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Pali Canon - Vasala Sutta 1982

by Sangharakshita

THE VASALA SUTTA

Seminar held in Glasgow 1982Present: Venerable Sangharakshita, Dharmavira, Dharmapriya, Lalitaratna, Keith Mitchell,
Vajrananda, Bernie Tisch, Darren de Witt.
S: All right, we're going to go through the Vasala Sutta. The Vasala Sutta is one of the short
suttas in the first book of the Sutta Nipata. I take it everybody has some idea of the Sutta
Nipata. The Sutta Nipata, which Hare translates as Woven Cadences, is by and large one of
the older, if not one of the oldest, parts of the Pali Canon. You're no doubt aware that the Pali
Canon is divided into three pitakas, that is to say, first of all there's the Vinaya Pitaka, the
collection of discipline, then there's the Sutta Pitaka, the collection of discourses, and then the
Abhidhamma Pitaka, the collection of the higher teaching. Then the Sutta Pitaka is divided
into five nikayas, or great groups of suttas. For instance, there's the Digha Nikaya, the
collection of long discourses of the Buddha, the Majjhima Nikaya, the collection of medium
length discourses, and so on. The fifth and last of these nikayas is the Khuddaka or
miscellaneous. That contains fourteen different works, some of them quite old, some of them
not so old, and the Sutta Nipata is one of these. The Sutta Nipata divides into five books and
each book consists of a number of short suttas, some of which are very, very old indeed and
may well go back to the days of the Buddha himself. Some of them are in, sort of, verse form,
even in ballad form. It is as though, in the days of the Buddha, when there were no tape
recorders or anything like that, some of the monks, even maybe the Buddha himself, made up
series of verses which epitomized the teaching. Some of them were dramatic or
semi-dramatic, a bit like Scottish border ballads but of course with a Dharmic content. They
can in fact very well be called ballads, some of [2] them, and the monks used to recite them to
themselves just to ensure that they held the Buddha's teaching in their memories and they'd
also recite them to other monks, other wanderers, lay people, and in this way they were
handed down from teacher to disciple and eventually incorporated in the Pali Tipitaka - the
Pali Canon. You get a sort of idea of the process. So the Vasala Sutta is one of these verse
suttas of the Sutta Nipata from the first book. It is not exactly a ballad, it's not very
ballad-like, but at least it's in verse and it has a rather dramatic introduction and a rather
dramatic conclusion. So this is what we're going to study. There are altogether ... I think it's
twenty-five verses, no sorry, twenty-seven verses plus prose introduction and prose
conclusion, and just looking through it did occur to me that there's quite a lot of material here.
I hope we're going to be able to get through this sutta in two sessions. You might be thinking,
well it's very, very short, just three pages, we might finish it in an hour, but no, one probably
could spend a week on it. But anyway, we've got just two mornings and we'll try to bring out
just the main points. So would someone like to read the prose introduction? Read the prose
introduction straight through and then we'll discuss it.
Dharmavira: "Thus have I heard ... And the Master spake thus."
S: So that's the introduction. Well, there's quite a lot to be said about that. To begin with,
what is a fire worshipper?
Darren: A Shaivite isn't it?
S: No.
Dharmapriya: Agni, a worshipper of Agni?
S: Yes it's a worshipper of Agni and fire worship, ceremonial fire worship, was part of the
ancient pre-Buddhistic, Vedic religion. The fire god Agni is one of [3] the most important
gods mentioned in the Rig Veda. There are many hymns to Agni in the Rig Veda. The Rig
Veda being the first and most important of the four Vedas which make up the ancient Hindu
scriptures, and of course you all know what a Brahmin is. A Brahmin is a member of the
priestly caste of Hindu society, Hindu society being divided into four main castes. There are
about two thousand or more sub-castes but there are four main castes; the Brahmins or
priests, the kshatriyas or warriors, the vaisyas or traders and cultivators, and the sudras or
serfs. The outcastes of course are outside the caste system altogether, they're not even serfs,
they're even lower than that.
Lalitaratna: There are subdivisions in the outcastes as well.
S: Oh yes indeed, yes there are many different ... some of them are more outcastes than
others. Some are untouchable, some of them are unseeable. This system, of course, continues
right down to the present day.
Dharmapriya: I was surprised to see outcaste, but the word vasala is not one used in modern
India.
