Suttas the words of the buddha?

I think you are possibly mistaking an argument from Ven Bhāvaviveka for one from Ven Vasubandhu. Ven Bhāvaviveka cites an untraced parallel to the Simsapasutta, saying that the Buddha did not teach Vens Ānanda et al. the Mahāyāna because it was not useful “to them.” I had conversation with Ven Dhammanando concerning this here on the forum. Give me a second to link to it.


“Hearing (or reading) the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: “weighs,” “compares”). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.”—-MN 95

In developing a practice an essential skill is coming to an agreement between the meaning of a sutta which is already understood, with new information from another sutta. In this way is built up a network of meaning between a cluster of suttas which form the nucleus of a particular stage of practice. So it is not necessary to understand all suttas, only those relevant. This is progress by understanding. One reason the Anapanasati and Satipatthana suttas are considered important is because they readily form a core with reference to the understanding of other suttas, and also have a practice orientation.

What happens in practice is very different, less ordered to how it is described in the suttas, nevertheless the underlying principles should be regularly seen, recognized and developed. That’s the function of mindfulness, to understand what is being thought at a particular time with reference to the meditation domain. To be aware of the meditation domain demands establishing some knowledge of the suttas.

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I think of the Buddhas teachings as a ‘curriculum’ in the method to attain Nibbana. Once the curriculum contains all of the necessary material, it is just a matter of repeating it for each new ‘student’, who then has to train themselves to a level of competence, based on the materials provided.

At one time the Buddha was staying near Kosambī in a rosewood forest. Then the Buddha picked up a few rosewood leaves in his hand and addressed the mendicants: “What do you think, mendicants? Which is more: the few leaves in my hand, or those in the forest above me?”

“Sir, the few leaves in your hand are a tiny amount. There are far more leaves in the forest above.”

“In the same way, there is much more that I have directly known but have not explained to you. What I have explained is a tiny amount. And why haven’t I explained it? Because it’s not beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t explained it.

And what have I explained? I have explained: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’.

And why have I explained this? Because it’s beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It leads to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I’ve explained it.

That’s why you should practice meditation …”


Rosewood: Dalbergia sissoo - Wikipedia

This is probably the tree also referred to when “heartwood and sapwood” is mentioned, such as MN 30.

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It was actually at Dhamma Wheel.

  1. Reasons given by mainstream Indian Buddhists for rejecting Mahayana sutras

  2. Bhāvaviveka’s attempted rebuttal

In another [rebuttal] he quotes the Simsapa Sutta in an attempt to impugn the authority of the [First] Council. In this sutta the Buddha admits that he hasn’t revealed all that he knows to the bhikkhus and so Bhāvaviveka concludes that it’s irrelevant if Mahayana sutras weren’t recited at the Council. All it means is that Mahayana sutras are like the simsapa leaves on the trees rather than the ones the Buddha was holding in his hand. Unfortunately Bhāvaviveka seems to have shot himself in the foot with this particular argument, for to say that Mahayana sutras are like the leaves on the trees is tantamount to admitting that they are not of any soteriological importance — which is precisely what his opponents are claiming.


So too, bhikkhus, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why, bhikkhus, have I not taught those many things? Because they are unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.


Hmmm… at the risk of being skewered as a heretic, I’m going to put the cat amongst the pigeons! :slightly_smiling_face:

Let’s compare the 866 hours of speaking time for the suttas with the record of Ajahn Chah. He spent a prolific amount of time giving Dhamma talks (sometimes night long!), most of which were recorded using modern equipment. His disciples have since collected all the available Ajahn Chah Dhamma talks and they run to 693 pages! :nerd_face: That’s way, way less than the number of suttas.

Perhaps the question should be “How come the Buddha’s disciples were able to record and pass onto us so many suttas?”

I will be eternally grateful for the untold number of monks who dedicated their lives, generation after generation, to memorizing and passing on the Teaching. If I know anything of Dhamma at all, it is because I stand on the shoulders of these giants. :anjal: :anjal: :anjal:


Thanks, that is helpful.

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Thank you, Bhante. Because the parallel is completely untraced and untraceable until the event of some archaeological manuscript find, it becomes impossible to objectively establish whether Ven Bhāvaviveka is selectively (mis)quoting a legitimate śrāvaka scripture or paraphrasing it in such a way as to introduce something not in the original. Ven Bhāvaviveka has the sutta as a dialogue between Ven Ānanda and the Buddha I believe you said, which is unlike either the Sarvāstivādin or Theravādin versions of the sutta. It could be the śrāvaka sutta of another non-Sthaviravada sect like the Mahasamghikas. That is of course a speculation and not a real argument. But the speculation would be that non-Sthaviravada sects might be expected to have more divergence in their scriptures when compared with Theravāda than when Theravādin suttas are compared with Sarvāstivādin and Dharmaguptaka.

Ven Bhāvaviveka could be a bad paraphraser with an obvious agenda.


Do we know what text his quotation is found? The Sarvastivada version agrees in meaning with the Theravada but the wording is quite different, suggesting to me it’s not that old.

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Since you read Chinese you might like to check the Vijñānakāya of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma Piṭaka. I understand from Lance Cousins’ article, Person and Self, that in the debate on the pudgala the Pudgalavādin makes an analogous use of the siṃsapa simile, centuries before Bhāvaviveka and (perhaps) quoting from the version in the Sammitīya or Vatsiputrīya canon.

L.S. Cousins:

Let us illustrate the Vijñānakāya debate with one example. The protagonists are the Personalist and the follower of the emptiness teaching (Suññatavāda). We will call the latter the Voidist. The Personalist asks what is the object of loving-kindness. The Voidist replies that it is the five aggregates given the label of ‘being’. The Personalist, not unreasonably, suggests that this is not in harmony with the suttas which recommend loving-kindness towards living beings rather than aggregates. The Voidist counters with reference to the six classes of consciousness. The object of visual consciousness is visual form. The cases of hearing, smelling, tasting and touching are similar. The object of mental consciousness is dhammas. In none of these cases would lovingkindness have a being as its object.

It follows therefore that the Personalist must affirm a seventh class of consciousness [i.e., one that can cognize a *pudgala* ]. The Voidist then argues that this is equivalent to accusing the Buddha of ignorance.

The Personalist replies that the Buddha certainly knew it, even if he didn’t proclaim it. The Voidist counters with the well-known saying that the Buddha did not have the ‘closed fist’ of a teacher who holds back some of his teachings from his advanced disciples. The Personalist replies with the equally well-known simile which compares the leaves on a single siṃsapā tree with those on the trees of the forest to illustrate the difference between the teachings which the Buddha actually taught and those which he knew but did not teach. However, the Voidist gets the last word by pointing out that the truths which the Buddha knew but did not proclaim were precisely those which were not conducive to following the path to enlightenment. If therefore the pudgala exists, it is not conducive to the path!


There’s a couple different places we can find this simile interpreted in Chinese sources. It comes up in the Mahayana Parinirvāṇa Sutra (T374-5) and also in a text called the Sarvâstivāda Vinaya Vibhāṣā (T1440). Neither of them bring up this point about what the Buddha didn’t teach wasn’t conducive, but unfortunately, they don’t quote the sutra verbatim, so that we can’t see what they were reading in their canons. In fact, in T1440 (at 504a05), the author claims that the Buddha didn’t teach everything because sentient beings couldn’t accept everything.

I decided today to translate SA 404 so we can see it in English. It has that same caveat that rules out the validity of what the Buddha knew but didn’t teach as is found in the Pali version. So, I can see why Sarvastivadins could make these arguments.


So I randomly found this uncited on Reddit (and keep in mind this could well be a fake sutta because it is uncited):

Buddha and Ananda were walking thorugh a forest in Autumn (fall).

Ananda asked Buddha after being with him for many year,"Have you told us everything about the Truth? Is there anything you have kept secret or anything that you did not want to tell?

The forest was fully covered with fall leaves. Buddha bent down and grabbed as many leaves as he can and said," This is all I can say. The Truth is like all these fallen leaves in the forest. The Truth is larger than anything we could ever imagine and the language we use is mediocre compared to the Truth. I cannot say everything about the Truth. You will have to know it yourself. That is the only way to know It."

It has the dialogue between Ven Ananda and the Buddha. I’ll do some more looking to see if this came from anywhere.

EDIT: this one is fake. It is just a coincidence both this one and what Ven Bhavaviveka cites both have Ven Ananda.

Says the person who posted it on Reddit: “I heard this story from an enlightened master and so I put it in my own words.” :upside_down_face:

Yes. That is how it works when you get a teaching from an alleged enlightened master, you change it to suit yourself better.


