Insights During The Three Watches of the Night

January 8th, 2016

I have recently gotten interested in the two versions of what happened during the night that the Buddha got describable insights, during or shortly after his moment of awakening. He speaks of what he saw during the three watches of the night.

The sutta-based versions describe “The Three Knowledges” but that title is clearly his using the Brahmins’ Three Knowledges (of the three Vedas) in the playful way he uses many words and phrases of his day, twisting them to have a very different meaning from the definitions the originators would use. Instead of knowledge of the Rg, Yajur, and Sama Vedas, he describes knowledge of his past lives, of the arising and passing away of beings according to their karma, and of the four noble truths, and the taints.

But in the Vinaya and Udana renditions of what he saw during the three watches, he describes dependent arising — first in a pattern in which something arises, secondly in a pattern in which it doesn’t arise, and finally both ways.

I am working on taking a detailed look at the language in both versions, because, though they sound quite different, I suspect they are actually two ways of describing the exact same insight.

Toward that end, I’ve just finished a translation of the first three suttas in the Udana, which describe the dependent arising variant in almost exactly the same words as the one found in the volumes of the monastic code, the Vinaya. It’s a first draft, so I may yet make changes to it, but I thought I’d offer it for your consideration, and (if you wish) comments. Because my translation of many terms are not the familiar ones, I’ve added footnotes to explain some of the differences. Also, this is not a word-for-word translation; instead I am aiming for a somewhat friendlier modernized version, almost as if the Buddha were speaking now.

Because of this, I have cut out some of the repetition when it describes action, and I have been quite liberal in one area: in the verses that follow each story, I have changed the singular male described (in another of the Buddha’s changes-of-meaning) as “a Brahmin” to the generic plural to cover all of us who do the work and gain the insight as “devoted practitioners”. He wasn’t using the term Brahmin to limit the insights to those of the Brahmin caste, but he had (elsewhere) redefined the term to mean one of any caste who had done the work and become one worthy of the elevated title.

 

IN THE FIRST WATCH OF THE NIGHT

Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the first watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the natural flow1 of dependent arising, thus: in this having come to be, this is; this arising, this arises.2

Namely:

Out of dependence on ignorance, drives3;
out of dependence on drives, awareness4;
out of dependence on awareness, identity5;
out of dependence on identity, the extension of the six senses6;
out of dependence on the extension of the six senses, contact;
out of dependence on contact, experience7;
out of dependence on experience, thirst8;
out of dependence on thirst, clinging to fuel9;
out of dependence on clinging to fuel, becoming;
out of dependence on becoming, birth;
out of dependence on birth, old age and death, pain and distress, trouble come together.

Thus the arising together brings about this whole conglomeration of dukkha10.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties11 have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
then all doubt disappears
because they know clearly for the first time the cause of certainty.

 

 

IN THE SECOND WATCH OF THE NIGHT

Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the middle watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the ebb of dependent arising, thus: In this not having come to be, this is not; this released, this is released.

Namely:

Out of the release of ignorance, drives are released;
out of the release of drives, awareness is released;
out of the release of awareness, identity is released;
out of the release of identity, the extension of the six senses is released;
out of the release of the extension of the six senses, contact is released;
out of the release of contact, experience is released;
out of the release of feeling, thirst is released;
out of the release of thirst, clinging to fuel is released;
out of the release of clinging to fuel, becoming is released;
out of the release of becoming, birth is released;
out of the release of birth, aging and death, pain and distress, trouble are released.

Thus the release of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
then all doubt disappears
because he has penetrated the destruction of causes.

 

 

IN THE THIRD WATCH OF THE NIGHT

Thus I have heard: At one time the Illustrious One was staying at the Bodhi Tree, in the Wide-bank Woods on the shore of the Naranjara River, abiding in supreme knowledge for the first time. He sat cross-legged for seven days, experiencing the happiness of emancipation. During the last watch of the night, arising out of that state of concentration, having attained a certain state of mind, he attended to the natural flow and the ebb of dependent arising, thus: in this having come to be, this is; out of this arising, this arises; in this not having come to be, this is not; this released, this is released.

Namely:

Out of dependence on ignorance, drives;
out of dependence on drives, awareness;
out of dependence on awareness, identity;
out of dependence on identity, the extension of the six senses;
out of dependence on the extension of the six senses, contact;
out of dependence on contact, experience;
out of dependence on experience, thirst;
out of dependence on thirst, clinging to fuel;
out of dependence on clinging to fuel, becoming;
out of dependence on becoming, birth;
out of dependence on birth, old age and death, pain and distress, trouble come together.

Thus the arising together of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

From ignorance,
out of the complete, release beyond passion, drives are released;
out of the release of drives, awareness is released;
out of the release of awareness, identity is released;
out of the release of identity, the extension of the six senses is released;
out of the release of the extension of the six senses, contact is released;
out of the release of contact, experience is released;
out of the release of feeling, thirst is released;
out of the release of thirst, clinging to fuel is released;
out of the release of clinging to fuel, becoming is released;
out of the release of becoming, birth is released;
out of the release of birth, aging and death, pain and distress, trouble are released.

Thus the release of this whole conglomeration of dukkha.

Then, on that occasion, the Illustrious One, having gained the sense of this, declaimed:

Surely, when certainties have become apparent
by means of devoted practitioners’ ardent meditation,
they abide, scattering Mara’s army
just as the sun lights the atmosphere.

 

Footnotes:

1 The word translated as “natural flow” is anulomaṃ, which refers to the direction in which hair naturally lies, or it could be described as “with the grain”. It is matched in the next verse by paṭilomaṃ, which the Pali English Dictionary (PED) has as “’against the hair,’ in reverse order, opposite, contrary, backward”. This is often translated as “in reverse order”, as in Bhikkhu Ānandajoti’s version to be found here on Sutta Central. But because the first description of dependent arising (DA) starts with ignorance and ends with aging-and-death, “reverse order” would lead one to expect the second would start with aging-and-death and work back to ignorance, but that’s not what it does. The second starts with ignorance, just as the first does. It seems to me one might use the word “reversing” as in “undoing order” but I have, here, settled on another natural metaphor that seems to me similar enough to the idea of going with the grain of the hair and against it, calling on our familiarity with ocean tides, with their rising flow and subsiding ebb.

2 This short-hand for dependent arising is usually translated more along the lines of, “From this, that” but the pronoun used in both cases are forms of idaṃ which, as the PED explains in its first definition, “refers to what is immediately in front of the speaker (the subject in question) or before his eyes or in his present time & situation” – in other words, something right here now. There is no sense of the distance or separation that “that” implies when juxtaposed to “this”. This is an important clue to the close-at-hand nature of what is being described, which is all within us: from this within me, this arises. And in the following verse: if this within me does not arise, this won’t arise either.

3 The word I translate as “drives” is saṅkhāra, usually translated as “formations” or “fabrications” or “volitional processes”. See “The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara”

4 “Awareness” is viññāṇa, usually translated as “consciousness” but detailed as being fully in existence only when it is engaged with something – thus, “awareness”. More specifically it is, quite naturally, driven awareness because saṅkhāra drives it into existence.

5 “Identity” a.k.a nāmarūpa a.k.a “name-and-form”. When we name something according to its form, we are giving it an identity. When we recognize something by its form and recall its name and all the information we associate with it, we are identifying it.

6 Usually translated as just “the six senses” the six āyatana are not passive receptors, but active seekers, as they, too, are driven by saṅkhāra. PED has the first definition of āyatana as “1. stretch, extent, reach, compass region”; the second as “2. exertion, doing, working, practice performance”; and only with the third does it get to “3. sphere of perception or sense in general, object of thought, sense-organ & object”. I have tried to capture both the extent and activeness with “extension”.

7 “Experience” could perhaps be translated as “knowledge of contact” but that’s a bit redundant with contact as the previously-mentioned condition. The Pali word is vedanā, usually translated as “feeling” which is reasonable enough given its frequent definitions as one of three varieties of feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of those.

8 “Thirst” – the usual translation is “craving” – taṇhā is literally a thirst, and here calls to mind the thirst fire has for its fuel, or the thirst we have for what fuels our pleasures, or our sense of who we are.

9 The “fuel” – upādāna – that, in the previous condition, we thirst for. Usually translated as “clinging” which is also reasonable, though it misses the metaphor being created of fire-as-self. In the Vedic view, fire and fuel are stuck together, but if the fire were released from the fuel, it would still exist, and be free.

10 I leave dukkha untranslated – the usual translation is “suffering”, but there really is no word for what dukkha is, and “suffering” distorts its meaning. What the dukkha that the Buddha is telling us we can avoid is, is all unnecessary feelings that we’d rather do without that are within our control once we understand what’s going on and put the teachings into effect. But, like many words the Buddha uses, it has other meanings as well.

11 The word I translate as “certainties” is dhamma, and I know of no one else who translates it that way. But I do have good reason. When used in the phrase “The Buddha’s dhamma” it tends to be taken to mean either “The Truth” or “his teachings”, the latter in the sense of “what he’s teaching us to see” which is, effectively, the truth, reality. But dhamma also gets used to mean other people’s teachings, the things they hold as truth, natural law, reality. Seen from the Buddha’s point of view, though, all too often the other teachers’ dhamma isn’t actually true, or an expression of reality. However, “certainties” covers both. If we see dhamma as “the things we are certain of” then the Buddha’s dhamma is that which we become certain of by seeing it again and again, after close examination, applying his teachings to our lives. Others’ dhamma are things they are certain of, some of which they should not be so sure of. But in this clever verse, the valid certainties that have become apparent through ardent meditation are how invalid certainties are created, those being the ones that get us in trouble. That is precisely what dependent arising describes: how we create false certainties.

2 Responses to “Insights During The Three Watches of the Night”

  1. DeeDee says:

    Hello Linda. You used ‘release’ for ‘nirodha’. Interestingly, the Visuddhimagga defines ‘nirodha’ as: “the word ni denotes absence, and the word rodha, a
    prison”. Yet this definition is not found in the PTS dictionary, which emphasizes ‘total cessation’. What have you discovered in your inquiries to come to the definition of ‘release’, similar to the Visuddhimagga definition. Thanks

  2. star says:

    Hello DeeDee — good question. As it happens, I wrote an article for the Secular Buddhist Association website a while back on that subject. You can read it here:

    http://secularbuddhism.org/2015/12/11/the-importance-of-how-we-translate-the-end-of-suffering/

    You’ll also find it as the next post on this blog. I figured it needed to be here.

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