At Naḷakapāna: Did the Buddha "Scheme to Deceive"?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture by jhana-expert Leigh Brasington where he brought up the Naḷakapāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 68; the linked translation is from Bhikkhuni Upalavanna, I use Ñaṇamoli/Bodhi). Brasington cited it as an example of where the Buddha may have opened the kimono a bit on some of his claimed supernormal insights.

In the Naḷakapāna Sutta, the Buddha asks the bhikkhus whether they “delight in the holy life”. They are silent, which to be fair may indicate assent. However, perhaps to emphasize the point to his younger disciples, he asks the venerable Anuruddha the same question. Since the Buddha is speaking to a “venerable”, senior monk, we should assume the lesson before us will be advanced rather than introductory. Anuruddha says they are happy. (4)

Then the Buddha’s questioning takes rather an extraordinary turn.

What do you think, Anuruddha? What purpose does the Tathāgata see that when a disciple has died, he declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place; so-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place’? (8)

Recall that the Buddha claimed that on the night of his enlightenment, during the middle watch, he came to the understanding of the kammic rebirth of all beings (MN 4, paras. 29-30). After that, when one of his disciples died, the Buddha would often say where and how he had been reborn. Now, he asks Anuruddha why he would make such assertions.

Anuruddha wisely replies that he would prefer that the Buddha give the answer.

The Buddha responds:

Anuruddha, it is not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people or for the purpose of flattering people or for the purpose of gain, honour, or renown, or with the thought, ‘Let people know me to be thus,’ that when a disciple has died, the Tathāgata declares his reappearance thus … Rather, it is because they are faithful clansmen inspired and gladdened by what is lofty, who when they hear that, direct their minds to such a state, and that leads to their welfare and happiness for a long time. (9)

In other words, the Buddha describes the rebirth of passed disciples in order to inspire remaining disciples to greater efforts on the path, and so in order to lead to their eventual happiness. (One assumes that these descriptions would be of uniformly ‘good’ rebirths).

Cynicism or charity?

What can we say about the Buddha’s response to Anuruddha? Several things come to mind.

First, it’s clear that the Buddha did say he knew of the kammic future lives of dead disciples.

But second, a skeptical, perhaps even a cynical, response might be: is the Buddha telling the truth? The Buddha’s question to Anuruddha comes out of the blue, as does his seemingly defensive claim that he has no intention of “scheming to deceive people”, and so on. At least as the sutta stands now, nobody has accused the Buddha of having such an intention. Perhaps the Buddha ‘doth protest too much’.

Likely there is some back story here that has been lost. Perhaps the Buddha asks this question because he believes that Anuruddha has such concerns. However this assumption is not open to verification, and so must remain hypothetical.

Perhaps the Buddha understands at some level that his assertions about the kammic futures of his disciples are less than entirely credible. Even if Anuruddha is not directly implicated, it is likely from this interaction that concerns were voiced by some of the more skeptical monastics, and it is at least conceivable that the Buddha shares them. (“Am I really deceiving myself? Well, at least I’m doing good for the remaining disciples, who are the ones that matter now.”)

Since the Buddha’s ethical system is based upon intention or volition rather than action, the intention with which the Buddha makes such assertions is paramount. Thus, “[I]t is not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people” that he makes such claims. In other words, his intention is not one of deception. His intention is to inspire and gladden. So he makes up happy stories to that end.

If this is what the Buddha means to say in this passage, it is an example of sophistry. If the Buddha in fact believes that he does not know the kammic futures of his deceased disciples, it is wrong speech for him to assert otherwise. (C.f., MN 41, para. 9).

What I have just described is an interesting and thought-provoking interpretation. It is not, however, one that is forced upon us by the sutta. Another interpretation is open to us: to take the Buddha more charitably. He in fact does not intend to deceive, because he does not believe he speaks falsely. Even so, however, there might have been some monks who believe he is attempting to ‘show off’ (“for the purpose of gain, honour or renown”).

It is also possible that some monks feel the Buddha shows a “flattering” favoritism to certain passed monastics, perhaps some of whom may have seemed less than entirely worthy to their “faithful clansmen”. This latter interpretation also makes sense of why the sutta opens with monks unwilling to assert their “delight in the holy life”: they are perturbed by claims of happy rebirth for one they feel undeserving.

It might even explain why some would say that the Buddha was making up his claims of supernormal insight.

What should we say?

Some may want to use the Naḷakapāna Sutta to find a Buddha who uses tall tales to inspire, rather than one who truly believes what he says about kammic rebirth. This is one possible reading of the sutta, which does make some sense of the defensive tone of the Buddha’s question to Anuruddha.

However such an interpretation is also less than completely charitable to the Buddha’s own words. It assumes he speaks intentional falsehoods, where such an assumption is not strictly forced upon us by the text.

My own view is that the Buddha is sincere. I do not believe he “schemes to deceive”. The question that opens the sutta is one of happiness, and the Buddha is here illustrating one skillful means he uses to bring such happiness to his monks. (Even if it is a means many of us would not find skillful today). Nevertheless, in his discussion with Anuruddha the Buddha reveals concerns and conflicts that likely would have been present in the early sangha: ones for which the Buddha also might have felt slightly defensive.

As a source for contemporary practice, of course, suttas will be repurposed to more modern ends. In so doing, though, we ought to be aware of the gap between text and purpose, and so do our refiguring openly rather than with any hidden scheme to deceive.