Monthly Archives: October 2016

Buddhist Preta Ceremony


Buddhist Preta Ceremony

October 31, 2016

Consecration of Sacred Space

Recite the Vajrasattva Mantra to purify the place.


 Circumambulate counterclockwise three times, finishing in the east, facing west, chanting in unison “Om Vajrasattva Hum” with lit incense in folded hands.

Calling the Pretas

Facing toward the centre, raise hands in attitude of prayer and salutation.

Oh, all ye hungry ghosts of the departed, bereft of sustenance, devoid of subsistence, experiencing the pain of lack, hear our voice(s) and attend, come to us and partake of this food and drink, which we offer to you in the spirit of love.

Transfer of Merit

To ye we offer the merit of this act, by the power of our compassion, by the saving power of the Buddhadharma, to ease the pain of all suffering beings in the realm of the departed ones and wherever suffering exists.

Offering Food

 Each one in turn goes to the centre, places their food (vegetarian) on a clean plate, recites the blessing mantra seven times, snaps their fingers to attract the pretas and tips the food onto clean ground.

Blessing mantra: OM AH HUM.


Circumambulate three times clockwise, tossing rice into the air.




Further Reading

Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka,

Buddhist Holidays,

Early Buddhist Ceremonies,

Feeding the Dead,

From Preta to Hungry Ghost,

Ghosts in Tibetan Culture,

Hungry Ghost Ceremony,

Hungry Ghost, Wikipedia,

Preta, New World Encyclopedia,

Preta, Wikipedia,

Significance of the Ritual Concerning Offerings to Ancestors in Theravada Buddhism,

Six Realms of Existence,

Six Realms of Existence,

Synopsis of Buddhist Prophecies

Dates based on Pali sources italiczed.

NOTE: Parinibbana = 400 BCE (approx.) is assumed. “What seems to be certain is that the Buddha died approximately at the age of eighty some time between 410 and 370 BCE” (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

400-2600 CE: Three 1,000 Year Periods (3,000 year cycle).[1]
400-600 CE: Age of the Righteous Law.
600-1600 CE: Age of the Counterfeit Law.
1600 CE: Age of the Decay of the Law.
400 BCE-2100 CE: Five 500 Hundred Year Periods (2,500 year cycle).[2]
400-100 CE: Hinayana. “Correct law.”
100 CE-600 CE: Mahayana. “Meditation.”
600-1100 CE: Vajrayana (Tantra). “Religious knowledge.”
1100-1600 CE: Degenerate age (mappo). “Monasticism.”
1600-2100 CE: Degenerate age (mappo). “Fighting and reproving.”
400 BCE-4600 CE: Five 1,000 Year Periods (5,000 year cycle).[3]
400 BCE-600 CE: “Analytic-knowledge” arhants.
600-1600 CE: “Dry insight” arhants. End of the age of arhantship.
1600-2600 CE: Non-returners.
2600-3600 CE: Once-returners.
3600-4600 CE: Stream entrants.
600 CE: End of the Sangha.[4]
800: Padmasambhava.[5]
1012: Beginning of the Degenerate Age (mappo).[6]
1027: Kalachakra Era (KE).[7]
16h cent.: Age of Science (satthanantarakappa, “scientific revolution” or “sword-interval”).[8]
1600: End of the Age of Arhants.[9]
1908: Dharma Transmission to the West.[10]
1927. Aniruddha (Tib. Magakpa) (1927-2027) – Who Draws and Binds the Entire Three Worlds.[11]
2000. Padmasambhava + 1,200 years.
2012: Mappo + 1,000 years.
2027. Kalachakra Era + 1,000 years.
2064. 2424 – 360 years (= 1 deva year).
2100: Midpoint of the Buddhasasana. “Invisible” or esoteric Buddhism.[12]
2327. Raudra Chakrin (Tib. Dakpo Khorlocen).[13]
2424: Age of Aquarius. Shambhala.[14]
2600: End of the Ursa Major or udumbara cycle (3,000 years).[15]
4600: End of the Buddhadharma.[16]
80,000 CE?: Maitreya (Metteyya).[17]
1-8 billion CE. Seven Suns.[18]



1. Lotus Sutra. See “Three Ages of Buddhism” (Wikipedia).
2. “After my Nirvana, in the first 500 years, all the Bhikshus and others will be strong in deliberation in my correct Law. … In the next or second 500 years, they will be strong in meditation. In the next or third 500 years, they will be strong in ‘much learning,’ i.e. bahusruta,religious knowledge. In the next or fourth 500 years, they will be strong in founding monasteries, &c. In the last or fifth 500 years, they will be strong in fighting or reproving. The pure (lit. white) Law will then become invisible.” Muller adds, “The question therefore amounts to this, whether in that corrupt age the law of Buddha will still be understood? And the answer is, that there will be always some excellent Bodhisattvas who, even in the age of corruption, can understand the preaching of the Law.” “Invisible” dharma is esoteric dharma. Mahasannipata-sutra, quoted in F. Max Muller, trans., Buddhist Mahayana Texts, pp. 115-16. See also Wikipedia, Mahasamnipata Sutta.
3. “The good Dhamma of penetration (pativedhasaddhammo) will last five thousand years. The Dhamma of learning (pariyattidhammo) will also last this long. For without learning, there is no penetration, and as long as there is learning, there is penetration” (quoted from the Manorathpurani in Bodhi, trans., The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1805, n. 1747). Each millennium represents a progressive diminution in dharma attainment, passing through five stages of analytic knowledge, dry-insight arhantship, non-returning, once-returning, and stream entering. (“Dry insight” appears to refer to attainment without jhana.) Edward Conze cites a Burmese Theravadin sutta, dated to the mid-13th century by Andrew Dicks (“Enlightening the Bats”) called the An[a]gatavamsa to the effect that “when the Dispensation of the Perfect Buddha is 5,000 years old, the relics, not receiving reverence and honour, will go to places where they can receive them. As time goes on and on there will not be reverence and honour for them in every place. At the time when the Dispensation is falling into (oblivion), all the relics, coming from every place: from the abode of serpents and the deva-world and the Brahma-world, having gathered together in the space round the great Bo-tree, having made a Buddha-image, and having performed a ‘miracle’ like the Twin-miracle, will teach Dhamma. No human being will be found at that place. All the devas of the ten-thousand world system, gathered together, will hear Dhamma and many thousands of them will attain to Dhamma. And these will cry aloud, saying: ‘Behold, devatas, a week from today our One of the Ten Powers will attain complete Nirvana.’ They will weep, saying: ‘Henceforth there will be darkness for us.’ Then the relics, producing the condition of heat, will burn up that image leaving no remainder. This, Sariputta, is called the disappearance of the relics” (quoted in Buddhist Texts through the Ages, pp. 49f.). This five-thousand year schema is also repeated in the Surangama Sutra, an eighth-century Mahayana Ch’an sutra. See also Piya Tan, “The Dharma-Ending Age.”
4. “The Exalted One declared that because of the founding of the Order of Nuns the dispensation would last only five hundred instead of a thousand years” (Hermuth Hecker, “Ananda: The Guardian of the Dhamma”). The Buddha subsequently “corrected” this by introducing the eight “heavy rules” (garudhammas) restoring the original longevity of the sangha to one thousand years. See Piya Tan, “The Dharma-Ending Age.”
5. “Buddha Shakyamuni actually predicted Guru Padmasambhava’s appearance. Nineteen different sutras and tantras contain clear predictions of his coming and activities” (Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, “The Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava”). See esp. the Mahaparinirvana Sutra: “Impermanence is the nature of all created phenomena. Death being inevitable, the time for my passing into Nirvana has arrived. Of this you should not grieve. Twelve [hundred] years after my passing, there shall come forth a man, the Lake-born Lotus, from north-west Uddiyana. . . it shall be he who will promulgate the way of Secret Mantra.”
6. Padmasambhava prophesied that the mappo would begin with the appearance of the first terton, Sangye Lama (1000-1080). This period saw the appearance of the Indian Kalachakra (1012) and its dissemination in Tibet (1027), which became the basis of the Kalachakra Era (KE). See Wikipedia: Padmasambhava, Mappo, Terton, Kalachakra.
7. Kim Lai, “Tibetan Astrology.”
8. DN 26. The word sattha is also related to Sanskrit svasta, related to swastika, referring perhaps to the generally destructive, anti-human effects of the ideology of scientific materialism (which includes philosophical materialism, Newtonian science, industrialism, social Darwinism, communism, fascism, capitalism, “scientism,” and technocracy), which are by no means past. We are therefore technically still in this “fascist” period dominated by the asura mode of consciousness that has come to dominate the ego as a result of the collapse of the transcendental function. Buddhologist A.K. Warder (University of Toronto) identifies the sword interval with a series of major wars (Indian Buddhism).
9. See n. 3.
10. Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett, 1872-1923) was one of the earliest Western Buddhist monastics, the second English person and the first to lead a Buddhist mission to the West. Ananda Metteyya was invited by the Buddhologist Rhys-Davids to contribute to the Buddhist Review, authored The Religion of Burma (1911) and The Wisdom of Aryas (1923) and founded the International Buddhist Society in London. See Wikipedia, Charles Henry Allan Bennett.
11. “Aniruddha, the present Kalki king, was prophesied to rule in a time when Vajrayana Buddhism and the Kalachakra is nearly extinguished” (Wikipedia, Kings of Shambhala).
12. See n. 2.
13. “The Kalki king prophesied to appear to humans all over the world in 2424 to defeat the degenerate world rulers, establishing a planet-wide Golden Age. He is the last king prophesied in the Kalachakra.” (Wikipedia, Kings of Shambhala).
14. The identification of the appearance of Shambhala, calculated by Dr. Alex Berzin as 2424, with the advent of the Age of Aquarius so-called is based on an accepted ayanamsa of 23.85639 degrees (2000) and an axial precession of 50.265 seconds per year (which works out to 2440 CE) (original research).
15. “In Buddhist mythology, the flower was said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, and thus came to symbolize events of rare occurrence. Allusions to this symbolism can be found in texts such as Theravada Buddhism’s Uraga Sutta (Sn 1.1, v. 5) and Mahayana Buddhism’s ‘Lotus Sutra’ … In the Pali literature, the udumbara tree and its flowers are used concretely (as the tree beneath which a former Buddha gained enlightenment) … In both the Digha Nikaya and Buddhavamsa, the udumbara tree is identified as the tree under which the past Koṇāgamana Buddha attained enlightenment … The Japanese word udonge (優曇華) was used by Dōgen Zenji to refer to the flower of the udumbara tree in chapter 68 of the Shōbōgenzō (‘Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma’). Dōgen places the context of the udonge flower in the Flower Sermon given by Gautama Buddha on Vulture Peak. The udonge flower may be symbolic of mind to mind transmission between the teacher and the student, in this case, Śākyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa” (Wikipedia, Udumbara (Buddhism)).
16. See n. 3.
17. “In that time of the people with an 80,000 year life span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now” (DN 26:25). The An[a]gatavamsa also predicts that Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya) will appear before the end of the age (a vast but incalculable period of time). This sutta also refers to five disappearances: of attainment, conduct, learning, outward form, and finally the disappearance of the relics that constitutes the last stage referred to above. As we are now in the middle of the third millenium of the Buddhist era, according to this schema we are in the age of learning, which will last for almost another 600 years approximately (to circa 2600 CE). This stage or age will be characterized by corrupt government, secularism, climate change, environmental degradation (also predicted in the Book of Revelation), the decline of the sangha, and the gradual disappearance of dharma from the world.
18. See Buddhist Eschatology (Wikipedia). “All things are impermanent, all aspects of existence are unstable and non-eternal. Beings will become so weary and disgusted with the constituent things that they will seek emancipation from them more quickly. There will come a season, O monks, when after hundreds of thousands of years, rains will cease. All seedlings, all vegetation, all plants, grasses and trees will dry up and cease to be…There comes another season after a great lapse of time when a second sun will appear. Now all brooks and ponds will dry up, vanish, cease to be. … Again after a vast period of time a sixth sun will appear, and it will bake the Earth even as a pot is baked by a potter. All the mountains will reek and send up clouds of smoke. After another great interval a seventh sun will appear and the Earth will blaze with fire until it becomes one mass of flame. The mountains will be consumed, a spark will be carried on the wind and go to the worlds of God….Thus, monks, all things will burn, perish and exist no more except those who have seen the path” ( AN, VII, 6.2). The Pali Canon says that this will occur after many “hundreds of thousands of years.” In fact, the events described in the sutta will occur about one billion years in the future, including the evaporation of the oceans. Earth will be uninhabitable by then. This runaway greenhouse effect will culminate in the absorption of the earth by the sun after about seven or eight billion years (other scientific models say that the earth will either burn up or drift away from the sun as a lifeless cinder). See “The Future of Our Sun and Earth.”


Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett). The Religion of Burma (1911).
———-. The Wisdom of Aryas (1923).
Anguttara Nikaya (AN).
Bodhi, trans. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha.
Brown, Kevin. “Anomalous Precessions.”
Buddhist Review.

Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Texts through the Ages.
Dicks, Andrew. “Enlightening the Bats.”
Digha Nikaya (DN).
“The Future of Our Sun and Earth.”
Hecker, Hermuth. “Ananda: The Guardian of the Dhamma.”
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche. “The Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.”
Kim Lai. “Tibetan Astrology.”
Lotus Sutra.
Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
Mahasamnipata (Mahasannipatta) Sutra.
Muller, F. Max, trans. Buddhist Mahayana Texts.
Piya Tan. “The Dharma-Ending Age.”
Surangama Sutra.
Thokmey, Tseten (Alexander Duncan). “Buddhist Prophecies of the 21st Century and Beyond.”
———-. “The Coming Buddha.”
———-. “The Significance of the Year 2012 in Buddhist Chronology.”
Uraga Sutta.
Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism.
Zenji, Dogen. Shōbōgenzō. 

