9. Potthapada Sutta

A wandering ascetic Potthapada, in a group of other ascetics, rests in a cloister intended for disputes. The ascetics talk about a variety of insignificant topics: politics, food, jewelry and amenities, behavior of men and women, dangers, trade, places they visited, etc. At this time, the Buddha approaches the cloister. Potthapada, who is familiar with the Tathagata, knows that the Buddha does not like noise and idle chatter. Therefore, he asks the ascetics to be quiet, and invites the Buddha to enter the meeting. The Buddha asks Potthapada about the subject of a lively conversation that was interrupted with His appearance. “This topic will not be difficult to find out after,” answers Potthapada. “It is better for us to remember that the hermits, who gathered in this place for a long time, had the custom of discussing the destruction (of states) of consciousness.”

The types of views enumerated by Potthapada

Potthapada asks the Buddha to clarify which views about consciousness are correct and which are incorrect. He lists the following views: 1) states of consciousness arise and disappear without cause and without foundation; 2) the emergence of consciousness and its disappearance are associated with formation and disappearance of the “I”; 3) the appearance and disappearance of states of consciousness is associated with the will of the ascetic; 4) the appearance and disappearance of states of consciousness is governed by deities.

The Buddha explains the fallacy of the first view. Description of the four Jhānas (concentration states) with form and four Jhānas without form. Ignoring other views.

The first ones are not right from the beginning, – the Buddha answers. States of consciousness arise and disappear as a result of the concentration of the mind. Concentration of the mind occurs as a rise to the top. Having reached the top, the hermit destroys the crude states that had previously possessed him, and comprehends a new state that he did not know before.

Description of the four types of concentration with the form

As the first peak of concentration, the Buddha sets forth a comprehension of the correct morality (allowing to develop the power of the mind) and the elimination of mental disturbances (malice, anxiety, greed, stagnation and doubt). As a result, the former consciousness of sensual pleasures is destroyed and a new consciousness of joy and happiness arises, generated by solitude and in-depth meditation.

On the second peak of concentration, overcoming the dependence on deep thought and gathering of consciousness in the heart occur. At this peak, the former state of joy and happiness, born of deep reflections, is destroyed, and a new state of subtle joy and happiness, born of serenity, appears.

On the third vertex, there are the rejection of the joy and happiness born of the concentration in the heart, and the knowledge of the more subtle joy and happiness of being in a balanced state.

At the fourth peak, the contemplator perceives the rejection of happiness and unhappiness. The former state of joy and happiness disappears, and a new state of freedom arises from the change of happiness and unhappiness.

Description of four types of concentration without form

The following four peaks of concentration are formless: 1) having abandoned consciousness of forms and being distracted from multiplicity, the contemplator reaches the apex of the infinity of space; 2) beyond the limits of awareness of the infinity of space, he creates a state of infinity of perception; 3) when (as a result of further refinement of concentration) the consciousness of the infinity of perception is exceeded, there arises a consciousness of the absence of everything (the consciousness of emptiness); 4) knowing the absence of everything, the emptiness of one’s own concentration is cognized. Just as on the fourth peak with the form, there is a rejection of involvement in the alternating happiness and unhappiness (feelings), so on the fourth peak without form, there is a rejection of involvement in the change of concentrated and dispersed states of consciousness.

Having reached the highest peak of concentration, the contemplators ponder: “To think for me is worse than not to think. Because of my thoughts, I can have more gross states of consciousness; I’d better give up thinking “(i.e. give up creating new states of consciousness).

Evasion of the Buddha from answering questions concerning other views on the appearance and disappearance of states of mind

Refuting the idea of causelessness, the Buddha completely ignores all the additional concepts of the emergence and disappearance of states of consciousness. Since it shows how states of consciousness disappear and arise as a result of the direction of attention in one way or another, then there is no need to analyze contrived concepts.

Potthapada, however, asks an additional question: “Is consciousness the same as “I”, or is consciousness one, and “I” is another?”

