Thief of the Dhamma

I was just reading SN12.70, and at the end Susima apologies for being a “thief of the Dhamma,” and the Buddha says that normally this would carry a worse punishment than death by beheading, a ticket to the “nether world.” What does he mean by “thief of the Dhamma,” and what does he mean by “nether world?” If this offense carries such a heavy price, it seems important to know what exactly these terms refer to.

The way I understand this refers to lying.
It appears Susima borrowed (or steal) the ideas from truly enlightened monks and declared them as his own realisation.
In this case a monk falsely declaring their attainment is referred to as a thief by Buddha.

Ven Thanissaro translation it refer to as lower realm.

Nether means lower position.

Thief of the Dhamma: I think it might have something to do with the fact that Susima wanted to ordain simply for the sake of being “honoured, respected, esteemed, venerated, and revered, and [to]…obtain robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicinal requisites”

Nether World: If you ask me, it means being reborn in a lower realm, particularly in hell.

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There’s not much to say about it I’m afraid. The term dhammatthenaka, i.e. ‘dhamma-thief’ appears only in this sutta and the meaning is pretty clear from the context: Susima misunderstood the dhamma in a supposedly very grave manner.

I don’t know why he deserved to rot in hell for thinking that arahants would automatically have supernatural powers, but that was supposedly his wrongdoing. There are different kinds of arahants in the texts, for example ‘triple-knowledge-arahants’, ‘arahants liberated in both ways’ and ‘arahants liberated by wisdom’.

The last category is ‘only’ liberated without superpowers, while the ‘both-ways-liberated’ at least additionally attained the formless-arupa states…

The Buddha was somewhat allergic to people expecting magic tricks and supernatural stuff from him or other attained bhikkhus, and that’s what Susima did. (See for example MN 12 for his former ‘attendant’ Sunakkhatta leaving because the Buddha didn’t impress him with supernatural powers).

The ‘nether world’ is vinipāta, literally a place of ‘serious downfall’. The term doesn’t necessarily mean after-death-hell but first of all a state of misery. It’s what a sotapanna is free from. The term is not Vedic afaics so appeared in texts around the Buddha’s time.

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I do not understand in detail, venerable sir, the meaning of what was stated in brief by the Blessed One. It would be good if the Blessed One would explain to me in such a way that I could understand in detail what has been stated in brief.”>

“Whether or not you understand, Susīma, first comes knowledge of the stability of the Dhamma, afterwards knowledge of Nibbāna.>

I wonder whether Susima got a raw deal from Buddha and the rest of Arahants.

The detail in section I of the sutta provides the background story. Basically Susima joined the Order with impure intent (ie. not real cultivation for his own liberation and for others, but for dispute/comparison against other teachings, or to gain fame, etc.):

Then the Venerable Ānanda took the wanderer Susı̄ma and approached the Blessed One. He paid homage to the Blessed One, and then he sat down to one side and said to him: “Venerable sir, this wanderer Susı̄ma says that he wishes to lead the holy life in this Dhamma and Discipline.”

Ven. Bodhi’s note citing Comy.'s explanation:

Spk: Susīma had approached the Venerable Ānanda, thinking, “He is the most learned disciple, and also the Teacher frequently reports to him the Dhamma he has spoken on various occasions; under him I will be able to learn the Dhamma quickly.” Ānanda brought him to the Buddha because he knew that Susīma had been a teacher in his own right and he was apprehensive that after going forth he might try to bring discredit to the Dispensation. The Buddha understood that Susīma’s motive in taking ordination was “theft of the Dhamma,” which made his entry into the Dispensation impure, but he foresaw that Susīma would shortly undergo a change of heart and attain arahantship. Hence he instructed Ānanda to give him the going forth.


It’s quite clear from the sutta itself:

Now on that occasion the wanderer Susīma was residing in Rajagaha along with a large company of wanderers. Then his company said to the wanderer Susīma: “Come, friend Susīma, lead the holy life under the ascetic Gotama. Master his Dhamma and teach it to us. We will master his Dhamma and preach it to the lay people. Thus we too will be honoured, respected, esteemed, venerated, and revered, and we too will obtain robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicinal requisites.”
“All right, friends,” the wanderer Susīma replied. He then approached the Venerable Ānanda and exchanged greetings with him. When they had concluded their greetings and cordial talk, he sat down to one side and said to him: “Friend Ānanda, I wish to lead the holy life in this Dhamma and Discipline.”

From the Vinaya:

Again, a bad monk learns the Teaching and training proclaimed by the Buddha and takes it as his own. This is the second great gangster to be found in the world.

I think according to EBTs for a monk to live off the alms of the populace they need to be rather pure in their thoughts. If they are not, the kammic consequences can be bad, obviously according to each person’s mix of kammic effects (this is just my understanding). There obviously wont be a blanket outcome that affects everyone equally as kamma isn’t said to work in that manner.

with metta