The Connected Discourses of the Buddha - Selections


The fifth and final part of the Saṃyutta Nikāya is the Mahāvagga, The Great Book. There are at least three explanations that might be given for this title. First, it is the largest division of SN, and could become exponentially larger if the abbreviated repetition series, at the end of many chapters, were to be expanded in full. Second, we find here, not one giant saṃyutta towering over a retinue of lesser peaks, but a veritable Himalayan range of saṃyuttas, with at least eight major chapters among a total of twelve. And third, almost all the saṃyuttas in this book deal with different formulations of the Buddha’s path to liberation, the most precious part of his legacy to the world.

A glance at the contents of the Mahāvagga shows that its first seven chapters are devoted to seven sets of training factors which occur elsewhere in the Pāli Canon, though in a different sequence. In the standard sequence these are:

the four establishments of mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhānā)
the four right strivings (cattāro sammappadhānā)
the four bases for spiritual power (cattāro iddhipādā)
the five spiritual faculties (pañc’ indriyāni)
the five powers (pañca balāni)
the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhaṅgā)
the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga).

In SN we have already met these sets several times: at 22:81, when the Buddha explains how the Dhamma has been taught discriminately; at 22:101, as the things to be developed for the mind to be liberated from the taints; at 43:12, as different aspects of the path leading to the unconditioned. In the Buddhist exegetical tradition, beginning very soon after the age of the canon, these seven sets are known as the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment (sattatiṃsa bodhipakkhiyā dhammā). Although this term is not used in the Nikāyas themselves as a collective appellation for the seven sets, the sets themselves frequently appear in the Nikāyas as a compendium of the practice leading to enlightenment. On several occasions the Buddha himself underlined their critical importance, referring to them, in his talks to the bhikkhus, as “the things I have taught you through direct knowledge” (ye vo mayā dhammā abhiññā desitā). In the prelude to his parinibbāna he urged the bhikkhus to learn, pursue, develop, and cultivate them so that the holy life would endure long in the world, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans (DN II 119–20). He requested the bhikkhus to meet often and recite the seven sets “meaning for meaning, phrase for phrase,” without disputes, again so that the holy life would endure long (DN III 127–28). He made unity in the Sangha contingent upon concord regarding the seven sets (MN II 245) and urged the disciples to train in them “united, in concord, not disputing” (MN II 238). It is because he teaches these seven sets that his disciples venerate him, and by developing them many of these disciples have attained consummation and perfection in direct knowledge (MN II 11–12).

The presentation of the seven sets in a graded sequence might convey the impression that they constitute seven successive stages of practice. This, however, would be a misinterpretation. Close consideration of the series would show that the seven sets are ranked in a numerically ascending order, from four to eight, which means that their arrangement is purely pedagogic and implies nothing about a later set being more advanced than the earlier sets. Even more decisively, when we examine the contents of the seven sets as formally defined and explained in the suttas, we would see that their contents are inextricably interwoven. Often factors in one set are identical with those in another; sometimes one set reorders the constituents of another; sometimes one set subdivides a factor treated synoptically in another. What emerges from a close study of the seven sets, as presented in the Mahāvagga, is an array of overlapping, intersecting, mutually illuminating portraits of a single course of practice aimed at a single goal, deliverance from suffering. By presenting the course of practice from different angles, in different keys, and with different degrees of detail, the texts are able to finely modulate the practice of the path to suit the diverse needs of the people to be trained. This accounts for the versatility of the Buddha’s teaching, its ability to assume variable expressions in accordance with the different aptitudes, preferences, and propensities of different human beings.

The need for a path is bound up with the whole structure of the Dhamma, girded from below by the abstract principle of conditionality, “When this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.” Bondage and suffering arise from ignorance, from a failure to see and understand the subjects treated in the earlier saṃyuttas: the five aggregates, the six sense bases, and the eighteen elements as the constituent factors of sentient existence; dependent origination as the inherent dynamism by which saṃsāra again and again renews itself from within, bringing along the suffering of repeated birth, aging, and death. To gain irreversible release from suffering we have to cut through the tangle of craving and clinging, and for this “disentanglement” to be final and complete, we must extricate the most deeply buried root of all, namely, ignorance.

The direct antidote to ignorance is knowledge—not mere conceptual knowledge, but direct insight into things as they really are—and it was one of the Buddha’s key discoveries that the knowledge needed for liberation can be developed. Such knowledge does not depend on divine grace or arise as a mystical intuition, but emerges out of a matrix of persistent spiritual practice governed by a precisely articulated groundplan. This course of practice is a process of self-cultivation sustained by the unvarying laws of conditionality. The different factors embedded in the seven sets are the qualities that need to be developed. They are the conditions which, when methodically generated and fortified, directly conduce to the arising of the liberating knowledge.

The major saṃyuttas of the Mahāvagga can be seen as offering a conception of the path that is the converse of the Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta (43). The latter begins with the goal, the unconditioned, and then asks, “What is the path leading to this goal?” The answer given is framed in terms of the seven sets, and thus here the texts extract the path from the goal. The Mahāvagga takes the complementary approach. Here we begin with the seven sets and by following their course of movement we are brought to see that they “slant, slope, and incline towards Nibbāna” just as surely as the waters in the great Indian rivers flow towards the ocean. Thus, from the perspective offered by the Mahāvagga, the seven sets become the constellation of training factors that bring the realization of a goal towards which they inherently incline. We might even speak of the path factors as being “pregnant” with the goal, though we must qualify this by noting that the development of the path does not bring Nibbāna itself into being, but rather promotes the attainment of a goal which, as unconditioned, is not locked into the process of causality.

I said just above that the seven sets overlap and intersect. How this is so becomes clearer when we recognize that the terms used to designate different items among the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are often synonyms representing the same mental factor. The different names merely serve to illuminate different functions of these mental factors while the arrangement into seven sets shows how the factors can collaborate in diverse patterns of mutual support.

This aspect of the aids to enlightenment becomes more evident through the analytical treatment of the Abhidhamma, which collates the synonymous terms used to represent a single mental factor. A concise statement of the results obtained is found at Vism 680 (Ppn 22:41–43). Applied to the seven sets, we see, firstly, that one mental factor, energy (viriya), occurs in nine roles: as the four right strivings; as the basis for spiritual power headed by energy; as a faculty, power, and enlightenment factor; and as the path factor of right effort. Mindfulness (sati) takes on eight roles: as the four establishments of mindfulness; as a faculty, power, and enlightenment factor; and as the path factor of right mindfulness. Wisdom (paññā) serves in five capacities: as the basis for spiritual power headed by investigation; as a faculty and power; as the enlightenment factor of discrimination; and as the path factor of right view. Concentration (samādhi) occurs four times under its own name: as a faculty, power, enlightenment factor, and path factor; it also participates in all four bases for spiritual power. Faith (saddhā) occurs twice, as a faculty and power. The other nine aids to enlightenment occur only once each. Table 7 represents this correlation visually.

Table 7
The Aids to Enlightenment by Way of Mental Factors
(based on Vism 680 and CMA 7:32–33)

  Aids to Enlightenment
Mental Factors 4 establ. mindfulness 4 right strivings 4 bases for power 5 faculties 5 powers 7 enlightenment factors 8 noble path factors Total
1 Energy   4 1 1 1 1 1 9
2 Mindfulness 4     1 1 1 1 8
3 Wisdom     1 1 1 1 1 5
4 Concentration       1 1 1 1 4
5 Faith       1 1     2
6 Intention             1 1
7 Tranquility           1   1
8 Rapture           1   1
9 Equanimity           1   1
10 Desire     1         1
11 Mind     1         1
12 Right Speech             1 1
13 Right Action             1 1
14 Right Livelihood             1 1

From this we can see that four factors permeate the practice in a variety of guises: energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. These factors, it must be noted, are not different from mental qualities that arise periodically in the ordinary, undeveloped mind. In the untrained mind, however, their occurrence is sporadic and random. The intention behind the Buddha’s presentation of the practice is to train the disciple to arouse these factors deliberately, through the exercise of the will, and then to strengthen them and unify their functions so that they can work together as members of an indomitable team. Hence the stress laid, over and over, on the idea that one “develops and cultivates” (bhāveti bahulīkaroti) the aids to enlightenment. When they are developed and cultivated in unison, under the dominion of an overarching purpose, their inherent potentials can be actualized and gradually raised to the pitch of intensity needed to snap the fetters that, since beginningless time, have kept us in bondage to suffering.

When the factors in the seven sets are said to be “aids to enlightenment” (or, literally, “states on the side of enlightenment”), this raises the question of their relationship to the experience of enlightenment itself. In the Nikāyas the word enlightenment (bodhisambodhi) seems always to be used to denote the cognition issuing directly in arahantship, hence as equivalent to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa). In these oldest sources, the thirty-seven factors constitute the practice leading to enlightenment. When they are fulfilled, enlightenment naturally follows.

