The Sutta About Bahiya, Part 1 (Ud. I.10)

This talk may end up being several talks because it is about one of my favorite suttas in the Pali canon. Part of my training involved becoming deeply familiar with some of the better know sermons of the Buddha, and this literature contains a wealth of wonderful teachings. But because I find much of the Pali literature to be descriptively and emotionally a bit dry, my favorites list is short; the Bahiya Sutta is one of them.

I’m going to read the sutta in its entirety to give you an overall sense of the dramatic narrative. (And by the way, the words “dramatic narrative” are words I would not use to describe most suttas.) Then I’ll go over the parts that I have found most interesting and useful. So the sutta goes like this:

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. He was worshipped, revered, honored, venerated and given homage—a recipient of robes, almsfood, lodgings and medical requisites for the sick. While he was alone in seclusion he began to have the following thoughts: “Of those who in this world are arahants or have entered the path of arahantship, am I one of those?” (An arahant is one who has “dropped the burden” and is liberated from suffering.)

Then a devata who had once been a blood relative of Bahiya and who was compassionate, desiring his welfare and knowing with her own awareness the line of thinking that had arisen within his awareness, went to where he was staying and on arrival said to him “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.

Bahiya questioned her without hesitation asking, “But who in this world with all its devas is actually an arahant or has entered that path?”

She said, “Bahiya, in the northern city of Savatthi the Blessed One, a rightly self-awakened arahant, is living there now.  His is truly an arahant and teaches the Dhamma that leads to arahantship.”

Then Bahiya, deeply chastened by the devata, left Supparaka right then and in the space of one day and night went all the way to where the Buddha was staying. He found there 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 town for alms.

Bahyia 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 His 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 then said to him, “This is not the time, Bahiya. We have entered the town for alms.”

A second time Bahiya pleaded with the Buddha, “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 Bahyia off saying that this was not the right time for they were on alms round. And for a third time Bahyia pleaded his case with urgency again citing the uncertainty of the future for both he and the Buddha and begging to be taught the Dhamma that would free him from his suffering.

This time the Buddha relented and said, “Well then Bahyia, 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 just be 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.”

In that moment of hearing this brief explanation of the Dhamma from the Buddha, Bahiya was immediately released from all forms of suffering generated by clinging, desiring, 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. His 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.”

Later after carrying out the Buddha’s instructions the monks returned to join him. As they were sitting there one of them said, “Bahiya’s body has been cremated and the memorial built. What is his destination and 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 of the Bark-cloth is totally unbound and free.”

Realizing the significance of this the Buddha exclaimed:

Where water, earth, fire & 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 for her/himself,
then from form and formless,
from bliss and pain,
she is freed.

Ok, this may not be Oscar quality stuff, but as Pali scriptures go it’s not too bad. Let’s start with Bahiya.

When we meet him he is an accomplished and respected teacher who, as we might say, has it all. If he were around today he would probably have a fancy meditation center with lots of adoring students, have written a book or two, maybe appeared on Oprah and would definitely have full color spreads in the Kripalu and Omega program books and probably Yoga Journal. This does not make Bahyia either unique or inspirational. Neither does his doubt. It’s not just that he wonders about the depth of his understanding, the quality of his practice or the degree of his liberation; Bahiya allows this self-questioning, this doubt, to stay around a bit. He doesn’t try to rid himself of it by going deeper into concentration, nor does he dismiss it out of hand. Like the breath or a koan, Bahiya keeps company with his doubt and sincerely takes on the role of host to this troublesome guest. Then the “devata”, a spirit being which might be seen as representing the aspect of feminine wisdom and inquiry makes her appearance. She challenges him with brutal directness and essentially not only confirms Bahiya’s suspicions about his level of attainment, but tells him despite all of his so-called attainments he is not even a beginner on the path. Basically she tells him in no uncertain terms that his practice is worthless and his spiritual attainments are a sham. 

This is not something that happens only in ancient teaching stories. It happens to us and it can happen with devastating effects. Maybe we have been practicing with some real devotion; we sit regularly, eat right, maybe practice yoga asana under the guidance of a skilled teacher, maybe we get trained as teacher or have aspirations in that direction and life seems to be going pretty well. Or maybe we’re just struggling along with a minimal practice which we may or may not recognize to be minimal. Whatever our situation, life can come along with a challenge that precipitates real doubt about the worth of doing this work at all. We lose a job, fall into a depression, suffer some major blow to our self-image, lose an important relationship or our health fails and we find ourselves flailing around in the middle of fear, anger, betrayal or whatever the mixture of soupy stuff we find ourselves in. We question our worth, the worth of our practice, the worth of a teacher and the teachings. Or maybe the nagging of doubt occurs because we find that after so many months or even years of practice we still find ourselves yelling at other drivers or our children or partners.  Somehow our expectations of the results of practice don’t match up with the current realities.

Deep doubt is a crucial fork-in-the road for our work in the contemplative life. How shall we proceed? One fork in the road is the path of helplessness, resignation, self-judgment, despair and bitterness. We might call this “d” doubt. We simply run away. This is different from making a strategic retreat to re-group, let the heat diminish a bit and then re-enter the fray. And sometimes we have to travel down this road a considerable distance to realize its futility. This is the path of death, and it is not the Great Death that leads to life renewed and fully lived. It is just dead. The other fork is the path of practice in which through right effort, persistence and courage we use what seems to be an assault as an invitation to examine the ways of the self; to know the self more deeply; to know its attachments and fears and the ways it imposes arbitrary limitations, using what has happened to us and our reactions to it as a mirror to see ourselves more clearly even if this involves considerable pain. We recognize the urgency of life’s call to itself to see where we restrict ourselves to narrowness, how we hold back from living fully, vibrantly and joyfully because of unresolved fear, aversion, self-image and ignorance. Do we recognize this small but clear voice which suggests that how we are living may really be just a form of slow dying? The voice that suggests that we are often just fooling ourselves with the belief that we are living fully and courageously, when we are really not valuing the incredible gift of the moments we have? That voice that points exactly to those places we pull back in fear and challenges us to stop fooling ourselves? Are we willing to even ask ourselves the questions that Bahyia asked himself? Willing to ask and really listen to the answer?

Once Mother Theresa was asked what she said when she prayed. She answered that she didn’t say anything, she listened. When asked what God said to her, she said that God didn’t say anything; He listened back. She added that if you didn’t understand, she couldn’t explain it further. Are we willing to really listen to our life; to listen throughout the day with our whole being, alert to feeling, sensation, sight, smell, taste and sound; whatever appears in our awareness? Maybe we really don’t want to listen like that because we know that what we hear might just revolutionize our life as it did Bahiya’s. And maybe that’s just a little bit too scary. I have to tell you that it is dangerous because real freedom can upset ours and others lives. But if we don’t do this our life will be lived significantly in the shadows and the consequence to living such a life is being shadowed by both doubt and a kind of pestering discontent that somehow something is missing. If we are not careful we can live that incompleteness right into the grave. What a waste.

And this is where we come to what I consider one of the two or three most important parts of this sutta and the part that I find both inspirational and awe-inspiring: When told that his practice and his attainment are completely bogus, Bahiya does not defend, rationalize, deny or counterattack. Bahiya does two things: First he asks if there is such an enlightened person around who can teach him how to get free. And when told that there is and where he can be found, Bahiya immediately and without hesitation goes to find him. He doesn’t ask how much this new guy might charge him for lessons or whether or not there is a monthly fee to join the sangha. He doesn’t wait to collect a retinue to carry his stuff and he doesn’t wait to get things in just the right order for his departure. Bahiya drops everything and literally runs towards the Truth, towards the Enlightened One. There is an urgency, a complete and unhesitating commitment to one thing and one thing only; Bahyia desperately and urgently wants to be free. When I think of the great efforts my own teachers have made in this direction, their complete devotion to the Path of Awakening, when I read of Bahiya’s example and when I read of others who have made extraordinary sacrifices to charge headlong down this sacred path, I can experience my own efforts as small and paltry; inadequate and sham-like. I can feel humbled and almost ashamed. And yet, here too is this wonderful voice challenging me, challenging you, and we are all just like Bahiya. We can see that this practice, as the poet said, is a condition of complete simplicity which demands absolutely everything, and we can acknowledge that we still have work to do. Maybe we don’t drop everything, but maybe we can begin to wonder about the attachments we do have and so vigorously and mindlessly cultivate. Maybe we just become a bit more honest with ourselves, a little less willing to fool ourselves both in our dealings with ourselves and with others. Maybe we stop believing the rationalization that says, “I’m really sitting enough,” or “I don’t really need to go on retreats,” or whatever way in which we cheat ourselves out of living beyond fear-based, self-imposed limits and those things that inhibit ever deeper commitment to the path of awakening and freedom. Maybe we begin to wonder seriously why I’m just walking slowly towards the Truth of my being alive in this world instead of really running towards it full tilt like Bahiya. And maybe we can begin to wonder about just what this Truth really is, and what we are we willing to sacrifice for that Truth and when? Is Truth something to be “found” or discovered somewhere in an imagined future? Or is Truth something which happens right now? Look carefully; what is most true, most real for you right now? Are there not sensations, sounds, thoughts? Is all of this changing or unchanging? Does it come and go on its own, with or without your asking?  Can you predict what will appear in the next present moment? Running headlong towards the Truth of your life may not mean going somewhere or attaining something that you think you don’t already have and need. It may be about being willing to turn directly into this very moment in this very place. It may be that what is most true is very close indeed and that the journey there happens right here and now in this moment, completely out of time.

Real practice is not about setting up some ideal of practice or the spiritual life; something to strive towards and attain in some distant future. This just creates more conflict in the mind between the so-called “ideal” and the actual and leaves us living in the future rather than learning how to live fully right here and right now. This is about doing what Bahyia did; having some willingness to honestly assess our lives and how we are living them and then to act directly and immediately on that information. This means a willingness to be attentive to our actual life as it actually unfolds in this moment. Begin to take a look and see where and when there is a gap between your understanding and how you are actually living in the light of that understanding. This practice alone can revolutionize our life.

One more aspect that I find highly impressive about the attitude that Bahiya exemplifies: that is his persistence and urgency.

He is respectful, but tenacious; gentle, but unwilling to be deflected or put off until another time. There is a clear and penetrating understanding that there is no other time but now. Nothing can be put off into the future, because the future is not only uncertain, it does not exist. Now is now and that is all that there is. Krishnamurti comes back to this repeatedly; wake up now; understand now; end fear and suffering now. Now is the only time you can do what is most important for you to do. We say we’ll do it tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. It is always today. It is this moment when transformation and freedom will occur. It is this moment when we will live, when we will love, when we will die. It will always be a present moment just like this one. 

The urgency and fire of Bahiya’s persistence is also fed by his knowledge of impermanence. We do not know what the future will hold. It is uncertain, unpredictable and we live in a body that is exquisitely fragile. A bump on the head with the right force and we are suddenly someone else. Bahiya has a clear sense that death is always close at hand and he uses this awareness with great skill in his pursuit of freedom. What is it that feeds the fire of our urgency? Death awareness practice can certainly do this. An unwelcome medical diagnosis or a close brush with death often has the effect of waking us up to the fact that the next moment is promised to no one and that we have a choice right now as to how we will live this moment. And there are other less dramatic ways that Life calls us back to the perfect completeness of the eternal present; the ringing telephone, the crying baby, holding someone we love, the golden light of late afternoon sun high up in the pines, the call of a distant crow. Life is continuously calling out to itself; we only have to listen.

So here is Bahiya and here are we. Bahiya is the ideal student. We are the actual one. Can we begin to examine how we are in pursuit of our own freedom? Begin to question the priorities regarding how we set up our day?  Begin to wonder about why we are living and look at exactly how we are doing that. Can we begin to look closely at how we are really living, moment-to-moment and day-to-day? To what extent are we willing to challenge ourselves by confronting ourselves with the worthiness of the choices we make? The first question is “how do I want to live?” The second question is “How am I actually living?” Staying with that can be very useful, if humbling, practice.

So, that’s probably more than enough for tonight. Next time we’ll take a look at the Buddha’s response to Bahiya’s heartfelt request.



– Questions to Ponder. (Dec 2004)

– Question and Answer. Tricycle Article
  (Sept 2003)

Anapanasati: A Brief Introduction, by
  Larry Rosenberg

Krishnamurti on Awareness

Reflections on Ikkyu

-Exploring Effort
 (June 22, 2008)

Having No Idea, CIMC
 (May 25, 2005)

– The Sutta About Bahiya, Part 1
 (Feb 4, 2005)

– The Sutta About Bahiya, Part 2
 (Feb 12, 2005)

A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls
 Into a Well, Part 1 (Jan 6, 2005)

A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls
 Into a Well, Part 2 (Jan 13, 2005)

A Zen Koan for a Vipassana Retreat:
 The Buddha and the Outsider. Fall
 Retreat (Oct 05, 2004)