Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Hair-Raising Discourse (MN 12)


Majjhima Nikaya 12

Ashoka Pillar, VesaliThe Buddha is living outside Vesali in a grove to the west of the city. Vesali was the capital of the Licchavi tribe in the Vajjian Confederacy, which the Buddha took as a model for the organization of the sangha. Today it is an archaeological site in Bihar state. It was the birth place of Mahavira, the leader of the Jains during the Buddha’s lifetime. It is also the location where the Buddha went to be trained in meditation by Ramaputra and  Alara Kalama. He preached his final sermon here, and the Second Buddhist Council was held here. At the time of the Buddha Vesali was large, rich, prosperous, and crowded, with abundant food. It was a beautiful city, with 7,707 pleasure grounds (parks?) and 7,707 lotus ponds, inhabited by 7,707 rajahs. This was the home of the royal courtesan and famous dancer, Amrapali, who was a great patron of the city.

The date of this sutta is about the same time as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, i.e., just before the Buddha’s death at the age of 80, since the Buddha says that he is “now old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life and come to the last stage: my years have turned eighty.” There is some ambiguity about the date, however, since the text states that during the course of the sutta the Buddha was being fanned by Nagasamala, a task usually reserved for the Buddha’s personal attendant. Nagasamala had been the personal attendant of the Buddha during the first twenty years of the Buddha’s career. However, it is possible that Nagasamala was still a bhikku though no longer the Buddha’s attendant at the end of his life, and was fanning the Buddha. Nagasamala himself could not have been much less than 50 at this time in this case.

Those of you who attended my series of talks on the Digha Nikaya may remember the Licchavi Sunakkhatta, who left the sangha because the Buddha did not perform any miracles or explain to him the beginning of things (DN 24). Subsequently he went to the Vesali Assembly and denied that the Buddha has any superhuman states, distinction in knowledge, or vision worthy of the arhants. He accuses the Buddha of being a rationalist intellectual who was merely following out his own arguments not based on realization or any higher attainments. He asserts that the cessation of suffering is inferior to the attainment of psychic powers. In a sense, Sunakkhatta’s criticism is justified, in the sense that the Buddha did apply intellectual criteria to Brahmanic traditions and sought to identify a rational, non-mythological teaching within the Vedic tradition that had been overgrown by mythological concepts and superstitious beliefs, and he did teach the cessation of suffering as the primary or ultimate goal.

At the same time that Sunakkhatta was addressing the Licchavis Sariputta, the disciple foremost in wisdom, was visiting Vesali on alms round and heard Sunakkhatta’s speech, which he told to the Buddha on his return to the grove where they were staying. The Buddha shrugs off Sunakkhatta’s comments as inspired by anger and points out that the criticism that the Buddha teaches the way to the cessation of suffering is actually a compliment. The rest of the sutta appears as a rebuttal of Sunakkhatta’s criticism of the Buddha, including the Ten Powers of a Tathagata, Four Kinds of Intrepidity, Eight Assemblies, Four Kinds of Generation, Five Destinations and Nibbana, and the Bodhisattva’s Austerities.

The Buddha says that Sunakkhatta will never acknowledge the Buddha’s enlightenment or his psychic powers, consisting of self-multiplication, invisibility, passing through matter, and levitation. We have discussed these psychic powers before and I will not repeat myself here.

The meaning of this sutta is the Discourse on the Great Lion’s Roar, by which he Wheel of Dharma is set rolling, i.e., the dharma age is inaugurated.  We encountered the dharma wheel in the Digha NIkaya, in the story of Mahasuddassana (DN 17), to whom it appeared as  UFO and through which he conquered his neighbours and established a peaceable dharma kingdom.  The sutta enumerates ten powers of a Tathagata by which the Buddha’s primogeniture, viz.

  1. Understanding what is possible and what is impossible.
  2. Understanding karma.
  3. Understanding the Five Destinations (devas, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings).
  4. Understanding the elements of the world.
  5. Understanding the inclinations of beings.
  6. Understanding the Five Faculties (faith, energy, mindfulness concentration, wisdom).
  7. Understanding the elements of the path.
  8. Understanding rebirth.
  9. Understanding karma, called the Divine Eye.
  10. Understanding the destruction of the taints (sensuality, becoming, false views, ignorance) by the cultivation of wisdom.

In accordance with the doctrine of the Power of Truth, these understandings are described as “powers.”