The Pāli commentaries, however, offer a more complex answer to our question, based on the more minute and technical analysis of experience undertaken in the Abhidhamma treatises. Their more recent provenance should not be a reason for rejecting them out of hand, for the Abhidhamma and the commentaries often make explicit principles derivable from the older texts but not yet worked out in them. The commentaries understand enlightenment as consisting in four discrete momentary attainments, called the four supramundane paths (lokuttaramagga), each of which eliminates or attenuates a particular group of defilements and is followed immediately by its fruit (phala). Attainment of the path and fruit transforms the disciple into a “noble person” (ariyapuggala) at the corresponding level of sanctity: a stream-enterer, a once-returner, a nonreturner, or an arahant. The path of stream-entry eradicates the lowest three fetters—identity view, doubt, and wrong grasp of rules and vows; the path of once-returning does not eradicate any fetters but attenuates lust, hatred, and delusion; the path of nonreturning eradicates sensual desire and ill will; and the path of arahantship eradicates the five higher fetters—lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. The alignment of stages of liberation with the elimination of defilements is already found in the Nikāyas. What is innovative in the Abhidhamma is the conception of the supramundane path as a momentary breakthrough, though even this can claim precedents in the canon (see just below).

On the basis of this picture of the spiritual path, the commentaries hold that the development of the aids to enlightenment takes place in two stages or at two levels. The first is called the preliminary portion of practice (pubbabhāga-paṭipadā), during which the practitioner develops and cultivates the aids to enlightenment for the purpose of attaining the supramundane path (see Vism 679–80; Ppn 22:39–40). The virtuous worldling does so with the aim of reaching the path of stream-entry; those established in the lower three fruits do so with the aim of reaching the next higher path. In the preliminary portion of practice the aids to enlightenment are developed because they lead to enlightenment. And while a number of factors will naturally occur simultaneously, some degree of progression will be inevitable as more powerful and deeper forces gradually gain ascendency. With the arising of the supramundane path, however, all thirty-seven aids to enlightenment occur simultaneously. At this point the thirty-seven factors no longer lead to enlightenment. Rather, they are enlightenment; they constitute the constellation of mental factors, raised to supramundane stature, that make the cognitive event in which they occur a distinctive experience of awakening (see Vism 670; Ppn 21:130–33; and Vism 679–80; Ppn 22:39–40). Refined and strengthened by the power of prior development, they collectively contribute to the total experience by which the aspirant attains freedom from suffering. In terms of a classical paradigm, they each participate in the process of fully understanding the noble truth of suffering; of abandoning craving, the cause of suffering; of realizing Nibbāna, the cessation of suffering; and of developing the path, the way to the cessation of suffering.

In the Mahāvagga itself the idea of a supramundane path, understood as a momentary peak experience, is not explicit, though precedents for this idea may be located in the canonical model of the breakthrough to the Dhamma (i.e., the attainment of stream-entry; see 22:839035:7446:30, etc.) and the liberation from the taints (i.e., the attainment of arahantship; see 15:1322:5935:2875121) as sudden transformative events that usually follow a period of prior gradual preparation. But whether or not the notion of a momentary path attainment has a basis in the suttas, the Mahāvagga (read in conjunction with other parts of the Nikāyas) implies that the path has a dual character. The first phase is the practice taken up by one who is technically still a worldling (puthujjana) training to make the breakthrough to the Dhamma. Such a person will develop the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment for the purpose of making the breakthrough. At a certain point, when the practice has ripened, this person will enter upon “the fixed course of rightness” (sammatta-niyāma), either as a faith-follower or a Dhamma-follower (see 25:1). At this point the attainment of stream-entry is certain within that life itself. Now the thirty-seven factors acquire a truly transcendental dimension, since they are “pregnant” with the realization of Nibbāna and will give birth to this realization when the due time arrives. As the practitioner continues to “develop and cultivate” them, even over several more lifetimes, the various defilements are eliminated and the path yields the successive fruits of the holy life, culminating in true knowledge and liberation (vijjāvimutti), which marks the end of the journey.

In the Mahāvagga, as I said earlier, the seven sets appear in a different order from the simple numerical one in which they are usually presented. The chapter on the Noble Eightfold Path was probably placed first for the sake of emphasis: to show this most ancient formulation of the practice as the quintessential expression of the Buddha’s way to liberation. The seven factors of enlightenment may have been placed next, again out of turn, because they have the widest compass after the eightfold path. The arrangement of the following chapters does not appear to conform to a deliberate pattern. The Anuruddhasaṃyutta seems to be an appendix to the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta and may have evolved from that collection. The last four chapters of the Mahāvagga do not deal explicitly with topics that fall under the seven sets, but even these tie up with them, as we shall see below when we examine the individual chapters.

In the General Introduction I discussed the use of templates to generate suttas that cut across the different saṃyuttas, arranging their subject matter into distinctive and revealing patterns. In the Mahāvagga a new cluster of templates appears, apart from the “repetition series,” which I will touch on in the survey of the Maggasaṃyutta. The allotment of templates to subjects is as follows (see Concordance 3 for sutta references):

Several practices “lead to going beyond from the near shore to the far shore”: said of the eightfold path, the enlightenment factors, the establishments of mindfulness, and the bases for spiritual power.
“Those who have neglected them have neglected the noble path leading to the complete destruction of suffering, while those who have undertaken them have undertaken the noble path”: said of the same four groups.
“They are noble and emancipating and lead to the complete destruction of suffering”: said of the enlightenment factors, the establishments of mindfulness, and the bases for spiritual power—but not of the eightfold path.
“They lead to utter revulsion, dispassion, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and Nibbāna”: again, said of the same three groups.
“They do not arise, developed and cultivated, apart from the appearance of a Buddha or outside his Discipline”: said of the eightfold path, the enlightenment factors, and the faculties.
“They yield one of two fruits, final knowledge (i.e., arahantship) or nonreturning”: said of the enlightenment factors, the establishments of mindfulness, the faculties, the bases for spiritual power, and mindfulness of breathing.
“They yield seven fruits and benefits” (obtained by a finer differentiation of the above two fruits): said of the enlightenment factors, the faculties, the bases for spiritual power, and mindfulness of breathing—but not of the establishments of mindfulness.

It is a matter for conjecture why some templates are applied to certain sets of practices but not to others. However, as all the above templates seem fully applicable to all the sets, this may be due to sheer chance (or to the loss of certain suttas in the line of transmission) and not to a policy of deliberate exclusion.

45. Maggasaṃyutta

The best known of the seven sets is, of course, the Noble Eightfold Path, announced already by the Buddha in his first sermon at Bārāṇasī and repeatedly referred to throughout his discourses. The Noble Eightfold Path is given such prominence not only because it has an honoured place as the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, and is thus comprised within the chief doctrine of early Buddhism, but because it is the most comprehensive of the seven sets. Its eight factors have a wider scope than the others, making the practice of the Dhamma a complete way of life. The eightfold path spans the three trainings in virtue, concentration, and wisdom; it guides action of body, speech, and mind; and it transforms our ordinary conduct, thought, and view into the conduct, thought, and view of the noble ones. The other sets, though oriented towards the same goal, are more restricted in scope, pertaining almost exclusively to the meditative phase of the eightfold path.

The Noble Eightfold Path is also the most inclusive in relation to the other six sets, capable of accommodating within itself most, though not all, of their components. Thus right view, as a synonym for wisdom, includes the basis for spiritual power headed by investigation; the faculty and power of wisdom; and the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states. Right effort includes the four right strivings; the basis for spiritual power headed by energy; the faculty, power, and enlightenment factor of energy. Right mindfulness includes the four establishments of mindfulness, and the faculty, power, and enlightenment factor of mindfulness. Right concentration explicitly includes the faculty, power, and enlightenment factor of concentration, and implicitly all four bases for spiritual power. Thus, when the other six sets are correlated with the Noble Eightfold Path, we can see that of their twenty-nine constituents, twenty-four have counterparts among the path factors.

The eightfold path is described by the Buddha as ariya, noble, and this qualification is important. It would be too restrictive to maintain, as some interpreters of early Buddhism have done, that the eightfold path can be practised only by those who are technically ariyapuggalas, noble individuals beginning with the faith-follower (saddhānusārī). Certainly the Buddha offered the eightfold path to all his disciples who aspired to release from the suffering of saṃsāra, and for this reason he called it the way leading to the cessation of suffering. We might understand the adjective ariya in a broader sense as indicating not only that this is the path followed by the ariyans, but also that this is the path to be practised to arrive at the ariyan state, the state of inward spiritual nobility. To reach the truly ariyan Noble Eightfold Path that leads infallibly to Nibbāna, one has to start somewhere, and the most reasonable place to start is with the development of the eight path factors in their humbler, more immediately accessible manifestations.

