In interpreting suttas, we have to take account of the circumstances under which they were spoken and the persons to whom they were addressed. During the course of his long ministry, the Buddha had to adjust his teaching to people with different capacities and needs. He taught those given to reckless behavior to abandon their self-defeating ways and engage in wholesome actions that yield pleasant fruits. He taught those inclined to resign themselves to fate that present effort determines our present quality of life as well as our future destiny. He taught those convinced that personal existence ceases with bodily death that living beings survive the breakup of the body and re-arise in accordance with their kamma. He taught those not yet ripe enough for higher attainments to aspire for rebirth among the devas, the celestial beings, and to enjoy the bliss and glory of the heavens.
A blissful heavenly rebirth, however, is not the final purpose for which the Buddha taught the Dhamma. At best it is only a temporary waystation. The ultimate goal is the cessation of suffering, and the bliss of the heavens, no matter how blissful, is not the same as the cessation of suffering. According to the Buddha’s teaching, all states of existence within the round of rebirths, even the heavens, are transient, unreliable, bound up with pain. Thus the ultimate aim of the Dhamma is nothing short of liberation, which means total release from the round of birth and death.
What lies beyond the round of rebirths is an unconditioned state called Nibbāna. Nibbāna transcends the conditioned world, yet it can be attained within conditioned existence, in this very life, and experienced as the extinction of suffering. The Buddha realized Nibbāna through his enlightenment, and for the next forty-five years of his life he endeavored to help others realize it for themselves. The realization of Nibbāna comes with the blossoming of wisdom and brings perfect peace, untarnished happiness, and the stilling of the mind’s compulsive drives. Nibbāna is the destruction of thirst, the thirst of craving. It is also the island of safety amid the raging currents of old age, sickness, and death.
To guide his spiritually mature disciples toward Nibbāna, the Buddha had to steer them beyond the blissful rewards that could be won in a future life by performing wholesome deeds. He did so through the “world-transcending” facets of his teaching, those aspects designed to lead disciples beyond the “triple world” of sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, and formless existence. Again and again throughout the discourses, the Buddha offered an uncompromising, razor-sharp exposure of the dangers inherent in all conditioned states of being. He sounded a clear warning signal that all states of existence are perilous and fraught with pain. He insisted, unambiguously, that the one hope of lasting security lies in complete purification and liberation of the mind. He presented a path that cuts through ignorance and craving in their entirety and dispels attachment even to the most refined states of meditative absorption.
In his “graduated discourse on the Dhamma,” given to introduce receptive newcomers to his teaching, the Buddha regularly began by discussing such practices as giving and moral discipline. He would extol the beauty of such virtues as generosity, harmlessness, honesty, and self-restraint, explaining how such meritorious deeds lead to the joys of a heavenly rebirth. At this point, he would reveal “the danger, degradation, and defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessings of renunciation.” Having thus gradually “ripened” the minds of his audience, he would next expound the doctrine distinctive of his own teaching, the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. When the Buddha himself taught the Four Noble Truths, his purpose was not to give his listeners an introductory course in “basic Buddhism,” but to awaken in them the “vision of the Dhamma,” the first direct realization of the transcendent truth that sets the disciple on the irreversible path to liberation.
Though we sometimes read in the suttas that disciples attained their first experience of awakening merely by listening to the Buddha preach, this does not mean that the Dhamma is easy to understand. Such disciples could penetrate the truth with such apparent ease because their faculties were mature, perhaps too because they had accumulated sufficient supporting conditions from previous lives. But by its very nature, the world-transcending Dhamma goes against the grain of the mundane mind. The Buddha describes the Dhamma as “subtle, deep, and difficult to see,” and one of the things that makes it so difficult to see is its thesis that the highest happiness cannot be won by yielding to the longings of the heart but only by subduing them. This thesis runs utterly counter to the thought, attitudes, and actions of people fully immersed in the world. As long as we are infatuated with the seductive lures of sensual enjoyment, as long as we take delight in being this or becoming that, we will regard the sublime Dhamma as a mystery and a puzzle. The Buddha therefore realized that the first major challenge he would face in establishing his worldtranscending Dhamma was to break the grip that sensual pleasure and worldly attachment have upon the mind. He had to knock the mind out of its accustomed ruts and set it moving in an altogether different direction. He had to steer his disciples away from the lures of sensuality and worldly attachment and guide them toward disenchantment, complete dispassion, and awakening.
The requirements of this task drew upon all the Buddha’s skills as a teacher. It demanded that he make ample use of his ability to precisely adjust his teaching to the mental proclivities of the people who came to him for instruction. It demanded that he speak up frankly and candidly, even when candor bred resentment. It demanded that he enter the fray of debate, even though he much preferred the peace of seclusion. It demanded that he use similes, metaphors, and parables whenever concrete illustrations could give his arguments stronger appeal. It demanded that he uphold his principles strongly whether his adversaries were hostile ascetics or miscreant monks within the ranks of his own order (see the opening sections of MN 22 and MN 38, not included in this anthology). That the Buddha succeeded so well in fulfilling this difficult task is counted among his truly wonderful and marvelous accomplishments. This is a point to which Text VI,1 bears eloquent testimony.
The Buddha’s task at this stage in the unfolding of his doctrine is to impart to us a radically new education in the art of seeing. To follow the Buddha in the direction he wants to lead us, we have to learn to see beneath the surface glitter of pleasure, position, and power that usually enthralls us, and at the same time, to learn to see through the deceptive distortions of perception, thought, and views that habitually cloak our vision. Ordinarily, we represent things to ourselves through the refractory prism of subjective biases. These biases are shaped by our craving and attachments, which they in turn reinforce. We see things that we want to see; we blot out things that threaten or disturb us, that shake our complacency, that throw into question our comforting assumptions about ourselves and our lives. To undo this process involves a commitment to truth that is often unsettling, but in the long run proves exhilarating and liberating.
The education that the Buddha imparts to us brings about a deepening of our perspective on the world. To help us transform our understanding and deepen our perspective on the world, he offers us three standpoints from which we can appraise the values by which we order our lives. These three standpoints also represent three “moments” or steps in an unfolding process of insight that starts from our commonsense attitudes and moves strategically toward higher knowledge, enlightenment, and release. The three moments are: gratification (assāda), danger (ādīnava), and escape (nissaraṇa). In Texts VI,2(1)–(3), this scheme is applied to the world as a whole. Elsewhere in the Nikāyas, the scheme is applied more specifically to the four material elements (SN 14.31–33), the five aggregates (SN 22.26–28), and the six internal and external sense bases (SN 35.13–18). The Buddha underscores the importance of this scheme with the bold pronouncement that until he was able to fully evaluate the world (or, in the texts referred to just above, the elements, aggregates, and sense bases) in this way, he did not claim that he had attained the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.
In advancing systematically through this scheme, one begins by recognizing the indubitable fact that such worldly phenomena as sense objects, forms, and feelings give us some degree of gratification. This gratification consists in the pleasure and joy (sukha-somanassa) we experience when we succeed in fulfilling our desires. Once we acknowledge this fact, we can then probe deeper by asking whether such pleasure and joy are entirely satisfactory. If we address this question with utter honesty, in a dispassionate frame of mind, we will realize that such pleasure and joy are far from satisfactory. To the contrary, they are saddled with drawbacks and defects ranging from the trifling to the catastrophic, defects that we perpetually hide from ourselves so that we can continue unhindered in our quest for gratification. This is their danger, the second moment or step of observation. The most pervasive danger lurking behind the innocent façade of our worldly pleasures is their inherent nature of being impermanent (anicca), bound up with suffering and discontent (dukkha), and subject to inevitable change and decay (vipariṇāmadhamma).
The third moment, the moment of escape, follows from the second. “Escape” here is not escapism, a word that implies an anxious attempt to avoid facing one’s problems by pretending they don’t exist and losing oneself in distractions. True escape is quite the opposite: the sanest, most rational, most judicious course of action we can take when we accurately recognize a genuine danger. It is our search for an exit from a burning building, our visit to the doctor when we’re beset by a persistent fever, our decision to give up smoking when we understand how it jeopardizes our health. Once we see that the objects of our attachment are flawed, beset with hidden dangers, we then realize that the way of escape lies in dropping our attachment to them. This is “the removal of desire and lust, the abandoning of desire and lust” (chandarāga-vinaya, chandarāga-pahāna) referred to in the texts.
The Pāli commentators, not surprisingly, connect these three moments with the Four Noble Truths. “Gratification” implies the second noble truth, for pleasure and joy arouse craving, the origin of suffering. “Danger” is the truth of suffering itself. And “escape” is the truth of the cessation of suffering, which also implies the Noble Eightfold Path, the fourth truth, the way to the cessation of suffering.
In Text VI,3 the Buddha uses this threefold scheme to make a detailed appraisal of three major objects of attachment: sensual pleasures, bodily form, and feelings. The major portion of the sutta is devoted to an examination of the dangers in sensual pleasures. It begins with a close-up view of the tribulations that a “clansman”—a young householder pursuing the ancient Indian counterpart of a professional career—might undergo in his quest for sensual gratification. As the discourse unfolds, the scope of the examination widens from the personal to the collective, encompassing the broader social and political consequences of this quest. It reaches its climax in striking images of the warfare and human devastation that follow from the frenzied mass drive for sensual gratification. “Form” is the physical body. The Buddha begins his treatment of form by asking the monks to consider a beautiful young girl. He then traces the progressive stages of her physical decay, through old age, sickness, death, and the eventual disintegration of the corpse until it is reduced to powdered bone. To show the danger in “feeling,” the Buddha selects the feelings of a meditating monk in the jhānas, the meditative absorptions, the most refined mundane experiences of pleasure and peace. He points out that even these lofty feelings are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and subject to change.
Although the following texts do not explicitly apply the threefold scheme, its underlying presence is obvious. Emphasis falls on the aspect of danger. The two texts presented in section 4 again accentuate the pitfalls in sensual pleasures, but do so differently from the text of the preceding section. In Text VI,4(1), the Buddha appears in dialogue with a pompous householder who imagines that he has “cut off all worldly affairs.” To dispel his complacency, the Buddha uses a series of similes that expose the deceptiveness of sensual pleasures to show him what the “cutting off of affairs” means in his own system of training. The use of similes prevails in Text VI,4(2) as well, which pits the Buddha against a hedonist named Māgandiya. The Buddha here contends that sensual pleasures seem to be pleasurable only through a distortion of perception, but when seen rightly are like the fire in a burning charcoal pit—”painful to touch, hot, and scorching.” This passage includes some of the most powerful similes in the Nikāyas, and there can be little doubt that the Buddha has not used them lightly.
The use of imagery also figures prominently in Text VI,5, whose theme is the transience of human life. Buddhist literature frequently advises us to contemplate the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time of its arrival. This recommendation is not made to induce an attitude of chronic morbidity but to help us break our infatuation with life and develop detachment. For this reason, recollection of death has become one of the most important subjects of Buddhist meditation. The Buddha elsewhere says that the recollection of death “when developed and cultivated, gains a foothold in the Deathless and culminates in the Deathless” (AN 7.46; IV 47–48). Here the transience of life is underscored by counting up the number of days, seasons, and even meals in a single life.
Text VI,6 is an excerpt from the Raṭṭhapāla Sutta, which recounts the life of the disciple the Buddha called “the foremost of those who have gone forth out of faith.” Raṭṭhapāla was a young man from a wellestablished family who was so deeply stirred upon hearing the Buddha preach that he at once decided to embrace the homeless life of a monk. The Buddha asked him to obtain his parents’ permission, but his parents, being strongly attached to their only son, adamantly refused to give their consent. Raṭṭhapāla thereupon lay down on the ground and refused to eat or drink, determined to die right there or receive the going forth. His parents finally relented and permitted him to become a monk on the condition that he later return to visit them. Years later, when he visited his parents, they tried to entice him back to the household life, but since he had already attained arahantship he was now beyond any possibility of disrobing. After leaving their home, he went to the royal pleasure garden, where he gave a discourse to King Koravya on “four summaries of the Dhamma.” This discourse conveys his profound insights into the depth and universality of suffering, explaining in simple and lucid words why he, like countless other capable men and women in the prime of life, chose to leave the comforts of the household for the uncertainties of the homeless state. Craving for sensual pleasures is one trap that keeps beings bound to the round of rebirths. Another major trap is attachment to views. Thus, to clear the path to Nibbāna, the Buddha not only had to dispel infatuation with sensual pleasures but also to expose the danger in views.
