Agi-Vacchagotta Sutta, Foolish Questions

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Introduction

The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta concludes the story of Vacchagotta. Vacchagotta was a wandering contemporary of the Buddha. He often encountered the Buddha and peppered the Buddha with common questions – then and now – that are irrelevant and a continual distraction from developing the Dhamma. An underlying theme of these encounters between the Buddha and Vaccha the patient determination of Vaccha and the consistent and persistent patience, compassion, skillful insight, and directness of the Buddha.

Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya 22

I have heard that on one occasion the Buddha was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. The wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Buddha with his usual questions.  They exchanged greetings and Vacchagotta sat to one side of the Buddha:

“Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘The cosmos is eternal and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘The cosmos is not eternal. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘The cosmos is finite and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement:‘’The cosmos is infinite and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘The soul and the body are the same and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘The soul is one thing and the body another and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama is this a true statement: ‘After death a Tathagata exists and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama, is this a true statement: ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama, is this a true statement: ‘After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“Then, Master Gotama, is this a true statement: ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist and only this is true. Any other view is worthless.”

The Buddha responds “No.”

“I am confused, Master Gotama. You have said that:

  • The cosmos is eternal
  • The cosmos is not eternal.
  • The cosmos is finite.
  • The cosmos is infinite.
  • The soul and the body are the same.
  • The soul is one thing and the body another.
  • After death, a Tathagata exists.
  • After death, a Tathagata does not exist.
  • After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist.
  • After death, a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist.

“In each case, you have stated that none of these are true statements. Do you know the answers? What is the drawback in answering these questions? Are you completely dissociated from these positions?”

“Vaccha, the notion that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, as are all these views. These views are a wilderness of views. These views distort reality. These views are fetters. These views are accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, and fever. These views do not lead to disenchantment or dispassion or cessation or calm or direct knowledge. These views do not develop full Awakening. These views do not develop Unbinding.

“Does Master Gotama have any position, any (fixed or determined) view at all?”

“Vaccha, a ‘position’ is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this:

  • Form Arises and passes away.
  • Feelings arise and pass away.
  • Perceptions arise and pass away
  • Mental Fabrications arise and pass away.
  • Consciousness arises and passes away.

“Consciousness” in this context refers to ongoing thinking rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths as described in the Paticca-Samuppada Sutta, and many other suttas that describe Dependent Origination. What the Buddha is referring to here is the Five Clinging-Aggregates. The Five Clinging-Aggregates describe the ongoing personal experience of suffering due to this initial ignorance. [1,2.3]

The Five Clinging-Aggregates arise and pass away. Ignorance arises and passes away.

Continuity of The Five Clinging-Aggregates and ignorance can only be maintained through continued and determined ignorance. Continuity often obscures impermanence.

This why I teach that a human being who develops (the Eightfold Path) brings to cessation this very ignorance though renunciation and relinquishment of all wrong views (rooted in ignorance of Four Truths). This one has ceased all I-making and obsessive conceit. It is through recognizing and abandoning (false and distracting) views that one is liberated from clinging to wrong views.

This last sentence shows the primary purpose and focus of the Buddha’s Dhamma. The Buddha consistently describes an awakened, fully mature human being as “Unbound” from clinging to wring views – views arising from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

“But, Master Gotama, the one whose mind is thus released: Where are they reborn?”

“‘Vaccha, rebirth is irrelevant.”

“Master Gotama, are you saying this one is not reborn.”

“‘Vaccha, not being reborn irrelevant.

“Whether one is reborn, or not reborn, or whether one may be reborn and not be reborn are all irrelevant (to developing the Dhamma.)

“At this point, Master Gotama, I am even more confused.”

“Of course you’re confused, Vaccha. Of course, you’re confused. Vaccha, the phenomenon of ignorance (of Four Noble Truths) providing sustenance to confused and deluded views is hard to see and hard to realize. This understanding (Fully Awakened Right View) is tranquil and refined. This understanding is beyond conjecture. This understanding is subtle. This understanding is experienced by the wise.

For those with other views or other practices, who have other goals or other teachers, it is not possible to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. Vaccha, If a fire is burning in front of you would you know that ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”

“Yes, wise teacher.”

“And, Vaccha, what is sustaining the fire?”

“The fire is dependent on grass and timber for its sustenance.'”

“Vaccha, If the fire were to go out, would you know that it has gone out’?”

“Yes, wise teacher.”

“And in which direction from here has the fire gone? East? West? North? Or south?”

“Master Gotama, that question is irrelevant. What has sustained the fire – grass and timber – has been consumed. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber will simply cease to exist. The fire is “unbound” from its sustenance.”

“Vaccha, just as a fire is extinguished from removing sustenance, becoming empty of ignorance removes sustenance from greed, aversion, and ongoing unsatisfactory experiences (Dukkha).

“Any physical form describing the Tathagata as form is a wrong view.

“The Tathagata has abandoned all wrong views. The root (of Dukkha) has been destroyed and the conditions of suffering abandoned. Confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointment will not arise in the future.

“Vaccha, freed from the association with form, the Tathagata remains deep, boundless, difficult to understand. In order to understand the Tathagata (understand awakening) one must abandon wrong views (rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths):

  • Rebirth is irrelevant.
  • No rebirth is irrelevant.
  • Rebirth and no rebirth concurrently is irrelevant.

“Furthermore, Vaccha, any feeling, any perception, any fabrication, any consciousness (Five Clinging-Aggregates) by which one associates with the Tathagata would now understand that the Tathagata has abandoned ignorance, its root destroyed. The conditions rooted in ignorance that give rise to suffering are no longer present.

Freed from associating with ongoing thinking rooted in ignorance, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to understand.[4]

The wanderer Vacchagotta understands and expresses his profound delight: “Master Gotama, due to impermanence,  a great Sala tree loses its branches, its leaves, its bark, its sapwood, leaving only pure heartwood.

“Master Gotama, your words are free of branches, leaves, bark, and sapwood. Your words stand as pure heartwood.

“Your teaching is magnificent! Your teaching is clear, direct, and distortion-free. You have revealed what seemed hidden. You have shown me the way.  You carry a lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes to see can see the Five Clinging-Aggregates as you see them, even through these many statements of confused views.

I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to his Dhamma, and to our Sangha. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge.”

End Of Sutta

As with all of the suttas preserved in the Pali Canon, the context of Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths is of primary significance in understanding any individual sutta. Vacchagotta’s encounters with the Buddha are well known (in the Suttas). In this sutta, Vaccha finally abandons his views rooted in ignorance. He is now able to understand the Buddha’s teachings. Up until this point, Vacchagotta insisted on answers to his “great” questions and only answers that would fit his current (ignorant) view.

The Buddha consistently refused to answer Vaccha’s questions as the Buddha understood that any answer (or debate) would only further Vaccha’s ignorance. It is not a lack of knowledge regarding these questions that Vacchagotta raises that causes suffering.

Dependent Origination shows it is ignorance of Four Noble Truths that results in all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointing experiences.

This sutta incorporates teachings on Dependent Origination, Four Noble Truths, Five Clinging-Aggregates to show how to practically apply the Dhamma.

Whether it is these “great questions” that are causing distraction, or simply mundane, doubt, skepticism, or indifference to the Buddha’s Dhamma, it is the Dhamma in a general sense and the Eightfold Path specifically that was developed by the Buddha to provide safe and clear passage through the wilderness of conflicting views. [5]

Peave.

 

  1. Four Noble Truths
  2. Dependent Origination
  3. Five Clinging-Aggregates
  4. Nagara Sutta
  5. Modern Buddhism, A Thicket Of Views

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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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