Presented to the Buddha Center on Sunday, June 7, 2015
Final Summation of the Digha Nikaya Series of Talks
I would like to dedicate this talk to the memory of Professor Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri.
During the previous 34 weeks, more or less, we have discussed all 34 suttas of the Digha Nikaya, the first book of the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon, in some depth. Today, I will summarize the main points that have emerged during the course of these talks. This will of necessity be a high-level summary, so it may appear somewhat arbitrary if you have not attended the previous sessions. However, if you have not attended the previous series of talks, I suggest that you look on this talk as an introduction and then take a look at the series – about 100,000 words – on my blog at www.palisuttas.com or even buy the book when it’s available! As some of you will probably already be aware, we will also be holding a draw for one free copy of the book – a beautiful 400-page red cloth bound book with dust jacket – at the end of this talk!
The Buddhist World-View
Samsara: The Buddhist View of Time
Samsara, often translated “rebirth,” refers literally to time, which in the Buddhist world-view is cyclical. Thus, universes appear, expand, contract, and disappear, in endlessly recurring cycles over vast eons of time. Samsara must be beginningless, because to posit a beginning to existence posits the problem of a creator, which leads to an infinite regression. Moreover, how can there be a time before time? Therefore, time itself is, paradoxically, timeless, an eternal present or “now.”
Four cycles of time, called kappas (Skt. kalpa) are referred to in the Pali Canon. Kappa is generally translated as ‘age,’ ‘’eon,’ or ‘epoch.’ The four kappas are referred to as the ayu-kappa (‘life-age’), the antara-kappa (‘small age’), asankeyya-kappa (‘medium age’), and the maha-kappa (‘great age’). The life-age is the human lifespan, which in the Buddhist view ranges from a low of ten years to a maximum of 80,000 or 84,000 years [sic]. Although some may doubt this longevity, there are tree colonies on earth that are 80,000 years old, and some scientists believe that human functional immortality is within reach. The small kappa is the time that it takes for the life-kappa to increase to the maximum and then decrease back to the minimum again. Twenty small ages make a medium age. Four medium ages make a great age. According to the PED, if a kappa is referred to with no other qualifier, a great age is implied. Each small age ends in a mass extinction event, by famine, pestilence, or war. The great ages end in destruction by fire, water, or air.
I remember when the idea of evolution punctuated by violent cataclysms used to be considered occult nonsense associated with people like Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Velikovsky. Both extraterrestrial and terrestrial cataclysms are now accepted as fact. That the moon was broken off from the primordial earth by a violent impact between the earth and a large asteroid or planetoid is now accepted as fact. Six major extinction events are also known:
- 450-440 million years ago: global cooling and sea level drop.
- 375-360 million years ago: multiple causes.
- 252 million years ago: multiple causes.
- 3 million years ago: climate change, asteroid impact, or volcanism.
- 66 million years ago, the most recent: the Chicxulub asteroid. This was an asteroid about ten kms (six miles) in diameter that impacted in the region of Chicxulub, Mexico. This caused the extinction of the planet’s non-avian dinosaurs and other species.
- The present day: human-caused.
In addition, Wikipedia lists 26 extinction events, the oldest about 2,400 million years ago (the Great Oxygenation Event), the most recent of which (besides the present day) occurred about 13,000 years ago. The last five such events have an average periodicity of about three million years, whereas the average lifespan of species vary between about half a million and 13 million years, with a median rate of five million years. The human species, by comparison, is about 2.8 million years old.
In some passages, the Buddha implies that the small, medium, and great ages, while definite, are so vast that they are incalculable. However, the classical formulation gives a rate of one year per century. Thus, the small age is equal to (84,000 – 10) x 2 x 100 = 16.798 million years. Twenty small ages (one medium age) is 335.96 million years. Four medium ages (one great age) is 1,343.84 million years ago. All of these cycles, therefore, fall into the 2,400 million year period mentioned above. The earth itself was created about 4.54 billion years ago, or just over three mahakappas, ago. Thus, the Buddhist concept of the history of the world is broadly consistent with the scientific evaluation, in striking contrast to the Semitic religions, which believe that God created the universe, including all species of life, out of nothing just about six thousand years ago, over the course of a single week. Right.
