Once buddha with the company of 500 monks arrived at Campa and resided by Gaggara's lotus pond. There was a famous and well-respected brahmin called Sonadanda living at Campa back then and this sutta was the conversation between buddha and Sonadanda. Sonadanda was well-respected because he was of high birth (pure descent to the 7th generation), a brahmin scholar who was versed in mantras, accomplished the three vedas, an excellent expounder of rules and rituals & natural philosophy and have the marks of a Great Man. He was also worshiped by King Seniya Bimbisara and by Brahmin Pokkharasati.
Sonadanda heard of Buddha's arrival at Campa and knew he was a great teacher who taught the dhamma that is lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle and lovely in its ending. So he decided to pay a visit to the Buddha. The rest of the brahmins knowing this advised him not to as this will result in his reputation to drop and that of Ascetic Gotama (Buddha) to increase; they said buddha should visit sonadanda instead.
However Sonadanda replied " The Ascetic Gotama (Buddha) is well-born on both sides of pure descent to 7th generation (just like him) from a leading Ksatriya family. His father was non other than King Suddhodana. He gave up all his luxury life, shaved his hair, don on his robe and went forth into a homelessness life from the day he renounced. He is handsome, virtuous and teachers of many. He taught the dhamma far and wide which include law of kamma, dependent origination, four noble truths and noble eightfold path. Many thousands of devas, kings and laymen had taken refuge in him. Buddha was a fully enlightened Arahant, perfected in knowledge, bearing the 32 marks of Great Man, dignified, an exemplary teacher who was well-respected by many. King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha , King Pasenadi of Kosala and the famous Brahmin Pokkharasati have gone to Buddha for refuge. We should treat him as a guest of Campa therefore it is more appropriate for me to visit him rather than the other way round. "
So Brahmin Sonadanda decided and set forth to visit Ascetic Gotama (Buddha). On his way, he thought " If i ask an unfitting question, the rest of the Brahmins will despise me. That will affect my income and reputation. If my answer to Buddha's question is not satisfying , the brahmin company will despise me. If only buddha asked me a question i am well-versed in like the Vedas then i'm sure i can give a satisfying answer and maintain my reputation ."
Buddha could read his mind and knew he was worried. He decided to ask Sonadanda something he will be well-versed in to ease his worry. He asked Sonadanda : " By how many qualities do Brahmins recognize a Brahmin? What determines a true Brahmin?".
Sonadanda thought " Now i can give Buddha a satisfying answer." He replied : " By 5 qualities, a Brahmin is recognized. They are: 1. He has a good appearance (pleasing and handsome). 2. Well versed in mantras and rites/rituals. 3. He should be wise and knowledgeable. 4. He is of high birth, well-born on both parents' side of pure descent to 7th generation. 5. He should be virtuous. "
Then Buddha asked him back : " If one of the 5 qualities were omitted, can one be recognized as a Brahmin with just 4 of these qualities?".
Sonadanda replied: " Yes it is possible, we can leave out appearance as a requisite. Looks does not affect one to be recognized as a brahmin. Even if one does not look good but is virtuous, well born, well-versed in vedas and ritual he is still a true brahmin. Looks is secondary. "
Buddha added on: " Of the remaining 4 qualities, can one be omitted such that one can be recognize as a true Brahmin."
Sonadanda replied: " It is possible Gotama, we can leave out mantras. Knowing how to recite mantra is not really necessary. "
Then Buddha asked again: " Of the remaining 3 qualities, can one more be omitted such that one can still be recognized as a true Brahmin? "
Sonadanda replied: " Yes it is possible , we can leave out birth as it does not matter. Because if a brahmin who is virtuous, have good moral conduct, is learned and wise and well-trained in sacrificial rituals; he can still be recognized as a true brahmin. "
At this point in time, the rest of the brahmins tried to stop Sonadanda as they feel that Sonadanda is adopting what ascetic Gotama's words and belittling brahmins. Buddha told the other brahmins :" if you think that Brahmin Sonadanda is not concentrating, is not using the right words, is unwise and is not fit to talk to me, then take his place to talk to him and ask sonadanda to stop this conversation. But if you all feel that Sonadanda is well-learned, wise, speaks properly and fit to speak to me then you all stop talking and let him continue talk to me."
Sonadanda defended Buddha :" Let me continue this conversation with ascetic Gotama. Do not say that i am belittling appearance, mantras or birth of brahmins. I shall explain further using my nephew Angaka as an example. Angaka is handsome, well-born on both sides and well-versed in mantra trained by myself. But if he were to be immoral and conduct unwholesome deeds like taking life, stealing, conduct adultery, tell lies and take strong intoxicants, then would his good looks, high-birth and mantras profit him at all? It is his virtue and wisdom that account for his brahmin's qualities. "
Buddha then asked Sonadanda : " So if we were to omit one of the two remaining two points (virtue and wisdom), can one be truly called a brahmin?" Sonandanda replied : " No ascetic gotama. This is because wisdom is purified by morality (sila) and morality is purified by wisdom. They go hand in hand , one cannot go without another. A virtuous man is wise and a wise man is virtuous. The combination of virtue and wisdom is the highest thing in the world. "
Buddha then asked if Sonadanda knows what is this morality and wisdom. Sonadanda invited buddha to elaborate further on this topic.
Buddha explained: " A Tathagata, an arahant, a fully enlightened buddha has arisen in this world and endowed with conduct and wisdom; he taught the dhamma to the humans and devas the path to end suffering which is the noble eightfold path to nibbana. A disciple should practices morality ( right speech, right action, right livelihood and observe the 5 precepts ) and guard the sense doors. The five precepts refer to abstinence from killing, abstain from lying, abstain from stealing, abstain from intoxicants and abstain from sexual misconduct.
The disciple through discipline and practice; attains the 4 Jhanas ( meditative adsorptions), develops various insights , achieve cessation of the corruptions (taints) . Then he develops wisdom ( panna). "
Brahmin Sonadanda praised buddha for his excellent explanation and teaching; describing it as pointing out the way to one who had got lost. He went to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for refuge and asked Buddha to allow him to be a lay-follower. He then invited Buddha over to his place for meal the next day as dana.
The next day when Buddha and his disciples went to Sonadanda's place for a meal, Sonadanda said this to the buddha: " If i were to rise and salute to the Buddha, the brahmins will despise me then my reputation and income will fall. So if i join my palms in greeting, may the buddha take it as if i has risen from my seat. Also should the buddha sees me take off my turban, may you take it as if i had bowed at your feet. If i am in my carriage and i alight to salute the buddha, the brahmins will despise me. So if i am riding in my carriage, i will raise my goad and may you take it as if i had alighted from my carriage; and if i lower my hand may you take it as if i had bowed my head at your feet. "
The Buddha agreed on his proposal and gave him another dhamma talk that inspired Brahmin Sonadanda. After the talk, Buddha left his place.
Moral of story : Good looks, knowing mantras by heart and doing rites/rituals do not make one a true brahmin (a well-respected knowledgeable righteous person); its is wisdom and virtue that makes one a true brahmin. It is through practicing morality, good conduct, observing the 5 precepts and walking the noble eightfold path that one becomes virtuous and wise enough to be called a true brahmin.
References: 1. www.accesstoinsight.org 2. https://suttacentral.net/ 3. The long discourses of the Buddha (Bhikkhu Bodhi)