The Fire Sermon

Fire WorshipAn Introduction to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

We owe the translation of the title of the discourse known as ‘The Fire Sermon’ to the American translator Henry Clark Warren, whose Buddhism in Translations was one of those pioneering Victorian works that brought the spirit of Buddhism into the west. Someone who read Warren’s translation was the poet T.S. Eliot, who studied Sanskrit from 1911–14, at Harvard. And Eliot’s reading of Warren’s translation resulted in his naming the third section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land ‘The Fire Sermon’. I’m sure the Buddha could never have guessed that he would get quoted in modernist literature.

The title ‘The Fire Sermon’ has a great ring to it. More literally, the title (āditta-sutta) is ‘The Discourse about What is on Fire’, or simply, ‘Burning’. And, while the so-called ‘second sermon’ is more like a Socratic dialogue than a sermon, this ‘Discourse on Burning’, is more rightly called the ‘third sermon’ – the third teaching of the Buddha. A problem of course with the English word ‘sermon’ is its connotation of a tedious long talk in a church. But all of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered out-of-doors, and they are all records of the Buddha’s attempt to directly get across his awakening experience, to the extent that it can be put into words. The Pāli canon gives us a vivid sense of how the Buddha’s teaching was always delivered to a specific person or group, always tailored to his audience’s interests and expectations. The Dharma was never primarily a set of lists or doctrines, but rather the familiar ways in which the Dharma came to be expressed were the result of the Buddha’s teaching experience to specific people over a long period.

Once again I invite you to consider the early Buddhist discourses as literature – not as any kind of more-or-less accurate record of what the Buddha said in ancient India, but as the way that the early Buddhists, after the time of the Buddha, tried to re-create in a literary form the style and impact of their teacher. This involved the development of stories, which have the look of historical accounts, but are really later reconstructions of events. One these stories is that of what the Buddha did after his awakening experience, under the Bodhi tree. It is a long and detailed story, and is preserved in the Vinaya (the book of monastic discipline). Two episodes of this story are the Buddha’s ‘first sermon’ to his former five companions, given at the Deer Park at Sarnath, and then the ‘second sermon’, which brings them all to awakening. Let me give a summary version of what happens next.

We hear about a spoiled young man called Yasa, who becomes disgusted with his superficial lifestyle, whom the Buddha converts, in a story that later is switched to the Buddha himself. Then we hear that, once there are sixty arahants, the Buddha sends them out in all directions, exhorting them to ‘wander for the well-being and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being and happiness of gods and human beings’.

The Buddha then wanders eastward, towards Uruvelā (where he had gained awakening). On the way he meets a group of thirty young men with their twenty-nine wives. The girlfriend of the unmarried man has stolen their things and they are looking for her. ‘Which is better for you?’ the Buddha asks them; ‘seeking a woman or seeking for your self?’, and he converts them too. Arriving at Uruvelā, the Buddha meets three fire-worshipping dreadlocked ascetics, each called Kassapa, with their thousand followers. By performing a series of miracles, starting with the taming of a fierce nāga (python) living in one of the fire-huts, the Buddha converts the ascetics. Now follows the Buddha’s third sermon, to the former fire-worshipping ascetics (my translation can be found here).

The later Theravādin commentary adds that the Buddha thought, ‘What might be an appropriate dharma talk for these people, who tend the sacred fire in the mornings?’ And he came to the conclusion, ‘I will teach them about the six senses and their objects, comparing them to what is burning and blazing, and in this way they will be able to obtain arahantship.’ Then he spoke this formulation of the Dharma in order to teach the Dharma to these people.

The commentary can be a bit dry and literal in its interpretations of early Buddhism, but in this case it is very helpful. It points out that this particular discourse was delivered to a particular group of people, fire-worshippers, so that the Buddha tailored what he said to meet their interests and preoccupations. This is an example of what the later tradition called the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ (upaya-kauśalya), his ability to teach people appropriately. The fire-worshipping ascetics believed that tending the sacred fire, performing fire-rituals every morning, pouring ghee into the flames to feed the gods, was the way to salvation. The Buddha gets their attention by saying, everything is burning, everything is on fire. One might imagine that they would have responded by saying, or at least thinking, no it isn’t. But nevertheless he has their attention.

What is supposedly burning and on fire? What follows is another analysis of the whole of experience. In the second sermon the Buddha used the framework of the five constituents of experience (khandhas, ‘aggregates’). In this discourse, he uses a different framework:

  • The five senses-organs plus the mind.
  • The five sense-objects plus the contents of mental experience – ideas.
  • Sense-consciousness.
  • The contact between the senses, including the mind, and the world.
  • Experience arising from contact.

I find this a fascinating analysis. Elsewhere, having used this same framework, he asks, is there anything else in experience apart from this all this? Of course, it is a quite reasonable and sensible belief that there is a world independent of our sense-experience, but all we ever have to go on is the experience of our senses. This is it – what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought – this is the whole world. Anything else is an idea in our minds. And ideas are already included.

So everything, the whole of our experience, the whole world, is burning. Now comes the twist. Burning with what? With the fires of compulsion (rāga, ‘greed’), hostility (dosa, ‘hate’) and confusion (moha, ‘delusion’). This group of three bad guys is very common in early Buddhist discourses. It is a way of characterising our basic psychological afflictions. Compulsion and hostility are emotional – they characterise attraction and aversion reactions to experience – while confusion is intellectual – characterising basic lack of understanding of what is happening. The early Buddhist teachings stress that awakening or nirvāna is the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion. In a way, you can say, that’s all awakening is. But it’s perhaps preferable to say that the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion is a way of describing awakening in negative psychological terms. More positively, we could add that awakening can also be described in terms of contentment, love and wisdom.

Everything is burning. It’s a way of putting the Dharma – a dharma-pariyāya, a formulation of the Dharma. Does this speak to us? I once lived in a community of men (four of us, in a half-renovated house, with two cats and a dog, and a lot of dope-smoking), and one of the men was obsessed with sex. Whatever one might say, he brought it round to sex. Beds, beaches, lawns, woods, floors, bicycles, breakfast, dinner, tea – it all triggered compelling ideas of various sorts in my friend’s mind. Everything was burning for him – burning with a specific kind of compulsion. Then there was the mother of a dear friend. Any topic of conversation one might bring up was an opportunity to be gloomy. I was once visiting with my friend, and we’d been to the park. So I said, ‘the park here in town is big, isn’t it?’; to which the response came, ‘oh, the parking in town is terrible, so terrible’. Everything was burning for her – burning with a particular kind of gloom, of negativity.

