6. Mahali Sutta


The action of the Mahali Sutta takes place in Vesali, where the Buddha dwells in an abode with a pointed roof. This detail indicates that in this place the Teaching got constant support of the lay followers who gave the monks a cloister. The pointed roof is a sign that emphasizes the significance and peculiarity of the place. It is also understandable why visitors patiently wait for an audience with the Buddha, settling near the monastery. Among them, Brahmans from Magadha and the Licchavi Mahali Ottaddha, surrounded by a large retinue of Licchavis. The Licchavi tribes waged protracted wars with the rulers of Magadha, so their meeting at the Buddha’s cloister has a symbolic meaning: the Buddha is the source of the wisdom that is necessary for all. Therefore, when both the Brahmans and the Licchavis decide not to leave this place until they see the Blessed One, the novice Sikha and the Buddha’s servant, the venerable Nagita, decide to disturb the Buddha and ask Him to receive visitors (possibly wanting to defuse the tension between the waiting). The Buddha agrees and asks to prepare Him a seat in the shade of a tree, to meet with the guests.

The structure of the Sutta

The Mahali Sutta consists of two completely separate parts. The first part – the questions of Mahali. The second part, occupying more than two-thirds (!) of the text, word for word corresponds to the following Sutta of the Pali canon – Jaliya Sutta (Digha Nikaya 7), and has an independent story. Their connection looks rather artificial.

The first question of Mahali

Mahali asks why one of the followers of the Buddha, Sunakkhatta of the Licchavis, after not more than three years of being with the Blessed One, sees the heavenly images, pleasant, enjoyable, delightful, but does not hear heavenly sounds, pleasant, enjoyable, delightful. Are not these sounds devoid of existence?

Buddha’s Answer

The Buddha responds to Mahali like so: a meditator who focuses on the heavenly images, but does not focus on the heavenly sounds, perceives heavenly images, but does not perceive heavenly sounds. Further, the meditator, focusing on heavenly sounds, but not focusing on celestial images, will develop the ability to hear heavenly sounds, but will not develop the ability to see heavenly images. However, the meditator who focuses both on the heavenly images and on the celestial sounds will perceive both the first and the second.

The Second Question of Mahali

Is it not for the sake of experiencing such states of miraculous perception that monks lead a life of renunciation of the world, living near the Blessed One? – asks Mahali.

Buddha’s answer to the second question of Mahali. The four stages of achieving Arahatship

The Buddha responds to Mahali that not for the sake of various states of miraculous perception do monks become His disciples. They become disciples of the Buddha in order to achieve the four stages of liberation from suffering: 1) having got rid of the three bonds (barriers), negating passion, hatred and delusion, the monk becomes entrained in the flow, unaffected by suffering, confident, moving toward enlightenment; 2) further, overcoming these obstacles (even their subtle manifestations), the monk becomes the one who returns for the last time (i.e., someone who is ready to attain Arahatship in the next birth, 3) the monk, having got rid of the bonds of the lower worlds (one can say, from the subtlest manifestations of passion, hatred and delusion), becomes spontaneously born in the higher world, achieves liberation there, and is not subject to return from that world; 4) the monk with the destruction of the inept qualities of the mind, having experienced and gained the liberation of the heart and the release of comprehension in the visible world, continues to reside here.

The Third Question of Mahali

Is there a way (what is the path) leading to the testing of these states (Arahatship)?

Buddha’s answer to the third question of Mahali. The Eightfold Path

The Buddha explains to Mahali that there is an Eightfold path leading to the comprehension of these states, namely: right views, right aspirations, right speech, right action, a right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right ecstasy in self-concentration.

The text of the sutta does not disclose the understanding of the eight stages of the path – they are only listed. Next, the Buddha begins to narrate Mahali about his conversation with the ascetics Mandissa and Jaliya, which, as mentioned above, reproduces the full text of Jaliya Sutta (Digha Nikaya 7).

The purpose of Mahali’s questions

The purpose of the Mahali’s questions is to clarify the relationship between experiences and achievement in meditation. The Buddha asserts that the experiences can be different and depend on the choice of the object of meditation, while the achievement depends on overcoming the inept qualities of the mind of the meditator. Experiences are of an individual nature, while achievement is holistic. Experiments express the characteristics of the contemplative activity of the mind, and achievement is the result of combining wisdom (the first two parts of the eightfold path), morality (the next three parts of the eightfold path) and contemplation (the last three links).

Vladimir Pyatsky & Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler