Digha Nikaya 28
Locale: Pavarika’s mango grove in Nalanda
Speakers: Sariputta, the Buddha, Udayi
Those of you who attended my talk on sutta 16, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, may remember a conversation that the Buddha had with Sariputta at Pavarika’s mango grove in Nalanda. Sariputta declares that there never had been and never will be an ascetic or Brahman who is better or more enlightened than the Buddha. The Buddha chastises Sariputta, questioning him on how he can know that this is true, but Sariputta replies that he knows that this is true because he knows the “drift” of the dharma (dhammanvaya, lit. perhaps ‘virtue of the dharma’). Sariputta refers specifically to the five hindrances (sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt), the four foundations of mindfulness (mindfulness of the body, feelings or sensations, mind or consciousness, and mental phenomena or mind objects), and the seven factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy or rapture, relaxation or tranquility, concentration, and equanimity).
This conversation is repeated in the first two sections of the Sampasadaniya Sutta, which therefore places it in the last year of the Buddha’s life, like the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. This sutta is an expansion of that conversation.
Sariputta says that he has attained “serene confidence” in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, which Walshe identifies with the “unwavering confidence” referred to in sutta 16 in connection with the Mirror of Dharma, based on the Buddha’s exposition of dharma, “contrasting the dark with the light.” The Buddha implies that the attainment of this confidence guarantees no more lower rebirths and establishes one as a stream entrant, whereby one will attain nirvana within seven rebirths. Thus, this faith or confidence is formally equivalent to Right View (”insight”) or Wisdom, the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path. Of course, the attainment of perfect confidence is not easy to do, and must be actual to be effective – this is not a matter of assenting intellectually to a few fundamental doctrines in a rote way and participating in a Refuge ceremony. Dr. Alex Berzin makes this point quite well in one of his online talks. Buddhist confidence is neither the “faith for faith’s sake” of Christianity, nor is it a merely intellectual assent or even an intellectual conviction, but rather absolute experiential certainty born of reasonable inquiry and analysis that has become internalized to the point of automaticity. View (ditthi, lit. ‘eyesight’ or ‘vision’), whether right or wrong, is simply the way in which one knows the world. Apparently, Sariputta had this experience of awakening immediately after hearing the Buddha speak for the first time.
The rest of the sutta is an expansion of Sariputta’s reply to the Buddha, presumably amplifying his reference to the “drift of the dhamma.” In particular, Sariputta praises the Buddha’s exposition of the thirty-seven wholesome factors; the six sense spheres; the four modes of rebirth; the four ways of telling thoughts (culminating in telepathy); the four ways of attaining vision; the seven designations of individuals; the exertions, a.k.a. the seven factors of enlightenment; the four modes of progress; the modes of proper conduct in speech; the modes of proper ethical conduct; four modes of receptivity to instruction; the knowledge of the four types of liberation of others; the three theories of eternalism; remembrance of past lives; knowledge of the two ways of death and rebirth of beings; and two kinds of supernormal powers.
The foregoing serves as a summary of Buddhist doctrines and was presumably used as such. This is the first such comprehensive summary in the Digha Nikaya, which we will see again in suttas 33 and 34.
After completing his enumeration, Sariputta affirms that whatever a human being can achieve by effort, exertion, and endurance, that the Buddha has achieved, implicitly affirming that the Buddha is a human being. This indicates an earlier phase of scriptural development, when the Buddha was still regarded as a man. Moreover, he follows the Middle Path, neither indulging the senses not engaging in pointless self-torture. Moreover, during life he enjoys the trans-sensory happiness of abiding in the four jhanas. We have of course discussed the four jhanas at some length in connection with previous suttas and therefore we will not do so again here.
