reserved space


This is a copy of the essay I submitted at the end of a series of 10 evenings classes held at Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education and presented by Professor Richard Gombrich. The brief was to write an essay of about 1000 words using material that had been presented during the course, but it was very informal because apart from that there were no restrictions and this was deliberate as he wanted to find out a range of perspectives...

In Week 2 we were introduced to the First Sermon of the Buddha. This prompted me to reflect a little on the context in which the Buddha gave teachings. Comments are welcome and I'd be particularly pleased for help with some gaps in the references.

(The essay here makes one change in providing fuller details for the late Abbot of Wat Paknam).

Observations on how kamma affects listeners and its implication for interpreting the Buddha's teachings

A short essay by Paul Trafford
22 March 2006

I've dipped into the Tipitaka over the course of a few years, mainly to study some suttas. One thing that the evening classes have highlighted further and which I find remarkable is the scale of teachings: I've seen a full Pali Tipitaka edition amount to almost 50 large volumes. Yet, we read in the texts how some disciples of the Buddha hear only a few words and very soon they attain nibbana and become arahants. So I offer here a brief reflection and try to show how kamma has an important bearing on [my] interpretation of the texts, especially how its consideration casts light on why the Buddha gives particular teachings to particular aspirants with what can appear amazing results.

During the past couple of months there has been a liberal sprinkling of textual fragments for our classes. The importance of context has often been highlighted, mainly the historical and social context of India at that time, which has been shown to be a key factor in language deliberately chosen by the Buddha. Also of importance are the mental qualities of those who were receiving teachings, acquired through sustained mental development, and thus also the kamma, evident from the very beginning of his missionary activities when he considered who should be the first ones to be approached subsequent to his Enlightenment.

To look a bit more closely, we can take for illustration the Dhammacakkavattanna sutta, which was introduced in Week 2 [1]. It is one of the few suttas recorded with some generally agreed historic details: it was the first sermon given shortly after the Buddha attained Fully Self-Awakened Enlightenment, delivered to the five ascetics with whom he had practised austerities. It states the Four Noble Truths and the 12 step path for their full realisation - that these Truths be known, that these Truths have to be followed and that these Truths have been followed.

How should we regard this as a teaching? If we examine it today from a scholarly viewpoint and carry out linguistic analysis, it may appear very terse and more convenient to consider it as a programmatic sermon. Evidence to support this can be seen from the fact that so many teachings hang off it, and that this text is also placed at the start of the Mahavagga, in the Vinaya Pitaka [2]. Also it might be argued that as the ascetics can't be ordained bhikkhus, the "thus I have heard" and what follows is formulaic, and hence this should be regarded as a table of contents with explications given subsequently in other texts. Indeed some introductory books on Buddhism, such as Rahula's 'What the Buddha taught', fit this approach [3].

Yet, the passage quoted from that book omits the responses of the listeners, notably of Koṇḍañña, one of the ascetics [4]:

Now during this utterance, there arose in the venerable Koṇḍañña the spotless, immaculate vision of the True Idea: "Whatever is subject to arising is all subject to cessation.

Then the Blessed One uttered the exclamation: "Koṇḍañña knows! Koṇḍañña knows!," and that is how that venerable one acquired the name, Añña-Koṇḍañña - Koṇḍañña who knows.

Venerable Koṇḍañña needed no further explanation, so it seems inappropriate to ascribe attainment of nibbana as a response to just a table of contents! Such a response becomes more plausible when we consider kamma. At the time of the Buddha kamma relating to other existences and realms was generally accepted, so the Buddha could assume this as a backdrop.  

In the context of Koṇḍañña's kamma, we find that he was one of the soothsayers, 'masters of the Three Vedas', summoned at the birth of the Bodhisattva and was the only one to unequivocally predict his destiny as a Buddha [5]; later he joined the Bodhisattva for years in ascetic strivings. Yet, according to the Law of Kamma, one life is only the tip of the ice-berg. In order for Venerable Koṇḍañña to have the distinction of being the first human after the Buddha to realise nibbana, he had many accumulations from previous lives as described by the Burmese Master, Mingun Sayadaw [6].

The term "bhikkhu" has actually another sense relating to the practitioner's orientation - in Buddhagosa's commentary it means philologically "the person who sees danger (in samsara or cycle of rebirth)" [7]. The Buddha was primarily concerned about ultimate release and sought authentic practitioners, so may have addressed them as "bhikkhus" without an ordination ceremony - in this case the five ascetics could be called "bhikkhus" even though they were not yet ordained. Indeed some of those ordained nowadays recognise this, including Ven. Acharn Chah, a meditation master in the Thai Forest tradition, who referred to this connotation of 'bhikkhu' in some of his teachings [8].

Thus the very few words of the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta may be viewed as conveying in a very rarefied form a fundamental prompt to listeners who were already well versed in preparatory practice, whose kamma over many lifetimes allowed them to attune to the supreme realisation. It reminds me of how a holographic image may be reconstructed wholly from a fragment, albeit at lower resolution. However, this does not discount the validity of its use as a table of contents around which to hang more detailed explanations.

A more striking example of how background context needs to be taken into account is Bahiya Daruciriya [9], with commentary [10], where Bahiya, having been chastised by a deva for mistaking his attainment for arahantship, wastes no time in travelling to catch up with the Buddha. He rushes to the Enlightened One whilst He is out on almsround in the streets, but is rebuffed twice with the statement that this is not the right occasion [perhaps when his mind was not ready to receive]. Yet on the third time of asking he receives the briefest of teachings, a few lines that start: 'In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen' - and immediately he attains nibbana. How can this be? The Apadana that describe previous lives of many Arahants, mentions how Bahiya at the time of Buddha Kassapa strove with other monks for nibbana until they gave up their lives through starvation in the attempt. [11]

Teaching like this can also be a target - in 'Life as a Siamese Monk', the author describes how shortly after the Bhikkhu ordination, his preceptor, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, Chao Khun Phra Mongkol Thepmuni (Sodh Candassaro), instructs him to reflect especially on this sutta: 'I want you to think about this story, Kapilavaddho. Practise the things which I have taught you. Think of nothing else, work all the time and you also can come to understanding just as did Bahiya.' [12]

So this line of reasoning - based on kamma - can help us appreciate how passages that may appear at first glance formulaic, opaque or inconsistent make more sense when we understand the background of the intended listeners, especially how their kamma predisposes them to fast attainment.


[1] SN LVI.11, Dhammacakkavattanna sutta, trans. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Gordon Fraser, 2nd Edition, 1967, pp92-94
[2] Mahavagga, Vinaya Pitaka,
[3] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Gordon Fraser, 2nd Edition, 1967
[4] Dhammacakkavattanna sutta, trans. Ven. Ñanamoli Thera, Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha (WH 17), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981. Available online from Access To Insight:
[5] Introduction to the Jataka 1.54 Kondanna. See Henry Clark Warren. Buddhism in Translations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1896, pp48-56. Available online from Missouri Southern State University:
[6] Ven. Mingun Sayadaw, The Life Story of Kondanna Mahathera. Available online from
[7] Ven. Buddhagosa, Commentary, ??? <not found>
[8] Ven. Ajahn Chah, Food for the Heart, Available online from
[9] Udana 1.10, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Available online from
[10] Susan Elbaum Jootla, Teacher of the Devas, III: Devas and Brahmas Honor the Buddha, available online from ]
[11] Khuddaka Nikaya, Apadana, <no English translation found>
[12] Richard Randall, Life as a Siamese Monk, page 98, Aukana, 1st edition, 1990
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