Transmission of the Dhamma



Masefield contends that the early Transmission of the Dhamma instantly instituted arahantship without one having to laboriously “till the soil” of the path through rigorous training of mastering the senses and gradually overcoming the debilitating effects of the āsavas (mental defilements). What mattered, above all, was simply being in the presence of the Blessed One, being perfumed with his Holy Essence, and taking to heart the salvific Dhamma talk that issued from the hallowed lips of the Sugata. Masefield reinforces his contention through what he labels as the five different methods that sealed the initial Dhamma discourses:

Five different methods of conveying this final teaching seem to have been used and we may conveniently refer to these as: (1) hearing a discourse; (2) being exhorted with Dhamma-talk; (3) receiving an exhortation in brief; (4) the four verbs; and (5) reviewing Dhamma heard. (Masefield, pg. 100)

The most famous instance of the first concerns those original-five disciples (Group of Five) of the Buddha who, upon first hearing the Dhamma, became freed from the effects of the āsavas and instantaneously reversed the effects of the impermanence of the five khandhas. The next two concerns perhaps the most interesting case of an early disciple, Soṇa, who, though advanced in meditation techniques, fell prey to the mind traps of Mara and considered forfeiting his monastic position by reverting to his former lay state. The Blessed One, through his transcendent intuition, became instantly aware of Soṇa’s predicament and flew to his immediate proximity and through Blessed Dhamma-talk empowered Soṇa to become free from the nasty effects of the āsavas. The entire incident, as reported in the Aguttara Nikāya, is worth sharing in full:

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha on Mount Vulture Peak. Now on that occasion the Venerable Soṇa was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Cool Grove.

Then, while the Venerable Soṇa was alone in seclusion, the following course of thought arose in his mind: “I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging. Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds.”

Then, having known with his own mind the course of thought in the Venerable Soṇa’s mind, just as a strong man might extend his drawn-in arm or draw in his extended arm, the Blessed One disappeared on Mount Vulture Peak and appeared in the Cool Grove in the presence of the Venerable Soṇa. The Blessed One sat down on the seat prepared for him. The Venerable Soṇa paid homage to the Blessed One and sat down to one side. The Blessed One then said to him:

“Soṇa, when you were alone in seclusion, didn’t the following course of thought arise in your mind: ‘I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging. Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds’?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“Tell me, Soṇa, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“What do you think, Soṇa? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well-tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well-tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“But, Soṇa, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Soṇa, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.”

“Yes, Bhante,” the Venerable Soṇa replied.

When the Blessed One had finished giving the Venerable Soṇa this exhortation, just as a strong man might extend his drawn-in arm or draw in his extended arm, he disappeared in the Cool Grove and reappeared on Mount Vulture Peak.

Then, some time later, the Venerable Soṇa resolved on a balance of energy, achieved evenness of the spiritual faculties, and took up the object there. Then, dwelling alone, withdrawn, heedful, ardent, and resolute, in no long time the Venerable Soṇa realized for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life, that unsurpassed consummation of the spiritual life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the household life into homelessness, and having entered upon it, he dwelled in it. He directly knew: “Destroyed is birth, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being.” And the Venerable Soṇa became one of the arahants. (Aṅguttara Nikāya, The Second Fifty I. The Great Chapter 55 (1) Soṇa, iii 374-376) Translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

I particularly like the imagery used of the Lute and the tautness or looseness of its strings. Being a former proficient violinist, I know very well what can happen if the strings are not tuned just right—the result being a horribly out-of-tune performance.  In similar fashion, for the Buddhist-adept, being wound-up too tightly will result in being out-of-tune with the Dhamma. This can be the result of emphasizing too-strenuous a dharma-training—a drain on the intellect and the emotions; as well as over-compensating in one’s own meditation sessions with the result being overcome, like Soṇa, with the āsavas. The result is that one’s own strings will snap—resulting in a complete emotional and mental breakdown! Rather, like a good musician, one must be in-tune with the music—in this instance being “in-tune” with the Holy Dhamma, by listening to the soothing and reassuring voice of the Sugata. The voice of the Dhamma-spirit assures a proper orchestration of the human instrumentation as conducted by the Tathāgata.

“The fourth method by which this final teaching was conveyed was that of what I have called ‘the four verbs’, for when the former Buddha Vipassin had caused the Dhammackkhu* to arise to Khaṇḍa and Tissa, his chief two sāvakas, he thereafter by means of Dhamma-talk indicated (sandassesi) something, made them take it up (samādapesi),  made them keen (samuttejesi) and purified them (sampahaṁsesi) as a consequence of which they very shortly became freed of the āsavas.” (Dīgha Nikāya ii 42). [ibid, pg. 102] Hence, upon Dhammackkhu, one is further strengthened via a Dhamma-talk THAT indicates something profound, thus empowering the adept to keenly discern the divine import of the teaching and assuring purification and liberation.