The Law of Karma
The Law of Karma is ubiquitous, and one of its applications is the science of physiognomy, by which the karmic inheritance of an individual can be assessed based on their physical characteristics, defined by the thirty-two and eighty marks. Today we would associate this with an individual’s “genetic inheritance.” An individual who has all of the marks is destined to become a universal ruler or a universal teacher. Such ideas may also find expression in the notion of caste. However, it is clear that the Buddha rejected the Indian notion of caste because he believed that intention could override inheritance. Thus, an individual of good birth – a concept that the Buddha clearly did not reject – is not necessarily destined to lead a superior life, nor is a person of inferior birth destined to lead an inferior life. Because karma is also generated by intention, intention creates new karma that can in turn result in a superior outcome than what might otherwise be expected, while old karma is always being eliminated by a process of maturation and can also be negated by acts of renunciation and self-purification. For this reason, the Buddha rejected the rigid notions of caste and class and admitted members of all castes and classes into the sangha, with only a few exceptions The Buddha appears to have taken a similar attitude to race.
The Buddha also implies that karmic patterns, including human associations, repeat themselves from life to life, leading to people who were associated in past lives being associated in future lives. Thus, many of the people you are closest to are probably people you have known before.
The Buddha applied the general principle of the Law of Karma in various ways, the most famous being his principle of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada). The literal meaning of this word is paticca, ‘following from anything as a necessary result, + sam, ‘together’ + uppada, ‘coming into existence.’ Essentially, it means that every cause is an effect, every effect is a cause, and that the two always occur together: i.e., no cause without an effect, no effect without a cause. From this, it follows that everything is connected with everything else, that there are no coincidences and no accidents, but the interconnections are infinitely complex. The principle that samsara is without beginning also follows logically from the Law of Karma, for that would posit an uncaused cause. In fact, this principle of causality is very much the same as in science, with one important distinction: mind. Buddhism recognizes the reality of six senses, the sixth sense being mind. Since the existence of a sense necessarily posits the existence of objects corresponding to that sense, Buddhism refers to “mind-objects” that are real entitles, essentially no different from the objects of sight, hearing, tactile, etc. The reality of mind objects means that the mind can interact with reality in ways that are indeterminate, because intention is essentially free, not merely a reflex of material causes. This must be true, because reality itself must be unconditioned. Thus, the Buddhist universe is an open, creative, evolving, expanding universe where anomalies such as psychic powers and even magic become possible against a backdrop of overall high-level order, the integrity of which is maintained by karma. Yes, the Buddhist world-view allows for the possibility of magic! The utility of mantras, which focus and concentrate mind and intention in specific ways, based on vast reservoirs of psychic power or energy, built up over thousands or even millions of years, also falls into this category. Buddhism is not materialism. As a non-materialist spiritual (metaphysical) philosophy, Buddhism preserves the essential humanity of the person in a way that scientific materialist ideologies like communism, fascism, capitalism, and technocracy do not. We see this increasingly today as the advance of industrialism strips us every more and more wantonly of our essential human rights and freedoms, even while pretending to do the opposite. For this reason, the Dharma Transmission to the West is essential for the future survival of humanity as we understand it.
The Buddha also discovered that paticcasamuppada is bidirectional, what we would call “the arrow of time.” In the full formulation, proliferation and ignorance, which give rise to the Five Aggregates and the Six Senses, including the karmic propensities (sanskaras), which together constitute the “self,” are followed by contact, craving, feeling, clinging, and becoming, and culminate in birth, ageing, death, and angst. This is the “arrow of time” that leads from past to future states, what we call “entropy.” However, the essential impermanence of samsara and its constituent processes means that because they are ultimately transitory and ephemeral, they are subject to change, and therefore they can be reversed, especially craving and ignorance, which are both directly subject to intention. Although intention is conditioned by the karmic propensities, it is essentially free (i.e., identical with reality itself). Thus, by realizing the truth about samsara one overcomes ignorance and by cultivating dispassion one overcomes clinging, thus freeing oneself from the chain of cause and effect and returning to the source, the mind-steam, the continuity of consciousness, reality itself. This is the theoretical basis of the path. The Buddha compares this doctrine to a tangled ball of string, and emphasizes its impenetrability. He who fully realizes the truth of paticcasamuppada, he says, has realized emptiness or the essential voidness of phenomena, which is ultimately equivalent to awakening or enlightenment itself.
