Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)

Revised April 3, 2016;  May 6, 2017; November 27,2017; December 17, 2017; February 26, 2018; October 23, 2021; December 21, 2021

The Mahā­cat­tārīsa­ka Sutta (MN 117) discusses two eightfold paths: A mundane path that leads to rebirth in the “good realms” (at or above the human realm) and the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to Nibbāna.

1. All suttā in one way or another describe the Path to Nibbāna; there are many ways to analyze the Path.

  • In this sutta, the emphasis is on the 20 “good factors,” 10 leading to “good rebirths’ and ten leading to Nibbāna (Cooling Down of the mind). The negative 20 factors direct one away from Nibbāna (trapped in the four lowest realms or apāyā).

2. The Path to Nibbāna is sīla (virtue), samādhi (moral concentration), and paññā (wisdom).

  • Without some level of wisdom, one will not even start thinking about the Path. Some people, no matter how much they listen or read about the Buddha’s message, cannot see any benefit from it. Such people have no saṃsāric habit (“gati“) built up from past lives, and their minds are covered; this is the strong form of avijjā called mōha.
  • Therefore, without some level of wisdom (or paññā, not “book knowledge”), it is not possible to “see the Path.” When we talk about “seeing the Path,” it is not “seeing with the eyes”; it is “seeing with wisdom.”
  • The correct order is to start with sīla, samādhi, paññā in the mundane Eightfold Path. That helps one understand the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta.)
  • Then with that higher level of paññā, one can start on the Noble or Lokottara Eightfold Path. Thus, now the order is paññā, sīla, samādhi. That leads to Sammā Ñāna and Sammā Vimutti (Arahantship). These are the ten factors for Nibbāna. This is discussed in “Sīla, Samādhi, Pannā to Pannā, Sīla, Samādhi“.

3. There are four kinds of “seeing” that progressively attained in the following order: strong micchā diṭṭhi and engaging in pāpa kamma (people like serial killers), moral people with some types of miccā diṭṭhi (most people today belong to this category), after getting rid of 10 types of micchā diṭṭhi, and transcendental Sammā Diṭṭhi (comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta or vision for attaining Nibbāna).

When the mind is covered with defilements (when one has mōha), one is likely to believe in all or some of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi:

  • no benefits in giving
  • no benefits in fulfilling one’s responsibilities
  • respecting and making offerings to those with higher virtues has no merits
  • kamma or deeds do not have good and bad vipāka
  • this world does not exist
  • para loka or the world of gandhabba does not exist
  • father is not a special person
  • mother is not a special person.
  • no instantaneous (opapātika) births in other realms.
  • there are no samana brahmana (basically Ariyā or yogis) who have cultivated their minds to be free of defilements and thus can can see other realms and previous births

See, “Micca Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sotāpanna Stage,” and “Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Para Lōka)” for a discussion on para loka.

4. The ten wrong actions that contribute to one’s downfall (akusala kamma) RESULT FROM the above ten types of wrong views.

  • One is not likely to see the consequences of immoral thoughts and intentions (micchā saṅkappa) in 3 categories: sensual lust (kāmacchanda), ill-will (vyāpāda), violence (himsā).
  • Thus one will utter four types of micchā vācā or wrong speech: lying (musāvāda), slandering (pisunāvācā), harsh speech (pharusāvācā), and empty speech (samphappalāpa).
  • And one will engage in 3 types of immoral bodily actions (micchā kammaṃta): in killing living beings (pānātipātā), taking the not-given (adinnādānā), sexual misconduct and other extreme sensual activities  (kāmēsu micchācārā).

5. The more one does those ten defiled actions by the mind, speech, and body, the stronger one’s conviction of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi will become. Thus one will be trapped in a downward Path.

  • Thus one will be engaged in immoral livelihoods (micchā ājiva), make an effort in such activities (micchā vāyāma), build-up that mindset (micchā sati), and solidify that kind of mindset (micchā samādhi).
  • Those in turn will strengthen micchā diṭṭhi, micchā saṅkappa, micchā vācā, micchā kammaṃta.
  • And so it goes on and on, pushing one in a downward spiral.

6. Therefore, those two sets of 10 factors each will lead one in the wrong way towards unimaginable suffering in future lives, and it will be tough to break away from them.

  • Sometimes acts of occasional kindness or charity could open one’s mind to the truth. That is probably the reason for the order: sīla, samādhi, paññā. Even an occasional act of virtue (sīla) can get one oriented in the right direction.

7. As one removes more and more types of micchā diṭṭhi, one will start gaining Sammā Diṭṭhi, which means not having those ten types of micchā diṭṭhi.

  • With the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi removed, one starts comprehending the correct interpretations of anicca, dukkha, anatta. Of course, it will not help if anicca is interpreted as just “impermanence” and anatta as “no-self.”
  • It is just like taking medicine to cure a disease. If one is taking the wrong medication, no matter how long one takes it, that will not help.

8. So, the sutta explains that there are two types of Sammā Diṭṭhi: mundane (lōkiya), and with deeper insight (lōkottara).

Initially, one sees the perils of micchā diṭṭhi (and associated immoral acts), and starts turning to mundane Sammā Diṭṭhi: One sees that things happen for a reason, and one could get into bad situations and bad births by doing immoral acts. One is motivated to do moral deeds and to seek good rebirths. Now one does not have mōha, but just avijjā.

  • Thus one starts thinking moral thoughts (Sammā Saṅkappa), and abstain from immoral speech and deeds (Sammā Vācā and Sammā Kammanta).
  • Thus one will be engaged in moral livelihoods (Sammā ājiva), make an effort in such activities (Sammā Vāyāma), build-up that mindset (Sammā Sati), and solidify that kind of mindset (Sammā Samādhi).
  • These eight factors constitute the mundane Eightfold Path. One will be making progress towards “good rebirths.”

9. It is essential to realize that one on the mundane Eightfold Path will willfully abstain from the strong versions of dasa akusala. That would become automatic with comprehension of Tilakkhana in the  Noble Eightfold Path.

10. Then, some of those on the mundane Eightfold Path will start seeing the unique message of the Buddha, which says that one can NEVER find permanent happiness in this world (lōkiya).

  • Even if one makes sure to avoid the four lower realms (apāyā) in the next birth by following the mundane Eightfold Path, one will not be assured of anything in the births after that. Because we have no idea under what circumstances we will be born in the next life, even if it is human.
  • Of course, one needs to know the correct version of Tilakkhana.

11. As long as one has not attained the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna, it is inevitable that one is likely to be born in the apāyā in the future.

  • Thus, as long as we are born anywhere in these 31 realms, it will eventually lead to dukkha (suffering).
  • Thus it is unfruitful to strive for such mundane happiness as a human, dēva, or Brahma. In the long run, none of those births will provide permanent happiness. We cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction in the long run anywhere. That is the concept of anicca.
  • The concept of anatta: that there is no place in the whole wider world of 31 realms where one could find refuge.

12. The realization of these three characteristics (anicca, dukkha, anatta)  of this world (loka)  is the point at which one grasps the lōkottara Sammā Diṭṭhi.

  • Then one starts thinking moral thoughts (Sammā saṅkappa) on how to remove suffering FOREVER. Now one is not interested in merely seeking “good rebirths” because one realizes the futility of such efforts in the long term. This is lōkottara Sammā Saṅkappa.
  • One stops uttering immoral speech (and get to Sammā vācā) and abstain from immoral deeds (to Sammā kammaṃta) because one realizes that there is NO POINT in doing those things, not just because they lead to bad births. They are now lōkottara Sammā Vācā and lōkottara Sammā Kammanta.
  • These in turn will lead to lōkottara types of Sammā Ājiva, Sammā Vāyāma, Sammā Sati, and Sammā Samādhi.
  • These eight factors constitute the lōkottara Noble Eightfold Path that will take one progressively to stages of “higher cooling down” or Nibbāna starting with the Sōtapanna stage and ending in the Arahant stage.
  • Avijjā is gradually dispelled starting at the Sōtapanna stage and completely removed at the Arahant stage; simultaneously, wisdom (paññā) grows and becomes complete at the Arahant stage.

13. The uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma lies in the lōkottara Noble Eightfold Path. Other religions focus on “how to live a moral life,” which is more like the mundane Eightfold Path.

  • Buddha Dhamma says living a moral life is not enough to attain permanent happiness (because life in the heavens or Deva loka is not endless according to Buddha Dhamma). Ultimately, it requires relinquishing all desires for worldly things.
  • But the mindset to seek Nibbāna via “relinquishing all desires for worldly things” is not even possible until one makes progress on the mundane Noble Eightfold Path. The mind needs to be purified to some extent to comprehend Tilakkhana.
  • Through most of the recent past, the genuine lōkottara Noble Eightfold Path had been hidden together with the true nature of the world as described by the real meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta; most have been practicing the mundane Eightfold Path. It is easy for most people to connect with the mundane Eightfold Path simply because it is mundane, i.e., an average human is already comfortable with such concepts.
  • But as the Buddha said, his Dhamma “had never been heard before…”, as he emphasized in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu…“.

14. In summary, the forty factors are there because there are four pathways each with 10 outcomes. (i) Two types of wrong paths (one with 10 types of micchā diṭṭhi and another with strong micchā diṭṭhi with immoral behavior,) (ii) two types of “good paths” (one after getting rid of 10 types of micchā diṭṭhi and the next with starting to comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta).

  • The 10 outcomes in the Noble Path are: Sammā Diṭṭhi, Sammā Saṅkappa, Sammā Vācā, Sammā Kammanta, Sammā Ājiva, Sammā Vāyāma, Sammā Sati, Sammā Samādhi, Sammā Ñāna, and Sammā Vimutti (Arahantship).
  • Towards the end of the Buddha says, Iti kho, bhikkhave, aṭṭhaṅ­ga­saman­nā­gato sekkho, dasaṅ­ga­saman­nā­gato arahā hoti. “.  Translated:Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training ( Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi) possesses eight factors, and the Arahant possesses ten factors.”
  • The other three paths have corresponding ten outcomes, leading to good or bad results, but provide no permanent solution (of course, the bad ones lead to unimaginable suffering).

15. The Pāli version of the sutta — as well as translations in several languages — is available at Mahā­ Cat­tārīsa­ka Sutta.

  • However, those translations are not complete, as mentioned above. In particular, they do not discuss the distinction between the two types of Sammā Diṭṭhi, etc., and the two types of eightfold paths there.  That is because the translators themselves don’t understand the importance or the correct interpretation of Tilakkhana.

16. Finally, another way to analyze this step-by-step process is at: “Micca Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”

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