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.