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Potthapada Sutta

About Potthapada

Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
For free distribution only.

Translator's Introduction

This sutta portrays two modes by which the Buddha responded to the controversial issues of his day. The first mode -- illustrated by his contribution to the discussion on the ultimate cessation of perception -- was to adopt the terms of the discussion but to invest them with his own meanings, and then to try to direct the discussion to the practice leading to the cessation of suffering & stress. The second mode -- illustrated by his treatment of whether the cosmos is eternal, etc. -- was to declare the issues as unconducive to awakening, and to refuse to take a position on them.

Several other suttas -- such as MN 63, MN 72, and AN X.93 -- portray the Buddha and his disciples adopting the second mode. This sutta is unusual in its extended portrait of the Buddha's adopting the first. Many of the technical terms he uses here -- such as the perception of a refined truth, the peak of perception, the alert step-by step attainment of the ultimate cessation of perception, the acquisition of a self -- are found no where else in the Canon. At the end of the sutta, he describes them as "the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping at them." In other words, he picks them up for the purpose at hand and then lets them go. Thus they are not to be regarded as central to his teaching. Instead, they should be read as examples of his ability to adapt the language of his interlocutors to his own purposes. For this reason, this sutta is best read only after you have read other suttas and are familiar with the more central concepts of the Buddha's teachings.

Of particular interest here is the Buddha's treatment of the three "acquisitions of a self." The first -- the gross self -- refers to the ordinary, everyday sense of identifying with one's body. The latter two -- the mind-made acquisition and the formless acquisition -- refer to the sense of self that can be developed in meditation. The mind-made acquisition can result from an experience of the mind-made body -- the "astral body" -- that constitutes one of the powers that can be developed through concentration practice. The formless acquisition can result from any of the formless states of concentration -- such as an experience of infinite space, infinite consciousness, or nothingness. Although meditators, on experiencing these states, might assume that they have encountered their "true self," the Buddha is careful to note that these are acquisitions, and that they are no more one's true self than the body is. They are one's acquisition of a self only for the time that one identifies with them. The Buddha goes on to say that he teaches the Dhamma for the sake of abandoning every acquisition of a self "such that, when you practice it, defiling mental qualities will be abandoned, bright mental qualities will grow, and you will enter & remain in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for yourself in the here & now."


I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Now on that occasion Potthapada the wanderer, together with a large following of about 300 wanderers, had taken up residence in the debating hall near the Tinduka tree in the single-pavilion park of Queen Mallika. Then the Blessed One, early in the morning, taking his robes & bowl, entered Savatthi for alms. Then the thought occurred to him, "While it's still too early to go into Savatthi for alms, why don't I go to the debating hall near the Tinduka tree in the single-pavilion park of Queen Mallika to see Potthapada the wanderer?" So he went to the debating hall near the Tinduka tree in the single-pavilion park of Queen Mallika.

Now on that occasion Potthapada the wanderer was sitting with his large following of wanderers, all making a great noise & racket, discussing many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not. Then Potthapada the wanderer saw the Blessed One coming from afar, and on seeing him, hushed his following: "Be quiet, good sirs. Don't make any noise. Here comes the contemplative Gotama. He is fond of quietude and speaks in praise of quietude. Maybe, if he perceives our group as quiet, he will consider it worth his while to come our way." So the wanderers fell silent.

Then the Blessed One went to Potthapada, and Potthapada said to him, "Come, Blessed One. Welcome, Blessed One. It's been a long time since the Blessed One has gone out of his way to come here. Sit down, Blessed One. This seat has been prepared." So the Blessed One sat on the prepared seat. Potthapada, taking a lower seat, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "For what topic of conversation are you gathered together here? In the midst of what topic of conversation have you been interrupted?"

When this was said, Potthapada replied, "Never mind, lord, about the topic of conversation for which we have gathered here. It won't be difficult for the Blessed One to hear about that later. For the past few days a discussion has arisen among the many sects of priests & contemplatives gathered and sitting together in the debating hall, concerning the ultimate cessation of perception: 'How is there the ultimate cessation of perception?" With regard to this, some said, 'A person's perception arises and ceases without cause, without reason. When it arises, one is percipient. When it ceases, one is not percipient.' [1] That's how one group described the ultimate cessation of perception.

"Then someone else said, 'No, that's not how it is. Perception is a person's self, which comes and goes. When it comes, one is percipient. When it goes, one is not percipient.' That's how one group described the ultimate cessation of perception.

