This sutta—the first of the entire Sutta Piṭaka—introduces the Buddha as a practitioner and as a teacher. Because its portrait focuses on the Dhamma qualities that he exemplifies, it acts as an introduction to the Dhamma he teaches as well.
The portrait falls into four sections, each presenting an aspect of the Buddha’s accomplishments:
- his attitude toward praise and criticism,
- his virtue,
- his discernment,
- his release.
Praise & criticism. In the first section of the sutta, the Buddha meets with the monks after a day and night in which he and the monks have had to listen to two wanderers of other sects arguing as to whether the Buddha should be criticized or praised. He counsels the monks not to let their minds be affected by such discussions, his reasoning being that only if the mind is unaffected can it see clearly what is true or false in the words of criticism or praise—and only then can it respond appropriately. He goes on to say that once the monks have clearly evaluated what is said, they can explain what is false in the criticism and true in the praise. Of course, the converse is also possible—that the criticism could be true or the praise false—and there are other passages in the Canon, such as Dhp 76–77, that underline the importance of appreciating and benefitting from criticism when it points out genuine faults. But here, given that the remainder of the sutta is devoted to praise of the Buddha, the emphasis is on the truth of the praise. The main question, both in this section and in the remainder of the sutta, is what sort of praise does the Buddha justice.
It’s also worth noting that here, as in the rest of the Sutta Piṭaka, the Buddha doesn’t respond to praise with a show of false modesty (see, for instance, MN 36 and Sn 3:7). The proper response to praise is either to remain silent or, when it would be helpful as a teaching strategy, to note where the praise is true.
Virtue. The many virtues attributed to the Buddha in the second section of the sutta are attributed in other suttas in the Dīgha Nikāya to the ideal members of his monastic Saṅgha as well. Although the list is long, it comes nowhere near to covering all the rules that the Buddha formulated for his monks. Instead, it focuses on the rules that would be most apparent to Buddhist lay followers and to followers of other religions. In the Vinaya, the section of the Canon dealing with monastic rules, the Buddha’s reasons for formulating the rules fall into three main categories: to inspire faith in others, to help the monks and nuns cleanse their minds of defilement, and to foster harmony within the monastic communities. In the context of this sutta, the list of virtues seems focused primarily on rules falling into the first category, but the discussions of the same list in other suttas of the Dīgha Nikāya show that they fall into the second category as well.
A special feature of the list is the amount of space it devotes to types of wrong livelihood that the Buddha and his monks avoid. The detailed listing given here is much more extensive than even the Vinaya’s discussion of the topic.
Discernment. The longest section of the sutta is devoted to the Buddha’s analysis of 62 views (dristi) and his reasons for rejecting them. Rather than saying that all views lead to the same goal, the Buddha makes clear that although all views inspire action, the actions they inspire lead to many different destinations. This point is so important that the compilers of the Dīgha Nikāya not only chose this sutta to open the collection, but also followed it with another sutta focused on the same theme. The compilers of the Majjhima Nikāya also opened their collection with two suttas that clearly point out what the teaching is not, at the same time using their explanation of why it’s not that, to demonstrate what it is. This teaching strategy is in line with the Buddha’s statement in MN 117, that the role of right view begins by distinguishing right view from wrong.
The 62 views that the Buddha analyzes fall loosely into two main groups: theories of the past and theories of the future. I say “loosely” because some of the theories, even though they are listed in one of these two groups, don’t clearly fall into either. Theories of the past that clearly belong to the first group deal with the question of whether the soul and cosmos are eternal, partially eternal, or arose fortuitously out of nothing. However, this group also includes theories addressing the question of whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, along with a series of agnostic positions—called “eel-wriggling”—where their proponents, through fear or stupidity, refuse to take a position on any issue. Theories of the future that clearly belong to the second group deal with the question of whether the self survives death and, if so, what shape it takes in its survival. However, this group also includes theories of how the self attains unbinding (nibbāna) in the here-and-now.
Taken on their own, these theories clear up four important misunderstandings about early Buddhism and the context in which it was taught.
To begin with, the existence of theories denying past lifetimes on the one hand (17–18) and future lives on the other (51–57) disproves the common misunderstanding that everyone in the Buddha’s time believed in rebirth, and that the Buddha adopted the idea of rebirth by unthinkingly picking it up from this culture. The fact that the topic was debated showed that the possibility of no rebirth was in the air, and that the Buddha’s choice to teach rebirth was conscious and deliberate.
Second, the term “unbinding” in these theories is defined as the peace found in the pleasures of the senses and the four jhānas (states of mental absorption). So, obviously, it carries no connotations of extinction. This lends support to the point that the Buddha’s use of the word unbinding for his goal also did not mean extinction, a point further supported by the fact that he refused to define the arahant after death as existing, not existing, both, or neither. Because, in the Buddha’s perspective, beings are defined by their attachments (SN 23:2), and because arahants have no attachments, there is no way that they can be defined or described in any way at all.
