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5-12-2007-Spiritual Community of The True Followers of The Path Shown by The Awakened One-Sangha is to serve the cause of Buddhism well, “for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many.” -Buddhism in Thailand-Its Past and Its Present-
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Spiritual Community of The True Followers of The Path Shown by The Awakened One


Sangha is to serve the cause of Buddhism well, “for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many.”

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Photo: Bangkok

Photo: Thailand

Photo: Thailand


Buddhism in Thailand
Its Past and Its Present
Karuna Kusalasaya

People all over the world who are interested in Buddhism and keep in touch with its news and activities must have heard of the Buddha Jayanti celebrations held a few years ago in all Buddhist countries, including India and Japan. It was in 1957 or, according to the reckoning of some Buddhist countries, in 1956, that Buddhism, as founded by Gotama the Buddha, had completed its 2,500th year of existence. The Buddhist tradition, especially of the Theravada or Southern School such as now prevails in Burma, Ceylon, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, has it that on the completion of 2,500 years from its foundation, Buddhism would undergo a great revival, resulting in its all-round progress, in both the fields of study and practice. Buddhists throughout the world, therefore, commemorated the occasion in 1956-57 by various kinds of activities such as meetings, symposia, exhibitions and the publication of Buddhist texts and literature.

As to whether or not the tradition mentioned above has any truth behind it, the future alone will testify. However, judging from news received from all corners of the globe, it is no exaggeration to say that mankind is taking an ever-increasing interest in Buddhism. As a matter of fact, since the end of the Second World War interest in Buddhism as evinced by people in Europe, America, and Australia has reached a scale unheard of before. Any casual perusal of journals on Buddhism in any of these continents will convince the readers of this statement. It is a matter worth noticing that after the end of the First World War also, Buddhism made great headway in Europe and elsewhere. This phenomenon can perhaps be best explained by the fact that mankind’s spiritual thirst is more sharpened by calamities like war, and that in times of distress mankind realizes Truth better.

The Land of Yellow Robes

Thailand is perhaps the only country in the world where the king is constitutionally stipulated to be a Buddhist and the upholder of the Faith. For centuries Buddhism has established itself in Thailand and has enriched the lives of the Thais in all their aspects. Indeed, without Buddhism, Thailand would not be what it is today. Owing to the tremendous influence Buddhism exerts on the lives of its people, Thailand is called by many foreigners “The Land of Yellow Robes,” for yellow robes are the garments of Buddhist monks. In view of the increasing interest the world is taking in Buddhism and in view of the fact that Thailand is one of the countries where Buddhism still exists as a living force it will not, perhaps, be out of place to know something of the story of how this great faith reached that country.

Buddhism in Thailand: Its Past

Different opinions exist about when, exactly, Buddhism reached that part of the world now officially known as Thailand. Some scholars say that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand during the reign of Asoka, the great Indian emperor who sent Buddhist missionaries to various parts of the then known world. Others are of the view that Thailand received Buddhism much later. Judging from archaeological finds and other historical evidence, however, it is safe to say that Buddhism first reached Thailand when the country was inhabited by a racial stock of people known as the Mon-Khmer who then had their capital, Dvaravati, at a city now known as Nakon Pathom (Sanskrit: Nagara Prathama), about 50 kilometers to the west of Bangkok. The great pagoda at Nakon Pathom, Phra Pathom Chedi (Prathama cetiya), and other historical findings in other parts of the country testify to this fact as well as to the fact that Buddhism, in its varied forms, reached Thailand at four different periods, namely:

We shall now proceed to study each of these periods in detail.

I. Theravada or Southern Buddhism [back up]

That the first form of Buddhism introduced to Thailand was that of Theravada (The Doctrine of the Elders) School is proved by various archaeological remains unearthed in the excavations at Nakon Pathom, such as the Dharma Chakra (Wheel of Law), the Buddha footprints and seats, and the inscriptions in the Pali language, all of which are in rocks. Such objects of Buddhistic veneration existed in India before the introduction of the Buddha image, which appeared later as a result of Greek influence. Buddhism, therefore, must have reached Thailand during the 3rd century B.C., and it must have been more or less the same form of Buddhism as was propagated by the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka. This form of Buddhism was known as Theravada or Hinayana (The Lower Vehicle) in contradistinction to the term Mahayana (The Higher Vehicle); the two schools having sprung up soon after the passing away of the Buddha. When worship of the Buddha image became popular in India, it also spread to other countries where Buddhism had already been introduced. This is borne out by the fact that many Buddha images, especially those of the Gupta style, had been found in the ruins of Nakon Pathom and the neighboring cities. Judging from the style of the Buddha images found, it can also be assumed that the early Buddhist missionaries to Thailand went from Magadha (in Bihar state, India).

To support the view that the first form of Buddhism introduced to Thailand was that of the Theravada School as propagated by Emperor Asoka, we have evidence from the Mahavamsa, the ancient chronicle of Ceylon. In one of its passages dealing with the propagation of the Dhamma, the Mahavamsa records that Asoka sent missionaries headed by Buddhist elders to as many as nine territories. One of these territories was known as Suvarnabhumi where two Theras (elder monks), Sona and Uttara, were said to have proceeded.

Now opinions differ as to where exactly this land of Suvarnabhumi is. Thai scholars express the opinion that it is in Thailand and that its capital was at Nakon Pathom, while scholars of Burma say that Suvarnabhumi is in Burma, the capital being at Thaton, a Mon (Peguan) town in eastern Burma near the Gulf of Martaban. Still other scholars of Laos and Cambodia claim that the territory of Suvarnabhumi is in their lands. Historical records in this connection being meager as they are, it would perhaps be of no avail to argue as to the exact demarcation of Suvarnabhumi. Taking all points into consideration, one thing, however, seems clear beyond dispute. That is Suvarnabhumi was a term broadly used in ancient times to denote that part of Southeast Asia which now includes Southern Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaya. The term Suvarnabhumi is a combination of the words suvarna and bhumi. Both are Sanskrit words; the former means gold and the latter stands for land. Suvarnabhumi therefore literally means Golden Land or Land of Gold. Keeping in view the abundance of nature in that part of Asia just referred to, the term seems but appropriate.

The reason why scholars of Thailand express the view that the capital of Suvarnabhumi was at Nakon Pathom was because of the archaeological finds unearthed in the area surrounding that town. Nowhere in any of the countries mentioned above, not even at Thaton in Burma, could one find such a large and varied number of ancient relics as were found at Nakon Pathom. By age and style these archaeological objects belong to the times of Emperor Asoka and the later Guptas. Even the Great Stupa (Phra Pathom Chedi) at Nakon Pathom itself is basically identical with the famous Sañchi Stupa in India, built by Asoka, especially if one were to remove the shikhara or upper portion. Many Thai archaeologists are of the opinion that the shikhara was a later addition to the pagoda, a result, so to say, of the blending of the Thai aesthetic sense with Indian architectural art. Moreover, the name Pathom Chedi (Pali: Pathama Cetiya) means “First Pagoda” which, in all probability, signifies that it was the first pagoda built in Suvarnabhumi. This would easily fit in with the record of the Mahavamsa — that Theras Sona and Uttara went and established Buddhism in the territory of Suvarnabhumi at the injunction of Emperor Asoka.1 Taking cognizance of the fact that Asoka reigned from 269 to 237 B.C., we can reasonably conclude that Buddhism first spread to Thailand during the 3rd century B.C. It is interesting to note in this connection that the history of the penetration of Indian culture to Southeast Asia also started more or less during the same period.2

II. Mahayana or Northern Buddhism [back up]

With the growth of Mahayana Buddhism in India, especially during the reign of King Kanishka who ruled over Northern India during the second half of the first century A.D., the sect also spread to the neighboring countries, such as Sumatra, Java, and Kambuja (Cambodia). It is probable that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Burma, Pegu (Lower Burma) and Dvaravati (now Nakon Pathom in Western Thailand) from Magadha (in Bihar, India) at the same time as it went to the Malay Archipelago. But probably it did not have any stronghold there at that time; hence no spectacular trace was left of it.

Starting from the beginning of the fifth century A.D. Mahayana Buddhist missionaries from Kashmir in Northern India began to go to Sumatra in succession. From Sumatra the faith spread to Java and Cambodia. By about 757 A.D. (Buddhist Era: 1300) the Srivijaya king with his capital in Sumatra rose in power and his empire spread throughout the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago. Part of South Thailand (from Surasthani downwards) came under the rule of the Srivijaya king. Being Mahayanists, the rulers of Srivijaya gave much encouragement and support to the propagation of Mahayana Buddhism. In South Thailand today we have much evidence to substantiate that Mahayana Buddhism was once prevalent there. This evidence is in the form of stupas or chetiyas and images, including votive tablets of the Buddhas and Bodhisattas (Phra Phim), which were found in large number, all of the same type as those discovered in Java and Sumatra. The chetiyas in Chaiya (Jaya) and Nakon Sri Thammarath (Nagara Sri Dharmaraja), both in South Thailand, clearly indicate Mahayana influence.

From 1002 to 1182 A.D. kings belonging to the Suryavarman dynasty ruled supreme in Cambodia. Their empire extended over the whole of present-day Thailand. Being adherents of Mahayana Buddhism with a strong mixture of Brahmanism, the Suryavarman rulers did much to propagate and establish the tenets of the Northern School. There is an interesting stone inscription, now preserved in the National Museum at Bangkok, which tells us that in about 1017 A.D. (B.E. 1550) there ruled in Lopburi, in central Thailand and once a capital city, a king from Nakon Sri Thammarath who traced his ancestry to Srivijaya rulers. The king had a son who later became the ruler of Kambuja (Cambodia) and who, more or less, kept Thailand under the suzerainty of Cambodia for a long time. During this period there was much amalgamation of the two countries’ religions and cultures. The stone inscription under consideration probably refers to one of the Suryavarman kings who had blood relationship with the Srivijaya rulers.

From the inscription just referred to we also learn that at that period the form of Buddhism prevalent in Lopburi was that of Theravada, and that Mahayana Buddhism, already established in Cambodia, became popularized in Thailand only after Thailand had come under the sway of Cambodia. There are no indications, however, that the Mahayana School superseded the Theravada in any way. This was due to the fact that Theravada Buddhism was already on a firm basis in Thailand when the Mahayana School was introduced there. That there were monks of both schools, Theravada and Mahayana, in Lopburi during those days, is indicated in a stone inscription in the Cambodian language, found in a Brahmanic Temple within the vicinity of Lopburi city itself.

Much of the Brahmanic culture which survives in Thailand till today could be traced to its origin from Cambodia during this period. Many of the Cambodian kings themselves were zealous adherents of Brahmanism and its ways of life. This period, therefore, can be termed Mahayana Period. Sanskrit, the sacred language of the Hindus, took its root deep in Thailand during these times.

III. Burma (Pagan) Buddhism [back up]













In 1057 A.D. King Anuruddha (Anawratha) became powerful in the whole of Burma, having his capital at Pagan (Central Burma). Anuruddha extended his kingdom right up to Thailand, especially the Northern and Central parts, covering areas now known as Chiengmai, Lopburi, and Nakon Pathom. Being a Theravada Buddhist, Anuruddha ardently supported the cause of Theravada which Burma, like Thailand, at first received directly from India through missionaries sent by Emperor Asoka. However, at the time under consideration, Buddhism in India was already in a state of decline, and as contact between Burma and India was then faint, Theravada Buddhism, as prevalent in Burma at that time, underwent some changes and assumed a form somewhat different from the original doctrine. This, at a later stage, became what is known in Thailand as Burma (Pagan) Buddhism. During the period of King Anuruddha’s suzerainty over Thailand, Burmese Buddhism exercised great influence over the country, especially in the North where, owing to proximity, the impact from Burma was more felt.

It is significant that Buddhist relics found in North Thailand bear a striking Theravada influence, whereas those found in the South clearly show their Mahayana connections dating back from Srivijaya days. To a great extent this is due to the fact that, in their heyday of suzerainty over Thailand, the Burmese under Anuruddha were content with Upper Thailand only, while leaving the South practically to be ruled by their Khmer (Cambodian) vassals whose capital was at Lopburi.

From the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. the Thai people, whose original homeland was in the valleys between the Huang Ho and the Yangtze Kiang in China, began to migrate southwards as a result of constant friction with the neighboring tribes. In the course of their migration which lasted for several centuries, they became separated into two main groups. One group went and settled in the plains of the Salween River, Shan States, and other areas and spread on as far as Assam. This group of Thais is called Thai Yai (Big Thai). The other main group moved further South and finally settled in what is today termed Thailand. The latter group of Thais is called Thai Noi (Small Thai). The Thais in present-day Thailand are actually the descendants of these migrant Thais. Of course, in the course of their migration which, as said above, continued off and on for a long time, there had been a great deal of mixture of blood through intermarriage which was only natural. We should always bear in mind that there are several ethnic groups scattered through the length and breadth of Southeast Asia from times immemorial. But even today we can trace the language affinity of the Thais living in widely scattered areas such as Assam, Upper Burma, Southern China, Shan States, Laos, North Vietnam, and Thailand.

After struggling hard for a long time the Thais were able to establish their independent state at Sukhothai (Sukhodaya) in North Thailand. This was probably about 1257 A.D. (B.E. 1800). It was during the period of their movement southwards that the Thais came into contact with the form of Buddhism as practiced in Burma and propagated under the royal patronage of King Anuruddha. Some scholars are of the opinion that as Mahayana Buddhism had spread to China as early as the beginning of the Christian Era, the Thais, while still in their original home in China, must have already been acquainted with some general features of Buddhism. As the Thai migrants grew in strength their territory extended and finally they became the masters of the land in succession to Anuruddha, whose kingdom declined after his death. During the succeeding period, the Thais were able to exert themselves even more prominently in their southward drive. Thus they came into close contact with the Khmers, the erstwhile power, and became acquainted with both Mahayana Buddhism and Brahmanism as adopted and practiced in Kambuja (Cambodia). Much of the Brahmanic influence, such as religious and cultural rites, especially in the court circles, passed on from Cambodia to the Thais during this period, for Hinduism was already firmly established in Cambodia at that time. Even the Thai scripts, based on Cambodian scripts which, in turn, derived their origin from India, were invented by King Ram Kamhaeng of Sukhothai during the period under consideration.

Of the period under discussion it may be observed in passing that Northern Thailand, from Sukhothai District upwards, came much under the influence of Burma (Pagan) Buddhism, while in the central and southern parts of the country many Mahayana beliefs and practices, inherited from the days of the Suryavarmans and the Srivijayas, still persisted.

IV. Ceylon (Lankavamsa) Buddhism [back up]

This is the most important period in the history of the spread of Buddhism to Thailand, for it witnessed the introduction to that country of that form of Buddhism which remains dominant there until today.

About 1153 A.D. (B.E. 1696) Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 A.D.) became king of Ceylon, known in ancient days as Lanka. A powerful monarch and a great supporter of Theravada Buddhism, Parakramabahu did much to spread and consolidate the Dhamma of the Lord in his island kingdom. He it was who caused (according to some scholars of Southern Buddhism) the Seventh Buddhist Council3 to be held under the chairmanship of Kassapa Thera, of Dimbulagala in order to revise and strengthen the Doctrine and the Discipline (Dhamma and Vinaya).

As a result of the efforts of King Parakramabahu the Great, Buddhism was much consolidated in Ceylon and the news spread to neighboring lands. Buddhist monks from various countries, such as Burma, Pegu (Lower Burma), Kambuja, Lanna (North Thailand) and Lanchang (Laos) flocked to Ceylon in order to acquaint themselves with the pure form of the Dhamma. Thailand also sent her Bhikkhus to Ceylon and thereby obtained the upasampada vidhi (ordination rite) from Ceylon, which later became known in Thailand as Lankavamsa. This was about 1257 A.D. (B.E. 1800). Apparently the early batches of Bhikkhus, who returned from Ceylon after studies, often accompanied by Ceylonese monks, established themselves first in Nakon Sri Thammarath (South Thailand), for many of the Buddhist relics bearing definitely Ceylonese influence, such as stupas and Buddha images, were found there. Some of these relics are still in existence today. News of the meritorious activities of these monks soon spread to Sukhothai, then the capital of Thailand, and King Ram Kamhaeng who was ruling at the time, invited those monks to his capital and gave them his royal support in propagating the Doctrine. This fact is recorded in one of the King’s rock inscriptions, dated about 1277 A.D. Since then Ceylon (Sinhala) Buddhism became very popular and was widely practiced in Thailand. Some of the Thai kings, such as King Maha Dharmaraja Lithai of Sukhothai dynasty and King Borom Trai Lokanath of the early Ayudhya Period, even entered the Holy Order or Bhikkhu Sangha according to the ordination rite of Lankavamsa Buddhism by inviting a patriarch from Ceylon, Maha Sami Sangharaja Sumana by name, to be the presiding monk over his upasampada (ordination) ceremony. Many monasteries, stupas, Buddha images and even Buddha footprints, such as the well-known one at Sraburi in central Thailand, were built in accordance with the usage popular in Ceylon. The study of Pali, the language of Theravada or Southern Buddhism, also made great progress, and in all matters dealing with the Dhamma the impact of Ceylon was perceptibly felt.

However, there had been no antagonism between the different forms of Buddhism already in existence in Thailand and the Lankavamsa which had been introduced later from Ceylon. On the contrary they seemed to have amalgamated peacefully, and all had adjusted themselves to one another’s benefit. This is evident in all religious rites and ceremonies of Thailand. Indeed, somewhat characteristic of the Buddhists, there had been a spirit of forbearance in all matters. For instance, even today Brahmanic rites thrive side by side with Buddhistic ceremonies in Thailand and Cambodia, especially in the royal courts.

History repeats itself. Years after, when in Ceylon under King Kirtisri (1747-1781 A.D.) the upasampada ordination was lost due to a decline of Buddhism and upheavals in the country, Thailand (during the reign of King Boromkot, 1733-1758 A.D.) was able to repay the debt by sending a batch of Buddhist monks, under the leadership of Upali and Ariyamuni Theras, who in the course of time established in Ceylon what is known as the Siyamopali Vamsa or Siyam Nikaya, or Siamese Sect, which still is a major sect in that country. Upali worked and died in Sri Lanka, the country he loved no less than his own.

Today, for all purposes, Thailand can be termed a Theravada Buddhist country. There are, of course, a few Mahayana monks and monasteries, but they are mostly confined to foreign communities, chiefly the Chinese. All, however, live at peace and cooperate with one another.

So much for the past of Buddhism in Thailand.

Buddhism in Thailand: Its Present

According to the census taken in 1960 the population of Thailand numbers 25,519,965. Of this number 94% are Buddhists (the rest are mostly Muslims and Christians). This fact itself demonstrates more than anything else how influential Buddhism is in Thailand. In their long history of existence the Thais seem to have been predominantly Buddhists, at least ever since they came into contact with the tenets of Buddhism. All the Thai kings in the recorded history of present-day Thailand have been adherents of Buddhism. The country’s constitution specifies that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist and the Upholder of Buddhism.

The term “The Land of Yellow Robes” has not been inappropriately applied to Thailand, for two things strike most foreigners as soon as they set foot in that country. One is the Buddhist temple with its characteristic architecture, and the other is the sight of yellow-clad Buddhist monks and novices who are to be seen everywhere, especially in the early hours of dawn when they go out in great numbers for alms. The two sights inevitably remind the foreigners that here is a country where Buddhism is a dominant force in the people’s life. Indeed, to the Thai nation as a whole, Buddhism has been the main spring from which flow its culture and philosophy, its art and literature, its ethics and morality, and many of its folkways and festivals.

For clarity and convenience we shall divide the study of the present state of Buddhism in Thailand into two parts, namely the Bhikkhu Sangha or the Holy Order, and the Laity.

I. The Bhikkhu Sangha or the Holy Order [back up]

The Bhikkhu Sangha or the Holy Order of Buddhist monks has been in existence in Thailand ever since Buddhism was introduced there. According to the 1958 census there were in the whole kingdom of Thailand 159,648 monks; 73,311 novices; and 20,944 monasteries or temples. These are scattered throughout the country, particularly more numerous in the thickly populated areas. The Bhikkhu Sangha of Thailand, being of Theravada or Southern School, observes the same set of discipline (Vinaya) as the Bhikkhu Sanghas in other Theravada countries such as Ceylon, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. In spite of the fact that the government allots a yearly budget for the maintenance and repair of important temples and as stipends for high ranking monks, almost the entire burden for the support of the Sangha and the upkeep of the temples rests with the public. A survey entitled “Thailand Economic Farm Survey” made in 1953 by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Government of Thailand gives the religious cash expenses of the average Thai rural family per year as ranging from 5 to 10 per cent of its total annual cash income. It may be added here that the report concerns the average Thai rural family, and not the urban dwellers, the majority of whom, in Thailand as elsewhere, are less inclined to religion than the country folks.

