Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, April 5, 2015.
Patikaputta the Naked Ascetic
Digha Nikaya 24
Our translator, Maurice Walshe, comments that this sutta is the worst sutta in the Digha NIkaya. Still, we must consider its contents, without regard to its historicity, for non-historicity is not a warrant of falsehood and strict historicity is impossible in any case. The Buddha is staying amongst the Mallas, a brave and warlike people who nonetheless had rejected monarchy and functioned as a republic. The small but powerful Malla state was located north of Magadha. We have encountered Malla before as the place where the Buddha took sick and died in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Divided into nine clan or tribal territories, each clan appointed members to the Santhagara, literally the ‘House of Assembly.’ Malla would be annexed by Magadha soon after the Buddha’s death.
The name of the town where the Buddha was staying was Anupiya. Anupiya seems to have been a mango grove. Getting up too early in the morning to go into the village for alms, as was his wont, the Buddha resolved to visit Bhaggava-gotta in his arama. Bhaggava-gotta is described as a wanderer. An arama is a park or a monastery. Walshe has “hermitage.” Bhaggava-gotta welcomes the Buddha warmly. Bhaggava asks the Buddha if it’s true that Sunakkhatta the Licchavi had left the sangha (lit. ‘rule’). We encountered Sunakhhatta the Lacchavi indirectly in sutta 6, when Otthaddha the Licchavi asks the Buddha about Sunakkhatta’s experience of divine visions but not divine sounds. The Licchavis were the major clan of the Vajji confederacy, east of Malla.
The Buddha confirms that Sunakhatta has left the sangha and tells Bhaggava the story of his leaving with some relish. Sunakkhata (the Buddha says) went to the Buddha and told him that he is leaving the sangha, perhaps with some attitude, which the Buddha gives right back. The Buddha says, “Did I ever say to you, join the sangha, or did you ever say to me, I will join the sangha?” Sunakkhatta admits that he had not, which begs the question of Sunakkhatta’s relationship with the Buddha. Later on, we learn that Sunakhatta was one of the Buddha’s personal attendants. We know from other suttas that many of the Buddha’s early personal attendants before Ananda were unsatisfactory, suggesting the possibility of some sort of personal animosity on Sunakkhatta’s part. This also places the sutta between the time when the Buddha was 35 and 55 years of age since Ananda took over as the Buddha’s personal attendant when Gotama was 55. He seems to delight in chiding, challenging, and correcting the Buddha. Perhaps he had been ordained by another bhikku, a practice documented in the Pali Canon, so that Sunakkhatta had never met the Buddha before becoming his personal attendant. Perhaps the Buddha’s curtness is also influenced by his perception of Sanakkhatta’s hostility, which is overt in the Mahasihanada Sutta (MN 12), where he openly attacks the Buddha before the Vesali assembly of the Vajjians. In any case, the Buddha rebukes Sunakkhata for his importunity: “So, Sunakkhatta, if I did not say that to you and you did not say that to me – you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up. Consider, foolish man, how far the fault is yours.” The Buddha seems to be saying, “Don’t look to me because you’ve left the order; look to yourself, for the karma is yours.” The impression is that Sunakkhatta is giving up something of great value without realizing it, and that this is why the Buddha openly derides him.
Sunakkhatta then complains to the Buddha that the Buddha has not performed any miracles or taught the beginning of things. The Buddha reminds Sunakkhatta that he never promised to perform miracles or teach the beginning of things. The Buddha tells Sunakkhatta that the purpose of his teaching is the attainment of the cessation of angst (dukkha), and that neither miracles nor teachings concerning the beginning of things are relevant to this goal.
The Buddha observes that in the past Sunakkhatta has praised the Buddha to the Vajjians. In so doing he describes the dharma as “visible here and now, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise, each one for himself.” Let’s unpack this a little:
- Visible here and now: The dharma is experienced in the moment. In this sense, it is the essential truth of reality. Thus, the moment itself is the essential reality.
- Timeless: The moment is outside time. Thus, dharma is the permanent, changeless truth of reality. It is immortal, and it confers immortality (the deathless).
- Inviting inspection: It is both attractive, because it confers happiness, and it is susceptible to analytical evaluation.
- Leading onward: It is a progressive praxis that builds on itself and so confers ever-increasing insight, culminating in enlightenment itself.
- Realized by the wise: The dharma is the essential salvific principle, a point I have emphasized throughout all of my talks, and is therefore only attainable by those who know (i.e., have Right View or Wisdom).
- Each one for himself: The path is unique and only available through the direct realization of the individual, although individuals may choose to walk together – a paradoxical statement given that there is “no self” (anatta) but also pointing beyond “no self” to the mental continuum or mind stream, which brings us back to the moment.
Sunakhatta also praises the sangha:
- Four pairs of men: stream enterer (sotapanna), once-returner, non-returner, and arhant.
- Eight classes of individuals: wayfarer (maggattha) and pathfinder (phalattha) × 4
Therefore, the lowest stage or grade is that of one striving towards the state of the stream enterer, presumably intermediate between the stage of a dharma follower and the stage of Right View, since Right View is identified with stream entry.
The sangha is described as “worthy of respect, worthy of homage, worthy of gifts, worthy of salutation, an unsurpassed field in the world for merit.” This passage alludes to a somewhat disconcerting Buddhist doctrine for some Westerners, that the amount of merit one generates, either for oneself or others, is directly proportional to the merit of the recipient of the act (where a recipient is involved). In the case of renunciation, where the recipient of merit is oneself, the better a renouncer one is, the higher the quality of the merit that one generates for oneself. In the words of Yeshua, “In fact, to those who have, more will be given, and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away!” (Mark 4:25, ASV). This then becomes a karmic “energy bank” that can be saved, drawn upon, used, and transferred, just like money! This comparison might startle some folk, but Buddhism was as successful as it was in India largely due to the commercial class, who became members of the sangha and endowed it with parks, monasteries, and other gifts. Thus, mercantile references and concepts did enter the Pali Canon. The quality of one’s personal merit accelerates exponentially. For this reason, absent the Buddha, the true sangha is the greatest source of merit, the actual repository of Dharma. This may be understood as a direct consequence of the Law of Karma, which underlies the merit generation process. Merit is simply the positive quality of unfruited karmas that inhere in one’s nature due to the quality of one’s intentions expressed in words, thoughts, and deeds (body, speech, and mind).
The political implication of this doctrine is also clear. The sangha operates as a kind of collective social conscience, devoid of obvious power yet influential, close to the people through the tie of alms, not involved in money, business, trade, politics, or the householder world, internally based on respect for seniority, common property, and mutually consensual discourse. Such an organization creates a karmic counterpart to the inherent tendency of samsara to degeneration, thus maintaining the “tone” of society without being involved in government. Only a sangha that functions in this way conforms to the Buddha’s intention.
The Buddha told Sunakkhatta that people will say that he left the sangha because he couldn’t handle the rules and, the text says, “Sunakkhatta left this Dhamma and discipline like one condemned to hell.”
Here the sutta breaks off into a series of three short tales told by the Buddha, all designed to denigrate Sunakkhatta. Walshe notes that this is the only sutta in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha relates a narrative (as distinct form a discourse) to a third party.
The tale that the Buddha tells to Bhaggava relates an incident in the Buddha’s life that occurred at a place called Uttaraka amongst the Khulus or Burus, the name of this obscure tribe is uncertain. One morning the Buddha went into Uttaraka with Sunakkhatta as his attendant. At that time a naked ascetic by the name of Korakkhattiya (lit. ‘dog-man’) was going about the town on all fours. This kind of asceticism seems to have been popular in Asia. Seniya is another ascetic who emulated a dog, like the Chinese Taoist mystic Ge Xuan (164–244 CE), who went about as a pig for seven years in order to prove his holiness. Sunakkhatta was much impressed by Korakkhattiya, to the Buddha’s consternation. When the Buddha questions Sunakkhatta’s judgment, Sunakkhatta is defensive: “Does the Blessed Lord begrudge others their Arahantship?” The Buddha’s answer is revealing: “I do not begrudge others their Arahantship, you foolish man. It’s only in you that this evil view has arisen.” The Buddha’s answer echoes Kassapa’s reference to Brahman ascetics in sutta 23 – he recognizes that those of other persuasions are capable of arhantship, dharma is a shared object of concern. The Buddha’s objection to Sunakkhatta’s implicit accusation of bias or perhaps sectarianism is that Korakkhattiya has no following. The Buddha’s objection to Korakkhattiya is that he is generating the karma of his own downfall, and therefore cannot be on the right path because his fruit is bad. To prove this the Buddha predicts that Korakkattiya will die of indigestion before long and so he did.
The Buddha predicts that Korakkhattiya will be reborn amongst the asuras, the ‘anti-gods’ who we have discussed in past talks. The sutta gives us a rare glimpse into the typology of the asuras. He says Korakkhattiya will be reborn amongst the Kalakanjas (Kalakeyas), the very lowest grade of asura. We have met these beings once before in sutta 20, where they appear amongst the host of devas who worship the Buddha and are called “terrible to behold.” In Hinduism, these were a powerful, cruel, and ferocious clan of Danavas, a race descending from Daksha, one of the sons of Lord Brahma, who hid themselves in the sea in order to avoid Indra after he killed their leader, the demon Vrutra-asura. In Buddhist lore, the Kalakanjas are said to suffer from excessive thirst, rather like the Chinese conception of ‘hungry ghosts’ (Chinese ergui; Pali peta). The Kalakanjas also resemble the petas in shape, sex life, diet, and longevity. They also intermarry with them – thus establishing that different classes of beings can intermarry in the Buddhist world-view, an interesting concept suggestive of Star Trek, which explores the prospect of sex with extraterrestrials quite openly. In Vodun, marriages with spiritual beings (loas or lwas) are legally recognized and socially accepted.
The Buddha invites Sunakkhatta to verify this for himself, which he does by performing an act of what amounts to necromancy – the magical art of divining using corpses – with the corpse of Korakkhattiya, which he finds thrown aside on a heap of grass in a charnel ground. Striking the body three times with his hand, Sunakkhatta cries out, “Friend Korakkhattiya, do you know your fate?” The corpse sits up, rubs his back with his hand, and says, “Friend Sunakkhatta, I know my fate. I have been reborn among the Kalakanja asuras.” The corpse then falls back, once again dead. This type of divination was reputedly performed by witches and sorcerers during the European Middle Ages, and is clearly a universal archetype.
Afterwards, the Buddha reminds Sunakkhatta of his complaint that the Buddha has not performed a miracle. Sunakkhatta admits that he has, and leaves the sangha in disgrace.
The Buddha tells another parallel story, which took place at the Gabled Hall in the Great Forest of Vesali, the capital of the Vajjis. I’m tempted to mention parallel universes here, since Sunakkhatta can only leave the sangha once, but perhaps that may be a stretch. Here he tells the story of Kalaramutthaka. Kalamutthaka had undertaken seven rules of practice:
- Living as a naked ascetic;
- Subsisting on strong meat and drink, like the Tantrics later would, and abstaining from boiled rice and sour milk;
- – 7. Remaining with a square defined by four shrines [Udena (e.), Gotamaka (s.), Sattamba (w.), Bahuputta (n)]. – DN 16.32
(I have followed Walshe’s punctuation in numbering the foregoing)
Sunakkhatta went to visit Kalamutthaka and asked him a question that he could not answer, whereupon Kalamutthaka became enraged. Sunakkhatta felt that Kalamutthaka was a true arhant, so he withdrew out of fear that he has offended the ascetic. The Buddha reminds Sunakhatta of this, and prophecies that Kalamutthaka will become a married householder and lose his reputation as an ascetic. And so it came about. Sunakkhatta is made to acknowledge his error and leaves the sangha in disgrace. Perhaps these are past life stories, although there is no indication in the sutta that they are.
A third time the Buddha tells a parallel story, this time of Patikaputta, the name that seems to be referred to in the title of the sutta. A naked ascetic also living in Vesali, Patikaputta claimed to be able to make twice as many miracles as the Buddha and challenges the Buddha to a contest, but the Buddha says that Patikaputta is not capable of meeting him face to face. Curiously, Sunakkhatta asks the Buddha if the Buddha knows this from his own knowledge or has he been told by a deva. The Buddha answers that he knows it both from his own knowledge and from devas. This stock passage appears in other suttas too, implying that the Buddha could communicate with devas and that the dharma was at least partly inspired by them. The Buddha tells Sunakkhatta to invite Patikaputta to come to him in Patikaputta’s park any time. Hearing of this, many Licchavis – the sutta improbably says in the hundreds and thousands – came to Patikaputta’s park to see the contest but Patikaputta, afraid, tries to hide in the Tinduka wanderers’ lodging. This flowering, insect resistant tree is long-lived, slow-growing, and tall, with a thick, black trunk and round, yellow, astringent fruits.
The assembled company sends several people to persuade him to come, but Patikaputta cannot move off his seat, try as he might, like a man hypnotized. Jaliya, a pupil of the wooden bowl ascetic, also referred to in suttas 6 and 7, compares Patikaputta to a jackal who feeds off the leavings of the Buddha-lion.
Instead, the Buddha gives a dharma talk in Patikaputta’s park, which “delivered them all from the great bondage.” The meaning of this statement is obscure, and could mean anything from entering the path to experiencing emancipation. Attaining jhana by “the method of flame,” the Buddha rises into the air and projects a beam of light that blazes and sheds fragrance, and he teleports himself to the Gabled Hall of the Great Forest. Incidentally, the height to which the Buddha rose is the same as the length of the beam of light, which is equal to the height of seven palm trees (perhaps 200 to 400 m square). Note the recurrence of the symbolic number seven, which we frequently encounter in the Pali Canon. Once again, the Buddha shamed Sunakkhatta into admitting that he had performed a miracle, whereupon Sunakkhatta left the sangha in disgrace.
