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AN 3.126 Bharaṇḍu Kālāma - how do you interpret this Sutta?

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#1

I’m making my way through the Suttas, and this one I don’t get at all.

TL;DR: So, the Buddha goes to Kapilavatthu and stays with a former “spiritual companion” of his. The Buddha talks about teachers who focus on understanding sensuality only, sensuality and sights, or sensuality, sights and feelings. He asks a relative of his if he thinks they have the same goal. The companion says “Say yes” and the Buddha says “Say no”. They repeat themselves 3 times, then the companion left the town, never to return.

I am confused:

  1. Why are they arguing over what the relative should say?
  2. Why doesn’t the Buddha actually tell him what the answer is and why, as he usually does?
  3. Why does the companion leave the city, never to return?
  4. What is the actual answer? I’d imagine they have the same goal, though the one that teaches the understanding of both is more likely to reach it, though the Buddha seems to imply that’s not the case?

What are your thoughts on this? Both in regards to what confused me, and any other thoughts :slight_smile:


#2

`So, the Buddha goes to Kapilavatthu and stays with a former “spiritual companion” of his. The Buddha talks about teachers who focus on understanding sensuality only, feelings only, or both.

The three types of teachers as per the suttta are not as presented by your post. The sutta mentions:

1- One teacher advocates the complete understanding of sensual pleasures, but not of sights or feelings.
2- One teacher advocates the complete understanding of sensual pleasures and sights, but not of feelings.
3- One teacher advocates the complete understanding of sensual pleasures, sights, and feelings.

  1. Why are they arguing over what the relative should say?

From context, it is clear that Bharaṇḍu advocated that the three types of teachers have the same goals. According to the Buddha’s teachings, sensual pleasure, sights and feeling are dependently originated. As such, advocating a complete understanding of sensual pleasure and/or sensual pleasure and sights (without feelings) wont lead to liberation. I ve heard that many Hindus at the time confused Samadhi for liberation. Probably, Bharaṇḍu was one of them.

  1. Why doesn’t the Buddha actually tell him what the answer is and why, as he usually does?

The point of contention was whether the three types of teachers have the same goal or different goals. The Buddha provided the answer by asking Mahānāma to say they are different.

3. Why does the companion leave the city, never to return?

My own interpretation of Bharaṇḍu’s leaving Kapilavatthu is a sign of pride and shame. The context in the sutta made sure to mention his mind state/reasoning before he decided to leave:

“The Buddha has rebuked me three times in front of this illustrious Mahānāma. Why don’t I leave Kapilavatthu?”

  1. What is the actual answer? I’d imagine they have the same goal, though the one that teaches the understanding of both is more likely to reach it, though the Buddha seems to imply that’s not the case?

The actual answer is that the three types of teachers have different goals, not the same goal. Could you explain how they can have the same goal? Can you reach the same conclusion building on different sets of premises?


#3

Here is an explanation that I found:

But if Bharaṇḍu had understood the relative relationship of sense desire, form, and sensation, he would have seen what Gotama was doing (which was showing him that the same sense desire and form combination was producing different sensations at each repetition) and he would have seen the error in his thinking and in spite of his embarrassment, would not have felt anger, could have seen the value of the lesson (that any sense desire/form situation could give rise to three different sorts of sensation depending on one’s point of view) and could have become a disciple of Gotama.

The Buddha is seeking to teach through what might be analogized to a Socratic method: he wants to educe the right answer from Bharaṇḍu the Kālāman. But faced with a choice to either accept the Buddha, or accept the incorrect interpretation from Mahānāma the Sakyan, Bharandu decides to escape and banish himself.

Just as the Buddha did with the children pulling the legs off of a crab, he didn’t tell them what was correct but asked them to see the correct view themselves. He wants the disciple to see and deduce the correct answer for himself.


#4

Many thanks for the in-depth reply! It makes a bit more sense. Just a few comments:

Ohh I misread it, edited in original post now. Thank you!

People can have the same goal, but different means of achieving them, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Say the goal is to have healthy teeth, with no cavities. You can brush with no toothpaste, brush with toothpaste, or brush with toothpaste and floss. The latter is clearly more effective, and you’ll likely still get cavities with the former, but the goal of all of them is likely the same. For what purpose would one brush their teeth otherwise?

In my mind, it’s the same in the Sutta. The teachers likely have the same goal, but the first 2 are ineffective.


#5

Thank you! Could I ask where this explanation is from?


#6

The quote that I cited came from : AN 3 124: Bharandu Shrine


#7

I think what UpasakaMichael referred to makes sense especially “that any sense desire/form situation could give rise to three different sorts of sensation depending on one’s point of view”. It reminds me of the following by Ajahn Chah:

The suffering that is waiting in the future we fail to see, we think it will never happen. When it happens, then we know. That kind of suffering, the suffering inherent in our bodies, is hard to foresee. When I was a child minding the buffaloes I’d take charcoal and rub it on my teeth to make them white. I’d go back home and look in the mirror and see them so nice and white… I was getting fooled by my own bones, that’s all. When I reached fifty or sixty my teeth started to get loose. When the teeth start falling out it hurts so much, when you eat it feels as if you’ve been kicked in the mouth. It really hurts. I’ve been through this one already. So I just got the dentist to take them all out. Now I’ve got false teeth. My real teeth were giving me so much trouble I just had them all taken out, sixteen in one go. The dentist was reluctant to take out sixteen teeth at once, but I said to him, ‘‘Just take them out, I’ll take the consequences.’’ So he took them all out at once. Some were still good, too, at least five of them. Took them all out. But it was really touch and go. After having them out I couldn’t eat any food for two or three days.

Before, as a young child minding the buffaloes, I used to think that polishing the teeth was a great thing to do. I loved my teeth, I thought they were good things. But in the end they had to go. The pain almost killed me. I suffered from toothache for months, years. Sometimes both my gums were swollen at once.

Some of you may get a chance to experience this for yourselves someday. If your teeth are still good and you’re brushing them everyday to keep them nice and white… watch out! They may start playing tricks with you later on.

https://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Why_Are_We_Here_1.php


#8

Ohh, thank you, that is an interesting read indeed!

It definitely seems like he’s talking at Mahānāma, but he’s talking to Bharaṇḍu…


#9

Yes, I agree that, without also understanding feelings, the entire thing would be less effective, or even counter-productive. It still says nothing about the goal being the same or different.

Either way, I’m starting to think that the question itself may be irrelevant.

It seems like the Bharaṇḍu kind of wanted to “show off” to Mahānāma, to prove to himself and others that he’s as good as the Buddha. And, when the Buddha contradicted him, instead of asking “why” and having a discussion, he just doubles down, “no, I’m right!”. When he realized he was basically throwing a tantrum, and he really isn’t anywhere near as good as the Buddha, the shame made him run off.

So, maybe the question itself may as well have been “is the sky blue?” (it actually isn’t, technically). Its sole purpose was to get Bharaṇḍu to react the way he did, which is why we don’t get an explanation and he doesn’t continue asking questions after he left?


#10

This seems to be a reasonable interpretation considering that the Buddha gave different answers to different people based on their needs. The sutta also mentions that Bharaṇḍu used to be a spiritual companion of the Buddha and he had his own hermitage (instead of joining the Buddha’s sangha), so probably the Buddha knew about his intentions and his views.