Listening to the Dhamma can suppress the hindrances

Sa.myuttanikaaya S46.38 Without Hindrances (อาวรณานีวรณสูตร นิวรณ์ ๕ เป็นอุปกิเลสของจิต)

When bhikkhus, a noble disciple listens to the Dhamma with eager ears, attending to it as a matter of vital concern, directing the whole mind to it, on that occasion the five hindrances are not present in him; on that occasion the seven factors of enlightenment go to fulfillment by development …

Michael’s comments
This sutta shows that it is possible for noble disciples (ariyasaavaka) to suppress the hindrances by listening attentively to the Dhamma. Note that noble disciples are those who have at least attained the path to stream entry (sotapannamagga). Ariyasaavaka are either deities or humans who have above average capability to develop superior mental states including concentration and insight.

The noble disciple has confirmed confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and therefore no doubts about the efficacy of the teaching. The noble disciple considers the Dhamma to be the most precious and important thing. It is therefore totally natural for a noble disciple to listen with eager ears, attending to the Dhamma as a matter of vital concern, directing the whole mind to it…

Suppressing the hindrances is a vital precondition for high attainments such as jhaana (deep mental absorption or phala (supra-mundane fruition=a further stage of enlightenment up to arahat).  Hindrances (nivaranaa) arise due to unwise attention (ayoniso manasikaara) which is in turn conditioned by ignorance. The arahat has totally eliminated ignorance and always attends wisely (yoniso manasikaara), therefore the arahat has no need to actively suppress the hindrances since they no longer arise.  The five hindrances are: (1) sensual desire, (2) ill-will, (3) sloth and torpor, (4) restless and remorse, and (5) doubt/uncertainty in the Dhamma.  However, below the arahat, the sotapanna, sakadagaami and anaagaami (to a negligible extent) continue to occasionally suffer from hindrances.  This is another reason why noble disciples are keen to listen to the Dhamma so attentively and suppress hindrances since during those occasions, they are somewhat relieved of suffering.

In the suttas there are many instances of non-noble disciples attaining stream entry path and fruition (sotapanna magga phala) and other higher paths and fruitions by listening to the Blessed One giving a Dhamma talk. In some of the blog articles to follow, I may refer to some of these suttas that describe higher attainments through listening to the Dhamma.

Benefits from regular observance of eight precepts

A10.47 Sakya Sutta (The Sakyans and the Eight Precepts) paraphrased from The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaaya) vol. 2, translated by F.L. Woodward by MK.  

[Thanissaro Bhikkhus translation] [Sister Upalavanna’s translation] [สักกสูตร]

The Blessed One asks some Sakyans at Kapilavatthu whether they practice the eight precepts every Uposatha Day. [The Sakyans are a clan of people whose capital city is Kapilavatthu. The Buddha was from the Sakyan clan.  Uposatha Day occurs about every two weeks and follows the lunar calendar.]   The Sakyans reply that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  The Blessed One explains that it is no gain to them in a life fearing suffering and death. He then gives a simile of a man who works in some business to earn money and others praise that man for being clever and energetic. And so on increasing wealth until he was quite wealthy. The Blessed One then asked the Sakyans if this rich fellow would abide in utter happiness for even as little as half a day simply because of his accumulated wealth. The Sakyans reply that this fellow would not enjoy his wealth because sensual pleasures are impermanent, insubstantial and deceptive; of a deceptive nature.

The Blessed One then told the Sakyans: suppose here a follower of mine, living seriously, ardent, resolved, were to strive as I have advised for ten years, he would spend … a hundred thousand years enjoying utter happiness.  And he would be an anaagaami (non returner – third level of enlightenment), or a sakadagaami (once returner – second level of enlightenment), or at least a sotapanna (stream enterer – first level of enlightenment).  Let alone ten years… for a single year… for 24 hours, he would spend … a hundred thousand years enjoying utter happiness.  And he would be an anaagaami, or a sakadagaami, or at least a sotapanna.  The Sakyans respond that they will observe the eight precepts from that day forth.