The Oldest Buddhist Scripture

The Philosophy of No Philosophy
Arhant and Bodhisattva
The Deathless
The Way of the Trans-dual
The World Is Void
Planes of Existence
The Cosmic Buddha
Beyond Good and Evil

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, October 1, 2016.


text5aAny tradition that attributes a special authority to one or more founders faces the same problem of documentation: how do we know what the original teachings were and, once we identify them, how are we to understand their meaning? The latter ranges from the problem of translation to the problem of understanding the meaning of meaning itself, while the former also relates to the problem of preservation. This aspect of Buddhism is like any other religion. Islam has the Qu’ran, Christianity the Gospel, the Jews the Torah; Hindus have the Vedas, the Taoists have the Tao Te Ching. The historicity of some of these texts is ambiguous; in the case of traditions that emphasize an historical teacher, the hermeneutical problem is intensified. In the case of Buddhism, the primary historical source represents a developmental period of 375 to 387 years (404 BCE–29 or 17 BCE, following Wynne). Even if we reject the naïve hermeneutic that a later text is automatically invalid, identifying the historical core of the original teaching is interesting, subject to the proviso that we cannot conflate “earliest” with “literally identical to the words of the Buddha.” In addition, we may assume that there were many other texts of the same provenance that were lost.

e31893d200174081e1ccf93bcd9b1a00Even more vexed is the question whether originality even matters? Are the literal words of the Buddha necessarily definitive? The Buddha, like all historical phenomena, existed in a relative and contingent samsaric context, and therefore all of his manifestations and appearances are karmically conditioned, including whatever insights concerning dharma that the Buddha bestowed directly upon his contemporaries and upon those of us who hear them indirectly. Even if we accept the archaic claim that the Buddha was omniscient in some sense, we may question the omniscience of his disciples. Theravadins, anticipating this problem, insist that the arhants were infallible, but even this leaves open the questions of unknown teachings, lost texts, and subsequent misinterpretations by non-arhants. The evidence of the texts themselves is that the Buddha tailored his teachings to his audience. The true object of study in Buddhism is not the person or circumstances of the historical Buddha, it is what the Buddha himself indicated in his thoughts, words, and actions, i.e., the dharma, at which he pointed like the famous finger pointing at the moon. The Pali Canon says that the Buddha de-emphasized leadership and directed his followers to understand the dharma directly for themselves. Thus, Buddhology is based on a false premise. Any study of the oldest Buddhist scripture must have for its objective the revelation of the one true object of study, the dharma itself. This is a significantly larger study than historicism or linguistics can comprehend. The Pali Canon says that the Buddha hesitated to teach, and finally only agreed to teach after being petitioned by God himself; he said that he knew much, much more than he taught; he taught different truths to different people, based on their circumstances and needs, including religion to the householders, meditation to the monastics, and wisdom to the arhants. Dharma is protean and adjusts itself continuously to the circumstances of the time. For this reason alone, fundamentalism is fatuous.

Stratification in the Pali Canon has been a special subject of study for a century now, largely based on the linguistic studies of Pali specialists, but most of the progress in the field was made by the time that Pande published the first edition of his Studies in the Origin of Buddhism (1957), which he updated till his recent death in 2011. In that book, he cites a theory of stratification proposed by the great early 20th century Buddhist translator T.W. Rhys Davids. Law’s elaborate critique only reinforces Rhys Davids’s conclusion, with a few changes that do not affect our argument here. According to both Rhys Davids and Law, the first (i.e., oldest) four items in the list are:

  1. The simple statements of Buddhist doctrine now found, in identical words, in paragraphs or verses recurring in all the books.
  2. Episodes found, in identical words, in two or more of the existing books.
  3. The Silas, the Parayana, the Octades, the Patimokkha.
  4. The Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara, and Samyutta Nikayas.

Despite being written in elegant verse, its location in the Khuddaka Nikaya (generally considered to consist of more recent texts), and having none of the ordinary signs of oral transmission (e.g., turgid repetitiousness, stock phrases and lists, etc.), according to no less authorities than Rhys Davids and Law, the oldest extant doctrinal parts of the Pali Canon, setting aside the non-doctrinal ethical precepts and the rules of training, are the Parayanavagga (‘chapter of the final goal’)  and the Octades (Atthakavagga, ‘groups of eight’). This is confirmed by H. Saddhatissa, whose translation of the Sutta Nipata is used by Bhikku Bodhi in his lectures on the Sutta Nipata (Saddhatissa adds I.3 as contemporary with the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas),[1] and by K.R. Norman, amongst others. Paradoxically, these are now found in the Sutta Nipata in the Khuddaka Nikaya, which is demoted to number five in Rhys Davids’s list. Although a few more potentially archaic texts have been suggested, e.g., the Udanas, Itivuttaka, etc.,[2] the consensus view seems to be that the fourth and fifth chapters (vaggas) of the Sutta Nipata, denominated the Parayanavagga and the Atthakavagga,[3] are amongst the oldest if not the oldest canonical texts to survive today. It is therefore interesting to examine the teachings of these texts, considering the possibility that they are close to, if not identical with, the original teachings of the historical Buddha. According to Lebkowicz, Ditrich, and Pecenko, they are pre-monastic. Fausböll says that “we see here a picture not of life in monasteries, but of the life of hermits in its first stage. We have before us not the systematizing of the later Buddhist church, but the first germs of a system, the fundamental ideas of which come out with sufficient clearness.” Since Buddhist monasticism was founded by Gotama Buddha himself, and the lands and buildings had already begun to be donated and built during his lifetime, this must have been very early indeed, when many monastics still lived or wandered solitary or in small groups. Alexander Wynne, citing the Atthakavagga, suggests that “much of what is found in the Suttapiṭaka is earlier than c. 250 B.C., perhaps even more than 100 years older than this,” i.e., circa 350 BCE at least. This is 54 years after the parinibbana, for which Wynne accepts Gombrich’s date of 404 BCE. If we allow a margin for error of about twenty years, this is 30 to 80 AB approximately. In the Christian tradition, this would correspond to the late canonical period (approx. 60–110 CE).[4]

The Atthaka and the Parayana vaggas constitute the fourth and fifth chapters of the Sutta Nipata in the Minor Tradition (Khuddaka Nikaya). The Sutta Nipata (lit. ‘falling down suttas’) consists of mixed verse and prose in five sections. The Atthakas and Parayanas consist of sixteen and seventeen short suttas or sutta-like texts, thirty-three in all. In English translation, it consists of sixty-eight pages, approximately thirteen thousand words, somewhat longer than the Tao Te Ching (10,000 words) or Q (6,000 words). They do not appear to have been nearly as edited as the nikayas, probably because they are written in verse (Pande notes that verse form is more conservative in the Pali Canon though he rejects the assumption that verse must be automatically older than prose in the same text). The terminology and conceptual structures seem to be pre-nikaya and still in a process of formation (e.g., an interdependent origination consisting of seven nidanas instead of ten or twelve, with similar but more protean terminology, while ignorance is referred to but in a somewhat different way). The syntax is fresh and lively, full of vitality and enthusiasm. The tone is positive, even heroic. It is exciting to think that this may be the oldest surviving sutta collection, a literal remnant of the Buddha himself and one of the original seeds of the suttas of the Pali Canon.

For this talk, I have used the English translation of V. Fausböll, published in 1881 in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East series. Although there are more modern and poetical translations of the Sutta Nipata, Fausböll’s literal translation has the virtue of adhering closely to the Pali as far as I can see so that there is less danger of misconstruing an interpretation of a modern translator for an original view of the Buddha. I have also compared several other translations (see References), especially that of K.R. Norman.