Now we can make sense of the links between the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot quotes the Fire Sermon like this:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


The allusion to the Fire Sermon (‘Burning burning burning burning’) is sandwiched between allusions to the Confessions of St. Augustine, who went to Carthage as a teenager and was embroiled in ‘unholy loves’ – Augustine was burning too. Earlier in section III of The Waste Land, we read:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing…

These lines allude to Eliot’s own recuperation from a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Perhaps Eliot evokes another way in which the whole of our experience might be ‘burning’ – or tingling or hurting – with the inability to connect with, or find meaning in, what is happening; a symptom of the dissociated modern sensibility, one that perhaps many of us can relate to, at least occasionally.

But the Buddha’s Fire Sermon is an invitation to overcome burning, obsession, gloominess or dissociation, by identifying it as such. The truth is that sense-experience isn’t just what happens to us – it is how the world appears as a result of our active involvement with it. The world shows up according to what we want, what we care about, what we believe, according to the quality of our attention. It strikes me that these days not many of us might be fire-worshippers, but a lot of us pay attention to the news as it is represented on the internet. In fact, it is rather easy to pay a great deal of attention, not only to the news, but to the opinions people have about the news, and then to think about our own opinions about those other people’s opinions. It’s not so much that the world is burning, but that the world is a drama. The world of our experience is a constant drama, driven by the plot-lines of compulsion, hostility and confusion.

But what happens when we notice this, and begin to pay attention, not to the contents of our experience, but to how it shows up for us? The first thing we might notice is that we ourselves are largely responsible for how the world appears and shows up. If everything reminds you of sex, or everything is terrible, or the world going to the dogs, that tells you something about your own psychological tendencies. After all, it is we ourselves who choose what to pay attention to, and how to respond or react. Of course, we are talking here about deep-rooted habitual tendencies. But they can change, and that is the point of engaging in Buddhist practice. Hence the discourse goes on to identify three stages of positive change – disenchantment, self-possession and liberation. These summarise an insight process.

In another discourse (Itivuttaka 93), the Buddha teaches the overcoming or quenching of the three fires of compulsion, hostility and confusion through three distinct methods. Compulsion is quenched by attending to the unattractive qualities of our experience. Hostility is quenched by developing kindness (mettā). Confusion is quenched by developing wisdom. If we can imagine our experience as being on fire, in terms of a metaphor of burning, then to practice the Dharma is to quench the flames:

Those who practice, day and night,
the teaching of the perfectly awakened one:
they put out the fire of compulsion,
constantly noticing unattractiveness.

Those excellent people put out
the fire of hostility through kindness,
and the fire of confusion through the wisdom
that leads to piercing through.

Those mature beings, having put out the fires,
indefatigable day and night,
are completely quenched, remainderless;
they have entirely overcome suffering.

Based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre, 14 November 2017.


The Not-Self Characteristic

Light Gets In

An Introduction to the Buddha’s ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’

The ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’ (Anatta-lakkhaṇa-sutta) (my summary translation can be found here) goes by another title in Sri Lanka – the ‘Discourse to the Group of Five’ (Pañca-vaggiya-sutta); and the alternative title gives us another clue to what it’s about. The Buddha is shown as being in conversation with his five former companions in the ascetic life, so that this discourse is traditionally regarded as the Buddha’s ‘second sermon’, following the famous ‘first sermon’, the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (my introduction to which is here). At the end of the first sermon, Koṇḍañña had the insight that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease’, and this insight was a breakthrough for him. It was also a breakthrough for the Buddha, who for the first time had managed to communicate something of the Dharma to someone else, enough at least to induce the kind of insight that leads to ‘stream entry’ – an irreversible engagement with the path that leads to nirvāṇa, the end of dukkha. In this second sermon, the Buddha goes on to give the ‘group of five’ a direct and specific teaching, on the ‘not-self characteristic’ – a teaching which leads all of them all to see through any confusion they might hold about who they really are, and move them on and into a liberating knowledge of how things actually are.

In my introduction to the first sermon I made the (possibly unfortunate) comparison of the Buddha’s teaching with the Abba song ‘Waterloo’– a song that announced the sudden, brilliant, appearance of soon-to-be-world-famous talent. My point was that the four ‘ennobling truths’ taught in the first sermon were like a universe-wide hit, like a memorable tune that could get the Dharma into everyone’s heads. By contrast, in the second sermon the Buddha might be said to abandon jumpsuit and boots, and put on the dark clothes and hat of Leonard Cohen, and sing something that goes straight to the heart.

This might not be so obvious from the bare words of the discourse, which, as usual, is replete not only with repetition but with a somewhat forbidding technical vocabulary. Let us once again think about the discourse as literature. It is almost absurd to suppose that this discourse represents in a literally historical way the words of the Buddha to his first five disciples. The Buddha would have been at the very beginning of his teaching career, and he was yet to develop the many ideas and methods that have been preserved in the Pāli canon. It makes more sense, I think, to suppose that the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic represents  a way of putting the Dharma that the early Buddhists considered to be especially characteristic and typical of their teacher. And by imagining the Buddha as putting the Dharma in this way to his very first disciples, the Buddhists, who composed these early discourses, were in their own way doing justice to the memory of the Buddha. In this way, one might suppose, they managed to put into this discourse a kind of condensed version of one way in which the Buddha taught.

There is hardly any scene-setting. The Buddha addressed the group of five monks while they were living together in the Deer Park at modern-day Sarnath, near Vārāṇasi. But rather than telling them something ­– as he had done in the first sermon, when he told them about the middle way and the four ennobling truths – he simply asks them questions. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teaching strategy when he was talking to the Kālāmas (my introduction to the Discourse to the Kālāmas is here). The Kālāmas had had enough of being told by religious teachers what the truth was, and how any other truth-teaching was rubbish. The Buddha understands this and gives them a method by which they can decide for themselves what should count as a wholesome mental state and the advantages of developing such a state. But here, talking to the group of five monks – experienced spiritual strivers, intent upon liberation – the Buddha can assume a shared understanding of ethical conduct and meditation practice. Within this framework of commitment, he leads the monks through a set of analyses of experience, designed to get them to question their assumptions and re-think their views.

Any of you who have read any Plato might recognise this method of questioning – it reminds us of Socrates, who always claimed he knew nothing except that he was ignorant, and who proceeded to cross-question his poor interlocutors until it became apparent to everyone that they didn’t know anything either. Have you ever had the experience of having your assumptions pulled out from beneath you? I had always thought Leonard Cohen was one of those hippy crooners who’d smoked too much cannabis to make sense. But then Maitridevi played me his greatest hits in the car five years back, and I saw the truth… And probably anyone who meditates regularly has had the experience that our usual way of looking at things suddenly cracks and crumbles, to be replaced by a new perspective – that perhaps our breath is not actually boring at all, or that there is in fact no obligation to hold onto our resentments. I would say, though, that the Buddha is not exactly like Socrates. He always claimed to definitely know something about awakening. On the other hand, awakening is not an idea and cannot be put into words. We each have to discover it for ourselves, and hence the Buddha’s method of leading his hearers.

