Tag Archives: Pali Canon

The Pali Canon Phenomenon

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, January 7, 2017.

“Start with the universe.” Bucky Fuller

In this talk, I will be discussing the phenomenon of the Pali Canon, considered as a whole as distinct from any particular part of the Canon, ranging from introductory to advanced topics. This talk should be suitable for newcomers to Buddhism who are trying to get an overview of the subject matter as well as advanced students who are familiar with all or part of the Canon, either directly in translation, through anthologies such as Bhikku Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words, or by listening to my series of talks on the Pali Canon and/or the Digha Nikaya presented in Second Life at the Buddha Centre and here at Riverview.

daitangkinhThe Pali Canon is the term used to describe a set of texts published in Pali between 1871 and 1956. There are five editions of the Pali Canon extant, including the first Burmese Edition (1900, 38 vols.) Pali Text Society Edition (1877-1927, 57 volumes); Thai Edition (1925-1928, 45 vols.); the Sixth Buddhist Council Edition (1954-1956, 40 vols.); and the Sinhalese Edition (1957-1993, 58 vols.). The Sixth Buddhist Council Edition, called the Chattha Sangayana, is available online at www.tipitaka.org. Thanks to the efforts of the Pali Text Society and others, almost all of the Pali Canon is now available in English translations ranging from fair to good, both in print and online. A new, truly critical edition of the Pali Canon is in the early stages of preparation in Wat Phra Dhammakaya, north of Bangkok. When finished, it will supersede through incorporation all of the previous versions of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon will be truly restored to its theoretical singularity. But will that event constitute the manifestation of the ekayana – true, universal dharma? It was not lost on the redactors of the Sixth Buddhist Council Edition that their project would culminate in 1956, which according to their calendar marked the 2500th year of the Buddhist era. In fact, 2100 is closer to the year 2500 BE.

A modern critical edition of the Pali Canon did not exist prior to 1900, about 2,300 years after the death of the Siddattha Gotama, the Buddha. Nevertheless, very few if any scholars doubt the antiquity of the modern text, based on the demonstrable antiquity of the Pali language and comparative study of texts similar or identical to texts in the Pali Canon in other ancient canons, especially the Chinese canon, and other traditions, especially the Sarvastivadin tradition, an almost complete collection of which was discovered recently in Afghanistan. The Pali Canon is a text of the Sthavirivada school, from which the Theravada derives.  It is, therefore, a sectarian collection though it includes a substantial number of pre-sectarian texts too.

ihl078There is no reason to contest the traditional statement that the original Pali Canon was written down on palm leaves at the end of the first century before the common era, almost three hundred years after the death of the Buddha in 400 BCE. This latest consensus date came out of the Gottingen symposium, the results of which were published in The Dating of the Historical Buddha by the Gottingen Academy of Sciences in 1991 and 1992. Only the first two of a projected three volumes have been published. The range of dates for the death of the Buddha that is now increasingly given is between 410 and 370 BCE, supplanting the older date of 487 to 483 BECE, which in turn supplanted still older dates, going back to as far as 2420 BCE! This is a good thing for the Pali Canon. According to the Theravadin view, the Buddha died in 545 BCE and the Pali Canon was first written down in 29 BCE, 516 years after the death of the Buddha. The new date means that the Pali Canon may have been written down as early as 341 years after the death of the Buddha. This should increase our confidence in the veracity of the Canon by as much as a third.

ashokaThe interval between the death of the Buddha and the approximate final form of the Pali Canon may even be smaller than this. Many scholars accept the view that the Canon achieved its approximate final form prior to the reign of Ashoka, who is nowhere alluded to, which would put the Canon prior to Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism about 263 BCE, a mere 107 years after the death of the Buddha, just about the time of the Great Schism. For comparison, the Buddha predicted the future rise and fall of the city of Pataliputra (modern Patna) in the last year of his life, according to the Pali Canon. The Buddha’s prophecy refers to the rise of the Mauryan empire in 321 BCE. Barring actual prescience, these considerations broadly place the date of the Pali Canon between 321 BCE and 263 BCE, 49 to 147 years after the death of the Buddha. The Great Schism occurred during the Second Buddhist Council when the elder Sthaviras, the ancestors of the Theravadins, split off from the majority Mahasamghikas over a disagreement on Vinaya, about 100 to 110 years after the Buddha’s death. I am vastly oversimplifying because the Pali Canon is not a singular text but a collection of texts, some parts of which are certainly older and some parts of which are certainly more recent than the range of dates I have suggested.

It is clear from internal evidence that the Canon was edited, revised, and copied over hundreds of years. Thus, it is a heterogeneous cocktail of a text, riven by differences of details but characterized by a broad underlying uniformity, the product of a process of such intense intellectual energy that we can only infer. In the early days, changes or elucidations were probably made to clarify differences of doctrine, whereas as time passed the nature of the changes probably became more editorial in character. Thus, the Canon would have gradually congealed into stasis over time. The Canon itself indicates the conservatism and seriousness with which the task of preserving the dharma teachings was taken, as it still is today. To regard it as something that just “appeared” more or less spontaneously and effortlessly is surely a mistake. We must believe that there is a historical veracity at the core of the Canon. Nevertheless, while the Pali Canon can be said to derive from this core nothing in the Pali Canon can be simplistically identified with it. A range of interpretations is always possible. The best approach seems to be to keep an open mind.