Merit and the Transfer of Merit
The Law of Karma leads logically to the concept of merit. Every life at any given moment is a veritable stew of positive and negative karmas, working themselves out in complex interactive patterns of experience based on conditions in the environment, which are themselves the result of karma and its interaction with intention, which is the ultimate cause of karma. Reality is a self-reflexive feedback loop. Thus, every person has a store of positive and negative merit, which they can draw upon at any time. We may think of this as a sort of “energy-potential.” This “energy” can also be directed by intention to various ends, thus allowing us to affect our experience and the experiences of others, based on the principle of Dependent Origination.
The Power of Truth
The concept of merit leads in turn to the Power of Truth, an ancient Indian doctrine that also pervades the Pali Canon, based on the idea that truth, when unmitigated and absolute, has an inherent power that can be drawn upon and directed. This power arises out of the essential identity of truth and reality. The greatest psychic power of all, related to the Power of Truth, is the Miracle of Instruction, by which beings are saved from samsara and become able to transcend phenomenal existence altogether, which is ultimately identical with Wisdom, the antithesis of Ignorance or Not-Knowing. The Power of Truth is especially efficacious at the moment of death, leading to a doctrine and a praxis of Conscious Dying, which one finds worked out in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and elsewhere. Every Buddhist should prepare for the moment of death with the utmost care to ensure that their subsequent rebirth is as beneficial as possible.
The path of the householder is largely based on the Law of Karma, Merit and the Transfer of Merit, and the Power of Truth. However, the rigid distinction between lay people and monastics found in later Buddhism is largely absent in the Pali Canon. Householders not only converted to the Buddhadharma but also were able to attain emancipation as well, at which time they either died or became monastics. On the other hand, many monastics made little spiritual progress at all, thus resulting in the distinction between puthujjana and arya monastics.
Cosmology and the Ecstasies
In all of the wisdom traditions of antiquity, no fundamental division is made between ontology and psychology. Rather, mind is regarded as a sixth sense, and therefore mind-objects are ontologically real and mind participates actively in the creation of reality. Therefore, mind is reality and reality is mind. This is in striking contrast to Western philosophical theories, rooted in Descartes, who decisively separated mind and matter. The West has finally abandoned the reality of mind altogether in “scientific” materialism (“scientism”) which asserts that mind is essentially an epiphenomenon of matter and therefore “unreal.” Thus, in Buddhism, realization corresponds to the progressive realization of more and more subtle states of reality. The former refers to the four jhanas or ‘ecstasies,’ whereas the latter are the four deva realms referred to as the Brahma Worlds (first jhana), the Radiant Devas (second jhana), Glorious Devas (third jhana), Five Pure Abodes (fourth jhana), Sphere of Infinite Space (fifth jhana), Sphere of Infinite Consciousness (sixth jhana), Sphere of No-thing (seventh jhana), and the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception (eighth jhana). However, the realization of the fourth jhana is sufficient to attain emancipation, suggesting another difference between an arhant and the Buddha, who attained the realization of the eighth sphere. The first four jhanas/spheres (as they are called) correspond to the World of Form, and the second four jhanas/spheres correspond to the World of Formlessness. The planes of ordinary consciousness correspond to the Sensual World. Altogether, these constitute the realms or worlds of samsara, which are further elaborated into thirty-one planes of existence, including sub-human, human, and trans-human worlds. Thus, we say that the human world is the middle world, and the world in which realization is most possible. Human rebirth is both rare and is considered to be the result of merit, so if merit is not cultivated in the present life it could be lost in future lives. This matters because anti-gods, ghosts, and hell-beings do remember their past lives, whereas animals do not and human beings, only in rare circumstances. The worlds below the human – the worlds of anti-gods, ghosts, animals, and hell-beings – are so pervaded by suffering and instinctuality/automaticity that it takes very long time to break out of them, whereas the deva worlds above the human world are so long-lived and pleasurable that the devas have little motivation to practise dharma. These planes/levels of consciousness become ever more rarefied, blissful, and powerful as one progresses up the ladder, corresponding to the “gradual path,” culminating in cessation. Cessation, however, is, strictly speaking, not part of this series at all, rather like the sphere of da’at in the Cabalistic Tree of Life. Rather, cessation represents the qualitative transcendence of the whole system of samsara altogether, and the realization of an immanent state (the “clear light” or “Buddha nature”), which has always been present in the form of an essential potentiality. Thus, cessation is not produced or caused. This suggests the possibility of an alternative to the causal path, viz., an acausal transcendence of the whole system that may occur, in principle, at any time and is therefore immediate and spontaneous.
