Crossing the Flood
A Commentary on the Oghatarana Sutta
by Scott Foglesong
August 2001

1 The Sutta
2 Cosmology in the Buddhist Tradition
2.1 Devas
2.2 Buddhism and Cosmological Significance
2.3 Approaching Cosmology in the Suttas
2.4 Sanitized Western Buddhism
3 Commentary
3.1 Introduction
3.2 The Deva's First Question
3.3 The Buddha's First Answer
3.4 The Deva's Second Question
3.5 The Buddha's Second Answer
3.6 The Deva's Verse
3.7 Conclusion

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambuddhasa
Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Completely Enlightened One
I freely offer any merit accruing from this writing to all sentient existence.
I do not offer the blame for flaws, mistakes, misjudgments, misrepresentations, or misquotations to anyone, sentient or otherwise. All of that is entirely my fault and my responsibility.
This is a personal commentary on the opening sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya. Place the accentuation on 'personal': my delusions are many but, fortunately, do not include the conceit of expertise. The writing comprises instead a cross-section of my mind-state in regards to the Oghataranasutta as of mid-August 2001. A year from now, it is likely that a cross-section through the same thought-location will be considerably different.
But for the moment, it's like this.

1 The Sutta
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park. Then, when the night had advanced, a certain devata of stunning beauty, illuminating the entire Jeta's Grove, approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, stood to one side, and said to him:
"How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?"
"By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood."
"But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?"
"When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood."
[The devata's verse:]
"After a long time at last I see
A brahmin who is fully quenched,
Who by not halting, not straining,
Has crossed over attachment to the world."
This is what that devata said. The Teacher approved. Then that devata, thinking, "The Teacher has approved of me," paid homage to the Blessed One and, keeping him on the right, disappeared right there.
2 Cosmology in the Buddhist Tradition
2.1 Devas
The Samyutta Nikaya ("Connected Discourses") opens with the Devatasamyutta, or "Chapter with Devas." The suttas of the Devatasamyutta set the teachings within a context of interchanges between the Buddha and devatas (devas) who visit the Buddha during the middle watch of the night.
Devas are celestial beings who live in bliss and contentment, having earned such an enviable birth due to merit accrued in past lives. Karma determines the deva's lifespan, and eventually a deva will die and be reborn again, with the rebirth being determined by karma. A deva could be reborn in the same realm, a higher realm, or a lower realm-it all depends on the ripening of the deva's karma.
There are three primary realms in which rebirth takes place. From the lowest to the highest they are the desire realm (kamaloka), the form realm (rupaloka), and the formless realm (arupaloka). Each realm is divided into a number of individual grades, or realms of rebirth. The desire realm includes our own human realm as well as the first six spheres of devas. (It is the devas of these six realms who are the most commonly encountered in the Devatasamyutta.)
The form realm is divided into four primary planes, each plane corresponding to one of the four jhanas, or meditative states of consciousness. Each respective plane is broken into further sub-realms.
The formless realm consists of four planes, each plane corresponding to one of the four formless meditative states of consciousness.
The correspondence between these realms and states of consciousness is not immediately clear. Theravada monk, teacher, and scholar Hammalawa Saddhatissa explains the connection as follows:
…the devas exist in definite grades according to their condition of mental development. In the kamaloka, or world of desire, there exist six grades of devas, in the rupaloka or world of form there are four; and in the arupaloka or immaterial world there are also four grades. Beings attain to these spheres in accordance with the doctrine of karma, the spheres corresponding to the degrees of mental concentration and one-pointedness of mind (cittass' ekaggata) which, from time to time, have been experienced temporarily in the present existence. In the Indian religions these mental states are known as the jhanas, or jhanic states.
Although the word 'deva' comes from the same Indo-European root (div) as do the Latin and Greek words deus and theos, it should be stressed that devas are not gods-at least not in the sense that Westerners, accustomed to thinking in Graeco-Latin-Christian terms, tend to bring to the idea of a 'god'. As Saddhatissa says:
In Buddhism the rendering of deva as "god" is acceptable only in the sense that the being indicated is of a type superior to the average human.
It's tempting to think of devas as being the Buddhist equivalent of angels, but this would also be an error. Devas have very little, if any, resemblance to angels. Our word "angel" is barely changed from the Greek angelos, literally a 'messenger'-as the word is used in classical Greek literature without any theological implication. In the Septuagint and the New Testament, angelos is understood as angelos theou, or 'messenger of God.' As God's messengers, angeloi are blessed entities, radiating and reflecting the glow of God's love throughout eternity.
Devas, on the other hand, are sentient beings just like humans, except that they are not composed of ordinary corporal matter, and that they exist in a non-human plane. Their lifespans are impressively long-although just how long varies according to the plane of existence-and their existence is decidedly blissful. Nonetheless, they remain enmeshed in samsara, just like humans. In fact, a deva birth, while wonderful, is not necessarily the most desirable from the standpoint of liberation. In their blissful contentment, devas may be incapable of recognizing the need for liberation and therefore are less likely to achieve liberation in this particular round of their existence. Subject to birth and death as are we all, devas are generally unaware that they have inherited a legacy of suffering.
In the Bhikkunisamyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, one of Sariputta's younger sisters, the bhikkhuni (nun) Upacala, is visited by the tempter Mara who (as is his wont) attempts to befuddle her grasp of karma and rebirth by recommending the delights of rebirth in a celestial realm:
There are Tavatimsa and Yama devas,
And devatas of the Tusita realm,
Devas who take delight in creating,
And devas who exercise control.
Direct your mind there [to those realms]
And you'll experience delight.
Upon hearing this, Upacala is quick to point out that Mara is describing samsara-and that her preference is not for rebirth, but for release:
There are Tavatimsa and Yama devas,
And devatas of the Tusita realm,
Devas who take delight in creating,
And devas who exercise control.
They are still bound by sensual bondage,
They come again under Mara's control.
All the world is on fire,
All the world is burning,
All the world is ablaze,
All the world is quaking.
That which does not quake or blaze,
That to which wordlings do not resort,
Where there is no place for Mara:
That is where my mind delights.
This is a critical understanding: rebirth in a deva realm is not desirable for those who aspire to enlightened understanding.
…all devas are subject to birth and death. Therefore, for Buddhism the highest state, which constitutes complete emancipation, is beyond any of the devas; it is that of the Buddhas who are forever tranquil and stable and who see all things yathabhutam, according to absolute truth. This view has been expressed in the following verse: "There is no track in the sky, externally there is no recluse. Conditioned things are not eternal; there is no instability in the Buddhas."
Thus it is that on occasion devas approach the Buddha. They seek instruction and clarification, or they praise or pay homage to the Buddha. Sometimes they even come to argue with him, or find fault with him. While they are not human in form, they can appear in a quasi-human form in the human realm, and they certainly do display the same ranges of personality that is characteristic of humans. Some of them have but recently been born into a deva-realm, while others may be beings of immense age and majesty.
