Exegesis of the Agganna and Cakkavatti Suttas.
The desperate irony of our day is that we humans have created
a world system which we now treat as if it had a will of its own,
a Frankenstein threatening to destroy its creator. The religious
fantasies of our ancestors about fiery and icy destruction of
the earth, by gods judging humanity, have now become real possibilities,
except that these angry gods are simply our own ideological, economic
and military systems, the material aspects of our alienation from
The practice of Buddhism involves a fearless analysis of things,
of their causes and effects, of the beginnings and endings in
the process of becoming. For the Buddhist, the "inner"
psychological world cannot be divided from the "outer"
material world, understanding the interdependence of mind and
world, and all things, is central to the Buddhist struggle to
overcome suffering and bring about peace. Penetrating analysis
based on such "correct views" allows us to see the dense
network of "causes" and conditions that make up today’s
destructive system, to see its individual elements and its complex
whole. Only then can we overcome fear, despair, confusion and
dogmatism and effectively work on personal/social transformation.
The Buddhist teachings on the arising and passing away of the
world were given for the sole purpose of establishing such a correct
understanding and practice. The scriptures examined here were
designed to overturn oppressive, primitive views on the nature
of self, society and nature and orient us towards a transformative
vision, they were not an exercise in speculation about cosmology.
The Buddha rejected speculation for its own sake in the story
of the monk who demanded to know from the Buddha whether the world
was eternal or not, and whether an enlightened person reincarnates.
Since the monk’s inquiry was merely for intellectual entertainment,
and not an attempt to establish "correct view" the Buddha
compared him to a man shot by an arrow. Rather than pull the arrow
out, the man demands to know the name, family, village and race
of the archer, the components of the arrow, and whether indeed
it is an arrow. People who persist in asking such questions, says
the Buddha, like this wounded but stubborn man, will die without
knowing the answers.
I am one who says: whether the world is eternal or not, there
is birth and death, and suffering and woe, and lamentation and
despair. What I teach is the means that lead to the destruction
of these things.
Remember therefore that what I have said, I have said, and what
I have not said I have not said. Why didn’t I answer these questions?
Because they are not profitable, not the principle of the holy
life, they do not lead to peace, to supreme wisdom, to Nibbana.
Majjhima Nikaya 163
But the Buddha did teach on these questions when it helped to
establish correct view. The revered scholar, Buddhaghosa, who
systematized the Buddhist teachings ten centuries after the Buddha,
As long as a person is vague about the world, About its origin,
About its ceasing, and about the means that lead to its cessation
He cannot recognize the truths. Visuddhimaggha
Examples of those "who are vague", according to Buddhaghosa,
are those who believe the world was created and will be destroyed
by an omnipotent Being or Basic Principle, those who say the world
comes from Time, or from Nature, or from the essential natures
of things, fatalists who hold that the world is composed of atoms
which are determined by past causes, or those who preach that
all is the result of chance.
The Buddhist creation and destruction mythos should not be approached
in the literal way that many Christians interpret the Bible, rejecting
scientific views, and resigning oneself to the inevitable Apocalypse
since current events are signs of the coming of the End. Rather,
the Buddha taught with a great tolerance for traditional beliefs,
adapting the message through different symbols to fit different
levels of understanding and different cultures. His use of mythology
was creative and allegorical, designed to create correct attitudes
but not to be argued over as verifiable history. The Buddha reveals
the humor of the storyteller in these stories, not the dogmatism
of the prophet.
For example, the first story presented here, of the origin of
the belief in god. It comes from a scripture in which the Buddha
was refuting the errors of Eternalism and non-Eternalism. The
Buddha explains how many sincere people, after arduous meditation
and introspection, remember previous existences with heavenly
gods, and falsely conclude these gods are eternal or omnipotent.
The Buddhist view, radically different from the Hindu, was that
these gods were just another form of our human personality, subject
to all the egotism, loneliness, and jealousies of human beings,
and controlled by the same laws of cause and effect. In this story
Brahma is the first to appear in the newly recreated universe,
in the uppermost heaven, precisely because he had the lowest stock
of merit of all the innumerable beings who had waited out the
destruction of the universe in the bodyless state. Out of loneliness
he desires companions, and when they purely coincidentally appear,
he concludes he is creator and ruler of the universe. The new
gods, in their innocence, accede that he is indeed their creator.
When beings finally devolve to human size, they remember this
experience of Brahma and create a notion of an eternal unchanging
God. Rather than directly attacking the belief in gods, who play
no role in Buddhism, the Buddha merely assures us that they are
not our creators and lords, while poking fun at them.
Next to this simple anecdote, the Agganna Sutta stands as a profound
and multilayered story worth much deeper examination. One thing
that is seldom pointed out about this sutta is that its primary
purpose was to alleviate the discomfort two former brahmins had
from having renounced their caste, by elaborating a history of
the world in which the Buddha’s monks and nuns, and the warrior
caste from which the Buddha came, are superior to brahmins. Many
Buddhists see uncomfortable with the force of the Buddha’s warrior-like
brahmin-bashing, and ignore his appreciation of his Shakyan clan
The Shakyans were a warrior-dominated republican federation, called
"sangha", with an aristocratic democratic tradition
comparable to the Greeks, and Siddhartha Gautama’s father was
the Speaker of their Congress. In the Buddha’s day, this system
of government was being destroyed, culturally by the spread of
brahminic caste and religious ideology and militarily by the spread
of imperial monarchies. When the Buddha established democratic
procedures, such as regular meetings with secret ballots, subcommittees
and the right of minority groups to schism, within his monastic
Sangha, he was attempting to preserve an important part of his
own clan tradition, which he felt was ideal for the achievement
of human liberation. In the Agganna, the Buddha says that the
monks and nuns have become "children of the Shakyans",
sons and daughters of the Enlightened One, and through him, children
of the truth. The monastic Sangha was a society of spiritual warriors,
heirs to the warrior caste’s aristocratic virtues and to its historic
conflict with the brahmins.
