Ud 5.5 - gradual all the way, or not?

John D. Ireland has this:

"The great ocean, bhikkhus, gradually shelves, slopes, and inclines, and there is no sudden precipice.

And this:

"Just as the great ocean gradually shelves, slopes, and inclines, and there is no sudden precipice, so also in this Dhamma and Discipline there is a gradual training, a gradual course, a gradual progression, and there is no sudden penetration to final knowledge.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu however interprets it to have a meaning totally contradictory to that:

The ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch.


Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.

To me, Thanissaro’s version seems far more aligned to Buddhist doctrine. You are either a stream enterer or not. That experience of nibbāna is sudden, and delineates ariyas from non-ariyas. But which does the Pāli say here?

I also checked Ānandajoti Bhikkhu’s version. It agrees with Ireland:

Yaṁ bhikkhave mahāsamuddo anupubbaninno, anupubbapoṇo,

That the great ocean, monks, gradually inclines, gradually slopes,

anupubbapabbhāro, nāyatakeneva papāto,

gradually slants, certainly does not have an abrupt falling away,


Seyyathā pi bhikkhave mahāsamuddo

Just as the great ocean, monks,

anupubbaninno, anupubbapoṇo,

gradually inclines, gradually slopes,

anupubbapabbhāro, nāyatakeneva papāto,

gradually slants, certainly does not fall away abruptly,

evam-eva kho bhikkhave imasmiṁ Dhammavinaye

so, monks, in this Dhamma and Discipline

anupubbasikkhā, anupubbakiriyā,

there is a gradual training, a gradual performance,

anupubbapaṭipadā, nāyatakeneva aññāpaṭivedho.

a gradual practice, it certainly does not have an abrupt penetration of knowledge.

So can you guys analyse the Pāli to see who is right?
And if Thanissaro is wrong, then is this verse corupted or something? Because it seems to go against the whole principle of stream entry, of all the many stories of the Buddha’s disciples gaining that awakening suddenly, for example while he was teaching, and so on.


Hi Senryu,

I don’t have an answer to your question, but here is a footnote in Ajahn Thanissaro’s translation found after the passage in question:

The Pali here reads, na āyataken’eva papāto. The Commentary insists that this phrase means, “with no abrupt drop-off.” There are three reasons for not accepting the Commentary’s interpretation here. (a) The first is grammatical. The word āyataka means “long, drawn out; lasting a long time.” To interpret āyatakena, the instrumental of a word meaning “long, drawn out,” to mean “abrupt” makes little sense. (b) The second reason is geographical. The continental shelf off the east coast of India does have a sudden drop-off after a long gradual slope. © The third reason is doctrinal. As noted in the interpretation of the simile, the shape of the ocean floor corresponds to the course of the practice. If there were no sudden drop-off, there would be no sudden penetration to awakening. However, there are many cases of sudden penetration in the Canon, Exhibit A being Bāhiya’s attainment of arahantship in Ud 1.10.


I checked B.Bodhi’s footnotes, in AN 8.19 and 8.20, he agrees with ireland and anandajoti.

Thanissaro’s interpretation makes a hell of a lot more sense though. That steep drop off in the india coastal gradual shelf, and the Bahiya arahantship being “not gradual”. If it were “gradual” like the way everyone other than Thanissaro was translating it, you would expect people to just gradually easy into arahantship a lot more often than it seems to be happening.

that translation doesn’t make sense to me.
Bhante @sujato and @Brahmali, where do you stand?
and how do understand aññāpaṭivedho? Is that arahantship? or just a quick experiential glimpse that results in stream entry minimum? or something else?

I was thinking the opposite. If arshantship is the result of very long gradual training among renunciants, perhaps only a few people will ever achieve it.

It is true that the suttas do contain some stories of people being enlightened “on the spot”, those stories all seem to have as their moral the nearly supernatural power of the Buddha’s own presence and spoken word.

