This is the third episode of three covering my “Twelve Pali Canon Suttas Every Buddhist Should Know,” and I cover the Kalama, Sallatha, Metta, and Maha Parinibbana Suttas. The Pali Canon is a vast collection of the oldest Buddhist texts and teachings, and is a valuable resource for any Buddhist. However, the canon is so large it can be a little overwhelming to approach, and it can be difficult to know where to begin if you want to study it. I worked hard to create a short list of Pali Canon suttas – or discourses – that I recommend you study in order to get a sense of the canon, and exposure to its central teachings.
Pali Canon Suttas: Kalama Sutta, To the Kalamas (AN 3.65)
The ninth sutta on my list is the Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas. The setup to the discourse is this: The Buddha and large group of monks are traveling around the countryside, and end up in Kesaputta, a town populated by a clan called the Kalamas. The Kalamas, having heard Shakyamuni Buddha was a wise and skillful teacher, show up to hear him preach. First, though, they ask him:
“Lord, there are some contemplatives & brahmans who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, disparage them, show contempt for them, & pull them to pieces. And then other contemplatives & brahmans come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, disparage them, show contempt for them, & pull them to pieces. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable contemplatives & brahmans are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”[i]
(Note: All translations quoted in this episode are by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and can be found at dhammatalks.org)
The Buddha responds to the Kalamas:
“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the observant; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’—then you should abandon them.’ [and similarly] …When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the observant; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’—then you should enter & remain in them.”[ii]
The Kalama sutta is an elegant presentation of the whole Buddhist approach to spiritual practice. The list of criteria the Buddha says we should not rely on to distinguish truth from falsehood is long, and certainly most of us have, at least at times, based our beliefs on such criteria. Especially when we’re first exploring a spiritual path, it’s very difficult not to base on our trust in the path on the fact that it’s an ancient tradition, or its scriptures are inspiring, or its teachings and practices make logical sense to us, or we like discussing the teachings with others, or we’re impressed by someone who presents themselves as the teacher. Actually, it’s probably necessary to let these experiences bolster our faith in our chosen path, at least provisionally.
However, ultimately Buddhism asks us to verify the truth and efficacy of its teachings and practices in our own, direct experience. And by truth and efficacy we mean the ability of these teachings and practices to lead to welfare and happiness for self and other.
“Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha’s carte blanche for following one’s own sense of right and wrong, it actually sets a standard much more rigorous than that… One’s own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and—to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results—they must further be checked against the experience of people who are observant and wise.”[iii]
Pali Canon Suttas: Sallatha Sutta, The Arrow (SN 36.6)
“Monks, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. A well-instructed disciple of the noble ones also feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person?”[iv]
The Buddha is setting up a question he will subsequently answer in this sutta, and it’s one I think is central to the spiritual search of most people. Through our spiritual practice, we’re seeking a way to live with greater ease and happiness, or least less suffering and anguish. By observing the world around us, we can see that no practice can insulate us from feelings – no matter our level of spiritual attainment, illness and old age will bring us pain; the loss of loved ones is inevitable and will break our hearts; empathy with suffering beings in the world will bring a tinge of sadness even to our happiest moments, and eventually we will face death. From the Buddhist point of view, feelings arise in us pretty much instantaneously in response to experiences: We either like something (pleasure), dislike it (pain), or feel neutral about it (neither-pleasure-nor-pain). There’s not much we can do about the arising of feelings, and there’s nothing we can do about the eventuality of encountering things that cause pain.
So, the question is: How does Buddhist practice help? If it doesn’t insulate you from painful experiences or stop feelings from arising, what’s the point?
The Buddha explains:
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows, in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”
The Buddha goes on to explain that the second, unnecessary arrow is caused by our resistance to the first one. We’re shot with a second arrow when we experience pain – and this can be physical or mental/emotional pain – and we long for pleasure instead. Whether we’re experiencing pleasure or pain, we sense them “as though joined with them.” We neglect the Four Noble Truths, which state that by clinging to our desire for things to be other than how they are, we actually cause ourselves dukkha (stress, dis-ease, or suffering).
A “well-instructed disciple of the noble ones,” the Buddha goes to say, simply “does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental.” (Again, the sutta says the first pain is physical, but it could easily be mental or emotional instead.) In other words, while the Buddhist practitioner experiences all the normal feelings of pain and basic dislike in the course of their daily life, they try not to make it worse by resisting it and adding dukkha on top of the discomfort they’re already experiencing.
It takes time and practice to learn exactly what it means to experience pain or discomfort without resisting it, and how this approach can make all the difference in terms of our overall happiness and contentment. How do we allow negative feelings to arise without trying to fix them, push them away, or deny them – and yet not get so caught up in them that it’s as though we’re “joined” with them? It’s tricky. However, I think we can all relate to the fact that we can make our pains and difficulties bearable or unbearable depending on how we relate to them – for example, we can acknowledge the pain associated with an illness without dwelling on thoughts of “why me?”, constantly comparing our state to when we were healthy, or obsessing about whether our illness is permanent. For clarity in teaching, I usually use the term “pain” to refer to the first arrow – the natural and unavoidable experience of life’s difficulties – and “suffering” (or dukkha) to refer to the second arrow, the one we can choose to avoid.
