Lakkhana Sutta (DN 30)

The Marks

Digha Nikaya 30

Country: Kosala

Locale: Jetavana monastery in Anathapindika’s Park, Savatthi

Speakers: the Buddha

Buddha SupermanWe discussed the thirty-two marks of a great man and the seven treasures of a righteous emperor in sutta 14. Here in sutta 30 we encounter them again, so some of today’s talk may be familiar to those who attended my talk on sutta 14. The marks of a great man are, perhaps paradoxically, observable shortly after birth. If they are all present, they indicate that the infant will grow up to be either a righteous emperor, who governs in accordance with dharma, or a Buddha, who achieves enlightenment and teaches dharma. If he becomes an emperor, he will be possessed of the seven great treasures: wheel treasure, elephant treasure, horse treasure, jewel treasure, woman treasure, householder treasure, and counsellor treasure.

The seven treasures represent seven essential qualities of a righteous emperor:

  • Wheel Treasure: the power of truth and the dharma itself;
  • Elephant Treasure: virtue or morality;
  • Horse Treasure: dispassion, renunciation, detachment;
  • Jewel Treasure: omniscience;
  • Woman Treasure: ecstasy or bliss;
  • Householder Treasure: wisdom or skill;
  • Counsellor Treasure: omnipotence.

A righteous emperor has however conquered, not by force of arms, but by the power of truth, and rules his empire based on justice and law.

A Buddha, the sutta says, draws back the veil from the world – implying that the world is veiled or obscured from sight. The world that we perceive is not reality. It is a false front or, as we might say today, virtual.

Commentators endlessly emphasize how odd the thirty-two marks of a great man are, but most of them are not hard to imagine. The tradition says that the Buddha was flat-footed, with prominent heels and ankles; long fingers and toes; soft and tender hands and feet, with a bit of a web between the fingers and toes; shapely and powerful legs; long arms; a clear golden complexion; delicate and smooth skin; distinct curly bluish-black body hairs; an erect posture; well-rounded limbs, shoulders and trunk; a powerful, rounded chest; a perfect sense of taste; powerful jaws; forty even, closely spaced, white teeth; a beautiful voice; deep blue eyes; long eyelashes; a mole with fine white hairs between his eyes; and a large cranium. This really tells us little about the actual physical appearance of the Buddha, but Rhys Davids has suggested that the mole between the eyebrows and the large cranium may represent actual physical idiosyncrasies of the historical Buddha.

You will notice that this sutta, like many others, is written in both verse and prose. Each verse section is presented as a summary of the prose section that precedes it, but the prose section could equally be viewed as a commentary. Verse has the merit of being more easily memorized than prose. Thus, the question arises, which came first, the prose or the verse? According to Wikipedia, “the earliest extant forms of Buddhist discourse appear in verse.” Linguistic analyses also suggest that the verse has been less edited than the prose, which is hardly surprising. Hajime Nakamura states that the verse sections predate the prose sections. Similarly, the verse sections of the Jatakas are canonical, but the prose sections are not. Pande, however, says that whereas “verse is a greater conserving medium and in oral transmission likely to be more conservative than prose,” “where prose and verse occur together, it is impossible to say in general whether the one or the other is older,” and rejects drawing any conclusions regarding stratification based on whether the text is in verse or prose (Studies in the Origin of Buddhism, p. 50). Pande’s caution seems to be supported, at least in the context of this sutta, by Walshe’s note that the metres of the verses in this sutta indicate that they are of late date. However, as I have observed before, a late date of composition neither proves that the constituent material is either late or logically or philosophically illegitimate even if it is.

The qualities and characteristics of a future Buddha are, like everything else, the result of karma. Each of these characteristics seems to symbolize a noble quality earned in former lives. Thus, this theory of the thirty-two marks of a great man is really a codification of the general theory of karma, identifying the cause of each characteristic and its effects in the present life (which are comparable), both for emperors and buddhas. There is a similar Mahayana sutra, called the Karma Sutra, which compiles a similar list of qualities without special reference to a buddha or the thirty-two marks. The sutta presents this list as a secret or at least unknown knowledge, despite the Buddha’s insistence elsewhere they he makes no distinction between esoteric and exoteric.

The Thirty-Two Marks of a Great Man and Corresponding Karmic Factors

Mark Cause Effect
1 Feet with level tread Meritorious deeds Cannot be impeded
2 Wheels with 1000 spokes on soles Provides for happiness of people Large retinue
3 Projecting heels Avoids killing Longevity
4 Long fingers and toes Avoids killing Longevity
5 Soft and tender hands and feet Sympathy People well-disposed to him
6 Hands and feet are webbed Sympathy People well-disposed to him
7 High raised ankles Dispenses welfare Chief of all
8 Legs like an antelope’s Skilfulness Acquires things he needs
9 Can touch and rub his knees with either hand Considerate Wealthy and virtuous
10 Male organs enclosed in a sheath Reunites families Large progeny
11 Bright golden complexion Avoids anger and generous Receives fine “stuffs”
12 Delicate smooth skin Ethics Wisdom
13 Separate body hairs Truthfulness Obedience of others
14 Curly, blue-black, upwardly growing body hairs Dispenses dharma (just?) Chief of all
15 Straight body Avoids killing Longevity
16 Seven convex surfaces Gives fine food Receives fine food and drink
17 Front part of body like a lion’s Desires the welfare of people Success
18 No hollow between shoulders Desires the welfare of people Success
19 Proportioned like a banyan tree Considerate Wealthy and virtuous
20 Evenly rounded chest Seeks the welfare of people Success
21 Perfect sense of taste Harmlessness Suffers little; good digestion
22 Jaws like a lion’s Avoids idle chatter Cannot be overcome
23 Forty teeth Avoids slander Unity of the people
24 Even teeth Right livelihood Purity
25 No spaces between teeth Avoids slander Unity of the people
26 Canine teeth very bright Right livelihood Purity
27 Very long tongue Avoids harsh speech Persuasiveness
28 Brahma-like, melodious (‘bird-like”) Avoids harsh speech Persuasiveness
29 Deep blue eyes Straightforward and kind Popularity
30 Cow-like eyelashes Avoids harsh speech Persuasiveness
31 White hairs between eyebrows Truthfulness Obedience of others
32 Head like a royal turban Leadership Loyalty

This analysis shows that at the time of the Buddha there was a divinatory science of physiognomy, in which the signs of past karma could be “read” in the body of the infant and so inferences made about their future destiny. Such a science is implied by the repeated reference to “Those who read the marks and signs, / Experts in such lore.” This also implies that karma determines, not just the experiences of life and psychological tendencies, but also one’s physical genetic inheritance. From the modern secular perspective, genetic outcomes are the results of random chance, but the concept of randomness is not emphasized in Buddhism, which is based on dependent origination and karma: everything affects everything else, effects and is the effect of everything else. Therefore, there are no coincidences. This structure provides a template that you can use to analyze your own karmic inheritance, by identifying your best and worst features in this life, which in turn provides a guide as to how to overcome this negative karma through practice.  I’ll leave this as an exercise for you to complete. These negative qualities also provide a checklist of the qualities that must be cultivated in order to become a Buddha. Ethics are strongly emphasized.

The list also provides an unusual view of the Five Precepts (Pansil), in which each of the precepts is complemented by a positive action too, not just an avoidance, showing that the Buddha in past lives did not merely abstain from negative karma, but also cultivated positive karma.

Negative Karma (Avoided) Positive Karma (Cultivated) Karmic Effect
Taking life Compassion Longevity
Stealing Generosity Good disposition towards him by others
Wrongful speech (lying, idle chatter, gossip, harshness) Truthfulness, speaking at the right time, peacemaking, agreeableness Obedience by others, cannot be overcome, unity of the people, persuasiveness

Perhaps surprisingly, sensuality and alcohol are not emphasized in this important list of the attributes of a Buddha.

