Chapter Two

The Awakening

Even though the Buddha’s awakening was the most important accomplishment in his life, we know very little about it. As he told his monks, he revealed to others only a tiny portion of what he had come to know.

Once the Blessed One was dwelling near Kosambī in the Siṁsapā forest. Then, picking up a few Siṁsapā leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks? Which are more numerous, the few Siṁsapā leaves in my hand or those overhead in the Siṁsapā forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the forest are far more numerous.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding. That is why I haven’t taught them.

“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress’ … ‘This is the origination of stress’ … ‘This is the cessation of stress’ … ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress’: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding. This is why I have taught them.

“Therefore your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is stress’ … ‘This is the origination of stress’ … ‘This is the cessation of stress.’ Your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’” — SN 56:31

One of the Buddha’s shortest but most comprehensive statements of what he found worthy of communicating about his awakening is this:

“First there is the knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma, after which there is the knowledge of unbinding.” SN 12:70

This passage will provide the framework for this chapter, in which we try to illuminate at least some of what the Buddha learned in the course of his awakening. The first part of the statement, the “regularity of the Dhamma,” covers all three knowledges that occurred on the night of the awakening.

To gain some sense of the many dimensions included in the three knowledges, it’s useful to look at passages in the earlier parts of the Canon that treat the theme of each knowledge: past lives in the first knowledge, kamma and rebirth in the second, and the four noble truths in the third. This will also serve as a good introduction to the Dhamma the Buddha taught, given that all three knowledges came to constitute right view: the first two, right view on the mundane level; the third, right view on the transcendent level.

In this way, this chapter not only helps to flesh out the Buddha’s accounts of his awakening. It also shows how the later accomplishments of his life—teaching the Dhamma to others and establishing the Dhamma & Vinaya so that the True Dhamma would last a long time—were directly related to the first.

Past Lives

The suttas list “jātakas,” or stories of previous births, as one of the genres that the Buddha used in teaching. The Vinaya and the four nikāyas contain only a handful of such stories. The fifth nikāya, however, contains a collection of many hundreds of jātaka verses, to which the Commentary has appended stories connecting the verses to specific events that it claims occurred in the previous lives of the Buddha or his major disciples. One of the prominent features of the Commentary’s stories is that they often cite actions in previous lives as causal explanations for events in the Buddha’s time, reflecting a rather simplistic view of kamma. And one of the major differences between these stories and the jātaka stories in the suttas and Vinaya is that the latter give Dhamma lessons of a more general sort and never try to explain events in the present as definitely resulting from particular actions in previous lifetimes. It’s from this latter source that the following stories are drawn.

“Once, monks, a certain brahman in Takkasilā had an ox named Nandivisāla. Then Nandivisāla said to the brahman, ‘Go, brahman, and make a bet for a thousand (gold pieces) with the moneylender: “My ox will draw one hundred carts tied to one another.”’

“So the brahman made a bet for a thousand with the moneylender: ‘My ox will draw one hundred carts tied to one another.’ Then, having tied one hundred carts to one another, having yoked Nandivisāla the ox, the brahman said, ‘Pull, you beast! Drag them, you beast!’ So Nandivisāla just stood right there.

“Then the brahman, having lost a thousand, was brooding. So Nandivisāla said to him, ‘Why, brahman, are you brooding?’

“‘Because, good sir, I lost a thousand because of you.’

“‘But why, brahman, did you disgrace me, who am not a beast, by calling me a beast? Go, brahman, and make a bet for two thousand with the moneylender: “My ox will drag one hundred carts tied to one another,” and don’t disgrace me, who am not a beast, by calling me a beast.’

“So the brahman made a bet for two thousand with the moneylender: ‘My ox will drag one hundred carts tied to one another.’ Then, having tied one hundred carts to one another, having yoked Nandivisāla the ox, the brahman said, ‘Pull, civilized one! Drag them, civilized one!’ And Nandivisāla drew the one hundred carts tied to one another.

Speak what’s appealing,

not what’s unappealing, ever.

For the one who spoke what was appealing,

he dragged the heavy load

and brought him wealth,

having abandoned his mood because of that.

“Even then, monks, abuse & insult were unappealing to me. So how much less would they be appealing now—abuse & insult?” Pc 2

The Blessed One said: “Once, monks, there was a king named Pacetana. One day King Pacetana said to his chariot maker, ‘My good chariot maker, in six months time from now a battle will take place. Can you make me a new pair of chariot wheels?’

“‘Yes, your majesty, I can,’ the chariot maker replied to the king.

“Then in six months minus six days the chariot maker finished one wheel. King Pacetana said to him, ‘In six days time from now the battle will take place. Will the pair of chariot wheels be finished?’

“‘Your majesty, in these six months minus six days, I have finished one wheel.’

“‘But can you finish the second wheel in these six days?’

“‘Yes, your majesty, I can,’ the chariot maker replied to the king.

Then, after finishing the second wheel in six days, the chariot maker took the pair of wheels to the king and, on arrival, said to him, ‘Here is your new pair of chariot wheels all finished, your majesty.’

“‘And what is the difference between your wheel that took six months minus six days to finish, and your wheel that took six days to finish? I don’t see any difference between them at all.’

“‘There is a difference between them, your majesty. Look at the difference.’ Then the chariot maker took the chariot wheel that took six days to finish and set it rolling. Going as far as its momentum carried it, it twirled around & around and fell to the ground. But then he took the chariot wheel that took six months minus six days to finish and set it rolling. Going as far as its momentum carried it, it stood still as if fixed on an axle.

“‘Now what is the reason, my good chariot maker, what is the cause, why the chariot wheel that took six days to finish, when set rolling, goes as far as its momentum carries it and then, twirling around & around, falls to the ground? And what is the reason, what is the cause, why the chariot wheel that took six months minus six days to finish, when set rolling, goes as far as its momentum carries it and then stands still as if fixed on an axle?’

“‘Your majesty, as for the wheel that took six days to finish, its rim is crooked, with faults & flaws. Its spokes are crooked, with faults & flaws. Its hub is crooked, with faults & flaws. Because its rim… spokes… (&) hub are crooked, with faults & flaws, when set rolling it goes as far as its momentum carries it and then, twirling around & around, falls to the ground. But as for the wheel that took six months minus six days to finish, its rim is not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Its spokes are not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Its hub is not crooked, with no faults or flaws. Because its rim… spokes… (&) hub are not crooked, with no faults or flaws, when set rolling it goes as far as its momentum carries it and then stands still as if fixed on an axle.’

“Now, should it occur to you, monks, that ‘Perhaps it was someone else who was the chariot maker at that time,’ it shouldn’t be seen in that way. I was the chariot maker at that time. I was skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of wood. Now I am a worthy one, rightly self-awakened, skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of bodily action; skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of verbal action; skilled in dealing with the crookedness, faults, & flaws of mental action.” AN 3:15

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Forest, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then Anāthapiṇḍika the householder went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, bowed down to him and sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “Householder, are gifts still given in your family?”

“Gifts are still given in my family, lord, but they are coarse: broken rice cooked with bran, accompanied by pickle brine.”19

“Householder, regardless of whether a gift is coarse or refined, if it is given inattentively, disrespectfully, not with one’s own hand, as if throwing it away, with the view that nothing will come of it: Wherever the result of that gift comes to fruition, one’s mind will not incline to the enjoyment of splendid food, will not incline to the enjoyment of splendid clothing, will not incline to the enjoyment of splendid vehicles, will not incline to the enjoyment of the splendid five strings of sensuality. And one’s sons & daughters, slaves, servants, & workers will not listen to one, will not lend ear, will not make their minds attend for the sake of knowledge. Why is that? Because that is the result of inattentive actions.

“Householder, regardless of whether a gift is coarse or refined, if it is given attentively, respectfully, with one’s own hand, not as if throwing it away, with the view that something will come of it: Wherever the result of that gift comes to fruition, one’s mind will incline to the enjoyment of splendid food, will incline to the enjoyment of splendid clothing, will incline to the enjoyment of splendid vehicles, will incline to the enjoyment of the splendid five strings of sensuality. And one’s sons & daughters, slaves, servants, & workers will listen to one, will lend ear, will make their minds attend for the sake of knowledge. Why is that? Because that is the result of attentive actions.

