Lay Buddha

The Case of Anāthapiṇḍika

Pali Canon contains thousands of Buddha’s discourses, overwhelming majority of which is addressed to the monks. That is what might be expected, knowing that the Teacher was mostly surrounded by them and also teaching them. Also, the monks were those who selected, organized and edited discourses into the structure known today as the Theravada canon. Certainly it is a fact that influenced the final outcome and the criteria what to consider as a trustworthy source of the Buddha’s teachings and what not. However, putting all these considerations aside, there is still a number of suttas which were specifically addressed to the lay followers. Unfortunately, so far this layer of the Canon hasn’t received much attention, nor the questions it raises have been thoroughly explored. What are the differences regarding the content and the mode of teaching between “bhikkhu suttas” and “upāsaka suttas”? And what are the specific values and goals of practice highlighted in this second group?

It is obvious that this task to be manageable and to fit into a scope of an essay, had to be limited to a relatively small portion of the Canon. Instead of haphazardly choosing a set of the “householder” suttas in any of the five Nikāyas, I decided to take another approach and select all the suttas with the same Budha’s interlocutor, which cuts across three Nikāyas (MN, SN, AN). For this essay I chose that to be the Buddha’s greatest benefactor Anāthapiṇḍika. That way, I hoped, it would be possible to get a more consistent and balanced picture of the teachings aimed at a lay person. This expectation was encouraged by the comment from Ven. Nyanaponika Thera:

“Many of the occasions when the Buddha gave instructions to Anāthapiṇḍika have been recorded in the Pali Canon. These teachings form a comprehensive code of lay Buddhist ethics, and by eliciting them from the Blessed One Anāthapiṇḍika has also become a benefactor to countless generations of Buddhist laypeople…”1

Just a few words on Anāthapiṇḍika, before we turn to the suttas itself. A rich banker (seṭṭhi) from Sāvatthi, Anāthapiṇḍika is immortalized in the Pali Canon as greatest Buddha’s supporter. His real name was Sudatta, and the title under which he is well know means “one who gives alms (piṇḍa) to the helpless (anātha)”, which is the best testimony of his generous heart. Soon after Buddha’s Enlightenment, they met for the first time in Rājagaha, where Anāthapiṇḍika traveled on same business. Hugely impressed by the Awakened One, he invited him to Sāvatthi and on that occasion donated the famous Jeta’s Grove, where the Buddha spent most of his vassas, all in all 19 out of forty five years of his teaching life. Although visiting Buddha twice a day, he was cautious to ask to much questions, thinking: “The Tathāgata is a delicate Buddha, a delicate prince. If the Teacher would think: ‘This householder is my supporter’ and by teaching the Dhamma to me, he would become tired”.2

Apart from the commentaries, which I excluded from the scope of this essay, in the whole Pali Canon there are 23 suttas where Anāthapiṇḍika converses with the Buddha or some of his leading disciples.3 Most of them are in the Aṅguttara Nikāya (17), the rest in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (5) and only one in the Majjhima Nikāya. Let’s see their content and the context, trying to sketch the main themes and topics and having in mind an excellent and much broader work related to “layman suttas”, that has been already done by John Kelly.4

As Bhikkhu Bodhi highlights in the foreword to his translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, texts in this collection focus “on aspects of practical training”, so “subjects range from the basic ethical observances recommended to the busy layperson, through the pillars of mind training, to the highest meditative state, the samadhi or concentration of the arahant.”5 One such busy layperson was Anāthapiṇḍika, so the type of the teaching he received according to the suttas in the Aṅguttara Nikāya might be expected to be mostly about initial steps of the Buddhist path: dāna and sīla. Let us briefly see the content of the first 17 suttas.

In the sutta AN 2:256 the Buddha instructs him about generosity: who is worthy of offering, where is gift to be given: “In this world trainee (sekha) and the one beyond training are worthy of the gifts of those practicing charity”. In the suttas AN 3:109 and AN 3:110 the message on guarding the mind, conveyed through the metaphor of a peaked roof and its rafters, is the same: if the mind is not protected, it becomes polluted. Further on, that influences our thoughts, words and deeds, bringing finally bad destination after death. The sutta AN 4:58 is again about generosity and the boons of life, beauty, happiness and strength bestowed both on the receiver and the giver. The same motive of generosity marks the next three suttas, while there is only slight variation in the rewards the lay persons who “serve the virtuous monks of upright conduct” can expect from their unselfish deeds. In the sutta AN 4:60 these are good reputation and rebirth in the heaven. In the sutta AN 4:61 the for things that are wished for rarely attained by a householder are connected with the four qualities that lead to them. These are faith, virtuous behavior, generosity and wisdom. Accomplishment in each of this virtues is further on analyzed and supporting factors explained. This explanation points to the proper faith in Tathāgata’s Enlightenment, five precepts as a basis for virtuous behavior, delighting in giving and, finally, understanding what are the five obstacles to developing wisdom. In the next sutta, AN 4:62, Buddha describes four types of happiness a layperson may enjoy: the happiness of ownership, the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt and the happiness of blame­lessness.

In the sutta AN 5:41 Anāthapiṇḍika was illuminated on how five ways a wealth could be utilized. It can be used to make happy owner and his family, also friends and relatives. Further on it can be used for protection from the loss, also given as a offering for the benefit of relatives, guests, ancestors, the king and the deities. The fifth way of proper use of wealth is giving alms to ascetics and brahmins who tame themselves. The next sutta AN 5:43 explains which five things are wished for the most and rarely gained in this world: long life, beauty, happiness, fame and heavens. The Buddha warns Anāthapiṇḍika that they are not obtained by means of prayers and aspirations, because in that case everyone would have more than enough of everything. However, they can be obtained by practicing way of life conducive to each of these five things, which in essence means ethical life.

The sutta AN 5:174 deals with five perils and enmities which, if not abandoned, make one immoral and reborn in hell. These are destruction of life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and indulging in intoxicants. In the next sutta (AN 5:176) the Buddha warns a big group of householders led by Anāthapiṇḍika not to be satisfied only with giving four necessities to the bhikkhus, but also to put effort into their own spiritual progress. So the advice is to inquire on how they can from time to time enter and dwell in the rapture of solitude. Another topic related to the spiritual training available to householders emerge in the sutta AN 5:179, where the Buddha and Sāriputta, surrounded by the group of lay people led by Anāthapiṇḍika discuss on four pleasant dwellings that pertain to the higher mind, which are available to the stream enterer. These dwellings are states of unwavering confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as well as possession of immaculate virtue, leading to concentration. A householder achieves these dwellings by being restrained with five training rules.

Practically the same content on four factors of stream entry has sutta AN 9:27, while in the sutta AN 9:27 Buddha instructs Anāthapiṇḍika on the right way of giving and the great benefits of developing the perception of impermanence just for the time of a finger snap. Finally, there are three suttas in The Book of Tens we are interested in. The first one expounds ten kinds of persons who enjoy sensual pleasures existing in this world (AN 10:91) and the second (AN 10:92) is about five perils of misbehavior, four factors of stream-entry (unwavering confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and flawless virtue), as well as “the noble method clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom” (dependent origination). The last sutta (AN 10:93) contains Buddha’s refutation of wrong views by other wanderers.

As we can see, the range of topic covered in these suttas is rather broad and defy a widespread belief that the suttas aimed at lay persons in the Pāli Canon exclusively deal with faith, generosity, virtue and a long list of profane matters like family relations, how to deal with vicissitudes of life and what is gained by giving to the Sangha. Of course, being a realist, the Buddha in conversation with his lay followers and other unordained people very often talked exactly about these things. But with those of them who were really devoted to the practice and mature enough in their mental development, he didn’t shy of encouraging them to search for a solitude and meditate. He very well knew that the benefits of mental culture are not reserved for the monks and nuns. Being one of the first Buddha’s devotees and staying with the Teacher and his foremost disciples for so long, Anāthapiṇḍika was an example of lay persons from this second group. For them even the state of stream entry is achievable in this life.

In the Saṃyutta Nikāya there are five suttas related to Anāthapiṇḍika, but their content doesn’t expand the range of topics we just listed in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Therefore we will briefly deal with the last discourse from our selection, which is Anāthapiṇḍikovāda Sutta (MN 143). This discourse is actually delivered by Venerable Sāriputta, in the presence of Venerable Ānanda, and by the deathbed of the aged and sick Anāthapiṇḍika. Answering to the aged devotee’s complains about deterioration of his health, Venerable Sāriputta gives a very profound teaching. Interesting detail is that even being on a deathbed, Anāthapiṇḍika doesn’t want to bother the Buddha and instead invites Venerable Sāriputta to visit him and give some words of relief. On hearing those words, he has an intriguing comment: “But although I have long waited upon the Teacher and bhikkhus worthy of esteem, never before have I heard such a talk on the Dhamma.”7 Once he was answered that such deep teaching is, as a rule, reserved for monks, it gives a great credit to Anāthapiṇḍika that even in this difficult moment he thinks of other lay people’s benefit: “Well then, venerable Sariputta, let such talk on the Dhamma be given to lay people clothed in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing [such talk on] the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.”8 The plea which, of course, brings to mind a very similar request made by Brahma Sahampati to just enlightened Buddha. This selfless care for the others even in the last moments of life also resembles of the Buddha’s worry that Cunda will be blamed for Teacher’s dead and request for Ānanda to go back and comfort the poor blacksmith.

For the sake of truth and judging by many examples in the Canon, we can say that this kind of two level approach to teaching: one for laity and the other for ordained, never existed in the Buddha Dispensation. This might also be corroborated by some of the suttas from Aṅguttara Nikāya we just described, where more advanced instructions, like those towards developing the perception of impermanence, were given. The same case we have in this sutta, where Venerable Sāriputta teaches on uprooting of all attachments to sense faculties, sense objects, sense consciousness, sense contacts, feelings, four elements, five aggregates, the formless bases, the world or any sense experience.

Therefore, it can be concluded that a variety of topics covered in the suttas delivered to the laity is even wider than in those aimed at monastics. They include great number of those discourses explaining various modes of good life and conduct, as it it is exemplified, for example, in the famous Sigalovāda sutta. But these topics also cover the whole Noble Eightfold Path, with his three aspects of sīla, samādhi and paññā. Of course, the difference lies in the predominance of the suttas of one or another type, where those dealing with the first aspect are many, while those on meditation and wisdom are proportionally less among discourses to the laity.


Suttas on Anāthapiṇḍika

MN 143 [MN III 258–263] Anāthapiṇḍikovāda (Advice to Anāthapiṇḍika): Ven. Sāriputta to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — advice on his deathbed; radical non-clinging to anything at all, and through that, liberation; and Anāthapiṇḍika’s asking why he had never been taught like this before.

SN 10:8 [SN I 210–212] Sudatta (Sudatta): a yakkha to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — Anāthapiṇḍika (Sudatta) being urged on by a yakkha to his first meeting of with the Buddha; on sleeping well when one has cut off attachments.

SN 12:41 [SN II 68–70] Pañcabhayavera (Five Fearful Animosities): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five perils and enmities (non-virtuous behaviour), four factors of stream-entry (unwavering confidence in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and flawless virtue), and penetration with wisdom of dependent origination.

SN 55:26 [SN V 380–385] Paṭhama Anāthapiṇḍika (Anāthapiṇḍika 1): Ven. Sāriputta to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika; the Buddha to Ven. Ānanda — the four factors of stream-entry in ten modes.

SN 55:27 [SN V 385–387] Dutiya Anāthapiṇḍika (Anāthapiṇḍika 2): Ven. Ānanda to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — declaration of the fruit of stream-entry through the four factors: unwavering confidence in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and flawless virtue.

SN 55:28 [SN V 387–389] Paṭhamabhayaverūpasanta (Fearful Animosities 1): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five perils and enmities (non-virtuous behaviour), four factors of stream-entry (unwavering confidence in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and flawless virtue), and penetration with wisdom of dependent origination.

AN 2:35 [AN I 62–63]: to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — the two worthy of offerings.

AN 3:109 [AN I 261–262] Arakkhita (Unprotected): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — protection of bodily, verbal and mental actions.

AN 3:110 [AN I 262–263] Byāpanna (Failed): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — one whose bodily, verbal, and mental activities fail will not have a good death.

AN 4:58 [AN II 63–64] Sudatta (Sudatta): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — four things [later] received from the gift of food: life, beauty, happiness, and strength.

AN 4:60 [AN II 65–65] Gihīsāmīcipaṭipadā (The Layperson’s Proper Practice): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — four qualities proper to a householder: he presents robes to the Sangha of bhikkhus; he presents alms food; he presents lodging; he presents medicinal requisites and [other] supports for the sick.

AN 4:61 [AN II 65–69] Pattakamma (Worthy Deeds): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — four things wished for and rarely attained by a householder: wealth, fame, health and long life, and a good rebirth; four qualities that lead to these things: accomplishment in faith, virtuous behaviour, generosity, and wisdom; plus four worthy ways of

AN 4:62 [AN II 69–70] Ānaṇya (Freedom from Debt): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — four kinds of happiness that may be achieved by the householder: happiness of ownership, of enjoyment, of freedom from debt, and of blamelessness.

AN 5:41 [AN III 45–46] Pañcabhoga ādiya (Five Utilisations of Wealth): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five utilisations of wealth.

AN 5:43 [AN III 47–49] Pañca iṭṭhadhamma (Five Wished For Things): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five things that are wished for and rarely gained:

AN 5:174 [AN III 204–206] Vera (Enemies): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — the five perils and enemies of immorality.

AN 5:176 [AN III 206–208] Pīti (Rapture): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika and five hundred lay followers — five things that do not occur in him who enters and dwells in the rapture of solitude.

AN 5:179 [AN III 211–214] Gihī (Householder): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika and five hundred lay followers, via Ven. Sāriputta — five training rules and four dwellings in happiness.

AN 9:20 [AN IV 392–396] Velāma (Velāma): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — on the right way of giving; most fruitful if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time of a finger snap.

AN 9:27 [AN IV 405–407] Paṭhamaverabhaya (Enmity and Peril 1): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five perils and enmities (non-virtuous behaviour) and four factors of stream-entry (unwavering confidence in Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and flawless virtue).

AN 10:91 [AN V 176–182] Kāmabhogī (One Who Enjoys Sensual Pleasures): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — ten kinds of persons who enjoy sensual pleasures found existing in the world.

AN 10:92 [AN V 182–184] Bhaya (Peril): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — five perils and enmities (non-virtuous behaviour), four factors of stream-entry (unwavering confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and flawless virtue), and the noble method clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom (dependent origination).

AN 10:93 [AN V 185–189] Kiṃdiṭṭhika (Holding What View?): to the householder Anāthapiṇḍika — refutation of wrong views by other wanderers.


1 Nyanaponika Thera and H. Hecker, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003, p. 351.
2 Dhammapada Commentary, I.3: “tathāgato buddhasukhumālo khattiyasukhumālo, ‘bahūpakāro me, gahapatī’ti mayhaṃ dhammaṃ desento kilameyyā”ti.
3 Complete list of suttas is in the Appendix.
4 John Kelly, “The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People”, Buddhist Studies Review, 28.1 (2011).
5 Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012, p. 21.
6 All sutta numbering is according to the Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation quoted in footnote 5.
7 Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publication, 1995, p. 1112.
8 Ibid.
9 The list compiled from: John Kelly, “The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People”, Buddhist Studies Review, 28.1 (2011).

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