The eight path factors are formally defined at 45:8, using stock definitions found elsewhere in the Pāli Canon (e.g., at DN II 311 and MN III 251–52). But these definitions scarcely indicate how the path is to be developed as a whole. On this question we do not find detailed instructions made explicit anywhere in the Mahāvagga, and thus a “how-to manual” of the practice has to be pieced together from various sources. We can start with the Buddha’s statement that each path factor emerges from its predecessor (45:1) and use this as a key for sketching a picture of how the path unfolds in actual experience. On gaining faith in the Buddha in his role as the Tathāgata, the supreme guide to deliverance, the disciple must first arrive at a clear conceptual understanding of the teaching, particularly with respect to the principle of kamma and its fruit and the Four Noble Truths. This is right view (sammādiṭṭhi) in its embryonic stage. Right view alters the disciple’s motives and purposes, steering him or her away from sensuality, ill will, and cruelty, towards renunciation, benevolence, and compassion: this is right intention (sammāsaṅkappa). Guided by right intention, the disciple undertakes the three ethical factors of the path: right speechright action, and right livelihood (sammāvācāsammākammantasammā-ājīva). Standing on this foundation of virtue (see 45:149), the disciple trains the mind by diligently and energetically developing the four establishments of mindfulness: this is right effort (sammāvāyāmā) applied to the practice of right mindfulness (sammāsati). When the effort bears fruit, the disciple enters and dwells in the four jhānas (or, according to the commentaries, a lower degree of concentration bordering on the first jhāna): this is right concentration (sammāsamādhi).

Right concentration, however, is not the end of the path. Now the disciple must use the concentrated mind to explore the nature of experience. Again, the method is right mindfulness, but this time with emphasis on the fourth establishment, mindful contemplation of phenomena. The disciple contemplates the phenomena comprised in the five aggregates and the six sense bases to discern their marks of impermanence, suffering, and nonself. This is right view at a higher plane, the plane of insight (vipassanā). At a certain point in the course of contemplation, when insight becomes sharp and penetrative, the disciple enters upon the fixed course of rightness (sammatta-niyāma), the supramundane path, either as a faith-follower or a Dhamma-follower, and thereby becomes bound to win the fruit of stream-entry within this life itself. Now he or she is described as one practising for the realization of the fruit of stream-entry (sotāpattiphalasacchikiriyāya paṭipanna). When the practice of the path is fully ripe, all eight factors converge and join forces, setting off the “breakthrough to the Dhamma” by which the disciple directly sees the Four Noble Truths and cuts off the three lower fetters.

Now the disciple has truly plunged into the stream of the Dhamma, the transcendental eightfold path, which will bear him or her onwards towards the great ocean of Nibbāna. But the disciple must continue to cultivate the eight path factors until the remaining fetters are eradicated and the underlying tendencies uprooted. This occurs in the three successive stages of once-returner (sakadāgāmī), nonreturner (anāgāmī), and arahantship, each with its twin phases of path and fruition. With the attainment of arahantship, the development of the path comes to an end. The arahant remains endowed with the eight qualities that constitute the path, completed by right knowledge and right liberation (see the person “better than the superior person,” 45:26), but for the arahant there is nothing further to develop, for the aim of developing the path has been reached.

It is within the process of perfecting the path that all the other aids to enlightenment are simultaneously perfected. Thus we can describe the way to deliverance alternatively as the development of the Noble Eightfold Path, or of the seven factors of enlightenment, or of the four establishments of mindfulness. Each one implicitly contains the others, and thus selecting one system as a basis for practice naturally brings the others to completion.

Because of its liberal use of repetition series, the exact structure of the Maggasaṃyutta is hard to discern, and even different Oriental editions divide the chapter up in different ways. There is general agreement that the total number of suttas is 180; the problem concerns the arrangement of the later vaggas. The first five vaggas, with forty-eight suttas, are simple enough. These vaggas extol the Noble Eightfold Path as the supreme expression of the way to Nibbāna, the removal and destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion. The eightfold path is the holy life in its broadest extent (45:61920), a holy life which yields the four fruits of liberation and culminates in the destruction of the three root defilements (45:39–40). The path is also the essence of asceticism and brahminhood (45:35–38), and thus by implication the way that all genuine ascetics and brahmins should be following. But the path is not exclusively for renunciants. It can be commended to both laypersons and monastics, for what matters is not the outward way of life but engagement in the right practice (45:23–24). These suttas also stress the importance of good friendship for following the eightfold path, giving a communal dimension to spiritual practice. Indeed, in one text the Buddha declares that good friendship is the entire holy life (45:2). Vagga V enumerates the purposes for which the holy life is lived under the Blessed One—the fading away of lust, the abandoning of the fetters, etc.—and in each case the Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed as the means for fulfilling that purpose.

With vagga VI the peyyāla or repetition series begin. The first three vaggas of this type mention seven prerequisites and aids for the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path, presumably in its transcendental dimension. The seven conditions are: (1) good friendship (kalyāṇamittatā); (2) virtue (sīla); (3) desire (chanda), wholesome desire for the goal; (4) self (attā), perhaps meaning self-possession; (5) view (diṭṭhi), the conceptual right view of kamma and its fruit and of the Four Noble Truths; (6) diligence (appamāda), heedfulness in the practice; and (7) careful attention (yoniso manasikāra), thorough consideration of things in ways conducive to spiritual growth. Elsewhere the Buddha singles out good friendship as the chief external aid in the practice of his teaching, with careful attention as the chief internal aid (see 46:4849).

The seven conditions are presented under three different aspects, each of which features in one of the three vaggas: as the “forerunner and precursor” for the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path; as the “one thing very helpful” for the arising and fulfilment of the path; and as the “one thing that is most effective” for the arising of the path. Each vagga runs through the seven conditions twice, according to two different descriptions of the eight path factors. The first of these characterizes each path factor as “based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release,” the second as having “as its final goal the removal of lust, the removal of hatred, the removal of delusion.” The significance of these epithets is explained by the commentary (see Vnn. 715).

Next come four repetition series rooted in a simile comparing the orientation of the path towards Nibbāna to the sloping of India’s five great rivers first towards the east, and then (what amounts to the same thing) towards the ocean. As the five rivers are treated first individually and then collectively, each half-vagga contains six suttas, for a total of twelve. Each string of twelve suttas is expounded in four versions, but rather than subsume the different versions under one vagga (as was done in vaggas VI, VII, and VIII), the text makes each version a vagga in its own right, so that the four versions extend over vaggas IX–XII. The two new versions, in vaggas XI and XII, respectively describe each path factor as “having the Deathless as its ground, destination, and final goal,” and as “slanting, sloping, and inclining towards Nibbāna.”

In vaggas XIII and XIV, the method of assignment is inverted. In these two vaggas, with twenty-two suttas between them, the same four versions are used, but now the sutta is taken as the unit of enumeration and the four versions are incorporated within each sutta, without separate numbering. The suttas bring forth a dazzling series of similes, and the effect of reading them all at a single sitting can be exhilarating, like watching the waves of the ocean break upon the shore on a full-moon night.

The last two vaggas, XV and XVI, list various groups of defilements (such as the āsavas or taints) and aspects of existence (such as the three bhavas or types of existence). Of each group it is said that the Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for four purposes: for direct knowledge of it (abhiññā), for full understanding of it (pariññā), for its utter destruction (parikkhaya), and for its abandonment (pahāna). Taken together, these two vaggas show unambiguously that the Noble Eightfold Path is aimed at the destruction of suffering and its causes. The fourfold treatment is given in full only for 45:161, but it can be applied to the subject of every sutta, of which there are twenty, ten per vagga. If each mode of treatment were to be counted as a separate sutta, the number of suttas in the two vaggas would be increased fourfold, and with four different versions taken into account, sixteenfold.

46. Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta

The word bojjhaṅga is a compound of bodhi, enlightenment, and aṅga, limb or factor. The commentaries tend to interpret the word on the analogy of jhānaṅga, the jhāna factors, taking it to mean the factors constitutive of enlightenment. In the Abhidhamma Piṭaka this interpretation becomes so prominent that in texts applying the strict Abhidhamma method (as opposed to those making use of the Suttanta method) the bojjhaṅgas are assigned only to supramundane states of consciousness, those pertaining to the paths of liberation, not to wholesome states of mundane consciousness. In the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta, however, the factors of enlightenment are given this designation primarily because they lead to enlightenment (46:521). They are thus the constellation of mental factors that function as causes and conditions for arriving at enlightenment, the liberating knowledge and vision (46:56).

