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AN 8.53 The Dhamma in Brief

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  • AN 8.53 The Dhamma in Brief

    Dear Bhikkhus, welcome back from the rain retreat.

    In AN 8-53 the Buddha’s stepmother Mahapajapati Gotami asked the Buddha for a discourse on “The Dhamma in Brief.” The eight essential qualities of Dhamma highlighted by the Buddha are the things that lead
    (1) to dispassion, not to passion;
    (2) to detachment, not to bondage;
    (3) to dismantling, not to building up;
    (4) to fewness of desires, not to strong desires;
    (5) to contentment, not to non-contentment;
    (6) to solitude, not to company;
    (7) to the arousing of energy, not to laziness;
    (8) to being easy to support, not to being difficult to support,'

    As I reflected on this very brief sutta, several questions arise.

    [1] My immediate thoughts of salient features of Dhamma look quite different. e.g.

    • Conditioned Origination (Causality) – this is the single doctrine Ven Assaji chose to tell Ven. Sariputta at their famous first meeting, leading to Sariputta's stream-entry attainment.
    • Non-Creation (Atheist, No-Creator God, rejection of the First Cause, Beginning-less). From a “western perspective” this aspect separates Buddhism from all mono-theistic religions originated in the Middle-East and other Creationist religions elsewhere. Buddhism is a “self-help” & “self-reliant” teaching based on “non-self”.
    • Non-Self (Emptiness) – it is the unique insight of the Buddha that broke away from traditional Brahmin conception of liberation in terms of reunion of Brahma (big-self, original mind) and atman (small-self). Non-Self doctrine is shared by no other religion.
    • Jhana (meditation) – no other religions placed as much focus on systematic cultivation of higher levels of jhana absorption than the Buddha. It is a core piece of the Buddhist path to cultivate true wisdom.
    • Inward investigation and reflection (yoniso manasikāra). The way I see it: spirituality is about inward reflection rather than external practices; whereas religions focus on organized activities, rites and rituals, symbolism and buildings. Early Buddhism is spiritual rather than religious. Indeed the third fetter to break is about useless rites and rituals.

    Why didn’t the Buddha include any of these tenets in his Dhamma in Brief discourse to Gotami?

    [2] These eight qualities in AN 8-53 seem to focus on “monastic life-style.” Weren’t they also shared by most mendicants and ascetics in ancient India? Unless the words such as “dispassion” and “unfettered” carry different meaning or interpretation in Buddhism, how are these eight qualities unique signature of true dhamma?

    [3] How would these eight qualities be adopted by householders? Or perhaps they can’t be. How should a lay Buddhist learn from this sutta?

    For example:
    • Isn’t living in seclusion somewhat anti-social? (Not that there’s anything wrong with being “anti-social” and “non-gregarious.”)
    • A business always look for opportunity to grow and expand, not to contract and cut-back.

    Being “single” has always been subjected to legal social discrimination in most countries, including taxation and insurance premium. On the other hand, liberation and non-clinging are top objectives for all Buddhists. A good reason for solitude is to avoid bad karma in thought, speech and action during interaction with people. As the saying goes: familiarity breeds contempt. We are often more careless in speech and action towards close relatives, friends and co-workers. Many meditation retreats enforce strict “noble silence” to reduce chance of generating bad karma due to wrong speech.

    [4] Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed out the Buddha identified another eight pairs of qualities to develop at the very beginning of the Graduated Sayings. In AN 1-58 to AN 1-73, the qualities to abandon and to cultivate are:
    (58–59) Heedlessness vs. heedfulness; (60–61) Laziness vs. arousal of energy; (62–63) Strong desire (greatness of desires) vs. fewness of desires; (64–65) Non-contentment vs. contentment; (66–67) Careless attention vs. careful attention; (68–69) Lack of clear comprehension vs. clear comprehension; (70–71) Bad friendship vs. good friendship; (72–73) pursuit and non-pursuit.

    It is obvious that some of the qualities in AN 1.58 to 72 overlap with AN 8.53.

    “Careful attention” (yoniso manasikāra) and “good friendship” have always been taught as important factors to stream-entry. Good friends in dhamma has been named by both Ven Sariputta and Ven Ananda as the predominant factor to cultivate in a Buddhist’s spiritual path. “Clear comprehension” is a “twin” of “mindfulness”, thus very important.

    Which ones are more important? The overlapping items? Or the one that are not?

    With metta, Franz

  • #2
    Hi Franz,

    Understanding dependent arising, non self and such is what leads to real dispassion, detachment, fewness of desires etc. So those things are all included in the sutta in an indirect way. The same is true for jhanas. Many people think they know what dispassion or fewness of desires means, but these things are really the culmination of the path. That is to say, only an enlightened being has fully perfected them.

    What is translated as "dispassion" here also means "fading away". It means really losing ones desires, losing ones sense of self. Therefore these aspects, when developed in full, are really unique to the Buddha's message.

    Most suttas are addressed to monks and nuns. That is mostly because they had a system in place for reciting and remembering the teachings. Most teachings that were explicitly given to lay people probably got lost in time. At least, that is what I think has happened. As a result some teachings can't easily be reconciled with lay life. The more one understands the dhamma, the more one wants to live a monastic-style life. Seclusion and simplicity are natural results.

    With kindness!



    • #3
      teaching for the sekha

      Dear Bhikkhu Sunyo, thanks for your reply.

      I agree with your reading that AN 8.53 should be regarded as a teaching to the sekha (trainee), one who already attained the breakthrough to stream-entry.

      By this stage they would have broken the first three fetters, understood non-self, attained a firm grasp of Conditioned Origination (as the Buddha explained in SN 12-27, 28, 33, 49, 50), even if not yet perfectly. Already a stream-winner, Ven. Ananda still needed some extra instructions to fully understand Conditioned Origination (DN-15).

      Thus the seven points of "Dhamma in Brief" taught to Mahapajapati Gotami in AN 8.53 would not be understood and practiced the same way by the sādhus in ancient India, who were not following the Buddha's teachings. On the surface it might be hard to tell the difference though. Thus one cannot equate a true ascetics as anywhere near enlightenment, not by a long shot.

      Since a "sekha" can also be a householder, it is reasonable that they live "almost" like a monk or nun. i.e. they are no longer interested in sensory pleasures, their aim for liberation from rebirths is firm, they will seriously reorganize and simplify their affairs, they are no longer driven by passion for worldly gains, they learn to appreciate everything as "good enough", they prefer solitude and appreciate quietness, they gather energy from meditation and stillness, and they have accumulated sufficient means to live simply and carry no debt. In this manner, the life-style for all sekha, monastic or householder, will converge. So it should be encouraging and a good sign if we examine our own life-style and find some of the seven traits.

      For those of us not yet crossing the line to become a sekha, we rely on our conviction-faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Aryan-Sangha as the foundation of our practice, as the Buddha explained in the Fortress Sutta (AN 7.67/AN 7.63).

      With kindness, Franz



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