Two Important (but Rather Overlooked) Episodes in Human History

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Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta — Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion – Samyutta Nikaya 56.11
The End of the Buddha’s First Sermon

The Buddha’s First Sermon is a very important event in human history indeed – but fortunately it cannot be said to have been overlooked. In it the Buddha expounds the Middle Way and the Four Ennobling Truths (including the Eight-Step Ennobling Path).

However, it ends unexpectedly in several stages:

1) The Buddha’s disciple Kondañña became aware of Impermanence (Anicca): the principle that “Everything that has the nature of arising has the nature of ceasing.”

2) There was general rejoicing:
“the system of ten thousand worlds trembled and quaked and shook.
A boundless, sublime radiance surpassing the power of devas appeared on earth.”

That is how Hollywood or Bollywood would like the First Sermon to end: with a big production number giving ample scope for imaginative singing and dancing. But that is not how the First Sermon ends. Because after that:

3) When the trembling, quaking, and shaking (but not, perhaps, the sublime radiance) have subsided,
“Then the Blessed One made the utterance, ‘Truly, Kondañña has understood, Kondañña has understood.’
Thus it was the Venerable Kondañña got the name Kondañña the wise.”

The Buddha responds with dignified silence to the justified hullabaloo of rejoicing at his exposition of the Dhamma. But then he goes out of his way to commend – not once but twice – the achievement of real wisdom by a single real being. OK, the idea that Wisdom is even better than Cheering may not strike us as all that shocking nowadays. But never in human history has it been instantiated so vividly and poignantly as by the ending of the Buddha’s First Sermon.

In the light of this powerful example, it is not surprising that, even today, Theravada Buddhists all over the world praise the Dhamma by saying that it is “to be comprehended by the wise, each for himself.”

Upāli Sutta – Majjhima Nikāya 56
What About the Others ?

The English translation by Bhikkus Ñanamoli and Bodhi of The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha has been praised justly. It includes summaries of the suttas it contains. Sutta 56 is summarised as follows:

‘The wealthy and influential householder Upāli, a prominent supporter of the Jains, proposes to go to the Buddha and refute his doctrine. Instead, he finds himself (after considerable debate) converted by the Buddha’s “converting magic” : “I go to the Blessed One for refuge and to the Dhamma and to the Sangha of bhikkhus.”’

Then what? Then the Buddha says something mind-boggling:

“Householder, your family has long supported the Niganthas [the Jains – RI] and you should consider that alms should be given to them when they come.”

Oh Wow! Surely this is the time to put the boot in: “If you ever so much as speak to a Jain again, you’ll have me to answer to!” But that is not the Buddha’s way. And Upāli, clearly a man of discernment, is gladdened:

“Venerable sir, I am even more satisfied and pleased with the Blessed One for telling me that. Venerable sir, I have heard that the recluse Gotama says thus: ‘… Gifts should be given only to my disciples; gifts should not be given to others’ disciples.’ … But, on the contrary, the Blessed One encourages me to give gifts to the Niganthas.”

Yes, very multicultural. And I would rub it in even more were it not for my suspicion that the India of 2,400 or 2,500 years ago was even more hospitable to divergence of views than we are now.

The Buddha’s First Sermon ends admirably ; I am glad it was not truncated. But I rather wish the Upāli Sutta had ended here. However, it goes on — and the rest of the Sutta gets less cuddly. Having informed his doorkeeper that “From today on I close my doors to the Niganthas and the Niganthis [male and female Jains –RI],” Upāli advises the doorkeeper to say to any Jain who turns up, “Venerable sir, if you need alms, wait here ; they will bring it to you here.” Not the warmest of welcomes – but far from outright rejection. And as if that were not enough, since the Nigantha Nātaputta [Mahavira, the founder of today’s Jains — RI], “was unable to bear this honour done to the Blessed One, hot blood then and there gushed from his mouth.” Point taken ! But these are, after all, the Buddhist scriptures we are quoting from – not the Jain ones.

Today, of course, we would expect that the Buddha and Mahavira would embrace and agree that in essence their beliefs were the same. But I suspect that both the Buddha and Mahavira would have considered that demeaning. They knew they differed and asked only that their views should be heard, so that people could make up their minds for themselves. And that they and their disciples should not be killed for their beliefs.

That basic understanding of Difference without Destruction has remained part of Buddhism. Thus, the Edicts of the Emperor Ashoka (304 BCE – 232 BCE), the model Buddhist Monarch of Righteousness, specify that “All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.” [Rock Edict Nb7 (S. Dhammika)] and that “Contact [between religions] is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [aka Ashoka –RI], desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.” [Rock Edict Nb12 (S. Dhammika)]

But the original expression of this clear-eyed tolerance in the Upāli Sutta, unsparingly facing the conflict between real difference and real co-existence, remains our starting-point.

— essay contributed and copyright retained by Robert Ilson


  1. Doug Smith on August 27, 2018 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for this piece Robert. In a few weeks I’ll have a video out with a very similar theme to your part II! ?

    FWIW, Bhikkhu Bodhi believes that the Upāli sutta originally ended with Upāli’s gaining stream entry, and the later more polemical stuff was added afterwards. Not sure if that’s the consensus nowadays but anyway I think it makes some sense.

    • Robert Ilson on August 29, 2018 at 7:57 am

      Thank you for your comment, Doug. I look forward to your forthcoming video.

      I devoutly (literally) hope that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s conjecture is correct. Indeed, what our Christian colleagues call “Redemption” is for us as well as for them possible at any moment. And of course it is tempting to prefer a kinder version to a harsher one.

      But what is his evidence ? Can you or anyone else provide a reference ?

      Moreover, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s conjecture raises the wider question of the textual authenticity of the Tipitaka (as of other ancient works such as the Bible and the Koran).

      • Doug Smith on August 29, 2018 at 9:06 am

        Thanks Robert. Bhikkhu Bodhi made his claim in a lecture I listened to awhile back on this sutta. His argument such as it was is that the latter material sounds unlikely, particularly the stuff about vomiting blood and so on, and there is no way that the Buddha or any of his followers would have known about what went on among the Jains anyhow unless one relies on supernatural means such as the “divine ear”. While Bodhi is a traditionalist and does believe in things like the divine ear, it is notable that he thinks it not an adequate solution in this case.

        Generally speaking what historians of ancient written material have to do is work out how credible it all is and thereby to what extent it can be relied upon to provide an accurate picture of antiquity. Bhikkhus Bodhi, Anālayo, and Sujato have all said that some of the material in the suttas (not to mention the rest of the Tipitaka or the commentaries) is likely not authentic and should be discounted.

      • Mark Knickelbine on September 5, 2018 at 3:12 pm

        Robert, nice article!

        Your last point here is the salient one. All the scholar monks admit that not all of the sutta texts are “authentic” — typically when the texts either become outlandish or conflict with Theravadin orthodoxy. However, this raises the question of how innovation could be introduced into texts that were chanted communally for the express purpose of avoiding innovation. And could such innovation occur during the lifetimes of people who would have known what really happened? I have argued elsewhere that the longer and more formulaic the text, the later its origin; and given that the texts in Samyutta Nikaya, which are of moderate complexity, already mention events after Gotama’s death, it is likely that most of the texts in Majjima and Diga Nikaya were composed a significant time after Gotama’s death, at least in the form we have them now. As with the New Testament, we can only make the broadest inferences about how the canon jibes with what an historical Gotama may have taught, and parsing the texts too carefully tells us more about what 5th Century CE Theravadins thought than “what the Buddha really taught.”