The Culavedalla Sutta

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The Culavedalla Sutta is a teaching presented by the nun Dhammadinna to her former husband, also a member of the Sangha. The Buddha praised Dhammadinna as one of the most knowledgeable nuns of the Sangha. This is another example of the importance of women in the early monastic tradition of the Buddha’s sangha. Visakha, the questioner, is also well-established in the Dhamma.

Visakha is seeking clarity on anatta and how anatta continually establishes itself, through clinging, in all phenomena. (Anatta, is the word used to describe what is commonly believed to be a “self” that the Buddha teaches is not a self.)

“Dhammadinna, what is self-identification as described by the Buddha?”

“Visakha, the Buddha teaches that self-identification is established by clinging to form, by clinging to feeling, by clinging to perception, by clinging to fabrications, and by clinging to consciousness. These five clinging-aggregates are the self-identification taught by the Buddha.”

Anatta seeks to continually establish itself in every form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, indeed in every thought. Misunderstanding anatta to mean no-self and to minimize the importance of understanding anatta by misapplying emptiness to anatta negates the Buddha’s teachings. In this sutta anatta is presented in a clear and direct way as the central understanding to be developed.

Visakha continues: “Your answer is very helpful. What then is the origination of self-identification to form, feeling, perceptions, fabrications, indeed in every thought?”

“It is craving, Visakha, that brings continual establishment of anatta, craving born of clinging accompanied by passion and by delight. Craving for sensual pleasure, craving for continued establishment in this world and other realms. This is the origination of self-identification as taught by the Buddha.”

Continued establishment in other realms is often presented as craving for non-becoming. This is part of a doctrine of self that seeks to establish anatta as a “soul”that migrates through endless life and death cycles maintaining the identity of the current (impermanent) self-identification. Another example of craving for non-becoming is attempting to establish an inherent “Buddha-Nature” in a type of Buddhist heaven or in a conceptual environment of “emptiness.” These beliefs, common in modern Buddhism, directly contradicts the Buddha’s teachings on anatta and leads to continued confusion and suffering.

Visakha: “What then is the cessation of self-identification?”

“The renunciation and remainder-less fading away of the very craving, born of clinging, that originates the continual establishment of anatta. This is the cessation of self-identification as taught by the Buddha.”

“What then, dear lady, is the path, or the practice, leading to the cessation of self-identification that is taught by the Buddha?”

“Friend Visakha, it is precisely the Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation that the Buddha teaches to develop the virtue, the concentration, and the wisdom required to abandon self-identification, to abandon clinging.”

“Is clinging the same as the five clinging-aggregates?”

“Clinging is not the same as the five clinging aggregates, Visakha, nor is it separate. It is the nature of the five clinging-aggregates to cling. It is the function of the five clinging-aggregates to cling. It is the nature of anatta to cling. It is the function of anatta to cling.”

Visakha: “How does self-identification develop?”

“Those uninstructed in regard to the dhamma, run-of-the-mill people, with no regard for noble ones or those of integrity are deluded. They believe that form to be the self, or that the self possesses the form. They are further deluded to believe that their (self-referential) feelings are the self, that their perceptions (of self) defines the self, that their fabrications that further establish the self, to be the self. They assume that their self-referential thoughts establish a self. Each of these five clinging-aggregates are impermanent and arise from ignorance. They are anatta, they are not a self.”

“How does self-identification not develop?”

“Those well-instructed in regard to the dhamma, with regard for the noble one’s and those with integrity, well-disciplined in their practice, do not believe form to be the self. They do not believe that feelings establish or define a self, or that perception defines a self. They are free of mental fabrications, having no foundation for fabrications. They do not assume that thoughts establish a self or that the self possesses thoughts. They do not assume that consciousness is the self or that the self possesses consciousness. There is no “self” attached to any of these five clinging-aggregates.”

The Buddha’s original teachings are grounded in Dependent Origination, expressed through The Four Noble Truths, and directly experienced through The Eightfold Path. Dependent Origination shows that from ignorance, through 12 observable causative links, stress, confusion, and delusion develops. Those well-instructed in the Buddha’s dhamma, feee of anatta, have developed a non-distracted mind bringing useful insight into reality. Wisdom has replaced ignorance. Fabrications (and deluded beliefs) have ended.

Visakha then asks if the Eightfold Path is fabricated or unfabricated and Dhammadinna replies that the Eightfold Path is fabricated.

The Eightfold Path is fabricated, arising from form, feelings and perceptions, as it is a teaching developed within the sphere of the impermanent, phenomenal world. The intention of the Eightfold Path is that it bring understanding to those under the delusion that their belief in self requires clinging to what is in reality, anicca, impermanent. The Eightfold Path is a path of skillful means to developing the unfabricated quality of mind of release from clinging. Once cessation of clinging mind is accomplished, when awakening has occurred, the Eightfold Path is abandoned, An awakened being has integrated the three characteristics of wisdom virtue, and concentration. The arahant remains harmless to themselves and others, their mind resting in equanimity.

Visakha then inquires if the qualities of virtue, concentration, and wisdom  are developed through the Eightfold Path or do these  3 qualities inspire the Eightfold Path.

“Visakha, the Eightfold Path is inspired by the qualities of virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood inspire the development of heightened virtue. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation inspire the development of heightened concentration, and Right View and Right Intention inspire and develop heightened Wisdom.”

The Buddha consistently characterized the Eightfold Path as a path combining the three qualities of wisdom, virtue, and concentration and that all three characteristics are necessary for awakening to occur. Over-emphasizing one quality over the other two would not develop a fully-integrated or fully-awakened human being. This is an important understanding as much of modern Buddhism will focus mostly on compassionate engagement, or scholarly study, or “mind-only” practice of primarily meditation, with little or no engagement with the Four Noble Truths.

