Maha-Assapura Sutta

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Introduction

In the Maha-Assapura Sutta the Buddha teaches the assembled monks and nuns that being known as “contemplatives” and identifying as contemplatives does not fully describe the qualities of one following the Eightfold Path. During the Buddha’s time, as well as today, there is often an over-emphasis on mindfulness and insight in a general sense without the refined mindfulness that integrates the entire Eightfold Path and leads to useful insight.

(I am using the word contemplative as a verb to describe one who is mindfully introspective and developing insight into the Three Marks of Existence – Impermanence, Not-self, and Disappointment.)

Maha-Assapura Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya 39

The Buddha and his sangha were in Assapura. There he addressed those assembled: “Others perceive you as ‘contemplatives’ and you claim that you are contemplatives. If this is your claim then you should train yourself properly in this manner:

“Develop, be mindful of, and practice the qualities that make one a contemplative so that you will be authentic to the contemplative life. In this way those that support you in going forth with clothing, food, shelter and medicine will also benefit.

(The Buddha here is reminding the assembled that the self-less path to Arahantship holds the greatest and immediate benefit to all beings.)

“These are the qualities that make one a contemplative:

  • Mindfulness of the consequences of unskillful acts
  • Being pure and restrained in bodily conduct
  • Being pure and restrained in verbal conduct
  • Being pure and restrained in mental conduct

“Do not exalt yourselves or disparage others. When you are mindful of the consequences of unskillful acts and maintaining purity and restraint in thought, word, and deed, do not think that this is enough. Do not lose the goal. There is more to be done.

“Be mindful and protect your sense-gates.

  • Practice restraint at seeing form with the eye
  • Practice restraint at hearing sounds with the ears
  • Practice restraint at smelling aroma with the nose
  • Practice restraint at tasting a flavor with the tongue
  • Practice restraint at tactile sensation through the body
  • Practice restraint at forming ideas through the intellect

“Practice restraint at your senses to avoid greed and distress and grasping at fabrications. Even now, protecting the sense-gates and practicing restraint, do not think this is enough. Do not lose the goal. There is more to be done.

  • Practice restraint and moderation in eating. Avoid eating for entertainment, intoxication, growing large, or for beautification. Abandon feelings of hunger that develop additional craving. Be content. Be mindful that eating is for survival and for the continuance of the body so that the disciplined life can be lived.
  • Be devoted to mindfulness and alertness, avoiding lethargy and drowsiness. During the day cleanse your mind of any qualities that would continue confusion and delusion. During the evening and night, cleanse your mind of any qualities that would continue confusion and delusion.
  • Be mindful and alert when looking here and there. Be mindful and alert when standing, walking, seated, or lying down. Be mindful when dressing and when eating. Be mindful and alert when eliminating. Be mindful and alert when waking and sleeping. Be mindful and alert when talking and when remaining silent.

“Even now, practicing restraint when eating and remaining mindful and alert with life as life occurs, do not think this is enough. Do not lose the goal. There is more to be done.

“Seek out a secluded spot and practice meditation and

  • Abandon craving with regard to the world.
  • Abandon ill-will and anger. Rest in a mind free of ill-will with sympathetic joy for all beings.
  • Abandon laziness and drowsiness.
  • Abandon restlessness and anxiety.
  • Abandon doubt and uncertainty with no confusion of skillful mental qualities (to be developed and maintained.)

“Cleanse yourselves of these (five) Hindrances.

“Friends, suppose a person falls ill. They no longer enjoy their meals and are weak. Later, recovered from illness they think ‘Before I was ill and weak and I could not enjoy my meals. Now I am strong and able to enjoy my meals.’ Because of this they would experience happiness.

“Now suppose that a person is bound in prison and later released. The thought would occur to them ‘before I was in prison and now I am free.’ Because of that thought they would experience happiness.

“Now suppose a person carrying money and valuable goods is traveling in a dangerous a desolate country, overcome by worry. At a later time they emerge from that dangerous and desolate country safe and sound. The thought would occur to them ‘before I was overcome by worry that I would lose my goods an money. Now I have emerged from that desolate country safe and sound with no loss of my property.’ Because of that thought they would experience happiness.

“In the same manner, when these five hindrances are not abandoned they are experienced as a sickness, as a prison, as a desolate and dangerous road. But when these five hindrances are recognized and abandoned you remain free of worry and doubt. You remain secure and free of debt (attachment to wrong views).

