SN 1.13: What is the Buddha trying to say?

At Savatthi. Standing to one side, that devatā spoke this verse in the presence of the Blessed One:

“There is no affection like that for a son,
No wealth equal to cattle,
There is no light like the sun,
Among the waters the ocean is supreme.”

The Blessed One:

“There is no affection like that for oneself,
No wealth equal to grain,
There is no light like wisdom,
Among the waters the rain is supreme.”

So, how is it that affection for oneself is the greatest? What’s up with grain? And why rain better than the ocean?


First time for me to see the sutta, let’s try.

  1. That’s pretty standard, with the delusion of self, we all are preoccupied with what’s this to me? We have to take care of the 5 aggregates and it wears us out. Feeling not good? Have to get some joy somewhere.

  2. Grain. Could be that eating grain (vegan) is better than eating cattle. And that grain as a seed grows and reproduces faster than a cattle. Could also be on contentment, for a grain is smaller than a cattle. As the greatest wealth is contentment.

  3. Rain. Rain is the source of rivers, which flows into the ocean. So cause is more important than result. Also rain nourishes the land, the world. The dhamma is like a rain, cooling those who are ready.


Aah yes, I think I overinterpreted the verse by expecting all of the things the Buddha lists to be positive counterpoints rather than simple corrections. Concern for your children is a branch of self-concern so it could be that the Buddha is simply drawing us out into the bigger picture.

Yeah, I came up with most of those possibilities myself too, but it’s not quite clear which is correct, if any. If anyone has any ideas, please do share.


The “grain” and “rain” lines are related. In order to grow grain, a regular rainfall is essential.

The Buddha lived in a period of a significant cultural shift. It was the development of agriculture, and, related to that, the establishment of bigger settlements and the development of an urban culture. The “old” way is represented by the cattle, which would be linked to a more nomadic lifestyle, or small settlements. The “new” way is represented by the grain.

And we have to imagine that this transition didn’t come without conflicts. In the Bible, we find this very same topic in the conflict between Cain and Abel. Here we see it in the form of one verse pronounced by a deva, and a reply given by the Buddha.

There has already been more discussion on this topic, and I just saw that there is a talk on this Sutta by Bhante Sujato (the very first in the list).


The first of the two verses is descriptions in worldly terms, the second of the two contains two lines which are spiritual, and two worldly but may be interpreted as spiritual. So the first verse refers to mundane right view, and the second to transcendent right view (MN 117).

looking after oneself:

"This being said, the assistant Medakathalika said this to the bamboo acrobat:
“That will not do at all, master! You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself.
Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down from the bamboo pole.That’s the right way to do it!”—SN 47.19

“Grain” refers to impermanence:

[4] “And further… just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain—wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice—and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, ‘This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,’ in the same way, the monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’—MN 10

“Rain” is code for the four qualities of a stream entrant:

“Mendicants, suppose it rains heavily on a mountain top, and the water flows downhill to fill the hollows, crevices, and creeks. As they become full, they fill up the pools. The pools fill up the lakes, the lakes fill up the streams, and the streams fill up the rivers. And as the rivers become full, they fill up the ocean. In the same way, a noble disciple has experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and the ethics loved by the noble ones. These things flow onwards; and, after crossing to the far shore, they lead to the ending of defilements.”—SN 55.38