Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Buddha and Saṃsāra

In the Buddhist tradition the notion of saṃsāra or more literally “to flow together” is the notion that all beings go through an infinite series of births and deaths.

Those who believe in rebirth will usually point to passages in the Pali Canon which show the Buddha promulgating the notion of saṃsāra. They use such passages to buttress their position that not only did the Buddha did believe in rebirth but made it a central feature of his teachings.

In the Samyutta Nikaya there is a whole chapter titled “Without Discoverable Beginning” (Anamataggasamyutta) that addresses the nature of saṃsāra.

The first sutta in the chapter, Grass and Sticks sutta, begins with a description of the beginningless nature of saṃsāra (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi):
Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on (saṃsarataṃ) hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. Suppose, bhikkhus, a man would cut up whatever grass, sticks, branches, and foliage there are in Jambudipa and collect them together in a single heap. Having done so, he would put them down, saying [for each one]: “This is my mother, this my mother’s mother." The sequence of that man’s mothers and grandmothers would not come to an end, yet the grass, wood, branches, and foliage in this Jambudipa would be used up and exhausted. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning.
Of interest in this passage is that the Buddha is describing saṃsāra through the chain of one’s ancestors. There is no mention of rebirth at all, and the key idea expressed is the unimaginable amount of time human beings have been born and suffered over countless generations.

What is odd about this entire passages is the description of saṃsāra not through successive lives but through successive generations. But if the Buddha did firmly believe in rebirth and this was indeed a central teaching, why did he not discuss former lives?

The sutta goes on and concludes:
For such a long time, bhikkhus, you have experienced suffering, anguish, and disaster, and swelled the cemetery. It is enough to experience revulsion towards all formations, enough to become dispassionate towards them, enough to be liberated from them.
So even though in the preceding passage there was no mention of rebirth, this one does appear to do so. The Buddha is clearly telling the monks that they have suffered for a long time and “swelled the cemetery.”

With this concluding passage to the sutta, it does appear that this is a good example to support the thesis that the Buddha did believe in rebirth. But are we missing something?

If we examine the key concluding sentence of the last passage in Pali, we have this:
evaṃ dīgharattaṃ vo, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ tibbaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ byasanaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ, kaṭasī vaḍḍhitā
Now when we compare this stock passage to the fourth sutta of the same chapter, Ganges Sutta, we find this sentence again but with one crucial difference that changes everything:
evaṃ dīgharattaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, dukkhaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ tibbaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ byasanaṃ paccanubhūtaṃ, kaṭasī vaḍḍhitā
It may be a little difficult to spot but there are two differences here. The first difference is simply the substitution of the vocative plural bhikkave (“O, bhikkus”) with the vocative brāhmaṇa (O, Brahmin). The second crucial difference is the third word vo in the first and kho in the second.

This seems very minor but it is not.

The word vo is an enclitic plural pronoun of you (tumha), which can be in the accusative, instrumental, dative or even genitive which can mean: of you; by you; to you. In the translation above, it is translated more like the in the nominative case (subject of the sentence) by just saying “you”.

Kho, is a different word altogether that according to the Pali Text Dictionary is “an enclitic particle of affirmation & emphasis: indeed, really, surely.” In the context of the sutta which is describing very long periods of time, the use of such a particle of emphasis makes perfect sense.

The second passage with kho is translated by the Pali Text Society as (Bhikkhu Bodhi skips translating this part and refers to the first sutta in the chapter):
Thus many a day, Brahmin, has ill been suffered, has pain been suffered, has disaster been suffered, has the charnel ground been growing.
While the Pali Text Society’s translation does not really do justice in conveying the kho particle (“for a very long time” is better), it is sufficient to see how all of a sudden the passage has no hint of rebirth; there is simply the observation that suffering and ill have been suffered by many over long periods of time.

Now if we take this second stock passage with kho and use it in the first sutta, things make more logical sense. Now we have a second passage without rebirth following the initial passage which does not mention it at all.

This observation leads me to contend that the Grass and Sticks sutta originally did have kho as still preserved in Ganges Sutta rather than the grammatically odd vo.

Most likely when literal rebirth became more prominent chanting monks mistakenly changed the very similar sounding word kho into vo.

If I am correct, what we may have here is the Buddha’s actual notion of saṃsāra. Instead of saṃsāra consisting of never-ending cycle of rebirths of an individual over innumerable lifetimes, saṃsāra is instead the never-ending cycle of successive generations of family units over time.