After having told these stories, the Buddha says to Bhaggava, “Bhaggava, I know the first beginning of things, and I know not only that but what surpasses it in value. And I am not under the sway of what I know, and not being under its sway I have come to know for myself that quenching (nibbuti), by the realisation of which the Tathagata cannot fall into perilous paths (anaya, lit. ‘misfortune’).” In just this way, Kant says in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that “these Prolegomena are not for the use of pupils but of future teachers, and even the latter should not expect that they will be serviceable for the systematic exposition of a ready-made science, but merely for the discovery of the science itself. … These Prolegomena, however, are designed for preparatory exercises, they are intended to point out what must be done in order to make a science actual if it is possible, rather than to expound it.” (Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that Will Be Able to Come Forward as a Science [Indianapolis: Hackett,] pp. 11, 19). Here the Buddha explains somewhat his antipathy to speculative metaphysics, not because there are no such truths (“I know the first beginning of things”) but because, like ethics, they are of lesser value and because they can lead to attachment that can lead to rebirth in just such a world as one imagines, and so continue to experience angst.
To demonstrate his knowledge, the Buddha launches into a discourse on theism, similar to what we encountered in sutta 11. The Buddha says that he went to those ascetics and Brahmans who believe that everything begins with creation by a god, but they were unable to give a reasonable answer to how this came about. The Buddha says that when the world contracts, beings are reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world, which actually refers to the top plane of the Radiant Devas next above the Brahma worlds. Then when the world expands again a deva falls into what he calls “an empty brahma palace,” like the empty mansion where Payasi was reborn in the Payasi Sutta (DN 23). Experiencing loneliness, other beings appear and he and they all believe that he created them. Thus, the belief in theism comes about as a delusion. This story is told in other suttas too.
The Buddha goes on to explain the origin of the Corrupted by Pleasure and Corrupted in Mind devas, referred to in sutta 1. Such beings fall into lower realms because of excessive merriment or envy respectively, and thus give rise to beliefs that the world is caused by sensual or mental corruption. Finally, he explains the origin of the Unconscious devas (asannasatta), who occupy the tenth plane of samara from the top, and the second plane counting from the bottom. The Unconscious devas are so-called because they sought to escape angst in unconscious meditative states. These beings are associated with the belief that the world arises according to chance. The Unconscious devas are reborn with no memory, thus concluding that everything comes out of non-being by chance. Interestingly, this state is not too unlike that of the human, who also believe that everything arises because of chance because memories of past births are very rare. Where they do arise spontaneously, usually in young children, they are often repressed.
The Buddha complains that others accuse him of being on the wrong track (viparito), declaring that whoever has reached the grade of “the beautiful” (subha), referring to the third liberation in sutta 15, which Walshe interprets as a jhana-like stage of concentration, finds everything repulsive. We have addressed this question in connection with the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body in sutta 22. However, the Buddha says he does not teach this! Rather, the Buddha says that whoever attains to the grade of the Beautiful experiences it (the grade? existence?) as beautiful. This is like the experience of the Buddha’s mother, Maya, during her gestation of the Buddha.
The Buddha tells Bhaggava that it’s hard for him, as a follower of a different philosophy, to attain the state called the Beautiful. However (Bhaggava says) although he belongs to a different sect, he will place his trust in the Buddha – an ambiguous statement at best, that might imply conversion, merely an appreciation of the Buddha, or even a polite exit.
Finally, in conclusion, the slide behind me is an image of an apocryphal miracle allegedly performed by the Buddha described in several commentaries. Called the yamaka-patihariya (‘twin miracle’), the Buddha’s body becomes luminous, and streams of water and flames of fire begin to emanate from opposite sides – above and below, to the left and the right, continuously alternating or oscillating between fire and water. While in this state, the Buddha walks up and down, teaching the Dharma according to the dispositions of the audience and performing miracles, for sixteen days, as a result of which two hundred millions comprehend the Dharma. Afterward the Buddha goes to the Tavatimsa heaven of the 33 gods and teaches the Abhidhamma to his mother, who has been reborn there as a deva. The myth reminds one of the Transfiguration and Ascension of Christ, and thus a fitting symbol for our Easter Sunday talk. According to the Questions of King Milinda, only a Buddha can perform the Twin Miracle, which is therefore a sign of his attainment. Symbolically, it clearly alludes to the quaternary (image of wholeness) and the dynamic interdependence of opposites, yin/yang, psychic/somatic, etc., as well as the aerial luminous phenomena that indicate the presence of the numinous. Note that this non-canonical story is not Mahayana. It’s in the Theravada commentaries.