are implied from the accession of Dalhanemi to the accession of his seventh successor. The minimum possible time implied, then, is 8 × 4,400 = 35,200 years. The maximum is slightly less than eight million years.

2. Based on the sutta, the total duration of an antarakappa is 80,000 + 40,000 + 20,000 + 10,000 + 5,000 + 2,500 + 1,000 + 500 + 250 + 100 + 50 + 25 + 10 + 20 + 40 + 80 + 160 + 320 + 640 + 2,000 + 4,000 + 8,000 + 20,000 + 40,000  + 80,000 = 314,695 years, divided into devolutionary and evolutionary arcs of roughly 160,000 years each, despite the traditional view that is “incalculable.” It is interesting to note, therefore, that the earliest known fossil of Homo sapiens, our own species, is just about 160,000 years old. Three hundred twenty thousand years ago marks fundamental advancements in tool making and the first evidence for regular use of fire and the burial of the dead. Perhaps the absurd longevities given in the Pali Canon are not so absurd if we regard them as referring to ages of humanity rather than to ages of human individuals ( If we regard the numbers as an arithmetical expression of historical devolution, the “stepped” character of the transforms suggests a cataclysmic rather than a continuous view of history, characterized by intermittent episodes of rapid change, which is now the dominant model of biological evolution.

3. Thus, we might identify the “sword interval” with the Scientific Revolution. The word sattha is also related to Sanskrit svasta, related to swastika, referring perhaps to the the generally destructive, anti-human effects of the ideology of scientific materialism (which includes philosophical materialism, Newtonian science, industrialism, social Darwinism, communism, fascism, capitalism, “scientism,” and technocracy), which are by no means past. We are therefore technically still in this “fascist” period dominated by the “reptilian” (or asura) mode of consciousness that has come to dominate the ego as a result of the collapse of the transcendental function. Buddhologist A.K. Warder (University of Toronto) identifies the sword interval with a series of major wars.

All will be promiscuous in the world like goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, dogs and jackals. Among them, fierce enmity will prevail one for another, fierce hatred, fierce anger and thoughts of killing, mother against child and child against mother, father against child and child against father, brother against brother, brother against sister, just as the hunter feels hatred  for the beast he stalks … (DN 26.20)

4. “While its dates are disputed, the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as marking the beginning of the scientific revolution, and its completion is attributed to the grand synthesis’ of Newton’s 1687 Principia.” (Wikipedia [2015, Jan. 19], “Scientific revolution”).

5. See Rhys Davids (1931; rpt. 1996), The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part 1 (Oxford: Pali Text Society), pp. xxvi, xliii ff.

Udumbarika-Sihanada Sutta (DN 25)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, April 12, 2015.

The Lion’s Speech in Queen Udumbarika’s Park

Digha Nikaya 25

Vulture's HillThis sutta was spoken at the Vulture’s Peak, near Rajagaha, in Magadha, which we also find mentioned in the Great Lion’s Roar (sutta 8) and at the opening of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, and in sutta 19, a deva sutta. In sutta 8 the Buddha is approached by Nigrodha, described as a “certain practitioner of mortification,” who consulted the Buddha about the practice of austerity and was delighted by the Buddha’s reply. The Nigrodha of this sutta is described as a wanderer and the topic is self-mortification, so it seems likely that the two Nigrodhas are the same.

The householder Sandhana came early in the morning to see the Buddha, but discovers that they are in retreat so he goes to the Udumbarika lodging, named after Queen Udumbarika, to see Nigrodha instead.  He finds Nigrodha in the middle of a large crowd of wanderers, all nosily talking about all manner of topics. Nigrodha sees Sandhana coming in the distance and hushes the wanderers. (We also learn that the lay householder followers of the Buddha wore white.) Sandhana must have heard them anyway, because the first thing he mentions is to point out that the followers of other sects are noisy, whereas the followers of the Buddha are quiet. Nigrodha asks Sandhana where the Buddha gets his “lucidity of wisdom” and suggests that his mental sharpness has been compromised by social isolation. Nigrodha suggests that if the Buddha came to the Udumbarika lodging, he would be quickly defeated in argument.

Public open-air debates like this seem to have been popular in India; the tradition was preserved in the Tibetan tradition of monastic didacticism. The Buddha descends from Vulture’s Peak and walks up and down – walking meditation? – beside the Sunagadha Tank in the Peacocks’ Feeding Ground. This must be near the Udumbarika lodging, since Nigrodha catches sight of him. Again, he hushes the wanderers, hoping that the Buddha will join them. When he does come, the hypocrisy of Nigrodha’s fawning obsequious friendliness is all the more blatant since we know what he has just said to Sandhana.