We also see traces of the Noble Eightfold Path, especially Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood.

There are a few points of interest in this list of karmic factors. First, in connection with the wheel-spoked soles of a Buddha, the text states that the Buddha’s retinue (or sangha) includes, in addition to male and female monastics and lay followers or householders, devas, asuras, nagas,  and gandhabbas: i.e., non-human beings. Devas are of course the “shining beings” that we have discussed before. Asuras, however, are notoriously evil beings, even demonic, often translated ‘anti-gods,’ but here the sutta implies that there are asuras who are also Buddhist. We have seen a hint of this before, when the devas and asuras congregate together to honour the Buddha.

Nagas also are morally ambiguous creatures. Nagas are snake or dragon beings, especially cobras with one or many heads, that dwell in lakes, oceans, or underground streams and caverns, as well as on the human-inhabited earth. They are also associated with treasure and hidden esoteric writings of great importance, called termas (lit. ‘hidden treasures’). The nagas are also able to appear as human beings, apparently at will. There is a story of a naga who wished to ordain as a Buddhist monk, so nagas include Buddhists clearly. The nagas serve Virupaksa, the guardian of the West in the realm of the Four Great Kings. They protect the devas of the realm of the thirty-three gods from the anti-gods and act as messengers between the realm of the thirty-three gods and the earth. Thus, contrary to the defamatory attacks by British conspiracy theorist and public speaker David Icke, the nagas (or “reptilians” in Icke’s jargon) are not unrelentingly wicked. The naga Mucalinda even protected the Buddha from a great storm for seven days, four weeks after his enlightenment, by covering his head with his hood.  Sariputta and Moggallana, the two chief disciples of the Buddha, are called mahanagas (lit. ‘great snakes’). Nagas also appear commonly in the names of great Buddhist philosophers. (e.g., Dignaga, an Indian Buddhist logician; Nagarsena, who compiled the Questions of King Milinda;  and the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna). The Vajrayana and Mahasiddha traditions include esoteric texts that are associated with nagas. The Prajnaparamita is traditionally held to have been revealed to Nagarjuna by a naga. The Lotus Sutra was stored for five hundred years in the realm of the nagas before it was revealed about 78 CE. This implies a date for the parinirvana sometime after 423 BCE, since he is reputed to have delivered the sutra toward the end of his life.

A gandhabbha (Skt. gandarva) is the lowest ranking deva in Buddhist cosmology. They are subject to Drtarastra, the guardian of the East in the realm of the Four Great Kings. Those who practise only elementary ethics are reborn here. Gandhabbas are known as musicians. Aerial and connected with trees and flowers, they dwell in the scents of bark, sap, and blossom. We met a gandhabba in a previous sutta in connection with the rebirth of the of the King Bimbisara of Magadha. Incidentally, this is not a very impressive rebirth, indicating that Bimbisara was not that great a king, despite being a disciple of the Buddha and a stream entrant.

The sutta also reveals that the Buddha, despite his poverty, was still able to enjoy a good meal. I mentioned this point before in the context of a discussion of the Buddha’s liberality in his conduct with respect to women, including prostitutes (like Yeshua!), and the accusations of laxness that the Group of Five, Devadatta, and others levelled against him during his career.

The sutta also alludes to the seven treasures of a Buddha: faith, morality, shame, dread, learning, renunciation, and wisdom. The wisdom of a Buddha has six aspects, a formula that Ananda and the Buddha apply to Sariputta, the disciple foremost in wisdom. Such wisdom is great, extensive, joyous, swift, penetrating, and discerning, meaning that it is metaphysical, universal, induces happiness, is incisive, profound, and analytical. We also learn four ways to be loved: be generous, use pleasing speech, engage in beneficial conduct, and remain impartial.

Finally, this is the only sutta in the Digha Nikaya that has no ending. It just stops. Therefore, will I … just stop.