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A Swift Pair of Messengers
The gradual training is a practical exemplification of the path described above in abstract. Since it is an example, not a universal principle, it will naturally admit of some variation when applied to the complexities of the real world. Certainly not all practitioners will accomplish everything described here; for example, it is not necessary to develop psychic powers. Nevertheless, the prominence of the gradual training and its central role in displaying the detailed workings of the path lend it great authority. Indeed, development of all the key factors of the gradual training is necessary in order to abandon suffering. The Buddha stresses that each step of the training should be accomplished in order for the practitioner to successfully progress to the next step.
Of all the versions of the gradual training none can rival the Samannaphala Sutta. This very long discourse is the record of a conversation between the Buddha and the newly crowned King Ajatasattu. This is a truly regal discourse, a literary classic, and a tragedy of Oedipal proportions; and yet the desperate psychological struggle of the king remains in the background, barely hinted at in the discourse. Unfortunately there is no room for a proper translation here, so we must remain content with an abridgement. The king, tormented by remorse over a terrible crime, asks the Buddha about happiness.
‘Bhante, the various craftsmen and workers enjoy here and now the visible fruits of their skills, bringing themselves and their families pleasure and joy, and supporting monks, which leads to happiness in heaven. Is it possible, Bhante, to point out such a fruit of the contemplative life apparent here and now, pertaining to this life?’
‘It is possible, Great King... Here, a Tathagata arises in the world, an arahant, a fully enlightened Buddha, perfect in realization and conduct, sublime, knower of the worlds, unexcelled trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of deities and humans, enlightened, blessed. He makes known this world with its deities, Maras, and Brahmas, this generation with its contemplatives and brahmans, princes and people, having witnessed it himself with direct knowledge. He teaches the Dhamma, beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, beautiful in the end, meaningful and well phrased, and he elucidates the holy life entirely fulfilled and purified.
‘A householder hears that Dhamma and gains faith in the Tathagata. He considers thus: “This household life is cramped and dirty, but life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy while dwelling in a house to live the holy life absolutely fulfilled and purified as a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair and beard, put on the dyed robe and go forth from the home to homelessness?” And after some time, having abandoned a small or large quantity of wealth, having abandoned a small or large circle of relatives, he goes forth into homelessness.
‘When he has gone forth he dwells restrained in the role of the monastic code, perfect in conduct and resort, seeing danger in the slightest fault, training in the rules he has undertaken; endowed with good action of body and speech; with purified livelihood; perfect in virtue; with sense doors guarded; endowed with mindfulness and clear comprehension; content.
‘And how, Great King, is a monk perfect in virtue?
‘Here a monk has abandoned killing living beings, he has laid down the rod and the sword, and abides compassionate for the welfare of all living beings....
‘He has abandoned theft, taking only what is given....
‘He has abandoned what is not the holy life, living remote from the vulgar act of sex....
‘He has abandoned false speech, speaking what is true and reliable, no deceiver of the world....
‘He has abandoned divisive speech, delighting and rejoicing in harmony....
‘He has abandoned harsh speech, speaking what is pleasing to the ear, going to the heart, delightful and pleasing to the many-folk....
He has abandoned gossip, speaking what is true and meaningful at the right time ....
He eats one meal a day ....
‘He refrains from dancing, singing, playing music, and seeing shows....
‘He refrains from accepting gold and money....
‘He refrains from storing up food and material possessions....
‘He refrains from hinting and suggesting, using material goods to gain other material goods....
He refrains from making a living by various trivial sciences such as interpreting omens and dreams, fortune telling, palmistry, astrology, mathematics, worldly poetry and studies, geomancy [feng shui], and medicine....
‘And so, Great King, a monk thus perfect in virtue, just like a warrior chief without enemies, does not see fear from any quarter. Endowed with this noble aggregate of virtue he experiences within himself a blameless bliss....
‘And how, Great King, does a monk guard his sense, doors?
