DN6 Mahali by Alexander Duncan



Dear Bhante and All,

Kataññu for sharing.

Interesting how the author finds that there is tantric practices within the Buddhist sangha (with regards to physic powers) :astonished: . I also find it amazing how he came with the conclusion that a bodhisatta is in par with an arahat. I think there’s a confusion between the terms bodhisatta and arahat. From my understanding of Pali, bodhisatta means being intent on the path to awakening while arahat means free from binding (emancipated) thus being a “worthy one”.

Maybe I misread the essay as it is late in the uposatha night my time and starting to feeling cheeky :imp:

May all beings be free :sunglasses:

with reverence, respect and gratitude,


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No, he says the use of psychic powers can be seen as “proto-tantric”. Tantra, of course, doesn’t mean “kinky Buddhist sex stuff” as it is often misconstrued, but it uses various techniques, rituals, symbols, and practices in order to actualize various energies, prominently featuring various psychic powers. So it is correct to say that the psychic powers as seen in the suttas are “proto-tantric” in the sense that there is a thread from them to the tantras, although there is of course no question of tantric methods being used.

Again this is not quite what he says, but that the path of the bodhisattva is superior. In this case I strongly disagree; what’s more to the point though is that he is drawing from an article by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Let me be clear: there is no bodhisattva path in the early texts. Ven Bodhi cites a couple of passages to support his case, and he admits they “could be seen as later additions”. But these are obviously among the latest additions to the Pali texts; and in any case they don’t meaningfully support his case. Let’s look at these cases.

First is MN123, regarding which Ven Bodhi says this:

the Nikāyas do depict him as dwelling in the Tusita heaven in his immediately past existence …, destined to become a fully enlightened Buddha in his next life as Gotama of the Sakyan clan, and this implies that in his past lives he must have fulfilled the most demanding prerequisites to take on such an exalted role, to become the loftiest and most highly venerated being in all the world.

What the text actually says is that the bodhisatta was born, remained, and passed away from Tusita heaven mindful and clearly aware before being born in his current life. It then goes on to say that after he was born, he took seven mighty strides to the north, surveyed the four quarters, and roared out with the voice of a bull, “I am the Greatest in the World!”

Seriously, we are now relying on this for a genuine argument as to the nature of awakening? And where did this “destiny” thing come from? Do we just throw away the whole “practice in the present moment” idea because it’s all “destined”? Why didn’t the bodhisattva just take it easy instead of doing all those hard practices? Perhaps he was “destined” to do all those austerities. This, thank goodness, isn’t Buddhism at all.

As for his past practices, we don’t have to speculate, because the text itself has the Buddha dropping a strong clue what they were. It concludes with the Buddha telling Ananda that one of his truly marvelous qualities is that he is aware of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as they arise, persist, and cease. This is, as anyone who has meditated will know, truly a marvelous thing, but hardly a supernormal attribute of a Buddha.

Why mention it here? Because, I think, elsewhere in the suttas this practice is said to lead specifically to mindfulness and clear comprehension, which is how the Buddha characterized his state in Tusita. So a more reasonable reading of the text, in my opinion, is not to justify a doctrine of destiny on the Buddha’s teachings, but that Ananda was fixated on some of the extraordinary events that had become attached to the Buddha’s life. To undercut the growth of these legends the Buddha pointed out that the important thing was mindful awareness of your own mind in the present. And, of course, as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta shows so eloquently, the Buddha’s followers ignored this and drew exactly the wrong conclusion.

The second text that Ven Bodhi mentions is Snp 3.1 Pabbajja Sutta, which is one of the main sources for the legend of the Bodhisattva, the predictions of his greatness by the sage Asita, and so on. I won’t go into this in detail, only to remark that the metrical style of these verses unambiguously mark them as among the latest additions to the canon. They are of interest in showing how the canon was open for such insertions at a late date, and giving some insight into how the Buddha myth evolved, but they tell us nothing of the Buddha or his teachings.

Ven Bodhi admits to not being able to fully work out all the problems with his thesis, making the following excellent points:

[The Buddha] says nothing to suggest that he had been consciously following a deliberate course of conduct aimed at the attainment of Buddhahood. Moreover, soon after his enlightenment, when the Buddha considered whether or not to teach the Dhamma, he says that he first inclined to “dwell at ease” (appossukkatāya cittaṃ namati MN 26/ I 168; Vin I 5), that is, not to teach, which suggests that even after his enlightenment he might not have fulfilled the function of a sammā sambuddha, but could have become a paccekabuddha.

And again:

in the Nikāyas the Buddha is never seen teaching others to enter a bodhisattva path. Whenever he urges his monastic disciples to strive for any goal, it is to strive for arahantship, for liberation, for nirvāṇa. Whenever monastic disciples come to the Buddha, they ask for guidance in following the path to arahantship. The monks that the Buddha praises in the midst of the Sangha are those who have attained arahantship. Lay disciples often attain the three lower stages of liberation, from stream-entry to non-returning; those who lack the potential for world-transcending attainments aim at a heavenly rebirth or for a fortunate rebirth back into the human realm. No mention is ever made, however, of a lay disciple treading the bodhisattva path, much less of a dichotomy between monastic arahants and lay bodhisattvas.

Of course, we can’t expect to find a text where the Buddha says, “No, I did not do the whole bodhisattva parami training thing”, the reason being that he had never heard of these ideas, and neither had anyone else alive at the time.

Nevertheless, there are several texts, overlooked by Ven Bodhi, which as good as state outright that this is so. In DN19 Mahagovinda Sutta, the Buddha tells the story of Mahagovinda, a wise man of the past, and says:

Ahaṃ tena samayena mahāgovindo brāhmaṇo ahosiṃ. Ahaṃ tesaṃ sāvakānaṃ brahma­loka­sahab­ya­tāya maggaṃ desesiṃ. Taṃ kho pana me, pañcasikha, brahmacariyaṃ na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya na abhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati, yāvadeva brahma­lo­kū­papat­tiyā.

Idaṃ kho pana me, pañcasikha, brahmacariyaṃ ekanta­nibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati.

I was Mahagovinda the brahman at that time. I taught the path to the brahma realm to those students. But that holy life of mine does not lead to turning away, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to awakening, or to quenching; it only leads as far as rebirth in the brahma realm.

But this holy life absolutely leads to turning away, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to awakening, and to quenching.

The same idea is found in MN83 Maghadeva. These are two of the very few cases in the early texts where the Buddha explicitly speaks of his own past lives, and in each case he purposefully states that those practices did not lead to awakening. I can’t imagine how we could expect to find anything more explicit and straightforward than this.

Then there is, of course, MN81 Ghatikara, where the Buddha in his past life was so reluctant to even visit a Buddha that he had to be dragged by the hair!

This was in the time of Buddha Kassapa, according to legend the immediately preceding Buddha, and it was from there that the Buddha-to-be, having become a monk under Kassapa, was reborn in the Tusita heaven, and then here in his final life. This account is found in the Sarvastivadin version of the Acchariya-Abbhuta Sutta (see note 2 in Ven Bodhi’s essay).

So in that life, a blink of an eye ago in bodhisattva years, he was so unready as to actively fight to avoid visiting a Buddha? Yet this was at the end of countless aeons of deliberate, conscious training to become a Buddha? I don’t think so.

Even if you argue that these texts are late, all that shows is that there was no conception of the bodhisattva path for quite some time even after the Buddha.

The more cogent problem with all of these things is that they contradict everything we know about the history of life and civilization on this planet. Let us allow that the Buddha could recollect a life a few centuries or even millennia ago in India. Maybe he could recollect times in other world, previous universes even, and history is cyclic enough that similar conditions reappear. But these stories assume that there were advanced civilizations existing changelessly for millions of years in India; and this is simply not what happened. So in arguing for a bodhisattva theory you are arguing that the essence of Buddha-hood is located in an anti-historical time. This is quite different from taking there to be a few moral tales and legends of this mysterious past. The very essence of what it takes to be a Buddha is located in an impossible mythic time frame. This runs counter to the pragmatic empiricism that underlies the Buddha’s teachings: what matters is what we can see and know before us.

Then there is the problem of the Bodhisattva’s austerities. This is even more serious, since it pertains to real events rather than legends of the past. The Bodhisattva went through years of wasted, painful effort, and why? The traditions trip over themselves to explain this away, using various conflicting arguments, all of which contradict what the Buddha himself said in MN85.

“Mayhampi kho, rājakumāra, pubbeva sambodhā ana­bhisam­buddhassa bodhi­sattas­seva sato etadahosi: ‘na kho sukhena sukhaṃ adhigantabbaṃ, dukkhena kho sukhaṃ adhigantabban’ti.

Before I woke up, young prince, when I was an still unawakened seeker of awakening, I too thought, “Pleasure is not to be reached by pleasure; pleasure is to be reached by pain”.

He did those practices because he had the wrong view that pain leads to pleasure. This is no minor detail, to be glossed over in an account of how the Buddha came to be the Buddha. The strong, clear, and unambiguous message of the early texts is that Siddhattha went forth to seek the way to freedom, a path that he did not know. He struggled, tried, failed, and tried again, only eventually come on the answer in a moment of unexpected intuition. When he recollected his jhāna meditation as a child, he wondered (MN36):

Siyā nu kho eso maggo bodhāyā’ti? Tassa mayhaṃ, aggivessana, satānusāri viññāṇaṃ ahosi: ‘eseva maggo bodhāyā’ti

“Could that be the path to awakening?” Then, Aggivessana, following that memory there came to me the intuitive understanding: “That is indeed the path to awakening”.

This is a real life spiritual quest, based on actual human psychology, not a fantasy set in an world of the imagination.

Ven Bodhi wants to find connections between early Buddhism and Mahayana. The problem is not that there aren’t such connections, but that there are too many. Practically every idea in Mahayana has its roots in the early texts in one way or another. There are countless things in common that we can, and should, be pointing to; values of compassion and wisdom, practices of meditation, a shared history and a way of seeing. I’ve lived and taught for years in places where Mahayana is common, and we always find a positive way to make connections.

Why, then, do we need to seek connection by focusing on one of the few areas where there is most obviously a difference? This achieves nothing except to convey the impression that we have to distort the suttas to find connections with the Mahayana, which is simply not true. I’d never try to evangelize a Mahayanist with my “Nikaya puritanism”. But there is no need to fall back to a “universalist blitheism” either. If someone asks, “Do the early texts contain a bodhisattva path?” then you just have to tell it straight: No, there isn’t. That’s the fact. What people make of that fact is up to them.

The Buddha shared his experiences, his sufferings, and his practices with his students (eg. SN56.21, AN4.1). This is my Buddha. The man who was afraid in the forest (MN4), who gradually worked out how to meditate properly (MN19), who repeatedly failed to get his samādhi together (MN128), who had a bad back (DN16), and a sly sense of humor (MN74). We’ve worked so hard to find a real person underneath the Buddha legend. Don’t take him away from us.



Dear Bhante,

Thank you very much for the clarifications :smile:

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! :heart_eyes:

with reverence, respect, and gratitude,



I want this on a t-shirt.

But all jokes aside, I agree with Russ. This is a truly excellent response. Thank you, Bhante!

He is welcome to take the full wisdom Bodhisattva path, I’ll take the quicker path of dispassion from sensual attachment. Haha

I was under the impression a Bodhisattva was one who takes a vow to keep on coming back out of compassion to keep on helping beings stuck in samsara. Not a fully realized buddha.

Yes, that’s right. What makes you think otherwise.

Well the first time i read this i thought it meant a Buddha and a Bodhisattva are the same thing, meaning both of their vows were for Absolute Wisdom. But a being who practices for the sake of helping others and to keep on returning, is not the same as being on the path for Absolute Wisdom. Which is what led me to my original comment.

But re-reading it i can see it as just saying Gotama used the Bodhisattva path, not that they have the same vows.

The statement that I say that the bodhisattva is superior to the arhant is incorrect. What I say in this essay is that the path of the bodhisattva is superior to the path of the arhant, because the path of the bodhisattva leads to Buddhahood and the path of the stream entrant leads to arhantship, which may be a technical state of emancipation through the cultivation of dispassion but is not equal to Buddhahood simply because of the primogeniture of the Buddha in relation to ignorance and the cultivation of wisdom. The related question of the fallibility of arhants came up in the first centuries AB (see the Five Points of Mahadeva). I have addressed this a little more in the following blog post: http://palisuttas.com/2015/07/16/the-arhant-and-the-buddha. It is also incorrect to state that the bodhisatta does not appear in the canonical Pali suttas. In fact, it pervades them, including in the Digha Nikaya, which all authorities agree is one of the most authentic parts of the canon. Here is a good article that explicates the Pali view of the bodhisatta: http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha238.htm. The Mahayana development of the bodhisatta concept is just that, a development of an original Pali view, and not an innovation.

Hi Tsetsen,

Thanks for your contribution.

Just a couple of points. First, regarding the Digha, it is not the case that all authorities agree it is one of the oldest portions of the canon; in fact, I don’t know any contemporary scholars of Early Buddhism who would say this. It is comprised of material from early and late periods, and several of the suttas in the collection are among the latest found in the four nikayas. in this category I would securely place DN 30 and DN 22, and in addition some or all of DN 33, DN 34, DN 24, DN 20, DN 14, DN 16, and so on.

Given the length of the suttas, and the very evident presence of extensive literary development of most of the texts, it would seem in fact that almost all of the material here has been elaborated to some extent; DN 15, for example, is clearly more developed than its Chinese equivalent.

The idea that it is a particularly early collection dates from TW Rhys Davids over a century ago; it was never a very good argument, and has not stood the test of time.

Regarding the bodhisatta “pervading” the Pali texts, in fact the situation is this. (In the Chinese Agama texts it is similar, with a few variations in detail.) The term bodhisatta appears fairly frequently in the sense of Siddhattha Gotama having left home and striving for Awakening. It appears two or three times to refer to Siddhattha or another Buddha (in the case of DN 14) earlier in their lives, or even in the context of the previous life in Tusita.

In neither these nor in any other contexts does the Buddha imply in any way that the bodhisatta is practicing some sort of “bodhisatta path”, or that such a path exists. On the contrary, when speaking of his former lives he avoids the use of the word bodhisatta and emphasizes that the spiritual practices he did in those days did not lead to Awakening.

So while the word bodhisatta is not an innovation, the sense in which it is used in later Buddhism certainly is. It should, however, be noted that this innovation was not a Mahayanist development, but was widely spread among the early schools. The distinctively Mahayana contribution was mainly to emphasize that this path was the best path that should be taken, not to invent the idea itself.


A.K. Warder still considers the Digha the most reliable part of the Pali Canon (Indian Buddhism, rev. 2000, p. 197). He’s also done a Rhys Davids-like analysis of Pali metre that might bear on this, I haven’t had a chance to read this yet. In any case, speaking hermeneutically, I don’t consider being later to necessarily imply degeneration, so I must decisively break with the Theravada on this point. I have discussed my view on this in the context of the doctrine of anicca in various places. The Buddha may have rediscovered the dharma in this world-epoch, but the Power of Truth perpetuates itself from generation to generation, creating enlightened beings who then explore, interpret, amplify, and develop the dharma that the Buddha proclaimed, and thus carry it forward where it takes root and form appropriate to different times and climes. I don’t deny the doctrine of degeneration, but I don’t hold to it exclusively. There is degeneration, but there is also development. The Buddha declares that the dharma is far more profuse and elaborate than what he taught. This is my ekayana hermeneutic that underlies my exegesis of the Pali suttas and all else. In principle, I accept all dharma revelations in their totality, trusting that the extremes will cancel each other out (my interpretation of the Middle Way). :slight_smile:

Thanks for the reference: I looked it up, and Warder does indeed imply in passing that the Digha is the most authentic, however he offers no reasons for this. Perhaps in Introduction to Pali, which is mostly based on the Digha, he gives his reasons. Nevertheless, I did say “contemporary”, and as Professor Warder passed away a few years ago I stand by this!

The Digha is stuffed full of all kinds of mythic material; the verses, which you refer to, are in many cases extremely late, in fact among the latest of the whole canon, and there are numerous instances of doctrinal development that heavily suggests the abhidhamma. For these and many other reasons, I cannot agree with Prof Warder’s opinion. On the contrary, I would say that the Digha is the least authentic of the Nikayas.

In any case the issue is a furphy. Regardless of one’s opinion of the relative date of a collection as a whole, this has little or no bearing on the date of any part of that whole, given that the whole was assembled over a substantial period of time. The Pali commentaries say that certain parts were added in Sri Lanka, so it is at least a 200 year period of composition.

In order to establish that any one part is early, you have to argue based on that portion; and good luck making a text-critical argument for the authenticity of DN 14.

Moreover, as I said earlier, DN 14, the only part of the Digha to mention the bodhisatta, does not speak of a “bodhisatta path”, nor any of the other features of the later Buddhist conception; it merely speaks of the bodhisatta regarding the last life and the one in Tusita (which is itself a late development).

The Digha also contains passages that explicitly refute the idea of the bodhisatta path such as this from DN 19:

I was the High Steward of those days. I taught my disciples the way to communion with the Brahma world. But, Five-crest, that religious life did not conduce to detachment, to passionlessness, to cessation of craving, to peace, to understanding, to insight of the higher stages of the Path, to Nirvana

I don’t mean to disparage your understanding of Dhamma, and I think it is very useful to look at the developments in the traditions in a positive way. However, if we are to use history at all, we should start with a realistic view of the situation and its implications. By all means, don’t end with history: facts aren’t everything.

But they are something. Any argument based on the idea that there is a bodhisatta path in early Buddhism is a non-starter. It just isn’t there. Instead of trying to justify the unjustifiable, surely we would be better off trying to understand what the implications for this are, and why the traditions felt the need to develop such ideas.