"Then someone else said, 'No, that's not how it is, for there are priests & contemplatives of great power, great potency. They draw perception in and out of a person. When they draw it in, one is percipient. When they draw it out, one is not percipient.' That's how one group described the ultimate cessation of perception.

"Then someone else said, 'No, that's not how it is, for there are devas of great power, great potency. They draw perception in and out of a person. When they draw it in, one is percipient. When they draw it out, one is not percipient.' That's how one group described the ultimate cessation of perception.

"Then the memory of the Blessed One arose within me: 'Ah, the Blessed One! Ah, the One Well-gone -- who surely is well-skilled in these matters.' The Blessed One is skilled and expert in the ultimate cessation of perception. So what, lord, is the ultimate cessation of perception?"

"In this regard, Potthapada, those priests & contemplatives who say that a person's perception arises & ceases without cause, without reason, are wrong from the very start. Why is that? Because a person's perception arises & ceases with a cause, with a reason. With training, one perception arises and with training another perception ceases. And what is that training?

"There is the case where a Tathagata appears in the world, worthy and rightly self-awakened. [as in DN 2] ...

"This is how a monk is consummate in virtue...

"Seeing that these five hindrances have been abandoned within him, he becomes glad. Glad, he becomes enraptured. Enraptured, his body grows tranquil. His body tranquil, he is sensitive to pleasure. Feeling pleasure, his mind becomes concentrated.

"Quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, the monk enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. His earlier perception of sensuality ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of seclusion. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of seclusion. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"Then, with the stilling of directed thought & evaluation, the monk enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation -- internal assurance. His earlier perception of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of seclusion ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of concentration. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of concentration. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"And then, with the fading of rapture, the monk remains in equanimity, mindful and alert, and physically sensitive of pleasure. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, 'Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.' His earlier perception of a refined truth of rapture & pleasure born of concentration ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of equanimity. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of equanimity. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"And then, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain -- as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress -- the monk enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. His earlier perception of a refined truth of equanimity ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of neither pleasure nor pain. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of neither pleasure nor pain. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"And then, with the complete transcending of perceptions of [physical] form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not heeding perceptions of diversity, thinking, 'Infinite space,' the monk enters & remains in the dimension of the infinitude of space. His earlier perception of a refined truth of neither pleasure nor pain ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of space. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of space. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"Then, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of space, thinking, 'Infinite consciousness,' the monk enters & remains in the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. His earlier perception of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of space ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases.

"Then there is the case where a monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, thinking, 'There is nothing,' enters & remains in the dimension of nothingness. His earlier perception of a refined truth of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness ceases, and on that occasion there is a perception of a refined truth of the dimension of nothingness. On that occasion he is one who is percipient of a refined truth of the dimension of nothingness. And thus it is that with training one perception arises and with training another perception ceases. [2]

"Now, when the monk is percipient of himself here, then from there to there, step by step, he touches the peak of perception. As he remains at the peak of perception, the thought occurs to him, 'Thinking is bad for me. Not thinking is better for me. If I were to think and will, this perception of mine would cease, and a grosser perception would appear. What if I were neither to think nor to will?' [3] So he neither thinks nor wills, and as he is neither thinking nor willing, that perception ceases [4] and another, grosser perception does not appear. He touches cessation. This, Potthapada, is how there is the alert [5] step-by step attainment of the ultimate cessation of perception.

"Now what do you think, Potthapada -- have you ever before heard of such an alert step-by step attainment of the ultimate cessation of perception?"

"No, lord. And here is how I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One: 'When the monk is percipient of himself here, then from there to there, step by step, he touches the peak of perception. As he remains at the peak of perception, the thought occurs to him, "Thinking is bad for me. Not thinking is better for me. If I were to think and will, this perception of mine would cease, and a grosser perception would appear. What if I were neither to think nor to will?" So he neither thinks nor wills, and as he is neither thinking nor willing, that perception ceases and another, grosser perception does not appear. He touches cessation. This, Potthapada, is how there is the alert step-by step attainment of the ultimate cessation of perception.'"

"That's right, Potthapada."

"But, lord, does the Blessed One describe one peak of perception or many peaks of perception?"

"Potthapada, I describe one peak of perception and many peaks of perception."

"And how does the Blessed One describe one peak of perception and many peaks of perception?"

"In whatever way one touches cessation, Potthpada, that's the way I describe the peak of perception. [6] That's how I describe one peak of perception and many peaks of perception."

