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The Four Absorptions



Detached from sensual objects, detached from evil things, the disciple enters into the first Absorption, which is accompanied by Thought Conception and Discursive Thinking, is born of detachment, and filled with Rapture and Happiness.

This is the first of the Absorptions belonging to the Fine-Material Sphere (rupaavacarajjhaana). It is attained when, through the strength of concentration, the fivefold sense activity is temporarily suspended, and the five Hindrances are likewise eliminated.

See B. Dict.: kasina, nimitta, samadhi.

M. 43

This first Absorption is free from five things, and five things are present. When the disciple enters the first Absorption, there have vanished (the five Hindrances): Lust, Ill-Will, Torpor and Sloth, Restlessness and Mental Worry, Doubts; and there are present: Thought Conception (vitakka), Discursive Thinking (vicaara), Rapture (piiti), Happiness (sukha), Concentration (citt’ekaggataa = samadhi).

These five mental factors present in the first Absorption, are called Factors (or Constituents) of Absorption (jhaananga). Vitakka (initial formation of an abstract thought) and vicaara (discursive thinking, rumination) are called ‘verbal functions’ (vaci-sankhaara) of the mind; hence they are something secondary compared with consciousness.

In Visuddhi-Magga, vitakka is compared with the taking hold of a pot, and vicaara with the wiping of it. In the first Absorption both are present, but are exclusively focused on the subject of meditation, vicaara being here not discursive, but of an ‘exploring’ nature. Both are entirely absent in the following Absorptions.

And further: after the subsiding of Thought-Conception and Discursive Thinking, and by the gaining of inner tranquility and oneness of mind, he enters into a state free from Thought-Conception and Discursive Thinking, the second Absorption, which is born of concentration (samadhi), and filled with Rapture (piti) and Happiness (sukha).

In the second Absorption, there are three Factors of Absorption: Rapture, Happiness, and Concentration.

And further: after the fading away of Rapture, he dwells in equanimity, mindful, with clear awareness: and he experiences in his own person that feeling of which the Noble Ones say: ‘Happy lives he who is equanimous and mindful’-thus he enters the third Absorption.

In the third Absorption there are two Factors of Absorption: equanimous Happiness (upekkhaa-sukha) and Concentration (citt’ekaggataa).

And further: after the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain, into the fourth Absorption, which is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.

In the fourth Absorption there are two Factors of Absorption: Concentration and Equanimity (upekkhaa).

In Visuddhi-magga forty subjects of meditation (kamma.t.thaana) are enumerated and treated in detail. By their successful practice the following Absorptions may be attained:

All four Absorptions. through Mindfulness of Breathing (see Vis. M. VIII. 3), the ten Kasina-exercises (Vis. M. IV, V. and B. Dict.); the contemplation of Equanimity (upekkhaa), being the practice of the fourth Brahma-vihaara (Vis. M. IX. 4).

The first three Absorptions: through the development of Loving-Kindness (mettaa), Compassion (karunaa) and Sympathetic Joy (muditaa), being the practice of the first three Brahma-vihaaras (Vis. M. IX. 1-3,).

The first Absorption: through the ten Contemplations of Impurity (asubha-bhaavanaa; i.e. the Cemetery Contemplations, which are ten according to the enumeration in Vis. M. VI); the contemplation of the Body (i.e. the 32 parts of the body; Vis. M. VIII, 2); ‘Neighborhood-Concentration’ (upacaara-samaadhi): through the Recollections on Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, on Morality, Liberality, Heavenly Beings, Peace (=Nibbana) and death (Vis. M. VI. VII); the Contemplation on the Loathsomeness of Food (Vis. M. XI. I); the Analysis of the Four Elements (Vis. M. IX. 2).

The four Immaterial Absorptions (aruupa-jjhaana or aaruppa), which are based on the fourth Absorption, are produced by meditating on their respective objects from which they derive their names; Sphere of Unbounded Space, of Unbounded Consciousness, of Nothingness, and of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception.

The entire object of concentration and meditation is treated in Vis M. III-XIII; see also Fund. IV.

8. XXII. 5

Develop your concentration: for he who has concentration, understands things according to their reality. And what are these things? The arising and passing away of corporeality, of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.