The fifth-ACTION is that of the Dhamma-heard, a salient example being that of a Deva, who upon recollection of hearing the Dhamma spoken, “reaches excellence quickly, thusly obtaining nibbāna.”

At this junction, Masefield interjects a Kamma-factor, that being “absent the Holy Dhamma Talk”, even if one should procure Dhammackkhu this does not erase prior-kamma formations that require further expiation in future rebirths:

One became an arahant* if, and only if, one was without this (kammic) substrate giving rise to further birth; the difference between him and the anagamin* was not one of the degree to which each had progressed along the path* but solely one of the amount of samsaric time each had to run before tasting the bliss of release. (ibid, pg. 106)

All hope is not lost, however, being that there is sufficient grace through the hearing of the Dhamma itself that can erase past kammic residue:

The Buddha explains to Ananda (A iii 379ff) that if, when dying, the person not wholly freed of the five lower saṁyojanas is taught Dhamma by the Tathāgata, he will as a consequence become so freed; if so freed already he will, on hearing Dhamma from the Tathāgata, enjoy the total destruction of all rebirth. (ibid, pg. 107)

By placing such a high premium on the Transmission of the Dhamma through hearing, his own definition of the Sotāpanna reinforces his assertion. The standard, Pali-English dictionary definition is “one who has entered the stream, a convert.” Hence Sotāpanna is rendered as a “Streamwinner”. Masefield takes issue with this definition, stating that mere “stream” (sota) is a connotation that includes many dangerous deficiencies, such that, for instance, it can devolve into a strong current of cravings, like uncontrolled lust. As such it becomes a stream of Mara. Whereas, one who has cut-across the stream, i.e., an arahant, safely arrives at the other shore after crossing-over Mara’s ignominious dominion. Thus, for Masefield, a sotāpanna is one who has “crossed-over” the stream unto the other shore of Deathless Suchness. The sotāpanna is empowered to do so by hearing the Sacred Dhamma, by coming into contact with the Deathless Path of the Ariyans:

For it was through attainment of the Dhammasota*, or Dhamma-ear*, that one came to hear the sound of the Deathless*, just as it was through attainment of the Dhammacakkhu* that one came to see nibbāna, and given these twin aspects of the conversion experience – its aural as well as visual dimensions – it should not be surprising that those converted were referred to on some occasions with respect to their having heard (the Deathless*) and on others with respect to their having seen (that Deathless*). Thus it is that we find the ariyasavaka* described as ‘one who has attained (right) view* (diṭṭhisampanno*, explained at AA iii 387 as a sotāpanna*), one who has attained vision…who sees this true Dhamma…who has attained the Dhamma-ear* (or who has come into contact with the hearing of Dhamma – dhammasotaṁ samāpanno)…who stands, having reached the door to the Deathless*’ (S ii 43). (ibid, pg. 135)

That the Transmission of the Dhamma can only be conferred by a living Buddha is Masefield’s main stance. Only a Tathāgata can issue-forth the “supermundane* path*” of the ariyans. The Blessed One alone confers this blessing. The last Ariyasāvaka is Subhadda—the last disciple, who Masefield contends, is THE last sāvaka of all. In reference to the Theravada school, this would be a true position. Yet it must be emphasized that this, of course, was by no means the end of the Dhamma transmission. As Noble Mañjuśrī articulated in the Lotus Sutra:

“To those seeking for the śrāvaka vehicle he taught the Dharma with respect to the Four Noble Truths, causing them to overcome birth, old age, illness, and death and to attain nirvana. He taught the Dharma with respect to dependent origination to the pratyekabuddhas; and to the bodhisattvas he taught the Dharma with respect to the six perfections (pāramitās), causing them to attain highest, complete enlightenment and perfect all-knowledge (sarvajnātā).”

Śrāvaka: this is the “voice-hearers”, the early followers of the Blessed One who were taught the outward form of the Four Noble Truths; thus they are known as followers of the Śrāvakayāna, or Vehicle of the Hearers.

Pratyekabuddhas: these are those solitary practitioners who come to know the Buddhadharma primarily through their own efforts without the outside aid of any teacher.

Bodhisattvas: the awakened Bodhi-beings of the Buddhadharma, who are formed through the six perfections, or pāramitās.

Thank-goodness for the Mahāyāna. Yet, Masefield’s position, as we hopefully have discerned, is of great value. The diligent one still needs to “hear the voice” of the Sugata singing in the Sūtras and gently guiding one, through continued Buddha-gnosis, during times of devotion and fruitful meditation. THE VOICE is still heard, by all who aspire towards awakening to the Ariyan Mind and Spirit. While the Mind Transmission is spontaneous, as in Mahākāśyapa’s case, further cultivation of the growing Bodhi-seed is still in order for the Buddhadharma to fully blossom.

Venias ad audiendam vocem beatus Sugata!

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