Nigrodha has a question already prepared for the Buddha: “What is this doctrine in which the Blessed Lord trains his disciples and which those disciples whom he has so trained as to benefit from it recognise as their principal support, and the perfection of the holy life”?

Rather than answer the question, the Buddha tells Nigrodha that it is hard for adherents of different views to understand the dharma of the Buddha. Instead, he asks Nigrodha to tell him about Nigrodha’s doctrine of extreme austerity. The wanderers make a big stir about the Buddha appearing to turn the tables on Nigrodha, something to which the wanderers seem to be prone. Specifically, the Buddha asks him how the conditions of austerity and self-mortification are and are not fulfilled?

Nigrodha’s answer is that they regard the higher austerities as essential. Strangely, he then asks the Buddha another question in return: what constitutes the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of the higher austerities? The Buddha summarizes all of the ascetic practices that we reviewed in sutta 8: nakedness; non-restraint; nonconformity; not accepting food out of the pot or pan; wearing coarse cloth, shrouds from corpses, or rags from the dust heap; plucking out the hair and beard; sleeping on thorns; sleeping alone in a garment of wet mud; living outside; accepting any seat; abstaining from drinking water; bathing three times before evening; etc. Clearly, all of these were practised by ascetics of the Buddha’s time and therefore (presumably) by the Buddha himself during his six years of asceticism. The Buddha asks NIgrodha if he believes that these practices fulfill the higher austerity. Nigrodha says that they do. The Buddha tells Nigrodha that this higher austerity can be faulted in various ways. These faults include self-righteousness, pride, enmity, carelessness, worldliness, jealousy, ostentation, deceitfulness, ill temperament, and extremism, amongst others. However, a self-mortifier who does not practise these things is purified. Nevertheless, Nigrodha sees a self-mortifier purified of these things as having attaining the peak and the pith of attainment, introducing the metaphor of the heartwood developed in sutta 18 of the Majjhima Nikaya. In the latter sutta, the various layers of a tree trunk are identified with different degrees of attainment, culminating in the attainment of the heartwood, corresponding to enlightenment itself. Nigrodha thinks that the self-mortifier, purified of the evils listed off by the Buddha, has reached the pith, but the Buddha says he has merely reached the outer bark.

Nigrodha asks the Buddha to explain how then the self-mortifier penetrates to the pith. The Buddha says he must practise the Fourfold Restraint. Those of you who have attended my other talks may remember that from time to time I mention how the Five Precepts (Pansil), viz., not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in wrongful sex, not to lie, and not to drink alcohol, often omit the fifth precept – the prohibition on alcohol – quite frequently throughout the Pali Canon, for no discernible reason. (Incidentally, the popular perception that the fifth precept prohibits drugs is inaccurate.) I hypothesized that perhaps the shorter version was original, since it seems more likely that a precept – and the last one, at that – would be added on rather than forgotten. Here we have a name – the fourfold restraint – given to a set of just these four precepts: not harming (instead of not killing), not stealing, not lying, and not craving sense pleasures (instead of not engaging in wrongful sex), including not engaging in the activity, not being the cause of the activity being engaged in by somebody else, and not advocating or defending the activity. I propose that here we see an original fourfold form of Pansil. This furthers the self-mortifier in the upward path.

Next, he sits cross-legged in a secluded place, including a tree, a cave or gorge, a charnel ground, a jungle thicket, or in a clearing, “establishing mindfulness before him.” We’ve discussed the etymology of the word “mindfulness,” Pali sati, in previous talks. In general, I prefer the word “attention” or “attentiveness.” Walshe consistently interprets mindfulness as mindfulness of the breathing. One abandons all negative thoughts and emotions and practises compassion toward all living beings, the perception of light, and calming the heart-mind (citta). The perception of light refers to a visualization of the body enveloped by light, even self-identification with the Buddha visualized as a body of light. I discussed this proto-Tantric meditation in my talk on meditation. In Pali, citta means both heart and mind. Calming the heart-mind suggests what is now called samatha, tranquility meditation.

Having abandoned the five hindrances of sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt by these methods, one practices the well-known metta meditation, pervading the four quarters with “loving kindness.” The Buddha says that one who has followed the path to this point has penetrated to the inner bark. The metta meditation appears to be distinguished from practising compassion towards all living beings; perhaps the former is more akin to the actual practical generosity of a bodhisattva than to a formal meditation. Elsewhere the metta meditation is stated to only result in rebirth in the Brahma world, not arhantship.

To progress further, the self-mortifier must attain the recollection of past lives. The Buddha says that he who has realized this level has penetrated the fibres surrounding the pith.

