Monthly Archives: May 2015

Sangiti Sutta (DN 33) and Dasuttara Sutta (DN 34)

The Convocation

Digha Nikaya 33

Country: Malla

Location: the mango grove of Cunda the smith at Pava

Speakers: Sariputta

Date: after 391 BCE, c. 400 BCE?

Buddha feetIn this sutta the Buddha is staying at the mango grove of Cunda the smith, who, we may remember from sutta 16, would later fatally poison the Buddha at the end of his life. Pava is of course the place where Mahavira, the leader of the Jains, had recently died. This sutta may, therefore, be dated towards the end of the Buddha’s life. The Mallan’s had built a new meeting hall, called Ubbhataka (lit. ‘standing tall’), which had not yet been used by anyone. The Mallas invited the Buddha to be the first person to speak there.

The Buddha sat with his back against the central pillar, facing east, with the monastics sitting behind him, against the western wall, also facing east. The Mallas sat against the eastern wall, facing the Buddha. This appears to have been the standard arrangement when the Buddha was giving formal public presentations. He taught dharma well into the night, after which the Mallans left, leaving the Buddha and the monastics alone. The Buddha suggested to Sariputta that he give a dharma talk to the monastics, who were still not drowsy, while the Buddha stretched his back, which was aching. The Buddha lay down on his robe, neatly folded in four, in the so-called “lion posture,” on his right side, within earshot of Sariputta. We know this because the Buddha subsequently approved of Sariputta’s talk.

Sariputta, alluding to the recent death of Mahavira, calls upon the monastics to recite the teachings of the Buddha in order to avoid the disgraceful state of affairs in the Jain order, much as described in sutta 29, which we have already discussed in the talk on that sutta. 

The balance of the sutta – thirty pages in Walshe’s English translation – consists of a rehearsal of principles arranged in 230 numbered sets of items starting with groups of one and ending with groups of ten things. Thus, Sariputta speaks the balance of this sutta with the Buddha’s approval.

The principles were chanted as follows:

  • Two sets of one thing;
  • 33 sets of two things;
  • 60 sets of three things;
  • 50 sets of four things;
  • 26 sets of five things;
  • 22 sets of six things;
  • 14 sets of seven things;
  • 11 sets of eight things;
  • six sets of nine things; and
  • six sets of ten things.

There are therefore 1,010 principles summarized in this short text – an amazing number that we cannot possibly cover in the next hour. In fact, there are even more principles implied than this, because this list includes references to other groups, such as three unwholesome roots, four foundations of mindfulness, five aggregates, and many more. To attempt to cover it all would allow us just three and a half seconds per item. Nor can we meaningfully discuss the ten groups, because their only relationship with each other is the number of items in that group. This ingenious method, however, allowed the dharma to be passed on from generation to generation in an extremely succinct and comprehensive manner.

Multiples of Ten

Digha Nikaya 34

Country: Anga

Locale: the Gaggara lotus pond in Campa

Speakers: Sariputta

SariputtaIn this sutta, Sariputta is staying at the lotus pond of Gaggara in Campa, in the territory of the Angas. Here Sariputta classifies the dharma into ten sets of ten things, much as in the previous sutta. In fact, this sutta appears to be a distillation of the principles of the previous sutta. These things are inherently and absolutely true (says Sariutta), perfectly realized by the Tathagata. Here however there are “only” 550 items. Walshe points out that about 70% of these items overlap with the items listed in the previous sutta, for which reason we are discussing them together. However, it is still impossible to discuss each principle in the six and a half seconds that would be allowed, so the following should be regarded as a simplification with minimal elaboration.

The organization of the ten sets of things in sutta 34 follows a consistent logic: 


  1. Which things greatly help?
  2. Which things are to be developed?
  3. Which things are to be thoroughly known?


  1. Which things are to be abandoned?
  2. Which things conduce to diminution?


  1. Which things conduce to distinction?
  2. Which things are hard to penetrate?
  3. Which things are to be made to arise?
  4. Which things are to be thoroughly learnt?
  5. Which things are to be realized?

You can see the logic of the progression from things that help to things that are to realized, which makes this list far more accessible than the one in sutta 33. In fact, the series of items may be seen as a summary recapitulation of the path itself. Items #1-3 clearly constitute a group, followed by items #4 and 5, and finally items #6 through 10, thus constituting three groups corresponding roughly to knowledge, morality, and finally meditation or spiritual praxis. Items #1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, and 10 have a positive character, whereas items #4, 5 and 7 have a negative cast. #4 and 5 also appear to be opposites of each other.

Each set of ten addresses each of these items by including an increasing number of one, two, three, etc. items. Perhaps by cross-referencing each of these groups of things we can gain a summary insight into the Buddhadharma. This will give us 55 principles in each category.

The following summary is a simplification of the items presented in the sutta, so each group may not appear to add up to exactly ten items. I have simplified the list in order to make it more accessible.


(simplified for oral presentation)
  1. Things that Greatly Help: Tirelessness in wholesome states, mindfulness, clear awareness, association with good people, hearing the true dharma, dharma practice in its entirety, a favourable place of residence, perfect development of one’s personality, past meritorious acts, factors of endeavour, wisdom in the fundamentals of the holy life, wise consideration, and protective things.
  1. Things to Be Developed: Mindfulness of the body with pleasure, calm, insight, concentration, foundations of mindfulness, factors of enlightenment, the Noble Eightfold Path, effort toward perfect purity, and absorption in the objects of concentration.
  1. Things to Be Thoroughly Known: Contact, mind-body, feelings, nutriments, aggregates of grasping, sense-spheres, stations of consciousness, worldly conditions, and abodes of beings.
  1. Things to Be Abandoned: Ego-conceit, ignorance, cravings, the hindrances, latent proclivities, and the wrong eightfold path plus wrong knowledge and wrong liberation.
  1. Things Conducive to Diminution: Unwise attention, roughness, friendship with evil, unwholesome roots, attachments, mental blockages, disrespect, wrong practices, indolence, malice, and unwholesome courses of action.
  1. Things Conducive to Distinction: Wise attention, gentleness, friendship with the good, wholesome roots, freedom from attachments, respect, right practices, effort, overcoming malice, and wholesome courses of action.
  1. Things Hard to Penetrate: Concentration, the root of the defilement and purification of beings, the elements of deliverance, qualities of the True Person, inopportune times for leading the holy life, ontological differentiation, and the noble dispositions.
  1. Things to Be Made to Arise: Unshakeable knowledge, the destruction of the defilements, knowledge of past, present, and future, knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, knowledge of right concentration, stability, perception, and thoughts of a Great Person.
  1. Things to Be Thoroughly Learnt: Nutriment, the conditioned and unconditioned, the elements, the Four Noble Truths, the bases of deliverance, the grounds for commendation, the states of mastery, successive abidings, and the causes of wearing away.
  1. Things to Be Realized: Unshakeable deliverance of mind, knowledge and liberation, knowledge of karma, the fruits of the ascetic life, the branches of dharma and knowledge and vision of liberation, the superknowledges, the powers of an arhant, the jhanas, and the Noble Eightfold Path plus knowledge and right liberation.

The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House (A Poem by Bertolt Brecht)

Guatama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
“What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast –whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and void.”
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
“There is no answer to your question.”
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a revolution
We have nothing much to say.

Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger (London: Methuen, 1961)

Schayer – Precanonical Buddhism

A separate stance has been taken by Stanislaw Schayer, a Polish scholar, who argued in the 1930s that the Nikayas preserve elements of an archaic form of Buddhism which is close to Brahmanical beliefs,[8][18][85][86] and survived in the Mahayana tradition.[87][88] Contrary to popular opinion, the Theravada and Mahayana traditions may be “divergent, but equally reliable records of a pre-canonical Buddhism which is now lost forever.”[87] The Mahayana tradition may have preserved a very old, “pre-Canonical” tradition, which was largely, but not completely, left out of the Theravada-canon.[88]


Schayer searched in the early texts for ideas that contradict the dominant doctrinal positions of the early canon. According to Schayer, these ideas have

… been transmitted by a tradition old enough and considered to be authoritative by the compilers of the Canon. The last conclusion follows of itself: these texts representing ideas and doctrines contradictory to the generally admitted canonical viewpoint are survivals of older, precanonical Buddhism.[89][note 30]

Edward Conze notes further:

They assume that wherever the Canon contains ideas which conflict with the orthodox theories of the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins, and wherever these ideas are taken up and developed by the Mahayana, we have to deal with a very old, “pre-Canonical” tradition, which was too venerable to be discarded by the compilers of the Canon.[88]

Ideas and practices

Regamy has identified four points which are central to Schayer’s reconstruction of precanonical Buddhism:[90]

  1. The Buddha was considered as an extraordinary being, in whom ultimate reality was embodied, and who was an incarnation of the mythical figure of the tathagata;
  2. The Buddha’s disciples were attracted to his spiritual charisma and supernatural authority;
  3. Nirvana was conceived as the attainment of immortality, and the gaining of a deathless sphere from which there would be no falling back. This nirvana, as a transmundane reality or state, is incarnated in the person of the Buddha;
  4. Nirvana can be reached because it already dwells as the inmost “consciousness” of the human being. It is a consciousness which is not subject to birth and death.

Accordin to Ray, Schayer has shown a second doctrinal position alongside that of the more dominant tradition, one likely to be of at least equivalent, if not of greater, antiquity.[91]

Schayer’s methodology has been used by M. Falk.[91][note 31] Falk details the precanonical Buddhist conceptions of the cosmos, nirvana, the Buddha, the path, and the saint. According to Falk, in the precanonical tradition, there is a threefold division of reality:[91]

  1. The rupadhatu, the samsaric sphere of name and form (namarupa), in which ordinary beings live, die, and are reborn.
  2. The arupadhatu, the sphere of “sheer nama,” produced by samadhi, an ethereal realm frequented by yogins who are not completely liberated;
  3. “Above” or “outside” these two realms is the realm of nirvana, the “amrta sphere,” characterized by prajna. This nirvana is is an “abode” or “place” which is gained by the enlightened holy man.[note 32]

According to Falk, this scheme is reflected in the precanonical conception of the path to liberation.[92] The nirvanic element, as an “essence” or pure consciousness, is immanent within samsara. The three bodies are concentric realities, which are stripped away or abandoned, leaving only the nirodhakaya of the liberated person.[92] Wynne notes that this pure consciousness was the central element in precanonical Buddhism:

Schayer referred to passages in which “consciousness” (vinnana) seems to be the ultimate reality or substratum (e.g. A I.10) 14 as well as the Saddhatu Sutra, which is not found in any canonical source but is cited in other Buddhist texts — it states that the personality (pudgala) consists of the six elements (dhatu) of earth, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness; Schayer noted that it related to other ancient Indian ideas. Keith’s argument is also based on the Saddhatu Sutra as well as “passages where we have explanations of Nirvana which echo the ideas of the Upanishads regarding the ultimate reality.” He also refers to the doctrine of “a consciousness, originally pure, defiled by adventitious impurities.”[93]

Conze mentions ideas like the “person” (pudgala), the assumption of an eternal “consciousness” in the saddhatusutra, the identification of the Absolute, of Nirvana, with an “invisible infinite consciousness, which shines everywhere” in Dighanikdya XI 85, and “traces of a belief in consciousness as the nonimpermanent centre of the personality which constitutes an absolute element in this contingent world.”[88]

According to Lindtner, in precanonical Buddhism Nirvana is

… a place one can actually go to. It is called nirvanadhatu, has no border-signs (animitta), is localized somewhere beyond the other six dhatus (beginning with earth and ending with vijñana) but is closest to akasa and vijñana. One cannot visualize it, it is anidarsana, but it provides one with firm ground under one’s feet, it is dhruva; once there one will not slip back, it is acyutapada. As opposed to this world, it is a pleasant place to be in, it is sukha, things work well.[8][note 33]

According to Lindtner, Canonical Buddhism was a reaction to this view, but also against the absolutist tendencies in Jainism and the Upanisads. Nirvana came to be seen as a state of mind, instead of a concrete place.[8]

Elements of this precanonical Buddhism may have survived the canonisation, and its subsequent filtering out of ideas, and re-appeared in Mahayana Buddhism.[8][85] According to Lindtner, the existence of multiple, and contradicting ideas, is also reflected in the works of Nagarjuna, who tried to harmonize these different ideas. According to Lindtner, this lead him to taking a “paradoxical” stance, for instance regarding nirvana, rejecting any positive description.[8]


According to Conze, Schayer’s approach and results are “merely a tentative hypothesis”.[94] Conze notes that it is also possible that these ideas later entered Buddhism, as a concession to “popular demand, just as the lower goal of birth in heaven (svarga) was admitted side by side with Nirvana.”[94] According to Conze, the real issue is:

Did Buddhism originate among an elite of intellectuals, of philosophical ascetics, and then become a popular religion only at the time of Asoka? Or was it, even from the earliest times onwards, a popular religion based on the cult of the Bhagavan, of the Lord Buddha? And if so, was this religious side a part of its very essence, or just as propagandistic concession to laymen?[94]