An anecdote which helps set the stage for this sutta is found
in the Ambattha Sutta. In the Ambattha, a young brahmin scholar
is sent to determine if the Buddha actually possesses the 32 physical
marks that a Great Man (Maha Purusha) was supposed to have according
to Indian mythology. After striding arrogantly into the Buddha’s
assembly, the Buddha remarks on the young brahmin’s lack of manners,
something like: "Didn’t anybody ever teach you how to behave
in front of holy men?" Offended, Ambattha responds "Respect
is for brahmins, not for menial black shavelings like you, fella!"
He repeatedly insults the Buddha and his former clan, the Shakyans,
and recounts a story to prove that Shakyans are all disrespectful
Once, Gotama, I had to go to Kapilavatthu…and went into the
Shakyan’s Congress Hall. Now at that time there were a number
of Shakyas, old and young, seated in the hall on grand seats,
making merry and joking together, nudging one another with their
fingers, and for a truth, methinks, it was I myself that was the
subject of their jokes, and not one of them even offered me a
seat. That, Gotama, is neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that
the Shakyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither
venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour
So, the Buddha decides to teach the boy some humility by explaining
how his clan is descended from the "very black" son
of a Shakyan slave-girl. "Admit that it is true" demands
the Buddha, and when the lad refuses several times, the Buddha
threatens that his head will be "split into pieces on the
spot." Finally the lad sees the god of fire preparing to
smash him with a ball of molten iron, becomes terrified, throws
himself at the Buddha’s feet, screeches "What was that you
wanted me to admit?!" and admits that the Buddha was right.
Subsequently the boy open to the fact that the Buddha is a Great
Man. Again, the story is an example of how teaching origins are
important to spiritual instruction.
In the Agganna Sutta, the two former brahmins report that their
former clansmen insult them now that they are monks for ...having
gone over to the lower classes to shaven-headed wanderers, to
the vulgar rich, to the dark-skinned and those who go about on
foot… the dirt from brahmin’s feet.
The Buddha remarks that the brahmins have forgotten their origins,
for they are just as human as the rest, subject to the same faults
and as able to achieve the perfection of perfect knowledge and
conduct as the other classes. Once spiritually liberated, the
enlightened person is beyond and superior to all secular castes
and classes. The Buddha points out that though his Shakyan clan
has been subjugated by King Pasenadi, yet King Pasenadi treats
the Buddha as a supreme king. Though the Shakyans are conquered,
their wise man, Shakya-muni, by conquering the illusion of self,
has become lord of all.
The Buddha rejects the value of inherited status and asserts a
meritocracy. Both at the beginning and ending of the sutta he
emphasizes that the classes originally arose from a natural division
of labor according to ability and according to Dharma. But the
brahmins have risen up out of ignorant pride, even though in talents
they war inferior to warriors and renunciates.
We can easily understand why the brahmins would criticize the
Buddha’s close association with the poor, the dark-skinned non-Aryans,
and the lower castes, but that his association with "the
vulgar rich" disturbed them is worthy of note. In the Buddha’s
day, as agricultural surplus grew, and with it towns, trade and
the division of labor, a newly emergent merchant class was making
itself visible, challenging the traditional notions of social
status, and in particular the brahmin’s claims to status and power
based on their parasitic sacrificial function. Though later centuries
would see wealthy people from lower castes slowly absorbed into
higher castes, in the Buddha’s day it appears they were a progressive
class, rooted in urban mercantile rationality, and therefore more
open to the rationality of the Buddha’s teachings. In modern terms
we might say that the Buddhist movement was a cross-class, crosscaste
alliance, led by the republican warriors and a revolutionary vanguard
of classless, wandering philosophers, opposed to the rise of reactionary
brahminism and authoritarian imperialism.
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD
The world, in the Buddhist mythic reconstruction, is part of a
universe that is periodically collapsing in on itself, and reexpanding
in great, billion year aeons, as discussed further later in this
essay. This framework creates a problem for Buddhist metaphysics,
though, since the Buddha had used traditional ideas of reincarnation
as the basis for non-practising Buddhists’ morality. (The practising
Buddhist cuts through attachment to good and bad karma, to notions
of Good and Evil, and to rebirth in the heavens, and instead practises
a set of ethics that come naturally from insight, selflessness
and compassion, the critical insight of Buddhism is that there
is no "self" which could reincarnate). According to
Buddhism if one does not attain enlightenment one is doomed to
eternally be recycled through the different realms of the neurotic
material world, samsara.
What, then, if the whole universe, including the heavens are destroyed?
Doesn’t that mean that all the lazy people will eventually achieve
automatic enlightenment? No, amends the Buddha, because right
before the whole material world goes burst, all beings will reincarnate
into a bodyless state, bundles of consciousness which, while highly
purified, are not enlightened and will begin cycling around on
the convey or belt of the material world once the universe reappears
out of its ultimate black hole. It sounds like an ad hoc explanation
for an unforeseen complication in the metaphysical scheme, but
then, if one believes everything the Buddha says literally then
one will probably believe this also, and if one is looking for
allegory, then it doesn’t really matter.
The symbolic significance of these countless, highly purified,
bodyless consciousnesses floating in the 4th dimension is what
draws the attention: this is "human nature", or "sentience",
minus all the neuroses and hangups but for that last knot, the
illusion of self-nature. These mind-energies, completely outside
the material universe, are tuned into celestial bliss as a result
of count-less good deeds and meditative absorptions (as opposed
to meditative insight which leads to liberation). Yet they are
still as far from, and as near to, enlightenment as we in the
human plane since they still have the concept "I am grooving
on celestial vibrations." This is central to Buddhist psychology:
that bliss is nice, and is achievable through good works and meditations
on topics such as compassion, devotion etc., but bliss, and rebirth
in the heavenly and bodyless realms, isn’t enlightenment. Even
after a billion years communing in a sexless, hierarchyless, immaterial
state with one’s concept of Emptiness, this basic bit of ignorance-flawed
mind will re-enter into a relationship with the world to mutually
recreate heavens, sun, moon, body, sex, society and the world
of the ten thousand things.
Comparisons can be drawn between all cultures’ accounts of Creation
and the process of evolution of an infant’s consciousness. The
infant starts in a pure unity with the Great Mother, in a state
of undifferentiated perception, a dark bodyless state, till, with
birth into the world, it steps beyond "I am" to "I
Then, after the world began to re-evolve, the beings… came to
Like the Judeo-Christian account, the world begins as a blinding
dark formless "void". But, in the Buddhist account,
the light that spreads on the waters early in the process of creation
is not God, but re-incarnated humanity, still made "of mind,
feeding on bliss, glowing from within, and traveling the air."
In the Judeo-Christian account the primordial act of alienation
is the eating of "the forbidden fruit of the tree of the
knowledge of Good and Evil." For the infant it is the realization
that its "apple", the mother’s breast, is actually a
separate, though regularly desired, object. In the Buddhist account,
also, "the fall" involves oral gratification, as the
pure life-force is driven by the seed of ego-illusion to taste
the milky pudding that covers the prehistoric waters of our cooling
molten earth, the same custard that fed our micro-organismic ancestors.
As the luminous beings are overcome with desire, their devolution
begins. Rather than Man being created by God from the earth’s
dust to be given dominion over the earth, humanity and nature
mutually recreate each other as part of one process.
In the Agganna Sutta, the changes in the material world provide
conditions for the development of, and provoke changes in and
actions from humanity. We in turn effect the world. This interdependence
is a good example of the Buddhist understanding of "co-dependent
origination" or "co-evolution" (paticcasamudpada).
Co-evolution is on the one hand the view that all things are involved
in a web of two-way causality in which every A effects B and is
in turn effected by B, and, on the other hand, "simultaneity"
or "synchronicity", where A and B arise, develop and
pass away in such interdependence that analysis of causal links
becomes meaningless. As our greed increases our inner light disappears
and the sun appears, our bodies solidify as the earth solidifies.
In the Judeo-Christian account Adam and Eve’s willful disobedience
of God and breaking of union with Him leads to the shameful realization
that they are naked, and after being cast out of the bountiful
garden, they are punished with the necessity of laboring in order
to survive. But for the Buddhists the differentiation of beings’
bodies into beautiful and ugly, male and female, arises naturally
from biological development associated with the eating of material
food and excretion of waste. In turn, naturally, vanity, lust,
and aversion arise, and the natural abundance of the earth declines.
The effortlessly gathered vines and mushrooms give way to paddy
that needs sowing, harvesting and threshing.
For the Jews and Christians, woman was created from Man’s rib,
a secondary servant and help-mate. The "Fall of Man"
is the fault, of this weak woman, Eve, whose sensuality and curiosity
lead her to be seduced by the rebel angel into seeking forbidden
knowledge. For this, she and all future women are punished with
pain in childbirth. The Agganna Sutta, rather, has the two sexes
develop simultaneously, neither superior to the other. Sexual
desire develops simultaneously in both sexes from mutual examination,
and its first expressions are seen with disgust by the other beings
because the couples are treating each other as objects for sense
gratification, rather than as the luminous consciousnesses they
so recently devolved from.
The Sutta stresses that sexual coupling leads to the establishment
of households, which in turn are the preconditions for "hoarding",
which arises as the paddy becomes more difficult to harvest. Anthropologically
we know that the storage of grain was a critical step in social
evolution, beyond the hunter- gatherer and primitive cultivator’s
decentralized organic relationship with nature, to a more settled,
agricultural relationship in which the unsettled wild becomes
a foreign "other". The Sutta show hoarding leading to
further deterioration of the organic unity with nature necessitating
first cultivation, then division of the commons into plot of private
property. Private property, then, is not just the result o greed,
but of the relationship of the household units of production consumption
to an increasingly difficult natural environment. It is interesting
to note that all the elements of Marxist and socialist-feminist
anthropological theories of the evolution of early modes of production
private property, family structure, and, as discussed below, the
state are present in the Buddhist account, though of course in
a pre-theoretical way.
Many commentators have pointed out that the Agganna Sutta’ account
of the arising of government was a "social contract theory’
as opposed to the prevalent Hindu "divine right" concepts.
