The Pāyāsi Sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya [Note 1] is one of the few places in the Pali Canon where there is a discussion of the validity the doctrine of rebirth, and the doctrine that the karmic consequences of deeds done in one lifetime will occur in a future life . We will call the latter doctrine as the doctrine of ‘post-mortem kamma-vipāka’. These are doctrines that are widely accepted by many traditional Buddhists on the ground that they are uttered by the Buddha. For them they belong to the Buddha-word (Buddhavacana) and no further justification is needed, and they are accepted on the basis of faith (saddhā). But there are those who take a more rational attitude to Buddhism based on criteria laid down by the Buddha as valid grounds for belief in the Kālāma Sutta.[Note 2] For such Buddhists further investigation of these doctrines is necessary.
The doctrine of the cycle of countless births (saṃsāra) is, of course, stated by the Buddha in many places in the Canon. But it is stated in a matter-of-fact way as something that is intuitively obvious and needs no further justification. This was a reasonable position to take in India in the Buddha’s time as the bulk of the people were followers of the Brahminical, Buddhist, Jain and similar religions all of which endorse this doctrine with a few differences. Of course there were teachers and sects that did not believe in these doctrines but they were very much the minority.
In the modern world however these doctrines are not generally accepted. The majority of people belong to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam where there is belief in one lifetime followed by an eternity in heaven or hell based on divine judgement of how the one life has been lived. There is also a substantial segment of atheists, humanists and the like who repudiate the belief in even a single life after death. Thus the doctrines of re-birth and post-mortem kamma-vipāka need to be justified to a greater extent in the modern world than in the Buddha’s time.. It is in this context that we will be examining the arguments advanced by the protagonists of thePāyāsi sutta because it shows that disagreement with these doctrines was not entirely absent in the Buddha’s day..
The Pāyāsi sutta records a debate between Venerable Kumara Kassapa [Note 3] and Pāyāsi who could be described as the sub-king of Setabya, a city in the Kingdom of Kosala located north of the Ganges. [Note 4] According to the Commentaries this debate took place after the death of the Buddha. So there is no endorsement of the views of Kassapa by the Buddha, unlike there is in many other discourses given by leading monks in the Buddha’s lifetime and included in the Canon. Its inclusion in the Dīgha Nikāya may mean that the compilers of the Canon saw much merit in this discourse.
The specific view of Pāyāsi which Kassapa sets our to refute is stated by Pāyāsi himself as follows: ‘Neither is there the world beyond, nor are there being beings of spontaneous birth, nor is there fruit or result of deeds well done or ill done. (natthi paro loko, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi sukatadukkānaṃ kammnaṃ phalaṃ vipāko)”. Thus there are three things which Pāyāsi denies. These are:
By contrast Kassapa asserts that there are ‘supernatural’ realms (the world beyond), that there are deities of spontaneous birth, and that there is the post-mortem operation of the law of kamma-vipāka (atthi paroloko atthi sattā opapātikā atthi sukatadukkhānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko).. It is of course a view expressed in Buddhist discourses that even though devas usually live in their own heavenly world they can and do visit the human world. In many suttas the devas are shown as visiting the Buddha and asking questions of the Buddha, uttering stanzas etc. Thus communication between devas and humans are considered possible. But there is no reference of the inhabitants of the hell-worlds visiting the human world while they are sre still paying for their former misdeeds in the various hells.
There is another denial that Pāyāsi makes even though it is not directly included in his three-fold denial. This is that there no ‘soul’ or spiritual substance that survives the physical death and gets reborn. This is one of the problems that attend the rebirth theory – namely what is that which is reborn? Theists including Hindus who believe in a soul have no problem as they say it is the soul that is reincarnated in another body. But the Buddha enunciated the “no-soul” view (anatta doctrine), so Buddhists are placed in the position of answering the question on what is born. Here Pāyāsi takes the correct Buddhist position while Kassapa has no coherent answer to give. We shall consider this later when we consider the specific arguments advanced.
While the subject of the debate can be clearly set out several questions arise as to the method of the debate. This differs considerably from what are considered today as valid methods of debating conflicting theories.