The Buddha declares that anyone who denies the attainment of the Tathagata will be reborn in a hellish rebirth. The Buddhist hells must be distinguished from the hell of the Semitic traditions, however, but is rather a kind of purgatory from which rebirth becomes possible once the negative karma is extirpated through suffering.

The Buddha declares that he is fully enlightened and has destroyed the taints, that those things he has declared to be obstructions (sensuality, anger, sloth, agitation, and uncertainty) are obstructions in fact, and that his dharma does lead to the cessation of suffering.

The Buddha further declares that he is at home in the assemblies of nobles, brahmans, householders, recluses,, devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings, devas of the realm of the Thirty-three, Mara’s retinue, and devas of the Brahma realm.

The Buddha describes the four kinds of rebirths: egg-born, womb-born, moisture-born, and spontaneously generated, the latter referring to how devas are reborn. The most interesting thing about this passage is that the Buddha identifies “certain human beings,” as well as devas, hell beings, and some beings of the lower worlds, as spontaneously born.

In addition, he identifies the five types of rebirth: as hell beings, animals, ghosts, human beings, and devas. Later Buddhist tradition would add the anti-gods to this list. Finally he identifies nirvana, which is attained by the individual for himself or herself through gnosis in the present moment , the “now,”  as a result of mental cultivation and the realization of wisdom by which the taints are destroyed.

The Buddha declares that he knows the behaviours that will lead to rebirth in each of these states. In a memorable simile, he compares the experience of nirvana to dallying in a dense woods adjacent to a cool pond of good water after bathing and slaking one’s thirst on a hot day. Far from far from describing nirvana as an affectively neutral state, the Buddha describes nirvana as “extremely pleasant.”

The Buddha declares that he recalls practicing extreme asceticism, coarseness, scrupulousness, and seclusion. The Buddha describes the ascetic practices of northeast India of his time, which we have itemized in our series of talks on the Digha NIkaya, including the memorable passage, “I would make my bed in a charnel ground with the bones of the dead for a pillow.”

Interestingly, the Buddha refers specifically to the “eight day interval of frost,” around late December-early January, during which, he says, he dwelled out of doors. We discussed the question of how cold winter gets in northeast India in our series of talks on the Digha Nikaya, since it seems that the Buddha died in late winter, just prior to his 80th birthday.

This sutta also preserves a tradition that we find elsewhere in the Pali Canon, especially in the Theragatha and the Therigatha, whereby a realized person utters a spontaneous poem as an expression of their realization. This tradition became especially important in Tibet as well as Ch’an/Zen Buddhism, where such verses took the form of enigmatic riddles.

The reference to “Purification comes about through food” is also found elsewhere in the Pali Canon. “Nutriment” is an important concept in the canon, but here it refers to self-starvation, a practice that the Buddha practised but then repudiated. Thus, he says, “by such conduct, by such practice, by such performance of austerities, I did not attain any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.” The reason that the Buddha gives for this is telling: “Why was that? Because I did not attain that noble wisdom which when attained is noble and emancipating and leads the one who practises in accordance with it to the complete destruction of suffering.” That is, the essential salvific principle is not asceticism or even meditation but Wisdom, through which alone emancipation is attained and suffering completely destroyed. Those of you who have attended my previous talks will know that I frequently emphasize this much neglected point, which subsequently became the basis of the Prajanaparamita tradition of the Mahayana, just about the same time that the Pali Canon was first set to writing. Neither morality nor even meditation is the essential salvific principle, but Wisdom, the cure for ignorance or not-knowing, is that by which emancipation is won.

The Buddha repudiates the notion, characteristic of the Ajivikas, a popular sect at the time, that purification comes about through the round of rebirths. That is to say the soul passes through a preordained series of experiences in which it experiences every possible state after which it is automatically emancipated. This process takes incalculable eons to complete. But, the Buddha says, he has experienced every possible rebirth except those of the Five Pure Abodes, from which rebirth in the human realm is impossible. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes this attainment from that of the arhants, who are reborn in the Five Pure Abodes if they have not extirpated every vestige of attachment.  Because a bodhisattva is vowed to being reborn as a human being before he becomes a Buddha, this is impossible for him.

Similarly, the Buddha has experienced every kind of abode, sacrifice, and fire ceremony.

The Buddha declares that the lucidity of his wisdom is unimpaired by age, despite the fact that he is 80.

Thus, he declares himself to have fulfilled all of the requisites of Buddhahood.

Nagasamala declares that this sutta makes his body hairs erect. Hence the Buddha declares that he may remember the sutta as “the Hair-Raising Discourse,”  alluding to the fact that by this time the Buddha’s discourses were being memorized by his followers.

Discourse on Perfect Wisdom (MN 9)

Talk given to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, September 6, 2015.

Sammaditthi Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya 9

Right ViewThe Majjhima NIkaya is the second book of the Sutta Pitaka, after the Digha NIkaya, which we discussed in a 34-week series of talks that ended last June. These talks have now been published as a book, Conversations with the Buddha: A Reader’s Guide to the Digha Nikaya. Although Digha Nikaya means “long collection” and Majjhima NIkaya means “medium (length) collection,” it is clear that the division into the Digha and the Majjhima is not only about length. In my English edition of the Digha the average sutta is between twelve and thirteen pages long, whereas the average sutta in the Majjhima is seven pages long. However, eight suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya are at least as long as the average length of the suttas in the Digha Nikaya, whereas six suttas of the Digha Nikaya are shorter than the average length of the suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya. Manné and Bodhi have suggested that the Digha Nikaya was conceived as an introduction to basic Buddhist thought intended to attract non-Buddhists to the dharma, whereas the Majjhima was conceived as a detailed and thorough compendium of the doctrines and practices of the Buddha. Thus, Bodhi says, the Majjhima Nikaya exhibits greater philosophical depth and range.

With this talk we launch a shorter series of talks on the Pali Canon, this time based what I am referring to as the “long suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya,” i.e., the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya that are at least as long as the average length of the suttas in the Digha Nikaya, as a sort of appendix to the original Digha Nikaya talks. Unfortunately, it’s hard to base a talk on the shorter suttas due to their large number and relative simplicity. In the later books, as the suttas get more numerous they also get shorter.

Long Suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya
  • Sammaditthi Sutta (MN 9)
  • Mahasihanada Sutta (MN 12)
  • Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22)
  • Ariyapariyesana Sutta (MN 26)
  • Upali Sutta (MN 56)
  • Apannaka Sutta (MN 60)
  • Mahasakuludayi Sutta (MN 77)
  • Ratthapala Sutta (MN 82)


The subject of today’s talk is the ninth sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, called the Sammaditthi Sutta. The standard translation of the title of this sutta is “Right View,” the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path. Samma means ‘thoroughly,’ ‘properly, ‘rightly,’ ‘in the right way,’ ‘as it ought to be,’ ‘best,’ ‘perfectly’ (Skt. samyac, samyak, samis).  Ditthi means ‘view,’ ‘belief,’ ‘dogma,’ ‘theory,’ ‘speculation,’ ‘false theory,’ ‘groundless or unfounded opinion’ (Skt. drsti).  Thus, we might translate the title of this sutta as the Discourse on Perfect Wisdom. That this is the only sutta that is named after a step of the Noble Eightfold Path is significant because it represents the point where one enters into (lit. ‘goes down into’) the Path, regarded as a strict causal sequence, thus establishing one as a ‘stream entrant’ (sotapanna). Interestingly, the Buddha uses the metaphor of the stream (sota, ‘stream,’ ‘flood,’ ‘torrent’) to refer equally to the path and to samsara.

The sutta was spoken by the ex-Brahman arhant Sariputta, the follower foremost in wisdom, who the Buddha nicknamed “general of the dharma,” at Savatthi, a.k.a. Shravasti. With a population of about 900,000 individuals and 57,000 households, Shravasti was one of the six largest cities of India at that time.[1] Shravasti was a rich commercial centre and the capital of Kosala, one of the sixteen “great states,” ruled by King Pasanedi, a follower of the Buddha, located near the Rapti River in present day Uttar Pradesh. The Buddha spent 24 or 25 rainy seasons in Shravasti, making this the place where he spent most of his time. Shravasti is also the reputed birthplace of the third Tirthankara (lit. ‘ford maker’) of the Jain religion, with which Buddhism was in competition.