Two Sects or Nikayas

There are two sects or Nikayas of the Buddhist Order in Thailand. One is the Mahanikaya, and the other is the Dhammayuttika Nikaya. The Mahanikaya is the older and by far the more numerous one, the ratio in the number of monks of the two sects being 35 to 1. The Dhammayuttika Nikaya was founded in 1833 A.D. by King Mongkut, the fourth ruler of the present Chakri Dynasty who ruled Thailand from 1851 to 1868 A.D. Having himself spent 27 years as a Bhikkhu, the King was well versed in the Dhamma, besides many other branches of knowledge, including Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism. The express desire of the King in founding the Dhammayuttika sect was to enable monks to lead a more disciplined and scholarly life in accordance with the pristine teachings of the Buddha. The differences between the two Nikayas are, however, not great; at most they concern only matters of discipline, and never of the Doctrine. Monks of both sects follow the same 227 Vinaya rules as laid down in the Patimokkha of the Vinaya Pitaka (the Basket of the Discipline), and both receive the same esteem from the public. In their general appearance and daily routine of life too, except for the slight difference in the manners of putting on the yellow robes, monks of the two Nikayas differ very little from one another.

Organization of the Sangha

Formerly, and in accordance with the Administration of the Bhikkhu Sangha Act (B.E. 2484, A.D. 1943), the organization of the Sangha in Thailand was on a line similar to that of the State. The Sangharaja or the Supreme Patriarch is the highest Buddhist dignitary of the Kingdom. He is chosen by the King, in consultation with the Government, from among the most senior and qualified members of the Sangha. The Sangharaja appoints a council of Ecclesiastical Ministers headed by the Sangha Nayaka, whose position is analogous to that of the Prime Minister of the State. Under the Sangha Nayaka there function four ecclesiastical boards, namely the Board of Ecclesiastical Administration, the Board of Education, the Board of Propagation and the Board of Public Works.

Each of the boards has a Sangha Mantri (equivalent to a minister in the secular administration) with his assistants. The four boards or ministries are supposed to look after the affairs of the entire Sangha. The Ecclesiastical Ministerial Council which, by the way, corresponds to the Cabinet, consists of ten members, all senior monks of the Sangha. In addition to this, there is a Consultative Assembly (Sangha Sabha), equivalent to the National Assembly, the members of which number 45, selected from various important monasteries. The Sangha Sabha acts as an Advisory Body to the Ecclesiastical Ministerial Council. Below the Sangha Sabha the administration of the Sangha continues to correspond to the secular administration of the country. All monks and novices (samaneras) have to live in monasteries which are scattered throughout the country. Each monastery has its abbot appointed by the Ecclesiastical Ministerial Council in consultation with local people. It may be pointed out here that all religious appointments in Thailand are based on scholarly achievements, seniority, personal conduct and popularity, and contacts with monks further up in the Sangha.

There is a Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education which acts as a liaison office between the Government and the Sangha. In general the Department of Religious Affairs works in cooperation with the Ecclesiastical Ministerial Council on all matters affecting the Sangha. For instance, it issues all legal directives concerning the entire community of monks; it keeps record of the Sangha’s property, such as lands etc.; it maintains facts and figures with respect to monks and monasteries. The Religious Affairs Department also prepares the annual budget for the upkeep of the Sangha functionaries and the maintenance and repair of temples etc. It may be added here that all temples and monasteries are State property.

In 1962, the Administration of the Bhikkhu Sangha Act of 1943 was abolished; a new one was enacted instead. By virtue of the new act, the posts of Sangha Nayaka, Sangha Mantris, and Sangha Sabha were abolished. In place of these there is a Mahathera Samagama (Council of the Elders) headed by the Sangharaja himself and consisting of not less than four and not more than eight senior monks (mahatheras) of the two sects (nikayas). The Mahathera Samagama, in collaboration with the Department of Religious Affairs, directly governs the entire Sangha.

Education of Monks

As is well known, the original idea of men’s entering monkhood during the Buddha’s time or shortly later, was to attain liberation from worldly existence in accordance with the teaching of the Master. Such an idea, of course, springs from man’s feeling of aversion to things mundane. In other words, in those far-off days, men entered monkhood with the sole intention of ridding themselves of life’s miseries and of obtaining spiritual freedom or Nirvana. Instances of such self-renunciation are found in the holy books of the Buddhists. With the passage of time, as is only natural, many of the ideals and practices of the early followers of the Buddha underwent modifications. Today, over 2,500 years after the passing away of the Buddha, though the ideal of becoming a Bhikkhu still remains very lofty among Buddhists of all lands, in practice it must be admitted that there have been many deviations from the Master’s original admonitions with regard to the whys and wherefores of man’s entering monkhood. Generalization of any subject matter is often dangerous but it will not be far from truth to say that today, in Thailand as in other Buddhist countries, the practice of Buddhist males entering monkhood is to a considerable extent prompted rather by the dictation of custom, the wish for education and other external considerations than by the desire to attain emancipation. Yet there are also many who join the Sangha through genuine love for a religious life and religious studies, or out of the wish to be of service to Buddhism and their country. Finally, in the Thai Sangha also those are not entirely lacking whose life is vigorously devoted to the aim of ultimate emancipation and to the guidance of others towards that goal. There have been, and still are, saintly and able meditation masters in Thailand, with a fair number of devoted disciples in Sangha and laity. There are also still monks — the so-called thudong bhikkhus — who follow the ancient way of austere living embodied in the “strict observances” or dhutangas.4

In view of the above facts, there are two categories of Buddhist monks in Thailand. One comprises those who become monks for long periods, sometimes for life, and the other those who enter the Order temporarily. To serve in the monkhood even for a short period is considered a great merit-earning attainment by the Thai Buddhists. Even kings follow this age-old custom. For instance, the present ruler, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also observed the custom for a period of half a month some time ago. Government officials are allowed leave with full pay for a period of four months in order to serve in monkhood. The idea is to enable young men to gain knowledge of Buddhism and thereby to become good citizens. Life as a monk gives them practical experience of how an ideal Buddhist life should be. In rural districts the general tendency is still to give more deference to those who have already served in monkhood. Such people are supposed to be more “mature” than those who have not undergone the monk’s life. Moreover, in Thailand wats (monasteries and temples) used to be and are still regarded as seats of learning where all men, irrespective of life’s position, could go and avail themselves of education benefits. This is especially so in the case of economically handicapped males of the countryside. Instances are not lacking in which people have climbed high up on life’s status ladder after obtaining education while in monkhood. There are neither religious restrictions nor social disapproval against monks’ returning to lay life if and when they find themselves unable to discharge their duties as monks.

Cases exist in which, for some reason or the other, men have entered monkhood more than once, although such practice cannot be said to be in the esteem of the public. Looked at from this viewpoint, the institution of entering monkhood in Thailand, apart from being a way of gaining moral and spiritual enlightenment, is a social uplift method by which those not so fortunately placed in life could benefit. Judged from the ideal of adopting a monk’s life as enunciated by the Buddha, whether or not such practice is commendable, is a different story. The fact is that even today when modernism has penetrated deep into Thailand, about one half of the primary schools of the country are still situated in wats. With sex and crimes on the increase in the country, the cry for living a better Buddhist life is being heard more and more distinctly in Thailand today.

The traditional education of monks and novices in Thailand centers mainly on the studies of the Buddhist Doctrine (Dhamma) and Pali, the language in which the Theravada scriptures are written. Of the former, the study of the Doctrine, there are three grades with examinations open to both monks and laymen. Those passing such examinations are termed Nak Dhamm, literally meaning one who knows the Dhamma. The latter, i.e., the study of Pali, has seven grades, starting with the third and ending with the ninth grade. Students passing Pali examinations are called parian (Pali: pariñña = penetrative knowledge); in the Thai language the word parinna is used to mean academic degree. For example, monks and novices passing the first Pali examination are entitled to write “P. 3″ after their names.

Generally the Dhamma and the Pali studies go hand in hand and take at least seven years to complete. The stiffness of the two courses, especially that of the Pali language, can be guessed from the fact that very few students are able to pass the highest grade, the Parian 9, in any annual examination. In the good old days when living was less competitive than now, passing of even the lower Dhamma and Pali examinations used to be of much value in securing good government posts. But now things are quite different; even those successful in the highest Pali examination, the 9th Grade, find it difficult to get suitable employment.

Of late there has developed a new outlook in the education of monks in Thailand. With the rapid progress of science and with the shrinking of the world, Buddhist leaders of Thailand, monks as well as laymen, are awakened to the necessity of imparting broader education to members of the Sangha, if the Sangha is to serve the cause of Buddhism well, “for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many.” As a result of the new outlook there now function in Bangkok two higher institutes of learning exclusively for monks and novices. One is the Mahachulalongkorn Rajvidyalaya, and the other is the Mahamongkut Rajvidyalaya. Both are organized on a modern university footing and both seem to be making satisfactory progress towards that direction. Inclusion in the curriculum of some secular subjects not incompatible with monks’ discipline (Vinaya) is among the notable features of these two institutes; the aim is to give an all-round education to monks in order to enable them to be of better service to the cause of Buddhism amidst modern conditions.

So much for the education of ‘long-term’ monks. As for those who enter the Order temporarily, mostly for a period of three rainy months during the Vassa, or Buddhist Lent, the education is brief and devoted to the main tenets and features of Buddhism only. As pointed out above, such people enter monkhood either by their own genuine desire for knowledge of the Dhamma, by the dictum of custom or, as generally is the case, by the two reasons combined. Monks of this category return to lay life again as soon as the Lent is over. This is the reason why accommodations in monasteries (wats) are usually full during the Lenten period. Nowadays, owing to the pressure of modern life, the custom of temporarily entering monkhood is not so rigorously observed by people living in urban areas as by those in the countryside. The custom has its parallel in Burma, Cambodia, and Laos where Theravada Buddhism prevails.

Wats and Monks

The word “wat” means monastery and temple combined. It is the residence of monks and novices. There are about 21,000 wats in the whole of Thailand. In Bangkok alone there are nearly two hundred wats. Some big wats in Bangkok have as many as 600 resident monks and novices. Wats are centers of Thai art and architecture. Thai culture, to a considerable extent, flows from wats. Wat-lands and constructions thereon are donated by royalty, wealthy people and the public in general. The wat is the most important institution in Thai rural life. The social life of the rural community revolves around the wat. Besides carrying out the obvious religious activities, a wat serves the community as a recreation center, dispensary, school, community center, home for the aged and destitute, social work and welfare agency, village clock, rest-house, news agency, and information center. A wat is headed by a Chao Avas (the abbot) who is responsible for the maintenance of the wat discipline, the proper performance of religious services and rituals, and the general welfare of the inmates. Besides monks and novices, there are also the “temple boys” in wats, who assist monks and novices in various ways, such as bringing and arranging food, cleaning dormitories, washing yellow robes, etc. Usually these boys are related to resident monks in one way or another, and their stay is free of charge. Most of them are students whose homes are far away and who would, otherwise, find it impracticable to get education. This is especially so in Bangkok where accommodation is difficult to get and where all higher seats of learning of the country are situated. The census taken in 1954 reveals that there are as many as 119,044 temple boys in Thailand, which indeed is not a small figure. The institution of the wat, in itself a gift of Buddhism, therefore contributes in no small measure to the social welfare and progress of the Thai Buddhists. The benefits in this respect, of course, are more apparent among the lower strata of society than in the case of the fortunate few on the top.

Apart from engaging themselves in doctrinal studies and observing disciplinary rules (Vinaya) in general, monks are expected to be “friends, philosophers, and guides” of the people. Preaching to masses face to face or over the radio is one of the commonest ways by which monks help the promotion of moral stability among various members of the society. It may not be out of place to reiterate the fact that Buddhism lays great stress on the necessity of leading a morally good life in order to obtain happiness in life here and hereafter. In most of the ceremonies and rituals, whether private or public, monks’ cooperation and benediction are indispensable. Indeed, in the life of the average Thai Buddhists, from the cradle to the grave, monks are persons to whom they constantly turn for moral support.

The role of monks in rural districts is even more important, for there the local wat is not only the religious but also the social center of the community. It is at the wat that people come together and experience a sense of comradeship. Religious rituals and ceremonies held at wats are always accompanied by social activities: they are occasions for people, especially the young, to enjoy themselves in feast, fun and festivities. This aspect of the religious service helps the common folks to relax and satisfies their needs for recreation. Not a few matrimonial alliances started from contacts at wat premises. Acting as a moral and ethical example, monks are the most venerated persons in the countryside Thai society, remaining very close to the hearts of the people. In times of crisis, it is to monks that people bring their problems for counsel and encouragement. With few exceptions, the Sangha has well justified this attitude of respect and honor shown to it on the part of the laity and, on the whole, has lived up to the dignity of the Faith.

II. The Laity [back up]

Throughout its over 2,500 years of existence Buddhism has been closely connected with the lay community. In Pali the word for a male lay devotee is upasaka; upasika is its female equivalent. In the history of Buddhism, right from the time of its founder, there had been numerous upasakas and upasikas whose faith in the Teachings of the Master had contributed largely to the dissemination of the Doctrine. Names of the Buddha’s munificent followers like Anathapindika, Visakha, Asoka, Kanishka, etc., are on the lips of Buddhists even today. Without the patronage of Emperor Asoka, Buddhism probably could not have spread so far and the course of its history might have been different. In India, the land of its birth, as well as in most of the countries where its Message has been accepted, Buddhism has received unstinted support from people of all classes, especially the ruling class. History of the movements of Buddhism in China, Japan, Burma, Ceylon, Tibet, etc., amply justifies this statement. In the case of Thailand too, ever since its introduction to that country, Buddhism has been warmly received and patronized by kings and commoners alike. It is well-known that many of the Thai rulers, not satisfied with being mere lay-devotees, got themselves ordained into monkhood and became famous for their erudition in the Dhamma. King Mongkut, Rama IV, probably stands out as most distinguished among this class of royal devotees. The custom of Thai males entering the Sangha also contributes much to the better understanding and cooperation between the lay community and the monkhood. After all, personal experience is better than mere theoretical knowledge.

The Buddha himself, in one of his discourses, exhorted his followers to discharge their duties well so as to enable the Dhamma to endure long in the world. One of the duties of the lay followers, as taught by the Master, is to look after the needs of monks. Hence it is the traditional practice with lay followers in all Buddhist countries, especially those following Theravada Buddhism, to see that monks do not suffer from lack of the four requisites, namely food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Although in the present age of competitive economy, when life in any field is not so easy, nobody can say in fairness that monk-life in Thailand suffers greatly from shortage of the above four requisites. As Bhikkhus are not allowed to follow any occupational activities, it is clear that they entirely depend on the laity for their existence. In return for this spontaneous support offered them by the public, monks are expected to live exemplary lives for the benefit of themselves as well as of those who look to them as teachers and guides. We have already seen what moral influence monks have upon the people.

Cooperation between the laity and the Bhikkhu Sangha in Thailand is close and spontaneous. To a very great extent this is due to the fact that in an average Thai family some of its members are certain to be found who have for some time served in the Sangha. To the masses yellow robes are symbol of the Master, and Bhikkhus are upholders of the Dhamma, to be deferred to in all circumstances. It is interesting to note that Bhikkhus or Samaneras found guilty of committing crimes are formally divested of their yellow robes before legal action is taken against them by the State, and this is done invariably under permission of the chief monk or the abbot.

“To do good” (kusala kamma) is a cardinal point in the teachings of Buddhism. Consequently the idea of performing meritorious deeds is very deeply ingrained in the minds of Buddhists. Ways of doing good or making merit (puñña) among the Thai Buddhists are numerous. A man gains merit each time he gives alms to monks or contributes to any religious rituals. To get ordination into monkhood even for a short period, of course, brings much merit. Besides, there are other ways of merit-earning, such as releasing caged birds or freeing caught fishes, plastering gold leaf on Buddha statues or religious monuments, contributing to the construction of a new temple or the repair of an old one, etc. “The Law of Karma” that each action has its corresponding result and the belief in rebirth are two important factors in molding such attitude towards life among the Buddhists. Though Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the highest bliss in Buddhism, is aspired to by all good Buddhists, the vast majority of them still think it is not so easy to reach and that they will be reborn again in this world, in heaven or some other world, or — at the very worst — in hell. Hence, as long as they live they must try to do good in order to ensure good results in this very life as well as in the life to come. “Be a light unto yourself. Each man must strive for his own salvation” — these were the Master’s words. In view of this, Theravada Buddhism is often said to have individualistic temper. Nevertheless, it is very tolerant, as the long history of its existence will prove. Indeed, the characteristic tolerance of Buddhism, for instance in Thailand, has always permitted the absorption of many beliefs and practices from other sources which have often served to supplement or expand its concepts or to fill gaps. Animism and Brahmanism may be cited in this connection; the two being important supplements of popular Buddhism in Thailand. A foreign writer has rightly observed that the attitude of the Thai masses towards their religion is of an easy-going nature. They do not bother to distinguish among the various components of their religion; for them it is all of a piece. Only the sophisticated few are concerned with doctrinal logic and purity. Of course, they too know much about its legends, its festivals, its ideals, and its general message that “good will render good.” On the whole it can be said that the Thais enjoy their religion. Religious observances are to them as social and recreational as sacred occasions. And for the vast majority, Buddhism suffices in that it enables them to feel and believe and enjoy.

Buddhist Organizations and the Revival of Buddhism

Organizations among the lay Buddhists of Thailand are recent establishments. Prominent and oldest among them is perhaps the Buddhist Association of Thailand, under Royal Patronage, which now is about 30 years old, having been established in 1933. Having its head office in Bangkok, it maintains branch organizations in almost all major districts of Thailand. Its membership is open to both sexes, irrespective of class, creed, and color. The aim and object of the Buddhist Association of Thailand is to promote the study and practice of Buddhism and to propagate its message in and outside Thailand. Besides arranging regular lectures and discussions on topics concerning the Dhamma, the Association also publishes a monthly journal in the Thai language on the teachings of the Buddha.

Another organization is the Young Buddhists Association which came into being at the close of the Second World War. As its name implies, the Young Buddhists Association takes care of the interest of the young in matters concerning Buddhism. Its primary object is to encourage the young to imbibe the tenets of Buddhism and to live a virtuous life. Chief among its activities are arranging regular lectures and discussions on the Dhamma, issuing publications on subjects dealing with Buddhism in general, and sponsoring meetings of the young on the platform of Buddhism. The Young Buddhists Association also has branches in the districts.

As said earlier the end of the Second World War saw a great revival of interest in Buddhism throughout the world. Even in countries like Thailand where the Doctrine of the Awakened One has been traditionally accepted for generations, people seem to be increasingly eager to know more about the Dhamma. Strange as it may seem, this is partly due to the interest the Occidental World has taken in Buddhism. In times past religion has been more or less regarded in Thailand as “solace of the old.” But with the impact of the West in most matters and with the general interest shown towards Buddhism by Western intelligentsia, the Buddhists of Thailand, especially the younger generations who came into contact with the West, began to evince an inquisitive attitude towards their religion — a heritage which they have all along accepted as their own but which they have cared little to know about its true value. This is no attempt to belittle the exceedingly great importance the Thais attach to their religion. But human nature being what it is, the saying “Familiarity breeds contempt” is in most cases not very far wrong. In the Thai language also we have a proverb “klai kleua kin dang” which may be rendered in English as “to have the folly to resort to alkali when one is in possession of salt.”

Having taken root on the soil of Thailand for centuries Buddhism has naturally attracted many appendages to its fold, some of which are not quite in conformity with the teachings of the Master as contained in the Canon (Tipitaka). Many leaders of Buddhistic thought in Thailand have, therefore, come forward to try to purify the Dhamma of the many impurities that have crept into it. Notable among the reformatory groups are the Dhammadana Association in Jaiya, South Thailand, under the leadership of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and the Buddha Nigama of Chiengmai (North Thailand) started by Paññananda Bhikkhu. The two organizations are showing good efforts in the field of awakening the Buddhists of Thailand to the pristine teachings of the Buddha as treasured in the Pali Tipitaka. The mission is admittedly a difficult one but already a promising start has been made in this direction. Much will also no doubt depend on how things transpire in other spheres of human activities, chiefly economic, social and political. The present is an age of conflict — conflict between mind and body, between spirit and matter. Man must find harmony between the two if peace be his aim in life. And to this task of finding harmony within man Buddhism could contribute in no small measure.


1. The History of Buddhist Thought, by E.J. Thomas.

2. The Discovery of India, by Jawaharlal Nehru, Chapter V (XVI).

3. The counting of the Buddhist Councils (Sangayana or Sangiti) differs in the several Theravada countries. In Ceylon, the above-mentioned Council is numbered as the fifth; and in Burma, its place is taken by the Council of Mandalay (1871), while the last Council in Rangoon (1954-1956) is counted as the sixth. [BPS Editor.]

4. See The Wheel No. 83/84: With Robes and Bowl: Glimpses of the Thudong Bhikkhu Life, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo.

The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of all creeds.

Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha’s discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is — a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.

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4-12-2007-Sarvajan Hitay Sarvajan Sukhay-Vote for BSP in Elephant Symbol-But, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which was aspiring to cash in on its successes in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, has fielded 572 candidates and confident of winning 500 seats -DMs directed to implement drinking water schemes for rural areas immediately
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Sarvajan Hitay Sarvajan Sukhay

Vote for BSP in Elephant Symbol

DMs directed to implement drinking water schemes for rural areas immediately

Lucknow : September 26, 2007 The Uttar Pradesh Government has issued necessary guidelines for the installation of 225 hand pumps each at the sites selected by the Members of Vidhan Sabha and Vidhan Parishad. In all, 450 hand pumps would be installed at different selected rural areas of the State during the year 2007-08 under the rural drinking water supply scheme. According to the guidelines issued by the Government of India regarding the installation of hand pumps, the same had to be installed at the un-served bastis. The U.P. Chief Minister, Km. Mayawati is committed to ensure drinking water supply in the rural areas facing problem of potable water. The Government wants to provide quality drinking water supply to all the people of the State. Therefore, the U.P. Government has directed all the divisional commissioners, DMs and CDOs to ensure effective action regarding the installation of the hand pumps as per the G.O. issued today in this regard. ******

Online edition of India’s National Newspaper
Thursday, Sep 27, 2007

3 monks killed in Myanmar crackdown

P. S. Suryanarayana

SINGAPORE: Three Buddhist monks were killed on Wednesday in an attack by security forces on protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, according to the dissident National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB).

The three were beaten up near the iconic Shwedagon pagoda during a clash between the country’s junta and the protesting monks.

It was a day of dramatic defiance by the newly formed All-Burma Monks Alliance and its supporters from all walks of life even as the military regime braced for a crackdown.

By nightfall, another two monks were reported killed in clashes with security forces in Yangon.

But dissidents in exile in Thailand could not confirm this.

The dissidents, as also some Yangon residents, however, confirmed that gunshots were fired by some military personnel. The protesters were also teargassed once.

NCUB spokesman Soe Aung told The Hindu over telephone from Bangkok that on Wednesday too, students and activists belonging to Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy joined the monks in the protest marches.

NCUB general secretary Maung Maung told The Hindu over telephone from the Thailand-Myanmar border that 40 monks, 20 nuns and 20 students were taken to “a police quarantine.”

India’s interests at stake in Myanmar

Sandeep Dikshit

New Delhi expresses concern and urges regime to be more inclusive and broad based

Developments could upset security calculations in northeast

Bilateral, multilateral negotiations could take a back seat

NEW DELHI: India has expressed concern over the developments in Myanmar and urged its government to be more inclusive and broad based. “India is concerned at and is closely monitoring the Myanmar situation. It is our hope that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue. India has always believed that Myanmar’s process of political reform and national reconciliation should be more inclusive and broad-based,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said.

The developments in Myanmar have the potential to upset India’s security calculations in the northeast, besides delaying its attempt to find a firmer foothold in the hydrocarbon sector. Other initiatives that could take a back seat if the situation worsens are a breakthrough in getting an alternate terrestrial route to the northeast via Myanmar and bilateral and multilateral negotiations to promote greater economic cooperation.

The uncertainty in getting offshore exploration blocks ended last week with the signing of production sharing contracts for three deep-water exploration blocks. In addition, India is part of a consortium looking for gas in two more blocks. More business would depend on India engaging more intimately with the current regime, including a second line of credit of $ 20 million to refurbish a refinery.

India bettered its earlier offer to develop the Shitwe port after Myanmar objected to its original plan to develop and update the port facilities. Approved by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the new offer to build the port and hand it over immediately to Yangon was seen as more acceptable to the ruling regime.

“The major shift in the paradigm of the project,” as a highly placed source put it, would have enabled India to build a waterway and a road linking it to Mizoram.

India is engaged with Myanmar on stepping up trade through more land routes as part of its Look-East policy. Mr. Mukherjee is keen that the northeast States are benefited in the process. With the Myanmar government facing a crisis, it would be challenging for it to take a bold decision at this juncture of permitting another country transit facilities, the sources said.

India has invested heavily in shoring up the ruling regime’s military arsenal, though western countries claimed that these could be used for quelling internal unrest. In turn, it has managed to receive support from Myanmar in curbing anti-India militant activity on its territory.

Independents a cause for concern for all mainstream parties

But, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which was aspiring to cash in on its successes in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, has fielded 572 candidates and confident of winning 500 seats


Bangalore: Independents numbering 4,618 are likely to determine the outcome of the elections, playing spoilsport to the ambitions of the candidates from the mainstream political parties in the elections to the urban local bodies scheduled to be held for Friday.

In what is looked upon by the State Election Commission as a mini-general election, 18,195 candidates are in the fray for the 4,920 wards in the 209 local bodies, including seven municipal corporations. Of this, there are 4,618 independents followed by Congress with 4,535 candidates, the Janata Dal (Secular) fielding 4,073 candidates and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 4,640 candidates in the fray. The independents and others had made a big show in the last elections held in 2001 winning 1,146 wards tilting the balance of power of one or the other mainstream parties. With their huge number this time also, the independents may play a significant role as king makers, if they repeat their performance in the polls.

Interestingly, the Janata Dal (United), which had a strong presence with 457 members out of 4,938 wards in the elections held in 2001 seemed to be satisfied in fielding less than 100 candidates this time. This may be due to the truncated numbers among its MLAs because of switch over of loyalty by a few of them. The party has fielded 91 candidates. But, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which was aspiring to cash in on its successes in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, has fielded 572 candidates and confident of winning 500 seats and the Samajwadi Party headed by the former Chief Minister S. Bangarappa is contesting in 402 wards.

In the last elections, the Congress, despite facing incumbency, won 2,322 wards followed by the BJP with 562 and Janata Dal (Secular) winning 415 seats. Of the eight municipal corporations, seven are going to polls barring Bangalore. Already 85 candidates (22 from the Congress, three from the Janata Dal (Secular) and 43 independents) have won unanimously.

Only one nomination had been received for the ward No.14 in Honnavar Town Panchayat, but even that has been rejected. Only one candidate, who had filed his nomination papers to the 5th ward in the Bhatkal Town Municipal Council had been withdrawn. Because of this reason, no election will be held for these two wards, now. Owing to the merger of areas coming under the seven city municipal councils and one town municipal council around Bangalore in the Bangalore Urban District forming the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, the number of wards in the district had come down to 150 from 305. The election to the BBMP was not being held awaiting the judgment from the Karnataka High Court.

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3-12-2007-The Awakened One-Buddha-Teacher of the Devas
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The Awakened One


Kindly visit:


Life of the Buddha in pictures

Plate1aa.jpg (3208 bytes) 1. The Birth of the Bodhisatta.
On a full-moon day in the month of May (Visakha) 2600 years ….
Plate2aa.jpg (3117 bytes) 2. Life as a Prince.
Manifold was the variety of all the sensuous delights within the palace, ….
Plate3aa.jpg (2840 bytes) 3. The realities of life.
All King Suddhodana’s efforts to protect his son from the four  …
Plate4aa.jpg (2447 bytes) 4. The Great going forth.
On the day of the Esala full-moon (July) the Crown Prince receives…
Plate5aa.jpg (2746 bytes) 5. Experiment with Asceticism.
For six long years the ascetic Gotama, as Prince Siddhattha was now known, …
Plate6aa.jpg (2902 bytes) 6. Enlightenment.
Discarding both extremes of luxurious living and self mortification ….
Plate7aa.jpg (2840 bytes) 7. The First Discourse.
Having realized the Four Noble Truths - the Noble Truth of Suffering; the Cause of Suffering …
Plate8aa.jpg (2815 bytes) 8. Go now and wander for the welfare of the many.
The Buddha stays on at Isipatana for the rainy season…
9. The law of Causation or Dependent Arising.
After His Enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree at Buddhagaya, the Buddha reflects…
Plate10aa.jpg (2897 bytes) 10. The Philosophy of change.
The Buddha teaches that all conditioned things are in a state of flux or change, and thus …
Plate11aa.jpg (2983 bytes) 11. Unsatisfactoriness of Life.
According to the Buddha, whatever is impermanent is subject to suffering,…
Plate12aa.jpg (2739 bytes) 12. Buddha teaches that all Phenomena is soulless.
When a thing is impermanent, as all...
Plate13aa.jpg (2917 bytes) 13. Freedom of thought.
At times referred to as the Buddha’s Charter of Free inquiry this discourse …
Plate14aa.jpg (2666 bytes) 14. Towards human dignity.
Sunita was a scavenger born into a so called outcaste community.  ….
Plate15aa.jpg (2635 bytes) 15. Equality of women.
It was the Buddha who first gave women her rightful place in a society which had earlier …
Plate16aa.jpg (2895 bytes) 16. Human freedom.
In the time of the Buddha it was common for both men and women to enter into services …
Plate17aa.jpg (2537 bytes) 17. Ministering to the sick.
In spite of the fact that the study and practice of medicine and surgical science has …
Plate18aa.jpg (2599 bytes) 18. Psychic Therapy.
The Buddha speaking on the mind, has also spoken on mental disorders …
Plate19aa.jpg (2761 bytes) 19. Compassion to Animals.
In the Buddha’s time there were various animal sacrifices taking …
Plate20aa.jpg (2982 bytes) 20. Buddhist Economic System.
Many who are not familiar with the Buddha’s Teaching classify it as a religion for the next ..
Plate21aa.jpg (2879 bytes) 21. Buddhist Education.
It is a method of teaching that is based on the mental development of the …
Plate22aa.jpg (3090 bytes) 22. Administration of Justice.
Certain statutes regarding the administration of justice, were ….
Plate23aa.jpg (2831 bytes) 23. World Peace.
In the Buddha’s Teaching the highest emphasis is laid on the …
Plate24aa.jpg (3018 bytes) 24. The Maha Parinibbana.
The Buddha was born as a prince under a tree, gained Supreme ..

Teacher of the Devas

Susan Elbaum Jootla

To My Teachers
My Parents, and
My Husband


I. [go up]

In the canonical formula for contemplation of the Buddha, nine epithets of the Awakened One are mentioned. One of these, likely to be overlooked, is sattha devamanussanam, “teacher of gods and humans.” The present essay focuses on one aspect of this epithet: the Buddha’s role as teacher of the devas or gods. In the pages to follow we will carefully consider the instructions and techniques he used when teaching beings of divine stature. If we study these teachings we will gain deeper understanding of how we should purify our own minds, and by studying the responses of the gods we can find models for our own behavior in relation to the Master and his teaching.

Many religious leaders consider themselves prophets whose authority stems from an Almighty God, but as our epithet implies, the Buddha’s relationship to divinity was very different. He instructed deities, as well as humans, on how to end all suffering (dukkha) by eradicating ignorance and other unwholesome states. The gods came to the Buddha to request instruction and clarification, to support his Sasana or Dispensation, to praise his incomparable qualities, and to pay homage at his feet. Devas and brahmas are often mentioned throughout the Pali canon. They regularly manifest themselves on the human plane and participate in many episodes of the Buddha’s career. Some of these higher beings are foolish, some exceedingly wise; some are barely distinguishable from well-off people, others are extremely powerful, long-lived, and magnificent. The multiple connections between the Buddha and beings of the higher planes can inspire meditators to develop the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering.

This essay will explore: (1) the Buddha’s direct instructions to devas and how they can help human meditators practice the Dhamma; (2) how devas, out of gratitude and faith, honor the Buddha and support his Dispensation; and (3) the process of attaining liberation for devas, brahmas, and humans.

The Buddhist universe consists of thirty-one planes of existence (see chart below). Every being lives on one or another of these planes. After death all beings, except the arahants, will be reborn in a realm and under circumstances that accords with their kamma — their volitional actions of body, speech, and mind made in that existence or in any previous one. We will often refer to this chart to indicate where, in the cosmic hierarchy, the deities we meet come from.

Thirty-one Planes of Existence

  • Four planes of the Immaterial Brahma Realm:
    • (31) Plane of Neither Perception-nor-non-Perception
    • (30) Plane of Nothingness
    • (29) Plane of Infinite Consciousness
    • (28) Plane of Infinite Space
  • Sixteen planes of the Fine Material Brahma Realm:
    • 7 Fourth Jhana Planes:
      • 5 Pure Abodes:
        • (27) Highest (Akanittha)
        • (26) Clear Sighted (Sudassi)
        • (25) Beautiful (Sudassa)
        • (24) Serene (Atappa)
        • (23) Durable (Aviha)
      • (22) Non-percipient, matter only, no mind
      • (21) Great Fruit
    • 3 Third Jhana Planes:
      • (20) Third Jhana, highest degree
      • (19) Third Jhana, medium degree
      • (18) Third Jhana, minor degree
    • 3 Second Jhana Planes:
      • (17) Second Jhana, highest degree (Abhassara)
      • (16) Second Jhana, medium degree
      • (15) Second Jhana, minor degree
    • 3 First Jhana Planes:
      • (14) First Jhana, Maha Brahmas
      • (13) First Jhana, Brahma’s ministers
      • (12) First Jhana, Brahma’s retinue
  • Eleven planes of the Sensuous Realm :
    • Seven Happy Sensuous Planes:
      • Six Deva planes:
        • (11) Control others’ creations
        • (10) Rejoice in their own creations
        • (9) Tusita — Delightful Plane
        • (8) Yama
        • (7) Realm of the Thirty-three
        • (6) Catummaharajika — 4 Great Kings
      • (5) Human Beings
    • Four Lower Realms of Woe:
      • (4) Ghosts
      • (3) Asuras
      • (2) Animal realm
      • (1) Hell realms

The lowest area (planes 1-11) is called the sensuous realm; here sense experience predominates. Next comes the fine-material realm (12-27) attained by practicing the fine-material absorptions (rupa-jhanas). Above that is the immaterial realm (28-31) attained by practicing the immaterial absorptions (arupa-jhanas).

Although humans appear to be rather low on the scale, many intelligent deities long for rebirth on the human plane. Why? Because the best opportunity to practice the Dhamma and attain liberation is right here on earth. On the lower four planes, little progress can be made as suffering is gross and unrelenting and the opportunity to perform deeds of merit is rarely gained. The very bliss of the higher planes beclouds the universal characteristics of all phenomena: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the lack of any lasting, controlling self. And without fully comprehending these principles, there is no motivation to develop the detachment from the world that is essential to liberation.

Before examining the chart in detail, a few notes on terminology are in order. We will use the word “deva” to include deva, devata, and devaputta referred to in the Suttas, as all three terms are almost synonymous. Although “deva” is often used in the Pali texts to refer to all super-human beings, “deva” and “brahma” can generally be distinguished. “Deva” in its more limited sense refers to beings in the six planes immediately above the human one (6-11), the sensuous heavens. When “deva” refers specifically to these sense-sphere beings, the term “brahma” is used for those residing in the fine-material planes (12-27) and immaterial planes (28-31). If in a particular discourse “deva” is used for a being who clearly fits into the category of brahmas (as sometimes happens), we will call him a brahma; if the deva is actually a sense-sphere being (or if his identity is unclear) we will retain “deva.” For variety, we occasionally use “deity” and “god” as translations for deva in all its senses.

Let us now study some features of the chart. The lower beings and humans do not have fixed lifespans, but higher beings do. As you go up the chart from the sixth plane to the thirty-first, each successive group of deities lives longer than the group below it. The lifespans of devas are measured in multiple centuries. The duration of a brahma’s existence can only be expressed in aeons. The Buddha defines these extremely long periods of time by analogy. An aeon is the length of time it would take to wear away a mountain of solid rock six miles high and six miles wide, rubbing over it with a fine piece of muslin once every hundred years. The highest brahmas of the immaterial sphere live for 84,000 aeons.

All beings — human, sub-human, devas, and brahmas — die. All except arahants are reborn in one or another of the thirty-one planes. No being lasts forever. Arahants have eradicated all mental defilements and have thereby eliminated the causes for rebirth with its attendant suffering. They are not reborn after death. Instead, they attain Parinibbana, the complete, permanent cessation of every form of existence. For all non-arahants, death is immediately followed by rebirth. The plane of birth is determined by the kamma that becomes operative at the moment of death. This could be any volition created in the present life or in any previous existence. Even the three lower kinds of noble ones (ariya) must be reborn. They have effaced some of the mental defilements, are assured of eventually attaining Nibbana, and will never again be reborn in the lower planes. Noble ones of the two lower kinds — stream-enterers and once-returners — can be reborn in the deva planes. For anyone who is not an ariya — and this includes most devas and brahmas — the destination of rebirth is uncertain. It may be on the same plane or on a higher one; but most often it is on a lower plane. Rebirth is neither arbitrary nor controlled by a God. It takes place strictly due to kamma, the deeds we have performed and continue to perform all our lives. Brahmas too die and are reborn, and also suffer, even though their lives are so extremely long that they may be deluded into believing they are permanent.1

The devas of the sensuous sphere are said to enjoy sense pleasures in far greater abundance than can be found in the human world. Their bodies emit light and they have subtle sense organs, similar to ours but far more powerful and acute. That is why the supernormal powers of seeing various realms and hearing at great distances are referred to as deva vision and deva hearing. On the deva planes there are stream-enterers and once-returners. For example, Sakka, king of the gods in the heaven of the Thirty-three, became a stream-enterer while discussing the Dhamma with the Buddha, as we will see below.2 However, only few among the devas have any understanding of the Dhamma. In fact, all that is needed to be reborn in these heavens is the meritorious kamma of generosity and good morality. Mental development through meditation is not a prerequisite for rebirth on the higher sensuous planes.

The fine-material brahmas have extremely subtle bodies of light; their powers are great but not unlimited. A being is reborn among these brahmas by cultivating the appropriate jhana, perfecting it, and retaining it at the moment of death. Jhanas are states of deep concentration that can be attained by unifying the mind through meditation. They are all wholesome states of a very lofty and sublime nature. But one can get “stuck internally” in any of the jhanas and thereby block one’s progress towards awakening.3 There are four fine-material jhanas. The beings in the brahma planes spend most of their time enjoying their respective jhanas. Brahmas experience no ill will or hatred, but only because they have suppressed it by their jhana, not because they have uprooted it from their mental continuum. Thus when a brahma is eventually reborn as a deva or human being he or she can again be beset by hatred. (After one birth as a deva or human, a former brahma can even fall to one of the lower planes of the grossest suffering.) The brahmas also are prone to conceit and belief in a permanent self, as well as to attachment to the bliss of meditation. Fine-material brahmas can interact with the human plane if they so choose, but to appear to humans they must, like the devas, deliberately assume a grosser form.4 Later we will meet a number of brahmas who converse with the Buddha.

The immaterial brahmas of the four highest planes have no material bodies whatsoever. They consist entirely of mind. They attained this kind of birth by achieving and maintaining the immaterial jhanas, four kinds of absorption taking non-material objects, and it is this kamma that became operative at their death. These brahmas can have no contact with the human or deva planes, for they have no physical bodies; thus we will rarely mention them. They spend countless aeons in the perfect equanimity of meditation until their lifespan ends. Then they are reborn in the same plane, a higher immaterial plane, or as devas. After that they too can be reborn on any plane at all. So even existence without a body is not the way to permanently eliminate suffering.

Only practicing the Noble Eightfold Path can bring suffering to an end. In fact, immaterial brahmas are in the unfortunate position of being unable to start on the path. This is because one has to learn the Dhamma from the Buddha or one of his disciples to attain the first stage of awakening, to become a stream-enterer. That is why the sage Asita, called by the Buddha’s father to examine the newborn Bodhisatta, wept after predicting that Prince Siddhattha would become a Buddha. The sage knew he was going to die before the prince attained Buddhahood. He had cultivated these immaterial absorptions so he would have to be reborn in the immaterial realm and would thereby lose all contact with the human plane. This meant he would not be able to escape samsara under Gotama Buddha. He was sorely distressed to realize that he would miss this rare opportunity to gain deliverance and would have to remain in the round of rebirth until another Buddha appears in the remote future. He could see into the future and thus understood the precious opportunity a Buddha offers, but he could neither postpone his death nor avoid rebirth into the immaterial realm.

II. [go up]
The Buddha Teaches Deities

The Buddha teaches deities when they visit the human plane where he normally resides,5 and sometimes too by visiting them on the higher planes. On some occasions devas and brahmas come to the Buddha for clarification of Dhamma problems. On other occasions the Buddha becomes aware, through his supernormal knowledge, that a god needs some instruction to correct a wrong view or to goad him further on the path to awakening. Then the Buddha travels to the higher plane and gives the deity a personal discourse.

Once a brahman admirer of the Buddha recounted as best as he could evidence of the greatness of the Buddha. He was trying to convince other brahmans to meet the Buddha. His proof included the fact that “many thousands of deities have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama” (MN 95.9). Devas, like humans, develop faith in the Buddha by practicing his teachings. In Chapter III we will see how grateful devas express this confidence. When devas come to visit the Buddha late at night, their luminous bodies light up the monastery as they pay respects to the Exalted One and ask their questions.

We will start with a god who was agitated by fear arisen from his sensual desire, and conclude with one who becomes a stream-enterer during his conversation with the Buddha.

Devas Come to the Buddha for Help

Subrahma deva

Subrahma deva was not a very sophisticated god; he delighted in sensuality, like many other devas of the sensuous sphere. He had been playing in sport with his thousand nymphs when half of them suddenly vanished. Subrahma used his deva vision to find where they had gone and he saw that they had died and been reborn in a hell realm. Anxious that he and his remaining nymphs might soon suffer the same fate, he came to the Buddha looking for a way to end his fear:

“Always frightened is this mind,
The mind is always agitated
About problems not yet arisen
And about those that have appeared.
If there exists release from fear,
Being asked, please explain it to me.”

The Buddha does not offer simplistic short-term solutions to the suffering beings go through when their loved ones die; he did not console the deva. Instead, he told Subrahma that only by developing wholesome mental states through meditation and by giving up all attachments can anyone find security:

“Not apart from enlightenment and austerity,
Not apart from sense restraint,
Not apart from relinquishing all,
Do I see any safety for living beings.” (KS I, 77; SN 2:17)

The deva and his remaining nymphs apparently comprehended these words, as the commentary says that at the end of this discourse they all became stream-enterers.

How to escape suffering

One deva who came to visit the Buddha seemed to be already trying to practice the Dhamma, for he was concerned about how beings can eliminate their internal and external bondage:

“A tangle inside, a tangle outside,
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama,
Who can disentangle this tangle?”

The Buddha replied that to untie these knots of misery one must cultivate morality, mindfulness, concentration, and insight. He added that the arahants are indeed freed from the twists and bonds of rebirth:

“A man who is wise, established on virtue,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A bhikkhu who is ardent and discerning:
He can disentangle this tangle.

Those in whom lust and hatred too
Along with ignorance have been expunged,
The arahants with taints destroyed:
For them the tangle is disentangled.” (KS I, 20; SN 1:23)

A second deva concerned with liberation spoke a verse which is partly praise of the Buddha and partly a request for teaching. Using various similes from the animal world, this god showed his admiration and reverence for the Exalted One. In the last line, with all humility, he posed the question that the Buddha’s teachings are designed to answer:

“Having approached you, we ask a question
Of the slender hero with antelope-calves,
Greedless, subsisting on little food,
Wandering alone like a lion,
An elephant indifferent to sensual pleasures:6
How is one released from suffering?”

The Buddha treated this deva’s serious query directly and with a minimum of words. He replied that the way out of suffering is to cultivate detachment from the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind:

“There are five sensual cords in the world,
Mind is declared to be the sixth.
Having made desire fade out here,
It is thus one is released from suffering.” (KS I, 25; SN 1:30)

These two gods apparently had already prepared themselves for the Dhamma and did not need the kind of graduated discourse usually given to human beings, which begins with the benefits of generosity and ethics. We can contemplate and practice the Buddha’s advice to the deities to cultivate the detachment and insight that lead to liberation.

Friendship with the good

Once a group of six devas came to visit the Buddha at Savatthi, while he was residing in Jetavana, the monastery offered by Anathapindika. The first deva spoke the following verse:

“One should associate only with the good,
With the good one should foster intimacy.
Having learned the true Dhamma of the good,
One becomes better, never worse.” (KS I, 27; SN 1:31)

The other five concurred and spoke verses that differed only in their point of emphasis. One said association with the good brings wisdom, another that friends dry our tears, another that wise friendship brings one a good reputation, another that it leads to a happy rebirth. The last stated that a good friend is a source of bliss. The Buddha approved their verses and then added one of his own:

“One should associate only with the good,
With the good one should foster intimacy.
Having learned the true Dhamma of the good,
One is released from all suffering.”

Maha-mangala Sutta

The popular Maha-mangala Sutta — the Great Discourse on Blessings — originated when a radiant deva approached the Blessed One at Jetavana and respectfully requested a teaching on the highest good: “Many gods and men, wishing for well-being, have pondered over those things that constitute blessings. Tell us what is the highest blessing (mangalam uttamam).” When gods cannot concur among themselves they go to the Fully Self-Awakened One, “the light of the triple world,” the source of all wisdom. The Buddha enumerated thirty-eight “blessings,” among them: rebirth in a good location, supporting one’s parents, avoiding intoxicants, hearing the Dhamma, and knowing the Four Noble Truths (Sn vv. 258-69). This sutta to a deva is one of the select number of parittas, suttas recited for protection from harm, and is popular among Buddhists even to this day.

A discouraged meditator

A deva named Kamada had been trying to follow the Buddha’s teachings but found the task too demanding. He sounds depressed, as we human meditators feel when we cannot see any “progress” in our practice and lose sight of the long-term perspective. Discouraged, Kamada complained to the Buddha about how difficult it is to practice the Dhamma.

The Buddha took a positive approach. He did not coddle or comfort the deva, but praised those bhikkhus who leave the household life to work steadfastly towards the goal:

“They do even what is difficult to do,
(O Kamada,” said the Blessed One),
“The trainees who are composed in virtue,
Steadfast are they in their hearts.
For one who has entered the homeless life
There comes contentment that brings happiness.”

Kamada remained disconsolate, insisting on the difficulties: “It is hard to win this serene contentment, Blessed One.” The Buddha repeated that some beings do it, those “who love to achieve the mastery of the heart, whose minds both day and night, love to meditate.” Meditation on the universal characteristics of change, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self is the way to ultimate contentment because it leads to detachment from all worldly concerns. Kamada, however, complained that it is hard to compose the mind. The Buddha agreed the task is not easy, but added: “Yet that which is hard to compose, they do compose it” and, calming their restless minds, they attain the stages of awakening.

“The path is impassable and uneven, Blessed One,” the deva complained. He seems to crave some magic to make everything easy. But that is not how the Buddhas teach: they only show the way, and we ourselves must put forth the energy to walk on. Liberation takes consistent, persistent, diligent effort. To Kamada, not yet a noble one, training the mind seemed to be an endless task:

“Though the path is impassable and uneven,
The noble ones walk along it, Kamada.
The ignoble fall down head first,
Straight down on the uneven path;
But the path of the noble ones is even,
For the noble are even amidst the uneven.” (KS I, 68-69; SN 2:6)

Would an arahant say “I” or “mine”?

Other devas had more sophisticated queries. One deva, for example, asked the Buddha if an arahant could use words that refer to a self:

“Consummate with taints destroyed,
One who bears his final body,
Would he still say ‘I speak’?
And would he say ‘They speak to me’?”

This deva realized that arahantship means the end of rebirth and suffering by uprooting mental defilements; he knew that arahants have no belief in any self or soul. But he was puzzled to hear monks reputed to be arahants continuing to use such self-referential expressions.

The Buddha replied that an arahant might say “I” always aware of the merely pragmatic value of common terms:

“Skillful, knowing the world’s parlance,
He uses such terms as mere expressions.”

The deva, trying to grasp the Buddha’s meaning, asked whether an arahant would use such expressions because he is still prone to conceit. The Buddha made it clear that the arahant has no delusions about his true nature. He has uprooted all notions of self and removed all traces of pride and conceit:

“No knots exist for one with conceit cast off;
For him all knots of conceit are consumed.
When the wise one has transcended the conceived
He might still say ‘I speak,’
And he might say ‘They speak to me.’
Skillful, knowing the world’s parlance,
He uses such terms as mere expressions.” (KS I, 21-22; SN 1:25)

Crossing the flood

Once late at night a deva came into the Buddha’s presence, shedding bright light over the whole of Jetavana. He saluted the Lord, stood to one side, and asked: “How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?” This god knew that the Buddha had gone beyond samsara’s deluge of misery and wanted to learn how he had achieved this.

The Buddha replied: “By not standing still, friend, and by not struggling I crossed the flood.” The deva, perplexed by this paradox, asked for clarification. To clear up the analogy, the Exalted One told him: “When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not standing still and by not struggling I crossed the flood.” The metaphor describes balanced effort. He “sank” when he did not work hard enough, but if he strained too hard he became agitated and got “swept away.” When he discerned how to cross over with just the right balance between energy and calm, he transcended the flood of suffering fully and permanently. This deva rejoiced that at long last he had met a real arahant, a true holy man:

“After a long time at last I see
A brahman who is fully quenched,
Who by not standing still, not struggling,
Has crossed attachment to the world.” (KS I, 2; SN 1:1)

The delighted deva had correctly perceived what set the Buddha apart from others: he had transcended death, rebirth, and all suffering by eliminating all the mental impurities. The deva began with a modicum of faith in the Buddha and received personal instruction from him. As a result, the commentary indicates, he became a stream-enterer. After the Buddha approved the deva’s verse, he paid respects and departed.


On a similar occasion a deva asked the Buddha to explain the causes of the downfall, or moral decline, of beings. In reply, the Buddha first gave a summary: “He who loves Dhamma progresses, he who hates it declines.” Then he named ten specific dangers to avoid: (1) the company and teachings of the vicious, (2) excessive sleep and talk, (3) being irritable, (4) not supporting aged parents if one has the resources to do so, (5) lying to a monk or Dhamma teacher, (6) being stingy, (7) being conceited about birth, wealth, or community, (8) running around with many women, (9) drinking, gambling, and adultery, and (10) marrying a woman many years younger than oneself.

The Buddha concluded, “Reflecting thoroughly on those causes of downfall in the world, the wise one, endowed with insight, enjoys bliss in a happy state.” Meditation on this negative subject makes wisdom grow, through avoidance, while encouraging insight and bringing pure happiness (Sn vv. 91-115).

Sakka’s questions

Sakka, king of the devas in the heaven of the Thirty-three, played many roles in the Buddha’s mission. He attended on the Bodhisatta at his final birth and at the Great Renunciation, visited the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, and several times proclaimed his confidence in his unique qualities. A discourse called Sakka’s Questions (DN 21) took place after he had been a serious disciple of the Buddha for some time. The sutta records a long audience he had with the Blessed One which culminated in his attainment of stream-entry. Their conversation is an excellent example of the Buddha as “teacher of devas,” and shows all beings how to work for Nibbana. For these reasons we will study Sakka’s Questions in depth to see what message it has for us today.7

From his vantage point in the Tavatimsa plane, Sakka was a keen observer of the behavior of humans and other beings. He saw that while beings would like to live with each other peacefully, they rarely succeed. Thus his opening question to the Buddha attempted to unravel this contradiction:

“By what fetters, sir, are beings bound — gods, humans, asuras, nagas, gandhabbas, and whatever other kinds there may be — whereby, although they wish to live without hate, harming, hostility or malignity, and in peace, they yet live in hate, harming one another, hostile and malign?”

The Buddha explained that two mental factors — jealousy and avarice — cause all this trouble; from these two qualities almost all the aggression in the world arises. In this way the Buddha began a step-by-step lesson in Buddhist psychology: causes and conditions govern everything that happens in the universe. Sakka next asked about the origin of jealousy and avarice. Behind jealousy and avarice, the Buddha said, lie liking and disliking, and the source of both liking and disliking is desire.

As this is such a basic problem, Sakka wanted to understand even more deeply the causes of desire. The Buddha told him that desire is triggered by thinking. Although he did not specify what sort of thinking, he must have been referring to unsystematic mental activity, the random thoughts in which the untrained mind indulges. When Sakka asked about the cause of thinking, the Buddha said it is the “tendency to mental proliferation.” This is what brings about random thinking, which leads to desire, which in turn culminates in like and dislike. These in turn condition jealousy and avarice, from which arise the conflicts in our daily lives.

Sakka next shifted to a more directly practical issue: “How does one destroy this sequence that leads to so much misery?” He requested the Buddha to explain what should be done to eliminate this tendency to endless proliferation of mental activity. The Buddha replied that one should not blindly follow after every feeling that arises in the mind. Rather, meditators should pursue a feeling — whether it be a pleasant, painful, or neutral one — only if doing so contributes to the growth of wholesome qualities. If we are alert to our reactions and see that pursuing a feeling strengthens unwholesome tendencies, then we should relinquish that feeling. We will not get carried away by desire for more enjoyable feelings or by aversion towards pain and unhappiness.

Sakka once again was very appreciative of the Buddha’s words and he next asked more specifically about the practice of bhikkhus. The deva knew that monks practice the Dhamma to the highest degree, in the purest form. As a god he could not become a monk, but he wanted to discover how monks acquire the restraint required by the monastic disciplinary code. The Buddha replied that the good bhikkhu pursues only bodily conduct, conversation, and goals which are conducive to the growth of wholesome qualities, to the attainment of Nibbana. He rigorously restrains himself from everything detrimental to these aims.

Sakka had one more question about mind training: “How do bhikkhus control their senses?” Again the Buddha spoke of avoiding whatever leads to evil while cultivating the positive, this time referring to all kinds of objects — forms, sounds, odors, tastes, tactile objects, and ideas. This is a basic Dhamma theme: always avoid unwholesome actions while one works to create wholesome kamma.

Sakka wanted to take full advantage of his lengthy audience with the Blessed One, so he embarked on another series of queries. These deal with the variety of religious teachers he had seen in the world. Even a deva can be confused by the range of doctrines taught by “holy” people. He genuinely sought to learn: (1) if these teachers all taught the same thing, and (2) if they are all liberated. How often do we hear today, “All paths lead to the same goal,” or “All spiritual teachings are the same beneath their superficial differences.” But the Buddha, the Fully Self-Awakened One, replied negatively to both of Sakka’s questions. He explained that spiritual teachers do not all teach the same thing because they have different perceptions of the truth. From this it logically follows that they cannot all be fully liberated.

Proclaiming where true liberation lies, the Buddha instructed Sakka that only those “who are liberated by the destruction of craving are fully proficient, freed from the bonds, perfect in the holy life.” When evaluating spiritual teachers, bear in mind that liberation means destroying desire. Sakka approved of the Buddha’s statement and remarked that passion pulls beings to repeated rebirth in happy or unhappy circumstances.

Sakka was so at ease with his Teacher that he then related a story which shows an unexpected aspect of deity-human relationships. Long ago he had gone to various human ascetics for advice on these matters with utterly unilluminating results. None of the yogis that Sakka had hoped to learn from had told him anything. In fact, as soon as they realized he was the king of the devas, one and all decided to become his disciples. Ironically, Sakka found himself in the awkward position of having to tell them what little Dhamma he understood at the time. They had no teachings to give him.

Sakka had been delighted with this whole conversation. He declared that it had given him a unique happiness and satisfaction “conducive to dispassion, detachment, cessation, peace, higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nibbana.” This was the direction he had longed to travel, literally for ages. He had at last made substantial progress with the guidance of the Blessed One.

Inviting Sakka to delve further into his mental processes, the Buddha then asked him what thoughts contribute to this great satisfaction. In his final reply, Sakka declared he was joyful because he foresaw six facts about his future: (1) As king of the devas he had gained “fresh potency of life.” (2) At the end of this life, he would mindfully choose where to be reborn, in a human or higher realm. (3) In that future life too, he would follow the Buddha-Dhamma with wisdom, clear comprehension, and mindfulness. (4) He might attain arahantship in that existence. (5) But if not, he would become a non-returner (anagami) and, after dying there, be reborn in the highest Pure Abode. (6) Finally Sakka knew that that existence would be his last; before it ended he would become an arahant.8

The king of the devas then spoke a verse in gratitude to the Buddha:

“I’ve seen the Buddha, and my doubts
Are all dispelled, my fears are allayed,
And now to the Enlightened One I pay
Homage due, to him who’s drawn the dart
Of craving, to the Buddha, peerless Lord,
Mighty hero, kinsman of the Sun!”

The sutta then indicates that Sakka gained the stainless “vision of the Dhamma” by which he became a stream-enterer. All his uncertainties about the path to final awakening had been dispelled by the Buddha’s masterly replies to his questions, and his own past merits bore their proper fruit.

There is another discourse with Sakka as questioner (MN 37). It is set later on, at the monastery built by the woman lay devotee Visakha for the Buddha in Savatthi. This time Sakka asked the Buddha: “How in brief is a bhikkhu liberated by the destruction of craving… one who is foremost among gods and humans?”

In reply, the Buddha summarized the sequence that leads a bhikkhu to liberation:

“A bhikkhu has heard that nothing is worth adhering to. When a bhikkhu has heard that nothing is worth adhering to, he directly knows everything… he fully understands everything… whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, he abides contemplating impermanence in those feelings, contemplating fading away, contemplating cessation, contemplating relinquishment. Contemplating thus, he does not cling to anything in the world. When he does not cling he is not agitated… he personally attains Nibbana. He understands ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’”

The cycle of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada) explains that contact leads to feeling which in turn conditions craving, and craving causes clinging, which leads to rebirth and suffering. So by contemplating feeling and by seeing it as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and non-self, the bhikkhu gives up all craving and clinging. That is Nibbana here and now. Delighted, Sakka paid respects to the Buddha and returned to the Tavatimsa deva plane.

The Buddha Goes to Teach Deities

In several episodes the Buddha travels to higher planes to teach the beings dwelling there. While he generally visited the lower brahma planes for this purpose, his most important course of instruction to the gods took place on the Tavatimsa deva plane (No. 7 on the chart). The Pali commentaries report that during the seventh rains retreat after his Enlightenment, the Buddha spent three months in the Tavatimsa heaven teaching the entire Abhidhamma to his mother along with numerous other devas and brahmas. They had gathered there from the various deva planes of ten thousand world systems in order to listen to his exposition of this extremely precise philosophical psychology.9

Only higher beings could have remained sitting in a single posture this long, and continuity of attention is essential for properly grasping the Abhidhamma. “Infinite and immeasurable was the discourse, which went on ceaselessly for three months with the velocity of a waterfall” (Expos 19). But as the Buddha was a human being, his body required normal food. Thus everyday, in the terrestrial forenoon, he created an image of himself to continue preaching in Tavatimsa, while in his natural body he came to earth to collect almsfood and partake of a meal. Venerable Sariputta met him daily at the Anotatta Lake, and there the Buddha summarized for him what he had taught the deities the previous day. Sariputta gradually passed all this material on to his own group of five hundred bhikkhu pupils, elaborating and organizing it to make it easier to comprehend.

The Buddha gave this profound teaching in a higher plane as it demanded super-human attentiveness. His chief student there was his mother, who had died a few days after his birth and was reborn in the Tusita deva-world. By teaching her the most subtle aspects of the Dhamma, the seven sections of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the Buddha expressed his gratitude to his mother for having carried him in her womb and bringing him into this world.

Maha Brahma

The stories of a Buddha going to teach a brahma take place on the plane of Maha Brahma, the third of the fine-material planes (No. 14). Many people worship Maha Brahma as the supreme and eternal creator God, but for the Buddha he is merely a powerful deity still caught within the cycle of repeated existence. In point of fact, “Maha Brahma” is a role or office filled by different individuals at different periods.

The Buddha has directly seen the origins of Maha Brahma and understands what it requires to be reborn in his world. In the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha describes how a supposed Creator God came to believe himself omnipotent and how others came to rely on his sovereignty. His description was based, not on speculation or hearsay, but on his own direct knowledge. The Buddha explains that when our world system disintegrates, as it regularly does after extremely long periods of time, the lower sixteen planes are all destroyed. Beings disappear from all planes below the seventeenth, the plane of the Abhassara gods. Whatever beings cannot be born on the seventeenth or a higher brahma plane then must take birth on the lower planes in other remote world systems.

Eventually the world starts to re-form. Then a solitary being passes away from the Abhassara plane and takes rebirth on the plane of Maha Brahma. A palace created by his kamma awaits him there: “There he dwells, mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the air, abiding in glory. And he continues thus for a long, long time.” After ages pass, he becomes lonely and longs for other beings to join him. It just so happens that shortly after the brahma starts craving for company, other beings from the Abhassara plane, who have exhausted their lifespans there, pass away and are reborn in the palace of Brahma, in companionship with him.

Because these beings seemed to arise in accordance with the first brahma’s wish, he becomes convinced that he is the almighty God: “I am the Great Brahma, the Vanquisher… the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Supreme Being.” The other brahmas, seeing that he was already present when they took birth in his world, accept his claim and revere him as their creator.

Eventually this misconception of a Creator God spreads to the human plane. One of the other brahmas passes away and is reborn here. He develops concentration and learns to recollect his previous life with Maha Brahma, but none of his lives before that. Recollecting that existence he recalls that Maha Brahma was considered the “father of all that are and are to be… permanent, stable, eternal.” As he is unable to remember further back, he believes this to be absolute truth and propounds a theistic doctrine of an omnipotent Creator God (Net 69-70, 155-66).

The Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, a highly renowned Myanmar scholar-monk of the first part of this century, gave a careful analysis of the powers of Maha Brahma in his Niyama Dipani (MB pp. 138-39). He states that although Maha Brahma can perform all sorts of transformations, he cannot actually create independent creatures, change the kammic law of cause and effect, or keep anyone from growing old or dying. Brahma can use his special powers to transport a man to the brahma plane for a short visit, but he cannot ensure that someone will be reborn there.

Sikhin Buddha and Abhibhu

This story of a former Buddha’s encounter with brahmas was recounted by Gotama Buddha to his disciples as follows. Buddha Sikhin took his chief disciple, Abhibhu, along on a visit to a brahma world where he told him to give a discourse to the brahma, his ministers, and his retinue.10 Venerable Abhibhu then “instructed, enlightened, incited, and inspired” the audience with a talk on Dhamma. But the great brahma and his cohorts did not appreciate what they heard. Instead of paying careful heed to the chief disciple’s words, they felt insulted that a disciple should preach in the presence of the Master. In their pride, they considered themselves worthy of the direct attention of the Buddha himself. Sikhin of course knew the brahmas’ unwholesome thoughts. Without addressing them directly, he urged Abhibhu to continue and “agitate them exceedingly” in order to force them to acknowledge that they were not all-powerful, permanent, or superior to this arahant.

Abhibhu followed his master’s instructions by working supernormal feats while continuing his discourse. Only rarely does a Buddha himself perform supernormal acts or permit one of his disciples to do so in the human plane. But in a brahma world, where deeds that seem impossible to us are the norm, these tactics are appropriate. At times Abhibhu made his body invisible while speaking to the brahmas, at times half visible, at times fully visible. This masterful performance did humble those brahmas. They became more receptive, and realizing the monk was no ordinary human being, they exclaimed, “This is a marvellous thing: the great magic power and might of the recluse!”