The seven factors of enlightenment are, for a Buddha, like the seven precious gems of a wheel-turning monarch (46:42). The factors initially emerge in sequence, with each serving as the condition for the next (46:3). They arise within the practice of the last three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, guided by right view; but they represent this segment of the path in finer detail, with recognition of the contrasting qualities that must be brought into delicate balance for the path to yield its fruits. First one attends mindfully to an object of meditation, generally selected from among the four objective bases of mindfulness (body, feelings, mind, phenomena): this is the enlightenment factor of mindfulness (sati-sambojjhaṅga). As mindfulness becomes steady, one learns to discern the object’s features more clearly, and can also distinguish between the wholesome and unwholesome states of mind that arise within the process of contemplation: the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states (dhammavicaya-sambojjhaṅga). This fires one’s efforts: the enlightenment factor of energy (viriya-sambojjhaṅga). From energy applied to the work of mental purification joy arises and escalates: the enlightenment factor of rapture (pīti-sambojjhaṅga). With the refinement of rapture the body and mind calm down: the enlightenment factor of tranquillity (passaddhi-sambojjhaṅga). The tranquil mind is easily unified: the enlightenment factor of concentration (samādhi-sambojjhaṅga). One looks on evenly at the concentrated mind: the enlightenment factor of equanimity (upekkhā-sambojjhaṅga). As each subsequent factor arises, those already arisen do not disappear but remain alongside it as its adjuncts (though rapture inevitably subsides as concentration deepens). Thus, at the mature stage of development, all seven factors are present simultaneously, each making its own distinctive contribution.

The suttas of the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta commonly describe the enlightenment factors by the stock formula “based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release.” Since in the Nikāyas, outside the Mahāvagga, this phrase occurs only in apposition to the enlightenment factors, it is possible this was its original provenance and its application to the other sets among the aids to enlightenment is derivative. As the commentarial explanation of the terms suggests, this description best fits the bojjhaṅgas only in the advanced stages of insight and at the level of the supramundane path, when the bojjhaṅgas are actively eliminating the defilements and leaning towards the realization of Nibbāna. It is only then that they can actually be described as leading to enlightenment. Earlier their function is merely preparatory.

The supramundane dimension of the bojjhaṅgas seems to be signalled by a phrase occasionally appended to the familiar formula: “vast, exalted, measureless, without ill will” (vipulaṃ mahaggataṃ appamāṇaṃ abyāpajjhaṃ). So described, the enlightenment factors are said to enable a bhikkhu to abandon craving (46:26) and to penetrate and sunder the mass of greed, hatred, and delusion not penetrated before (46:28). With the breakthrough to the Dhamma the bojjhaṅgas become inalienable possessions, and the noble disciple who has acquired them has “obtained the path” (maggo paṭiladdho) that leads infallibly to liberation from the taints (46:30). It is significant that in this passage the seven enlightenment factors assume the function usually ascribed to the Noble Eightfold Path. Even arahants continue to arouse the bojjhaṅgas, not for some ulterior goal, but simply as a way of noble dwelling in the present (46:4).

The seven enlightenment factors fall into two classes, the activating and the restraining. The former arise first: discrimination of states, energy, and rapture. The latter emerge later: tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity. The activating factors are to be cultivated when the mind is sluggish, as one feeds a small fire with fuel to make it blaze up. The restraining factors are to be cultivated when the mind is excited, as one sprinkles a bonfire with water and wet grass to reduce it. Mindfulness does not belong to either class, for it is useful everywhere, particularly in ensuring that the activating and restraining factors are kept in balance (46:53).

Repeatedly, the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta establishes an antithesis between the seven enlightenment factors and the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇa): sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt. The latter are the main obstacles to meditative progress in both concentration and insight. The abandoning of the hindrances is often described in the texts on the disciple’s gradual training (e.g., at DN I 71–73 and MN I 181). Here the five hindrances are called obstructions of the mind that weaken wisdom, while the enlightenment factors are assets that lead to true knowledge and liberation (46:37). The hindrances are comparable to corruptions of gold, to parasitic forest trees, to impurities in water which obscure the reflection of one’s face (46:333955). They are makers of blindness, destructive to wisdom, distractions from the path to Nibbāna; the enlightenment factors are makers of vision and knowledge, promoters of wisdom, aids along the path to Nibbāna (46:4056).

In the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta the Buddha describes in detail the conditions responsible for the arising and growth of both the hindrances and the enlightenment factors. He thereby shows how the general principle of conditionality can also be applied to the specific psychological causes of bondage and liberation. The conditions of both sorts are spoken of as nutriments (āhāra), a word which underlines the gradual, assimilative aspect of conditionality in relation to mental degeneration and development. At 46:2 the role of the nutriments in relation to the hindrances and enlightenment factors is compared to the sustenance of the body. Here only the active side of nutrition is in evidence. A later sutta (46:51) goes further and shows as well the “denourishment” of the hindrances and enlightenment factors, that is, the measures that prevent them from arising and developing. Prominent among the nutriments for all five hindrances is careless attention (ayoniso manasikāra), and prominent among the nutriments for all seven enlightenment factors is careful attention (yoniso manasikāra). The role of attention in relation to the hindrances and enlightenment factors is also emphasized at 46:2324, and 35.

While the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta does not include parallels to the vaggas of the Maggasaṃyutta that identify the conditions for the path, we can put together a picture of the conditions for the enlightenment factors by collating suttas scattered across this collection. Careful attention is the forerunner of the enlightenment factors and also the chief internal condition for their arising (46:1349). But good friendship is equally efficacious as a forerunner and is the chief external condition for their arising (46:4850). Other conditions mentioned are virtue (46:11) and diligence (46:31). In a discussion with a wanderer, the Buddha holds up true knowledge and liberation as the goal of the holy life. This is achieved by developing the seven enlightenment factors, which are in turn fulfilled by the four establishments of mindfulness, which depend on the three kinds of good conduct (of body, speech, and mind), which in turn depend on sense restraint (46:6). Thus we see traces here of another version of “transcendental dependent origination” running parallel to the series described at 12:23.

Two suttas show eminent monks recovering from illness when the Buddha recites the enlightenment factors in their presence, and a third shows the Buddha himself recovering when a monk recites them to him (46:14–16). Thus these suttas seem to ascribe a mystical healing power to the recitation of the enlightenment factors. Of course, the healing power does not reside in the words of the text alone, but requires the concentrated attention of the listener. In Sri Lanka these three suttas are included in the Maha Pirit Pota, “The Great Book of Protection,” a collection of paritta or protective discourses, and monks commonly recite them to patients afflicted with serious illness.

In 46:54, the Buddha links the development of the enlightenment factors to the four divine abodes (brahmavihāra): boundless lovingkindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. Although the text says that the bhikkhu develops the factors of enlightenment accompanied by lovingkindness (mettāsahagataṃ satisambojjhaṅgaṃ bhāveti), etc., the commentary explains that one actually uses the divine abodes to develop concentration, and then, based on this concentration, one develops the seven enlightenment factors in the mode of insight. In view of the fact that the divine abodes and enlightenment factors, taken in themselves, have different orientations, this explanation sounds reasonable. The text further states that accomplishment in this practice of combining the divine abodes and the enlightenment factors enables the meditator to exercise a fivefold mastery over perception, the ability to alter one’s perceptual framework by a simple act of will.

Vaggas VII and VIII continue to connect the development of the seven enlightenment factors with other meditation subjects, detailing six benefits in each case. Possibly the seven benefits mentioned at 46:3 should also be inserted here. Among the meditation subjects, in vagga VII the first five are cemetery contemplations, then come the four divine abodes and mindfulness of breathing; in vagga VIII, we find ten kinds of perception pertaining both to serenity and insight.

Finally, vaggas IX–XVIII elaborate the repetition series by way of the enlightenment factors, but this time they are reduced to little more than mnemonic verses. Two versions are recorded in full, though abridged in form: the “based upon seclusion” version and the “removal of lust” version. But the last sutta (46:184) adds the key phrases of the third and fourth versions (those with “having the Deathless as ground” and “slants towards Nibbāna” as their refrains). This inconspicuous addition implies that the whole series should be run through twice more, in these two versions, a task which the assiduous student would no doubt take up with relish.

47. Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta

The phrase cattāro satipaṭṭhānā is commonly translated “the four foundations of mindfulness,” a rendering which takes the compound to represent sati + paṭṭhāna and emphasizes the objective bases of the practice: the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. It seems more likely, however, that satipaṭṭhāna should actually be resolved into sati + upaṭṭhāna, and thus translated “the establishment of mindfulness.” Such an interpretation, which puts the spotlight on the subjective qualities marshalled in the development of mindfulness, is implied by the adjective upaṭṭhitasati used to describe one who has set up mindfulness (see V, n. 122 for other reasons). Occasionally in the texts the objective bases of mindfulness are doubtlessly intended as the meaning of satipaṭṭhāna, as at 47:42, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Within the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta we do not find a detailed explanation of the fourfold contemplation undertaken in this practice. For that we have to turn to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in either of its two versions, the longer one at DN No. 22 or the middle-length one at MN No. 10 (which differs only in lacking the detailed analysis of the Four Noble Truths). The sutta explains contemplation of the body (kāyānupassanā) in terms of fourteen exercises: mindfulness of breathing, attention to the postures, mindfulness and clear comprehension in all activities, investigation of the thirty-one parts of the body (as illustrative of foulness; see 51:20), analysis into the four elements, and nine cemetery contemplations. Contemplation of feeling (vedanānupassanā) is singlefold but considers feelings in terms of their affective quality—as either pleasant, painful, or neutral—with each being viewed again as either carnal or spiritual. Contemplation of mind (cittānupassanā) is also singlefold but examines sixteen states of mind coloured by their concomitants (as in 51:11). Contemplation of phenomena (dhammānupassanā) is the most diversified exercise. The exact meaning of dhammā here has been subject to dispute. The word is often rendered “mind-objects” or “mental objects,” as if it denoted the sixth external sense base, but this seems too narrow and specific. More likely dhammā here signifies all phenomena, which for purposes of insight are grouped into fixed modes of classification determined by the Dhamma itself—the doctrine or teaching—and culminating in the realization of the ultimate Dhamma comprised within the Four Noble Truths. There are five such schemes: the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six pairs of internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths.

The importance of satipaṭṭhāna is emphasized in the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta right from the start by describing it as the ekāyana magga for the overcoming of suffering and the realization of Nibbāna (47:1). Though the Pāli expression is often rendered “the sole way” or “the only way,” this translation has little support either from the suttas or the commentaries. The probable meaning, derived from its usage in a nondoctrinal context, is “the one-way path,” so called because it goes in one direction: towards the purification of beings, freedom from suffering, and the realization of Nibbāna. The Buddha is shown reflecting on the four satipaṭṭhānas as “the one-way path” soon after his enlightenment, and Brahmā Sahampati appears before him and sings its praises in verse (47:1843).

The Buddha recommends the four satipaṭṭhānas to novices, trainees, and even arahants, each for a different purpose. Novices are to practise them to know body, feelings, mind, and phenomena as they really are, that is, to arouse the insight needed to reach the transcendental path. Trainees, who have attained the path, are to practise them to fully understand these things and thereby reach arahantship. Arahants practise them detached from body, feelings, mind, and phenomena (47:4). The four satipaṭṭhānas are the proper resort and domain of a bhikkhu. Those bhikkhus who stray from them into the “cords of sensual pleasure” become vulnerable to Māra; those who remain within them are inaccessible to the Evil One (47:67).

To emphasize further the importance of satipaṭṭhāna, three suttas connect the practice with the longevity of the Buddha’s dispensation (47:222325). Towards the end of his life, when his health was failing, the Buddha instructed the bhikkhus to dwell “with yourselves as your own island, with yourselves as your own refuge.” The way this is to be done, he explained, is by developing the four establishments of mindfulness (47:9). He gave the Saṅgha the same advice after the deaths of Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna (47:1314), which must have been stirring reminders for all of the law of impermanence.

The practice of satipaṭṭhāna centres upon the cultivation of sati, mindfulness, which may be understood as focused awareness applied to immediate experience in both its subjective and objective sectors. The heart of the practice is succinctly stated in the formula found in almost every sutta in this chapter. The formula shows that the exercise of sati has a reflexive character: one is to contemplate the body in the body, feelings in feelings, mind in mind, phenomena in phenomena. The reiteration signals that the contemplative act must isolate each domain of mindfulness from the others and attend to it as it is in itself. This means the given object has to be laid bare, stripped of the layers of mental proliferation which usually clutter our perception and prevent us from seeing the true characteristics of phenomena. The meditator must see the body in the act of breathing as simply a breathing body, not a person or self who is breathing; feelings as simply feelings, not as episodes in a long biography; states of mind as simply states of mind, not as scenes in a personal drama; phenomena as mere phenomena, not as personal achievements or liabilities.

The full formula makes it clear that mindfulness does not work alone but in company. The term “ardent” (ātāpī) implies energy, “clearly comprehending” (sampajāno) implies incipient wisdom, and the occasional addition, “concentrated, with one-pointed mind (samāhitā ekaggacittā)” (47:4), points to the presence of concentration. Thus the practice of satipaṭṭhāna spreads over the last three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. And since virtue and straightened view are said to be its prerequisites (47:315), the former comprising the three ethical path factors of right speech, right action, and right livelihood, and the latter synonymous with right view, this implies that the development of the entire Noble Eightfold Path can be encapsulated within the practice of satipaṭṭhāna. This much is suggested when the eightfold path is called “the way leading to the development of the establishments of mindfulness” (47:30).

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta each exercise in mindfulness is followed by two further extensions of the practice, expressed in two paragraphs attached to the basic instructions. These are also found in the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta, though mentioned separately. Thus at 47:3 the Buddha instructs a bhikkhu to contemplate each base of mindfulness “internally” (i.e., within himself), and “externally” (i.e., in other people), and then both “internally and externally” (in himself and others in rapid succession). At 47:40 he explains “the development of the establishment of mindfulness” to mean contemplating each base as having the nature of origination, the nature of vanishing, and the nature of both origination and vanishing. These two extensions deepen and broaden the practice, spreading it outwards from a narrow fixation on one’s immediate experience towards a discernment of its wider expanse and intrinsic patterning.

The practice of mindfulness is often coupled with another quality, clear comprehension (sampajañña), which is mentioned within the basic formula and also separately. At 47:2 clear comprehension is explained with reference to the bodily postures and routine activities of everyday life, at 47:35 with reference to the arising and passing away of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. The commentaries explain clear comprehension to have a fourfold application: as full awareness of the purpose of one’s actions; as prudence in the choice of means; as engagement of the mind with the meditation subject; and as discernment of things in their true nature, free from delusion.

It is interesting to note that the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta pits the four establishments of mindfulness against the five hindrances; the hindrances are a “heap of the unwholesome,” the satipaṭṭhānas a “heap of the wholesome” (47:5). That the five hindrances should be counteracted by both the seven enlightenment factors and the four establishments of mindfulness is perfectly comprehensible when we realize that the first enlightenment factor is mindfulness itself, which is activated by the development of the four establishments of mindfulness. One summary of the practice adopted by all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future describes the path in three steps: the abandoning of the five hindrances, the settling of the mind in the four establishments of mindfulness, and the correct development of the seven enlightenment factors (47:12). The practice of satipaṭṭhāna is precisely the method for abandoning the hindrances, and it is within the womb of this practice, again, that the seven enlightenment factors are conceived and grow towards their immanent aim, true knowledge and liberation (vijjāvimutti; see 46:6). Thus, while they claim only one place among the seven sets making up the aids to enlightenment, the four establishments of mindfulness can be seen as the trunk from which all the other sets branch out and bring forth their fruits.

Lest engagement in mindfulness meditation be branded a narcissistic indulgence, the Buddha makes it clear that it is by protecting oneself through the development of mindfulness that one can most effectively protect others. Conversely, the practice of introspective meditation must be balanced by the cultivation of such social virtues as patience, harmlessness, lovingkindness, and sympathy (47:19). The Buddha also urges his disciples to share the benefits of their practice with others by establishing their relatives, friends, and colleagues in the fourfold development of mindfulness (47:48). The Master especially commends this practice to the sick, probably because mindfulness and clear comprehension directed to body, feelings, mind, and phenomena are the best aids in dealing with the bodily affliction, physical pain, and mental distress brought on by illness.

At the end of the saṃyutta come the inevitable repetition series. Since the four establishments of mindfulness are accompanied by their own formula—“he dwells contemplating the body in the body,” etc.—there is only one version of each sutta, stated by way of this formula. These again, with the exception of the first and last suttas, are reduced to mnemonic verses.

48. Indriyasaṃyutta

Unlike the preceding saṃyuttas, the Indriyasaṃyutta is made up of heterogeneous material. It deals not only with the five spiritual faculties, a set included among the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment, but also with a variety of other items united under the rubric indriya. Possibly the most ancient recension of this saṃyutta consisted solely of texts centred around the spiritual faculties, but since the word indriya has a wider compass, at some point the compilers of the canon may have felt obliged to include in this collection texts concerned with the other types of faculties. This hypothesis, though unverifiable, may account for the somewhat haphazard organization of this saṃyutta.

