Peculiarities of the Dāna: Non-Returners, Petas and Ebenezer Scrooge

So, I was reading this nice Sutta antology about merit by Ven. Thanissaro and was quite surprised by some of the things I came across there. While the sections about virtue and meditation did feature some unusual or thought-provoking passages, the Generosity chapter was by far the most interesting one. Firstly, because I sometimes get the impression that dāna is rather frequently regarded here in the West as a somewhat inferior aspect of the spiritual life, while the Buddhist lay practice in the traditional Theravada societies more often than not revolves almost entirely around merit-making by dāna. So, here are the three questions that I think need careful consideration, clarification or good old textual criticism by those who are more knowledgeable in the Agamas, wink-wink. I have to warn it will be quite alengthy post, but I thought it would be better to keep information about all tricky dāna topics in one place.

Dāna for Non-Returning
In Dānamahapphala Sutta (AN 7.52) the Buddha gives a very peculiar Dhamma talk to a group of lay followers from Campa after Ven. Sariputta asks Him whether it is possible for two persons to give the same gift and not reap the same fruit. Absolutely in accordance with the fundamental dcotrine that kamma is intention, the Buddha replies that what fruit one reaps depends on the motivation one has when giving a gift. The first weird thing is that the Pali text doesn’t have any precise rewards listed using the repetition marker pe instead. However, given the loftiness of the reward for the ultimately virtuous dāna giving, I assume Ven. Thanissaro’s rendering is right. Here’s the list of possible motivations and correspondings kammic rewards one may expect when giving a gift to a brahmin or contemplative:

  • ‘I’ll enjoy this after death’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Four Great Kings (on a side note: this seems to be exacly the practice of many traditional lay Buddhist and good news is that it apparently does work);
  • ‘Giving is good’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Devas of the Thirty-Three;
  • ‘This was given in the past, done in the past, by my father & grandfather. It would not be right for me to let this old family custom be discontinued’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Yama devas;
  • ‘I am well-off. These are not well-off. It would not be right for me, being well-off, not to give a gift to those who are not well-off’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Tusita devas;
  • 'Just as there were the great sacrifices of the sages of the past—Atthaka, Vamaka, Vamadeva, Vessamitta, Yamataggi, Angirasa, Bharadvaja, Vasettha, Kassapa, & Bhagu—in the same way will this be my distribution of gifts’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Nimmanarati devas;
  • ‘When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene. Gratification & joy arise’ - rebirth in the heaven of Paranimmitavasavatti deva

So, this is where my first question arises. Why on earth are these motivations rated this way? I mean, okay, even though I see how giving a gift due to one wishing to cultivate one’s mind is the best motivation, I can’t wrap my mind around how ‘the Great Sages of the Olden Days did it, so I am going to do it too’ beats ‘My, these folks are sure poor as a church mouse, when don’t I give them some cash out of compassion?’

Besides, all of these motivations produce merely temporal results because each time when discussing a possible reason for doing dāna the Buddha adds: ‘Then, having exhausted that action, that power, that status, that sovereignty, he is a returner (āgāmī), coming back to this world.’ (On another side note, it made me smile how Ven. Thanissaro uses ‘he’ as the pronoun counterpart of ‘person’ :blush:) You can see where I am going with that and you are right. The best possible motivation for dāna is:

  • ‘This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind’ - and the reward is rebirth in the company of Brahma’s Retinue (brahma­kāyikā­naṃ devānaṃ)

Even more conspicuously, the person who practices dāna in this way ‘having exhausted that action, that power, that status, that sovereignty, <…> is a non-returner (anāgāmī hoti). He does not come back to this world.’ Now, could someone please explain me how practicing dāna, albeit with the best motivation possible, can make someone a non-returner while abiding in the Brahma realm?

Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
In Jāṇussoṇi Sutta (AN 10.177), the Buddha discusses the efficacy of the saddha (śrāddha, an ancestor-commemorating rite still widely practiced in Hinduism). Quite surprisingly, the Buddha doesn’t reject it outright but rather says that ‘in possible places, brahman, [a gift given by brahmins to their dead relatives] accrues to them, but not in impossible place.’

‘Possible and immpossible places’ are actually a somewhat idiosyncratic rendering of the Pali antonym pair ‘ṭhāne … aṭṭhāne’, which itself is the Locative form of ‘ṭhāna … aṭṭhāna’, literally translated as ‘place … non-place’ and meaning ‘at the right / wrong time’, ‘in the right / wrong place’, ‘possible / impossible’ or a combination of some or all of these three. So, for all intents and purposes, if you like me find Ven. Thanissaro’s rendering a bit hard to digest you may substitue it with ‘in the right / wrong place’ or something along these lines.

So, what are these right and wrong places to offer gifts (mostly food, actually) to the dead? It turns out that your offering to a dead relative is efficient only if he or she was reborn in the peta realm. If your cousin was a person bad enough to descend into the hell or animal realm or virtuous enough to make it to the heaven or stay in the human realm, your offerings are not going to make any difference. Moreover, the Buddha remarks that ‘[a peta] lives [in the peta realm] lives there, he remains [a peta], by means of whatever his friends or relatives give in dedication to him.’

It kinda makes sense, since ‘peta’ is the past participle of ‘pa+ī’ and means ‘gone beyond, gone past’, i.e. ‘dead, departed’. Its synonym ‘petti­vesa­yi­kā’ used later in the Sutta seems to be a variant reading of ‘pettivisayikā’, ‘belonging to the Peta realm’, where the ‘petti-’ part actually comes from the Vedic ‘paitrya’, so the more correct rendering would be ‘belonging to the Ancestor realm’. Of course your offerings to the dead relatives will be efficient only if they are just your dead relative and not some Vajra-yielding deva warrior hanging out with Sakka! If no one in your family or clan commemorates some particular relative any more, well, looks like this peta is out of luck and his or her days are numbered. Alternatively, it may mean that his or her life will be harder as he or she will be now completely on her own and not enjoying the posthumous support of their family any longer.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t really matter whether the family member you are making an offering to has been reborn as a peta, since, as the Buddha points out, other dead relatives of yours who have become petas will partake of your gift. In the unlikely case, that there are none, it doesn’t really matter as well, since you have performed a generous act and will enjoy nice kammic results anyway.

The implications of this Sutta - if it is authentic - can have quite significant ramifications for both practical and theoretical sides of the Buddhist lay practice. First, does it mean that we should perform saddha-like rituals to do a compassionate thing and help our reborn relatives? Second, does it mean that merit-sharing ceremonies that are looked down upon by so many modernist Buddhists do make sense? Third, if we should perform these rituals, what are the minimum requirements, so to say? What should we offer to our deceased relatives and how should we do it? Can we do it in our minds only? Fourth, how does it work, what actually happens when someone makes an offering to a dead ancestor? Last but not least, shouldn’t we slightly reconsider our idea of who the petas are supposed to be? Maybe they are just our dead relatives who were not able to move on and chose to remain close to their family and wishing with their whole heart to live the life as humans, but they just can’t. Maybe, just maybe this is why they are ‘hungry ghosts’. To make a far less feasible theoretical proposition, isn’t it possible that they are just dead people who got stuck in the in-between state? On the other hand, I’m afraid I am starting to make the Book of the Universe sound like a more exciting read than it is.

Ebenezer Scrooge and Dāna
Okay, this post is already long enough, so I’ll try to keep it short. Paṭha­ma­a­putta­ka­ Sutta and Dutiya­a­putta­ka Sutta (SN 3.19 and SN 3.20). Buddha talks to the King Pasenadi who tells him about ‘money-lending householders’ who had recently died and both left a considerable fortune. Still, despite their wealth they ate ‘rice & pickle brine’, wore ‘three lengths of hempen cloth’ and rode ‘in a dilapidated little cart with an awning of leaves.’ You may expect that the Buddha would praise such sense restraint in a wealthy man. If you do you are spectacularly wrong. Instead, the Buddha says: ‘When a person of no integrity acquires lavish wealth, he doesn’t provide for his own pleasure & satisfaction, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his parents, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his wife & children; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his slaves, servants, & assistants; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his friends.’ Eat it, protestants!

