Expanded notes on “The Sutra of 42 Chapters” (Part 1)

To read along in the Sutra, right click  here and open it in a new tab.  My notes are in chronological order. Part 1 covers  Chapters 1 through 21.

The most pivotal sentence in this first paragraph is “Abiding in samadhi, one subdues all evil.” Isn’t that an amazing characteristic of Buddhahood? The power that sentence implies is remarkable. In the standard form of most Sutras, the speaker, location, time, place and and hearers in attendance are noted. It’s an all-male gathering of 5 disciples of the Buddha and an unidentified number of bhikshus (monks) who by the end of the talk, the prologue promises, will each be led to attain enlightenment.

Chapter 1. Renounce the Secular Life and Attain the Fruit of Arhatship
There are a number of stages along the Path, and Buddha is going to lay these out for us. First, the shramana: He [no females present] 1) leaves the family, 2) renounces secular life, 3) knows the mind, 4) penetrates to its origin, and 5) understands the unconditioned Dharma. The first two stages are physical actions: they leave, taking the robe and bowl and the ties of attachment to secular life are cut by turning one’s back on previous relationships and on the owning of personal property. The latter three stages are the beginning of understanding; the first fruits of practice, which all take place within the mind. (Open the mind, change the man. Right?) Which leads us to stage two, the arhat. If shramanas stick to the practice, observe the 250 Precepts, live purely & virtuously, and practice The 4 Noble Truths, they eventually eventually have many powers: levitation & transformation, even “moving heaven and earth.” They’ve lived through many lifetimes working up to that point!

The second part of Chapter 1 takes us backward in attainment from the stage of arhat. To make this a little more understandable, I’ll start from the earliest stage & work forward: Stream-enterers are those who have become committed followers of the Buddha and practitioners of the Path. They take refuge in the Buddha, make vows, accept the Precepts & study the Dharma. They have attained the first glimpse of their True Mind. They are only seven rebirths away from arhatship. Once-returners are the fortunate few who have only one more rebirth–from the heavenly dwelling to earth–before arhatship. Non-returners ascend after death on earth to a realm “above the 19th Heaven” and there attain arhatship. How long that takes them we don’t know, but it’s guaranteed: No more rebirths, no more earthly suffering. The arhats are fully enlightened beings, without desire and attachments. As the Sutra says, these hindrances are like amputated limbs. Once they are cut off, you don’t put them back on and use them again–ever. Arhats are truly free beings.

Chapter 2. No-Mind is the Way
The Buddha begins by reviewing the qualities of the shramana. There’s a promise in that first sentence: Stick to the practice and you will become arhats. Imagine being in a mental state where you actually had nothing to lose or gain! The mind is calm and unattached, and things become easier. No thought, no action, no cultivation, and no attainment. Not even any more “stages.” That loftiest state is called the Way.

Chapter 3. Desire Makes People Foolish
In the days of the Buddha, being a shramana demanded quite a lot. Not just shaving the head and changing clothing. Total renunciation of possessions is necessary as well. And when you beg, you accept only what is necessary for that day, not a bite more. One meal a day, sleeping beneath the trees, all the while keeping an eye on your mental and physical state so you don’t backslide and start wanting things.

Ch. 4. The Ten Evils and Ten Virtues
Understanding the10 Evils is easy, but practicing the 10 Virtues is challenging in life. The first 3 evils are physical, and they involve other people in a physical way. Killing deprives a person of life, and stealing deprives them of property. Sexual misconduct disrupts the relationships of others. (As we can see from recent news.) Next come the evils perpetrated by the tongue. You might recognize the four types of evil speech in yourself and others. Malicious speech is speech whose purpose is to deliberately harm another person: for example, spreading unsubstantiated rumors. Abusive speech might encompass swearing at, insulting, berating or shaming our fellow human beings in privacy or before others. False speech is simple lying: You know it’s a lie, but you open your mouth and let it out. Many slander and libel suits have resulted from this irresponsible use of speech. Frivolous speech is just what we would call “talking to hear yourself talk,”to kill time. Or talking about nothing in particular to make a sound in the room. Envy, anger and ignorance are the evils inside, not always visible to others but there lurking in the mind. Envy is almost synonymous with covetousness. You look at someone with fame or acclaim or recognition or a luxurious lifestyle or great looks and intelligence and think semi-consciously or consciously, “I wish I was in that position, with that success, with those personal qualities….instead of him!” Anger is the easiest mental trait to identify and is often the first one we tackle and try to control when we begin practice. Meditation, many say, is the way to learn to control anger before it flares up. Creating a long train of thoughts about the perceived offenses of others  is a sure way to give yourself an ulcer or end up punching someone (physical evil!) Anger, when it is simply observed, just disappears like clouds over a mountain. Ignorance, in the Buddhist context, means not simply an absence of higher education but our basic ignorance as unenlightened beings which keeps us cycling through the Realms. We don’t realize inter-relatedness or Emptiness as true mind or understand the skandhas or recognize hindrances….yet!