The Pali Canon is an aggregate of texts, some earlier, and some later. Rhys Davids classified the chronology of the Pali Canon in approximate strata, in which the earliest identifiable texts of the Pali Canon are the Paranavagga and the Atthakavagga, the final two chapters of the Suttanipata. We find these texts in the Khuddaka Nikaya surprisingly, since the latter is generally associated with later matter. The third early text is the Pattimokkha, the rules of the sangha, although the Pali Canon alludes to a Pattimokkha of only 150 rules, compared with the 227 rules of the Pali Vinaya. This causes us to classify the Vinaya as a post-sutta text. The famous Rhinoceros or Khaggavisana Sutta, also in the Suttanipata, may be included here. These four texts, to which we can add the Five Precepts (Pansil), are as close as we can come to the words of the historical Buddha in the Pali Canon as it exists today.

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 Tavatimsa (‘thirty-three’) 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.

Yet even these texts cannot be identified with the historical person of Siddhattha Gotama. For one thing, the Buddha is already partly divinized. They are rather interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha by the immediate successors of those arhants that convened the First Buddhist Council under Mahakassapa. By definition, we do not know who was not present at that meeting, or whose potential contributions were forgotten. Ananda’s significant contribution was only saved by his attaining the state of arhantship on the night before the council was set to meet. I have discussed these documents in my talk, “The Oldest Buddhist Scripture.” Rather than get into dogmatic minutiae here, in this talk I want to discuss the general implications of these discoveries for our understanding of the Pali Canon and its place in the context of the Dharma Transmission to the West, the ekayana, and the whole Buddhist oeuvre, from a holistic perspective.

While on this topic of chronology I would like to address a common concern that one finds cropping up constantly in discussions of what Buddhism says and means, or should say and mean, and that is the statement that because a text is “later” than another text the later text can be disregarded. (This is precisely opposite of the Quranic precept that the later suras have greater and indeed definitive veracity, as we see with regard to the prohibition of alcohol for example.) This bias seems to be based on the notion that through the application of a reductive method one can ultimately identify a hypothesized “Q” text that is therefore identical with the actual historical teaching of Siddattha Gotama (this is also based on the hidden axiom that Buddhism is restricted by or to the historical teachings of Siddhattha Gotama). Thus, one goes from the non-essential to the essential by a process of purification. Unfortunately, no objective methodology on how to do this has been described and no new canon proposed based on the application of the method.

This historicist/reductionist/”academicist”/fundamentalist approach to the Pali Canon is really missing the point. Even if we were able to identify the exact words of the Buddha, and thus create a revised, “corrected” Canon, in which only historically reliable material appears – based on the assumption that the dharma itself is historical and nothing else – the twin problems of ‘meaning and praxis’ (dharma-vinaya) would not disappear. Even during the Buddha’s own lifetime, these problems intruded. Even if we were able to apply an absolutely rigorous method to this “Q” text to identify with certainty what each and every word of the historically corrected Pali Canon meant in the context of the meanings of the words in other, similar sentences and in the context of the Buddha’s cultural milieu, we cannot avoid the syntactic and semantic uniqueness of the sentences in which he used these words without denying the significance of the Buddhist project and we cannot identify what these sentences meant to the Buddha in his own interiority. We cannot identify the Buddha’s “authorial intent.” We can only know the Buddha’s mind through knowing our own Buddha mind.

Even so, such an analysis inevitably ignores what these sentences imply and what they might mean to us, both collectively and as individuals. Even in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is represented as giving different teachings and techniques to different individuals based on their personal needs and stages of spiritual development. Thus, to infer any perfectly consistent system from a historical reconstruction of the “original” teachings of the Buddha, himself merely one of many historically and samsarically contingent beings, is inherently paradoxical since the second half of the equation, the individual subjects themselves, are absent. Moreover, the axiom of impermanence (anicca), itself militates against any such possibility. As Kierkegaard notes, there is no repetition. While dharma itself may be supermundane, every samsaric expression of dharma is necessarily relative and contingent. There is no ultimate manifestation of dharma anywhere but there are expressions more or less perfect based on their completeness (it does not follow however that these are all equal). The fundamentalist project is at its root self-contradictory and thus invariably degenerates into religious fascism and ultimately nihilism, as we clearly saw in the person of Devadatta, who also wanted to impose a maximally rigorous “Buddhism.”

Not all of the Pali Canon purports to represent the ‘words of the Buddha’ (Buddhavacana). It is clear from the compilation of the Canon that the “canonicity” of the Canon does not inhere only in its being identical with the words of Siddattha Gotama. There are also suttas and poems uttered by others, rules, formulas, precepts, catechisms, summaries, stories, commentaries, analyses, histories, and the expositions of the the Abhidhamma, the third major section of the Pali Canon, which codifies the suttas and was supposed to have been taught by the Buddha to his mother in Tavatimsa, the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods.

The Buddha was not mainly or even at all concerned with his own person. The goal of his renunciation was not personal; it was universal. His purpose in leaving home was very specific, and it only had to do with Siddhattha insofar as he was one of many. His purpose was to discover the dharma or reason underlying the universal suffering of living and sentient beings and its cure. The Buddha had already clarified that this is what he wanted to do himself to some extent. It is in the course of this quest or search that Siddhattha Gotama discovers the praxis and thus became a Buddha. It is the praxis, not the theory, which made Siddhattha a Buddha. Theory also precedes praxis.

Thus, our concern in trying to identify the words of the Buddha, insofar as we can do that, is not to find out about the Buddha himself but to find out about the dharma that he sought, the most generalized meaning or interpretation of which is “natural law” or simply “truth,” especially the First Noble Truth of Suffering, and the praxis. These are not two things but one thing, since wisdom implies praxis and praxis implies wisdom. Thus, the Buddha said that we should make the dharma, not the Buddha or the sangha, our refuge and our teacher, and reason and experience our criteria of evaluation, not teachers or texts, including, presumably, the Buddha and Pali Canon. The Buddha deemphasized himself, and said that he was merely one of a series (the lineage of Buddhas) and part of a group (the sangha). This does not, however, negate the fact of the Buddha’s primogeniture. This ontological fact alone proves that the path that leads to Buddhahood, the path of the bodhisattva so-called, is not the same as the path that leads to arhantship, the path of the sravaka so-called, regardless what another text may or may not say. However, it is clear from the Pali Canon that the fundamental difference between Buddhas and arhants was recognized in the earliest texts.

 The main part of the Pali Canon that quotes the Buddha or his close disciples includes the suttas or “discourses” of the Digha NIkaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, and Khuddaka Nikaya. In the Khuddaka Nikaya, only the Khuddakapatha (five suttas), Itivuttaka (112 suttas), and Suttanipata (71 suttas) include actual suttas. Thus, there are approximately 5,572 suttas in total.

Digha Nikaya: 34 suttas (521 pages)

Majjhima Nikaya: 152 suttas (1,151 pages)

Samyutta Nikaya: 2,889 (1,888 pages)

Anguttara Nikaya: 2,308 (1,588 pages)

Khuddakapatha: 188

Vinaya: 1 (1,214 pages)

buddhateaching1The suttas vary greatly in length, from 1,214 pages to one and a half pages. In English translation, they may be about 6,644 pages in total. This is about 3,322,000 words. As a lecturer, I use a rule of thumb of about 5,000 words per hour. Thus, all of the texts of the Pali Canon attributed to the Buddha, disregarding duplications of material, represents about 664 hours of speech. Since we know that the Buddha taught for forty-five years, we can say that the Pali Canon presents about fifteen hours of speech for each year that the Buddha taught – less than twenty minutes per week. Yet the Pali Canon itself represents the Buddha as engaged in almost continuous dialogue with visitors and Buddhist monastics on a wide variety of topics as well as a legislator of Vinaya. (Interestingly, Bucky Fuller said that he could summarize the essential meaning of his life’s work is just about fifteen hours.) It is obvious that the Pali Canon itself is only a small fraction of what the Buddha himself must have actually said. The Pali Canon says even less about praxis. Many practices are referred but not explained, let alone described. This may indicate that the redactors of the Pali Canon were forgetting the practices or perhaps these were considered too sacrosanct to commit to writing. The Buddha alludes to something similar, when he says that the wisdom of the Buddha, “vast as the leaves of simsapa trees in a simsapa forest,” vastly exceeds what he actually says. Elsewhere the Buddha is presented as being reluctant to discuss speculative matters, warning his followers against becoming mere intellectuals and debaters, while emphasizing the preeminent importance of wisdom and meditation. The Pali Canon also represents the Buddha as hesitating to teach the dharma for fear he would not be understood.

This view of “lateness” derives from the Buddhist identification of time with entropy, which is identical with the axiom of anicca or impermanence. Thus, everything decays into its elements and loses its identity over time.  “Even the dharma will be forgotten” is a familiar refrain in the Pali Canon.  From this fear, the fundamentalist gains his motivation. Preserving the dharma from its own demise becomes a sort of bodhicitta. However, even in the context of the Buddhist worldview this axiom is inadequate because it is incomplete. Time is both entropic and negentropic. There is devolution but there is also evolution. Living systems demonstrate this and so do information systems. As Bucky Fuller famously observed, information systems grow and expand, like a brain. As long as there is memory, there is progress. Thus, it is as absurd to say that a later school is ipso facto degenerate and therefore false due to the passage of time, even if not a single sentence of the teachings of that school is identical with a sentence spoken by the historical Siddhattha Gotama, as it is to say that the history of Western philosophy has no meaning or value in relation to the pre-Socratics or that quantum physics is inferior to Einsteinian relativity, which is inferior to Newtonian physics, etc. This is an extreme view that turns out upon analysis to be incorrect. Thus, the fundamentalist project is false in its essence. In the Pali Canon, we read that the dharma wheel cannot be stopped and that it never stops rolling. However, in such a kinetic system it is clear that the older schools will be the ones most likely to become corrupted, whereas the newer schools will represent a mixture of error and insight, devolution and evolution, depending on their conditions. Thus, the quality of the manifestations of dharma changes over time as a function of changing conditions.

We cannot infer anything evidential from the non-appearance of a doctrine or concept in the earliest versus the later texts simply because the survival or non-survival of the early texts is certainly fortuitous and therefore arbitrary. We can assume I think that a significant number of early texts were incorporated into later texts of the corpus, and there is evidence in the Pali Canon of suttas being spliced into other suttas. Thus, old wine may appear in new bottles! Nor can we assume that the Pali Canon corpus itself is complete and therefore exclusive for the reasons already stated. While we might infer some meaning from the presence of a doctrine in the earliest texts of the Pali Canon – there is a functional difference between the foundation and the attic of a house – no negative connotation can be inferred concerning the truth or falsehood of a later doctrine or text, any more than any “implication” can be stated to be inferior to an “axiom.” Axioms and implications have the same relationship to each other as causes and effects. For this reason when the Buddha refers to testing a new text or doctrine by reference to the established corpus he does not mean that it must be identical but rather that it must be continuous. Any other interpretation violates the axiom of impermanence (anicca).

The Buddha repeatedly implies that the application of reason to problems of religion can arrive at true conclusions “on the basis of truth,” even though he admitted that ultimate meaning and emancipation itself are beyond verbalization, linguistic categories, and rationality itself. Thus the Buddha discouraged empty speculation and cautioned his followers against dogmatism and sectarianism, referring each one to the authority of their own conscience, since enlightenment, like death, is experienced by and for oneself alone. The fruits of enlightenment may be shared but in itself, it is not a collective phenomenon. It is however false to infer from this fact that wisdom is unimportant and that all that matters is practice, since the Buddha emphasized the salvific primacy of wisdom both in his statements and in his behavior, where he spent the better part of forty-five years teaching and instructing others.

