10. Subha Sutta

Introduction

Soon after the Buddha left the body, His closest disciple, Ananda, was asked about the orderly presentation of the Teaching. The request comes from the young layman Subha. Ananda meets with Subha and tells him about the three sets of instructions that the Buddha taught his followers. In the same form, these three sets are repeated in an overwhelming number of the Digha Nikaya suttas, but it is in this text that the detailed exposition of the three sets of instructions seems most natural.

Set of moral precepts

Ananda’s narration begins with the explanation that the Tathagata, the teacher of gods and people, tells them the truth about the Path. Hearing this truth, people decide to leave the worldly way of life and, having chosen the path of asceticism, to achieve moral perfection.

Fundamentals of morality

Refusing to harm all beings, the follower of the Teaching develops compassion for them.
Refusing to take what is not given, he abides with a pure heart.
Refusing worldly life, he abides in solitude.
Refusing to lie, he causes trust.
Refusing to slander, he enjoys consent.
Refusing a rude speech, he leads a speech that reaches hearts.
Refusing frivolous chatter, he speaks with advantage.

Features of the monastic way of life in the early Sangha period

The first set of instructions represents detailed explanation of the monastic way of life in the pre-monasteristic period of the Teaching development. In the further development of the Teaching of the Buddha, all monastic precepts were revised in their application to monastic regulations and the worldly way of life. External standards of behavior associated with the severity of solitude and inaction, transformed into internal principles of self-discipline. Even the monks began to practice crafts, to improve in different forms of creativity, including martial arts, to receive initiations in Karmamudra (yoga of sexual relations), etc. Despite the many changes, the principles of empathy, non-covetousness, the preservation of equanimity and devotion to the Teaching remained the main yardstick of the truthful behavior of the Buddha’s Path followers.

In the early period of the development of the Teaching, when monks were only wandering ascetics who did not have permanent home and lived only by begging, they were instructed to eat not more than once a day (and only during the daylight hours), were forbidden to have food or clothing reserves and were forced to refrain from any worldly activity and refuse to accept gifts. An ascetic was not supposed to attend shows, participate in entertainments and games, do prophesies, sell medicines, conjure spirits, etc.

The condition of a person who has cleared his behavior through moral precepts

The Buddha explained that a person who has purified his behavior is like a great king who has been elevated to the throne, but has been rid of all enemies – he has nowhere to wait for trouble from. He experiences inner happiness.

Ananda encourages Subha to comprehend the next set of precepts

Having expounded the first set of precepts, Ananda tells Subha that the next set of precepts is even more exalted, and therefore the seeker should not stop at this achievement. Subha asks for continuation of the instructions.

A set of precepts about the concentration

Precepts on concentration cover the topics of guarding the gates of life abilities, awareness of the body, contentment, solitude, overcoming mind obstacles and passing the four Jhānas (stages of absorption of the mind). All the topics in this sutta are transferred as a list, without detailed explanations.

Protection of the gates of life abilities

The contemplator, seeing the image with his eye, hearing the sound with his ear, smelling the smell with his nose, feeling the taste with his tongue, feeling the touch with his body, getting the idea with his mind, remains not attracted to these perceptions. He acts so in order to contain greed and dissatisfaction.

Awareness of the body

The contemplator is aware of his body when it is directed forward or backward; he is thoughtful when looking forward and around, bending and straightening, when he wears clothes and carries a bowl for alms; he is thoughtful when he eats, drinks, chews, tastes and during urinating and defecating, when acting, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, being awake, talking, remaining silent.

Contentment

Satisfaction with small makes an ascetic like a winged bird, which carries only its feathers with it. Satisfying only small needs, which are close to the body, as feathers are close to the body of a bird, a person achieves serenity.

Solitude

Possession of the qualities of moral purity, restraint, thoughtfulness and contentment makes the wanderer’s (contemplator’s) solitude good: he contemplates at the foot of a tree, on a mountain, in a cave, in a crevice of a rock, in a cemetery, in a forest, in an open place, on a pile of straw, crossing his legs (restraining impetuosity), holding his body straight (overcoming lethargy), staying in concentration.