Abhibhu then remarked to the Lord that while speaking in a normal voice in the Brahma world, he could make the beings in the surrounding thousand realms hear what he said. The Buddha, deeming this relevant to the occasion, urged him to show his prowess. By projecting and broadcasting his speech, the disciple strove further to stimulate a sense of urgency in the brahmas so they would realize the need to stop the cycle of birth and death. Although the lives of brahmas are full of the bliss of jhana, they remain subject to continual subtle change, to death and rebirth, and to suffering. Abhibhu declaimed:

“Arouse your energy, strive on!
Exert yourself in the Buddha’s Teaching.
Sweep away the army of Death
As an elephant does a hut of reeds.

One who dwells diligently
In this Dhamma and Discipline
Will abandon the wandering on in birth
And make an end to suffering.”

Then Buddha Sikhin and his chief disciple left that brahma realm. They had done everything they could to make the brahmas see their own limitations and encourage them to practice the Dhamma (KS I, 194-96; SN 6:14).

Baka Brahma

A brahma known as Baka once reflected privately that he and his plane of existence were everlasting. He thought that there could be no higher plane of rebirth and was convinced he had overcome suffering. The Buddha discerned his deep-seated wrong view and decided to pay him a visit. When he appeared in that brahma world, Baka Brahma welcomed him formally but immediately announced:

“Now, good sir, this is permanent, this is everlasting, this is eternal, this is total, this is not subject to pass away; for this neither is born nor ages nor dies nor passes away nor reappears, and beyond this there is no escape.” (MN 49)

The Buddha, however, contradicted him, pointing out that every one of his claims was wrong. Just then Mara the Evil One joined the conversation. Mara’s task is to prevent beings from being won over to the Dhamma, to keep them trapped in the cycle of birth and death, his own personal domain.11

Taking possession of one of the brahma’s attendants, Mara urged the Buddha, with a display of sympathy, to accept this brahma as God, the creator of all beings. He told the Buddha that recluses of the past who delighted in things of this life and “who lauded Brahma” won happy births afterwards, while those who rejected Brahma had to endure terrible punishment. The Exalted One let him have his say and then called his number:

“I know you, Evil One. Do not think: ‘He does not know me.’ You are Mara, Evil One, and the Brahma and his assembly and the members of the assembly have all fallen into your hands, they have all fallen into your power. You, Evil One, think: ‘This one too has fallen into my hands, he too has fallen into my power’; but I have not fallen into your hands, Evil One, I have not fallen into your power.”

All beings subject to craving — humans, subhumans, devas, or brahmas — are said to be in Mara’s power because they can all be moved by defilements and must drift along in the current of birth and death. But the Buddha and the arahants have permanently and completely escaped Mara’s ken and power, for they have eliminated all defilements. They have exhausted the fuel of rebirth and thus have vanquished the Lord of Death.

Baka Brahma next speaks up on his own behalf. He reminds the Buddha of his opening statement on permanence. He warns him that it is futile to seek “an escape beyond” his own realm, then he cajoles and threatens him in the same breath: “If you will hold to earth… beings… gods… you will be close to me, within my domain, for me to work my will upon and punish.” The Buddha agrees that if he clung to earth (or any other aspect of existence) he would remain under the control of Maha Brahma (and Mara too), but he adds: “I understand your reach and your sway to extend thus: Baka the Brahma has this much power, this much might, this much influence.” The Buddha points out that beyond the thousandfold world system over which Baka reigns there are planes of existence of which he is totally unaware, and beyond all conditioned phenomena there is a reality that transcends even “the allness of the all” — a consciousness without manifestation, boundless, luminous on all sides — to which Baka has no access. Demonstrating his superiority in knowledge and power, the Buddha uses his psychic powers to humble Baka and his entire assembly. By the end of the discourse, these once haughty beings marvel at the might of the recluse Gotama: “Though living in a generation that delights in being… he has extirpated being together with its root.”12

A brahma with wrong view

Once an unnamed brahma gave rise to the deluded thought, “No recluse is powerful enough to reach my realm.” The Buddha read his mind and proved him wrong by simply appearing before him and sitting at ease in the air above his head, while radiating flames from his body in a dramatic display of supernormal powers. Four great arahant disciples — Mahamoggallana, Kassapa, Kappina, and Anuruddha — independently realized what had happened and decided to join their Master on this brahma plane. Each disciple sat in the air respectfully below the Buddha — but above the brahma — in one of the cardinal directions, shedding fire around himself.

A short dialogue in verse took place between Mahamoggallana, the Buddha’s second chief disciple, and the brahma:

“Today, friend, do you still hold that view,
The same view that you formerly held?
Do you see a radiance
Surpassing that in the Brahma-world?”

“I no longer hold that view, dear sir,
(I reject) the view I formerly held.
Indeed I see a radiance
Surpassing that in the Brahma-world?”
Today how could I assert the view
That I am permanent and eternal?”

According to the commentary to this story, the brahma gave up his belief in his own superiority when he observed the magnificence of the Buddha and the arahants. When the Buddha preached the Dhamma to him, he was established in the fruit of stream-entry and stopped thinking of himself as permanent. When this brahma saw his own impermanence clearly and distinctly for himself, his former tenacious opinion that his world and life were immortal was uprooted. Many aeons of preparation, the brahma’s quick intellect, the Buddha’s perfect timing, and the support of the four arahants bore fruit in the deity becoming a stream-enterer.

After the Buddha and his arahants left and returned to Jetavana, the great brahma wanted to learn more about the powers of bhikkhus. He sent a member of his retinue to ask Mahamoggallana whether there are even more bhikkhus who can perform such feats. Moggallana replied:

“Many are the disciples of the Buddha
Who are arahants with taints destroyed,
Triple knowledge bearers with spiritual powers,
Skilled in the course of others’ minds.” (KS I, 182-84; SN 6:5)

Not only do large numbers of bhikkhus have such special powers and the ability to know other people’s minds, but there are numerous fully purified arahant disciples of the Buddha as well. The emissary was glad to hear this answer, as was the brahma when he received the report.

Maha Brahma knows his own limits

Once a bhikkhu with psychic powers visited the various celestial realms seeking an answer to the question, “Where do the great elements — earth, water, fire, and air — cease without remainder?” An exhaustive inquiry led him from one realm to the next, until he finally came to Maha Brahma. The first three times the monk asked his question, Brahma replied evasively: “Monk, I am Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-seeing.” Exasperated, the bhikkhu demanded a decent reply, “Friend, I did not ask if you are Brahma… I asked you where the four great elements cease without remainder.”

At this point Maha Brahma took the monk by the arm, led him aside, and told him, “The brahmas of my entourage believe there is nothing Maha Brahma does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them.” Admitting his ignorance, he advised the monk to return to his Master, the Awakened One, who rephrased the question and gave the appropriate answer.

In this discourse we have more evidence that a Buddha is far beyond Maha Brahma in power, teaching skill, and understanding, and much of the proof is volunteered by the Great Brahma himself (DN 11.67-85).

Devas Learn as the Buddha Teaches Humans

We have observed devas and brahmas approach the Buddha and ask him questions and we have followed the Buddha on his journeys to fine-material planes to uproot the delusions of brahmas. The Buddha also instructs gods indirectly, when they overhear him teaching humans. In such situations, devas with the requisite supporting conditions from previous lives can attain awakening along with the human auditors. A number of suttas conclude with a statement that the discourse was applauded by many devas and brahmas who attained one or more of the stages of awakening while listening in. One example is a discourse the Buddha gave to his son Rahula.

The Buddha had been instructing Rahula gradually from the time he was ordained as a novice at seven years of age. The training became more profound as he grew in years and powers of discretion. By the time Rahula was twenty-one, the Buddha decided it was time to lead him towards arahantship. So one day, after the Blessed One had finished his meal, he told the young monk to come along with him to the Blind Men’s Grove near Savatthi for the afternoon. Rahula agreed and followed. But they were not alone, for the text tells us that “many thousands of deities followed the Blessed One, thinking: ‘Today the Blessed One will lead the Venerable Rahula further to the destruction of the taints.’” The commentary says that these gods had been companions of Rahula’s during a previous life in which he first made the aspiration to attain arahantship as the son of a Buddha.

The Buddha sat down at the root of a tree and Rahula also took a seat. The Buddha asked Rahula if each sense organ, each sense object, each kind of sense consciousness, and each kind of contact is permanent or impermanent. Rahula stated that they are all impermanent. We can deduce that the devas, invisibly present, were listening and simultaneously meditating on the appropriate answers. The Buddha asked: “Is what is impermanent pleasant or suffering?” Rahula acknowledged that anything that is impermanent must be unsatisfactory or suffering. Then the Teacher queried: “Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” “No” came the reply. The invisible audience too must have drawn the same conclusion.

Next the Buddha asked Rahula if the feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that arise through the contact of the six sense organs with their objects are permanent or not. These are the four mental aggregates that — along with material form — constitute a being. Rahula again said that they are impermanent. He must have deduced that since the contact between the sense organs and their objects changes every instant, the aggregates that derive from them must also be transitory. And again he recognized that whatever is impermanent is unsatisfactory. He also understood that it is untenable to consider anything impermanent and unsatisfactory as “I, mine, or myself,” as the concept of control is at the heart of our ideas of “I” and “mine.”

The Buddha then concluded that once one understands these facts fully, and sees how all these things are causally connected, one becomes disenchanted with all conditioned things:

“Being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’”

That is, he attains full awakening, arahantship, and is no longer subject to rebirth. As Rahula listened to his father’s words, his mind was released from the taints through non-clinging. By fully penetrating the discourse he had become an arahant, fully liberated from suffering.

All the deva and brahma spectators listening to the discourse attained the paths and fruits: “And in those many thousands of deities there arose the spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.’” Some of them, according to the commentary, became stream-enterers, some once-returners, some non-returners, and some arahants. This variety was due to the differences in their prior preparation and present effort at the time of the sutta. Even though this discourse was geared to a young monk, while the Buddha spoke higher beings developed their own insight through hearing it and purified their minds (MN 147; also at SN iv, 105-107).

III. [go up]
Devas and Brahmas Honor the Buddha

Everyone who has even glimpsed the magnificence of the Dhamma feels tremendous esteem for the Buddha. Deities realize that he had dedicated innumerable lifetimes to perfecting himself so that he could teach others the way beyond suffering. Because of their devotion to the Exalted One, devas gratefully come down to the human plane — though the earth is said to be repulsive to their refined senses13 — to express their homage and affirm their devotion to the Supreme Teacher. This is the reciprocal aspect of the Buddha as “teacher of devas”: his deva and brahma disciples acknowledge their debt to their incomparable master. They venerate him for his extraordinary purity and unique capacity to train others. These Dhamma beneficiaries from the higher planes rejoice and offer profound homage to the Buddha because they see, over a broader temporal range than is perceptible to ordinary humans, how he offers beings the way out of the misery of samsara.

We will look at several examples of how the gods paid respect to the Buddha, finishing with the Great Occasion. Not only do these incidents help illuminate the relationship between gods and the Buddha, but they can also serve as sustenance for our own Buddhanussati, meditation on the qualities of the Buddha. This kind of contemplation creates wholesome kamma by increasing our confidence in the Teacher and prepares the mind for deeper concentration and insight.

Sakka’s praises reported by Pañcasikha

Once Pañcasikha, a celestial musician, messenger, and attendant on the deva planes, appeared before the Buddha. He reported that Sakka, king of the gods of the Thirty-three, especially honored the following qualities of the Buddha and his teaching:

1. The Lord has striven out of compassion for beings, like no other teacher they can find.

2. The doctrine he teaches is “well proclaimed by the Blessed One, visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise for themselves.”

3. He distinguishes and proclaims what is good and what is bad.

4. He explains the path to Nibbana.

5. He has taught beings to become learners (i.e., stream-enterers, once-returners, and non-returners) and arahants.

6. Gifts to the Buddha are well-given (because they bear great fruit) and are accepted by him without any conceit.

7. He practices what he teaches and teaches what he practices. There are absolutely no contradictions between his verbal and physical actions.

8. The Lord has gone beyond all doubt and accomplished his aim in regard to the goal and the supreme holy life.

Pañcasikha reported that when Sakka had said all this, the gods of the realm of the Thirty-three were delighted. Sakka then concluded by telling them to cultivate the wish: “May this Blessed Lord continue to live long… free from sickness…” as that would benefit devas and humans (DN 19.1-14). What Sakka recommends is a simple form of meditation on universal love. His audience must have been a group with mixed potential for Dhamma comprehension and he showed them a simple way to create wholesome mental kamma. Since they all agreed that the Buddha was a very great being, they were happy to listen to his praises from Sakka. This induced them to wish him good health so that he could teach more beings the way to Nibbana.

Brahma Sanankumara

Sakka is often shown leading his fellow devas in some Dhamma activity. Here he praises human beings who became noble ones and took rebirth on the plane of the Thirty-three, where they outshine the other gods in fame and splendor:

“The gods of the Thirty-three rejoice, their leader too,
Praising the Tathagata, and Dhamma’s truth,
Seeing new-come devas, fair and glorious
Who’ve lived the holy life, now well reborn.
Outshining all the rest in fame and splendor,
The mighty Sage’s pupils singled out.
Seeing this the Thirty-three rejoice, their leader too,
Praising the Tathagata, and Dhamma’s truths.” (DN 18.13)

For Sakka and his cohorts, the great renown and beauty of the new devas confirm the value of the Buddha’s teachings. They are glad and therefore honor the Buddha and the Dhamma.

This verse comes at the beginning of a complex sutta which makes a number of interesting points about gods. Ven. Ananda had asked the Buddha where many deceased disciples of the Magadha area had been reborn. Before answering, the Buddha directed his mind to find their plane of rebirth. While he was investigating in this way, a deva came to him and announced that he was the former King Bimbisara, a stream-enterer. As a man, he had been a devoted lay disciple for many years and had now been reborn among the Four Great Kings (plane No.6). This deva related to the Buddha a long incident from the past that began with Sakka’s remarks about newly arrived devas. The episode provided the answer to Ananda’s original question.

After Sakka finished speaking, the gods noticed that an unusually brilliant light shone on the assembly. Then its source, Brahma Sanankumara, approached the gathering. The former Bimbisara explained that whenever a brahma descends to a deva plane he assumes a grosser form “because his natural appearance is not such as to be perceptible to their eyes.” Brahma Sanankumara then gave the devas a Dhamma talk in which he surveyed the central teachings of the Buddha. He began by praising the Blessed One’s compassion:

“Since the Lord, out of compassion for the world and for the benefit and happiness of the many, has acted to the advantage of devas and mankind, those… who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha and have observed the moral precepts have, at death… arisen in the company of… devas.”

Sanankumara concluded his discourse with words of great homage for the Buddha and the Dhamma. He said that if one were to praise the Dhamma as well proclaimed, etc., and then to add “Open are the doors of the Deathless!” one would be speaking in accordance with the highest truth (DN 18.27).

In the final portion of Brahma Sanankumara’s speech, he numbered the stream-enterers and once-returners who had recently been born in the deva planes. But he did not venture to comment on the number of worldlings who had acquired merit:

“But of that other race indeed
Of those who partake of merit,
My mind can make no reckoning,
For fear that I should speak untruth.”

Sanankumara appears in several other suttas, where he always reveres the Buddha and the noble Sangha. One of his stanzas, in which he extols the Buddha, is quoted several times in the Pali canon:14

“The noble clan is held to be
The best of people as to lineage;
But best of gods and humans is one
Perfect in true knowledge and conduct.” (MN 53.25)

Bahiya Daruciriya

In the next story a brahma intervenes to help a human being receive the Dhamma. Bahiya Daruciriya was a non-Buddhist ascetic. The brahma, a non-returner (anagami) from the Pure Abodes,15 had been one of Bahiya’s companions at the time of the previous Buddha Kassapa,16 when they were members of a group of monks who had made a determined effort to win arahantship. Bahiya had then failed in the attempt and was now reborn at the time of Gotama Buddha.

Bahiya had lived as a recluse for many years and he was respected by the multitude as a saint, even to such a degree that Bahiya himself almost came to believe this. But one day, out of compassion for him, his old friend in the Pure Abodes appeared to him in a visible body and shocked him out of his complacency: “You, Bahiya, are neither an arahant nor have you entered the path to arahantship. You do not follow the practice whereby you could be an arahant or enter the path to arahantship.”

This had the desired effect, and Bahiya begged his benefactor, “Then, in the world including the devas, who are arahants or have entered the path to arahantship?” His desire for release from the world was so sincere that he had the humility to admit his limitations and ask for a teacher to show him the true path to holiness.

The brahma replied that a Buddha had arisen in the world and was living at Savatthi: “There the Lord now lives who is the arahant, the Fully Enlightened One. That Lord, Bahiya, is indeed an arahant and he teaches the Dhamma for the realization of arahantship.” As a non-returner since the time of the previous Buddha, the brahma knew precisely what Bahiya needed and he spoke the succinct truth about Buddha Gotama and his teaching. Thanks to the intervention and the guidance of his lofty benefactor, Bahiya Daruciriya was directed to the Blessed One, whose brief and cryptic discourse had such a powerful impact that Bahiya achieved arahantship right on the spot (Ud 1.10, pp.18-19). After his death, the Buddha declared Bahiya the foremost bhikkhu with respect to quickness of understanding.

A goddess honors the Buddha

Once a devata, a goddess named Kokanada, visited the Blessed One at Vesali and recited verses in his praise:

“I worship the Buddha, the best of beings,
Dwelling in the woods at Vesali
Kokanada I am —
Kokanada the daughter of Pajjunna.

Earlier I had only heard that the Dhamma
Has been realized by the One with Vision;
But now I know it as a witness
While the Sage, the Sublime One teaches.

Those ignorant folk who go about
Criticizing the noble Dhamma
Go to the terrible Roruva hell
And experience suffering for a long time.

But those who in the noble Dhamma
Are endowed with acceptance and inner peace,
When they discard the human body,
Will fill up the heavenly hosts of devas.” (KS I,40-41; SN 11:39)

Although this was apparently her first direct encounter with the Buddha, Kokanada understood a great deal about kamma and rebirth. She saw that people are reborn in lower realms (including hell) because they lack insight and disparage the Dhamma. She also perceived that humans can attain deva or brahma births by discerning the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to its cessation. Her knowledge of Dhamma does not seem to go beyond this.

The Maha-samaya Sutta

The Maha-samaya Sutta, or Discourse on the Great Assembly,17 is the most stunning illustration of higher beings coming to the human plane expressly to pay respects to the Buddha along with the arahants. This “mighty gathering” took place when the Lord returned to the land of his ancestors, near Kapilavatthu. Five hundred recently ordained bhikkhus, from the Sakyan and Koliyan clans, came to him to declare their attainment of arahantship. Devas from many thousands of world systems approached to observe the occasion.

Four brahmas from the Pure Abodes, noticing that most of the other devas had gathered in the Great Wood to see the Buddha and arahants, decided to visit too. So they assumed grosser form, appeared before the Buddha, saluted him, and stood respectfully to one side. The first one announced why they had come:

“Great is the assembly in the forest here, the devas have met
And we are here to see the unconquered Sangha.”

Although “Sangha” can refer either to the community of monks or to all noble disciples, the adjective “unconquered” implies that the brahmas were admiring the arahant monks led by the Buddha.

The second brahma said:

“The monks with concentrated minds are straight:
They guard their senses as the driver does his reins.”

The third used more similes to describe the achievement of arahants:

“Bars and barriers broken, the threshold-stone of lust torn up,
Unstained the spotless seers go, like well-trained elephants.”

The last one spoke these lines:

“Who takes refuge in the Buddha, no downward path will go:
Having left the body he’ll join the deva hosts.” (DN 20.3)

This brahma knew that anyone who has genuine faith in the Buddha will not create kamma that could lead to a lower plane of existence. That is how taking refuge in the Buddha assures us of a deva birth, not some magical power of his.

The Buddha then told the monks that devas and brahmas from the surrounding world systems come frequently to see the Tathagata and the Sangha. It is not Gotama the Sakyan prince that they honor, but Gotama the Buddha and the community of noble ones. The Buddha indicates that this is a general rule. Wise deities used to come to pay obeisance to past Buddhas and will do the same for future ones too.

Then, so the monks could learn their identities, the Buddha announced the names of the groups of devas and brahmas as they presented themselves before him. The list included earth-bound devas, the Four Great Kings with their retinues, asuras, Sakka, residents of the Tusita and Yama planes, occupants of the sun and moon, denizens of the two highest deva planes, and Maha Brahma “shining bright with all his train.” The Buddha related that the devas were saying:

“He who’s transcended birth, he for whom
No obstacle remains, who’s crossed the flood,
Him cankerless, we’ll see, the Mighty One,
Traversing free without transgression, as
It were the moon that passes through clouds.” (DN 20.19)

This discourse illustrates another aspect of the relationship between the Buddha, the Supreme Teacher, and heavenly beings. Some of them only yearn for an audience so they can express their confidence in him, acclaiming him in public.

