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Discussing the Subha Sutta

This sutta [MN II #99] is either very disjointed or possibly the way it hangs together is beyond me (I provide one hypothetical reading) — it seems like Subha is one of those people you see at gatherings where a teacher takes questions, who has a list of questions they formulated before the meeting, they ask a question, get an answer, move to the next question, not paying any attention to the implications of an answer ... in other words not a spontaneously arising series of questions that would lead anywhere. In the past I have found the sutta of interest because of the statement in the PTS translation by Horner on page 396:

"When, brahman youth, the freedom of mind that is friendliness has been developed thus, that deed which is done in a limited range does not rest there, does not remain there. Brahman youth, as a stout conch-blower informs the four quarters without any difficulty, so, brahman youth, when the freedom of mind that is friendliness has been developed thus, that deed which is done in a limited range does not rest there, does not remain there. This, brahman youth, is a way to companionship with Brahma."

Ñanamoli/Bodhi translate it:

"When the deliverance of mind by loving-kindness is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there, none persists there. Just as a vigorous trumpeter could make himself heard without difficulty in the four quarters, so too, when the deliverance of mind by loving-kindness is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there, none persists there. This is the path to the company of Brahma."

N/B cite:

MA explains limiting action (pamāṇakataṃ kammaṃ) as kamma pertaining to the sense sphere (kāmā-vacara). It is contrasted with a limitless or immeasurable action, namely, the jhānas pertaining to the fine-material sphere or the immaterial sphere. In this case the brahma-vihāras developed to the jhānic level are intended. When a jhāna pertaining to the fine-material sphere or the immaterial sphere is attained and mastered, a kamma pertaining to the sense sphere cannot overpower it and gain the opportunity to yield its own result. Rather, the kamma pertaining to the fine-material sphere or the immaterial sphere overpowers the sense-sphere kammas and produces its results. Obstructing the result of the sense-sphere kammas, the brahma-vihāra that has been mastered leads to rebirth in the company of Brahmaa.

In a margin note I wrote to myself prior to the 1980s I have:

"This means a deed (work) done by the low mind assumes the character of a deed done by Brahma when the mind is set free by friendliness — elsewhere this phenomena is used to urge one to be careful of one's deeds in the low condition — a badly done deed hinders the mind of friendliness and can distract it even to hell, once in the Brahma mind all deeds are deeds of Brahma."

I can remember how this worked (and I am sure many of you have experienced a similar phenomena): one does a good deed and there is nothing much to speak of in terms of thrill as to the consequences. Then, at a later time in another (hopefully higher) mental state, one looks back and sees that the entire course of one's life was changed by this act. In terms of the above statement, the prior deed has assumed the nature of a deed done by Brahma (of enormous significance, power and wonder).

PTS cites AN 10.209; The Book of the Tens, pp 193, Woodward, trans:

"Monks, I declare that of intentional deeds done and accumulated there can be no wiping out without experiencing the result thereof, and that too whenever arising, either in this same visible state or in some other state hereafter.

I declare, monks, that there is no ending of Ill as regards intentional deeds done and accumulated without experiencing the results thereof.

Monks, that Ariyan disciple thus freed from coveting, freed from malevolence, not bewildered but self-possessed and concentrated,[1] with a heart possessed of amity, abides irradiating one quarter of the world, likewise above, below, across, everywhere, for all sorts and conditions — he abides irradiating the whole world with a heart possessed of amity that is wide-spreading, grown great and boundless, free from enmity and untroubled.

He comes to know thus: Formerly this heart of mine was confined, it was not made to grow; but now my heart is boundless, well made to grow. Moreover whatsoever deed belongs to a limited range, now it stays not in that range, it stands not still in that range."

This is the Pāḷi for the relevant terms:

"... yaṃ pamāṇa-kataṃ kammaṃ,||
na taṃ tatrāvasissati,||
na taṃ tatrāvatiṭṭhati."