The character of this ultimate realization (i.e., the ‘action of making real’) is beyond samsara. As such, it is beyond all rational categories of thought, based as they are on the law of contradiction, i.e., duality. Thus, reality is trans-dual, trans-rational, trans-linguistic, and uncharacterizable – signless, boundless, and all luminous. This, the essence of sentience itself, is essentially empty and full, differentiated and undifferentiated, proliferating and non-proliferating, simultaneously. This appears to be the basis of the Buddha’s dislike of speculation, not because he does not have an ontology, but rather because his ontology is transcendental and therefore not truly accessible to the unenlightened mind. This is also the basis of the two-truth doctrine – ultimate truth is trans-dual, trans-rational, trans-linguistic, and uncharacterizable, whereas relative truth is non-absolute and therefore misleading if it is misunderstood to be absolute. On the other hand, it is possible through the intensive cultivation of wisdom to obtain an intuition of realization that may precipitate the actual experience in one suitably prepared.
The Buddha was a very clever dialectician, and he often dialogued with others by appearing to accept their premises, identifying common ground, and then subtly shifting the conversation through a progressive process of inference and deduction, causing them to see beyond their premises. This establishes Buddhism as an esoteric tradition, in that the Buddha is reinterpreting outer in terms of inner and relating this to a forgotten primordial tradition that can only be appreciated by the few.
The Buddha declares this his dharma is ancient and long-forgotten, and is identical with the way of the ancient Vedic rishis. Merely mouthing sacred texts does not, however, constitute realization, and for this reason, the Buddha rejected the notion of innate Brahman caste superiority. A Brahman must live a life of utmost simplicity and renunciation.
The Buddha also tailored his recommendations to the spiritual needs of the individuals with whom he communicated, so he said different, even apparently contradictory, things at different times and in different circumstances. This can lead to error if it is not understood, which is why the method of logical syncretism or transcendental synthesis is the best way to study the dharma. We can’t just pick out the ideas we like and ignore those that we do not. All this leads to is the creation of a false dharma, which is merely a projection of our own egotism/narcissism. Thus, we reject sectarianism from the outset.
An oft-repeated refrain of the stock description of a Buddha is that he is a teacher of humans and devas. The Pali Canon frequently alludes to deva followers of the Buddha, including even anti-gods [sic], but their numbers are not numerous. Devas of the sensual world in particular seem to be addicted to sensual pleasures, much as many humans are, especially in the latter days of the degenerate age in which we now live. Some devas are even earth-bound, living invisibly in human cities and influencing human beings and governments telepathically. There are even deva cities, both in deva worlds and on the earth, Uttarakuru being an example that is mentioned in the Pali Canon. Interestingly, the word “deva” means “shining one,” and the Pali descriptions of devas often correspond strikingly with the UFO phenomenon, which we know, thanks to the research of people like Jacques Vallee, J. Allen Hynek, and others have a physical reality. The Buddha himself is represented as communicating with devas, teaching them and receiving teachings from them.
The Pali Canon also describes a “war in heaven” between the asuras, archaic deities representing abstract spiritual principles and the powers of nature, and the devas. This appears to correspond to the arising of a new religious movement within the Vedic tradition during the late Vedic period (1000-500 BCE), characterized by the forgetting of the recipe for soma, and its replacement by a surrogate ritual called the “fire sacrifice,” ritualism, caste, authoritarianism, and misogyny – many of the things for which the Buddha criticized the Brahmans of his time. The asuras, which originally meant “lords” but was now associated with an erroneous etymology of “a-suras,” anti-gods, were “cast down” to the foot of Mount Sumeru, where they dwelt in the one world ocean. The anti-gods were still necessary to churn soma, apparently, which they churn out of the one world ocean together with the devas. This antagonism or conflict appears to be necessary to the production of soma, which makes one wonder how soma was manufactured before the war between the devas and the asuras. This point requires additional research. The anti-gods also attended an assembly of devas held to honour the Buddha, and some even converted to the Buddhadharma. In the West, the conflict between the devas and the asuras resulted in the devas being cast down, and an asura, Ahura Mazda, became the chief deity of the Zoroastrian religion, also based on the principle of dualistic conflict.