Sariputta died about three years before the Buddha. This, and the reference to “Friend,” implies that this sutta was spoken by Sariputta prior to that time, probably during one of the rain retreats in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park, the location of Jetavana, one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries, located to the south of the old city. This park was famous for being bought for the sangha by Anathapindika, a wealthy householder and chief lay follower of the Buddha, by covering the ground with millions of pieces of gold. The Buddha passed 18 or 19 out of 45 rainy reasons here, more than at any other place, starting about twenty years after his Enlightenment. Therefore, this sutta may be dated most probably between when the Buddha was 55 and 78 (approximately 425 to 402 BCE) (Schumann).[2]

The first point I would like to make here is that this is a Canonical sutta, certified as such by the compilers of the Pali Canon, and is therefore recognized as Buddhavacana, the word of the Buddha, but the Buddha did not speak it. Over twenty suttas in the Majjhima NIkaya are like this, establishing the principle that “Buddhavacana” is not to be taken literally. The “word of the Buddha” does not refer to the actual historical language of the Buddha, but rather the words and teachings that are authoritative and true, even if others spoke them, because they are consistent with the historical teachings of the Buddha. This allows for continuity of development rather than strict historical reduction, the latter advocated for example by the adherents of “Original Buddhism,” sometimes called modern or progressive Theravada. One might question, however, whether it is proper to refer to this movement as Theravadin at all, since it rejects much (perhaps most) of the Pali Canon. Some only accept the “bits and pieces” that conform to their historical reductionist (historicist) theory. Unfortunately, “Original Buddhism” so-called is every bit as exclusive and sectarian as classical or orthodox Theravada, if not more so.

Sariputta introduces his topic as “one of right view,” specifically, in what way is a noble disciple (sekha) one whose view is right, straight, perfectly confident, and true. The sutta is divided into sixteen sub-topics, including teachings on the wholesome and the unwholesome, nutriment, the Four Noble Truths, ageing and death, birth, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the Sixfold Base, mentality-materiality, consciousness, formations, ignorance, and the taints, all of which constitute aspects of Right View. This sutta is, therefore, a kind of catechism or compilation of basic Buddhist principles, the understanding of which is considered essential for Right View. Since each topic is identified as “another way in which a noble disciple is one of right view,” it’s not clear whether the comprehension of all of them or only one of them is necessary to attain Right View. Assuming that the English translation is accurate, the syntax also allows us to infer that these are essential insights any one of which can trigger this fundamental attainment.

We recognize in ageing and death through to ignorance the twelve causes (nidanas) in the chain of conditioned arising (paticcasamuppada), whereby primordial Ignorance “sets in motion,” as it were, the whole wheel of samsara. Of course, this statement should be understood metaphorically. The arising as a result of the “first cause” (primum mobile) of ignorance, did not occur at any particular time, samsara itself being time, but is rather inherent in “the deathless,” thus arising continuously in every moment of existence and inherent in its ground. Ignorance or primary ‘not-knowing’ (avijja) is simply volition sans reflexivity and thus objectified. Thus, reality creates an illusory mirage of itself as a simulacrum of simulacra that we identify with and experience as time (samsara). Even a mirage “exists” in some sense and is, of course, experienced.

The sequence of terms, beginning with the wholesome and the unwholesome and ending with the taints, proceeds from the outermost to the innermost, which we may broadly identify with ethics; food; the Four Noble Truths; Dependent Origination, consisting of the twelve cause/effects; and finally culminating in the taints or corruptions the cessation of which constitutes emancipation. The whole sequence is thus analogous to the Buddha’s analysis of Dependent Origination in “reverse order,” thus pointing to a series of insights culminating in emancipation. This is consistent with our discussion of the ethical in the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, in which the Buddha states that ethical considerations are relatively trivial, though presumably necessary. I’m not going to revisit this discussion here. If you are interested, you can find it on my blog,, as well as in the notecards at Dharma by the Tracks, the Second Life headquarters of the Dharma Transmission to the West group.

The Wholesome and the Unwholesome (kusala/akusala)

“Wholesome” is Bodhi’s standard translation of kusala, which means ‘clever’, ‘useful,’ ‘expert,’ ‘good,’ ‘right,’ ‘meritorious,’ applied especially in the moral sense. It is often associated with upaya, ‘way,’ ‘means,’ ‘expedient,’ ‘stratagem,’ often translated as ’skillful means.’ The English translation “wholesome” is perfectly sound, yet in English the word has a rather vague, moralistic, even slightly self-righteous connotation that is inconsistent with the pragmatic ethics of the Buddha based on the Law of Karma. I’ve discussed in other talks how Buddhism identifies the precise ontological mechanism of morality in a way that Western philosophy completely fails to do. It is more like R. Buckminster Fuller’s definition of morality as the most effective adjustment to circumstances. Some English synonyms that communicate this sense better IMHO are ‘beneficial,’ ‘edifying,’ ‘exemplary,’ ‘fit,’ ‘hale,’ helpful,’ ‘right,’ ‘sound’ ‘strengthening,’ all communicating the practical sense more satisfactorily than the vague ‘wholesome.’ Interestingly, another English synonym of ‘wholesome’ is ‘nutritive,’ which is the topic that immediately follows. To my ear, the word that summarizes this most neatly is ‘effective,’ especially since it includes the notion of the karmic cause/effect dynamic, which is the ontological basis of Buddhist ethics. Thus, to supplement Bodhi’s translation I would propose:

When, Friends, a noble disciple understands the ineffective and the root of the ineffective, the effective and the root of the effective, in that way he is one of perfect wisdom, whose view is straight, who has perfect confidence in the dharma and has arrived at this true dharma.

Note in particular that Perfect Wisdom is not attained by faith, albeit the first pre-path stage of personal progress is identified as that of the ‘faith follower,’ which is immediately followed by ‘dharma follower.’ Both of these are prior to the path proper. Faith may be an essential first step, but in itself is not sufficient to attain the path. Rather, Buddhist confidence is pasada, ‘clearness,’ ‘brightness,’ ‘purity,’ ‘visibility,’ ‘joy,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘happy’ or ‘good mind,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘faith.’ The only way to arrive at this stage is through right view, i.e., ratiocination. Anything else is just dreaming. In this case, the “way” that leads to Perfect Wisdom is identified with the proper comprehension of the ethical in its relation to the Law of Karma.

The Buddha then identifies the unwholesome actions beginning with the first four precepts of Pansil – not killing; not taking what is not given (generally identified with stealing but somewhat more extensive);  “misconduct in sensual pleasures” (more often referred to as sexual misconduct, specifically, adultery); and false, malicious, and harsh speech and gossip. These four ethical precepts are referred to elsewhere as the Fourfold Restraint. As I’ve discussed in my series of talks on the Digha Nikaya, the Fourfold Restraint refers to the original four precepts of pansil that the Buddha advocated for the first eight years of his career, excluding drinking alcoholic beverages, which was not prohibited until a bhikkhu embarrassed the Buddhasangha by becoming drunk in public, whereupon the Buddha prohibited drinking for monastics and also forbade drinkers from becoming monastics. One might speculate that the absence of any reference to drinking here places this sutta during the first eight years of the Buddha’s career. However, this is unlikely given the location, discussed above, which suggests that the sutta was delivered at least twelve years later. In addition, there are other examples of later suttas where the fourfold form of Pansil is given. In any case, the list of ineffective practices adds covetousness, ill will, and wrong view as further ineffective actions.

The Buddha then identifies the root or cause of ineffective actions with greed, hatred, and delusion. Similarly, he identifies effective action with abstention from the ineffective actions already cited, and the root cause of effectiveness with the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion. This emphasis on renunciation or abstinence, instead of their positive correlates, is typical of the Pali Canon, which tends to present ethics in terms of negative rather than positive qualities, thus presenting samsara rather than emancipation as the central frame of reference.

The Buddha says that understanding itself leads to the abandonment or renunciation of the karmic predispositions (sankharas) to lust, aversion, ego, and ignorance, the root or “first cause” of Dependent Origination. This results in the “arousing” of “true knowledge … here and now.” Thus, Perfect Wisdom or Right View is itself identified with the end of angst (dukkha) and emancipation itself. How is this knowledge or wisdom “aroused”? It appears to be through the cultivation of wisdom itself. In my series of talks on the Digha Nikaya, I have emphasized throughout how the Pali Canon identifies awakening, emancipation, illumination, enlightenment – all cognate terms – with the cultivation and attainment of Perfect Wisdom. Perfect Wisdom may be distinguished therefore from ethics and meditation, which are merely subordinate methods or “skillful means.” The Buddha does say, however, that a minimum of one week of meditation is necessary to attain emancipation following the opening of the Dharma Eye, which is a transmission clearly not conferred by meditation itself. Moreover, “true knowledge” is not based on past or future. It occurs in the present moment, the “here and now.” Thus, “true knowledge” is the radical insight into the essential nature or “phenomenology” of instantaneity, the present moment singularity that alone is real, as against time, which posits a succession of moments and is the root of samsara/karma.

This concludes our discussion of the wholesome and the unwholesome.

Nutriment (ahara)

The Pali word ahara is one of those attractive idiosyncratic numinosities, such as one finds in the Tao Te Ching. PED has ‘feeding,’ ‘support,’ ‘food,’ ‘nutriment,’ lit. ‘taking up or onto oneself.’  We all know the saying, “You are what you eat.” Similarly, the original Vedic insight was “life eats life.” We construct our existence by objectifying and then appropriating the existence of others. We are all the same. We are all cannibals. Similarly, in the Digha Nikaya we learned that higher dimensional luminous beings discovered the pleasure of ingesting lower vibrational energy, what we term the “earth-plane,” and became the spiritual ancestors of humans. In the European Middle Ages, the Church taught and people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. The authorities reviled anyone who denied the doctrine of geocentricity, whose power depended on the belief in geocentricity. Similarly, today we have simply transposed “earth” to matter and declared that the matter that we experience with our senses, especially the body, is the “centre of the universe,” and anyone who denies the doctrine of egocentricity is reviled, because the power of the corporations depends on egocentricity. In the Buddhist world-view, the earth or matter is merely a range of energy-information vibration, with frequencies above and below ours that are invisible to us due to the limited sensitivity of our senses – including the body.

Food is that which sustains the body and the senses in its current configuration. One literally is what one eats. Sariputta identifies four types of food:

  1. Physical food, gross or subtle;
  2. Contact;
  3. Mental volition; and
  4. Consciousness.

Each of these types of food constructs four “dimensions” of our vibrational configuration. Physical food constructs the physical body. Contact constructs the environment. Mental volition constructs the karmic complex that creates our identity. Finally, consciousness gives life to the whole project. This construction is the “baited hook” that involves and perpetuates us in the samsaric experiential net.

It follows from the foregoing that if one modifies any or all of these “foods,” one will modify one’s experience of samsara, including, since samsara itself is essentially transitory and illusory, complete emancipation, attained through the total cessation of nutriment. “Purification comes about through food” (MN 12, 52). Thus, greed, aversion, egoity, and ignorance are again transcended by arousing true knowledge or “gnosis” in the experience of the singular instantaneity of “now,” which is the simple act of reflexivity. This attainment is also identified with Perfect Wisdom.

Before leaping to the conclusion that the Buddha is advocating starving oneself to death, consider the range of meanings of ahara. Although gross physical food is included, four other aspects of “food” that are mental in whole or in part, viz., subtle physical food, contact, mental volition, and consciousness, are also referred to. The cessation of contact, mental volition, and consciousness clearly refer to the experience of meditation. The Buddha says that the way leading to the cessation of nutriment is the Path.

Many professional meditators also reduce their food intake to a functional minimum as part of their practice, and there are possibly apocryphal stories and legends of great saints who were able to subsist on little or no food. Although the Buddha clearly taught that food should be reduced to a healthy minimum, he forbade killing and the practice of vegetarianism by monastics. The sexual act is doubtless also a form of food, perhaps involving all four types.

The singular importance of food in the Buddhist scheme recalls to mind the original food of the Gods, amrita, identified with the soma sacrifice in the Vedic tradition. This food too transforms those who consume it into a being of the same energy configuration as the food they consume. Similarly, in the fairy faith of the ancient Celts a human being who is kidnapped by the fairy folk must not eat their food, or must retain some human food, or they will disappear from the human into the fairy realm forever. Other traditions also speak of divine food, such as the manna of the Hebrews. Examples abound.

This concludes our discussion of nutriment.

The Four Noble Truths

Sariputta continues in this vein with respect to the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are often identified with Right View. However, in this account Sariputta starts with ethics and nutriment before proceeding to the Four Truths, which are still relatively “outward” or exoteric in the sequence. The Four Noble Truths appear as a way leading to the Eightfold Path alternative to nutriment, which also leads to the Path.  In fact, clinging-craving, the cause of suffering, with its three objects of sensual pleasures, being, and non-being, appears to involve all of contact-volition-consciousness. We’ll discuss the Five Aggregates Affected by Clinging in the context of Dependent Origination, since they are not itemized here.

This concludes our discussion of the Four Noble Truths, which I don’t think I need to explain in greater detail to this audience.

Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada)

The next twelve “ways” associated with Right View constitute the structure most commonly called Dependent Origination. The elements of this structure consist of a series of ‘causes’ (nidanas), each of which is the effect of the one before it and the cause of the one after it in their natural entropic order. Thus, this structure exhibits the operation of the Law of Karma in Time. The order in which they are presented in the sutta is their reverse analytical order, which also corresponds to the order of attainment, starting with what is immediately present, i.e., ageing and death, and proceeding through the same process of analysis and introspection that the Buddha followed. In this manner, the Buddha begins with what we know, with what is intuitively immediately apprehended, much as in the phenomenology of Husserl but completely contrary to the metaphysical cosmological orientation of the ancient Vedic tradition. In this way, the Buddha anticipates modern philosophy by over 2,300 years.

The twelve nidanas in Bodhi’s translation with their Pali original terms are:

  1. Ageing and Death (jaramarana)
  2. Birth (jati)
  3. Being (bhava)
  4. Clinging (upadana)
  5. Craving (tanha)
  6. Feeling (vedana)
  7. Contact (phassa)
  8. The Sixfold Base (salayatana)
  9. Mentality-Materiality (namarupa)
  10. Consciousness (vinnana)
  11. Formations (sankhara)
  12. Ignorance (avijja)

Buried in this structure one can discern another, fivefold structure, called the Aggregates of Clinging, which are identified with suffering in the Four Noble Truths, viz., form or matter (rupa), sensation or feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana). Perception is somewhere between contact and the six senses. The two structures are clearly related.

Once again, I must quibble with Bodhi over terms here. Jati does not mean ‘being,’ but rather ‘becoming,’ ‘coming into existence.’ ‘Desirous attachment’ for upadana is better than ‘clinging.’ Today we would say ‘addiction’ rather than ‘craving’ for tanha. ‘Sensation’ is better than ‘contact’ for phassa, and nicely complements the Jungian feeling and sensation functions. The salayatana are simply the six senses in their three interrelated aspects, the sense organ, the sensation, and the sensory object, the sixth sense referring of course to the mind, thoughts, and mental objects. Namarupa is the psychosomatic complex – body-mind, name-form, or mind-matter as Bodhi has it. Vinnana is commonly translated as consciousness, but the actual sense is more dynamic – I prefer ‘sentience.’ The sankharas are the karmic potentials that originate from the exercise of intention. Finally, ignorance has always bothered me as a term, as it seems to imply a self that is ignorant. I prefer ‘not-knowing’ or even ‘unconscious.’ Thus, the original and originating primordial state is the complete absence of information, yet dynamic and so active or kinetic. In other Pali suttas, we learn of principles higher than these: proliferation, differentiation, the mind stream, the clear light, and the trans-dual void or emptiness of reality itself.

Twelve nidanas in a speculative translation

  1. Entropy
  2. Generation
  3. Process
  4. Attachment
  5. Addiction
  6. Feeling
  7. Sensation
  8. Six senses
  9. Psycho-somatic complex
  10. Sentience
  11. Karmic potentials
  12. Unconscious

If I had to explain the ultimate metaphysical view of the Buddha, I would have to say that it is unconscious sentience as the primordial reality seeking and thereby self-creating through volitional intention its own meaning through the infinite, beginningless differentiation, proliferation, and objectification of information in an endless illusory mirage of its own becoming. This description is strikingly similar to certain theories of modern science, beginning with Einstein right up to digital or information physics.[3] This primary scenario gives rise to everything else that we know as the dharma, starting with the essential unsatisfactoriness or angst of existence, and culminating in the realization of reflexivity (sati, ‘mindfulness,’ ‘attention’).

This process works itself out through three “kinds of being,” in Bodhi’s translation, which may also be conceptualized as vertical planes or dimensions of existence: ‘sense-sphere being,’ characterized by the perception of “matter”; ‘fine-material being,’ characterized by the perception of energetic patterns; and non-local, ‘immaterial being,’ which is characterized by information only. The fine-material world is the realm of the devas, luminous aerial beings that also appear in our own sense-sphere, which includes planes “higher” or  more subtle than the plane of nature inhabited by humans, animals, earthbound devas, and also by some denizens of the realm of the Four Great Kings and perhaps even asuras. If Buddhism says anything about our world, it is that it is diverse.

Clinging includes clinging to sensual pleasures, views, rules, observances, and the self- or soul-doctrine that arises out of egoity. The Pali word upadana actually refers to fuel, the material substratum that keeps a process alive (or alight). This is the fuel that is “burnt out” in  nibbana, lit. “gone out.” Clinging to views and observances includes vain speculations, heresy, and sectarianism, all referred to elsewhere in the Pali Canon, but in essence attachment to views lies in the fanaticism, intolerance, and closed mindedness with which such views are defended.

