‘The Dog-Duty Ascetic: Action in the Pali Canon with Reference to the Politics of Action in Modern Burma’

A recent article, dated 2013 (but that only appeared in 2015) in the ‘Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies’. Abstract below and PDF available here: FullerTIJBS-2013-e-copy-260115



Buddhist Cosmology: where and where not to be reborn


Buddhist cosmology is central to an understanding of various factors in Southeast Asian culture. Cosmology is a map and a theory about the nature and structure of the universe. In religious descriptions this cosmology can describe various types of rebirth that can achieved through wholesome and unwholesome actions. Buddhist cosmology is then a description of the endless cycle of rebirths known as samsara. In simple terms, if one performs actions harmful to oneself and other, rebirth will be in a realm below that of the human realm. If one performs virtuous actions that benefit oneself and others, rebirth will be achieved in the human realm or one of heavenly realms. In many respects a Buddhist will perform ethical actions, primarily those based upon the five precepts, in order that their rebirth will be auspicious. Ultimately a Buddhist wants to escape from this endless cycle and the achievement of this is what is termed Nibbana. That is the philosophically complicated awakening that it is the ultimate aspiration of a Buddhist to achieve.

Buddhist cosmology contains a number of factors which explains these different types of rebirth. It also elaborates a theory about vast periods of time. Throughout its description the law of kamma is central. It is based upon the idea that all actions, good and bad, have consequences, and that these actions determine the nature of a person’s rebirth. It is an explanation of where and where not to be reborn.

The process of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology is measured in terms of vast aeons of time (kalpa in Sanskrit and kappa in Pali).  A kalpa is given the notional figure of 4,320,000 years. The Buddha explained this vast period with a metaphor:  Suppose there were a seven mile high mountain made of solid rock. Once a century the top of this mountain is stroked with a piece of silk. The mountain would be worn away before a kalpa has passed. However, more kalpas have passed than there are grains of sand in the banks of the river Ganges (Samyutta-nikaya, II 181-184).

The universe itself, or more correctly the endless cycle of rebirths known as samsara, is divided into three worlds. These worlds are known as dhatu. These three worlds are: The world of the five senses (kama-dhatu); the world of pure form (rupa-dhatu); and the formlessness world (arupa-dhatu).

All of these realms, including the realms of form and formlessness, are in the endless cycle of existences, they are part of samsara and subject to the law of kamma. Although some types of rebirth might contain less suffering than others they are all subject to impermanence and suffering.

Being can be reborn in any one of these three worlds. In the world of the five senses there are eleven levels. In the world of pure form there are sixteen levels and in the formless world there are four levels. This means that spread over the three world are thirty-one possible types of rebirth or planes of existence.

In the world of the five senses the lowest is the hell realm known in Pali as niraya. This comprises a number of very negative rebirths. One such place, described as the great hell, is place where beings are tortured.

Next to the hell realms is the animal realm, the realm of hungry ghosts (petas), and the realm of jealous gods (asuras). Animals are thought to be trapped by desire and instinct. Hungry ghosts or petas, also known as the departed, frequent the human realm due to their attachment to the world. They are sometimes portrayed as having huge stomachs and very thin necks, suggesting their frustration at not being able to satisfy their desires. Jealous gods or asuras are power-seeking and power-hungry beings. Their origins clearly goes back to Indian Vedic mythology.

The realm of human beings is one mixed with suffering and happiness. It is, in many ways, the best type of rebirth as it is from a human rebirth that the escape from rebirth, Nibbana, can be most readily achieved. The most auspicious rebirth is to be born in Jambudipa, the ‘rose apple island’ (a place connected with ideas of ancient India) when a Buddha has been born and is teaching the Dhamma.

Above the human realm are various other possible rebirths. Notable among these is the realm of the thirty-three gods (tavatimsa). This is the place where the Buddha’s mother was reborn after her passing. A mother of a Buddha dies seven days after given birth to her son. There are various reasons given for this, the most common idea is that the womb that has carried a future Buddha cannot again be occupied by a living being. The Buddha, several years after achieving Nibbana ascends to the tavatimsa heaven and teaches the intricate philosophy of Buddhism known as the Abhidhamma. This affords his mother great merit and is in a way symbolic of the Buddha’s respect for his elders. This is celebrated during the Thadingyut festival in October when respect for one’s elders is shown. This is associated with the respect shown by the Buddha to his mother.

In the realm of the contented, the Tusita heaven, dwells the next Buddha, Metteya/Maitreya. He is in meditation, awaiting the appropriate time to descend to his earthly life. This will be when the teachings of the previous Buddha are no longer known. And this will be after a very long period of time. This suggests the fortunate nature of being reborn during the time of a Buddha.

There are sixteen types of rebirth in the realm of pure form. These realms are increasingly subtle, and rebirth in them lasts for increasingly long periods of time. Part of their doctrinal importance is that though being happy destinations and lasting for incredibly long periods of time beings born in them are still subject to the consequences of their actions. The happiness, though long-lasting is impermanent.

The highest part of Buddhist cosmology is reserved for the four formlessness realms (arupa-dhatu) which consists of four types of rebirth: the realm of boundless space, the realm of boundless consciousness, the realm of nothingness and the realm of neither perception nor non-perception. These realms correspond to certain specific states that can be achieved in meditation. Indeed, some scholars of Buddhism have suggested that some aspects of Buddhist cosmology corresponds to states of mind achieved in meditation.

This is the Buddhist model of the endless cycle of existences. It explains how the consequences of actions performed in this life will result in a particular type of rebirth in the future. It also suggests how rebirth in a heavenly realm is subject to the subtle but pervasive suffering of impermanence. Rebirth as an animal or god is comparable in that they are both impermanent and pervaded by dukkha. Buddhist cosmology describes the totality of samsara and ultimately the Buddhist strives to overcome all forms of rebirth either as an animal, a human or a god.

The curious story of how a corpse confirms the wisdom of the Buddha


There are different accounts about the precise details of what occurred on the night that the Buddha achieved Nibbana One prominent description recounts the Buddha’s Nibbana in terms of the realisation of three special knowledges (tevijja). In this account during the course of the night the Buddha could remember his previous lives over a vast period of time (pubbe-nivasanussati). The details of many of these past lives are contained in the collection of texts in the Buddhist Canon known as the Jatakas. These are the description of the Buddha’s rebirths prior to him being born in 5th Century BCE India.

The second knowledge of the Buddha it is described how, with his divine eye (dibba-cakkhu) he had the knowledge of the passing and rebirth of beings. He knew the intricate web of people’s actions, of their karma/kamma, and was aware of the nature of their rebirth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he had knowledge of the destruction of his ‘corruptions’. In Pali the term used for these corruptions is asavas. A list of three and sometimes four corruptions are described: ‘sensual desire’ (kama), ‘becoming’ (bhava), ‘ignorance’ (avijja), and ‘distorted views and beliefs’ (ditthi). These corruptions are extinguished in a Buddha. In descriptions on Nibbana in the Pali Canon the destruction of these corruptions is very much the defining characteristic of one who has escaped from the cycle of rebirths and who is free from suffering. Other accounts simply describe Nibbana in terms of the destruction of all greed, hatred and delusion.

I would like to concentrate on the second knowledge, whereby the Buddha understands the law of karma and understands the nature of a person’s rebirth according to the actions an individual has performed.

In order to examine this knowledge I will consider a curious passage that occurs in the Patika-sutta in the Digha-nikaya. The passage has to do with an ascetic (a person who practices religious austerities), called Korakkhattiya. This ascetic called Korakkhattiya practices in an extremely novel and slightly odd way. He goes on all fours, naked, eating his food like a dog.

By practising in this way he believes his behaviour will lead him to liberation. We might think that Korakkhattiya’s religious practices to be very odd and lacking any spiritual dignity. However, stories are told of other similar ascetics like Seniya in the Kukkuravatika-sutta (Majjhima-nikaya, I 387-392). Seniya is famous in the Pali Canon as a ‘naked dog-duty ascetic (kukkura-vatiko)’. According to the Index of Pali Proper Names, Seniya was a naked ascetic who bellowed and barked like a dog, walked on all fours, and licked up food with his mouth, like a dog. We should also remember that the Buddha himself is said to have tried a very wide variety of religious austerities in his attempts to discover the spiritual path which leads to Nibbana. Images of the Buddha are often found in Buddhist temples depicting him emaciated and starving before Sujata offered him rice-milk (madhupayasa) and he realized the middle-way was the path towards the overcoming of suffering.

In the Patika-sutta it is prophesized by the Buddha that Korakkhattiya will die in seven days of indigestion (we assume this is caused by his dog-like eating habits) and he will be reborn among the Kalakanjaka asuras (‘dark demons’). This level of rebirth is an unhappy destination in Buddhist cosmology and one of the negative and distressing types of destination caused by unwholesome actions. It is positioned immediately below the human realm.

The prophesy of the Buddha makes comes true and is confirmed in a curios passage in which Korakkhattiya’s corpse is discarded in the charnel-ground (a place where human bodies are discarded) and is struck three times by a disciple of the Buddha, named Sunakkhatta who asks Korakkhattiya’s corpse his fate. Miraculously, the corpse of Korakkhattiya sits up, rubs his back and indeed, confirms that the Buddha was correct. He had indeed been reborn among the Kālakañjaka asuras.

As I said, I find this passage curious though a few things are clear. There is the mention of so-called ‘dog-duty’ ascetic practices. The better known Kukkuravatika-sutta, which I have already alluded to, expands on some details of these practices, and has a long discussion of the karmic consequences of this type of behaviour. I have recently published an article describing the Kukkuravatika-sutta (Paul Fuller, ‘The Dog-Duty Ascetic: Action in the Pali Canon with Reference to the Politics of Action in Modern Burma’, Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies).

Second, there is the idea, common in the Pali Canon, that the Buddha knows the events of the future, particularly the place and type of rebirth according to the actions that a person performs. This is an example of him making use of one of the three knowledges (tevijja) that I mentioned above, when the Buddha achieved awakening, namely the ‘divine eye’ (dibba-cakkhu) by which he is able to know people’s rebirth according to their actions (kamma)

Finally, there is the corpse, miraculously confirming that the Buddha’s prediction was indeed correct. What better witness to the wisdom of the Buddha than a corpse who can indeed confirm the place of his rebirth, who can confirm that the Buddha does indeed possess the ‘divine eye’, and with this pronouncement the law of karma is also confirmed. Actions do indeed have inescapable consequences.

In this episode we get a glimpse into the world in which the Buddha lived. It is not always a common sense world of religious and philosophical debate. It is a world in which spirits and demons interact within the human realm and witness and confirm the religious teachings of the Buddha. It is a world in which those seeking an escape from the endless cycle of rebirth undertake extreme and sometimes unusual and bizarre austerities. It is a world based in Buddhist cosmological ideas in which unwholesome actions lead to rebirth into one of the four unhappy destinations, hell, animal, ghosts (petas) and jealous gods (asuras). It is a world far removed from the erudite philosophy often associated with Buddhism. It is equally a Buddhism which is not rational and scientific, but colourful, mysterious and enigmatic. It is a religious world in which the wisdom of the Buddha is all important and events in the natural world are used to praise, acknowledge and confirm his wisdom.