Austerity / Celibacy (Maṅgala Sutta – Protection with Blessing)

revised on 2021-07-28

By Venerable Uttamo Thera(尊者 鄔達摩 長老)

The commentary explained austerity (tapa) as restraint of the sense faculties. Tapa is a concept of the Indian religion—such as extreme meditation, mortification of the physical body, austere practices, penance, etc. In the First Discourse of the Buddha (Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta) —he (the Buddha) rejected the meaning of tapa as mortification of the body which was extreme. Therefore, the Buddha used it as (the same word) wholesome energy (viriya) which burns up unwholesome qualities. In the Buddha sense tapa is burning up the feeling of unhappiness and disappointment, and strong wanting. Someone possesses this quality is called an ardent person or yogi. It is a blessing because it can lead to absorption (jhānas) and other attainments by abandoning all the obstacles.

The commentary explained celibacy or spiritual life (brahmacariya) as abstaining from all sexual activity, the duty of a spiritual person, the Buddha-Dhamma (the teaching), practice or the path (Noble Eightfold Path). It is a blessing because this is the cause for the successive achievements or attainments in the spiritual life.

The Pāli word tapo or tapa means to extinguish defilement by striving hard. Here translated as austerity. Brahmacariya is celibacy or life of celibacy or holy life. The meanings of tapa and brahmacariya are not much different. According to Tha-pye-gan Sayadaw, here austerity had to take sīla and celibacy as samatha-vipassanā (concentration-insight) practices.

In Pāli text, tapa was commenting in many ways; a name for restraint, the ascetic practices (dhutaṅga), energy, patience (khanti), brahmacariya, etc. So, here to take both austerity and celibacy as sīla, samādhi and paññā practices or the Noble Eightfold Path. In this Maṅgala Sutta, patience (khanti) is also tapa. The holy life (brahmacariya) is the practices of a monk with celibacy and other holy practices.

In life when an encounter with dangers and sufferings tapa and brahmacariya or sīla, samādhi and paññā are true refuges. Other things and matters are not true refuges, for examples during sickness and dying. In the Sagāthāvagga, Devaputtasamyutta, Subrahmā Discourse; the Buddha said to the young deva (deity) Subrahmā as follow. (SN. 2.17 Subrahmasuttaṃ)

Not apart from enlightenment (bojjhaṅgas), austerity (tapa), restraint of the sense faculties (indriya saṁvara) and relinquishing all (sabbanissagga), the Buddha could not see any security for all living beings. Why did the Buddha say these Dhamma to him? There were interesting dhammas we can learn from this discourse.

The stress of the young deity

Once the young deity Subrahmā and his thousand celestial nymphs went to a flower garden for amusements. Five hundred nymphs went up to the tree; they plucked the flowers and threw it down for the other nymphs under the tree. They made wreaths of flower and others. Even they may be in singing and dancing with the music. After sometimes passed by the voices on the trees became silent.

Because the nymphs on the tree suddenly expired and they were immediately reborn in the Avīci hell. As soon as Subrahmā realized it, he checked with his divine eyes and saw all of them suffering in hell. Therefore, he examined his lifespan and knew that he and the other nymphs would die after seven days. They would encounter the same fate in hell.

The young deva was in utter fear and came to the Buddha for help. So, the Buddha taught him the Dhamma. Perhaps he had acquired a compelling sense of urgency (saṁvega) during the discourse and established in the fruit of stream-entry.

The Buddha taught five natural laws or fixed orders (niyāma). These were;

(1) utu niyāma—fixed order of temperature
(2) bīja niyāma—fixed order of genetics
(3) kamma niyāma—fixed order of actions
(4) citta niyāma—fixed order of the mind
(5) dhamma niyāma—fixed order of phenomena.

Exception on kamma niyāma, scientists and psychologists know more or less of the others. Kamma starts the beginning of being life. It decides the inferior and superior, low and high status of a being. It leads or decides a being to degenerate and progress. It creates suffering and happiness of a being, etc. We can find all these important and valuable teachings only in the Buddha Dhamma. The Buddha divided the kamma in four ways with their functions.

(1) Reproductive kamma
(2) Supportive kamma
(3) Habitual kamma
(4) Destructive kamma.