I’m not going to say too much about the soul-doctrine here, since everyone is probably already familiar with it. The Pali word atta is literally ‘breath.’ It is described in the Upanishads as a small creature, in shape like a man, dwelling in the heart. By inference, then, the Buddhist view of the self rejects the ego identification with any identifiable quality, thus hypostasizing the mind stream in terms of samsaric phenomenology. This is not the same thing as saying that the self does not exist. Clearly, the self exists – the point is not that we do not exist – an absurd self-contradiction – but rather than we do not exist in any of the forms in which we think we do, including the religious notion of a substantial soul that goes to heaven and enjoys a life of bliss. The Buddha refers to the self as often as he denies its existence. When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he did not cease to exist; neither did the world become enlightened. The Pali Canon refers to the mind stream and clearly the Buddha identifies the goal of nibbana all through the Pali Canon as “the deathless,” a term for amrita that also means ‘immortality.’

Six nidanas – craving, feeling, contact, the sixfold base, mentality-materiality, and consciousness – are all classified in terms of the six senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile, and mind. Note also that the appearance of sensory consciousness precedes, rather than follows, the development of the sense organs or “bases.” Mentality-materiality includes the six senses by including contact, the seventh nidana, in its list of feeling, perception, volition, contact, and attention, which make up the psychic polarity of namarupa. These five qualities closely correspond to the Five Aggregates. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, namarupa is identified with the Five Aggregates. One can see that the nidanas are not mutually exclusive. They interpenetrate. They overlap. Aspects of each are reflected in the others. The nidanas are less like a linear sequential series than a holographic or fractal continuum, in which every part is involved in every other part.

The karmic potentialities (sankharas) arise out of volitional intention rooted in attachment and create complex concatenations of cause and effect that work themselves out collectively in the quality of experience depending on the availability or non-availability of conditions conducive to their appearance. There is no cause without an effect, no effect without a cause. Therefore, every cause must result in an effect, sooner or later, and the sum of those causes that have not yet resulted in an effect constitutes the complex of the karmic potentialities. These manifest through body as actions, through speech as language, and through mind as intentions, a threefold formula with which we have become familiar through our study of the Digha NIkaya.

This concludes our discussion of Dependent Origination.

The Taints (asavas)

Asavas are the outflowings and inflowings that intoxicate and toxify the mind. The taints are a function of ignorance. That is, they represent a cognitive dysfunction. If ignorance ceases, so do the taints. Since ignorance is destroyed by wisdom, so are the taints. Translators generally ignore the perplexing etymology and simply translate the asavas as ‘taints,’ ‘corruptions,’ or ‘defilements,’ freedom from which constitutes emancipation. The asavas referred to are sensuality, becoming, and ignorance or ‘not knowing.’ The reference to ‘inflowings’ and ‘outflowings’ suggests how the senses flow out into the objects that they project, from which they receive in return information concerning the sensory patterns that they perceive and thus create the objective sensory experience that arises out of this dyadic interactivity. The taints are the hiss of this process. Sensuality results from the interactivity of pleasure and pain.  Becoming results from the interactivity of past and future, birth and death. Ignorance results from the interactivity of not-knowing and volition.

This concludes our discussion of the Taints.


Right View is the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path. Thus, it is the point of entry into the path itself, also called the stream. Right View is characterized by truth and engenders perfect confidence. According to the sutta there are sixteen “ways” in which one is of Right View. These ways correspond to the essential insights that constitute Right View, and means by which it can be realized. Thus, as with the four grades of stream entry, etc., there are two phases, the path and the fruit. These ways, proceeding in order from the outermost to the innermost, include the realization through understanding of the Law of Karma, nutriment, the Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, and the Taints. Thus, the cultivation of wisdom or understanding is the primary means of entry to the path, and therefore the essential salvific principle.

  1. One can infer from these numbers that the average household included 15 or 16 members at that time (three generations?). Kosala itself comprised 80,000 villages and was 300 leagues (?) in extent. Kosala corresponds to present-day Avadh (Awadh).
  2. Based on Schumann’s chronology, adjusted for the increasingly prevalent view that the Buddha died circa 400 BCE.
  3. For a fascinating insight into what this might mean for the theory of reality see Jacques Vallee, Messengers of Deception (1979; rpt. Brisbane: Daily Grail, 2008), pp. 237-45.