This sutta brings to mind  the actual path the Buddha taught as the path to awakening. Modern applications of mindfulness alters the intention of Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation, shamatha-vipassana meditation, by dismissing through omission the framework of the Eightfold Path, for a conceptual application of “mindfulness meditation.”

Visakha: “What is concentration and what is the framework for Right Concentration, what are the requisites and how is it developed?”

“Samadhi, non-distraction is concentration. The framework for Right Concentration is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: being mindful of the breath in the body, being mindful of feelings arising and fading away, being mindful of thoughts occurring and fading away, and being mindful of the present quality of mind. Right Effort provides the requisites for Right Concentration. You should always endeavor with skillful desire and persistence for the non-arising of unskillful qualities and to abandon unskillful qualities that have yet arisen. And Visakha, always endeavor, with great desire and persistence, to generate skillful qualities that have yet arisen and to maintain skillful qualities that have arisen.”

“What are fabrications, dear lady?”

Dhammadinna: “There are three: Bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, and mental fabrications. In-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications as breaths are generated from the clinging-aggregate of form. Feelings and perceptions are mental fabrications as they are generated by the clinging-aggregates of feelings and perceptions. Conditioned and discursive thought and evaluation are verbal fabrications as they are generated from the clinging-aggregate of consciousness.”

“How then does the attainment of cessation of feelings and perceptions develop?”

“A well-informed person who has developed understanding through the Eightfold Path does not have a thought of attainment. Rather, their refined mind leads to the cessation of feelings and perceptions. Verbal fabrications cease, then bodily fabrications, and finally mental fabrications.”

This process directly relates to Right Speech and verbal fabrications, Right Action and bodily fabrications, and the three concentration factors and the cessation of mental fabrications. Of course the entire Eightfold Path is a mutually supportive practice of developing cessation.

Mindfulness of Right Speech is often the initial insight into clinging, conditioned mind gained when developing understanding through engagement with the Eightfold Path. With mindfulness of Right Action a mind deluded by its own fabrications is gently led to insight and abandoning clinging. As samadhi deepens mindfulness of virtue and developing wisdom increases.

Dhammadinna continues: “When a well-informed person emerges from the cessation of feelings and perceptions they are empty of clinging, free of self-identification and conditioned mind. The well-informed person’s mind inclines to seclusion and away from delight and entanglement (with the world).”

The Buddha describes an awakened human being very simply as “unbound” from clinging and the quality of mind of an awakened human being as “calm.” This may seem rather simplistic and mundane but when seen within the context of the Four Noble Truths it is clearly seen that the endless cycle of wandering through samsara, anatta subject to continuous confusion and disappointment, has been brought to cessation. The remainder of human life can be lived in lasting peace and happiness.

Visakha asks: “How many kinds of feelings are there?”

“There are only three types of feelings, Visakha. There is pleasant feeling, painful feeling and neutral feeling. Pleasant feeling that changes becomes painful. Painful feelings that change become pleasant. Neutral feelings may change as well, to either pleasure or pain. All feelings are subject to anicca (impermanence).

“Pleasant feelings can give rise to passion-obsession. Painful feelings can give rise to resistance-obsession. Neutral feelings can give rise to ignorance-obsession. When a well-informed person is withdrawn from the obsession of sensual fulfillment and withdrawn from unskillful qualities, through meditative absorption, they abandon passion and passion-obsession. Yearning for final liberation, resistance obsession is abandoned. Deepening meditative absorption, ignorance obsession is abandoned.”

“Dear lady, what then lies on the other side of ignorance?”

“Clear knowing (true insight) lies on the other side of ignorance. And, Visakha, with clear knowing comes release (from clinging). From release from clinging comes complete unbinding.”

As stated previously, unbinding from clinging, specifically clinging mind and the five clinging-aggregates is the stated purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. The result is a life of lasting peace and happiness. When anatta has been abandoned lasting peace and happiness would be seen as the only realistic goal anyone could hope to develop. When the ego-personality is still clinging to a doctrine of self, and still craving for continual establishment of its own deluded state, even lasting peace and happiness will not be enough to satisfy the craving of anatta. Modern Buddhism has  accommodated the needs of anatta by providing vehicles for the ego-personality to establish itself by presenting doctrines that include the notions of an inherent buddha-nature, awakening to “buddha-hood” and even Buddhist “heavens” of various descriptions and requirements.

Visakha, despite his understanding, continues to cling to the need to establish a “self” after liberation.

“Dhammadinna, what then lies on the other side of unbinding?”

“Visakha, your clinging-mind has demanded too many answers and your question will lead to only more confusion and suffering. The Buddha’s path, the Eightfold Path culminates in unbinding. Is this not enough? If you wish, go to the Buddha and ask him. Let his answer be enough.”

Visakha was delighted in Dhammadinna’s teachings. He bowed to her and left for the Buddha. Finding the Buddha nearby, he sat to one side of the Buddha and recounted what Dhammadinna told him. The Buddha replied, “Dhammadinna is very wise and of great discernment. I would have answered your questions exactly as she has. This is how you should remember these teachings.”

Visakha, was pleased by the Buddha’s confirmation.

This sutta presents a complete teaching on the process of delusion that begins with self-identification and the actual experience of developing insight into the clear path to be developed to end clinging to objects, views, and ideas, and complete unbinding. As a well-informed and highly regarded member of the Buddha’s sangha, Dhammadinna presented the dhamma in a clear and direct way and free of any ego-influenced individual view.

Her integrity preserved the dhamma and provided the skillful means for Visakha to also awaken.

This dhamma article is based on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent translation of the Pali linked below. I have made contextual edits for further clarity, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevancy to The Four Noble Truths.

Culavedalla Sutta

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