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 Article Content:
Sabbasava Sutta: All the Effluents (MN 2)
Bahiya Sutta (Ud 1.10)
Satipatthana Sutta: The Establishing of Mindfulness (MN 10)
Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta: The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya (MN 63)
In Part 1 – Episode 97 – I introduced you to the first four suttas on my list, and in this episode, I’ll talk about the next four. Therefore, there will be a third episode on this topic to finish up my list, probably released in a few weeks.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I present this list of twelve suttas as a place to start studying the Pali Canon if you haven’t already. I could easily give you a list of 25 to 30 valuable suttas to study, but I worked hard to boil my list down to only twelve so it wouldn’t seem daunting. It includes the core teachings relevant to all Buddhists, two suttas describing pivotal aspects of the Buddha’s life, and a handful of suttas offering memorable teachings on the nature of Buddhist practice.
Although most of these suttas are very short (1-2 pages long), I’m not going to read them to you. I describe the basic setup of the sutta, or discourse, its content, and why I think it’s important to study. I encourage you to visit this episode’s page at zenstudiespodcast.com and follow the links to each sutta so you can read them – they’re all online, and I’m using translations by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Sabbasava Sutta: All the Effluents (MN 2)
The next sutta on my list is the Sabbasava Sutta, or All the Effluents. This is another sutta with a simple setup – just the Buddha giving a teaching lecture to his monks. The sutta explains, “the Blessed One [the Buddha] was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. There he addressed the monks: ‘Monks!’”
The Buddha proceeds to talk about how to end the asavas, a Pali term that can be translated as fermentations, effluents, outflows, pollutants, or defilements. Bhikkhu Bodhi defines the asavas as “the four basic defilements of sensual desire, desire for continued existence, false views and ignorance.”
The main point of this sutta is how to end the asavas; it’s not an argument about why the asavas are bad. That’s pretty much assumed. However, I need take a moment to explain the Buddhist concept of asava because words like “pollutant” or “defilement” can be pretty triggering for westerners because of their association with religious traditions that emphasize guilt, or sin, or justify the rejection of certain people because of their perceived “defilements.” In translating “asava,” I prefer the term “outflow.” The idea is that the outflows – sensual desire, desire for continued existence, false views and ignorance – are forces that carry us along in the creation of negative karma (that is, cause us to continue to participate in harmful cycles of causation). If we don’t pay attention, we’re carried along – or carried away! – by the outflows. Unless we do something about them, they just keep on flowing and never stop – creating more suffering for self and other.
Fortunately, the whole point of Buddhism is that we can do something about the cycle of suffering – we can end the outflows, or at least not be carried away by them. In the Sabbasava Sutta, the Buddha explains that at the most basic level, we “attend appropriately” – pay mindful attention to the right things, in the right way – versus “attending inappropriately.” In other words, we practice mindfulness and discern, through careful observation, what actions lead to greater liberation and wisdom, and what actions lead to further misery, stress, and the continuation of the outflows.
If we want to end the outflows, the Buddha says, we need to employ different approaches, depending on the situation. [In this translation, asava is translated as “effluent”]:
“There are effluents to be abandoned by seeing, those to be abandoned by restraining, those to be abandoned by using, those to be abandoned by tolerating, those to be abandoned by avoiding, those to be abandoned by destroying, and those to be abandoned by developing.”[i]
Seeing involves letting go of ideas “unfit for attention” – such as dwelling on desire for sensual pleasures – and focusing on ideas that lead to an ending of the outflows, namely the Four Noble Truths. Restraining involves moderation with respect to the body and the five senses; using means moderation and simplicity when availing yourself of clothing, food, lodging, and medicine; avoiding involves simply staying away from agitating or tempting situations; destroying means not tolerating or indulging in harmful thoughts such as those of ill will or harmfulness, and developing involves the cultivation of beneficial factors of awakening including mindfulness and concentration.
Honestly, I didn’t include the Sabbasava sutta in my list because of this exhaustive list of ways to end the outflows. There are many places in the Pali Canon where the Buddha breaks practice down into more detailed steps, and the concept of outflow isn’t one I particularly connect with. I included this sutta because of two particular sections that have made a great impression on me. I’ll share them with you now.