M. 149

Thus, these five Groups of Existence must be wisely penetrated; Ignorance and Craving must be wisely abandoned; Tranquility (samatha) and Insight (vipassana) must be wisely developed.


This is the Middle Path which the Perfect One has discovered, which makes one both to see and to know, and which leads to peace, to discernment, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

Dhp. 275

“And following upon this path, you will put an end to suffering.



The Sotapanna or ‘Stream-Enterer’

And by thus considering, three fetters vanish, namely; Self-illusion, Scepticism, and Attachment to mere Rule and Ritual.

M. 22

But those disciples, in whom these three fetters have vanished, they all have ‘entered the Stream‘ (sotaapanna).

Dhp. 178

More than any earthly power,

More than all the joys of heaven,

More than rule o’er all the world,

Is the Entrance to the Stream.


  • Once-returner: After you become a stream-enterer, your practice includes reminding yourself of your new realization of “no-self,” as well as paying attention to the ways that you’re still attached and your resistance to life as it unfolds. After a period of time (generally years of devoted practice) in which your concentration gets even stronger and your mind becomes even more tranquil, you have another direct insight into no-self. (Remember, knowing this truth as a concept or memory is one thing, but experiencing it directly, beyond the conceptual mind, is something else entirely.)
    This insight (essentially the same as the first but even stronger and clearer) brings a significant reduction in attachment and aversion and the suffering that accompanies these states of mind. For example, occasional irritation and preference replace hatred and greed, which no longer have any hold over the once-returner. Someone who reaches this stage has only one more rebirth before becoming completely enlightened — hence the name once-returner.

    3) Non-returner

    Bhikkhu Pesala

    Where Have You Come From?


    The Buddha’s daily routine was extraordinary, he slept for only a few hours in the early hours of the morning. We divide the night into three watches: from 6pm to 10pm, from 10pm to 2am, and from 2am to 6am. In the first watch, after bathing, the Buddha taught the community of monks. At the end of the first watch, the monks would return to their quarters. Then celestial beings approached the Buddha to ask questions. The Buddha spent the middle watch answering their questions.

    During the first part of the last watch the Buddha practised walking meditation to relieve the stiffness caused by sitting since the morning. In the second part, the Buddha lay down mindfully and slept. In the third part, he enjoyed the bliss of nibbāna. After abiding in the absorption of great compassion in the fourth part, at dawn he considered who was ready to be taught the Dhamma.

    Question Mark

    The Weaver’s Daughter

    One morning he perceived in his divine eye the daughter of a poor weaver whose wife had just died. Realising that the young girl needed to hear his teaching, the Buddha went on foot to the village where she was staying. Seeing the Buddha arrive, the villagers invited him for the meal, and the Buddha gave a discourse after the meal to all the villagers, including the young girl. The essence of his teaching was as follows: “Death is certain, life is uncertain. Contemplate death constantly to overcome the fear of death. As one who enters the jungle armed with a stick is not afraid on seeing a snake, one who contemplates death constantly is not afraid if death comes suddenly.” The villagers all appreciated the Buddha’s discourse, and for several days meditated seriously on death. However, after a week or so every one of them had forgotten the Buddha’s advice, and was carrying on just as heedlessly as before — except, that is, for the young girl. Because her mother had recently died, she could not forget the Buddha’s words. She meditated constantly on death, for months and years afterwards.

    Three years later the Buddha reconsidered the situation of the weaver’s daughter and, seeing that she now had mature insight, he went to her village to teach her again. She was now sixteen, and had to work hard to help her father, who had no other children. On the day that the Buddha arrived, the weaver had been working all night to finish an urgent job, and his daughter was busy spinning more thread for her father. Hearing that the Buddha had arrived she considered what she should do. She decided to go to see the Buddha as soon as she had finished her spinning, then she would take the newly spun thread to her father.

    The villagers offered the meal to the Buddha, but as the girl was not present, the Buddha sat in silence after the meal waiting for her to arrive. The villagers were obliged to wait in silence too, out of respect for the Buddha. Finally, the young girl arrived, and the Buddha asked her the following four questions:

      “Young girl, where have you come from?”
      “I do not know, Lord” she replied.

      “Young girl, where are you going to?”
      “I do not know, Lord” she replied.

      “Do you not know?”
      “I know, Lord” she replied.

      “Do you know?”
      “I do not know, Lord” she replied.