Twisting the Simsapasutta is a long tradition. Look at this terrible (IMO) article from the Tricycle magazine from Fall 2020. And they are citing the Pali version, not some eccentric version, making their twisting rather deliberate.

Yet in certain places the suttas complicate any such finality. A famous passage from the Samyutta Nikaya relates the moment when the Buddha, taking up some leaves from a simsapa or rosewood tree, asks rhetorically, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest? . . . In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous” (SN 56.31). The Buddha held back, he goes on to say, in order to focus on the basics, but he still left a lot for us to learn. And his followers woke up in a variety of ways that introduced fresh perspectives as well. This ongoing process of discovery would explain why we have so many sutras now, and why the authors of those sutras must have felt unashamed when they put new words in the Buddha’s mouth. They must have seen the dharma as a project that would lead later generations into terrains unimagined by the World Honored One. Yes, he turned the dharma wheel, but it would need to turn again without him.

I suspect you’ve overestimated me, bhante, but I will give it a look.

I missed this. It’s called Tarkajvālā, but I know nothing about it.


Oh. It looks like I would need to learn Tibetan to find that passage.

Malcolm Eckel has translated chapters 4 and 5 in his Bhāviveka and His Buddhist Opponents. I think these are probably the most interesting chapters for those who don’t have any especial interest in the Madhyamaka.

Here are the chapter contents of the whole work:

Exposition of Bhāviveka’s own view

  1. Not giving up the mind of awakening (bodhicittāparityāga)
  2. Taking the vow of an ascetic (munivratasamāśraya)
  3. Seeking the knowledge of reality (tattvajñānaiṣaṇā)

Critiques of the views of non-Madhyamaka Buddhists

  1. Introduction to the analysis of reality according to the Śrāvakas (śrāvakatattvaviniścayāvatāra)
  2. Introduction to the analysis of reality according to the Yogācāras (yogācāratattvaviniścayāvatāra)

Critiques of four Hindu darśanas

  1. Introduction to reality according to the Sāṃkhyas (sāṃkhyatattvāvatāra)
  2. Analysis of reality according to the Vaiśeṣikas (vaiśeṣikatattvaviniścaya)
  3. Analysis of reality according to the Vedānta (vedāntatattvaviniścaya)
  4. Introduction to the analysis of reality according to the Mīmāṃsā (mīmāṃsātattvanirṇayāvatāra)

Critique of the Jains

  1. Exposition of the realization of omniscience (sarvajñatāsiddhinirdeśa)

Four verses in praise of the Buddha

  1. Exposition of praise and characteristics (stutilakṣaṇanirdeśa)

Oh, that is bad. As a general rule I recommend ignoring people who use the word “complicate” as a verb. I think it’s academic speak for “I have to come up with a novel interpretation in order to get a grade/published”. :wink:


Can you give examples of these clusters and the stages they pertain to, aside from the two suttas mentioned?

Where can I find it?

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By “stages” is meant the interests at a particular time, which depends on temperament and is very much an individual matter. Rather than give examples I am more interested in practitioners developing the skill, which means starting with what they know and building on that. The thread which links one sutta to another is meaning, and this is specified in MN 95 and AN 7.64.

“Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises.”—-MN 95

“Comes to an agreement” means comparing new material with suttas already known and understood, and ideally consolidated by direct experience.

“If he didn’t know the meaning of this & that statement — ‘This is the meaning of that statement; that is the meaning of this’ — he wouldn’t be said to be one with a sense of meaning. So it’s because he does know the meaning of this & that statement — ‘This is the meaning of that statement; that is the meaning of this’ — that he is said to be one with a sense of meaning. This is one with a sense of Dhamma & a sense of meaning.”—-AN 7.64

There are certain words in the suttas with specialized meanings, such as “establish” and “ develop.” The establishment of mindfulness or any other path structure means its individual components and linear arrangement are known and implemented. Development means the structure is brought into functioning operation. This involves a cyclic process where in Satipatthana the fourth foundation is brought to bear on the three preceding it.

The idea of development within the Satipatthana sutta:

Establishment: “In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself.

Development: "Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body. "—MN 10

By comparing the two above statements, readers should be able to discern the principles of establishment (singularity) and development (movement).

The terse nature of the Sutta Pitaka is shown when this development is explained in SN 47.40, and without the help of other suttas, understanding the Satipatthana sutta would not be possible.

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It’s not released yet, but it’ll be in the next batch at Dharma Pearls in a week or two.

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