The Ambāṣṭha Sutra (DĀ 20 and DN 3): Chiastic Story-Telling and the Parables of the Gradual Path

This week I’m in editing mode, working on releases of three more DĀ sutras, the largest of which is DĀ 20, the Ambāṣṭha Sutra. As I compare it to the Pali parallel, I’ve noticed a couple issues that I thought I’d stop and write about. The first is the story of Ambāṣṭha and Puṣkarasārin’s encounter with the Buddha, and the second is the presentation of the gradual path found in DĀ 20.

A Chiastic Story: Ambāṣṭha and the Buddha

Briefly for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, a chiasm is a type of parallelism found in many ancient stories which creates a satisfying conclusion that harkens back to the opening events. Chiastic stories can happen naturally as an author resolves early conflicts, but ancient authors also sometimes constructed long and complex chiastic story structures. These structures have been found to exist in Biblical tales and many Buddhist stories. (See for instance some of the papers by Dr. Matt Orsborn who has studied Buddhist chiasms in early Mahayana texts.)

A simple chiastic story will usually have a central climax which serves as a pivot for the events leading up to it and then descending down to its conclusion. Usually, the parallelisms are strongest for the initial and concluding events of a story. A chiastic story can be diagrammed like this:

Node Description
A Hero departs to defeat a growing threat
B Hero encounters a helper who gives him an item
C Hero encounters a villain and is stymied
D Hero makes his way to the villain’s lair
X Hero defeats the villain
'D Hero leaves the villains lair
'C Hero is celebrated as the kingdom’s savior
'B Hero repays the helper for their kindness
'A Hero returns home and all is well

The parallelisms often involve the same characters, places, or similar events, but also represent opposites or ironies when compared to each other. The result is a story that’s easier to remember for oral reciters and which achieves a satisfying conclusion as loose strings from the beginning are tied up one by one at the end in reverse order.

When I look at DĀ 20 (which has a few more dramatic details and slightly different arrangement as DN 3), I can detect this type of story structure, which places the gradual path in the middle as a large climax.

It goes like this:

Node Description
A Puṣkarasārin sends Ambāṣṭha to Investigate the Buddha
B Ambāṣṭha Behaves Badly
C The Buddha Humbles Ambāṣṭha
D The Buddha Explains the Superiority of the Warriors
X The Gradual Path (Leaving home up to the eight knowledges)
'D Ambāṣṭha Sees the Buddha’s Signs and Returns (Gets Kicked by Puṣkarasārin: ‘We’re going to Hell because of you!’)
'C Puṣkarasārin Sees the Buddha for Himself and Converts
'B Puṣkarasārin and Ambāṣṭha Ask For Forgiveness
'A Puṣkarasārin Attains Stream-Entry

If I break up the gradual path into its sections and include it, we end up with the five excellent attainments (the first five of the eight knowledges) as the pivot point. Interestingly, it adds an equal number of nodes to the first and second halves of the chiasm if I separate Ambāṣṭha seeing the Buddha’s signs from his return to his teacher.

Node Description
A Puṣkarasārin sends Ambāṣṭha to Investigate the Buddha
B Ambāṣṭha Behaves Badly
C The Buddha Humbles Ambāṣṭha
D The Buddha Explains the Superiority of the Warriors (ksatriya)
E Leaving Home and Practicing Precepts
F Criticism of Other Ascetics and Priests
G The Noble Precepts and Faculties
H The Four Dhyānas
X The Five Excellent Attainments
'H The Three Vidyas
'G Four Superficial Methods (of Priests)
'F Ancient Priests
'E Ambāṣṭha Sees the Hidden Signs
'D Ambāṣṭha Returns and Gets Kicked by Puṣkarasārin (‘We’re going to Hell because of you!’)
'C Puṣkarasārin Sees the Buddha’s Signs for Himself and Converts
'B Puṣkarasārin and Ambāṣṭha Ask For Forgiveness
'A Puṣkarasārin Attains Stream-Entry

It’s more forced when I break it down into this many nodes, but there’s a clear parallelism between the events of Ambāṣṭha’s encounter with the Buddha and the conclusion with Puṣkarasārin’s rejection of his behavior and conversion to the Buddha’s teaching.

The Gradual Path and the Parables of the Four Dhyānas

Another aspect of DĀ 20 that’s interesting is its inclusion of the gradual path. This is because it seems that DN 3 and DĀ 20 are that texts in common between DĀ and DN that include it. It’s abbreviated out of the DN 3 as a repetition of DN 2, but DĀ’s parallel to DN 2 (DĀ 27) lacks the gradual path.

Instead, it’s DĀ 20 and DĀ 21 (Brahmajāla sutra) that include a partial overlap of the gradual path (mainly the criticisms of the ascetics and priests), which is likely why they occur next to each other in the Dīrgha Āgama (and why DN 3 follows DN 2 in the Dīgha Nikāya). The implication may be that it’s actually DN 3/DĀ 20 that originally included the gradual path and that it was copied into DN 2 and DĀ 21 later. It would be interesting to know whether the Sarvâstivāda’s version of DN 3/DĀ 20 also contains the gradual path. If so, we might conclude that the Ambāṣṭha Sutra is where it first appeared in Buddhist canons (or at least the different Dīrgha/Dīgha collections). [Edit: There is another Chinese translation of DN 2/DĀ 27, Taisho 22, which includes the gradual path like DN 2.]

Which brings me to the controversial (in modern times) parables associated with the four jhānas/dhyānas. One of the unique features of the gradual path as its found in DN and DĀ is it’s extensive use of parables and metaphors to illustrate various attainments and insights. The four dhyānas are only one example of this.

Something I can’t help but notice is that in some cases, a series of metaphors will be listed for some items, like those describing the miraculous powers or the mind-made body insight. This a feature of later literary Buddhist texts like the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra and Avataṃsaka Sutra in which creative writers indulge in collecting together poetic expressions of the same philosophical point (though on much grander scales).

This makes the entire passage seem like a late literary work to me, or perhaps an old passage that has been ornamented by the addition of these concrete metaphors. In either case, it suggests to me that the parables of the four dhyānas are later metaphors for ecstatic experiences that may have little to do with the original intent of the dhyānas. It may be these parables first appeared in this text and were later copied into other texts to embellish the dhyānas elsewhere.