Upali Sutta (MN 56)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015

Discourse to Upali

Majjhima Nikaya 56

1-lord-mahavira-namrata-bothraThe location of this sutta is Nalanda, Magadha, near Rajagaha, in Pavarika’s Mango Grove.

The Pali name for Mahavira, the Guide of the Jains who lived about the same time as the Buddha, is Nataputta, the Jains themselves being referred to as “naked ascetics” (niganthas). The sutta tells us that Mahavira – I’ll use the more familiar terms henceforth – is staying at Nalanda with a large gathering of Jains. One of these, Digha Tapassi by name, visits the Buddha after alms round. After exchanging pleasantries, the Buddha invites him to sit. The Buddha proceeds to quiz Digha Tapassi about the teachings of Mahavira.

The Buddha asks him, “How many kinds of action does the Nigantha Nataputta describe for the performance of evil action, for the perpetration of evil action.”  A vexed question to be sure! Nataputta’s reply is even more obscure: “Friend Gotama, the Nigantha Nataputta is not accustomed to use the description ‘action, action’; the Nigantha Nataputta is accustomed to use the description ‘rod, rod.’” Bodhi opines that “the Jains regarded bodily, verbal, and mental activity as instruments by which the individual torments himself by prolonging his bondage in samsara and torments others by causing them harm,” the rod being an instrument of punishment (as in the English idiom, “spare the rod, spoil the child”). The Buddha reformulates what appears to be a semantic distinction to how many kinds of rod does Mahavira “describe.” Tapassi’s answer is that Mahavira teaches three kinds of “rod”: body, speech, and mind (in Vajrayana these are called the Three Vajras – “mysteries” in Tendai and Shingon – but, perhaps not surprising in view of other talks, are found explicitly formulated in the Pali Canon as the three primary karmic factors). The point is that Mahavira recognizes body and speech as independent karmic causal factors in addition to mind. This of course contradicts the Buddhist view that intention alone causes karma, and leads to a completely different view of the path that leads to inaction and self-mortification.

This sutta is another demonstration of the Buddha’s dialectical method.

The Buddha asks Tapassi which of the three Mahavira considers the “most reprehensible for the performance of evil action,” to which Tapassi replies that Mahavira considers the bodily rod to be most reprehensible. Tapassi then asks the Buddha which “rod” he considers most reprehensible. The Buddha replies that he does not use the description “rod” but rather ruses the description of “action,” thus inverting the original conversation. He replies that he also considers each of the three kinds of action to be independent of each other, but with mental action as the most reprehensible. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes his teaching from that of Mahavira in two respects:

  1. The use of the term “action” instead of “rod.”
  2. That mental instead of physical action is the most reprehensible.

Bodhi suggests that “mental action” may refer to volition or intention as the root of karma, but (he says) the commentary identifies “mental action” with wrong view.

Tapassi then goes to visit Mahavira, possibly in or near Balaka, thus dating this sutta prior to the death of Mahavira about 425 BCE, somewhat before the death of the Buddha himself between 411 BCE and 383 BCE (cf. DN 29). Just as the Buddha was interested in what Mahavira thought, so Mahavira is interested in the teachings of the Buddha.

Mahavira praises Tapassi’s explanation of Mahavira’s teachings and declares that the mental “rod” is insignificant compared with the bodily rod – the precise opposite view to that of the Buddha.

Upali, Mahavira’s foremost disciple, declares that he will go to the Buddha and defeat him in argument on this point, but Tapassi warns him that “the recluse Gotama is a magician and knows a converting magic by which he converts disciples of other sectarians.”  One is reminded of the Buddha’s reason for  rejecting the cultivation or demonstration of psychic powers. Mahavira dismisses this objection, however, and encourages Upali to go and refute the Buddha’s doctrine. He even suggests that the Buddha might be converted to Jainism!

Upali goes to see the Buddha. The Buddha declares that “if you will debate on the basis of truth, we might have some conversation about this,” thus establishing the proper basis for any discussion of Buddhist doctrines. Upali agrees. Elsewhere the Buddha emphasizes “common ground” in constructive dialogue.

The Buddha presents Upali with a scenario. Suppose (the Buddha says) a Jain were sick and needed cold water to survive. However, Jainism prohibits the use of cold water because it might contain living organisms (a distinction that we now know to be false, both hot and cold water containing living organisms). Nevertheless, he longs for the cold water that would save his life. Thus, he keeps his vows physically and verbally but violates them mentally. In what state (the Buddha asks) would he be reborn?

Upali replies that he would be reborn among the “mind-bound devas as he is still attached in mind, but not in body or speech. The Buddha replies that Upali has contradicted himself, presumably because the Jain’s rebirth is determined exclusively by his mental attachment. Thus, his mental attachment is more important than his (lack of) physical attachment. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

Next, the Buddha forces Upali to admit that Mahavira teaches that non-volitional infractions of moral law are not demeritorious (as in Buddhism). The Buddha then asks Upali which rod “willing” appertains to. Upali is forced to admit that it appertains to the mental rod, once again proving the Buddha’s point. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

The next argument of the Buddha refers to the notion of psychic powers. He asks Upali whether a man with a sword could kill off the inhabitants of Nalanda (the town where they were at the time) singlehandedly. Upali agrees that such a notion is absurd. But, said the Buddha, could a recluse or brahman with “supernormal power and attained to mastery of mind” do so by an “act of hate”? This is of course the situation of the great Tibetan saint Milarepa, who started his quest as a sorcerer. Upali agreed that he could. The Buddha points out that therefore the mental rod is greater and more powerful than the physical rod, once again contradicting Upali’s original position. Nevertheless, Upali reasserts his original statement that physical action is the most reprehensible.