“Once, householder, there was a brahman named Velāma. And this was the nature of the gift, the great gift, he gave: He gave 84,000 gold trays filled with silver, 84,000 silver trays filled with gold, 84,000 copper trays filled with gems. He gave 84,000 elephants with gold ornaments, gold banners, covered with nets of gold thread. He gave 84,000 chariots spread with lion skins, tiger skins, leopard skins, saffron-colored blankets, with gold ornaments, gold banners, covered with nets of gold thread. He gave 84,000 milk cows with tethers of fine jute and copper milk pails. He gave 84,000 maidens adorned with jeweled earrings. He gave 84,000 couches spread with long-fleeced coverlets, white wool coverlets, embroidered coverlets, rugs of kadali-deer hide, each with a canopy above & red cushions on either side. He gave 84,000 lengths of cloth—of finest linen, of finest cotton, of finest silk—to say nothing of the food & drink, staple & non-staple food, lotions & beddings: They flowed, as it were, like rivers.

“Now, householder, should it occur to you that ‘Perhaps it was someone else who at that time was Velāma the brahman, who gave that gift, that great gift,’ it shouldn’t be seen that way. I was Velāma the brahman at that time. I gave that gift, that great gift. But in that gift there was no one worthy of offerings; no one purified that gift.

“If one were to feed one person consummate in view [i.e., a stream-winner20 ], that would be more fruitful than the gift, the great gift, that Velāma the brahman gave.

“If one were to feed one once-returner, that would be more fruitful than the gift, the great gift, that Velāma the brahman gave, and if one were to feed one person consummate in view, and if one were to feed one hundred people consummate in view.

“If one were to feed one non-returner, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed one hundred once-returners.

“If one were to feed one arahant, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed one hundred non-returners.

“If one were to feed one Private Buddha, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed one hundred arahants.

“If one were to feed one Tathāgata—a worthy one, rightly self-awakened—that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed one hundred Private Buddhas.

“If one were to feed a Saṅgha of monks headed by the Buddha, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed a Tathāgata—a worthy one, rightly self-awakened.

“If one were to have a dwelling built and dedicated to the Saṅgha of the four directions, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed a Saṅgha of monks headed by the Buddha.

“If one with a confident mind were to go to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Saṅgha for refuge, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to have a dwelling built and dedicated to the Saṅgha of the four directions.

“If one with a confident mind were to undertake the training rules—refraining from taking life, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from illicit sex, refraining from lying, refraining from distilled & fermented drinks that cause heedlessness—that would be more fruitful than… if one with a confident mind were to go to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Saṅgha for refuge.

“If one were to develop even just one whiff of a heart of goodwill, that would be more fruitful than… if one with a confident mind were to undertake the training rules.…

“If one were to develop even for just a finger-snap the perception of inconstancy, that would be more fruitful than the gift, the great gift, that Velāma the brahman gave, and if one were to feed one person… one hundred people consummate in view, and if one were to feed one once-returner… one hundred once-returners, and if one were to feed one non-returner… one hundred non-returners, and if one were to feed one arahant… one hundred arahants, and if one were to feed one Private Buddha… one hundred Private Buddhas, and if one were to feed a Tathāgata—a worthy one, rightly self-awakened—and if one were to feed a Saṅgha of monks headed by the Buddha, and if one were to have a dwelling built and dedicated to the Saṅgha of the four directions, and if one with a confident mind were to go to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Saṅgha for refuge, and if one with a confident mind were to undertake the training rules—refraining from taking life, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from illicit sex, refraining from lying, refraining from distilled & fermented drinks that cause heedlessness—and if one were to develop even just one whiff of a heart of goodwill.” AN 9:20

Among the Buddha’s previous lifetimes reported in the suttas, there is one he remembered in which he was a student of a previous Buddha. However, nothing is known of how—or even whether—memories of this sort played a role in his awakening in his final lifetime.

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was on a walking tour among the Kosalans, along with a large Saṅgha of monks. At a certain place the Blessed One, having come down from the road, smiled.

The thought occurred to Ven. Ānanda, “What is the cause, what is the condition for the Blessed One’s smile? Tathāgatas don’t smile without a reason.”

Then Ven. Ānanda, arranging his upper robe over one shoulder and saluting the Blessed One with his hands palm-to-palm in front of his heart, said, “What is the cause, lord, what is the condition for the Blessed One’s smile? Tathāgatas don’t smile without a reason.”

“In the past, Ānanda, in this place there was a town called Vebhaḷiga—powerful, prosperous, & populous—crowded with people. The Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, lived in dependence on Vebhaḷiga. Right here was the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. Sitting right here, the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, exhorted the Saṅgha of monks.”

Then Ven. Ānanda, having set out his outer robe folded in four, said to the Blessed One, “In that case, lord, may the Blessed One sit down, so that this spot of ground will have been used by two arahants, worthy & rightly self-awakened.”

The Blessed One sat down on the seat laid out. Seated, he addressed Ven. Ānanda, “In the past, Ānanda, in this place there was a town called Vebhaḷiga—powerful, prosperous, and populous—crowded with people. The Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened lived in dependence on Vebhaḷiga. Right here was the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. Sitting right here, the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, exhorted the Saṅgha of monks.

“In the town of Vebhaḷiga there was a potter named Ghaṭikāra. He was the Blessed Kassapa’s supporter—his foremost supporter.

“Ghaṭikāra the potter had a friend, a dear friend, named Jotipāla, a young brahman. Then Ghaṭikāra the potter said to Jotipāla the young brahman, ‘Come, my good friend Jotipāla, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“When that was said, Jotipāla the young brahman said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘Enough, my good friend. What’s the use of seeing that shaven monkling?’

“A second time… A third time, Ghaṭikāra the potter said to Jotipāla the young brahman, ‘Come, my good friend Jotipāla, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“A third time, Jotipāla the young brahman said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘Enough, my good friend. What’s the use of seeing that shaven monkling?’

“‘In that case, my good friend, let’s take back-scrapers & bath powder and go to the river to bathe.’

“‘As you say, my good friend,’ Jotipāla the young brahman responded to Ghaṭikāra the potter.

“Then, Ānanda, Ghaṭikāra the potter and Jotipāla the young brahman, taking back-scrapers & bath powder, went to the river to bathe. Ghaṭikāra the potter addressed Jotipāla the young brahman, ‘Jotipāla, the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, is not far away. Come, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“When that was said, Jotipāla the young brahman said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘Enough, my good friend. What’s the use of seeing that shaven monkling?’

“A second time… A third time, Ghaṭikāra the potter said to Jotipāla the young brahman, ‘Jotipāla, the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, is not far away. Come, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“A third time, Jotipāla the young brahman said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘Enough, my good friend. What’s the use of seeing that shaven monkling?’

“Then Ghaṭikāra the potter, seizing Jotipāla the young brahman by the waist-cloth, said, ‘My good friend Jotipāla, the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, is not far away. Come, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“Then Jotipāla the young brahman, pulling free his waist-cloth, said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘Enough, my good friend. What’s the use of seeing that shaven monkling?’

“Then, as Jotipāla the young brahman was bathing his head, Ghaṭikāra the potter seized him by the hair and said, ‘My good friend Jotipāla, the monastery of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, is not far away. Come, let’s go see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“Jotipāla the young brahman thought, ‘How amazing! How, astounding!—that this potter Ghaṭikāra, being of low birth, supposes that he can seize me by the hair while I’m washing my head! How unpetty a matter this must be, I’d suppose.’

“He said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘(You’re) even (going) that far?’

“‘(I’m) even (going) that far, my good friend Jotipāla, because I think it’s good to see a Blessed One, worthy & rightly self-awakened.’

“‘In that case, Ghaṭikāra, my good friend, let go. We’ll go.’

“Then Ghaṭikāra the potter & Jotipāla the young brahman went to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. On arrival, Ghaṭikāra the potter bowed down to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, and sat to one side. Jotipāla the young brahman exchanged courteous greetings with the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ghaṭikāra the potter said to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, ‘Lord, this is my good friend Jotipāla the young brahman. May the Blessed One teach him the Dhamma.’

“Then the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, instructed, urged, roused, & encouraged Ghaṭikāra the potter & Jotipāla the young brahman with a Dhamma talk. Ghaṭikāra the potter & Jotipāla the young brahman, having been instructed, urged, roused, & encouraged with a Dhamma talk by the Blessed Kassapa, delighting in and approving of the Blessed Kassapa’s words, got up from their seats, bowed down to him, circumambulated him, keeping him to their right, and left.

“Then, Ānanda, Jotipāla the young brahman said to Ghaṭikāra the potter, ‘My good friend Ghaṭikāra, (after) hearing this Dhamma, aren’t you going to go forth from home into homelessness?’

“‘My good friend Jotipāla, don’t you know I’m taking care of my blind & elderly parents?’

“‘In that case, my good friend Ghaṭikāra, I’ll go forth from home into homelessness.’