The idea of successive generations is a much more personal one that has a lot more emotional weight. Many of us can recall our mother and father, and most our grandparents and some even our great-grand parents. We can recall how they went through life and eventually died without having really found peace which was no different than their parents and their parent’s parents and so on.

And the really poignant point is that here we are as a living embodiment of that entire family line where we can choose to go ahead to either carry on the trend or deciding to break it.

Instead of a metaphysical description of the cycles of rebirth, the Grass and Sticks sutta is in fact a very down to earth admonition for us to escape what all those before us could not do.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jhanas Solved? Part V

In part IV, I related that the essential theme of jhānas is the gradual relinquishment or letting go. The whole purpose of the jhānas is to let go so deeply that the mind reaches a state that is more ready and receptive of gaining a transformational insight.

The final stock passage following the four jhānas describes this receptive state of mind:
[T]he mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability.
The idea of a “concentrated” mind being in a state that is “malleable” and thus capable of achieving insight is expressed by the Buddha in the simile of purifying gold:
Just as if a goldsmith or goldsmith's apprentice were to set up a smelter. Having set up the smelter, he would fire the receptacle. Having fired the receptacle, he would take hold of some gold with his tongs and place it in the receptacle. Periodically he would blow on it, periodically sprinkle it with water, periodically examine it closely. If he were solely to blow on it, it is possible that the gold would burn up. If he were solely to sprinkle it with water, it is possible that the gold would grow cold. If he were solely to examine it closely, it is possible that the gold would not come to full perfection. But when he periodically blows on it, periodically sprinkles it with water, periodically examines it closely, the gold becomes pliant, malleable, & luminous. It is not brittle, and is ready to be worked.
This simile compares the concentrated meditator who purifies his mind to a gold smith that purifies gold. Like a gold smith removes all the impurities of the gold, the medidator does so likewise by removing or burning away all mental obstacles or defilements. Once this purification has occurred, the gold like the meditator’s mind becomes “malleable” and “pliant”, the consequence of which it is “ready to be worked.”

The notion of the mind “ready to be worked” indicates a mind that is more under control and more easily used in the sense of easier to cognize without distractions or distortions.

It is important to point out that there is no indication in these passages that the mind is in a suppressed or non-functioning state. As pointed out, the notion of the mind being workable suggests that there the mind is actually in a better functioning state than it normally is and thus actually more receptive and alert to mental activity. This is borne out by the fact that the fourth jhāna description, which directly precedes the the passage of a concentrated mind, describes the mind in a state of “purity of equanimity & mindfulness.”

Given what has been said so far, what is the insight that is usually portrayed in the Pali Canon on reaching such a state? While there are many passages and the details differ, the common theme through all of them is an insight into impermanence.

One such example is in the Anguttara Nikaya where the Buddha addresses one of his chief disciples Moggallāna on various techniques on how to obtain a concentrated mind. At the end of the sutta the Buddha relates (A IV 84-85, translation by Sarah Shaw):
[H]e knows each [mental] state, knowing each state he understands each state. Understanding each state, whatever the feeling he is experiencing, whether pleasant, painful or neither, he abides with regard to those feelings observing impermanence, observing dispassion, observing cessation. When, with regard to those feelings, he abides observing impermanence, abides observing dispassion, abides observing cessation, seeing them a something to be renounced, he does not adhere to anything in the world. Without attaching to things, he does not crave them and without craving he attains, for himself, nibbāna.
As this passage indicates, the attainment of nibbāna, is achieved through an insight that is gained through mindful observation of the experience of one’s current mental states. By gaining an experiential realization of the impermanence of all of one’s mental states this leads to “dispassion” to such states, which in turn leads to the “cessation” of the states which leaves one without craving and thus attains nibbāna.

What is important to emphasize is that the experience of nibbāna is the result of an optimally functioning mind that is observing, judging and capable of eliciting conclusions. The mindfulness or observations that take place is not some abstract state without any objects, but is a state that takes the raw experiential data as objects.

While it is difficult to explicitly describe the actual content of the liberating insight, it appears from this passage that the individual comes to the conclusion that no matter what one experiences it will always pass and thus it is a futile task to crave for those states to be any different than they are or imbue them with anything other than the present experience presents itself.

From the realization of seeing such states as impersonal, inevitable, fleeting processes, there is no longer any incentive to try hold on to them or give undue credence or emphasis. This “dispassion” for such states ultimately involves a letting go of craving which always seeks to permanently change things to one’s bidding. This letting go is thus the end of craving and the subsequent experience of nibbāna.


Shaw, Sarah 2006. Buddhist Meditation: An anthology of texts from the Pali Canon. New York, Routledge.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jhanas Solved? Part IV

In part III, the second jhāna was described as an ecstatic experience of quelled thoughts with a movement of the mind into oneness.

In this part, the third and fourth jhānas will be discussed and analyzed within the context of the jhānas as a whole. From this discussion, I will argue that the jhānas are facets of one meditative process rather than a sequence of distinct stages and the purpose of the jhānas is a succesive activity of relinquishment.

In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha describes the third jhāna:
With the fading of rapture I remained equanimous, mindful, & alert, and sensed pleasure with the body. I entered & remained in the third jhana.
In the third jhāna, the “rapture” experienced in the second jhāna fades and in its place is a frame of mind that is “equanimous, mindful (sato) & alert (sampajano)” with pleasure still remaining.

The Buddha goes on to describe the fourth jhāna:
But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the abandoning of pleasure & pain . . . I entered & remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.
Here in the final fourth jhāna, pleasure (sukha) is now abandoned and we are left with mindfulness and equanimity (upekkha-sati) as in the third jhāna but now purified (parisuddhim) in relation to the third.

Having expounded the stock passages of the third and fourth jhāna it is essential at this point to look at these specific jhānas alongside the first two jhānas within the context of the Maha-Saccaka Sutta. In the sutta the Buddha is talking to a Jain ascetic about the severe acetic strivings he performed that left him almost dead from starvation without being any closer to enlightenment.

The Buddha relates in this sutta that the turning point came in his quest for awakening when he recalled having a blissful experience as a boy relaxing under a Rose Apple tree. This remembrance sparked the insight that the relentless striving and pushing of the body and mind to the extreme was not the way, but rather an opposite type activity was required; an activity characterized by relinquishment, pleasure and relaxation.

And this is the essence of the jhanas: an activity that allows for relinquishment to take place in a successive manner.

The first jhāna begins with the relinquishment of external disturbances or “seclusion” which leads to a blissful feeling. The second jhāna continues with the relinquishment of internal disturbances in terms of thoughts and evaluations resulting in an ultimate absorption in ecstasy. The third jhāna continues with the relinquishment or “fading” of this ecstasy or “rapture” with only pleasure remaining. And even this pleasure relinquished or “abandon[ed]” in the final fourth jhāna.

From this perspective, we can now see more clearly that the jhānas are a single successive process of letting go rather than independent, compartmentalized stages which scholastic numbering provides the illusion for.

Also from this perspective we can a better idea of what the third and fourth jhānas consist of which is simply the relinquishment of the qualities gained by the first two jhāna with the exception of the new development of mindfulness (sati) and equanimity (upekkha) which will be explored later.

In conclusion, the Buddha is telling the Jain ascetic in Maha-Saccaka Sutta that the path to enlightenment is not by controlling and dominating the body to one’s will, but it is rather the relinquishment of all striving that respects the body and welcomes blameless inner pleasure.

But what exactly was it that after the Buddha reached the fourth jhāna that led him to enlightenment? Well, that is in the next post.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jhanas Solved? Part III

In part II, I discussed the first jhāna and the argued that it was unlikely that the Buddha as a young boy experienced the first jhāna as described in the stock passage in the Pali Canon. While it is quite possible that the young Gautama did experience a happy state by withdrawing from the frivolities around him, it is dubious he did so by meditating cross-legged and entering some absorbed state as the text implicitly conveys.

Moving on to explicating the second jhāna, we fortunately find more textual information to draw upon.

In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha describes the second jhāna:
With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I entered & remained in the second jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.
Of interest in this passage is the continuation of pleasure and rapture from the first jhāna but with the explicit absence of “thought & evaluation” and the new key element of “unification of awareness” (cetaso ekodi-bhavam).

But what is this “unification of awareness”? Looking at the Pali derivation of ekodi-bhavam, the word ekodi is composed of eka, meaning one or single, and udi, meaning arising or movement. Thus ekodi can be understood as movement to oneness or singleness. With the accusative of bhava, bhavam, which means “being” and the genitive singular ceta or mind, we can understand the phrase cetaso ekodi-bhavam as a mind of moving into a state of oneness.