Michael’s comments

The eight precepts are a more intense version of the five training precepts.  If you don’t know what these are you can find out more by following this link to Access to Insight. Following training precepts is a form of ethical behaviour (siila) that helps one to live mindfully, simply and harmlessly.

Most Theravada Buddhists who go on short or long meditation retreats will practice the eight training precepts.  This practice strongly supports their meditation practices and mental development.

A casual observance of eight training precepts for one period of 24 hours may not be enough to attain any level of enlightenment though still accumulates merit.  In some places, devotees may practice the training precepts for the 24 hours of the Uposatha Day and do voluntary work at a temple or do devotional practice such as offering flowers, candles and incense and chanting in Paali. This is a sincere form of merit making (not casual) but still may not be sufficient to gain any stage of enlightenment. [I’ll write more on this another day.]

Whilst following the training precepts one is usually motivated to restrain the six senses and cultivate wholesome states of mind. It is this mental development (bhavanaa) that enables one to know and see phenomena as they really are. This penetrative insight leads to enlightenment.

I recommend readers also read the Muluposatha Sutta [Sister Upalavanna translation] [อุโปสถสูตร] to understand the various ways of observing the Uposatha.  Indeed the Blessed One emphasises the practice of six recollections (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, caaga-generousity, siila-morality, deva-deities) on the Uposatha. One can practice these recollections at any time not only on Uposatha Days.

In the Mahaanaama Sutta, [มหานามสูตรที่ ๒] the Blessed One also encourages Mahaanaama to practice the six recollections “while you are walking, while you are standing, while you are sitting, while you are lying down, while you are busy at work, while you are resting in your home crowded with children.”  While recollecting in this way, the mind is temporarily free from unwholesome mental states. Once the mind is made clear and bright in this way, it may be possible to attend to the true nature of phenomena arising and passing and thus gain deep insight that leads to enlightenment. It is in this way that the results mentioned above in the Sakya Sutta will be realised.

[Mahaanaama was a Sakyan leader, cousin of the Buddha and elder brother to Ven. Anuruddha and Ven. Aananda. The commentary says he attained sakadaagaami – second level of enlightenment.]

Also note that in the Mahaanaama Sutta, the Blessed One qualifies practitioners of the six recollections in the following five ways: “One who is motivated to practice is one of conviction, not without conviction. One motivated to practice is one who is persistent, not lazy. One motivated to practice is one of established mindfulness, not muddled mindfulness. One motivated to practice is centered in concentration, not uncentered. One motivated to practice is wise, not ignorant.” [MK modified a portion of Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation] Someone who is motivated in these five ways is very like someone who is confidently and sincerely practicing the eight precepts on Uposatha Day.

Some materialist hedonists may doubt the simile above where the wealthy man is supposed to be unable to enjoy utter happiness even for a short time simply on account of his amassed wealth. That is because of their limited notion of what utter happiness may be.  Readers should note that happiness from sensual pleasures is paltry compared with happiness from mental development in accord with the Buddhadhamma. Also happiness from sensual pleasures is flickering and insubstantial whereas happiness from mental development is incomparably deeper and long lasting. I say this from personal experience, not merely out of faith or hearsay.  Materialist hedonists may not agree because they do not have confidence in the Buddhadhamma and have never experienced true spiritual happiness.

[I’ve written this on 28 March 2010 but scheduled it to appear on the blog on 20 April 2010. I’m still on retreat until late June 2010.]

If you pentetratively study the Dhamma but die confused….

[Sotaanugata sutta paraphrased from The from The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaaya) vol. 2 (Anguttara Nikaaya) vol. 2, translated by F.L. Woodward.  This is an old translation. I am looking forward to the forthcoming new translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi of the entire Anguttara Nikaaya. So many good suttas in the Anguttara Nikaaya!  The currently available English translations of this sutta are inadequate]  [Thai language version of this sutta – มหาวรรคที่ ๕] [alternative English translation by Sister Upalavanna]

A4.191 – Heard with the ear

There are four advantages from frequent verbal practice of teachings heard with the ear, from considering them in mind, from thoroughly penetrating them by view. Then when the body breaks up (dies) with confused mindfulness (not enlightened yet…) reappears in a certain group of devas.  [This English translation of the sutta appears to assume the hypothetical case of a human male who has recited and studied the Dhamma to a great extent and yet not realised Nibbaana before dying.  Women are similarly capable of progress and attainment (magga and phala)].

