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[ Dhamma Talk ]

The Simile of the Snake[1]

This is a sutta that should be given careful examination because it deals with various ways the Dhamma can be wrongly grasped (thus the parable of the snake where grabbing it in the wrong way can end up getting you bitten). Many of these wrong graspings are common currency in discussions of Buddhism today.

One piece of this was dealt with in the discussion of the question as to whether or not indulging in pleasures of the senses is a Stumbling Block.[2]

The next wrong grasp is mastering dhamma without testing it's meaning and using it simply to reproach others and for the advantages of gossiping.

Following that is The Simile of the Raft, that is, grasping onto Dhamma after dhamma has served its purpose.

Next is a longish section in which the Bhikkhus are taught various ways of not grasping after views of self or views of what belongs to self.

Then we come to a passage which illustrates well why we need to check back with original sources, or, at the least, check with additional sources in matters that raise doubts.

This is the Pali:

From: Majjhima I, PTS, Trenckner, ed., pp 137

Attani va bhikkhave sati attaniyam me ti assati||
Evam bhante||
Attaniye va bhikkhave sati atta me ti assati||
Evam bhante||
Attani ca bhikkhave attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhamane yam p'idam ditthitthanam||
so loko so atta, so pecca bhivissami nicco dhuvosassato aviparinama-dhammo, sassata-samamm tath'eva thassamiti, nanayam bhikkhave kevalo paripro baladhammo ti.||
Kim hi no siya bhante kevalo paripro baladhammo ti||

Horner translates[3]:

"[Good, monks. Neither do I, monks, see that dependence on view by depending on which dependence on view there would not arise grief, suffering, anguish, lamentation, despair.] If, monks, there were Self, could it be said: 'It belongs to my self'?"
"Yes Lord"
"Or, monks, if there were what belongs to Self, could it be said: 'It is my self'?'
"Yes Lord"
"But if Self, monks, and what belongs to Self, although actually existing, are incomprehensible,[4] is not the view and the causal relation that: 'This the world this the self, after dying I will become permanent, lasting, eternal, not liable to change, I will stand fast like unto the eternal' . . . is not this, monks, absolute complete folly?"
"Lord, how could it not be absolute complete folly?"

The Bhodi/Nanimoli translation handles this better:

"Bhikkhus, there being a self, would there be what belongs to my self?"
"Yes, venerable sir."
"Or there being what belongs to a self, would there be my self?"
"Yes, venerable sir."
"Bhikkhus, since a self and what belongs to a self are not apprehended as true and established, then this standpoint for views, namely, 'This is self, this the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity' . . . would it not be an utterly and completely foolish teaching?"
"What else could it be, venerable sir? It would be an utterly and completely foolish teaching."

[mo from here]...and the well instructed disciple
1. Does not regard materiality, sense experience, perception, personalization, or consciousness (the Khandhas) as the self and has become passionless and through passionless is free, and
2. has got rid of ignorance, and
3. has brought re-birth to such an end that it cannot resurface again, and
4. has got rid of craving, and
5. has got rid of the five fetters: Own-Self View; Doubt; Foolish beliefs; Wanting Pleasure; Anger[5]
6. has got rid of the conceit "I am"

"Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu's mind is freed thus, the devas ... those with Inda, those with Brahmaa, those with Pajapati, do not succeed in their search if they think: 'This is the discriminative consciousness attached to a Tathagata. What is the reason for this? I, bhikkhus, say here and now that a Tathagata is untraceable.

And, having spelled out what he does teach, he points to the wrong grasping of others to views concerning what he does and does not teach:


"Although I, monks, am one who speaks thus, who points out thus, there are some recluses and brahmans who misrepresent me untruly, vainly, falsely, not in accordance with fact, saying: 'The recluse Gotama is a nihilist, he lays down the cutting off, the destruction, the disappearance of the existent entity. But as this, monks, is just what I am not, as this is just what I do not say, therefore these worthy recluses and brahmans misrepresent me . . . formerly I, monks, as well as now, lay down simply anguish [dukkha] and the stopping of anguish."


Bhikkhus, when the gods with Indra, with Brahmaa and with Pajaapati seek a bhikkhu who is thus liberated in mind, they do not find [anything of which they could say:] 'The consciousness of one thus gone is supported by this.' Why is that? One thus gone, I say, is untraceable here and now.
. . .teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being. As I am not, as I do not proclaim, so have I been baselessly, vainly, falsely and wrongly misrepresented by some . . .
Bhikkhus, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering.

Then, we are taught how, having accomplished all this one does not wrongly grasp praise, and should not indulge joy, gladness, or elation of mind but simply pay attention to what needs to be done in terms of one's duties with regard to what remains, putting away what does not belong to us.

Then we have, lest there be any mistake about this, six (6) declarations to the effect that:


"Thus, monks, is dhamma well taught by me, made manifest, opened up, made known, stripped of its swathings."


"Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear, open, evident, and free of patchwork."

Each of the six declarations saying, essentially "Because this Dhamma is well taught by me, Arahants have become Arahants here and now (that is, then); some have become those who will attain Arahantship at death; Non-Returners have become Non-Returners; Stream-Attainers have become Stream Attainers; Those who are making the effort to understand Dhamma out of Faith will attain the goal, and even those who just follow out of blind faith and affection will end in heavenly birth."

My hearing of this is that this last is saying words to the effect that grasping after an Higher Dhamma [Abhi Dhamma], or a Greater Vehicle [Maha Yana] for the transport of beings to the goal is to be grasping This Snake in the wrong way.


[1]Middle Length Sayings, I #22
WP: The Simile of the Snake, 224
PTS: Discourse on the Parable of the Water-snake, I.167

[2]See: DhammaTalk: Stumbling-Block

[3]Middle Length Discourses, I, #22, The Parable of the Water-snake, pp 177. For some reason she includes the first question at the end of the previous paragraph, which has the tendency to separate off the third question, and makes it subject to misunderstanding, especially as she has it translated.

[4]Horner notes: anupalabbhamaane: either: not to be known, or, not-existing, and throws "saccato thetato" into it's own phrase "although actually existing"
The phrase in question is
"Attani ca bhikkhave attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhamane yam p'idam ditthitthanam"
I get something more like:
But "self", beggars, and "what belongs to self", not being found to be true and trustworthy positions here and now, then is not this statement 'This world, this self, after death becomes unchangeable . . .absurd?
The difference is huge. Without the preceding questions setting the stage, and reading Horner's translation as standing alone, one comes to the conclusion that there is some sort of unknowable self out there which is just simply not to be dealt with in terms of views about the self and the world.
This is, of course, the wrong grasping of the snake that is being discussed in this section: that is, the grasping after views of self when the dhamma has taught that there is no basis for such views.

[5]See:The 10 Fundamental Attachments

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