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Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Suttaṃ

(M.i.90)

The Lesser Discourse on the Mass of Suffering

Introduction

This is the fourteenth discourse in the Majjhimanikāya. It covers two important topics: the suffering involved in the pursuit of sensual pleasures, and the wrong view of the Nigaṇṭhā that past evil kamma can be annihilated by ascetic practices.

There is a common saying among meditation teachers, “No pain, no gain.” It is right, but this can easily be misunderstood to mean that pain is good for you, therefore it should be sought out by extreme practices like taking cold baths in the winter, or sitting through painful sensations at all costs. Pain should be observed to understand it’s true nature, not to make it go away. Just sitting and walking in meditation for many hours, without any special effort to inflict pain on oneself, will almost always lead to the arising of painful sensations, which can then be contemplated to gain insight knowledge. The Middle Path between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification is not an easy path for the lazy person, but neither is it one of self-torture.

The Translation

Thus have I heard — at one time the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans at Kapilavatthu, in the monastery of Nigrodha. Then Mahānāma the Sakyan approached the Blessed One; having approached, he paid homage, and sat down to one side. Setting there, Mahānāma the Sakyan said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, for a long time I have known the Dhamma taught by you — ‘Greed is a mental defilement, anger is a mental defilement, delusion is a mental defilement. Nevertheless, sometimes greed arises in my mind and persists, anger arises in my mind and persists, delusion arises in my mind and persists. Then it occurs to me, “What mental quality is not abandoned by me that greed, anger, and delusion sometimes arise and persist?”

“It is so, Mahānāma, that there is a mental quality not abandoned in yourself that greed, anger, and delusion arise and persist. Indeed, Mahānāma, if that mental quality was abandoned in yourself then you would not be living the household life enjoying sensual pleasures.

“Even though a noble disciple has seen clearly with wisdom: ‘Sensual pleasures give little satisfaction, but a lot of suffering, despair, and misery;’ if he has not attained to the rapture and bliss apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome mental states, or to something more peaceful than that; then he will still be tempted by sensual pleasures. However, if he has seen clearly with wisdom: ‘Sensual pleasures give little satisfaction, but a lot of suffering, despair, and misery;’ and has attained to the rapture and bliss apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome mental states, or to something more peaceful than that, then he will not be tempted by sensual pleasures.

“I too, Mahānāma, before my Enlightenment, when I was still a Bodhisatta, saw clearly with wisdom: ‘Sensual pleasures give little satisfaction, but a lot of suffering, despair, and misery;’ since I had not yet attained to the rapture and bliss apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome mental states, or to something more peaceful than that, then I was still tempted by sensual pleasures. However, Mahānāma, when I had seen clearly with wisdom that sensual pleasures give little satisfaction, but a lot of suffering, despair, and misery, and had attained to the rapture and bliss apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome mental states, or to to something more peaceful than that, then I was not tempted by sensual pleasures.

“And what, Mahānāma, is the satisfaction of sensual pleasures? There are these five strands of sensuality. What five? Sights cognisable by the eye that are pleasing, lovely, delightful, charming, and regarded with affection, connected with sensuality and provoking lust. Sounds cognisable by the ear … Odours cognisable by the nose … Flavours cognisable by the tongue … Touches cognisable by the body that are pleasing, lovely, delightful, charming, and regarded with affection, connected with sensuality and provoking lust. These are the five strands of sensuality, Mahānāma. Whatever pleasure and happiness, Mahānāma, arises dependent on these five strands of sensuality — this is the satisfaction of sensual pleasures.

