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How did Bakkula make robes?

In MN 124, the Bakkulasutta, we see Bakkula showing off how ascetic he is. With regards to robes, he says:

In these eighty years, I don’t recall accepting a robe from a householder …
“Asīti me, āvuso, vassāni pabbajitassa nābhijānāmi gahapaticīvaraṁ sāditā”.

cutting a robe with a knife …
“Asīti me, āvuso, vassāni pabbajitassa nābhijānāmi satthena cīvaraṁ chinditā”.

sewing a robe with a needle …
“Asīti me, āvuso, vassāni pabbajitassa nābhijānāmi sūciyā cīvaraṁ sibbitā …pe…

dying a robe …
nābhijānāmi rajanena cīvaraṁ rajitā …

Accepting a robe from a householder would have interfered with his ascetic practices. But why is using a needle, a knife, and dye problematic for dhutaṅga monastics? How else would he have made robes?

Vens. @Sujato, @Brahmali, @Dhammanando, I’d be grateful for your thoughts. :anjal: :anjal:

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I always assumed he got his robes from other monks. In this way he had to be happy with the robes that others didn’t want (maybe bad cloth, old, etc?) Or he would just get one from storage. I imagine it is the direct contact with laypeople that is being praised. But perhaps the Pali wording excludes even getting a robe in this way. Does it really mean accepting a robe from a householder, or does it mean accepting a householder-robe, i.e. one that had been made by a householder?

As to the first question, when there is the possibility of just taking whatever robes there are, this would certainly be more ascetic than making one’s own, although these days the opposite is seen to be valued.

I’ve always seen this sutta as a counter point to trends emphasizing narrow aspects of the training, like sewing one’s own robes.

I’m reminded of this passage in the Mahāsuññatasutta:

Now at that time Venerable Ānanda, together with many other mendicants, was making robes in Ghaṭa the Sakyan’s dwelling. Then in the late afternoon, the Buddha came out of retreat and went to Ghaṭa’s dwelling, where he sat on the seat spread out and said to Venerable Ānanda, “Many resting places have been spread out at Kāḷakhemaka’s dwelling; are many mendicants living there?”

“Indeed there are, sir. It’s currently the time for making robes.”

“Ānanda, a mendicant doesn’t shine who enjoys company and groups, who loves them and likes to enjoy them. It’s simply not possible that such a mendicant will get the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of awakening when they want, without trouble or difficulty. But you should expect that a mendicant who lives alone, withdrawn from the group, will get the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of awakening when they want, without trouble or difficulty. That is possible.

Personally, I’d not use the phrase “showing off.” It’s quite a loaded term and in my opinion inaccurate. Of course ascetic practices are a way to show off, no doubt. However I’d be hesitant to imply that an arahant was doing that.

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Interesting. We seem to have very different interpretations of this sutta. Thanks for sharing!
To me, Bakkula is the one who comes across as narrow-minded, and as someone who clings to his self-imposed minor rules instead of focusing on the larger picture.

That’s such an intriguing point of view.
I always felt that collecting pieces of discarded cloth with much effort until you have enough, and then sewing and dyeing your own robes, is much more trouble than just taking one that’s lying around.
Nowadays, people usually make their own with nice, new, store-bought cloth, which is a totally different experience than piecing old, mismatching rags together.
But you may be right. The Bakkulasutta isn’t that early, so by that time, the sangha was probably well-supported enough that not even the ascetic monks would use actual rags anymore.
(I once had to make a robe out of an old toilet curtain and another piece of cloth. It was really annoying to make, and the pieces were of two different colors and thicknesses. That mismatching thing ended up being my only lower robe for over one year. I’d have much prefered to find an old robe lying around.)

IDK… I guess the sutta is meant to be inspiring, but in my mind, some of Bakkula’s points are quite unreasonable. For example, him claiming that he never gets sick doesn’t have anything to do with dhamma practice. It’s just his good luck / past kamma. Or him never ordaining others seems quite selfish. He was ordained out of compassion. How come he can’t bring up enough compassion to do the same for others, when he’s already an arahant and doesn’t have anything better to do?

To me, this sutta is an example of asceticism gone way overboard. Especially because of the lavish praise that’s heaped onto him by the monks at the second council. If he was just one lone monk who keeps away and is ignored by everyone, that would have been different.

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I too think that at least ordain and train others. It could be that overemphasis on this sutta lead to the emergence of Mahayana, and later on disappearance of Theravada in India.

Anyway, if the monastic community is large enough, sure, some can just live like Bakkula, but it’s bad for the longevity of the Sangha if the majority/all of people aim to live like that.

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Psychic powers? He was a super-duper monk with super-duper psychic powers! :crazy_face:

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Might these three mini-lion’s-roars have been made in reference to something other than the dhutaṅgas?