"Now, lord, does perception arise first, and knowledge after; or does knowledge arise first, and perception after; or do perception & knowledge arise simultaneously?"

"Potthapada, perception arises first, and knowledge after. And the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception. One discerns, 'It's in dependence on this [7] that my knowledge has arisen.' Through this line of reasoning one can realize how perception arises first, and knowledge after, and how the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception."

"Now, lord, is perception a person's self, or is perception one thing and self another?"

"What self do you posit, Potthapada?"

"I posit a gross self, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents [earth, water, fire, and wind], feeding on physical food."

"Then, Potthapada, your self would be gross, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, feeding on physical food. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this gross self -- possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, and feeding on food -- one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."

"Then, lord, I posit a mind-made self complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties." [8]

"Then, Potthapada, your self would be mind-made, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this mind-made self -- complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties -- one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."

"Then, lord, I posit a formless self made of perception."

"Then, Potthapada, your self would be formless and made of perception. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this formless self made of perception, one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."

"Is it possible for me to know, lord, whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another?"

"Potthapada -- having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers -- it's hard for you to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another."

"Well then, lord, if -- having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers -- it's hard for me to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another, then is it the case that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"

"Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."

"Then is it the case that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"

"Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."

"Then is it the case that the cosmos is finite... the cosmos is infinite... the soul & the body are the same... the soul is one thing and the body another... after death a Tathagata exists... after death a Tathagata does not exist... after death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist... after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"

"Potthapada, I haven't expounded that after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."

"But why hasn't the Blessed One expounded these things?"

"Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don't lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I haven't expounded them."

"And what has the Blessed One expounded?"

"I have expounded that, 'This is stress'... 'This is the origination of stress'... 'This is the cessation of stress'... 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'

"And why has the Blessed One expounded these things?"

"Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I have expounded them."

"So it is, Blessed One. So it is, O One Well-gone. Well now, it's time for the Blessed One to do as he sees fit."

Then the Blessed One got up from his seat and left.

Not long after he had left, the wanderers, with sneering words, jeered at Potthapada the wanderer from all sides: "So, whatever the contemplative Gotama says, Sir Potthapada rejoices in his every word: 'So it is, Blessed One. So it is, O One Well-gone.' But we don't understand the contemplative Gotama as having taught any definite teaching as to whether the cosmos is infinite or the cosmos is finite or... whether after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist."

When this was said, Potthapada the wanderer replied to the wanderers, "I, too, don't understand the contemplative Gotama as having taught any definite teaching as to whether the cosmos is infinite or the cosmos is finite or... whether after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. But the contemplative Gotama describes a genuine, authentic, and accurate practice, grounded in the Dhamma and consonant with the Dhamma. And when a genuine, authentic, and accurate practice, grounded in the Dhamma and consonant with the Dhamma is being explained, why shouldn't a knowledgeable person such as myself rejoice in the well-spokenness of the contemplative Gotama's well-spoken words?"

Then two or three days later, Citta the elephant trainer's son and Potthapada the wanderer went to the Blessed One. On their arrival, Citta bowed down to the Blessed One and sat to one side, while Potthapada the wanderer greeted the Blessed One courteously. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: "The other day, not long after the Blessed One had left, the wanderers, with sneering words, jeered at me from all sides: 'So, whatever the contemplative Gotama says, Sir Potthapada rejoices in his every word: "So it is, Blessed One. So it is, O One Well-gone." But we don't understand the contemplative Gotama as having taught any definite teaching as to whether the cosmos is infinite or the cosmos is finite or... whether after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist.'

"When this was said, I replied to the wanderers, 'I, too, don't understand the contemplative Gotama as having taught any definite teaching as to whether the cosmos is infinite or the cosmos is finite or... whether after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. But the contemplative Gotama describes a genuine, authentic, and accurate practice, grounded in the Dhamma and consonant with the Dhamma. And when a genuine, authentic, and accurate practice, grounded in the Dhamma and consonant with the Dhamma is being explained, why shouldn't a knowledgeable person such as myself rejoice in the well-spokenness of the contemplative Gotama's well-spoken words?'"