Given this new understanding, we can tentatively describe the second jhāna as a meditative experience of bliss characterized by a lack of thought and a unification of the mind into a state oneness.

While this description appears to be fairly detailed, it is still, however, rather abstract and begs some further questions as what exactly is this “rapture & pleasure” and what does this “movement of mind into oneness” really describing?

One way to help remove this ambiguity is to examine the testimony of those who have avowedly experienced such states. Being unable, of course, to be able to verify such private, personal experiences, we should take them with a degree of skepticism but not to the point of refusing to lend the descriptions any credence when there is a strong semblance between the descriptions and the key Pali passages.

In Ajahn Brahmavamso’s book, aptly titled The Jhānas, we are provided a detailed description of what the experience of jhāna is like:
When the breath disappears and delight fills the mind, the nimitta usually appears. Nimitta, in the context used here, refers to the beautiful "lights" that appear in the mind. . . .


When the nimitta is radiant and stable, then its energy builds up moment by moment. . . . If one can maintain the one-pointedness here by keeping one's focus on the very center of the nimitta, the power will reach a critical level. One will feel as if the knower is being drawn into the nimitta, that one is falling into the most glorious bliss. Alternatively, one may feel that the nimitta approaches until it envelops the knower, swallowing one up in cosmic ecstasy. One is entering Jhana. . . .


From the moment of entering a Jhana, one will have no control. One will be unable to give orders as one normally does.
Of interest in these snippets is the mentioning of “falling into” and “envelop[ing] the knower” which seems quite similar to the translation I offered of cetaso ekodi-bhavam as moving into a state of oneness.

Another similarity is the mentioning "NO THOUGHT" and "NO DESCISION-MAKING" which is clearly similar to the “stilling of directed thoughts” as described in the stock passage of the second jhāna.

While we have these two concrete similarities with the stock passage, we encounter the quite obvious difference of the nimitta or “lights” as mentioned by Brahmavamso. As indicated in the section of his book quoted above, the nimitta is described as acting as a gateway or launching point into jhāna.

If this passage is to be interpreted as being congruent with the early Pali passages, it is important to find corresponding Pali passages that also mention this light or nimitta as acting as a threshold for entering jhāna.

In the Upakkilesa Sutta the sutta begins with Anuruddha expressing difficulty in obtaining jhāna (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi):
‘Venerable sir, as we abide here diligent, ardent, and resolute, we perceive both light and a vision of forms. Soon afterwards the light and the vision of forms disappear, but we have not discovered the cause for that.’
Note Anuruddha here experiences light (obhāsa) and vision of forms (dassanam ruanam) which is quite similar to the qualities of the nimitta that Ajahn Brahmavamso describes as "beautiful 'lights'."

But is this a nimmita? In the next passage the Buddha confirms that these lights are indeed a nimmita when he replies to Anuruddha by saying, “Nimittam pativvijjhitabbam”, which can literally be translated as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, “You should penetrate that sign.” While this has often been translated as “understanding” that sign, if we take the more literal interpretation of “penetrating” the sign then it appears we have another similarity with Ajahn Brahmvamaso’s description of “being drawn into the nimitta” or “envelop[ing] the knower” and also the element in the stock passage cetaso ekodi-bhavam that I translate as moving into a state of oneness.

These similarities are suggestive that Ajahn Brahmvamaso could be accurately describing the state of jhāna as expounded in the Pali texts. If this is indeed the case, it behooves us to examine his descriptions of the other elements of jhāna.

Of course, one of the most important elements of jhāna is this “rapture & pleasure” which Ajahn Brahmavamso describes as a feeling of “cosmic ecstasy” or “great bliss.” If this is indeed the case, then this “rapture & pleasure” appears to be of a stronger nature than the “rapture & pleasure” in the first jhāna, which from my discussion in part II, is more of a gentle, relaxing nature.

From this discussion, it can be summarized that the second jhāna is a meditative experience of ecstasy where thoughts come to a conclusion and the mind is absorbed into a light.

Having elucidated the second jhāna, what about the third and fourth jhānas?