The Atthakavagga addresses such basic concerns as desire, attachment, philosophy, mindfulness, detachment, the nature of Buddhahood (referred to as “the Muni,” or Sage, similar to the Tao Te Ching, and “Bhagavat,” Lord), and the path.  The suttas emphasize the importance of independence and disdain philosophizing and seeking salvation through others. We must save ourselves. The Buddha opposes the doctrine of self-purification through the cultivation of inward peace to the doctrine that one is purified by the practice of philosophizing based on speculation and argument. Even at this early date, we see the Buddha celebrated and even worshipped as a descendent of the Sun, a Muni, an Isi, and a Sambuddha (‘perfectly or self-enlightened’). The Buddha is said to have been reborn from the Tushita (‘satisified’) heaven, associated with the bodhisattva doctrine. The Buddha is described as having the thirty-two marks of a great man and as having the psychic power of telepathy. The realm of the deities (devas), including earthbound devas and Mara, are also referred to. The path is described as both gradual and instantaneous. The Buddha prohibits some of the same superstitious practices, especially prognostication, that he criticizes in the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Net of Confusion (Brahmajala Sutta). As observed by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, asceticism is deemphasized. Pain is observed, but not cultivated. The liberated person is free from attachment and revulsion and sees happiness everywhere. They are friendly and tolerant to all, much like the sage of Laozi. These texts, especially the Parayanavagga, introduce the same question and answer format that structures almost all of the suttas, suggesting that this may have been the major teaching method used by the historical Buddha.


The study of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas provides a window into the archaic dharma of the Buddha. It gives us an opportunity amongst other things to test the rationalist assumptions of the so-called modern or secular Buddhist movement.[5] In these vaggas one recognizes a broad range of doctrinal topics, including a system of epistemological, soteriological, ontological, cosmological, Buddhological, and ethical world views that anticipate similar doctrines that we find more thoughtfully worked out in the nikayas. 

In the following sections I will summarize the world views implicit in these texts in broad outline.

1 Epistemology

The Buddha affirms that the only eternal or ultimate truth is consciousness, and that truth is unitary. Thus, it is trans-dual. For this reason, the Buddha rejects sectarianism, scholasticism, asceticism, rationalism, dogmatism, and debate, and proposes a philosophy of no philosophy, which is identified with wisdom.

2 Soteriology

For there to be salvation there must be a fall. Thus, the Buddha identifies ignorance and desire as the primary binary that binds us to “reiterated existence” (rebirth) in time. He repudiates desire, grasping, and the body and stresses the inferiority of the body, existence, and the householder life of possessiveness, territoriality, and war. The Buddha rejects self-purification by knowledge, actions (i.e., karma, as in Jainism), tradition (Brahmanism), sacrifice, or by following others. He proposes that one must purify oneself through the progressive practice of detached indifference, the cultivation of inner peace (tranquility) and mindfulness or “thoughtfulness,” sitting in secluded meditation in the wilderness, at the foot of a tree, in a cemetery, or in a cave on a mountain. The Buddha posits a mode of knowledge by which one is purified, which is unitary and trans-dual and can be realized by the practice of mental concentration. By these means, a transcendent state of realization is progressively induced that leads to the perfect, immortal, and timeless security of nirvana, in which desire itself is extinguished. Elsewhere meditation is described as the realization of emptiness, nothingness, or the void, which corresponds to the fundamental ontological state. Nirvana is a state beyond consciousness itself. Those who attain this state are described as “men who have crossed the stream.” The realization of nirvana itself is instantaneous, immediate, and uncharacterizable.

3 Ontology

Existence is described as suffering and impermanent. Beings are trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth, but the very impermanent and temporary nature of existence implies that it is possible to escape into non-rebirth by transcending the whole sevenfold system of interdependent origination by which name and form (individuality) lead to “touch” (contact), decay and origin, pleasure and pain (feeling), will (intention), grasping, and finally suffering (ignorance is mentioned elsewhere as “the head”). We recognize here a primitive form of the familiar doctrine of paticcasamuppadda (lit. ‘following from anything as a necessary result with coming into existence’). The law of cause and effect (kamma) driven by mental activity (sankhara) is the essential kinetic principle. At the same time, the world is described as essentially illusory, empty, and void.

4 Cosmology

220px-rhino_from_nepal_3080551876The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas allude to the familiar elements of Buddhist cosmology, including other worlds, deities or devas, Mara, and the Tushita heaven (IV. 16. 1), the latter the heaven from which the Buddha-to-be was reputedly reborn. This corresponds to the bodhisattva idea, whereas the rhinoceros (of the Rhinoceros Sutra) is a symbol associated with the pratyekabuddha. The rhinoceros is as unlike the contemporary image of the monastic as one can imagine.

5 Buddhology

The Buddha is referred to by his family or clan name of Gotama and described as a man, as well as by the mysterious term “tathagata,” ‘he who having come this way has thus gone that way to suchness.’ He is described as wise and great, a World Teacher, as well as being omniscient, that is, he has perfect understanding. He is distinguished by the thirty-two marks of a great man, and is identified as a descendant of the Sun and symbolically with both the sun and the moon.

6 Ethics

The Buddha advocates an ordinary ethical life of moderation and self-restraint.

Although it would be a logical error to infer that because this is the oldest surviving text, it necessarily is complete and therefore exclusive of all other texts – many other similar texts were presumably lost or subsumed into later texts – what the text does say is of more than passing interest since this is the closest we can get to what the Buddha actually taught, composed perhaps no later than a single generation (twenty years?) after his death. The text has a fresh and lively voice and originality of diction that radiate the vigour and vitality of beginnings. In particular, it appears as a virtual hologram of the doctrines found in the nikayas, including such advanced concepts as trans-duality, the unity of truth, the philosophy of no philosophy, gradual and instantaneous realization, rebirth, karma, Mara, devas, other worlds, the Tushita “heaven,” and the transcendent nature of Buddhahood itself. Far from being late ideas, these doctrines are clearly inherent in the fundamental substrate of the Buddhist oeuvre. This contrasts sharply with the modern secularist view that the historical development of Buddhist doctrine represents a degeneration from an original ideal devoid of “superstitious” elements. The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas are extremely sophisticated philosophical documents, comparable to the Tao Te Ching.

A close evaluation of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas discovers allusions to trans-dualism; trans-rationalism; rebirth (which some modern or secular-minded modern Buddhists would like to abandon); ethical indifference (very like Yeshua’s injunction not to judge); individualism; the nirvana element or “realm”; emptiness; instantaneous enlightenment; the planes of existence; and the omniscience and perfection of the Buddha, including the thirty-two “supernatural” marks of a great man.  The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas do not support the view that these doctrines are later accretions. Rather, the whole oeuvre appears to inhere in its historical ground. To say that they do not originate with the Buddha is therefore a dogmatic and unprovable assumption.


Prologue of the Parayanavagga


The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas consist mostly of direct teachings of the Buddha or short question and answer sessions with individuals with little or no additional historical or biographical details. The single exception is the Prologue to the Parayanavagga, called the Vatthugatha (lit. ‘story in verse’). Because of its singular nature in the context of these texts, I am going to summarize it here. Both Rhys Davids and Law place the Parayanavagga before the Atthakavagga, but Law specifically excepts the Prologue, suggesting that it is later, though he does not mention it elsewhere in his scheme. It may, therefore, be the oldest Buddhist historical account.

6e776bc36d8dea0fc858eae1dbad41f8The story is situated south of Savatthi, the capital of Kosala, where many of the later suttas are also located. Bavari, a brahmana, whose name means “enemy of worldly existence,” dwelled near Alaka, on the banks of the Godhavari, a river in the territory of Assaka, ”wishing for nothingness.” Assaka was the most southern mahajanapada. The Godavari river is the second longest river in India, after the Ganges, and runs from west to east across central India. Like many ascetics of the time, including the Buddha, Bavari lived outside a village where he could obtain the requisites, including enough money, apparently, to hold a  great sacrifice. After this, another brahmana arrived, “with swollen feet, trembling, covered with mud, with dust on his head,” who immediately demanded five hundred pieces of money! Bavari treated the other brahmana with the utmost courtesy and respect, but apologetically explained that, having spent all of his money on a great sacrifice, he had no money left to give to the brahmana. Offended, perhaps even enraged, the brahmana proceeded to curse Bavari, declaring that after seven days his head would cleave into seven pieces. This was a common curse that one finds repeated elsewhere in the Pali Canon.

Bavari became sorrowful and began to waste away taking no food, but at the same time he continued to delight in meditation. After some time the benevolent deity of the place, presumably a benign earthbound deva, appeared to Bavari and explained to him that the other brahmana, now departed presumably, is a hypocrite and an impostor, knowing nothing about heads or head splitting, thus rather strangely segueing into the topic of the story and indeed of the vagga. Thus, the Parayanavagga is in fact a precis of the salvific wisdom of the dharma itself.

Bavari asks the deva to explain to him about heads and head splitting, but the deva does not know anything about it, saying that this knowledge is limited to buddhas. Bavari asks the deva who he can approach for an explanation, and the deva tells Bavari that a World Ruler, a descendent of King Ikshvaku (Skt. Okkaka), the first king of the Ikshvaku or solar dynasty, has gone out of Kapilavatthu, the capital of the Shakyans. This identification of the Buddha as a descendent of the righteous and glorious king Ikshvaku suggests the descent of Yeshua from King David. The solar dynasty is also important in Jainism, since twenty-two out of twenty-four of the Jain tirthankaras belonged to this dynasty, and to Hindus, whose culture hero, Rama, of the Ramayana, also belonged to the solar dynasty. According to the Buddhist texts the founder of the solar dynasty was Mahasammata, the first king of the current age, who was democratically elected (approximately ten trillion years ago according to the Sinhalese and Burmese chronicles). The deva describes the Buddha as “light-giving”: “He is, O Brahmana, the perfectly enlightened (Sambuddha); perfect in all things, he has attained the power of all knowledge, sees clearly in everything; he has arrived at the destruction of all things, and is liberated in the destruction of the upadhis,” referring to the “fuel of life” that precipitates rebirth. “He is Buddha, he is Bhagavat in the world; he, the clearly-seeing, teaches the Dhamma” (V. 1. 17). Bhagavat means “the Adorable One,” and in Hinduism is a term for Krishna or God. This passage again alludes to the salvific knowledge or “power of truth.”

Bavari, his spirits revived, asks the deva where he might find this chief of the world, the first of men, so that he might go there and worship him. Referring to the Buddha by the Jain term Jina, “Victorious One,” and as a “bull of men,” the deva tells Bavari that the Buddha is staying in Savatthi. Bavari then goes to his sixteen brahmana disciples, including the great isi (rishi) Pingiya, to go to Savatthi to see the Buddha for themselves. His disciples ask Bavari how they will recognize him. Bavari tells them that the hymns, referring presumably to the Vedas, refer to thirty-two marks of a great man, and that they can recognize him by these signs. Interestingly, no such hymn has ever been identified. Bhikku Sujato has suggested that the marks might be Babylonian in origin.[6] Whatever their origin, their presence in the Prologue of the Parayanavagga clearly indicate their archaic origin. Bavari tells his disciples that such a one will either become a peaceful and just World Ruler or a saintly Sambuddha who will remove the veil from the world. Bavari also tells them that they will also know the Buddha because he will answer the questions that are in their mind without asking.

93-034-04Bavari’s dsiciples travel north to Savatthi to find the Buddha, along with a large number of their own students. Bavari’s disciples are described as advanced philosophers and meditators, with matted hair or dreadlocks and wearing animal hides. They travel through a succession of cities, including Savatthi, but finally they find the Buddha at the top of a mountain near Vesali, Magadha, in the Barabar Hills north of Gaya (Dhammika), called the Rock Temple (pasanaka cetiya, lit. ‘stone tope’), southeast of Savatthi. Here the Buddha was teaching dharma to the monastics, “like a lion roaring in the forest.” Ajita, apparently the leader, beholds the Buddha as a sun or a moon, and perceives all of the thirty-two marks of a great man on his body. Asking the questions concerning Bavari in his mind, the Buddha tells him that Bavari is 120 years old; his name; that he has three of the marks of a great man (long tongue, tuft of hair between the eyebrows, and a sheathed penis), and that he is perfect in the three Vedas. Satisfied, Ajita gets to the point, and asks the Buddha about the head and head splitting. The Buddha tells Ajita that the head refers to ignorance, and that knowledge cleaves the head, along with belief, thoughtfulness, meditation, determination, and strength.

This metaphorical identification of ignorance with the head and head splitting – the destruction of ignorance – with knowledge is exceptionally interesting, and proves amongst other things that the Buddha’s criticism of “philosophizing” clearly does not extend to a rejection of knowledge or wisdom as such. The implication rather is that knowledge or wisdom is the salvific principle, as we have discussed elsewhere. Ignorance of course becomes the root or “head” of the doctrine of interdependent origination.[7] Ajita puts his animal hide on one shoulder, falls down before the Buddha, and “salutes him with his head,” perhaps kneeling before the Buddha and touching his forehead to the ground in an act of prostration. Ajita apparently has Bavari’s warrant to act on his behalf, for he tells the Buddha on behalf of Bavari and his disciples that they pay homage to the Buddha’s feet (perhaps Bavari was too old to make this long journey himself, despite his former expression of his wish to do so). The Buddha wishes Bavari and Ajita, described as a young man, well. Wishing them happiness and long life, the Buddha then invites Ajita and the disciples to ask him whatever questions they wish. Ajita and the other disciples then ask the Buddha a series of philosophical and soteriological questions in the next sixteen suttas, which make up the Parayanavagga.

Now I will take a closer look at nine specific topics of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas in greater detail. These explanations represent a collation of the relevant references in these texts and follow the texts closely, with a minimum of interpretation, which I will leave for the Conclusion.

The Philosophy of No Philosophy

I’m going to start with epistemology, the study of knowing, first, because of the weight that these two vaggas put on what I have chosen to call “the philosophy of no philosophy.” Philosophy, philosophizing, and/or philosophers are discussed in no less than eight suttas of the Atthaka vagga (IV. 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13). In IV.3, the Buddha says, “the dogmas .of philosophy are not easy to overcome.” On the other hand, the independent one, i.e., the follower of the Buddha, “has shaken off every (philosophical) view.” One is reminded of the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Brahmajala Sutta, where the Buddha disdains philosophizing as a “base art.” Ironically, this discussion of conflict avoidance breaks out into an open argument between Magandiya and the Buddha (IV. 9.6, 7). The Buddha makes it quite clear that “if a man’s purification takes place by (his philosophical views), or he by knowledge leaves pain behind, then he is purified by another way than the ariyamagga, i.e., the noble way” (IV. 4). The Buddha considers that philosophizing creates division and discord (IV. 5.1), Therefore a bhikku “does not depend even on knowledge. He does not associate with those that are taken up by different things, he does not return to any (philosophical) view” (IV. 5. 5). The Pasurasutta (IV. 8) includes an extensive description of philosophical debates that we find elsewhere described in the Pali Canon. “Seeing this,” says the Buddha, “let no one dispute, for the expert do not say that purification (takes place) by that” (IV. 8. 7). Nevertheless, the Buddha acknowledges that philosophy can take one part of the way (IV. 8.11, V. 14.3), and appears to distinguish between understanding and “philosophical views” (IV. 9. 13). In antithesis to the view that philosophical knowledge is salvific the Buddha declares that the truly salvific thing is a state of inward peace and outward indifference. Only this state confers true wisdom and happiness, yet wisdom is also praised (IV. 16.15; V. 12. 1; V. 17. 13, 15, 17); “inward peace” itself is referred to as “truth” (dharma), and trans-rationalism or the trans-linguistic (V. 7.6-8). He also asserts that the sage does not reject anything (IV. 9.5) and is liberated by knowledge (V. 1. 51). Clearly, the relationship between knowledge and wisdom is subtle and complex.  This notion of the true sage being indifferent to formal learning or formal academic knowledge is strongly reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching.