Anyway, doesn’t it mean that the Europeans should probably temper their egalitarian rage a little and let wealthy people be wealthy?


On the last point, I think they were not wearing hemp clothes out of a sense of responsibility, or because they were following spiritual ideals of non-attachment and renunciation, but because they were so greedy that they did not want to “lose” money by buying proper clothes even for themselves.

When I read this last part I immediately thought about a short passage from a certain Mahāyāna sūtra about the Medicine Buddha (T 450). Although it is from a later period of Indian Buddhism, and following different trends, it echoes these ideas about Buddhist morality in the following passage:

There are sentient beings who cannot tell right from wrong. They are greedy and mean, do not practice charity and do not understand the rewards of generosity. Ignorant and unintelligent, lacking the foundations of faith, they amass riches which they assiduously hoard. Whenever they come across anyone seeking charity, they become annoyed; if forced to give, they feel as much pain and regret as if they were parting with their own flesh.

Moreover, there are also countless sentient beings who are miserly and avaricious. They spend time amassing wealth, while not daring to spend it even on themselves, let alone on their parents, spouse, children, servants or beggars. Upon their death, these stingy persons will descend onto the paths of hungry ghosts or animality.

Mundane and supramundane? The former aspiration is seeking to emulate the Noble Ones, while the latter is focused on worldly material things and family relations. Maybe the latter is more compassionate, but the former is more spiritually beneficial?

I thought about that too. Still, it just doesn’t compute: these are all Vedic sages, pretty knowledgeable dudes but not Noble Ones. Maybe it is supposed to mean renunciation of the worldly wealth or going forth of sorts with more focus of mind development, whereas the compassionate motivation means that you remain a layperson. In that case, I don’t really understand why it was not made explicit in the Sutta, beacuse the Buddha is always very precise when it comes to these things.

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The Buddha mentions in AN 10.177: ‘[generous and virtuous person] reappears in the company of human beings. And it’s because he gave food, drink, cloth, vehicles, garlands, scents, creams, bed, lodging, & lamps to brahmans & contemplatives that he experiences the five strings of human sensuality.’ It is perfectly possible to be born in a rich family or become rich on your own while not experiencing ‘five strings of human sensuality’ because of your greed or ethics or because you didn’t practice dāna in your previous life. Quite often, there may even be a connection between your not practicing dāna and your greed: those who aren’t generous tend to be greedy. On the other hand, it means that it is okay for a wealthy person to enjoy their wealth as long as they are staying within the ethical frame of the Five Precepts and practice dāna themselves. I mean, there is no precept forbidding extravagancy. If you don’t really indulge in your sensuality, and keeping your five precepts will practically prevent that from happening, the Buddha says it is okay to have fun. Remember, as a young prince he was a wealthy man himself.

The European protestant ethics is, however, directly opposed to extravagancy and more concerned with leading a humble, even somewhat ascetic life despite your wealth. Think Mark Zuckerberg and his famous wardrobe full of plain grey T-shirts resembling the hem clothes from the sutta. What is important, however, is that we possibly should stop sniffing at rich ladies wearing an expensive Roberto Cavalli dress, carrying a Gucci purse and driven around the city in a Lamborghini, because ‘there are hungry kids out there.’

So, as a wealthy person you may reject sensual pleasures because:
a) you are humble,
b) you are greedy,
c) you have bad taste,
d) you are a fool

From all of the above reasons only a) is a nice one, and even then I think the Buddha might say: ‘Oh come on, why not?’

Well, Jesus was tough on wealth, and according to Wikipedia:

Jesus explicitly condemns wealth as an intrinsic evil in various passages in the Gospels, especially in Luke (Luke 16:14-15 being an especially clear example). He also consistently warns of the danger of riches as a hindrance to favor with God; as in the Parable of the Sower, where it is said:

“And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in; it chokes the Word, which becomes unfruitful” – Mark 4:19.

In Buddhism however, being rich is the result of having been generous in past lives, so there should be no idea that being wealthy is bad like in Christianity.

According to AN 8.36, you can make merit by giving, virtue or meditation. So modesty/humility that is not based on understanding the Dhamma will only give a good result so far it comes from generosity or virtue.

I don’t think restraint that comes from a Christian view that wealth is inherently immoral will necessarily give good kammic results.

There’s really no reason to sniff at anyone though, whether a rich, Gucci-wearing lady, or a hungry king. Because every has “kamma as their arbitrator”, not you or me :slight_smile:

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It depends on which Christian denomination you are talking about. The Catholic and Orthodox Christians don’t frown upon the rich as much as the Protestants do because the latter rely so much on the Bible, whereas the former tend to have a much closer relationships with the political and economical establishment. Still, as I was raised in an Orthodox family and used to be a pretty pious Christian back in my early teenage years, I can tell you that the sense restraint as practiced at least in the Orthodox church can help to achieve samadhi and / or a jhana-like state in the meditative traditions like Hesychasm (further reading here and here)

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the Buddha made allowances for lay people deep in his heart knowing that real spiritual progress on the way to nibbana is only possible through sense restraint and detachment from sensuality, which is expressed in expansion of 5 precepts to 8 and then 10 in particular

he’s lenient towards and not demanding of lay people because they’re so immersed in their mundane affairs, so he just let them be themselves and secure at least a fortunate rebirth with practice of merit and dana, but it is REBIRTH, something running counter the entire ethos of the Dhamma

in my view what Buddha offers laity is a compromise between realization of a buddhist ideal and their way of life, and compromise is always a shortchange

aiming for a good rebirth and settling for it is actually dilution and vulgarization of the Teaching, a more fortunate rebirth must be a side effect of practicing towards nibbana and so doesn’t have to be a goal in its own right

passion for sensual pleasures is so pervasive that in a worldling it cannot be sufficiently rejected before they become an arahant

maybe it’s because in the former conceit is involved?

Let us imagine you are a Thai / German / Australian chap married with four kids. You don’t work as a butcher, you are faithful to your wife, you even don’t drink at all. You meditate from time to time and practice generosity. Can you honestly say that you can strive for Nibbana only in this very life? There is almost certainly no way you will achieve it as a lay person. Of course, under exceptional circumstances you can achieve the stream entry, but Nibbana - no way. Can you say that such a virtuous, meditating and generous person is a ‘bad Buddhist’ just because he or she has realistic expectations from their spiritual life?

bad no, rather unfortunate, although they may not view themselves that way

but then what’s the definition of a good Buddhist and does it completely coincide with the definition of a good moral virtuous person? i think there’s more to being a good Buddhist which means being true to the Dhamma, and if a person consciously defers nibbana for oneself to an unforeseeable future, then they are maybe not being completely true to it

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in the PTS edition of the Pali Canon the sutta is transcribed with no abridgements

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Hoping for a better rebirth does not entail not hoping for achieving Nibbana. Of course, so many people sincerely practicing Buddhism hope to achieve liberation one day. Anyway, if they are realistic about their spiritual practice, can they really hope to make it all the way to Nibbana in this very life? You said: [quote=“LXNDR, post:7, topic:2965”]
passion for sensual pleasures is so pervasive that in a worldling it cannot be sufficiently rejected before they become an arahant

and I totally agree with you, renunciation looks like a necessary step to become an arahant. Doesn’t it mean that if I as a sincere lay practicioner who for one reason or another cannot go forth must hope for a better rebirth where it will be possible? And since you cannot be sure you will achieve Nibbana in your next life unless you are a non-returner or once-returner, it will always be in ‘unforeseeable future’. Admittedly, an ordinary person wouldn’t also mind enjoying some sense pleasure, but that is inescapable as long as they are not Noble ones or arahants. Hoping for a better rebirth shouldn’t be a prime motivation for your practice, this is true, but saying that you shouldn’t hope for it at all is equal to claiming that all non-monastics are not true to the Dhamma because they are not ready to go the Noble Eightfold Path to the very end in this very life and are realistic about it.

Using the Suttas as a crititerium for who is true to the Dhamma and who is not could be a very slippery path since so many talks were directed to bhukkhus and bhikkhunis and not lay people. We as non-monastics can glean much insight from these texts now as they are available to the wide public, but we should not forget who these talks were directed to and who they were used by.

Thanks for checking up the PTS edition, now we have a definitive answer for at least on question :slight_smile:

and this fact only goes to show whom this path is meant for, so lay people are more or less wasting their time, surely without dedication and using their position to their advantage and full potential monastics can waste their time too, but lay life is just built for it

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That’s exactly what I mean. Lay peopel are wasting their life and do not to change it because they are either too deluded or too weak or whatever, but the Buddha was compassionate enough to help them achieve the best possible results even without abandoning the lay life. Think about it: if everyone would stop wasting their time and go forth, there would be nobody to support the Sangha, there would even be nobody there to procreate, so the Dhamma would die out in one generation and all beings who are in the hell, animal or peta realm right now wouldn’t have any opportunity to hear it for a long, long time. Anyway, as this is an impossible scenario, the Buddha designed the Vinaya in a very specific way so that the Sangha would have to stay around lay people and help them on the Path, and vice versa, and proclaimed the value of virtuous lay supporters so many times.

Not at all.

Progress admits of degrees, predicting the future can turn out one of two ways, and going forth is not a magic ritual.

Layfolk can do a lot. Maybe simple and quiet lifestyles are essential, and maybe Iron Age living didn’t allow for the sort of quiescence modern living can provide, all of which would render an Iron Age thinker uninformed & therefore not a good guide for modern applications of the Dhamma.

Indeed, since monastics come from lay society, maybe certain monastic emphases are not truly Buddhist emphases, but rather Iron Age wanderer social guides, tropes, etc. What if lay-cum-monastic concerns about funerary issues came to dominate monastic attention, within these early environments?

The Buddha said that he almost didn’t teach about stream-enterers, non-returners, and all that jazz. He said, it’s probably going to increase laziness.

AN 9.12 via Bodhi:

These nine persons, passing away with residue remaining, are freed from hell, the animal realm, and the sphere of afflicted spirits; freed from the plane of misery, the bad destination, the lower world. Sariputta, I had not been disposed to give this Dhamma exposition to bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay male disciples and female disciples. For what reason? I was concerned that on hearing this Dhamma exposition, they might take to the ways of heedlessness. However, I have spoken this Dhamma exposition for the purpose of answering your question.

And yet, we have people saying that practice towards heaven is perhaps more suitable than a strong, concerted, Dhamma-centric lifestyle that cannot guarantee the final attainment.

Hmm. Do you know, some will think they are arahants and yet over-estimate themselves - anyone can over-estimate their attainments (self-assessment can also turn out one of two ways!). In such a case - you’ll notice it’s all cases - education is the solution, and so they ought to continue to practice; even actual arahants continue their practice while waiting for their final-life paycheck.

So maybe all these worries about post-death results are off-target for everyone, monastic or lay… it’s as though people are trying to find out how much work they ‘need’ to do here and now, which is a bit odd…


You are right, it isn’t. Saying ‘going forth’ I mean renunciation and adoption of the monastic lifestyle, even without any formal ordination.

But how on Earth is this non-Nibbanic Dhamma-centric lifestyle not leading towards heaven? What do you want a lay practitioner to do: not to be aware that good Dhamma practice will bring them to heaven or not wanting to go to heaven? I am not a Noble one, if someone tells me that heaven is such a great place I automatically want to get there. And having read the suttas and heard so many Dhamma talks I certainly know that practicing generosity, virtue and meditation can bring me the heaven. It doesn’t mean I will not hope I will achieve Nibbana some day in the future, as each and every of us does, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t try my best despite my lay person condition. It just means that I am fully aware that without going forth I will not be able to achieve the highest goal of the teaching, so the realistic expactation of my practice should be either heavenly rebirth or a fortunate human rebirth. It’s just intellectual honesty, that was also characteristic of the Buddha. He didn’t try to conceal the fact that so many of his lay follower were not going to make it to the stream entry.

This is a false dichotomy, so it doesn’t have an answer.

Think of an annihilationist wanderer, back in Iron Age India. They don’t believe in rebirth, but yet still convert into the Sangha. Heaven-as-motive need not occur at all.

Think of a Secular Buddhist, which is the modern version. Why is it that the eternalism-door is lauded so heavily, while the annihilationism-door is denigrated or ignored?

