The Nidānavagga, The Book of Causation, is named after its first saṃyutta, one of the deep royal saṃyuttas setting forth the radical philosophical vision of early Buddhism. The Vagga contains ten saṃyuttas, of which the first takes up almost half the volume. The other nine deal with less weighty topics, though it is possible the Dhātusaṃyutta, which is also devoted to first principles of Buddhist phenomenology, was intentionally included in the Vagga as a “junior partner” to the Nidānasaṃyutta. While this hypothesis must remain unconfirmable, what is beyond doubt is that with this Vagga we enter upon a very different terrain from that traversed in the Sagāthāvagga, a terrain where precise philosophical exposition takes priority over literary grace, inspirational charm, and moral edification.
Having used the expression “precise philosophical exposition,” however, I must at once qualify it in two respects. First, the word “philosophical” applies to the contents of these saṃyuttas only in the sense that they articulate a body of first principles which disclose the deep underlying structures of actuality, not in the sense that they set out to construct a systematic edifice of thought whose primary appeal is to the intellect. Their disclosures always take place within the framework laid out by the Four Noble Truths, which makes it clear that their primary intent is pragmatic, directed towards the cessation of suffering. They are expounded, not to delineate an intellectually satisfying system of ideas, but to make known those aspects of actuality, deep and hidden, that must be penetrated by wisdom to eradicate the ignorance at the bottom of existential suffering. The suttas are guidelines to seeing and understanding, signposts pointing to what one must see for oneself with direct insight. To regard their themes as topics for intellectual entertainment and argumentation is to miss the point.
Second, when I use the word “exposition,” this should not arouse expectations that the suttas are going to provide us with thorough, systematic, logically progressive treatises of the type we find in the history of Western philosophy. Far to the contrary, what we are presented with is a virtual mosaic of reconnaissance photographs laying bare a landscape that is strange but uncannily familiar. The landscape, ultimately, is our own personal experience, seen in depth and with microscopic precision. Each sutta shows up this landscape from a distinctive angle. Like any photo, the picture given by a single sutta is necessarily limited, taken from a single standpoint and with a narrow point of focus, but in its capacity for revelation it can be stark and powerful. To make sense of the multiple shots offered by the suttas, following one another with hardly a hair’s breadth of logical order, we must re-shuffle them many times, ponder them deeply, and investigate them closely with wisdom. To arrive at the total picture, or at least at a fuller picture than we possess when we approach the texts in a cursory way, we must consider the suttas in a given saṃyutta in their totality, compare them with parallel discourses in other saṃyuttas, and then try to fit them together, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, into a coherent whole. This is about as far from systematic exposition as one can get, for the purpose is not to gratify the intellect with a fully articulated system but to awaken insight, and such an aim requires a methodology of its own.
The Nidānasaṃyutta collects into one chapter of nine vaggas ninety-three short suttas concerned with dependent origination (paṭicca-samuppāda). This chapter might have even been named the Paṭicca-samuppādasaṃyutta, but the compilers of the canon must have considered such a title too unwieldy and settled upon a more concise designation for it. The word nidāna means cause or source, and is sometimes used in a chain of synonyms that includes hetu, samudaya, and paccaya, “cause, origin, condition” (see DN II 57,27 foll.). The word gives its name to the longest sutta in the Nikāyas on paṭicca-samuppāda, the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN No. 15).
Dependent origination is one of the central teachings of early Buddhism, so vital to the teaching as a whole that the Buddha is quoted elsewhere as saying, “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma, and one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination” (MN I 190,37–191,2). The ultimate purpose of the teaching on dependent origination is to expose the conditions that sustain the round of rebirths, saṃsāra, so as to show what must be done to gain release from the round. Existence within saṃsāra is suffering and bondage (dukkha), and hence the ending of suffering requires deliverance from the round. To win deliverance is a matter of unravelling the causal pattern that underlies our bondage, a process that begins with understanding the causal pattern itself. It is dependent origination that defines this causal pattern.
Dependent origination is usually expounded in a sequence of twelve factors (dvādasaṅga) joined into a chain of eleven propositions. In the Nidānasaṃyutta this formula is cited many times. It is expounded in two orders: by way of origination (called anuloma or forward sequence), and by way of cessation (called paṭiloma or reverse sequence). Sometimes the presentation proceeds from the first factor to the last, sometimes it begins at the end and traces the chain of conditions back to the first. Other suttas pick up the chain somewhere in the middle and work either backwards or forwards. We find the bare formula at 12:1, with formal definitions of the twelve factors in the “analysis of dependent origination” at 12:2. The whole formula in turn exemplifies an abstract structural principle of conditionality, “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases” (for references, see II, n. 14). This structural principle can be given different applications than those found in the formula of dependent origination, and indeed underlies almost every aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, from his ideas about social reformation to his outline of the path to Nibbāna.
To hope to find in the Nidānasaṃyutta a clear explanation of the sequence of conditions, as we might expect from a modern textbook on the subject, is to court disappointment. The formula preserved in the texts is stripped to the bone, perhaps serving as a mnemonic device, and it seems likely that the original expositions on the topic were fleshed out with elaborations that were not recorded in the suttas but were transmitted orally within the lineage of teachers. Because the texts lack a clearcut explanation of the formula, modern interpreters of early Buddhism have sometimes devised capricious theories about its original meaning, theories which assume that the Buddhist tradition itself has muddled up the interpretation of this most basic Buddhist doctrine. To avoid the arbitrariness and wilfulness of personal opinion, it seems more prudent to rely on the method of explanation found in the Buddhist exegetical tradition, which despite minor differences in details is largely the same across the spectrum of early Buddhist schools. Here I will give only a concise summary of the interpretation offered by the Pāli tradition.
Because of (i) ignorance (avijjā), lack of direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, a person engages in volitional actions, wholesome and unwholesome activities of body, speech, and mind; these are (ii) the volitional formations (saṅkhārā), in other words, kamma. The volitional formations sustain consciousness from one life to the next and determine where it re-arises; in this way volitional formations condition (iii) consciousness (viññāṇa). Along with consciousness, beginning with the moment of conception, comes (iv) “name-and-form” (nāmarūpa), the sentient organism with its physical form (rūpa) and its sensitive and cognitive capacities (nāma). The sentient organism is equipped with (v) six sense bases (saḷāyatana), the five physical sense faculties and the mind as organ of cognition. The sense bases allow (vi) contact (phassa) to occur between consciousness and its objects, and contact conditions (vii) feeling (vedanā). Called into play by feeling, (viii) craving (taṇhā) arises, and when craving intensifies it gives rise to (ix) clinging (upādāna), tight attachment to the objects of desire through sensuality and wrong views. Impelled by one’s attachments, one again engages in volitional actions pregnant with (x) a new existence (bhava). At death this potential for new existence is actualized in a new life beginning with (xi) birth (jāti) and ending in (xii) aging-and-death (jarāmaraṇa).
From this we can see that the traditional interpretation regards the twelve factors as spread out over a span of three lives, with ignorance and volitional formations pertaining to the past, birth and aging-and-death to the future, and the intermediate factors to the present. The segment from consciousness through feeling is the resultant phase of the present, the phase resulting from past ignorance and kamma; the segment from craving through active existence is the kammically creative phase of the present, leading to renewed existence in the future. Existence is distinguished into two phases: one, called kamma-existence (kammabhava), belongs to the causal phase of the present; the other, called rebirth-existence (upapattibhava), belongs to the resultant phase of the future. The twelve factors are also distributed into three “rounds”: the round of defilements (kilesavaṭṭa) includes ignorance, craving, and clinging; the round of action (kammavaṭṭa) includes volitional formations and kamma-existence; all the other factors belong to the round of results (vipākavaṭṭa). Defilements give rise to defiled actions, actions bring forth results, and results serve as the soil for more defilements. In this way the round of rebirths revolves without discernible beginning.