By the early Abhidhamma period the Buddhist doctrinal specialists had drawn up a list of twenty-two faculties proposed as a compendium of phenomenological categories on a par with the five aggregates, twelve sense bases, and eighteen elements. As such, the faculties are collected and analysed in the Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (chap. 5). Significantly, even though all the faculties were drawn from the suttas, the Indriyavibhaṅga has only an Abhidhamma analysis, not a Suttanta analysis, implying that the ancient compilers of the Vibhaṅga did not consider the complete assemblage of faculties to constitute a unified scheme within the framework of the Sutta Piṭaka.

The twenty-two indriyas fall into five distinct groups as follows:

five spiritual faculties
six sense faculties
five affective faculties
three faculties related to final knowledge
a triad made up of the femininity faculty, the masculinity
faculty, and the life faculty.

All these faculties, treated at least briefly in the Indriyasaṃyutta, are called indriyas in the sense that they exercise dominion in a particular sphere of activity or experience, just as Indra (after whom they are named) exercises dominion over the devas.

The saṃyutta begins with two vaggas devoted to the five spiritual faculties, the faculties of faith (saddhā), energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). The opening suttas treat these faculties by way of templates we have met several times already: the gratification triad, the origin pentad, and the ascetics and brahmins templates. In the second ascetics and brahmins sutta we find the spiritual faculties assigned to the place occupied by suffering in the pattern of the Four Noble Truths. This move initially seems odd, at striking variance with the unqualified accolades accorded to the other sets among the aids to enlightenment. It becomes intelligible when we realize that the faculties are here being considered, not simply as factors conducive to enlightenment, but as members of a broader scheme of phenomenological categories parallel to the aggregates, sense bases, and elements.

Four suttas in the first vagga draw a distinction between the stream-enterer and the arahant. The stream-enterer is defined as one who has understood the faculties by way of the given templates; the arahant, having acquired this knowledge, has developed it to the point where his mind has been freed from clinging (48:2–5; cp. 22:109–10). In 48:8–11 the Buddha explains the domains and practical implementation of the faculties, and then in 48:12–18 he shows how the relative strength of the faculties determines the gradation among the different classes of noble disciples (48:24, apparently out of place, also belongs to this set).

In the third vagga we find mention made of the femininity triad (48:22) and the final knowledge triad (48:23), but without explanations. Formal definitions are found only in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the commentaries (see V, nn. 205206 for the references). In 48:26–30 the focus falls on the six sense faculties, almost identical with the six internal sense bases. These are treated merely by way of the template patterns, with nothing new of special interest.

Vagga IV is devoted to the five affective faculties, finer divisions of the three feelings: the pleasure and joy faculties are respectively bodily and mental pleasant feeling; the pain and displeasure faculties are bodily and mental painful feeling; and the equanimity faculty is neutral feeling (48:36–38). The last sutta in this series deals with the stage at which the faculties completely cease; the text is difficult to interpret without the aid of the commentary (paraphrased in the notes).

In vagga V we return to the spiritual faculties, this time to a phalanx of suttas that shed a brighter light on their place in the Buddhist path. These suttas show that the five faculties constitute a complete structure capable of leading all the way to the destruction of the taints (48:43, end). In 48:50, Sāriputta explains that the faculties unfold in a progressive series, faith leading to the arousal of energy, energy to mindfulness, mindfulness to concentration, and concentration to wisdom. Among the five faculties, wisdom is repeatedly given the highest valuation; it is called the chief among the states conducive to enlightenment and extolled with lovely similes (48:51545568–70). Indeed, wisdom is said to be the faculty that stabilizes the other four faculties, making them faculties in the proper sense (48:4552).

Both the five faculties and the five powers draw upon the same selection of spiritual qualities, and this raises the question of their relationship. It may seem that the faculties represent these five qualities at an earlier phase, and the powers at a later, more advanced phase, but the texts do not countenance this view. The Buddha declares the two sets to be identical, with the designations “faculties” and “powers” being used simply to highlight different aspects of the same set of qualities; they are like the two streams of the same river flowing around a midstream island (48:43). The commentary explains that the five factors become faculties when considered as exercising control in their respective domains, and powers when considered as unshaken by their opposites.

One relationship among the faculties, not mentioned in the suttas but discussed in the commentaries, is worth noting. This is their arrangement into mutually complementary pairs. Faith is paired with wisdom, ensuring that the emotional and intellectual sides of the spiritual life are kept in balance; energy is paired with concentration, ensuring that the activating and restraining sides of mental development are kept in balance. Mindfulness belongs to neither side but oversees the others, holding them together in a mutually enriching tension.

The Indriyasaṃyutta ends with the repetition series, this time in two versions, the “based upon seclusion” version and the “removal of lust” version.

49. Sammappadhānasaṃyutta

50. Balasaṃyutta

These two saṃyuttas do not contain any original suttas but merely instantiate the repetition series. Since the four right strivings are described by their own stock formula, the repetition series in the Sammappadhānasaṃyutta is stated only once, accompanied by this formula. The five powers are parallel to the five faculties, and therefore the Balasaṃyutta is to be elaborated with the repetition series filled out in the two versions.

51. Iddhipādasaṃyutta

The term iddhipāda, rendered “basis for spiritual power,” is a compound of iddhi and pādaIddhi (Skt ¸ddhi) originally meant success, growth, or prosperity, but early on in the Indian yogic tradition the word had come to mean a special kind of success obtained through meditation, namely, the ability to perform wondrous feats that defy the normal order of events. Such feats, for Indian spirituality, are not to be regarded as miracles proving the divine stature of the person who performs them. They are understood, rather, as extensions of natural causality which become accessible to the meditator through accomplishment in concentration (samādhi). The mind trained in concentration is able to discern subtle interconnections between bands of mental and material energy invisible to ordinary sensory consciousness. Such perception enables the accomplished yogi to tap into the deep undercurrents of natural causality and use them to perform feats which, to the uninitiated, appear mystical or miraculous.

While early Buddhism is often depicted as a rationalistic system of ethics or a path of purely ascetic meditation, the Nikāyas themselves are replete with texts in which the Buddha is shown performing feats of psychic power and extolling disciples who excel in these skills. What the Buddha rejected was not the acquisition of such powers per se but their misuse for irresponsible ends. He prohibited his monks and nuns from displaying these powers to impress the laity and convert unbelievers, and he emphasized that these powers themselves are no proof that their bearer has genuine wisdom. In his system the real miracle was the “miracle of instruction” (anusāsani-pāṭihāriya), the ability to transform a person through teachings on how to overcome evil and fulfil the good.

Nevertheless, the Buddha incorporated the iddhis into his path of training with an eightfold scheme often encountered in the texts. The scheme is called simply “the various kinds of spiritual power” (anekavihitaṃ iddhividhaṃ), and is mentioned close to a dozen times in the present saṃyutta, most notably in the formal definition of iddhi (at 51:19). He also offers an expanded interpretation of the types of spiritual success obtainable through meditation, one which subsumes the iddhis under a broader category of six types of higher knowledge commonly known as the chaḷabhiññā or six direct knowledges. These are: the eight kinds of spiritual powers; the divine ear; the ability to know the minds of other beings; the recollection of one’s past lives; the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings according to their kamma; and the knowledge of the destruction of the taints (51:11, etc.). The first five are mundane, desirable as ornaments of an accomplished meditator but not essential for liberation (see 12:70). The last is supramundane and the culmination of the step-by-step training. By adopting this wider and more profound conception of spiritual success, the Buddha could include within his system the various spiritual powers esteemed so highly in the Indian yogic culture while giving pride of place to the achievement peculiar to his own discipline: the liberation of mind attainable only through the destruction of the defilements.

The four iddhipādas are the means to attainment of the spiritual powers, whether of the mundane or the transcendental kind. Thus, though included among the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment, this set of factors has a somewhat different flavour than the others. While the others are all expounded solely for the contribution they make to enlightenment and the realization of Nibbāna, the iddhipādas can be used to achieve both the wonder-working iddhis and the supreme spiritual power of arahantship.

The Iddhipādasaṃyutta sets the iddhipādas in a universal context by declaring that all ascetics and brahmins—past, present, and future—who generate spiritual power do so by their means (51:6–7). Again, it is by developing the four iddhipādas that all ascetics and brahmins of the three times become mighty and powerful (51:16), or acquire the six direct knowledges (51:17). Indeed, it is by developing the iddhipādas that the Buddha has become a Perfectly Enlightened One (51:8).