Third, the way “self” (attā) is defined in the annihilationist views (51–57) shows that the concept of self in the Buddha’s time did not—contrary to what is often believed—always have to mean an eternally existing self. In each of these views, the self is defined in such a way that it will be annihilated at death.
Fourth, 20 of the views (1–3, 5–7, 9–11, 17, 52–57, and 59–62) are based on meditative experiences: jhāna, the formless states, and knowledge of previous lives that can be gained based on jhāna. This fact corrects two misunderstandings: one, that the practice of jhāna began with the Buddha; and two, that any insight coming from a concentrated mind can be trusted to be true. If the Buddha were the first to have discovered jhāna, none of these cases would have occurred in time for the Buddha to refute them. If all insights coming from concentration were reliable, no one would misinterpret what their meditative experiences meant.
A feature common to almost all of the 62 theories is that they are phrased in terms of self and cosmos—in other words, in the same terms as what the Buddha describes as “becoming” (bhava): the act of taking on an identity in a particular world of experience (see The Paradox of Becoming). Because the craving that leads to further becoming is the cause of suffering and stress, the Buddha does not attempt to refute these theories by taking a different position framed in the same terms. Instead, he approaches and rejects these theories from another framework entirely: that of kamma and dependent co-arising (paṭicca samuppāda).
Within this framework, the question becomes not “Can these views be reasonably defended?” It becomes, “Is it skillful kamma to hold to these views?” This falls in line with Vajjiya Māhita’s statement in AN 10:94 where, in defending the Buddha against some wanderers who accuse the Buddha of being a nihilist who doesn’t teach anything, he says “I tell you, venerable sirs, that the Blessed One righteously declares that ‘This is skillful.’ He declares that ‘This is unskillful.’ Declaring that ‘This is skillful’ and ‘This is unskillful,’ he is one who has declared (a teaching). He is not a nihilist, one who doesn’t declare anything.” At the end of that sutta, the Buddha affirms that Vajjiya has defended him well. But of course, the teaching doesn’t end there. In AN 2:19 the Buddha exhorts the monks to abandon what is unskillful and to develop what is skillful. So the question comes down to: Should these views, as a type of mental kamma, be abandoned or developed?
This is why the Buddha’s analysis of views here in DN 1 focuses less on the content of the views and more on the kamma of holding to them: the actions that lead to them, and the kammic destination that holding them can lead to. The verdict in all 62 cases is that the views should be abandoned. The Buddha’s analysis of the kamma of these views in this section of the sutta is an example, then, of right view in action: how to use the teachings on kamma and dependent co-arising to let go of actions leading to suffering. Taken together with the following section, on the Buddha’s release, this section provides a clear contrast to the 62 views by showing the excellent kammic consequences of adopting the Buddha’s general approach to views as a form of kamma.
His approach is obviously inspired by the three knowledges he gained on the night of his awakening:
- (a) knowledge of previous lives;
- (b) knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings based on their actions (kamma), which in turn are based on their views; and
- (c) release from rebirth that comes from adopting right view, i.e., viewing action in terms of the four noble truths.
a. From the first knowledge: As the Buddha points out, views are based on previous actions and experiences, and in many instances—cited explicitly in the section on views dealing with the past, and implicitly in the views on annihilation and nibbāna here-and-now—these actions and experiences can be traced to previous lives and/or to a misinterpretation of experiences gained through meditation. (See MN 136 on other misunderstandings that can come from misinterpreting past-life memories gained in concentration.)
b. From the second knowledge: The act of holding to a view is an act of clinging (“agitation & vacillation” in the words of the sutta) that will inspire actions leading to a particular realm in the round of rebirth. It’s worth noting that although the Buddha goes into great detail on the actions giving rise to some of the 62 views, he gives only a brief, general reference to his knowledge of the destination to which all the views lead. However, the importance of this latter knowledge is emphasized by the fact that it forms a refrain repeated again and again throughout this section of the sutta. The main point of the refrain is that right view, as it overcomes clinging even to itself, leads to a destination that surpasses the destinations to which the 62 views lead.
c. From the third knowledge: Views can be overcome by noting that the act of clinging is based on craving, craving is based on feeling, and feeling is based on contact at the six sense media. This sequence of conditions is drawn from the Buddha’s teaching on dependent co-arising, which is an elaborated version of the four noble truths. By replacing ignorance of this sequence with knowledge—knowing the origination, passing away, allure, drawbacks of, and escape from feelings and sensory contact—one gains release from all clingings, even to the results of this knowledge, and from all destinations in the realm of becoming.
Other suttas—such as MN 102 and SN 22:81—take a similar approach to views, focusing on the way in which knowledge of the way in which views are fabricated and clung to can lead the mind to stop clinging to views altogether. Two suttas, however, are especially helpful in expanding on the approach taken here in DN 1: SN 41:3 and AN 10:93.
SN 41:3, in a direct reference to DN 1, notes that the 62 views listed here, as well as other views, all come from self-identity views, which define the self around any of the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness: either identical with the aggregate, possessing the aggregate, in the aggregate, or containing the aggregate. The connection between self-identity views and the 62 views in this sutta can be clearly seen in the topics of the views listed here: Once you assume a self, you get caught up in questions of what it is, the dimensions of the world in which it can find its nourishment, its past, its future after death, and what constitutes its happiness here and now. Even the four cases of “eel-wriggling,” or agnosticism listed here can be understood as motivated by the desire to protect the self from the harassment that comes from expounding a view to others.
The antidote to this kind of thinking is not to assume that there is no self—MN 2 counsels against trying to give any answer to such questions as “What am I?” and “Do I exist? Do I not exist?” (see the articles, “The Not-self Strategy” and “The Limits of Description” on this point). Instead, SN 41:3 recommends a more subtle strategy: learning from people of integrity how not to assume a self in any way around the five aggregates. But it does not explain how this is done. SN 12:15 advises contemplating the origination and passing away of events in the world of the six senses until even the notions of “existence” and “non-existence” don’t occur to the mind. At that point, all that seems to arise and pass away is stress, a realization that allows the mind to let go of all fabrications. This is its definition of right view.
The most important aspect of right view, as noted above, is that it reaches a point where it undercuts clinging even to itself and to the release that comes when that level of clinging is abandoned. DN 1 itself doesn’t explain how, but AN 10:93 gives a clue. After seeing that all other views, because they are fabricated, are stressful, and that because they are stressful, they don’t deserve to be claimed as “me” or “mine,” right view then applies the same analysis to itself as a fabricated phenomenon. That’s how it finds the full escape that comes from dispassion for every fabrication, even the fabrication of the path.
The fact that clinging to views is overcome through knowledge, and not through the simple decision not to formulate views, is worth emphasizing again and again. As SN 22:81 points out, such an agnostic decision is a fabrication based on ignorance, and so it cannot escape from suffering and stress.
The same point applies to the “eel-wrigglers” mentioned in DN 1. Interestingly enough, one of the issues that eel-wrigglers waffle on is precisely an issue on which the Buddha himself refuses to take a position: the status of an arahant after death. The difference is that the eel-wrigglers’ refusal is because of their stupidity and fear; the Buddha’s refusal, however, is because of his knowledge that any attempt to answer the question is unskillful kamma not conducive to the end of suffering. What this means, of course, is that refusing to take a position on an issue is not always a case of eel-wriggling, as has sometimes been claimed. It’s eel-wriggling only when done out of ignorance, stupidity, or fear.
Release. In the final section of the sutta, the Buddha states the reward of developing discernment into the kamma of views: The Tathāgata—a term for the Buddha and, in some suttas, for his arahant disciples—will never be reborn. Freed from all clinging, he is totally released from suffering and stress.
Connections. DN 1 connects these four aspect of the Buddha’s behavior—his attitude toward praise and criticism, his virtue, his discernment, and his release—by saying that ordinary people, when praising the Buddha, focus on nothing more than his virtue; only someone of acute discernment can praise him in a way that does justice to his discernment and—through that—to his release.
Other suttas in the Piṭaka, however, show that, in practice, the connections among these four aspects go much deeper than that.
For instance, there is a direct relationship between the Buddha’s discernment and his attitude toward criticism and praise. As Sn 4:8 points out, India in the Buddha’s time had a tradition where proponents of different philosophies would engage in public debates. The sutta further says, though, that the actual purpose of such debates wasn’t to arrive at the truth. It was to gain praise. This was why the Buddha counseled his students not to engage in such debates. However, as DN 1 shows, the true purpose of developing knowledge about the kamma of views isn’t to gain praise from the public. It’s to gain release from suffering and stress. Similarly, the purpose of discussion—and this applies to the type of debates that the Buddha would engage in—is to lead to the liberation of the mind (AN 3:68).
There is also a direct relationship between the Buddha’s attitude toward praise and criticism on the one hand, and his release on the other. Praise and criticism are “worldly conditions” (AN 8:6–8). As Sn 2:4 states, one of the fruits of arahantship is that the mind, when touched by worldly conditions, isn’t shaken.
Finally, there is the relationship between the Buddha’s virtue and his discernment. As DN 4 points out, virtue purifies discernment, and discernment purifies virtue, in the same way that the right hand washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right. This relationship, too, is echoed in the Buddha’s standards for debate: A person was worthy of talking to, he said, only if that person conducted the discussion in a fair, truthful, and ethical way (AN 3:68).
The connections among the four aspects of the Buddha’s accomplishments mentioned here are only a few of the many possible ones that could be cited from the other suttas in the Piṭaka. However, they are enough to show that the Brahmajāla, though long, is only an introduction to the virtues of the Buddha and the riches of the Dhamma he taught. In particular, it has to be augmented by the following sutta, DN 2, to give a sense of the Buddha’s skill in the practice of concentration. Still, because the Brahmajāla raises such important issues, helping to make clear what kind of teacher the Buddha was and was not, what the Dhamma is and what it is not—along with the fact that the final release attained and taught by the Buddha lies beyond all this—it’s easy to see why it was such a strong candidate to be placed first in the Sutta Piṭaka as a gateway to the entire collection.