SN54.9 In Vesali

In the above Sutta, a number of monks commit suicide after having listened to a sermon by the Buddha (translations vary greatly on what it was about, @sabbamitta in the German has: the unpleasantness of nature). Asked to address the event, the Buddha then holds a meditation instruction.

Three questions:

a) What is the significance of this response?

b) Why did the Buddha not verbally address the suicides and what those who killed themselves got wrong?

c) When googling this Sutta, a random English translation using the word gnosis for enlightenment came up. What is the original Pali word and does it have major significance in other Suttas?


This is English, not German. :smile:

The German term that I used is “die unattraktive Natur” which would be in English “the unpleasant nature” (of things) or “the unattractiveness” (if this word exists); Bhante Sujato has “ugliness”.


Namo Buddhaya!

Nobody asked him to address the event. He was asked to teach another type of development.

Ānanda told the Buddha all that had happened, and said, “Sir, please explain another way for the mendicant Saṅgha to get enlightened.”

“Well then, Ānanda, gather all the mendicants staying in the vicinity of Vesālī together in the assembly hall.”

Developing the perception of unattracriveness inclines the mind to loathing or equanimity.

The pali there is aññāya saṇṭhaheyyā”ti

aññāya - pts dictionary: recognising, knowing, in the conviction of
saṇṭhaheyyā”ti - appearance, emergence

So meaning is close to ‘emergence of knowledge’

When reading the suttas, it’s best we not start out with a series of our own questions we want the text to answer. Instead, we should ask ourselves “what question is the text itself interested in responding to?”

The message within the sutta is that some monks used asubha meditation and it went wrong, so the Buddha gave them a more gentle and calming practice — mindfulness of breathing. It seems, then, that the sutta is telling us (1) that asubha meditation can go wrong, and (2) mindfulness of breathing is a safer or more pleasant alternative. We can also see the fact that this happened while the Buddha was away on retreat and was therefore unable to guide the students during the process, perhaps indicating (3) the importance of careful guidance when undertaking meditation practice in case we use it in the wrong way.

When we study material in this way, we can understand it better on its own terms and learn something beyond our own habitual perspectives and thinking patterns. Once we have had this kind of understanding, we could question parts of the narrative or content, because we are coming from a more knowledgeable and compassionate place. This applies to all suttas, of course.


Why did he speak thus? In the past, it is said, five hundred men earned their living together as hunters. They were reborn in hell, but later, through some good kamma, they took rebirth as human beings and went forth as monks under the Blessed One. However, a portion of their original bad kamma had gained the opportunity to ripen during this fortnight and was due to bring on their deaths both by suicide and homicide. The Blessed One foresaw this and realized he could do nothing about it. Among those monks, some were worldlings, some stream-enterers, some once-returners, some nonreturners, some arahants. The arahants would not take rebirth, the other noble disciples were bound for a happy rebirth, but the worldlings were of uncertain destiny. The Buddha spoke of foulness to remove their attachment to the body so that they would lose their fear of death and could thus be reborn in heaven. Therefore he spoke on foulness in order to help them, not with the intention of extolling death. Realizing he could not turn back the course of events, he went into seclusion to avoid being present when destiny took its toll.

From Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes citing the commentaries.

Not sure that commentary holds up

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This story is recounted as part of the Theravada Vinaya and actually used to motivate the precept against killing. Here it is: SuttaCentral


It’s a figure of speech Lord Buddha used to address the matter.

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