So he engages the monks in a process of destructive cross-questioning. The method turns on a way of dividing up our experience of ourselves into five khandhas or ‘constituents’, sometimes translated ‘aggregates’ or even ‘heaps’:

  1. physical form (rūpa), that is to say, our bodies, the physical stuff that our bodies are made of, the attributes of our bodies, its abilities and characteristics;
  2. feeling-tone (vedanā), that is, the bare hedonic tone of our experience, whether pleasant or painful or somewhere in between;
  3. perception and cognition (saññā), that is, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations and thoughts, memories and fantasies that are going on;
  4. habitual tendencies (saṅkhārā), which are the more dynamic aspects of our experience, the familiar patterns and dispositions that we sometimes love and sometimes hate; and
  5. consciousness (viññāna), the awareness of ourselves as being a body, having feelings, cognitions and perceptions, prone to habit, and aware of being aware.

This might sound complicated, but in practice it is relatively easy to keep these five aspects of experience in mind. Is our experience made of anything else besides these five constituents? It might be useful for us to consider how we might naturally describe our experience. I’ve always noticed that there is a body, there is thinking (in the head), there is feeling (more in the heart), and there is willing (which seems to be everywhere). The five khandhas may be a useful abstraction, that’s the point.

The Buddha then gets the monks to carefully consider whether any of these constituents is the self. By ‘self’ or attā (or ātman) the Buddha means ‘who you really are’. He presents two arguments for the monks to chew on. In the first he gets them to consider how they are not in fact able to control body, feeling tone, perception and cognition, habitual tendencies or consciousness. Is this true? If you are like me, it would be truer to say that we have some control, but not much, and not when it counts. Experience mostly just happens, and we find ourselves carried along, hoping for the best. So who are we really? I think that the most likely candidate for who we really are is consciousness. Thinking this way would mean deciding that who I really am is a deep awareness of being this same person over many years. My body changes slowly, feeling tones come and go, perceptions and cognitions change all the time, habitual tendencies unfortunately have a life of their own, but my consciousness is pretty steadily me. If I can’t control consciousness, that might be because I’m busy, or life is going badly, and a holiday or retreat might bring me back to myself. However, the Buddha will not let us rest with a conclusion like this.

The Buddha then gets the monks to consider whether the constituents are permanent or impermanent. Of course, they’re not permanent at all. So can any of them be truly satisfying? That’s quite a question. Of course, there is some satisfaction to be got from bodies, feeling-tones, from consciousness. But there is an invitation here to consider whether it is really OK that there is some satisfaction in experience. Finally, the Buddha asks the monks whether it is appropriate to say of any of a changing and partially satisfactory set of constituents that ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’? Of course, the way the discourse puts it, this is almost a rhetorical question. But clearly what is being suggested isn’t that the monks gave the right answers because they were good Buddhists, but that they were rehearsing a set of deep considerations about what it means to be a human being. For me, when I ask of consciousness whether it is really who I am, it soon becomes clear that after all what appears to be my self is this constant welling up of awareness which I simply continually identify with, as if I hoped it was me, as if I simply kept saying to myself, ‘this is who I am’.

But if in fact one cannot find within experience anything of which one can truly say, ‘this is myself’, this is what or who I really am, then one is free to let go of any idea that one’s experience should be a certain way, and all the emotion reactions that go with such a view. The Buddha describes this process as having three stages. There is the stage of disenchantment – no longer being under a spell, a false impression. There is the stage of becoming self-possessed – ‘dispassionate’ is the usual translation, but that might give the wrong idea of being disconnected from the heart. And there is the stage of liberation – no longer being pushed and pulled by views and emotions.

And the group of five monks gets it. Each in their own way, presumably, through their own individual process of consideration and enquiry. Their hearts and minds are freed and they are understandably pleased. They too have gained awakening and the end of dukkha. So this ‘second sermon’ gives us not so much a historical record of the awakening process of the first five disciples, but a kind of paradigm example of how the Buddha taught, and how the insight process might unfold. In fact the Buddha taught many methods and in many ways, in accordance with who he was talking to, but the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic tells it like it is: ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.

The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 22:59. This introduction is based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre 7 Nov 2017.

Turning the Wheel of the Dharma


A commentary on the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta

The introduction and the conclusion of this discourse imply that the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma was the very first discourse taught by the Buddha; his opening performance, as it were, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; it represents the Buddha bursting onto the scene, the world’s greatest spiritual teacher making his debut. But, from a scholarly point of view, it is unlikely that this discourse is any kind of record of the Buddha’s first sermon. Firstly, it presents the doctrines of the four noble (or ennobling) truths and the eightfold path in sytematic ways, but we know from other early Buddhist texts (most notably, the Chapter of the Eights and the Chapter of the Way to the Beyond, the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta) that earlier presentations of the Buddha’s teaching were unsystematic and did not involve lists. One might well imagine that the Buddha developed his teaching style, involving lists and systems, over his 45-year teaching career. Secondly, the discourse presents the eightfold path as if everyone is familiar with it already. So it would seem that, in fact, the Buddha’s first sermon is a later literary construct, an idealisation – the first great teaching of the Awakened One. But this is not to demean it. Indeed, the very opposite – it is to say that this discourse presents, in a vivid literary form, the Buddha’s signature teaching; a first sermon in the sense of what the early Buddhists thought the most typical of their teacher.

The discourse is set in a deer park, known as Isipatana (which means ‘Deer Park’, in an older dialect) outside Vārāṇasi, where his five former companions are continuing their life of austerities. The place is now known as ‘Sarnath’ – it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and has an ancient stupa, remains of old monasteries, and guest houses for modern pilgrims. 2,500 years ago, of course, the place would have been just a clearing in the jungle. Another early Buddhist discourse, the Discourse on the Noble Quest, explains how the Buddha managed to get the attention of the five ascetics. It was difficult, because they believed that he had given up the practice of austerities, that he was a back-slider and had reverted to a life of indulgence. But he invited them to examine his words and, having done so, make a decision about whether he was a loser or not. This is another version of the argument the Buddha makes in the Discourse to the Kālāmas – stressing the importance of deciding for oneself about a teaching, not just taking someone’s word for it.

The Buddha first teaches them what he calls the ‘middle way’ between two extremes. We have to remember that the five ascetics were hardened spiritual warriors. They would have had no problem agreeing with the Buddha that the life of indulgence in sense-pleasures was not going to lead to insight and freedom. I guess none of us would be here if we really believed that a thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle was the best kind of life. We would be down the other end of the Gloucester Road in one of those restaurants for which Bristol is noted, planning a winter getaway to a Sri Lankan beach resort. But here we are. But the ascetics would have been surprised to hear the Buddha say that the life of self-mortification was the other extreme. These ascetics were a bit like the body-builders or iron-athletes of today, who seek to control the body with the mind, to be a pure will, a sort of living chisel with which to carve a way to the truth.

