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.