Praxis without wisdom is unintelligible (as is wisdom without praxis). The Buddha made no distinction between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, rich and poor, lay and monastic, and men and women, instructing everyone who came to him openly and without prejudice, giving to each one what they needed at that time to take the next step in their spiritual progress. It is only later after the Buddha’s death that the predominantly male monastics began to make and enforce such discriminations. After the Buddha’s death, his successors established an increasingly dogmatic, authoritarian, and hierarchical system that included systemic discrimination against women, dogmatic disputatiousness, and arguments about the practice and enforcement of the rules, culminating in the Great Schism of the Second Buddhist Council, about a hundred years later. This was followed by the disintegration into the Eighteen Schools, including disputes focused especially on the spiritual perfection and infallibility of arhants in relation to the Buddha.

Many scholars seem willing to accept the texts cited plus the Four Great Nikayas (Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara, Samyutta) as the foundation of “mainstream Buddhism,” but even these texts demonstrate a significant ideological development as well as internal doctrinal differences, especially in the matter of the spiritual status of men and women, which I have discussed at length in another talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.” Those who advocate the notion that later texts are necessarily and inherently corrupt fail to consider that development may also imply an original potential implication that may very well originate in the person of the Buddha himself, just as a tree originates in an original and originating “seed,” even if the appearance of the mature form differs greatly from the germ, yet who says that the tree is not implicit in the seed or inferior to the seed or, even more absurdly, not the seed?

To take just one example, the Pali Canon includes a collection of Jatakas or “birth histories” attributed to the Buddha. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha remembered many if not all of his past lives during his enlightenment experience, and throughout the course of his subsequent life, he would identify people, places, and events in his present life as Siddhattha Gotama with people, places, and events that he remembered from past lives. The Jatakas are generally dated to the fourth century BCE. Scholars recognize that many of the stories in the Jatakas come from other languages and media, including vernacular oral traditions that predate the Pali compositions and are also found in Hinduism. Therefore, many academic Buddhologists and “modern” religionists might be inclined to reject the doctrine of rebirth itself based on the historical implausibility of the Jataka tales, but does this inference follow logically from the premise? The fact that the conservative redactors of the Pali Canon included the Jatakas in the Pali Canon, along with many accounts of supernatural powers, characters, and events in the suttas, are also relevant facts.  Similar considerations apply to the Mahayana literature. Questions of history and questions of meaning and value are not coterminous.

1Another example: psychic powers. We need not believe that the Buddha actually levitated, teleported, and bilocated to accept that the Buddha demonstrated psychic powers on occasion, along with the vast host of other holy beings, both human and non-human, yet the evidence for the reality of some sort of psychic power is growing, and such powers as well as profound and powerfully transformative charisma and wisdom are commonly attributed to and demonstrated by so-called exceptional individuals throughout the human experience. This is the universal testimony of human history and Buddhism is not an exception to this. This is not surprising since the Buddha did not claim any originality for himself.

A fascinating aspect of this association is the UFO phenomenon, wherein many of these powers are experienced both in the UFO contact experience itself and in its aftermath. The UFO phenomenon is fully evident in the Pali Canon (I have discussed this connection at length in “Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon“), in accord with the historical hypothesis of Jacques Vallee in his book, Passport to Magonia. In view of the demonstrated physicality of at least some UFO appearances, we should not arbitrarily reject the possibility of such powers, although the Buddha himself said that the development of such powers is not the main point of his teachings.  Psychic powers and the UFO phenomenon itself also manifest in the context of the psychedelic experience and visionary phenomena, which are attested to in the Pali Canon.

One of the advantages of the Pali texts in relation to the founding texts of Christianity is the sheer abundance of material – 300 pages or so of primary Christian scripture compared with about forty volumes of material in the Pali tradition. Moreover, the Pali material is highly repetitive. One may hypothesize in such a situation that the tropes of the original and originating Buddhist texts were extensive and significant enough to (a) be preserved and (b) generate complex associations of meaning that led to meaningful implications that can then be refined by applying logical criteria to the. Quite simply, we know a lot more about Shakespeare because he wrote 37 plays than we would know if he only wrote {pick any single play at random}. The project is then to identify the large tropes in the Canon, collate them with each other, and submit them to criticism, to arrive at the truth of dharma.

This is precisely contrary to the fundamentalist project that tries to reduce the Pali Canon to a hypothesized set of original sentences, denies the value or legitimacy of any sentences outside that set or that any unstated implications do or could exist. and identifies through intensive comparative analysis the meanings and connotations of the words and sentences as they were spoken by the Buddha in a given semantic context, approximating as far as possible to “authorial intent.”  That such a project is impossible in principle is proved by the axiom of impermanence (anicca). There are no “permanent truths.” The truth is the middle way between dogmatic fundamentalist extremism on the one hand and subjectivism on the other. Mahayana and Hinayana need and correct each other. Without Mahayana Hinayana degenerates into arid literalism, whereas without Hinayana Mahayana degenerates into a flight of fantasy.  The ekayana and the Dharma Transmission to the West include them both. We find this point of view most highly developed in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Chan, and esoteric Buddhism, and least developed in the Theravada sect, whose orthodox adherents still uphold the view, now thoroughly discredited, that the Pali Canon represents the verbatim utterance of the Buddha, in the language spoken by the Buddha, recalled by the photographic memory of Ananda, and handed down for several hundred years by a perfect or nearly perfect process of group recitation till it was written down on palm leaves and meticulously preserved for 1900 years and finally printed in Burma. The scorpion of self-purification has arisen in the heart of Theravada Buddhism in the form of so-called progressive or “modern” Theravada. It ends in historical nihilism, whereas the sutras state that after 2,500 years in the new age now dawning the dharma of the future will be personal, intimate, and esoteric.