2.2 Buddhism and Cosmological Significance
Buddhism places relatively little significance on cosmology. Consider the central messages of Buddhist teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Dharma Seals, and so forth. These are not cosmological teachings, but personal ones. The emphasis is squarely and clearly on liberation, and not the origin or structure of the cosmos.
Certainly Buddhism is unusual in this respect. Many religious traditions develop along cosmological lines, arising as they do from attempts to explain the structure of the natural world-which may well include those elements we modern Westerners might characterize as transcendent. What we might think of today as "science" is often nearly indistiguishable from religion when encountered in many cultures.
Once established in a religious tradition, a cosmological orientation tends to stick firmly. The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) certainly maintain a strong contact with their cosmological roots. Compare the Buddha's Four Noble Truths with the opening sentence of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Having opened with a cosmological statement, the Bible proceeds to offer up two different explanations of the creation of it all.
Adherence to a particular cosmology is not required of Buddhist practitioners. We take refuge in the Three Jewels and we might take on various sets of five, eight, ten, or more precepts, but we do not sign any cosmological contracts. In fact, the Buddha himself discouraged the taking on of particular cosmological principles as part of practice: when asked about issues such as the origin or end of the universe, he remained silent-knowing that any answer he would give would reinforce the questioner's desire to create a cosmological framework for practice.
In its history, Buddhism has travelled to various cultures and, in the process, has generally adapted itself comfortably to the cosmology of whatever culture it enters. As it has entered the West, Buddhism has easily adapted itself to the overall scientific temper of Western cosmology. It is safe enough to say that we will not see redneck fundamentalist Buddhists attempting to block the teaching of natural selection and/or evolution in the public schools, for example.
To say that Buddhism does not commit strongly to any particular cosmology is, however, quite far from stating that Buddhism has no cosmology at all. It embraces, in fact, many cosmologies: the cosmologies of the cultural environment in which it is being practiced. Of necessity therefore is included the cosmology of Buddhism's root environment.
The Buddha lived and taught in a culture overflowing with rich cosmological lore. The opulence of Brahmanical India's universe was such that the Buddha saw no need to alter it or object to it in any significant manner. Thus Brahmanical cosmology came to be incorporated into the Dharma, without much in the way of comment. It was, in fact, a convenient element of the common language-people understood it without requiring explanation. Just as today we could refer to the "garden of Eden" without fear of being misunderstood, so the Buddha could refer to Mount Sumeru or the Realm of the Four Kings without fear of being misunderstood. This same cosmology was equally familiar to the later transmitters and redactors of the Pali Canon.
As a result, the Brahmanical cosmology of India is threaded throughout the Pali Canon, used in a matter-of-fact style, assumed to be familiar to the hearer or reader. While that might have been quite true of the original hearers of these suttas, it is certainly not true for modern readers or hearers. That which the forefathers took for granted must be explained for the descendants.
2.3 Approaching Cosmology in the Suttas
This is not a proper venue for introducing the full panoply of Brahmanical India's cosmology to the reader. For those who are interested, many good sources exist for an overview or in-depth study.
The issue at hand concerns our approach to this cosmology. It is not our Western cosmology-neither the Judaeo-Christian cosmos nor that of our more empirical age. It is a cosmology emphasizing numerous levels of existence, replete with celestial beings such as devas, devaputtas, nagas, asuras, petas, gandhabbas, yakkhas, and brahmas. The Earth of the Pali Canon is a great flat plate, ringed with mountains, the great Mount Sumeru (Sineru) standing in the center, home of celestial kings, devas, and assorted wondrous beings.
It is not necessary to buy into the unmistakably geo-centric orientation of Brahmanical India as being empirically true in order to reap the teachings of the Pali Canon, any more than it is necessary to accept as empirically true the universe of the Star Wars films in order to understand the plots, or the universe of Star Trek, or the universe of the Oz books. One can read Plato and Aristotle quite profitably without believing in the material reality of the various anthropomorphic gods and goddesses who peopled Greek religion.
However, ignoring the cosmology altogether is not advisable. There are lessons to be learned: we require some passing familiarity with the identities and meanings of the concepts, places, and beings presented. For example, if the Buddha speaks about Mount Sumeru, we must understand that he is not speaking of some physical, nearby mountain, but that he is speaking of the great central mountain of the Earth which is home to celestial beings. If the Buddha is speaking with the deva Sakka, we need to understand that Sakka is the most powerful and leader of the devas. These are but a few examples; even a cursory scan through a volume of Buddhist scripture will reveal many more.
One possible approach for a modern Westerner is to view various cosmological entities as representations of certain psychological states. Mara, the tempter who plays a role in the Pali Canon that is roughly analogous to Satan in the gospels of the New Testament, is frequently approached in this manner by Westerners. While to think of Mara as a kind of anthropomorphized version of states such as lust, desire, and temptation may well cotton comfortably to a modern sensibility, this approach is not without its difficulties. Consider that Mara is often seen to be tempting the Buddha on many occasions following the Buddha's enlightenment, a situation which makes no sense from an exclusively psychological standpoint: a fully-enlightened Buddha is free of psychological states such as lust. At the very least, one must be aware that no matter how we may prefer to treat Mara, to the writers and redactors of the Pali Canon, Mara was a real entity, not an abstraction. The same would be true of any other celestial beings encountered in the pages of the Pali Canon.
We must keep in mind at all times that all existence is characterized by dependent origination (paticcasamuppada; among alternate translations are 'co-dependent arising' and 'interdependent transformation'); everything is of the nature of causes and conditions. That is as true of a fantasy realm, or alternate cosmology, as it is true of this morning's newspaper. Jim Wilson puts it as follows:
From the perspective of interdependent transformation, everything in existence has as their nature the causes and conditions that give rise to that particular phenomenon. From the perspective of interdependent transformation, a chair has the same nature as an idea, a mountain has the same nature as an archetype because both have as their ultimate nature their dependence upon causes and conditions without which they would not exist. So from the perspective of interdependent transformation, the inhabitants of other realms, whether imaginary, from dreams, or actually occupying other realms, have equal ontological status as the phenomena of our waking experiences.
A generally useful methodology for approaching the cosmology of the Buddhist scriptures is to employ precisely the same mindset with which one approaches Star Wars: allow the existence of 'The Force', faster-than-light travel, human-alien interaction, and all the rest. Use it to understand what needs to be understood-but then let it go. To spend time agonizing over cosmology is to fall into the trap of attachment and aversion.
2.4 Sanitized Western Buddhism
A modern Westerner might well be uncomfortable with the entire notion of the Buddha trucking about with celestial beings. Buddhism, in its Western development, has been presented primarily in its contemplative forms, minimal acknowledgement being made of the devotional elements of traditional Asian Buddhist practice. Celestial beings which radiate in colors, float in the air, appear and disappear, seem somehow alien to the relatively matter-of-fact world of Western Buddhism.
Yet we Westerners are no strangers to magical and fantastical elements in religion. We are all too drearily familiar with fundamentalists who attempt to impose literal readings of the Bible, even of those incidents which are plainly impossible to anyone possessing even a grain of everyday common sense. This is by no means a modern phenomenon, but fundamentalist shrillness and stridency during the twentieth century has damaged the credibility of Christian practice, leading many thoughtful people to conclude that elements of the fantastical or celestial must be instinctively rejected as a matter of self-protection if nothing else.
This may well account, at least in part, for the near-silence in the West regarding the rich cosmology of root Buddhism. Those Westerners who seek spiritual meaning via the Buddhadharma may all too easily be antagonized by stories of celestial beings, transcendent central mountains, hell realms, and great serpents.
Fundamentalists are not solely to blame. I myself was raised first as a Southern Baptist, and later as an Episcopalean. My earliest memories of Sunday services are of a perspiring baldpate minister who shrieked hellfire and damnation. The subsequent Episcopalean version was essentially identical, although the tone was elegantly modulated and the accoutrements much tonier.
Thus I open a volume of the Anguttara Nikaya (Gradual Sayings), flip a page or two, and come across this sutta in the Book of the Fives (A iii, 3). The Buddha says:
Monks, possessing five qualities a monk is duly cast into hell. What five?
Herein a monk, faithless, unconscientious, reckless of blame, is indolent, is without insight.
Possessing these five a monk is duly cast into hell.
Monks, possessing five qualities a monk is duly set in heaven. What five?
Herein a monk, having faith, conscientious, mindful of blame, is energetic, is with insight.
Possessing these five a monk is duly set in heaven.
If I were to read this sutta with a Christian mindset, it would sound little different from those sweaty rantings I heard as a child in the Airline Baptist Church on the then-outskirts of Houston, Texas. I disliked such 'teaching' then-and I have very little patience for it now.
And yet such a confrontational, in-your-face style may well do the trick for certain listeners, who at some point in their practice may need to learn the Dharma from the business end of a verbal bludgeon. (Note that in the quoted sutta the Buddha is addressing monks, not laypersons.) This style of teaching is not all that uncommon in the Pali Canon-but you wouldn't know that from reading most introductory Western literature on Buddhism. And with good reason: the average Westerner must hear this teaching without a Christian mindset before its truth is revealed as a clear description of the ripening of karma. Otherwise, a decisive snapping-shut of the volume is likely, followed by a decision to, perhaps, begin exploring the possibilities of Taoism or Vedanta.
Thus the near-sanitizing of early Buddhism for the Westerner. And yet the minute we open the Pali Canon we are face-to-face with 'Buddhism in the raw'-the teachings untrimmed by careful pruning of all that might bring up unpleasant associations for Westerners. Screaming, gory chickens instead of shrink-wrapped, bloodless, boneless Chik'n Nibbles from Safeway. Root Buddhism can be surprising, even shocking, at first.
To add to this discomfort, a logical problem arises with the settings in the Devatasamyutta. Devas show up during the middle watch of the night, while the Buddha is alone; occasionally he reports back to the sangha the next morning, but in most suttas he doesn't. We know that the Buddha did not write anything down, and that the suttas were transmitted to us via the collective memory of his disciples. So: how did such an interchange between Buddha and deva wind up being transmitted? The "just-the-facts-ma'am" mentality arises and with it, an impulse to disregard the sutta.
I would like to suggest that absolute historical validity need not be an issue. The long oral transmission of the Buddhist canon saw many literary devices put into place, devices which served a number of purposes such as rendering the suttas easier to memorize, or adjusting the teachings to a particular flavor of audience. Consider the Jataka Tales, stories of the Buddha's lives prior to his birth as Siddhatta Gotama. There are Jatakas which are clearly drawn from the great storehouse of Indo-European folk tales, and which show up in other settings-such as Aesop fables. These charming stories could be used as educational material, simply by identifying the lead character of the story as an incarnation of the Buddha. One could turn any folk tale into a Jataka rather easily.
I am myself satisfied that casting various short student-teacher interchanges into deva/Buddha dialogue made for an effective teaching tool and literary device. This allows an element of the imaginative-but-familiar into the proceedings, a kind of sugar-coating if you will. Certainly it appears to be a popular device: there are over 100 such suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya alone, and many other instances of deva-Buddha interaction throughout the Pali Canon. Furthermore, on occasion the very identity of the deva can lend extra meaning to the teachings. An interchange between the Buddha and the deva-formerly-known-as-Anathapindika will carry special meaning, given that Anathapindika was one of the Buddha's devoted benefactors, responsible for the founding of the great Jetavana monastery. Numerous exchanges between the Buddha and Anathapindika exist in the Pali Canon, and some in which Anathapindika is revealed as having reaped a desirable rebirth carry a special weight.
At another level, the Buddha's addressing his teachings to non-human beings such as devas stresses the universal nature of the Dharma-that it applies to all sentient existence everywhere, celestial and earthbound alike.
3 Commentary
3.1 Introduction
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park. Then, when the night had advanced, a certain devata of stunning beauty, illuminating the entire Jeta's Grove, approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, stood to one side, and said to him:
Thus have I heard. This introductory sentence witnesses the long-standing tradition of the transmission of the suttas from the Buddha's day to ours. The "I" is Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, disciple, and personal attendant. It is said that at the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after the Buddha's parinirvana, that Ananda recited the Buddha's teachings as he remembered them, prefacing each with the phrase "thus have I heard" in order to emphasize that the recitation was not Ananda's interpretation, or teaching, but that it was the living word of the Buddha.
The Word of the Buddha
The Buddhist scriptural canon has been transmitted to us from many different places and eras. The oldest surviving Buddhist scriptural literature is said to have stemmed from the teachings that the Buddha Shakyamuni gave during the years of his teaching career, and which were transmitted first via a lengthy oral tradition, finally being committed to writing around the first century BCE in Sri Lanka. However, there is little question but that this oldest literature is not a collection of verbatim transcripts of the Buddha's own words, although certainly some of the Buddha's own words could be preserved within, albeit in translation. (Pali, the language of the Theravada suttas, was not the Buddha's spoken language.) Over the course of the long oral transmission period, the teachings were structured into mnemonic forms, chantable and repetitive, and the suttas were assembled into collections such as the Samyutta Nikaya. Along the way, undoubtedly many reformulations of the original took place, resulting in various individual opinions, biases, and insights threading their way through the tapestry of the Pali Canon. To consider the suttas of the Pali Canon as absolutely, undeniably, and exclusively the words of the historical Buddha is really not logically a tenable position.