This method of dividing up the factors should not be misconstrued to mean that the past, present, and future factors are mutually exclusive. The distribution into three lives is only an expository device which, for the sake of concision, has to resort to abstraction and oversimplification. As many of the suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta show, in their dynamic operation groups of factors separated in the formula inevitably become intertwined. Thus whenever there is ignorance, then craving and clinging invariably come along; and whenever there is craving and clinging, then ignorance stands behind them. We might regard the twelve factors as composed of two parallel series defining a single process, the conditioned regeneration of saṃsāra from within itself, but doing so from complementary angles. The first series treats ignorance as the root, and shows how ignorance leads to kammic activity (i.e., the volitional formations) and thence to a new existence consisting in the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form. The second series makes craving the root, and shows how craving leads to clinging and kammic activity (i.e., active existence) and thence to the production of a new existence that begins with birth and ends in aging and death. To join the two segments, the factors within name-and-form from which craving arises must be drawn out, and thus we get the three links—the six sense bases, contact, and feeling.
The three-life interpretation of dependent origination has sometimes been branded a commentarial invention on the ground that the suttas themselves do not divide the terms up into different lifetimes. However, while it is true that we do not find in the suttas an explicit distribution of the factors into three lives, close examination of the variants on the standard formula lend strong support to the three-life interpretation. One example is 12:19, where ignorance and craving are first assigned jointly to a past life, giving rise to a new life lived in a conscious body with its six sense bases; and then, in the case of the fool (but not the wise man), ignorance and craving again function as joint causes in the present life to bring about renewed birth and suffering in the future life. A close examination of other variants in this saṃyutta would also establish that the series of terms extends over several lives.
The opening vagga calls immediate attention to the importance of dependent origination with a string of suttas showing how the seven Buddhas of the past, ending in “our” Buddha Gotama, attained perfect enlightenment by awakening to dependent origination, the eye-opening discovery that ended their long search for the light of wisdom (12:4–10). Later the Buddha gives a more detailed account of his own awakening to dependent origination, where he illustrates his discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path with the beautiful parable of the ancient city (12:65). According to 12:20, the causal connections between the factors operate whether or not Buddhas arise: they are the persistent, stable, invariable laws of actuality. The task of a Tathāgata is to discover them, fathom them thoroughly, and then proclaim them to the world. The invariability of the causal law, and the regularity in the arising of Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas, are thus joined into a single order ultimately identical with the Dhamma itself.
Several suttas show that dependent origination served the Buddha as a “teaching by the middle” (majjhena tathāgato dhammaṃ deseti), enabling him to steer clear of the two extreme views about the human condition that have polarized reflective thought through the centuries. One is the metaphysical thesis of eternalism (sassatavāda), which posits a permanent self as the underlying ground of personal existence, a self which, in classical Indian thought, transmigrates from one life to the next while retaining its individual identity. The other extreme is annihilationism (ucchedavāda), which holds that the individual can be reduced to the phenomenal personality and that at death, with the dissolution of the body, the person is entirely cut off and annihilated. Both extremes pose insuperable problems, for the one encourages an obstinate clinging to the conditions out of which suffering arises while the other threatens to undermine ethics and to make suffering inexplicable except as the product of chance. Dependent origination offers a new perspective which rises above the extremes. The teaching shows individual existence to be constituted by a current of conditioned phenomena which is devoid of a metaphysical self, yet which continues from life to life as long as the causes that sustain it remain efficacious. Thereby dependent origination offers a meaningful explanation of the problem of suffering which avoids, on the one hand, the philosophical conundrums posed by the hypothesis of a permanent self, and on the other the dangers of ethical anarchy posed by annihilationism. As long as ignorance and craving remain, the round of rebirths continues on, kamma yields its pleasant and painful fruit, and the great mass of suffering accumulates. With their removal, and only with their removal, can a complete end be made to the whole round of saṃsāric suffering.
