Once Buddha was staying in Vesali at the Gabled Hall in the Great Forest. At that time, there was also a large number of brahmins from Kosala and Magadha staying at Vesali. When they heard that the great ascetic Gotama was staying there too, they would like to visit the well-known fully enlightened buddha who was perfected in knowledge and conduct, teacher of gods and humans. So they forth to the Great Forest to meet Buddha, Venerable Nagita (Buddha's personal attendant at that time) told them it's not the time as Buddha was doing solitary meditation. They decided to wait for Buddha.
At that moment Otthaddha the Licchavi also came to the Gabled Hall with a large company seeking to see the Buddha. Venerable Nagita also told them it's not the right time, they decided to wait. As there were many people waiting to see the Buddha, novice Siha asked Nagita if Buddha should see them. Venerable Nagita instructed novice siha to inform Buddha of the situation. Buddha then asked Siha to prepare a seat in the shade and sat down to meet the people who came.
The Brahmins who came earlier exchanged courtesies with Buddha and sat at one side. But Otthaddha only prostrated in Buddha's direction, sat on one side and rudely interrupted Buddha with a question. He asked: " I have been a follower of Buddha for almost three years. I have seen heavenly sights, pleasant, delightful, enticing but I have not heard any heavenly sounds that were pleasant, delightful enticing. So are there any such heavenly sounds, which Sunakkhatta cannot hear, or are there not?.” (Sunakkhatta the Licchavi is well-known for rejecting Buddha in Sutta 24 because Buddha did not perform miracles or teach the beginning of things. Sunakkhatta also expressed admiration for dubious ascetics. ) Buddha replied : " yes there are such sounds, Mahali." Then Mahali persisted and asked why Sunakkhatta could not hear them.
The Buddha’s explained with regards to the different spiritual practices and the attainments as a result. In short, Buddha explained that there are two types of samadhi (concentration) , one-sided and two-sided. The ascetic who only has one-sided samadhi, can only see heavenly sights or hear heavenly sounds which means they do not experience both. But an ascetic who has two-sided Samadhi, both heavenly sights and heavenly sounds are experienced. Then Mahali asked if it is for the attainment of such psychic powers that monks lead this holy life under Buddha. Buddha replied: " No Mahali, there are other things that are higher and more perfect than these psychic attainments and stages of Samadhi which lead the monks to live this ascetic lives. "
Buddha then explained to Mhali what is higher and more perfect using the stages of enlightenment. He told Mahali : " When a monk have abandoned the three fetters (belief in self, skeptical doubt and obsessed with rites and rituals), he becomes a stream winner (Sotāpanna). A Sotāpanna will enlighten within 7 rebirths when the three fetters were overcome. A stream winner who has abandoned the 3 fetters and reduced his greed, hatred and delusion ( 3 evil roots) becomes a once-returner (Sakadagami). A Sakadagami will only be reborn as a human being once more before enlightenment. A monk who has abandoned the lower 5 fetters will have a spontaneous rebirth in the higher realm (deva realm) without returning to the human realm followed by enlightenment, this is a non-returner (Anagami). Finally a monk who has extinguished the corruptions (cravings for sensual pleasures, existence, and non-existence) experiences the “un-corrupted deliverance of mind, gained wisdom, realized by his own insight” Having achieve all these, he becomes an arahant (a truly enlightened one).
Then Mahali asked buddha what's the path or method to achieve these stages of enlightenment. Buddha replied: " It is the noble eightfold path which comprise of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the path, the way to the realization of these stages of enlightenment."
Buddha then told Otthaddha that when he was staying in Ghosita Park, in Kosambi, he met two wanderers called Mandissa and Jaliya. The two wanderers, asked the Buddha, “is the soul the same as the body, or is the soul one thing and the body another?”
Buddha replied: “Well now, friends, if you listen and pay proper attention, I will explain.” Buddha went on: “Friends, a Tathágata arises in the world, an Arahant, fully-enlightened Buddha (he has realized the four noble truths and discovered the noble eightfold path by himself) , endowed with wisdom and conduct, Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds (he knows the arising, the cessation and the means to the cessation of the worlds), incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed (he surpasses in terms of virtue, knowledge, concentration, deliverance and understanding), Teacher of Gods and humans, enlightened and blessed. He, having realized it by his own super-knowledge, preaches the Dhamma, which is lovely in it’s beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in it’s ending, in the spirit and in the letter, and displays the fully-perfected and purified holy life."
“A disciple will go forth and practices the moralities, watching his speech, thoughts and actions”. Because of his morality (sila), he sees no danger anywhere. He experiences a blameless bliss that comes from maintaining this Ariyan morality. In this way, he is perfected in morality as if he were freed from debt, from sickness, from any bonds, from slavery and from the perils of the desert.
Guarding his sense doors, he is detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, he enters and remains in the first jhana such that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched by this delight and joy born of detachment. Then the disciple attains the second jhana, the third jhana and fourth jhana. With continuous practicing, the disciple develops insights and wisdom, he understands the cessation of suffering, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, there is no more rebirth. "
The Buddha's answer is subtle : “I do not say that the soul is either the same as or different from the body.” The Buddha does not want to give a definite answer as this question is one of the 10 questions that he will not answer as it is meaningless to pursue the answer for some questions and also he does not want his disciple to interpret the answer wrongly and have a wrong understanding.
After this discourse, Otthaddha rejoiced at Buddha's words.
In summary, this sutta is trying to tell us not to work on achieving psychic powers but rather work on perfecting our morality and training to walk the noble eightfold path which will lead to the realization and end the suffering.
References: 1. www.accesstoinsight.org 2. https://suttacentral.net/ 3. The long discourses of the Buddha (Bhikkhu Bodhi)