That is for part IV.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Jhanas Solved? Part II

In part I, I ventured my thesis that the jhānas have been traditionally misunderstood as discreet meditative processes rather than one meditative process with multiple stages. I also presented the idea that there is in actual fact just three jhānas or three aspects of one process rather than four distinct jhānas as traditionally regarded.

My main argument for this interpretation is located in the Maha-Saccaka Sutta which has been identified by scholars as containing some very ancient biographical passages of the Buddha.

In the sutta, the Buddha describes his difficulty in obtaining enlightenment to a Jain ascetic. The Buddha tells the Jain that after realizing the futility of his ascetic practices of starving his body, he recalls a time as a young child:
'I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.
In this passage the Buddha relates his experience of a young boy obtaining the first jhāna. The key to this passage is the description of the young-boy-Buddha experiencing such a pleasurable state by being “quite secluded from sensuality.” Instead of finding pleasure by engaging in the many distractions and activities that would have interested a boy of that age, the young Buddha-to-be finds pleasure by being secluded from them.

It is important to note that this passage does not convey at all the notion that the young Buddha-to-be entered into a type of concentrated mental absorption that shut out the world. On the contrary, the passage conveys a feeling of effortless relaxation and relinquishment that does not hint of the idea of losing all contact of the world.

While it may sound like the first jhāna is not a super special state that even a young boy could experience, traditionally the first jhāna has been seen as something only a practiced meditation virtuoso can obtain and appears to have some support from the suttas for it (Upakkilesa Sutta).

If the traditional interpretation is correct, then how can we explain the fact that the young Buddha experienced such a meditative state without obviously any meditative experience?

This conundrum indicates that there is something possibly wrong with the text or least the interpretation of it. Examining more closely the passage of the Buddha experiencing the first jhāna as a young boy, we find some things that do raise some doubts as to the entire passage’s authenticity.

The first thing to notice about the passage is the inclusion of the stock description, “I entered & remained in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.” It seems somewhat surprising that the Buddha would clearly recall experiencing “directed thought and evaluation” during such a pleasurable state as indicated in the stock description of the first jhāna. Usually with highly charged pleasurable experiences one only remembers the pleasurable aspects of it and not other things like “directed thought and evaluation” which seems rather periphery and just too technical.

Another thing that is a little suspicious about the boy Buddha-to-be obtaining the first jhāna, is that it almost presupposes that he was sitting cross-legged in a firm meditative posture as is mentioned in many passages connected with the stock jhāna formulas. But this seems a little farfetched as he is just a young boy who most likely never formally meditated before in his life and had no motivation to do so. The young boy Buddha most likely sat under the rose apple tree not to meditate as a yogi but to rest and relax from the activities around him.

What also suggests to me that the stock first jhāna passage was not originally a part of the passage in question is a subtle shift in meaning when this stock passage is removed:
I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I [experienced] pleasure born from seclusion. 'Could that be the path to Awakening?'

Then following on that memory came the realization: 'That is the path to Awakening.' I thought: 'So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?'
By dropping the stock formula and substituting “rapture & pleasure” with pleasure (which agrees better with later sentence of being “afraid of pleasure”) a different emphasis occurs. Instead of emphasizing the attainment of a meditative state, the emphasis shifts to a recollection of the types of qualities perceived to be necessary to reach enlightenment. This I contend is what prompted the Buddha to engage in a practice that would cultivate such qualities of gentle relaxation and mental withdrawal. And that practice was, of course, meditation or jhāna.

The Buddha thus went ahead and began to cultivate those states that offered an experience of joy which turned out to be the first jhāna.

It is likely that the pleasurable feeling in the first jhāna was something quite similar to the relaxing, blissful feeling of disengaging the senses the Buddha as a young boy experienced, but arrived at through the formalized skill of meditation.

If this is the case, then the element of “directed thought & evaluation” in the stock jhāna passage is possibly describing the skill of a meditator who is gauging the level of absorption and the level of activity of the mind.

And all this “evaluation” is used to know and direct the mind to the great bliss of what is now known as the second jhāna which will be the subject of part III.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jhanas Solved? Part I

The Pali word jhāna is often encountered in the suttas within the context of the four jhānas or mental techniques the Buddha used as a vehicle for awakening.

The word jhāna has been frequently translated in English as “absorption” which connotes a technical mental technique that is extremely focused.

