Off-Week Editorial - It’s Not Enough to Respond to What’s Right in Front of You
98 – Nine Fields of Zen Practice: A Framework for Letting Practice Permeate Your Life – Part 1

Theravadin and Vipassana Buddhists tend to be familiar with the Pali Canon, particularly the suttas, or discourses of the Buddha. Other Buddhists don’t tend to spend as much time exploring Pali texts. When we aim to do so, it can be a difficult to know where to start – given the printed versions of the suttas end up being about five times the size of the Christian bible! In the interest of encouraging study of the Pali Canon suttas, I’ve come up with a list of twelve I think every Buddhist should know.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Mahā Saccaka Sutta: Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN 36)
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56.11)
Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path (SN 45.8)
Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)

 

The Pali Canon is a large collection of ancient Buddhist texts, many of which are believed to have been maintained through the oral tradition from the time of the Buddha himself, until they were finally written down somewhere around the first century BCE. The Canon is divided into three “baskets:” the Suttas, or discourses by the Buddha; the Vinaya, or monastic regulations, and the Abhidhamma, or philosophical texts about the Dhamma.

For most Buddhists, the suttas are the most interesting and valuable part of the Pali Canon. There are over 10,000 suttas (discourses) in the canon, although the majority of them are very short (a page or less). Practitioners in the Theravadin or Vipassana traditions usually spend a fair amount of time exploring the Pali Canon and are therefore familiar with dozens, if not hundreds, of suttas. Those of us in other Buddhist traditions, however, don’t tend to spend as much time directly studying the suttas, because we primarily focus on later texts associated with our own lineages. When we aim to study the Pali Canon suttas, it can be a little overwhelming and difficult to know where to start, because the printed version of them adds ends up being about five times the size of the Christian bible.

In the interest of encouraging study of the Pali Canon suttas, I’ve come up with a list of twelve I think every Buddhist should know. That’s not to say, by any means, there aren’t lots of other valuable suttas, and other teachers or practitioners might offer a completely different list! However, I’ve done my best to pick a dozen great suttas to start with. It was very hard to limit the list – for a while I had 15, and could easily have offered 20 – but this list includes the core teachings relevant to all Buddhists, plus two suttas describing pivotal aspects of the Buddha’s life, and a handful of suttas offering memorable teachings on the nature of Buddhist practice.

For each sutta, I’ll give you a description of the context and characters involved, because every sutta is a story of a particular discourse offered by the Buddha in response to a spiritual seeker, or group of seekers. Then I’ll highlight the main message of the sutta, sharing some excerpts, and explain why the text is significant enough to be on my list.

Obviously, I won’t read the entire suttas to you. If you’re intrigued by a particular text, I encourage you to visit the web page for this episode, where I’ve included links to the suttas because they’re all available online. Generally speaking, the source I use for Pali Canon material is the Access to Insight website, which I highly recommend. You can find many more suttas and other useful texts and teachings there. All of the translations I’m using are by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, however, and links on the Access to Insight direct you to a newer website called dhammatalks.org, which is specifically devoted to Thanissaro’s writings and translations. The links on the Zen Studies Podcast site will go to dhammatalks.org.

Today I’ll get through the first 4 suttas on my list. Next week, or the week after, I’ll finish up the list in a second episode – or possibly a third, depending on how carried away I get with my descriptions!

The Mahā Saccaka Sutta: Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN 36)

The first sutta on my list is the Mahā Saccaka Sutta, or the Longer Discourse to Saccaka. I start with this sutta because it contains Shakyamuni Buddha’s autobiographical account of his spiritual search and awakening.

Here’s the scene in which this sutta takes place: A local religious ascetic named Saccaka ends up challenging the Buddha with a bunch of questions. Saccaka is a practitioner of Jainism, another religious sect that arose around the time of the Buddha. As I explained in Episode 6 – Arising of Buddhism Part 2 – New Religious Developments, Jains had a very different idea about karma and spiritual discipline than the Buddha did, and they highly emphasized ascetic practice. As the Buddha will explain in this sutta, before his awakening he dedicated himself to incredibly intense asceticism, but eventually decided a middle way between asceticism and sensual indulgence was more effective for spiritual development.

By way of not-so-subtle criticism, Saccaka describes to the Buddha impressive ascetism practiced by holy men of other, non-Buddhist, sects, remarking how they “don’t consent to food brought to them or food dedicated to them or to an invitation to a meal” and how they “take food once a day, once every two days… once every seven days, and so on up to a fortnight, devoted to regulating their intake of food.”[i]

This bragging by Saccaka leads the Buddha to patiently describe his own spiritual journey, beginning with his home departure:

“Before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Household life is confining, a dusty path. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn’t easy, living in a home, to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair & beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the household life into homelessness?’

“So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair & beard—though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces—I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”[ii]

Many other stories exist about the birth, childhood, and home departure of Siddartha Gautama – later Shakyamuni Buddha – but these were likely later additions to the Buddhist scriptural tradition. (If you want to know the full, colorful story of the Buddha’s life, I tell it in Episode 11 – Life of Shakyamuni Buddha – Birth through Homeleaving.) The Pali Canon itself is generally viewed as the most authoritative source, and what I just read you is all it has to say about the Buddha’s early years.

In the Maha Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha – still addressing Saccaka – goes on to describe his training with two holy men of his day. In both cases he fully mastered what they had to teach but was still dissatisfied. He then engaged in prolonged and intensive ascetic practice. Presumably, this is the main point he is trying to make to Saccaka, and by extension, the practitioners of his day who sought liberation primarily through ascetic practice. The Buddha explains:

“I thought: ‘What if I were to take only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup?’ So I took only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems.… My backside became like a camel’s hoof.… My spine stood out like a string of beads.… My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, run-down barn.…

“I thought: ‘Whatever contemplatives or brahmans in the past [present, or future] have felt painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None have been greater than this… But with this racking practice of austerities I haven’t attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to awakening?’”[iii]

Then the Buddha says he recalled a pleasant state of meditative concentration he had spontaneously experienced as a child, and decided to try it. First, he accepted a small amount of food to strengthen himself (causing his fellow ascetics to conclude he was backsliding into abundance), and then he sat down to meditate in the way he had recalled. He then describes his experience in detail, including his complete liberation from the cycle of suffering. His description includes the deep truths to which he awakened, which form the core of his teaching. I talk about this part of the Maha Saccaka Sutta in detail in Episode 9 – Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment: What Did He Realize?

This sutta is worth reading for the narrative of the Buddha’s spiritual search and awakening, and also because of how it functions to differentiate the Buddhist path from other spiritual traditions present at the Buddha’s time. The Buddha clearly rejects the path of extreme asceticism in favor of the Middle Way, but makes it very clear it’s not because he wasn’t capable of it or didn’t try it (remember, no one had ever before or since practiced with as much austerity!). In addition, the Buddha’s awakening also establishes his understanding of karma – moral causation – as a primarily mental process instead of a physical one, as I discuss in detail in Episode 6.

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56.11)

The next sutta on my list is, naturally, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, or the Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, said to be the Buddha’s very first sermon, or discourse, after this awakening. According to other suttas in the Pali Canon, the Buddha had doubts about whether to even try teaching what he had realized, figuring no one would be able to comprehend or master it. However, the god Brahma assured him there would be at least a few people “with little dust in their eyes,”[iv] and begged the Buddha to teach.

The Buddha preaches his first sermon to the group of five monks. Photo credit below.

The first people the Buddha decides to approach with his new Dhamma, or teaching, was a group of five monks with whom he used to practice ascetism. Initially the monks plan to reject him because he has abandoned extreme austerities, but Shakyamuni’s demeanor is such that they can’t help but listen to him.[v] Note that this story isn’t actually part of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta itself, but it’s understood to be the set up, and this sutta does specifically say the Blessed One (the Buddha) delivered it to “the group of five monks.”

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is, perhaps, the central and most important of all the Pali Canon suttas. In it, the Buddha presents his core teachings: The Middle Way between the extremes of sensuality and self-affliction; the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. I’ve discussed these teachings elsewhere on the podcast, with reference to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, so I won’t go into them here. (See the webpage for this episode – zenstudiespodcast.com/pali-canon-suttas-1 – for links to the relevant episodes: Middle WayFour Noble Truths, Eightfold Noble Path.)

Another thing that makes the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta significant is that, in it, the Buddha doesn’t just offer his teachings, as if simply hearing them or having faith in them is enough. He describes how it’s through direct, personal verification and enactment of these teachings that you attain spiritual liberation. After listing the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha says:

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of stress [or dukkha]’ … ‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended’ … ‘This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’”[iv]

The Buddha goes on to describe a similar process of insight and follow-through with the other noble truths, saying “vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose,” and then that he saw the origination of stress, how it should be abandoned, and then abandoned it. He saw the possibility of the cessation of stress, how to realize it, and then went about realizing it. He saw the “noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress,” how to develop it, and then he developed it.

He explains, “And, monks, as long as this—my… knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was not pure, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos…” In other words, the Buddhist path to spiritual liberation isn’t a matter of doctrine, although one starts with the teachings. Instead, it’s a matter of working on a penetrating and transformative, direct comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and their implications, and then acting in accord with them in order to gain release from all suffering.

Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path (SN 45.8)

The next sutta I’m recommending is the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, or An Analysis of the Path. There’s not much setup for this lovely, short sutta; it simply starts by stating where the Buddha was staying, and that he was addressing his monks. In it, the Buddha explains and defines the Eightfold Noble Path. This is very helpful, because the meaning of some parts of the Eightfold Path – such as right view or right resolve – may not be immediately clear, and in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta the Buddha simply lists the aspects of the path as if they’re self-evident.

In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, the Buddha explains further (Note: Thanissaro translates the word “dukkha,” sometimes translated as suffering or dissatisfactoriness, as “stress”):

“The Blessed One said, ‘Now what, monks, is the noble eightfold path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

‘And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge with regard to [or: in terms of] stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the stopping of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of stress: This, monks, is called right view.

‘And what, monks, is right resolve? Resolve for renunciation, resolve for non-ill will, resolve for harmlessness: This, monks, is called right resolve.

‘And what, monks, is right speech? Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from harsh speech, abstaining from idle chatter: This, monks, is called right speech.

‘And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual intercourse: This, monks, is called right action.’”[vi]

I won’t go through the whole sutta and all the aspects of the path, especially because the definitions of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration are rather long. It’s easy to look the sutta up if you want to read more.

What the Magga-vibhanga Sutta makes clear is that each aspect of the Eightfold Path has a very specific definition. Right view isn’t just knowing the truth or being right about something, it’s fully comprehending the Four Noble Truths and their implications, as I just discussed with respect to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Right action is about keeping the moral precepts of Buddhism (which for lay people would be abstaining from immoral sex, not abstaining from sex entirely as monks did). If you want to explore each aspect of the Eightfold Path more deeply, see my podcast episode devoted to that topic (Episode 36), but also be sure to read the Magga-vibhanga Sutta.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)

Finally, I’ll finish up this episode with sutta recommendation four out of twelve: the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic, also called The Five Brethren (Panca) Sutta. This sutta was also delivered by the Buddha to that original group of five monks, his first Dhamma students, and it’s thought this discourse occurred not long after the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. According to another source in the Pali Canon, Thanissaro says, “this was the first of the Buddha’s discourses during which his listeners became arahants.”[vii] An arahant, or arhat, was a fully awakened person – in other words, upon delivery this particular sutta, the Buddha’s first students proved his initial doubts about teaching wrong and really “got it.”

This is another really short sutta, about one page long. It’s a beautiful, concise summary of the Buddha’s teaching on not-self:

“Form [that is, our physical manifestation], monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus. Let my form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, this form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus. Let my form not be thus.’”

The Buddha repeats the same formulation for the rest of the five skandhas, or components that make up a human being: feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness:

“Consciousness is not self. If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’ But precisely because consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’”

Of course, this begs a profound question – what is “self?” What is this elusive but pervasive sense of self we have, and why are we so attached to it? I discuss the Buddha’s teaching of anatta, or not-self, in detail in Episode 14 – The Three Marks, so I won’t go into it more here except to outline the rest of the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta.

In the sutta, then, the Buddha makes the point that the five skandhas are inconstant, or impermanent (subject to constant change, or anicca). He asks his monks whether inconstant things are easeful, or stressful (that is, dukkha). The monks answer that such things are stressful.

The Buddha then says that any form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, or consciousness whatsoever, “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near” should be seen with right discernment: “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.” Seeing things this way, one becomes dispassionate toward the five skandhas, and through dispassion is released from the cycle of suffering.

As I discuss in Episode 14 on anatta, or not-self, the Buddha did not teach a metaphysical principle “the self does not exist.” The first sutta I’ll share in the next episode in this series – the Sabbasava Sutta – illustrates this fact beautifully, explaining how any view about, or concern about, the self is an obstruction and a source of suffering. On the other hand, simply refraining from identifying anything as self is what leads to release: This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am. You don’t follow this up by trying to decide what is yours, what is your self, what you really are – or bemoaning the you don’t exist. So “not-self” isn’t a metaphysical claim, it’s a practice.

 

Endnotes

[i] The Longer Discourse to Saccaka: Mahā Saccaka Sutta (MN 36), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN36.html
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid
[iv] The Noble Search: Ariyapariyesana Sutta (MN 26), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN26.html
[v] Ibid
[vi] An Analysis of the Path: Magga-Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 45:8), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN45_8.html
[vii] The Five (Brethren) Pañca Sutta (SN 22:59), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN22_59.html

 

Photo Credit

Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]. From Wikimedia, image originally posted to Flickr by Anandajoti

 

Off-Week Editorial - It’s Not Enough to Respond to What’s Right in Front of You
98 – Nine Fields of Zen Practice: A Framework for Letting Practice Permeate Your Life – Part 1
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