For example, Bakkula may have had in mind the Buddha’s warnings about the danger in “delighting in work” (kammārāmatā) in the Sekhasutta (AN 5.89) and “delighting in and habitually undertaking work” (kammā­rā­ma­ta­manu­yutto) in the Parihānasutta (Iti 79).

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Maybe he was just wearing the “invisible” robe? I.e. no robe at all? The more ascetic your practice is, the closer it comes to Jain practices … It isn’t said that he didn’t wash at all, but at least he doesn’t use soap. And is it a coincidence that his friend is Kassapa the naked ascetic?

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Novices? Or junior bhikkhus?

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He says he has never been attended on by novices. He doesn’t say explicitly that he hasn’t been attended on by junior bhikkhus, but that would probably be implied.

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It is a really interesting sutta. And it doesn’t tell us much about how to interpret the information, other than that some people at some point found it inspiring.

My personal method of interpreting suttas is to give the Buddha and arahants the benefit of the doubt, and try to find the most charitable meaning. So I would have to have an iron-clad reason to show that an arahant had unwholesome intentions behind an action. For me, this prevents missing something beneficial.

In my reading of the suttas, I would never say “just past karma.” After all, having done meritorious deeds in the past is the highest blessing. The Buddha saw fit to declare him as foremost in good health. So it hardly seems out of place. The Buddha praised good health in general as a factor in Dhamma practice.

I can turn this on it’s head and say that for some monks it is irresponsible for them to ordain others. For example, if they know they don’t posses the disposition to train others, or if they choose a lifestyle that is not conducive to training others. It may very well have been an act of compassion not to ordain others.

I can’t say exactly how things were at that time, but now in Sri Lanka, one gains a bit of power and prestige from ordaining monks. Having “a following” has probably always been a thing. Not ordaining others is one way to avoid this.

You can hardly blame Ven. Bakkula for this. The only evidence we have is that he allowed others in the monastery allow him to attain parinibbana. Otherwise we don’t have a single case of self promotion. In fact, the qualities in this list seem to show the opposite. And I don’t recall him even being a named presence in other suttas.

It’s true that we can easily find a negative interpretation for any of these qualities. However, I don’t think that is an appropriate way to understand the lives of arahants. For me, I’m happy to simply not know why something would be considered praiseworthy in this case, rather than to come to a negative interpretation.

At the same time, someone should not use this sutta to justify their own misguided ascetic practices.

Is there any evidence for this? That this one sutta could somehow cause the downfall of Theravada in India seems far fetched.

This seems highly unlikely. Nakedness is forbidden by the Vinaya.

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These are just random thoughts, nothing scientific.

I don’t have a particularly positive reaction to the Bakkula Sutta, although my friends told me that many of Bakkula’s eccentric behaviours could just be because of his advanced age…his notable quality.

But…when you are on carika or living in a remote place, you mightn’t be have robe-making equipment, like needles or knives. So you have to continually bother your lay devotees to borrow them and it becomes a hassle. I vaguely recall this as a theme in some Jain texts. Maybe the needles and knives are like the vinegar and salt of the Jatakas…you know, the thing that draws you back to the city?

The positive side of Bakkula might be his endorsement of a world where you aren’t always bothering people just to borrow things to get your stuff done. It might have been some monks’ (slightly unrealistic) dream.

On a side note, my local area in Western Sydney is very, very good for pamsukulika cloth. I don’t know why people chuck out the good stuff…scarves, jumpers, shirts, everything. But because of polycotton, ever being able to dye it satisfactorily might be hard.

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I think we agree on this.

Still, this is one of the latest suttas in the canon (Bakkula says he’s been an arahant for 80 years, and the Buddha only taught for 45 years. So even if Bakkula ordained in the first year of the Buddha’s teaching career, the sutta is still set 35 years after his parinibbāna. But more likely, he ordained much later. So he doesn’t appear in other suttas because he wasn’t a monk yet.)
And it is the only sutta into which the redactors of the second council inserted this kind of lavish praise. Unfortunately, singling him out in this way makes it very easy for people to justify misguided practices, and to look down on other monks who deal with sangha matters, or have more contact with laypeople.

I’ll let Ven. @NgXinZhao answer for himself.
But people like Bhante Analayo have pointed out that it’s likely that the tendency towards more extreme asceticism and withdrawal from society in the time after the Buddha led to a counter-movement that emphasized compassion and ultimately led to the development of the bodhisattva ideal and Mahayana Buddhism.

He says he never did these things throughout his whole monastic life. So it probably has nothing to do with his age.

Needles and razors (that could be used as a knife?) are two of the eight requisites of monastics though.


Judging from the answers so far, it seems that people agree that Bakkula didn’t make his own robes. I was originally wondering if there’s a way to make robes without needles and knives, i.e. with some more ascetic tools. It may sound a little far-fetched, but he could have made holes into the cloth by some other means (sharp rocks?), and “sewn” the pieces together with plant fibers instead of thread. He can’t damage plants though, so not sure how he’d gotten the fibers. It’d also look much more coarse than usual robes.
It’s curious that Bakkula says he doesn’t make robes with these specific items (needles, knives, dye). He doesn’t say that he doesn’t make robes altogether.

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According to the Dhammapada cmy, Bakkula went forth at age 80 and lived to 160? Not saying that anything really makes any sense though.

AFAIK the whole concept of eight requisites is only referenced in the Jatakas (somebody correct me if I’m wrong please), there is no obligation on anyone to actually have those things on them apart from the robes and bowl?

It is theoretically possible to separate cloth along the thread lines by ripping it, and to only use cloth that is already the correct colour or maybe to dye it with mud rather than dye? But I don’t think you can make a Khandaka style Buddhist cut robe that way, only an uncut robe, like a brahmanical ascetic or something…maybe also the dream of some monks and nuns.

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No, just speculations. Anyway, one can think this logically. If in one of the generations of sangha, they all take the ideal of not ordaining people as the highest ideal and they all do that, then naturally, the sangha will die out for that monastery.

Realistically, I don’t think the whole sangha of a country might do that. Maybe a few forest monasteries. There should be some monks who are good teachers and willing to ordain generations after generations.

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First, there’s a two elements of his robe-ascetism you actually skipped over:

sewing a robe during the robe-making ceremony … looking for robe material for my companions in the spiritual life when they are making robes

Which make some suggestions (getting robes from monks) seem unlikely to me.

One possibility that occurs to me is that he may have just worn discarded cloth, and almost constantly had tattered robes that were merely tied together, or perhaps affixed by the insertion of found materials (e.g. putting a fallen stick through multiple holes along the two ends of the large bit of fabric). His robes could each be one piece of fabric, solid in one piece each except for the result of wear and tear.

He does ordain another. That’s the context of the Sutta. All this Kassapa has to do is ask, and Bakkula gives him the going forth, and this Kassapa reaches enlightenment very quickly.

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The sutta doesn’t state that Ven. Bakula ordains him, only that he goes forth:

And the naked ascetic Kassapa received the going forth, the ordination in this teaching and training.
Alattha kho acelakassapo imasmiṁ dhammavinaye pabbajjaṁ, alattha upasampadaṁ.

Are you thinking that because he never participated in sewing a kathina robe, no monk would ever want to give him a robe? Surely there are monks who think in this way, but not the majority. Most monks trip over themselves to give a robe to a senior monk. Or any monk, for that matter. At least monks who believe in karma.

In the 80 years after the passing away of the Buddha, it’s much more likely that robes were still abundant enough that it would be easy for a monk to replace his robes every few years by simply using a complete robe that another monk had cast off. I’m not sure why people find this implausible.

As you say, this seems highly unlikely. Kind of like when lay people ask, “Well what would happen if everyone ordained and stopped having children.”

I do wonder if anyone is aware of any forest/ascetic monks ever making statements praising Ven. Bakula. I’m not familiar with the work of Ajahn Mun or Maha Boowa. Did they ever praise Bakula? I’m just doubtful that a single sutta could have very much influence.

Hmm. I just took this to be the often verbose way of stating things we often find in the suttas.:grin: I never got the feeling that he was following these practices just to make life difficult for himself (i.e. sewing without sewing tools). Quite the opposite.

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After asking for it from Ven. Bakula.

Reverend Bakkula, may I receive the going forth, the ordination in this teaching and training?” And the naked ascetic Kassapa received the going forth, the ordination in this teaching and training.

Of course this does not guarantee it came from him. But this is why it seems that way to me.

Are you thinking that because he never participated in sewing a kathina robe, no monk would ever want to give him a robe?

No, the more critical part to me is that he never looked for robe material from his spiritual companions. This, to me, is suggestive of him not accepting robes. Though I acknowledge it does not fully rule it out.

In the 80 years after the passing away of the Buddha, it’s much more likely that robes were still abundant enough that it would be easy for a monk to replace his robes every few years by simply using a complete robe that another monk had cast off. I’m not sure why people find this implausible.

I don’t find this implausible generally - there are cases of this happening explicitly in the Suttas. I just personally don’t think it fits well with what he says, and am offering an alternative explanation.

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A few years ago, Ayya @Suvira and I used to live and practice with a monk who had extremely minimal possessions, and we experimented with replacing as many requisites as possible with things that can be freely found in the wilderness. Not to make things difficult on us, but to be able to travel lightly, i.e. to make things easy. But we never replaced needles and razors. I was just wondering if Bakkula found a way to do that.

This was all the monk had: 3 robes and a bowl, plus the small bundle in the foreground, and a sitting mat & blanket (not in the picture)

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I was thinking the same

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Bark robes? Historically they were in use at that time.

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