    The villagers were baffled by her answers. Some thought she was being cheeky, and started scolding her, “Why don’t you tell the Buddha that you came from the spinning-shed, and are going to your father’s house?”

    The Buddha silenced them and asked the girl to explain her answers. The girl replied:

      “When you asked, ‘Where have you come from?’ you didn’t want to know that I came from the spinning-shed; you meant to ask from which existence I came to this one. So I replied that I do not know.”

      “When you asked, ‘Where are you going to?’ you meant to ask to which existence I am going after this one, so I again replied that I do not know.”

      “When you asked, ‘Do you not know?’ you meant to ask, ‘Do you not know that you will die?’ so I replied that I know I will die.”

      “When you asked, ‘Do you know?’ you meant to ask, ‘Do you know when you will die?’ so I replied that I do not know when I will die.”

    The Buddha praised the girl for her intelligent answers, and the villagers were amazed. The Buddha then spoke the following verse:

      “Blind is this world, only a few can see clearly.
      Like birds that escape from a net, only a few go to a blissful state.”

    The girl realised nibbāna and became a Stream-winner on hearing this verse.

    The young girl then went to her father’s house and put the newly spun skein of thread down by the loom. After working the whole night, her father had fallen asleep at the loom. When his daughter came in, he woke up with a start, and accidentally swung a heavy beam on the loom. The beam struck the girl hard, and she died on the spot. The father was totally distraught, and hurried to the Buddha to seek consolation. The Buddha explained the truth of suffering to him, and the weaver asked for ordination, later attaining Arahantship.

    The Buddha’s love and compassion was unlimited. For the benefit of one poor girl and her father, he twice went on a long journey to teach the Dhamma, and he did not forget about the girl after the first visit, but returned as soon as he knew that she needed his help. Though he had many thousands of disciples including kings and ministers, and also taught celestial beings, the Buddha always had time for anyone who would benefit from his teaching, even including beggars and slaves.

    This story is very interesting for the Buddhist because it shows that although we do believe in rebirth we do not need to remember our previous lives to gain nibbāna, the goal of Buddhism. The weaver’s daughter could not tell the Buddha from which existence she had come to be reborn as a weaver’s daughter, but the Buddha was pleased with her answers. She had understood about the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death after three years of meditation. That understanding enabled her to attain nibbāna while listening to the verse.

    One who has attained nibbāna no longer has any doubts such as “Am I?” “Am I not?” “What am I?” “How am I?” since the egocentric way of thinking has been removed by insight. It is not unlike the case of someone who has grown up and lost interest in football. He is no longer disappointed when his football team loses, or elated when they win. Even if he hears that his former football team has been relegated to the second division, it no longer matters since he doesn’t follow the team avidly any more.

    Self-view is hard to remove entirely. We identify with our family, our school, our neighbourhood, our local football team, our country, or our racial group. If we hear any good or bad news about anything that we regard as ours then we feel elated or depressed. If we hear someone say something critical about us personally, then we may feel terrible. However, we should not take it too much to heart. There is a saying in the Dhammapada:

      “They blame those who speak too much,
      They blame those who speak too little,
      They blame those who remain silent.
      No one escapes blame in this world.”

    Similarly, if someone praises us we should not become conceited because of that. If we work hard we will get a good result, that is only natural, but there is always someone who can do better than us, at least in other ways. It is hard to remove pride and conceit, but we must do it if we want to gain the highest happiness. The Buddha described how his pride and intoxication vanished, when he was still an unenlightened bodhisatta. “On seeing an old man, all pride and intoxication in youth vanished. On seeing a sick man, all pride and intoxication in health vanished. On seeing a dead man, all pride and intoxication in life vanished.”

    How can we remove self-view, pride, and conceit? We must develop mindfulness or awareness. Whatever thoughts or feelings arise within us should be observed as they occur from moment to moment. We should not allow ourselves to be heedless even for an instant. Heedlessness allows defilements like self-view, pride, and conceit to enter the mind and dominate it. Perhaps you have enjoyed watching a cartoon like Tom and Jerry. How did the ideas “Tom” and “Jerry” arise? When one watches a cartoon, one become absorbed in the story and soon begins to believe and feel what one imagines Tom and Jerry are feeling. Actually, Tom and Jerry exist only in our imaginations. A cartoon is only drawings that are displayed on the screen in rapid succession. However, the mind arises and passes away much more rapidly than the cartoon pictures, so it can put together the dialogue, sound effects, and pictures to create the illusion that Tom really is bashing Jerry over the head with a frying-pan, so we are emotionally affected by what we see.

    Real life is like this too. We see and hear things so rapidly that our mind constructs a mental picture, which we regard as real. If someone abuses us, we may feel like they are bashing us over the head, they are making bad kamma, but we suffer. Why is this? It is due to the mental formations that we create. We cannot easily stop this natural process because it is the result of previous kamma. Having abused others in the past, we have to suffer abuse in the present. However, we can sharpen our awareness of the process to the point where we can separate the mental impressions from the experience of hearing. Eventually, we will realise that all these impressions do not happen to anyone, they just happen. Then we will realise that the idea of a self, a person, a ‘me’, or a ‘you’, is just an illusion.

    Self-view is deeply rooted and cannot be removed by the unmindful person. The average, unmindful person dwells with self-view dominating his or her mind for the entire life. The mindful meditator can disrupt it temporarily while engaged in meditation, but after stopping meditation it will gradually reassert itself unless the meditator has gained deep insight. If a meditator gains deep insight and attains the first path of a Stream-winner, self-view is completely destroyed, and will never arise again. Such a person may be heedless to some extent, but can never be careless enough to break any of the five precepts. He or she is absolutely free from rebirth in the four lower realms of hell, hungry ghosts, demons, and animals, and will attain final nibbāna (Arahantship) within seven lives at the most. Having seen nibbāna personally, he or she has unshakeable confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and is truly worthy of offerings and homage. The weaver’s daughter was a Stream-winner.

    After attaining nibbāna, the Dhamma becomes central to the life of a Stream-winner. They are not yet free from sensual desire and anger, so they can lead a fairly normal family life. Whenever they wish to enjoy the peace of nibbāna they can meditate again, developing concentration, and attaining the fruition of the first path. If their concentration is strong, they may remain in the attainment of fruition for quite long periods, say, an hour or two. If they wish to attain the higher path, they should go into retreat for meditation and resolve not to attain the fruition of the first path during that period, and strive to attain the higher path. If they are successful and attain the second path of a Once-returner, they will be reborn on this earth only once more at the most before attaining the final liberation of Arahantship.

    The second path destroys strong forms of lust and anger, but some of these deep-rooted defilements remain, so they still have some sensual attachment and ill-will. If the Once-returner strives again in meditation and attains the third path of a Non-returner, all traces of lust and anger are uprooted. Since they have no sensual attachment at all they will not be born in the womb again, and will take rebirth only in the Suddhāvāsa Brahmā realms. These realms are the Theravāda ‘Pure Land’ because only Non-returners are reborn there. The bodhisattas are not reborn there either, because they are still worldlings who have not yet gained even the first path of a Stream-winner.

    Non-returners seem to be extremely rare these days. Saya Thetgyi, a Burmese lay meditation teacher, who taught U Ba Khin (Goenkaji’s teacher), was reputed to be a Non-returner. The Venerable Ledi Sayādaw praised him and asked him to teach meditation to his own monk disciples. A Non-returner will be naturally inclined to lead a monastic life, having no sexual desire at all, but may be obliged to remain as a lay person to support relatives. The potter honoured by Buddha Kassapa in the Ghatīkāra Sutta (Majjhimanikāya, Sutta 81) was a Non-returner. Though he was a humble potter, he was the chief supporter of Buddha Kassapa, and looked after his own blind and aged parents. He did not use money, but let people take his pots, leaving whatever goods they wished to in exchange. Knowing that he was a good supporter of the Buddha, they donated generously so he didn’t need any other source of income. Refusing to dig the earth himself, he gathered clay from river banks or that had been dug up by animals. Thus, though a layman, he lived on ten precepts like one gone forth.

    The Non-returner has to strive again in meditation to attain the final goal of Arahantship. Only then is all rebirth and suffering finally destroyed. Not even the subtlest defilements remain, so the Arahant is worthy of the highest honour. The word ‘Araham’ means ‘worthy’. There have been a few monks in Burma and Thailand in recent years who are reputed to have attained the final path. Venerable Ledi Sayādaw was thought to be one, but it is hard to be sure, since Arahants are extremely modest about their attainments.

    A certain monk was living in dependence on an elder who was an Arahant. Living in dependence meant in those days that the pupil shared a cell with his teacher, looked after his robes, studied at his feet, and accompanied him on the daily almsround. Teacher and pupil lived liked a good father and devoted son. One day, while walking for alms, the pupil asked his teacher, “Venerable Sir, how can one know an Arahant?” The elder, who was an Arahant, replied, “It is not easy friend, to know an Arahant. Even if one were to live in dependence on an Arahant, doing all the duties for him, and accompany him on his daily almsround, one might not know that he was an Arahant.” Yet even when given such a broad hint by his teacher, the pupil did not realise that the elder was an Arahant.

    Due to excessive devotion, pious people are inclined to elevate their revered teacher to the status of an Arahant, though he may still be a worldling or Stream-winner at best. To eradicate all lust, anger, conceit, and attachment to life is no easy task. First one should aim to attain the stage of Stream-winning in this very life. If one succeeds in doing that, one may perhaps then be able to distinguish between a worldly person and a saint, since one will be free from doubt and superstition.

    It is my belief that most intelligent people could attain Stream-winning in this very life if they really tried hard. However, very few really strive hard in meditation. Since confidence and effort are lacking, the goal cannot be attained. Though she was only thirteen years old, the weaver’s daughter practised meditation relentlessly for three years to attain the path. These days, people think that a ten-day intensive vipassanā course is really a bit over the top, but striving in meditation throughout the whole day and late into the night is not self-mortification. It is the minimum amount of effort required to attain deep insight or nibbāna. If we want to sleep at least six or seven hours, the goal is still far away.

    To motivate oneself, one should meditate seriously on death. There is no guarantee that one will not die today. Perhaps one can avoid paying taxes if one lives like a monk, but no one can avoid death. Each breath brings death nearer. Please think seriously about this — do not imagine for one minute that it will never happen to you. If you postpone meditation until you are old — assuming that you live to old age — your attachment will have grown stronger, and your health and vitality will have grown weaker. It is best to meditate in the prime of youth, before the clutter of household life traps you in its vice-like grip. In Burmese, the expression for getting married means, literally, “to fall into house prison.” The Burmese have the right attitude. Married life is a comfortable prison from which it is hard to escape. Even if one partner freely permits the other to go to meditate for a few weeks, or to ordain permanently, most will not want to go.

    When the bodhisatta heard that his son had been born he murmured “A fetter has arisen” so his father Suddhodana named his new grandson ‘Rāhula’ meaning fetter, hoping that the baby would prove an impediment to the bodhisatta’s renunciation of household life. Fortunately for us, the bodhisatta’s mind was already made up, and the news of Rahula’s birth was the final spur to make him decide, “It must be done at once, before I get attached.” So he left the palace on the same night without even setting eyes on his newborn son.

    Attachment is very sticky stuff. Many monks who fall back to household life do so because of sexual desire. To get free from sensual attachment, one must meditate either on death or on the repulsive aspects of the body. One should consider what all human bodies contain. If we opened one up and took a look inside, it would be hard to become lustful. It is just a foul smelling carcase of meat, blood, and bones that we have to carry around the whole day and night. If there was no skin or clothes to cover it up, what a horrible sight it would be. One would need to carry a stick to drive off the dogs and crows that would come sniffing around looking for something to eat. Yet people think very highly of their own bodies, and those of others. What folly it is to lust after another person’s body, but delusion fools us completely when we are heedless.

    At one time a certain nun fell in love with the Venerable Ānanda and, pretending to be ill, she arranged for him to visit her in her quarters. Venerable Ānanda was then still only a Stream-winner, so he was not yet free from lust, but he was wise enough not to allow desire to arise. He did not get angry with her either, but admonished her, “Sister, sexual intercourse is the cause of birth. From birth, old age, disease, and death arise.” Realising that Venerable Ānanda knew about her ulterior motives, she confessed her offence to him, and regained her sense of shame.

    To gain liberation from suffering, there has to be renunciation at some point. Desire and attachment will not just disappear of their own accord. We have to pluck them out as we remove a splinter or thorn stuck under the skin. It is painful, but when it is done we can dwell at ease again. The most effective way to remove desire is to practise mindfulness meditation relentlessly throughout the whole day without a break until insight knowledge arises. On seeing things as they really are, desire and attachment will vanish.

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    Arhat: At this stage, the path bears ultimate fruit in nibbana — any residual trace of a separate self falls away for good. The experience, frequently accompanied by unimaginable bliss, has been compared to falling into the depths of a cloud and disappearing. At this point, the circumstances of life no longer have the slightest hold over you; positive or negative experiences no longer stir even the slightest craving or dissatisfaction. As Buddha said, all that needed to be done has been done. There’s nothing further to realize. The path is complete, and no further rebirths are necessary.

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    Majjhima Nikaya 72

    Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta

    To Vacchagotta on Fire

    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.

    Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta

    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.”

    “…doesn’t apply.”

    …neither does nor does not reappear.”

    “…doesn’t apply.”

    “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

    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’.

    1. Personality-Belief
    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.

    5. Ill-will
    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

    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 .

    8. Conceit
    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.

    9. Restlessness
    Restlessness or agitation suggests that true peace and contentment have still not been achieved in full.The mind is still unsettled.

    10. Ignorance
    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.

    Buddhist Publication Society

    2nd Mailing 1995                                                                                                        No. 30

    Towards a Threshold of Understanding - I

    Pope John Paul II’s recent book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a collection of reflections primarily on issues of Christian faith; but the book also features the Pope’s assessment of other religions, including a short chapter on Buddhism. The Pontiff s words in this chapter are far from appreciative. The release of the book in Sri Lanka on the eve of the Pope’s visit to this country this past January stirred up waves of indignation in the Buddhist community that spread as far as the Vatican. The Buddhist prelates announced that they would not attend an inter-religious meeting requested by the Pope unless he formally retracted his unfavourable remarks about Buddhism. Although on arrival the Pope tried to appease the feel­ings of Buddhist leaders by declaring his esteem for their religion, even quoting the Dhammapada, he fell short of proffering a full apology, and this did not satisfy the Sangha elders.

    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.

    Bhikkhu Bodhi

    Part II of this essay will appear in the next BPS newsletter.

    ** New teaching and mediation series with Lama Rabten Tshering **
    “The Six Paramitas” begins Sunday, January 6 @ Maitrivana
    4610 Earles Street in Vancouver
    Everyone welcome - by donation

    Nalandabodhi Vancouver is pleased to announce a new series of
    teachings and mediation sessions with our resident lama,
    Lama Rabten Tshering.

    The series begins on Sunday morning, January 6, and will run every
    second Sunday thereafter (please see our on-line calendar to confirm
    dates). The format for Sunday sessions is:

    9:30 am -10:30 am: Meditation
    10:30 am -12:00 pm: Teaching on the Paramitas

    ** The Paramitas **
    The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has asked the Nalandabodhi sangha to
    continuously practice the six Paramitas, the transcendent actions
    or virtues that are the basis of Mahayana practice.

    The Paramitas are:
    Generosity, Morality (Discipline), Patience, Diligence, Mediation,
    and Wisdom (Prajna).

    Rinpoche suggests that we study, practice, and meditate on one
    Paramita per month, repeating the cycle in the second half of the year.

    In January, Lama’s teachings will focus on Generosity; in February on
    Morality, and so forth.

    The purpose of Paramita practice and contemplation is to develop a
    strong sense of compassion and loving kindness, as well as mental

    The Paramita teachings originate in the Sutras, the original teachings
    of Buddha Sakyamuni.

    All are welcome to the Sunday morning sessions. Lama Rabten’s
    approach will be beneficial to both beginners and more seasoned

    We especially welcome newcomers to the dharma - Lama’s teachings will
    be a wonderful opportunity to meditate and learn with others. The
    sessions are by donation, and you are welcome to attend all or some
    of them.

    ** Check Out Nalandabodhi’s On-Line Calendar **
    Please visit our calendar at:

    You’ll find information about Lama Rabten’s future teaching dates,
    plus other programs and special events at Maitrivana, Nalandabodhi’s
    Garden of Loving Kindness.

    To view pictures of past events, go to our slideshow at:

    Hope to see you on Sunday morning! And feel free to pass this
    message on.

    Sincerely, team

    800 Kelly Road Victoria, BC V9B 6J9, Canada

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