There if another cluster of images however that teach a different view of enlightenment: a long process of breaking fetters, purifying conduct and the mind, and destroying asavas. The fires of greed, hatred and delusion are gradually put out. And just as a firefighter might take stock after a long and arduous process of fighting a raging fire, and then say, “that’s it - the fire is out,” so the former trainee might take stock after reaching arahantship, and say, “that’s it - the holy life has been lived, and the goal of the holy life has been achieved. The burden has been put down and the torments of desire and dissatisfaction have been eradicated.”

No “wow” moments; no cosmic visions and revelations; no cracking the koan, no sudden turning about of point of view - instead just a gradually reduction in suffering, wearing down of the processes of attachment and I-making, and growth of peace until finally no suffering remains and the peace is complete and without the least defilement.

Well, this is not a trivial point. Linguistically, the obvious reading would indeed agree with Ven Thanissaro’s argument. On the other hand, the weight of the commentaries, supported by such a range of modern experts—and to those cited I would add that all the modern dictionaries accept the sense of “sudden” here—is not to be lightly spurned.

To briefly address Ven Thanissaro’s three points:

  1. Yes, the basic meaning is “long, drawn out”. But language is full of examples of words that for whatever reason adopt opposite meanings. It’s up to you whether you consider this terrific or terrible, awful or awesome. The various authorities are, of course, well aware of the more common sense of the word, and they weren’t worried.
  2. I am no expert on geography, but I find this an oddly literal application. I highly doubt that this simile was based on a meaningful survey of the ocean contours (which, in any case, around the Ganges basin are far from sudden.)
  3. Doctrinally, the normal situation in the suttas is that practice is gradual but realization is sudden. While it is true that there are cases recorded of swift realization, the statement here would simply confirm that such cases did not happen without preparation. There is a reason why certain people are ready to realize the Dhamma.

But are there any additional reasons to support the reading “sudden” for āyataka?

Monier-Williams gives the sense “without delay, on the spot, quickly” for āyata, citing the Satapathabrahmana. No exact reference is given, but it appears to be from Brhadaranyaka-Upanisad 4.3.14. (The Brihararanyaka is considered to be part of the Satapatha.)

ārāmam asya paśyanti na taṃ paśyati kaś caneti | taṃ nāyataṃ bodhayed ity āhuḥ | durbhiṣajyaṃ hāsmai bhavati yam eṣa na pratipadyate
Therefore they say, Let no one wake a man suddenly, for it is not easy to remedy, if he does not get back (rightly to his body).

Note that the Brhadaranyaka is the earliest of the Upanishads, and appears to be referred to in DN 13. In addition, several passages in the suttas seem to be aware of its ideas and indeed detailed passages and similes. It would seem to be no coincidence that the unusual usage of āyata in the sense of “sudden” occurs in the sense of a literal “awakening” in the Brhadaranyaka and a spiritual awakening in the suttas.

In addition, the Chinese parallels seem to support the commentarial reading. At MA 35 we find:

In my teaching there is gradual practice, gradual training, gradual completion, and gradual teaching.

In EA 42.4 it seems a little less clear, and the Dhamma version and the simile version don’t match exactly—or at least as far as I can tell—but it still seems to confirm the same interpretation:

我法中 施設禁戒,相隨亦不越敘
In my teaching the precepts are prescribed in a gradual manner

Further support comes in an indirect manner from the Kathavatthu at Kv 2.9. This text contains a discussion of the question of sudden vs. gradual attainment, expressing different points of view current in the Buddhist community perhaps 300 years after the Buddha. The orthodox (from the text’s point of view) Theravadin position is that there is no gradual penetration, i.e. that the realization of the truths comes all at once. The relevant passage is cited by the heterodox party in an attempt to establish the conclusion that there is, in fact, a gradual penetration. The Theravadin acknowledges the passage but is not persuaded. Unfortunately there is no real discussion of how they explain it, but presumably they would say that the groundwork for realization is laid gradually. In any case, this context shows that the mainstream reading is accepted no later than a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, at a time when the texts were still (more or less) in the speakers’ native tongue.

So the reading of āyataka in the sense of “sudden” here is supported by the Pali commentaries, the canonical Abhidhamma, the Chinese translations, the Sanskrit usage, and virtually all modern authorities.


@sujato Thank you very much (and all others who commented) for your detailed answer. I am intrigued:

Does this not mean that the orthodox position at that time 300 years after the buddha’s death, directly contradicts the meaning of this sutta? Because is not this sutta saying the opposite?

Well, it means that the orthodox position is problematic in light of the sutta. There are, indeed several instances where the Theravadin position had already shifted from that of the suttas—notably the denial of the in-between state—but of course there is often room for interpretation.

If, as it seems, the correct sense here really is “there is no sudden penetration to the truth”, then it is not just the Abhidhamma, but the suttas themselves that have some explaining to do. In several suttas there seems to be a sudden awakening, creating a tension with the normal idea that practice proceeds gradually and realization is sudden. That the explanation of this is not obvious is apparent from the very fact that the traditions started arguing about it early on. This issue was a defining doctrine of the early Theravada, and the inspiration behind one of its definitive works, the Patisambhidamagga.

Note too that in the Kathavatthu, immediately after quoting this passage, the text refers to SN 56.30. In this sutta, set in an unusual location, and apparently after the parinibbana, Venerable Gavampati settles a dispute on this very question among a group of senior monks: Are the four noble truths realized all at once, or gradually? It’s unusual to find such a case, where several senior monks are apparently unable to decide on what would seem to be a pretty important detail. But Gavampati was no ordinary monk. In the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, he takes the role played by Pūraṇa in the Pali, the monk who does not come to the First Council. The fact that what is evidently a late sutta deciding a controversial point is spoken by a monk who according to some is situated outside the received canonical tradition is intriguing.

The issue remained a live one in the Buddhist traditions, and became a major controversial point much later in Chan/Zen.

I personally don’t think that there is an insoluble contradiction. If we understand that the path is gradual and realization is sudden, most of these passages can be understood readily enough. However, the fact that there is such a tension should warn us against using doctrine to decide the reading of this passage. The passage itself should help us understand the doctrine, and we should try to avoid reading assumptions into it.


Bhante, how do you understand the meaning of that passage? If we’re going with the near consensus reading of gradual training… gradual… with NO sudden penetration into nirvana, what is that passage really trying to say, what is trying to teach us? I’m just dumbfounded and don’t know what lesson to draw from it.

and how do understand aññāpaṭivedho? Is that arahantship? or just a quick experiential glimpse of nirvana that results in stream entry minimum? or something else?

Using geography does not seem to help much because both options are possible depending on scale: on a small scale, most oceans do indeed slope gently without a sudden break (for the first few hundred meters or hundreds of kms) . But on a larger scale, most oceans are indeed divided into a shelf, a slope and an abyssal plain, the slope being relatively steep in comparison to the shelf and abyssal plain, so the slope could be a candidate for this sudden break (which is very visible on bathymetric maps).

One could say that the Buddha could not be aware of this but in another sutta he describes Earth at a time where there is no water anymore so he could have had a peak. :slight_smile:

However, since it is a simile, it should be understandable by his listeners who would not have his arcane knowledge of the deep ocean. On the contrary, most people would only be aware of the gentle slope when entering an ocean by foot. Could this also be put in contrast with their experience about crossing the Ganges and other NE India rivers? In some rivers the banks can sometimes be very steep, with no gentle slope to get into the river…


I think the point is that realization happens due to conditions. Normally that is a process that unfolds through the practice of the eightfold path. Sometimes that is supported by previous practice of one sort or another, say if one has already developed good meditation before encountering Buddhism. But there’s always a gradual process of penetration. So really what I think it’s saying is simply this: the path is conditioned, and we must patiently work on those conditions.

If this reading is correct, then when it says “no sudden penetration to enlightenment” it just means that there are always supporting conditions. You can’t force it, or invoke some special spell or empowerment or trick to leapfrog the process. Realization still happens at a point in time, but only as a culmination of conditions.

I admit, this reading is not the most natural one on the surface. But bear in mind that this is just one passage. And note that the Chinese parallels I quoted above do not seem to have the final phrase about sudden penetration. A closer examination of the parallels might be helpful, but at least we can say there is some question as to whether this phrase was part of the original text. In addition, don’t forget the unusual textual situation: the passage starts out as a series of statements about the ocean, which are then adapted to the path. So the wording, both the use of āyataka and the emphatic particle eva, may convey nuances that we’re not fully aware of.

Yes, it means arahantship.

Right, yes.

Indeed. The most accessible ocean to the people of the Ganges valley would be, I think, the northern most part of the Bay of Bengal, at the Ganges delta. And there, as the massive silt of the Ganges has filled the bay for millenia, it is very much a gradual slope, like this:


As usual I am in general agreement with Bhante Sujato and I don’t have much to add.


Here’s a heretical suggestion.

āyataka also occurs in the context of the recitation of dhamma in this fashion -

pañcime, bhikkhave, ādīnavā āyatakena gītassarena dhammaṃ gāyantassa. Attanāpi tasmiṃ sare sārajjati, parepi tasmiṃ sare sārajjanti, gahapatikāpi ujjhāyanti, sarakuttimpi nikāmaya­mānassa samādhissa bhaṅgo hoti, pacchimā janatā diṭṭhānugatiṃ āpajjati—ime kho, bhikkhave, pañca ādīnavā āyatakena gītassarena dhammaṃ gāyantassa. Na, bhikkhave, āyatakena gītassarena dhammo gāyitabbo. Yo gāyeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassā”ti.

Monks, there are these five disadvantages to one singing dhamma with a long-drawn plain-song sound: he is pleased with himself in regard to that sound, and others are pleased in regard to that sound, and housepeople look down upon, and while he is himself striving after accuracy in the sound there is an interruption in his concentration, and people coming after fall into the way of (wrong) views. These, monks, are the five disadvantages to one singing dhamma with a long-drawn plain-song sound. Monks, dhamma should not be sung with a long-drawn plain-song sound. Whoever should (so) sing it, there is an offence of wrong-doing. : Vin ii 108”

This Vinaya passage is also found in part in AN 5.209.

Although the CPD offers that āyataka means “long, prolonged, long-drawn (of a tone)”, we might perhaps get a better sense of what this entails in chanting by looking at one of the 5 drawbacks of such chanting. It is said that -

sarakuttimpi nikāmaya­mānassa samādhissa bhaṅgo hoti

while he is himself striving after accuracy in the sound there is an interruption in his concentration,

Could the sarakutti simply mean “melody”, taking sara as “flow” and kutti as the musical arrangement? Instead of the individual words, or clauses, or stock phrases being rendered clearly, these are forced artificially into rhythms in service of the melody or harmony. If so, the criticism of āyataka chanting is that intelligible language propositions are lost for the sake of the syllables and linguistic units conforming to a melodic structure, instead of retaining its linguistic comprehensibility. One of the first casualties would of course be the loss of distinction between short and long vowels (something that is attested to in verse); the other casualty would be the breaking up of a word, with parts being distributed to different parts of the musical structure.

If I’m correct in this, then perhaps āyataka means “un-punctuated”, not in a grammatical sense, but in a musical sense, in that the melody is not disturbed by the inconvenience of word forms taking precedence over the musical form.

Now, let’s see if we can interpret Ud 5.5’s na āyatakena as meaning “not unpunctuated”. Firstly, the anupubbas in the preceding section can all be equally read as “successive”, instead of gradual. This gives us -

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, mahāsamuddo anupubbaninno anupubbapoṇo anu­pubba­pabbhāro, na āyatakeneva papāto

Monks, just as the ocean is of a successive inclination, is of a successive sloping, is of a successive slant, certainly without an āyataka drop

evamevaṃ kho, bhikkhave, imasmiṃ dhammavinaye anupubbasikkhā anupubbakiriyā anu­pubba­paṭi­padā, na āyatakeneva aññāpaṭivedho.

So too in this Dhamma and Vinaya, there is a graduated training, a graduated doing, a graduated practice, with penetration to knowledge that is not āyataka.

I’ve chosen to translate the 3 anupubbas as such, as they appear to have been part of the existing Indian lexicon, being applied to the study of the Vedas, archery and accountancy : MN 107. See especially the illustration of this step-by-step education of an accountant in that sutta.

In light of the overall structure of the simile and the 3 anupubbas meaning “graduated” (instead of gradual), it looks to me that Ud 5.5 is saying that āyataka must mean the very opposite of anupubba. This comes closest to the reading of āyataka as “un-punctuated” in the musical sense.

What could the graduated training in the Dhamma-Vinaya be punctuated by? Stream Entry, Once-Return and Non-Return.

Alternatively, MN 107 suggests that the graduated training is the DN 2 model.


Interstingly, I do not take the Ud as an early text in general, only the First Four Nikāyas and wonder if there are any such cases in the latter.

Secondly, I think a distinction should be made between first penetration and final penetration.

In any case I agree with Bh. Sujāto that they both require gradual preparation.

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I don’t think the idea of a gradual penetration is logical, because by definition it must be sudden. If someone hasn’t finished the training at a certain point, by definition the they are still continuing to train. If there is such a moment, then it must be identifiable, and the states on either side clear as in the distinction between trainee and the adept (sekha, aseksha). Either one stops being a trainee, or not. No limbo period has been identifiable, in the EBTs.

A limbo period maybe identifiable practically, because a glimpse of Nibbana in stream entry doesn’t come with a label and hasn’t been recognised as such. Especially only the Buddha may be having the ability to sense these quick transitions, and perhaps not even the practitioner knew about this for certain, despite developing the qualities of a stream entrant, such as faith, like Suppabuddha, Ud5.3. Here the gradual talk (anupubbiya kata) was the ‘gradual’ bit while the penetration happens at a predetermined point in this talk :slight_smile::

The Gracious One saw the leper Suppabuddha sat in that assembly, and having seen him, this occurred to him: “This one here is able to understand the Dhamma”, and having regard to the leper Suppabuddha he related a gradual talk, that is to say: talk on giving, talk on virtue, talk on heaven, the danger, degradation, and defilement of sensual desires, and the advantages in renunciation—these he explained. When the Gracious One knew that the leper Suppabuddha was of ready mind, malleable mind, unhindered mind, uplifted mind, trusting mind, then he explained the Dhamma teaching the Awakened Ones have discovered themselves: suffering, origination, cessation, path.

Just as it is known that a clean cloth without a stain would take the dye well, so to the leper Suppabuddha on that very seat, the dust-free, stainless Vision-of-the-Dhamma arose: “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing.” Ud5.3

Loosing one’s cravings and aversions is obviously more hard work, and there is no Buddha to deliver a gradual talk that will take someone to the non-returner state. It will be that much more apparent to the trainee that they have done the work. I believe there is a sutta that asks whether an arahanth knows whether they have become an arahanth- and the answer is yes. The Buddha illustrates it with a simile that just like a person who has a leg amputated knows this fact, an arahanth knows that the causes for further becoming (ie defilements and ignorance) have been destroyed-sutta?.

with metta,

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It would be relevant to consider fishermen. To consider the knowledge of rural fishing communities in North East India, and see if they are aware of a sudden drop off or not. We can view is as sudden or gradual, but more interesting is how those people who directly experience the sea in that region, experience it. Of course I mean manual fishing boats, not modern vehicles with longer range and sonar and all that.

That would be a start, although to be thorough it would be worth considering the influence of trade routes also, or other sources of information on the view of the ocean floor people had in the Buddha’s place and time.

All this talk about “penetration” - is that canonical? It sounds suspicious to me, like a displaced sexual longing for some kind of spiritual orgasm.

I prefer the “effacement” metaphors for realization: a gradual cleaning and polishing of the mind until there are no defilements left.