‘Seeing a form with the eye; hearing a sound with the ear; smelling a smell with the nose; tasting a taste with the tongue; touching a tangible object with the body; and cognizing a phenomena with the mind he does not grasp at general or particular features. Since if he did not restrain his sense faculties he would be overwhelmed by desire and aversion, by evil, unbeneficial qualities, he practices for the restraint and guarding of his sense faculties. Endowed with this noble aggregate of sense restraint, he experiences within himself an unblemished bliss….
‘And how, Great King, is a monk endowed with mindful-ness and clear comprehension?
‘Here, a monk acts with clear comprehension when going out and returning; when looking in front and to the side; when bending and stretching the limbs; when carrying robes and bowl; when eating and drinking; when urinating and defecating, when walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, speaking and keeping silent.
‘And how, Great King, is a monk content?
“Here, a monk is content with robes to protect the body and alms-food to sustain the belly. Wherever he goes, he takes just these with him, like a bird that flies, burdened only by its wings….
‘And so , Great King, endowed with this noble aggregate of virtue, this noble sense restraint, this noble mindfulness and clear comprehension, and this noble contentment he resorts to a secluded dwelling place ‑ a forest, the root of a tree, a mountain, a wilderness, a cave, a charnel ground, a wood, an open space, or a heap of straw. Then after his meal, having returned from alms round he sits down cross-legged, sets his body erect, and establishes mindfulness before him
‘Having abandoned desire he abides with a mind free from desire. Having abandoned ill will and anger, he is compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Having abandoned sloth and torpor, he is percipient of light, mindful and clearly comprehending. Having abandoned restlessness and remorse he abides with mind unruffled, with mind inwardly calm. Having abandoned doubt, he is not perplexed regarding beneficial qualities. He purifies his mind from these five hindrances.
‘When a debtor pays off their debt, or a sick person is cured, or a prisoner is released, or a slave is freed, or a traveler through the desert reaches a safe place, for that reason they would gain gladness and happiness. In just the same way, a monk contemplates these five hindrances when not abandoned in himself as a debt, a sickness, a prison, slavery, a desert journey. He contemplates these five hindrances when they are abandoned in himself as un-indebtedness, health, release from prison, freedom, a safe place.
‘In one who contemplates the abandoning of the five hindrances in oneself, gladness is born. In one who is glad, rapture is born. In one whose mind is rapturous, the body becomes tranquil. One whose body is tranquil feels bliss. The mind of one who is blissful enters samadhi.
‘Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unbeneficial qualities he enters and abides in the first jhana. He steeps, soaks, fills, and suffuses his person with rapture and bliss born of seclusion, so that nothing remains un-suffused by rapture and bliss. Just as if an expert bath-man were to knead a lump of bath-powder, the entire lump would be soaked with water and yet no water would leak out. In the same way he suffuses his person with rapture and bliss born of seclusion. This, Great King, is a fruit of the contemplative life apparent here and now, pertaining to this life, more exalted and sublime than those described previously.
‘And again, Great King, a monk enters and abides in the second jhana. He steeps, soaks, fills, and suffuses his person with rapture and bliss born of samadhi, so that nothing remains un-suffused. Just as if there were a pool of water fed neither by streams nor by rain; but a spring welling up underneath would steep, soak, fill, and suffuse the entire pool with cool water, so that nothing of the pool would remain un-suffused by cool water. In the same way he suffuses his person with rapture and bliss born of samadhi. This too, Great King is a more exalted and sublime fruit of the contemplative life.
‘And again, Great King, a monk enters and abides in the third jhana. He steeps, soaks, fills, and suffuses his person with bliss devoid of rapture, so that nothing remains un-suffused. Just as if a lotus were to be born and grow underneath the water without emerging, the entire plant from the roots to the tips would be steeped, soaked, filled and suffused with cool water, so that nothing of the lotus would remain un-suffused by cool water. In the same way he suffuses his person with bliss devoid of rapture. This too, Great King is a more exalted and sublime fruit of the contemplative life.
‘And again, Great King, a monk enters and abides in the fourth jhana. He sits having suffused his person with pure bright heart, so that nothing remains un-suffused with pure bright heart. Just as if a man were to sit completely covered, including his head, with white cloth, so that nothing of his person would remain un-suffused by the white cloth, in just the same way he suffuses his person with pure bright heart. This too, Great King, is a more exalted and sublime fruit of the contemplative life.
‘And so when his mind is thus concentrated in samadhi, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind to knowledge and vision. He understands: “This my body is material, made up of the four great elements, produced by mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, subject to impermanence, to rubbing, wearing, breaking up, and dispersal; and this my consciousness is caught up and bound up in it.” Just as if a man with good sight were to examine a beryl gem in his hand, saying: “This beryl gem is beautiful, well made, clear, and transparent; and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white, or brown string.” In just the same way he inclines his mind to knowledge and vision. This too, Great King, is a more exalted and sublime fruit of the contemplative life.
‘And so when his mind is thus concentrated in samadhi, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind to creation of a mind-made body ... to wielding the various psychic powers ... to the divine ear...to knowledge of the minds of others ... to recollection of past lives ... to the divine eye which sees the passing away and reappearing of beings according to their actions.... Each of these is a fruit of the contemplative life apparent here and now, pertaining to this life, more exalted and sublime than those previously described.
‘And so when his mind is thus concentrated in samadhi, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind to the knowledge of the evaporation of the poisons. He understands in accordance with reality: “This is suffering,”... “This is the origin of suffering”... "This is the cessation of suffering”... “This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering”... “These are poisons”... “This is the origin of the poisons”... “This is the cessation of the poisons”... “This is the way leading to the cessation of the poisons.” For him knowing and seeing thus, his mind is freed from the poisons of sensual pleasures, existence, and ignorance. When released he knows: “It is released.” He understands: “Birth is evaporated; the holy life has been lived; what was to be done has been done; there is no returning to this state of existence.”
‘Just as if, Great King, there were a mountain pool, crystal clear and clean, a man with good sight standing on the bank would see the rocks, pebbles, and shells, and would see the fish swimming about or resting.... So too he knows.... “There is no returning to this state of existence.”
‘This, Great King, is a fruit of the contemplative life apparent here and now, pertaining to this life, which is more exalted and sublime than those described previously. And, Great King, there is no fruit of the contemplative life more exalted and sublime than this.’
King Ajatasattu is an archetype for the dilemmas of worldly people searching for inner peace. He obviously had great spiritual potential, and respect for those pursuing the path of renunciation. But, goaded on by the evil monk Devadatta, he had murdered his father King Bimbisara, a stream-enterer, for the sake of the throne, thus destroying his chance of seeing the Dhamma. It is because of the inevitable conflict between worldly ambitions and spiritual aspirations that the Buddha laid such stress on the way of renunciation. The gradual training is the key paradigm for monastic practice. Such meticulous care and attention to refinement of conduct, seclusion, restraint, contentment, and discipline, day in day out, year in year out, provides the optimum supporting conditions for the refined states of mind that lead to liberation. So close was the connection between meditation and the life of seclusion in the forest that often they were virtually equated, as in the Buddha’s critique of the brahmans which follows, so sadly prophetic of the course Buddhism was to take. There is a pun in the Pali: the word for scholar (ajjhayaka) also means ‘non-jhana meditator’.
‘They made leaf huts in the forest and practiced jhana in them. They went to the city or village to gather alms... and then returned to their huts to practice jhana. People saw this and noticed how they meditated so they introduced the title “jhana meditator” for them... But some of them, being unable to do jhana, settled around towns and villages and composed scriptures. People saw them doing this and not meditating, so they introduced the title “scholars” for them... At that time it was regarded as a low designation, but now it is the higher.’