sealgifBuddhism is not merely or even primarily a theory. The Buddha says that he understood the theory of emancipation prior to his enlightenment, but it was not until he understood the praxis of emancipation that he became enlightened and began to teach others. Therefore, it is of special interest to know what the Buddha said about meditation in the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas.

The Buddha advises his followers to “cultivate the mind of a recluse.” Instead of seeking salvation through philosophical argument, knowledge, virtue (ethics), or “holy works” (merit), the Buddhist should seek salvation through the cultivation of “inward peace” and tranquility, and the cultivation of an attitude of perfect tolerance, neither accepting nor rejecting anything. The Buddha identifies three types of consciousness that are not conducive to liberation, including “natural consciousness,” insanity, and unconsciousness, the latter being an error that is identified in later suttas as leading to rebirth in the Asanna satta, the realm of unconscious beings, just below the Five Pure Abodes, the place where non-returners and arhants with residue are reborn interestingly. Thus, the Buddha makes it clear that a type of superconsciousness, for lack of a better term, characterizes the attainment of nirvana, also referred to as the “cessation of consciousness,” but it is clear from the text that cessation of consciousness does not imply unconsciousness. Rather, it seems to refer to the absence of sensation (V. 14.7) of a “dispossessed mind” (V 16.26). Once again, we see the importance of collating all relevant texts to avoid misunderstandings. The Buddha advises his followers to be still, without desire; to be meditative; watching; and to sit down quietly. One is to “drive off the agitations of the mind” with an equanimous, calm, composed mind; thoughtful, with mind liberated; intent on a single object (concentrated).

The Buddha appears to equate meditation with “wishing for nothingness” or “having in view nothingness,” neither grasping nor rejecting anything. Interestingly, the Parayanavagga says that the knowledge of “heads and head-splitting” is only found in buddhas, the head being equated with ignorance and head splitting with the abolition of ignorance. Ignorance of course became the root of the interdependent origination in later texts: “Ignorance is the head, know this; knowledge cleaves the head, together with belief [faith], thoughtfulness [mindfulness], meditation [concentration], determination [resolution], and strength [energy]” (V. 1. 51). Clearly, therefore, the Buddha is making a distinction between philosophical argument and another sort of knowledge (“having been delivered in the highest deliverance by knowledge”), characterized as wisdom, and referred to as the Divine Eye (ajna chakra). A passage in V. 10. 4 seems to allude to the yogic doctrine that one stops breathing in advanced stages of meditation (jhana), which one also finds in Patanjali. The culmination of meditation is nibbana, the “extinction” of desire. Yet even the Buddha meditates, the text tells us, a fact reiterated in the later suttas.

Arhant and Bodhisattva

bodhisattvabudaarhatiluminacic3b3nsalvacic3b3nThe Atthaka and Parayana vaggas make a clear distinction between those who live in the cave, rather strikingly anticipating Plato’s parable of the cave (Fausböll equates the cave with the body) and those who have crossed the stream (gone to the other shore). This then is the fundamental soteriological project of Buddhism.

Those who have liberated themselves from “reiterated existences” (samsara, ‘rebirth’ but also time) are called muni (‘sage’), brahmana (‘knower of the Absolute or Ultimate Reality’), isi (‘seer,’ a Vedic rishi), and “men who have crossed to the other shore.”

The Buddha too is referred to as Muni, Brahmana, and Isi, but is also associated with a separate set of specialized terms, including Bhagavat (‘holy,’ ‘fortunate one’), Gotama (the reputed family name of the Buddha, meaning ‘one whose brilliance dispels darkness’), “kinsman of the Adiccas” (‘solar dynasty’), Buddha (‘awakened’), Sakka (‘able,’ the name of the Buddha’s clan), “the light-giving,” Sambuddha (‘omniscient’ or ‘self-enlightened’), “clearly-seeing” (“all-seeing one”),  “chief (naga) of the world,” “perfectly enlightened,” “first of men,” Jina (‘conqueror,’ ‘victor,’ a Jain term),  “bull of men,” Tathagata (‘he who has thus come and gone to that’), noble (‘naga’), “thou with the born eye (of wisdom),” as well as hero, divine, exemplary, supreme, and lord.

Brahmanas are reputed to be perfect buddhas (V. 15. 4) (alternatively, the Buddha declares himself a perfect brahmana; unlike the Brahman caste of the later suttas that are criticized for their worldliness, these brahmanas are holy men).[8] The  brahmana Bavari defers to the Buddha and refers his students (described as youthful) to the Buddha and recommends that they go to visit him (V.1. 23). Posala and Pingiya both become followers of the Buddha, despite being described as a brahmana and an isi respectively themselves. The venerable Pingiya says, “There is only one abiding dispelling darkness, that is the high-born, the luminous, Gotama of great understanding, Gotama of great wisdom” (V. 17. 13), thus affirming the primogeniture and singularity of the Buddha, who is self-enlightened, and credits the Buddha for teaching him, a rishi, the dharma (V. 17. 14; cf. V. 17).

The superiority of the Buddha is, therefore, implicit in these texts. Moreover, the texts also imply that the Buddha is referring back to an ancient tradition that underlies Brahmanism itself as a sort of “spiritual Brahmanism.” While the bhikkhu who succeeds in the Buddhist project is clearly emancipated from samsara, his attainment is distinguished from that of the Buddha, who is omniscient, all-seeing, chief of the world, perfectly enlightened, first of men, and supreme. Moreover, the texts refer to the Buddha’s having been reborn from the Tushita heaven, which is later identified in the Pali suttas with the place from which bodhisattvas are reborn. Thus, while we do not find the words “arhant” or “bodhisatva” in these texts, the same distinction that underlies these terms is clearly implied. There is therefore no evidentiary or necessary logical basis for the dogma that the distinction between the arhant and the bodhisattva is not original.

The Deathless

chinese-raft3The Buddha talks about crossing the stream and going to the other shore, but what does this mean? Is salvation only psychological, or is it also ontological? The Buddha raises this issue when he asks the question, putting it in the mouths of the greedy, “What will become of us, when we die away from here?” The Buddha’s answer is clear insofar as the wicked are concerned: desire for reiterated existence leads to rebirth in unfortunate states. But what of those who liberate themselves from sensual desire? What sort of future state do they experience? The Buddha makes it clear that salvation does not imply rebirth in any other world, because all worlds are subject to the same suffering. Therefore, the liberated muni (‘sage’) neither longs for rebirth nor is reborn in any state. Does this mean that they, not being reborn, cease to exist in any sense? Is the Buddha here teaching some sort of mystical nihilism? The muni is beyond designation, because they do not cling to any philosophical view. They are uncharacterizable, because they do not cling, neither accepting nor rejecting anything. “Having gone to the other shore, such a one does not return” (IV. 5. 8).