Nor is the Pali Canon of the Theravadins by any means the only source of Buddhist scripture. There exist in other Buddhist traditions many suttas which honor the tradition of beginning with the phrase "Thus have I heard" but could not possibly be empirical historical records of the Buddha's own teachings, even distorted by transmission or the passage of time. This certainly includes many of the Mahayana suttas such as the Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, or Vimalakirti Sutra, taking place as they do in a transcendent setting that does not follow the known physical laws of our quotidian universe. For that matter, nor are some Theravada suttas without their fantastical elements, even taking into account the cosmological underpinning of the Pali Canon. Consider the late Pali Canon work, the Buddhavamsa (Chronicle of Buddhas), which opens with a scene quite similar to a Mahayana sutra, in which the Buddha creates a great Jewel Walk:
In the ten-thousand world he [the Buddha] displayed, like a course of pillars on (each) supreme mountain Sineru, Walks made of jewels.
The Conqueror created a Walk spanning the ten-thousand; all golden were the sides of that Walk which was made of jewels.
The junction of (each pair of) beams was symmetrical, the floor-boards covered with gold; all golden were the railings, well-fashioned on both sides (of the Walk).
Strewn over with sand (consisting) of jewels and pearls, fashioned and made of jewels it illumined all the quarters like him of the hundred rays when he has risen.
Walking up and down in that, the wise one, him of the thirty-two glorious Marks, Self-Awakened One, Conqueror, shining, walked up and down in the Walk.
Our particular Western bias tends to regard as authoritative only that which is capable of validation by empiric historical means. Consider the interest among Christians in discovering the precise historical Jesus of Nazareth, and the emphasis in Biblical studies on uncovering the most historically verifiable parts of the New Testament.
Not only proof, but disproof is equally viewed in a fundamentally empirical light. For much of Christianity's history, attempts at empirical disproof of certain sections of either the Old or New Testaments were considered as attacks on the essential doctrines of Christianity and could be-and sometimes were-punished as heresy. Even in our own relatively secular time, fundamentalist Christians view the teaching of evolution by natural selection as a contradiction or even threat to the Biblical story of creation in Genesis, and have countered with attempts to disprove Darwinian natural selection, or even evolution itself. In the modern world, empirical validation has come to be regarded as a touchstone for truth, and the lack of such validation as a touchstone for falsity, even in the context of spiritual literature.
This orientation towards empirical validation presents a challenge for Western Buddhists, who may well be prone to think of the historically-verifiable Buddha as the primary or even only truly accurate source of Buddhist teachings-much as passages in the New Testament which could be proven to be direct transcriptions of the words of Jesus would be considered of greater theological import than those which were shown to be later interpolations.
This is, however, a misunderstanding of the Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha. It is true enough that we can understand the word 'Buddha' to refer specifically to the Buddha Gotama, who lived in northern India from 563 - 483 BCE, taught for forty-five years and died in Kusinagara. If this is our definition of the word, then "Word of the Buddha" would appear to indicate that which at least attempts to be a record of the words of Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha. That which does not attempt to be such a record, by this definition, is not Buddhavacana.
However, such is only one level of understanding of the meaning of the word Buddha, and hence Buddhavacana.
When we go for refuge in the Three Jewels, we say:
We go for refuge in the Buddha
We go for refuge in the Dharma
We go for refuge in the Sangha.
What, exactly do we mean by "Buddha" here? Truly at one level we are going for refuge in the historical Buddha Gotama as the great teacher. But that isn't all of it. How could it be? We are not signing on to hero-worship, or to subjugate ourselves to some kind of all-powerful father-figure here. This is not a Credo. Ultimately we are going for refuge in our own potential for enlightenment, that buddha-nature that permeates all existence including ourselves. In this context, to think of 'Buddha' as the historical Siddhattha Gotama would be to confuse the mundane for the transcendent. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says:
If you can see that all marks are no-marks, then you will see the Tathagata.
In applying this teaching to the subject of the Buddhavacana, 'mark' can be understood to refer to the concept of an historical Buddha, an actual person, and his actual words. The word "Tathagata" is a frequently-encountered epithet for the Buddha, and is often used in reference to the transcendent nature of the Buddha, the buddha-nature, which is as clearly understood in a single flower as in any amount of words. So, if you can see that a concept of an essential Buddha (i.e., historical, empirical, physical, etc.) is not a concept of an essential Buddha (i.e., it is in and of itself empty of any essential reality and thus misleads and deflects our understanding,) then you will experience the Tathagata (i.e., transcendent buddha-nature.)
If the experience of buddha-nature is common to all, then it follows that the communication of that experience is Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha, regardless of the author of the sutta or that sutta's ultimate source.
It is my observation that the phrase "Thus have I heard" is more fully understood as indicating the transcendent Buddhavacana: no more or less than an indication, a signpost if you will, of the buddha-nature that permeates, interpenetrates, and supports, all existence. The phrase is therefore a statement of truth-not necessarily the empirical truth of a high school history textbook, but a statement of transcendent truth that penetrates the illusory nature of such concepts as "I". The sutta itself is but an indicator, a finger pointing to the moon. The sutta itself is not the teaching, but it shows us the way to the teaching, the living Buddhavacana.
On one occasion: the precise placement of an individual sutta within the timespan of the Buddha's career is generally difficult if not impossible. The phrase ekam samayam is sometimes rendered "at a certain time" or something equally noncommittal; it serves to place the sutta somewhere within time, as being the record of a dialog or discourse that happened at a specific time, in the company of certain beings. Thus there is a reference to karma: the time itself is dependent on the karma of the beings who are present to hear the words of the Buddha. It is this karmic inference which matters, and not the mundane temporal/geographic placement. Each of us reads or hears this sutta on one occasion due to karmic influence.
the Blessed One: this is the first of the three terms used in reference to the Buddha in this sutta. Bhagava is usually rendered as "Blessed One" or "Exalted One", although some translators, including Edward Conze and Maurice Walshe, have rendered it as "Lord", despite the inevitable Judaeo-Christian connotations this might bring up for the Western reader.
dwelling at Savatthi: Savatthi (Sanskrit: Shravasti) was the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, located to the west of Magadha, corresponding very roughly to the state of Uttar Pradesh in modern India. The ruler of Kosala was Pasenadi (Sanskrit: Prasenajit), the Buddha's exact contemporary and a staunch follower. The third samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Kosalasamyutta, consists of dialogues between the Buddha and King Pasenadi.
in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park: it was the merchant Sudatta, who came to be called Anathapindika, who funded the construction of the monastery of Jetavana (Jeta's Grove) in the plot of land that was subsequently called Anathapindika's Park. Tradition has it that Anathapindika purchased the land from Prince Jeta, who insisted that the property could be purchased only with enough gold to cover it completely. Anathapindika did indeed cover the land with gold coins, but before he had completed this act of largesse the prince himself was moved to pay for some of the buildings and supplies for the new monastery himself. The Buddha and the sangha spent many of the rainy seasons at Jetavana, during which time the monks would meditate in solitude and hear frequent discourses from the Buddha or one of the senior disciples such as Sariputta. It should not be surprising therefore that many of the suttas are indicated as having been delivered in Jetavana, given that the circumstances for their preservation would be ideal, compared to the remainder of the year when the Buddha was constantly on the move throughout the Ganges valley.