By contrast, the Buddha’s middle way is an alternative to both these extremes. Firstly, it is a way ­– it is a means for making a journey, from here (from this situation) to there, to awakening, freedom. Secondly, it is eightfold – in brief, it consists of wisdom (right vision and resolve), ethics (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). In short, it is way of life, a way of living here and now which is beneficial and which conduces to our well-being. By the standards of asceticism in the Buddha’s day, his teaching was a soft option – it involves actually cultivating the profound pleasures of meditation. From our point of view, however, the Buddha’s teaching also involves the systematic development of ethics and meditation – it involves a definite commitment.

The Buddha then goes on to present this middle way from another angle: the four noble truths. The Pāli here is ariya-sacca, and although we have got used to the translation ‘noble truth’, this can give the misleading impression that what is being taught is somehow super-true because is is noble. But really the point is that the truths are facts, or ways things actually are, and they are spiritually ‘ennobling’; this is a better translation really.

The first ennobling fact about things is that there is dukkha. This word has a broader connotation than ‘suffering’. It includes the sense of unsatisfactoriness, frustation and imperfection. The Buddha characterises this dukkha in three groups: there is physical suffering (sickness, birth and getting old), there is experiential suffering (association with the unloved, separation from the loved, not getting what you want), and there is a deeper structural suffering involved in our appropriating and holding on to our experience. This world, our lives, are not perfect, they involve frustation, as well as suffering and pain – this is the fact of dukkha. Later in the discourse, the Buddha goes on to characterise the significance of this fact – the ‘task’ it implies. This dukkha is to be fully known. What this means is that we should turn towards this dukkha, get to know it. This, of course, is completely against the grain of our usual strategy, and is the open secret of mindfulness meditation – we turn towards what is happening in immediate experience, with awareness and positivity.

The second ennobling truth or fact about things is that this dukkha has an origin, a causal condition, and that that cause is taṇhā, a word usually translated ‘craving’ but which could also be rendered ‘desire’, ‘wanting’. But how can this desire or wanting be the cause of dukkha? Surely, our desires represent ways to make ourselves feel better. The answer is that this ‘wanting’ is something much deeper. The word represents not so much our conscious strategies for cheering ourselves up, but the nearly-unconscious tendency to react to pain with avoidance and to pleasure with a kind of compulsion. Hence the Buddha indicates three kinds of wanting. There is wanting sense-pleasures; there is wanting to become someone, to hold on to our identity; and there is wanting to not become, to get out of the whole situation. The problem is that this reactive tendency, of whatever kind, doesn’t really work, or only works up to a point. The ‘task’ that the fact of our reactivity implies is this origin of dukkha is to be given up, let go of. Easier said than done, you might well say.

But the third ennobling truth is that there is cessation, nirodha, the fact that this dukkha has an ending. Thank goodness for that – if there were no ending to dukkha, it would hardly be worth engaging in the task of giving up wanting. But there is nirvana, the complete stopping of dukkha, the stilling and calming of reactivity. The task here is that this cessation is to be personally experienced. This is important. If we do not actually experience some calming and insight then why should we believe the Buddha’s teaching? It is important to notice whether our practice of ethics and meditation actually results in a personal experience of some calming of unsatisfactoriness, some resolution of our problems.

The fourth ennobling truth is that there is a path, magga, to the ceasing of dukkha. The idea of a path is a metaphor for a way to get to where you want to go. The eightfold path, involving wisdom, ethics and meditation, is a way of life, and this way of life is to be developed. An important point here is that this path does not really get anywhere. It’s more that fully developing the eightfold path is the end of dukkha – it is a life of awareness, of care for ourselves and others, of mental and emotional calm and insight.

The discourse ends with one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, having a breakthrough – that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease’. This is a way of saying that Kondañña had the insight that everything in experience is in a process of change. So we can change. We can learn to lean in to the dukkha quality of life, learn to give up reactivity, bit by bit, build on our personal experience of when and how dukkha ceases, and develop an awakened way of life. At this point, at the conclusion of the discourse, a shout goes up through the ranked hierarchy of deities – layer upon layer of sublime beings, up through the imaginary vastness of the Buddhist cosmos, each deity delighted that the Buddha has set rolling the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. Again, like Abba with ‘Waterloo’, the Buddha’s first teaching is a big hit throughout the entire universe. Nothing will be the same again.

The Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 56:11. My summary translation; other translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and by Ṭhanissaro and others

This commentary is based on a talk given at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 31 October 2017.

The Chapter of the Eights


My review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review:

Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha Before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings, Shambhala, Boulder, 2016, paperback £15, 180 pages.

Gil Fronsdal’s new book is a translation of and commentary on ‘The Chapter of the Eights’ (Aṭṭhakavagga), the fourth chapter of the Sutta-nipāta, itself a miscellaneous collection of Pāli Buddhist verses (including such classics as the Karaṇīya-metta sutta and the Ratana sutta). I was excited when I heard about this new translation, because The Chapter of the Eights is a fascinating work, presenting the Dharma in a form that seems to take the reader back to an unfamiliar world of ancient Indian asceticism. In this world of heated argument about beliefs and practices between professional renunciates and spiritual wanderers, the Buddha’s teaching is presented as something beyond belief, beyond views and opinions, as a lived insight that combines a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation with an attitude of careful investigation and letting go. The non-dogmatic and practical approach of The Chapter of the Eights reads like the living words of the Buddha in his teaching heyday, in contrast to the lists and repetitions of the prose nikāyas, which can often appear formulaic. This has led to speculation about the Eights poems – that perhaps they are older than the prose discourses; that perhaps they represent an early and unsystematised version of the Buddha’s teachings; that perhaps they represent ‘the Buddha before Buddhism’, as the title of Fronsdal’s book proposes.

There is good news and bad news about Fronsdal’s new translation. The good news is that he has written some useful introductions to and commentaries on the sixteen poems that make up The Book of Eights, making these old Buddhist verses more easily accessible than they have been before in English. The bad news is, unfortunately, quite bad. It is that the translations themselves generally lack precision, and are occasionally wrong. Fronsdal does not seem to know Pāli particularly well. In my view, the book can hardly be recommended as a translation, though if it encouraged readers to investigate further it could be said to have some value. In what follows I will firstly discuss the importance of The Book of Eights, and how Fronsdal presents it, before indicating some of the problems with his translation.

Fronsdal’s preface begins: ‘This book is a translation of a collection of ancient Buddhist poems often considered to be among the Buddha’s first teachings.’ It might seem that Fronsdal is here starting to elaborate the claim made by the book’s title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’. The claim is that the Aṭṭhakavagga contains some of the oldest records of the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps dating from a period early in his teaching career, before the more systematic teachings with which we are familiar. However, despite this opening sentence, Fronsdal does not particularly push this claim; and indeed in his Afterword he presents an accurate summary of the uncertainties around making any definite claim for the date or original purpose of the chapter. In this regard, I had the sense that the title, ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, was possibly chosen by the publisher to act as a magnet for those drawn to the idea of ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’. Alas, the whole idea of getting back to ‘the Buddha’s own words’ looks, from the scholarly point of view, increasingly like an impossible dream. Fronsdal doesn’t actually dispute this. But before I present his view of The Chapter of the Eights, I will summarise what might positively be said about the text’s historical importance.