  1. The Pali Canon is a sectarian collection of sectarian and pre-sectarian texts, indiscriminately worked and reworked over centuries to form a composite textual aggregate.
  2. The core suttas of the Pali Canon were probably established by the mid-third century BCE, approximately a century and half after the death of the Buddha circa 400 BCE.
  3. The early and later Buddhist texts represent a complementary process of preserving and clarifying the original teachings of Siddattha Gotama, in the context of the universal dharma that he sought in relation to his special concern: the problem of universal suffering and its cure.
  4. The Pali Canon only represents a fraction of what the Buddha said, and what the Buddha said only represents a fraction of the dharma. The original teachings of Siddhattha Gotama and the dharma are not conterminous or coextensive.
  5. Dharma can only be ultimately understood by each individual for themselves through the exercise of reason and experience.
  6. Devolution and development in time co-occur. The dharma itself is unconditional and omni-evolutionary, yet its samsaric manifestations appear, develop, decay, and disappear and are always subject to error, flux, and change.
  7. Every expression of dharma is conditional and relative to what each individual needs at that moment. Universal dharma can only be inferred from this by a process of collation and abstraction and can never be perfectly arrived at. Largely it is intuitive and symbolic and ultimately transrational. Dharma is multivalent and is capable of multiple forms and interpretations without contradiction.
  8. Fundamentalism, organizationalism and authoritarianism all contradict the axiom of impermanence (anicca), since there are no permanent forms, and are thus adharmic. They are all contrary to authentic spiritual progress and are decadent, corrupt, reactionary, devolutionary, and   After 2500 years all historical Buddhist schools are more or less in the same boat. The whole system is stagnant. This is the mappo.
  9. What is needed is a radical comprehensive reformation. This is the Dharma Transmission to the West.
  10. Potentially all non-self-contradictory tropes in the Pali Canon are ultimately relatable to an original and originating trope. The task is to identify the recurrent patterns and recognizing them as deriving from an original axiom, essentially expressed, identifying their implications and ultimately their praxis.
  11. “Original Buddhism” is the set of primary axioms.
  12. The complete set of primary axioms must explicate all subsequent implications.
  13. Tropes that contradict the known prejudices of the conservative male monastic organizationalists who compiled the Pali Canon may have been too well known and too entrenched to be expurgated, like similar passages in the Christian New Testament, thus highlighting their interest and integrity. Anything that contradicts the status quo is unlikely to have been invented.
  14. The Buddahvacana includes dharma teachings not spoken by the Buddha. Thus, the denial of canonicity to Mahayana sutras is inconsistent. The latter may represent symbolic and visionary expressions of authentic implications of the axioms of the dharma and thus constitute authentic dharma realizations without being historically factual or spoken by the Buddha at all. Because dharma is unconditional potentiality the continuity of authentic dharma traditions, lineages, canons, sutras, and termas is infinitely extensive and diverse. Dharma is an open, not a closed, system.
  15. Spiritual development and enlightenment imply the experience of altered states of consciousness, visionary states, meditative states, dream states, radical metaphysical and philosophical intuitions and insights, powerful affective states, and influential charismatic states, similar to all other spiritual practices and traditions. Buddhism is continuous with Aryan/Indian tradition and exists in the universal context of shamanism and the perennial philosophy, the prehistorical ground of human spirituality.
  16. By collating all Buddhist expressions and resolving their complexities and contradictions into a coherent system of axiomatic generalizations one arrives at dharma. This is the hermeneutical method of the ekayana. This is the project of the Dharma Transmisison to the West, which will achieve its apotheosis on all planes in the historical manifestation of Shambhala, the dharma society of the future.

Ratthapala Sutta (MN 82)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, December 6, 2015.

About Ratthapala

Majjhima Nikaya 82

24_DevGogoi_60994_LizJ-Guruvayur.jpgReputedly descended from the quasi-mystical land of Uttarakuru, the Buddha is wandering with a large number of monastics in Kuru, in the northwest area of the mahajanapanas, when he arrives at the town of Thullakotthita.

Ratthapala, described as a young man, belonged to the dominant clan, the only son of a wealthy family, when he formulated the intention to become a monastic, so he visits the Buddha with a group of brahman householders. After the Buddha gives them a dharma talk, he stays behind and asks the Buddha for ordination.

The Buddha asks Ratthapala if he has his parents permission to join the sangha. Since it was Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, who had asked the Buddha to institute this rule, this dates this sutta to after Suddhodana’s death, which occurred when the Buddha was about 40 years old. However, Ratthapala’s parents would not give their consent, as he was their only son and they feared that, being raised in privilege, he would not be able to adjust to the life of a renunciate.

Ratthapala is so distraught that he lies down on the floor and declares that he would die there rather than not join the sangha. His parents call on Ratthapala’s friends to encourage him to get up and enjoy the householder life, including making merit. The Thai edition of the Pali Canon states that Ratthapala fasted for seven days (otherwise the sutta simply states that Ratthapala is weak when he finally gets up). However, Ratthapala would not be prevailed upon, so his friends encourage his parents to allow him to go forth with the argument that they would still be able to see him from time to time and, if he does not enjoy the monastic life, he would return to them. So his parents relent on the condition that he visit them from time to time.

Ratthapala goes to the Buddha and informs him that he has his parents’ permission. The Buddha gives him full ordination. Later the Buddha proclaims Ratthapala to be the foremost of those gone forth in faith.

