On Why the Teachings of ‘a buddha’ are Understood to be Superior to Other Religious and Philosophical Teachings

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In the modern world religions are often seen as competing against one another. Indeed, historically this has quite naturally been the case given the claims to truth which different religions have preached. We sometimes assume that Buddhism is immune to this in its dialogue with other religions. Whether this assumption is justified is the matter of some debate. Here I would like to address the question of the ways in which the Buddhism of the Pali Canon might argue for its superiority and on what grounds it might do this. Does then Buddhism argue for its superiority? In the Brahmajāla-sutta (D 1-46)  such an argument might be found. The basic premise of the Brahmajāla-sutta is that because the knowledge of a buddha cannot be the object of attachment it is a superior knowledge and surpasses that of other religious teachers.

The Brahmajāla-sutta opens with a long section detailing the reasons why the ‘ordinary person’ (puthujjana) would praise the Buddha. The ordinary person praises the Buddha for his virtuous qualities. The sutta refers to these as ‘trifling and insignificant matters, minor details of mere moral virtue’. The sutta goes on to state that:

‘There are other things (dhammas), deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful and sublime, beyond the sphere of reasoning, subtle, comprehensible only to the wise, which the Tathāgata (an epithet of the Buddha), having realised for himself with direct knowledge, propounds to others.’[2]

It is concerning these dhammas, these things, that ‘those who rightly praise the Tathāgata would speak in accordance with the way things are’.[3] The sutta then expounds sixty-two views. These views summarise and sometimes caricature a wide range of possible philosophical and religious arguments. They are meant to represent all possible philosophical and religious opinions possible in the world. After each set of views the sutta states what the dhammas are whereby one would rightly praise the Tathāgata.

The Tathāgata’s understanding

It states that the Tathāgata, the Buddha, understands each group of views. He understands that these ‘bases for views’ (diṭṭhiṭṭhānā),[4] grasped (gahitā) and clung to (parāmaṭṭhā), lead to a certain future rebirth.[5] The Tathāgata also understands what transcends (uttaritara) [6] this, yet he does not cling to even that understanding (ta ca pajānana na parāmasati), and because of not clinging (aparāmasato) he has ‘realised within himself the state of perfect peace’.[7] The sutta then states that:

‘Having understood as they really are the origin and passing away of feelings (all things, all views and opinion, beliefs and philosophical arguments) their satisfaction, unsatisfactoriness, and the escape from them, the Tathāgata […] is emancipated through non-attachment.’[8]

It is these dhammas, or this knowledge, that is deep, difficult to see, etc., concerning which the Tathāgata would rightly be praised.[9] The Buddha is not attached to the ‘highest’, for this knowledge ‘transcends’ (uttaritara) and is free from craving. His is a knowledge beyond attachment.

63rd View?

The Brahmajāla-sutta, we may think, does not explicitly contain a sixty-third view which is the insight and knowledge which gives the correct proposition in opposition to the sixty-two views. This is true as far as it goes, but also misleading. In my understanding, the Brahmajāla-sutta does suggest what correct knowledge is. This is knowledge (or understanding) of rise and fall, the anuloma and pailoma (forward and reverse) knowledge (or understanding) of ‘dependent-origination’ (paicca-samuppāda):

‘Dependent upon ignorance arise volitional formations;

Dependent upon volitional formations arises consciousness;

Dependent upon consciousness arises name and form;

Dependent upon name and form arises the six-fold sense base;

Dependent upon the six-fold sense base arises contact;

Dependent upon contact arises feeling;

Dependent upon feeling arises craving;

Dependent upon craving arises attachment;

Dependent upon attachment arises being;

Dependent upon being arises birth;

Dependent upon birth arises old age and grief, lamentation, suffering and despair.

Thus arises this entire mass of suffering.

However, from the utter fading away of ignorance, there is the ceasing of volitional formations;

From the ceasing of volitional formations there is the ceasing of consciousness;

With the ceasing of consciousness there is the ceasing of name and form;

With the ceasing of name and form there is the ceasing of the six-fold sense base;

With the ceasing of the six-fold sense base there is the ceasing of contact;

With the ceasing of contact there is the ceasing of feeling;

With the ceasing of feeling there is the ceasing of craving;

With the ceasing of craving there is the ceasing of attachment;

With the ceasing of attachment there is the ceasing of being;

With the ceasing of being there is the ceasing of birth;

With the ceasing of birth there is the ceasing of old age and grief, lamentation, suffering and despair.

And thus there is the ceasing of this entire mass of suffering.’

By the nature of these doctrines, this process must be seen and understood without any degree of craving and attachment:

‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.’ M III 64.

This is the knowledge that makes a buddha, indeed the Buddha, worthy of praise. It is not the fact that a buddha acts in a profoundly ethical manner, that his behaviour is morally pure, but that he ‘sees things as they are’ (yathābhūtadassana) and is not attached to this knowledge. This is what makes the teachings of a buddha, the teachings of Buddhism, in the understanding of the Brahmajāla-sutta, a superior teaching. Therefore, if pushed Buddhism would not state that all religions are of equal value – only Buddhism preaches a doctrine that cannot be an object of attachment and is then beyond suffering.


[1] appamattaka kho pan’ eta bhikkhave oramattaka sīlamattaka, yena puthujjano tathāgatassa vaṇṇa vadamāno vadeyya, D I 3.

[2] atthi bhikkhave aññeva dhammā gambhīrā duddasā duranubodhā santā paṇītā atakkāvacarā nipuṇā paṇḍitavedanīyā, ye tathāgato saya abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedeti, D I 12.

[3] yehi tathāgatassa yathābhucca vaṇṇa sammā vadamānā vadeyyu, D I 12.

[4] Cf. the ‘eight bases’ in the Paisambhidhāmagga.

[5] ime kho diṭṭhi-ṭṭhānā evagahitā evaparāmaṭṭhā evagatikā bhavissanti evaabhisamparāyā, D I 16.

[6] uttaritara, the highest, what transcends, i.e. nibbāna.

[7] aparāmasato c’ assa paccattaññeva nibbuti viditā, D I 16.

[8] vedanāna samudayañ ca atthagamañ ca assādañ ca ādīnavañ ca nissaraañ ca yathābhūta viditvā anupādā vimutto […] tathāgato. Whole passage: tayida bhikkhave tathāgato pajānāti: ime diṭṭhiṭṭhānā eva gahitā eva parāmaṭṭhā evagatikā bhavissanti eva abhisamparāyā ti. tañ ca tathāgato pajānāti, tato ca uttaritara pajānāti. tañ ca pajānana na parāmasati. aparāmasato c’ assa paccattaññeva nibbuti viditā. vedanāna samudayañ ca atthagamañ ca assādañ ca ādīnavañ ca nissaraañ ca yathābhūta viditvā anupādā vimutto bhikkhave tathāgato, D I 16-17, 21-22, 24, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 36, 38 (x 2), 39.

[9] ime kho te bhikkhave dhammā gambhīrā duddasā duranubodhā santā paṇītā atakkāvacarā nipuṇā paṇḍita-vedanīyā ye tathāgato saya abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedeti yehi tathāgatassa yathābhucca vaṇṇa sammā vadamānā vadeyyu, D I 17, etc.

 

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