The Sutta-nipāta as a collection was probably assembled rather later than the discourses in the four main nikāyas or collections. It is arranged in five chapters, the fourth being The Book of Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) and the fifth The Way to the Beyond (Pārāyanavagga). The reason for supposing that these two chapters contain relatively old materials is twofold. Firstly, they are both commented upon in another canonical work called the Niddesa (‘Explanation’). This early commentarial text also comments upon the Rhinoceros Discourse (Khaggavisāṇa sutta), in the first chapter of the Sutta-nipāta. The Niddesa cannot be precisely dated but the fact that it exists shows that the texts it comments upon were valued in a special way from an early point in Buddhist history. Secondly, The Chapter of the Eights is itself mentioned in the prose nikāyas. In the Saṃyutta-nikāya, 22:3, the householder Hāliddakāni asks the Venerable Mahākaccāna to explain to him the meaning of a stanza from the Māgandiya in The Chapter of the Eights (Sn 844). Moreover, in the Udāna 5:6, the Venerable Soṇa is said to recite at the Buddha’s request the whole of the The Chapter of the Eights, and the Buddha compliments Soṇa on his recitation. These two stories seem to imply that The Chapter of the Eights were in existence prior to the composition of the prose nikāyas, in the time of the Buddha himself. (The Way to the Beyond and some other stanzas similarly appear to have been in existence during the Buddha’s lifetime). We should also say, in support of the idea that The Chapter of the Eights is old, that its language is archaic (which is presumably why the early Buddhists composed a commentary on it).

However, it must be emphasised that The Chapter of the Eights is relatively old, compared to other early Buddhist texts. This does not allow us to date it. Because the early Buddhist scriptures were composed and transmitted orally for hundreds of years, there is a kind of ‘event horizon’ which we cannot get behind. This horizon is about two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. The fact the early Buddhist scriptures describe The Chapter of the Eights as already in existence at the time of the Buddha in fact shows that the Buddhists of two hundred years after the Buddha’s death believed that The Chapter of the Eights was an old record of the Buddha’s teaching. But we cannot be any more certain than that about the matter. This has not stopped scholars speculating about it. The late Tilmann Vetter thought that the Eights were originally composed among non-Buddhist ascetics and then later included in the Buddhist canon.[i] Other scholars have speculated that the Eights describe an early form of Buddhism, that existed prior to organised monasticism and Buddhist doctrine.[ii] However, K.R. Norman, whose translation of the Sutta-nipāta is the most scholarly though it is very literal,[iii] has discussed the Aṭṭhakavagga in relation to early Buddhism, and concluded very convincingly that it is a mistake to suppose that the contents of The Chapter of Eights can somehow be taken to represent ‘Buddhism’ of any period. The Eights should be taken as more of a snap shot of one approach to the Dharma.[iv] While we can identify the particular characteristics of this approach, it is not possible to know what other discourses and teaching were in general circulation when the The Chapter of the Eights was composed. It is likely that The Way to the Beyond was in circulation at that time, which presents the Dharma in rather different terms, so it is likely that The Chapter of the Eights was always one approach among several, in which case it does not necessarily represent ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’.

Despite his book being titled ‘The Buddha Before Buddhism’, Fronsdal’s introduction and commentaries concentrates on the original content of The Book of Eights rather than on speculative questions about where the Chapter stands in relation to the Buddhism of the prose nikāyas. He identifies four distinct themes of the Chapter: (i) letting go of views; (ii) sensual craving; (iii) the description of the sage; and (iv) training. However, it must be said that the most strikingly original theme in the Chapter is the first theme, letting go of views. This theme is visible in the four discourses (2–5), each of which contains eight (aṭṭhaka) stanzas, that probably give the Chapter of the Eights its name (Aṭṭhakavagga). One can get a flavour of the argument from v.787:

One who is attached argues over doctrines –
How and with what does one argue with someone unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.[v]

Other discourses in the Chapter make the same point: that a religious practitioner seeking peace should let go of views, should not get involved in religious arguments, should practise a sceptical abstention from debate, and by contrast learn to seek peace through a different method, by understanding the relationship of views and emotional attachments, so as to abandon the former by letting go of the latter through insight.

As Fronsdal explains in his introduction, this message is not unique to The Chapter of the Eights, but is the subject of the Honeyball Discourse (Madhipiṇḍika sutta) in the Majjhima-nikāya, which explains how disagreement and debate is a result of conceptual proliferation (papañca), which itself arises from feeling, perception and thinking. Many other discourses, it might be said, present the same message from different angles, most obviously The Discourse on Brahma’s Net (Brahmajāla sutta) in the Dīgha-nikāya, which explains the arising of sixty-two kinds of wrong view on the basis of feeling and contact. The other themes of The Chapter of the Eights which Fronsdal identifies can likewise be found discussed in other discourses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the Eights is vividly focussed on the fruitlessness of religious debate. In the eighth poem, the Discourse to Pasūra (Pasūra sutta), the speaker of the discourse (presumed to be the Buddha) addresses Pasūra:

Wishing for an opponent, you roar
Like a hero nourished on royal food.
Run off, O Hero, to where the fight is;
As before, there is no fight here.[vi]

Pasūra seems to be an avid debater, and implied by the poem is a context of lively debate between ascetics (samaṇas), on topics of religious and spiritual importance. The Buddha simply refuses to participate:

Pasūra, what opponent would you get
From those who live without opponents
Who don’t counter views with views,
Who don’t grasp anything here as ultimate?[vii]

From these extracts, I hope to have given a taste both of the main theme of The Chapter of the Eights, and the accessible style of Fronsdal’s translation. Likewise, Fronsdal’s introductory comments to each of the sixteen poems open up the unfamiliar concerns and presuppositions of the ancient verses for contemporary readers. In this sense, Fronsdal’s book is not aimed at scholars, and indeed does no more than hint at the scholarly discussions on various topics. For instance, the eleventh poem, The Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes (Kalahavivāda sutta), is of great interest (at least to some of us), since it presents many of the nidānas or causal links familiar from the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent arising – but without any apparent awareness of that highly structured formula. It would seem that this poem represents an early presentation of themes that only later became the twelve links of dependent arising.[viii] Fronsdal’s introduction to the eleventh poem instead speculates on the relation of the discourse to the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, which is not an impossible hypothesis though it would need more discussion to look like more than guesswork.

Turning now to the translation issues I highlighted earlier, one could perhaps simply enjoy Fronsdal’s accessible new translation, as a way to explore a particularly interesting example of early Buddhist literature. However, any reader wishing to explore the meaning of the stanzas in detail should be aware of the many mistakes in Fronsdal’s rendering. Let me start with two general issues. First, Fronsdal translates nibbāna as ‘release’,[ix] nibbāti as ‘frees’[x] and nibbuti as ‘release’.[xi] These three words are etymologically and conceptually related; nibbāti means ‘goes out’ (of a flame) and is used metaphorically in early Indian religious thought in relation to the ending of the process of being reborn in saṃsāra. Likewise, nibbāna means ‘going out’, ‘quenching’ and is a metaphor for the summum bonum of the spiritual life and the end of rebirth; likewise nibbuti is regarded as cognate with nibbāna while also connoting ‘happiness’, ‘being at ease’.[xii] So why does Fronsdal write blandly “release is a translation of nibbuti”?[xiii] It just isn’t. ‘Release’ would be a translation of vimutti, which is a different concept. I would guess that Fronsdal wanted to maintain a this-worldly and psychological kind of tone in his translation.

The other general issues is Fronsdal’s translation of bhavābhava as ‘becoming and not-becoming’.[xiv] He does not in fact explain what he thinks he means by ‘becoming and not-becoming’, but it occurs in such contexts as:

This wise one doesn’t associate with
Becoming or not-becoming.[xv]

The Pāli here is bhavābhāya na sameti dhīro: ‘the wise person does not go to bhavābhava’. The word bhava means ‘existence’ or ‘becoming’, or ‘state of existence’, such as one of the six ‘realms’ of the wheel of life – existence as a god, animal, human, and so on. As K.R. Norman points out, the Pāli commentary explains bhavābhava as bhava-bhava ‘one or other state of existence’, saying, ‘in bhavābhava means in states of existence in the sensory realm and so on, or in bhavābhava means in one or other state of existence, in ever-renewed states of existence’.[xvi] That is to say, bhavābhava means ‘existence after existence’ or ‘various states of existence’. It does not mean ‘becoming or not-becoming’. Indeed, as the example above shows, the translation ‘becoming or not-becoming’ does not even make sense, whereas it makes perfectly good sense (in the ancient Indian context of belief in rebirth) to say, ‘the wise person does not go to various states of existence’, meaning that the wise person does not undergo rebirth into a god realm or back into the human realm and so on. Again, one might guess that Fronsdal wanted to avoid references to the rebirth cosmology of early Buddhism.

As well as these two general issues with Fronsdal’s translations, there are many specific points. In the context of this review, let me just take one, to make my point. Fronsdal translates the first two lines of v.898 as follows:

Those who say virtue is ultimate
Dedicate themselves to purity and religious observance.

The context is the statement of an opponent’s point of view – the view that it is the strict observance of a moral code that makes for spiritual purity. The Pāli here is sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ / vataṃ samādayā upaṭṭhitāse – ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate say that purity is through restraint. / Undertaking a vow they are dedicated.’ But Fronsdal writes in a note: ‘The meaning of this sentence is obscure. To translate this line most scholars look to the canonical commentary on this verse found in the Niddesa and borrow the idea that purity comes from self-restraint. I have tried to understand the sentence on its own terms, without the commentary. No English translation that I know of, including mine, translates saññā (‘concept’, ‘perception’) in the opening phrase sīluttamā saññamenāhu suddhiṃ.’[xvii]

This note shows, however, that Fronsdal does not understand the Pāli and misrepresents previous translators. The word saññamena has nothing to do with saññā but is the instrumental singular of saññama, from the verb saṃ-yam, ‘restrain’.[xviii] Hence, ‘Those holding virtue as the ultimate (sīluttamā) say (āhu) that purity (suddhiṃ) is through restraint (saññamena)’. This is not at all obscure, and shows that in this case previous translators did not borrow the the idea of ‘restraint’ from the commentary.[xix] I have found another fifteen specific examples of mistakes in Fronsdal’s translation, simply based on not understanding the Pāli.[xx] What to say? In his Acknowledgements on p.ix he thanks various people such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu for checking his translation. Not very thoroughly, one might think. Fortunately, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta-nipāta and its commentary will be published very soon.

[i] Tilmann Vetter, ‘Mysticism in the Aṭṭhakavagga’, in The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, Brill: Leiden, 1988.

[ii] For instance, Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: a survey with bibliographical notes, KUFS Publication: Tokyo, 1980.

[iii] K.R. Norman, The Group of Discourses (2nd ed.), Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2001.

[iv] K.R. Norman, ‘The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism’, Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, ed. Olle Qvarnström, Asian Humanities Press: Fremont, 2003.

[v] Fronsdal p.51, the last stanza from ‘The Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt’ (Duṭṭhaṭṭhakasutta).

[vi] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 831.

[vii] Fronsdal p.73, Sn 832.

[viii] See, for instance, Hajime Nakamura, ‘The Theory of “Dependent Origination” in its Incipient Stage’, in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula ed. S Balasooriya et al., Gordon Fraser: London, 1980, pp.165–72.

[ix] In v.940, 942, although in v.822 he has ‘nirvana’, without explanation.

[x] In v.915.

[xi] In vv.917, 933.

[xii] All this can be easily checked in either PED or in Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli vol.II.

[xiii] Ch.14 n.3 p.171.

[xiv] In vv.776, 786, 801, 877, 901.

[xv] Final two lines of v.877.

[xvi] Norman 2001, p.328, n.776, quoting the commentary Paramatthajotikā II p.517: bhavābhavesū ti kāmabhavādisu, atha vā bhavābhavesu ti bhava-bhavesu, punappunabhavesū ti.

[xvii] This is n.4 on p.170.

[xviii] This is perfectly obvious from the Mahāniddesa p.309 and from Pj II p.558, both of which gloss saññamena as saṃyamamattena, ‘through mere restraint’.

[xix] Hence Norman p.118 translates: ‘Those who consider virtuous conduct to be the highest thing say that purity is by means of self-restraint’.

[xx] Contact me for a full list of mistakes and issues.

Love and Separation: Sonnet 64


It’s all very well to write about experiences of beauty, of encountering the beautiful, and about how poets have managed to capture and even communicate their experience of beauty in the form of words. And it’s all very interesting to connect beauty and poetry with Buddhist practice, even with the teaching of the Buddha. But our actual human lives are by no means necessarily always characterised by vivid experiences of beauty, and our Buddhist practice may not be so sweet either. In this post I want to explore how poetry can nevertheless help us understand and engage in practising the Dharma, right at the cutting edge of life’s difficulties.

In the Pāli canon we find a teaching of the Buddha called ‘Five topics for frequent recollection’.[i] They are five simple reflections, and, as the Buddha says, they are for men, women, householders and renunciates. They are for everyone. They go like this:

  1. I am of a nature to age; I am not free from old age.
  2. I am of a nature to get ill; I am not free from disease.
  3. I am of a nature to die; I am not free from death.
  4. I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge. Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.

These are extraordinary sober reflections. Indeed, they do not end there. The Buddha also recommends that we consider these five topics in relation to everyone else as well as ourselves. But why should any of us reflect in this way? What is the point? The Buddha goes on to explain that, while we are young we are often intoxicated with youth, to the extent of acting in brash and heedless ways; but reflecting on age undoes this. Similarly we are often intoxicated with health and life, taking them for granted, and acting heedlessly. The fifth and last reflection is a vivid reminder that, as we act, so we become. This may seem obvious but is sometimes difficult to remember.

But the fourth recollection – that I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me – is not so simple either to state or even to understand. The Buddha explains that, because of desire for those who are precious to us, we act badly, and this reflection corrects this. But I personally find this hard to understand. In fact, I find this recollection the most difficult. It slips out of my grasp, my heart rejects it. But then I came across the following sonnet by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The sonnet is addressed to that same mysterious young man as most of the sonnets are; possibly a patron, not necessarily a lover, certainly a friend. Or perhaps it is unhelpful to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as if they represent the feelings of a particular man toward some other particular man. Perhaps they work rather on their own literary level, creating in the reader an empathic feeling of love from their form and grammar, then exploring various details of passion and loss. The reader, reading Sonnet 64, imagines his or her own most precious love, as subject to time as anything else in this sublunary world.

But somehow the very beauty of the poem, the enduring grandeur of its rhymes, the power of its diction, allows a difficult thought about inevitable loss the space to move and gain momentum: I will be parted from all that is precious and pleasing to me. The poem gives courage. Rather than allowing the small-minded conclusion that, if all love is passing, there is no point – a conclusion that another part of us will always reject – the sonnet allows the larger, almost heroic conclusion that, indeed, love is nothing that we can hold on to, but a great heart can know this and yet still love. The poem allows this conclusion, but the love that results will perhaps not be so intoxicated by exultation. It will be more capable of a true appreciation.

Also based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[i] From Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the entire discourse is available at

Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path


Not only did the Buddha attain awakening, but he subsequently taught a way for others to attain awakening. The ‘eightfold path’ is a summary of what it means to practise Buddhism – eight factors, which, developed together, lead to awakening. But, when one thinks about it, the idea of a ‘path’ being ‘eightfold’ is a little strange. How can a ‘path’, a way that leads somewhere, be ‘eightfold’? It is an example, I think, of a mixed metaphor: the Buddhist ‘way’ is at the same time a path to be travelled and set of qualities to be developed, so that the path consists in developing these qualities, and developing these qualities is the path. The ‘eightfold path’ is therefore, as a concept, somewhat awkward and complex, but the Pali discourses record that the Buddha gave some memorable images for the eightfold path, and images are a very effective way to communicate complex things – as the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta said (in a different context), ‘some intelligent people understand better through similes (upamā) what the teachings mean’.[1]

Let us first revise the eight factors that make up the eightfold path:

  1. Right view or vision: the right way of seeing, or understanding, even belief, that supports the work of spiritual transformation.
  2. Right resolve or emotion: that which moves one from within to engage with the spiritual life, the resolve, the devotion needed to change.
  3. Right speech: speech that is truthful, kindly, harmonious and meaningful, the practice of which changes the climate of one’s communication and thought.
  4. Right action: abstaining from harming living beings, from taking the not given, and from sexual misconduct – guides to bodily conduct.
  5. Right livelihood: how we make our living, how we spend our working lives, is crucial for our spiritual well being – butchery and weapons-dealing will not help.
  6. Right effort: working on the mind – developing and maintaining wholesome states, preventing and eradicating unwholesome states.
  7. Right mindfulness: practising mindful awareness, especially of bodily experience in the present moment, a rich embodied awareness of what we experience.
  8. Right concentration: working in meditation to bring the mind into an integrated, concentrated state capable of transformative insight into how things really are.

These eight factors together represent a complete path, of body, speech and mind, and they cover three areas of training: ethics (3–5), meditation (6–8) and wisdom (1–2). And now for those images of how these factors work together.

The eightfold path as a natural unfolding

The first image for the eightfold path is that of a flower naturally unfolding.[2] Each of the factors of the eightfold path represents a necessary part or ‘petal’ of a flower, representing spiritual development. A flower in bloom could be said to represent the full unfolding of our Buddha-nature – that intrinsic potential of our minds and hearts for awakening. This image is not in fact one given by the Buddha specifically for the eightfold path, although he did compare the stages of spiritual development to the stages of unfolding of a lotus flower.[3] He also compared spiritual development to the full maturation of a tree.[4] Development is thus a kind of blossoming of an inner nature. It occurs naturally when the right conditions are present. This blossoming is not the result of an effort of will. From this point of view, one practices each of the factors of the eightfold path, as is required, depending on which need cultivating, and which are already matured. One’s effort is directed to creating the conditions for the overall development of the mind and heart.

The eightfold path as a middle way

An image, or simile, that does come from the Buddha is the eightfold path as a middle way between the life of indulgence and the life of self-mortification. After the Buddha had gained awakening, he made his way to Sarnath, to teach his former companions in the ascetic life what he had learned. Having found them, and persuaded them to listen, he gave his first discourse, which starts like this:

‘Monks, there are these two extremes which are not to be followed by one who has gone forth. What two? That which is devotion to indulgence in sense-pleasures, which is inferior, vulgar, ordinary, ignoble, not beneficial; and that which is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not beneficial. Monks, not falling into either of these extremes, the Realized One has attained complete understanding of the middle way, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana.

‘And what, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana? It is exactly this noble eightfold path, namely: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stilling, realization, awakening, nirvana.’[5]

The Buddha goes on to present the four noble truths, but these are another topic. As for the eightfold path as the middle way, this helps understand what the path is not. On the one side is a life of self-indulgence. It is very normal for us to believe at some level that a truly satisfying life will come from getting certain sense-pleasures. However, the Buddha consistently taught that sense-pleasures are impermanent and unreliable and therefore cannot be the basis of our well-being. But neither on the other hand does the Buddha teach that the life of self-mortification will lead to true satisfaction. We can see, even these days, how people punish their bodies and control their appetites in the hope of gaining happiness, through body-building, dieting, extreme sports. The Buddha also taught that this is not the way.

If the Buddha taught the noble eightfold path as a middle way, it means that the path is not about the pursuit of sense-pleasures, but neither is it about the rejection of the body. We might think of the spiritual life as involving getting away from matter and the body, but the Buddha’s teaching is not like this. The eightfold path involves awareness of the body and right action of the body, as well as development of the mind. The middle way means development of the body and of the mind, together, in harmony.[6] The eightfold path is balanced and complete.

The path leading to the city of awakening

The middle way is however not really an image, and while there is said to be an eightfold ‘path’, we haven’t yet encountered much ‘walking’. But with the image of the path leading to the city of awakening, we meet an image of the eightfold path as a path, that requires walking:

‘Monks, it is as if a man walking about in a wooded wilderness should see an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times: that man would follow it, and following it would see an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it.

‘Then, monks, that man would tell his king or the prime minister about it, saying, “Your majesty should know that, while walking about in a wooded wilderness, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times; I followed it, and following it, I saw an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it. Sir, please restore it!” Then, monks, the king or prime minister would restore that city, and after some time it might become prosperous and powerful, rich and populous, as successful as it had been before.

‘In the same way, monks, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. And what, monks, is this old path, this unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times? It is just this noble eightfold path, namely, right view, and so on, to right concentration. This, monks, is the old path, the unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. I followed it, and following it, understood [the way to end all suffering].’[7]

This is from a discourse in which the Buddha explains a train of thought he had had before he was awakened. He eventually rediscovered the ancient path to awakening – it’s not something he invented. This image of a path that the Buddha rediscovered is one that needs thinking about. We imagine perhaps a grassy track through the jungle, perhaps paved with stones. But how can the eightfold path be a path like that? It is not something that is there, given, that we can find and walk along. Rather, it is something that we give rise to by bringing it to mind and practising it. It is a ‘path’ or way of life that is there because we are ‘walking’ or practising it: a path made by walking.

This path-made-by-walking is said to go to a city – but what can this represent? These days the word ‘city’ suggests conurbation, hectic activity, crowds, an artificial lifestyle. In the Buddha’s time, however, there weren’t large cities. Hence we should think more of a market town, a place in touch with the surrounding countryside, which is nevertheless an image of civilisation – nature humanised, or even tamed. A city is a civilised place to live, where human values prevail. Likewise, the eightfold path leads to a state of civilised harmony in our bodies and minds. If the eightfold path ‘goes’ anywhere, it ‘goes’ to the experience of harmonious civilisation, like the prosperous, populous city of the Buddha’s simile.

The path as a holistic spiritual workout

Our final image for the eightfold path is perhaps the craziest. To understand it we need to know about nāgas, creatures from Indian mythology. The nāgas are aquatic serpent-dragons, giant snakes living in water. The nāgas are powerful, non-human, impressive creatures. (The Buddha is said to be a nāga).

‘Monks, in the Himalayas, the kings among mountains, the nāgas work out their bodies and build up their strength. Having worked out and built themselves up, they plunge into ponds. Having plunged into ponds, they plunge into lakes. Having plunged into lakes, they plunge into streams. Having plunged into streams, they plunge into rivers. Having plunged into rivers, they plunge into the great ocean, the sea. There they come into the full vastness of their bodily forms. Likewise, monks, a monk, relying on virtue, established in virtue, cultivating and multiplying the noble eightfold path, fulfils the full vastness of good qualities.’[8]

Practising the factors of the eightfold path is like a holistic spiritual workout. We can plunge into the flowing waters of our lives, down and through the many currents, on a playful journey to where all journeys end, the ocean. Each of the factors is like a different spiritual exercise. We may need to build up our right speech, or our right effort, so as to prepare ourselves for the next plunge. Riding the current of life, continuing to build spiritual strength, we may experience more expansive love, deeper wisdom, in the midst of the flowing waters. And so its goes on.

These images for the eightfold path evoke the cooperation of eight factors in one overall experience of unfolding of our potential for growth and development. What is it we develop? We could think that we are developing our ‘selves’, but an important aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that, ultimately, there is no permanent or fixed self. It might be best to think that what we develop are good qualities, a whole range of excellent human qualities that together make up the awakened personality.

Based on a talk given to the Frome Triratna Sangha in March 2015

[1] From the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse, S 12:67 pts ii.112–5.

[2] See also Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation, Windhorse, 1990, p.159.

[3] In the episode of Brahmā’s request, in M 18 pts i.169 (and elsewhere): “Just as in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water thrive submerged without breaking the surface; some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown underwater rest at water-level; and some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water stand right out of the water, unspoiled by it – likewise the Blessed One, surveying the world with Buddha-vision, saw beings with little dust and a lot of dust, who were intelligent and dull-witted, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who lived seeing dangers and faults in the other world.”

[4] For instance, in the Secret Causes discourse, A 10:3 pts v.4–5.

[5] From the first discourse, or Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, S 56:11 pts v.420.

[6] In the Greater Discourse to Saccaka, M 36 pts i.237–51, the Buddha explores the true meaning of the development of body and development of mind, against the background of the Jain layman Saccaka’s misunderstandings.

[7] From The City, S 12:65 pts ii.104–7.

[8] From The Nāgas discourse, S 45:151 pts v.47.

Not Easily Repaid


I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while as I have been pre-occupied with my dad’s illness and death on May 9th. But here I am getting back into the swing of blogging by sharing a translation I have made of an early Buddhist discourse from the Pali canon, concerning what we owe to our parents and how we might or might not be able to repay them for what they have given us. This discourse is not unique in the Pali canon, and it helps us put into perspective the Buddha’s well-known rejection of family life, in favour of a life of renunciation. Such renunciation does not imply that we forget everything that has been given us by our families. In fact, our Buddhist practice might be very well expressed by the way we try to repay our parents, by loving actions, speech and thoughts. So this translation is an offering for my father, Richard Jones (who really liked his chickens).

Not Easily Repaid

Monks,[1] I tell you, there are two people who are not easily repaid. Which two? Your mother and your father. You might carry them about on your shoulders, you might look after them when they are one hundred years old, at the end of life,[2] by rubbing their limbs, massaging them, bathing and washing them, and though they might become incontinent, urinating and defecating right where they are, nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. You might establish your mother and father in sovereign dominion over the realm of this great earth, abounding in the seven precious things, but nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. For what reason? Because, monks, mothers and fathers do a great deal for their children, bringing them up, feeding them and introducing them to this world.

But, monks, you could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack trust, in the blessing of confidence (saddhā). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack virtue, in the blessing of virtuous conduct (sīla). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they are selfish, in the blessing of generosity (cāga). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they have poor understanding, in the blessing of wisdom (paññā). To that extent, monks, you have done enough for your mother and father, you have repaid them, you have very much done enough for them.[3]


[1]This discourse does not have a title, so I have invented something suitable. It is from the Aṅguttara-nikāya 2:33, PTS i.61–2. Alternative translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

[2]The text has vassasatāyuko vassasatajīvī, ‘having a life span of one hundred years, living a hundred years’, agreeing with the subject, but it hardly makes sense to think the child at such an age might be looking after their parents, so my translation here is more of an interpretation.

[3]The final phrase, translating atikatañca, is not given in the Burmese ed., though it appears in the PTS and Sri Lankan eds., and ends the discourse nicely.