The Beauteous Discourse
Digha Nikaya 29
Locale: the School building in the mango grove belonging to the Vedhanna family, near Samagama
Speakers: Cunda, Ananda, the Buddha, Upavana
This sutta takes place when the Buddha is staying in the Shakyan territory, amongst his own people, towards the end of his life but prior to the Kosalan genocide of the Shakyans (Schumann says that this genocide occurred one or two years before the year of the Buddha’s death). The Buddha says, “now I am an aged teacher of long standing, who went forth a long time ago, and my life is coming to its close.” The sutta further states, “at that time the Nigantha Nataputta [Mahavira] had just died at Pava,” a Jain stronghold in the state of Malla, to the south of Shakya. The Buddha would also travel through Pava shortly before his death. It was here that he ate the famous meal of “pig’s delight” offered to him by Cunda the blacksmith. Pava was located near present day Fazilnagar, in Kushinagar district of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Nigantha Nataputta is the name given in the Pali Canon to Vardhamana Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and last ‘guide’ (tirthankara) of Jainism, who we shall refer to henceforth as Mahavira. The historical origin of Jainism is obscure, but probably goes back to the eighth and ninth centuries BCE. Walshe is certainly in error when he ascribes the years 540-568 BCE to Mahavira, which would make Mahavira only 28 at his death. According to tradition, Mahavira left home at the age of 30, practised meditation and asceticism for twelve and a half years before attaining enlightenment, and died at the age of 72. The Jains themselves believe he was born in 599 BCE, but scholars reject this date as too early, much as they reject the Theravada date for the birth of the Buddha in 624 BCE. Walshe notes that Mahavira is generally believed to have died after the Buddha, but this sutta clearly states that he died shortly before the Buddha. The Ancient History Encyclopedia states that the accepted date of Mahavira’s death is about 467 BCE, and the Buddha’s birth between 490 and 450 BCE, which would put the Buddha’s death between 410 and 370 – this being the increasingly prevalent view. Other Jain sources revise the death of Mahavira as 474 to 467 BCE. Clearly, the two dates are mutually incompatible, since sutta 2 represents Mahavira as being alive about the time that King Ajatasattu and others consulted the Buddha. The suttas of the Pali Canon consistently present the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries who knew of each other and whose lives overlapped. Thus, we must place Mahavira’s birth between 485 BCE and 445 BCE, approximately.
A.K. Narain, in his review of The Dating of the Historical Buddha, says,
The Jain tradition gives a date of 155 years after the death of Mahavira for the coronation of Candragupta [340-298 BCE, founder of the Maurya Empire], which we can date c. 320 B.C. We have a firm connection between Sthulabhadra [297-198 BCE, Jain disciple of Acharya Bhadrabahu] and Candragupta’s immediate predecessor Nanda [400-329 BCE, first king of the Nanda dynasty], and we have a date of 170 years after the death of Mahavira for the death of Sthulabhadra’s predecessor, the sixth Jain patriarch Bhadrababu. He therefore died about fifteen years after Candragupta’s coronation. By taking an average figure of 15 years for each of the six patriarchs we can date the death of Mahavira 75 years before the coronation of Candragupta, i e. c. 395 B.C. … We shall probably not be far out if we assume that both Mahavira the Jina and Gotama the Buddha died within the period of ten years either side of 400 B.C. (pp. 311-12)
After Mahavira’s death, the sutta presents the Jain order as being riven by internal dissension.
Just after the end of the rainy season, in November, the novice Cunda comes to Samagama to see Ananda and tells him all this, whereupon Ananda and Cunda go to tell the Buddha of Mahavira’s death. The Buddha’s response is that Mahavira was unenlightened and his doctrine and discipline ill proclaimed, unedifyingly displayed, and ineffectual in calming the passions because it is impossible to live by it. As a result, the practitioner gains much demerit. Possibly the Buddha is referring to the Jain emphasis on abstinence from all action based on the doctrine that action, and not intention, is the cause of karma – the classical Indian view. Such a view is of course impossible to carry out in practice, as I have discussed elsewhere in these talks.