Overcoming Mind Obstacles

The contemplator frees his heart from greed. He cleanses his thoughts from malice and dwells in kindness and compassion for all beings. Getting rid of inertia, the contemplator feels in himself the ability of clear thinking, mindfulness and thoughtfulness. Overcoming anxiety and torment, the contemplator experiences pacification. Refusing to doubt, the contemplator is confident in the skillful properties of consciousness (about overcoming mind obstacles see also Samaññaphala sutta, Digha Nikaya 2).

The Four Jhānas

By combining all previously listed qualities, the contemplator ceases to depend on sensual pleasures, the bad qualities disappear, and he attains the first stage of contemplation. He owns deep contemplation and solitude (preoccupation with concentration).

Further, freeing the mind from intense efforts, keeping peace in joyful concentration, the contemplator does not move away from his own heart. This is the second stage of concentration.

At the third stage of concentration, the meditator overcomes attachment to joy and achieves balance. The body is filled with happiness free from joy (that is, consciousness ceases to depend on any center, including the heart, which served as the center of concentration in the second Jhāna).

Finally, in the fourth Jhāna, the contemplator refuses to be involved in happiness, and thus ceases to be involved in unhappiness (that is, concentration ceases to rest on bliss). There is nothing left in the body of the contemplator that would not be imbued with a pure mind, free from happiness and unhappiness (for the four Jhānas see also Samaññaphala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 2).

Set of precepts on comprehension

Describing the third set of precepts of the Buddha, Ananda lists, first, the study of the qualities of three bodies: gross, subtle and formless; second – comprehension of past incarnations and comprehension of the law of karma; third – the four truths of the path to the cessation of suffering.

The study of the qualities of three bodies

Having sharpened his thought, the hermit turns it to contemplation of a gross body, which has the form consisting of four great elements, which was born by the mother and father and is created from the accumulation of food. It is impermanent and is subject to destruction, erasure, disintegration, destruction. The hermit examines attachment of consciousness to the body.

Overcoming an attachment to the gross body, the hermit creates from it a subtle body, which does not have flaws and does not know the detriment in life abilities. Just as a sword is removed from the scabbard, as a snake crawls out of its old skin, or the stem of a reed clears itself from the leaves growing on it, so the subtle body separates from the gross. This subtle body has supernormal abilities: the hermit can take many forms and become one, become visible or invisible, pass through walls, descend into the earth and rise from it, as if it was water, walk on water as on earth, ascend to the sky with crossed legs, touch the sun and the moon like a winged bird; the hermit even reaches the world of Brahma.

Having learned the qualities of a subtle body, the hermit turns the thought to a formless body: he comprehends the divine hearing. With a purified hearing he hears both kinds of sounds: divine and human, far and near. Then he develops knowledge that embraces the heart. Embracing the hearts of other beings with his heart, the hermit comprehends the thoughts and properties of the mind of other beings. He discerns thoughts seized with passion and free from passion; thoughts endowed with hatred and free from hatred; delusion and freedom from delusion; concentration and absent-mindedness; great and insignificant; discarded thought and accepted thought; directed thought and not directed thought; liberated thought and not liberated thought.

Comprehension of past incarnations and the law of karma

Having discovered the qualities of the subtle and formless bodies, weakening the dependence on the gross body, the hermit grasps the chain of past births with pure perception. This same non-attachment allows him to comprehend how good actions lead to the rebirth in the higher worlds, and how bad actions lead to rebirth in the lower worlds. He comprehends this, like a man observing at a crossroads how people enter houses and go out, move along one or the other road.

The comprehension of the four truths of the path to the cessation of suffering

Comprehending the law of karma, the hermit sees clearly the quality of consciousness. He is comparable to a man looking into the waters of a clean mountain lake, and seeing oysters and shells, sand and pebbles, flocks of fish – moving and stopping. Possessing discernment, the hermit directs his clean, persistent, flexible, insightful idea to destroy the evil properties of consciousness. He comprehends: “This is suffering, these are the evil properties of consciousness”; then he comprehends: “This is the origin of suffering, this is the appearance of evil properties”; then he comprehends: “This is the destruction of suffering, this is destruction of evil properties”; Finally, he comprehends: “This is the way leading to the destruction of suffering and to the destruction of evil properties.” In the liberated one, knowledge arises that he is liberated. He comprehends: “The secondary birth is destroyed, everything that is to be done is done, there is nothing after this state.”

With this, Ananda completes the exposition of the highest set of precepts, and the young Subha accepts the Refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Vladimir Pyatsky and Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler