Shortly after her ordination, the Buddha’s step-mother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, asked him for a short Dhamma-instruction that would guide her in her solitary practice. He responded with eight principles for recognizing what qualifies as Dhamma and Vinaya, and what does not. The commentary tells us that after her instruction, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī in no long time became an arahant.

The eight principles have been widely cited ever since. One Thai writer has called them the “constitution of Buddhism,” as they form the standards against which the validity of any interpretation of the Dhamma or Vinaya must be judged. Perhaps the most important point that these principles make is that any teaching has to be judged by the results that come when putting it into practice. They are an excellent illustration of the teachings given in the well-known Kālāma Sutta (AN 3:65), as well as in the teachings that the Buddha gave to his son, Rāhula (MN 61).

These eight principles can be divided into three groups as to their focus. The first two—dispassion and being unfettered—focus on the final goal of the practice. Three principles—contentment, persistence, and shedding—focus on internal means to the goal. The remaining three— seclusion, modesty, and being unburdensome—focus on the impact one’s practice has on other people. In this way these principles foster a fully rounded perspective on how one’s practice should be judged.

The Canon illustrates these principles not only with abstract discussions but also with stories, and the stories are often more memorable than the discussions. Thus this study guide differs from its companions in that it is predominantly composed of stories. Bear in mind as you read the stories that they are often framed in somewhat extreme terms to drive their points home. Sister Subhā [§1.6], Kālī [§2.10], Prince Dīghāvu [§3.5], and the monk whose limbs are being removed by a saw [§2.10] would not be as memorable if their stories were framed in more realistic terms.

Also bear in mind that there is some overlap among the principles, and that a passage may illustrate more than one at a time. Thus, for instance, in the story of Ven. Isidatta [§2.11], his answer to Citta’s question analyzes the fetter of self-identity views, while his behavior illustrates the principles of modesty and non-entanglement.

The most extensive overlap is between the principle of dispassion and that of not being fettered, as passion in its various forms covers three of the ten fetters that bind a person to the round of rebirth. Thus the section on dispassion contains passages dealing with how to overcome the three “passion fetters”—sensual passion, passion for the sense of form experienced in the jhānas of form, and passion for the sense of formlessness experienced in the formless jhānas—whereas the section on being unfettered treats the remaining seven fetters.

For further reading, see the Udāna—a canonical text composed of stories with comments by the Buddha himself—which illustrates all eight of the principles listed here.