That is, when private property leads to theft, and in turn to
censure, Iying and punishment, the people convene to choose the
wisest and ablest of their number to administer justice. The Buddhist
concept of government is of a human institution to be established
and maintained with the consent of the people in order to mediate
social conflicts resulting from competition over resources Only
those attempting a Marxist-Buddhist dialogue, though have pointed
out the way in which private property is one of the "causes’
of the organization of coercion, that is, the State, and from
the State arises the first class division. The important difference
is that the Sutta has the first state as democratically and consensually
established and the ruling class which arises from it as benevolent
rather the exploitative. It is a "worker’s state" with
a privileged, but wise an just, bureaucracy.
It is also here where the Buddha retums to the polemic against
brahmins. He shows the warriors arising first as those popularly
chose as the most able and just, and the brahmins only arise later
from those who could not endure meditation in the forest, and
settled in the town to make and recite books.
At that time they (the brahmins) were looked upon as the lowest
though now they are thought the best.
Similarly, according to a natural "dharmic" division
of labor the other classes arise also, and from their ranks, the
homeless monks. In the secular world, announces the Buddha in
conclusion, the warriors are the superior caste, and the monks
transcend all the ordinary classes
It is important to emphasize that the Buddha did not imply that
caste qualities are actually inherited, only those first generations
would actually have a close correspondence between ability and
status. Later, as the famous couplets in the Dhammapada point
out, a brahmin is not born a brahmin but must become one by his
actions. Only in this context does the Buddha say:
The warrior is the best among these people who trust in lineage.
Anyone from any caste or class who treads the path of a warrior’s
virtues, exhibiting justice, intelligence, concern for the people’s
welfare and leadership, is a true warrior, just as the way of
the homeless renunciate is open to all.
Another point is that the Buddha’s story of the evolution of caste/class
society places "those who put away evil habits and meditated
in huts" and "those who repeated the scriptures"
as the second and third strata in the status hierarchy, after
warriors. Yet the homeless monks are placed beyond class. This
should be instructive to many Buddhist monks today who believe
either meditation or scholarship to be the more important pursuit.
Both of these things are important elements in the monastic life,
but are merely parts of the larger revolutionary social process
of the Sangha, meditation and/or scholarship by themselves still
leave one trapped in class consciousness.
In the Agganna Sutta we see the first two Noble Truths, suffering
and its cause, but only at the end of the Sutta is there a suggestion
of Noble Truths Three and Four, the cessation of suffering and
the path to it. As in the Buddhist psychological account of the
chain of twelve mutually reinforcing elements which bring about
neurotic mind, elements which are each counteracted by the meditations
and practices of the spiritual path, the Agganna Sutta introduces
us to the chain of causation which leads to humanity’s alienation
from nature, each other and from our inner wisdom, and then suggests
a holistic, countervailing process, a counter-culture, counter-psychology,
counter-economy and a counter-polity, to reverse each element
in the downward spiral. Coercion must be replaced by cooperation,
private property by propertylessness, family and home by the community
of wanderers, hierarchy by egalitarian democracy, division of
labor by equal sharing of community labor. The use of the opposite
sex as a sex object must be replaced, respectful relationships
between androgynous individuals beyond greed and ignorance. Rather
than living at war with nature, the countervailing society strives
to be at peace with nature, as the forest monks were, living lightly
on the land. The Sangha is the embodiment of this countervailing
process which negates caste, class, sex, race and family, yet
its spiritual warriors live in an interdependent relationship
with the society of which it is the negation. On the one hand
they draw from and are supported by the neurotic society, and
on the other they establish their influence in the society. Though
this influence is felt at many levels it is most clearly seen
in the relationship of these spiritual warriors with the secular
warriors, the leaders and rulers of society.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DEMOCRACY
The Vajjian Sutta is another example of the discussion of the
rising and falling of things, in this case, a healthy republican
democracy. The Vajjians, like the Shakyans, were absorbed during
the Buddha’s period by an expanding monarchy. According to the
Buddha, the most important condition for the health of their society,
and defence against monarchical imperialism, was for them to continue
meet together regularly in their republican assemblies, gathering,
deciding and dispersing in common agreement.
The Buddha repeats this as a condition of health for the Sangha.
This is not an ordinary confrontational democracy, with irreconcilable
conflicts between interest-groups, but the achievement of a consensus
through broad and equal participation in face-to-face decision-making.
The secular republics were decaying because the growth of mercantile
culture and its attendant individualism were destroying the cultural
fabric, and the brahmins and monarchs were merely there to finish
the job and start knitting the new weave. Authoritarianism is
seen as another step in the decay of the social fiber, the democratic
process which chooses a benevolent ruler in the Agganna Sutta
survives in a reduced form in these republics, and finally is
only preserved by the Sangha.
The regime recommended here has a social welfare focus. Both the
protection of women from violence, and the care for and respect
towards the elderly are seen as central to social health.