“Then Ghaṭikāra the potter & Jotipāla the young brahman went to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, bowed down to him, and sat to one side. As they were sitting there, Ghaṭikāra the potter said to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, ‘Lord, this is my good friend Jotipāla the young brahman. May the Blessed One give him the Going-forth.’

“So, Ānanda, Jotipāla the young brahman obtained the Going-forth in the presence of the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, and he obtained Acceptance. Then, not long after Jotipāla the young brahman’s Acceptance—when he had been ordained half a month—the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, having stayed at Vebhaḷiga as long as he liked, set out on a wandering tour toward Vārāṇasī, and, wandering by stages, arrived at Vārāṇasī. There the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, stayed near Vārāṇasī in the Isipatana game reserve.

“King Kiki of Kāsi heard, ‘They say that the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, has arrived at Vārāṇasī, and is dwelling near Vārāṇasī in the Isipatana game reserve.’

“Then King Kiki of Kāsi had auspicious vehicles harnessed. Mounting an auspicious vehicle, he set out from Vārāṇasī accompanied by other auspicious vehicles in full royal pomp to see the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. Going as far by vehicle as the ground permitted, he got down from his vehicle and proceeded on foot to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened. On arrival, he bowed down to him and sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed Kassapa instructed, urged, roused, & encouraged King Kiki of Kāsi with a Dhamma talk. Having been urged, roused, & encouraged by the Blessed Kassapa with a Dhamma talk, King Kiki of Kāsi said to the Blessed Kassapa, ‘Lord, may the Blessed One acquiesce to my meal tomorrow, together with the Saṅgha of monks.’

“The Blessed Kassapa acquiesced with silence. King Kiki of Kāsi, understanding the Blessed Kassapa’s acquiescence, got up from his seat, bowed down to him, circumambulated him, keeping him to his right, and left.

“Then, Ānanda, after the night had ended, King Kiki of Kāsi, having had exquisite staple & non-staple food prepared in his own residence—aged, fragrant rice21 free of black grains, with many kinds of curries & sauces—had the time announced to the Blessed Kassapa: ‘It’s time, lord. The meal is ready.’

“Then, early in the morning, the Blessed Kassapa—having adjusted his under robe and carrying his bowl & outer robe—went together with the Saṅgha of monks to King Kiki of Kāsi’s residence and, on arrival, sat down on a seat laid out.

“Then King Kiki of Kāsi, with his own hands, served & satisfied the Saṅgha of monks headed by the Blessed Kassapa with exquisite staple & non-staple food. When the Blessed Kassapa had finished his meal and had rinsed his bowl & hands, King Kiki of Kāsi, taking a low seat, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, ‘Lord, may the Blessed One acquiesce to my (invitation) to spend the Rains in Vārāṇasī. There will be this kind of support for the Saṅgha.’

“‘Enough, great king. I have already acquiesced to (an invitation to) spend the Rains.’

“A second time… A third time, King Kiki of Kāsi said to the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, ‘Lord, may the Blessed One acquiesce to my (invitation to) spend the Rains in Vārāṇasī. There will be this kind of support for the Saṅgha.’

“‘Enough, great king. I have already acquiesced to (an invitation to) spend the Rains.’

“Then King Kiki of Kāsi, (thinking,) ‘The Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened didn’t acquiesce to my (invitation to) spend the Rains in Vārāṇasī,’ was sad & upset. He said to the Blessed Kassapa, ‘Lord, is there anybody else who surpasses me as a supporter?’

“‘Great king, there is a town named Vebhaḷiga, and there is a potter there named Ghaṭikāra. He is my supporter—my supporter attendant. Great king, (thinking,) “The Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened didn’t acquiesce to my (invitation to) spend the Rains in Vārāṇasī,” you are sad & upset. But there is none of that in Ghaṭikāra the potter, nor will there be.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter has gone to the Buddha for refuge. He has gone to the Dhamma for refuge. He has gone to the Saṅgha for refuge.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter refrains from killing, refrains from taking what is not given, refrains from sexual misconduct, refrains from telling lies, and refrains from intoxicating liquors & drugs that lead to heedlessness.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter is endowed with verified confidence in the Buddha, verified confidence in the Dhamma, and verified confidence in the Saṅgha. He is endowed with virtues pleasing to the noble ones.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter has no doubts about stress, no doubts about the origination of stress, no doubts about the cessation of stress, no doubts about the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter eats one meal a day and is celibate—a person of virtue, with fine qualities.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter has renounced gold & jewels, and does without silver or money.

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter doesn’t dig the soil with a trowel or his hands, but using a carrying-pole takes clay from a collapsing river-bank or from (what was dug up by) a dog or a rodent and making clay vessels, he says, ‘Whoever wants this: Leaving payments of rice, of green beans, or of chick-peas, take whatever you want.’

“‘Ghaṭikāra the potter is taking care of his blind & elderly parents.

“‘Great king, Ghaṭikāra the potter, from the total ending of the five lower fetters [self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at habits & practices, sensual passion, and irritation], will (after passing away) spontaneously arise (in the Pure Abodes,) there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world.

“‘Once I was dwelling near the town of Vebhaḷiga. Then, early in the morning—having adjusted my under robe and carrying my bowl & outer robe—I went to Ghaṭikāra the potter’s father & mother, and, on arrival, said to them, “Now then, where has the potter gone?”

“‘“Lord, your supporter has gone out, so take some rice from the rice-pot and some sauce from the sauce-pot and eat.”

“‘Then, great king, I took some rice from the rice-pot and some sauce from the sauce-pot, ate, got up from my seat, and left. Ghaṭikāra the potter came to his father & mother, and said to them, “Who took some rice from the rice-pot and some sauce from the sauce-pot, ate, and then left?”

“‘“My son, the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened, took some rice from the rice-pot and some sauce from the sauce-pot, ate, and then left.”

“‘Then it occurred to Ghaṭikāra the potter, “What a gain for me, what a great gain, that the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened is so trusting in me!”

“‘Then, great king, Ghaṭikāra the potter was not without rapture & happiness for half a month, and his father & mother for a week.…

“‘Once I was dwelling near that very same town of Vebhaḷiga. At that time my hut was being rained on (leaking). Then I said to the monks, “Go, monks, to Ghaṭikāra the potter’s house and inquire about thatch.”

“‘When that was said, the monks said to me, “There’s no thatch at Ghaṭikāra the potter’s house, but his workshop is roofed with thatch.”

“‘“Go, monks, remove the thatch from Ghaṭikāra the potter’s workshop.”

“‘Then the monks removed the thatch from Ghaṭikāra the potter’s workshop. His father & mother said to the monks, “Who’s removing the thatch from the workshop?”

“‘“The monks, sister. The Blessed Kassapa’s hut is being rained on (leaking).”

“‘“Take it, venerable sirs! Take it, fortunate ones!”

“‘Then Ghaṭikāra the potter went to his father & mother and said to them. “Who removed the thatch from the workshop?”

“‘“The monks, son. The Blessed Kassapa’s hut is being rained on (leaking).”

“‘Then it occurred to Ghaṭikāra the potter, “What a gain for me, what a great gain, that the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened is so trusting in me!”

“‘Then, great king, Ghaṭikāra the potter was not without rapture & happiness for half a month, and his father & mother for a week. Then the workshop remained with the sky for a roof for the whole three months but didn’t get rained on. Ghaṭikāra the potter is like that.’

“‘It’s a gain for Ghaṭikāra the potter, lord, a great gain, that the Blessed Kassapa, worthy & rightly self-awakened is so trusting in him.’

“Then, Ānanda, King Kiki of Kāsi sent Ghaṭikāra the potter five hundred cartloads of plain rice, aged fragrant rice, & ingredients for sauces. The king’s men went to Ghaṭikāra the potter and said, ‘Sir, these five hundred cartloads of plain rice, aged fragrant rice, & ingredients for sauces have been sent to you by King Kiki of Kāsi. May you accept them, sir.’

“‘The king has many duties, many responsibilities. I have enough. May they be the king’s.’

“Now, should it occur to you, Ānanda, that ‘Perhaps it was someone else who was the young brahman Jotipāla at that time,’ it shouldn’t be seen that way. I was the young brahman Jotipāla at that time.”

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Ven. Ānanda delighted in the Blessed One’s words. — MN 81

But even though the bodhisatta learned the Dhamma under previous Buddhas, his own many-lifetime quest for awakening was, for the most part, like the quest in his final lifetime: a series of experiments. He tried many practices, some that he later incorporated into his Dhamma and others that proved fruitless or actually led to lower realms.

“I remember, Sāriputta, being one who lived a holy life endowed with four factors: I was an ascetic, the most extreme ascetic. I was rough, the most extreme in roughness. I was scrupulous, the most extreme in scrupulousness. I was secluded, the most extreme in seclusion.

“This is how it was for me, in terms of asceticism: I was cloth-less, rejecting conventions, licking my hands, not coming when called, not staying when asked. I didn’t consent to food brought to me, to food dedicated to me, or to an invitation to a meal. I accepted nothing from the mouth of a pot or from the mouth of a bowl. I accepted nothing from across a threshold, across a stick, across a pestle, from two eating together, from a pregnant woman, from a nursing woman, from a woman living with a man, from where it was announced that food was to be distributed, from where a dog was waiting or flies were buzzing. I took no fish or meat. I drank no liquor, wine, or fermented drink.

“I limited myself to one house & one morsel a day, or two houses & two morsels… seven houses & seven morsels. I lived on one saucerful a day, two… seven saucerfuls a day. I took food once a day, once every two days… once every seven days, and so on up to a fortnight, devoted to regulating my intake of food.

“I was an eater of greens, millet, wild rice, hide-parings, moss, rice bran, rice-scum, sesame flour, grass, or cow dung. I lived on forest roots & berries. I fed on fallen fruits.

“I wore hemp, canvas, shrouds, refuse rags, tree bark, antelope hide, strips of antelope hide, kusa-grass garments, bark garments, wood-shaving garments, head-hair garments, animal wool, owl’s wings. I was a hair-&-beard puller, one devoted to the practice of pulling out my hair & beard. I was a stander, one who rejected seats. I was a kneeler, one devoted to the exertion of kneeling. I was a spike-mattresser, one who made my bed on a bed of spikes. I was a third-time-in-the-evening bather, one who stayed devoted to the practice of bathing in water.

“Thus in a variety of ways I stayed devoted to the practice of tormenting & afflicting the body. That’s how it was for me, in terms of asceticism.

“This is how it was for me, in terms of roughness: Many years worth of dirt had collected on my body, so that it became a crust. Just like a tiṇḍuka stump, having collected (dirt) for many years so that it has become a crust—in the same way, many years’ worth of dirt had collected on my body, so that it became a crust.

“The thought didn’t occur to me, ‘Oh! I would like to rub off this dirt with my hand! Or may others rub off this dirt with their hands!’ That didn’t occur to me.

“That’s how it was for me, in terms of roughness.

“This is how it was for me, in terms of scrupulousness: I was mindful stepping forward; I was mindful stepping back. Even for a drop of water, concern was established within me, (thinking,) ‘I won’t engage in killing these small, unfortunate creatures.’

“That’s how it was for me, in terms of scrupulousness.

“This is how it was for me, in terms of seclusion: “Plunging into a certain wilderness area, I stayed there. When I saw a cowherd, an ox-herd, a grass-carrier, a wood-carrier, or a woodsman, I fled from grove to grove, from thicket to thicket, from hill to hill, from meadow to meadow. Why was that? (I thought,) ‘May they not see me, and may I not see them.’

“Just like a wild deer, on seeing human beings, flees from grove to grove, from thicket to thicket, from hill to hill, from meadow to meadow—in the same way, when I saw a cowherd, an ox-herd, a grass-carrier, a wood-carrier, or a woodsman, I fled from grove to grove, from thicket to thicket, from hill to hill, from meadow to meadow. Why was that? (I thought,) ‘May they not see me, and may I not see them.’

“That’s how it was for me, in terms of seclusion.

“I would crawl on all fours to the cow-sheds when the cows had gone out and the cowherds had gone off. Whatever manure there was from young nursing calves: I took just that for food. As long as my own urine and excrement hadn’t run out, I took just my own urine and excrement for food. That’s how it was for me, in terms of subsisting on the great foul things as food.

“Plunging into a certain awe-inspiring forest grove, I stayed there. There, Sāriputta, that awe-inspiring grove had this quality in terms of making one awe-inspired: When one who had not gone beyond passion entered, his hair would usually stand on end.

“Those cold winter middle-eight nights [the four nights on either side of the full moon in February, the coldest time of the year in northern India], the time of snowfall: On nights like that I would stay in the open by night and in the grove by day. In the last month of the hot season, I would stay in the open by day and in the grove by night. And then this verse of amazement—never heard before—occurred to me:

“‘He is scorched, he is drenched, alone—

alone in the awe-inspiring forest,

naked, not sitting near a fire,

exerting himself in the search : the sage.’

“I arranged a sleeping place in a charnel ground, piling up bones from the corpses.

“And then cowherd boys, coming up to me, would spit on me, or urinate on me, or throw dirt on me, or stick twigs into my ears. But I do not remember giving rise to any evil thoughts toward them.

“That’s how it was for me, in terms of dwelling in equanimity.

“Sāriputta, there are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of food.’

“‘We live on jujube fruits,’ they say. They eat jujubes, they eat jujube powder, they drink jujube juice, and make use of diverse products of the jujube.

“But I remember being one who ate just one jujube (per day). If the thought should occur to you, ‘Maybe jujubes were large at that time,’ it shouldn’t be seen that way. Jujubes were just the same size then as they are now.

“For me, eating just one jujube (per day), 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.… The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well.… My scalp shriveled & withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled & withered in the heat & the wind.… The skin of my belly became so stuck to my spine that when I thought of touching my belly, I grabbed hold of my spine as well, and when I thought of touching my spine, I grabbed hold of the skin of my belly as well.… If I urinated or defecated, I fell over on my face right there.… If I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair—rotted at its roots—fell from my body as I rubbed, simply from eating so little.

“Sāriputta, there are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of food.’

“‘We live on green gram… sesame seeds… rice… ,’ they say. They eat rice, they eat rice powder, they drink rice water, and make use of diverse products of rice.

“But I remember being one who ate just one grain of rice (per day). If the thought should occur to you, ‘Maybe rice grains were large at that time,’ it shouldn’t be seen that way. Rice grains were just the same size then as they are now.

“For me, eating just one grain of rice (per day), my body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems.…

“But with this racking practice of austerities I didn’t attain any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Why is that? Because of the non-attainment of this noble discernment—the noble discernment that, when attained, is noble, leading out, leading those who act on it to the right ending of suffering & stress.

“There are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of wandering on.’22 But it’s not easy to find a wandering-on that I haven’t wandered to before, in this long, long journey, aside from the Pure-Abode devas. If I had wandered among the Pure-Abode devas, I wouldn’t have come back to this world again.

“There are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of rebirth.’ But it’s not easy to find a rebirth that I haven’t been reborn in before, in this long, long journey, aside from the Pure-Abode devas. If I had been reborn among the Pure-Abode devas, I wouldn’t have come back to this world again.

“There are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of abodes.’ But it’s not easy to find an abode that I haven’t abided in before, in this long, long journey, aside from the Pure-Abode devas. If I had abided among the Pure-Abode devas, I wouldn’t have come back to this world again.

“There are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of sacrifice.’ But it’s not easy to find a sacrifice that I haven’t performed before, in this long, long journey, either as a head-anointed noble-warrior king or as an extremely wealthy brahman.

“There are some contemplatives & brahmans with this doctrine, this view: ‘Purity is by means of tending the (sacred) fire.’ But it’s not easy to find a (sacred) fire that I haven’t tended to before, in this long, long journey, either as a head-anointed noble-warrior king or as an extremely wealthy brahman.” — MN 12

Even though the accounts of the bodhisatta’s previous lives recorded in the four nikāyas and Vinaya are few and far between, his first knowledge on the night of his awakening covered vast eons. It’s easy to imagine that the sheer immensity of the time covered in that knowledge strengthened the sense of terror that originally motivated his quest and gave more urgency to his search for a way out. This is reflected in the way he later would cite that vast span of time as a way of inducing these feelings in his audience.

“Monks, if a single person were to wander & transmigrate on for an eon, he/she would leave behind a chain of bones, a pile of bones, a heap of bones, as large as this Mount Vepulla, if there were someone to collect them and the collection were not destroyed.” — SN 15:10

Then a certain monk went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the monk said to the Blessed One, “How long, lord, is an eon?”

“Long, monk, is an eon. It’s not easy to count as ‘so many years’ or ‘so many hundreds of years’ or ‘so many thousands of years’ or ‘so many hundreds of thousands of years.’”

“But is it possible to give an analogy, lord?”

“It is, monk,” said the Blessed One. “Suppose there were a great mountain of rock—a league long, a league wide, a league high, uncracked, uncavitied, a single mass—and a man would come along once every hundred years and rub it once with a Kāsi cloth. More quickly than the eon would that great mountain of rock waste away and be consumed by that effort. That’s how long, monk, an eon is. And of eons of such length, not just one eon has been wandered-through, not just one hundred eons have been wandered-through, not just one thousand eons have been wandered-through, not just one hundred-thousand eons have been wandered-through.

“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes the wandering-on. A beginning point is not discernible, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries—enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.” SN 15:5

“Just as, from where the River Ganges begins to where it goes to the ocean, the grains of sand in between are not easy to count as ‘so many grains of sand’ or ‘so many hundreds of grains of sand’ or ‘so many thousands of grains of sand’ or ‘so many hundreds of thousands of grains of sand.’ Even more than that are the eons that have passed and gone. They are not easy to count: ‘So many eons have passed and gone by’ or ‘So many hundreds of eons have passed and gone by’ or ‘So many thousands of eons have passed and gone by’ or ‘So many hundreds of thousands of eons have passed and gone by.’” SN 15:8

“What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—or the water in the four great oceans?”

“As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.”

“Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.

“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter… loss with regard to relatives… loss with regard to wealth… loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes the wandering-on. A beginning point is not discernible, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries—enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.” SN 15:3

“Just as a stick thrown up in the air lands sometimes on its base, sometimes on its side, sometimes on its tip; in the same way, beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, transmigrating & wandering on, sometimes go from this world to another world, sometimes come from another world to this.” SN 15:9

“When you see someone who has fallen on hard times, overwhelmed with hard times, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’… When you see someone who is happy & well provided in life, you should conclude: ‘We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.’” SN 15:11, 12

“A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find.… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries—enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.” SN 15:14–19

Kamma & Rebirth

The Buddha acknowledged that he was not the first to attain the jhānas or to use those states of concentration to attain knowledge of previous lives. However, he noted that it is possible to attain a limited knowledge of previous lives (and by limited, he meant even as long as forty eons of cosmic expansion and contraction (DN 1)) and still develop wrong views about the relationship between kamma and the process by which rebirth occurs. One of the reasons for these wrong views is inappropriate attention—asking the wrong questions—and another is the sheer complexity of how kamma works. Only through his more complete knowledge of previous lives, together with his application of appropriate attention, was he able to realize the general principle of how kamma yields results: that skillful acts tend toward happiness and unskillful acts toward pain. However, he also saw that the results of present and past kamma interact in ways so complex that the question of when and where a particular action will yield its results is hard to answer—so hard, that any attempt to do so would lead to madness. And, given the role of present kamma in shaping one’s experience of the results of past kamma, the intensity with which the results of past kamma will be experienced can’t be predicted at all. Still, the general principle underlying these tendencies is reliable enough to provide guidance in following a path of action that will, eventually, lead to happiness. Not only that, this general principle also proved sufficient to underlie a path leading even further: to the harmless and peaceful happiness of unbinding.

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.” AN 6:63

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Monks, don’t be afraid of acts of merit. This is a synonym for what is blissful, desirable, pleasing, endearing, charming—i.e., acts of merit. I directly know that, having long performed meritorious deeds, I long experienced desirable, pleasing, endearing, charming results. Having developed a mind of goodwill for seven years, then for seven eons of contraction & expansion I didn’t return to this world. Whenever the eon was contracting, I entered the (realm of) Radiance. Whenever the eon was expanding, I reappeared in an empty Brahma-abode. There I was Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Unconquered Conqueror, Total Seer, Wielder of Power. Then for thirty-six times I was Sakka the deva-king. For many hundreds of times I was a king, a wheel-turning monarch, a righteous king of Dhamma, conqueror of the four corners of the earth, maintaining stable control over the countryside, endowed with the seven treasures23 —to say nothing of the times I was a local king. The thought occurred to me, ‘Of what action of mine is this the fruit, of what action the result, that I now have such great power & might?’ Then the thought occurred to me, ‘This is the fruit of my three (types of) action, the result of three types of action, that I now have such great power & might: i.e., generosity, self-control, & restraint.’”

Train in acts of merit

that yield the foremost profit of bliss—

develop generosity,

a life in tune,

a mind of goodwill.

Developing these

three things

that bring about bliss,

the wise reappear

in a world of bliss

unalloyed. Iti 22

Then Subha the student, Todeyya’s son, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, what is the reason, what is the cause, why baseness & excellence are seen among human beings, among the human race? For short-lived & long-lived people are to be seen, sickly & healthy, ugly & beautiful, uninfluential & influential, poor & rich, low-born & high-born, stupid & discerning people are to be seen. So what is the reason, what is the cause, why baseness & excellence are seen among human beings, among the human race?”

“Student, beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and have their actions as their arbitrator. Action is what differentiates beings in terms of baseness & excellence.”

“I don’t understand the detailed meaning of Master Gotama’s statement spoken in brief without explaining the detailed meaning. It would be good if Master Gotama taught me the Dhamma so that I might understand the detailed meaning of his brief statement.”

“In that case, student, listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, Master Gotama,” Subha the student responded to the Blessed One.

The Blessed One said: “There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. If, on the breakup of the body, after death—instead of reappearing in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell—he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a short life: to be a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man, having abandoned the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings, and dwells with the rod laid down, the knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, & sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world. If, on the breakup of the body, after death—instead of reappearing in a good destination, a heavenly world—he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is long-lived wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a long life: to have abandoned the killing of living beings, to abstain from killing living beings, to dwell with one’s rod laid down, one’s knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, & sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings.

“There is the case where a woman or man is one who harms beings with his/her fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is sickly wherever reborn. This is the way leading to sickliness: to be one who harms beings with one’s fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man is not one who harms beings with his/her fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is healthy wherever reborn. This is the way leading to health: not to be one who harms beings with one’s fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives.

“There is the case, where a woman or man is ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, he/she grows offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; shows annoyance, aversion, & bitterness. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is ugly wherever reborn. This is the way leading to ugliness: to be ill-tempered & easily upset; even when lightly criticized, to grow offended, provoked, malicious, & resentful; to show annoyance, aversion, & bitterness.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man is not ill-tempered or easily upset; even when heavily criticized, he/she doesn’t grow offended, provoked, malicious, or resentful; doesn’t show annoyance, aversion, or bitterness. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is beautiful wherever reborn. This is the way leading to beauty: not to be ill-tempered or easily upset; even when heavily criticized, not to be offended, provoked, malicious, or resentful; nor to show annoyance, aversion, & bitterness.

“There is the case where a woman or man is envious. He/she envies, begrudges, & broods about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, & veneration. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is not influential wherever reborn. This is the way leading to being uninfluential: to be envious, to envy, begrudge, & brood about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, & veneration.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man is not envious. He/she doesn’t envy, begrudge, or brood about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, or veneration. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, he/she is influential wherever reborn. This is the way leading to being influential: not to be envious; not to envy, begrudge, or brood about others’ gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, or veneration.

“There is the case where a woman or man is not a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, or lighting to contemplatives or brahmans. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation… If instead he/she comes to the human state, he/she is poor wherever reborn. This is the way leading to poverty: not to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, or lighting to contemplatives or brahmans.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man is a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, & lighting to contemplatives & brahmans. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is wealthy wherever reborn. This is the way leading to great wealth: to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, & lighting to contemplatives & brahmans.

“There is the case where a woman or man is obstinate & arrogant. He/she doesn’t pay homage to those who deserve homage, rise up for those for whom one should rise up, give a seat to those to whom one should give a seat, make way for those for whom one should make way, worship those who should be worshipped, respect those who should be respected, revere those who should be revered, or honor those who should be honored. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is low-born wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a low birth: to be obstinate & arrogant, not to pay homage to those who deserve homage, nor rise up for… nor give a seat to… nor make way for… nor worship… nor respect… nor revere… nor honor those who should be honored.

“But then there is the case where a woman or man is not obstinate or arrogant; he/she pays homage to those who deserve homage, rises up… gives a seat… makes way… worships… respects… reveres… honors those who should be honored. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination.… If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is highborn wherever reborn. This is the way leading to a high birth: not to be obstinate or arrogant; to pay homage to those who deserve homage, to rise up… give a seat… make way… worship… respect… revere… honor those who should be honored.

“There is the case where a woman or man when visiting a contemplative or brahman, doesn’t ask, ‘What is skillful, venerable sir? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, having been done by me, will be for my long-term harm & suffering? Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’ Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. If, on the breakup of the body, after death—instead of reappearing in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell—he/she comes to the human state, then he/she will be stupid wherever reborn. This is the way leading to stupidity: when visiting a contemplative or brahman, not to ask, ‘What is skillful? … Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’

“But then there is the case where a woman or man when visiting a contemplative or brahman, asks, ‘What is skillful, venerable sir? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, having been done by me, will be for my long-term harm & suffering? Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’ Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the breakup of the body, after death, he/she reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world. If, on the breakup of the body, after death—instead of reappearing in a good destination, a heavenly world—he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is discerning wherever reborn. This is the way leading to discernment: when visiting a contemplative or brahman, to ask, ‘What is skillful?… Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’

“So, student, the way leading to short life makes people short-lived, the way leading to long life makes people long-lived. The way leading to sickliness makes people sickly, the way leading to health makes people healthy. The way leading to ugliness makes people ugly, the way leading to beauty makes people beautiful. The way leading to lack of influence makes people uninfluential, the way leading to influence makes people influential. The way leading to poverty makes people poor, the way leading to wealth makes people wealthy. The way leading to low birth makes people low-born, the way leading to high birth makes people highborn. The way leading to stupidity makes people stupid, the way leading to discernment makes people discerning.

“Beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and have their actions as their arbitrator. Action is what differentiates beings in terms of baseness & excellence.” MN 135

The Blessed One said, “Ānanda, there are four kinds of people to be found in the world. Which four? There is the case where a certain person is one who takes life, takes what is not given [steals], engages in illicit sex, lies, speaks divisively, speaks abusively, engages in idle chatter; is covetous, malevolent, & holds wrong view. With the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.

“But there is also the case where a certain person is one who takes life… & holds wrong view, (yet) with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world.

“And there is the case where a certain person is one who abstains from taking life, abstains from taking what is not given, abstains from illicit sex, abstains from lying, abstains from speaking divisively, abstains from speaking abusively, abstains from idle chatter, is not covetous, not malevolent, & holds right view. With the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world.

“But there is also the case where a certain person is one who abstains from taking life… & holds right view, (yet) with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.

“There is the case, Ānanda, where a certain contemplative or brahman—through ardency, exertion, commitment, heedfulness, & right attention—touches the sort of concentration of awareness that, when his mind is thus concentrated, he sees with the divine eye, pure and surpassing the human, that person—the case where one who takes life… & holds wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.

“He says, ‘So there really are evil actions, there really is the result of misconduct. For I saw the case where a person who took life… & held wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.’ He says, ‘Anyone who takes life… & holds wrong view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Whoever knows this, knows rightly. Whoever knows otherwise, their knowledge is wrong.’ Insisting through obstinacy & grasping right there on what was seen by himself, known by himself, understood by himself, he states: ‘Only this is true. Everything otherwise is worthless.’

“Then there is the case, Ānanda, where a certain contemplative or brahman… sees with the divine eye, pure and surpassing the human, that person—the case where one who takes life… & holds wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a good destination, a heavenly world.

“He says, ‘So there really are no evil actions, there really is no result of misconduct. For I saw the case where a person who took life… & held wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a good destination, a heavenly world.’ He says, ‘Anyone who takes life… & holds wrong view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a good destination, a heavenly world. Whoever knows this, knows rightly…

“Then there is the case, Ānanda, where a certain contemplative or brahman… sees with the divine eye, pure and surpassing the human, that person—the case where one who abstains from taking life… & holds right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world.

“He says, ‘So there really are fine actions, there really is the result of good conduct. For I saw the case where a person who abstained from taking life… & held right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a good destination, a heavenly world.’ He says, ‘Anyone who abstains from taking life… & holds right view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a good destination, a heavenly world. Whoever knows this, knows rightly.…

“Then there is the case, Ānanda, where a certain contemplative or brahman… sees with the divine eye, pure and surpassing the human, that person—the case where one who abstains from taking life… & holds right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.

“He says, ‘So there really are no fine actions, there really is no result of good conduct. For I saw the case where a person who abstained from taking life… & held right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell.’ He says, ‘Anyone who abstains from taking life… & holds right view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Whoever knows this, knows rightly.…

“Now, Ānanda, in the case where the contemplative or brahman says, ‘So there really are evil actions, there really is the result of misconduct,’ I allow him that. When he says, ‘For I saw the case where a person who took life… & held wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell,’ I allow him that, too. But when he says, ‘Anyone who takes life… & holds wrong view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell,’ I don’t allow him that. And when he says, ‘Whoever knows this, knows rightly; whoever knows otherwise, their knowledge is wrong,’ I don’t allow him that. When, insisting through obstinacy & grasping right there on what was seen by himself, known by himself, understood by himself, he states: ‘Only this is true. Everything otherwise is worthless,’ I don’t allow him that, either. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata’s knowledge with regard to the greater analysis of action is otherwise.

“Now, Ānanda, in the case where the contemplative or brahman says, ‘So there really are no evil actions, there really is no result of misconduct,’ I don’t allow him that. But when he says, ‘For I saw the case where a person who took life… & held wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a good destination, a heavenly world,’ I do allow him that. But when he says, ‘Anyone who takes life… & holds wrong view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a good destination, a heavenly world,’ I don’t allow him that. And when he says, ‘Whoever knows this, knows rightly. Whoever knows otherwise, their knowledge is wrong,’ I don’t allow him that.…

“Now, Ānanda, in the case where the contemplative or brahman says, ‘So there really are fine actions, there really is the result of good conduct,’ I allow him that. And when he says, ‘For I saw the case where a person who abstained from taking life… & held right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a good destination, a heavenly world,’ I allow him that, too. But when he says, ‘Anyone who abstains from taking life… & holds right view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a good destination, a heavenly world,’ I don’t allow him that. And when he says, ‘Whoever knows this, knows rightly. Whoever knows otherwise, their knowledge is wrong,’ I don’t allow him that.…

“Now, Ānanda, in the case where the contemplative or brahman says, ‘So there really are no fine actions, there really is no result of good conduct,’ I don’t allow him that. But when he says, ‘For I saw the case where a person who abstained from taking life… & held right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, has reappeared in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell,’ I do allow him that. But when he says, ‘Anyone who abstains from taking life… & holds right view: They all, on the breakup of the body, after death, reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell,’ I don’t allow him that. And when he says, ‘Whoever knows this, knows rightly. Whoever knows otherwise, their knowledge is wrong,’ I don’t allow him that.…

“Now, Ānanda, in the case of the person who takes life… & holds wrong view and, with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell: Either earlier he performed evil action that is to be felt as painful, or later he performed evil action that is to be felt as painful, or at the time of death he adopted and carried out wrong view. Because of that, with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. And as for the results of taking life… holding wrong view, he will feel them either right here & now, or in the next (lifetime), or following that.

“In the case of the person who takes life… & holds wrong view (yet), with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world: Either earlier he performed fine action that is to be felt as pleasant, or later he performed fine action that is to be felt as pleasant, or at the time of death he adopted and carried out right view. Because of that, with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world. But as for the results of taking life… holding wrong view, he will feel them either right here & now, or in the next (lifetime), or following that.

“In the case of the person who abstains from taking life… & holds right view and, with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world: either earlier he performed fine action that is to be felt as pleasant, or later he performed fine action that is to be felt as pleasant, or at the time of death he adopted and carried out right view. Because of that, with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world. And as for the results of abstaining from taking life… holding right view, he will feel them either right here & now, or in the next (lifetime), or following that.”

“In the case of the person who abstains from taking life… & holds right view (yet) with the breakup of the body, after death, reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell: Either earlier he performed evil action that is to be felt as painful, or later he performed evil action that is to be felt as painful, or at the time of death he adopted and carried out wrong view. Because of that, with the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. But as for the results of abstaining from taking life… holding right view, he will feel them either right here & now, or in the next (lifetime), or following that.

“Thus, Ānanda, there is action that is ineffectual and apparently ineffectual. There is action that is ineffectual but apparently effectual. There is action that is both effectual and apparently effectual. There is action that is effectual but apparently ineffectual.”24 MN 136

“Monks, for anyone who says, ‘In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,’ there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress. But for anyone who says, ‘When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced,’ there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress.…

“Suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into a small amount of water in a cup. What do you think? Would the water in the cup become salty because of the salt crystal and unfit to drink?”

“Yes, lord. Why is that? There being only a small amount of water in the cup, it would become salty because of the salt crystal and unfit to drink.”

“Now suppose that a man were to drop a salt crystal into the River Ganges. What do you think? Would the water in the River Ganges become salty because of the salt crystal and unfit to drink?”

“No, lord. Why is that? There being a great mass of water in the River Ganges, it would not become salty because of the salt crystal or unfit to drink.”

“In the same way, there is the case where a trifling evil deed done by one individual (the first) takes him to hell, and there is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by the other individual is experienced in the here-&-now and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual takes him to hell? There is the case where a certain individual is undeveloped in body [see MN 36, above], undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment: restricted, small-hearted, dwelling with suffering. A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual takes him to hell.

“Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here-&-now and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case where a certain individual is developed in body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment: unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the immeasurable.25 A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here-&-now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.” AN 3:101

The Buddha never provided a complete map to the many levels of the cosmos in which he saw beings dying and being reborn under the influence of their kamma. Although a sketchy map can be compiled from scattered references in the Canon, it’s important to remember that it’s only a sketch. And it’s also important to note that, although it does contain some elements of the cosmos as taught by previous Indian teachers, the overall shape and ordering of the cosmos as he taught it was original with him. Beginning with the lowest level, there are the planes of deprivation: hells, the realm of common animals, and the realm of hungry ghosts. The good destinations begin with the human realm and go up through the realms of the devas: terrestrial and celestial devas on the level of sensuality, and the heavens of the brahmā-devas on the levels of form and formlessness, corresponding to the levels of jhāna and formless concentration. In addition, there are beings without perception, which do not quite fit into the neat ascending pattern, and also five Pure Abodes: the heavens from which non-returners attain total unbinding.

In only a few cases did the Buddha describe life in these various realms. His descriptions of the heavens tended to be short, as in the following example:

“There ultimately comes a time when, with the passing of a long stretch of time, this world devolves. When the world is devolving, beings for the most part head toward the Radiant (brahmās). There they stay: mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, coursing through the air, established in beauty for a long stretch of time.” DN 1

However, the Buddha’s descriptions of the hells that await a person who has done evil in this lifetime could be quite detailed. Here’s just one of the hells:

“Then the hell-wardens throw him into the Great Hell. And as to the Great Hell, monks:

It’s four-cornered & has four gates

set in the middle of each side.

It’s surrounded by an iron fortress wall

and roofed with iron.

Its floor is made of red-hot iron,

heated, fully blazing.

It stands always, spreading one hundred leagues all around.

“The flame that leaps from the eastern wall of the Great Hell strikes the western wall. The flame that leaps from the western wall strikes the eastern wall. The flame that leaps from the northern wall strikes the southern wall. The flame that leaps from the southern wall strikes the northern wall. The flame that leaps from the bottom strikes the top. The flame that leaps from the top strikes the bottom. There he feels painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil kamma is not exhausted.

“There comes a time when, ultimately, with the passing of a long stretch of time, the eastern gate of the Great Hell opens. He runs there, rushing quickly. As he runs there, rushing quickly, his outer skin burns, his inner skin burns, his flesh burns, his tendons burn, even his bones turn to smoke. When (his foot) is lifted, he is just the same.26 But when he finally arrives, the door slams shut. There he feels painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil kamma is not exhausted.

“There comes a time when, ultimately, with the passing of a long stretch of time, the western gate of the Great Hell opens… the northern gate… the southern gate of the Great Hell opens. He runs there, rushing quickly. As he runs there, rushing quickly, his outer skin burns, his inner skin burns, his flesh burns, his tendons burn, even his bones turn to smoke. When (his foot) is lifted, he is just the same. But when he finally arrives, the door slams shut. There he feels painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil kamma is not exhausted.

“There comes a time when, ultimately, with the passing of a long stretch of time, the eastern gate of the Great Hell opens. He runs there, rushing quickly. As he runs there, rushing quickly, his outer skin burns, his inner skin burns, his flesh burns, his tendons burn, even his bones turn to smoke. When (his foot) is lifted, he is just the same. He gets out through the gate. But right next to the Great Hell is a vast Excrement Hell. He falls into that.” MN 130

Another way in which the Buddha’s description of rebirth differed from that of his contemporaries was that he never answered the question of what it was that took rebirth. He talked only about how the process happens, because the process is something that can be mastered so as to bring it to an end.

The Buddha called this process “further-becoming,” the act of taking on an identity in a particular world of experience. As he saw in his second knowledge, this external process could be traced to internal processes: acts of intention (action) and attention (the choice of what questions to ask and which views to adopt). These acts, in turn, could be traced back to craving and desire, whether skillful or unskillful.

“Vaccha, just as a fire burns with clinging/sustenance and not without clinging/sustenance, even so I designate the rebirth of one who has clinging/sustenance and not of one without clinging/sustenance.”

“But, Master Gotama, at the moment a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, what do you designate as its clinging/sustenance then?”

“Vaccha, when a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes a far distance, I designate it as wind-sustained, for the wind is its clinging/sustenance at that time.”

“And at the moment when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, what do you designate as its clinging/sustenance then?”

“Vaccha, when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its clinging/sustenance at that time.” SN 44:9

Ven. Ānanda said to the Blessed One, “Lord, this word, ‘becoming, becoming’—to what extent is there becoming?”

“Ānanda, if there were no kamma ripening in the sensuality-property, would sensuality-becoming be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.

“If there were no kamma ripening in the form-property, would form-becoming be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a middling property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.

“If there were no kamma ripening in the formless-property, would formless-becoming be discerned?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a refined property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. This is how there is becoming.” AN 3:78

“‘All phenomena are rooted in desire.’” AN 10:58

Given the sense of terror accompanying the Buddha’s first two knowledges, it was only natural that, on seeing the centrality of desire and craving in fueling the process of further-becoming, he would ask himself: “How can desire be brought to an end? Can desire be skillfully used to bring that end about? And, if so, what kind of desire might that be?” These were the questions that led from the second knowledge to the third.

The Four Noble Truths

The four noble truths are the truths of dukkha—suffering and stress—its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. The framework of these noble truths derives from the fact that there are two kinds of desires, unskillful—the forms of craving leading to suffering—and skillful, the forms of desire that give guidance to the path in the form of right resolve and right effort. Skillful desires find expression in terms of appropriate attention (right view) and intention (the practices of right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). Of these factors, the Buddha gave prominence to right view. Unlike the first and second knowledges—which were expressed in terms of becoming, i.e., beings and worlds—right view on the level of the third knowledge dropped those terms, regarding experience in terms of events immediately present to awareness.

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further-becoming—accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there—i.e., craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this noble eightfold path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” SN 56:11

“And what are the five clinging-aggregates?

“Any form whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—that is clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with effluents: That is called the form clinging-aggregate.

“Any feeling whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—that is clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with effluents: That is called the feeling clinging-aggregate.

“Any perception whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—that is clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with effluents: That is called the perception clinging-aggregate.

“Any fabrications whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—that are clingable, offer sustenance, and are accompanied with effluents: Those are called the fabrication clinging-aggregate.

“Any consciousness whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near—that is clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with effluents: That is called the consciousness clinging-aggregate.” SN 22:48

“And what is clinging? These four clingings: sensuality-clinging, view-clinging, habit-&-practice-clinging, and doctrine-of-self-clinging. This is called clinging.” SN 12:2

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.27

“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.28

“And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual intercourse: This, monks, is called right action.

“And what, monks, is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood. This, monks, is called right livelihood.

“And what, monks, is right effort? (i) There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (ii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. (iii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (iv) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. This, monks, is called right effort.29

“And what, monks, is right mindfulness? (i) 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. (ii) He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. (iii) He remains focused on the mind in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. (iv) He remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. This, monks, is called right mindfulness.30

“And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk—quite secluded from sensuality,31 secluded from unskillful qualities32—enters and remains in the first jhāna… the second jhāna… the third jhāna… the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration.”33 SN 45:8

Each of the four noble truths, the Buddha discerned, entailed a duty: stress was to be comprehended, its origination abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. The first three duties revolved around dispassion: Comprehending stress meant understanding it to the point of dispassion for it, abandoning the origination of stress required dispassion for the three types of craving leading to becoming, and the cessation of stress came with that act of dispassion. Developing the fourth noble truth, however, required passion of a relatively skillful type. However, when the path was fully developed, it, too, had to be abandoned with the attainment of release. This meant that the bodhisatta had to follow the path strategically, developing, in some cases, qualities of mind that eventually he left behind. This experience was what probably inspired his image comparing the path to a raft: To cross over the river he had to hold onto it, but once he had reached the far shore, he let it go.

“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’… ‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended’… ‘This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’

‘This is the noble truth of the origination of stress’… ‘This noble truth of the origination of stress is to be abandoned’… ‘This noble truth of the origination of stress has been abandoned.’

‘This is the noble truth of the cessation of stress’… ‘This noble truth of the cessation of stress is to be realized’… ‘This noble truth of the cessation of stress has been realized.’