Ch. 5. Reducing the Severity of Offenses
As in many chapters, Buddha presents us with a warning and a promise. If we have many offenses and fail to repent, we may be consumed by the bad karma and fall into the undesirable Realms yet again. True mind goes on: deep and wide as the ocean waters, but now you are drowning in it. But, if you realize your errors (become conscious) correct your actions (reparation and reform) and cultivate virtue (practice good acts & thoughts) the offenses will naturally dissolve and you will be healthy again.

Ch 6. Tolerance without Resentment
The two sentences of Ch. 6 only contain prohibition for us and–again–a warning for evildoers. Malice, as we discussed in Ch. 4, is the deliberate intention to inflict harm with either words or deeds. In this case it is directed toward sabotaging the efforts of people involved in doing good deeds. Now if you are like me, it would be very hard not to be angry if you were on the receiving end of this kind of speech or behavior. But the Buddha forbids both getting angry and reprimanding the perpetrator. The Buddha sees & understands all, right? And he sees that bad deeds fall back on the evildoer. Bad karma is not something any of us should want or allow ourselves to accumulate.

Ch. 7. Evil Deeds Return to the Doer
To reiterate and reinforce the lesson, the Buddha uses an incident from his own life, and a rather Socratic way of teaching. When a critic arrives and insults him, the Buddha remains silent until the angry man runs out of steam and words, so no argument takes place. Then, emerging from his silent listening, the Buddha asks a simple question: If you offer a gift and it’s not accepted, who does it belong to? The man has to admit that a gift unaccepted still belongs to, and remain with the giver. The Buddha adds that the “gift” of insults which were thrust at him were not accepted, and so they return to the giver. Then he cautions the giver not to bring harm upon himself. “Just as echo follows sound and shadow trails form, there is no escape. Be vigilant to do no evil.” (Of course, in the present age, he could have said “I’m rubber & you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me & sticks to you!”) Again, the message is “Watch out for karma!”

Ch.8. To Fling Dust into the Wind
In the Buddhist way of thinking, a sage cannot be harmed, so speaking of harming a sage….just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if you attempt to harm a sage, it’s like spitting straight up at the sky or throwing dust into the wind. (Or if you do both, you get a face full of mud!) Now by this time, you really understand the penalty for doing evil deeds. Right?

Ch. 9. Knowledge and Practice
For good reason, this chapter is titled “Knowledge and Practice.” The type of knowledge the Buddha is talking about here was, in his time, reading and memorizing and quoting and meditating on the Sutras, going from teacher to teacher and asking a million questions. Nothing wrong with that, right? The only problem is that it doesn’t get you to the goal of non-regressing self-realization. When you “fall in love” with a religion, you are falling in love with the external trappings, not keeping your “eyes on the prize” toward which all the trappings, ceremonies and devotions point. That’s why people can practice meditation year after year, study under the best teachers and read the best books on non-duality yet not attain anything but better physical health and more self-control. Those are admittedly good outcomes, but the goal of Buddhism is awakening, pure and simple, which benefits oneself and others…and the whole world. As the Buddha said, “For those with unwavering resolve in following the Way, the Way is great indeed.” This has to do with direction and persistence in whatever practice and situation you find yourself, not gritting your teeth and expecting torture.

Ch. 10. Joyfully Aid Others in Giving
This chapter is about the long-reaching effects of help given to those whom you see practicing dana. This virtue, which comes first in the Buddhist list, means charity, good works or generosity. And again, when we do this, we gain blessings for ourselves and for uncountable others, just as many stoves and candles and warming fires can be ignited with a single flame. And yet “the original flame is undiminished.”

Ch.11. Fields of Blessing
I admit that I don’t really understand this chapter about “fields of blessing.” If you give food to an evil person, wouldn’t that person have a higher likelihood of becoming good than remaining as he is?  Never mind. Let’s stick to the text. Ch. 11 tells the results of who we need to offer food to, beginning with a virtuous person vs. and evil person (giving to one virtuous person is equal in blessings to 100 evil people) and concluding with offering to a Buddha (1 Buddha vs. 10 billion pratyekabuddhas). But at the end of the list there is a kind of riddle: We ask ourselves, is there some being more exalted that the Buddhas? Yes, offering food to “one of ‘no thought’, ‘no abidance’, ‘no cultivation’ and ‘no attainment’ is superior to offering food to a hundred billion Buddhas of the three periods of time.” So Ch. 11 is a kind of koan for us to consider.

Ch 12. Twenty Difficulties in Cultivation
What? Only twenty? Consider…
The first two difficulties are easy to understand: The poor–in Buddha’s time they would be hand-to-mouth poor–have difficulty with dana, since they are merely trying to survive. At the other skew of the distribution, the rich and eminent have such comfortable, enjoyable lives that they see no need for the Way. They often feel that they are just fine as they are.
Renouncing life when facing death a universal problem, especially when the person is conscious and clear-headed. Attachments to life on earth, humanity, consciousness and everything else can arise when we approach our inevitable end.
Next, encountering the Buddhist sutras is easier now than it ever has been. But in Buddha’s time, as in ours, competing religions were at war with one another, and then, if a scroll was burnt or eaten by ants, you might not ever be able to encounter that sutra again.
Being born in the age of a Buddha is something that karma determines, but some people were fortunate enough to meet the Buddha and his disciples during his 40 years as an itinerant teacher.
The next several difficulties are human tendencies: The reluctance to leave off lust and desire, to not covet, to not get angry when humiliated, to not abuse power and to learn to face all situations with equanimity.
The next three difficulties are all related, because they are about knowledge and the psychological effects of knowledge. Some people, for one reason or another, learn texts quickly, and some slowly, and for everyone, what we need to know is so vast that it takes many lifetimes to learn it all. If you or I know a lot, it’s easy to become egotistical about it. We may look down on or even ignore those who we perceive as “slower” and unlearned. This is not being impartial, because those persons are the ones who especially need our help.
Gossiping and spreading quick judgments about matters we don’t fully understand is a bad habit to avoid, and it severely limits the effectiveness of practice.
The last block of difficulties has to do with the perpetuation of the Dharma. Finding the right teacher, and under his teaching seeing one’s original nature, and practicing the Way, and using that wisdom to guide other beings to liberation without becoming perturbed by circumstances: all these things are essential! And to do that, we need to master the expedient means of the Way.
What I find encouraging about this daunting list is that the reference is  to “difficulties,” not “impossibilities.” It’s been done before, and can–and will!– be done again.

Ch. 13. Questions About the Way and Past Lives
What a breath of fresh air this chapter is after Ch. 12! A disciple asks the Buddha how to achieve two things:  to know his past lives and to attain the supreme Way. To attain the supreme Way, the Buddha replies, you purify your mind with unwavering resolve. The resolve is Windex! The mind is a pure mirror! There’s nothing wrong with that mind-mirror but a layer of dust. Polish and see the brightness that was always there to be revealed. And when you eradicate desires and seek nothing…then you gain knowledge of past lives.

Ch. 14. Virtue and Greatness
A shramana asked the Buddha “What is virtue? What is greatness?” Those two words are bandied about and defined and re-defined now, just as they were in Buddha’s time. Buddha gives the simplest definitions, ones attainable by anyone of any station in life. Ones having nothing to do with fame or rank or public acclaim or accomplishments. “To practice the Way and abide by truth is virtue. When your will is one with the Way, that is greatness.”

Ch.15. Tolerance and Purification
This chapter begins–again–with questions. “What is great power? What is the brightest light?” Read carefully, because you will see that the Buddha is telling the shramana what it is like to be Buddha, and why those who attain enlightenment often cry with joy and value it beyond any earthly pleasure.

Ch. 16. Renounce Desire to Attain the Way
“The Buddha said, “All those who harbor desire and lust cannot see the Way.” Desire and lust flow from sensing a lack within and the belief that the source of satisfaction is “out there.” This is the Big Lie. And it’s also a waste of energy that could be centered and directed inward, to the path. The main characteristic of shramana life, as I see it, is the renunciation of desire. The Buddha represents the mind as clear water made muddy when stirred, preventing one from seeing a clear reflection. This simile is similar to mind-as-mirror, but the mirror, if ignored, accumulates dust. It requires care. But when water is allowed to calm, it becomes clear. Our own mental clarity and its relation to what we perceive as necessary or desirable is something to examine. There is a difference between the experience of desire and harboring desire, just as there is a difference between renouncing desire and purging desire. The shramana first renounces and later purges desire and the result of that is “the Way will manifest itself.”

Ch. 17. Light Dispels Darkness
This is a description of seeing the Way. What remains after the darkness of ignorance is dispelled? Was that darkness real to begin with if only light dissipates it? What remains after the worlds of illusion are shattered? Only what is.

Ch. 18. The No-Mind Doctrine
Probably the doctrine of no-mind is the hardest for students to understand and the most obscure for non-Buddhists. It may involve recognizing and identifying the personal ego for what it is and is not. At a certain point in cultivation, the ego deconstructs. Someone is still apparently there talking to you in your head, but you recognize that the voice is not you, but a repetitive process. Non-action results when circumstances are approached and dealt with appropriately and spontaneously.  Speaking the inexpressible and cultivating non-cultivation may sound contradictory. But not allowing any interpretive thought to come between us and situations makes this possible. Then the Way is recognized as not separate from the practitioner.

Ch. 19. Meditate on the illusive and the Real
The key sentence in this chapter is “Seeing one’s awareness is bodhi.” Often enlightened persons will say “I can now look at the world and distinguish what is impermanent from what is permanent.” What is undying after illusion is dissipated? Only awareness.

Ch. 20. The Self is Empty
The self is empty, but what does this mean? The Buddhist understanding of he body is that it is composed of Four Elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Meditating on the nature of these elements reveals their emptiness. But…prior to the body, who am I? And after the death of the body, who am I?

Ch. 21. Seeking Fame Consumes the Person
Whenever I read this chapter I think of the actor Heath Ledger, dying of an accidental prescription overdose in his hotel room several years ago. Fame had become toxic for him, and he was just trying to get some sleep after many nights of trying. The singers eliminated on American Idol often cry hysterically or react in fury, because they have “missed their chance” at fame. But Jim Carrey, speaking from experience, once said ““I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” What do famous people end up with? A nice room to die in.


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