Why does the Buddha say that free access of the wandering philosophers
contributes to social health? On one level, there is here the
traditional religious notion that the presence of renunciates
and sages set a high ethical standard, discouraging individualism
and antisocial behavior. But more deeply, at a sociological level,
these philosophers functioned as a decentralized news media, challenging,
critiquing and educating the society, and articulating popular
needs and aspirations on the basis of their organic interdependence
with the common people. In the Buddha’s day, the expanding monarchies
were putting pressures on the highly amorphous and decentralized
bands of philosophers to coalesce into structured and recognized
groups, in order to respond to the authoritarian challenge. The
Buddha is reminding his compatriots of the strength of an open
The law and tradition that grow out of the democratic and consensual
process are "legitimate" authority, the stability and
solidarity of such a society is the best environment for the progressive
development of lay people and the Sangha. Therefore the Buddha
recommends that citizens of the republics respect the rule of
law. Some conservative Buddhist teachers have interpreted this
passage (like the Christian "render unto Caesar…")
to be a demand for obedience to all political authority. This
ignores both the Buddha’s demand that we examine all traditions
and authorities critically to decide for ourselves what is correct,
and the nature of the regime that the Buddha is recommending respect
for, one in which law is made with broad participation. Though
the Buddha never explicitly discusses the utility or morality
of civil disobedience or revolution, he does describe regimes
which, through not acting in the interests of their citizens,
cause the public to flout the law, and thereby lead to their own
THE LION ROAR OF THE WHEEL-TURNING MONARCH
The Vajjians and Shakyans, and other republics, were replaced
by autocratic monarchies, a further social decline, but the Buddha
evolved a strategy of personal discussion and counsel in order
to influence the kings and their courts. The Buddha’s image of
traditional monarchs was of arrogant egotists pursuing imperialistic,
unjust policies, guided solely by greed, hatred and ignorance.
But if the king could be converted and brought under the away
of the Sangha, he could be taught to rule with compassion, selflessness
and wisdom, and the degenerative cycle would be halted. The Sangha,
that is, as a revolutionary vanguard in organic interdependence
with the people, and embodying humanitarian, democratic principles,
could establish its hegemony over the State. Such a qualitatively
transformed monarch was called a dharma-raja, or dharma-king.
When Siddhartha Gautama was born it was predicted that he would
either be a world-conqueror or a world-saviour, in line with the
Great Man mythos. Though his father tried to steer him toward
conquest of the world, Siddhartha conquered himself instead. The
symbol of secular power was the wheel of the war chariot, "the
wheel of power", but the symbol of the Buddha’s awakening
process was "the wheel of Truth" (dharmachakra) of which
he was the "wheel-turner" (chakravartin).
By subordinating himself to the way of truth, the just king allows
the dharmachakra to turn the wheel of power. In this Sutta, the
dharmachakra is symbolized by a glowing flying saucer. It is called
and peacefully conquers all lands, when the king provides for
all the people and animals of the realm, listens to the counsel
of the wise, controls his passions, and most importantly, makes
sure that there is no poverty in his kingdom.
This sutta begins with the famous injunction of the Buddha that
one must be a refuge and lamp unto oneself by holding fast to
the Dharma, and that we must take no other as our refuge or guide.
How are we to do this? By observing closely our body and mind
in order to attain wisdom and tranquillity. As in the Buddha’s
advice to the Kalamas, where he rejects reliance on scriptures,
authorities and traditions, and recommends personal testing and
deciding, the awakened citizen is "self-determining".
The awakened citizen does not abdicate personal will to Church,
State or King, though she/he is bound by compassion for her fellow
citizens to feel responsible to their needs and desires. Only
with this anarchist prologue does the Buddha launch into his most
pointed statement on ideal kingship.
"Once upon a time…" there was a king, Strongtyre,
says the Buddha with tongue in cheek, who was indeed a "strong-tyre",
since he turned the wheel of state with the wheel of dharma; though
he had a powerful army he ruled the world through non-violence
and justice. A spiritual and wise man, he retires at the end of
his life to live as a monk, and instructs his son in the ways
by which he can earn the symbol of legitimate rule, the Truth-Wheel,
since it cannot be inherited.
One duty is to pay close attention to the needs of the different
sectors of the population. Two sectors. "the religious"
and "the animals" are groups which are rarely addressed
by government policy, at least in the West. The rule of the Indian
King Asoka, the model of a dharmaraja for the last two thousand
years, provides some examples of implementation of such policies.
A department of religious affairs was established by Asoka to
provide assistance to all faiths more or less equally and the
population was exhorted to stop the hunting and slaughter of animals.
The king is enjoined in this sutta to dialogue with spiritual
people in order to obtain their advice and enlist them in his
ideas for social welfare, an ideal which fits with the strategy
of King-Sangha relationship discussed above.
But the most important sector for the king to look after is "the
poor", to whom the king must give wealth. While the Agganna
Sutta mythologically places the development of private property
as one of the chain of causes leading to crime, the state, and
class society, this Sutta portrays the most important role of
the state to be the amelioration, if not elimination, of poverty
through redistribution of property and social policies which prevent
the impoverishment of the various sectors. The dharma-raja thus
stabilizes, if not actually reverses, the degenerative process.
The king who rules in such a way is shown to be able to establish
a non-violent hegemony over all the world, which he does not take
advantage of the extract tax or tribute, but merely to establish
high ethical standards among his subordinates.
But eventually a king comes who, rather than holding fast to the
egoless Dharma, attempts to rule by his own idea. The only mistake
he makes is to allow poverty to develop, which leads to theft.
Rather than adopting preventative course of action to eliminate
poverty, the cause, he provides the offenders with property, in
effect rewarding them for committing crimes. When he sees that
this "liberal" approach is only encouraging more crime,
he turns to the "conservative" policy of execution,
which only has the effect of encouraging violent crime.
As society slowly disintegrates generation after generation, lifespans
shorten and immoral behaviour becomes more common. All religious,
family and political bonds lose their legitimacy and are no longer
respected. Even family members hate one another.