Next, similar to the previous point, the Buddha reminds Upali that, according to tradition the Dandaka, Kalinga, Mejjha, and Matanga forests, became forests by means of a mental act of hate on the part of the seers.

The foregoing establishes quite clearly that the Pali Canon clearly asserts the reality of psychic, supernormal, or magical powers.

The Buddha reminds Upali that he agreed to debate on the basis of truth, yet every answer he gives contradicts his original position. Upali admits that he agreed with the Buddha from the very first example, yet he continued to oppose him in order to “hear the Blessed One’s varied solutions to the problem,” whereupon he takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha for life as a lay follower. The Buddha exhorts Upali to “investigate thoroughly, householder. It is good for such well-known people like you to investigate thoroughly.” Upali contrasts the Buddha’s commitment to inquiry with the attitude of other sectarians, thus clearly distinguishing Buddhism from sectarianism. The Buddha even advises Upali to continue to give alms to the Jains based on his long association with them! Once again, Upali praises the Buddha for recommending that Upali give gifts to others and not only to the Buddha and his followers.

The Buddha gives Upali “progressive instruction” on giving, virtue, the heavens (i.e., higher dimensions of reality), the danger of sensual pleasures, and the blessing of renunciation, i.e., a general religious talk as we have seen elsewhere, followed by a “special” teaching on the Four Noble Truths. “The spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in” Upali, and he realized the universality of arising and cessation. Immediately he became a stream entrant.

Returning home, Upali advises his “doorkeeper” to no longer admit Jains to his home because he has become a follower of the Buddha. If they need alms, however, they should wait and alms will be brought to them at the door.

Digha Tapassi heard that Upali has converted to the Buddhadharma, which he reports to Mahavira. Mahavira doesn’t believe it, and asks Tapassi to go to Upali’s home to verify that this is true, which he does. Mahavira still does not believe it, and goes to Upali’s home himself, together with a large number of his followers, and asks to see Upali, who meets with them in his home “in the hall of the central door,” perhaps some sort of antechamber. Whereas before Upali would give Mahavira the best seat, today Upali himself takes the best seat, to Mahavira’s chagrin.

Mahavira becomes abusive, and accuses Upali of insanity, having been caught up in the Buddha’s “net of doctrine” and converted by his “converting magic.” Upali does not deny this, but rather praises the Buddha’s “converting magic.” Bodhi notes that Upali is referring specifically to his attainment of stream entry.

Upali replies by means of a parable that “the doctrine of the foolish [Jains] will give delight to fools but not to the wise, and it will not withstand testing or being smoothened out,” comparing Mahavira’s teachings to a monkey! On the other hand, Upali says that “the doctrine of that Blessed One, accomplished and fully enlightened, will give delight to the wise but not to fools, and it will withstand testing and being smoothened out,” comparing the teachings of the Buddha to a pair of new garments.

Mahavira points out that Upali is known to the king and the Jain congregation as a follower of Mahavira, and asks him whose follower he should now be considered to be? Upali’s response is curious, in that it implies that he is wearing robes (perhaps the white robes of a lay follower of the Buddha). It also seems to imply the presence of the Buddha, since the text says that he “extended his hands in reverential salutation in the direction of the Blessed One” (perhaps the direction where the Blessed One is staying?), and recites a poem in praise of the Buddha in response to Mahavira’s question, which he compares to a heap of flowers.

Upali praises the Buddha using many epithets, including: the Wise One, the Blessed One, the Illuminator, the Hero, the Best of Seers, the Noble One, the Tathagata, the Sublime One, and the Enlightened One.

The poem compares the task of the arhant to that of a soldier, in keeping with the Buddha’s caste. He is the victor in battle, the excellent leader, the leader of the herd, elephant-like.

However, most of all the Buddha is described by his psychological qualities. He is undeluded, unperplexed, confident, sorrowless, content, aware, insightful, skilful and able (punning on the Shakyan family name from which the Buddha comes), conversant, balanced, honest, humble, unworldly, ethical, wise, free, quiet, restrained, happy, beyond any possibility of temptation or vice, independent, fearless, completely self-possessed, retired, and dispassionate. Above all, he is the Tathagata who has liberated and freed himself from the inveiglements of rebirth.

The Buddha is explicitly affirmed to have gained the Triple Knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of the Vedas that underlies Brahmanism.

One can discern a broad development in the stanzas of the poem, beginning with the Wise One whose knowledge is perfect. As such, he is the leader, the bull elephant, especially in the realm of religion, wherein he has achieved the apex of realization, characterized as dispassionate wisdom and freedom from involuntary rebirth.

Most worthy of gifts, most mighty of spirits,
Most perfect of persons, beyond estimation,
The greatest in grandeur, attained the peak of glory:
The Blessed One is he, and I am his disciple.

This poem causes Mahavira to vomit hot blood, and be carried away to Pava on a litter, where he dies, thus dating the sutta to about 425 BCE as stated at the start.