“And what, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures? Here, Mahānāma, by means of whatever skill a clansman earns a living — whether as a secretary, clerk, accountant, farmer, merchant, herder, archer, soldier, or some other skill — he has to endure the contact of cold, heat, gad-flies, mosquitos, wind and sun, and creepy-crawlies and risk injury and death through hunger or thirst. This, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Mahānāma, if a clansman exerts, strives, and makes an effort, but does not gain any profit, he grieves, is weary, and laments, beating his breast, and bewildered: ‘My exertion was futile, my effort was fruitless.’ This, too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Mahānāma, if a clansman exerts, strives, makes an effort and gains wealth thereby, he experiences difficulty and sorrow in order to protect it — ‘How can my wealth not be taken by the king, nor by thieves, nor destroyed by fire or flood, nor wasted by unloved heirs?’ If his wealth is taken by kings, destroyed by fire or flood, or wasted by unloved heirs he grieves, is weary, and laments, beating his breast, and bewildered: ‘What I once had, I no longer have.’ This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Again, Mahānāma, with sensual desire as the root cause, sensual desire as the foundation, sensual desire as the reason, and only sensual desire as the basis, kings quarrel with kings, nobles quarrel with nobles, priests quarrel with priests, householders quarrel with householders, parents quarrel with their children, children quarrel with their parents, siblings quarrel with each other, and friends quarrel with friends. Due to those quarrels, disputes, and divisions, they attack each other with fists, stones, sticks, or weapons, leading to death or serious injury. This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Again, Mahānāma, with sensual desire as the root cause, sensual desire as the foundation, sensual desire as the reason, and only sensual desire as the basis, having taken swords and shields, bows and arrows, they engage in battle with arrows flying and swords slashing, and they are pierced by arrows or spears, and their heads are cut off, leading to death or serious injury. This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Again, Mahānāma, with sensual desire as the root cause, sensual desire as the foundation, sensual desire as the reason, and only sensual desire as the basis, having taken swords and shields, bows and arrows, they assail battlements and are sprayed with boiling cow dung and crushed with heavy weights, shot with arrows, and their heads cut off with swords. leading to death or serious injury. This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Again, Mahānāma, with sensual desire as the root cause, sensual desire as the foundation, sensual desire as the reason, and only sensual desire as the basis, men break into houses and plunder, commit burglary, ambush, adultery or rape. Having caught them, the king punishes them in various ways — flogging with whips, canes, or clubs, cutting off their hands or feet, or hands and feet, or ears, or nose, or ears and nose, subjected to the gruel-pot, the conch-shell polishing, Rāhu’s mouth, the wreath of fire, the hand torch, the grass-binding, the bark dress, the antelope, the meat-hooks, the coin-gouging, the caustic pickling, the bar turn, the straw foot stool, sprinkled with hot oil, being devoured by dogs, impaled on stakes, decapitated by swords, leading to death or serious injury. This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“Again, Mahānāma, with sensual desire as the root cause, sensual desire as the foundation, sensual desire as the reason, and only sensual desire as the basis, people engage in bodily, verbal, and mental misconduct. Having done bodily, verbal, and mental misconduct, on the breakup of the body after death they arise in a state of woe, in a bad destination, in hell. This too, Mahānāma, is the misery of sensual pleasures that is a mass of suffering visible here and now, which has sensual desire as its root cause, sensual desire as its foundation, sensual desire as its reason, and it is only sensual desire that is its basis.

“At one time, Mahānāma, I was dwelling at Rājagaha on Vultures’ Peak.¹ Then many Nigaṇṭhā were practising continuous standing at the Black Rock on the slopes of the Isigili mountain, rejecting seats, and were experiencing acute, severe, rough, and piercing painful, feelings. Then, Mahānāma, in the evening I arose from seclusion and approached the Nigaṇṭhā at the Black Rock on the slopes of Isigili mountain and said to them: ‘Friends, why are you rejecting seats, experiencing acute, severe, rough, and piercing painful feelings?’ When I had spoken, Mahānāma, those Nigaṇṭhā replied: ‘Friend, Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta is omniscient and all-seeing, he claims to have complete knowledge and vision thus: “When I am walking, standing, sleeping, awake, complete and continuous knowledge and vision arise in me.” He says — “There are, Nigaṇṭhā, evil actions ² done formerly that are annihilated by this piercing austerity, and being here and now restrained in body, speech, and mind there is no evil action for the future; thus with the destruction of former actions and not doing any new actions there is the destruction of actions. With the destruction of actions there is the destruction of suffering, with the destruction of suffering there is the destruction of painful feelings, and with the destruction of feelings all suffering will be annihilated.” This we approve of and accept and we are satisfied with it.’