Then, when the night had advanced: the middle watch of the night (10:00 PM - 2:00 AM) was the time in which celestial beings could approach the Buddha and receive teachings; it was the Buddha's habit to arise for this watch and meditate until the morning. He may or may not have been surrounded by disciples during these times. We know that the bhikkhus would sit up through the night in meditation on some occasions, certainly; in the Samannaphala Sutta (Digha Nikaya 2), the young king Ajatasattu visits the Buddha and his bhikkhus in the light of the full moon, and remarks on the assembly's calm and quiet demeanor:
Then King Ajatasattu went up to the Lord and stood to one side, and standing there to one side the King observed how the order of monks continued in silence like a clear lake, and he exclaimed: 'If only Prince Udayabhadda were possessed of such calm as this order of monks!'
a certain devata: most of the suttas in the Devatasamyutta do not identify the devatas by name. There are some exceptions, such as the two daughters of the weather god Pajjunna (1:39 - 40). There are also situations in which the devata's verses might occur elsewhere as being spoken by some specific deity or another and thus allow a tentative identification based on that correspondence. For the most part they are anonymous.
In the second chapter of the Sagathavagga, the Devaputtasamyutta (Discourses with Young Devas), the young devas are usually identified by name, in contrast to the Devatasamyutta.
Regarding the gender of the devas, it should be mentioned that the Pali term devata, although grammatically the feminine form of deva, does not necessarily connote a female deity, but is rather an abstract noun that had come to refer to a specific celestial entity. Some translations might assign a female gender to the devatas, but in fact gender is not specified, and cannot usually be ascertained-if, in fact, it applies at all. There are some cases in which gender can be inferred from the context, such as with the daughters of Pajjunna mentioned above, and also concerning the devas of the Satullapa host (1:31 - 34) who were sailors in earthly life (and thus male at least in human existence), but on the whole devas are not necessarily of either gender, or of any gender at all.
illuminating the entire Jeta's Grove: one of the most striking features of the devas is their radiance, which is in four colors: red, blue, gold, and white. It would appear that the intensity of the color is an indication of the deva's mental state. In the Susima Sutta of the second chapter (Devataputtasamyutta) of the Samyutta Nikaya, we are told that:
…the young devas in Susima's assembly-elated, gladdened, full of rapture and joy-displayed diverse lustrous colours...Just as a beryl gem…just as an ornament of finest gold…just as, when the night is fading, the morning star shines and beams and radiates…just as in the autumn, when the sky is clear and cloudless, the sun, ascending in the sky…so too the young devas in Susima's assembly-elated, gladdened, full of rapture and joy-displayed diverse lustrous colours.
Another interesting aspect concerning deva-radiance is its reference to the ultimate origin of the notion of devas, and in fact the word 'deva' itself. I have noted above in the introduction that the word 'deva' comes from an Indo-European root div-which means "to shine." Saddhatissa points out:
It [div] points to an era preceding the Aryan settlement in India, in which the conception of god was associated with the luminous powers of nature…with the develoment of the idea of karma and consequent lack of authority of the deities over man, the value of deva was modified.
approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One: the devata is here showing proper and due respect to the Buddha, just as any human would do who wished to ask a question of the Buddha. It is expected that a deva will alight on the ground and approach the Buddha much as any human would; to remain floating in the air is a sure sign of disrespect. The devatas of the Faultfinders Sutta, #35 of the Devatasamyutta, show their disrespect as follows:
…approached the Blessed One and stood in the air.
In the same sutta these 'faultfinding' devas, having been mollified by the Buddha's words, eventually alight on the ground. However, they don't stay there for long:
…Those devatas, finding fault to an even greater extent, then rose up into the air.
stood to one side: it was considered a sign of disrespect to stand directly before the Buddha, thus one stood slightly to one side.
3.2 The Deva's First Question
"How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?"
It is quite a momentous event for any deva to acquire sufficient insight to realize that his or her existence may not be absolutely perfect. Given that a deva's lifespan is long, and that lifespan is marked by states of bliss and contentment, the odds are quite solidly against the deva's coming to understand any dissatisfaction or finitude about that life.
But it would appear that this deva, at any rate, has acquired at least a glimmer of insight-enough to ask a tremendously important question.
In any good question resides the seed of the question's answer, or at the very least an acknowledgement of the answer. There is little question that the deva's question fits the definition of 'good question' perfectly. To understand just how penetrating and insightful a question this is, we must first contemplate the entire notion of flood.
3.2.1 Flood
What is a flood? In our everyday understanding, in the way the term is customarily used, a flood is a phenomenon which has to do with water. We understand that floods can occur in other media, but generally speaking the primary meaning of 'flood' has something to do with water.
Water: one of the four elements of Greek natural philosophy, the other three being wind, earth, and fire. Water is elemental. Consider some of its aspects:
" Water is a life element: we cannot exist without it. Our bodies are mostly water, as are the bodies of other living beings.
" Water is life: we, at least, cannot live without it.
" Water is a major part of the Earth's environmental cycle: the water of the ocean evaporates, forms clouds which then rain on the land. The rain creates acquifers and wells and springs, rivers and streams and lakes. Eventually the water makes its way back to the ocean, often via living beings as intermediates, and the cycle begins again. The planetary weather is heavily influenced by the action of water.
" Water demonstrates formlessness and adaptability. Pour water from a cylindrical drinking glass into a bowl and it adapts immediately to the shape of the bowl; it does not attempt to retain its former cylindrical shape. It works easily with gravity rather than against it (i.e., water does not flow uphill.) In a weightless environment, water forms a sphere, finite yet unbounded, filling the necessarily volume of space as efficiently as possible.
" John baptized in water. The water is the life.
Water. We drink it, wash in it, swim in it. We are water. Water gives life, and can be thought of as being life itself.
Water, however, can also kill. Water can overwhelm fire, wind, and earth: we can drown in it. Our corporal selves can be dissolved in it. That which is a life force is also a force of destruction: life does, in fact, require death. Without death there can be no life; without destruction there can be no creation.
And flood? Flood is the destructive power of this water-life-force writ large. Flood is power-unstoppable, irresistable. It is, however, a natural event, a natural part of things. True that humans can create the conditions for flood, but flood is inherent to the planetary environment.
3.2.2 The Deva's Question in the Light of Flood
Thus we come to understand the deva's question about flood: the destructive, awesome, unstoppable, power of-what? What else but life itself? The process of existence, the phenomena that together make up being, understood as destructive power, the juggernaut.
This is what the deva has come to understand-somehow. It is the sheer unlikeliness of any deva's reaching such a recognition or acknowledgement of the sheer destructive power of existence that gives this question such urgency, such poignancy. The deva has come to realize the First Noble Truth, in effect. And that's the first step on the Path for all of us: the realization of dukkha, the truth of suffering. For a deva, this is a very large first step, indeed.
