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Pali Canon - Snake Rhino and Bharadvaja Suttas

by Sangharakshita

Seminar based on the CHAPTER OF THE SNAKE from the SUTTA NIPATA held at

'Pundarika' over five evenings in 1975 with the Venerable Sangharakshita
Various people attended during this period.
Khema, Luvah, Siddhiratna, Padmapani, Lokamitra, Padmaraja Suvrata, Dhammadinna,
Sagaramati, Marichi, Anoma, Mahavira, Subhuti, Hridaya, Vimalamitra, Jitari, Vessantara,
Chintamani, Asvajit, Mangala, Alaya, Nagabodhi, Kamalasila, Mangala, Vangisa,
(Jinamata?) and possibly others still unidentified.
S: All right, so for the next five, throughout the evenings, were going to try to get through, I
won't say as much of the Sutta Nipata as possible, but as much as the first chapter of the Sutta
Nipata as possible. There are five chapters in all and in each chapter there are a number of
Suttas in verse form. Sometimes these Suttas have been called ballads. They're very much
that in a way because it's as though the very early Buddhists, the disciples in the Buddha's
own day, for the most part used to chant and recite them as they moved around, as a means of
spreading the Buddha's teaching. So they're not only in verse form they are almost like sort of
spiritual ballads, which were often recited by the roving disciples in this way. And, as I think
most of you know, the Sutta Nipata is one of the most important Buddhist documents that we
do possess. Its important historically inasmuch as it seems to belong for the most part, or at
least for much of it, to the most or almost the most, primitive substratum of the canon. There
is in fact one particular chapter, not one that we are going to do, I think for the course of these
five evenings, a chapter of the eighth, which may well be the most primitive part of the
canon. Certainly among the most primitive parts of the canon, as regards aged authenticity.
We know this or we can infer this, because other parts of the canon which are themselves
quite ancient represent monks as actually reciting this whole chapter, which suggests it was
put together very, very early indeed in the course of the history of Buddhism, certainly during
the lifetime of the Buddha. So we can be sure with regard to much of the Sutta Nipata that it
possesses this sort of age and authenticity. So that with the Sutta Nipata, though more in some
cases than in others, because it does also include quite a few fairly late verse Suttas, which
certainly post-dates the Buddha's own life. But we can be certain that in the Sutta Nipata
much of the time we've got a very ancient, really primitive presentation of the Buddha's
teaching. We do know for instance that the Buddha passed on to his disciples quite a few lists
of terms. But the teaching wasn't entirely in lists, or even parables, by any means. There were
these ballads in circulation. The Buddha himself may have composed some we just don't
know. It's much more likely, I think, that disciples who were gifted in this way, just reduced
the Buddha's teaching to sort of ballad form so that it could be easily remembered', chanted
and spread around. And we do know for instance, that the Buddha, according to the
Theragatha, encouraged the disciple Vangisa to put his teaching into verse. We know this. So
it seems highly likely that others disciples, now anonymous, did the same. So that quite a bit
of the Buddha's teaching in those early days was circulated in [2] this form. And some of the
most attractive, of some of the oldest of those ballads, as it were, some of them highly
philosophical, especially in the chapter of the eights, were in circulation in this way, in this
form. So this is the sort of material that we're dealing with. So we get very close to the
Buddha Himself in the Sutta Nipata, part of the time, very close to his actual teaching
historically and even very close quite often to the actual wording. Maybe not always the
wording of the Buddha, but certainly in many cases the wording of people who had heard the
Buddha, who had listened to the Buddha. And they paraphrased his teaching in their own
words, but keeping pretty close to the essence of the matter and using much the same
language that the Buddha Himself has used. As I mentioned earlier, the language, the Pali of
the Sutta Nipata, is usually very rich. It is not like say the Pali even of the Majjhima Nikaya
and the Digha Nikaya also, it's much richer, it has a greater variety of terms and even
grammatical structures. As some scholars have suggested it comes closer than any other form
of Pali to Vedic Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit being very rich linguistically speaking, as compared
with the later, though still very rich, classical Sanskrit. So we're on very ancient ground here:
we're in much the same world as we are in the case of the Udana and the early section of the
Itivuttaka. Sometimes we're in an even more ancient world than we are in the case of those
scriptures. Especially with regard to the Chapter of the Eights but we're not going into that of
course. I'd like to get through as many as we can of these Suttas of the first chapter, the
Chapter of the Snake, and we'll find that each Sutta deals with a very important and, as it
were, central, topic which is still central and so important to us today. So we shall either deal
with one sutta in detail and in depth I hope in the course of the evening or with two if the
sutta's are a bit short. So let's start straightaway then on this particular sutta, 'The Snake'.
Would someone like to read it straight through so that we get the general feeling of it, maybe
talk about the sutta as a whole to begin with and then go through it again verse by verse and
discuss each verse, maybe each line. It's not very long.
___: 'Who checks the spread of risen wrath As salves the venom of a snake, That monk quits
bounds both here and yon As snake his old and worn out skin. Who passion wholly cutteth
off As gatherer lake-grown lotus blooms, That monk guits bounds both here and yon As
snake his old and worn out skin. Who craving wholly cutteth off And dries its swiftly flowing
stream, That monk etc ... Who pride doth wholly sweep away As flood a fragile bridge of
reeds, That monk etc ... Who in 'becomings' finds no pith As seeker in fig-trees no flowers,
That monk etc ... In whom there only lurk no spites, Freed from becoming this or that, That
monk etc ... In whom uncertainty is quenched, Cut short within, so none remains, That monk
etc ... Who neither hastes nor lags behind, Hath all this hindrance overcome, That monk etc ...
Knows of the world 'All is unreal', Knows without greed 'All is unreal', Knows without
passion 'All is unreal', Knows without hate 'All is unreal', Knows undeluded 'All is unreal,
That monk etc ... In whom no leanings lurk whate'er, Who roots of wrong hath rooted out,
That monk etc ... In whom no yearnings lurk whate'er, Cause of return to these bounds here,
That monk etc ... In whom no longing lurk whate'er, Forces that forge becoming's bonds, That
monk etc ... Who of five obstacles is rid, Gone stir, doubt crossed and barb-immune That
monk quits bounds both here and yon As snake his old and worn out skin.'
S: Well, what sort of general impression do you get from this Sutta as a whole?
Voice: It's mainly saying what's to be got rid of.
S: Yes, mainly saying what is to be got rid of. Or, not in a sense, what is to be got rid of, but
what one will have got rid of. He's talking about the bhikkhu, presumably the ideal bhikkhu.
He's not even saying he should do this at the right time. He says he does it, it's natural and
spontaneous, something that happens when the time is right and then of course in comes the
comparison, you know, which gives the title to the Sutta 'The Snake'. It's like the snake
sloughing off his old skin and we come here of course to a very primitive and archaic motive
indeed don't we, that of the snake? And the snake who sheds his old skin, and emerges as a
bright new shining snake. We find this in all mythologies, all religions, all traditions and the
students of mythology tell us that primitive man was deeply impressed by this fact. That you
saw this new snake, as it were, reborn from the old and you saw him as going about with just
a few shreds of the old skin, you know, hanging from his body and underneath you saw the
new shining skin of this apparently rejuvenated or renascent snake. So it's against that sort of
background that you must see this Sutta. It isn't, as it were, negative in the way we might
usually think just reading these words. Reading these rather negative expressions. The
bhikkhu is just like the snake that shed off his old skin. And he's a bright new shining snake.
So that doesn't suggest anything negative you've got the bhikkhu not just reduced to nothing,
now that he's got rid of all these things you've got this bright new shining person this new
man, as it were, going around with just these little bits and pieces of the old self sort of
hanging from him. He's practically emerged from them, maybe he's entirely emerged from
them. So, that's the sort of image, well that's the sort of picture that is presented.
Voice: A very healthy process.
S: A very healthy process, yes. But we mustn't press the analogy too far, or too literally. I
mean the snake we know sheds his skin automatically. It doesn't have to think about it. Every
year, as far as I know he acquires a new skin - he sheds the old one. I believe after his winter
sleep or something like that. But in our case, you know, we don't ...

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