- That the devas visit the Buddha and that he learns from them
- That deva travel is instantaneous
- That devas manifest as luminous aerial phenomena
- That devas are only visible to those of refined mindfulness
- That some devas live invisibly among men on earth
- That the anti-gods are skilled in the practice of magic
The Buddhist View of God
Although Buddhism is widely regarded as atheistic, this is not quite true. God is referred to several times in the Pali Canon, in the form of the chief of the Brahma realm, a sort of “Wizard of Oz” figure. The texts explain how the notion of God originates. According to the Buddhist world-view, universes appear, expand, contract, and then disappear and reappear in an endless series of cycles. Historical time is also like this, and passes through evolutionary and devolutionary phases. The beings that previously were reborn in a universe that passes into a state of potentiality are reborn in other worlds corresponding to their karma. When the universe reappears, it exists in a high-energy state and higher devas are reborn in it as their merit in higher worlds is exhausted. The first such deva to appear finds himself alone in the universe, and erroneously concludes that he is the creator of the universe. Similarly, the devas that come after see that he came before, and erroneously conclude that he is the creator of the universe. Thus, he asserts himself to be God, and they accept this and worship them as God, resulting in the creation of religion. Thus, the delusion of belief in God arises in beings. Moreover, for this reason and others, Buddhism itself cannot be regarded as a religion properly speaking, and in fact, it has not been legally acknowledged as a religion in many places for exactly this reason. Buddhism is a metaphysical and practical spiritual philosophy, not a religion.
The Spiritual Path
The Primordial Tradition
Far from declaring himself to be an innovator or the originator of a new truth or a new religious movement, the Buddha claimed to be revealing an ancient way that has long been forgotten, which he identifies with the progenitors of the Brahmans, the ancient Vedic rishis, illuminated seers consisting of both men and women whose ecstatic poems are recorded in the Vedas, but which is also pre-Vedic. Thus, he is revealing to the Brahmans, who he castigates as degenerate, the original truth of Brahmanism itself. He compares this to an ancient and long-forgotten city in the midst of an archaic forest, the path to which is overgrown and barely discernible.
The True Brahman
The Buddha declares that the true Brahman is one who was wisdom and virtue, not someone born into a caste. Someone born into the Brahman caste who does not have these essential qualities is not a Brahman, and someone who is not born into the Brahman caste who has these essential qualities is a Brahman, in accordance with the law of karma. The same distinction applies to monastics. One may be a monastic and a puthujjana, or common person, or one may be a householder and be an Aryan, a noble or spiritual person. Monastic ordination does not by itself an Aryan make. Thus, both Hinayana and Mahayana traditions allow for self-ordination. The Buddha himself was, of course, self-ordained. Of these two, wisdom, and not virtue, is the preeminent salvific principle, with virtue as its necessary basis, subject to the qualification concerning ethics that we have already discussed. However, a tree is known by its fruits. The dharma always yields good fruits.
The Path of the Arhant
The Buddha teaches the path of the arhant, the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of four levels of attainment of degrees of progressive realization or accomplishment: stream entrant, whereby one achieves emancipation within seven rebirths without ever experiencing a lower non-human rebirth; a once-returner, whereby one is reborn as a human being once more only; a non-returner, whereby one is never again reborn as a human being, but will be born as a deva being in the Five Pure Abodes; or an arhant, in which on death one achieves parinibbana (lit. ‘complete snuffing out,’ as of a fire) and subsequent ‘immortality’ (amata). This Pali word, amata, pervades the Pali Canon, and is generally translated as ‘deathlessness,’ but the PED makes it clear that the primary meaning is amrita, translated by Rhys Davids as ‘ambrosia’ or ‘water of immorality,’ from the Sanskrit root MR, ‘death.’ Amrita, which is also described in the PED as a “medicine,” is the Buddhist word for soma, the Vedic mind-altering beverage that is identical with the plant-based psychedelic that was worshipped by the early Aryans and inspired the rishis, including the Seven Sages, to write the ecstatic hymns of the Rig Veda. Mata means both ‘thought’ and ‘dead,’ so the state of amata is a state beyond both death and thinking. Paradoxically, a state of apparent ‘impercipience’ is identical with the realization of essential sentience itself. Hence, ‘deathlessness.’
