All things are rooted in desire

Lately I have been contemplating the Mūlaka sutta, which seems to me to be a description of a mental experience (dhamma) happening in a skillful way. Here’s the main part of it:

“Bhikkhus, if wanderers of other sects should ask you: ‘What, friends, are all things rooted in? … … What is their consummation?’ you should answer them as follows.

“‘Friends, (1) all things are rooted in desire. (2) They come into being through attention. (3) They originate from contact. (4) They converge upon feeling. (5) They are headed by concentration. (6) Mindfulness exercises authority over them. (7) Wisdom is their supervisor. (8) Liberation is their core. (9) They culminate in the deathless. (10) Their consummation is nibbāna.’

“If you are asked thus, bhikkhus, it is in such a way that you should answer those wanderers of other sects.” AN 10.58

It was so nice to find a sutta where experience seems to be going right - in contrast with other more famous suttas that seem to describe experience going wrong - i.e. Sn 4.11 which traces the origin of quarrels, disputes, sorrow and lamentation back through various psychological steps to perception and proliferation (papañca), or the Honey Ball Sutta (renamed the Honey Cake Sutta by this forum)

Ven. Maha Kaccayana said this: "Friends, concerning the brief statement the Blessed One made, after which he went into his dwelling without analyzing the detailed meaning — i.e., ‘If, with regard to the cause whereby the perceptions & categories of objectification assail a person, there is nothing there to relish, welcome, or remain fastened to, then that is the end of the obsessions of passion, the obsessions of resistance, the obsessions of views, the obsessions of uncertainty, the obsessions of conceit, the obsessions of passion for becoming, & the obsessions of ignorance. That is the end of taking up rods & bladed weapons, of arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing, & false speech. That is where these evil, unskillful things cease without remainder’

"Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye. MN 18

In MN 18 the Buddha retires after making a relatively brief statement, and the monks go to Maha Kaccana for a detailed explanation. Alas, with the Mūlaka Sutta, there is no Maha Kaccana to “analyze the unanalyzed detailed meaning of this brief statement” as there is for the Honey Cake Sutta. So we are left to work out the meaning of these ten very tantalizing statements for ourselves.

I’m interpreting it in a psychological way - as a description of a moment of skillful experience - possibly the way experience happens for an enlightened being. But perhaps there are other ways to see it? Any ideas?


Great topic, Suravira!

Venerable Nanananda discusses a similar sutta (AN 8.83, in which the last three items in the list – liberation, deathless, and nibbāna – are replaced only by liberation) in Nibbāna Sermon 9. His interpretation seems largely in accord with yours – that the seemingly substantial “things” that are solidified out of the flux of experience by desire, attention, contact, and feeling can be objects for liberation once concentration, mindfulness, and wisdom are brought to bear on them.

Here’s a relevant excerpt:

“Rooted in desire, friends, are all things.” We might as well bring out the meaning of these statements with the help of an illustration. Supposing there is a heap of rubbish and someone approaches it with a basket to collect it and throw it away. Now, about the rubbish heap, he has just a unitary notion. That is to say, he takes it as just one heap of rubbish. But as he bends down and starts collecting it into the basket, he suddenly catches sight of a gem. Now the gem becomes the object of his desire and interest. A gem arose out of what earlier appeared as a rubbish heap. It became the thing for him, and desire was at the root of this phenomenon - true to the dictum “rooted in desire, friends, are all things”.

Then what about origination through attention? It is through attention that the gem came into being. One might think that the origin of the gem should be traced to the mine or to some place where it took shape, but the Buddha traces its origin in accordance with the norm manopubbaṅgamā dhammā, “mind is the forerunner of all things”. So then, the root is desire and the source of origin is attention, the very fact of attending.

Phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā, “all things arise from contact”. There was eye-contact with the gem as something special out of all the things in the rubbish heap. So the gem ‘arose’ from eye-contact. Vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā, “all things converge on feeling”. As soon as the eye spotted the gem, a lot of pleasant feelings about it arose in the mind. Therefore, all things converge on feeling.

Samādhipamukhā sabbe dhammā, “headed by concentration are all things”. Here, in this case, it may be wrong concentration, micchā samādhi, but all the same it is some kind of concentration. It is now a concentration on the gem. It is as if his meditation has shifted from the rubbish heap to the gem. Satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā, “dominated by mindfulness are all things”. As to this dominance, undistracted attention is necessary for the maintenance of that thing which has now been singled out. Where there is distraction, attention is drawn to other things as well. That is why mindfulness is said to be dominant. Be it the so-called wrong mindfulness, but nonetheless, it is now directed towards the gem.