However, the Buddha never insisted that his followers must leave the lay life. As in all things, he relied on the maturity of the individual to choose the appropriate course of action. For those who choose to remain in the household life, he would point out how to live that life well, to restrain the defilements, and to incline gradually towards Dhamma. What lay people should not do is to try to incline the Dhamma gradually towards lay-life, watering down the teachings and making renunciation seem like unnecessary complication.
‘There are five things which conduce to the disappearance of the true Dhamma. What five? When monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen live in disrespect and are un-deferential towards the Buddha ... Dhamma ... Sangha ... training...samadhi.’
The distinction between laypeople and monastics pertains to moral conduct; that is, to actions of body and speech. The world of the mind, though dependent on virtue, lies beyond it, following natural principles of its own where distinctions of lifestyle, gender, race, or nationality have been left behind. Bhikkhuni Soma forcibly makes this point in her rebuke to Mara's taunt about a woman’s ‘two-fingered understanding.’
‘What does womanhood matter at all
It may therefore be expected that the training for the laity will embody similar principles as the monastic training, although as the training in moral discipline is less thorough, the higher training will be correspondingly more difficult to fulfill.
‘Monks, I do not praise wrong practice for either householders or those gone forth... What is wrong practice? Wrong view, wrong intention, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, wrong samadhi.’
While the Buddha emphasized the basics of generosity, faith, and virtue for laypeople, he encouraged them to go further than that.
‘Householder, you have supplied robes, alms-food, dwellings, and medicines for the Sangha of monks, yet you should not be content with just that much. Therefore you should train yourself: “Come now, from time to time I should enter and abide in the rapture of seclusion.”’
The practice of generosity and virtue yields its highest benefit when treated as a basis for meditation. In the following passage, the wise lady Visakha explains to the Buddha why she has asked for the privilege of supplying the Sangha in Savatthi with eight specific kinds of requisites.
‘When, Bhante, monks will come to Savatthi when the rains retreat is completed in order to see the Blessed One, they will approach the Blessed One and ask: “Bhante, a monk called such and such has passed away ‑ what is his destiny, his future course?” The Blessed One will explain that as the fruit of stream-entry, once-return, non-return, or arahantship. I will approach them and ask: “Bhante, did that venerable one ever come to Savatthi?” If they say “Yes, he did”, then I will come to the conclusion that surely that venerable one used a rains cloth, or food for those arriving or leaving, or food for the sick or those attending the sick, or medicine for the sick, or porridge. Recollecting that, gladness will be born in me. Being glad, rapture will be born in me. Being rapturous, my body will become tranquil. Being of tranquil body, I will feel bliss. Being blissful, my mind will enter samadhi. That will develop the spiritual faculties, spiritual powers, and enlightenment factors in me. Seeing this benefit, Bhante, I ask the Tathagata for these eight favors.’
‘Sadhu! Sadhu! Visakha. It is good that seeing this benefit you ask the Tathagata for these eight favors. I allow you, Visakha, these eight favors.’
Although lay people practiced satipatthana ‘from time to time’, it was never singled out as being particularly appropriate for them. The Satipatthana Samyutta records satipatthana being taught to lay people on only two occasions ‑ both times to non-returners on their deathbeds. More typically, lay people were encouraged to develop the divine abidings or the six recollections. The Buddha never taught lay meditation retreats or established any lay meditation centers. The intensive retreat seems to have been for monastics only. This is quite consonant with the outlook of the suttas as expressed in the gradual training, which sees higher state of mind emerging, not from strenuous toil for a short time in artificial conditions divorced from everyday life, but from a holistic lifestyle of simplicity, contentment, and restraint. This distinguishing feature of the Buddha's dispensation was one of the ‘monuments to the Dhamma’ proclaimed by King Pasenadi.
'Bhante, I see some contemplatives and brahmans leading a limited holy life for ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years, and then on a later occasion I see them well groomed and well anointed, with trimmed hair and beards, enjoying themselves provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure. But here I see monks leading the perfect and pure holy life as long as life and breath last.’