The Path of the Buddha
Although the Buddha taught the path of the arhant as the fast path to nirvana, based on dispassion, and the Buddha himself is declared to be an arhant, it is clear from the Pali texts that an arhant is not identical with a Buddha. The path that leads to Buddhahood is the path of a bodhisattva (lit. ‘enlightenment being’). The essential distinction appears to be that between dispassion, in which desirous attachment is negated, thus breaking the chain of Dependent Origination, and wisdom, in which ignorance is resolved by a kind of omniscience. The Pali Canon makes a clear distinction between the powers or attainments of arhants, and the powers or attainments of Buddhas. This idea was taken up by the Mahayana, which originally consisted of followers of the Hinayana who formulated the intention, known as bodhicitta, to attain Buddhahood out of compassion for all samsaric beings, rather than arhantship. The question arises of course why the Buddha chose to teach the path of the arhant rather than the path of the bodhisattva, and the answer seems to be that he did this because of the severe limitations of beings born into this degenerate age, with lifespans limited to a hundred years or so, although am still researching this question and may have additional insights on this point in the future.
When a bodhisattva becomes a Buddha, he creates a negentropic information wave that radiates out in all directions from its point of origin, the so-called Bodhi seat, creating a ‘world age’, which expands and dissipates over a long period. Thus, we find that human civilization focused in northeast India decreases in all directions as a function of distance. Because each such age has its unique origin in the appearance of one unique Buddha, it is said that no other Buddha can appear in that world age until its dharma manifestation dissipates (the dharma itself is timeless of course and never dissipates). The motive power of this expansion is the Power of Truth. The current dharma age originated in the parinibbana of Siddattha Gotama Buddha in about 400 BCE, and is only now beginning to penetrate Western civilization at the midpoint of the 5,000-year cycle that, the Buddha said, would be the duration of his dharma manifestation. This corresponds to the year 2100 approximately. Thus, we see that the 21st century seems to represent a turning point in human civilization, both the nadir of the degenerate age of the last thousand years, culminating in 2012, the end of the Mayan epoch that also corresponds with the advent of the Kali Yuga. and with the possibility of a transformative Buddha Emanation that may propel human beings into a new evolutionary period or, alternatively, the extinction of the human species on this earth, depending on how we choose to respond to it (three guesses where our current direction is headed).
The Buddha enumerates the benefits of monastic life, including the four jhanas or ‘ecstasies,’ consisting of detachment, concentration, tranquility, and mental purity and clarification, culminating in the perfection of insight. A group of magical or psychic powers, which were clearly considered seriously as Moggallana, one of the two foremost disciples of the Buddha, was reputed to be foremost in psychic powers, follows these. These include the creation of a mental body, visionary experiences, clairaudience (the perception of spiritual sounds), telepathy, recalling past lives, and the Divine Eye, whereby one perceives patterns of karmic cause and effect imperceptible to others, culminating in perfect mindfulness and full awakening. The Buddha also emphasizes the importance of mindfulness of the body, referring to meditation on the body in terms that are frankly sensual. The great Theravadin scholar, Buddhaghosa, says that this focus on the body is a unique distinguishing characteristic of the Buddhadharma.
Recollection of Past Lives
The Buddha frequently uses the motif of past lives to dramatize teachings in the present. Whether this was based on actual memories or is a dramatic device of the Buddha is unknown, but it developed into the idea that the Buddha was actually able to recall past lives, and that this psychic power is a characteristic of a Buddha. This ability is strongly emphasized throughout the Pali Canon, unlike the other psychic powers, which the Buddha considered to be of limited spiritual value.
Ethics and Morality
Unlike most, perhaps all, religions, the Buddhist suttas begin with what the teaching is not. Surprisingly, much of this includes much of what is considered to be Buddhism today. Moreover, the Buddha decries emotional faith and insists that his followers should inquire into the dharma dispassionately, using the faculty of reason but without being limited by it or dependent upon it. Finally, the Buddha dismisses ethics and morality as elementary, inferior, trivial, insignificant, and minor matters that may impress common, uneducated people, but the Tathagata – he who has attained the TAT, “suchness,” reality, or the Absolute – is far beyond all such considerations, having attained a state beyond reason. The Tathagata is literally described, therefore, as “transhuman.” The Buddha emphasizes this point by summarizing the rules of morality, including the famous Five Precepts – not killing, not stealing, not lying, not engaging in sexual wrongdoing, and, after about 427 BCE, not drinking alcohol, and a host of other ethical and monastic rules. This liberal attitude to rules, which we also find indicated by the Buddha’s behaviour throughout his life, led to the accusation of laxness, an accusation that also dogged him throughout his career, paradoxically, since the Buddha made the same accusations against the Brahmans and he also complained about the laxness of the monastics toward the end of his life.