The Buddha answers with a counter question: “How do you, Potthapada, understand your “I”?”

Potthapada alternately responds that he understands his “I” as a physical body, having a form, consisting of elements, eating food; as a state of mind without detriment in life abilities (subtle body); formless “I”, consisting of awareness. The Buddha says that in any of these cases, consciousness is different from the “I”. However, Potthapada is not satisfied with the answer and asks for an explanation. Then the Buddha responds evasively: “It is difficult, Potthapada, to you, having another view, different faith, other desires, other activities, other mentors, to find out whether consciousness is the same as “I” or consciousness is one, and “I” is another”.

Potthapada decides to obtain answers to other questions, behind which the same question of the absolute “I” is hidden:

Is the world eternal or not eternal?

Is the world infinite or finite? (For these two questions see Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1)

Is the life-source the same as the body, or are they different? (See Jaliya Sutta, Digha Nikaya 7)

Does the Tathagata exist or does it not exist after death? (See the end of the Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1)

The Buddha avoids answering these questions, calling them useless, not connected with the truth. The truth is connected with the consideration of what is suffering; what is the origin of suffering; which is the destruction of suffering; what is the path leading to the destruction of suffering. At this, the conversation between the Buddha and Potthapada is temporarily interrupted.

Other ascetics mock Potthapada; his answer to them

Other ascetics who were present during the conversation, mock Potthapada: the Buddha ignored questions from Potthapada. However, Potthapada responds that the Buddha teaches true knowledge about the path to the cessation of suffering, and the answers to other questions are not necessary.

Continuation of conversation

After two or three days, the young Chitta is approaching Buddha, and with him, again, Potthapada. This time the Buddha shows a slightly different attitude to the questions of Potthapada. He explains the erroneousness of the very formulation of questions and answers the question of the relationship between the “I” and the mind more deeply. Obviously, such a change is caused by the presence of Chitta, and the absence of frivolous hermits. It turns out that the Buddha discusses profound questions with trained listeners and in an environment that is suitable for this.

The Buddha told Potthapada and Chitta about how he had questioned the Brahmans and hermits who claimed that after the death of a person, the deceased’s own “I” is wholly happy and resides in a wholly happy world. After being questioned, the Brahmans replied that they had never seen a wholly happy world, they also never felt their “I” wholly happy even during half a day or half of the night, nor did they hear the voices of those deities who live in a wholly happy world. The Buddha compares Brahmans and hermits who rely on the power of persuasion, not on experience, with a man who says that he loves a woman he has never seen, does not know her name or anything that would let him know her. Also, the Buddha compares these Brahmans and hermits to a man who builds a staircase at the intersection (leading to a non-existent house).

In the conversation, Chitta enters, and asks to clarify the question of the formation of the “I”. The Buddha explains that the three kinds of “I”, at the time of their formation, exclude each other: with the acquisition of a gross “I” – there is no question of a subtle and formless “I”; with the acquisition of a subtle “I” – there is no question of gross and formless “I”; with the acquisition of the formless “I” – there is no talk about the gross and subtle “I”. Just as butter and curd are made from milk, but in milk there is no butter and curd, and in butter there is no milk and curd, and in curd there is no milk and butter. The Buddha says that he uses these concepts as everyday forms of speech, not being attached to them. They do not in any way affect the purification of consciousness from inept properties, do not develop in him any skillful qualities. Therefore, the Buddha speaks of faith or the loss of faith in this or that kind of “I” as an insignificant action of the mind. He contrasts this insignificance with the importance of destroying the bad qualities in the mind and developing the purified qualities.

Conclusion of the Sutta

Chitta asks the Buddha to accept him as a novice, Potthapada accepts the Refuge in the Three Jewels as a layman. Chitta, being more focused on finding final wisdom, is determined. Less concentrated in his diligence, Potthapada, after repeated conversations with the Buddha, finally inclines to accepting His Dhamma.

Vladimir Pyatsky & Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler