The famous, or perhaps notorious, MN 57 depicts two friends, Seniya and Puṇṇa, both of whom have undertaken as a spiritual practice to behave like an animal: a dog for Seniya, a cow for Puṇṇa. The Buddha was not particularly enthusiastic about their life choices.
Most translations—with the notable except of the oldest, that by Chalmers—describe both of them as “ascetics”. However, while Seniya is said to be an acela—that is, a naked ascetic—Puṇṇa is nowhere described in this way.
The differences are not just in their appellations. While Seniya’s dog-like behavior is described—he curls up to sit down like a dog, and eats food thrown on the ground—nothing similar is said of Puṇṇa. In fact, throughout he behaves entirely normally. It seems he may well have been less diligent in his observance.
At the end of the discourse, Seniya receives the going forth, where it is confirmed that he was an ordained follower of another sect. Puṇṇa, on the other hand, merely asks for the going forth, at which time he says, as is normal, that he wishes to be regarded as a lay follower (upāsaka).
So it seems that Puṇṇa was not, in fact, an ascetic, but a lay practitioner who had undertaken such a vow, observing it a fairly relaxed way. It is interesting to see the blurring of lines between renunciants and householders, and to see that in ancient India such bizarre spiritual practices may have been undertaken while still living at home.
I dunno. I’ve often been a goose, a galaha and occasionally a pig at the dinner table.
Out of curiosity spurred by Bhante’s interesting essay, I found this essay by Paul Fuller: https://drpaulfuller.wordpress.com/category/kukkuravatika-sutta/ centered on Korakkhattiya, another dog-ascetic. He references MN 57.
In this episode we get a glimpse into the world in which the Buddha lived. It is not always a common sense world of religious and philosophical debate. It is a world in which spirits and demons interact within the human realm and witness and confirm the religious teachings of the Buddha. It is a world in which those seeking an escape from the endless cycle of rebirth undertake extreme and sometimes unusual and bizarre austerities. It is a world based in Buddhist cosmological ideas in which unwholesome actions lead to rebirth into one of the four unhappy destinations, hell, animal, ghosts (petas) and jealous gods (asuras). It is a world far removed from the erudite philosophy often associated with Buddhism. It is equally a Buddhism which is not rational and scientific, but colourful, mysterious and enigmatic. It is a religious world in which the wisdom of the Buddha is all important and events in the natural world are used to praise, acknowledge and confirm his wisdom.
I suppose aspects of MN 57 have relevance for today. Seniya, who practices diligently despite being misguided about his canine austerity practice, seems to have enough dedication, saddha, and commitment to develop himself as a monastic and, later, an arahant. Punna, who is a confirmed householder, is far less diligent and committed. Perhaps he was just “going through the motions” as a householder, hoping for a godship, while failing to exert the effort. In some ways this speaks to the commitment, Dhammasaddha, and diligence invested by good monastics, and the sometimes less than committed effort exerted by (some, not all) lay people in the lay world. Even though Seniya’s practice was misguided, his devotion eventually earned him liberation.
Once again, a cool essay and Sutta(s) to consider. Thanks, Bhante.
Isn’t this an example of silabbataparamasa - rites and rituals, one of the fetters broken in stream entry?
Indeed it is, perhaps the most obvious such case in the suttas.