MN8 Sallekha Sutta

Very interesting Sutta.
The basic teaching is that Jhana is not very important for eliminating defilements.
The main purpose of Jhana seems to be the pleasant abiding here and now.
The question is how Vipassana fitting to this?
Vipassana seems not considered Jhana.
Is there another word for effacement?

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Wisdom requires concentration which jhana (or more exactly the state of mind just after quitting jhana) is one way, the other being upacara samadhi and khanika samadhi. So I think it is just a matter of preference whether one want to practice concentration by developing jhana, upacara samadhi, or moment-to-moment awareness (khanika samadhi). Different people, different compatibility.

The sutta speaks about the wrong view of taking jhana attainment as the destruction of kilesa, since jhana can only supress it. Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw has a long commentary on Salekkha Sutta.

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Actually, the basic message here is that thinking of jhanas as “dwelling in effacement” is a false idea.

The jhanas are indeed for a pleasant abiding, which is to say, they help pass the time for people sitting in the woods. But everyone and their wanderer dog can access jhanas of one sort or another; wisdom is other than this, and comes from effacement.

This Sutta is criticizing the idea that meditative accomplishments in and of themselves are expressions of wisdom, it seems to me. I also hear a criticism with respect to the idea that sitting in jhana is somehow like a spin cycle on a washing machine, something you can set & forget. But jhanas are in fact fully inactive and uneffacing on their own.

They can generate a pliable mind, but that mind could just as well go on to get high scores at arcade games.

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No, the teaching here is that jhana is not in itself enough, for the ending of defilements. Obviously it is part of the noble eightfold path. Also in one sutta (which I cant seem to find now) the Buddha tells Mahanama, a lay debotee, the reason why his mind hasn’t given up on desires is because it hasn’t found something better than what those desires offer him. What is ‘better’ than sensual desires is the pleasant abiding of the jhanas; so they have a role to play.

with metta

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Bhante @sujato how do you translate Sallekha?
Is there another term for effacement?

Here is something by Piya Tan on MN 8.

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“Removal of mental defilements” as per the link provided by David’s post.

I still use effacement. It’s a little obscure, but quite nice and accurate. The root is from likh in the sense to “rub or scratch out”, i.e. to literally “efface” marks on stone or something, but also in the psychological sense of “erasing the self”.

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This is similar to the following sutta:

"And what is the perception of abandoning? There is the case where a monk doesn’t acquiesce to an arisen thought of sensuality. He abandons it, destroys it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn’t acquiesce to an arisen thought of ill-will. He abandons it, destroys it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn’t acquiesce to an arisen thought of harmfulness. He abandons it, destroys it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn’t acquiesce to arisen evil, unskillful mental qualities. He abandons them, destroys them, dispels them, & wipes them out of existence. This is called the perception of abandoning. AN10.60

With metta

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Someone just asked me about this sutta, I replied and have now looked around to see if there’ more conversation about it. I’ll now put my reply here, as I find this interesting and am interested if you guys think my sense is in the right direction:

I’m not familiar with this sutta but I gave it a go. It talked about ‘effacement’, which is an English word I’m not familiar with. The dictionary doesn’t help me much - for ‘efface’ it says:

  • erase (a mark) from a surface
  • make oneself appear insignificant or inconspicuous

Not obvious to me how the sentences make sense with either of those meanings. But the PED gives this for the Pāli, ‘sallekha’:

  • austere penance, the higher life

Since I am not familiar with the usage of this term in the canon, my view is only speculative. But I find myself sondering if he is referring to the kind of practices non-Buddhists were doing in India. I’ve spent time in the forests and countryside of India with spiritual practitioners who have not spoken in many years, or help their hand in the air for years - there are others who will never sit, and so on. They believe that will get them closer to god, or get to moksha or whatever. I wonder if that is the type of ‘austere penance’ that sallekha is referring to here.

If so, it would appear that first, the Buddha is saying no, don’t misunderstand, jhāna is not some kind of penance, by which you get a reward because of doing something really hard (training for ages in concentration, sitting totally still for hours every day etc.).

But no, that is not why jhāna practice works. It’s a totaly different principle than the idea of getting benefit merely because somethign is hard to do, such as holding your hand in the air for years etc.

So he’s saying no, that’s not sallekha.

But then (if my interpretation of sallekha is correct), he redefines sallekha! He did this with many words. So if that’s what’s happening here, he’s basically saying no, if you really want to endure difficult things, then the real sallekha is to extinguish your cruelness, by not killing, not stealing etc.

So whereas the non-Buddhist sallekha may be based around ritual, the power of specific actions, he’s ethicising it. He’s making the tasks directly related to ethical behaviour. Holding your hand in the air, or never sitting down etc., these are all difficult, but in the Buddha’s view I think those would be seen as useless. This austerity the Buddha is proposing is also difficult, but it’s totally based on inter-relation - how our actions affect others. And this morality is the necessary foundation for concentration training also, as it happens.

And please note that he concludes the sutta by instructing to pracrice jhāna:

Here are these roots of trees, and here are these empty huts. Practice absorption, Cunda! Don’t be negligent! Don’t regret it later! This is my instruction.”
Etāni,
cunda, rukkhamūlāni, etāni suññāgārāni, jhāyatha, cunda, mā pamādattha, mā pacchāvippaṭisārino ahuvattha—ayaṃ kho amhākaṃ anusāsanī”ti.

Bare in mind that that’s the first time I’ve read that last sutta you asked me about, so my interpretation might not be correct. That’s what comes off the top of my head when I read it though.

And if I’m on the right track, then I might prefer to translate sallekha as ‘austere penance’ as the PED has, rather than the rather obscure word ‘effacement’ which even as a native English speaker gave me no suitable understanding of the word even with the dictionary, and evidently has given others here some trouble too.

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I think of MN8 as an encouragement to be diligent and not get stuck jhana bliss. Self-effacement is simply the erasing of the defilements and hindrances. With all these gone, we attain Right Freedom.

In other words, there are different ways to use jhana. One can abide in jhana or one can actually apply it to self-effacement. One way is slow and blissful, the other way is quicker.

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Test out my interpretation and see if you find that it works or not. Notice:

They might think
Tassa evamassa:
they’re practicing self-effacement.
‘sallekhena viharāmī’ti.
But in the training of the noble one these are not called ‘self-effacement’;
Na kho panete, cunda, ariyassa vinaye sallekhā vuccanti.
they’re called ‘blissful meditations in the present life’.
Diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārā ete ariyassa vinaye vuccanti.
[…]
they’re called ‘peaceful meditations’.
Santā ete vihārā ariyassa vinaye vuccanti.
[…]

And I see no evidence at all here of any sense of there being anything wrong whatsoever of these ‘blissful meditations in the present life’, ‘peaceful meditations’, being negative in any way. He’s merely saying that they are not called ‘sallekha’ in this religion.

Then he redefines sallekha, and gives you the kind of (redefined) sallekha that are actually good, actually useful for attaining enlightenment. And those are the ‘erasing’ of ethically bad actions/habits, which is perhaps where the etymology of the word comes in, as Ajahn mentioned:

If my sense of this is correct, then this makes sense, since it seems sometimes the Buddha redefined common words by going into their etymology, and then appliying that etymology in a new way. I.e. saying jhāna, no, they’re not sallekha. They’re something quite different. But hey, you want sallekha? Alright, I’ll give you sallekha, here, we can ‘erase’ (perhaps deliberately over-literal new use of the term) the tendency to kill, to steal, etc.

And we must not forget that he concludes by instructing to practice jhāna!

Worried about bliss? So many people are! That’s a big reason why the vast majority of Buddhist has rejected jhāna practice! How ironic, for so many schools of Buddhism to reject the Buddha’s path to enlightenment! So, while I see no evidence of MN 8 being about avoinding bliss or even avoiding getting stuck in bliss (but of course we are not meant to get stuck in it, just as we shouldn’t get ‘stuck’ in mindfulness of the body, etc.), consider this sutta, DN 29:

These four kinds of indulgence in pleasure, when developed and cultivated, lead solely to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.
Cattārome, cunda, sukhallikānuyogā ekantanibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattanti.
What four?
Katame cattāro?

It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
Idha, cunda, bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
This is the first kind of indulgence in pleasure.
Ayaṃ paṭhamo sukhallikānuyogo.

And so on for the 4 jhānas.
And then:

It’s possible that wanderers who follow other paths might say:
Ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ, cunda, vijjati yaṃ aññatitthiyā paribbājakā evaṃ vadeyyuṃ:
‘The ascetics who follow the Sakyan live indulging in pleasure in these four ways.’
‘ime cattāro sukhallikānuyoge anuyuttā samaṇā sakyaputtiyā viharantī’ti.
They should be told, ‘Exactly so!’
Te vo ‘evaṃ’ tissu vacanīyā.
It’s right to say that about you; it doesn’t misrepresent you with an untruth.
Sammā te vo vadamānā vadeyyuṃ, na te vo abbhācikkheyyuṃ asatā abhūtena.

Ajahn Sujato has ‘indulging in’ pleasure… I think this comes from yutta, which the PED also gives as ‘devoted to’. Perhaps this is closer to the Pāli, I’m not sure. Walshe actually gives this as ‘addicted to’ in his translation. I’m not so sure about that, but certainly the Buddha encourages his disciples to be devoted to jhāna practice.

Also I added a paragraph to the end of my last comment, in case you’re interested.

To me MN8 is to be understood in context of what the Jains called and still call to date sallekhana, the practice of spiritual suicide via gradual fasting.

https://youtu.be/SsWv6Nrh4QY

:anjal:

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Ok, that might fit with what I’ve suggested above still. How do you then see the sallekha that he advocates? Do you see this as a redefinition of the term, part way through the sutta, as I’ve suggested?

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Yes, it is a very interesting redefinition of the term. If it is a discourse taught by the Buddha it tells us that indeed the sallekhana practice was already in vogue back then and he found it relevant enough to be redefined in Buddhist terms. If not, it tells us that those compiling what became suttas found the need to redefine the term in a Buddhist way anyway.

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On the minimal data I have on this topic (so forgive me if I’m missing something), I see another logical possibility, that being that sallekhana practice was already in vogue back then, but that it was not the same as it is now.

For example, could it have had a broader meaning? Which could include the various kinds of austerities I mentioned above, such as never sitting, etc.? I suppose an extensive search of the term in the canon could help establish this either way but I have no time to do that - have you analysed every occurence?

Also I think it would be wonderful to have an extensive list of all the pre-Buddhist terms the Buddha redefined, with a clear ellucidation of the original meaning, the Buddha’s new meaning, and perhaps even contemporary Hindu/Jain definitions of the terms also (which may or may not have changed in response to the Buddha’s redefinition). Is there such a list anywhere?

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@Senryu, @Gabriel_L thank you both for pointing out the Jain context of Sallekha. I had totally missed that connection since I don’t know Jainism.

It would appear that the four absorptions were thought by some to be self-effacement. The Buddha says that is not so:

But in the training of the noble one these are not called ‘self-effacement’; they’re called ‘peaceful meditations’

Then the Buddha gives Cunda lots of homework on self-effacement:

Now, Cunda, you should work on self-effacement in each of the following ways. …

Therefore, the Buddha is telling Cunda there is more than just jhanas.

This is also taught in DN33:

Four ways of developing immersion further.
There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to blissful meditation in the present life. (these are the jhanas)

There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to the ending of defilements. (this is what goes to freedom)

Yes, we all agree jhanas are necessary. The Buddha also says there is more to do with immersion. Basically, I would use immersion to help me do Cunda’s self-effacement homework. Blissful meditation is not enough.

Note: the other two ways of doing immersion don’t relate to MN8 so directly.

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Now you see the benefit of posting comments on this thread :slight_smile:

I don’t read it like that, as I mentioned. Can you quote the exact part where you believe this part is found, where he says that “there is more than just jhanas”, as you put it?

And what do you feel is incorrect with my reading of the sutta, which is quote different from yours - that the Buddha is…

And then he concludes - ‘Now go do jhāna! Don’t be negligent! Don’t regret it later! This is my instruction!’

When I read your interpretation, I see “But hey, you want sallekha?”. This phrasing is a bit sarcastic and can be read one of two ways:

  • Meaning #1: You don’t need this but if you want it, here it is
  • Meaning #2: You do need this, and here it is.

The first meaning is sarcasm. The second meaning is instruction. I have not found the Buddha ever to be sarcastic. That would be an unkindness. I have always found the Buddha to be clear honest and simple. Therefore I favor meaning #2.

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Try reading it with this tone -
Yeah in our religion we don’t do sallekha, so no, jhāna is’t sallekha. But hey you really want something to do that’s called sallekha? Alright, sure, you can call our graduated jhāna training sallekha, because if you really want to ‘erase’ something, then erase your wrong morality, your wrong ethical behaviour, and all the other obscurations to this jhāna path! If there’s any real (/useful) sallekha to be doing, that’s the stuff we’re going to erase. Then also not just wrong morality to erase, but other faults - these are all the progressive faults that are needed to be overcome on the jhāna path! Although he also adds erasing the two fruits of the path, ‘wrong knowledge’ and ‘wrong freedom’.

He did similar with redefining the term ‘brahman’ for example. From the Brahmanical perspective, the Buddha and his Sangha were outcastes, the lowest of the low! So when he told his audience that actually he’s a brahman, and his good monks and nuns are brahmin, due to ethical qualities, and brahmin (in the real world) who are lacking good ethical qualities are actually outcastes; then he’s really poking them with a big stick! He’s messing with them! And making fun of their views also.

Same when he describes his own liberation as ‘extinguisihing the 3 fires’, an apparently direct reference to the 3 sacred fires of Brahmanism.

He’s very provocative. And not at all afraid of making fun of the ideas around him, using satire etc.