The four iddhipādas are defined by a formula cited in almost every sutta of this collection. The formula can be analysed into three portions, two common to all four bases, the third differentiating them as fourfold. The two common components are concentration (samādhi) and “volitional formations of striving” (padhānasaṅkhārā). The latter is defined by the formula for the four right strivings (sammappadhānā), so that the iddhipādas, the third set of the aids to enlightenment, implicitly contain the second set.

The components unique to each iddhipāda are the factors that take the lead in generating concentration: desire (chanda), energy (viriya), mind (citta), and investigation (vīmaṃsā). The commentary interprets desire here as “desire to act” (kattukaṃyatā) and “investigation” (vīmaṃsā) as wisdom. Energy and mind are not given any special definitions apart from the general synonyms for these factors. Presumably, while all four qualities coexist in every state of concentration, on any given occasion only one of the four will assume the dominant role in generating concentration and this gives its name to the iddhipāda. It is interesting to observe that the formula for right striving, included in the iddhipāda formula as noted above, mentions three factors that function as iddhipādas, namely, desire, energy, and mind; and since right striving presupposes discrimination between wholesome and unwholesome states, some degree of investigation is also involved. Thus once again we can see the interwoven character of the seven sets.

The standard formula for the iddhipādas is sometimes embedded in a longer, more complex statement which shows that they are to be cultivated in conjunction with a number of other meditative skills necessary to ensure balance, thoroughness, and breadth to their development. The passage is stated baldly at 51:11, as a discovery the Buddha made while still a bodhisatta striving for enlightenment; they recur at 51:12, as describing how a bhikkhu achieves the six direct knowledges. Read alone, the passage is far from self-explanatory, but 51:20 provides an internal commentary on each term, almost in the manner of an Abhidhamma treatise. Another text, recurring five times with variations only in the auditors, gives individual definitions of spiritual power, the bases for spiritual power, the development of the bases for spiritual power, and the way to the development of the bases (51:1927–30). The last definition connects the four iddhipādas with the Noble Eightfold Path, again drawing our attention to the interdependence of the seven sets.

In sum, the iddhis or spiritual powers to be acquired by meditation are: most narrowly, the eight kinds of spiritual powers, wondrous feats of psychic power; more broadly, the six direct knowledges; and consummately, the taintless liberation of mind. The means of achieving these powers, their bases or “feet” (the literal meaning of pāda), are the four iddhipādas. These employ the four kinds of right striving and a particular dominant mental factor to generate concentration, and this concentration, in conjunction with the effort and the dominant factor, enables the meditator to exercise spiritual powers. To show that while the iddhipādas can lead to all three kinds of iddhi, the last is sufficient in itself, the suttas sometimes state simply that the four iddhipādas, when developed and cultivated, lead to the taintless liberation of mind (51:1823).

In several texts, from the Iddhipādasaṃyutta and elsewhere, other marvellous potencies are ascribed to the four iddhipādas. One who has mastered them, it is said, can extend his life span even as long as a kappa, a term whose meaning here has been a subject of controversy but which seems to signify a full cosmic aeon. The Buddha ascribes this ability to himself in the famous dialogue with Ānanda at the Cāpāla Shrine near Vesālī, related in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and reported here as well (51:11). Sāriputta ascribes the same ability to Moggallāna (at 12:30), who ironically is reported to have been killed by assassins. By developing the iddhipādas, Moggallāna can set off a minor earthquake with his toe (51:14), and the Buddha can use his physical body to travel to the brahmā world (51:22). The saṃyutta closes with the repetition series, which is run through in one round using the stock description of the iddhipādas.

52. Anuruddhasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta features the Venerable Anuruddha as an exponent of the four establishments of mindfulness, which figure in every sutta in the chapter. The saṃyutta may have originally belonged to the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta, later to be detached and given independent status. The Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta preserves three suttas spoken by Anuruddha (47:26–28), which are consonant in character with those found here, and it is unclear why they were not taken out and brought into this collection.

The first sutta of the Anuruddhasaṃyutta is of special interest, for it merges into one complex pattern the two extensions of the satipaṭṭhāna formula concerned with insight, one dealing with the contemplation of the four bases as internal and external, the other with contemplation of the four bases as having the nature of origination and vanishing. Also of interest is the long series of texts in the second vagga which show Anuruddha claiming it was by the practice of the four establishments of mindfulness that he developed various spiritual powers. Among these are the six direct knowledges (divided into two segments, 52:12–1422–24), which are usually ascribed to the practice of the four iddhipādas. The assertion that they result from the practice of satipaṭṭhāna means that the latter method need not be understood as exclusively a system of insight meditation (a widespread view) but can also be seen as a path conducive to the fulfilment of all the jhānas. We also find here (at 52:15–24) the ten knowledges elsewhere called the ten powers of the Tathāgata (MN I 69–71). As the tradition regards these as unique endowments of a Perfectly Enlightened One, the commentary explains that Anuruddha possessed them only in part.

53. Jhānasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta contains only the standard jhāna formula integrated with the repetition series in a single round.

54. Ānāpānasaṃyutta

Mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati) is generally regarded as the most important meditation subject taught in the Nikāyas. The Pāli exegetical tradition holds that it was mindfulness of breathing that the Buddha practised on the night of his enlightenment, prior to attaining the four jhānas and the three true knowledges, and during his teaching career he occasionally would go off into seclusion to devote himself to this meditation. He calls it “the Tathāgata’s dwelling,” a lofty honour, and often recommends it to both trainees and arahants. For those in training it leads to the destruction of the taints; for arahants it leads to a pleasant dwelling here and now and to mindfulness and clear comprehension (54:11).

The practice of mindfulness of breathing is defined by a sixteen-step formula first introduced in 54:1 and repeated throughout the Ānāpānasaṃyutta. The sixteen steps are not necessarily sequential but to some extent overlap; thus they might be called phases rather than steps. The first four are also mentioned in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, in the section on mindfulness of the body, but the sixteenfold formula gives the practice a wider range. The sixteen aspects are divided into four tetrads, each of which is correlated with one of the four establishments of mindfulness. The correlations are first explained in 54:10 and recur in several later suttas.

The first six suttas of the Ānāpānasaṃyutta are framed in terms simply of mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati). From 54:7 onwards, a shift takes place, and the suttas are phrased in terms of concentration by mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati-samādhi). This is the concentration obtained by being mindful of the breath. Here again, as with the path factors, enlightenment factors, and faculties, mindfulness is a condition for concentration. In 54:8 the Buddha enumerates the benefits that come from concentration gained by mindfulness of breathing: it is physically easeful, removes worldly memories and thoughts, and leads to many exalted attainments including the four jhānas, the formless states, the attainment of cessation, and even liberation from the taints. Sutta 54:9 records the curious occasion when a large number of monks, after hearing the Buddha preach on the foulness of the body, committed suicide. Subsequently the Buddha taught the bhikkhus ānāpānasati-samādhi as a “peaceful and sublime” dwelling.

The most important sutta in the Ānāpānasaṃyutta is 54:13, the substance of which is repeated at 54:14–16. Here the Buddha explains how concentration by mindfulness of breathing fulfils the four establishments of mindfulness; these in turn fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment; and these in turn fulfil true knowledge and liberation. This method of exposition shows mindfulness of breathing as a complete subject of meditation that begins with simple attention to the breath and culminates in the highest deliverance of the mind. This theme is reconfirmed by the last string of suttas in the chapter, which declare that concentration by mindfulness of breathing leads to the abandoning of the fetters and the eradication of all defilements (54:17–20).

55. Sotāpattisaṃyutta

This chapter might have been more accurately entitled Sotāpattiyaṅgasaṃyutta, for it is not concerned with stream-entry in a general way but with a specific group of factors that define a person as a stream-enterer (sotāpanna). The stream (sota) is the Noble Eightfold Path, and the stream-enterer is so called because he or she, by directly penetrating the truth of the Dhamma, has become possessed of the eight factors of the path (55:5).

The four qualities that define a person as a stream-enterer are called the four sotāpattiyaṅga, factors of stream-entry. The Pāli term is actually used with reference to two different tetrads. The more frequently mentioned tetrad is the set of four qualities possessed by a stream-enterer, and in this context the term is properly rendered “factors of stream-entry,” or even “factors of the stream-enterer.” But alongside this tetrad we find another one, less often mentioned, consisting of the qualities that must be actualized to attain stream-entry. I translate sotāpattiyaṅga in this sense as “factors for stream-entry.”