Now comes the decisive stage, that is, the ‘surmountability by wisdom’, paññuttarā. Let us for a moment grant that somehow or other, even though wrongly, micchā, some kind of surrogate mindfulness and concentration has developed out of this situation. Now, if one wants to cross over in accordance with the Dhamma, that is, if one wants to attain Nibbāna with this gem itself as the topic of meditation, one has to follow the hint given by the statement paññuttarā sabbe dhammā, “surmountable by wisdom are all things”.

What one has to do now is to see through the gem, to penetrate it, by viewing it as impermanent, fraught with suffering, and not-self, thereby arriving at the conviction that, after all, the gem belongs to the rubbish heap itself. The gem is transcended by the wisdom that it is just one item in this rubbish heap that is ‘The world’ in its entirety. If one wins to the wisdom that this gem is something like a piece of charcoal, to be destroyed in the holocaust at the end of a world period, one has transcended that gem.

So then, the essence of all things is not any self or soul, as postulated by the brahmins. Deliverance is the essence. In such discourses as the Mahāsāropamasutta, the essence of this entire Dhamma is said to be deliverance. The very emancipation from all this, to be rid of all this, is itself the essence. Some seem to think that the essence is a heaping up of concepts and clinging to them. But that is not the essence of this teaching. It is the ability to penetrate all concepts, thereby transcending them. The deliverance resulting from transcendence is itself the essence.

With the cessation of that concept of a gem as some special thing, a valuable thing, separate from the rest of the world, as well as of the ensuing heap of concepts by way of craving, conceit and views, the gem ceases to exist. That itself is the deliverance. It is the emancipation from the gem. Therefore, vimuttisārā sabbe dhammā, “deliverance is the essence of all things”.

So then, we have here a very valuable discourse which can even be used as a topic of insight meditation. The essence of any mind object is the very emancipation from it, by seeing it with wisdom. Considered in this light, everything in the world is a meditation object. That is why we find very strange meditation topics mentioned in connection with the attainments of ancient arahant monks and nuns. Sometimes, even apparently unsuitable meditation objects have been successfully employed.

Meditation teachers, as a rule, do not approve of certain meditation objects for beginners, with good reasons. For instance, they would not recommend a female form as a meditation object for a male, and a male form for a female. That is because it can arouse lust, since it is mentioned in the Theragāthā that lust arose in some monk even on seeing a decayed female corpse in a cemetery. But in the same text one comes across an episode in connection with Venerable Nāgasamāla, which stands in utter contrast to it.

Venerable Nāgasamāla attained arahant-hood with the help of a potentially pernicious meditation object, as he describes it, in his words: “Once, on my begging round, I happened to look up to see a dancing woman, beautifully dressed and bedecked, dancing to the rhythm of an orchestra just on the middle of the highway.” And, what happened then?

Tato me manasikāro,
yoniso udapajjatha,
ādīnavo pāturahu,
nibbidā samatiṭṭhatha,
tato cittaṃ vimucci me,_
passa dhammasudhammataṃ.

“Just then, radical attention
Arose from within me,
The perils were manifest,
And dejection took place,
Then my mind got released,
Behold the goodness of the Norm.”

If one wishes to discover the goodness of this norm, one has to interpret the sutta in question in a broader perspective, without limiting its application to skilful mental states. If a train of thoughts had got started up about that gem, even through a wrong concentration, and thereby a wrong mindfulness and a wrong concentration had taken shape, at whatever moment radical attention comes on the scene, complete reorientation occurs instantaneously, true to those qualities of the Dhamma implied by the terms, sandiṭṭhika, visible here and now, akālika, not involving time, and ehipassika, inviting one to come and see.


It reminds me of MN1, the Mūlapariyāya Sutta, in that it seems to be running a subversive Buddhist response to what are probably some Upanishadsic themes or teachings (those defended by the mentioned wanderers of other sects). For example, the Chandogya Upanishad seems to teach that every being has a root essence that emerges from and returns to space (later identified as Brahman) which is thus both the origin and end or consummation of all things. If you add in some idea (from somewhere, I don’t know where exactly) that in their passage from emergence to re-absorption, the activities of beings are guided by some kind of providential or disposing head, authority or supervisor, that might capture the kind of view the Buddha was responding to.

As you say, without further elaboration, this terse sutta doesn’t tell us much. But it does seem like the Buddha is, as in other places, inverting an older cosmological account of the origin of things in the world, and turning it into some kind of subjective account of the origin of things in in “my” world. Unsatisfactory mental phenomena come into being through the operations of our senses and our reactions to them in response to vedana. But by concentrating our minds we can subject these things to wise, mindful attention, and bring about the cessation of these unsatisfactory phenomena. When all dukkha ceases, this process has then culminated in the deathless nibbana.

I have little idea what “core” and “convergence” might mean in this context though.


This is an almost universal modern interpretation however it is contrary to the explanation of the original Commentary, which refers to ‘dhamma’ in AN 8.83 & AN 10.58 as ‘path factors’ or ‘skilful/wholesome practises’, similar to the following sutta:

Just as the footprints of all legged animals are encompassed by the footprint of the elephant, and the elephant’s footprint is reckoned the foremost among them in terms of size; in the same way, all skillful qualities (dhamma) are rooted in heedfulness, converge in heedfulness, and heedfulness is reckoned the foremost among them. AN 10.15


Here are some relevant suttas that refer to ‘skilful dhammas’ rather than ‘all things’:

(1) skilful dhammas rooted in desire (chanda) : SN 51.20

there is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire (chanda) & the fabrications of exertion SN 51.15

(2) come into being through attention: AN 10.61; SN 47.42 (last tetrad)

And what is the nutriment for mindfulness and clear comprehension? It should be said: careful attention… AN 10.61

With the origination of attention there is the origination of Dhamma. With the cessation of attention there is the passing away of Dhamma SN 47.42.

(3) originate from contact: SN 12.25

… that happiness and suffering have arisen… in each case it is impossible that they will experience anything without contact.

(4) converge upon feelings: MN 37; MN 38 (ending); AN 3.61; Iti 44

Feels all feelings pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant. In those feelings he sees impermanence, detaches the mind from them, and sees their cessation, and gives them up. Abiding seeing impermanence, detachment, cessation and giving up of those feelings, does not seize anything in the world. MN 37

These are the eighteen mental examinations [of feelings]… Now it is for one who feels that I proclaim: ‘This is suffering,’ and ‘This is the origin of suffering,’ and ‘This is the cessation of suffering,’ and ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. AN 3.61

(5) headed by concentration:

(6) Mindfulness exercises authority (satādhipateyyā) : Iti 46; MN 117

(7) Wisdom is their (transcendent) supervisor (paññuttarā): Iti 46; MN 117

(8) Liberation is their heartwood (vimuttisārā): Iti 46; MN 29; MN 30

Sikkhānisaṃsā, bhikkhave, viharatha paññuttarā vimuttisārā satādhipateyyā

Bhikkhus, live so as to realize the benefits of the training, the attainment of transcendent wisdom, the essence of release, and the control of mindfulness

Iti 46

(9) They culminate in the deathless: AN 7.49; AN 6.19; AN 6.20

The perception of not-self in what is unsatisfactory, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end

(10) Their consummation (pari­yosānā) is nibbāna: MN 29; MN 30

Yā ca kho ayaṃ, bhikkhave, akuppā cetovimutticetovimutti etadatthamidaṃ, bhikkhave, brahmacariyaṃ, etaṃ sāraṃ etaṃ pariyosānan”ti.

It is this unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood and its end.



I’d add SN 48.44 to this point.

And it’s also good to know AN 4.245.


I’ve looked up the Commentaries and couldn’t find anything which would suggest they take dhammā as ‘path factors’. In fact the Commentary to AN 8.83 equates sabbe dhammā with pañcakkhandhā. Could you please explain what original Commentary you’ve ment?

Anyway, I agree with the interpretation you’ve made based on the suttas. The modern interpretion makes me cringe everytime I see it…

Nanananda mentions this too, in the same talk:

Unfortunately for the sutta, its traditional commentators seem to have ignored the deeper philosophical dimensions of the above questionnaire. They have narrowed down the meaning of the set of answers recommended by the Buddha by limiting its application to wholesome mental states.[315] The occurrence of such terms as chanda, sati, samādhi and paññā, had probably led them to believe that the entire questionnaire is on the subject of wholesome mental states. But this is a serious underestimation of the import of the entire discourse. It actually goes far deeper in laying bare a basic principle governing both skilful and unskilful mental states.

That footnote 315 in there refers to Sv-pṭ I 138.

Although I’ve found, and continue to find, a lot of value in Ven. Nanananda’s teaching as a whole, in this case the explanation and citations given by @Deeele are more convincing to me so far. Piotr, I’d be interested to know why you say:

Because it is made with a bit of a stretch when it comes to interpreting the actual text. Take for an example Dhammapada quote:

manopubbaṅgamā dhammā

It doesn’t mean “mind is the forerunner of all things” as venerable Ñāṇananda says. What it says is that actions are preceeded by the mind. It’s rather obvious if one reads whole Dhp 1. & Dhp 2. stanzas. Compare it to AN 6.63 where the Buddha says:

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.

It’s the same message but put in different words.

The modern interpretations rely on this kind of twists which makes me cringe, especially because there are suttas which make explicit what is meant by this rather criptict statement: ‘chandamūlakā sabbe dhammā’.

Thanks, I’ll look it up.

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Wow! Thanks guys! What a wealth of helpful information.

@Christopher It’s been a long time since I read Nanananda’s Nibbāna Sermons - I’m looking forward to Analayo’s lecture series! I didn’t remember that he had written about this sutta - or rather its parallel. But I’m excited that someone has written about it.

@Deeele and @Piotr You’ve given me quite some homework, which might take me a couple days to get to, given my current workload. But thanks for all those juicy references! I find “sabbe dhammā” a bit confusing, if it is only referring to skillful dhammas. I was thinking that the first 4 steps would apply to any experience, but starting with the 5th I was taking samadhi, sati, and pañña to be transformative.

@DKervick I wondered about the “wanderers of other sects” who are supposed to be asking these questions. It certainly seems like at least some of the terms were being used among other groups. It’s such a spare list, how would it make sense unless there was already quite a lot of discussion?

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Thanks Piotr. Dīgha Porāṇa Ṭīkā, per below:

Ñāṇananda adds that the early commentators have missed out on such deep dimensions and vital developments, and have merely “narrowed down the meaning of the set of answers recommended by the Buddha by limiting its application to wholesome mental states,” such as in Dīgha Porāṇa Ṭīkā 2

2 Ñāṇananda quotes only DAṬ 1:138; but see also AA 4:158 (which glosses sabbe dhammā as the 5 aggregates), AA 5:41 (which says that the Sutta relates to the final attaining of remainderless nirvana).


I have always held my interpretation, even without the commentary. It was only yesterday I found Iti 46 (& read your AN 4.245). The Sutta Central search function & word translation is brilliant. So easy to use for cross-referencing word usage in contexts. Awesome webmaster. :slight_smile:


Hi Suraveera,

Here’s my understanding.

Dhamma can mean ‘anything’, mental objects or teachings. Practitioners of other religions are depicted going around engaging each other in debate. It seems most likely they will be most familiar with Dhamma as teaching, rather than the former two meanings.

‘chandamūlakā, āvuso, sabbe dhammā, manasikā­ra­sam­bhavā sabbe dhammā, phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā, vedanā­samo­saraṇā sabbe dhammā, samā­dhip­pamu­khā sabbe dhammā, satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā, paññuttarā sabbe dhammā, vimuttisārā sabbe dhammā, amatogadhā sabbe dhammā, nib­bā­na­pari­yosānā sabbe dhammā’ti.

If we use that interpretation:

“‘Friends, (1) all teachings are based on desire (canda- the wholesome desire to discover teachings is essential for the spiritual practice). (2) They come into being through contemplation (appropriate contemplation yonisomanasikara is a cause for Right view to arise. Right view is the forerunner of all states MN117). (3) They originate from contact (as do all variations of Sankhara into which Dhamma would fall into). (4) They converge upon feeling (they have all have feeling in common- pleasant, unpleasant or neutral). (5) They are headed by concentration (formation of dhammic or any other concepts require think to move internally, away from the sensory object to conceptualise what was experienced. A feeling of unification is present for a second when this happens. There is one sutta saying how seven factors of enlightenment can arise when even listening to the Dhamma, including samadhi). (6) Mindfulness exercises authority over them (mindfulness is required to accept, reject and discriminate while actively listening to the Dhamma). (7) Wisdom is their superior (panna or wisdom is the best of the Dhammic concepts, closest to Nibbana. (8) Liberation is their core (it is the main functional purpose behind the Dhamma). (9) They plunge into deathless. (10) Their ending is nibbāna.’

With metta