That kamma which is

Pamāṇa = PED: 1. measure, amount, size 2. measure of time, compass, length, duration 3. age 4. limit 5. standard, definition, description, dimension; of characteristic, of the character of, measuring or measured by, taking the standard of; only in cpd. rūpa- measuring by (appearance or) form, or held in the sphere of form);
+ kata = taken as standard, set as example, being the measure

does not

Tatrāvasissati = tattha = where, there, right there; tatra = 1. there 2. in this 3. a special application of tatra (perhaps in the same sense to be explained tattha A 3) is that as first part of a cpd., where it is to be taken as generalizing: all kinds of (orig. in this & that) in whatever condition, all-round, complete

Vasissati = > vasati = to live, dwell, stay, abide, to spend time, to keep observe, live, practice

does not

Tatrā vatiṭṭhati = there stand

Dealing with the issue raised by the commentary: the consequences of a badly done deed (or all of our badly done deeds, or, further, all of our deliberately done deeds) will be experienced before final liberation in PariNibbāna. Where we go wrong in conceptualizing this is in the idea that a certain consequence must be of such and such dimensions. This is not the way to see it. Any given consequence is relative to the current state of mind of the experiencer and to his intent when first acting. This is the very point of Dhamma and is the only way Kamma could be escaped. One person experiences the consequences of, say, having killed an individual by spending thousands of years in Hell, another experiences the consequences of a similar deed by having a headache. What makes the difference? The development in mind of the individual and his original intent. It is like the work put into the development of mind (and especially so if one works to understand and actually see change, not self and dukkha) is the experiencing of the consequences of kamma.

I use the example of an individual who was to experience certain affliction of body as a consequence of a badly done deed. Working so as to rise above the idea "My Body" he has burnt off past kamma to such a degree that he looks on at what occurs to the body, experiences (is consciously aware of) the unpleasant sensations connected with that bad kamma, but does not identify with that and is indifferent and wastes no time on the issue.

This mind is exceedingly swift and powerfully encompassing and can, in such a way as this, burn through (escape) the experience of the consequences of the totality of one's past kamma in a matter of ... we have examples of it being done in one night or day; one whole day, two days, seven days, etc.

Subha was a brahman, and brahmans were interested in rebirth in the Brahma world, and it may be that the rest of the sutta deals with this issue like this:

Does one need to become a homeless beggar to attain the Brahma World?

Subha begins by stating that brahmans hold that householders are walking the right path, living according to dhamma, doing what is skillful and that those who become homeless are not.

Gotama says that on this issue he does not take a definitive stand, but discriminates between householders and those who have gone forth based on their behavior, not on their status as householder or homeless wanderer.

Subha then says that brahmans hold that as a result of their many undertakings, functions, and responsibilities the result of the household life is of great fruit whereas as a consequence of having few undertakings, functions, and responsibilities, the result of the homeless life is of little fruit.

Gotama answers this issue by stating that here too he discriminates: There are occupations of householders that involve a great deal of activity that fail and produce no results, there are occupations of householders that involve very little to do and produce great results when successful. In the same way it is a matter of what kind of activity it is, and whether or not the activity is successful or fails (not whether there is much activity or little) that determines the result for one who is homeless.

Will these five aspects of doing a skillful deed conduce to such deeds as will bring one to the Brahma World?

Then Subha states that brahmans point to five things for successfully accomplishing the doing of (puññassa kiriyāya: this implies successful completion, so we might say for fully effecting) a skillful deed (skillful deed here being — as indicated by context — such a deed as would result in prosperity, or one's rebirth in the Brahma world; but the idea, as developed by Gotama, is the same as for the working of any deed of magic power).

These terms are being put forth by a brahman youth, and will have had special meaning for brahmans. Since the terms are not defined in the sutta I am giving a little bit of context:

1. Honesty/Truthfulness

2. Frugality (For the brahmans of the time this (tappa = burning austerities) would have implied practices from mild to extreme self-torture; as a "parikkhāra" (as it will be described later), a "tool" of the mind for a Buddhist, it will mean something more like "wanting little" or "frugality". But further on in the sutta there is probably a pun used on the brahman meaning where the term "tapassin" is given the meaning of one who is engaged in the practice of burning off his bad kamma, what I call living by attrition; doing what is needed to be done to survive without deliberate injury to the body, while abstaining from adding to the load by wanting and trying to get.

3. Purity of Behavior ("Brahma-cariya", carrying on, behaving, like Brahma. Brahma, meaning "best" or "pure" probably means that this word carries more weight than just simply being celibate).

4. Learning, (more like mastering) (For the brahman it would mean of the (Vedic) hymns; for Buddhists, of the Dhamma).

5. Giving Up (this word means first, giving up, letting go, renunciation, second, giving, generosity; both are tools which are useful in the doing of a deed of Magic Power, but the first is of greater power).

Skillful Deeds

Pāḷi MO Horner Ñanamoli/Bodhi
puññnassa kiriyāya successful performance success/doing accomplishing/performance
saccaṃ truthfulness/honesty truth truth
tapaṃ frugality austerity asceticism
Brahma-cariyaṃ purity of behavior chastity celibacy
ajjhenam learning study study
cāgaṃ giving up renunciation generosity
parikkhāra tool equipments equipment


The Buddha then asks if Subha has ever heard of anyone, from the present back to the original teachers of the Vedas, who has ever actually said that they saw for themselves the successful result of such things.

Horner: "We, having realized by our own super-knowledge, declare the result of these five things."

N/B: "We declare the result of these five things having realized it ourselves with direct knowledge."

The answer is no.

Like the blind leading the blind.

This goes round in another circle when the Buddha speaks of the situation as being like the blind leading the blind, Subha then gets angry and cites authority as stating that nobody could see the results of such a thing. The Buddha then asks Subha if this authority is himself able to see the results of such a thing. He is told he is not. And then Gotama makes the simile of the person blind from birth who is told of the moon and stars and visible objects and who declares that the existence of such things is impossible.

There is some further delineation of exactly how far wrong this authority really is.

The Buddha then asks Subha which of the five things is considered by brahmans to be the most potent, and Subha answers that it is cāga.[2]

Then the Buddha poses a hypothetical:

Suppose a brahman were providing a feast and there were two brahmans come to partake. One thinks to himself: "I hope I get the best seat, best drinking water, best food," but it is the other that gets the best seat, the best drinking water, the best food, and that first brahman is upset and angry. How would brahmans describe this result?

The meaning of this is not at all clear in either Horner or Ñanamoli/Bodhi who are restricted to translating. What is being asked is:
"Having used the tool or factor of successful deed making considered by brahmans themselves to be the most powerful in the making of a good deed, (that is: giving, giving up); how do they account for an unsuccessful outcome such as in this example?[3]

Subha does not answer directly, but states that brahmans do not give with the idea of such outcomes, but give because they are compassionate. The Buddha then asks if this is a sixth criteria for doing a successful deed and, Subha again missing the point, tells him: "yes".

At this point Gotama says that he describes these things as tools for the development of a mind without enmity, without malevolence. In other words it is not that these five things are the way to making (successfully effecting) a skillful deed (they could all just as easily be used for foolish deeds; and do not determine outcomes), but are tools for assisting in bringing the user to the place where such a skillful deed is possible:

The Buddha describes the process this way:

By using a tool, he acquires knowledge of Dhamma and acquires the rapture which is connected with Dhamma. This rapture, too is only a tool, for the development of a mind without attachment, aversion, confusion, etc ... again: it is that using the tools to arrive at a highly developed mental state, it is still necessary to so comprehend the situation in that mental state that one, in freedom, knows one is free (or, should one's ambition only rise to the degree of wishing to attain rebirth in the Brahma Realm, to know one is there). Otherwise the moment can be lost.

This is the way I read this sutta as a whole.


[1] Woodward notes the incongruity of the beginning of this paragraph. Could be that the intent was ... freed thus: with a heart ...

[2] Subha is using the word in the sense of "giving.")

[3] Where a little fun is poked at greedy brahmans, something that happens quite often in the suttas.




Majjhima Nikaya II, #99: Subha Sutta, pp 206ff;
PTS, Middle Length Sayings II, #99: With Subha, Horner, trans., pp 388ff;
WP, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, #99: To Subha, Ñanamoli/Bodhi, trans., pp. 812ff

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