AN 10.84 - a cause of falsely claiming enlightenment? And relating to the Susīma Sutta SN 12.70

Here is a part of this sutta. I will highlight relevant parts for discussion:

There the Venerable Mahāmoggallāna addressed the bhikkhus: “Friends, bhikkhus!”

“Friend,” those bhikkhus replied. The Venerable Mahāmoggallāna said this:

“Here, friends, a bhikkhu declares final knowledge thus: ‘I understand: “Destroyed is birth, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being.”’ The Tathāgata [156] or his disciple who is a jhāna-attainer—skilled in attainment, skilled in others’ minds, skilled in the ways of others’ minds—questions him, interrogates him, and cross-examines him. When he is being questioned, interrogated, and cross-examined by the Tathāgata or his disciple, he comes to an impasse and is flustered. He meets with calamity, meets with disaster, meets with calamity and disaster.

“The Tathāgata or his disciple who is a jhāna-attainer . . . encompasses his mind with his own mind and considers: ‘Why does this venerable one declare final knowledge thus: “I understand: ‘Destroyed is birth, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being.’”?’ The Tathāgata or his disciple, having encompassed his mind with his own mind, understands:

(1) “‘This venerable one is prone to anger and his mind is often obsessed by anger. But in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata, obsession by anger is a case of decline.

(2) “‘This venerable one is hostile and his mind is often obsessed by hostility. But in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata, obsession by hostility is a case of decline.

So, this is a case of a monk claiming he is enlightened, but it was a false claim, right?

Now, in the Sumsīma Sutta, we also have monks claiming they are enlightened. And I do not see anywhere in the sutta that the Buddha actually says they are indeed enlightened, despite the fact that tradition has accepted that they are.

If there anything to suggest that these monks are definitely also not making a false claim there, as they are here in this sutta? And is this not supported by the fact that Susīma is also asked at the end of the sutta:

“But knowing and seeing thus, do you wield the many kinds of psychic power?

He knew and saw things, but did not have those psychic powers. And he was not an arahant. And this was the Buddha’s answer to Susīma regarding how it could be that those guys could claim they were arahants but not have those powers. And he basically leaves it at that!

So should Susīma not take this to mean that since he knows and sees, but doesn’t have powers, and is not an arahant himself, this explains that those others also might know and see, but are not arahants, which is why neither Susīma nor they have those powers.

See here how the conversation ends:

Well now, Susīma, how could there be such a declaration when these things are not attained?”

“Ettha dāni, susima, idañca veyyākaraṇaṃ imesañca dhammānaṃ asamāpatti, idaṃ no, susima, kathan”ti?

Then Venerable Susīma bowed with his head at the Buddha’s feet and said:

Atha kho āyasmā susimo bhagavato pādesu sirasā nipatitvā bhagavantaṃ etadavoca:

So that’s the end of that discussion. No actual direct answer on whether they were enlightened or not, but the implicit answer that they were not, it could seem.

Then rather randomly we seem to have skipped to another topic, Susīma apologising for his motivation (maybe because he now respected the Buddha for his wisdom in replying to his query):

“I have made a mistake, sir. It was foolish, stupid, and unskillful of me to go forth as a thief in such a well-explained teaching and training.

“accayo maṃ, bhante, accagamā yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathāakusalaṃ, yvāhaṃ evaṃ svākkhāte dhammavinaye dhammatthenako pabbajito.


If Susima was an arahanth he would understand that one doesn’t require supernatural abilities and he wouldn’t have made the mistake.

Knowing and seeing here would need to have a broad meaning closer to ‘now you understand’, rather than attaining enlightenment.

It is known traditionally, if not textually, that supernatural abilities are not the goal of the path. The Buddha himself discouraged their use. Developing the four jhanas don’t necessarily give rise to such abilities and the extra effort to develop such things are traditionally considered a move away from developing the path.

With metta

@Mat, that is the traditional interpretation, yes. But it does not seem to answer my question:

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I agree, that the Susima Sutta does not make it clear whether the monks are legit Arhats or not. FWIW, Gombrich has discussed the Susima Sutta in relation to a Chinese agama parallel, and comes to the conclusion that the Susima Sutta as stands in Pali is a forgery. I brought this up in this post on dhammawheel.

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Thanks. I had read Gombrich on this before, but now I note, someone quotes him in that thread as saying:

A newcomer, he is not socially integrated into the group of monks in that monastery. One of them, to put him down, says that all of them are already Enlightened. Susima, who has learnt what this should involve, cross-examines the monk, who is immediately shown up: he cannot even claim that they are free of greed and hatred.

Choong in ‘The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism A comparative study based on the Sutranga portion of the Pali Samyutta-Nikaya and the Chinese Samyuktagama’ doesn’t mention about the part I highlighted above. I cannot find a translation of the sutta to confirm. Do you have one of know where one is?


Wow I just read on that thread that people think that Susīma was an aranaht at the end of that sutta. Is that really what people think? I read the sutta pretty carefully, it seemed to me totally obvious that Susīma was not an arahant at all. Did I miss something?! Where are they getting that from? And does the commentary really say so?!

Well, consider these factors:

  1. The monks claim to be liberated based on their knowledge of D.O., despite not having certain meditative accomplishments (like certain powers and formless Jhanas). This is the so-called “dry-insight” path.
  2. Susima, when questioned by the Buddha, claims know/lack the same stuff the monks do — he has knowledge of D.O, but lacks the same meditative stuff.

So, assuming the monks claims are true, isn’t it natural to conclude that Susima is an Arhat as well?

Basically, those who read the text to believe the monks are liberated are in a conundrum about Susima’s status. There are two possibilities:
1)It could be the case that the monks are liberated, and Susima isn’t, due to some unknown reason that isn’t stated in the text. But that would defeat the whole purpose to the Sutta (according to the interpretation that the monks are honest/correct), namely, to explain how someone could become liberated without formless states and supernatural powers. Why would the Buddha explain to Susima how one can be liberated through the “dry-insight” by explaining a path that doesn’t work for Susima himself? Hence, many interpreters favor another interpretation…
2) Susima is an Arhat. Why? because he has the same attainments as the monks. But this isn’t really how he’s presented in the text — nowhere is he described as liberated. In fact, it ends with Buddha scolding him and telling him to make amends. The implication is that he still needs to “grow in the Dhamma,” which isn’t consistent with him being an Arhat.

Now, the problem with this reasoning— as you and I have noted — is that the Buddha never actually validates the monks’ claims to be Arhats. If the monks aren’t Arhats, there is no need to believe Susima is, either.

Susima enters the dispensation with ulterior motives and questions fellow mendicants perhaps with a view to catching them out. Now AFAIK if you were living in close proximity to the Buddha he would have the final say in who attained which stage of awakening, during such times. I think it is likely from the tone of the discussion that Susima had acces to this knowledge and perhaps it was even common knowledge in the community. Susima has not properly understood the teachings, doesn’t care that he doesn’t and/or doesn’t seem particularly aware of his own lack of information. But he feels competent to challenge and question these arahanths. By their curt replies its may have been well known that he was a troublemaker and didn’t wish to become entangled.

The Buddha puts questions to him to elicit Right view, in him. This is Samma ditti- right view but he would have needed to go off and meditate, to develop Insight (yatabhuta nana), which might have done after the Buddha gently admonished him thereby dissuading him of his preoccupation allowing the path to re-surface.

With metta

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Ah, well I never assumed they were arahants. I read the story, and the Buddha was asked, and he gave that reply. And that reply said to me basically “Susīma, you know and see, and you don’t have those powers, and you’re not enlightened. Same goes for them!”

Does he? Are you sure?
I decided to go into it to have a good check.

Concerning the monks’ claims:

“We understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’”
“khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyāti pajānāmā”ti.

“Is it really true that the venerables have declared enlightenment in the Buddha’s presence?”
“saccaṃ kirāyasmantehi bhagavato santike aññā byākatā: ‘khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānāmā”ti? “Yes, reverend.” “Evamāvuso”ti.

“Reverend Susīma, whether you understand or not, we are freed by wisdom.”
“Ājāneyyāsi vā tvaṃ, āvuso susima, na vā tvaṃ ājāneyyāsi atha kho paññāvimuttā mayan”ti.

Concerning Susīma’s claims:
The Buddha gives him some instructions.

He asks Susīma if he ‘sees’ a few things. None of the items above (‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’) were included in that this of things Susīma ‘sees’.

He is then asked:

“But knowing and seeing thus, do you wield the many kinds of psychic power? …”

He gives the same answers as the monks.

The only thing the monks have in common with Susīma apart from the lack of powers, is that they both ‘know and see’. But do we know what that means? The only things I can see listed for what they know and see, is:

  • Monks: (by implication from the storyline) that ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’
  • Susīma: various doctrinal/logical points.

From this it actually seems possible that the monks are arahants (though by no means sure). But that Susīma isn’t. He only ‘knows and sees’ a bunch of dhamma teachings. But I think perhaps the key point might be that all that knowledge of dhamma, in a way meaning the ‘teachings’, but in the other sense of dhamma simultaneously meaning something like ‘natural phenomena’ - all of that, is dhammaṭṭhita. Knowledge of that is dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇaṃ. And that’s just the first step. That’s what comes first. After, comes ‘nibbāne ñāṇaṃ’ - knowledge of nibbāna. (That was the Buddha’s primary answer, so far as I understand, all that came next was an elaboration of that initial answer).