The Buddha says that “only the name (nama) remains undecayed of the person who has passed away” (IV. 6. 5). According to the PED, this nama is the immaterial aspect of namarupa, “name and form,” that constitutes the individual. Nama itself consists of four mental factors: vedana (‘feeling’), sanna (‘sensation’), sankhara (‘mental activity’ or thinking), and vinnana (‘consciousness’ or intuition), corresponding neatly to the four Jungian functions of the psyche.  Therefore, nama = psyche. The implication of this passage for the muni is obscure, however, because the muni is said to be nameless. The Buddha may simply be referring to the continuity of rebirth, in the context of the post-mortem survival of the human personality (cf. IV. 6. 4), or even ironically to the memory of one’s heirs and descendants, so this passage is ambiguous.

The Buddha says that the muni “does not enter time, being delivered from time” (IV. 10. 13; cf. 13. 17). He neither belongs to time, nor is he dead (IV. 13. 20). The Buddha also says that consciousness is an eternal truth (IV. 12. 9). This implies that consciousness itself persists in an eternal “now-state.” For the muni there is no death and no rebirth (IV. 13. 8).  He goes to the immortal [deathless] region (IV. 16. 6).[9] The ‘deathless’ is one of the main tropes of the Pali Canon, referred to by the Buddha frequently.

The Way of the Trans-dual

Whether the Buddha taught the doctrine of the trans-dual is one of the most hotly debated questions in Buddhist studies. Bhikku Bodhi commits Theravada to a dualistic view in his essay, “Dharma and Non-duality” (1998).[10] Therefore my defence of trans-dualism (not, note, nondualism; trans-dualism includes both nondualism and dualism, including the dualism of nondualism and dualism itself, with trans-dualism as the fourth point of the quaternary or “tetralemma”) in this context is bound to be controversial. However, I see no other context in which to interpret the transcendence of good and evil (IV. 4.3), the non-existence of “notions” or concepts such as equality, lowness, and distinction or equality and inequality (IV. 5.4, 9.9, 10.8, 13), “no desire for both ends” (i.e., extremes) (IV. 6), “single truths” (the context makes it clear that the Buddha is referring to mutually exclusive or contradictory statements, i.e., to the law of contradiction) (IV. 8.1), the binary character of dharma (11.7), “name and form” (namarupa) (11.11, V. 2.6, 12.5), “the truth is one, there is not a second” (IV. 12.7), the “double dhamma, truth and falsehood” (the implication being that the true dhamma is transcendent) (12.9), and ultimate (eternal) and relative truth (relative truth is dualistic, and eternal truth is trans-dual) (12.9), as well as numerous additional references in the later suttas. There is in fact only one eternal or absolute truth, mind or consciousness itself, which is trans-dual and inherently empty yet infinitely differentiating itself in samsara by means of the illusion of difference (= atta, self-identity or ego), driven by the ultimate kinetic principle (will or intention) expressed in the law of cause and effect (karma).

This is moreover the synthetic positon, reconciling all other views. It comes as no surprise to discover the theme of the trans-dual in the Atthakavagga and Parayana vaggas. The identification of realization with the trans-dual and the essential nothingness, emptiness, or voidness of all extremes is a universal feature of all wisdom traditions everywhere and therefore a part of the perennial philosophy (= the ancient tradition). If the lock is complex and the key fits, then the key is the truth. The doctrine of voidness (see below) also implies the trans-dual because it is empty yet all-inclusive (0 = 1, the primary binary in unity or the yabyum of existence, the cosmic egg).

Any paradox essentially indicates the trans-dual.

The World Is Void

The Buddha says that “the world is completely unsubstantial” (IV. 15. 3; “look upon the world as void” (V. 16. 4). The realization of the impermanent, insubstantial, illusory, ephemeral, and mirage-like nature of the world corresponds to the experience of the void, nothing, nowhere. Thus, the void, nothing, nowhere become designations of the ultimate nature of the world of samsara, the ground of which is reality itself.

The Planes of Existence

dda565ba7cf3ea3ab6826b1adde46660Samsara is represented by an equilateral cross with a central point (V.5.7, 6.8, 13.3). This symbol is a universal archetype, similar to the swastika, the Ethiopian cross, and the central symbol of the Rosicrucian Order, amongst others. The horizontal plane represents the ordinary world of three-dimensional extension,[11] which Buddhists and Taoists describe as the ten thousand worlds – the infinitely differentiated and differentiating order of stars, galaxies, and universes. The vertical vector or ray represents the extraordinary world of vertical extension, ranging from lowest frequency or vibration (the material or sensual polarity referred to as the kamaloka) to the highest (the spiritual polarity referred to as the arupaloka). The central point is the individual point of view, the mind stream, which is not a “self” but rather a trans-temporal sentient continuity that has no extension and therefore no self-identity yet is the root of differentiation itself, without which samsara itself is inexplicable.

The complete Buddhist cosmology of thirty-one planes of existence divided into various worlds and groups of worlds is not found in the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas. However, there are tantalizing references to other worlds, devas, Mara, and especially the Tushita heaven, the only world to be specifically named in these texts. The Tushita or “satisfied” world is four realms above the human world, third of the sensual realm and 23rd in the realm of samsara. The Tushita devas include the bodhisattvas, who according to tradition are born here prior to their final birth as a human being. It is intriguing that this specific world is the only one named in these texts and that the Buddha is specifically mentioned to have been reborn in the human world after having resided in the Tushita realm.

The Cosmic Buddha

the_victory_of_buddhaThe Buddha is referred to by a number of honorifics, including Muni (‘sage’), Bhagavat (‘holy’, a follower of Vishnu; the Hindus regard the Buddha as an avatar or emanation of Vishnu), Jina (‘Victorious, also a Jain term), supreme Buddha (‘awakened’), Gotama (‘the one who dispels darkness by brilliance,’ the reputed family name or clan name of the Buddha), samana (‘recluse’), kinsman of  the Adiccas (‘sun’), “the Isi (‘seer’ or  rishi, a direct allusion to the Vedic tradition) of exemplary conduct,” Sambuddha (‘one of clear or perfect knowledge’), Shakyan (‘able’, referring to the Buddha’s people), Tathagata (‘one who having come thus has gone to suchness’), master, teacher, bull of men, the man of excellent understanding, the all-seeing one, “hero free from lust,” “thou with the born eye (of wisdom),” “he who shows the past,” “a perfect, accomplished Brahmana,” and “this man who sees what is good.”

The Buddha himself is characterized as venerable, light-giving (luminous), perfectly enlightened, clear-sighted (clearly seeing), first of men, best of men, chief of the world, of great understanding (of excellent wise knowledge or great wisdom), “unyoked,” free from passion, “skilled in head-splitting” (i.e., dispelling ignorance, located in the head), accomplished, cultivated, houseless (homeless), free from commotion, “liberated, who leaves time behind,” doubtless, accomplished in all things, aware of past shapes, leaderless, “knowing all the faces of consciousness,” divine, famous, “darkness dispelling,” high-born, and free from harshness.

Thus, the Buddha is described as extremely wise or even omniscient; ecstatic; transcendent or god-like; virtuous or self-controlled; noble; and enlightened or luminous.

The Buddha is clearly distinguished from the “men who have crossed the stream” by a significant number of superlative qualities.

Beyond Good and Evil

The monastic should not desire extremes. The one who clings not abides in a state of “inward peace;” they do not grasp or reject anything. The brahmana does not cling to virtue or holy works, either to their presence or to their absence. They are not led by holy works. The dharmic sage does not prefer anything. They are indifferent and tolerant. The “philosophizers” call what they devote themselves to “good” (the irony is palpable). Fools make their own views the truth, therefore they hold others be fools (IV. 12. 5). Therefore the brahmana does not cling to virtue, holy works, merit, good, or evil (IV. 4. 3). He lets it all go. This view is the opposite of the view of the moralizer, and allows for moral ambiguity of the type that we see for example in the Angulimala Sutta, which was highly developed by the Tibetans.


Barring a major new discovery, the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas are as close as we can get to the actual utterance of the historical Buddha. At the same time, they are interpretations developed over the course of the first few decades after the Buddha’s death, presumably in all sincerity based on an oral transmission that there is no reason not to believe began soon after the parinibbana. Once we recognize that the true object of Buddhist studies is not the Buddha but the dharma, the historical problem becomes less significant since the person of the Buddha, himself merely one of a series if we believe the Pali Canon, becomes less significant. Contrast this with Christianity, for which the central fact of the resurrection assumes preëminent importance since without this magical act humanity is doomed to damnation. According to the vaggas, the Buddha encouraged independent inquiry, denied that anyone could save another, and referred all spiritual seekers to their own judgments. He rejects salvation by philosophical argument, ordinary knowledge, good works, merit, or others. The Buddha encouraged his followers to be tolerant and appreciate different points of view, for the dharma is transrational, translinquistc (see Norman, V.7.1076), and experientially and ultimately individual, though it can also be understood (being transdual) as a collective phenomenon too. Nonsectarianism and the rejection of fundamentalism both follow logically from these premises, and the Buddha strongly emphasizes the futility of dogmatism, philosophical debate, and argument. In later texts the Buddha is portrayed as one who seeks out common ground, is compassionate and concerned, and addresses the individuality of those who came to him for guidance. The dharma is not reducible to a formula. It is an active search for the meaning of the transcendental object translated into the four dimensions of human experience which are always changing. The dharma is a wheel that turns forever and cannot be stopped. Thus, today we might understand the omniscience of the Buddha as perfect metaphysical understanding through the actual experience of the clarity of enlightenment, whereas those of earlier ages had another understanding such as that of the Jains. The universe overall may be ultimately entropic, but the introduction of the transcendental object creates negentropic patterns and equations that also have the capacity to disseminate themselves across space and time. This is the definition of a “dharma age.”

The concurrence between the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas and the nikayas, which constitute the next stratum of development in the Rhys Davids/Law chronology, is remarkable, showing the care with which the originators of these texts assimilated earlier material. The development of the Pali Canon is not haphazard, accidental, or arbitrary, and we see many of the same tropes that we have identified in this talk repeated and expanded in subsequent suttas. From this perspective we may regard the Pali Canon itself as a continuous meditation on the original teachings of the Buddha. There also appear to be many similarities between these ideas and those of the legendary Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, a book that must be earlier than the earliest known text which has been dated to the late fourth century BCE. According to tradition these teachings go back to the sixth century BCE. Thus, even though the Buddha may or may not have been influenced by this text specifically, it is possible that he was influenced by the same pan-Himalayan wisdom centre[12] that the compilers of the Tao Te Ching drew on as well. In this context the speculation that the Buddha was of mixed Aryan-Mongol race, suggesting the possibility of a Mongol or even Chinese influence on Buddhism, is fascinating. Taoist tradition makes Laozi and the Buddha contemporaries, which need not be historically factual to allude to a symbolic truth.

The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas present a comprehensive worldview, including theories of knowledge, salvation, the nature of being, the universe, the Buddha, and ethics, remarkably similar to recent developments in modern philosophy and quantum physics, including the centrality of the act of observation (reality of consciousness), wave-particle duality (the trans-dual), and quantum entanglement (interdependent origination). The Buddha rejected sectarianism, dogmatism, and intolerance, affirmed the primacy of consciousness and the value of the human individual, saw the central problem of human beings as their ignorance of the nature of reality, and called upon us as individuals to wake up and to take personal responsibility for the implications of our thoughts, words, and actions; we must each save ourselves through radical realization. In particular, the Buddha articulated the mechanics of ethics – the Law of Karma – whereas Western philosophy has fallen into ethical nihilism in the wake of the “death of God.” The Buddha saw that religion, with its exoteric reliance on dogmas, rites, and rituals, completely fails to solve the human problem.

Unlike the poetic mysticism of the Tao Te Ching, with which the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas exhibit many other affinities, the Buddha expounds a rational spirituality that is articulate, profound, clear, and explicit yet leads beyond rationality and mysticism alike to the direct experiential realization of the Absolute. Against those who would like to eliminate rational inquiry altogether, the Buddha spent the last forty-five years of his life engaging in question and answer sessions with all those who came to him seeking answers. Not merely a mystic, he was also a philosopher and a political and ethical activist, though he disdained argument and debate and realized that reason leads beyond itself to something greater. Thus he criticized, realized, and transcended religion, both in his person and in his teachings.


[1] This is the Khaggavisanasutta, the famed Rhinoceros Sutra, which advocates the life of a homeless wanderer, “as a beast unbound in the forest goes feeding at pleasure,” free of emotional involvements.

[2] Not accepted as early by Rhys Davids or Law. Law put these works at #7 out of 10, more recent than the nikayas and even the Jatakas. Gombrich seems to place the composition of most of the nikayas in the mid-fourth century CE, about 55 years after the parinibbana. Rupert Gethin thinks that they are somewhat more recent. However, Gethin’s own statement that they are the product of the “first few generations” after the Buddha’ death places them no later than about 300 BCE. See

[3] The Atthakavagga also survives in Chinese translation as an independent work.

[4] For comparison, the Christian canonical period extends from 30 to 160 CE. This period includes many non-canonical texts as well, especially after 95 CE. Q, the original Christian scripture (reconstructed), is dated to 40–80 CE.

[5] See Wikipedia, Buddhist Modernism,, and Secular Buddhism, Some other cognate terms are secular Buddhism, agnostic Buddhism, “ignostic” Buddhism, atheistic Buddhism, pragmatic Buddhism, modern Theravada, progressive Theravada, original Buddhism, core Buddhism, mainstream Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, British Buddhism, and academic Buddhism.

[6] “On the 32 Marks,” Coincidentally, there are thirty-two base pairs that define the sixty-four codons of the human genetic code.

[7] Ignorance is also described as a shroud that covers the world in the Parayanavagga.

[8] Presumably these were orthodox Brahman recluses contemporary with the Buddha. Norman simply refers to them as “brahmans.”

[9] Gaccato amatam disam, lit. ‘goes to the ambrosial quarter.’ Pali amatam refers to amrita, a.k.a. soma, the psychedelic drink of the gods that confers deathlessness or immortality in Indian tradition, the recipe for which has been lost.

[10] “The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses.”

[11] The possibility that the universe that we experience is a three-dimensional projection of a two-dimensional diffraction pattern or hologram at the event horizon of a black hole is a serious theory of modern science.

[12] Centred on the sacred Kunlun Mountains in eastern Tibet. According to Tibetan tradition Bon came from Laozi.



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