Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What was the Buddha? Awake! (sutra)

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly translation of the Dona Sutra (AN 4.36) based on Ven. Thanissaro (Geoffrey DeGraff), abbot of Wat Metta
The Buddha reclining into final nirvana, Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, Burma (Bas1953/flickr).
On one occasion the Blessed One was traveling on the road between Ukkattha and Setabya [in Kosala, near ancient Magadha].

The Buddha's feet (vanishingtattoo.com)
Dona the Brahmin was also traveling along the same road and saw in the Blessed One's footprints thousand-spoked wheels complete in all their features.

Seeing them, the thought occurred to Dona, "How amazing! How astonishing! These are not footprints of a human being!"
Then the Blessed One left the road and came to sit at the root of a tree -- legs crossed, body erect, mindfulness established in front of him. 

Wheels with 1,000 spokes (vanishingtattoo.com)
Dona followed the Blessed One's footprints and beheld him at the root of the tree inspiring confidence, with senses calmed, mind serene, secure in the utmost confidence and tranquility, tamed, with senses guarded, restrained, a great creature (naga 7).
  • "Naga" means "a great being," such as an elephant or a great, magical dragon. Buddhists adopted the term as an epithet for the Buddha and his arhat (fully enlightened) disciples.
Seeing [the Buddha], Dona approached and said, "Master, are you a celestial (deva)?"
  • Because Dona phrases this question in the future tense, it has led to a great deal of discussion as to what the entire dialogue means: Is he asking what the Buddha will be in a future life, or is he asking what he is now? The context of the discussion seems to demand the second alternative. Dona wants to know what kind of being has such amazing footprints. The Buddha's image of the lotus describes his present state, but the grammar of Dona's questions would seem to demand the first. A.K. Warder, in Introduction to Pali (p. 55), notes that the future tense is often used to express wonder, surprise, or perplexity about something in the present: "What might this be?" "What on earth is this?" This seems to be the sense of Dona's questions. Dona's earlier statement -- "These are not the footprints of a human being" -- is also phrased in the future tense. The mood of wonder extends throughout this conversation. It is also possible that the Buddha's answers, which are also phrased in the future tense, are a form of word-play. The Buddha may be using the future tense in both its meanings to refer both to his present and to his future state.
"No, Brahmin, I am not a celestial."
"Are you a messenger-angel (gandhabba)?"
"Are you a nature guardian (yakkha)?"
  • What is a yakkha? It is a class generally described as non-human beings (amanussā). They are mentioned with devas (shining ones, "angels"), rakkhasas (ogres, "demons"), dānavas (a name for the asuras, "titans," descendents of Danu), gandhabbas (messenger-angels, the lowest rank of celestials), kinnaras (avians, garudas, suparnas), and maho-ragas (royal bloodline nāgas, reptilians, or great creatures), for example in J.v.420. In other lists (e.g., PvA. 45, 55) they range immediately above the petas ("hungry ghosts"); in fact, some of the happier petas are called yakkhas. Elsewhere (e.g., A.ii.38) they rank, in progressive order, between human (manussā) and messenger-angel (gandhabbā). They are of many different kinds: spirits, ogres, dryads, ghosts, spooks. In early records, yakkha, like nāgā, is an appellative and is anything but depreciative; it is a compliment. Therefore, not only is Sakka, King of the Gods (Devas in two space worlds immediately above the human plane), so referred to (M.i.252; J.iv.4; DA.i.264), but even the Buddha is spoken of as a yakkha in poetic diction (M.i.386). Many gods (devas), such as Kakudha, are so addressed (S.i.54).
"Are you a human being?" 
"No, Brahmin, I am not a human being."
  • The Buddha not identifying himself as a human being relates to a point made throughout the Pali canon: An awakened/enlightened person cannot be defined in any way at all. On this point, see MN 72, SN 22.85, SN 22.86, and the article, "A Verb for Nirvana." Because a mind beset by clinging is "located" by its clinging, an fully awakened person takes no place in any world. This is why such a person is unsmeared by the world or sphere (loka) like the lotus unsmeared by muddy water
The Buddha's golden skin (MarmaladeToast)
"When asked, 'Are you a celestial?' you answer, 'No...' When asked, 'Are you a messenger-angel?' you answer, 'No...' When asked, 'Are you a nature guardian?' you answer, 'No...' When asked, 'Are you a human being?' you answer, 'No, Brahmin, I am not a human being.' Well then what sort of being are you?"
"Brahmin, the defilements by which -- if they were not abandoned -- I would be a celestial, those defilements are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions for development, not destined for future arising.

"The defilements by which -- if they were not abandoned -- I would be a messenger-angel... a nature guardian... a human being, those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions for development, not destined for future arising.
Mahayana in Malaysia (focusandsnap)
"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus -- born in [muddy] water, grown up in water, rising above water -- stands unsmeared by water, I, in the same way -- although born in the world and grown up in the world, have overcome the world and live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, Brahmin, as 'awakened.'
"The defilements by which I would go to a celestial state, or become a messenger-angel in heaven (space or the sky), or go to a nature guardian or human state, those have been uprooted by me, topped off, their stems removed. Like a blue lotus, rising unsmeared by water, unsmeared am I by the world. So, Brahmin, I am awake."

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