The Buddha also rejects sixty-two kinds of wrong views, including speculative theories about the past and the future. However, he also rejects agnosticism and nihilism, and clearly states that although he discourages speculations, he himself knows the truth concerning these matters, thus contradicting the widespread notion that the Buddha did not have an ontology. The form in which the Buddha rejected these theories is the tetralemma, a logical structure that rejects all possible formulations of a proposition such as A is A, A is not A, A is both A and not-A, A is neither A nor not-A. The tetralemma is not simply a rejection of the premise (otherwise, A is not-A would be true). Rather, it appears to reject the law of contradiction itself, because absolute truth transcends all forms of logical expression. That is, it transcends dualistic logic and reason altogether. Thus, the tetralemma appears to refer to the trans-logical, trans-dual, trans-linguistic, and trans-rational character of the Buddha’s realization of truth rather than simply rejecting a specific doctrinal formulation in favour of its antithesis. The most famous example of this is the Buddha’s rejection of the ATTA, loosely but inaccurately translated as ‘self.’ The Buddha also rejects the reliability of direct realization or intuition as a source of information. Indeed, all views whatsoever simply lead one to rebirth in whatever world corresponds to that view. None is ultimate. Implicitly, therefore, all such views are false and do not lead to ultimate realization, which is inherently empty, uncharacterizable, and dispassionate.
The Buddha’s attitude toward rules is, therefore, quite ambivalent. On the one hand, he advocates a life of moderate austerity and simplicity based on self-restraint. On the other hand, he disparages extreme asceticism and self-torture and dismisses the intrinsic efficacy of rites and rituals. Even ethics are relatively minor. Thus, he refers to the Three Higher Trainings in Morality, Heart (or Meditation), and Wisdom, which (he says) is harder but more efficacious than the merely mechanical rules of the Code of Conduct (the Vinaya), which at that time numbered about 150 rules, and at the end of his life he conceded that the rules should not be expanded and that the minor and lesser rules could be ignored (a prescription that was ignored by his immediate successors). This view is, of course, in striking contrast to the organizationalism, hierarchicalism, authoritarianism, and dogmatism of many Buddhist societies today both in Asia and in the West.
The Buddha clearly advocated what today we would call a liberal progressive political philosophy, including animal rights, human rights, and state support of the social infrastructure, including agriculture, capital, a well-paid bureaucracy and working class, and direct democratic government, as well as low taxes and liberal laws. The Pali Canon even presents the Buddha with something resembling the modern right-wing libertarian movement, what is sometimes called neo-con neo-liberalism, which he rejects out of hand. Western and indeed global society under increasing Western domination appears to be escalating toward a general civil war and perhaps even a world war at this time of social and environmental crisis, with a window to irremeable calamity of perhaps 30 years based on wantonly spewing carbon into the atmosphere because of burning fossil fuels (“climate change”). Nothing less than a global spiritual revolution will do.
The Buddha is very critical of money and business, associating it with cheating and lying, and the monastics were forbidden from trading, owning property, or handling money, although the sangha itself owned property, which was given to it in the form of donations. The Buddha also criticized property and territoriality and the most advanced human beings on the northern continent of Uttarakuru were said to be communistic and practised free love based on the ancient rishi tradition.
While on this topic of love and women, many of you will know that I have mentioned misogyny quite prominently in these talks, especially in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.” Interestingly, there are few negative references to women in the Digha NIkaya compared to later suttas. At the end of his life, the Buddha warns Ananda against fraternizing with women, and there is a female spiritual aspirant who vows to be reborn as a man in order to make spiritual progress who, because of the Power of Truth, achieves her goal. On the other hand, there is an ecstatic poem, comparable in some ways to the Song of Solomon, in which arhantship and the love of the dharma are compared to the love of a woman. On this note, we end the talk and this series of talks on the Digha Nikaya.
Come, embrace me, maiden fair of thighs,
Seize and hold me with your lovely eyes,
Take me in your arms, it’s all I ask!
My desire was slight at first, O maid
Of waving tresses, but it grew apace,
As grow the gifts that Arahants receive.
1. The longevity of devas is explicitly associated with their high-energy (“luminous”) state or “vibration,” resulting in the phenomenon of time dilation described by Einstein and subsequently proved by experiment. Thus, the longevity of devas is a relativistic phenomenon. The ratio of deva to human time/longevity increases as one rises on the planes, and the exact correlations are given in the Pali Canon, thus allowing one to precisely calculate the vibratory rate of each deva class as a function of the speed of light (Lorentz transformation).