The deva is asking the great existential question, one that we all ask in one way or another. In Why Religion Matters one of today's foremost interpreters of the world's religions, Huston Smith, speaks beautifully on the topic of such existential questions:
The religious sense recognizes instinctively that the ultimate questions human beings ask-What is the meaning of existence? Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living? What does reality consist of and what is its object?-are the defining essence of our humanity. They are not just speculative imponderables that certain people of inquisitive bent get around to asking after they have attended to the serious business of working out strategies for survival. They are the determining substance of what makes human beings human. This religious definition of human beings delves deeper than Aristotle's definition of man as a rational animal. In the religious definition, man is the animal whose rationality leads him to ask ultimate qeustions of the sort just mentioned. It is the intrusion of these questions into our consciousness that tells us most precisely and definitively the kind of creature we are. Our humanness flourishes to the extent that we steep ourselves in these questions-ponder them, circle them, obsess over them, and in the end allow the obsession to consume us.
I find this passage quite moving in the light of its applicability to a celestial being, who is here being shown to be fully and completely human in his fears, aspirations, and desires. If cats can be described as 'little furry people', then it seems reasonable to describe devas as 'little floating radiant people.'
More About the Flood
The flood is the flood of existence. The flood of fear-how many varieties of fear are there? Fear of death, fear of life; fear of sickness, fear of old age; fear of failure, fear of success; fear of being ridiculed, fear of being accepted; fear of fear itself.
A flood of delusion. It is through our six senses (sight, sound, smell, hearing, touch, cognition) that we experience the world around us. But these six senses, which reveal the world, also bring delusion, illusion, ignorance; they hide the truth of existence from us just as surely as the mud suspended in flood waters hides the ground over which the flood flows.
A flood of ignorance, of helplessness before the onslaught that overwhelms us.
A flood of greed. Of anger. Of hatred.
We really needn't be so specific: it is the flood of existence, the flood of being. In Buddhist language, we can call it samsara.
Thus the deva's question of 'crossing the flood' is really in some ways an amalgam of Huston Smith's second and third questions: Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living?
3.2.3 What the Deva Did Not Ask
Now let us consider for a moment what the deva did not ask, rather than what the deva asked. This is in many ways just as important a consideration. For example, the deva did not ask:
" How did you stop the flood?
" How did you avoid the flood?
" How did you keep floods from occurring?
" Who or what protected you from the flood?
" Who helped you cross the flood?
Undoubtedly the reader can come up with other possible formulations for alternate questions along these lines.
The question is, instead: "How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?" In this question there lies the acknowledgement of a great deal. Consider some of the implications to which the question gives rise:
" There is a flood in the first place
" There is no avoiding or sidestepping it
" There is no stopping it
" There is no stopping floods in general
" There is nobody that can protect you from it
" There is nobody that can help you cross it
" You have to cross the flood for yourself
" The Buddha has indeed managed to cross this flood
" The Buddha is an ordinary being and what the Buddha can do, anyone can do: the flood can be crossed.
At this point I should note that the deva's addressing the Buddha as "dear sir" (Pali: marisa) indicates that the deva thinks of the Buddha as being a respected equal. Marisa is a term used by kings to address each other, as well as good friends or business partners. It is a term of respect, but not a term that would usually be used by a student in addressing a teacher.
3.2.4 The Deva's Motivation
It is possible-and here I'm reading a motivation into the deva's mind-that the answer the deva seeks from the Buddha is relatively simple, direct, and uncomplicated. He may very well expect the Buddha to say something along the lines of "sacrifice 1000 bullocks on the sacred fire next week" or "perform 5000 prostrations daily for two weeks" or "pay the priests of the temple X amount of money." These kinds of answers might well be typical of the brahmanical priests of the Buddha's day. Some priests had become downright corrupt, in fact, as witnessed by the Brahmanadhammika Sutta of the Sutta Nipata:
The brahmins coveted the great enjoyments of men surrounded by herds of cows, groups of beautiful women, chariots with well-trained horses, well decorated with beautiful curtains and homes and dwelling places built to good proportion.
Composing hymns, they then approached the king, Okkaaka, and said: 'You are possessed of manifold wealth; offer us your vast riches; offer us your immense welath.'
Then the king, the lord of chariots, persuaded by the brahmins, performed freely the horse sacrifice, the human sacrifice, the water rites and the sacrifice of liquor. Having performed these sacrifices, he gave wealth to the brahmins…
…And they having thus received wealth desired to hoard; and being overwhelmed by covetousness their greed increased.
3.3 The Buddha's First Answer
"By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood."
The Buddha does not provide the deva with a pat recipe for liberation. His answer is vague, elliptical, almost paradoxical. Wouldn't one do precisely what the Buddha has said he didn't do in order to cross a physical flood? One would halt for a while in order to gain one's footing, and then might have to strain against the floodwaters in order to make headway.
It is my opinion that the Buddha's opacity is deliberate, a skillful means to rattle the deva's underlying desire for a convenient solution to his dilemma.
The earliest commentaries to the Pali Canon have been lost in their original forms, but fortunately the great Buddhist scholar Buddhagosa redacted them into the Saratthappakasini in about the 5th century CE. I found that the commentary supported my supposition that the Buddha's elliptical reply is deliberate, although the commentary has read a different motivation into the deva's question:
The Blessed One deliberately gave an obscure reply to the deva in order to humble him, for he was stiff with conceit yet imagined himself wise.
My assigned motivation being different, I would suggest that the Buddha's obscure language is intended to encourage the deva to expand his promising-but-shallow thinking, into a much deeper level of insight. (Later sections of this commentary will develop this notion further.)
3.4 The Deva's Second Question
"But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?"
This is the almost inevitable response to the Buddha's koan-like statement. Essentially the deva is saying: Huh??
3.5 The Buddha's Second Answer
"When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood."
It would appear that the Buddha's explanation of his previous obscurity is, if anything, even more obscure than his original statement. That's the way it seemed to me: I was tremendously confused by this explanation at first. I remained confused until I realized that the Buddha's 'explanation' isn't really an explanation or an answer at all. It is more in the nature of a mental prod for the deva, who was standing on the precipice of a leap in insight. Nobody-not even the Buddha-could make this leap for him. He needed very much to have his discursive, logical mind brought up short. (This again reminds me of the koan-like nature of this sutta.)
As a result, it is the deva's verse which contains the real 'answer' to the question of "how did you cross the flood?"
3.6 The Deva's Verse
"After a long time at last I see
A brahmin who is fully quenched,
Who by not halting, not straining,
Has crossed over attachment to the world."
Before launching into the interpretation, two quick points are in order:
1. When the deva refers to the Buddha as a 'brahmin', he is not implying that he thinks of the Buddha as belonging to the brahmin caste. There's no reason to surmise that the deva was unaware of the Buddha's khattiya (warrior/prince) caste. 'Brahmin' can be taken as being a synonym for 'arahant', or enlightened being. Such usage is fairly common in the Pali Canon.
2. The verse's first line-'After a long time at last I see'-implies that the deva had been seeking this information for some time, and that he has been aware of the length of his lifespan, at least to some degree.
