Thus have i heard. Once Buddha was staying at Ujunnaya in the deer park of Kannakatthale. There was a naked ascetic Kassapa who came to Buddha, exchanged courtesies and asked Buddha : " I have heard from the wanderers of other sects who said that the Buddha disapproves of austerity and self-mortification? Is that true? " Kassapa actually belonged to a form of ascetic that practices self-mortification.
Buddha replied : " These accusations are untrue. I have seen ascetics who practice mortification being reborn in woeful states and some reborn in heavenly states. I have also seen ascetic who practice who practice little austerity being reborn in woeful and some in heavenly states. I have seen their arising , death and re-arising of these ascetics, how could i have disapproved of all austerities and all practices of mortification? "
Buddha continued: "Sometimes these ascetics'/sages' views may accord with mine but sometimes they do not, they may not agree on all of my views too. On things we disagree on, we leave them aside to avoid unnecessary conflicts and confrontations. On things we both agree on, we open up for discussion, analyze together and cross-questioning to deepen the understanding. We should praise those who are skillful, doing wholesome deeds (Kusala) and those who do meritorious deeds. " Then Buddha concluded that there is a path , the noble eightfold path which is namely Right View, Right thought, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness and Right Concentration. The noble eightfold path is a course of training whereby one should follow and see for oneself. ‘The ascetic Gotama speaks at the proper time, what is true, to the point’ – the Dhamma and the discipline.
Kassapa told Buddha that some of these ascetics practices self mortification in the following ways:
licking the hands and does not come or stand when requested
The do not accept food in many circumstances, including from a pregnant or nursing woman or from woman living with a man; do not accept alms food and not drinking cold water. They eating only once a day or less
They are vegetarians and they abstain from alcohol
They wear coarse hemp or mixed material, clothes used to wrap corpses, rags, bark garments, antelope skins, grass, shavings, human hair blankets, horse hair, or owls’ wings
They have the habit of plucking out the hair and beard
They sleeping on thorns or alone in a garment of wet mud; live in the open air; accepting whatever seat is offered; living on filth and bathing three times at the end of the day.
These practices were very common amongst ascetics during Buddha’s time and they still exist in India today. They believe that by torturing themselves they can remove bad past kamma effects and through self-mortification they get self-purification. Before Buddha was enlightened he also practices these extreme self-mortification acts but he found that these are fruitless, ignorant and does not make the mind clearer. Hence he taught the middle path and to avoid two extremes which are self- indulgence and self-mortification in his first discourse dhammacakkappavattana sutta. The middle path is the noble eightfold path namely right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Buddha then told Kassapa: " A sage can do all these self-mortification practices but if his morality, his heart and his wisdom are not developed (still has greed, ill-will, hatred and delusion) and he has not brought to realization then he is still far from the road to enlightenment of a noble one (ariyan), he is still not an ascetic or brahmin. But when a monk develops non-enmity, no ill-will, develop a heart of loving kindness, abandon the corruptions (sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt), realizes and dwells in the un-corrupted deliverance of mind, the deliverance through wisdom, realizing this through his own insight then this monk is a real ascetic or brahmin, he is a noble one (ariyan).
Kassapa told buddha that it is hard to be an ascetic and a Brahman. Buddha replied and suggested that actually the list of mechanical practices can be practiced by anyone for example even a slave girl who draws water can do it. Buddha further mention that there is a completely different kind of asceticism that is truly hard, and that the ascetic who practices this kind of asceticism is the true ascetic and the true Brahman. This asceticism is based on the practice of morality (non-ill-will), non-enmity, a heart of loving kindness and compassion and wisdom as mentioned earlier.
Kassapa told Buddha that it is hard to understand an ascetic and a Brahman. Similarly, to his previous response, Buddha said that these mechanical practices are easy to understand by anyone even a householder could. Buddha further mention that there is a completely different kind of asceticism that is truly hard to understand and that the ascetic who practices this kind of asceticism is the true ascetic and the true Brahman. This asceticism is based on the practice of morality (non-ill-will), non-enmity, a heart of loving kindness and compassion and wisdom as mentioned earlier.
Kassapa asked Buddha : Dear Reverend Gotama, what is the development of morality, of the heart and of the wisdom? " Buddha replied: “Kassapa, 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."
Buddha continued: " A disciple goes forth and practices the moralities; that is the perfection of the morality. He guards his sense doors and attains the four jhanas; that is the perfection of the heart. He then attains various insights and the cessation of corruptions; that is the perfection of wisdom. Hence kassapa, there us nothing further or more perfect than this perfection of morality of the heart and wisdom. "
Finally, Buddha declared that of all of the ascetics and Brahmans known to him he has achieved the highest morality, austerity, wisdom, and liberation.
This sums up the “lion roar” of the Buddha, which he qualifies according to ten criteria: 1. He teaches the wanderers of other sects, rather than hiding in seclusion 2. He speaks confidently, not timidly 3. He allows others to question him 4. After being questioned, he will will over them with the answers 5. His answers are convincing 6. His answers are also pleasing 7. Those who have heard him are satisfied with his teachings 8. Those who have heard him behave as though they were satisfied with the teachings 9. They believe him to be telling the truth 10. They are satisfied with the practices
Buddha then told Kassapa that there was once when he was staying in Rajagaha at the Vultures' peak where he met a practitioner of mortification called Nigrodha. He asked the Buddha about the practice of austerity and he was delighted with Buddha's explanation beyond all measure.
Kassapa upon hearing this discourse was delighted beyond all measures. He exclaimed: " Excellent Buddha, Excellent!! It is as if someone were to set up what had been knocked down , or to point out the way to one who had got lost or to bring an oil lamp into a dark place so that those with eyes could see what was there. May i receive ordination! "
Buddha replied : " Kassapa, whoever that formerly belonged to another sect and wish to go forth to be ordained in this dhamma and discipline must wait for four months. At the end of the 4 months probation, the monks who are established in mind will give him the going-forth and the monastic ordination. " Kassapa replied that he can even wait up to four years for ordination. Because of this Buddha made an exception and ordained Kassapa immediately.
Venerable Kassapa after ordination, went into seclusion and, after a short time, attained arahantship. He attained insight and wisdom and declared : " Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is nothing further here." In other words, he has realized, liberated and reached the final goal of nibbana.
In summary, this sutta talks about Kassapa's question to Buddha whether he agreed with the acts of self-mortification that was frequently practiced by some ascetics. Instead Buddha taught the middle path (noble eightfold path) and to avoid two extremes which are self- indulgence and self-mortification in his first discourse dhammacakkappavattana sutta. Buddha also mentioned that a true practitioner should practice morality (non-ill-will), non-enmity, a heart of loving kindness and compassion and develop wisdom instead of self-mortification.
By WHH References: 1. www.accesstoinsight.org 2. https://suttacentral.net/ 3. The long discourses of the Buddha (Bhikkhu Bodhi)