IV. [go up]
The Role of Devas in the Buddha’s Career

At pivotal moments in the Buddha’s career, deities often played supporting roles. We read of devas showing respect at these turning points, helping him to overcome obstacles, and frequently proclaiming his feats far and wide.

The Bodhisatta’s last birth

At the moment of the Bodhisatta’s final conception the gods rejoiced. They knew that such a special being was arising after the long “darkness of ignorance” that set in when the Buddha Kassapa’s Dispensation disappeared. After having perfected all the paramis, every Bodhisatta is born on the Tusita deva plane (No. 9) in his next to last existence. There he waits until all the requisite conditions on earth are ripe for the rekindling of the Dhamma. Then the Bodhisatta passes away and enters his mother’s womb, and after ten months he is born. The attainment of Buddhahood requires a human existence with its characteristic combination of suffering and pleasure.

From the Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, we learn about “the Tathagata’s wonderful and marvellous qualities,” which he himself had heard directly from the Buddha:

“Mindful and fully aware… the Bodhisatta appeared in the Tusita deva plane… Mindful and fully aware the Bodhisatta remained in the Tusita deva plane… for the whole of his lifespan… When the Bodhisatta passed away from the Tusita deva plane and descended into his mother’s womb, then a great immeasurable light surpassing the splendor of the gods appeared in the world with its gods, its Maras and its Brahmas, in this generation with its recluses and brahmans, with its princes and its people… When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother’s womb, four young deities came to guard him at the four quarters so that no humans or non-humans or anyone at all could harm the Bodhisatta or his mother.” (MN 123.7-8)

The conception of a Buddha-to-be in his final body causes unusual physical phenomena in various realms. In fact, certain natural laws govern the major events in the careers of all Buddhas, past, present, and future: “It is the rule, monks, that when a Bodhisatta descends from Tusita into his mother’s womb,” such a light appears and all these special phenomena occur (DN 14.1.17). The devas protect the Bodhisatta’s foetus inside his mother so he can grow perfectly. They shelter the mother so she is at peace, free from sensual desire, and relaxed, enabling the baby to develop in ideal conditions.

The description of his final birth in this discourse shows how important the devas are to this unique baby. Queen Mahamaya gave birth standing under a tree in the woods near the village of Lumbini:

“When the bodhisatta came forth from his mother’s womb, first the gods received him, then human beings… He did not touch the earth. The four young gods [the Four Great Kings of plane No. 6] received him and set him before his mother saying: ‘Rejoice, O queen, a son of great power has been born to you.’… Then a great immeasurable light surpassing the splendor of the gods appeared in the world… And this ten-thousandfold world system shook and quaked and trembled, and there too a great immeasurable light surpassing the splendor of the gods appeared.” (MN 123.17-21)

The recluse Asita, who was associated with the court of the Bodhisatta’s father, witnessed these heavenly celebrations. Asita was visiting the deva worlds at the time so he asked them, “Why are you all so happy and joyful?… I’ve never seen such excitement as this.” The devas explained to him:

“In a village called Lumbini, in the Sakyan country… a bodhisatta has been born! A being set on Buddhahood has been born, a superlative being without comparison, a precious pearl of the health and goodness of the human world. That’s why we’re so glad, so excited, so pleased. Of all beings this one is perfect, this man is the pinnacle, the ultimate, the hero of beings! This is the man who, from the forest of the Masters, will set the wheel of Teaching turning — the roar of the lion, King of Beasts!” (Sn vv. 679-84)

Some of these devas were probably ariyas themselves, and others would have been aware of the infant’s future destiny. They rejoiced that the way to the end of suffering would soon be expounded, and Asita, stirred by their revelation, went to see the new-born child with his own eyes.

Period of renunciation and asceticism

After living a refined life as a prince for many years, the Bodhisatta gradually became dissatisfied with this tedious round of hollow sense pleasures. His paramis, built up for aeons, came to the fore, ripe for the attainment of Buddhahood. He knew he had to find the way to release from suffering, so on the very night his wife gave birth to their only child he renounced the home life to become a recluse. Over the next six years he mastered the stages of concentration under various gurus and tormented his flesh with the most severe ascetic practices. Deities observed his progress from the deva planes and occasionally intervened. For example, when the Bodhisatta considered abstaining from all food, deities came and offered to infuse heavenly food through the pores of his skin, but the Bodhisatta refused:

“Deities came to me and said: ‘Good sir, do not practice entirely cutting off food. If you do so, we shall infuse heavenly food into the pores of your skin and you will live on that.’ I considered, ‘If I claim to be completely fasting while these deities infuse heavenly food… and I live on that, then I shall be lying.’ So I dismissed those deities saying, ‘There is no need.’” (MN 36.27)

The gods, observing the Great Being, would not let him kill himself through voluntary starvation, but he on his part would not allow himself to speak untruth even by implication; thus he would not accept their offer. Although the Bodhisatta undertook long grueling fasts, he still did not come any closer to what he really sought: the way to uproot all the causes of suffering and so end rebirth once and for all.

Under the Bodhi Tree

After the Bodhisatta spent six years pursuing ascetic practices to their limit, he finally set out alone to discover another method to fulfill his aim. He had realized that self-torture was not the solution, so he started to consume normal food again. He walked to the place now known as Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. There he began to meditate under a tree, using a method he recalled from a spontaneous childhood experience of meditation. He was determined either to attain full liberation then and there or else to die in the attempt.

According to tradition, as the Bodhisatta struggled against Mara beneath the Bodhi Tree, when Mara challenged his right to attain awakening, he asked the earth to witness how he had perfected himself for so long to reach Buddhahood. Many devas and brahmas joined the battle, vouching for his completed paramis. Thereupon Mara, along with his evil troops, was routed and fled the scene. This “calling the earth to witness” is memorialized in innumerable paintings and statues: the Bodhisatta, seated cross-legged in meditation posture, touches the ground by his knee with his right hand, a gesture intended to draw forth its testimony.

In the eighth week following the awakening, while the newly enlightened Buddha was still near the Bodhi Tree, he hesitated to teach the Dhamma, apprehensive that it would be too profound for human comprehension. Brahma Sahampati then became aware of what was going on in the Buddha’s mind. This brahma, according to the commentaries, had become a non-returner under a previous Buddha and resided in one of the Pure Abodes. Distressed at the Buddha’s hesitancy, he thought: “The world will be lost, utterly perish since the mind of the Tathagata, Arahant, Supreme Buddha inclines to inaction and not towards preaching the Dhamma!” So he appeared before the Buddha, respectfully stooped with his right knee to the ground, paid homage and appealed to him to teach:

“Let the Exalted One preach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes; they are wasting from not hearing the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.” (MN 26.20)

The Buddha then gazed out upon the world with his “eye of a Buddha,” and having seen that there are beings “with little dust in their eyes” who would be capable of understanding the truth, he announced, “Open for them are the doors to the Deathless” — a gift that has come down to us through the centuries. Brahma Sahampati was gratified and joyously thought, “Now I am one who has given an opening for the Buddha to teach the Dhamma to beings.” The Brahma then bowed to the Buddha and vanished.18

One might wonder why the Buddha, who had prepared himself for numerous lifetimes just to teach the Dhamma to other beings, needed the prompting of Brahma Sahampati to set out on his mission. The commentary offers two explanations: (1) only after he had attained Buddhahood could the Buddha fully comprehend the actual scope of the defilements saturating the minds of beings and the profundity of the Dhamma; and (2) he wanted a brahma to request him to teach so the numerous followers of Maha Brahma would be inclined to listen to the Dhamma.

Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma

Now that he was committed to transmit the Dhamma, the Lord had to find his first students. He determined that the five ascetics who had assisted him in his struggle for the last few years would be the appropriate auditors. Aware that the group was staying at Isipatana, a royal deer reserve not far from Varanasi, he made his way there in stages. When the ascetics first caught sight of him in the distance, they decided not to greet him, for they believed he had reverted to a comfortable life and had abandoned the search for truth. However, as the Buddha approached, his unique demeanour dispelled this assumption and they listened keenly when he spoke. He taught them the Middle Way between the extremes of asceticism and immersion in sense pleasures, the path which he himself had followed when he abandoned futile austerities. The Buddha next explained the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. While he spoke devas and brahmas paid close attention, and at the conclusion they sounded their applause upwards from the lowest plane of the earth-bound devas, through each of the six sense-sphere deva planes, even up through the Brahma-world:

“The matchless Wheel of Dhamma, which cannot be stopped by any recluse, brahman, deva, Mara, brahma, or by anyone in the world, has been set in motion by the Blessed One in the Deer Park at Isipatana near Varanasi.” (KS V, 360; SN 56:11; also Vin. I,10)

Under the impact of this momentous event, the entire ten-thousandfold world system shook and reverberated, and a brilliant light appeared, far superior to that of all the devas and brahmas, matched only by wisdom illuminating the Truth. The gods were messengers conveying this wonderful news throughout the universe.

When the Buddha was ill

Devas came to the Buddha several times when he was physically unwell. Once the renegade monk Devadatta, who wanted to take over the Sangha by force, hurled a massive boulder at the Buddha. The stone splintered before it hit the Lord, but a small fragment lodged in his foot, causing severe pain. So for some time, the Buddha lay down “mindful and discerning,” observing the painful sensations (KS I, 38-40; SN 1:38). Then a large group of devas came to see the Teacher, anxious for his welfare. Impressed by the perfect equanimity he displayed despite the wound, they spoke in turn, praising him as a bull elephant, a lion, a thoroughbred, a bull, an ox, for his ability to patiently endure painful bodily feelings — “racking, sharp, piercing, harrowing, disagreeable” — mindful and clearly comprehending, without becoming distressed.

A few months before the Parinibbana, the Buddha spent the rains retreat near Vesali, where he suffered from dysentery. According to the Dhammapada Commentary (to vv. 206-8) Sakka, king of the devas, found out the Blessed One was ill and came to nurse him. The Buddha told him not to bother as there were many monks to handle this task, but Sakka stayed on and looked after the Buddha’s physical needs until he had recovered. Some monks were surprised to see the great deva doing such menial chores. The Buddha explained to them that Sakka was so devoted to the Tathagata because he had gained stream-entry by learning the Dhamma from him (see above p.20). The Buddha then pointed out that it is always good to associate with the wise, to be in their presence and learn from the example of their actions as well as from their verbal teachings.

The Parinibbana

Devas and brahmas were active at several phases of the Maha Parinibbana — the Buddha’s final passing away at Kusinara — as recorded in the Maha Parinibbana Suttanta (DN 16). This event was not just the demise of a greatly revered being but it also represented the personal consummation of his teachings. It was the utter, permanent cessation of the aggregates of the one who discovered and taught the way to the end of suffering.

A short while before the Buddha attained final Nibbana, he lay down to rest between two sal-trees. They began flowering profusely, out of season. After some time, the Buddha told the monk who had been fanning him to go away. Then the Venerable Ananda, his devoted attendant, asked him why he had dismissed that monk. The Buddha replied:

“Ananda, the devas from ten world-spheres have gathered to see the Tathagata. For a distance of twelve yojanas around the Mallas’ sal-grove near Kusinara there is not a space you could touch with the point of a hair that is not filled with mighty devas, and they are grumbling, ‘We have come a long way to see the Tathagata. It is rare for a Tathagata, a Fully Enlightened Buddha, to arise in the world, and tonight in the last watch the Tathagata will attain final Nibbana, and this mighty monk is standing in front of the Lord, preventing us from getting a last glimpse of the Tathagata!’” (DN 16.5.5)

The indomitable Ananda, who had permission to ask the Buddha any question, next wanted to know what kinds of devas were around them. The Buddha said he saw lower devas who are “weeping and tearing their hair” in distress, moaning, “All too soon the Blessed Lord is passing away, all too soon the Well-Farer is passing away, all too soon the Eye of the World is disappearing!” But there were devas free from craving who endured this patiently, saying. “All compounded things are impermanent — what is the use of this?” (DN 16.5.6).19

After passing through the successive jhanas, the Buddha finally expired, attaining Parinibbana, the immutable cessation of rebirth. At that moment the earth quaked, as it does whenever Buddhas pass away. Brahma Sahampati, who had entreated the Buddha to teach forty-five years earlier, spoke a verse as a short eulogy:

“All beings in the world, all bodies must break up:
Even the Teacher, peerless in the human world,
The mighty Lord and perfect Buddha has expired.”

Sakka repeated a verse of the Buddha’s on the theme of impermanence.20 While Sahampati used conventional speech adoring the deceased Lord, Sakka spoke in impersonal and universal terms. His verse makes an excellent theme for meditation and is often chanted at Buddhist funerals:

“Impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall,
Having risen, they’re destroyed, their passing is truest bliss.” (DN 16.6.10)

All the “compounded things,” which make up everyone and everything in all the world, come into being and perish. Only when they cease utterly never to rearise (”their passing”) can there be the perfect bliss, Nibbana. These stanzas by the renowned brahma and the king of the devas show how the beings on the higher planes applied their insight into impermanence and suffering, even to the Parinibbana of their Lord and Master.

After they had honored the Buddha’s body for a full week, the Mallas of Kusinara decided it was time for the funeral. They began to prepare for the cremation but could not lift the body and carry it out the southern gate of the city. Puzzled, they asked the Venerable Anuruddha what was wrong. This great elder, renowned for his “divine eye,” told the devotees that the devas had their own ideas of how to arrange the funeral. The deities, he said, planned first to pay “homage to the Lord’s body with heavenly dance and song” and then take it in procession through the city of Kusinara to the cremation site. The devas intended the cremation to be at the Mallas’ shrine known as Makuta-Bandhana. The Mallas were happy to change their plans and proceeded unhindered to arrange the funeral as the devas wished. Out of respect the gods participated in all phases of the funerary proceedings. It is said that “even the sewers and rubbish-heaps of Kusinara were covered knee-high with [celestial] coral tree flowers. And the devas as well as the Mallas… honored the Lord’s body with divine and human dancing and song.”

They transported the body to the Makuta-Bandhana shrine and placed it there. They wrapt it many times in layers of finest cloth, built the pyre of scented wood, and placed the bier bearing the Buddha’s body on top. But when the men tried to light the fire it would not ignite. Again the reason lay with the devas. Anuruddha explained that the devas would not allow the pyre to be lit until the Venerable Maha Kassapa arrived for the cremation. Once Maha Kassapa and his group of bhikkhus had arrived and paid their last respects to the Exalted One’s body, the pyre blazed up spontaneously, burning until almost nothing remained behind. (DN 16.6.22-23)

V. [go up]
Liberation for Humans, Devas, and Brahmas

The encounter with suffering

Human beings, devas, and brahmas are the broad categories of beings in the “happy realms of existence.” The human world is marked by a pervasive admixture of happiness and suffering. This dual nature is the main reason why Buddhas are born here. The uneven quality of human life enables us to realize the unreliable nature of happiness and inspires in us a sense of urgency about the need to win deliverance from suffering.

Unlike the beings in the lower planes, few humans are overwhelmed by unmitigated and excruciating pain. We do, of course, experience physical pain and mental stress, but such experience is generally intermittent. For the most part our suffering is of a more subtle character. We can observe that every pleasure brings along some measure of dissatisfaction. Our contentment is unsteady and secured with difficulty. We must struggle to satisfy our needs and desires, but become anxious the moment we succeed. Even when we are relatively happy we are beset by a deep, subtle kind of suffering. This suffering, which lies below the threshold of painful feeling, stems from the momentary vanishing of all the conditioned formations of body and mind. In spite of our pain, human beings with an inclination for the Dhamma can make the effort to live by the Five Precepts of morality. We can find the energy to train our minds towards the concentration and insight required for awakening.

In contrast, devas see far less of the evident kinds of misery in their daily existence. Some brahmas meet no gross suffering except when they look down at beings on lower planes. Many devas instantly obtain whatever sense object they wish for. Brahmas dwell in sublime bliss and equanimity. In the fine-material and immaterial spheres ill will is suppressed, and without it there is no mental unhappiness.

It is difficult for deities to appreciate that everything changes and to recognize that their present pleasure and bliss do not last forever. Like Baka Brahma, many imagine that they are eternal. The subtler forms of suffering tend to escape them as well. Without help from a Buddha or one of his disciples, they do not understand that the impersonal conditions that will terminate their felicity are already in operation. Many of the higher beings, as we have seen, have no idea that they will die, that their worlds and lives are in flux, that they are not fully in control, but are decaying at every instant. So in spite of their excellent concentration and present opulence, they are even at a disadvantage compared to human beings, who are driven by pain and frustration to seek the path to deliverance.

How then can such beings be induced to meditate? Why should they become concerned with suffering and its cessation? We have indicated the answers to those questions in preceding chapters. This is the job of the Buddha as “teacher of the gods.”

The devas aspire to be human

Some devas long to be reborn as human beings because they are aware of the greater possibility of comprehending impermanence, suffering, and non-self on the human plane. There is no real illness on the deva planes. When a deva faces death, his aura begins to fade and dirt appears on his clothes for the first time. When the gods see these indications of impending death, they tell their friend:

“Go from here, friend, to a good bourn. Having gone to a good bourn, gain that which is good to gain. Having gained that which is good to gain, become firmly established in it.”

The Buddha then explained the devas’ concept of a good birth and of what is “good to gain”:

“It is human existence, bhikkhus, that is reckoned by the devas to be a good bourn. When a human being acquires faith in the Dhamma-Vinaya taught by the Tathagata, this is reckoned by the devas to be a gain that is good to gain. When faith is steadfast in him, firmly rooted, established and strong, not to be destroyed by any recluse or brahman or deva or Mara or brahma or by anyone else in the world, this is reckoned by the devas to be firmly established.”

The last sentence refers to a stream-enterer. Only stream-enterers (and other noble ones) have such steadfast confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. They will definitely attain final awakening and release, and until then will never be reborn on a plane below the human one. To become an ariya is the greatest achievement for any being lost in the round of rebirth. Only by entering the stream to awakening can beings proceed to eliminate all the causes of suffering.

The Buddha explained that the devas view a human existence as an excellent opportunity for growth in morality, giving, faith, and understanding. With compassionate concern for their dying cohort, they say:

“Go, friend, to a good bourn,
To the fellowship of humans.
On becoming human acquire faith
Unsurpassed in the true Dhamma.

That faith made steadfast,
Become rooted and standing firm,
Will be unshakeable for life
In the true Dhamma well proclaimed.

Having abandoned misconduct by body,
Misconduct by speech as well,
Misconduct by mind and whatever else
Is reckoned as a fault,
Having done much that is good
Both by body and by speech,
And done good with a mind
That is boundless and free from clinging,

With that merit as a basis
Made abundant by generosity,
You should establish other people
In the true Dhamma and the holy life.’” (It 83)

The devas urge their friend to become a morally upright human being. He should give up everything unwholesome, be generous, and, once established in faith and meritorious deeds, help spread the Buddha’s message.

Not only do wise gods long for human birth to practice the Dhamma, they also rejoice when they observe people establishing themselves in the way to the cessation of suffering. Such deities are convinced that human beings like these are greater than themselves. In spite of all the magnificent sights, appealing perfumes and tastes, melodious music, and other sensual pleasures they have at their beck and call, these devas understand the unsatisfactory nature of existence sufficiently to value the effort to put an end to samsaric wandering.

In the sutta preceding the one quoted above, the Buddha spoke of “joyous utterances” devas give forth in three situations: (1) when a man is preparing to ordain as a bhikkhu; (2) when a person is “engaged in cultivating the… requisites of enlightenment”;21 and (3) when someone attains the goal, utterly destroying the mental defilements. Whenever devas notice people engaged in the first two deeds, they rejoice saying, “A noble disciple is doing battle with Mara.” When the devas see that someone on the human plane has become fully awakened, they declare: “A noble disciple has won the battle. He was in the forefront of the fight and now dwells victorious.” They commend and extol the arahant in verse (It 82).

Paths to awakening and happy births

The Buddha has explained in many ways that liberation is infinitely more valuable than any state of existence. Even blissful lives in the deva and brahma planes invariably include subtle suffering, end in death, and are followed by uncertain rebirth. In a discourse called “Reappearance according to one’s Aspiration,” he said:

“A bhikkhu possesses faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and wisdom. He thinks: ‘Oh, that on the dissolution of the body, after death, I might reappear in the company of well-to-do nobles!’ He fixes his mind on that [idea], establishes it, develops it. These aspirations and this abiding of his, thus developed and cultivated, lead to his reappearance there. This, bhikkhus, is the path… that leads to reappearance there.”

The Buddha repeated the same statement in regard to every happy plane as far as the highest realm of existence. The good kamma generated by positive mental qualities, conjoined with the aspiration for a particular birth, can bring about rebirth on that plane. So by cultivating these traits one can be reborn in any of the six deva planes. With the support of the requisite jhana, one can take birth in any of the fine-material or immaterial planes. If, additionally, one has destroyed the five lower fetters and become a non-returner, one can be reborn spontaneously in the Pure Abodes.

The supreme aim, however, is arahantship. If one has purified one’s mind totally of greed, hate, and delusion, one would experience “the destruction of the taints.” Hence the discourse culminates with a monk aspiring for arahantship:

“Oh, that by realizing for myself with direct knowledge, I might here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints!’ And by realizing for himself with direct knowledge, he here and now enters upon and abides in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints. Bhikkhus, this bhikkhu does not reappear anywhere at all.” (MN 120.37)

That bhikkhu’s demise is parinibbana, the end of all possible forms of suffering forever.

Although devas and brahmas have very long lives pervaded by inconceivable bliss, they are not inherently greater than human beings. As we have seen, they are all subject to repeated becoming. A deva may well be reborn on one of the lower planes. Brahmas can fall to a ghostly or hellish existence after one intermediate life as a deva or human. The Buddha states that even lives lasting many aeons in the highest formless planes can end in lower births.

Therefore such lives provide no security, but only temporary remission of the underlying disease, and if they are not dedicated to progress towards Nibbana their value is virtually nil. One who has understood the noble Dhamma will look upon such modes of existence with revulsion and dispassion (see GS V, 41; AN X,29).

Only by becoming an ariya can one be sure that one faces no more lower rebirths and is headed for the complete cessation of samsara. To become a stream-enterer requires three things. One has to (1) develop confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, (2) relinquish any idea that rituals lead to liberation, and most important, (3) eliminate the deep-seated view “I am real and lasting” that characterizes all worldlings. By uprooting that deluded view, noble ones remove their tendency to create the heavy bad kamma that leads to birth in the realms of woe.

Sometimes lay people, not yet ripe enough to desire liberation, asked the Buddha how to be successful in their mundane endeavors or how to be reborn on a celestial plane after death. The Master would reply with a discourse suited to their limited ability and inclination. He would tell them to give generously and live a moral life. He would specifically urge them to observe the Five Precepts without a breach and to undertake the Eight Precepts on special occasions. Generating such good kamma is the way to general well-being, now and after death. These basic steps form the starting point of the gradual training that leads all the way to arahantship. The Dhamma is consistent from start to finish.

When the Buddha describes the entire course of a bhikkhu’s training, from leaving home to arahantship, he devotes considerable attention to the jhanas, the highest form of concentration. One who can keep the mind absorbed on a single object can apply this capacity for attention to insight, the wisdom section of the path. One skilled in jhana can easily discern the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selfless nature of the aggregates for extended periods. The jhanas also create strong wholesome kamma, as they are all associated with some form of wisdom.

Individuals who practice the jhanas but do not reflect on them with insight may think the jhanas permanently efface their unwholesome tendencies. The Buddha found, however, that mental defilements are only suppressed — perhaps for a very long time — by these meditative states. Such absorptions bring bliss and peace here and now, generate wholesome kamma, and may bring rebirth in a plane of the brahma world. However, they do not uproot the latent defilements and thus cannot cut off the root causes of samsara. For this one needs insight-wisdom, the discernment of the three universal marks of impermanence, suffering, and non-self.


Let us human beings apply ourselves wholeheartedly and take up the unique opportunity given by our present birth. In the round of samsara it is extremely rare to rise above the realms of woe, where the way out of suffering cannot be followed, and a human birth is even more favorable to awakening than birth in the realm of the gods. Devas envy us our place, ostensibly so low on the cosmic scale, and wish to be reborn as humans. The Buddha Sasana still thrives, the Dhamma is available in full, there are excellent teachers who are true disciples of the Master, and we are on the best plane for striving.

Final awakening does not bring “eternal life” in some heaven as many religions promise. Nibbana means letting go of everything — relinquishing every state of being anywhere in the cosmos. It is our attachments and cravings, rooted in ignorance, that keep us revolving in samsara’s misery. Wisdom shows how all existence is bound up with suffering and thereby illuminates the futility of all craving for being. Then all old kamma is burnt up and no new fuel for birth is created. The process of birth and death just stops, once and for all. This is not the end of an existing being, as no such being ever was. It is only the end of a process, of the flux of physical and mental phenomena arising and vanishing due to complex networks of causes and conditions. There is no controlling or enduring self of any sort at any time.

What the Buddha taught deities, he taught people; what he taught people, he taught devas and brahmas: just the universal fact of suffering, and the way to the cessation of suffering — morality, concentration, and wisdom.

For the Welfare of Many

The teacher, the great sage,
Is the first in the world;
Following him is the disciple
Whose composure is perfected;
And then the learner training
On the path, one who has
Learned much and is virtuous.

These three are chief
Amongst devas and humans:
Illuminators, preaching Dhamma,
Opening the door to the Deathless,
They free many people from bondage.

Those who follow the path
Well taught by the unsurpassed
Caravan-leader, who are diligent
In the Sublime One’s dispensation,
Make an end of suffering
Within this very life itself. (It 84)

Notes [go up]

In some cases my quotations from existing translations have been modified, especially when quoting from GS. Quotations from MLDB invariably, and from Ud, It, and LDB usually, are exactly as they occur in these contemporary translations. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s draft translation of SN is quoted verbatim.

1. Only ariyas, noble ones, can be sure that they will never suffer the agony of rebirth in one of the lower realms where suffering is incredibly intense and all-pervasive.

2. It seems probable that some devas become anagamis or even arahants while practicing the Buddha’s teachings in the celestial planes, but I cannot cite any canonical texts to support this.

3. This phrase comes from Ven. Mahakaccana’s elucidation of a brief remark by the Buddha: “And how, friends, is the mind called ’stuck internally’? Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. If his consciousness follows after the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, then his mind is called ’stuck internally.’… If his consciousness does not follow after the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion… then his mind is called ‘not stuck internally’” (MN 138.12). Clinging to a jhana one has attained can prevent one from attaining awakening.

4. This phenomena is mentioned several times. Once, for example, a bhikkhu named Hatthaka had become an anagami. When he died, he was reborn in the Aviha brahma plane, the lowest of the Pure Abodes. Shortly after arising there he came to see the Buddha. Hatthaka intended to stand “in the presence of the Exalted One,” yet he was “unable to do so, but sunk down, collapsed, could not stand upright.” Seeing this, the Buddha told him, “Create a gross body form.” Once he had done so, he could stand at one side and have a discussion with the Buddha (GS I, 257; AN III, 125).

5. The opening section of the Samyutta Nikaya is devoted entirely to dialogues between the Buddha and various gods.

6. The Pali word naga is used to refer to any powerful creature, particularly the cobra and the bull elephant. In relation to the Buddha and the arahants it is used in this latter sense; see Dhp. Nagavagga (Chap. 23).

7. Direct quotations from the sutta are from the Walshe translation unless otherwise noted. See Bibliography for details of all translations consulted for this discourse.

8. This paragaraph is based on Sister Vajira’s translation.

9. The commentary points out that the Buddha himself first penetrated the Abhidhamma during the fourth of the seven weeks he spent meditating near the Bodhi Tree immediately following his awakening (Expos 16-17).

10. We may deduce that they proceeded to the third plane of the first jhana, No. 14. The brahma must have been the incumbent Maha Brahma, the God All-Mighty of many religions. That would make his ministers and retinue the occupants of the two brahma planes lower than Maha Brahma’s own realm, Nos. 13 and 12 respectively.

11. That the being Mara is a deva on the highest deva plane accentuates the fact that the gods are not necessarily wise or good. Mara also stands for death and defilements.

12. The part of the discourse about the brahmas ends here, but Mara was unhappy with this turn of events and interceded again, urging the Buddha not to share what he had learned with others. See MLDB for the complete sutta (No. 49).

13. The arahant Kumara Kassapa once said, “Human beings are generally considered unclean, evil-smelling, horrible, revolting by the devas,” so they rarely visit this world. See DN 23.9.

14. For example by Ananda at MN 53.25; by the Buddha at DN 3.1.28.

15. The Pure Abodes are the highest fine-material brahma planes (Nos. 23-27) and are populated exclusively by anagamis and arahants. The anagamis will never be reborn on a plane below the Pure Abodes because they have eliminated all traces of ill will and desire for sense pleasures. When they have become arahants in the Pure Abodes, they will, of course, have no more births anywhere at all.

16. The same brahma helped another member of that group attain arahantship under Buddha Gotama. The brahma gave a detailed riddle to Kumara Kassapa and told him to ask the Buddha its meaning. When the bhikkhu received the explanation of the imagery, he attained arahantship. See MN 23.

17. DN 20. See also Sayagyi U Chit Tin, The Great Occasion.

18. This story appears at MN 26.19-21; SN 6:1 (= KS I, 171-74); also at Vin. I, 4-7.

19. “Devas who are free from craving” refers to brahmas from the Pure Abodes.

20. See LDB 290, DN 17.2.17.

21. These are the thirty-seven bodhipakkhiya dhamma, such as the four foundations of mindfulness, etc. See DN 16.3.50.

Abbreviations [go up]

AN …. Anguttara Nikaya
DN …. Digha Nikaya
Dial …. Dialogues of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya)
Expos …. Expositor (trans. of Atthasalini)
GS …. Gradual Sayings (trans. of Anguttara Nikaya)
It …. Itivuttaka
KS …. Kindred Sayings (trans. of Samyutta Nikaya)
LDB …. Long Discourses of the Buddha (trans. of Digha Nikaya)
MN …. Majjhima Nikaya
MB …. Manuals of Buddhism
MLDB …. Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (trans. of Majjhima Nikaya)
MLS …. Middle Length Sayings (trans. of Majjhima Nikaya)
Net …. Net of Views (Brahmajala Sutta)
SN …. Samyutta Nikaya
Sn …. Sutta-nipata
Vin …. Vinaya Pitaka

Bibliography [go up]

References to MN and DN are by sutta and section number of MLDB and LDB respectively; to SN (and its translation KS), by chapter and sutta number, with page numbers of KS; to AN (and its translation GS), by nipata and sutta number, with page numbers of GS; to the Udana, by chapter and section; to It, by sutta number. Verses of SN are from a draft translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi (in progress).

  • Pali Text Society:
    • Kindred Sayings
    • Gradual Sayings
    • Middle Length Sayings
    • The Group of Discourses
    • Dialogues of the Buddha
    • The Expositor
  • Buddhist Publication Society:
    • Udana, trans. John D. Ireland, 1990
    • The Itivuttaka, trans. John D. Ireland, 1991
    • The Dhammapada, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita, 1985
    • The All-Embracing Net of Views (Brahmajala Sutta), trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1978
    • Sakka’s Quest, trans. Sister Vajira (Wheel No. 10)
  • Wisdom Publications:
    • Long Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Maurice Walshe, 1987, 1995
    • Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995
  • Other:
    • The Sutta-Nipata, trans. H. Saddhatissa. London: Curzon, 1985
    • Manuals of Buddhism, Ledi Sayadaw. Rangoon, 1981
    • The Great Occasion, Sayagyi U Chit Tin. Sayagyi U Ba Khin Memorial Trust, U.K.

The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of all creeds.

Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha’s discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is — a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.

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2-12-2007-True Teachings of The Awakened One-The Edicts of King Asoka-Gandhara’s wonders
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True Teachings of The Awakened One

The Edicts of King Asoka
An English rendering by
Ven. S. Dhammika

Gandhara’s wonders














East Asia: A Cultural, Social, And Political History


Preface [go up]

This rendering of King Asoka’s Edicts is based heavily on Amulyachandra Sen’s English translation, which includes the original Magadhi and a Sanskrit and English translation of the text. However, many parts of the edicts are far from clear in meaning and the numerous translations of them differ widely. Therefore, I have also consulted the translations of C. D. Sircar and D. R. Bhandarkar and in parts favored their interpretations. Any credit this small book deserves is due entirely to the labors and learning of these scholars.

Introduction [go up]

Dhamma sadhu, kiyam cu dhamme ti?
Apasinave, bahu kayane, daya, dane, sace, socaye.

Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma?
(It includes) little evil, much good, kindness,
generosity, truthfulness and purity.

King Asoka

With the rediscovery and translation of Indian literature by European scholars in the 19th century, it was not just the religion and philosophy of Buddhism that came to light, but also its many legendary histories and biographies. Amongst this class of literature, one name that came to be noticed was that of Asoka, a good king who was supposed to have ruled India in the distant past. Stories about this king, similar in outline but differing greatly in details, were found in the Divyavadana, the Asokavadana, the Mahavamsa and several other works. They told of an exceptionally cruel and ruthless prince who had many of his brothers killed in order to seize the throne, who was dramatically converted to Buddhism and who ruled wisely and justly for the rest of his life. None of these stories were taken seriously — after all many pre-modern cultures had legends about “too good to be true” kings who had ruled righteously in the past and who, people hoped, would rule again soon. Most of these legends had their origins more in popular longing to be rid of the despotic and uncaring kings than in any historical fact. And the numerous stories about Asoka were assumed to be the same.

But in 1837, James Prinsep succeeded in deciphering an ancient inscription on a large stone pillar in Delhi. Several other pillars and rocks with similar inscriptions had been known for some time and had attracted the curiosity of scholars. Prinsep’s inscription proved to be a series of edicts issued by a king calling himself “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi.” In the following decades, more and more edicts by this same king were discovered and with increasingly accurate decipherment of their language, a more complete picture of this man and his deeds began to emerge. Gradually, it dawned on scholars that the King Piyadasi of the edicts might be the King Asoka so often praised in Buddhist legends. However, it was not until 1915, when another edict actually mentioning the name Asoka was discovered, that the identification was confirmed. Having been forgotten for nearly 700 years, one of the greatest men in history became known to the world once again.

Asoka’s edicts are mainly concerned with the reforms he instituted and the moral principles he recommended in his attempt to create a just and humane society. As such, they give us little information about his life, the details of which have to be culled from other sources. Although the exact dates of Asoka’s life are a matter of dispute among scholars, he was born in about 304 B.C. and became the third king of the Mauryan dynasty after the death of his father, Bindusara. His given name was Asoka but he assumed the title Devanampiya Piyadasi which means “Beloved-of-the-Gods, He Who Looks On With Affection.” There seems to have been a two-year war of succession during which at least one of Asoka’s brothers was killed. In 262 B.C., eight years after his coronation, Asoka’s armies attacked and conquered Kalinga, a country that roughly corresponds to the modern state of Orissa. The loss of life caused by battle, reprisals, deportations and the turmoil that always exists in the aftermath of war so horrified Asoka that it brought about a complete change in his personality. It seems that Asoka had been calling himself a Buddhist for at least two years prior to the Kalinga war, but his commitment to Buddhism was only lukewarm and perhaps had a political motive behind it. But after the war Asoka dedicated the rest of his life trying to apply Buddhist principles to the administration of his vast empire. He had a crucial part to play in helping Buddhism to spread both throughout India and abroad, and probably built the first major Buddhist monuments. Asoka died in 232 B.C. in the thirty-eighth year of his reign.

Asoka’s edicts are to be found scattered in more than thirty places throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of them are written in Brahmi script from which all Indian scripts and many of those used in Southeast Asia later developed. The language used in the edicts found in the eastern part of the sub-continent is a type of Magadhi, probably the official language of Asoka’s court. The language used in the edicts found in the western part of India is closer to Sanskrit although one bilingual edict in Afghanistan is written in Aramaic and Greek. Asoka’s edicts, which comprise the earliest decipherable corpus of written documents from India, have survived throughout the centuries because they are written on rocks and stone pillars. These pillars in particular are testimony to the technological and artistic genius of ancient Indian civilization. Originally, there must have been many of them, although only ten with inscriptions still survive. Averaging between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected. Each pillar was originally capped by a capital, sometimes a roaring lion, a noble bull or a spirited horse, and the few capitals that survive are widely recognized as masterpieces of Indian art. Both the pillars and the capitals exhibit a remarkable mirror-like polish that has survived despite centuries of exposure to the elements. The location of the rock edicts is governed by the availability of suitable rocks, but the edicts on pillars are all to be found in very specific places. Some, like the Lumbini pillar, mark the Buddha’s birthplace, while its inscriptions commemorate Asoka’s pilgrimage to that place. Others are to be found in or near important population centers so that their edicts could be read by as many people as possible.

There is little doubt that Asoka’s edicts were written in his own words rather than in the stylistic language in which royal edicts or proclamations in the ancient world were usually written in. Their distinctly personal tone gives us a unique glimpse into the personality of this complex and remarkable man. Asoka’s style tends to be somewhat repetitious and plodding as if explaining something to one who has difficulty in understanding. Asoka frequently refers to the good works he has done, although not in a boastful way, but more, it seems, to convince the reader of his sincerity. In fact, an anxiousness to be thought of as a sincere person and a good administrator is present in nearly every edict. Asoka tells his subjects that he looked upon them as his children, that their welfare is his main concern; he apologizes for the Kalinga war and reassures the people beyond the borders of his empire that he has no expansionist intentions towards them. Mixed with this sincerity, there is a definite puritanical streak in Asoka’s character suggested by his disapproval of festivals and of religious rituals many of which while being of little value were nonetheless harmless.

It is also very clear that Buddhism was the most influential force in Asoka’s life and that he hoped his subjects likewise would adopt his religion. He went on pilgrimages to Lumbini and Bodh Gaya, sent teaching monks to various regions in India and beyond its borders, and he was familiar enough with the sacred texts to recommend some of them to the monastic community. It is also very clear that Asoka saw the reforms he instituted as being a part of his duties as a Buddhist. But, while he was an enthusiastic Buddhist, he was not partisan towards his own religion or intolerant of other religions. He seems to have genuinely hoped to be able to encourage everyone to practice his or her own religion with the same conviction that he practiced his.

Scholars have suggested that because the edicts say nothing about the philosophical aspects of Buddhism, Asoka had a simplistic and naive understanding of the Dhamma. This view does not take into account the fact that the purpose of the edicts was not to expound the truths of Buddhism, but to inform the people of Asoka’s reforms and to encourage them to be more generous, kind and moral. This being the case, there was no reason for Asoka to discuss Buddhist philosophy. Asoka emerges from his edicts as an able administrator, an intelligent human being and as a devoted Buddhist, and we could expect him to take as keen an interest in Buddhist philosophy as he did in Buddhist practice.

The contents of Asoka’s edicts make it clear that all the legends about his wise and humane rule are more than justified and qualify him to be ranked as one of the greatest rulers. In his edicts, he spoke of what might be called state morality, and private or individual morality. The first was what he based his administration upon and what he hoped would lead to a more just, more spiritually inclined society, while the second was what he recommended and encouraged individuals to practice. Both these types of morality were imbued with the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life. The Asokan state gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan empire up till then and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence. The judicial system was reformed in order to make it more fair, less harsh and less open to abuse, while those sentenced to death were given a stay of execution to prepare appeals and regular amnesties were given to prisoners. State resources were used for useful public works like the importation and cultivation of medical herbs, the building of rest houses, the digging of wells at regular intervals along main roads and the planting of fruit and shade trees. To ensue that these reforms and projects were carried out, Asoka made himself more accessible to his subjects by going on frequent inspection tours and he expected his district officers to follow his example. To the same end, he gave orders that important state business or petitions were never to be kept from him no matter what he was doing at the time. The state had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its wildlife. Hunting certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wildlife reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited. The protection of all religions, their promotion and the fostering of harmony between them, was also seen as one of the duties of the state. It even seems that something like a Department of Religious Affairs was established with officers called Dhamma Mahamatras whose job it was to look after the affairs of various religious bodies and to encourage the practice of religion.

The individual morality that Asoka hoped to foster included respect (susrusa) towards parents, elders, teachers, friends, servants, ascetics and brahmans — behavior that accords with the advice given to Sigala by the Buddha (Digha Nikaya, Discourse No. 31). He encouraged generosity (dana) to the poor (kapana valaka), to ascetics and brahmans, and to friends and relatives. Not surprisingly, Asoka encouraged harmlessness towards all life (avihisa bhutanam). In conformity with the Buddha’s advice in the Anguttara Nikaya, II:282, he also considered moderation in spending and moderation in saving to be good (apa vyayata apa bhadata). Treating people properly (samya pratipati), he suggested, was much more important than performing ceremonies that were supposed to bring good luck. Because it helped promote tolerance and mutual respect, Asoka desired that people should be well-learned (bahu sruta) in the good doctrines (kalanagama) of other people’s religions. The qualities of heart that are recommended by Asoka in the edicts indicate his deep spirituality. They include kindness (daya), self-examination (palikhaya), truthfulness (sace), gratitude (katamnata), purity of heart (bhava sudhi), enthusiasm (usahena), strong loyalty (dadha bhatita), self-control (sayame) and love of the Dhamma (Dhamma kamata).

We have no way of knowing how effective Asoka’s reforms were or how long they lasted but we do know that monarchs throughout the ancient Buddhist world were encouraged to look to his style of government as an ideal to be followed. King Asoka has to be credited with the first attempt to develop a Buddhist polity. Today, with widespread disillusionment in prevailing ideologies and the search for a political philosophy that goes beyond greed (capitalism), hatred (communism) and delusion (dictatorships led by “infallible” leaders), Asoka’s edicts may make a meaningful contribution to the development of a more spiritually based political system.

The Fourteen Rock Edicts [go up]


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written.1 Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.

Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.


Everywhere2 within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, as far as Tamraparni and where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbors of Antiochos,3 everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.4


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:5 Twelve years after my coronation this has been ordered — Everywhere in my domain the Yuktas, the Rajjukas and the Pradesikas shall go on inspection tours every five years for the purpose of Dhamma instruction and also to conduct other business.6

Respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and ascetics is good, not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good. The Council shall notify the Yuktas about the observance of these instructions in these very words.


In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased.7 But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma.8 The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.9

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:10 To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do. I have done many good deeds, and, if my sons, grandsons and their descendants up to the end of the world act in like manner, they too will do much good. But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil. Truly, it is easy to do evil.11

In the past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders.12 They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma — for their welfare and happiness — so that they may be free from harassment. They (Dhamma Mahamatras) work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the Mahamatras think, “This one has a family to support,” “That one has been bewitched,” “This one is old,” then they work for the release of such prisoners. They work here, in outlying towns, in the women’s quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and among my other relatives. They are occupied everywhere. These Dhamma Mahamatras are occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dhamma to determine who is devoted to Dhamma, who is established in Dhamma, and who is generous.

This Dhamma edict has been written on stone so that it might endure long and that my descendants might act in conformity with it.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:13 In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bed chamber, the chariot, the palanquin, in the park or wherever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am. And whatever I orally order in connection with donations or proclamations, or when urgent business presses itself on the Mahamatras, if disagreement or debate arises in the Council, then it must be reported to me immediately. This is what I have ordered. I am never content with exerting myself or with despatching business. Truly, I consider the welfare of all to be my duty, and the root of this is exertion and the prompt despatch of business. There is no better work than promoting the welfare of all the people and whatever efforts I am making is to repay the debt I owe to all beings to assure their happiness in this life, and attain heaven in the next.

Therefore this Dhamma edict has been written to last long and that my sons, grandsons and great-grandsons might act in conformity with it for the welfare of the world. However, this is difficult to do without great exertion.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.14 But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it. But one who receives great gifts yet is lacking in self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and firm devotion, such a person is mean.


In the past kings used to go out on pleasure tours during which there was hunting and other entertainment.15 But ten years after Beloved-of-the-Gods had been coronated, he went on a tour to Sambodhi and thus instituted Dhamma tours.16 During these tours, the following things took place: visits and gifts to Brahmans and ascetics, visits and gifts of gold to the aged, visits to people in the countryside, instructing them in Dhamma, and discussing Dhamma with them as is suitable. It is this that delights Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and is, as it were, another type of revenue.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:17 In times of sickness, for the marriage of sons and daughters, at the birth of children, before embarking on a journey, on these and other occasions, people perform various ceremonies. Women in particular perform many vulgar and worthless ceremonies. These types of ceremonies can be performed by all means, but they bear little fruit. What does bear great fruit, however, is the ceremony of the Dhamma. This involves proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for teachers, restraint towards living beings, and generosity towards ascetics and Brahmans. These and other things constitute the ceremony of the Dhamma. Therefore a father, a son, a brother, a master, a friend, a companion, and even a neighbor should say: “This is good, this is the ceremony that should be performed until its purpose is fulfilled, this I shall do.”18 Other ceremonies are of doubtful fruit, for they may achieve their purpose, or they may not, and even if they do, it is only in this world. But the ceremony of the Dhamma is timeless. Even if it does not achieve its purpose in this world, it produces great merit in the next, whereas if it does achieve its purpose in this world, one gets great merit both here and there through the ceremony of the Dhamma.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not consider glory and fame to be of great account unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dhamma and practice Dhamma, both now and in the future.19 For this alone does Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desire glory and fame. And whatever efforts Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, is making, all of that is only for the welfare of the people in the next world, and that they will have little evil. And being without merit is evil. This is difficult for either a humble person or a great person to do except with great effort, and by giving up other interests. In fact, it may be even more difficult for a great person to do.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:20 There is no gift like the gift of the Dhamma,21 (no acquaintance like) acquaintance with Dhamma, (no distribution like) distribution of Dhamma, and (no kinship like) kinship through Dhamma. And it consists of this: proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings. Therefore a father, a son, a brother, a master, a friend, a companion or a neighbor should say: “This is good, this should be done.” One benefits in this world and gains great merit in the next by giving the gift of the Dhamma.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds.22 But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this — that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.23 Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good.24 One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

Those who are content with their own religion should be told this: Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. And to this end many are working — Dhamma Mahamatras, Mahamatras in charge of the women’s quarters, officers in charge of outlying areas, and other such officers. And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows and the Dhamma is illuminated also.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation.25 One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.

There is no country, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmans and ascetics, are not found, and there is no country where people are not devoted to one or another religion.26 Therefore the killing, death or deportation of a hundredth, or even a thousandth part of those who died during the conquest of Kalinga now pains Beloved-of-the-Gods. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods thinks that even those who do wrong should be forgiven where forgiveness is possible.

Even the forest people, who live in Beloved-of-the-Gods’ domain, are entreated and reasoned with to act properly. They are told that despite his remorse Beloved-of-the-Gods has the power to punish them if necessary, so that they should be ashamed of their wrong and not be killed. Truly, Beloved-of-the-Gods desires non-injury, restraint and impartiality to all beings, even where wrong has been done.

Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest.27 And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni.28 Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dhamma. Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods’ envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so. This conquest has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy — the joy which only conquest by Dhamma can give. But even this joy is of little consequence. Beloved-of-the-Gods considers the great fruit to be experienced in the next world to be more important.

I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had these Dhamma edicts written in brief, in medium length, and in extended form.29 Not all of them occur everywhere, for my domain is vast, but much has been written, and I will have still more written. And also there are some subjects here that have been spoken of again and again because of their sweetness, and so that the people may act in accordance with them. If some things written are incomplete, this is because of the locality, or in consideration of the object, or due to the fault of the scribe.

The Kalinga Rock Edicts [go up]


Beloved-of-the-Gods says that the Mahamatras of Tosali who are judicial officers in the city are to be told this:30 I wish to see that everything I consider to be proper is carried out in the right way. And I consider instructing you to be the best way of accomplishing this. I have placed you over many thousands of people that you may win the people’s affection.

All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.

You must attend to this matter. While being completely law-abiding, some people are imprisoned, treated harshly and even killed without cause so that many people suffer. Therefore your aim should be to act with impartiality. It is because of these things — envy, anger, cruelty, hate, indifference, laziness or tiredness — that such a thing does not happen. Therefore your aim should be: “May these things not be in me.” And the root of this is non-anger and patience. Those who are bored with the administration of justice will not be promoted; (those who are not) will move upwards and be promoted. Whoever among you understands this should say to his colleagues: “See that you do your duty properly. Such and such are Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions.” Great fruit will result from doing your duty, while failing in it will result in gaining neither heaven nor the king’s pleasure. Failure in duty on your part will not please me. But done properly, it will win you heaven and you will be discharging your debts to me.

This edict is to be listened to on Tisa day, between Tisa days, and on other suitable occasions, it should be listened to even by a single person. Acting thus, you will be doing your duty.

This edict has been written for the following purpose: that the judicial officers of the city may strive to do their duty and that the people under them might not suffer unjust imprisonment or harsh treatment. To achieve this, I will send out Mahamatras every five years who are not harsh or cruel, but who are merciful and who can ascertain if the judicial officers have understood my purpose and are acting according to my instructions. Similarly, from Ujjayini, the prince will send similar persons with the same purpose without allowing three years to elapse. Likewise from Takhasila also. When these Mahamatras go on tours of inspection each year, then without neglecting their normal duties, they will ascertain if judicial officers are acting according to the king’s instructions.


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus:31 This royal order is to be addressed to the Mahamatras at Samapa. I wish to see that everything I consider to be proper is carried out in the right way. And I consider instructing you to be the best way of accomplishing this. All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men.32

The people of the unconquered territories beyond the borders might think: “What is the king’s intentions towards us?” My only intention is that they live without fear of me, that they may trust me and that I may give them happiness, not sorrow. Furthermore, they should understand that the king will forgive those who can be forgiven, and that he wishes to encourage them to practice Dhamma so that they may attain happiness in this world and the next. I am telling you this so that I may discharge the debts I owe, and that in instructing you, that you may know that my vow and my promise will not be broken. Therefore acting in this way, you should perform your duties and assure them (the people beyond the borders) that: “The king is like a father. He feels towards us as he feels towards himself. We are to him like his own children.”

By instructing you and informing you of my vow and my promise I shall be applying myself in complete fullness to achieving this object. You are able indeed to inspire them with confidence and to secure their welfare and happiness in this world and the next, and by acting thus, you will attain heaven as well as discharge the debts you owe to me. And so that the Mahamatras can devote themselves at all times to inspiring the border areas with confidence and encouraging them to practice Dhamma, this edict has been written here.

This edict is to be listened to every four months on Tisa day, between Tisa days, and on other suitable occasions, it should be listened to even by a single person. Acting thus, you will be doing your duty.

Minor Rock Edicts [go up]


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus:33 It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay-disciple, but until now I have not been very zealous.34 But now that I have visited the Sangha for more than a year, I have become very zealous. Now the people in India who have not associated with the gods do so. This is the result of zeal and it is not just the great who can do this. Even the humble, if they are zealous, can attain heaven. And this proclamation has been made with this aim. Let both humble and great be zealous, let even those on the borders know and let zeal last long. Then this zeal will increase, it will greatly increase, it will increase up to one-and-a-half times. This message has been proclaimed two hundred and fifty-six times by the king while on tour.


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus:35 Father and mother should be respected and so should elders, kindness to living beings should be made strong and the truth should be spoken. In these ways, the Dhamma should be promoted. Likewise, a teacher should be honored by his pupil and proper manners should be shown towards relations. This is an ancient rule that conduces to long life. Thus should one act. Written by the scribe Chapala.


Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus:36 You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken.37 I consider it proper, reverend sirs, to advise on how the good Dhamma should last long.

These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember.38 Likewise the laymen and laywomen. I have had this written that you may know my intentions.

The Seven Pillar Edicts [go up]


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus:39 This Dhamma edict was written twenty-six years after my coronation. Happiness in this world and the next is difficult to obtain without much love for the Dhamma, much self-examination, much respect, much fear (of evil), and much enthusiasm. But through my instruction this regard for Dhamma and love of Dhamma has grown day by day, and will continue to grow. And my officers of high, low and middle rank are practicing and conforming to Dhamma, and are capable of inspiring others to do the same. Mahamatras in border areas are doing the same. And these are my instructions: to protect with Dhamma, to make happiness through Dhamma and to guard with Dhamma.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity. I have given the gift of sight in various ways.40 To two-footed and four-footed beings, to birds and aquatic animals, I have given various things including the gift of life. And many other good deeds have been done by me.

This Dhamma edict has been written that people might follow it and it might endure for a long time. And the one who follows it properly will do something good.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: People see only their good deeds saying, “I have done this good deed.” But they do not see their evil deeds saying, “I have done this evil deed” or “This is called evil.” But this (tendency) is difficult to see.41 One should think like this: “It is these things that lead to evil, to violence, to cruelty, anger, pride and jealousy. Let me not ruin myself with these things.” And further, one should think: “This leads to happiness in this world and the next.”


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: This Dhamma edict was written twenty-six years after my coronation. My Rajjukas are working among the people, among many hundreds of thousands of people. The hearing of petitions and the administration of justice has been left to them so that they can do their duties confidently and fearlessly and so that they can work for the welfare, happiness and benefit of the people in the country. But they should remember what causes happiness and sorrow, and being themselves devoted to Dhamma, they should encourage the people in the country (to do the same), that they may attain happiness in this world and the next. These Rajjukas are eager to serve me. They also obey other officers who know my desires, who instruct the Rajjukas so that they can please me. Just as a person feels confident having entrusted his child to an expert nurse thinking: “The nurse will keep my child well,” even so, the Rajjukas have been appointed by me for the welfare and happiness of the people in the country.

The hearing of petitions and the administration of justice have been left to the Rajjukas so that they can do their duties unperturbed, fearlessly and confidently. It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing. I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners’ lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts. Indeed, it is my wish that in this way, even if a prisoner’s time is limited, he can prepare for the next world, and that people’s Dhamma practice, self-control and generosity may grow.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected — parrots, mainas, aruna, ruddy geese, wild ducks, nandimukhas, gelatas, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, vedareyaka, gangapuputaka, sankiya fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, okapinda, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible.42 Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another. On the three Caturmasis, the three days of Tisa and during the fourteenth and fifteenth of the Uposatha, fish are protected and not to be sold. During these days animals are not to be killed in the elephant reserves or the fish reserves either. On the eighth of every fortnight, on the fourteenth and fifteenth, on Tisa, Punarvasu, the three Caturmasis and other auspicious days, bulls are not to be castrated, billy goats, rams, boars and other animals that are usually castrated are not to be. On Tisa, Punarvasu, Caturmasis and the fortnight of Caturmasis, horses and bullocks are not be branded.

In the twenty-six years since my coronation prisoners have been given amnesty on twenty-five occasions.


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation I started to have Dhamma edicts written for the welfare and happiness of the people, and so that not transgressing them they might grow in the Dhamma. Thinking: “How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured?” I give attention to my relatives, to those dwelling near and those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. But I consider it best to meet with people personally.

This Dhamma edict was written twenty-six years after my coronation.


Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: In the past kings desired that the people might grow through the promotion of the Dhamma. But despite this, people did not grow through the promotion of the Dhamma. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, said concerning this: “It occurs to me that in the past kings desired that the people might grow through the promotion of the Dhamma. But despite this, people did not grow through the promotion of the Dhamma. Now how can the people be encouraged to follow it? How can the people be encouraged to grow through the promotion of the Dhamma? How can I elevate them by promoting the Dhamma?” Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, further said concerning this: “It occurs to me that I shall have proclamations on Dhamma announced and instruction on Dhamma given. When people hear these, they will follow them, elevate themselves and grow considerably through the promotion of the Dhamma.” It is for this purpose that proclamations on Dhamma have been announced and various instructions on Dhamma have been given and that officers who work among many promote and explain them in detail. The Rajjukas who work among hundreds of thousands of people have likewise been ordered: “In this way and that encourage those who are devoted to Dhamma.” Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: “Having this object in view, I have set up Dhamma pillars, appointed Dhamma Mahamatras, and announced Dhamma proclamations.”

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, says: Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. At intervals of eight krosas, I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men. But these are but minor achievements. Such things to make the people happy have been done by former kings. I have done these things for this purpose, that the people might practice the Dhamma.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: My Dhamma Mahamatras too are occupied with various good works among the ascetics and householders of all religions. I have ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Sangha. I have also ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Brahmans and the Ajivikas. I have ordered that they be occupied with the Niganthas.43 In fact, I have ordered that different Mahamatras be occupied with the particular affairs of all different religions. And my Dhamma Mahamatras likewise are occupied with these and other religions.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: These and other principal officers are occupied with the distribution of gifts, mine as well as those of the queens. In my women’s quarters, they organize various charitable activities here and in the provinces. I have also ordered my sons and the sons of other queens to distribute gifts so that noble deeds of Dhamma and the practice of Dhamma may be promoted. And noble deeds of Dhamma and the practice of Dhamma consist of having kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, gentleness and goodness increase among the people.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Whatever good deeds have been done by me, those the people accept and those they follow. Therefore they have progressed and will continue to progress by being respectful to mother and father, respectful to elders, by courtesy to the aged and proper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics, towards the poor and distressed, and even towards servants and employees.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: This progress among the people through Dhamma has been done by two means, by Dhamma regulations and by persuasion. Of these, Dhamma regulation is of little effect, while persuasion has much more effect. The Dhamma regulations I have given are that various animals must be protected. And I have given many other Dhamma regulations also. But it is by persuasion that progress among the people through Dhamma has had a greater effect in respect of harmlessness to living beings and non-killing of living beings.

Concerning this, Beloved-of-the-Gods says: Wherever there are stone pillars or stone slabs, there this Dhamma edict is to be engraved so that it may long endure. It has been engraved so that it may endure as long as my sons and great-grandsons live and as long as the sun and the moon shine, and so that people may practice it as instructed. For by practicing it happiness will be attained in this world and the next.

This Dhamma edict has been written by me twenty-seven years after my coronation.

The Minor Pillar Edicts [go up]


Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born.44 He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.


Beloved-of-the-Gods commands:45 The Mahamatras at Kosambi (are to be told: Whoever splits the Sangha) which is now united, is not to be admitted into the Sangha. Whoever, whether monk or nun, splits the Sangha is to be made to wear white clothes and to reside somewhere other than in a monastery.46

Notes [go up]

1. Girnar version issued in 257 B.C. These fourteen edicts, with minor differences, are found in five different places throughout India. In two other places, they are found minus numbers 11, 12 and 13.

2. Girnar version, issued in 257 B.C.

3. The Cholas and Pandyas were south Indian peoples living outside Asoka’s empire. The Satiyaputras and Keralaputras lived on the southwest seaboard of India. Tamraparni is one of the ancient names for Sri Lanka. On Antiochos see Note 28.

4. By so doing, Asoka was following the advice given by the Buddha at Samyutta Nikaya, I:33.

5. Girnar version, issued in 257 B.C.

6. The exact duties of these royal officers are not known.

7. Girnar version, issued in 257 B.C.

8. This probably refers to the drum that was beaten to announce the punishment of lawbreakers. See Samyutta Nikaya, IV:244.

9. Like many people in the ancient world, Asoka believed that when a just king ruled, there would be many auspicious portents.

10. Kalsi version, issued in 256 B.C.

11. This seems to be a paraphrase of Dhammapada 163.

12. The Greeks (Yona) settled in large numbers in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan after the conquests of Alexander the Great, although small communities lived there prior to this.

13. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

14. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

15. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

16. Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, was known in ancient times as either Sambodhi or Vajirasana.

17. Kalsi version, issued in 256 B.C. Asoka obviously had the Mangala Sutta (Sutta Nipata 258-269) in mind when he issued this edict. The word here translated as ceremony is mangala.

18. Other versions substitute the following up to the end of the edict.

It has also been said: “Generosity is good.” But there is no gift or benefit like the gift of the Dhamma or benefit like the benefit of the Dhamma. There a friend, a well-wisher, a relative or a companion should encourage others thus on appropriate occasions: “This should be done, this is good, by doing this, one can attain heaven.” And what greater achievement is there than this, to attain heaven?

19. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

20. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

21. Similar to Dhammapada 354.

22. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

23. Asoka probably believed that the essentials (saravadi) of all religions were their ethical principles.

24. (Ta samavayo eva sadhu). This sentence is usually translated “Therefore concord is commendable.” Samavayo however comes from sam + ava + i, “to come together.”

25. Kalsi version, issued in 256 B.C. Kalinga corresponds roughly to the modern state of Orissa.

26. The Buddha pointed out that the four castes of Indian society likewise were not found among the Greeks; see Majjhima Nikaya, II:149.

27. Perhaps Asoka had in mind Dhammapada 103-104.

28. Antiochos II Theos of Syria (261-246 B.C.), Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt (285-247 B.C.), Antigonos Gonatos of Macedonia (278-239 B.C.), Magas of Cyrene (300-258 B.C.) and Alexander of Epirus (272-258 B.C.).

29. Girnar version, issued in 256 B.C.

30. Dhauli version, issued in 256 B.C. These two edicts are found in two different places.

31. Dhauli version, issued in 256 B.C.

32. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s words: “Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, even so, let one cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.” Sutta Nipata 149.

33. Gavimath version, issued in 257 B.C. This edict is found in twelve different places.

34. First Asoka was a lay-disciple (upasaka) and then he visited or literally “went to the Sangha” (yam me samghe upeti). Some scholars think this means that Asoka became a monk. However it probably means that he started visiting Buddhist monks more often and listening to their instructions more carefully.

35. Brahmagiri version.

36. This edict was found inscribed on a small rock near the town of Bairat and is now housed at the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. Its date is not known.

37. This sentence is the converse of a similar one in the Tipitaka: “…that which is well-spoken is the words of the Lord.” Anguttara Nikaya, IV:164.

38. There is disagreement amongst scholars concerning which Pali suttas correspond to some of the text. Vinaya samukose: probably the Atthavasa Vagga, Anguttara Nikaya, 1:98-100. Aliya vasani: either the Ariyavasa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, V:29, or the Ariyavamsa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, II: 27-28. Anagata bhayani: probably the Anagata Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, III:100. Muni gatha: Muni Sutta, Sutta Nipata 207-221. Upatisa pasine: Sariputta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 955-975. Laghulavade: Rahulavada Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, I:421.

39. The following seven edicts are from the Delhi Topra version, the first six being issued in 243 B.C. and the seventh in 242 B.C. The first six edicts also appear on five other pillars.

40. Cakhu dane. The meaning is unclear. It may mean that Asoka has given “the eye of wisdom,” but taking into account the context, it more likely means he has stopped blinding as a form of punishment.

41. Similar to the ideas expressed by the Buddha in Dhammapada 50 and 252.

42. The identification of many of these animals is conjectural.

43. The Ajivikas were a sect of ascetics in ancient India established by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of the Buddha. The Niganthas are the Jains.

44. This inscription is found on a pillar in Lumbini where the Buddha was born. It was issued in 249 B.C., probably at the time of Asoka’s visit to the place.

45. Allahabad version, date of issue not known. The words in brackets are missing due to damage on the pillar, but they can be reconstructed from the three other versions of this edict.

46. The white clothes of the lay followers rather than the yellow robe of a monk or nun.

Bibliography [go up]

D. R. Bhandarkar, Asoka. Calcutta, 1955

R. Mookerji, Asoka. Delhi, 1962

A. Sen, Asoka’s Edicts. Calcutta, 1956

A. Seneviratna (editor), King Asoka and Buddhism. Kandy. Scheduled for 1993.

D. C. Sircar, Inscriptions of Asoka. Delhi, 1957

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