3.6.1 A Classic Interpretation
I will begin by summarizing a classic interpretation of this sutta which sees the 'flood' as not one flood, but four. The four-flood thesis rests on the authority of S 45:171, which states:
Bhikkhus, there are these four floods. What four? The flood of sensuality, the flood of existence, the flood of views, the flood of ignorance. These are the four floods. This Nobld Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these four floods, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.
As metaphors for delusion, each flood is inappropriately 'crossed' by the application of extreme views or concepts, respectively postulated as being either 'halting' or 'straining'. These views are as follows:
1. Flood of sensuality: avoiding the extremes of either self-indulgence or self-mortification. Both extremes are ineffective against the flood of sense-desires.
2. Flood of existence: avoiding the extremes of either eternalism or annihilationism.
3. Flood of views: avoiding the extremes of absolute existence and absolute non-existence. Here the Middle Way is the recognition of paticcasamuppada, or interdependent transformation: the understanding that all is interdependent upon causes and conditions, and that nothing has a self-essence that stands apart from those causes and conditions.
4. Flood of ignorance: avoiding the extremes of introversion and extraversion.
For the interested reader, I recommend Bhikkhu Nananamanda's exploration of this interpretation.
3.6.2 A Personal Interpretation
My own sense of the passage is not at all contrary to the traditional four-flood interpretation, but instead builds upon it and generalizes from it somewhat. It is triggered by the phrase "attachment to the world."
The Buddha used the word 'world' in a very specific way. In another sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya (and its companion in the Anguttara Nikaya), the Buddha explains his meaning this way:
I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering. It is, friend, in just this fathom-high carcass endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.
The world's end can never be reached
By means of travelling through the world,
Yet without reaching the world's end
There is no release from suffering.
Therefore, truly, the world-knower, the wise one,
Gone to the world's end, fulfiller of the holy life,
Having known the world's end, at peace,
Longs not for this world or another.
Bhikkhu Bodhi opines that "This pithy utterance of the Buddha…may well be the most profound proposition in the history of human thought."
The world is the world of experience-that is, the world which is perceived and cognized. It is perceived by our five physical senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) and through mental cognition. These are the only media via which we can experience the world-are there any others? As long as our six senses persist, the world will remain spread before and within us wherever we go, as the range of our perceptions and cognition. No matter where we are, where we go, we remain right where we are-and we take those senses with us. It's almost as though we ourselves stay fixed in one place and all else moves and changes around us-perceptions and thoughts-almost as if our life is one big movie, or one big virtual reality session.
The Buddha says:
I will teach you, monks, how the world comes to be and passes away…What monks, is the arising of the world? Dependent on eye and forms, arises visual consciousness. The concurrence of the three is contact. Conditioned by contact is feeling. Conditioned by feeling, craving. Conditioned by craving, grasping. Conditioned by grasping, becoming. Conditioned by becoming, birth. And conditioned by birth, arise decay, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, despair. This is the arising of the world.
And what, monks, is the passing away of the world? Dependent on the eye and forms arise visual consciousness. The concurrence of the three is contact. Conditioned by contact is feeling. Conditioned by feeling is craving. By the utter fading away and cessation of that craving, grasping ceases, by the ceasing of grasping, becoming ceases, by the ceasing of becoming birth ceases, by the ceasing of birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamentation, suffering, despair, cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire man of Ill.
This, monks, is the passing away of the world.
(Such is it also in the case of the other senses.)
Our senses and cognition are, in other words, conditioned phenomena. They arise, persist, decay, and subside. The Buddha's teachings on paticcasamuppada, or interdependent transformation, postulate that all phenomena are characterized by interdependence, that no individual phenomenon has a concrete essence that exists apart from its conditionings.
The teaching of the twelve links of interdependent transformation concerns a specific example of conditioned arising that explains how suffering comes to arise. It is important not to confuse this with all dependent arising. The teachings emphasize that the links of interdependent transformation can be viewed negatively-i.e., deluded states of mind which give rise to suffering-or positively, i.e., clear states of mind which give rise to liberation. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this important distinction with his customary beauty, lucidity, and clarity:
…there is also a positive side to the Twelve Links, although Buddhist teachers since the time of the Buddha seem to have overlooked this. We need to find words to describe the Interdependent Co-Arising of positive states of mind and body, and not just of negative states. The Buddha taught that when ignorance ends, there is clear understanding. He didn't say that when ignorance ends, there is nothing. What does clear understanding condition? Clarity, the absence of ignorance, gives rise to the desire to act with love and compassion. This is called the Great Aspiration (mahapranidhana) or mind of awakening (bodhichitta) in Mahayana Buddhism. When you practice the Four Noble Truths, you see that you can liberate yourself and other beings, and you stop running away from and destroying yourself.
When ignorance (avidya) gives way to clear understanding (vidya), the twelve links are transformed from states of suffering into states of wisdom and mindfulness. Among these twelve links include the senses and cognition which, together with their organs of perception and objects of perception, proceed to condition the phenomenon of contact. But with clear understanding as a basis instead of ignorance, this contact no longer gives rise to suffering: it gives rise to liberation.
The flood is the flood of conditioned existence-which is taught traditionally as the Twelve Links. The flood of ignorance, of craving, of delusive contact with our senses.
The teaching tells us not to be concerned with the annihilation of these senses-i.e., 'halting', nor to be concerned with craving and attaching to them-i.e., 'straining.' The practice, the Path, is a gradual process of purification, as we free ourselves from ignorance and replace it slowly, gradually, surely, with clear understanding. As the process of purification continues, the six senses re-emerge, increasingly freed from their destructive natures. Thus we liberate ourselves by freeing ourselves of attachment to this world: the senses.
But not by removing the senses. This is not a teaching on annihilation. It is, in fact, a teaching on wholeness, on completeness.
Bhikkhu Nananamanda says:
According to the Buddha, that end of the world where there is no birth decay or death…is not somewhere in outer space, but within this very fathom-long body. The cessation of the six sense-spheres, constitutes for the arahant, a transcendental sphere (ayatana) of experience in which he realizes, here and now, that he is free from all suffering connected with birth, decay, and death, and indeed from all forms of existence (bhavanirodho).
"….With the utter fading away of ignorance, even that body is not there, dependent on which there arises for him inwardly happiness and unhappiness; that speech is not there…that mind is not there, dependent on which there arises for him inwardly happiness and unhappiness. That field does not exist, that ground does not exist, that sphere does not exist, that reason does not exist, dependent on which arises inwardly happiness and unhappiness" (A. II. 158f). When body speech and mind, which are at the root of all discrimination and conceit, fade away in the jhanic experience of the arahant, he finds himself free from all suffering, mental as well as physical.
