4. Sonadanda Sutta

Introduction

From the top terrace of his house, Brahman Sonadanda sees a group of Brahmans heading to the Buddha and he wishes to join them. Other Brahmans who did not intend to go to the hermit Gotama, try to discourage him. They say that if Sonadanda approaches Gotama, the glory of Gotama will increase, and the glory of Sonadanda will diminish. This question will somehow disturb Sonadanda throughout the whole Sutta, because, as he says, the one whose fame diminishes – his wealth diminishes too, because wealth is achieved with fame. But at the moment, Sonadanda convinces the Brahmans, resisting to visit Gotama, to change their decision, since Gotama is noble in his origin, left home while still being black-haired (young), i.e. he has been traveling for a long time and left wealth. Finally, all the Brahmans go to Gotama together.

Anxiety of Sonadanda

Approaching the place where the Buddha resides, Sonadanda worries: what if the Buddha criticizes him, puts Sonadanda on public display as unexperienced and unwise? But on the other hand, Sonadanda does not want to turn back – after all, having come so close to the Buddha and turning back, he will be suspected of cowardice. Therefore the Brahman wishes in his heart: if the Buddha had asked me a question about the Triple Knowledge (Vedic knowledge), I would have been able to please Gotama with a worthy response (in order to get His favor, as well as respect from others who will hear their conversation).

The Buddha’s question to Sonadanda

Sensing the anxiety of Sonadanda, the Buddha asks him a question related to the Vedic knowledge: what are the signs that allow a Brahman to be considered a true Brahman?

Sonadanda’s reply

Rejoicing at the Buddha’s question, Sonadanda confidently explains the Five Signs of a Brahman: 1) Nobility of origin; 2) Knowledge of the sacred texts; 3) Beauty; 4) High morality; 5) Wisdom.

The Buddha begins to question Sonadanda: “Is it possible to take away a certain sign from these five signs, so that a Brahman still remains a true Brahman?”

“It is indeed possible,” Sonadanda replies. “Having taken away beauty, we will not deprive a Brahman of his dignity.”

“Is it possible to take away some other sign?”

“It is possible. Indeed, even without sacred texts, a Brahman is still endowed with dignity.”

“Is it possible to take away yet another sign?”

“Yes. After all, even without his gentility a Brahman is revered.”

At this moment, other Brahmans begin to murmur: they tell Sonadanda that, having renounced beauty, sacred texts and gentility, he will become a follower of the Buddha. But Sonadanda calms them, saying that he does not deny the value of beauty, sacred texts or gentility. However, explaining his answer, Sonadanda cites the example of his nephew Angaka, who is handsome, knowledgeable, of irreproachable gentility, endowed with high morality and wisdom. If Angaka killed other creatures, took what was not given to him, went to someone else’s wife, said lies and drank – what would be the benefit of his beauty, origin and knowledge of the texts?

Further, the Buddha asks: can we take away one of the remaining two signs (high morality and wisdom)? Sonadanda gives a negative answer. He affirms the inseparability of morality and wisdom: it is like a hand washing another hand or a foot washing another foot – so is development of morality leads to wisdom and vice versa.

The Buddha agrees with Sonadanda and continues to ask: what exactly are the Morality and the Wisdom that are the essence of a true Brahman? In response, Sonadanda, saying that he knows only what was already said earlier, invites the Buddha himself to explain the content of these two concepts.

The Buddha’s sermon

At first, the Buddha talks about the moral rules of a monk, then expounds attainment of wisdom on an example of visible fruits of hermitry. This preaching is the same as in the Samaññaphala Sutta (Digha Nikaya 2). Fundamentals of strict monastic morality coincide with those already mentioned by Sonadanda, but include renunciation from material benefits and search for sensual delights.

Sonadanda’s Request

Sonadanda approves of the Buddha’s sermon and invites the Blessed together with the community of monks for a meal. The Buddha silently agrees. Having prepared solid and tender food, Sonadanda treats the monks himself, and then, sitting next to the Buddha, turns to Him with the following dilemma: if Sonadanda will express respect to the Buddha, standing up at the approach of Gotama, or bowing down to Him or descending from a chariot, then people around him will regard the Brahman with contempt, and the one who is despised diminishes his fame and fortune. So the Buddha should consider that when Sonadanda folds his hands it means that he gets up from his seat; when he removes his headband – that he bows; when he raises a goad – that he descends from a chariot. In fact, Sonadanda asks the Buddha to keep his respect for Gotama in secret.

The Buddha, having spent a conversation with Sonadanda, retires.

It is interesting to compare the characters of Sonadanda and Pokkharasadi (Ambattha Sutta, Digha Nikaya 3). Pokkharasadi is rude and arrogant and Sonadanda is coward and prone to adapted behavior. Both become cautious worldly followers of the Buddha for the sake of preserving their position: Pokkharasadi is afraid of censure (and punishment) from the great man; Sonadanda is afraid of losing his glory, so he negotiates with the Buddha about the secret signs when communicating.

Vladimir Pyatsky & Smadar Pyatsky

Translation: Natalia Tsimbler