This is the theme of section 7.
The most dangerous of wrong views are those that deny or undermine the foundations of ethics. Text VI,7(1) draws together a number of perils posed by this type of wrong view; prominent among them is rebirth in the lower realms. Views also lead to one-sided, biased interpretations of reality that we cling to as accurate and complete. People who cling tenaciously to their own views of a particular situation often come into conflict with those who view the same situation in a different light. Views thus give rise to conflicts and disputes. Perhaps no text in all of world literature has depicted this danger in dogmatic clinging more succinctly than the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant, included here as Text VI,7(2).
Text VI,7(3) draws a contrast between the pair of distorted views
known as eternalism (sassatavāda) and annihilationism (ucchedavāda), also called, respectively, the view of existence (bhavadiṭṭhi) and the view of nonexistence (vibhavadiṭṭhi). Eternalism affirms an eternal component in the individual, an indestructible self, and an eternal ground of the world, such as an all-powerful creator God. Annihilationism denies that there is any survival beyond death, holding that the individual comes to a complete end with the demise of the physical body. Eternalism, according to the Buddha, leads to delight in existence and binds beings to the cycle of existence. Annihilationism is often accompanied by a disgust with existence that, paradoxically, binds its adherents to the same existence that they loathe. As we will see below, the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination avoids both these futile ends (see IX, pp. 356–57).
Text VI,8 highlights a particular problem posed by eternalist views. Such views can inspire meditators to attain states of deep meditative bliss, which they interpret as union with a divine reality or realization of an eternal self. From the perspective of the Buddha’s teaching, however, such attainments merely create the karmic potential for rebirth into a realm in which that meditative experience becomes the fundamental condition of consciousness. In other words, the attainment of these states in the human realm generates rebirth into the corresponding planes in the realm of subtle form or the formless realm. While many religions point to a divine realm as the final answer to the human predicament, the Buddha’s teaching holds that these worlds offer no final outlet from the impermanence and misery of saṃsāra.
The text cited here shows that certain meditators attain the four “divine abodes” and take rebirth in the corresponding planes of the brahma world, where they might abide even for as long as five hundred great eons. Eventually, however, they must inevitably pass away and may then fall into the unfortunate realms of rebirth. Similar texts not included here (AN 3.114, 4.124) say the same respectively about realms of rebirth corresponding to the jhānas and the formless attainments.
The two suttas that constitute the final section of this chapter again take up the unsatisfactoriness and insecurity of conditioned existence, reinforcing their message with dramatic imagery. In Text VI,9(1), the Buddha declares that the amount of tears we have shed while wandering through the round of rebirths is greater than the water in the four great oceans. In Text VI,9(2), he tells a group of thirty monks that the amount of blood they have shed when they were slaughtered and executed in the round of rebirths is greater than the water in the four great oceans. According to the compilers of the sutta, the impact of this discourse upon the thirty monks was so powerful that all attained full liberation on the spot.
- Four Wonderful Things (AN 4.128)
- Gratification, Danger, and Escape
- Before My Enlightenment (AN 3.101 §§1–2) [3.103]
- I Set Out Seeking (AN 3.101 §3) [3.103]
- If There Were No Gratification (AN 3.105)
- Properly Appraising Objects of Attachment (MN 13)
- The Pitfalls in Sensual Pleasures
- Cutting Off All Affairs (from MN 54)
- The Fever of Sensual Pleasures (from MN 75)
- Life Is Short and Fleeting (AN 7.70) [AN 7.74]
- Four Summaries of the Dhamma (from MN 82)
- The Danger in Views
- A Miscellany on Wrong View (AN 1. xvii, 1, 3, 7, 9) [AN 1.306-308]
- The Blind Men and the Elephant (Ud 6.4)
- Held by Two Kinds of Views (It 49)
- From the Divine Realms to the Infernal (AN 4.125)
- The Perils of Saṃsāra
- The Stream of Tears (SN 15.3)
- The Stream of Blood (SN 15.13)
Note: This series was based on a post at Dhamma Wheel. For this SuttaCentral version I have included the full text of the Introductions, which were made available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence by Wisdom Publications.