In the debate Pāyāsi is put in the position to defend his denials with various arguments while Kassapa seeks to refute the arguments of Pāyāsi. Only incidentally does Kassapa have to directly defend his view which is the affirmation of the supernatural elements. In modern debate the onus of proof generally resides on the person who makes the positive affirmation, not on the one who makes the negative affirmation. Thus it may not be possible for a person who says that the Tasmanian Tiger no longer exists to “prove” his view. He would have to comb the entire area of Tasmania and not find a single Tiger. But it is expected of anyone who says that the Tasmanian tiger exists to adduce proof that this tiger does exist. Such evidence would be an authentic sighting, a photograph or even the actual capture of the Tiger. These are feasible things if the Tiger does exist. A similar question relates to the existence of extra-terrestrial life. It may not be possible to prove that such life does not exist outside of the earth, but if it does exist then physical proof may be possible. Thus the onus of proof is on the person who says that extra-terrestrial life exists. Similarly the onus of proof must rest on Kassapa who says that divine being exist than on Pāyāsi who denies it.
A question similar to what is involved in the Pāyāsi–Kassapa debate is the modern debate on the existence of God. God in this context is an entity far more powerful than the devas that are involved in Pāyāsi debate. God in the modern debate refers to the creator God of the Abrahamic religions, a being endowed with omnipotence, omniscience and perhaps benevolence towards his creation. . It is well known that Buddhism too denies the existence of a creator God (issaro).
An atheist may not be able to prove that God does not exist, [Note 8] but it is for the theist to prove that God exists and if the theist cannot do so the belief of the non-existence of God could be considered as reasonable. The tactic of asking the atheist to prove that God does not exist is one that is often tried by theists. They forget that it is for them to prove that God exists, not for the atheist that God does not exist. Similarly it is for Kassapa to show the “other world” exists, that spontaneous birth of beings is possible and that post-mortem kamma-vipāka takes place. It is not for Pāyāsi to prove the opposite.
Kassapa’s method of argument is the method of presenting similes, comparisons or parables (upamā). A large number of similes are given to meet each of Pāyāsi’s claims. These similes which pass off as arguments will be considered in detail in the next section. Here we shall made a general comment on this kind of argument.
While a simile can throw a lot of light on a matter in contention it can rarely prove the point made. This is because no simile will be the perfect equivalent of the thing to which it is compared. This almost exclusive reliance on similes is the fatal weakness of Kassapa’s position. But argument by simile was quite common in the Buddha’s time, and has been used even by the Buddha himself. In the modern world it is of little value, and direct evidence is what is required.
It must be mentioned that Pāyāsi’s method of argument has its own flaws. He too makes his assertions in a somewhat dogmatic fashion without the usual qualifications that could be expected of speculative statements. The debate ends with Pāyāsi capitulating to Kassapa’s point of view. But this happens only happens after a divine intervention. The Rhys Davids in the introduction to their translation of this Discourse says: “In this particular case we find nothing fresh in the Suttanta. The climax, led up to at the end, shows us a messenger from the gods coming down from heaven to teach the doctrine of generosity (dṃna) by laymen. We have discussed ... the reasons which induced ancient authors to bring down a divinity from heaven to support any particular opinion.” This is hardly a convincing way to win an argument [Note 9] .
As we have mentioned above most of the argument is couched in similes. The usual pattern is for Kassapa to ask for a reason why Pāyāsi holds on to his view. When this is given Kassapa gives a simile or parable with the intention of refuting the reason given by Pāyāsi. Little or no further discussion takes place on the relevance of the parable. Then Kassapa asks if there is a further reason, and this cycle is repeated many times.
The Pali text of the Sutta identifies some 14 such similes and gives a title to each of them. We shall consider these in the order in which they appear in this Sutta.
This appears to be the principal argument of Kassapa to show that Pāyāsi is wrong when he says that there no other world and deities. Kassapa asks Pāyāsi: “Are the sun and the moon in this world or another, are they gods (dev) or humans”. Pāyāsi agrees that theyare in another world and that they are gods. This is taken by Kassapa as an admission by Pāyāsi himself that his views are wrong.
This argument is of course superficial. Pāyāsi’s view is the non-existence of another world into which people are reborn. It is clear that the sun and the moon are not such a world. Thus his proposition remains unrefuted. The statement that the sun and the moon are devas reflects the convential view of the time that celestial bodies are gods. The etymology of “deva” is a shining being. But clearly they are not the kind of deva who visit the earth an asks questions from the Buddha as stated in several discourses.