Maybe… but if the view is supported by many other suttas, then perhaps it is the sutta which is problematic, not the view?


I am not sure this is talking about the same thing. From the English at least, it seems to just be saying that if you see one, you see them all. But it does not seem to discuss whether the seeing of one (and therefore all) is a gradual process or not. I would more see this as refuting the 4 seeings as being sequential, rather than refuting that being gradual.

Yes that is my view that I gather from reading the suttas. It is also in harmony with the Tibetan view. And with reports from many Buddhists, Hindus, Sufi and so on in their experience. I find it hard to understand why this would be a controversial point. But also this is why this particular sutta seems to me to be giving an erroneous view (unless Thanissaro’s interpretation is right), because it is gradual, but there also is a sudden drop off, a sudden awakening.

I would say the sequence is like this:

  1. Gradual training
  2. Sudden awakening - now you are an ariya.
  3. Gradual deepening/stabilising of that, up to becoming an arahant.

MN 95 appears to give that view:

“When he has investigated him and has seen that he is purified from states based on delusion, then he places faith in him; filled with faith he visits him and pays respect to him; having paid respect to him, he gives ear; when he gives ear, he hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma, he memorises it and examines the meaning of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meaning, he gains a reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings, zeal springs up; when zeal has sprung up, he applies his will; having applied his will, he scrutinises; having scrutinised, he strives; resolutely striving, he realises with the body the supreme truth and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom. In this way, Bhāradvāja, there is the discovery of truth; in this way one discovers truth; in this way we describe the discovery of truth. But as yet there is no final arrival at truth.”

“In that way, Master Gotama, there is the discovery of truth; in that way one discovers truth; in that way we recognise the discovery of truth. But in what way, Master Gotama, is there the final arrival at truth? In what way does one finally arrive at truth? We ask Master Gotama about the final arrival at truth.”
“The final arrival at truth, Bhāradvāja, lies in the repetition, development, and cultivation of those same things. In this way, Bhāradvāja, there is the final arrival at truth; in this way one finally arrives at truth; in this way we describe the final arrival at truth.”

Of course we could imagine the gradual slope in the sutta we are discussing to only refer to the gradual aspect of the path. But to me that would seem illogical, since it specifically says there is no sudden drop off, which implies it is not only talking about that one aspect, but rather the whole story.

I would guess that perhaps the monks who were proposing the view that there is no sudden awakening, were the ones who had had no awakening. Often people who have not attained something claim that that thing does not exist. And also people wihtout attainments often end up in positions of power (perhaps enough to alter or compose some suttas!) - could this be an explanation for this?

Without that part, it would seem that it could be referring to the gradual aspect, while not mentioning the sudden aspect. And that would then still make sense. So, if this extra part about there being no sudden penetration, is absent from the parallels, and its presence contradicts many many other suttas, does this not indicate that that part about no sudden penetration may have been added later? Would that not be the simplest explanation to account for those two factors?

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I agree and disagree. There seems no apparent reason to not include “some special spell or empowerment or trick” among the category of “supporting conditions”.

The Buddha had good tricks. Apparently he could talk someone to awakening - many apparently attained stream entry during a discourse. That seems to be potentially exactly the same type of thing that some Advaita masters can pull off in satsang, and some Tibetan Buddhists as they ‘point out the nature of mind’.

I think this sutta is correct. It says there is no sudden final enlightenment but that to reach it there has to be a gradual path of practice. We are probably reading too much into it.

There are some special use of abilities mentioned in EBTs by the Buddha and few of his close disciple monks, which is a the ability to teach using supernatural powers. They could sometimes read the minds of others, know who would benefit from a dhamma talk and say wtwas needed for others to see the truth. This isn’t any empowerment though it is empowering for the listeners. Also getting someone to see their own mind momentarily has little practical use. Better to be able to reflect, do cittanupassana or watch the mind cease completely, in Nibbana.

With metta

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Yes, it’s a literal rendering:


The Buddha used many different metaphors: that is the richness of language.