Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
For free distribution only.
Introduction: Does an arahant reborn or does he reappear some where after his death. Why are we paying reverence to him, since he has passed away? Buddha refused to answer to this question stating that it is beyond our layman knowledge to perceive what happened to Arahat after his death. The simile given here is a fire and after you extinguished the fire, no body knows where that fire has gone. It is for the wise to comprehend what happened after the arahant passed away.
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view:
‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul and the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul is one thing and the body another: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata exists: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”
“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if he holds the view ‘the cosmos is eternal…’… ‘after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless,’ he says ‘…no…’ in each case. Seeing what drawback, then, is Master Gotama thus entirely dissociated from each of these ten positions?”
“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, and fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.
“The position that ‘the cosmos is not eternal’…
“…’the cosmos is finite’…
“…’the cosmos is infinite’…
“…’the soul and the body are the same’…
“…’the soul is one thing and the body another’…
“…’after death a Tathagata exists’…
“…’after death a Tathagata does not exist’…
“…’after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist’…
“…’after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’… does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.”
“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”
“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, and relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making and mine-making and obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”
“But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?”
“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”
“In that case, Master Gotama, he does not reappear.”
“‘Does not reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”
“…both does and does not reappear.”
“…neither does nor does not reappear.”
“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if the monk reappears… does not reappear… both does and does not reappear… neither does nor does not reappear, he says, ‘…doesn’t apply’ in each case. At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured.”
“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. How do you construe this, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”
“And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, ‘This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”
“…I would reply, ‘This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass and timber as its sustenance.’”
“If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”
“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”
“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”
“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, like an uprooted palm tree, deprived of the conditions of existence, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does and does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.
“Any feeling… Any perception… Any mental fabrication…
“Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, like an uprooted palm tree, deprived of the conditions of existence, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does and does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.”
When this was said, the wanderer Vacchagotta said to the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, it is as if there were a great sala tree not far from a village or town: From inconstancy, its branches and leaves would wear away, its bark would wear away, its sapwood would wear away, so that on a later occasion — divested of branches, leaves, bark, and sapwood — it would stand as pure heartwood. In the same way, Master Gotama’s words are divested of branches, leaves, bark, and sapwood and stand as pure heartwood.
“Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama has — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”
The ten fetters referred to in Buddhist scriptures are what bind beings to the cycle of birth and death. The first five are referred to as the ‘lower fetters’ and the second five as the ‘higher fetters’.
This refers to the mistaken belief - from a Buddhist perspective - that the self is a permanent, unchanging essence or soul. Buddhism teaches that what we call the self or personality is made up of five factors - corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations (including volition or will) and consciousness. To cling to the idea of a permanent self, therefore, is erroneous. (See teaching on Not-Self or Anatta)
2. Skeptical Doubt
This is to have doubts about the three jewels, namely the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha; about what is morally wholesome and what is not; about the nature of religious training outlined by the Buddha and about the conditionality of all things.
3. Clinging to Rites and Rituals
Although rites and rituals form a part of Buddhist practices in various schools, the Buddha taught that there was no point in clinging to them for their own sake. Rites and rituals are a means of giving form to the expression of heart and mind, otherwise they are empty vessels.
4. Sensuous Craving
On one level this refers to lust but it has a broader meaning in terms of craving for pleasant sensations, those that our senses bring to us: sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touch.
This encapsulates feelings of enmity, even hatred, towards others. It is the opposite of loving-kindness (metta).
6. Craving for Fine-Material Existence
In the development of meditation, refined, rapturous states known as jhanas can be experienced. But even attachment to these is ultimately unwholesome to progress. This relates to the first four of eight jhanas.
7. Craving for Immaterial Existence
This fetter calls for the abandonment of subtle attractions to those states of mind experienced in the final four jhanas .
This is sometimes interpreted as pride but it is likely something more subtle is intended, namely, attachment to the idea of self on an experiential level, even if the belief in an enduring self has been abandoned intellectually.
Restlessness or agitation suggests that true peace and contentment have still not been achieved in full.The mind is still unsettled.
At the core of the Buddha’s teaching is the idea that we live in a state of unknowing, of sleep, of ignorance. The whole Buddhist approach is aimed at dispelling our ignorance which is synonymous with waking up to truth. It is not surprising then that this is the final fetter.
The removal of the first three fetters makes one a ’stream-enterer’, one whose final awakening is assured within seven further rebirths. The removal of the first three fetters and the dilution of the next two makes one ‘a once-returner’; in other words, there will only one more rebirth as a human being before enlightenment. The compete abandonment of the first five fetters makes one a ‘non-returner’ and therefore leads to rebirth in one of the Buddhist ‘Pure Abodes’ where final awakening will be assured. An arahat or ’saint’ is one in whom all ten fetters have been destroyed.
2nd Mailing 1995 No. 30
The following essay is intended as a short corrective to the Pope’s demeaning characterization of Buddhism. It addresses the issues solely at the level of ideas, without delving into the question whether ulterior motives lay behind the Pope’s pronouncements. The essay is based on an article written for a Polish publisher, Source (Katowice), which is presently compiling a book on the Buddhist response to the Pope’s book.
The Pope states that “the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology (doctrine of salvation).” Such a view of the Buddhist teachings was widespread among Christian missionaries in Asia during the 19th century, serving to justify their evangelical incursions into the heartlands of Buddhism. Serious scholars of comparative religion have long recognized this view to be a misrepresentation, rooted, in the case of the early missionaries, partly in misunderstanding, partly in deliberate distortion. It is therefore puzzling that the present head of the Catholic Church, otherwise so well informed, should repeat these worn-out lines, particularly at a time when greater mutual understanding is expected from the leaders of different religions.