A realistic expectation, given concerted practice, is dukkha-amelioration. Consider SN 13.1:

In the same way, monks, for a disciple of the noble ones who is consummate in view, an individual who has broken through [to stream-entry], the suffering & stress that is totally ended & extinguished is far greater.

He never said any such thing. He said, those who do make it will do so in a certain way. AN 10.95 discusses this.

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Oh I’m sorry I made it look like a dichotomy, that was not my intention. My point was to show that it is impossible for an ordinary person like you and me to not want to be reborn in a deva realm. Even if you do not believe in rebirth, I think it would be pretty hard for you not to admit that a mere thought about heavenly kammic rewards is so pleasant for us, so it will be a practice motive for a puthujjana whether he or she wants it or not. In fact, what a heavenly rebirth actually is if not ‘dukkha amelioration’? Any fortunate rebirth ameliorates our dukkha, so saying that diminishing of dukkha is a realistic expectation your are actually just reformulating the heaven-as-motive idea, situating this heaven-like state in this very life.

If by ‘dukkha-amelioration’ you mean the stream-entry, then it would be important to make it clear whether you think that in order to achieve the stream entry one needs to live a celibate life, abandond your career pursuit and do a whole lot of otgher quasi-monastic things that are uncharacteristic of the overwhelming majority of the lay Buddhists. If you think one does, than we are not really talking about the lay practice for your run-of-the-mill lay Buddhist. If you think one doesn’t, you should provide very good arguments based on hard facts to convince me or any other non-secular Buddhist that this is true. Otherwise it would just be a matter of faith, where any productive discussion is hardly possible. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to come across as aggressive or something, but this would be a pretty strong claim. The same would be true for me if I would try to convince a secular Buddhist with such views of the opposite.

Could you please show me an instance of an annihilationist wanderer who converted into a bhikkhu and did not abandon his annihilationist views? If you meant non-Buddhist wanderers, they are not exactly know for their sense restraint, speak Carvaka or Tattvopaplavasimha.[quote=“daverupa, post:17, topic:2965”]
Think of a Secular Buddhist, which is the modern version. Why is it that the eternalism-door is lauded so heavily, while the annihilationism-door is denigrated or ignored?
First, I can’t really see how the Buddhist version of the rebirth belief is eternalist. I admit, so many Buddhist lay people and even less doctrinally versed monastics get it wrong and make it into another iteration of sassatavada. This is to my mind a much bigger problem than lay Buddhists wishing to be reborn in heaven and should be avoided by thorough and persistent preaching of the anatta doctrine by monastics and lay teachers as well as popularizing of sutta reading.

Second, I can’t see why the annihilationism-door shouldn’t be ignored since the Buddha rejected it with very clear words multiple times. If you think he was wrong because he was an Iron Age thinker caught in Indian cultural tropes, we are entering the faith territory again because it can’t really be proven, just as I cannot prove he really saw the truth if the rebirth. Entering this territory, we both have respect for each other’s autonomy to believe whatever we want, but I don’t think there can be any meaningful discussion about faith matters. You cannot discuss unproveable or very hard to prove points, it is just so unproductive, and both the religious Buddhists and secular Buddhists will continue blithely ignoring each other’s emotional arguments (for there can be no other ones) no matter how much ink will be spilt over them.

Let us just see what teachings the Buddha presented to the lay audience in the Suttas and how compassionately he spared them the details of complicated and sometimes obstruse doctrines like Dependent Origination or even anatta. I mean, do you really think he wouldn’t present them to the play people if he thought they can realistically achieve the highest goal in this life? Of course, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them with lay audiences today, but most of the time if a lay practitioner hear about the Dependent Origination it just won’t make any difference to him or her.

I loved this sutta, thanks for sharing it with me. It is a rare case where the Buddha - and this is just my opinion - just didn’t know the answer to a question and was at a loss what to say. So much for his omiscience.

In the fantastic mythical world of ancient India, Buddhist monastics are the spiritually dedicated renunciants, while laypeople are foolish and ignorant villagers, hopelessly enmeshed in a web of sensual pleasures.


Aren’t we all foolish and ignorant villagers in the modern world except a couple of the Noble ones? :smile: