Sutta Learning Sequence for the Present Day

November 30, 2016

1. In this important post, I point out that it is better to study suttas in the order that is the reverse of the time sequence of sutta delivery by the Buddha.

  • As I discussed in the post, “Animisa Locana Bodhi Poojawa – A Prelude to Acts of Gratitude“, the Buddha spent the first few years of his ministry “paying back” those those who had helped him attain the Buddhahood through numerous previous lives.
  • Those — ranging from the five ascetics to whom the Buddha delivered the first desana to King Suddhodana (his father) in the fifth year after attaining the Buddhahood, and others — had fulfilled most of the requirements to attain the Arahanthood in previous lives: They were “ready” to attain the Arahantship and were able to comprehend the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) fairly quickly.

2. Grasping the Tilakkhana is not easy for a normal human being. It is completed in many, many lives. In a given Buddha Säsana (ministry), those who have fulfilled most of the requirements in previous lives attain Arahanthood first, without much effort. For example, the two chief disciples, Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Moggallana, attained the Sotapanna stage just by listening to a single verse, and then attained the Arahanthood within two weeks.

  • Therefore, those desanas that were delivered in the first several years were “deep” desana that could only be comprehended by those who had the background to do so.
  • The first desana, Dhammacappavattana Sutta, was a summary of the “Buddhist doctrine” to put in terms of modern terminology. The second desana was on the anatta nature of the world, Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. The “fire sermon” (Adittapariyaya Sutta) was on the “burning nature” of this world of 31 realms, where “burning” refers to “thäpa” or “heat in the mind”. This “thäpa” was actually discussed later in the Maha Sataipattana Sutta; see, “Satipattana Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“.
  • Even during the time of the Buddha, even though a large number of people (who were ready) attained magga phala within the first few years, in the latter years it took longer and longer for people to attain magga phala.  In the latter years, the Buddha delivered more and more discourses that were “less deep” and easier to grasp for those who were “less prepared”.
  • For example, Maha Cattarisika Sutta and Maha Satipattana Sutta (which were delivered later) provide detailed accounts of the process, starting with basic concepts. However, those basic concepts are not discussed adequately or have been simply mistranslated.
  • There are many suttas that clarify even more fundamental aspects.

3. All those “deep desanas” that were first delivered by the Buddha, are described in mundane and conventional terms in many modern translations, where the meanings of the Tilakkhana have been badly distorted.

  • Furthermore, understanding Tilakkhana requires some fundamental — and essential — material that was covered in later suttas by the Buddha.
  • I plan to discuss more of the “less deep” suttas in this section in the future. I realized this point only recently, while writing posts in the new “Living Dhamma” section.

4. As pointed out by Buddha, There are three types of people who are able to comprehend Tilakkhana, categorized according to their “inherent capabilities”. This has nothing to do with “book knowledge”, but has everything to do with one’s ingrained capabilities accumulated over many, many lives.

  • The first category is uggatitanna or “persons with high wisdom”; they could grasp concepts very easily. Then there are those that belong to the vipatitanna category, and they needed a bit more explanation to grasp the concepts. The third category is neyya; they need detailed explanations (i.e., patiniddesa)  to grasp a concept.
  • These categories are discussed in, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • These days — 2600 years into the Buddha Sasana of the Gotama Buddha — most people are in the third category of neyya. Therefore, it makes more sense for most people today to start at a more fundamental level and proceed to higher levels.
  • Trying to comprehend those “deep” suttas — without first grasping the material in the suttas that were delivered later in his life by the Buddha — is like trying to pass university entrance examination without having a good primary and high school education.

5. The “Living Dhamma” section was started to provide a systematic way to proceed to higher levels starting at a fundamental level. I highly recommend to everyone to start there.

  • If one is confident of the material in early posts in that section, they can proceed quickly to higher levels (later posts). Furthermore, if someone runs into difficulty at a later post, he/she can go backwards to earlier posts and clarify those points.
  • My goal is make the “Living Dhamma” section the centerpiece of this website. All other sections at the site will be referred to from that section as needed, and I will add posts to the other sections as the need arises.
  • During the time of the Buddha, he was able to see the capability of each person, and to deliver a desana of “right depth” to those who individually visited him. No one today has that capability, despite false claims by some. Therefore, each person needs to realize one’s own capabilities and deficiencies and strive accordingly.

6. There are hundreds of suttas in the Tipitaka that discuss key concepts at a basic level. It is quite unfortunate that even the Theravadins have set aside the Tipitaka and are using the Visuddhimagga of the Buddhaghosa as the “base”.

  • With the current revival of pure Dhamma in Sri Lanka — initiated by Ven. Waharaka Abhayaratanalankara Thero — the value of the Tipitaka is becoming clear.

7. In the “Sutta Interpretations” section, I plan to discuss some of those long-forgotten suttas that discuss key Pali terms that have been mistranslated and have been used blindly (and sparingly) for over thousand years. I will briefly mention some of those suttas below.

  • The Nibbana Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya clearly describes Nibbana as, “..ragakkhayo, dosakkhayo, mohakkhayo, idan vuccathi Nibbananthi“.
  • One does not need to examine deep concepts like sunyataWhat is Sunyata or Sunnata (Emptiness)?, even though those deeper meanings can be understood once the basic idea is understood.
  • That is why I emphasized this at the beginning of the Meditation section: 1. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. One can actually experience the “cooling down” as one gets rid of greed, hate, and ignorance (of the true nature of the world) from one’s mind.

8. Another key word is anicca, which has been incorrectly translated as “impermanence”. It is very easy to from the Icca Sutta (in the Samyutta Nikaya), that icca or the opposite of anicca has nothing do with “permanence”.

  • In the Sutta it is stated,

“..iccaya bandathi loko, icca vinayaya muccathi

iccaya vippahanena, sabban jindathi bandananthi“.

  • Which means, “the world is bound by icca (the perception that one can maintain what one desires to one’s liking), one needs to get rid of icca to become disentangled; by realizing anicca nature, one becomes free of all entanglements”.
  • Icca (pronounced ichchä) is a perception in one’s mind.

9. In the Dasakammapatha Sutta, it is clearly stated how people with similar gathi tend to associate with each other and thus make those gathi stronger.

10. In the Ginjakavasatha sutta  ( in the Samyutta Nikaya), Buddha tells Ven. Ananda that one can realize for oneself when one has attained the Sotapanna stage (i.e., that one is now free of the niraya (hell), free of the animal realm, free of the pretha realm, and free of the asura realm), and one can state that (even to others if that is beneficial to others) with confidence.

  • The deeper meaning of the five precepts are discussed in the Sikkapada vibhanaga in the Vibhangapakaranaya-2. This deeper meaning of the fifth precept, “surameraya majjapama dattana veramani…” is described as discussed in the post, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them“.

11. Many words associated with “san” are discussed in the Chulla Hasthi Padopama Sutta (in the Majjima Nikaya). Some of these words are discussed in the section on “san“, and in particular in the post, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

  • This is the first sutta that was delivered to King Denampiyathissa by Ven. Mahinda Thero.
  • Chulla (sometimes written as Cula) is for “small”. Hasthi is elephant. Padöpama comes from “pada” + “upamä“, or “from an example or simile”.  The simile is about a person who came to the wrong conclusion about the size of an elephant by just focusing on the size of the footprint on the ground left by that elephant.
  • This sutta explains how people come to wrong conclusions about a given key word by just taking in the “conventional” interpretation (for example, taking anicca to mean “impermanence” whereas the actual meaning of anicca much deeper).
  • I hope to discuss those and other “long forgotten” and/or misinterpreted suttas that help us understand basic concepts, before confidently tackling those deeper suttas that were delivered very early (right after attaining the Buddhahood) by the Buddha due to reasons discussed above.
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