“The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli

October 13, 2018

1. “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli is good to read and even to keep as a reference (page numbers quoted are for the 2001 First BPS Pariyatti edition). It is a good book for two reasons:

  • A chronological record of the Buddha’s life (after the Buddhahood),
  • Detailed accounts of events that are not in the suttas (taken from the Vinaya Pitaka).

2. The Buddha said that if there is any doubt or a concept that is not clear, one should check with sutta, vinaya, and dhamma. These basically refer to the Tipitaka (three baskets) of Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka.

  • Most people just refer to the Sutta Pitaka and forget about the other two. Abhidhamma Pitaka is a bit hard to understand, and without a firm grasp of basics it is harder.
  • Most people think that the Vinaya Pitaka is just for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. But there are sections in the Vinaya Pitaka that have details that are not in the suttas. Furthermore, those sections in the Vinaya Pitaka are easy to understand, as we see below.

3. I will provide the following as an example of what is in this book that is not available in any sutta. It describes in detail how the five ascetics attained the Sōtapanna stage over several days with the delivery of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Here is a direct quote from p. 45 of the book (starting from the point where the Buddha had just finished the first delivery of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta):

“Then Aññata Koṇḍañña, who had seen and reached and found and penetrated the Dhamma, whose uncertainties were left behind, whose doubts had vanished, who had gained perfect confidence and become independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation (My Comment: i.e., became a Sōtapanna), said to the Blessed One: “Blessed One, I wish to go forth under the Blessed One and to receive the full admission?”

“Come, bhikkhu” the Blessed One said, “The Dhamma is well proclaimed. Live the holy life for the complete ending of suffering.” And that was his full admission.

Then the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with talk on the Dhamma. As he did so, there arose in the venerable Vappa and the venerable Bhaddiya, the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma (My Comment: i.e., became Sotapannas). All that is subjected to arising is subjected to cessation. They too asked for and received the full admission.

These, having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, known dhamma … having attained without another’s help to full confidence in the teacher’s instruction, spoke thus to the Blessed One: “May we, Blessed One, receive the going forth in the Blessed One’s presence, may we receive ordination?”

Then living on the food they brought to him, the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with talk on the Dhamma. All six lived on the food brought back by the three of them. Then  there arose in the venerable Mahānāma and the venerable Assaji the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma (My Comment: i.e., became Sotapannas), and they too asked for and received the full admission”.

4. We can learn several important facts from the above account.

  • Only Ven. Koṇḍañña attained the Sōtapanna stage in the first round in the first night of the delivery of the sutta. It actually took several days for all five ascetics to attain the Sōtapanna stage.
  • Buddha actually did not just recite the sutta as it appears in the Tipitaka. That recital would have been finished within 15 minutes!
  • So, we can see that what is in the Tipitaka are HIGHLY CONDENSED summaries of those discourses and possibly many discussions.

5. What we see as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta today is a highly condensed version of the material that was taught by the Buddha over several days, as is clear from #3 above.

  • It appears that the Buddha himself summarized the material in each sutta in a short concise way to a limited number of verses that was suitable for oral transmission (easy to remember). A sutta is supposed to be explained in detail; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • We must remember that all the suttas in the Tipitaka were transmitted down several generations over about 500 years before it was written down. It was not even remotely possible to include all that was discussed over those several days!

6. What happens these days is that even highly condensed suttas are translated word-by-word into English. This is a very bad practice. It is no different from just reciting a sutta!

  • One can finish reading a sutta in 15 minutes, and ONE would not understand any of the deep concepts embedded in the sutta.
  • Then  how could one understand the sutta by just reading a word-by-word translation of a sutta?

7. In fact, this could be the reason for many people to believe that one can attain Nibbāna by just reciting a sutta or a set of verses. This practice is sometimes called “mantra chanting”. But there is no basis for that belief.

  • Nibbāna can be attained ONLY by cleansing one’s mind.
  • The MENTAL stress arises ONLY due to lobha, dosa, moha in one’s mind.
  • As one cleanses one’s mind, the mental stress will decrease. This decrease is gradual in the beginning. It will have significant drops at the Sōtapanna Anugāmi stage and then more drops at Sōtapanna, Sakadagami, Anāgāmi stages.
  • An Arahant does not have any mental stress. He/she may have physical suffering, but that also will end at death. No more physical or mental suffering!

8. Of course, there is a value in even chanting a sutta. They have been formulated in a format to “calm down the mind”, even if one did not understand the meaning; see, “Buddhist Chanting“.

  • It would be much better if one understood the basic message of the sutta.
  • One could get to the Sōtapanna stage ONLY BY fully understanding the concepts discussed in a major sutta like the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

9. A related key point is that upon attaining the Buddhahood, the Buddha wondered whether the humans will ever be able to understand the deep Dhamma he had just uncovered.

  • This is stated on p. 37 of this book. The Buddha was really doubtful whether humans will be able to comprehend his Dhamma, and Brahma Sahampati made an invitation to the Buddha saying that there are many beings in the world who can understand Buddha Dhamma. He would know, because he had become an Anāgāmi by listening to Dhamma by a previous Buddha.
  • So, the point is that if one thinks one can make progress on the Path by just chanting suttas or even learning the word-by-word translations, one would be very much mistaken.
  • In some cases, it can take a book to really do justice in explaining a single verse in some of the deep suttas!
  •  However, there are some long suttas, especially in the Digha Nikāya, that can be translated word-by-word for the most part, since there may not be any deep concepts discussed there.

10. Another good aspect of the book is that it provides the background for the delivery of some major suttas or verses.

  • For example, there is a detailed account (pp. 55-60) of how the Buddha had to perform even a few miracles to convince Uruvela Kassapa, his two brother, and 1000 of their followers before they agreed to listen to the Aditta Pariyaya Sutta or the Fire Sermon.
  • So, we can see that it was very difficult in those early days for the Buddha to even convince some of the ascetics who had their own beliefs of what Nibbāna was about.

11. The subsequent chapters provide a good chronological account of what happened until the Parinibbāna. One can get a sense of which major suttas were delivered at around what time.

  • There are accounts on the two chief disciples, and short accounts of other important personalities such as Anathpindika, Angulimāla, Visākha, etc. Chapter 7 describes the formation of the order of bhikkhunis.
  • Several encounters with the Māra Devaputta are scattered throughout the book.
  • There is one paragraph on p. 109 on how the Buddha visited the Tāvatimsa deva realm and delivered Abhidhamma. A summary was conveyed to Ven. Sariputta, who expanded it with the help of his students, to the form that we have today.
  • There is a chapter on Devadatta, which describes events that are not found in suttas. How he attained (anāriya) jhānās and iddhi (super-normal powers) powers. How he appeared on the lap of Prince Ajatasattu as a baby using his iddhi powers.
  • It provides a good account of Devadatta’s efforts to take the life of the Buddha, and how he lost all those super-normal powers and jhānās at the end.

12. There is a relatively long chapter on “The Doctrine”, including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Then, there is another relatively long chapter on the final year of the life of the Buddha including Parinibbāna.
  • The final chapter is on the First Buddhist Council (Sangāyanā) that took place 3 months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
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