Subsequently the Buddha wanders on to Savatthi (Shravasti), the capital of Kosala, where he stays in Jeta’s Grove in Anathapindika’s Park. Meanwhile Ratthapala works on himself in seclusion and attains arhantship. Bodhi notes that, whereas the text says that this occurred “before long,” the commentary states that it took twelve years, whereupon he resolves to visit his parents as agreed. The Buddha having given his permission, Ratthapala returns to Thullakotthita, staying in King Moravya’s Migacira Garden. Going on alms round, he comes to his father’s house.

However, he is not welcome at his father’s house, since his father blames the sangha for losing his son. Clearly the Buddha was not popular everywhere or with everyone. It is not quite clear whether this abuse was at the hands of his father, who, the text points out, only saw him “in the distance” while he was having his hair done, in the hall of the central door, but when Ratthapala asks a slave woman to give him some porridge that she was about to throw away, she recognized him. She told this to Ratthapala’s mother, who freed the slave woman from her bondage out of gratitude, who tells Ratthapala’s father. Meanwhile Ratthapala is eating the porridge beside a shelter, showing that monastics also wandered solitary and took the alms for themselves, and even asked for alms in certain circumstances. Ratthapala’s father goes to him. Contrary to Bodhi’s assertion, he seems to have no problem recognizing him, but is rather overcome by emotion and invites him to eat the porridge in his own house. Ratthapala, however, refuses, declaring this his meal for the day is done but he agrees to come the next day for his daily meal.

Ratthapala’s father then hatches a plan, and calls upon Ratthapala’s wives to attire themselves in their finery. He also makes a large heap of gold coins and bullion and covers it with mats (a rather strange image, the Thai edition says that the money is concealed by a screen rather than by a mat). Finally, he prepares a meal of good food of various kinds. Next morning, he calls upon Ratthapala to come. When Ratthapala comes, his father offers him the gold – his maternal, paternal, and ancestral fortunes – and entreats him to return to the home life. Ratthapala, however, advises his father to dump the gold in the Ganges since it will bring him nothing but suffering.

His wives then ask Ratthapala what the nymphs are like for whose sake the monastics lead the life of renunciation. This is a theme that comes up elsewhere in the Pali Canon, where the Buddha seduces a householder into the monastic life with the promise that he will encounter nymphs more beautiful than any woman, presumably reflecting a view of the time concerning deva women, perhaps the goal of some samanas, but Ratthapala tells them that this is not the goal of the Buddha’s monastics. Ratthapala refers to his wives as “sisters,” and they faint from shock or surprise. Ratthapala becomes impatient, and asks his father to stop harassing him but to give him his daily meal he promised. His father serves him with his own hands. To a modern reader Ratthapala comes across as quite stern and abrupt, even rude. After eating, Ratthapala spontaneously composes and recites a poem in which he compares his wives to puppets, describing their bodies as as sick, filthy, and covered with sores, and skeletons in fine attire. Since the skin is an excretory organ, this description is literally correct. He concludes:

The deer-hunter set out the snare
But the deer did not spring the trap;
We ate the bait and now depart
Leaving the hunters to lament.

Whereupon he returns to King Koravya’s Magacira garden to spend the day in meditation at the foot of a tree, where he is seen by the King’s gamekeeper, who tells the king. The king goes to pay his respects, along with his most eminent officials. He brings an elephant rug for Ratthapala to sit on, but he disdains to do so.

The king observes that there are four reasons why many people undertake the monastic life, including ageing, sickness, loss of wealth, and loss of relatives, but it seems that Ratthapala has not experienced any of these kinds of loss. Therefore, the king asks Ratthapala why he has undertaken the monastic life?

Ratthapala’s response is a fourfold summary of the dharma:

  1. “Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away.”
  2. “Life in any world has no shelter and no protector.”
  3. “Life in any world has nothing of its own; one has to leave all and pass on.”
  4. “Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving.”

Note Ratthapala’s rejection of “any world.” The goal of Buddhism is not rebirth in a higher world or a mythical heaven, but rather the transcendence of the whole world system of samsara altogether.

The first principle relates to the doctrine of impermanence or change, one of the three characteristics of the world. The second principle refers to the absence of any redemptive principle, whether a God or otherwise. Rather, one’s karma is one’s own and must be born by oneself alone. The third principle refers to the ubiquity of death, which is really another aspect of impermanence. At death, everything is abandoned. There is no continuity of property or possessions. The fourth principle refers to craving, which means that one is never satisfied and always  seeking more than one has, in a vicious round (since everything is impermanent) that leads to unhappiness.

Finally, Ratthapala reasserts what I have repeatedly called attention to in this series of talks, the centrality of wisdom as the essential salvific principle:

Better is wisdom here than any wealth,
Since by wisdom one gains the final goal.

Finally, he reiterates that karma follows one from life to life, perpetuating suffering.

Mahasakuludayi Sutta (MN 77)

The Great Discourse to Sakuludayin

Majjhima Nikaya 77

Walking BuddhaThe location of this sutta is the Squirrel’s Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove, located in or near Rajagaha (modern Rajgir) in Magadha.

The Buddha is frequently portrayed in the Pali suttas as an early bird, waking up too early to go on alms round, as is the case here. Therefore, he goes to the Peacocks’ Sanctuary. Here a number of well-known wanderers were staying, including Sakuludayin. The Buddha addresses Sakuludayin as Udayin, which name I will use henceforth. Here we encounter another familiar motif of the wanderer surrounded by a noisy group of wanderers, discussing and debating with each other in the early morning hours (e.g., see sutta 76). This must have been a common occurrence in 5th cent. BCE n.e. India, and appears to have been imitated in the Tibetan monastic schools, where formal debates were used as a pedagogical device. At the Buddha’s approach, Udayin shushes the crowd of wanderers.

Udayin welcomes the Buddha, and deferentially sits beside him on a low stool, whereupon the Buddha asks what the topic of discussion was that he has interrupted. Deferring the Buddha’s question, Udayin asks a question of his own. We have seen this familiar trope in other suttas too.

Makkhali Gosala - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - Opera_2015-11-15_12-09-15Udayin tells the Buddha that they were discussing the leaders of the sects of the time, including Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Keskambali, Pakudha Kaccayana, Sanjaya Belatthiputta, Nigantha Nataputta (Mahavira), and Gotama himself, asking the question, who is honoured, respected, revered, and venerated by his disciples? How many live in dependence on him? On the contrary, all of these sects are notorious for dissension, except that of Gotama.

We recognize in these names the major sectarian philosophies of the Buddha’s time: amoralism, fatalism, materialism, eternalism, agnosticism, restraint (Jainism), and Buddhism respectively.

The Buddha then asks Udayin to name five qualities for which the Buddha is honoured and respected. The Buddha clearly enjoys setting these sorts of didactic traps, in which he undermines his interlocutor’s assumptions by asking apparently innocuous but probing questions. Udayin names:

  1. Moderate eating;
  2. Indifference as to quality of robe;
  3. Indifference as to quality of food;
  4. Indifference as to home;
  5. Seclusion.

All of these are essentially ethical precepts. However, the Buddha says that they are all untrue and gives examples to prove it. Thus, the Buddha sometimes eats the full contents on his alms bowl or even more; he wears fine robes; he accepts invitations to eat fine foods; he lives in gabled mansions; and he is surrounded by an entourage, both monastic and sectarian, both male and female. This self-description is consistent with many passages we find in the Pali Canon, which in a future work I will be collecting into groups with similar implications as a basis for understanding the Pali Canon. The Buddha did not lead an ascetic lifestyle. He freely admits in this passage that there are many monastics who live more ascetic lives than he does. I am reminded of the Buddha’s derisive description of all of the ethical precepts and practices in the Brahmajala Sutta, the first sutta of the Sutta Pitaka. Rather, the Buddha says, than honouring and respecting him for such qualities, Udayin should praise him for the higher virtues, knowledge and vision, the higher wisdom, the Four Noble Truths, and the Way to Develop Wholesome States. The difference between these qualities and the former ones is clear. The five qualities for which Udayin would praise the Buddha are clearly external, superficial, mechanical observances of the same sort that the Buddha criticizes in other suttas. The qualities for which he should be truly praised are, on the contrary, internal, profound, and mindful. Similarly, elsewhere the Buddha states that the Three Higher Trainings supersede the Vinaya. In addition, in the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha says that the Tathagata should be praised for his wisdom, not for his practice of morality.

Thus, the Buddha declares that he possesses the supreme aggregates of virtue and wisdom; direct knowledge, or gnosis; the truths concerning suffering or angst; and the way to develop wholesome states, consisting of mindfulness; striving; spiritual power; transcendence; the kasinas; the spiritual faculties; the powers; the factors of enlightenment; the path; the liberations; the jhanas, or ecstasies; insight; the mental body; paranormal powers; clairaudience; telepathy; memory of past lives; clairvoyance; and finally the destruction of the taints, the latter synonymous with emancipation. These nineteen components of the Way to Develop Wholesome States constitute a classification of the Buddhist path, more extensive than the Noble Eightfold Path, wherein the NEP is merely one Part. The nineteen components each seem to be independently capable of leading to consummate and perfect gnosis, since each one ends with a repetition of the statement that “thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge.” At the same time, we must admit that the sequence of components represents a kind of development leading to emancipation. We have encountered most of the components of this way to develop wholesome states in previous suttas, especially the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Jhanas, the recollection of past lives, and the destruction of the taints.  I’m assuming that by this point I don’t need to explain any of these. However, I would like to discuss the Ten Kasinas, since I believe this is the first sutta in which these have come up as a topic.

I have mentioned before how the Pali Canon really just glosses the Buddhadharma. This is especially true of the practice or exercises, which are often just alluded to. The Ten Kasinas are no exception. The Buddha simply refers to contemplating the earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, space, and consciousness kasinas, which are contemplated “above, below and across, undivided and immeasurable.” The word “kasina” means “whole, entire.”

The kasinas seem to represent ten cosmic elements of being – four elements, four colours, space, consciousness; above, below, undivided, and immeasurable. By contemplating progressively more elemental and subtle states of being, the “vibration” level or “frequency,” for lack of a better word, of one’s consciousness state adjusts to that level. Thus, one is able to induce progressively subtle levels of meditation by means of the kasina meditation, which also develops the mental power of concentration or will. Like the Four Roads to Power, which appear in this list as the Four Bases of Spiritual Power, consisting of zeal, energy, mind, investigation, the kasina meditation has a tantric flavour inasmuch as it emphasizes visualization and concentration much like some, admittedly more complex, later tantric practices associated with mandalas. The kasinas seem to be similar to the tattvas of Hindu Tantric tradition, which also entered the Western esoteric tradition through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Thus, it is widely regarded with some suspicion as “edgy” or potentially dangerous, even though it was clearly recommended by the Buddha (see, for example, Ajahn Sudhiro, “Benefits and Dangers of Kasina Meditation”; Bhavana Society of West Virginia, “The Dangers of Kasina Meditation” on YouTube).

The kasina system of meditation is described in the Visuddhimagga, written by Buddhaghosa about 830 years after the Buddha’s passing on (parinibbana). All that the sutta says is that “one contemplates the … kasina above, below and across, undivided and immeasurable. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the perfection and consummation of direct knowledge.” The method as taught today in the Theravada tradition involves focusing the attention on a representation of the element, such as a clay disk for earth. Over time one develops an eidetic image in the mind, which then becomes the object of concentration. This is similar to how an unnamed monastic visited the deva realms in sutta 11 of the Digha Nikaya. This requires great mental concentration as well as involving the visualization faculty of the brain, which we now know stimulates the right or latent hemisphere of the brain, associated with mystical experiences. We know that the brain processes images very differently from verbal or textual information, which encode information much more efficiently than text. This is how ancient and medieval memory systems worked, called the method of loci or memory or mind palace. Visualization is one of the core techniques of Tantra too.

The Way to Develop Wholesome States

Four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, mind-objects. Discussed in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta.

The Four Right Kinds of Striving: non-arising of unarisen evil states, abandoning of arisen evil states, arising of unarisen wholesome states, continuance of arisen wholesome states.

Four Bases for Spiritual Power:  zeal, energy, purity of mind, investigation. These are identical with the Four Roads to Power that appear in several suttas in the Digha Nikaya.

The Five Faculties: faith, energy, concentration, wisdom.

The Five Powers: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom. Note that the Five Powers consist of the Five Faculties plus mindfulness or attention.

The Seven Enlightenment Factors: mindfulness, investigation of states, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration, equanimity.

The Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Eight Liberations: (1) Possessed of material form, one sees forms; (2) Not perceiving forms internally, one sees forms externally; (3) One is resolved only upon the beautiful; (4) Space is infinite; (5) Consciousness is infinite; (6) There is nothing; (7) the base of neither perception nor non-perception; (8) cessation of perception and feeling. Note the similarity of the Eight Liberations to the Eight Jhanas.

The Eight Bases for Transcendence:  (2) Perceiving form internally, one sees formally externally, limited; (2) Perceiving form internally, one sees formally externally, immeasurable; (3) Not perceiving forms internally, one sees forms externally, limited; (4) Not perceiving forms internally, one sees forms externally, immeasurable; (5) Not perceiving forms internally, one sees forms externally, blue; (6) Not perceiving forms internally, one sees forms externally, yellow; (7) … red; (8) … white. Note the similarity of the reference to blue, yellow, red, and white corresponds to the fifth through the eight kasinas that follow.

The Ten Kasinas: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, space, consciousness. Compare the Hindu tattvas – spirit, air, fire, water, earth, represented by a black oval, blue circle, red triangle, white moon, and yellow square respectively.

The Four Jhanas: seclusion, concentration, rapture, pure bright mind. Note the similarity of the typification of the fourth jhana as “pure bright mind” to the Buddha nature or clear light doctrines. This association of the fourth jhana with pure bright mind is not found in the Digha Nikaya, where the fourth jhana is simply associated with equanimity and mindfulness.

Insight Knowledge: The meaning seems to be that the four great elements are represented by blue, yellow, red, and white threads, like the colours of the kasinas. The body, made up out of the same four elements, is like the threads, on which is strung a beautiful eight-faceted beryl gem of purest water, well cut, clear and limpid, possessed of all good, representing consciousness. Thus, consciousness is supported by and bound up with the body without being identical with it. Similarly, in his statement on his reincarnation, the Dalai Lama states that “things are preceded by things of a similar type.” Thus, mental and physical causes result in effects of the same kind. Thus, physical causes produce material effects and mental causes create psychological effects. The body may obstruct the manifestation of consciousness, but the body, essentially unconscious and inanimate, cannot be its cause. Therefore, consciousness and body are distinct, but commingled.

The Mind-Made Body: Similarly, the mental body is generated by the psychosomatic complex, like pulling a reed from its sheath, a sword from its scabbard, or a snake from its slough. We know from other suttas that the way to create the mental body to which the Buddha alludes involves the attainment of the fourth jhana.

The Kinds of Supernormal Power: Self-multiplication, invisibility, passing through matter, levitation. We have encountered these before, of course, where I have noted the similarity of these powers to powers exhibited in three contexts that are known to us: dreaming, psychedelic experience, and the UFO experience, which is related to paranormal experiences in general. Although rare, these are experienced. About 5% of the population have seen a UFO (half of these, or 2.5%, were contact experiences), whereas about 20% have had some sort of paranormal experience.

The Divine Ear Element: This is commonly termed clairaudience, and includes hearing both divine and human sounds, both far and near.

Understanding the Minds of Others: The description doesn’t quite rise to the level of telepathy, since only broad mental states are intuited, but it comes close including the ability to recognize minds that are liberated and not liberated. This is also a power of a Buddha.

The Recollection of Past Lives: Note the cosmological reference to eons of world-contraction and expansion. Richard Gombrich has noted that the recollection of past lives is paradoxical. Since samsara has no beginning, therefore one’s past lives would be infinite, but since memory is finite, how can one remember all of one’s past lives?

The Divine Eye: The Divine Eye confers the capacity to discern the karmic patterns of cause and effect including the state of other individuals’ rebirths.

The Destruction of the Taints: Note that the Mahasakuludayi Sutta represents the destruction of the taints, in which mind becomes like a clear, limpid, and undisturbed lake, as a way rather than as the goal or result of the way, corresponding presumably to a mode of meditation.

According to the postscript, Udayin was satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words, but there is no indication that he converted.


Dalai Lama. “Reincarnation.” http://www.dalailama.com/messages/statement-of-his-holiness-the-fourteenth-dalai-lama-tenzin-gyatso-on-the-issue-of-his-reincarnation.

Michael Shermer. “The Drake Equation.” Scientific American. http://www.michaelshermer.com/tag/drake-equation/.

“Scientific Study of the UFO Phenomenon.” http://www.ufoevidence.org/topics/publicopinionpolls.htm.