The four factors possessed by the stream-enterer are confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha (confidence in each being reckoned a separate factor), and “the virtues dear to the noble ones” (ariyakantāni sīlāni). Confirmed confidence (aveccappasāda) is faith rooted in personal validation of the truth of the Dhamma. The decisive event that marks the transition from the stage of one “practising for the realization of the fruit of stream-entry” to that of a full-fledged stream-enterer is the “breakthrough to the Dhamma,” also called the obtaining of the vision of the Dhamma (see 13:1). This consists in the direct seeing of the Four Noble Truths, or (more concisely) of the principle that “whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of cessation.” On seeing the truth of the Dhamma, the disciple eradicates the three lower fetters—identity view, doubt, and distorted grasp of rules and vows—and thus acquires confidence grounded upon this experiential confirmation. Such confidence is placed in the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism: in the Buddha as the supreme teacher of the path to Nibbāna; in the Dhamma as the map and goal of the path; and in the Saṅgha as the community of noble ones who share in the realization of the Dhamma. The attainment of stream-entry also issues in profound reverence for morality, particularly for the basic moral virtues comprised in the five precepts: abstinence from the destruction of life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and the use of intoxicants.

The stream-enterer is characterized by a stock formula repeated many times in the Sotāpattisaṃyutta and elsewhere in the Nikāyas. He or she is “no longer bound to the nether world (avinipātadhamma),” incapable of taking rebirth in any of the lower realms of existence—the hells, the animal realm, or the domain of ghosts; “fixed in destiny” (niyata), bound to reach liberation without regression after seven lives at most, all lived either in the human world or in a celestial realm; and “with enlightenment as destination” (sambodhiparāyana), bound to attain full knowledge of the Four Noble Truths culminating in the destruction of the taints.

The Buddha calls the four factors of stream-entry “the mirror of the Dhamma,” for reflection on them can enable the disciple to determine whether he or she is a stream-enterer (55:8). He also calls them “streams of merit, streams of the wholesome, nutriments of happiness” (55:3141) and “divine tracks of the devas for the purification of beings” (55:3435). The four factors of stream-entry lead to a celestial rebirth (55:1836), but whether the disciple is reborn in heaven or in the human world, the factors bring long life, beauty, happiness, and dominion (55:30). They also still the fear of death, for a noble disciple who possesses these four factors has escaped the prospect of rebirth into a bad destination (55:1415). Thus, when ill, a stream-enterer can be consoled by being reminded that he or she possesses the four factors, as Ānanda comforts the householder Anāthapiṇ˜ika (55:27). The controversial discourse on Sarakāni (in two versions, 55:2425) tells the story of a Sakyan noble who had been fond of drinking yet was declared by the Buddha a stream-enterer after his death. When this announcement drew a storm of protest from the Sakyans, the Buddha explained that Sarakāni had completed the training before his death and thus had died a stream-enterer.

Several suttas in this saṃyutta present alternatives to the fourth item in the list. On two occasions, in place of “the virtues dear to the noble ones,” generosity is cited as the fourth factor of stream-entry (55:639); twice it is cited as the fourth stream of merit (55:3242). Two texts cite “wisdom directed to arising and passing away,” i.e., the wisdom of insight into impermanence, as the fourth stream of merit (55:3343). Thus, by collating the lists and taking the common core of the first three items to exemplify faith, we arrive at four central qualities of a stream-enterer: faith, virtue, generosity, and wisdom (saddhāsīlacāgapaññā), elsewhere mentioned together as the marks of a sappurisa, a superior person.

Possessing the four factors of stream-entry is not the end of the road for the noble disciple, but only a way station towards the final goal. They “lead to the destruction of the taints” (55:38), and one endowed with them “slants, slopes, and inclines to Nibbāna” (55:22). However, though the stream-enterer is bound to win final realization, the Buddha urges such disciples not to become complacent but to hasten their progress by diligence (55:20). To a critically ill youth who has already reached stream-entry, he teaches six contemplations that “partake of true knowledge” by practising which the youth dies as a nonreturner (55:3). He even instructs one lay follower how to guide another on his deathbed so as to lead him all the way to arahantship (55:54).

The other tetrad consists of the four factors for stream-entry, that is, for attainment of stream-entry. These are: association with superior persons, hearing the true Dhamma, careful attention, and practice in accordance with the Dhamma (55:550). These qualities lead not only to stream-entry but to all the fruits of the path. They also bring to fulfilment the various potentialities of wisdom (55:55–74).

56. Saccasaṃyutta

The final saṃyutta of the Mahāvagga is devoted to the truths discovered by the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment and placed by him at the core of his teaching. These, of course, are the Four Noble Truths, and thus this chapter on the truths makes a fitting conclusion to the entire Saṃyutta Nikāya. The Four Noble Truths were first announced in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first discourse at Bārāṇasī. Accordingly we find this sutta in the midst of this collection, tucked away almost inconspicuously (56:11), but with its importance signalled by the applause of the devas resounding throughout the ten thousandfold world system.

To highlight their significance, the Saccasaṃyutta casts the Four Noble Truths against a universal background. They are not merely particular pronouncements of doctrine peculiar to one historical spiritual teacher known as the Buddha, but the content of realization for all who arrive at liberating truth, whether past, present, or future (56:34). The Buddha is called the Perfectly Enlightened One just because he has awakened to these truths (56:23); even more, all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future become fully enlightened by awakening to these truths (56:24). The truths are described as noble (ariya) because they are actual, unerring, not otherwise (56:27), and because they are taught by the supreme noble one, the Buddha (56:28). They might also be called noble because they are the truths understood by the noble ones, from the stream-enterer upwards, and because their realization confers noble stature.

The reason sentient beings roam and wander in saṃsāra is because they have not understood and penetrated the Four Noble Truths (56:21). Ignorant of the truths, they go from one existence to the next like a stick thrown into the air, falling now on its tip, now on its butt (56:33). At the base of the causal genesis of suffering is ignorance (avijjā), as is shown by the chain of dependent origination, and ignorance consists just in unawareness of the Four Noble Truths (56:17). Its antidote is knowledge (vijjā), which accordingly is just knowledge of the four truths (56:18). But the world cannot find the way to liberation on its own. Before the arising of a Buddha the world is enveloped in thick spiritual darkness, as the cosmos is enveloped in physical darkness before the sun and moon are formed. The task of a Buddha is to discover the Four Noble Truths and teach them to the world. His doing so is “the manifestation of great light and radiance” (56:38).

The things the Buddha knows but does not disclose are many, like the leaves in a siṃsapā forest; the things he discloses are few, like the leaves in his hand. These few things are all comprised in the Four Noble Truths. They are taught because they are beneficial, pertain to the fundamentals of the holy life, and lead to enlightenment and Nibbāna (56:31). For the same reason the monks are to think thoughts connected with the truths and confine their conversation to talk about the truths (56:8–10).

The first penetration of the Four Noble Truths occurs with the breakthrough to the Dhamma, which marks the attainment of stream-entry. To make this breakthrough is extremely difficult, more so even than piercing with an arrow the tip of a hair split into seven strands (56:45). But this achievement is a matter of the utmost urgency, for without making the breakthrough it is impossible to put an end to suffering (56:44). Hence the Buddha again and again urges his disciples to “arouse extraordinary desire” and “make an extraordinary effort” to make the breakthrough to the truths (56:34).

Once the disciple makes the breakthrough and sees the truths, more work still lies ahead, for each of the truths imposes a task (kicca), and after entering the path the disciple must fulfil these tasks in order to win the final fruit. The Buddha discovered these tasks along with his enlightenment and announced them already in the first sermon (56:11). They are also discovered and declared by all Tathāgatas (56:12). The truth of suffering, which ultimately consists of the five aggregates and the six internal sense bases (56:1314), should be fully understood (pariññeyya). The truth of its origin, craving, should be abandoned (pahātabba). The truth of cessation, Nibbāna, should be realized (sacchikātabba). And the truth of the way, the Noble Eightfold Path, should be developed (bhāvetabba). Developing the path brings to completion all four tasks, at which point the disciple becomes an arahant who can sound the lion’s roar of liberation, “What had to be done has been done.” What had to be done is precisely the fulfilment of these four tasks.

The Saccasaṃyutta ends with several long repetition series. In vagga VI, 56:49–60 illustrate, with twelve similes, the magnitude of what has been achieved by one who has made the breakthrough to the truths. Vaggas VII–X pile up sutta upon sutta to illustrate the dire consequences of not seeing the truths. Vaggas XI–XII show how sentient beings migrate among the five destinations, going mostly from the higher realms to the lower ones, because they have not seen the truths. Thus the Saṃyutta Nikāya ends with this stark revelation of the pernicious nature of saṃsāra, and with an urgent call to make an end to suffering by understanding, with direct vision, the Four Noble Truths which the Buddha himself discovered on the night of his enlightenment and left as his message to the world.

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© Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2000)

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