The Buddha then compares himself and his sangha to Mahavira and his sangha, to the detriment of the latter.
The Buddha discusses the merit or demerit of teachers, doctrines, and disciples in terms of the enlightenment or non-enlightenment of the teacher, the doctrine and the discipline being well or ill proclaimed, and the practice or non-practice by the disciple, and the praiseworthiness or blame and the merit or demerit of these various factors. Next, he discusses the sadness or non-sadness arising from the death of the teacher in these various circumstances as a function of the understanding by the disciples of the dharma and the discipline. Finally, he discusses the perfection or imperfection of the practice of the holy life as a function of the seniority of teachers. These last two points pertain specifically to the sangha. The ideal concatenation of circumstances is where the teacher is enlightened, the doctrine and the discipline are well proclaimed and well understood, the disciples are both able to practise and do practise, and senior teachers continue to perpetuate the dharma and the discipline indefinitely based on correct understanding.
The Buddha refers to his second meditation teacher from long ago, Uddaka Ramaputta, the son (or disciple) of Rama, who, you will recall, taught Gotama how to experience the plane of neither perception nor non-perception, the highest plane of samsara. Some authorities say Uddaka was a Brahman, whereas others say he was a Jain. His inclusion here suggests the latter. He mentions a saying of Uddaka, “he sees, but does not see,” together with a rather obscure metaphor in which he compares the dharma to a razor. Just as when one turns the razor on its edge, it disappears (because the edge is so thin), so is the dharma pure and complete, there being nothing to add or subtract from it.
The Buddha tells Cunda that the sangha should regularly rehearse the teachings attained by the Buddha’s superknowledge, “setting meaning beside meaning, and expression beside expression, without dissension, in order that this holy life may continue and be established for a long time for the profit and happiness of the many out of compassion for the world and for the benefit, profit and happiness of devas and humans.” Once again, the Buddha reaffirms his role, not merely as the teacher of men, but as the teacher of men and devas. Then the Buddha summarizes the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment, viz., 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 are the things that you should recite together.” We have of course discussed the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment in previous talks and will not explain them again here. The Buddha then recites the method by which the continuing consensus of the assembly may be maintained:
If a fellow in the holy life quotes Dhamma in the assembly, and if you think he has either misunderstood the sense or expressed it wrongly, you should neither applaud nor reject it, but should say to him, ‘Friend, if you mean such and such, you should put it either like this or like that: which is the more appropriate?’ or: ‘If you say such and such, you mean either this or that: which is the more appropriate?’ If he replies: ‘This meaning is better expressed like this than like that’, or: ‘The sense of this expression is this rather than that’, then his words should be neither rejected nor disparaged, but you should explain to him carefully the correct meaning an expression.
In other words, rational argument devoid of emotional bias pursued to the point of consensus is the proper method of dharma exegesis according to the Buddha. Unfortunately, this method only proved viable for about 116 years after the parinibbana, at which time, about 294-254 BCE,  the sangha split into two competing factions, the majority Mahasamghikas, who developed into the Mahayana, and the minority Sthaviras, who eventually developed into the Theravada sect amongst others. The fact that the Buddha’s thousand year sangha broke down so soon after the Buddha’s death suggests that the sangha was torn by doctrinal strife from very early on, which we see hinted at in the canonical account of the first two Buddhist councils (i.e., the debate over how strictly the rules of the Vinaya were to be kept, the apparent conflict between the followers of Mahakassapa and the followers of Ananda, the misogynistic attitude to women and female monastics, and the debate associated with Mahadeva over whether the insight of the arhants was infallible) and even before (e.g., the revolt of the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who tried to establish his own sangha).
The Buddha tells Cunda that he teaches a doctrine for restraining the corruptions in the present and destroying them in future lives. To achieve this, the monastics should observe a way of life in which clothing should only be enough to ward off heat and cold, insects, bugs, wind, and sun, and to hide the private parts. Alms food should only be enough to provide adequate nourishment for the body and keep it unimpaired by satisfying the sensation of hunger. Shelter should only be enough to ward off cold and heat, insects, bugs, wind, sun, and the effects of the seasons, and to ensure the enjoyment of seclusion. Medicines and medical treatments should only be enough to cure sickness and maintain health. By the self-indulgent standards of our time, this would be considered a “dangerous asceticism,” to quote the words of a young student of mine, but by the standards of the ascetics of the Buddha’s time, this was considered rank hedonism. The Buddha suffered from this accusation of pleasure seeking and laxness throughout his entire life. The Buddha’s response to this accusation is interesting. He doesn’t deny it, which may surprise some Buddhists of the religious fundamentalist variety, who worship mummies in their temples and starve or burn themselves to death – things that are utterly incompatible with what the Buddha actually taught. Rather, he says, there are two types of pleasures, ignoble and noble. He identifies four types of pleasure, “low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble and not conducive to welfare.” These are pleasure in killing, in stealing, in lying, and in sensuality. The Buddha calls these “the four kinds of devotion to pleasure.” You will of course recognize this list as the first four precepts of Pansil, which we have discussed before. You will recall our previous discussion of Pansil in which I said that on many occasions in the Pali Canon the fifth precept prohibiting alcohol is not mentioned. Here again we see the list explicitly identified as consisting of four items only, and alcohol is not included. Since we’ve discussed this before I won’t go into it again. The Buddha says that these forms of pleasure seeking are not conducive to enlightenment and are not recommended by him.
There are, however, four types of pleasure that the Buddha does recommend strongly and that are conducive to enlightenment. These are the four jhanas, which I generally translate as the four ‘ecstatic states,’ or simply ‘ecstasies.’ This recognition that the jhanas are themselves pleasurable is a distinguishing characteristic of the Buddhadharma, relating ultimately to his realization after rejecting asceticism and nourishing himself back to health that pleasure may be wholesome or unwholesome, and that pleasure in and of itself is not necessarily something to be rejected, beginning with his childhood experience of meditation under the rose apple tree. Although we’ve discussed the four jhanas before, I will briefly recap the characteristics of each one as explained in this sutta:
The Four Ecstasies
|Jhana||Immediate Cause||Mental State||Feeling State|
|1||Detachment||Thinking and pondering||Filled with delight and happiness|
|2||Concentration (“oneness of mind”)||Subsiding of thinking and pondering; inner tranquility||Filled with delight and happiness|
|3||Fading of delight||Imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware||Joy of equanimity and mindfulness|
|4||Giving up pleasure and pain||Disappearance of former gladness and sadness, purified by equanimity and mindfulness||Beyond pleasure and pain|
“These are the four kinds of life devoted to pleasure which are entirely conducive to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquility, to realisation, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. So if wanderers from other sects should say that the followers of the Sakyan are addicted to these four forms of pleasure-seeking, they should be told: ‘Yes,’ for they would be speaking correctly about you, they would not be slandering you with false or untrue statements.” While some Buddhists might be surprised by my choice of ‘ecstasy’ to translate the Pali word jhana, with its connotation of pleasure-seeking, this translation is perfectly orthodox, based on the PED. The word has far deeper and more profound significance than mere pleasure seeking, with connotations of shamanic transcendence and transcendent realization.
The Buddha says that the four ecstasies have four fruits or results, referring to the four stages of accomplishment: stream entry, once returning, non-returning, and arhantship. These grades are attained by the destruction of the corruptions, viz., identity view; doubt; attachment to rules and rituals; sensual desire; ill will; craving for existence, both gross and subtle; conceit; restlessness; and ignorance. We’ve discussed these in previous talks and will not repeat them again. These doctrines, he says, are as deeply rooted and immovable as the heartwood or iron post buried in the earth (to a depth of about 3 feet) in the middle of the threshold gate of a city, recalling both the Middle Way and the Buddha’s comparison of the dharma to an abandoned and long forgotten city in the midst of an ancient and trackless forest.
An arhant has destroyed the corruptions, completely destroyed the fetter of becoming (rebirth), and liberated himself by supreme insight (i.e., wisdom), the last point becoming a bone of contention during or after the Second Buddhist Council.
According to the sutta, an arahant is incapable of nine things:
- Sexual intercourse;
- Hoarding possessions;
- Folly; and
The sutta makes a further very interesting statement about the Buddhist understanding of the nature of time. The Buddha notes that his critics may say that he possesses boundless knowledge and insight concerning the past, but not concerning the future. Elsewhere the Buddha states clearly that he does not know the future. I find this more interesting than the sutta’s statement that he was able to remember his past lives and knew that he would have no more future rebirths. These statements imply a view of time that is indeterministic, which has only become the dominant view of physics since Einstein. It is not that the Buddha does not know the future, the Buddha says, but rather that the future is intrinsically unknowable because of the non-causal factor of volition or intention (cetana).
In previous talks, we’ve talked about the meaning of the word Tathagata, the mysterious name that the Buddha used to refer to himself that means something like “he who went this way.” In this sutta, he gives several explications of the meaning of this phrase, including:
- The one who declares the time, the fact, the advantage, the Dharma, and the discipline;
- Whatever in this world with its devas and maras (demons) and Brahmas, with its ascetics and Brahmans, its princes and people, is seen by people, heard, sensed, cognized, whatever was ever achieved, sought after or mentally pondered upon – all that has been fully understood by the Tathagata;
- Between the night in which the Tathagata gains supreme enlightenment and the night in which he attains the nirvana element without remainder, whatever he proclaims, says or explains is so and not otherwise;
- The Tathagata is the unvanquished conqueror, the seer and ruler of all.
The Buddha states that he has not revealed the future post-mortem status of a Tathagata, whether he exists or does not exist, not because there is no answer to this question, but because the question is not conducive to enlightenment. Rather, he has revealed the Four Noble Truths. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes between theory and practice. This is often interpreted to mean that the Buddha has no view of the nature of reality, no ontology or cosmology but the entire Pali Canon stands in refutation of this assertion. Thus, the Buddha says, “those bases of speculation about the beginnings of things … I have explained to you as they should be explained.” If we interpret the Pali Canon as a whole and in its entirely, we must conclude that the Buddha taught on two levels: a lower ordination (pabbajja, lit. ‘renunciation’) consisting of practice, for those who have not attained realization, and a higher ordination (upasampada, lit. ‘elder’) consisting of wisdom, for those who have attained realization, referred to as Theras. This is what we find if we examine the suttas in their totality. Otherwise, theory is just speculation. This is the Buddha’s point, not that he has no ontology or cosmology.
Rather, the Buddha teaches the destruction and transcendence of all speculative views and opinions concerning the past and the future by means of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These too I have discussed in past talks and will not repeat myself here.
1. H.W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha: The Times, Life and Teachings of the Founder of Buddhism, trans. M. O.’C. Walshe (London: Arkana-Penguin, 1989), p. 243.
2. “Vardhamana,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/Vardhamana.
3. “The Dates of the Buddha,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/article/493.
5. Janice N. Nattier and Charles S. Prebish, “Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism,” http://lirs.ru/lib/Mahasamghika_Origins.Prebish.pdf.
6. The instigator was one Mahadeva, who questioned the infallibility of arhants. According to the Theravadins, this occurred about 135 years after the parinibbana. The dating is contested but the Five Points of Mahadeva, whoever he was and whenever he flourished, clearly question the infallibility of arhants.