My Sadness For Saccaka–And For Us

Right after having finished reading an early Buddhist text called “The Greater Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36) for the first time, I felt moved and sad at once. I want to tell you why.

In this sutra, Saccaka, someone Ananda describes as “‘a debater and a clever speaker regarded by many as a saint'” has come to the sangha. With what intention? “‘He wants,” Ananda continues, “‘to discredit the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha [i.e., the Three Jewels].'” Ananda concludes: “‘It would be good if the Blessed One [Gotama the Buddha] would sit down for a while out of compassion.”

The Buddha is so willing.

As he does with other known spiritual teachers, Saccaka proceeds (in his own words recounted at the end of the sutra) to “assail[]” the Buddha by making “discourteous speeches” with a view to getting a rise out of him. But while other teachers, when so assailed, “‘showed anger, hate, and bitterness,'” Gotama’s skin “‘brightens and the colour of his face clears.'” This strikes me as truthful but also as fulsome blandishment. If, as I interpret Saccaka’s approach, I can’t perturb him, then at least I can flatter him–and see what happens.

I want to loop back to the end shortly in order to say why it’s significant and what brought me to sadness. But first: what has the Buddha recounted?

(1) In the face of Saccaka’s challenge which is that the Buddha is only developed in mind but not in body, he had shown how it is possible to fully develop body and mind.

(2) He has detailed at considerable length the extensive and excessive bodily austerities he once undertook in order to show, alas, the futility of this approach. As he states, “But by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.” Evidently, this kind of discipline, taken to its very limit, must be a dead end.

(3) Thus, in the final section, he narrates how he attained enlightenment after having asked the beautiful question: “Could there be another path to enlightenment” (my italics)?

Having answered each of Saccaka’s questions with earnestness, gentleness, openness, and lovingkindness, the Buddha ends in equanimity.

For right after this teaching, Saccaka says, “‘And now, Master Gotama, we depart. We are busy and have much to do.'” Equanimously, the Buddha replies, “‘Now is the time, Aggivessana, to do as you think fit.'”

The final line of the sutra reads, “Then Saccaka the Nigantha’s son, having delighted and rejoiced in the Blessed One’s words, got up from his seat and departed” (my italics).

Let me say here that I am no Buddhist scholar, only a Buddhist practitioner. Therefore, I’m not familiar with the commentaries, only with own interpretation. Given this, what do I find so sad about this text?

First, it seems to me that Saccaka came just to be entertained and once he’d had his fill, he makes a lame excuse about being busy and promptly leaves. Second, Saccaka provides us with a picture of someone who is existentially open. Consequently, the teaching, at least at this point in his life, is utterly lost on him.

How often do we, out of our tragic love of diversion, miss the teaching and depart without first having given ourselves completely to the Noble Search? Worse, we might make a mockery of the most beautiful and true teachings there are.

This is what I find moving and sad at once.