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The value of MN117 and its serial Noble Tenfold Path

I would like to seek guidance from the dear and venerable friends active in this forum in how should the message found in the MN 117 be taken as a serious and reliable reference for one’s practice.

How MN117 helped me

As background, let me share that after many years of frustration and confusion with regards to how to constructively engage in the Eightfold Path I came across this beautiful sutta.

Since then, I have only gained from constantly studying and pondering on its practical meaning and implications. From my personal experience, the message of MN117 has represented a major qualitative shift in my practice of the Buddha Dhamma.

By tackling a factor at a time, in the order suggested by the Buddha in this sutta, and in a progressive and cumulative way throughout my day, I have been able to benefit from a much smoother and fruitful contemplative routine - i.e. right effort and right mindfulness come almost naturally, and time by time glimpses of samadhi (previously randomly rare at best) are seen over the horizon. In a nutshell, I strongly acknowledge how a positive and inspiring feedback loop seems to arise as the Eightfold Path is taken as a guideline for practice in the way suggested in this sutta.

Before I came accross the MN117 I was always puzzled by those who take the standard, crude, cold and bullet-point definition of the Eightfold Path as a reliable reference for a meaningful practice:

“And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.”
— DN 22

Note how the above by-the-book definition of right view repeats four times the term knowledge - nyana / ñāṇa - which can also be translated as insight. I truly believe this is the definition one would expect to see used by a Buddha when talking to an arahant (or an arahant talking to another arahant) about the Path.

Speaking from the standpoint of someone who has fullfilled the Path by having seen by himself things as they are (yatha bhuta nyana dassana) both parties of such dialogue would refer to right view a posteriori of the fruition of the path - hence defining it in terms of the knowledge / insights that lead them to the right view itself.

However, for us, mere mortals (and serious beginners), simply reading knowledge of such and such cannot help much in bringing us close to the knowledge right?

Once again, the MN117 proved to me immensely helpful in setting things straight: I found in it the Buddha providing me right view a valuable starting point and decipherable assumption for the practice of the Eightfold Path.

Differently from what is usually found repeated accross the suttas (and much of modern day textbooks on Buddhism) Right View is presented in the MN117 as a first step with clear and perfectly verifiable practical links/ramifications to the following factors of the Path, leading to the very right knowledge which the standard and aforementioned definition right view alludes to. Moreover, it shows clearly how this very factor of right insight naturally flourishes / allows for right liberation - hence making the path Tenfold.

The Sutta

The sutta in question presents very clearly an expected causality between the elements of the path, starting from right view and ending in right knowledge and deliverance - having right concentration as the factor of the path which serves the border line between this end and the other end of the practice-fruition process:

“Therein, bhikkhus, right view comes first.
And how does right view come first?
In one of right view, right intention comes into being;
in one of right intention, right speech comes into being;
in one of right speech, right action comes into being;
in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being;
in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being;
in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being;
in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being;
in one of right concentration, right knowledge comes into being;
in one of right knowledge, right deliverance comes into being.
Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors."

I did some research and found this interesting article written by Bhikkhu Analayo on this specific sutta.

Ven. Analyo’s article is clearly interested in identifying how the addition of the
concept of a supramundane aspect of the path factors was probably a
Theravadin advent, linked to its Abhidhamma tradition.

Nevertheless, his study is very helpful in identifying that this is a discourse not unique to the Theravadin Canon, with very close parallels found in both Tibetan and Chinese Canons. Keep in mind that the Chinese version of the sutta does not contain the late and Abhidhamma-influenced concept of supra mundane path factors which Ven. Analayo’s article aims at questioning.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Having in mind avoiding the error of rejecting the essential along with the inessential, one should appreciate that Ven. Analayo’s artcile on the MN117 greatly serves to confirm the shared validity main topic of the discourse accross different Canons, which in practical terms historically isolated pictures of the early Buddhis texts:
In all the parallels listed and translated by Ven. Analayo one sees the same Buddha bringing the message of how the development of right concentration is based on / supported by the other path factors, in particular how the cooperation of right view, right effort and right mindfulness takes place to drive one’s meditative practice to a fruitful state. This is summarized accross the suttas / sutras as follows:

Right view gives rise to right intention,
right intention gives rise to right speech,
right speech gives rise to right action,
right action gives rise to right livelihood,
right livelihood gives rise to right effort,
right effort gives rise to right mindfulness,
and right mindfulness gives rise to right concentration.
The noble disciple who has in this way rightly concentrated the mind will swiftly eradicate sensual desire, ill-will and delusion.
The noble disciple who has in this way rightly liberated the mind, swiftly comes to know that birth has been extinguished, the holy life has been established, what had to be done has been done, there is no more becoming to be experienced, coming to know this as it truly is.

MN117 and a Right View that suits us all, serious beginners

Another important element of the MN117 and its parallels is the definition and presentation by the Buddha of how the factor of Right View constitutes very first step of the serial development of the Path presented in this discourse. Note that this is a practical doctrinal feature found not only in both Pali and Chinese versions but as well in the closest Tibetan parallels of this sutta (explored in Ven. Analayo’s paper aforementioned):

What is right view?
This view, namely:
‘there is [efficacy] in giving, there is [efficacy] in offerings,
there is [efficacy] in reciting hymns,
there are wholesome and evil deeds,
there is a result of wholesome and evil deeds,
there are this world and another world,
there is [obligation towards one’s] father or mother, in the world
there are true men who have reached a wholesome attainment, who are well gone and have progressed well, who by their own knowledge and experience abide in having themselves realized this world and the other world’
This is reckoned right view.

Last but not least, I would like to flag that in Analayo’s article one will find the very interesting comment quoted below, which tell us of how important it was for members of the early
Sangha to know very well this interestingly practical and insightful discourse of the Buddha:

MN117 as a key element of the pariyatti tool set of a Bhikkhu

“… according to [the Canon commentary] a monk should ask another
monk if he is a “reciter of the ‘great forty’”.
This question reflects the significance that was attached to the
present discourse, whose recall the commentaries considered an
indispensable requirement for being able to engage in a discussion on
the supramundane noble path.”

After some more research I found that it seems that the practical and serial approach to the Eightfold Path MN117 (and the Tenfold Path it implies) is frequently the subject of Dhamma talks by venerable bhikkhus of the Sinhalese forest Sangha (see some links to YouTube videos in Sinhalese below) and was at least once approached by our venerable friend Ajahn Sujato in a Dhamma talk at BSWA (see link below as well).

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As a post scriptum addendum, I would like to flag that lost in the middle of AN one will find the Pubbaṇgamasuttaṃ (AN10.121) , which reads in English as:

Bhikkhus, the first appearance, the first signs of the rising sun is dawn.
In the same manner the first appearances and the first signs of all meritorious things is right view.
To one with right view, there are right thoughts.
To one with right thoughts, there is right speech.
To one with right speech, there is right action.
To one with right actions, there is right livelihood.
To one with right livelihood, there is right endeavour.
To one with right endeavour, there is right mindfulness.
To one with right mindfulness, there is right concentration.
To one with right concentration, there is right knowledge.
To one with right knowledge, there is right release.

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Just for your information, MN 117 is not an authentic EBT. You can find further information about this in here

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Thanks for that Seniya.

If I understood well the argument of the author of the study, what does not make it an authentic EBT sutta - i.e. Abhidhamma-influenced edition - is the concept of mundane and supramundane factors of the path.

Note however the point of my consultation here is the practical value of the concept teaching of a serial Noble Eightfold Path.

It is not found repeated thousand times accross the Sutta Pittaka but it makes a lot of sense to me, and hence has been very helpful in guiding the way I approach and seek to apply in my life Buddha Dhamma.

Hence, I would like to try to stick to challenge how this may be wrong and if so, what is then the right approach presented in other more EBT-aligned suttas to how is the Eightfold Path to be cultivated.

Thanks

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First of all I think it’s great that you are inspired in your practice by this sutta! The scholarly perspective might be interesting for you in the future, or not at all. The question if MN117 is an early sutta is somehow independent from your question because nobody can tell if it’s an early content, in pieces or in its entirety. Even if it’s a late sutta, it might be that it was pieced together from (partly) original material - so from a practical point of view: who cares? your understanding will change anyway with time, and inspiration and faith can take you very far!

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Before I came accross the MN117 I was always puzzled by those who take the standard, crude, cold and bullet-point definition of the Eightfold Path as a reliable reference for a meaningful practice

I have also been thinking about these sort of issues recently as well, but have not done much study on the matter. Like you, I’m also skeptical of lists (like the Noble Eightfold Path) that are explained without some clear relationship between the elements.

The Seven Factors of Bodhi are depicted as progressive stages several times, going progressively from “mindfulness” to “equanimity”. Why should the Noble Eightfold Path be so different? Isn’t “right view” the most fundamental thing, and “right samadhi” the most advanced thing?

In Yoga, the 6 or 8 angas (maybe based on the Noble Eightfold Path) are all progressive developments. The first stage is most elementary (yama), and the last is most advanced (samadhi). This is a basic presumption of Patanjali and later authors, at least.

Are the Seven Factors of Bodhi and the Noble Eightfold Path really so different from the Yoga angas, despite their resemblance? All of them start with something basic, and all end with advanced stages like samadhi.

For that matter, the Five Skandhas go from the most coarse (form) to the most subtle (consciousness). The Four Elements also go from the most coarse (earth) to the most subtle (wind). With the Five Elements, the added element is even more subtle (space).

The Four Bases of Mindfulness too go from coarse to subtle (body, sensations, mind, dharmas). The same with ānāpānasmṛti, which follows the framework of the Four Bases of Mindfulness, but the 16 stages are sometimes depicted as being progressive, with the last stage being most advanced (cessation).

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Hi llt,

You’re spot on. Although I never went deep into yoga teachings, I always found they had a clearer map for how to cultivate their path than us, Buddhists. This is one of the reasons MN117, with its concept of a serial cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path inspired me so much, and has so far proven so effective.

I think you would find also beneficial studying the concept of transcendental dependent origination (lokuttara paticca samuppada) presented by the Buddha in both the SN12.23 and the AN10.2.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote 20 years ago a beautiful Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta which can be found in this link. I once heard Sangharakshita (the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community) was very enthusiastic of the practical value of this sutta as well.

Similar to the case with the Noble Eightfold Path, I have always found the usual presentation of dependent origination in its mundane (lokiya) format (anicca -> birth / suffering) to be rather useless in my practice.

To me, reading, reciting and pondering upon the formula of mundane dependent origination was as much as ineffective/usuless as reading about the processes involved in the physical process of combustion while caught in middle of a building taken by flames!

I am interested in extinguishing the fire ! Listing all the impersonal links involved in this whole mass of suffering, albeit interesting, is not actually helpful to deal with the suffering faced by us mere mortals on a personal experience basis.

On the other hand, the beautifully logic linkages found in the supramundane/transcendental formula found in both the Upanisa Sutta (SN12.23) and Cetana(Karaniya) Sutta (AN10.2) put us in a completely different position.

Transcendental Order

Faith (saddha)
Joy (pamojja)
Rapture (piti)
Tranquillity (passaddhi)
Happiness (sukha)
Concentration (samadhi)
Knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathabhutañanadassana)
Disenchantment (nibbida)
Dispassion (viraga)
Emancipation (vimutti)
Knowledge of destruction of the cankers (asavakkhaye ñana)

In this formulation one sees the Buddha telling us what kind of qualities one should invest time and effort in accumulating/cultivating if he/she is really interested in getting to the threshold between insight and liberation.

The phrasing found in the AN10.2 is even more special. There the Buddha is clearly telling you how the linkage of the process has nothing to do with an illusion of self or self-based will. It is put simply as a natural process (dhammatā esā …)

(1)–(2) “Bhikkhus, for a virtuous person, one whose behavior is virtuous, no volition need be exerted: ‘Let non-regret arise in me.’ It is natural that non-regret arises in a virtuous person, one whose behavior is virtuous.

(3) “For one without regret no volition need be exerted: ‘Let joy arise in me.’ It is natural that joy arises in one without regret.

(4) “For one who is joyful no volition need be exerted: ‘Let rapture arise in me.’ It is natural that rapture arises in one who is joyful.

(5) “For one with a rapturous mind no volition need be exerted: ‘Let my body be tranquil.’ It is natural that the body of one with a rapturous mind is tranquil.

(6) “For one tranquil in body no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me feel pleasure.’ It is natural that one tranquil in body feels pleasure.

(7) “For one feeling pleasure no volition need be exerted: ‘Let my mind be concentrated.’ It is natural that the mind of one feeling pleasure is concentrated.

(8) “For one who is concentrated no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me know and see things as they really are.’ It is natural that one who is concentrated knows and sees things as they really are.

(9) “For one who knows and sees things as they really are no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me be disenchanted and dispassionate.’ It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate.

(10) “For one who is disenchanted and dispassionate no volition need be exerted: ‘Let me realize the knowledge and vision of liberation.’ It is natural that one who is disenchanted and dispassionate realizes the knowledge and vision of liberation.

P.S.: A very nice article by Ajahn Brahmali on this very topic can be found in this link.

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Hi Gnlaera,

I have no doubt that the eightfold path is progressive. As you point out, this is found in several places in the suttas, not just in MN117. The same sort of progressiveness applies to the factors of awakening and the spiritual faculties. In other words, from whatever angle you view the path, it is always progressive.

But it is not just progressive. It seems clear enough that the latter factors of the path affect the earlier ones. As your mindfulness gets established, your ability to take charge of your mind improves, and this strengthens all the factors that have to do with morality. When you get to samādhi, this will have a powerful effect on your view, eventually leading to streamentry. So the path is progressive, but there is also a feedback effect whereby the later factors affect the earlier ones.

And I think Llt is right that it is not just the path factors that are progressive, but in fact most teachings given by the Buddha have a progressive nature. This follows from the advice given to Ven. Ānanda at AN 5.159:

It isn’t easy, Ānanda, to teach the Dhamma to others. One who teaches the Dhamma to others should first set up five qualities internally. What five? (1) [Having determined:] ‘I will give a progressive talk,’ one should teach the Dhamma to others …

Also, to understand the noble eightfold path in detail it is useful to study the gradual training. So far as I can see, the gradual training is no more than a detailed expansion of the eightfold path, actually the tenfold path. To my mind a particularly beautiful expression of the gradual training is found at MN27.

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Thanks Bhante for reminding us of the important link with Buddha’s unique and beautiful pedagogical approach of step-by-step/gradual/progressive teaching (anupubbi-katha).

At each stage of this “gradual training” (anupubbi-sikkha), the practitioner discovers a new and important dimension of the law of cause-and-effect — kamma, the cornerstone of Right View. It is thus a very useful organizing framework with which to view the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings.

The gradual training begins with the practice of generosity, which helps begin the long process of weakening the unawakened practitioner’s habitual tendencies to cling — to views, to sensuality, and to unskillful modes of thought and behavior.

This is followed by the development of virtue, the basic level of sense-restraint that helps the practitioner develop a healthy and trustworthy sense of self.

The peace of mind born from this level of self-respect provides the foundation for all further progress along the path.

The practitioner now understands that some kinds of happiness are deeper and more dependable than anything that sense-gratification can ever provide; the happiness born of generosity and virtue can even lead to rebirth in heaven — either literal or metaphorical.

But eventually the practitioner begins to recognize the intrinsic drawbacks of even this kind of happiness: as good as rebirth in wholesome states may be, the happiness it brings is not a true and lasting one, for it relies on conditions over which he or she ultimately has no control.

This marks a crucial turning point in the training, when the practitioner begins to grasp that true happiness will never be found in the realm of the physical and sensual world.

The only possible route to an unconditioned happiness lies in renunciation, in turning away from the sensual realm, by trading the familiar, lower forms of happiness for something far more rewarding and noble.

Now, at last, the practitioner is ripe to receive the teachings on the Four Noble Truths, which spell out the course of mental training required to realize the highest happiness: nibbana.

Many Westerners first encounter the Buddha’s teachings on meditation retreats, which typically begin with instructions in how to develop the skillful qualities of right mindfulness and right concentration. It is worth noting that, as important as these qualities are, the Buddha placed them towards the very end of his gradual course of training.

The meaning is clear: to reap the most benefit from meditation practice, to bring to full maturity all the qualities needed for Awakening, the fundamental groundwork must not be overlooked. There is no short-cutting this process.

Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/index.html

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I was actually thinking of the more comprehensive version of the gradual training, found in such suttas as MN 27.

Deeper Dhamma | MN117: The Great Forty | with Ajahn Brahmali
http://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-kwmb4-59e27d

I thank enormously @brahmali for giving us this detailed analysis and explanation of this.important sutta.

I would like to take the opportunity and ask whether it would be a good thing to come up with a reconstructed version of this very sutta, cleaning it of the disposable abhidhamma-influenced bits - maybe using the Chinese parallel as a source?