The Pope does not explain exactly why he regards Buddhist soteriology as negative. Most likely, he takes this view because the Buddhist path of deliverance does not recognize a personal God as the agent and end of salvation. Like beauty, however, what is negative and what is positive lies in the eye of the beholder, and what is negative for one may turn out to be another’s supreme ideal. If one seeks an everlasting union between one’s eternal soul and a creator God, then a doctrine that denies the existence of an eternal soul and a Divine Creator will inevitably appear negative. If one regards everything conditioned as impermanent and devoid of self, and seeks deliverance in Nibbana, the Deathless Element, then a doctrine of everlasting union between God and the soul will seem-not negative perhaps—but founded upon wishful thinking and unacceptable articles of faith. For the ordinary reader, however, the word “negative,” when applied to Buddhism, will suggest something far different from a philosophically acute way of approaching the Ultimate, conjuring up pictures of a bleak doctrine of escapism aimed at personal annihilation. Behind the Pope’s words we can detect echoes of the ancient texts: “There are, monks, some recluses and brahmins who charge me with being an annihilationist, saying that the recluse Gotama teaches the annihilation of an existent being. That is false misrepresentation. What I teach, in the past as also now, is suffering and the cessation of suffering” (MN 22).
Even more worrisome than the Pope’s characterization of the Buddhist doctrine of salvation as negative is his contention that “the Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system.” The conclusion implied by this pronouncement, left hanging silently behind the lines, is that Buddhism is incapable of offering meaningful guidance to people immersed in the problems of everyday life; it is an otherworldly religion of escape suited only for those of an ascetic bent.
While Western scholars in the past have focused upon the Buddhist doctrine of salvation as their main point of interest, the living traditions of Buddhism as practised by its adherents reveal that this attitude, being one-sided to begin with, must yield one-sided results. The Buddhist texts themselves show that Buddhism addresses as wide a range of concerns as any other of humanity’s great religions. Nibbana remains the ultimate goal of Buddhism, and is certainly “the central point” of the Dhamma, but it is by no means “the only point” for which the Buddha proclaimed his Teaching.
According to the Buddhist texts, the Dhamma is intended to promote three types of good, each by way of different but overlapping sets of principles. These three goals, though integrated into the framework of a single internally consistent teaching, enable the Dhamma to address individuals at different stages of spiritual development, with varying capacities for comprehension. The three goods are:
(i) the good pertaining to the present life (ditthadhammattha), i.e. the achievement of happiness and well-being here and now, through ethical living and harmonious relationships based on kindness and compassion;
(ii) the good pertaining to the future life (samparayikattha), i.e. a favourable rebirth within the round of existence, by practising generosity, observing the precepts, and cultivating the mind in meditation; and
(iii) the ultimate good (paransattha), i.e. the attainment of Nibbana, by following the complete training defined by the Noble Eightfold Path.
For most Buddhists in their day-to-day lives, the pursuit of Nibbana is a distant rather than an immediate goal, to be approached gradually during the long course of rebirths. Until they are ready for a direct assault on the final good, they expect to walk the path for many lives within samsara, pursuing their mundane welfare while aspiring for the Ultimate. To assist them in this endeavour, the Buddha has taught numerous guidelines that pertain to ethically upright living within the confines of the world. In the Sigalovada Sutta, for example, he enumerates the reciprocal duties of parents and children, husband and wife, friends and friends, employers and employees, teachers and students, religious and laity. He made right livelihood an integral part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and explained what it implies in the life of a busy lay person. During his long ministry he gave advice to merchants on the prudent conduct of business, to young wives on how to behave towards their husbands, to rulers on how to administer their state. All such guidance, issuing from the Buddha’s great compassion, is designed to promote the welfare and happiness of the world while at the same time steering his followers towards a pleasant rebirth and gradual progress towards final liberation.
Yet, while the Buddha offers a graduated teaching adjusted to the varying life situations of his disciples, he does not allow any illusion to linger about the ultimate aim of his Doctrine. That aim is Nibbana, which is not a consoling reconciliation with the world but irreversible deliverance from the world. Such deliverance cannot be gained merely by piety and good works performed in a spirit of social sympathy. It can be won only by renunciation, by “the relinquishment of all acquisitions” (sabb’upadhipatinissagga), including among such “acquisitions” the bodily and mental processes that we identify as our self. The achievement of this end is necessarily individual. It must be arrived at through personal purification and personal insight, as the fruit of sustained effort in fulfilling the entire course of training. Hence the Buddha did not set out to found a church capable of embracing all humanity within the fold of a single creed. He lays down a path—a path perfect in its ideal formulation—to be trodden by imperfect human beings under the imperfect conditions that life within the world affords. While the quest for the highest goal culminates in deliverance from the world, this same ideal “bends back” towards the world and spells out standards of conduct and a scale of values to guide the unenlightened manyfolk in their daily struggles against the streams of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nibbana remains the “chief point” and the omega point of the Dhamma. But as this goal is to be experienced as the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion, it defines the condition for its realization as a life devoted to overcoming greed through generosity, to overcoming hatred through patience and loving kindness, and to overcoming delusion through wisdom and understanding.
Part II of this essay will appear in the next BPS newsletter.