“Being mindful that these five hindrances have been abandoned, they become inspired. Inspired, they grow tranquil. Tranquil they know inner content. Content they deepen concentration (Samadhi).

“Now, withdrawn from sensory desire, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, they (are able to) enter into the first jhana (meditative absorption), inspiration and contentment accompanied by directed thought and dispassionate mindfulness. They are filled with inspiration and contentment born of withdrawal.

(“Directed thought” is thought that is directed, or guided, by the refined mindfulness of the Eightfold Path, the overall framework for developing understanding.)

“Furthermore, as directed thoughts and dispassionate thoughts subside they enter into the second jhana, inspiration and contentment born of composure and the unification of mindfulness, the five hindrances abandoned. Just as a lake is filled from a cool spring welling up from the depths, so this very body is filled with inspiration and contentment born of composure.

“Furthermore, as inspiration fades they enter the third jhana, equanimous, mindful, and content. As in a lotus pond some lotuses remain immersed in water permeated and suffused with the cool water of the pond, so their very body is permeated and suffused with contentment released from inspiration.

“And furthermore with the abandoning of all confusion, delusion, and disappointment (dukkha) they enter into the fourth jhana. Their equanimity is pure (unconditioned) and their mindfulness unwavering. Just as a person covered entirely with a white cloth, they sit entirely pervaded with pure, bright, boundless mindfulness.

“With their mind well-concentrated, free from disturbance and pliable, knowledge of impermanence arises. Craving for and clinging to the arising and passing away of the things of the world is seen with clarity and refined mindfulness.  They understand the continuity of dukkha within the impermanence of the endless cycle of birth, sickness, aging, and death born of ignorance. (Please see note below regarding my contextual edit here.)

“With their mind resting in profound concentration free of defilements and resting in purity and equanimity they recognize the endless cycle of dukkha of all beings passing away and reappearing. They understand how some are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate depending on their karma. They understand that those beings who engaged in unskilful conduct in thought, word, and deed, who reviled the disciplined ones, who held wrong views and acted from wrong views, they would continue confused and deluded views, and continue to suffer.

“They further understand that those beings who engaged in skillful conduct in thought, word, and deed, who respected the disciplined ones, who held right views and acted from right views, they would develop freedom from confused and deluded views, and end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

“From the perspective of fully developed Right View they understand the unfolding of impermanence and not-self in accordance with their karma.

“With their mind well- concentrated, resting in equanimity, free of all defilements and mental fabrications they understand ‘This is stress, this is the origination of stress, this is the cessation of stress, and this is the path leading to the cessation of stress, the Eightfold Path. Released from clinging to ignorant views they understand ‘Birth is ended, the disciplined life has been lived, the task is done. There is nothing further for this world.

“This, friends, is a contemplative. They have done what is to be done to abandon all unskillful qualities that would continue confusion, delusion, and disappointment. This one is a learned one, a master, a noble one, an arahant.

“And how is one an Arahant? They have abandoned all hurtful and unskillful qualities that cause suffering for themselves and others. They have abandoned all hurtful and unskilful qualities that would give birth to conceit. This is how one becomes an Arahant.”

Upon hearing these words the assembled were delighted and gratified.

End of Sutta

This remarkable sutta teaches the importance the Buddha placed on not just donning the robes of a Dhamma practitioner. Unlike other teacher’s of his time the Buddha was not concerned with simply gaining followers but with emphasizing to those developing his Dhamma that he taught a complete path that must be developed in order to achieve the goal.

Upon describing the skillful qualities of concentration and refined mindfulness  the Buddha taught that it was actual individual experiences of the results of Dhamma practice that would prove the effectiveness of his Dhamma. Dismissing the mere outward appearance of a contemplative’s life, what was of singular importance was to develop the qualities of mindful restraint rooted in wisdom, virtue, and concentration in a completely practical manner in each practitioner’s life and in each moment that occurs.

“I teach the arising of suffering and the cessation of suffering, nothing more.” In describing suffering (dukkha) the Buddha teaches “birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering….in short the Five Clinging Aggregates are suffering.” It is in maintaining the Five Clinging Aggregates through ignorance that continues suffering.

Over-emphasizing the importance of the knowledge of each individual birth then diminishes the importance of recognizing the continuity of wrong (ignorant) views that continues ongoing suffering. Continuity obscures impermanence so focussing on what continues is not skillful. Recognition of the Three Marks of Existence brings wisdom that ends ignorance and ends the cycle of Dukkha.

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 and Maurice Walsh, 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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