Pali Canon Suttas: Karaniya Metta Sutta, Good Will (Sn 1.8)
The next sutta on my list is the Karaniya Metta Sutta: Good Will. This sutta is quite different from the ones I’ve recommended so far. As opposed to presenting a rather austere and specific teaching about Buddhist practices, the Metta Sutta is an inspiring description of the compassionate and loving behavior of a practitioner who is truly embodying the Buddha’s way. Metta, or goodwill, is the first – and perhaps most important – of the Brahmaviharas, or Four Sublime Social Attitudes, as I discussed in Episode 66 – The Four Brahmaviharas – Part 2.
The sutta is so short I will simply include it here in its entirety. In this single case I’m departing from my use of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translations to use one offered by Amaravati Monastery in England, because I think this translation is beautiful, and it’s the one I’m used to chanting out loud with Sangha. (Here’s a link to an Amaravati Monastery audio file of the sutta being chanted aloud using a beautiful, simple melody.)
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal
in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong,
The great or the mighty, medium,
short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense-desires,
Is not born again into this world.
As I discussed in Episode 65, my introduction to the Four Brahmaviharas, in the Buddhist view you don’t achieve the height of spiritual perfection described in the Metta Sutta simply by trying to be a good person. You do have to try – moral behavior is a central part of the path and deliberately cultivating the Brahmaviharas is considered beneficial to spiritual practice – but ultimately it’s the practice described by the last few lines of the Metta Sutta that enable us to transcend the self-interest that keeps us from acting like Buddhas: Not holding to fixed views,
achieving clarity of vision, and being freed from all sense-desires. Of course, the whole scenario is like the chicken and egg: Which comes first? Does Metta practice overcome our self-attachment, allowing us to awaken, or do other Buddhist practices give us clarity of vision and then we naturally become full of Metta? Both.
Pali Canon Suttas: Maha Parinibbana Sutta, Last Days of the Buddha (DN 16)
The last sutta in my list of twelve is the Maha Parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha. “Nibbana” refers to the ultimate goal of original Buddhism, which is complete “unbinding” or liberation upon spiritual awakening, and “parinibbana” means “total unbinding,” which is what happens when an awakened being dies and will not be reborn. “Maha” means great, and the title of this sutta indicates the importance of the parinibbana of the Buddha himself, after 40 years of diligent and compassionate teaching.
As opposed to the Metta Sutta I just read, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta is the longest of the Pali Canon suttas.[vi] It narrates a whole bunch of different events in the last year of the Buddha’s life, including those leading up to his death, and also presents what happened around the Buddha’s remains in the weeks following his passing. Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives an excellent introduction to this sutta at dhammatalks.org, discussing the most significant messages the sutta conveys. I also discuss the content of the Maha-parinibbana sutta in several different episodes: Episode 12 – Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2 – Before and After Enlightenment and Episode 82 – Early Indian Buddhism – Stupas and Devotional Practice – Part 1.
For the purposes of this particular episode I’ll just give you a list of some of the most memorable parts of the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, which I hope will inspire you to check it out:
- Guidelines given by the Buddha about how to ensure the Sangha survived for a long time, including admonitions to meet often, respect elders, maintain goodwill for one another, and share resources
- Instructions given to lay people about the benefits of virtuous behavior, including wealth, good reputation, and dying unconfused
- Confirmation of the spiritual attainments of a long list of students of the Buddha, explicitly including members from each part of the “four-fold assembly” – male monastics, female monastics, male lay followers, and female lay followers
- Stories of numerous miraculous/supernatural occurrences associated with the Buddha during the period of time covered by the sutta, which convey the extent of the Buddha’s spiritual power and the idea that even nature and the gods in the heavens respected him
- Accounts of the Buddha’s experience of the pains of illness and old age, and his conscious decisions around when and where to succumb to his illness and pass away
- Stories about how different disciples of the Buddha reacted to his imminent death or to his actual passing, expressing sympathy for those who felt grief, but also admiration for those who were untroubled and repeated what the Buddha had taught them: “What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”[vii]
- The Buddha’s last teachings and instructions to the Sangha, in which he told them they no longer needed him personally, but should rely on his teachings (Dhamma) and the structure established for the community (Vinaya)
- Instructions given by the Buddha for how to honor his remains and enshrine them in stupas, which established devotional practices in Buddhism that continue to this day
[i] To the Kālāmas: Kālāma Sutta (AN 3:66), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN3_66.html
[iv] The Arrow: Sallattha Sutta (SN 36:6), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on dhammatalks.org: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN36_6.html
[vi] Introduction to The Great Total Unbinding Discourse: Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 16) by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/DN/DN16.html