The Susima Sutta offers a concise statement as to how enlightenment
can happen through understanding, study, and inquiry. The Susima Sutta,
from the Book Of The Kindred Sayings even suggests that inquiry
and understanding constitute the best means for attaining enlightenment.
For this reason, the Susima Sutta offers support for the liberative
value of Dharma Study; not just as an adjunct to meditation, but as having
value in itself and as a form of meditation.
Thus have I heard: The Exalted One was once staying at Rajagriha in the
Bamboo Grove at the Squirrels' Feedingground.
The Buddha at the time of this encounter stayed at a park in the city of
Rajagriha, in northern india, a city he visited often.
Now at that time the Exalted One was honored, revered, beloved, ministered
unto and reverently welcomed; and he was obtaining supplies of the requisites
for clothing, sustenance, lodging and medicaments. This was also true of
the Order of the brethren. But the heretical Wanderers were unhonored,
unrevered, not beloved nor ministered unto, not reverently welcomed nor
obtaining supplies of the requisites for clothing, sustenance, lodging
At the time of the Buddha there lived many significant spiritual teachers.
The Buddha himself studied under a number of them. Most of these teachers
developed a following. Most of them also followed a similar pattern already
in place in india from ancient times; that of becoming an ascetic wanderer,
living off the alms that people would provide them. Most of these teachers
and their followers gave talks on a regular basis and developed a following
among lay people who would support the wandering ascetics.
Inevitably there existed some competition for patronage. Lay people who
identified with a particular teacher felt inclined to give alms to the
followers of their teacher, and would often feel disinclined to provide
alms for those they did not follow. The Buddha was a very successful teacher
and quickly developed a large following. Some of his following consisted
of converts from other teachers and spiritual paths. This would mean that
those in the other spiritual paths who also followed this pattern of wandering
asceticism, that depended upon alms from lay people, would find it more
difficult to live this life of wandering asceticism. I suspect that as
the Buddha's following grew, some people became attracted to his order
because they regarded his order and following as a steady source of alms;
the particular teaching of the Buddha became secondary for such people.
The sutra sets up the situation so that we understand that at least some
groups of spiritual seekers, following that pattern of ancient india, that
pattern of the wandering ascetic, were experiencing difficulties in obtaining
the alms upon which they depended. The translation terms these people "heretical",
but I would suggest that this word does not have the strident character
that it has in a western religious context. Here it simply means those
who did not agree with the Buddha's teachings. I think of it as almost
a synonym for "non-Buddhist", but it does not have the energy behind it
of malevolence that the use of the term often has when used in a western
Now at that time Susima the Wanderer was dwelling at Rajagriha with a great
company of Wanderers. And that company spoke thus to Susima the Wanderer:
"Come, friend Susima, live you the divine life under the recluse Gotama.
When you have learnt his Norm you will tell it to us. When we have learnt
that Norm we will preach it to the laity. Thus shall we become honored,
revered, beloved, ministered unto and reverently welcomed, and we shall
obtain supplies of the requisites for clothing, sustenance, lodging and
The four types of donation (clothing, sustenance [or food], lodging and
medicaments [or medicine]), constitute the four traditional types of donations
acceptable to a wandering ascetic. A wandering ascetic would not accept
money, jewels, a job, housing, or anything else outside of the range of
these four basics. That rule still functions in traditional Buddhist communities
The situation we have depicted here shows us a group of wandering ascetics
who can not, for whatever reason, even acquire these basic necessities
from those inclined to give alms. They therefore hatch a plan; to send
one of their group to the Buddha, a popular teacher, so that they can learn
the "pitch", and thereby acquire the means for getting donations and alms
from lay people. This is, of course, a questionable motive. We should keep
this in mind as we continue with this sutta.
"Even so, friends!" responded Susima the Wanderer to his company, and he
went into the presence of the venerable Ananda, greeted him and exchanged
the compliments of courtesy and friendship and sat down at one side.
Susima considers this suggestion from his friends a good idea. Maybe he
feels real hungry or needs a new robe. In any case, he immediately agrees
to approach the buddhist community on this basis of deception.
So seated, Susima the Wanderer spoke thus to the venerable Ananda: "I desire,
friend Ananda, to live the divine life under this Norm and Discipline."
Susima approaches Ananda, one of the Buddha's closest disciples. Ananda
was the Buddha's cousin and close companion. I don't know if Susima knew
this, but probably Susima could quickly spot that Ananda had easy access
to the Buddha.
Susima tells Ananda that he wants to join the community and live a life
based on the "Norm" of buddhism. I take the word "norm" here to mean "Dharma",
meaning a life based on the basic, central insights of the Buddha. The
"Discipline" refers to the vinaya, or the monastic code of regulations
that govern a monk's or nun's life.
Then the venerable Ananda took Susima the Wanderer into the presence of
the Exalted One, and saluting him sat down at one side. So seated, the
venerable Ananda said to the Exalted One: "Lord, this is Susima the Wanderer.
He has said thus: `I desire, friend Ananda, to live the divine life under
this Norm and Discipline.'"
"Well then, Ananda, ordain Susima."
So Susima the Wanderer obtained admission and ordination in the Order of
the Exalted One.
Ananda considers Susima sincere, so Ananda takes Susima to the Buddha and
tells the Buddha about Susima's request to formally join the order. I find
it intriguing to speculate about Susima's presentation. Perhaps there existed
in Susima a genuine desire to comprehend the Dharma, to attain to realization.
Most of the time human motives are complex and mixed. Though Susima initially
went to the order to acquire the "gimmick" that he thought would make it
possible for Susima and his friends to obtain alms, perhaps once Susima
arrived, he observed many sincere practitioners. Perhaps he saw the Buddha
himself and noticed a certain equanimity, a certain serenity. Perhaps without
Susima even knowing it, his request for ordination had within it a seed
of sincerity, of genuineness.
Now at that time many brethren in the Order had declared realization, saying,
"We know that perished is birth! Lived is the divine life! Done is what
was to be done! There is nothing further in these conditions!"
The "Order" means the "Sangha". "Realization" means "arhatship" or sainthood.
This passage means that many of the monks had become saints. The quote
as to how these saints presented their realization is a stock passage that
appears in many buddhist sutras. The phrase, "We know that perished is
birth!", I understand as meaning that the buddhist saint has become one
with the eternal, the unborn, the deathless element. When I become one
with the deathless, both birth and death are transcended. Buddhism understands
this deathless element as the source of transcendent wisdom. Buddhism comprehends
this transcendent wisdom as the interdependent empty nature of all existing
I understand "Lived is the divine life!" as meaning that the buddhist saint
has lived a life conducive to the realization of the deathless, the eternal,
I understand the phrase "Done is what was to be done!", as meaning that
they have accomplished this task, this task which makes human life worthwhile,
gives value to human life, and benefits all sentient existence.
I understand the phrase "There is nothing further in these conditions!"
as indicating a state of mind which has ceased to cling and has therefore
entered into complete freedom. These conditions no longer give rise to
suffering, because clinging has ceased. Even while alive, the buddhist
saint has left the realm of suffering behind and entered completely into
Then the venerable Susima went to those brethren and greeting them, and
exchanging the compliments of courtesy and friendship, sat down at one
side. So seated he spoke thus to those brethren:
"Is it true what they say that the venerable ones have declared realization
under the Exalted One, saying `We know that perished is birth! Lived is
the divine life! Done is what was to be done! There is nothing further
in these conditions!'"
"Even so, friend."
Susima wants to check this out. He may have several motives; perhaps some
skepticism, perhaps some desire to reach the same understanding, and finally
perhaps a large portion of his original motive, to learn the gimmick to
attract lay donations and alms, pervades his presence. But Susima, I suspect,
must have presented an appearance of a young, eager, newcomer. No one in
this sutra sets up roadblocks, nor do I find any hazing. No one says, "Come
back later." The response to Susima seems very open, alert, and friendly.
Susima asks, "Then surely you venerable ones, thus knowing, thus seeing,
enjoy manifold mystic power: -- being one you become many, being many you
become one; here visible there invisible you go without let or hindrance
through wall, through rampart, through hill, as if through air; you dive
into earth and up again as if in water; you walk on water without cleaving
it as on earth; you travel seated crosslegged through air as if you were
birds on the wing; you can handle and stroke with the hand this moon and
sun, mighty and powerful though they be; you can control the body even
to Brahma world?"
"Not so, friend."
The desire for occult powers forms a powerful motivation for many people
who enter spiritual practice. For some, it constitutes the only motivation
and their principle reason for entering into any kind of spiritual practice.
The idea here is that the acquisition of occult powers means spiritual
This is a very seductive idea. But the acquisition of occult powers really
has nothing to do with the acquisition of wisdom and compassion. In addition,
what one person considers occult, another person considers nothing more
than a skill. Let me illustrate with a personal example. Many years ago
I was reading a piece of music. Because music has functioned as a central
focus of my life, early on I acquired the ability to read music. Someone
else in the room asked me if I could hear the music I read. I said, "Yes."
She expressed amazement that anyone could do this. It seemed to baffle
her completely. I explained that I did not consider it anything special.
That seemed to baffle her even more. So I asked her, "When you read a poem
do you know what it sounds like?" She said she did. I explained that to
someone illiterate, her power to read a poem and know what it sounds like
would seem incredible, baffling, almost unbelievable. Because our society
values literacy, most people learn to read at a very early age and acquire
this skill. Our society does not value musical literacy and so most people
can not pick up a piece of music and read it. But the ability to read music
manifests if someone puts enough energy into it. Just as the ability to
read words has no ethical implications, does not make a person wise, does
not make a person compassionate, so also the ability to read music does
not result in wisdom or compassion. The capacity to read music is just
a skill, and like all skills, if someone puts enough time and energy into
their acquisition, they can acquire that skill, at least to a degree.
Occult powers are simply skills that most people have no conception as
to how to acquire. They are skills that either most people do not value,
are unaware of, or simply do not have the time to acquire. Like learning
to read music or words, the ability to perform various occult marvels depends
upon the practitioner's willingness to devote time and energy into that
particular skill. Like the skills of reading words or music, occult skills,
or powers, do not have any relationship to wisdom or compassion. For this
reason, I do not consider the acquisition of occult skills significant
in spiritual terms.
Susima, like many people, equates occult power with spiritual fulfillment.
Because he makes this equation he asks the kind of question just asked,
as well as the following questions. But the saints to whom Susima addresses
these questions, operate from different assumptions. For these saints,
the focus of spiritual life has to do with wisdom and compassion. Wisdom
in this context means comprehending the true nature of existence, transcendent
wisdom, or what Buddhism refers to as the perfection of wisdom. Compassion
in this context means the capacity to comprehend the suffering of other
people, and to wish for its cessation, not only in myself, but also in
other people as well.
These are the two aspects of the buddhist path. Awakening in a buddhist
context, then means awakening to wisdom and compassion. Susima does not,
as yet, understand this.
"Then surely you venerable ones thus knowing, thus seeing, with purified
hearing of devas passing that of men, can hear sounds both of devas and
of men whether far or near?"
"Not so, friend."
Many people in spiritual paths seek a "higher authority". Down through
the centuries people have "channeled" teachings from various deities and
astral entities in the belief that the teachings from such other realms
will possess more authority than teachings from a human. But, and I find
this interesting, just because a being dwells in another realm, say a heavenly
or astral realm, does not mean that they possess wisdom, insight, and compassion.
A dweller in a heavenly realm may suffer just as much from delusion as
anyone on earth.
The Buddha's teaching on this point distinguished his teaching from other
contemporary spiritual teachers. The Buddha regarded deities as subject
to the law of karma. The Buddha had the view that sentients took rebirth
in various realms according to the actions they had done in their current
life. Thus if someone performed good and meritorious deeds in this life,
they might take rebirth in a heavenly realm. However, once the merit that
resulted in a heavenly rebirth had become exhausted, then that sentient
would take rebirth once again, and the realm of rebirth would depend upon
their behavior while dwelling in a heavenly realm. Thus the Buddha viewed
deities as impermanent and as subject to death. Gods and Goddesses die.
This view has important implications for Buddhism as a spiritual path.
This view implies that liberation does not depend upon entry into some
other realm, such as a heaven or pure land. Rather liberation depends upon
awakening to the actuality of existence. I consider this one of the central
points of the Susima Sutra.
"Then surely you venerable ones thus knowing, thus seeing, know in mind
the mind of other beings, other persons, you know the passionate heart
as passionate, the dispassionate heart as dispassionate, you know the heart
of hate as hating, the heart of amity and amiable; you know the dull heart
as dull, the intelligent heart as intelligent; you know the confused mind
as confused, the intent mind as tense, the lofty mind as such, the mean
mind as such, the concentrated mind, the desultory mind as such, the freed,
the bound mind as such?"
"Not so, friend."
Here Susima shifts focus to a more psychological context. I take this passage
as meaning that Susima wants to believe that the saints he speaks to can
intuit the frame of mind that others possess, a kind of emotional mind
reading, basically another kind of occult power. This would mean that the
saint could somehow know, or intuit, someone else's emotional state. This
would contrast with the ordinary mind of ordinary people which often has
to probe someone, even someone I know very well, in order to determine
their current emotional condition. Much conversation centers around this.
For example, "How are you feeling today?", or "Does that upset you?", and
similar comments mean that we do not immediately or readily comprehend
another person's state of mind. Susima wants to believe that attainment,
sainthood, will mean that the saint can perform this kind of subtle mind
Clearly this represents a kind of power, power over others. Susima, I think,
brings this up because in his desire to deceive others, to steal the dharma,
and to gain material support from lay people, this ability could prove
very useful. If Susima could read the emotional condition of other people,
he could then use this ability to manipulate others into thinking that
he had special insight into their problems.
But the saints respond that they do not have this power, which means that
the nature of their attainment must lie somewhere else.
"Then surely you venerable ones thus knowing, thus seeing, can remember
your divers former lives, that is to say, one birth, or two, or three,
or four, or five births, or ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty births, or
a hundred, a thousand or even a hundred thousand, or even more than one
aeon of involution or more than one aeon of evolution, or more than one
of both involution and evolution: -- such an one was I by name, of such
a clan, of such a social status, so was I nourished, such happy and painful
experiences were mine, so did the span of life end, deceasing thence so
did I come to be, there too was I such by name, of such a clan, of such
a social station, so was I nourished, such happy and painful experiences
were mine, so did the span of life end, deceasing thence so did I come
to be here: -- you can thus call to mind in circumstance and detail your
"Not so, friend."
The ability to recall past lives constitutes another of the standard list
of occult powers, often appearing within a Buddhist context. The Buddha
recalled many of his former lives. One entire section of the buddhist canon
contains stories of the Buddha's former lives, based on the Buddha's telling
of these tales. I find it interesting that even today, in the secular west,
if I go into a new age or "metaphysical" bookstore, I will often find a
section on past life recall. So even today, the idea that past life recall
constitutes an aspect of realization has widespread appeal.
Once again, I suspect Susima thought of this power because the ability
to recall past lives would impress lay people and encourage them to give
Susima and his friends donations. It must have genuinely disappointed Susima
when the saints responded by denying that they had this capacity. Furthermore,
this denial implies that realization, once again, does not relate to the
acquisition of occult powers.
"Then surely you venerable ones thus knowing, thus seeing, can behold with
purified deva-vision past that of humans, beings as they decease and come
to be mean or excellent, fair or foul, you can know them going according
to their deeds to weal or woe, thinking: -- Lo! these good people whose
deeds were evil, whose speech was evil, those thoughts were evil, abusers
of Noble Ones, having wrong views and undertaking the acts that come from
wrong views -- they at the breaking up of the body, after death have come
to be in the Waste, the Woeful Way, the Downfall, hell. Lo! those good
people whose deeds were good, whose speech was good, whose thoughts were
good, who abused not Noble Ones, of right views and who undertook the acts
that come from right views -- they at the breaking up of the body after
death have come to be in a good destiny, in a bright world. Thus do you
behold beings with pure deva-sight passing that of humans, how they decease,
and come to be mean or excellent, fair or foul, you know them as going
according to their actions to weal or woe?"
"Not so, friend."
Susima wants to manipulate other people. The reason Susima wants to manipulate
other people is so that those other people will provide Susima and his
friends with alms and donations. For this reason, Susima remains focused
on the acquisition of some kind of special, occult power. He runs down
a list of standard powers that people claim. This particular one refers
to the ability to comprehend why a particular person has the life they
currently have. If they live a good and comfortable life, then they did
good deeds in past lives. If they currently live a life filled with difficulties,
then that means that in a past life or lives they behaved badly.
