Sangarava Sutta: Do Monks Benefit Others?

Venue: SBS
Special occasion: Visit by members of theTze Xin Society of Penang

Today’s talk is based on Sangarava Sutta (AN 3:61) in which the Buddha answers questions asked by a brahmin, Sangarava. Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi has entitled it “Do Monks Benefit Others?” This in effect summarises the gist of the discourse.

Sangarava started the conversation by saying, “We Brahmins make sacrifices as well as encourage others to do so. We, as well as these others, engage in meritorious practice, i.e. our offerings benefit many people. What of someone who renounces the worldly life and becomes a monk? He tames and calms himself alone and attains nibbana alone, thus benefiting himself only.”

Is this reasonable? Can a bhikkhu attain nibbana for you? No, he can’t. So, is the brahmin correct?

Our Lord Buddha replied, “Answer the following question as you see fit. A Tathagata arises in this world, fully enlightened, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, is the unsurpassed leader of people to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans — a Blessed One. He tells people to follow the path by which he has directly known and realised for himself the holy life, and encourages them to do the same. This Teacher reveals the Dhamma and encourages others to follow his practice. They do so in the hundreds of thousands. Does this act benefit one or many people?”

“Since it is so, then becoming a monk is a meritorious practice, benefiting many people,” Sangarava admitted.

The Buddha was giving an explanation based on his personal missionary work in propagating the Dhamma so that others can be liberated like him.

However, there are other benefits that can accrue to those who neither follow the practice as taught by the Buddha nor gain enlightenment. This is related in Culagosinga Sutta (MN 31). This sutta relates the story of the Buddha who visited three monks living a meditative life in a monastery. They were Venerables Anuruddha, Nandiya and Kimila. In reply to the Buddha’s enquiries about their life, they answered, “We meditate in harmony and seclusion and after every 5 days we have a discussion throughout the night.” They also told the Buddha how they meditated, which indirectly showed that they had reached certain attainments and were arahants.

The Buddha was satisfied with them, and as he was leaving the place a yakkha spoke to him, saying, “It’s fortunate to have the Buddha and the 3 monks staying here because it will benefit all the people staying around here.” The Buddha agreed and said that the families of the monks too would benefit if they thought of the monks with faith and a happy state of mind. Moreover, he added, anyone who thought highly of these monks and reflected upon their virtues with faith and confidence would also benefit. Thus the Buddha concluded that the three monks, by meditating in solitude, were practising for the long-term happiness and welfare of gods and men and of the whole world.

So we can see from this sutta that a meditative monk who stays alone and does not go around preaching is also doing something for the long-term welfare of gods and men.

Now, to continue with the story of Sangarava, he agreed that going forth is a meritorious practice and does benefit others. Ven Ananda then asked him, “Of these two types of practices, i.e. going forth and making sacrifices as well as encouraging others to do so, which is simpler, appeals to you more, bears richer fruits, brings greater benefits and is less harmful?” However, Sangarava evaded the question and merely replied that he honoured the Buddha and Ven Ananda. This question was repeated twice but the answer from Sangarava was the same.

The Buddha then decided to use another approach and put forward another question to Sangarava. “What might have been the topic of discussion among the king’s courtiers when they sat together in the palace?”

Sangarava replied, “They discussed the fact that formerly there were fewer monks but more displayed miracles of superhuman powers transcending the human level, as opposed to the situation now where there are more monks but fewer with superhuman powers.”

The Buddha then said that there are 3 types of miracles:

  • The miracle of supernatural powers
    With this, a person can make himself invisible, pass through walls and ramparts, dive in and out of the earth as if it were water, walk on water as if it were earth, travel across the skies like a bird and so on. He exercises mastery over his body as far as the brahma world. This is psychic power, something like what David Copperfield, whom I’m told does transcendental meditation, is reputed to have.
  • The miracle of thought reading
    With this, a person can read accurately the thoughts of others. He can hear the voices of devas, spirits or humans. He can pick up a person’s thought vibrations by mentally penetrating the direction of his mental disposition during a state of thought-free meditation.
  • The miracle of giving instruction
    With this, a person will tell you to do this and not that, give up this and dwell in the attainment of that and think like this, not that. In other words, this includes teaching the Dhamma, such as meditation and the law of kamma.

The Buddha then asked Sangarava, “Which of these miracles appeals to you as being more sublime?” Sangarava replied that the first two seemed like the nature of a magician and only the person performing them would experience their outcomes and receive the benefits, whereas the miracle of instruction was most excellent and sublime. He added that he would remember the Buddha as one endowed with all three miracles. The Buddha agreed with him.

Sagarava then asked, “Are you the only one thus endowed? What about others?” To this the Buddha replied that there were many such monks, exceeding hundreds.

Sangarava then asked where these monks were to which the Buddha replied, “In this very Sangha of monks.”

Sangarava said, “Excellent. It is just as if one were to set upright what has been overturned, reveal what is hidden, point out the way to those who have gone astray or to light a lamp in the darkness so that those who have eyes can see forms. Now let me take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha for the rest of my life.”

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