Four cases follow :

1. There the devas recite to him Dhamma verses. His memory is slow to arise, but that being very quickly realises excellence (attains Nibbaana).

2. There the devas do not recite the Dhamma verses but a human monastic who has supernormal powers, one who has attained Nibbaana travels to the deva realm (heaven) is teaching Dhamma to a group of devas.  Then it occurs to that recently appeared being: “Hey, this is the Dhamma-vinaaya according to which I formally practiced the holy life.” His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)…

3.  There the devas do not recite Dhamma verses to him, nor does a human monastic with supernormal powers teach devas; but maybe a certain deva (probably a sotapanna or sakadagaami – beings at the first or second levels of enlightenment) is teaching Dhamma to a group of devas.  Then it occurs to him: “Hey, this is the Dhamma-vinaaya according to which I formally practiced the holy life.” His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)…

4.  There the [previous 3 cases don’t arise]… but maybe some being appearing there with a mind-made body (a deva probably from a brahma realm) is reviving the memory of another similar being.  “Do you remember good sir, how we formerly used to practice the holy life?”  Then other says: “I do indeed remember, good sir!…”   His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)…

Then there is a simile of two old friends who meet and recollect times they spent together as youths.  “Say old man, do you remember the time when we recited, studied and practiced the Dhamma-vinaaya?”…

Michael’s comments

This sutta gives encouragement and motivation to those Buddhists who frequently listen to, read, study, deeply ponder the Dhamma.  It is important to straighten out one’s understanding of the Dhamma either by studying books, listening to discourses or conversing with wise people and most importantly through meditation – bhavanaa. This activity in itself is a high form of merit and in Paali is known as ditthijukamavasena.

It seems quite likely that if after death those who do make efforts to straighten out their understanding of the Dhamma and yet have not attained arahat will, after death and the break up of this body, appear in certain heaven realms, we can remember the Dhamma we have learned in this human life and continue our practice as Buddhists and realise Nibbaana.

Some say that heaven realms are very pleasant and distracting, full of sensual pleasures that take one away from Dhamma practice and further progress. This may be true for some beings. However, I would say that those humans who are not so obsessed by sensual pleasures in human life are likely to continue sense restraint in the heaven realms while those humans who are not so well disciplined as humans may be similarly lax in the heaven realms. There may also be many beings in the middle ground between these examples. It is a natural consequence of kamma (law of intentional actions and results).

So it is imperative that we remain diligent and strive ardently as humans so that we accumulate the momentum of kamma that will continue in the next existence, either as some kind of deity or as a human again. 

I’m sure that many devas are Buddhists and will teach other devas who are ready to accept the Dhamma or who have been Buddhists in previous lives either as humans or devas.  There will be many devas who are sotapanna and sakadagaami in the six sensual heaven realms and even in the brahma realms. Of course the fine material (brahma deity) pure abodes (suddhavasa) are where many anaagaami (third level of enlightenment) and some arahat (forth and final level of enlightenment) reside. Arahats in the pure abodes would have firstly appeared there as anaagaami and then later realised the higher attainment of arahat within the lifespan of their brahma body.  I write this from the perspective of someone who has no clear memories of talking with any devas or brahma deities. I write this after reading the suttas and drawing reasonable inferences.

To learn more about how to practice in accord with the Dhamma, please read the Saleyyaka Sutta. It describes ten kinds of conduct: 3 kinds of bodily conduct, 4 kinds of verbal conduct and 3 kinds of mental conduct.  Of all these forms of conduct, by far the most important is one kind of mental conduct: Sammaaditthi – Right View.  This leads the Eightfold Noble Path and is most beneficial in leading one to develop wholesome mental states and on to Nibbaana.

[I’ve written this on 27 March 2010 but scheduled it to appear on the blog on 10 April 2010.  I’m still on retreat until late June 2010.]