Skipping the evening meal while on retreat is for some a grueling asceticism. Here's the Buddha’s droll summing-up of the spiritual benefits of intermittent starvation.
‘[Some contemplatives] take food once a day ... or once a week ... or once a fortnight; they dwell pursuing the practice of taking food at stated intervals.’
‘But do they survive on so little, Aggivessana?’
‘No, Master Gotama. Sometimes they consume various sorts of delicious food, delicacies, and drinks. Thereby they regain their strength, fortify themselves, and become fat.’
‘What they earlier abandoned, Aggivessana, they later gather together again. That is how there is increase and decrease of this body.’
Rather than plunging in at the deep end of spiritual life at a meditation intensive, lay people were encouraged to spend one day a week in the monastery, keeping eight precepts, listening to Dhamma, and practicing meditation. This practice is continued in some places today.
‘Now do you Sakyans keep the observance day endowed with eight precepts?’
‘Well, sometimes we do, Bhante, and sometimes we don't.’
‘It is no gain for you Sakyans, it is ill-gained that in this life with its fear of sorrow, fear of death, sometimes you keep the observance day and sometimes you don’t. What do you think, Sakyans?... What if a man day in, day out were to earn a hundred dollars, a thousand dollars and were to invest his earnings throughout his life of a hundred years, would he not achieve a great mass of wealth?’
‘Well, would that man because of his wealth, owing to his wealth, abide exclusively experiencing bliss for one day and night? Or for half a day and night?’
'No, Bhante. For what reason? Sensual pleasures, Bhante, are impermanent, hollow, false, delusory.’
‘Here, Sakyans, one of my disciples abiding diligent, ardent, and resolute, practicing according to my instructions... for one day and night would abide exclusively experiencing bliss for a hundred years, a hundred times a hundred years, a hundred times a thousand years, a hundred times a hundred thousand years. And he would be a once-returner, a non-returner, or without question a stream-enterer. It is no gain for you, Sakyans, it is ill-gained that in this life with its fear of sorrow, fear of death, sometimes you keep the observance day and sometimes you don't.’
‘From this day on, Bhante, we will keep the observance day endowed with eight precepts.’
Some lay disciples were skilled in even the highest reaches of meditation. Here, Uttara Nandamata, the foremost female devotee in jhana practice, explains to Venerable Sariputta how she knew in advance of the Sangha’s arrival. A passing deity, as a stream-enterer Nandamata’s brother in the Dhamma, stopped to hear her chanting.
‘Having arisen in the night before dawn, Bhante, and chanted the “Way to the Beyond”, “I was silent. Then Great King Vessavana, realizing that I had finished reciting, congratulated me: “Sadhu, sister! Sadhu, sister!”
‘ “But who is this of majestic countenance?”
‘ “I, sister, am your brother, Great King Vessavana.
‘ “Sadhu, Your Majesty! May this passage of Dhamma which I have chanted be my gift to you.”
‘ “Sadhu, sister! Then let this be a gift for me: tomorrow the Sangha of monks headed by Sariputta and Moggallana will arrive here at Velukantaka without having eaten. Having fed the Sangha of monks may you dedicate the offering to me, then that will be a gift for me.”
‘So let the merit of this offering be for the happiness of Great King Vessavana.’
‘It is wonderful, Nandamata, it is marvelous that you should converse face to face with Great King Vessavana, a deity of such great psychic power and potency!’
‘This is not my only wonderful and marvelous quality, Bhante.... When rulers for some reason took my dear beloved son by force and killed him.... I know of no change in my mind....
‘When my husband, who had passed away and re-arisen in a spirit world, revealed himself to me in his old form, I know of no change in my mind on that account....
‘Since I was a maiden brought to my youthful husband, I know of no transgression against him in thought, how then in body?...
‘Since I declared myself a lay devotee, I know of no deliberate violation of any training rule....
‘As far as I wish, I enter and abide in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana...
‘I do not see any of the five lower fetters taught by the Blessed One un-abandoned in me....’
'Wonderful, Nandamata! Marvelous, Nandamata!’
Such advanced lay disciples attained those levels by following a comprehensive daily training as similar to the monastic path as possible.
‘Ananda, clarify the practice of a trainee for the Sakyans of Kapilavatthu...’
‘Here, Mahanama, a noble disciple is virtuous, guards his sense faculties, is moderate in eating, and devoted to wakefulness. He possesses seven good qualities (faith, conscience, fear of wrong-doing, learning, energy, mindfulness, and understanding) and he attains at will, without trouble or difficulty, the four jhanas which constitute the higher mind and are a blissful abiding here and now ...’
The opinion is sometimes expressed that times have changed and it is no longer possible to find the quiet and solitude necessary for development of deep samadhi. There is some truth to this, with the loss of most of the forests and the pervasive noise pollution of the ‘infernal combustion engine’. However, improved transport, communications, and medicines make it in some ways easier to live in seclusion without having to endure extremes of hardship as in former times. Another advantage possessed by modern Dhamma practitioners is the widespread availability of the Buddha’s teachings, translated and explained in various languages. Indeed, even today there are many tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people who live constantly or for extended periods in peaceful and secluded places suitable for meditation. Most of these places, right now, have empty rooms or empty huts available for anyone who wishes to practice.
‘Live enjoying retreat, monks, live delighting in retreat, developing samatha of the heart within, not neglecting jhana, possessing vipassana, and frequenting empty places. If you do so, one of two fruits may be expected ‑ profound knowledge here and now or, there still being some residual defilement, the state of non-returning.’
Many today feel they lack the necessary accumulation of spiritual perfections (parami) to attain Dhamma in this life. But the very concept that the possibility of attainment is dependent on practice in past lives is refreshingly absent from the suttas.
‘Endowed with six qualities, one hearing the true Dhamma is able to enter the fixed course of rightness regarding beneficial qualities [i.e. the way to stream-entry]. What six? One has not killed one’s mother, one’s father, or an arahant, one has not maliciously shed the blood of a Tathagata, one has not caused a schism in the Sangha, and one is wise, no imbecile.’
Invariably, the Buddha stressed that it is sincerity and totality of commitment that is the decisive factor; not applying Dhamma to daily life, but applying daily life to Dhamma.
‘As the crested blue-necked peacock when flying
Rather than asking – ‘How can I get the fruits of renunciation without actually renouncing?'’‑ the Buddha's words should be pondered.
‘Not apart from enlightenment and ardor
This is right view: sensuality leads to suffering, renunciation leads to peace. Those looking for a shortcut have already been offered one in the Buddha’s 3-in-1 instant enlightenment program: virtue, samadhi, understanding. The efficacy of this course of spiritual training has been guaranteed by the Buddha and attested to by countless practitioners, lay and monastic, over the centuries.
‘Whoever practices Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma
Making the commitment to go forth as a monk or nun is not an outdated custom, but is the most efficient way to realize the full benefit of the Dhamma.
‘Friend Sariputta, what is hard to do in this Dhamma-vinaya?’
‘Going forth, friend, is hard to do in this Dhamma-vinaya.’
‘But what is hard to do by one gone forth?’
‘By one gone forth it is hard to find delight.’
‘But what is hard to do by one who has found delight?’
‘Practicing Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma is hard to do by one who has found delight.’
‘But, friend, for a monk who practices Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma, will it take long to become an arahant?’
'Not long, friend.’
 See e.g. A10.76
 M27, M38, M39, M51, M53, M107, M125, etc.
 S1.523, 524
 Vin. Mv 8.15
 S47.29, S47.30
 Sn 1032-1123 The Vatthugatha in its current form is no doubt later.
 Iti 2.45
 Sn 221
 Dhp 86
 A38.16, S38.16
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last updated: 06-09-2004