It means (I suggest) that before we get into really deep meditation practice, ‘touching the deathless element’ and so on, we get to grips with phenomena. Nibbāna in a sense is the extinction of phenomena. And the 9th attainment (after the formless attainments) is cessation of perception and feeling even! So before that, get to know phenomena. Get to know their nature - ‘dhammaṭṭhitata’, which I am translating as something like:
the state of things,
the natural order of things
the state of the phenomenal
the natural order of the phenomenal
the state of phenomena
the natural order of phenomena

[That's my conclusion on _dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇaṃ_ after quite a lot of analysis, but not finished yet. Note that Sujato translates it as '_knowledge of the stability of natural principles_'; Bodhi as '_knowledge of the stability of the Dhamma_', Thanissaro as 'knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma'].

And it’s by doing that practice, that we progress. Contemplating impermance, suffering, not-atta. That’s what that’s about. As the Buddha instructed him:

“So, Susīma, you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ […and so on]

So this is the first stage of training for Susīma. He is now embarking on that stage, having been instructed. Just ‘seeing and knowing’ the teachings is the first step - now bathe your mind in it, go deep, and through that you’ll be able to tranquillise your mind enough to attain samādhi.

To conclude - it’s quite possibly a totally separate story, unrelated to the earlier episode with the monks. But either way, I see no evidence that the monks and Susīma had the same level of attainments.

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I’m just re-reading the Susima Sutta, and I get what you’re saying.

However, I still get the grounds for assuming Susima is an Arhat (assuming the monks are honest, which is a problematic assumption, as we’ve both noted), based on the flow of the text:

  • The monks are arhats, despite not having certain meditative attainments.
  • Susima asks Buddha how this can be so. How can one become an arhat without formless attainments or knowledge of past lives?
  • Buddha explains how this is indeed possible, namely that knowledge of DO comes first, then knowledge of unbinding. The assumption here is that knowledge of DO is the entry point for “knowledge of unbinding,” not necessarily the formless realms or supernormal powers. Also, “knowledge of unbinding” is presumably the same as becoming an Arhat, otherwise the Buddha isn’t really answering Susima’s question of how one can become an Arhat without certain powers.
  • Susima acknowledges knowledge of DO.
    …So doesn’t it seem logical to conclude Susima has “knowledge of unbinding,” and hence is an Arhat? And if not, why did the Buddha even bother giving this whole shmeal about how DO knowledge if it does not in fact lead to “knowledge of unbinding” in Susima’s case?

In other words, the reason so many ppl assume Susima becomes and Arhat is because they assume that Buddha’s lecture about DO is the answer to the question about how to become an Arhat without formless states and special powers. Knowledge of DO leads to Enlightenment. Hence, if Susima has the knowledge of DO (as he claims to), then presumably he is enlightened.

Of course, this only applies with the interpretation that the monks are indeed Arhats, and that Buddha’s intention is to prove how this is possible.

Yes, I like this interpretation. And I believe Gombrich argued that the original version of the Sutta (which he believes in still preserved in some Chinese parallel) in fact made this more clear…The monks are lying. Gombrich discusses what he believes is the “original” of the sutta, in “How Buddhism Began” pages 123-124:

At this point we turn to the Susima Sutta (SN, Nidana-saÅyutta,
Mahavagga dasamaÅ XII, 70 SN II, 119–128). As
mentioned above, I need to devote a separate article to this text,
since I wish to demonstrate that it is an incoherent reworking of a
text which originally made quite different points. This original
text, or something like it, is preserved in Chinese translation.
In that version (which is too long to reproduce here) Susima,
an intelligent non-Buddhist renunciate of some kind, gets into the Buddhist Order because he wants to discover the secret of
the Buddhists’ success with the public. He spends the first fortnight
picking up the rudiments of what is being taught, so that he has
some idea of what Enlightenment should consist of. A newcomer,
he is not socially integrated into the group of monks in that
monastery. One of them, to put him down, says that all of them
are already Enlightened. Susima, who has learnt what this should
involve, cross-examines the monk, who is immediately shown
up: he cannot even claim that they are free of greed and hatred.
Susima then betakes himself to the Buddha, who realises –
perhaps because he is aware of the preceding conversation – that
Susima shows promise. The Buddha then teaches him the chain
of dependent origination.On receiving this teaching, Susima
naturally makes some spiritual progress, and the result – indeed
the outward sign – of this progress is that he confesses to having
entered the Order as a spy. The Buddha then commends him and
the text ends by implying that Susima is now headed towards further
spiritual improvement.

Yeah, I noted in the dhammawheel thread that it seems like the first half of the Sutta seems rather disconnected from the second. The first half seems to be about validating (or not validating) the monks’ claims to Arhatship, while the second half seems more about explaining Susima’s conversion story. However, I think the whole thing can be read as Susima’s conversion story, as Gombrich explains.