Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The "Great Assembly" Sutra

Text: Susan Elbaum Jootla (Maha Samaya Sutra, DN 20) WQ edit

The "Discourse on the Great Assembly" is the most stunning illustration of advanced beings coming to the human plane expressly to see the Buddha along with the arahants. This "mighty gathering" took place when the Buddha returned to the land of his ancestors, near Kapilavatthu. (It is disputed whether this region is located in modern Nepal or Afghanistan, as Ranajit Pal argues, both of which were part of greater ancient India; see more at the Lumbini controversy).

A large number of recently ordained monastics, from the Sakyan and Koliyan clans, came to the Buddha to declare their attainment of enlightenment. Devas from many thousands of world-systems approached to observe the occasion.

Four brahmas from the Pure Abodes, noticing that devas had gathered in the Great Wood to see the Buddha and a group of enlightened disciples, decided to visit too. They assumed grosser form, appeared before the Buddha, saluted him, and stood respectfully to one side. The first announced why they had come:

"Great is the assembly in the forest here, the devas have met
And we are here to see the unconquered Sangha."

Although "Sangha" can refer either to the community of ordained disciples or to all noble disciples, the adjective "unconquered" implies that the brahmas were admiring the enlightened disciples led by the Buddha.

The second brahma said:

"The ordained disciples with concentrated minds are straight:
They guard their senses as the driver does his reins."

The third brahma used additional similes to describe the achievement of arahants:

"Bars and barriers broken, the threshold-stone of lust torn up,
Unstained the spotless seers go, like well-trained elephants."

The fourth brahma spoke these lines:

"Who [goes for guidance to] the Buddha, no downward path will go:
Having left the body one will join the deva hosts." (DN 20.3)

This brahma knew that anyone who has genuine faith in the Buddha will not create unskillful karma that could lead to a lower plane of existence. That is how "taking refuge" in (going for guidance to) the Buddha assures individuals of a deva birth, not some magical power of his.

The Buddha then told the disciples that devas and brahmas from surrounding world-systems frequently come to see him and the Sangha. It is not Siddhartha Gautama the Sakyan prince they come to honor, but Gautama the Buddha and the community of noble ones. The Buddha indicates that this is a general rule. Wise deities and divinities used to come to see past buddhas and will do the same for future ones as well.

Then, so the disciples could learn their identities, the Buddha announced the names of the groups of devas and brahmas as they presented themselves before him. The list included earth-bound devas, the Four Great Kings with their retinues, asuras, Sakka, residents of the Tusita and Yama planes, occupants of the sun and moon, denizens of the two highest deva planes, and Maha Brahma "shining bright with all of this [sexless] being's retinue." The Buddha related that the devas were saying:

"One who's transcended birth, one for whom
No obstacle remains, who's crossed the flood,
Cankerless, we'll see, the Mighty One,
Traversing free without transgression, as
Tthe moon that passes through clouds." (DN 20.19)

This discourse illustrates another aspect of the relationship between the Buddha -- the "supreme teacher" -- and heavenly beings. Some of them only yearn for an audience so they can express their confidence in him, acclaiming him in public.

At pivotal moments in the Buddha's career, various deities often played supporting roles. We read of devas showing respect at these turning points, helping him to overcome obstacles, and frequently proclaiming his feats far and wide.

--Excerpt from Teacher of the Devas (pp. 40-43), published by Buddhist Publication Society, available through accesstoinsight.org