The Apocalypse that follows is the opposite end of a cycle which
begins in the Agganna Sutta. The temptation arises naturally to
compare this scriptural account of Apocalypse with the threatening
signs of nuclear and biological warfare, and the worsening condition
of the environment, as many Christians do. While such a comparison
will be drawn here, the point should be made that religious visions
of the end of the world show many similarities which probably
have more to do with the lives and psychology of pre-industrial
people than with prophetic accuracy. Really, there aren’t many
alternative modes of destruction outside of warfare, plagues,
famines, droughts, earthquakes, floods, and scourges of various
critters, so the fact that there are modern equivalents threatening
today shouldn’t surprise us. What should especially be avoided
by Buddhists is the tendency among religious fundamentalists to
believe in the inevitability of an increasingly evil world leading
to sure annihilation. In the first place, the wars, disease, ecological
destruction and famine the twentieth century has already witnessed
have more than fulfilled any "prophetic content" in
the sutta. What is perhaps valuable in that context is the way
the sutta shows the general world crisis to be the precondition
for the dawning of a new age. For, in the second place, Buddhism
teaches its allegories in order to awaken us to the wise and preventative
action needed now to cut through our karma, to break the neurotic
cycles, not in order to encourage defeatism. It was the brahmin
approach to preach obedience to social and personal karma, the
Buddhist approach is to achieve existential freedom from our karma,
Nonetheless, the image drawn of a seven-day war, engulfing the
whole world and destroying all civilization certainly brings to
mind the short but thoroughly destructive course a next world
war would take. The later Mahayana texts which speak of a seven-month
period of disease, spread by non-human beings (microbes?), bring
to mind the after-effects a nuclear or bacteriological war would
have. The drought and consequent famine, which is to last for
nearly eight years similarly brings to mind the current predictions
of world-wide ecological chaos following even a "limited"
nuclear war, the sun blotted out for months and years by radio-active
dust, causing "nuclear winter", radiated land, plants
and animals infertile, the gases which protect us from the sun’s
rays burned away.
The survivors are those who escaped to "live in huts in the
jungle, in mountain clefts" as the few who might survive
nuclear war would have to have been in deep shelters, and in areas
far from what had been civilization. As they emerge from their
caves "they will embrace one another and will be of one mind,
comforting each other and saying: "Oh Mortal! You are still
alive!" They will reflect on their fallen state, and the
path that lead there, and will vow to do good. This commitment
is the turning point of a new upward trend, as humanity rebuilds
the world and society, and, at the same time, develops spiritually
The result, after many generations, is a united peaceful world,
whose citizens enjoy long life spans and good health. The world
will be rich and well populated. Interestingly, the Buddha describes
a world with 84,000 cities so close together that a chicken can
fly from one to the next. Buddha comments that we might think
such a world to be like the hell of the "Waveless Deep",
crushed by the billions of humans like being at the bottom of
the ocean. But rather than an overpopulated, urban sprawl of polluted
mega-cities, in this future vision the Buddha says humanity will
pervade the world "as a jungle is by reeds and rushes",
that is in a decentralized ecological interdependence.
In Christian theology a debate has gone on for at least a hundred
years, and in some sense throughout Christian and Jewish history,
over whether the Millenium, the utopian era, will precede or be
brought about by the coming of the Messiah. American "post-millenialists",
believing that Christ would only return to judge the world after
humanity had succeeded in living in peace and justice for a thousand
years, had become social reformers working for the abolition of
slavery, rights for women and workers, and pacifism. Pre-millenialists
on the other hand saw the evils of the world and the coming Apocalypse
as inevitable, and in some sense welcome, since it heralded the
coming of the Saviour to found his Kingdom. (Some liberation theologians
have taken another approach and dispensed with the supernatural
interpretation of the Coming of Christ altogether, believing instead
that the resurrected spirit of Christ in the people building the
kingdom of heaven on earth through inspired action, is the return
of the Messiah.)
The Cakkavatti is the only early Buddhist scripture that discusses
the coming of the next Buddha, Metteya, or a coming millenium,
and it is emphatically postmillenial. After countless generations
of ethical, social and material rebuilding from the ashes of the
Apocalypse, this progressive social evolution is capped by the
coming of a paramount wheel-turning king, symbolizing the re-establishment
of the perfect, just, participatory and socialist government depicted
in the beginning of the Sutta. Only then as a natural outcome
of this historical process, will the next Buddha arise. "He"
will draw together a new religious order, which will be joined
by the king, who will give his palace over to the poor, homeless
and the priests. Symbolically, the coming Buddha brings the "withering
of the state", the old administrative apparatuses are turned
over to the poor and religious renunciates.
This scripture, as limited as it may seem as potential fuel for
popular messianism and millenial revolt, has been the basis of
many peasant uprisings, led by those claiming to be either the
righteous king, Sanka, or Metteya Buddha himself, come to destroy
the evil and establish the new order. The most famous examples
are the various insurrectionary Chinese secret societies, such
as "the White Lotus Society", which have led uprisings
for the last thousand years based partly on the Metteya mythos.
More recently, the Buddhist-socialist government of U Nu, Prime
Minister of Burma in the 50’s, made direct appeals to this sutta
and other Buddhist scripture to make its case for social reforms
and the validity of Marxist concepts.
The admonition which opens the sutta closes it as well. But two
new ideas are added: the meaning of wealth and of power to a Buddhist.
Embracing the whole world with a calm and compassionate mind is
true wealth, not small-minded nationalist imperialism, plundering
riches from other nations so that the master race can enjoy material
splendor. True power is the destruction of greed, hatred and ignorance,
and the establishment of oneself in mental liberation and insight,
rather than the domination of others. The Buddha concludes this
I consider no power so hard to subdue as the power of Mara (the
personification of illusion).