“When this was said, Mahānāma, I said to those Nigaṇṭhā: ‘Friends, do you know whether you existed or did not exist in the past?’ ‘No friend.’ ‘Do you know whether or not you did evil actions in the past?’ ‘No friend.’ ‘Do you know that you did this or that evil action in the past?’ ‘Do you know how much suffering has been annihilated or how much remains to be annihilated before all suffering is annihilated?’ ‘No friend.’ ‘Do you know friends how to abandon unwholesome states here and now, or how to arouse wholesome states?’ ‘No friend.’

“Thus it seems, friends, that you do not know whether you existed or did not exist in the past, you do not know whether or not you did evil actions in the past, you do not know whether you did this or that evil action in the past, you do not know how much suffering has been annihilated, nor how much remains to be annihilated before all suffering is annihilated, and you do not know how to abandon unwholesome states here and now, nor how to arise wholesome states. This being so, friends, it seems that whoever in the world are cruel, bloody-handed, evil doers, when they are reborn as human beings they go forth among the Jains.”

“It is not so, friend Gotama, bliss ³ is not attained through pleasure, bliss is attained through pain, for if bliss could be attained through pleasure King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha would attain bliss, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha would dwell in bliss more than the Venerable Gotama.”

“Surely, friends, these words have been uttered hastily and without due reflection — ‘If bliss could be attained through pleasure King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha would attain bliss, King Seniya Bimbisāra ⁴ of Māgadha would dwell in bliss more than the Venerable Gotama.’ I should be questioned about this — ‘Who dwells in bliss more, King Seniya Bimbisāra or the Venerable Gotama?’

“Certainly, friend Gotama, we uttered these words hastily and without due reflection … However, put that aside. We now ask the Venerable Gotama who dwells in bliss more, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha or the Venerable Gotama?”

“Then, friends, I will answer that with further questions, please reply as you wish. What do you think, friends, is King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha able to abide in bliss for seven days and nights consecutively without moving his body or uttering any speech?”

“No, indeed, friend.”

“What do you think, friends, is King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha able to abide in bliss for six … five … four … three … two … even for one day and night consecutively without moving his body or uttering any speech?”

“No, indeed, friend.”

“I, friends, am able to abide in bliss for one day and night … for two days and nights … three … four … five … six … seven days and nights. What do you think, friends, that being so, who dwells in bliss more, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha, or me?”

“That being so, the Venerable Gotama abides in bliss more than King Seniya Bimbisāra of Māgadha.”  ⁵

Thus said the Blessed One. Mahānāma the Sakyan was satisfied and delighted in what the Blessed One had said.

Notes:

1. I was unable to find the reference, but a similar discussion with the Nigaṇṭhā can be found in the Devadaha Sutta, Majjhimanikāya Sutta 101, M.ii.214.

2. The Pāḷi text say pāpakammaṃ, but the Nigaṇṭhā had a different conception of kamma, not as volition, but as action. See the Upāli Sutta.

3. Bliss (sukhaṃ) and happiness use the same word in Pāḷi, but the pursuit of sensual happiness is an ignoble aim. Those gone forth were pursuing something higher than the happiness enjoyed by lay people. I have thus translated this more noble happiness as bliss.

4. King Bimbisāra’s residence was at Rājagaha, and the Black Rock on Isigili mountain and Vultures’ Peak were outside Rājagaha. The Buddha spent the first Rains at Saranath with his first five disciples, and then proceeded to Rājagaha, as he had promised King Bimbisāra that he would return when he had gained liberation to share his knowledge with him. This meeting with the Nigaṇṭhā would most likely have been within the first five years of the dispensation, after which the Buddha returned to Kapilavattha where this current discourse was taught.

5. Although the Nigaṇṭhā were polite, and acknowledged the truth of the words spoken by the Blessed One, there is nothing in this account that they were satisfied and delighted with what he had said. The account ends there, and it is only Mahānāma who expresses his appreciation. Unfortunately, Mahānāma did not request the going-forth. He was an exemplary lay-disciple and a Stream-winner, but not free from pride due to his high caste and close relationship to the Buddha. He died by commiting suicide rather than dining together with his own grandson, Viṭaṭūbha, the son of a slave-woman that Mahānāma had had an affair with while young.

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