Thus the sun and moon simile does not refute Pāyāsi’s original contention. So Pāyāsi continues to hold on to his view. [Note 10]
Pāyāsi’s next argument is that he knows of people who had violated all the precepts, and at death he had asked them to report to him if after death they reach a state of woe (apāya, niraya). He then says that none of them had reported thus. To refute this Kassapa gives the thief simile. He says that just as a thief sentenced to be executed will not be able to get permission from his executioner to visit his relatives, so too will a person reaching the hell destination be given permission by the warders of hell (nirayapālā) to return back to earth to report his fate to Pāyāsi. Thus Pāyāsi not hearing from these people does not prove that there is no hell, only that those condemned to hell are not able to have contact with the human world.
While this argument can be accepted it does not still prove that these people who had violated all the precepts had actually gone to hell after death. All we can say that we do not know what their fate is. Apparently Pāyāsi seem to reason like this because he still repeats his denials about the world after (death) , etc.
When questioned further Pāyāsi gives the opposite scenario to that in the previous simile. He now says that he knows of people who had lived good lives, not violated the precepts or committed sins (pāpaṃ). Just prior to their death he had approached them and asked them to report to him if they had gone to the heavenly world. Once again he never heard from them.
Kassapa counters this with the man-in-the-cesspit parable. He considers the case of a man who has fallen into a foul cesspit. People pull him out of the cesspit, clean him, dress him in fine raiment, give him a luxurious palace where he can enjoy the pleasures of the five senses, etc. Then Kassapa asks if this man would prefer to return to the cesspit. The answer is clearly no. The point which Kassapa makes is that heavenly world is even better than the luxuries the man who had been rescued from cesspit was given, while the human world is comparable to a cesspit. So a deva would not want to go to the human cesspit to report to Pāyāsi.
This parable is open to the same objection as the thief simile. The fact that the deva does not report to Pāyāsi does not necessarily mean that he has actually reached the heavenly world. But unlike in the case of the thief simile there are now no keepers of hell who will prevent the man from leaving the hell realm to report to Pāyāsi. In fact devas are supposed to frequently visit the human world, live in trees, etc. So it would have been possible for Pāyāsi to hear from a deva than from a man who had gone to the Hell realm.
This simile is similar to the previous one. Here the person whom Pāyāsi has asked to report to him had done even more meritorious work and according to traditional expectation should has gone to the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods. This is one of highest heavens according to the traditional cosmology. But once again Pāyāsi does not hear from him. This leads Pāyāsi to think that this person had not reached is destination.
Kassapa’s explanation for this is that a day in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods is equivalent to a hundred earthly years. So even if the person spends only a couple of days in that heaven before reporting, Pāyāsi would have been long dead. Pāyāsi is made to admit as such;
Pāyāsi then asks: “But who lets Master Kassapa know that there are Three-and-Thirty Gods, or that the Three-and-Thirty Gods live so many years. We do not believe him when he says these things.”
This was related in answer to Pāyāsi’s direct challenge to Kassapa to show how he knows so much about these heavenly realms that Kassapa give the simile of the person born blind.
Kassapa says that a person born blind will not see dark, light or coloured objects, will not see the sun or the moon, etc. He will then be inclined to say that these things do not exist. But a person with vision can see that they do exist. The heavenly worlds will not be visible to those without the right kind of vision; they become visible only to those with the special kind of vision. This kind of vision is called the “heavenly (or divine) eye” (dibbachakku). [Note 11]
The divine eye can be acquired by “ascetics and Brahmins who seek in the jungle-thickets and the recesses of the forest for a resting place that is quiet with little noise (samaṇabrhāmaṇā araññavanapatthāni pantāni senāsanānipaṭisevanti, te tattha appamattā ātāpino pahitattā viharantā dibbacakkhuṃ visodhenti)”. It is not clear if Kassapa himself has aquired the divine eye and is speaking from personal knowledge, or whether he is merely reporting what ascetics and Brahmins who have developed the divine eye has said. But even if Kassapa has acquired the divine eye Pāyāsi would not have any way of ascertaining this. So Pāyāsi remains unconvinced and reiterates belief in the non-existence of the other world, etc.
