Recognizing the Dhamma: A Guide

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Shortly after her ordination, the Buddha’s step-mother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, asked him for a short Dhamma-instruction that would guide her in her solitary practice. He responded with eight principles for recognizing what qualifies as Dhamma and Vinaya, and what does not. The commentary tells us that after her instruction, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī in no long time became an arahant.

The eight principles have been widely cited ever since. One Thai writer has called them the “constitution of Buddhism,” as they form the standards against which the validity of any interpretation of the Dhamma or Vinaya must be judged. Perhaps the most important point that these principles make is that any teaching has to be judged by the results that come when putting it into practice. They are an excellent illustration of the teachings given in the wellknown Kālāma Sutta (AN 3:65), as well as in the teachings that the Buddha gave to his son, Rāhula (MN 61).

These eight principles can be divided into three groups as to the as to their focus. The first two—dispassion and being unfettered—focus of the final goal of the practice. Three principles—contentment, persistence, and shedding —focus on internal means to the goal. The remaining three— seclusion, modesty, and being unburdensome—focus on the impact one’s practice has on other people. In this way these principles foster a fully rounded perspective on how one’s practice should be judged.

The Canon illustrates these principles not only with abstract discussions but also with stories, and the stories are often more memorable than the discussions. Thus this study guide differs from its companions in that it is predominantly composed of stories. Bear in mind as you read the stories that they are often framed in somewhat extreme terms to drive their points home. Sister Subhā [§1.6], Kālī [§2.10], Prince Dīghāvu [§3.5], and the monk whose limbs are being removed by a saw [§2.10] would not be as memorable if their stories were framed in more realistic terms.

Also bear in mind that there is some overlap among the principles, and that a passage may illustrate more than one at a time. Thus, for instance, in the story of Ven. Isidatta [§2.11], his answer to Citta’s question analyzes the fetter of self-identity views, while his behavior illustrates the principles of modesty and non-entanglement.

The most extensive overlap is between the principle of dispassion and that of not being fettered, as passion in its various forms covers three of the ten fetters that bind a person to the round of rebirth. Thus the section on dispassion contains passages dealing with how to overcome the three “passion fetters”—sensual passion, passion for the sense of form experienced in the jhānas of form, and passion for the sense of formlessness experienced in the formless jhānas—whereas the section on being unfettered treats the remaining seven fetters.

For further reading, see the Udāna—a canonical text composed of stories with comments by the Buddha himself—which illustrates all eight of the principles listed here.

The Eight Principles

I have heard that at on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Vesālī, in the Peaked Roof Hall in the Great Forest.

Then Mahāpajāpati Gotamī went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, stood to one side. As she was standing there she said to him: “It would be good, venerable sir, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief such that, having heard the Dhamma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute.”

“Gotamī, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead:

to passion, not to dispassion;

to being fettered, not to being unfettered;

to accumulating, not to shedding;

to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty;

to discontent, not to contentment;

to entanglement, not to seclusion;

to laziness, not to aroused persistence;

to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome’:

You may categorically hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead:

to dispassion, not to passion;

to being unfettered, not to being fettered;

to shedding, not to accumulating;

to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;

to contentment, not to discontent;

to seclusion, not to entanglement;

to aroused persistence, not to laziness;

to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’:

You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī delighted at his words. — AN 8:53

Dispassion

  • 1.1 I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Gayā, at Gayā Head, with 1,000 monks. There he addressed the monks:

 

“Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion.

Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

“The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame….

“The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame….

“The tongue is aflame. flavors are aflame….

“The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame….

“The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

“Seeing thus, the instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the eye, disenchanted with forms, disenchanted with consciousness at the eye, disenchanted with contact at the eye. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye, experienced as pleasure, pain or neitherpleasure-nor-pain: With that, too, he grows disenchanted.

“He grows disenchanted with the ear….

“He grows disenchanted with the nose….

“He grows disenchanted with the tongue….

“He grows disenchanted with the body….

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About the Author Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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