[The Buddha:] "Potthapada, all those wanderers are blind and have no eyes. You alone among them have eyes. I have taught and declared some teachings to be definite, and some teachings to be indefinite. And what are the teachings that I have taught and declared to be indefinite? [The statement that] 'The cosmos is eternal' I have taught and declared to be an indefinite teachings. [The statement that] 'The cosmos is not eternal'... 'The cosmos is finite'... 'The cosmos is infinite'... 'The soul & the body are the same'... 'The soul is one thing and the body another'... 'After death a Tathagata exists'... 'After death a Tathagata does not exist'... 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist'... 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist' I have taught and declared to be an indefinite teaching. And why have I taught and declared these teachings to be indefinite? Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don't lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I have taught and declared them to be indefinite.

"And what have I taught and declared to be definite teachings? [The statement that] 'This is stress' I have taught and declared to be a definite teaching. [The statement that] 'This is the origination of stress'... 'This is the cessation of stress'... 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress' I have taught and declared to be a definite teaching. And why have I taught and declared these teachings to be definite? Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I have taught and declared them to be definite.

"There are some priests & contemplatives with a doctrine & view like this: 'After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease.' I approached them and asked them, 'Is it true that you have a doctrine & view like this: "After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease"?' When asked this, they replied, 'Yes.' So I asked them, 'But do you dwell having known or seen an exclusively happy world?' When asked this, they said, 'No.' So I asked them, 'But have you ever been aware of a self exclusively happy for a day or a night, or for half a day or half a night?' When asked this, they said, 'No.' So I asked them, 'But do you know that "This is the path, this is the practice for the realization of an exclusively happy world"?' When asked this, they said, 'No.' So I asked them, 'But have you heard the voices of devas reborn in an exclusively happy world, saying, "Practice well, my dears. Practice straightforwardly, my dears, for the realization of an exclusively happy world, because it was through such a practice that we ourselves have been reborn in an exclusively happy world"?' When asked this, they said, 'No.'

"So what do you think, Potthapada -- when this is the case, don't the words of those priests & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing?"

"Yes, lord. When this is the case, the words of those priests & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing."

"Potthapada, it's as if a man were to say, 'I'm in love with the most beautiful woman in this country,' and other people were to say to him, 'Well, my good man, this most beautiful woman in this country with whom you are in love: do you know if she's of the warrior caste, the priestly caste, the merchant caste, or the laborer caste?' and, when asked this, he would say, 'No.' Then they would say to him, 'Well then, do you know her name or clan name? Whether she's tall, short, or of medium height? Whether she's dark, fair, or ruddy-skinned? Do you know what village or town or city she's from?' When asked this, he would say, 'No.' Then they would say to him, 'So you've never known or seen the woman you're in love with?' When asked this, he would say, 'Yes.'

"So what do you think, Potthapada -- when this is the case, don't the words of that man turn out to be unconvincing?"

"Yes, lord..."

"In the same way, there are some priests & contemplatives with a doctrine & view like this: 'After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease.'... Don't the words of those priests & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing?"

"Yes, lord..."

"Potthapada, it's as if a man at a crossroads were to build a staircase for ascending to a palace, and other people were to say to him, 'Well, my good man, this palace for which you are building a staircase: do you know whether it's east, west, north, or south of here? Whether it's high, low, or in between?' and, when asked this, he would say, 'No.' Then they would say to him, 'So you don't know or see the palace for which you are building a staircase?' When asked this, he would say, 'Yes.'

"So what do you think, Potthapada -- when this is the case, don't the words of that man turn out to be unconvincing?"

"Yes, lord..."

"In the same way, there are some priests & contemplatives with a doctrine & view like this: 'After death, the self is exclusively happy and free from disease.'... Don't the words of those priests & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing?"

"Yes, lord. When this is the case, the words of those priests & contemplatives turn out to be unconvincing."

"Potthapada, there are these three acquisitions of a self: the gross acquisition of a self, the mind-made acquisition of a self, and the formless acquisition of a self. [9] And what is the gross acquisition of a self? Possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, feeding on physical food: this is the gross acquisition of a self. And what is the mind-made acquisition of a self? Possessed of form, mind-made, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties: this is the mind-made acquisition of a self. And what is the formless acquisition of a self? Formless and made of perception: this is the formless acquisition of a self.

"I teach the Dhamma for the abandoning of the gross acquisition of a self, such that, when you practice it, defiling mental qualities will be abandoned, bright mental qualities will grow, and you will enter & remain in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for yourself in the here & now. If the thought should occur to you that, when defiling mental qualities are abandoned and bright mental qualities have grown, and one enters & remains in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for oneself in the here & now, one's abiding is stressful/painful, you should not see it in that way. When defiling mental qualities are abandoned and bright mental qualities have grown, and one enters & remains in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for oneself in the here & now, there is joy, rapture, serenity, mindfulness, alertness, and a pleasant/happy abiding.

"I also teach the Dhamma for the abandoning of the mind-made acquisition of a self... for the abandoning of the formless acquisition of a self, such that, when you practice it, defiling mental qualities will be abandoned, bright mental qualities will grow, and you will enter & remain in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for yourself in the here & now... When defiling mental qualities are abandoned and bright mental qualities have grown, and one enters & remains in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for oneself in the here & now, there is joy, rapture, serenity, mindfulness, alertness, and a pleasant/happy abiding.

"In the past, I have been asked, 'What, friend, is the gross acquisition of a self for whose abandoning you teach the Dhamma such that, when you practice it, defiling mental qualities will be abandoned, bright mental qualities will grow, and you will enter & remain in the culmination & abundance of discernment, having known & realized it for yourself in the here & now?' When asked this, I would answer, 'This, friend, is that gross acquisition of a self for whose abandoning I teach the Dhamma...'

"In the past, I have been asked, 'What, friend, is the mind-made acquisition of a self... the formless acquisition of a self for whose abandoning you teach the Dhamma...?' When asked this, I would answer, 'This, friend, is that gross acquisition of a self for whose abandoning I teach the Dhamma...'

"What do you think, Potthapada. When this is the case, don't those words turn out to be convincing?"

"Yes, lord. When this is the case, those words turn out to be convincing."

"Potthapada, it's as if a man at a crossroads were to build a staircase for ascending to a palace, and other people were to say to him, 'Well, my good man, this palace for which you are building a staircase: do you know whether it's east, west, north, or south of here? Whether it's high, low, or in between?' He would say, 'This, friends, is the palace to which I am building a staircase. The staircase is right under the palace.'

"So what do you think, Potthapada -- when this is the case, don't the words of that man turn out to be convincing?"

"Yes, lord..."

"In the same way, in the past I have been asked, 'What, friend, is the gross acquisition of a self... the mind-made acquisition of a self... the formless acquisition of a self for whose abandoning you teach the Dhamma...?' When asked this, I would answer, 'This, friend, is that gross acquisition of a self for whose abandoning I teach the Dhamma...'

"What do you think, Potthapada. When this is the case, don't those words turn out to be convincing?"

"Yes, lord. When this is the case, those words turn out to be convincing."

When this was said, Citta the elephant trainer's son said to the Blessed One: "When there is a gross acquisition of a self, is it the case then that one's mind-made acquisition of a self and formless acquisition of a self are null & void, and only one's gross acquisition of a self is true? And when there is a mind-made acquisition of a self, is it the case then that one's gross acquisition of a self and formless acquisition of a self are null & void, and only one's mind-made acquisition of a self is true? And when there is a formless acquisition of a self, is it the case then that one's gross acquisition of a self and mind-made acquisition of a self are null & void, and only one's formless acquisition of a self is true?"

"Citta, when there is a gross acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a mind-made acquisition of a self or as a formless acquisition of a self. It's classified just as a gross acquisition of a self. When there is a mind-made acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a gross acquisition of a self or as a formless acquisition of a self. It's classified just as a mind-made acquisition of a self. When there is a formless acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a gross acquisition of a self or as a mind-made acquisition of a self. It is classified just as a formless acquisition of a self.

"Suppose they were to ask you: 'Did you exist in the past? Did you not not exist? Will you exist in the future? Will you not not exist? Do you exist now? Do you not not exist?' Thus asked, how would you answer?"

"... Thus asked, lord, I would answer: 'I existed in the past. I did not not exist. I will exist in the future. I will not not exist. I exist now. I do not not exist.'... That's how I would answer."

"Suppose, Citta, they were to ask you: 'Whatever your past acquisition of a self: Is that alone your true acquisition of self, while the future & present ones are null & void? Whatever your future acquisition of a self: Is that alone your true acquisition of a self, while the past & present ones are null & void? Whatever your present acquisition of a self: Is that alone your true acquisition of a self, while the past & future ones are null & void?' Thus asked, how would you answer?"

"...Thus asked, lord, I would answer: 'Whatever my past acquisition of a self: on that occasion, that alone was my true acquisition of a self, while future & present ones were null & void. Whatever my future acquisition of a self: on that occasion, that alone will be my true acquisition of a self, while the past & present ones will be null & void. Whatever my present acquisition of a self: on that occasion, that alone is my true acquisition of a self, while the past & future ones are null & void.

"In the same way, Citta, when there is a gross acquisition of a self... it's classified just as a gross acquisition of a self. When there is a mind-made acquisition of a self... When there is a formless acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a gross acquisition of a self or as a mind-made acquisition of a self. It's classified just as a formless acquisition of a self.

"Just as when milk comes from a cow, curds from milk, butter from curds, ghee from butter, and the skimmings of ghee from ghee. When there is milk, it's not classified as curds, butter, ghee, or skimmings of ghee. It's classified just as milk. When there are curds... When there is butter... When there is ghee... When there are the skimmings of ghee, they're not classified as milk, curds, butter, or ghee. They're classified just as the skimmings of ghee.

"In the same way, when there is a gross acquisition of a self... it's classified just as a gross acquisition of a self. When there is a mind-made acquisition of a self... When there is a formless acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a gross acquisition of a self or as a mind-made acquisition of a self. It's classified just as a formless acquisition of a self.

"Citta, these are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them." [10]

When this was said, Potthapada the wanderer said to the Blessed One: "Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama -- through many lines of reasoning -- made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life."

But Citta the elephant trainer's son said to the Blessed One: "Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned... in the same way has Master Gotama -- through many lines of reasoning -- made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. Let me obtain the Going Forth in the Blessed One's presence! Let me obtain Acceptance!"

So Citta the elephant trainer's son obtained the Going Forth in the Blessed One's presence; he obtained Acceptance. And not long after his Acceptance -- dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute -- he in no long time reached & remained in the supreme goal of the holy life, for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for himself in the here & now. He knew: "Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world." And thus Ven. Elephant-trainer's Son [11] became another one of the Arahants.

Footnotes

1. Non-percipient (asaii): This term is sometimes translated as "unconscious," but because the Buddha is so strict throughout this sutta in referring to saaa as it functions in other suttas -- as "perception," i.e., the labels one attaches to experience -- translating asaii as "unconscious" creates needless confusion, especially as some readers might assume that the term would mean the absence of viaa.na. An asaii person might better be conceived as one in a mentally blank state.

2. The discussion does not include the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception because the topic here is perception and, as AN IX.36 points out, the dimension of nothingness is the highest perception-attainment.

3. See MN 140.

4. Maurice Walshe, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha (LDB), mistakenly has "arises" here.

5. LDB omits "alert" here. (There are many other mistakes in the LDB translation of this sutta, but as it would be tedious to note them all, I am noting only these two, to alert the reader to the fact that the sloppiness that unfortunately mars much of LDB is particularly evident in its translation of this sutta.)

6. As AN IX.36 points out, one can attain cessation based on any of the levels of jhana. Thus, although the specific level from which cessation is attained might differ from person to person, its role in functioning as the basis for cessation is the same in every person's Awakening.

7. According to the Commentary, the word "this" here refers to the perception characterizing the level of jhana from which one attained the knowledge of cessation.

8. See the section on the mind-made body in DN 2.

9. Acquisition of a self (atta-pa.tilaabho): According to the Commentary, this refers to the acquisition of an individual identity (attabhaava-pa.tilaabho) on any of the three levels of becoming: the sensual level, the level of form, and the formless level. The term attabhaava-pa.tilaabho is used in a number of suttas -- among them AN IV.192 -- where it definitely refers to the type of identity one assumes on experiencing rebirth in a particular level of being. However, there are two reasons for not following the Commentary's equation of atta-pa.tilaabho with attabhaava-pa.tilaabho. (1) As AN IV.72 makes clear, there is a type of attabhaava-pa.tilaabho -- rebirth in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception -- that would not be covered by any of the three types of acquisition of a self mentioned in this sutta. Thus the Buddha seems to be limiting his discussion here to the alternative selves posited by Potthapada. (2) In a later passage in this sutta, the Buddha refers to the acquisition of a self as something he can point to directly in his listeners' immediate range of experience. Thus the term would seem to refer to the sense of self one can attain as a result of different levels of experience in meditation here and now.

10. The Commentary takes this is as the Buddha's affirmation of the idea -- which in later centuries became current in all schools of Buddhism -- that he spoke truth on two levels: conventional and ultimate. In context, though, the Buddha seems to be referring merely to the fact that he has adopted the linguistic usages of his interlocutors simply for the sake of discussion, and that they should not be interpreted out of context.

11. Mv.I.74 indicates that it was considered a sign of respect to refer to a monk by his clan name.

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