S: No. We're going into the meaning of the term vasala shortly. It does not literally mean
outcaste.
Dharmapriya: Because I thought that the modern type of outcaste were quite a bit later than
the Buddha's day and the development was ...
S: Well the term outcaste itself is an English term, I don't think there's anything really
corresponding to that in India. Anyway, some of the Brahmins were especially worshippers of
Agni. So how was the worship of Agni performed? It was performed usually by offering
oblations, very often of ghee or clarified butter, in a fire to the accompaniment of Vedic
mantras, that is to say verses from the Veda which were recited. The rules governing the fire
sacrifice which [4] was called homa, were very, very elaborate indeed. You had to build a
special sort of altar, you had to use a special kind of wood, you lit the fire with special
mantras and then you made offerings of ghee, of clarified butter, and other things, pouring it
into the sacred fire and there was a point in the whole ceremony where you made the
oblations, especially of ghee, with various long spoons, long-handled spoons. So it would
seem from this account that Bharadvaja had reached a point in the ceremony where he was
holding the sacrificial spoon aloft, this long spoon with the oblation, he was just going to
pour the oblation into the fire when along came the Buddha. I imagine, this is not stated, that
Bharadvaja was performing this in the courtyard of his house. It's very unlikely that he'd be
performing the fire sacrifice inside the house, for obvious reasons. You probably know that
Indian houses, especially the old type, have a large courtyard which can be closed at night
very often. So he, I imagine, was celebrating this fire sacrifice in the courtyard of his house
and then looking out over the low wall he could see the Buddha coming along on his daily
alms round. So he wasn't very pleased to see the Buddha because Brahmins were not very
favourably disposed to those who did not follow the Vedic tradition. In the Buddha's day
there were many individuals and also groups of individuals who had given up the Vedic
tradition, who did not follow, so to speak, what afterwards became known as orthodox
Hinduism, did not observe the caste system, did not marry, just wandered from place to place.
The Brahmins regarded them as heterodoxers, anti-Vedic and so on, and they were certainly
not very sympathetic towards them. So, not only that, but even the sight of one of these
yellow robed people, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, was regarded as inauspicious, as
bringing bad luck. Among orthodox Brahmins, even today, they tend to regard the sight of a
sadhu, of a holy man who's given up the world, as not very auspicious, unless he happens to
be a Brahmin, because some Brahmins, later on, they also started following these non-Vedic
traditions. So you could imagine that here was Bharadvaja, he'd reached perhaps the crucial
moment in his sacrifice, the spoon was raised aloft, he was just going to make the offering,
then he sees this inauspicious sight of this wanderer, this recluse, this non-Vedic religious
person. 50 he's quite annoyed, and he wants him to keep clear of the [5] sacrifice. He doesn't
want him polluting the proceedings with his presence. He doesn't want him to come any
nearer, so the "Brahmin Bharadvaja saw him some way off, as he came along, and called to
him, saying: 'Hi' you shaveling' Hi' you little recluse' Be off, you outcaste!"' The Pali
scriptures represent the Brahmins as often speaking very rudely to the non-Brahmin religious
people, non-vedic religious people. The shaveling is 'mundaka', it's quite an insulting way of
speaking - bald-head, bald-pate, shaveling. "Little recluse" is 'shramana'. If we want to
indicate contempt in English we add a diminutive to a word, you see what I mean? - you little
so and so, or, instead of, say, man, manikin and so on. Then he says, "Be off, you outcaste"'.
Now outcaste is 'vasala'. 'Vasala' means literally little man, a manikin you might say, so that's
someone of little worth. So the word vasala' from meaning simply little man in those days,
unimportant man, came to mean low man, despicable man or even outcaste. You see what I
mean? Hence the translation. So here's someone unworthy, someone despicable, not a real
man, someone not worth considering a man, someone almost subhuman. Do you get the idea?
So this is the sort of background. Perhaps I should say a few words about the Buddha also.
This all takes place at Sravasti. Some of our friends recently have visited Sravasti, there's
some slides which are going to be shown depicting Sravasti. This was a great town, or city, in
north-western ...

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