Take a Good Hard Look

The Bahiya Sutta

I have heard that on one occasion, the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. At that time, Bahiya of the bark cloth was living in Supparaka by the seashore.

A recipient of robes, alms food, lodging, and medical requisites for the sick, Bahiya was worshipped, revered, honored, venerated, and given homage. In seclusion, he began to wonder, “Am I an arahant?”

Then a compassionate devata, desiring his welfare and knowing the question that had arisen, went to him and said, “You, Bahiya, are neither an arahant nor have you entered into the path of arahantship. You don’t even have the practice whereby you would ever become an arahant or enter that path.”

Without hesitation, Bahiya asked her, “But who in this world is actually an arahant or has entered that path?”

She said, “Bahiya, in the northern city of Savatthi lives the Blessed One, a rightly self-awakened arahant. He is truly an arahant and teaches the dhamma that leads to arahantship.”

Then Bahiya, deeply chastened by the devata, left Supparaka and in the space of one day and night went all the way to where the Buddha was staying. There he found a number of monks doing walking meditation outside and went directly up to them and asked, “Where, venerable sirs, is the Blessed One staying? I must see him immediately.” He was told that the Buddha had gone into the town for alms.

Bahiya hurried immediately to the city, where he found the Buddha on alms round moving with great calm, his mind at peace, tranquil and poised with the restrained senses of a Great One. He approached the Buddha, threw himself to the ground before him with his head to the Buddha’s feet, and said, “Teach me the dhamma, O Blessed One! Teach me the dhamma, O Holy One, so that it will be for my long-term welfare and bliss!” The Buddha said to him, “This is not the time, Bahiya. We have entered the town for alms.”

Bahiya pleaded with the Buddha a second time, “But Holy One, it is hard to know for sure what dangers there may be for the Buddha’s life, or what dangers there may be for mine. Please teach me the dhamma, O Blessed One, so that I may be happy and free.” And again the Buddha tried to put Bahiya off saying that this was not the right time as they were on an alms round.

Bahiya pleaded his case a third time. This time the Buddha relented and said, “Well then Bahiya, you should train yourself like this: whenever you see a form, simply see; whenever you hear a sound, simply hear; whenever you smell an aroma, simply smell; whenever you taste a flavor, simply taste; whenever you feel a sensation, simply feel; whenever a thought arises, let it be just a thought. Then ‘you’ will not exist; whenever you do not exist, you will not be found in this world, another world, or in between. That is the end of suffering.”

Upon hearing this brief explanation from the Buddha, Bahiya was immediately released from all forms of suffering generated by clinging, desire, aversion, and ignorance. The Buddha then went on his way.

Not long after this encounter, Bahiya was attacked by a cow protecting her calf and was killed. Later, as the Buddha was returning from his meal following the alms round, he saw Bahiya’s torn and broken body. He instructed his monks to take the body away for cremation and to build him a memorial, saying, “Your companion in the holy life has died.”

After carrying out the Buddha’s instructions, the monks returned to join him. One asked, “Bahiya’s body has been cremated and the memorial built. What is the destination of his future state?”

“Monks,” the Buddha said, “Bahiya of the bark cloth was wise. He practiced the dhamma in accordance with the dhamma and he did not pester me with issues related to the dhamma. Monks, Bahiya is totally unbound and free.”

The Buddha then proclaimed:

Where water, earth, fire, and wind have no footing, There the stars do not shine, The sun is not visible, The moon does not appear, Darkness is not found. And when a sage through wisdom and insight has known this directly, Then from form and formless, From bliss and pain, Are they freed. —from Udana, 1.10, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Published by Access to Insight, 1994

The Bahiya Sutta stands out among the Pali suttas, inspiring us 2,500 years later with this dramatic encounter between a student of the Way and the Buddha. It speaks directly to contemplative practice, offering a clear and powerful summation of the Buddha’s teachings on awareness and freedom.

When we first meet Bahiya, he is already a well-known and accomplished teacher with many students who take care of him. Today he might be the director of a Buddhist center or may have written a book or two; he might even be regularly published in a journal such as this one. This alone makes Bahiya neither unique nor inspirational; neither does the powerful doubt that will drive him on his quest. Bahiya is struck by what we refer to in Zen practice as “great doubt.” It’s not just that he questions the depth of his understanding, the direction of his practice, or the degree of his liberation, but that he allows this self-questioning, this doubt, to stay around a bit. He doesn’t try to get rid of it by going more deeply into samadhi, nor does he defensively dismiss it. Like the breath or a koan, Bahiya keeps company with his doubt, sincerely taking the role of host to this troublesome guest. This willingness to stay present and open makes possible the visitation of another voice, that of the devata, a spirit-being that may be seen as an embodiment of a feminine wisdom that Bahiya has become cut off from internally. She challenges him with an almost brutal directness, confirming Bahiya’s suspicions about his level of attainment by telling him that despite his many years of hard practice and admiring students, he is not even a beginner on the path. She tells him bluntly that his practice is worthless and his socalled spiritual attainments are a sham.

This is not something that happens only in ancient teaching stories. Sooner or later it happens to many of us, and it can be devastating. Maybe we have been practicing with real devotion—sitting regularly, doing lots of retreats, taking good care of our bodies, and practicing right livelihood. Or maybe we are just doing a minimal maintenance practice, fooling ourselves that it is something more. Whatever our situation, sooner or later a challenge comes along that precipitates real doubt about the worth of our doing this work at all. We lose a job, fall into depression, lose an important relationship, or have health problems, and we find ourselves flailing around in the midst of fear, anger, betrayal, and bitterness. Whatever toxic mixture we find ourselves in, we begin to question our worth, the worth of our practice, the worth of our teacher, and even the dharma itself. Or maybe this nagging doubt occurs because after several months or even years of practice, we still find ourselves yelling at our children, partners, or other drivers on the road. Somehow the expectations we have for the results of our practice just don’t match up with the reality of how we actually live.