“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 the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress’… ‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress is to be developed’… ‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.’

“And, monks, as long as this—my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths34 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 with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, in this generation with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & common people. But as soon as this—my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, in this generation with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & common people. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further-becoming.’” SN 56:11

The Buddha’s later accounts of right view show that, in developing this twelve-permutation knowledge and vision, he reached a state in which the concepts even of existence and non-existence didn’t occur. In this state, the duties of the four noble truths collapsed into one—total dispassion for all phenomena, leading to their total end. This was the point at which the raft of the path could be abandoned.

Then Ven. Kaccāna Gotta approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, ‘Right view, right view,’ it is said. To what extent is there right view?”

“By & large, Kaccāna, this cosmos is supported by [takes as its object] a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the cosmos35 as it has come to be with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the cosmos does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the cosmos as it has come to be with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the cosmos does not occur to one.

“By & large, Kaccāna, this cosmos is in bondage to attachments, clingings/sustenances, & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on ‘my self.’ He has no uncertainty or doubt that mere stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his knowledge is independent of others. It’s to this extent, Kaccāna, that there is right view.” SN 12:15

“Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks? Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?“

“No, lord.”

“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft.

“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.” MN 22

Unbinding

We have encountered the term unbinding (nibbāna) many times as the name for the goal the bodhisatta sought in the course of his quest for awakening. When a path of practice did not lead to unbinding, that was grounds for rejecting it. When it did, that was grounds for accepting it as right and true. The term itself seems to have been a common one for the spiritual goal sought by a wide variety of seekers in his time. Literally, it meant the extinguishing of a fire, but what did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of the Buddha’s day? Anything but annihilation.

According to the ancient brahmans, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and in that state—unbound from any particular fuel—it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha used the image to explain the goal of his practice to the brahmans of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn’t burn: thus his statement that the person who has gone totally “out” can’t be described as existing, not existing, both, or neither.

When teaching his own disciples, however, the Buddha used unbinding more as an image of freedom. A common Indian belief at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to “seize” it. When fire went out, it let go of its fuel and so was “freed,” released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment—calm and unconfined. In this way, the Buddha used the term unbinding to indicate the freedom that comes when letting go of the clinging that constitutes suffering.

Knowledge of unbinding came to the Buddha as a result of developing right view, but is separate from right view because right view—like all the other factors of the path—is fabricated, whereas unbinding is not. Not only does unbinding lie beyond right view; it lies beyond space and time altogether. Although a person totally unbound cannot be described—given that people are defined by their clingings and cravings, whereas a person unbound has gone beyond clinging and craving—the Buddha stated clearly that unbinding does exist, and that it is permanent and unchanging. In fact, he gave it many names and illustrated it with many similes to show that it was the highest, most desirable goal possible. These names and similes fall into five groups, conveying five important facets that anyone curious as to whether it’s a worthwhile goal should know.

The first is that it’s not a blank of nothingness. Instead, it’s a type of consciousness. But unlike ordinary consciousness—as included in the aggregates or in dependent co-arising—it’s not known through the six senses, and it doesn’t engage in fabricating any experience at all, unlike, for example, the non-dual consciousness found in formless levels of concentration. The Buddha described this consciousness as “without surface” and “unestablished.” His image for it is a beam of light that lands nowhere. Although bright in and of itself, it doesn’t engage in anything, and so can’t be detected by anyone else. Because this consciousness is totally unrelated to the six senses (MN 49), it will not end when the arahant’s six senses grow cold at death (Iti 44).

The second facet of this dimension is bliss: unadulterated, harmless, and safe. An important aspect of this bliss is that it is peaceful, entirely conflict-free.

The third facet is truth: Because it’s outside of time, it doesn’t change, doesn’t deceive, doesn’t turn into something different. And because the bliss of unbinding is permanent, unchanging, and true, it puts an end to all desires for further-becoming.

The fourth facet is freedom: from hunger, from suffering, from location, from restrictions of any kind.

The fifth facet is excellence, higher than anything known in even the highest heavens. In the Buddha’s own words, it’s amazing, astounding, ultimate, beyond.

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished,36 unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.” Ud 8:1

“There is, monks, an unborn—unbecome—unmade—unfabricated. If there were not that unborn—unbecome—unmade—unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born—become—made—fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn—unbecome—unmade—unfabricated, escape from the born—become—made—fabricated is discerned.” Ud 8:3

“One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no yearning. There being no yearning, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of stress.” Ud 8:4

“Monks, there are these two unbinding properties. Which two? The unbinding property with fuel remaining & the unbinding property with no fuel remaining.37

“And what is the unbinding property with fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose effluents have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. His five sense faculties still remain and, owing to their being intact, he experiences the pleasing & the displeasing, and is sensitive to pleasure & pain. His ending of passion, aversion, & delusion is termed the unbinding property with fuel remaining.

“And what is the unbinding property with no fuel remaining? There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose effluents have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis. For him, all that is sensed, being unrelished, will grow cold right here. This is termed the unbinding property with no fuel remaining.”

These two

proclaimed

by the one with vision,

Unbinding properties

the one independent,

the one who is Such:38

one property, here in this life,

with fuel remaining

from the destruction of [craving],

the guide to becoming,

and that with no fuel remaining,

after this life,

in which all becoming

totally ceases.

Those who know

this unfabricated state,

their minds released

through the destruction of [craving],

the guide to becoming,

they, attaining the Dhamma’s heartwood,

delighting in ending,39

have abandoned all becoming:

they, the Such. Iti 44

“Therefore, monks, that dimension should be experienced where the eye [vision] ceases and the perception of form fades. That dimension should be experienced where the ear ceases and the perception of sound fades. That dimension should be experienced where the nose ceases and the perception of aroma fades. That dimension should be experienced where the tongue ceases and the perception of flavor fades. That dimension should be experienced where the body ceases and the perception of tactile sensation fades. That dimension should be experienced where the intellect ceases and the perception of idea fades. That dimension should be experienced.” SN 35:117

Consciousness without surface, without end

luminous all around:

Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing.

Here long & short,

coarse & fine,

fair & foul,

name & form

are all brought to an end.

With the cessation

of [the aggregate of] consciousness,

each is here brought to an end. DN 11

“Consciousness without surface, without end, luminous all around, is not experienced through the solidity of earth, the liquidity of water, the radiance of fire, the windiness of wind, the divinity of devas [and so on through a list of the various levels of higher divinities and then to] the allness of the All.”40 MN 49

“Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall having windows on the north, the south, or the east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by way of the window, where does it land?”

“On the western wall, lord.”

“And if there is no western wall, where does it land?”

“On the ground, lord.”

“And if there is no ground, where does it land?”

“On the water, lord.”

“And if there is no water, where does it land?”

“It does not land, lord.”

“In the same way, where there is no passion for the nutriment of physical food… contact… intellectual intention… consciousness, where there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness does not land there or increase. Where consciousness does not land or increase, there is no alighting of name-&-form. Where there is no alighting of name-&-form, there is no growth of fabrications. Where there is no growth of fabrications, there is no production of renewed becoming in the future. Where there is no production of renewed becoming in the future, there is no future birth, aging, & death. That, I tell you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.” SN 12:64

“Unbinding is the foremost bliss.” Dhp 203

“Now, it’s possible, Ānanda, that some wanderers of other persuasions might say, ‘Gotama the contemplative speaks of the cessation of perception & feeling and yet describes it as pleasure. What is this? How is this?’ When they say that, they are to be told, ‘It’s not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only pleasant feeling as included under pleasure. Wherever pleasure is found, in whatever terms, the Blessed One describes it as pleasure.’” SN 36:19

“Any form… feeling… perception… fabrication… consciousness by which one describing the Tathāgata would describe him: That the Tathāgata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form… feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathāgata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.” MN 72

“His release, being founded on truth, does not fluctuate, for whatever is deceptive is false; unbinding—the undeceptive—is true. Thus a monk so endowed is endowed with the highest determination for truth, for this—unbinding, the undeceptive—is the highest noble truth.” MN 140

“‘All phenomena come to a final end in unbinding.’” AN 10:58

“Whatever is the ending of passion, the ending of aversion, the ending of delusion: This is called:

the unfabricated… the unbent…the effluent-free…

the true… the beyond…

the subtle… the very-hard-to-see…

the ageless… permanence… the undecaying…

the surfaceless… non-objectification…

peace… the deathless… the exquisite… bliss… rest…

the ending of craving… the amazing… the astounding…

the secure… security… unbinding… the unafflicted…

dispassion… purity… release… the attachment-free…

the island… shelter… the harbor… refuge…

the ultimate.” SN 43