Question about the Khaggavisana Sutta

I often read the Thanissaro translation of the Khaggavisana Sutta, which can be found here:

I also have a recording of the Sutta Nipata that I listen to frequently, and which includes a reading of the sutta. The more I listen to it, certain parts of the sutta have started to seem incongruous to me and stick out … like … um … a lonely rhinoceros horn.

If you read the sutta, you will see that almost all of its verses extol the life of the solitary wandering begger, who has cut off all attachments to families, households, spouses, offspring or companions. This ideal wandering sage has no enemies, and is a friend to all, but has no dear ones or special relationships.

But there a few verses - I think four in all - that endorse the alternative of maintaining the companionship of a spiritual friend. Two of these stick out in that they don’t conclude with a mention of the rhinoceros (or rhinoceros horn - it’s a disputed translation issue.)

If you gain a mature companion,
a fellow traveler, right-living & wise,
overcoming all dangers
go with him, gratified,

If you don’t gain a mature companion,
a fellow traveler, right-living & wise,
wander alone
like a king renouncing his kingdom,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds,
his herd.

And one of the verses suddenly sounds very enthusiastic about spiritual friendship, and tells the listener only to wander alone if a spiritual friend can’t be found:

We praise companionship
— yes!
Those on a par, or better,
should be chosen as friends.
If they’re not to be found,
living faultlessly,
wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

The fourth of these verses apparently tells the listener to get a spiritual friend first, learn from the friend, and then wander alone:

Consort with one who is learned,
who maintains the Dhamma,
a great & quick-witted friend.
Knowing the meanings,
subdue your perplexity,
[then] wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

What I’m wondering is whether it is plausible to think that the sutta was originally composed by compiling verses about the ideal of solitary wandering, all built on the rhinoceros trope, and then only at some subsequent point members of the Buddhist tradition who were accustomed to the alternative ideal of spiritual friendship, added the few additional verses about that alternative life.

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Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translations on are updated more frequently, and have a few more notes on this sutta that may be helpful.

If you gain an astute companion,
a fellow traveler, right-living, enlightened,
overcoming all troubles,
go with him, gratified,

Regarding this verse, I think the Buddha may have been pointing out that there are some exceptions to wandering alone, such as finding an astute companion. This is consistent with similar lessons found in SN 45.2:

Good friends, companions, and associates are the whole of the spiritual life. A mendicant with good friends, companions, and associates can expect to develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path.

The version of Rhinoceros Sutta from Gandhari fragment also advocated the good friendship of spritual life like the Pali version:

  1. Cultivate a friend who is inspired,
    learned, faithful to the Dharma, noble.
    [Understanding Dharma,] dispelling doubts,
    [wander alone like the rhinoceros.]

  2. If you should find yourself a wise companion,
    a well-behaved and trustworthy fellow,
    together you may [overcome] all dangers.
    So wander with him, satisfied and mindful.

So I don’t think it’s a somekind of addition. IMHO…

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There are plenty of experienced scholars and EBT experts about… I’m not one of those! However, from having read quite a bit of the Suttas and also from a Practice point of view, I don’t think this is plausible.

Bear with me though…you know it can take me awhile to get to the point sometimes…I can’t help it okay!?

My lack of expertise in EBTs means I can’t remember the exact suttas where these come from, but they are genuine:

  1. The “words of another” as being a requirement for Stream Entry.

  2. As already mentioned by @tonysharp, good friends, the Buddha states, are the whole, of the Holy Life.

  3. The Buddha recommends that a monk named Meghiya, doesn’t go off into seclusion by himself because he hasn’t built up his Practise to the point where he’s spiritually strong enough to do so, specifically, in this case, so that he can overcome some old worldly conditioning.

So, my thoughts… But first, I must say to you that I’m coming at this from a very different place/view to you; I think we know a tiny shred of what can be known of each other through such dialogue for you to know what I mean…so I shan’t belabour the point. And I make no apology or excuse for my views, nor do I feel the need to justify them. So what you receive from this may not be what I intend to give… But for what it’s worth…I hope this is of some practical use.

We wander around, heavily conditioned by many circumstances… Very “anatta-ishly” pulled hither and thither. And the saying, paraphrasing here, that there is no such thing as an “original thought” is very much our lived reality… A reality that just continues with delusion and suffering and instability.

Then, one day, some dude (because he came across some other cool chap some time back) has this awesome conditioning about the nature of this very same type of reality (which has us in a stagnant rut), suddenly kick in, in a big way. And he get’s it. The whole meaning of life thing and how to stop. Just stop. No more suffering etc. etc.

Then he teaches.

And we are fortunate enough to hear his teaching. And thus we are influenced by some brand new, unheard of, world changing, ultimately suffering stopping stuff… Finally a spoke is put into the wheel to slow it down… An original thought is placed in our heads. The kind that ultimately stops all the rest and itself too. A drop of clarifying dye is put into our bucket of mucky water - just one, so it takes its time to permeate the entire bucket.

The Buddha was the first good friend and the best one. The words of another, are his words. Something new, never heard before. A new view, a new conditioning that can break all other conditionings and stop them once and for all. This is why some of us want to know which suttas are most likely to have been spoken by him. This is why some of us are keen to test out and investigate particular communities or teachers - which ones are authentic, which ones don’t just talk the talk but live the talk.

Any subsequent friends we acquire, (including contemporary teachers) should be the sort that will encourage the growth of this conditioning (the Buddha’s) in our own hearts and lives. So it’s not just out there in the external world - ultimately, the man that was Buddha is also “out there” - it comes to be how we think, feel, live and experience our daily life, it becomes our internal world. Any true friends will thus, give us the strength and foster the wisdom, resilience, and increase our capacity and joy, for dwelling more and more in solitude.

This is what it means, to me. I hope this is helpful in some way.


Oh…one more thing…

I think something further to consider is that when these verses were actually spoken, they wouldn’t have been done so in a formalised way. They may have been formalised latter for ease of memorisation.

But at the time, it might have been like any casual Dhamma talk given by a relaxed, wise, chilled out sort of teacher today… Perhaps off the cuff, unstructured and more concerned about being sensitive and responsive to the audience than about the order and structure of the teachings.



Thanks for the feedback, Kay! One possibility is that the Rhinoceros Sutta should not be thought of as spoken by the Buddha. I have read some articles before that said the commentarial tradition believed the sutta to be associated in some way with paccekabuddhas.

Yeah, that’s a possibility…

To me it doesn’t make a difference about the relevance of the good friend in spiritual life. Because, from where I’m standing, the Paccekabuddha’s career - as it were - still required “the words of another” to break apart the cycle of his old habits.

The only difference between a Paccekabuddha and a Buddha is that nobody was around to input a bit of conditioning that caused them to teach. So they did what was natural to an arahant and just lived out their lives in peace. Otherwise, their journey to becoming Awakened is the same, their experience of the Dhamma, I imagine/theorise, is the same.

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