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The Teaching of All Buddhas - Magha Puja, Ovadapatimokkha

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

On Magha Puja, the Full Moon in February, 1,250 Arahant Disciples spontaneously, without any prior announcement, gathered around the Buddha in the Veḷuvana (Bamboo Grove Monastery) in Rājagaha. All of these 1,250 Arahants were ordained by the Buddha personally.

The Buddha then recites the famous 'Ovāda-Pāṭimokkha', a summary of the teachings of all Buddhas in 16 lines of verse:

"Abstain from any evil deed, accomplish what is good and true, And fully purify your mind - That is what all the Buddhas teach. Enduring patience is the best of all ascetic practices; The best of everything at all is called Nibbāna by the sage. If you cause harm to anyone you can't be called a genuine monk! Refrain from harming and abuse, and strictly keep the Buddha's rules; Be moderate when taking food, and dwell alone in solitude, devoted to the Higher Mind - That is what all the Buddhas teach." Dhp 183-185

As pointed out twice, in the fourth line and again in the final line, this teaching is not unique to our Buddha Gotama, but is common to all Buddhas. Whenever or wherever a Buddha arises, whether in aeons past, or in some different galaxy in the remote future, their teaching will always include the content of the Ovādapāṭimokkha. Therefore, these verses constitute a core teaching, the essence of the Dhamma spoken by every Buddha.

Consequently, every line, even every single word, is of supreme importance.

If we can cultivate the simple, yet profound instructions given in these sixteen lines of poetry, we will be able to free our heart from all suffering and experience supreme peace, the unshakeable release of our heart.

Buddha Statue Ovadapatimokkha Magha Puja Dhamma Reflections Venerable Bhante Dhammasiha

Significantly, these essential instructions start with:

"Abstain from any evil deed..."

Before we rush ahead and try to do good, we have to make absolutely sure that at least we do not cause any harm.

If we look at human history of the last 100 years, there have been numerous ideologies that claimed to do good, but instead have caused misery and death to countless millions. Whether communism, facism, nazism, maoism and so on, so many of their proponents claimed, and possibly even believed, that they were acting in persuit of a high ideal, and that the 'damage' therefore is 'justified'.

This false argument is known as: "The end justifies the means."

If we establish absolute avoidance of any evil as our first principle, we can never fall into the trap of intentionally harming other beings for a supposedly noble end. We simply do not kill or harm, never mind whatever motivation or justification anyone may suggest.

Even just having doubt if some action might kill other beings, will cause us to immediately shrink back. 🤔 We will go ahead only once we know for sure that we're not causing any real harm to anyone. 🧐 We follow the principle:

"If in doubt, don't go ahead."

Interestingly, assigning priority to non-harming is also a long established principle in medical ethics since antiquity, known in Latin as:

"Primum non nocere" = "First, do no harm"

Every doctor or health care professional has first of all to make really sure not to cause any harm, before commencing any treatment to help and heal. The Buddha has established exactly the same principle for our spiritual practice.

We see that guiding principle reinforced in line 5, extolling the quality of patience. We encounter it again in lines 9 to 12, where we are exhorted to refrain from any form of insult, abuse or harm to other beings. In fact, harming and hurting others is considered so diametrically opposed to the Dhamma, that the Buddha declares anyone engaged in violence and oppression as incapable of being a real monk.

Naturally, the final lines carry special importance as well, forming the culmination of the short poem:

"Devoted to the higher mind."

What is the meaning of higher mind ('adhicitta')?

We encounter the term for instance in the threefold training of

  1. 'Higher Virtue' (Adhisīla)

  2. 'Higher Mind' (Adhicitta)

  3. 'Higher Wisdom' (Adhipaññā)

Sīla ➡ Samādhi ➡ Paññā

The higher mind is the mind experiencing samādhi; blissful internal unification; one-pointed, bright, mindful awareness. Just like the Noble Eightfold Path culminates in 'Sammāsamādhi', so the Ovādapāṭimokkha concludes with Samādhi as well. This elevated position reminds us to never neglect the development of samādhi. There is no 'shortcut' where we can leapfrog samādhi, and still realize the goal of the practice.

Only imbued with samādhi will our wisdom be of great fruit and great benefit.

"Samādhiparibhāvitā paññā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā" Dīgha Nikāya, #16.4 Mahāparinibbānasutta

May the beautiful and evocative image of the Lord Buddha meditating in the resplendent full moon night, surrounded by 1,250 supremely tamed, released Arahants, fill our heart with inspiration and resolution to practise the instructions of the Ovādapāṭimokkha to the utmost of our ability, so that we too will experience the fortunate state of supreme peace, Nibbāna!

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