Should Bhikkhu Nananamanda's explanation point towards the annihilist in the mind of the reader, consider this balancing reassurance from the Anguttara Nikaya:
And how, reverend sirs, is the mind of a monk well heaped around with thoughtfulness? His mind is well heaped around with thoughtfulness as to being passion-free, hatred-free, delusion-free, free of any passionate condition, hateful condition, delusive condition, free of any condition of return for becoming in (the worlds of) sense, form, and no form.
Thus, reverend sirs, if objects cognizable by the eye come very strongly into the range of vision of a monk, wholly freed in mind, they overwhelm not his mind and his mind is unconfused and firm, being won to composure, and he marks their set. If sounds…smells…tastes….touches…and ideas, cognizable by the senses,…come very strongly into the range of the senses…of a monk, wholly freed in mind, they overwhelm not his mind and his mind is unconfused and firm, being won to composure, and he marks their set.
In short: the Buddha is teaching us to come home, come home to the fundamental whole, loving, compassionate nature of our being. This fundamental nature is not a flood, but a wholeness-the life force freed of its destructive potential.
Our intrinsic wholeness is always present. We can recognize it, touch it. When we are completely aware in the moment, absolutely HERE in this moment, in this space, we are touching our intrinsic wholeness and goodness.
It not found elsewhere. It is found only within, only in the quiet and calm of the clear mind, the Buddha's "fathom-long body." E.M. Forster says: Only connect. Come home: come to the center.
This appears to be the best place to insert the etymology of the word meditation: it derives from a Latin root meaning 'to bring to the center'-as witnessed by words such as 'mediate', 'medium', or 'median', all of which are built from the same root.
The wonderful Thai teacher Achaan Chah puts it this way:
Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
3.7 Conclusion
This is what that devata said. The Teacher approved. Then that devata, thinking, "The Teacher has approved of me," paid homage to the Blessed One and, keeping him on the right, disappeared right there.
Enough of heaving and staggering about under the weight of my verbal inadequacies. With relief I turn to the Hindu-Sufi poet Kabir for the conclusion.
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no towrope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!
And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
There you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don't go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

Bly, Robert trans: The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir (Boston: Beacon Press 1971, 1977)
Bodhi, Bhikku trans: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Two Volumes) (Boston: Wisdom Publications 2000)
Hare, E.M., trans: The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Five volumes) (London: Pali Text Society, 1995)
Horner, I.B.: The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part III (London: Pali Text Society, 1975)
Kornfield, Jack and Breiter, Paul: A Still Forest Pool: The Insight Meditation of Achaan Chah (Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House 1997)
Nananamanda, Bhikkhu: Samyutta Nikaya, An Anthology: Volume II (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, Wheel Publication Nos. 183-185)
Saddhatissa, Himmalawa: Buddhist Ethics (Boston: Wisdom Publications 1970, 1997)
Saddhatissa, Himmalawa, trans: Sutta Nipata (London: Curzon Press, 1994)
Smith, Huston: Why Religion Matters (New York: HarperCollins 2001)
Thich Nhat Hanh: The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (New York: Broadway Books 1999)
Walshe, Maurice trans: The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publications 1987, 1995)
Yun, Hsing: Describing the Indescribable (Boston: Wisdom 2001)
As regards Pali versus Sanskrit: I have chosen to favor Pali throughout unless the Sanskrit term has become the de facto standard in Western discourse. I have found that 'sutra' is the most common term used in a Mahayana context, and thus when referring to specific Mahayana texts, such as the Diamond Sutra or Lotus Sutra I have used the Sanskrit term; otherwise I refer to the discourses as suttas. There are some occasional Sanskrit usages elsewhere, such as parinirvana instead of parinibbana, due to the ubiquitousness of the word nirvana here in the West.
The translation is Bhikkhu Bodhi: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publications 2000), pages 89- 90. I have also consulted that of Thanissaro Bhikkhu and the Pali text from the Pali Text Society edition. For convenience I have decided to copy the text without diacritical marks.
H. Saddhatissa: Buddhist Ethics (Boston: Wisdom Publications 1970, 1997), pg. 8.
Ibid., pg. 8
Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans.: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), pg. 227
Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics, pg. 9. The quotation is verse 255 of the Dhammapada, in the 1914 Pali Text Society translation.
A good overview is found in Roger J. Corless: The Vision of Buddhism (St. Paul: Paragon House 1989), pgs. 138 - 143.
I wish to acknowledge Jim Wilson, in The Way of the Scholar Sage, for this line of reasoning.
See the Marasamyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya for examples.
Jim Wilson: The Way of the Scholar Sage (privately distributed), pg. 14.
E.M. Hare, trans: The Book of the Gradual Sayings, Vol. III (London: Pali Text Society, 1995), page 3. I have taken the liberty of expanding the "heaven" part of the sutta, which in the PTS edition is only summarized via the ubiquitous ellipsis.
The famous Jataka regarding the Monkey King who gives his life to save his tribe pops up in Doctor Dolittle, for example.
The plot of "Star Wars" would make a rather nice Jataka, with Luke Skywalker as the Buddha-to-be, Obi Wan Kenobi as a manifestation of the Buddha Dipankara, and Darth Vader as a grandiose, villainous Mara.
I.B. Horner: The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part III (London: Pali Text Society, 1975), pages 2 - 3.
This is one of the more commonly-encountered datings for the historical Buddha, but by no means the only one.
Hsing Yun: Describing the Indescribable (Boston: Wisdom 2001), page 7. The actual translation of the sutta is by Tom Graham. I have modified it slightly, substituting 'marks' for 'lakshana'.
I recognize that some schools of Buddhism may disagree with this statement.
D i, 52. From Maurice Walshe, trans: The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publications 1987, 1995) page 93.
S 1,65. Bhikkhu Bodhi translation, page 160.
Hammalawa Saddhatissa: Buddhist Ethics, pg. 7.
S 1, 24. op. cit., page 112.
S 1, 24. op. cit., page 113.
Smith, Huston: Why Religion Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pgs. 274 5
Sutta Nipata, trans. H. Saddhatissa (London: Curzon Press, 1994) pg. 34 (Brahmanadhammika Sutta)
Quoted in the notes to the Bhikkhu Bodhi translation, pg. 342
This interpretation is beautifully stated and developed by Bhikkhu Nananamanda in Wheel Publication Nos. 183-185, Samyutta Nikaya: An Anthology Part II.
S 45:171, op. cit., pg. 1963
S 2:26, op. cit., pg. 158
Bodhi: Connected Discourses of the Buddha, op. cit., pg. 392
S 4:95. The translation is Bhikkhu Nananamanda's from Samyutta Nikaya: An Anthology Part II (op.cit.,) pg. 70
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (New York: Broadway Books 1999), pg. 238
A IV: 404. PTS Edition (op. cit.), Volume IV, pgs. 271-2.
Kornfield, Jack and Breiter, Paul: A Still Forest Pool: The Insight Meditation of Achaan Chah (Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House 1997). The quotation is the frontispiece to the book.
Bly, Robert (trans.): The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir (Boston: Beacon Press 1971, 1977), pg. 17