The system which oppresses us is based in and supported by illusion,
from the inner illusion of ego to the alienated ignorance we live
in about our social and political world. One who wants to understand
the Buddhist approach to politics must be fearless enough to face
and cut through the illusions within which we live.
BUDDHAGHOSA ON THE END
Buddhaghosa, of the tenth century after Christ, fifth century
A.D., was one of the earliest monks, and certainly the most important
monk, to attempt a thorough systematization of the psychology,
metaphysics, and philosophy of the early Pali Buddhist texts.
His Visuddhimaggha (the Path of Purity) remains a textbook for
Theraveda Buddhists today. He also synthesizes commentaries of
his time to draw out the original materials, as with the addenda
to the Agganna Sutta about genitals and cooked millet. Most of
the section printed here on the destruction of the universe and
cyclic re-creation appears to be a reconstruction of the rare
discussions of this subject in the original scripture.
The Buddhist cosmology has two cycles, the social cycle described
in the Agganna and Cakkavatti Suttas, and the astro-physical cycle
elaborated hereby Buddhaghosa. This astro-physical cycle generally
corresponds to the modern notion of the Big Bang, the universe
expands for billions of years, then contracts to a point of complete
atomization and unification of all the universe’s matter/energy.
Then the black hole of nuclear plasma explodes back out again
to recreate galaxies, suns and planets. The commentary printed
here is a description of the contracting period in which humans
begin to prepare for the coming destruction by meditating into
a bodyless state.
Buddhaghosa asks the interesting question: how can people, suffering
from drought caused by geo-physical disturbances and the growing
proximity of suns, meditate? Because they are forewarned
heavenly beings who have seen the end of the universe and the
new one being born (and) travel up and down the haunts of humans,
with their heads bare, hair disheveled, with piteous faces, mopping
their tears with their hands, with disordered clothes of dyed
cloth, warning of the end.
These benevolent extraterrestrials, disguised as the hysterical
lunatics carrying "The End Is Near" signs so often satirized
in the press, actually convince we earthlings to accelerate our
ethical and spiritual evolution in order to escape into the bodyless
Perhaps then we can fancifully translate Buddhaghosa’s tale an
being that of an intergalactic evacuation plan for intelligent
lifeforms, beaming us into.
In Mahayana thought, the Bodhisattva unifies the "feminine"
energy of profound wisdom (insight into the Void, interdependence
and no-self) with the "masculine" energy of total compassionate
dedication to the liberation of beings. Without the integration
of both, liberation is impossible, again a reminder to scholars,
philosophers and teachers who don’t meditate, and meditators who
don’t analyze and engage with society and the world.
We see the emphasis on taking an active career in this set of
verses, in sharp contrast to the pro-renunciatory language of
the earlier scriptures. These verses recommend that we become
teachers, leaders, ministers, scientists, craftsmen, doctors,
even priests in order to help our fellow humans. The verses point
out that the Bodhisattva, as a skilled actor, can turn deception
into a tool of liberation. She/he can manifest all the behaviors
of all living beings. She/he can practice immoral deeds without
causing harm or bad karma, and even in the service of instruction.
Bodhisattvas devote themselves to strange sects in order to overcome
their dogmatism, in other words, they infiltrate other organizations
and establish the ideological hegemony of their own nondogmatic,
open-systemed view. They can show themselves to be sick or dead,
and can "demonstrate the burning of the earth in the consuming
flames of the world’s end in order to demonstrate impermanence".
(Bringing to mind the "die-ins" that are now a common
form of antinuclear protest in the West.)
But this section is especially presented as an encouraging postscript
to the stories of social and universal Apocalypse. For Vimalakirti
advises us of what we must do during the recurrent scourges that
will ravage the earth. During famine we must "become"
food and drink, for only when people are fed can they be taught
and practice the Dharma. We must become medicine during times
of plague, and treasures for the poor. During wars we must introduce
to non-violence hundreds of millions of living beings. Even before
What then can we learn today from an examination of these ancient
myths that will help us turn around our Apocalypse? Most importantly
we find a description of a chain of causation involving psychological,
social and material processes. These interdependent elements are
seen as part of a beginningless and endless series of events,
without a "Prime Cause". The Buddha, as a scientist
of human suffering, examined the world around him and point-by-point
identified the interlocking elements of "the system"
(samsara) and elaborated a "countervailing system" to
negate each of these elements. The nature of this countervailing
system can be discerned both in the institution of the Sangha
and in the scripture.
His counter-system sought to replace vanity with sympathy, hatred
with compassion, and ignorance with analysis and insight, on this
much all agree. But he also saw possessiveness, and property itself,
to be powerful reinforcements of our neurosis, to be replaced
by voluntary simplicity and communal sharing. Division of labor,
and its resulting class society, alienating us from our common
human experience, was replaced by the sharing of all labor in
a classless society, as in "the beginning" and in the
Sangha. Rather than socially stereotyped ‘men’ and ‘women’ relating
to each other as sexual objects, within the property relations
of the patriarchal family, the Buddha sought to encourage respectful
egalitarian relations between our true human natures which are
neither male nor female (see Buddhist Feminism), also by the author).
All forms of attachment to family, class, race or nation were
to be replaced by a compassionate identification with all sentient
life, and the material corollary of such compassion, a classless,
race-blind, nationless world society of extended families. Exploitation
of nature was to give way to ecological interdependence, a step
back towards the easy abundance of our mushroom and vine-gathering
Most Buddhists throughout history have been blinded to the radical
nature of the Buddha’s teaching by philosophical idealism, encouraged
by ruling elites. They prefer not to speak of this social anarchist
Shakyan warrior who threatens to smash open brahmin’s heads and
insults their patronage. The kings, ruling classes and priest-hoods
that have dominated Buddhism have suppressed the democrat, the
antiimperialist, and the anti-clerical Buddha. The oppressors
have tried to fit the Buddha back into a godly mold, beyond human
interests and activity. But the Buddha was a revolutionary humanist,
a symbol and teacher of the liberation of human potential, he
called upon the masses to renounce primitive beliefs in a Supreme
God, beliefs which encourage authoritarian power.
Buddhist scriptures depict at least three different political
schemes. The most alienated and alienating is the authoritarian
regime, supporting a privileged elite against an exploited poor,
engaging in expansionist, imperialist wars, and supported by racist,
nationalist and patriarchal forces of cultural reaction, such
as brahmins. The second is the social-welfare regime, with limited
popular participation, guided by a mass-based vanguard of progressive
intellectuals, such as the Sangha. Such a regime can halt the
degenerative process. But the highest form of polity is the decentralized,
participatory democracy, with face-to-face form of polity is the
decentralized, participatory democracy, with face-to face egalitarian
decision-making, leading eventually to a ‘withering of the state’.
In the Cakkavatti’s reconstruction period, no explicit role is
mentioned for a clergy in guiding the people to establish the
New Order. The re-awakening process is a mass social and spiritual
phenomenon which, itself, leads to the re-establishment of pure
religion. In the authoritarian regime, the religious and secular
intellectuals side with the elites and state against the masses.
In the social-welfare regime, a powerful section of the intellectual
leadership in society sides with the masses in influencing the
state. But in the truly democratic society, the division between
intellectual and manual labor, leader and led, is eliminated.
We Buddhist citizens, we aspiring Bodhisattvas, must look deeply
into the social and material trends of our day, identify and engage
with those forces that our progressive vision points toward, not
remaining separate from the masses, as Buddhists or intellectuals.
Social change is not a distraction from spiritual growth, it is
the discipline within which we grow. If we are merely "meditators
in leaf huts" or "repeaters of the scriptures"
we are still part of the problem, wisdom without compassion. On
the other hand, those who engage in social change without a spiritual
base, without a humble appreciation of the big (bang) picture
and a non-dogmatic world-view, are at best compassionate without
wisdom. Our challenge is to step out of these old illusions and
structures of the status quo, as that first dissatisfied warrior
did in the Agganna Sutta, to find true liberation in the building
of an awakened world and humanity.
A NOTE ON THE TEXTS
Beginning at the turn of the century, two dedicated Pali scholars,
Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids, made the translation of the entire Pali
Buddhist canon into English their life work. As Buddhists with
vast scholarly knowledge and an understanding of the social context
of the scriptures, they have provided an invaluable service to
the spread of the Dharma. Their Pali Text Society translations
are still the most common sources in Buddhist studies, but for
several reasons they are not appropriate for popular consumption.
The first reason is the archaic British English used, and the
attempts to put the translations into rhyming or otherwise poetic
couplets. Like attempts to translate the King James Bible into
modern idiom, my modifications of the original is suited more
to evangelical, than literary and scholarly, purposes. Also edited
out are the many etymological and explanatory footnotes, which
are very useful to scholars, but confusing for the layperson.
The second reason is the highly repetitive nature of the early
texts, which were an oral tradition for hundreds of years. Though
many repetitions are edited out in the translations I have carried
that process one step further by trying to express in as straightforward
a way as possible the message, without interfering with the general
structure of the suttas, which also carries meaning.
The third reason for changes is that some terms used betray subtle
interpretive biases which, while perhaps technically correct,
overall give an incorrect impression. I am not a Pali scholar,
and so have only replaced terms with synonyms which I feel, in
the light of modern scholarship and modern English, better convey
the ideas. Some sentences are direct quotations of the original.
For the extremely curious, or scholar, the entire Pali canon has
now been put on CD-ROM in romanized type. CD-Roms of other translations
are also in the works sponsored by the Electronic Buddhist Text
I encourage the curious or querulous to refer to the originals.
The first section on the belief in God can be found in Dialogues
o the Buddha, Part I, p.31, as can the Ambattha Sutta. The Cakkavatti,
Vajjian and Agganna Suttas can be found in Dialogues… Part 11,
a well as the Lakkhana Sutta, which gives a detailed description
of the 32 marks of the Great Man and their symbolic significance.
Pali Text Society books are distributed by Routledge and Kegan
Paul - London, Henley and Boston, or you can purchase volumes
directly from them: 73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AD United
The Visuddhirnaggha (Path of Purity) by Buddhaghosa can be obtained
in English from the Buddhist Publication Society (PO Bo 61, Kandy,
Sri Lanka) - all 900 pages of it. The best translation of the
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra is Robert Thurman’s (Uma’s Dad) The
Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti, Pennsylvania State University
Press, though these verses were also adapted from Lamotte’s translation.
Invaluable interpretation, and discussion of the social background,
of the suttas can be found in Trevor Ling’s The Buddha
(1973, Penguin Books, London) and Sarkisyanz’s Buddhist Backgrounds
of the Burmese Revolution (The Hague).