First, in his list of “ideas unfit for attention” – that is, ideas which, if dwelt upon, will just increase the outflows of desire for continued existence, false views and ignorance – the Buddha explains how any obsession with self, and any view about self, leads to suffering [this passage is a little long, but it’s one of my favorites in the Pali Canon, so I hope you don’t mind my reading it]:
“This is how [someone] attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? …Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been [this], what shall I be in the future?’ Or else [someone] is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’
“As [someone] attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises… The view I have a self arises… as true & established, or the view I have no self … or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self … or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self … or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises… as true & established, or else [someone] has a view like this: This very self of mine—the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions—is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will endure as long as eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. [They are] not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”[ii]
So, the “thicket of views,” the “fetter of views” the Buddha warns about here includes the idea “I have no self.” I feel that this passage, more than any other I’ve encountered in the Pali Canon, conveys the idea that the Buddha didn’t teach that there is no self. Rather, his teaching of anatta, or not-self, is simply about refraining from identifying anything as self, as I explained in Episode 14: The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self. In addition, as the Sabbasava sutta makes clear, the Buddha advocated refraining from any speculation about self (which by its very nature is self-centered speculation).
The second passage I really appreciate from the Sabbasava sutta is one on ending the effluents by tolerating. The other approaches to ending the outflows I mentioned earlier – restraint, moderation, destroying, developing – are pretty much what you’d expect from a religion largely focused on self-discipline, appropriate behavior, and cultivation of positive qualities. In the case of effluents to be abandoned by tolerating, the Buddha says:
“There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, endures. He tolerates cold, heat, hunger, & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words & bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, & menacing to life. The effluents, vexation, or fever that would arise if he were not to tolerate these things do not arise for him when he tolerates them. These are called the effluents to be abandoned by tolerating.”[ii]
I could – and perhaps someday will – write a whole episode on the Buddhist practice of tolerance. Here, I’ll be brief: This passage does not deny these experiences are unpleasant, and that they may even be painful, disagreeable, and “menacing to life.” The Buddha doesn’t say the monk doesn’t feel these negative feelings or sensations. He just tolerates them. This is pointing to a remarkable and surprising aspect of Buddhist practice: Practice doesn’t prevent us from experiencing pain, difficulty, or discomfort, but if we can let go of resistance to the very fact we’re uncomfortable – if we can tolerate the experiences – we at least avoid additional outflows, vexation, and fever.
Bahiya Sutta (Ud 1.10)
The next sutta on my list is the Bahiya Sutta. This short discourse starts by explaining how Bahiya was a Non-Buddhist sramana, or spiritual seeker, practicing in the vicinity of the Buddha. He was very admired by others, and one day was pondering whether he had attained arahantship, or full spiritual liberation. A deva, or being in the heaven realm, became aware of what Bahiya was thinking and went to him and said, “You, Bāhiya, are neither an arahant nor have you entered the path of arahantship. You don’t even have the practice whereby you would become an arahant or enter the path of arahantship.”[iii]
After this rather rude awakening, Bahiya asks where he can find someone who is an arahant, or at least someone on the path, who could teach him. The deva directs Bahiya to the Buddha. The sramana rushes the Buddha and insists on receiving the teaching. Three times the Buddha rather uncharacteristically puts Bahiya off, saying it’s not the right time, but the sramana won’t take no for an answer. Bahiya says, “…it is hard to know for sure what dangers there may be for the Blessed One’s life, or what dangers there may be for mine.” Wanting to be sure death didn’t deprive him of the opportunity to awaken, Bahiya begged to be given the teaching immediately.
The Buddha proceeds to offer Bahiya an extremely short and pithy sermon:
“Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”[iv]
Upon hearing this brief teaching, Bahiya attains arahantship – which was fortunate because not long afterwards Bahiya did indeed die after being attacked by a cow.
