The Alagaddupama Sutta – The Water Snake

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In the Alagaddupama Sutta – The Water Snake Sutta, the Buddha uses the simile of a water snake to teach the nature of clinging maintained by  a mind conditioned by confused and deluded views.

The core teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of the nature of suffering arising in the impermanent phenomenal world and the path developing the cessation of suffering. This teaching is known as The Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth, there is Dukkha, describes the inherent unsatisfactory nature of life due to impermanence and a misunderstanding of self. Impermanence, Not-Self, and Dukkha, disappointment, are known as The Three Marks of Existence. [1]

The Second Noble Truth shows that craving and clinging rooted in ignorance initiates and continues dukkha. The Third Noble Truth is the truth of possibility of the cessation of dukkha. The Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

The Eightfold Path is primarily developed to provide a framework and direction to overcome conditioned mind’s method of remaining “conditioned” to protect confused and deluded views. The Buddha considered carefully if it was possible for people to overcome conditioned thinking, or wrong views. He provided the Eightfold Path for this purpose.

The Pali word used to describe human suffering is Dukkha. Pali is the ancient language first used to create a written record of the Buddha’s teachings. Today this written record is called “The Pali Canon.” [2]

Dukkha includes all human suffering from mild disappointment and disenchantment with life to extreme mental, emotional or physical suffering. The Eightfold Path is a path that systematically develops heightened virtue supported by heightened concentration resting in a mind of pure wisdom. The Eightfold Path leads one from wrong views arising from ignorance of The Four Noble Truths to unwavering Right View free of clinging to views arising from an incessantly self-referential ego-personality.

The problem with dukkha is not only the underlying unsatisfactory nature of life. The continual need to establish and maintain self-referential ego-bound views becomes a continual preoccupation with the ever-changing objects and events of life. Life then becomes a repetitive exercise of seeking to establish a permanent self in impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas. The ego-bound self self is driven by conditioned mind to chase what brings only pleasurable experiences and avoid inevitable disappointment and disenchantment.

The First factor of the Eightfold Path is Right View. Right view initially is the view that  that current views are contributing to confusion and disappointment. Initial Right View occurs when The Four Noble Truths are first seriously considered and the Eightfold Path engaged.

The remaining seven actors of the Eightfold Path support and define the further development of Right View. (These seven factors are Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation.) [3]

The Eightfold Path is a path for developing heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration in the context of understanding the nature of suffering and abandoning its causes. Right View along with Right Intention are the wisdom factors of the Eightfold Path. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are the virtuous factors. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation develop heightened concentration.

The Buddha teaches that ignorance of the true nature of human life, through 12 observable causative links, results in all manner of confusion, delusion, and suffering. These 12 observable causative links are known as Dependent Origination. Continued ignorance of The Four Noble Truths is required, dependent on, to continue suffering. [4]

Attachment to, or clinging to, any view that arises from a wrong or ignorant view will further the distraction of dukkha. The Eightfold Path then is the path for recognizing and abandoning wrong views and developing and maintaining Right View.

In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Sutta of the Water Snake, the Buddha admonishes one of the monks of the Sangha and uses a story of a water snake to provide insight. Arittha, one of the monks of the Sangha, while in seclusion, reasons that giving into sense pleasures and developing clinging to that which brings him pleasure must be acceptable. In Arittha’s mind, rooted in wrong view, he was able to logically conclude that since he as a human being that naturally clings to things that bring pleasure, the Buddha must be wrong in his teachings regarding clinging. 

This is a wrong view that has arisen in Arittha which Arittha justifies simply due to the view arising in his own mind. He uses a misunderstanding of the Dhamma to continue his attachment to this wrong view. In this case Arittha misapplies the teachings on the five clinging-aggregates, the Buddha’s teachings on not-self and what it is that appears to cling to objects and events, as justification for clinging to (wrong) views.

Even though Arittha’s thoughts and actions are rooted in ignorance (of The Four Noble Truths) his conditioned mind is biased towards adapting and accommodating the Buddha’s teachings with his wrong views rather than develop the Eightfold Path and profound Right View.

(This type of discursive reasoning is an aspect of conditioned thinking. Modern Psychology describes this type of self-affirming belief system as “confirmation bias.” One has a bias towards certain ego-centered views and perceives the occurrences of life in a way that will confirm the biased view.)

In an attempt to reconcile his own need to maintain his identity as an ego-bound personality, Arittha concludes that he must be something other than what is defined by the five clinging-aggregates, meaning that there must be a “cosmic” self that provides his existence. This is a common wrong view that is known as “maintaining a doctrine of self,” or continued “I-making.”

The Buddha’s teaching on not-self, on Anatta, simply means that what we perceive as self is an impermanent manifestation founded in wrong view (ignorance) and established through five clinging-aggregates: form, feeling, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness.  [5]

In explaining what it is that appears to be a self the Buddha is not teaching that there then exists a mystical cosmic self, nor does he teach annihilation as in the belief in no-self, or nothingness, or emptiness as emptiness relates to a “self.” In order to believe in a self that somehow becomes annihilated, there must be a permanent self established to be annihilated. This is another wrong view as it depends on a doctrine of self.

The Buddha is simply teaching that what is believed to be a self is not permanent or substantial and all views of self arising from ignorance must be recognized and put aside to be free of the distraction of dukkha.

In speaking with his fellow monks, Arittha stated that he concluded that what the Buddha taught as hindrances [6] to awakening were not actually hindrances and could be indulged in. When his fellow monks mentioned this to the Buddha, the Buddha asked that Arittha be brought to him. The Buddha asked Arittha if it was true that he claimed to understand the Dhamma and that those acts the Buddha says are hindrances are not genuine hindrances? Arittha replied “That is true. I understand the Dhamma taught by the Buddha and those acts that are taught as hindrances (to awakening) are not genuine hindrances.”

The Buddha responded “Foolish man, from whom have you understood that Dhamma taught by me in such a way? Haven’t I in many ways described obstructive acts? And when indulged in they are genuine hindrances. I have said that sensual pleasures are of little satisfaction and bring much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks. I have compared sensual pleasures to a chain of bones: of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks. I have compared sensual pleasures to a lump of flesh… a grass torch… a pit of glowing embers… a dream… borrowed goods… the fruits of a tree… a butcher’s ax and chopping block… swords and spears… a snake’s head: of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks.

But you, foolish man, through your own wrong grasp (of the Dhamma), have misrepresented my teaching. As well as injuring yourself, your foolishness will lead to your long-term harm & suffering and other’s long term harm and suffering.”

In speaking to all the monks assembled the Buddha then teaches how a misunderstanding and misapplication of the Dhamma occurs as a result of distorting the Dhamma to fit hardened views arising from ignorance:

“Monks, there is the case where some foolish people study the Dhamma. Having studied the Dhamma, they don’t ascertain the meaning and the purpose of those Dhammas with their discernment. Not having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they don’t come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves and their foolish views in debate. They don’t reach the goal of Dhamma which is release from all ignorant views. Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering and other’s long term harm and suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-understanding (wrong view) of the Dhamma.

“Suppose there were a person needing a water-snake. They would see a large water-snake and grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite them on the hand, on the arm, or on one of his limbs, and from that cause they would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-understanding of the water-snake.

In the same way, there is the case where some foolish people study the Dhamma. Having studied the Dhamma, they don’t ascertain the meaning or the purpose of the Dhamma with their discernment. Not having ascertained the meaning of the Dhamma with their discernment, they don’t come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves and their foolish views in debate. They don’t reach the goal of the Dhamma which is release from all ignorant views. Their wrong grasp of the Dhamma will lead to their long-term harm & suffering and other’s long term harm and suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-understanding (wrong view) of the Dhamma.

“But then there is the case where some wise people study the Dhamma… Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of the Dhamma with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of the Dhamma with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don’t study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves or foolish views in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma which is release from wrong views. Their right grasp of the Dhamma will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness and other’s long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-understanding (Right View) of the Dhamma.

“Suppose there were a person needing a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and pin it down firmly with a cleft stick. Having pinned it down firmly with a forked stick, he would grasp it firmly by the neck. Then no matter how much the water-snake might wrap its coils around his hand, his arm, or any of his limbs, he would not from that cause suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the right-understating of the water-snake.

In the same way, there is the case where some people study the Dhamma. Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of the Dhamma with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of the Dhamma with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don’t study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right understanding of the Dhamma will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness and other’s long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-understanding of the Dhamma.

“Therefore, monks, when you understand the meaning of any statement of mine, that is how you should remember it. But when you don’t understand the meaning of any statement of mine, then right there you should cross-question me or the experienced monks.”

When developing an understanding of the Dhamma it is important to remember the purpose and intention of the Dhamma. The Four Noble Truths are taught to understand the distraction of dukkha and the origin of dukkha arising from wrong views. The cessation of dukkha is developed initially with mundane Right View. Through development of right understanding within the framework of the Eightfold Path awakened, fully developed Right View is achieved.

Initial Right View provides the foundation to ask appropriate questions and avoids using an adapted and accommodated “Buddhist” practice to further conditioned thinking and continue confusion and delusion.

Further on in the Alagaddupama Sutta the Buddha teaches the Right View that arises from Dhamma practice within the framework of the Eightfold Path: “Whether past, present or future, whether form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication or consciousness, through Right Discernment (Right View) I know that this is not mine. This is not my self, This is not what I am. Understanding what is not “I” they grow disenchanted with forms, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness. (The five clinging aggregates)

Disenchantment brings dispassion (for views). With dispassion brings release. With release comes the understanding that wisdom has arisen, suffering has ended, the noble task is done.”

One grows disenchanted with continually establishing and defending a “self” rooted in ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.

Misunderstanding and misapplying the teachings on not-self led to a confused thicket of views that Arittha was never able to extricate himself. His confusion led to him teaching a false and misleading dhamma to others and  continued his own clinging, aversion and delusion.

Arittha had achieved an intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and was somewhat accomplished in meditation. He lacked the understanding and ego-lessness developed through the entire Eightfold Path. He became enamored with his own intellectual understanding and achievements which only expanded his ego-bound view of himself. Eventually Arittha was asked to leave the Sangha.

Dukkha arises from an incorrect view of what constitutes a self and how this self interacts with the world. From this incorrect view,  ideas of what is necessary to survive and attain some happiness and security develop. Once this wrong view of self is developed, concepts (mental fabrications) are formed to rationalize and justify holding views, even views that continually prove to lead to more distraction and suffering.

The Eightfold Path is taught to recognize and release all views arising from ignorance and develop Right View. Right View is free of attachment and brings a human life of lasting peace and happiness.

[1] The Three Marks of Existence

[2] Pali Canon

[3] The Eightfold Path 

[4] Dependent Origination

[5] Five Clinging-Aggregates

[6] Five Hindrances

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