The word jhāna is based on the Sanskrit word dhyana that contains the root dhi meaning to “reflect, conceive and ponder over”. Surprisingly, this definition appears closer to the English word “meditation” than the traditional idea of "absorption".

Interestingly, there are instances in the the Pali Canon that support the idea of jhāna as a general form of meditation. There are multiple passages in the canon where the Buddha says, “jhayatha bhikkhave” (here), which translates much more intelligibly as “monks, meditate” instead of “monks, attain absorption.”

Even so, the overwhelming occurrence of the word jhāna in the suttas is used in a more technical sense of a specific form of meditation. The almost exclusivity of jhāna in the technical sense is somewhat of an illusion. Due to a small set of stock passages related to the four jhānas being repeated throughout the Pali Canon, the reader is left with the impression that jhāna has primarily a technical meaning that is often associated with absorption.

Not surprisingly, the Buddhist tradition has focused a lot of attention on the technical meaning of jhāna: its characteristics, how it is attained, the benefit and so on.

Historically, the attainment of jhānas has become increasingly difficult to obtain as time has passed since the Buddha’s death. Today, most of the Theravada orthodoxy proclaims that the attainment of the first jhāna, let alone other higher jhānas, can only be gained with difficulty by experienced meditators.

Whatever is the truth of the difficulty of obtaining jhānas, the Buddhist tradition, for the most part, has universally agreed that the jhānas are a series of discreet mental processes that progress in order from a lower jhāna to a higher one.

This assumption seems a very reasonable one given the fact that the jhānas are number from one to four and are always described in the same order. However, as I will try to show, this numbering may have been simply a helpful memorization device rather than a means of communicating four quite distinct processes.

I will argue in the following posts by examining key suttas of the Pali Canon and contemporary descriptions of personal experiences of jhāna that what is labeled as the four jhānas is actually a description of one meditative process that has four different stages.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dog Duty Ascetic and Rebirth -- Part II

In part I, I looked at the Kukkuravatika Sutta, or the Dog Duty Ascetic sutta, to see if it did the support the argument that the Buddha believed in literal rebirth.

By examining the context of the sutta, I pointed out that the Buddha was most likely using skillful means to communicate with the two ascetics by telling them that if they continued to mimic animal behavior they would be born as that animal and not as a god.

His use of skillful means is further illustrated in the later part of the sutta when he gives a short discourse on the four types of kammas after being begged by one of the tearful ascetics who has just come to the realization of the utter uselessness of their animal acts.

The Buddha first elaborates dark kamma which is then followed by bright kamma:
Here someone produces a (kammic) bodily process not (bound up) with affliction, he produces a (kammic) verbal process not (bound up) with affliction, he produces a (kammic) mental process not (bound up) with affliction. By doing so, he reappears in a world without affliction. When that happens, unafflicting contacts touch him. Being touched by these, he feels unafflicting feelings entirely pleasant as in the case of the Subhakinha, the gods of Refulgent Glory.
The Buddha explains that the result of bright kamma is the arising (upapajjati) in an unafflictive “world” (loka) where one experiences, “unafflicting feelings entirely pleasant as in the case of the Subhakinha, the gods of Refulgent Glory.” This is Vedic language. The phrase about arising in a “world” is a Vedic term, which besides denoting a metaphorical space, also has a psychological meaning. In the final sentence of the passage, the Buddha invokes the Vedic folk god Subhakinha.

What is interesting is that the Buddha does not say that one will become that god through such actions, but only that one can experience such feelings worthy of that god.

The Buddha here is essentially telling the ascetics how to obtain their original goal of companionship with god but in a different way. The Buddha is saying that one who is able to experience the same state that a god would experience is to effectively be that god; to enter the state of being of that god is to be it.

By the Buddha giving a psychological dimension to a metaphysical belief system, the Buddha opens up a new perspective and hope for the distraught men. The one ascetic is weeping because he is convinced by the Buddha that he has wasted enormous time in his beastly practices. By offering them a way they can taste their original goal by experiencing it in this life, he turns their despair into happiness by pointing them on a more productive path.


The further elucidation of this sutta should help convince those that claim this sutta clearly shows the Buddha’s belief in rebirth is not the only interpretation. Like in many of the suttas in the Pali Canon, the Buddha uses skillful means to communicate with the various different peoples he meets. This is just one more interesting example of this trend where the Buddha takes on his interlocutor’s language and view point in order to lead them to a different understanding of the world.