The most elegant exposition of dependent origination as the “middle teaching” is without doubt the famous Kaccānagotta Sutta (12:15), in which the Buddha holds up this principle as an alternative to the extremes of existence and nonexistence. Dependent origination provides the key for understanding the arising of suffering as well as pleasure and pain (12:17, 18; see too 12:24–26), and again for cutting through a variety of philosophical antinomies adopted by the thinkers of his era (12:46–48).
Though the twelve-factored formula of dependent origination is the most common expression of the doctrine, the Nidānasaṃyutta introduces a number of little-known variants that help to illuminate the standard version. One is a ten-factored variant in which ignorance and volitional formations are omitted and consciousness and name-and-form become mutually dependent (12:65). This is illustrated by the simile of two sheaves of reeds which support each other and collapse when either is withdrawn (12:67). An interesting sequence of three texts (12:38–40) speaks about the conditions for “the maintenance of consciousness” (viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā), that is, how consciousness passes on to a new existence. The causes are said to be the underlying tendencies, i.e., ignorance and craving, and “what one intends and plans,” i.e., one’s volitional activities. Once consciousness becomes established, the production of a new existence begins, thus showing that we can proceed directly from consciousness (the usual third factor) to existence (the usual tenth factor).
These variants make it plain that the sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through the simple exercise of efficient causality. The relationship among the factors is always one of complex conditionality rather than linear causation. The conditioning function can include such diverse relations as mutuality (when two factors mutually support each other), necessary antecedence (when one factor must be present for another to arise), distal efficiency (as when a remotely past volitional formation generates consciousness in a new life), etc. Moreover, by contemplating a number of variant texts side by side, we can see that at selected points in the series the links loop back in ways that reinforce the complexity of the process. Thus, while consciousness precedes the six sense bases in the usual formula, at 12:43 and 12:44 the six sense bases are shown to be conditions for consciousness. While consciousness normally precedes craving, 12:64 makes craving (with lust and delight) the condition for the continuation of consciousness and volitional formations the condition for existence.
The positive and negative sequences of dependent origination are expanded definitions of the second and third of the Four Noble Truths, as shown by the variant at 12:43. From the six internal and external sense bases, as we just saw, consciousness arises, and this is followed by contact, feeling, and craving, which is then declared to be the origin of suffering; when craving is abandoned, suffering stops. The next sutta, 12:44, employs a similar pattern to explain the origin and passing away of the world. This reveals dependent origination to be, not a remote and inaccessible metaphysical law, but a process perpetually underpinning our own everyday sensory experience, activated by our responses to the feelings arisen at the six sense bases. As the suttas 12:52–60 show, when attention to the objects of perception is driven by a thirst for gratification, craving is intensified, and this builds up another round of suffering. But when one learns to discern the danger in the objects of clinging, craving ceases, bringing the subsequent factors to a standstill.
In several suttas the formula for dependent origination is integrated with another doctrinal paradigm, that of the four nutriments (āhāra). These are the four strong supports for sentient existence, namely, edible food (for the body), contact (for feeling), mental volition (for the production of renewed existence), and consciousness (for name-and-form). The ideas of nutrition and conditionality closely correspond, both implying the contingency and insubstantiality of all phenomena of existence. Hence it is natural for the formula of the four nutriments to be grafted on to an exposition of dependent origination. In 12:12, in relation to the nutriments, the Buddha repeatedly rejects questions that imply the presence of a substantial subject or agent behind the process of experience. The conditioning factors themselves constitute the ongoing flow of experience, with no need to posit a permanent self as the “someone” at the receiving end of feeling and perception, or at the instigating end of action. 12:63, entirely devoted to the four nutriments with no explicit mention made of dependent origination, introduces four thought-provoking similes to expose the dangers in the four nutriments and to inspire a sense of revulsion towards the whole process of nutrition. Because at least three of the four nutriments are internal to the sentient organism itself, the teaching of the four nutriments implies, at a very deep level, that sentient existence not only requires nutriment from outside but is itself a self-sustaining process of nutrition.
One variant in this saṃyutta stands in a class of its own. This is the short but pithy Upanisā Sutta (12:23), which shows that the same principle of conditionality that underlies the movement of saṃsāra also undergirds the path to liberation. Each stage of the path arises with its predecessor as a condition or proximate cause, all the way from the initial act of faith to the final knowledge of deliverance. This presentation of the doctrine has sometimes been called “transcendental dependent origination.”
Since the round is propelled by craving, and craving is nurtured by ignorance, to break the forward movement of the series ignorance must be replaced by knowledge. With the removal of ignorance all the factors that flow from it—craving, clinging, and kammic activity—come to a halt, bringing to an end the round of rebirths with all its attendant suffering. From one angle, as is often shown in the Nidānasaṃyutta, ignorance means not knowing the dependently arisen phenomena, their origin, their cessation, and the way to their cessation (12:14, 49, etc.). Thus the ignorance at the head of the causal series, the ignorance which sustains the forward movement of dependent origination, is nothing other than ignorance about dependent origination itself. From this it follows that the knowledge needed to bring dependent origination to a stop is just knowledge of how dependent origination works.
Several important suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta make it clear that dependent origination is not merely an explanatory principle to be accepted on trust but an essential component of the knowledge needed to reach the end of suffering. Often the Buddha states that the connections among the factors are to be directly known, both by way of origination and by way of cessation. They are thus not merely aspects of theory but the content of intuitive insight. To gain this knowledge is to acquire the right view of a noble disciple who has personally seen the truth of the Dhamma and entered the path of a trainee (sekha), one bound to reach the Deathless in seven more lives at most, without ever falling away. Direct knowledge of dependent origination is not the unique mark of the arahant—a widespread misconception—but an achievement already reached by the stream-enterer on making “the breakthrough to the Dhamma” (dhammābhisamaya). The noble disciple’s knowledge of dependent origination has two aspects: one is a direct perception of the relationships between each pair of factors in the present; the other, an inferential knowledge that this fixed order of phenomena holds invariably in the past and future, so that anyone who comprehends dependent origination must comprehend it in exactly the same way that the noble disciple has comprehended it (see 12:33–34). Once the stream-enterer gains this knowledge, attainment of the final goal is irrevocably assured, as is clear from 12:41 and from the paragraph concluding 12:27, 28, and 49–50.
Towards the end of this chapter, in 12:70 we read the story of the wanderer Susīma, who entered the order as a “thief of Dhamma” intending to learn the Buddha’s teaching to gain advantages for his own company of followers. On being subjected to a catechism by the Buddha on the five aggregates and dependent origination, he underwent a genuine change of heart and confessed his evil intentions. This sutta introduces a class of arahants described as “liberated by wisdom” (paññāvimutta), who have won the final goal by understanding the Dhamma without gaining the supernormal powers or the formless meditations. The sutta also makes it clear that knowledge of the true nature of phenomena, i.e., of the five aggregates and dependent origination, precedes knowledge of Nibbāna.
The Nidānasaṃyutta closes with two vaggas cast as repetition series. Vagga VIII applies the four-truth template of the “ascetics and brahmins” paradigm to each factor of the standard formula (excluding ignorance, implicitly included as the condition for volitional formations). Vagga IX is an “incorporated repetition series,” because each sutta incorporates all eleven factors along with their conditions into an abbreviated text. It is thus implied that each sutta could be “unpacked” by taking each factor with its condition as the subject of a separate sutta, so that the total number of suttas in the vagga would increase from twelve to 132.
This saṃyutta contains only eleven suttas without division into vaggas. Strangely, the Sinhala edition of SN and its commentary do not count it as a separate saṃyutta but treat it as a vagga within the Nidānasaṃyutta. This seems difficult to justify, as the suttas make no mention of dependent origination nor do they allude to the chain of causation. Perhaps the Sinhalese redactors included it in the Nidānasaṃyutta because the disciple’s breakthrough to stream-entry comes about through the realization of dependent origination. As an explanation, however, this seems inadequate when the suttas do not explicitly mention dependent origination.
The purpose of this saṃyutta is to extol the breakthrough to the Dhamma (dhammābhisamaya), also called the obtaining of the vision of the Dhamma (dhammacakkhupaṭilābha), the event that transforms a person into a noble disciple at the minimum level of stream-enterer. The stream-enterer is one who has obtained the transcendental path leading to Nibbāna and is bound to put an end to saṃsāric wandering after seven more lives at most, all lived in either the heavens or the human world. The first ten suttas are all moulded on the same pattern: the Buddha first contrasts two obviously incommensurate quantities and then compares this disparity with that between the amount of suffering the noble disciple has eliminated and the amount that still remains in the maximum span of seven lives. The last sutta differs in the terms of comparison: here the contrast is between the achievements of the non-Buddhist ascetics and the achievement of the noble disciple who has made the breakthrough, the latter being immensely greater than the former.
This saṃyutta consists of thirty-nine suttas, arranged into four vaggas, all concerned in some way with elements. The word “elements” (dhātu) is applied to several quite disparate groups of phenomena, and thus the suttas in this chapter fall into separate clusters with nothing in common but their concern with entities called elements. The four vaggas could not be neatly divided into decads each devoted to a different group of elements, for the number of suttas to be included in the middle two vaggas did not allow for this.
The first vagga deals with eighteen elements that make up one of the major models of phenomenological analysis used in the Nikāyas, often mentioned alongside the five aggregates and the six internal and external sense bases. The eighteen elements fall into six triads: sense faculties, objects, and corresponding types of consciousness. The denotations of the first five triads seem obvious enough, but unclarity surrounds the last, the triad of mind (mano), mental phenomena (dhammā), and mind-consciousness (manoviññāṇa). Strangely, the Nikāyas themselves do not explain the precise referents of these three elements or the nature of their relationship. This is first done in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. In the developed systematic version of the Abhidhamma, the mind element is a simpler type of cognitive act than the mind-consciousness element, to which is assigned the more advanced cognitive operations. The mental phenomena element denotes not only objects of mind-consciousness, but also the mental factors that accompany consciousness, included in the aggregates of feeling, perception, and volitional formations (for details see n. 224).
This first vagga is divided into two “pentads” (pañcaka): an “internal pentad,” which takes the sense faculties as the point of departure; and an “external pentad,” which begins with the objects. The first sutta really belongs to neither set, as it merely enumerates the eighteen elements. The internal series, which starts with 14:2, shows how successive mental functions—first contact and then feeling—arise in dependence on their predecessors in a fixed order which cannot be inverted. In the external pentad the same mode of treatment is applied to the mental functions that relate more specifically to the objects; the chain here is more complex and the internal relationships in need of explanation. The explanations offered by the commentary are intended to square apparent irregularities with patterns of relationship accepted as authoritative by the age of the commentators. It is an open question whether these explanations reflect the understanding of the elements held in the earliest phase of Buddhist thought.
The second vagga opens with three suttas on miscellaneous types of elements, not highly systematized. Then there follows a long series of suttas, 14:14–29, in which the word “element” is used in the sense of personal disposition. With respect to numerous contrasting qualities, good and bad, the point is made that people come together because of personal affinities rooted in these qualities. One memorable sutta in this group shows each of the Buddha’s leading disciples walking in the company of fellow monks who share his field of interest; even Devadatta, the miscreant in the Saṅgha, has his own entourage made up of those with evil wishes (14:15).
The fourth vagga focuses upon the four primary elements of physical form: earth, water, heat, and air. The suttas in this vagga are all moulded upon templates, including the gratification triad and the ascetics and brahmins series discussed in the General Introduction (see above, p. 38).
The Anamataggasaṃyutta, “On Without Discoverable Beginning,” is so called because its theme is the unbounded temporal extent of saṃsāra. The precise meaning of the phrase anamatagga is uncertain, the term itself differing in the texts of the early Buddhist schools, but the idea it is intended to suggest is conveyed well enough by the second sentence of the opening homily: that a first point of the round of rebirths cannot be discerned. The underlying purpose of this saṃyutta is to situate the Buddha’s teaching of liberation against its cosmic background by underscoring the immeasurable mass of suffering we have experienced while wandering from life to life in unbounded time, “hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.”
In sutta after sutta the Buddha illustrates the vastness of saṃsāric suffering with awe-inspiring similes, always drawing the inevitable conclusion that we have experienced the suffering of repeated birth and death long enough and it is time to strive for ultimate freedom. Four suttas illustrate, by means of memorable similes, the duration of a cosmic aeon (kappa), of which countless numbers have elapsed (15:5–8). Sutta 15:10 reinforces the point with its image of the heap of bones one person leaves behind in the course of a single aeon. Particularly stirring is the discourse to the thirty bhikkhus from Pāvā, on the frightful dangers of saṃsāra, a sutta powerful enough to bring all of them to the realization of arahantship right on the spot (15:13). The final sutta in the chapter gives us a retrospective overview of the epochs during which three past Buddhas lived, with some information about conditions of human life during their dispensations.
Mahākassapa, Kassapa the Great, was named by the Buddha the most eminent disciple in the observance of the ascetic practices (AN I 23,20). Though he did not accompany the Master as regularly as many of the other close disciples did, the Buddha had the highest regard for Kassapa and often spoke in his praise. According to the Cullavagga (Vin II 284–85), after the Buddha’s parinibbāna Mahākassapa became the foster father of the newly orphaned Saṅgha and took the initiative in convening a council of elders to rehearse the Dhamma and Discipline. This was a necessary measure to preserve the Buddha’s dispensation for posterity.
This saṃyutta brings together thirteen suttas featuring the great disciple. Though they offer us glimpses into Mahākassapa’s role in the Saṅgha and a sharply sketched portrait of his personality, their underlying purpose is not so much to preserve biographical information as it is to hold up Mahākassapa as a role model for the monks to emulate. In the first sutta the Buddha extols him for his simplicity and frugality and enjoins the monks to imitate him in this respect (16:1). He dwells detached and equanimous, yet is also imbued with compassion, sympathy, and tender concern for householders (16:3, 4). He continues to observe the ascetic practices even in old age, for his own happiness and to set an example for future generations (16:5). The Buddha often asked Kassapa to exhort the bhikkhus, but on three occasions he refuses because the bhikkhus are no longer open to instruction (16:6–8). This introduces a theme that comes to a crescendo in 16:13: the Buddha’s dispensation is already starting to decline, and the cause is not external but internal, namely, corruption within the Saṅgha. In 16:9 the Buddha applauds Kassapa for his mastery over the meditative attainments and the direct knowledges, and in 16:10–11 we are given closeup shots of Kassapa’s sometimes stressful relationship with Ānanda. Though his attitude towards the gentle Ānanda seems too stern, we must remember that it was through Kassapa’s prodding that Ānanda put forth the effort to win arahantship before the First Buddhist Council. In 16:11 Kassapa relates the story of his first meeting with the Buddha, which culminated in an exchange of robes with the Master. This was an honour not bestowed on any other bhikkhu, and presaged Mahākassapa’s future role as a leader of the Saṅgha.
The life of a bhikkhu requires the renunciation of sensual pleasures and detachment from the normal round of satisfactions provided by family, livelihood, and an active role in civil society. Precisely because he has dedicated himself to a life of austerity and spiritual self-cultivation, the bhikkhu is liable to be regarded prematurely as a holy man and to be showered with gifts, honour, and praise, especially by pious but ingenuous lay devotees in quest of merit. For an unwary bhikkhu the gains and honour that may unexpectedly pour down on him can cast a spell more subtle and seductive even than the lure of the senses. The bhikkhu interprets the gain and honour as an index of his spiritual worth; the praises sung over his name can inflate his ego to dizzying heights. Thus from gain and honour there may arise conceit, self-exaltation, and contempt for others—all stumbling blocks along the path to the “unsurpassed security from bondage.”
To protect the bhikkhus from losing sight of their goal, the Buddha often warned them about the dangers in gain, honour, and praise. The present saṃyutta collects forty-three suttas on this theme. The tone of the discourses is unusually grave: one attached to gain and honour is like a fish caught on a baited hook, like a turtle hit by a harpoon, like a goat caught in a thorny briar patch (17:2–4). Even a man who earlier would not tell a deliberate lie to save his life might later lie to win gain and honour (17:19), and some would even sacrifice their mother for such rewards (17:37). But humour is not lacking: one text compares the monk revelling in his gain and honour to a dung beetle revelling in a heap of dung (17:5). The last vagga exhibits Devadatta as a notorious example of one who fell away from the spiritual life owing to hunger for gain, honour, and praise.
Rāhula was the Buddha’s son, born shortly before he left the household life to embark on his quest for enlightenment. When the Buddha returned to his native city of Kapilavatthu in the first year after the enlightenment, he had Rāhula ordained as a novice, and thereafter often gave him instruction. Three longer suttas to Rāhula are found in the Majjhima Nikāya (MN Nos. 61, 62, and 147, the latter identical with SN 35:121). The Rāhulasaṃyutta collects twenty-two short texts arranged in two vaggas. The first ten explain the three characteristics in relation to ten groups of phenomena: the six internal sense bases; the six external sense bases; the six classes each of consciousness, contact, feeling, perception, volition, and craving; the six elements; and the five aggregates. They are addressed to Rāhula in response to a request for instruction. The first ten suttas of the second vagga show the Buddha speaking the same ten suttas to Rāhula, but this time on his own initiative. Two additional suttas give instructions on how to eradicate the sense of “I” and “mine” and the tendency to conceit.
Although this saṃyutta is named after the elder Lakkhaṇa, his role is to serve as a foil for Mahāmoggallāna, the disciple who excelled in the exercise of psychic powers. Each sutta is constructed according to the same format, in which Moggallāna describes the sufferings of a peta or tormented spirit, whom he has seen with supernormal vision, and the Buddha confirms the truth of his vision, giving an explanation of the kammic cause that underlies such misery. Here, as in the printed editions of the Pāli text, the first sutta alone is given in full and thereafter only the variations are recorded. The last five suttas deliver a stern message to miscreant monks and nuns, perhaps reflecting modes of misbehaviour that were becoming increasingly manifest in the Saṅgha.
This saṃyutta contains twelve suttas touching on miscellaneous topics mostly related to the training of the bhikkhus. Though the topics are diverse, each sutta incorporates an extended simile and it is on this basis that they are brought together into one saṃyutta. The themes that emerge include the rarity of human birth, the blessings of developing lovingkindness, the impermanence of life, and the need for constant diligence. In this collection we also find the Buddha’s prophecy of how the Dhamma will decline when the bhikkhus neglect the deep suttas dealing with emptiness in favour of works composed by poets “with beautiful words and phrases.”
This saṃyutta collects twelve miscellaneous suttas spoken by or about individual bhikkhus. It is noteworthy that, apart from the first two texts, all the others contain verses, and this arouses suspicion that the saṃyutta originally belonged to the Sagāthā-vagga. Indeed, in the Chinese translation of the Saṃyuktāgama, the Bhikkhusaṃyutta is found in the Sagāthāvagga, coming just before the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta. Perhaps at some point in the transmission of the Pāli version the redactors added two verseless suttas on Moggallāna and Sāriputta, and then, in consequence, had to transpose the whole saṃyutta from Part I to Part II. In the midst of the suttas on famous elders there is one addressed to an otherwise unknown bhikkhu named Elder (a fictitious name?) offering pithy instruction on the real meaning of solitude.
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© Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2000)
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