Here we have to understand destructive kamma (upaghātaka kamma) in two ways; positive and negative. For example, a powerful wholesome kamma destroys the unwholesome kamma. Aṅgulimāla—the garland of fingers bandit had killed a lot of people; when he became an arahant, this heavy wholesome kamma destroyed all the results of unwholesome kamma he had done before. For the destructive negative kamma, we can give the example of Devadatta—the Buddha’s cousin.

He had jhāna and psychic power. Later he had ill-will and persuaded the young prince to kill his father King Bimbisāra, and then he tried to murder the Buddha and split the saṅgha. So, he lost all his spiritual power and at last fell into Mahā-avīci hell.

Here the 500 nymphs fell into hell was could be had a connection with their past destructive kamma. The law and working of kamma was one of the four inconceivable phenomena. One of the great disadvantages of heavenly realms are the beings there do not have the chances to cultivate goodness or wholesome merits. They only enjoy the wholesome results of their past kammas.

Therefore, the deities or heavenly beings understand the results or benefits of wholesome kamma more than human beings. Because human beings cannot see the results directly like deities, other important factors are human beings not only rely on their past kammas but also the present life of their abilities such as right effort and intelligence or wisdom.

Right effort and intelligence are more evident than their past kammas for most human beings. Only people who understand the Buddha Dhamma very well no doubt about the importance of the results of past kamma. I had heard a dhamma talk by a Burmese monk on the three creators or Gods. He referred them to kamma, effort and knowledge which represented the three creators.

But most human beings rely on or take refuge in outside powers who or which they have never seen before. Just believe in the words of the prophets or by other mediums. In the Dīgha Nikāya, the first discourse mentioned there was; The Nets of Views Discourse. In there, the Buddha mentioned 62 kinds of wrong views of his time and most of the wrong views were a connection with samatha practices.

On the five khandhas, the Buddha said that consciousness (viññāṇa) was like a magician. Except for the Buddha and arahants, all living beings have all the inversions (vipallāsa) or some of them. The power is not come from outside but within ourselves. Everyone has the potentiality to transcend things.

The 500 nymphs fell into hell by using up all their good past kamma with sensual pleasure in heaven all the time. They did not have the chances to cultivate goodness. So, their destructive kamma had the chances to come in so easily. Here another important point to contemplate about was the utter fear of the young deva went to see the Buddha for help.

Why was he so frightened and distressed? Because he had seen the sufferings of hell and after seven days, he would be there. Some human beings seem very good now, but in their past lives, maybe not. Therefore, all living beings must pay back their kammic debts in some ways when times are ripe. In saṁsāra living beings are the slaves of kilesa—defilement. They are doing everything with body, speech and mind for the masters. So, we all have these kammic debts to pay for.

There are two ways we can pay back our kammic debts; with the khandhas (i.e., body and mind) and the Noble Eightfold Path Factors (i.e., magga or Path Knowledge). By paying back the debts with the khandhas and it will never end. Because we all will continue to create kammas in the rounds of existence. Therefore, we all are still in saṁsāra. The best and secure ways to pay the kammic debts is the Path Knowledge or the path factors, which now Subrahmā deva was looking for it.

Dukkha is our great teacher. Because of dukkha sacca the young deva had acquired a compelling sense of great urgency (strong saṁvega) that he met the Buddha for help. It is quite natural for living beings when they are suffered looking for true refuge and help. But how many people have the right search, or know the right ways. Because of their very deep and thick ignorance that beings in saṁsāra were never found the true refuge.

Even nowadays, the Buddha Dhamma is still existing and how many of the world population have it. Only the Buddha appeared in the world beings had the chances for it. Even though still, not many beings had the opportunity to know the Dhamma. The Buddha told him was very clear that he could not help him directly, not falling into hell. Buddha only showed the way to transcend distress.

Every being has the inner power to transcend it if he follows by the Dhamma. Therefore, the Buddha taught him; not apart from enlightenment (bojjhaṅgas), austerity (tapa), restraint of the sense faculties (Indriya saṁvara) and relinquishing all (sabbanissagga) that could prevent him falling into hell.

This teaching represented the three training; sīla, samādhi, and paññā. Except that the Buddha could not see any security for all living beings. Therefore, the Buddha said that austerity and celibacy were the highest blessing and protection.

revised on 2021-07-28; cited from (posted on 2019-11-21)

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According to the translator— Ven. Uttamo's words, this is strictly for free distribution only, as a gift of Dhamma—Dhamma Dāna. You may re-format, reprint, translate, and redistribute this work in any medium.

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