The Buddha affirms that he has reached the apex of human development, but he denies that he is the only one. Rather, he affirms both the past and the future existence of Buddhas, equal to himself in every way, but denies that any other Buddha exists at the present time (referring of course to the Buddha’s present) for, he says, “’it cannot be that in the one and the same world system two Arahant supreme Buddhas should arise simultaneously.’ No such situation can exist.” A similar sentiment is expressed in sutta 9, which we have already covered. The question arises of course of what a “world system” refers to in modern terms. The word is lokadhatuya, composed of loka + dhatu, lit. ‘space element.’ According to PED, it refers to a “constituent or unit of the universe.” It is a synonym for cakkavala, a ‘circle’ or ‘sphere,’ with special reference to the circumference of the earth. In modern terms, it seems to allude to a planet or perhaps to the spherical character of the expanding universe.
Udayi, who we have not heard from up until this point, marvels at the humility of the Buddha in view of his obvious greatness. The Buddha exhorts Sariputta to teach this sutta to others, to allay any doubts or questions they might have about the dharma.
The thirty-seven wholesome factors include the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four roads to power, the five spiritual faculties, the five mental powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. These have all been identified in suttas 16 and 22 and therefore discussed in previous talks. Altogether, these make up the thirty-seven requisites of enlightenment. Similarly, Mahayana has the thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva. Sariputta says that “by these a monk, through the destruction of the corruptions, can in this very life, by his own super-knowledge, realise and attain the corruption-free liberation of heart and liberation by wisdom, and abide therein.”
Ways of Teaching Dharma
|Number||Previous Reference(s) (suttas 1 to 28)|
|— Four foundations of mindfulness||4||22|
|—Four right efforts||4||22.21|
|—Four roads to power||4||16.3.3, 18.22, 26.28|
|—Five spiritual faculties||5||16.3.51|
|—Five mental powers||5||16.3.51|
|—Seven factors of enlightenment||7||22.16|
|—Noble Eightfold Path||8||16.5.27, 19.61, 22.21|
|Modes of rebirth||4||28.5|
|Attainment of vision||4||28.7|
|Designations of individuals||7||28.8|
|Exertions (Factors of Enlightenment)||7||22.16|
|Modes of progress||4||28.10|
|Proper conduct in speech||NA||28.11|
|Proper ethical conduct||NA||28.12|
|Modes of receptivity to instruction||4||28.13|
|Knowledge of liberation of others||4||28.14|
|Theories of eternalism||3||1.1.30ff.|
|Remembrance of past lives||NA||1.1.31ff., 2.93, 24.2.18f., 12.11, 28.1, 23.24, 27.8|
|Knowledge of death and birth of beings||2||28.17|
2.87, 11.5, 17.1.18, 28.18
As you can see from the table, most of the doctrines that Sariputta mentions we have already discussed in previous suttas, esp. suttas 16 (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) and 22 (Mahasatipatthana Sutta). Nine items appear to be first mentioned in sutta 28:
- Modes of rebirth (¶5);
- Attainment of vision (¶7);
- Designations of individuals (¶8);
- Modes of progress (¶10);
- Proper conduct in speech (¶11);
- Proper ethical conduct (¶12);
- Modes of receptivity to instruction (¶13);
- Knowledge of liberation of others (¶14);
- Knowledge of death and birth of beings (¶17).
Therefore, in this talk I will limit myself to a straightforward explanation of these nine items, in the order in which they appear in the sutta.
Modes of Rebirth
Sariputta identifies four modes of rebirth: (1) one descends into the mother’s womb unknowing, stays there unknowing, and leaves it unknowing; (2) one enters the womb knowing, stays there unknowing, and leaves it unknowing; (3) one enters the womb knowing, stays there knowing, and leaves it unknowing; (4) one enters the womb knowing, stays there knowing, and leaves it knowing. The most interesting part of this doctrine is the premise: “one descends into the mother’s womb.” This implies two things: first, a being that descends into the womb (often this is called the gandhabba in the Pali suttas), and a descent into the womb that a being undertakes, implying that the intrinsic non-embodied state of this “one” is “higher” or superior to the enwombed state in a vertical conception defined by higher and lower or above and below. The four modes of rebirth are simply all logically possible combinations of knowing and unknowing. I am unable to speak authoritatively on what this distinction means exactly, but it appears to be meant as an explanation of why human beings are ignorant of their past lives. According to this view, some beings lose this memory at the moment of conception, during gestation, or at birth, but others – presumably more advanced spiritually – keep their memory all the way through, the latter explaining the phenomenon of post-parturition past life recall, which has been documented at some length by Dr. Ian Stevenson and others. This is my speculative explanation of this text. The reference to knowing in the womb is intriguing in the light of research by Dr. Stanislav Grof and others into intrauterine memory, which commonly appears during psychedelic experiences. Walshe relates these to four different types of being, respectively: ordinary human beings; the eighty “great elders”; the two chief disciples of a Buddha, pratyekabudhdas, and bodhisattvas; and bodhisattvas in their final birth, basing himself on the commentary.
Attainment of vision
The four visionary attainments are induced by means of “ardour, endeavour, application, vigilance and due attention,” by which one reaches four stages of concentrated meditation: one perceives (1) the body as full of manifold impurities, (2) the bones covered with skin, flesh, and blood, (3) the unbroken stream of human consciousness, as established both in this world and the next, (4) the unbroken stream of human consciousness not established both in this world and in the next.
The most interesting thing about this description is the reference to the “unbroken stream of human consciousness” in its two states: one established in both this world and the next, and one not established in either. The former presumably refers to the stream of consciousness with karmic residue that results in rebirth, and the latter to the unbroken stream not subject to rebirth. The latter implies in turn the deathless state, referred to by the Buddha throughout the Pali Canon. The Pali term is vinnana-sota (lit. ‘current of sentience’), which (Walshe notes) is equivalent to the commentarial term, bhavanga (lit. ’subconsciousness’). These in turn correlate to the Mahayana term, samtana (lit. ‘moment to moment continuum’), which appears to be based – once again – on the Pali concept.
Designations of individuals
The designation of individuals refers to a classification of seven types of arhants according to how they were liberated, which in turn tells us that there are different ways of being liberated:
- Both ways liberated: one who has attained both the jhanas and insight. Walshe observes that this is the liberation of heart and wisdom mentioned throughout the Pali Canon, but only the liberation by wisdom is final and complete;
- Wisdom liberated: one who has attained wisdom or insight only (note the absence of heart liberated as a category);
- The body witness;
- The vision attainer;
- The faith liberated;
- The dharma devotee: Elsewhere the dharma follower is given as a stage of development before Right View and the Noble Eightfold path;
- The faith devotee: Elsewhere the faith follower is given as a stage of development before the dharma follower.
The remainder are not explicated in the sutta nor are they by Walshe, presumably because such explications are late, so I’m not going to speculate further here about what they might mean or refer to.
Modes of progress
Sariputta distinguishes four modes of practice or progress: (1) painful and slow, (2) painful and quick (3) pleasant and slow, and (4) pleasant and quick. Painfulness is the result of lust, hatred, and delusion, as noted in the Anguttara Nikaya, whereas the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom generate the “immediacy condition for the destruction of the taints,” which arise feebly or quickly. Only the fourth mode is regarded as optimal due to the combination of dispassion and the preeminence of the five faculties.
Proper conduct in speech
Sariputta says that the Buddha teaches that one should avoid lying and divisive (vebhutiyam) and sneeringly triumphant speech (sarambhajam jayapekkho), but instead use wise and “seasonable” words that are to be treasured. Clearly, this is simply a slight elaboration of the fourth precept.
Proper ethical conduct
Sariputta says that the Buddha teaches that one should behave ethically, including on the negative side, avoiding deceit, patter, hinting (perhaps gossip?), belittling, always being on the make for further gains (perhaps, profiteering?), and not hankering after sense pleasures. On the positive side, one should be truthful, faithful, guarding the sense doors, abstemious, peacemaking, watchful, active, strenuous in effort, meditative, mindful (repeated twice), fitting in conversation, steady-going (gatima), resolute (dhitima), sensible (mutima), and prudent. These generalized ethical teachings are common to all religions. In Buddhism, they are minimally important, as we discussed in connection with sutta 1 and in connection with the threefold classification of the Noble Eightfold Path attributed to Dhammadhina.
Modes of receptivity to instruction
Sariputta identifies four modes of receptivity to instruction, by which he simply means the four grades of accomplishment: stream entrant (sotapanna; Walshe has ‘stream winner’), once-returner, non-returner, and arhant. A stream entrant is no more liable to rebirth in a subhuman world, and attains this grade by destroying the three fetters of self-identity, clinging to rites and rituals, and destructive doubt. A once-returner reduces, but does not eliminate, greed, hatred, and delusion. A non-returner destroys the five lower fetters of sensual lust, anger, conceit, views, and doubt and is reborn as a deva, from which state he attains emancipation. Finally, the arahant destroys all of the corruptions – all of the foregoing, plus lust for rebirth in form or formless realms, conceit, restlessness, whereby he attains the deliverance of mind through wisdom that is uncorrupted, understood, and realized by transcendent realization (abhinna; Walshe has ‘superknowledge’).
Knowledge of liberation of others
The knowledge of the liberation of others is simply the ability of a Buddha to perceive the grade of accomplishment of others, just described. Although this looks like a mode of telepathy, the reference to “skilled observation” (paccattam yoniso manasikara; lit. ‘judiciously performing separate measurement’) suggests rather that it is a mode of vastly heightened cognition. The marks of karma are therefore apparent to a Buddha, in the same way that the thirty-two marks of a great man were apparent to the Brahmans when the Buddha was born. There are also references throughout the Pali Canon to brightness of complexion being indicative of either accomplishment or the proximity of death. This indicates a fundamental belief that the physical form subtly but unmistakeably manifests the psychic condition that underlies it. As with past lives, the signs of accomplishment however are so subtle that only a Buddha can perceive them.
Knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings
As in the previous item, where the Buddha perceives the spiritual grade of other beings through skilful observation, this last item posits a similar perceptive ability with respect to the karma of others, including the karmic destinations of beings. However, whereas the former item clearly refers to a higher cognitive process, i.e., skilful observation, although of incredibly subtle character, the death and rebirth of beings is perceived because of intense mental concentration. Because of this intense mental concentration, the “divine eye,” which surpasses human vision, is “purified.” This primordial or archetypal motif of the divine eye, sometimes identified with the pineal gland, which Descartes identified with the “seat of the soul,” is found in all of the wisdom traditions of the world. What the Buddha perceives is the karmic fate resulting from wrong and right view. Wrong view is the result, says Sariputta, of misconduct of body, speech, or thought, or disparaging ‘Noble Ones’ (ariyas) including presumably arhants, Buddhas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Right view is of course the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path, referring to Wisdom, the highest principle in the threefold classification of the Noble Eightfold Path attributed to the nun Dhammadina. Thus wisdom – or its opposite, ignorance – is the moving force of karma and rebirth (samsara). Moreover, the path begins with the highest accomplishment – an extraordinarily significant distinction.
1. “Another hypothesis … is that the Buddha wanted the number of factors to total 37 because the number had symbolic meaning. In ancient times, before the development of the decimal system, multiplication tables were arranged in hexagonal patterns. The complete table used to calculate the ratios used in tuning musical instruments to reciprocal scales – scales that played the same notes going up as going down – had one member in the middle surrounded by three hexagonal rings containing, in ascending order, six, twelve, and eighteen members, giving a total of 37 members. The table of whole-number ratios that formed the basis for trigonometry, and thus for the study of astronomy, contained 37 members. Thus the number 37 carried connotations of basic completeness. This principle is at work in Plato’s Laws, where the ideal city has 37 guardians, and it may also be at work here.” (Thanissaro, “Wings to awakening, Part II: The Seven Sets,” 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part2.html). See also the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.
2. An objection to this theory is that the Buddha, who was a final bodhisattva at birth, was not born with the memory of past lives as far as we know. This begs the question, then, of what the “knowledge” with which he was born was.
3. These are the arhants who passed down the teachings of the Buddha, such as Mahakassapa and others.
In the spoken version of this talk and corresponding video (below) I stated that Alex Berzin’s website is alexberzin.org. In fact it is http://www.berzinarchives.com/.