P.S.: I would like as well to flag that Bhante Brahmali seems to have forgotten to mention that in the commentaries this sutta is said to have been of relevance in the early days of the sangha, as Ven. Analayo notes:

“… according to [the Canon commentary] a monk should ask another monk if he is a “reciter of the ‘great forty’”.
This question reflects the significance that was attached to the present discourse, whose recall the commentaries considered an indispensable requirement for being able to engage in a discussion on the supramundane noble path.”

https://www.google.co.th/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://www.thesis.xlibx.info/th-other/4449475-21-the-dawn-abhidharma-hamburg-buddhist-studies-series-editor-micha.php&ved=0ahUKEwjTns6524rRAhVBgI8KHXS5CmsQFggvMAU&usg=AFQjCNGyvIQLs4B1ddqDcqi2KdizbQOEkg

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Exactly which words do you think requiring “cleaning”? Thanks

For example, the term “without asava” does not necessarily mean the destruction of the asava.

Bhikkhu Analayo seems to often give this impression in his work of equating ‘without or liberation from asava’ with ‘destruction of asava’, such as currently posted by @Christopher about Satipatthana, at this link.

As for at least one Chinese version, it does not make sense to me because it only includes mundane dhammas but claims these mundane dhammas can reach the supramundane Nibbana.

I recall reading the Chinese versions and none of them are a complete & proper discourse of Buddha-Dhamma to me. They were mere lists of generalistions.

MN 117 appears to have a specific purpose of distinguishing between mundane & supramundane practises and censures those who try to debunk it as having wrong view.

Indeed.

Therefore, to ask again, exactly which words do you think requiring “cleaning”?

Thanks. :deciduous_tree:

Yes. And this should be seen in conjunction with the unusual ending of this sutta:

This Dhamma discourse on the Great Forty has been set rolling and cannot be stopped by any recluse or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or anyone in the world.

Bhikkhus, if any recluse or brahmin thinks that this Dhamma discourse on the Great Forty should be censured and rejected, then there are ten legitimate deductions from his assertions that would provide grounds for censuring him here and now.

I cannot help wondering why the redactors found it necessary to bolster this sutta in this way. It’s almost as if they are afraid someone might not consider it entirely authentic. I have to admit I find Ven. Analayo’s analysis quite sound.

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Maybe I am just too naive but I read that last paragraph in the context of transmission of sutras with missionary relevance.

This is possibly the only relatively short but nevertheless well structured sutta which presents an eightfold/tenfold path that is cultivated in a given and natural progression.

Other more famous but much longer suttas -mostly found in the DN - do talk about the gradual training and a similar progression concept but I doubt how quickly a bhikkhu who was in process of being taught a minimum repertoire for moving and teaching in new lands or areas would be able to memorise those in a timely or reliable manner.

That’s why I tend not to buy completely this over sceptical/suspicious approach/stance Ven. Analayo tends to have towards all things Abhidhamma or re-edited / augmented suttas.

My bet is that most of the changes occurred in the suttas - and possibly in the MN117 - took place because people were trying to do the best with what they had in their circumstances. This is for not only I should be grateful for that they did as custodians of the teachings but as well sustain good will towards those individuals.

Hence, I risk saying that when this sutta was put down in words on palm leaves it ended up becoming a snapshot of a possible struggle the Sangha was starting to have in terms of getting people interested enough and with time to memorise important things such as the very practical advice that the eightfold path is not just an assorted list of eight things to be cultivated as one takes on the fourth noble/ennobling task, it is actually a very clear instruction of what is the expected natural evolution of the transformation and liberating process that takes place once one gets in touch with the Buddha Dhamma.

Even nowadays, although almost everyone reads in the suttas the path factors always listed and summarised in the same order - very few Dhamma teachers do highlight that such order is not for no reason and that should be well understood when one takes the challenge of cultivation of the path itself.

I think only Bhikkhu Bodhi (in his books and lectures) and you venerables from BSWA (in your recurring sutta classes, Dhamma talks and retreat instructions) do call people’s attention of how the factors of the path align, support and reinforce each other towards the end of suffering. One thing is to hand out an pack of assorted cookies, another is to hand out a box of cookies mix with clear cooking instructions on it! :yum:

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