Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, October 18, 2015.

The Supermundane Quest

Majjhima Nikaya 26

This sutta is also known as the Pasarasi Sutta, the Heap of Snares. Here the Buddha is at Savatthi, one of the six largest cities of India, where the Buddha spent 24 of 45 rainy seasons after the Enlightenment. As the birthplace of the third Guide of the Jain faith, this prosperous trading centre was known for its religious associations. It was the capital of Kosala, whose king, Pasenadi, was a follower of the Buddha. The Buddha’s chief lay follower, the wealthy householder Anathapindika, who gave many gifts to the sangha, also lived here.

Interestingly, only six of the suttas in the Digha Nikaya are set in Savatthi, whereas 75 in the Majjhima Nikaya are set here. Despite the greater number of suttas in the MN, 49% of the Majjhima Nikaya’s suttas are set here, compared to only 15% in the Digha Nikaya. This is a significant difference, which suggests that the redactors of the MN consciously collected discourses from Savatthi, amongst others, compared to the redactors of the Digha Nikaya, The discourses of the Digha Nikaya, on the other hand, are more diverse and eclectic, with a slight preference for Rajagaha (21%), the capital of Magadha, whose king, Bimbisara, was also a patron of the Buddha.

One wonders whether the Digha Nikaya might represent a collection associated with the Rajagaha sangha, whereas the Majjhima Nikaya is associated with the Savatthi sangha. This might be the organizational principle that I referred to in my series of talks on the Digha Nikaya. A quick survey of the Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas also suggest that they largely emphasize Savatthi, making the Digha Nikaya the odd man out.

The Buddha is staying in Anathapindika’s Park, in Jeta’s Grove. Some monastics approach Ananda and complain that it has been a long time since they have heard the Buddha speak, and could Ananda arrange a dharma talk by the Buddha? Ananda tells them to go to the brahman Rammaka’s hermitage.

After alms round, the morning meal, and spending the afternoon meditating, followed by a bath, Ananda asks the Buddha to go to Rammaka’s hermitage. It appears that the Buddha knows that Ananda wants him to give a dharma talk, since Ananda qualifies his request by asking the Buddha to go there “out of compassion.”

When the Buddha arrives at the hermitage, he hears several monastics discussing the dharma. Waiting outside for their conversation to end, the Buddha very properly coughs, knocks, and the monastics open the door for him.

The Buddha asks the monastics what they are discussing, in reply to which they tell him that they are discussing the Buddha himself. Unfortunately, the sutta does not give us the details of their talk, which would have been fascinating to hear. The Buddha commends the monastics for discussing the dharma, and tells them that when they gather – which would occur at the new and full moons twice a month as well as the four months of the rainy season – they should either discuss the dharma or maintain “noble silence.” Bodhi notes that this name is also applied to the second ecstasy (jhana), characterized, as we know, by the cessation of thinking and the realization of rapture or bliss “with the body.” Such practices gradually shut down the egological cognitive faculty, revealing sentience to itself as it actually is in itself.

The Buddha identifies two kinds of seeking – noble and ignoble. In other talks we have discussed the meaning of arya, ‘noble,’ as being synonymous with supermundane. Ignoble seeking is the seeking after samsaric things, which perpetuate the whole phantasmagoria of samsara, filled with illusory objects of attachment, which all cause angst.

We are accustomed to think of those things subject to birth, ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement to refer to living or sentient beings, including wives, children, slaves, goats, sheep, fowl, pigs, elephants, cattle, horses, and mares, so the Buddha’s inclusion of “gold and silver” in this list is fascinating. Gold are silver are included in the list of things subject to birth, ageing, and defilement, but not sickness, death, and sorrow, which apply only to people and animals.  Gold and silver are the only inanimate objects included in this list of samsaric objects, suggesting its importance as an object of attachment in the mind of the Buddha.

Noble seeking is the seeking after the “unborn supreme security from bondage,” which the Buddha identifies with nirvana (lit. ‘quenching’). The reference to “unborn” indicates the transcendental object, also indicated by the references to the unageing, unailing, deathless (i.e., immortal), sorrowless, and undefiled. Therefore, seeking the transcendental object itself is the noble seeking. Nirvana is not merely the realization of a state, but is also an ontological realization of the single “element” that is beyond the three characteristics of transience, non-self-identity, and angst, identical with reality itself.

The Buddha identifies himself before he became a Buddha as a bodhisattva. At that time, he began to question why, as a samsaric being, he is attracted to samsaric objects of experience. This question segues into an alternative description of the Buddha’s leaving home, “while still young.” He says that his parents wept when he left home, rather than the stock description that he stole out of the palace in the middle of the night soon after his son, Rahula, was born out of despair for the suffering of the world. What age is referred to be also a matter of debate, as we have discussed in other talks.

The Buddha is telling the monastics the story of his life.

First, the bodhisattva goes to Alara Kalama and studies his dharma and discipline till he attains the experience of the base of nothingness, the second highest plane of the 31 planes of existence (and in some variations, the highest plane). This is of course the seventh ecstasy. Kalama recognizes Gotama’s attainment and invites him to lead his community of samanas with him as equals, but Gotama, realizing that this attainment only leads to rebirth in the deva world corresponding to the base of nothingness, declines.

Then he goes to Uddaka Ramaputta (‘son of Rama’), with whom he realizes the base of neither perception nor non-perception – the highest plane of samsara. Uttara recognizes Gotama’s attainment, and offers him the leadership of his (actually Rama’s, presumably deceased) group of samanas. As with his previous teacher, however, Gotama realized that this attainment only leads to rebirth in the deva world corresponding to the base of neither perception nor non-perception and declined.

This sutta does not refer to the descriptions, found elsewhere in the Pali Canon, of the Buddha’s conquest of fear in the forest and the six years he spent practising self-mortification with the group of five. Instead, Gotama wanders through Magadha till he arrives at Senanigama near Uruvela, where he finds a delightful grove with a clear flowing river with smooth banks and a nearby village for alms round. Here he sits, intent on his quest, aspiration, or striving.  Uruvela is now the site of Bodh Gaya, of course, where Gotama attained Enlightenment.  Once again, this shows how important it is to collect relevant references through all through the Pali Canon rather than basing any conclusion on a single sutta.

Here the Buddha attains the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled nirvana state, declaring: “My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.” The sutta provides no explanation of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment other than the fact itself. It just occurs, apparently spontaneously.

At first, the Buddha is inclined to become a pateccabuddha and not teach others, due to the profundity and difficulty of the dharma, “unattainable by mere reasoning,” on the one hand, and the samsaric attachment of the people on the other. The Pali word is alaya, literally something like ‘dwelling in the illusion of attachment to desire,’ alluding perhaps to the home life. Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation, ‘adhesion,’ is rather unsatisfactory to my mind. The statement that the Buddha would find this wearisome and troubling is interesting given his presumed supermundane attainment at this stage, suggesting that enlightenment by no means wipes out the human personality as one might think.

Enough with teaching the Dharma
That even I found hard to teach;
For it will never be perceived
By those who live in lust and hate.

Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness
Will never discern this abstruse Dhamma
Which goes against the worldly stream,
Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.

Clearly, the commentaries saw this as a problem, resulting in the improbable sophistry documented by Bodhi in a footnote.  This is supported by the facts that the Buddha subsequently sought out opportunities for retreat and continued to practise meditation for the rest of his life.

The Buddha seems to identify nirvana with dependent origination, also referred to as “specific conditionality,” stilling the formations (i.e., volition or intention), relinquishing attachment, and the destruction of craving.

Discerning the Buddha’s thoughts from his position as a higher dimensional being, for whom the minds of humans are open books, a quality shared by UFOs, interestingly, the Brahma Sahampati, the chief Mahabrahma, despairs that without the Buddha’s wisdom the world will perish, so he comes to the Buddha and entreats him to teach for the sake of the few “with little dust in their eyes.”

The Buddha compares human beings to lotuses, some of which thrive immersed in the water, others of which rest on the water’s surface, and still others that rise out of the water but are unwetted. In all these cases, of course, the lotus continues to be rooted in the mud (samsara).

The Buddha assents to Sahampati’s request, who departs, thinking that he has earned merit by being the cause of the Buddha’s teaching the people.

When he discovers that both Alara Kalama and Uttara Ramaputta are recently deceased, the Buddha decides to teach the dharma to the Group of Five. These are, of course, the five ascetics with whom the Buddha practised self-mortification for six years prior to his Enlightenment. He discovers that they are living in the Deer Park at Isipatana, near Benares.

En route, the Buddha encounters an ajivaka named Upaka. The ajivakans were non-theistic communitarian amoralist renunciates believing in absolute atomic determinism, followers of Makkhali Gosala of Magadha who was a contemporary of Mahavira and the Buddha. Upaka discerned the clarity of the Buddha’s complexion and asked him what teacher he followed, whereupon the Buddha declares his Buddhahood for the first time. Upaka remarks that the Buddha is claiming to be an anantajina, ‘one who has conquered all,’ which the Buddha confirms.

I am one who has transcended all, a knower of all,
Unsullied among all things, renouncing all,
By craving’s ceasing freed. Having known this all
For myself, to whom should I point as teacher?

I have no teacher, and one like me
Exists nowhere in all the world
With all its gods, because I have
No person for my counterpart.

I am the Accomplished One in the world,
I am the Teacher Supreme.
I alone am a Fully Enlightened One
Whose fires are quenched and extinguished.

I go now to the city of Kasi
To set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma.
In a world that has become blind
I go to beat the drum of the Deathless.

Upaka’s response is interesting: “May it be so, friend.” Shaking his head, Upaka takes a side path and leaves the Buddha alone.

Arriving at the Deer Park, the Group of Five see the Buddha coming in the distance and allow him to sit with them. At first they resist him, regarding him as “living in luxury,” an accusation that was to haunt to the Buddha for the rest of his life. However, as the Buddha began to speak about immortality, the dharma, and gnosis they began to find themselves unable to resist his message. The text implies that they are literally mesmerized. Nevertheless, they ask the Buddha how he can claim to be an Accomplished, Fully Enlightened One, when he has not attained any transcendent states, wisdom, or vision characteristic of those who have attained. Since he had given up self-mortification, how can be claim to be enlightened? However, the Buddha, now referring to himself in the third person as the Tathagata, denies the truth of the statement that he has given up asceticism and lives in luxury. Apparently, this denial is enough, and the monastics address Gotama from that point as the Tathagata, implicitly accepting his superiority.

According to tradition, the Buddha then teaches the group of five the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), the Discourse that Set the Wheel of Dharma in Motion. The Buddha gives a sermon on the Middle Way, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Tathagata, the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, and non-rebirth.

Although the text suggests that the conversion of the group of five was rather easy, the Buddha says, “I was able to convince the bhikkhus of the group of five.” Assuming Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of “convince” is accurate, this word suggests that some effort was required on the Buddha’s part, which seems to be a more reasonable supposition in the circumstances.

Thus, the nucleus of the sangha was formed, consisting of the Buddha and the group of five. The first thing the Buddha did was to “teach and instruct” the monastics. The Buddha taught them in groups of two or three, while the others went to fetch alms; this is how they lived. Two weeks later the Buddha taught them the Anattalakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59), the Discourse Concerning the Property of Non-self-identity, after which they all became arhants!

The Buddha discourses on non-self-identity, the Five Aggregates, transience, angst, revulsion (i.e., for samsara), and liberation.

At the end of the sermon, all of the group of five attain arhantship. There are other passages in the Pali Canon that suggest that arhantship can be attained in as short a time as five or seven days. We have already discussed different views of the Hinayana schools concerning the spiritual status of an arhant, but the rapidity with which many of the Buddha’s followers attained arhantship lends credence to the view of a significant number of Hinayana schools that arhantship is not the final or ultimate attainment.

Thus, the Buddha concludes the biographical portion of the sutta.

The Buddha reverts to his original topic of ignoble seeking, whereby samsaric beings seek samsaric objects that lead to angst. Why this is so was the Buddha’s original question that led him to renounce the home life. Thus, he identifies the five “cords” of sensual pleasure, connected with the five senses. Such ignoble seekers are subject to Mara, the asura deva associated with matter and samsara. Noble seekers, who abandon sensual pleasure, are, on the other hand, liberated from Mara’s demesne.

The Buddha proceeds to explain the four ecstasies, the jhanas that we have discussed in other talks. Very concisely, I will remind you that the first jhana, transcendent meditative state or ecstasy, is characterized by seclusion, thinking, and bliss. The second jhana is characterized by self-confidence, mental concentration, the cessation of thinking, and bliss. The third jhana is characterized by equanimity, attention, and physical pleasure. The fourth jhana is characterized by neither pleasure nor pain, attention (mindfulness), and equanimity.

This sutta describes the formless jhanas as well, consisting of the progressive realization of the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither perception nor non-perception, which opens to the transdual.

Finally, the Buddha describes the supermundane state of the cessation of perception and feeling, whereby seeing with wisdom destroys the taints. Note once again that wisdom is the essential salvific principle. “This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Mara, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Mara’s eye of opportunity, and to have crossed beyond attachment to the world. He walks without fear, stands without fear, sits without fear, lies down without fear. Why is that? Because he is out of the Evil One’s range.”