To progress further he must purify the “divine eye,” which gives him insight into the workings of karma. The Buddha says that such a one has penetrated to the pith.

Here we see what appears to be an early attempt to work out the architectonics of “the path,” consisting of methods and attainments (“paths” and “fruits”), based on the “ground” of the Fourfold Restraint. The Buddha says to Nigrodha, “when you ask: ‘What, Lord, is this doctrine in which the  Blessed Lord trains his disciples, and which those disciples whom he has so trained as to benefit from it recognise as their principal support, and the perfection of the holy life.’ I say that it is by something more far-reaching and excellent that I train them, through which they … recognise as their principal support, and the perfection of the holy life.” This passage is not entirely clear, but based on the reply of the wanderers it seems that the Buddha means that his dharma transcends Nigrodha’s comprehension.

In any case, the assembled wanderers start clamouring again, declaring Nigrodha and themselves to be defeated. Sandhana mocks Nigrodha: why don’t you baffle him with a single question and knock him over like an empty pot. The irony is delicious.

The Buddha chastises Nigrodha for not considering that the Buddha might actually be telling the truth, since he abides in the conditions of true emancipation. Nigrodha confesses his fault and the Buddha excuses him. This ritual of public confession was repeated by the monastics at every new and full moon days (uposathas), when the monastics would voluntarily admit their faults and execute whatever penance was required by the rules. For many transgressions, like drinking alcohol, confession alone was enough. As a transgression, drinking alcohol ranked with tickling, playing in the water, and too-frequent bathing. This might surprise some people, who are constantly being taught by religious fundamentalists that drinking alcohol is a major transgression. The Vinaya itself says that it is not, even for monastics, and it probably was added to the Fourfold Restraint to make the Five Precepts later in the development of the Pali Canon.

The Buddha accepts Nigrodha’s confession, and tells him that he will instruct any man who is intelligent, sincere, honest, and straightforward. You may recall that in a previous sutta the Buddha spoke how anyone who practises meditation for a minimum of seven days will either attain arhantship or stream entry within seven years maximum. Here the Buddha says that if such a man were to practise Dharma for at least seven days, he will attain “to that unequalled holy life and goal, for the sake of which young men of good family go forth from the household life into homelessness.” I am not aware of any passage that clarifies the Buddha means exactly by meditating for seven days. Does he mean meditating for 168 hours continuously without sleep? This is an altogether more demanding regimen that meditating 18 hours a day for example. When the Buddha attained nirvana, he remained entranced continuously for seven days.

Next, the Buddha explicitly repudiates sectarianism:

you may think: ‘the ascetic Gotama says this in order to get disciples.’ But you should not regard it like that. Let him who is your teacher remain your teacher. Or you may think: ‘He wants us to abandon our rules.’ Let your rules remain as they are. Or you may think: ‘He wants us to abandon our way of life.’ But you should not regard it like that. Let your way of life remain as it was. Or you may think: ‘He wants to establish us in the doing of things that according to our teaching was wrong, and are so considered among us.’ But you should not regard it like that. Let those things you consider wrong continue to be so considered. Or you may think: ‘He wants to draw us away from things that according to our teaching are good, and are so considered among us.’ But you should not regard it like that Let whatever you consider right continue to be so considered. Nigrodha, I do not speak for any of these reasons.

Therefore, the Buddha’s dharma that transcends the dharma of the wanderers also transcends teachers, rules, ways of life, and ethics. The Buddha’s dharma is not a religion. It is higher and more universal than religion. It is more of a critique of religion – a meta-religion. It is not reducible to historically or geographically contingent categories, and when historically or geographically contingent categories are imposed on it, they lead to the same error as the wanderers – the belief that adherence to external rites, rituals, and dogmatic beliefs are sufficient for emancipation.

Rather, the Dharma, the Buddha says, consists of understanding the mechanics of karma, by abandoning the taints and cultivating those things that conduce to purification through praxis: “If you practice accordingly, these tainted things will be abandoned, and the things that make for purification will develop and grow, and you will all attain to and dwell, in this very life, by your own insight and realisation, in the fullness of perfected wisdom.” Note, once again, as I have repeated in previous talks, the identification of “perfect wisdom” as the essential salvific principle.

The wanderers fall silent, but none converts, causing the Buddha to declare them all to be foolish and possessed by Mara (lit. ‘causing death’), the asura of desirous attachment, who binds us to the cycle of life and death by seducing us with our own desires. Whether the Buddha means this to be taken literally or as a manner of speech is uncertain. The Buddha reiterates that emancipation can be attained in as few as seven days, whereupon he levitates into the air and teleports back to Vulture’s Peak. Sandhana too returns to Rajagaha.