This kind of interpretation, though widespread, represents a kind of spiritual
materialism. For example, the equation of wealth with good deeds in a past
life, has a materialistic basis. Missing from this kind of calculus is
the understanding of the quality of mind of a particular person. Many wealthy
people live very unhappy lives. Happiness does not depend upon material
circumstances. What, then, does happiness depend upon? Happiness depends
upon wisdom and compassion. Wisdom in this context means comprehending
the actual nature of existence. The actual nature of existence means, for
example, the understanding of impermanence, change, and the interdependence
of all things. Compassion means functioning from the insights of wisdom
in the world. But notice that wisdom and compassion here do not depend
upon wealth, status, caste, race, gender, religious affiliation, class,
orientation, nationality, etc. They arise as a quality of mind, and that
quality of mind depends upon insight.
"Then surely you venerable ones thus knowing, thus seeing, are able to
dwell in volitional contact with those states of deliverance where the
world of form is transcended and the immaterial world is reached?
"Not so, friend."
Susima becomes more subtle. This reference to visiting other realms is
not of the same kind as the powers previously mentioned. The powers previously
mentioned someone could easily use to manipulate others. This specific
power is more centered on knowledge, does not necessarily involve the manipulation
of other people. However, it still does not mean that someone has developed
wisdom. This kind of capacity for something like astral travel does not
make a person compassionate or wise. Just as someone learning how to read
music does not necessarily make them compassionate or wise. Just as learning
another language does not necessarily make a person compassionate or wise.
So also, the ability to travel to other realms of existence, even formless
realms of existence, does not, in and of itself, create conditions conducive
to the blossoming of wisdom and compassion.
"Now here, venerable ones, is both your replying and your non-attainment
of these things?"
"There is none, friend."
Susima has to double-check, one last time. Susima wants to make sure he
understood the saints. So he asks them, did I hear your reply correctly?
Do you really mean it when you say you have not attained these things,
that you do not have these powers? I sense a kind of opening here in Susima.
I suspect that Susima admires the saints he is conversing with. Perhaps
their calm, their evident serenity, their unruffled responses, have impressed
him. Susima is beginning to understand that there exists more to the spiritual
life than the acquisition of occult powers.
"How is that?"
"We have been freed by insight, friend Susima."
"I do not know fully the matter stated concisely by the venerable ones.
It would be well if the venerable ones were to state it so that I might
come to know fully the matter they have stated concisely."
"Whether you know it, friend Susima, or whether you do not know it, we
have been freed by insight."
In some ways I find Susima remarkable. Susima has the capacity to admit
that he does not understand something, instead of bluffing his way past
the situation. Susima had proceeded on the assumption that spiritual practice
meant working to acquire occult knowledge and skills. Having that assumption,
Susima assumes that the saints he encounters in the buddhist sangha will
have those skills. When they deny having occult abilities, Susima has to
reorient his entire way of thinking; calling into question his very understanding
of the purpose of spiritual work, of meditation, and of study.
The saints tell Susima that they have been "freed by insight". I consider
this the passage the high point of the sutra. "Freed by insight" communicates
that the purpose of the dharma lies in awakening us to the actuality of
our situation. The central focus of the dharma lies in insight, not in
the acquisition of a particular skill, occult powers, or deity like functions.
How can insight transform us? I think we can understand this if we consider
how ideas influence our lives in other activities. For example, if I believe
that the earth is flat, this belief will effect my behavior, limit possibilities,
and determine what I consider possible. Similarly, if I believe that some
people are inferior, inherently inferior, this belief will effect my behavior
and, if I assume a position of political power, have widespread social
consequences. If, subsequently, I come to understand the equality of all
people, this will transform my relationship to other people, and I will
have been freed by insight.
Ideas do not exist independently. Ideas arise out of contexts and have
effects in the world. Those who dismiss the power of ideas and the capacity
for ideas to bring about liberation have not, I suspect, really considered
the way in which core ideas effect their own behavior and the behavior
However, the Buddha understood this power very clearly. Liberation by insight
and understanding constitutes one of the pillars of his path, manifesting
as the first of the eight-fold path, "right view". In what follows in this
sutra, the Buddha demonstrates clearly how insight can lead to liberation
by taking Susima step by step into a new way of understanding.
Then the venerable Susima rising from his seat went into the presence of
the Exalted One, and saluting him sat down at one side. So seated the venerable
Susima so far as he had conversed with those brethren told all to the Exalted
Susima is puzzled, but intrigued. Susima somehow recognizes that the saints
he spoke with do have the serenity and calm that he wants. This serenity
is what he really wants, but he has not articulated this explicitly to
himself. Because Susima still has the motivation of attempting to manipulate
laypeople into giving him and his friends alms, Susima has mixed motives.
But he wants to understand what has happened. So Susima decides to go directly
to the source of the teaching, the Buddha himself.
"First, Susima, comes knowledge of the law of causation, afterwards comes
knowledge about nirvana."
I find this a fascinating presentation. In a very condensed manner, the
Buddha has placed before Susima the heart of the teaching. First comes
knowledge of the law of causation. The truth of causation, the second noble
truth, forms a core understanding of the Buddha, a realization from which
all the rest of the teachings of the Buddha flow. The Buddha referred to
this law of causation as "dependent origination" or "dependent arising".
It means that everything in existence exists dependently, not independently,
not separately, not on their own terms. In its simplest form, the law of
causation or dependent origination runs as follows:
This existing, that becomes;
from the arising of this, that arises;
this not existing, that becomes not;
from the ceasing of this, that ceases.
More than any other topic, the understanding of dependent origination appears
most frequently in the sutras. Dependent origination receives many elaborations,
but I like to keep in mind this simplest of formulations, as it serves
well in a multitude of contexts.
The Buddha followed out the logic of dependent origination and determined
that there does not exist any aspect of any existing thing which exists
independently. Nirvana, the end of sorrow, means awakening to the non-separately
existing nature of all existing things. This explains why here the Buddha
tells Susima to first comprehend the law of causation, then knowledge of
"I do not know fully this matter stated concisely by the Exalted One. It
would be well, lord, if the Exalted One were to state it so that I might
come to know fully the matter he has stated concisely."
I interpret this passage as Susima further abandoning his original goal
of attempting to gain powers so that he could manipulate laypeople. Here
Susima expressed a genuine wish to understand the teaching. He admits that
he does not understand the highly condensed summary the Buddha first offers
Susima. But Susima has an intuition that something important has been offered
him. He therefore requests that the Buddha explain more fully the nature
of the teaching just presented.
"Whether you come to know it, Susima, or whether you do not, first comes
knowledge of the law of causation, afterwards comes knowledge about nirvana."
The Buddha reiterates his summary. I understand this passage as the Buddha
emphasizing that he did not offer just a random bit of teaching. He wants
to impress upon Susima that the summary he just gave has importance.
"Now what think you, Susima? Is the body permanent or impermanent?"
The Buddha decides to use the gate of impermanence to instruct Susima.
Comprehending impermanence represents a very important step in awakening
to our actual situation and our actual condition in this existence in which
we dwell. It is because of our misunderstanding, because we think that
some things are permanent which are impermanent, that we live lives that
generate much suffering for ourselves and for others as well.
For Susima, the gate of impermanence is particularly suitable. Susima wants
occult powers, but these powers will not shield Susima from impermanence.
The acquisition of these powers will not shield Susima from old age and
death. If Susima awakens to the true nature of impermanence, the desire
for occult powers will substantially diminish.
"But that which is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?"
Why would it follow that that which is impermanent is painful? For example,
if I endure a very hot day, when the day comes to an end, and the cool
evening breeze appears, the impermanence of the day feels pleasant, not
painful. Or suppose I have a bad cold. When the cold ceases, it feels like
a great relief; pleasant, not painful. There are many examples I can think
of where the impermanence of something does not appear to bring about pain.
So what is being pointed out here?
Impermanence generates pain, suffering, and distress when we cling to that
which changes, that which is impermanent. It is not the impermanence itself
which generates pain and suffering. Rather, it is the clinging to the impermanent
which generates the pain and suffering. This may seem like a subtle or
merely verbal distinction, but it has important implications. The idea
that impermanence means suffering leads to a rejection of the world itself,
since all things exhibit impermanence. The idea that clinging means suffering
leads to an interior, meditative, contemplative program to overcome that
gesture of clinging which gives rise to pain and suffering. For this reason,
I consider it important to bear this distinction in mind.
In this sutra, the Buddha does not make this distinction explicitly. I
believe he does not do so because this is the first time Susima is hearing
these teachings and the Buddha wants to drive home the point that what
Susima has sought for is not a true refuge, will not bring him happiness,
will change, will not endure. Susima needs to hear this teaching in this
form in order to give up his desire for the acquisition of occult powers.
The teaching is presented in a manner that will effectively counter this
tendency in Susima.
"But that which is impermanent, painful, changeable by nature, do we well
to contemplate it as: -- this is mine, I am it, it is my spirit?"
"Not so, lord."
One of the three misapprehensions that the Buddha often spoke about is
the tendency to equate what is not-self for self. By self, people usually
mean a permanently existing self. By permanently existing self, people
usually mean an unchanging self. I tend to identify with that which I think
of as not changing. In a spiritual context, I may want to move to that
which does not change, thus I dis-identify with my body, because my body
changes, and then I shift my identity to something like a psyche or soul,
believing that there I can find something which does not change.
Here the Buddha makes explicit to Susima that the impermanent and the changeable
do not form a good basis for liberation, realization, enlightenment. I
think the Buddha does this because of Susima's great interest in occult
powers. But occult powers change, like the body, like our ordinary knowledge,
and so occult powers do not form a basis for liberation, realization and
"And is not the same true of feeling, of perception, of activities, of
"It is, lord."
Here the Buddha extends the same point so that the truth of impermanence
appears as valid for all constituent factors, the aggregates, which make
up the human psycho-physical organism. By introducing the five aggregates
(form, feeling, perception, activities and consciousness) the Buddha introduces
the idea of the emptiness of self. The Buddha implies here that the truth
of impermanence and change extends to every factor of our existence, that
there does not exist any portion of our own existence which does not manifest
impermanence and change.
"Wherefore, Susima, whatsoever body, past, future or present, internal
or external, coarse or fine, mean or lofty, far or near -- of all body
to say it is not mine, I am not it, it is not my spirit: -- so is this
to be regarded by right insight as it really is. And so too are feeling,
perception, activities, consciousness to be regarded."
The reference to different kinds of bodies in this passage refers, I believe,
to the occult techniques that Susima has expressed such a strong interest
in. The methodology for acquiring these powers has to do with cultivating
subtle bodies, such as astral or dream bodies, and from the basis of these
cultivated bodies, the practitioner can perform these various powers. Here
the Buddha says to Susima that these subtle bodies do not differ in any
important way from the physical body that the two of them have analyzed
thus far. Just as the physical body provides no basis for an unchanging
permanent self, so also these subtle bodies provide no basis for an unchanging
In other contexts, the Buddha will go on to elucidate the doctrine of no-self,
that the self as such does not exist. In this context, the Buddha leads
Susima up to that understanding without explicitly naming it. I think the
Buddha does so because the primary obstacle at this time to Susima's understanding
is an attachment to powers and to the body from which Susima hopes to enter
into those powers. By focusing on this obstacle the Buddha opens the consciousness
of Susima to the awareness that spiritual awakening involves a shift in
understanding, as opposed to the acquisition of powers.
"So beholding, Susima, the well taught noble disciple feels repulsion at
body, feeling, perception, activities, consciousness. Feeling repulsion
he is not attracted by them. Unattracted he is set free. Knowledge comes
to him freed as to being freed, and he knows that birth is perished, that
the divine life is lived, done is what was to be done; there is nothing
further of these conditions."
The word "repulsion" needs elucidation. Suppose that I indulged in a certain
food which contained small amounts of arsenic. I did not know that the
food contained arsenic. I may have even thought that this food served me
well. Now a good friend, discovering my regular ingestion of this food,
points out to me that the food contains arsenic. My friend convinces me
that this food is actually destructive of my health and well being. Convinced
now that my friend is correct, repulsion arises in me towards that food
which previously I had enjoyed. This is a natural reaction in my consciousness
as I awaken to the true nature of the food I have consumed. It is not that
I consider the food "evil". It is that I now understand the actual causal
nature of the food; that this food does not in fact support my existence,
lead to my well being. My relationship to the food dramatically alters.
Susima faces a similar situation. Susima has had a strong attachment to
the body, to acquiring powers, to manipulating others. The Buddha has demonstrated
that the body which Susima feels attached to constantly changes and is
impermanent. This places the entire program that Susima wanted to pursue
in a different light. What Susima thought would bring him happiness will
not do so. For this reason, it makes sense to think of Susima reacting
with repulsion towards those things, such as the body and its components,
occult powers, his tendency to manipulation, with repulsion. I can imagine
Susima feeling disgust at how he has wasted his time, wasted his life,
up until now.
At the same time, this new knowledge is liberating and opens the door to
the realm of realization. This knowledge sets Susima free from the bondage
of misunderstanding, the misunderstanding that that which changes does
The Buddha will now proceed to offer Susima a systematic analysis of causation,
the chain of dependent origination. This goes back to the Buddha's statement
to Susima that "first comes knowledge of the law of causation, then comes
knowledge about nirvana."
"Birth is conditioned by grasping: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
First the Buddha introduced Susima to the teaching of impermanence. Here
the Buddha introduces to Susima the teaching of dependent origination,
that all existing things are contingent, and appear in the world solely
due to causes and conditions. The two teachings, that of impermanence and
change and that of dependence, differ slightly. Logically, it would be
possible to have a world of independently existing, but impermanent, things.
For this reason, the Buddha takes the next step in his teaching, showing
that not only do things exhibit impermanence, but also they exhibit a dependent,
contingent, and causally embedded nature.
"Becoming is conditioned by grasping: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Grasping is conditioned by craving: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Craving is conditioned by feeling: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Feeling is conditioned by contact: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Contact is conditioned by sense: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Sense is conditioned by name-and-form: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"Name-and-form is conditioned by consciousness: -- Susima, do you understand
"Even so, lord."
"Consciousness is conditioned by activities: -- Susima, do you understand
"Even so, lord."
"Activities are conditioned by ignorance: -- Susima, do you understand
"Even so, lord."
"When birth ceases, old age-and-death ceases: -- Susima, do you understand
"Even so, lord."
"When becoming ceases, birth ceases: -- Susima, do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
"When grasping ceases, becoming ceases; when craving ceases, grasping ceases;
when feeling ceases, craving ceases; when contact ceases, feeling ceases;
when sense ceases, contact ceases; when name-and-form ceases, sense ceases;
when consciousness ceases, name-and-form ceases; when activities cease,
consciousness ceases; when ignorance ceases, activities cease: -- Susima,
do you understand this?"
"Even so, lord."
I understand the overall point of this passage as communicating to Susima
that nothing exists independently, that everything in existence arises
due to causes and conditions, arises contingently, dependently. One of
the reasons that people pursue occult powers is the belief that the acquisition
of such powers will make them independent and invulnerable to conditioned
existence. The Buddha, by systematically examining various aspects of our
existence, demonstrates to Susima that this does not follow. Particularly
interesting in this context is the dependently arising nature of consciousness,
which the Buddha states arises dependently upon name-and-form, while name-and-form
also arises dependently upon senses. This dependent nature of consciousness
would have proven very important to Susima as the acquisition of occult
powers is often seen as a way of establishing the independence of consciousness.
The elucidation of the dependent nature of our existence begins with grasping,
"When grasping ceases, becoming ceases." Susima had a mind set on grasping,
but the Dharma teaches non-grasping, non-clinging. In other discourses
the Buddha equates non-grasping, or in some translations, non-clinging,
as Nirvana itself. For this reason, I think, the Buddha begins this series
with non-grasping, to point out to Susima the core nature and basis of
the teaching, while simultaneously pointing to the presence of Nirvana
in the non-grasping mind.
Becoming ceases when grasping ceases because things are no longer comprehended
and/or perceived as existing separately. If we think of becoming as the
arising into existence of that which was non-existent, then this leads
us to a sort of magical view of things. If, on the other hand, we comprehend
the dependent and interdependent nature of all things, then, to a degree,
all things are in all things, and so while change continues, while transformation
continues, becoming and impermanence cease.
This elucidation of the dependent nature of our existence ends with ignorance.
The Buddha ends his analysis by saying that "when ignorance ceases, activities
cease." Now the Buddha is engaged in an activity when he enters into this
teaching with Susima. For this reason, I understand this passage to mean
that the specific activities that Susima wishes to enter into, such as
the acquisition of occult powers, are based on, conditioned by ignorance.
Furthermore, when that ignorance is removed, the activity of attempting
to acquire those occult powers will cease. I understand this passage as
specifically awakening Susima to the nature of the causes which have led
Susima to misunderstand the meaning of spirituality and the nature of the
"Then surely, you, Susima, thus knowing, thus seeing, enjoy diverse mystic
powers: -- being one you can become many; being many you can become one;
you go here visible there invisible without let or hindrance through wall,
through rampart, through hill as if through air; you dive into earth and
up again as if in water; you walk on water without cleaving it as if on
earth; you travel seated crosslegged through air as if you were a bird
on the wing; you can handle and stroke with the hand this moon and sun,
mighty and powerful though they be, yes, even to Brahmaworld can you dispose
of yourself in the body?"
"Not so, lord."
"Then surely, Susima, thus knowing thus seeing, you can hear, with pure
deva-hearing passing that of humans, sounds divine and human, be they remote
"Not so, lord."
"Then surely, Susima, thus knowing thus seeing; you can understand with
your mind the mind of other beings, other persons, so that you know the
character of their thought?"
"Not so, lord."
"Then surely, Susima, thus knowing thus seeing, you can remember diverse
former lives, even one birth or many, in circumstance and detail?"
"Not so, lord."
"Then surely, Susima, thus knowing thus seeing, with pure deva-vision passing
that of humans you can behold beings as they go according to their deeds,
"Not so, lord."
"Then surely, Susima, thus knowing thus seeing, you attaining by volition
can dwell in those stages of deliverance where the world of form is transcended
and the immaterial world is reached?"
"Not so, lord."
"Here, then, Susima: -- this catechism and the non-attainment of these
things: -- this is what we have done."
Here the Buddha drives home the point of their discussion. Though Susima
has achieved insight into change, impermanence, and dependence, Susima
has not acquired any of the occult powers he had just a few minutes before
considered the core of spirituality.
The Buddha here uses a technique I refer to as "mirroring". Mirroring means
to imitate the behavior of someone else with the purpose of drawing to
that person's attention that person's behavior and/or view, assumptions,
and understandings. I have found it in use in quite a variety of spiritual
contexts. It needs to be used sparingly; nobody likes to be mocked and
mirroring can easily slide into a kind of mocking. At its best, as in this
example, the technique of mirroring allows someone to see, to perceive,
their own behavior, to see themselves, just as they see themselves in a
mirror. Here the Buddha mimics Susima's approach to the realized saints.
This has the effect of making it explicit to Susima the assumptions and
the manner with which Susima approached the dharma. Indirectly, this makes
it clear to Susima just how mistaken Susima was about the nature of the
This sutta has the central point of bringing into the foreground the transformative
power of thinking, contemplating, analyzing. From the perspective of this
essay on ontology, the nature of eternity, this sutra elucidates the connection
between our beliefs, our core beliefs, the core ideas that we hold, and
our behavior in the world, and our relationship to the world.
We all have examples of how ideas can shape our destiny and the destiny
of those around us. Negatively, ideas of racism and bigotry have formed
a foundation for much suffering in this world. Alternatively, the ideas
of universal love and compassion have immeasurably benefited all of humanity,
and all of sentient existence.
But we do not have to consider such large scale ideas in order to understand
the central meaning of this sutra. Even in small areas of life the ideas
we hold constantly shape our interaction with the world and give meaning
to our existence. For example, if I am a gardener, and someone points out
to me that I am overwatering, this understanding can function to greatly
improve my gardening ability. If I am a musician, and someone demonstrates
a new scale to me, this will open up a whole new world of musical expression.
The examples are countless and I suspect the reader can easily come up
with instances from their own life.
However, we also often experience a gap between our ideas and the manifestation
of those ideas. This gap is a source of much frustration for many people.
For example, many people experiencing addictions, such as alcohol or drugs,
know that the behavior is destructive, yet they often find themselves unable
to act on that idea, to make the information real in their lives. This
has to do with the force of habit; our habits, even our destructive habits,
seem to have a life of their own and at times override our own better judgment.
I think this is where the idea of cultivation comes in. All of us, I think,
at times have insight into impermanence. But then we forget. We forget
because there exists a habit of mind, very strong, which considers that
some things have permanence. This habit of mind is re-enforced by our interaction
with the world; the normal display of appearances does not bring forth
to our awareness the impermanence of all things. Because of this habit
of mind, and because the world of appearances does not readily or clearly
display the truth of impermanence and change, I need to cultivate this
understanding on a regular and extended basis. I need to remind myself
of the truth of impermanence until it becomes a habitual part of my consciousness.
This may take a long time, but that is no reason to become discouraged.
It is no reason to become discouraged because even a brief insight into
impermanence has salutary effects. Building on those brief insights, I
can deepen my understanding over time.
The same applies to buddhist understandings such as compassion and emptiness.
I think that nearly everyone has glimpses of compassion. But most people,
unfortunately, do not know that they can cultivate that compassionate understanding.
Similarly, I think most people have at times a glimpse of emptiness, but
as in the previous topics, most people do not realize that this insight
can be cultivated, deepened, and made a daily part of one's life.
It is this perspective of cultivation which forms the basis for practice
in a buddhist context. Practice means to cultivate. This explains why I
have included in Part VI a number of spiritual exercises, or contemplations,
designed to cultivate the awareness and understanding of the presence of
eternity. Without these practices, it becomes almost impossible for the
insights gained in discourse to deepen, broaden and become part of the
very fabric of one's existence. This is what is missing in contemporary
philosophy. Contemporary philosophy has almost no cultivation aspect. This
means that the insights of philosophy, of which there are many, remain
floating abstractions for many. This also helps to explain why so many
people feel suspicious about philosophy; it seems incomplete.
From the perspective of classical philosophy, contemporary philosophy is
incomplete. Ancient philosophy, first and foremost, was a path of transformation,
a way of life. Ancient philosophy included spiritual exercises and contemplations
that deepened the student's understanding. Analysis was only a small part.
In the modern period, the last philosopher I know of who understood this
was Spinoza, who elucidated the precepts of what it means to live a philosophical
life. By including the exercises/contemplations in Part VI, I mean to return
to philosophy the practice/cultivation aspect without which philosophy
becomes very quickly stale.
There exists a wonderful sutra from The Book Of Ones of the Numerical
Sayings called "The Finger Snap Sutta". In this sutta the Buddha says
that if someone has the thought of goodwill for others even for the duration
of a finger snap, they have followed the path, their life is not wasted.
How much more so for those who cultivate goodwill. I would also apply this
teaching of the finger snap to areas such as impermanence, change, and
emptiness. If for even the duration of a finger snap someone has insight
into wisdom, their life is not wasted, they have acquired a measure of
From the perspective of this essay, I would say that if for even the duration
of a finger snap someone gains insight into the nature of eternity, their
life has not been for nothing, liberation has taken root in their consciousness,
and it is sure to grow and blossom.
Then the venerable Susima falling prone at the feet of the Exalted One
spoke thus: "Transgression, lord, has caused me, so foolish, so stupid,
so wrong am I, to transgress. I have gained admission as a thief of the
dhamma into this dhamma and discipline so well set forth. May the Exalted
One, lord, accept this my confession for my restraining myself in future."
Susima has experienced a radical change in his spiritual orientation. He
no longer wishes to acquire powers in order to manipulate others. His heart
has opened to the dharma. Feeling profoundly ashamed, Susima confesses
his motivation for entering the order of monks.
"Verily, Susima, transgression has caused you, so foolish, so stupid, so
wrong are you, to transgress, who did gain admission as a thief of the
dhamma into this dhamma and discipline so well set forth.
"It is as if, Susima, they had caught a robber, an evildoer, and showed
him to the prince saying: `Sire, this is a robber, an evildoer. Inflict
on him what penalty you wish.' And the prince were to say: `Go, men, bind
this man's arms behind him with a strong rope, shave him bald, lead him
around in a tumbril with a tam-tam from street, to street, from crossroads
to crossroads, and take him out by the south gate and at the south of the
city cut off his head.' And the prince's men were to do even as they were
told. What think you, Susima? Would not that man in consequence experience
woe and sorrow?"
"Even so, lord."
"Whether he experienced woe and sorrow or not, would not the gaining admission
as a thief of doctrine into a dharma and discipline so well set forth have
still more woeful and still more bitter results, yes, conduce to downfall
The Buddha presses the point. The kind of deception Susima engaged in would
have dire results; the Buddha makes an analogy to a thief. What kind of
woe could Susima expect? First of all, the habit of deception itself would
be re-enforced in Susima. Suppose Susima had learned how to acquire the
occult powers he originally desired. But since Susima acquired them on
the basis of deception, these powers would remain tainted by that awareness.
Suppose Susima had been able to manipulate others into giving Susima and
his friends alms. The result would have been a life based on deception,
and deception leads to more deception. Eventually, lying and deceiving
would have become a way of life for Susima. Such a life can only lead to
bitterness and sorrow both for one's self and for others. I think this
is why the Buddha drives home the point here. The Buddha wants to make
sure that Susima understands just what a turning point has occurred in
the life of Susima.
"But inasmuch as you, Susima, have seen your transgression as transgression
and have made confession as is right, we do accept this from you. For this,
Susima, it is to grow in the noble discipline, when having seen our transgression
as transgression we make confession as is right and in future practice
The sutta ends with a final teaching; that when someone has made a mistake,
it is conducive to spiritual growth to confess that mistake. For Susima,
this is a most appropriate conclusion to this first meeting with the Buddha.
Susima had originally entered the order deceptively, and with arrogance.
Such a personality might find it difficult to admit to any kind of wrongdoing.
For this reason, the Buddha points out the salutary effects that confession
of wrongdoing have.
The Susima Sutta gives us a wonderful glimpse of the power of insight,
and that insight in and of itself can lead to liberation. From the perspective
of philosophy, and the perspective of this essay, this sutra shows that
our ideas do not exist independently, but rather manifest embedded in the
world. It therefore follows that by changing and transforming how we comprehend
the world, we thereby change and transform our interaction with the world.
For this reason, philosophy is the royal road to liberation.
Note: There are two versions of the Susima Sutta available as follows:
Kindred Sayings, Volume II, translated by Rhys Davids, Pali Text
Society, Oxford, first published 1922, quoted edition 1997, pages 84 -
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Volume I, translated by
Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, 2000, pages 612 - 618.
I used primarily the first, earlier, translation, with a few modifications,
as the translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi had not yet appeared.