What’s striking in this sutta is that the Buddha implies the short paragraph he related to Bahiya is, essentially, all you need for practice – “This, just this, is the end of stress.” Bahiya’s subsequent liberation seems to corroborate the efficacy of the teaching. And the way I see it, the teaching in this sutta is an elegant alternative presentation of the practice of anatta, or not-self: When there is no you imagined – when there is only our direct experience – there is the end of stress, or dukkha.
Satipatthana Sutta: The Establishing of Mindfulness (MN 10)
The seventh sutta on my list is the Satipatthana Sutta, or The Establishing of Mindfulness Discourse. In this sutta, the Buddha addresses his monks, saying:
“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of unbinding—in other words, the four establishings of mindfulness. Which four?
“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.”
I won’t go into detail about this sutta in this episode because I cover it fairly extensively in Episode 79 – The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I include it in my list in part because it’s a clear, systematic, and fairly comprehensive presentation of practice as presented by the Buddha: You build up meditative concentration by focusing on the body, then you become intimately and objectively aware of your feelings and mind states, and then you investigate Dharma teachings such as the five hindrances, not-self, and the Four Noble Truths, through your own, direct experience. The other reason I include the Satipatthana Sutta on my list is because of its popularity in a number of Buddhist lineages, particularly modern Vipassana. It’s good to know what the Vipassana folks are talking about, plus reading the Satipatthana Sutta should make it clear that there’s much more to Buddhist mindfulness than being in the moment, following the breath, or letting go of thoughts.
Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta: The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya (MN 63)
The last sutta I’ll cover today is one my favorites: the Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta, or The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya. I tend to think of this as the “Questions Which Tend Not to Edification” sutta, which is the name given to it in an 1896 translation by Henry Clarke Warren.[v] Edification means “the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually,” and I think it will become clear why Warren used that word in this sutta’s title.
The background to this sutta is this: A monk named Ven. Māluṅkyaputta was sitting alone in contemplation when a number of things occurred to him:
“These positions that are undisclosed, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One [the Buddha] —‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata [completely liberated being] exists,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata both exists & does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist.’”[vi]
I think we can all relate to Ven. Māluṅkyaputta. When we turn our minds toward spiritual matters, all kinds of questions arise for us. Is the universe a good place, or bad, or neither? Is humanity ever going to stop causing its own suffering? How can you tell if someone is really enlightened? Etc., etc.
Māluṅkyaputta realizes he doesn’t approve of the fact the Buddha has not yet answered these questions of his about the cosmos, the soul, and existence after death. He decides to go to the Buddha and get the answers he seeks, or else he will renounce training as a Buddhist monk.
The Buddha responds to Māluṅkyaputta’s demand for answers with an analogy:
“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow…”
The list of questions asked by the man wounded with the arrow goes on (that’s only about half of it), and then the Buddha says:
“The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.
“In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not disclose to me that “The cosmos is eternal,” … or that “After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist,”’ the man would die and those things would still remain undisclosed by the Tathāgata.”
The Buddha goes on to explain that he’s not just withholding answers to be difficult. Rather, he points out that no matter what view someone holds on these metaphysical topics, there is no deliverance from sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress. He doesn’t answer the kinds of questions Māluṅkyaputta is asking because, “They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, unbinding.” On the other hand, the Buddha says:
“And what is disclosed by me? ‘This is stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is disclosed by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is disclosed by me. And why are they disclosed by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, unbinding. That’s why they are disclosed by me.”
I often mention this sutta to non-Buddhists who wonder what Buddhists think about God, the afterlife, the nature of the soul, or the origin of the universe. Buddhism doesn’t take a stance on these matters – not because they aren’t interesting, but because we have limited time! We could spend our whole lives speculating on these kinds of questions and never achieve greater wisdom, compassion, and peace of mind. We have plenty of other, more impactful, work to do.
[i] All the Effluents: Sabbāsava Sutta (MN 2). Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN2.html)
[iii] Ud 1:10 Bāhiya (Bāhiya Sutta). Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Ud/ud1_10.html)
[v] Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translations. New York: Atheneum, 1972. (Original copyright 1896.)
[vi] The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya: Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta (MN 63). Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN63.html)