This simile is occasioned by a new argument adduced by Pāyāsi. Pāyāsi says that he knows of ascetics and Brahmins who observe morality and are well conducted, and would thus be assured of a heavenly existence after death. Yet he notes that these ascetics still want to live and not die (for instance by committing suicide) and thereby going to a better existence in the heavenly world. According to the previous parable such ascetics and Brahmins would have been convinced of the existence of the heavenly world and their certain destiny of going there. Pāyāsi is puzzled why they would want to continue in their present existence rather than go to the heavenly state.
The parable given to deal with Pāyāsi’s argument relates to a Brahmin who had two wives when he died. He had a son by the first while the second was pregnant. The son by the first wife said to the pregnant co-wife that he as the sole child will inherit all the wealth of the deceased father. In her haste to find out if her child will be a male the co-wife took a knife and cut open her belly thereby killing both herself and the embryo. Thus she lost her share of the inheritance which would have come to her if she had delivered a child in the normal course of things.[Note 12]
Kassapa explains the relevance of this to Pāyāsi’s question by saying: “... those ascetics and Brahmins ... do not seek to hasten the ripening of that which is not yet ripe, but rather wisely await its ripening”. It is not clear if in Kassapa’s view an act of suicide will negate the good deeds done previously and not allow them to ripen. Certainly many questions relating to the nexus between the deed (kamma) and the fruit (vipāka) are raised by this parable which remain unresolved.[Note 13] So this parable too does not lead Pāyāsi to abandon his view of the non-existence of the other world etc.
This relates to an experiment proposed by Pāyāsi to find out if a life-force (jivaṃ), sometimes translated as “soul”, exists for re-birth to take place. A convicted felon is placed inside a hermetically sealed jar and allowed to die. When the man is dead the jar is carefully broken to see if his “soul” escapes. But nothing is obsreeved escaping and Pāyāsi says “that is why I believe there is no other world ...”
Kassapa then asks Pāyāsi if while he is having a siesta and dreaming watched over by attendents if these attendents see his soul leaving and entering his body. Pāyāsi answers in the negative. Then Kassapa says: “So they do not see your soul entering or leaving your body while you are alive. So how can you see the soul leaving the body of a dead man?”
While Pāyāsi’s attempt at empirical verification if a soul exists may be commended, both he and Kassapa is mistaken about seeing the soul arrive or depart. Here Kassapa’s conjecture is the more absurd because he seems to think that while dreaming the soul actually leaves the body and wanders about in the places seen in the dream!
This records another attempt by Pāyāsi to verify if a soul exists. He thinks that a dead body should be lighter than a living body. He get a condemnd man to be stangled and has him weighed before and after he dies. To his surprise he finds that after death he weighs more not less than when he was alive. This too leads him to conclude that at death the is no soul departing to seek rebirth elsewhere.
Kassapa’s parable to answer Pāyāsi is to ask if an iron ball weighs more or less when it is heated to a glowing state than when it is cold. Pāyāsi answers that it would weigh less in the heated state. Kassapa answers that in the same way the body when it is full of life and heat will weigh less than when it is cold and dead.
This simile is given in response to another experiment suggested by Pāyāsi, Here a thief is tortured so that while he is still alive he loses control over all his senses, i.e. he does not see, hear, taste, etc. But no “soul” is seen escaping from him, the theory being that it is the soul that enables a man to use his senses.
Kassapa counters with his trumpeter analogy. A trumpeter takes his trumpet to a “border region” (paccantajanapadaṃ) [inhabited by backward people], sounds it once and lays it down. The people think that the trumpet can make sound on its own and despite their many entreaties for the trumpet to do so it remains silent. Then the trumpeter blows on it again, makes sound, and takes it away. Kassapa implies that the physical body is like the trumpet while it is “life, heat and intelligence” (āyu, usmā, viññāṇa) which activates it making it see, hear, taste, etc.
It is difficult to see how this simile refutes the argument of Pāyāsi.
Pāyāsi’s next argument also relates to another futile attempt to prove that a “soul” exists. He speaks of a thief whose organs are systematically removed but no “soul” is found. This leads Pāyāsi not to abandon his views about the other world, etc.
Kassapa replies with the fire worshiper simile. A fire worshiper living in the forest finds an abandoned baby and rears him as his son. When the boy was 10 or 12 years old the fire-worshiper had to leave his hut for a short time and he gave detailed instructions to the boy how to restart the fire should it go out. The fire did go out but the boy had misunderstood the instructions and could not relight the fire. The fire worshiper had to do it himself after his return.
Kassapa compares Pāyāsi to the boy, trying useless ways to find the other world. But Pāyāsi remains unconvinced.
This parable relates to two caravan leaders trying to cross a dessert. They both stock up with grass and water for the journey. One caravan sets out first and soon it encounters a donkey chariot coming the opposite way with all the signs of having gone through severe rainy weather. On enquiry about the road ahead the caravan leader was told that there was plenty of water and vegetation ahead. On this instruction the caravan leader abandoned his supplies of grass and water. But he did not encounter any rain or water and came to grief in the dessert.
The second caravan leader also encountered the same man (who in reality was a yakka spirit) who gave the same false instruction. But this caravan leader was more cautious and did not abandon his supplies. As such he was able to survive the hot dessert and reach his destination. Kassapa compares Pāyāsi to the foolish caravan leader who took the instruction of the yakka spirit.
This parable has little or no relevance to the subject of the debate. The remaining three similes do not introduce any new arguments. These parables contrast a foolish person with a wise one and Pāyāsi is shown as being similar to the foolish person.
This parable relates the story of a person who comes across a lump of dried-up dung. He collects it to be used in his pig sty and carries it bundled up on his head. On the way he gets caught up in a heavy rain and the dung turns into slime which drenches his whole person. People make fun of him and he of course cannot use the dung which he had so carefully scooped up for any useful purpose.
This relates a story of two gamblers, one of whom is a cheat. The other gambler manages to get the better of the cheat. Kassapa compares Pāyāsi to the cheat. There does not seem to be any relevance of this parable to the subject of the discussion.
This parable deals with two people roaming about the country. They come across a heap of abandoned hemp and decide to divide it between them. While one kept his heap of hemp the other kept on discarding his hemp for other things which are more valuable that they come across. The parable ends with both returning to their village but while the first had only the heap of hemp he had originally picked up the other had been able to exchange it to a quantity of gold. Kassapa compares Pāyāsi to the hemp bearer.
The denouement of the Sutta comes when Pāyāsi gives up his views and accepts the position of Kassapa. In fact he says that had been convinced of the rightness of Kassapa’s position all along from the very first simile that he used (the Simile of the Sun and Moon), but he kept up the debate because he considered Kassapa to be a worthy opponent. In the end Pāyāsi takes refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. He thus becomes a Dhamma-farer.
The final section of this sutta turns to a topic not related to the subject of the debate. This is the merit of generosity (dāna). Pāyāsi wants to make a “great sacrifice” (mahayañña yajitum) and seeks the advice of Kassapa. Kassapa warns against the Vedic kind of sacrifice at which animals are slaughtered, and advocates a sacrifice where the participants have right view, etc. This leads Pāyāsi to establish a charity for ascetics, Brahmins, wayfarers, and the needy. He puts a young Brahmin Uttara in charge. Despite his establishment of this charity Pāyāsi is not wholehearted in his generosity and provides food of poor quality. But Uttara is generous and gave the best that he could provide. The result was that after death Uttara joined the company of the Thrity-Three Gods while Pāyāsi is reborn in a lower heaven called the realm Four Great Kings in the empty Serisaka mansion.[Note 14]
This aspect of the Sutta is discussed well by the Rhy Davids in the Introduction to their translation of the Sutta (see Appendix)
There is little doubt that re-birth is the most contentious doctrine in Buddhism. Maurice Walsh has this to say on this subject:
"There are some people in the West who are attracted in many ways to Buddhism, but who find the idea of rebirth a stumbling-block, either because they find it distasteful and/or incredible in itself, or in some cases because they find it hard to reconcile with the 'non-self' idea. Some such considerations as any of these sometimes even lead people to declare that the Buddha did not actually teach rebirth at all, or that if he did so, this was only for popular consumption, because his hearers could not have accepted the truth.” [Note 15]
If the idea of rebirth is difficult to accept the notion that there are specific locations in the Universe that could be described as ‘heavens’ and ‘hells’ is even more difficult. Both the concepts of rebirth and the existence of extra-terrestrial realms (which is what is meant by ‘other world’ para loko) are central to the Pāyāsi sutta.
Neither Pāyāsi nor his opponent Kassapa can be considered good advocates for their respective positions. Their arguments are full of inconsistencies, and the parables or similes used often have no or little relevance to the issues involved. Nonetheless the main problem areas involved in the areas in dispute are raised even if they are not adequately addressed. The principal questions involved in this debate are:
As the debate progresses its quality begins to deteriorate. The last few similes do not contribute any thing at all to the discussion and are merely used by Kassapa to impute that Pāyāsi is something of a fool on the analogy to someone in the parable who is clearly foolish. On the more substatitive issues we can conclude as follows.
Thus all the essential requirements of a fully fledged rebirth theory are not established during this debate. Of neither does Pāyāsi succeed in establishing his point of view, but as we have said earlier as the onus of proof does not really rest with him as the proponent of the negative point of view.
1. This is Sutta No. 23 in the Dgha Nikya. It has been translated into English by T.W. and\ C.A.F Rhys-Davids for the Pali Text Society, and more recently by Maurice Walsh.
2. For a discussion of the Klma sutta see the present writer’s article The Significance of the Klma Sutta (BSQ publication) available on the Net at www.vgweb.org/bsq.
3. The name means Kassapa, the Junior (to distiinguish him from the other Kassapas in the Canon). The Buddha is said to have described him as the chief of those who are good at preaching. However there are few discourses by him recorded in the Pali Canon.
4. Kosala was ruled by Pasanedi in the Buddha’s time. The King is said to have granted the city of Savatya to administer with royal powers. The texts refer to him as rajaanna, but it is not clear what his exact constitutional powers were.
5. The Buddha also often speaks of being reborn either in heaven or hell, but he also refers to being reborn in this world as other beings.
6. In the Klma Sutta the Buddha seems to consider this possibility for those who to not seek the first solace. See the article referred to in footnote 2.
7. By ‘supernatural’ we shall mean that which cannot be empirically demonstrated. Thus heavens and hells will be considered as ‘supernatural realms’ as their physical existence cannot\ be demonstrated.
8, Thus if the atheist says that no physical evidence of God exists the theist will say that God wills it so. Similarly if God allows bad things like catastrophes to occur the theist can say that God does so for some mysterious reason.
9. It must be mentioned that a similar method of preaching has also been adopted by Jesus in the Gospels when he says that he teaches by parables. These parables can be interpreted in various ways, and is hardly a satisfactory way of giving out a teaching. A great deal of theological controversy has arisen on the interpretation of these parables.
10. As is told in the denouement to the Sutta at the very end Pāyāsi in fact is convinced in Kassapa’s position but he holds on to his “sceptical” views merely for the pleasure of the debate.
11. Traditionally the six higher powers (abhiññ) contains two separate powers, the Divine Eye (dibbachakku) and the Remembrance of Former Existences (pubbenivsnussati). It is the latter power that enables the recollection of past existence including the nature of the heavenly realms if the person had been born in one of them in a previous existence. In this case Kassapa seems to conflate dibbachakku with pubbenivsnussati.
12. It is no clear from this story if the prevailing inheritance rules allow only sons to inherit or if the inheritance would be shared between all children. If the latter is the case the co-wife would have had a share (through her child) if she had waited for a normal birth.
13. A similar conundrum exists in Christianity. It is said that those have taken as their Saviour will at death go to heaven. If so why should a Christian want to live in this world which by definition is inferior to heaven when he is assured of heaven if he dies?
14. The Four Great Kings are the guardians of the four quarters. They are considered devas and they are addicted to sense pleasures.
15. The Long Discourses of the Buddha, Translation of the Dgha Nikya, Introduction. The Buddha did teach re-birth but this may not only because his hearers could not have accepted the truth but also because the Buddha felt that this belief, widely prevalent in India in his time, could be used to induce people to lead ethical lives (right livelihood). In would in that case be the end justifying the means.
16. The Buddha did not regard even the conciousness (viññna) as the carrier of the rebirth process (see the Introduction to this Sutta by Rhys Davids given in the appendix).