WHETHER THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH WAS SERMONED IN DETAIL OR NOT
WHETHER THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH WAS SERMONED IN DETAIL OR NOT
In the Dhammacakka sutta, as we find it today, the Eightfold Path is just mentioned in the form of a heading. When this Dhammacakka discourse was first given by the Buddha, did the Venerable Koṇḍañña together with brahmās and devas who attained to higher knowledge then, understand by the mere words of the heading “right mindfulness” that is meant “the four foundations of mindfulness by means of which the natures of the body, the feeling, the mind and the mind objects (dhamma) are clearly comprehended? Did they also understand that “taking note of every bodily action, every feeling, every mental phenomenon, every thought on mind-objects constitute right mindfulness? And that this Right Mindfulness should be developed by taking note of every physical and mental phenomenon?
This is a moot point which needs to be pondered upon. For unless they had a clear comprehension about it, they would not be able to develop right mindfulness. And in the absence of right mindfulness, attainment of higher knowledge of the noble path and fruition is an impossibility.
Two considerations are possible here.
(1) The first one is that the Venerable Koṇḍañña and the brahmās and devas who were already fully ripe with uncommon, unique pāramīs, destined for final liberation, on just hearing the words “right mindfulness”, at once understood that they should take note of every bodily action etc., and develop the path of right mindfulness. They accordingly did so and in this way attained to higher knowledge.
(2) The second consideration is that: when the discourse was first given, for clear understanding by his audience the Blessed One made elaborations on the headings of the Noble Eightfold Path and expounded also on the four foundations of mindfulness. But at the time of the First council, when reciting the Dhammacakka sutta, the Noble Eightfold Path as such and as a component of the Four Noble Truths was condensed in the form of a heading only, there being in existence expositions or exegeses on them separately in other suttas being recited in condensed form at the First Council. The answer is yes. The Satipatthāna Sutta in Mūlapaṇṇāsa is a condensation of the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta the first portion only of which was recited at the time of the First Council. But now at the proceedings of the Sixth Great Council, the missing portions of the suttas had been filled up and recorded, although the latter portions of the sutta were not mentioned in the commentary to Mūlapaṇṇāsa. Similarly some long suttas belonging to some other Nikāyas were recorded in condensed form in Khuddaka Nikāya. Thus it may be taken here that exposition on the right mindfulness given at the time of the discourse were left out and the sutta recited compendiously during the first great Council.
Thus the question need not arise as to how the deeper, detailed meaning of the Noble Eightfold Path could be known from its mere title. Nowadays, the four foundations of mindfulness which I have just recited is well known by many. And there is the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta itself which supplies elaborations on the summarised title of the Noble Eightfold Path. There exists also many commentaries on this sutta.
Yet, in spite of them, there are only a few who knows how to develop the path of right mindfulness. Therefore we are personally of the opinion that the Blessed One had actually expounded the path in full detail when he was giving the first discourse for the benefit of many.
To what extent must insight be purified? (from Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw)
One might imagine that all enlightened persons experience phenomena in the same way, or that they became enlightened only after experiencing all phenomena in detail as they are described in the Pāḷi texts and commentaries. But in practice, the depth of one’s realization varies according to the perfections that one has acquired. A person who is fit for liberation and is of sharp intelligence (tikkhabhabba-puggala) can have the most complete and detailed understanding available within a disciple’s (sāvaka) range of understanding. However, that person’s understanding is still not as comprehensive as explained in the Abhidhamma and the discourses. This will become obvious when we deal with the Anupada Sutta.
If a person is of dull intelligence but fit for liberation (mandabhabba-puggala), with only the minimum insight needed to become enlightened he or she will attain understanding of the path and its fruit. It says in the Majjhima Nikāya commentary: Disciples may become enlightened by experiencing only some of the primary material elements.
A similar point is made by the answers of four arahants questioned in the Kiṃsukopama Sutta. The question raised there is: “To what extent should one’s vision be purified to become an arahant?”
The first answer
“When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as they really are the origin and passing away of the six bases for contact, in this way his vision is well purified.”
A monk who had become an arahant by observing only the six internal sense bases gave this answer. His answer implies that he did not observe any external phenomena at all. He observed only the six internal sense bases that include the mind and the five sensitivities of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. He did not observe any other physical phenomena nor did he observe any mental factors. Nevertheless, this method led him to the fruition of an arahant, so who would dare to contradict it? As he was basically observing the six internal sense bases, the purpose of noting and understanding the six external sense bases was also fulfilled at the same time. This is in agreement with the detailed explanations given in the Pāḷi texts and commentaries, because observing the six internal sense bases is said therein to be “noting and understanding all mental and physical phenomena.”
The second answer
“When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as they really are the origin and passing away of the five aggregates subject to clinging, in this way his vision is well purified.” This answer is complete as stated.
The third answer
“When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as they really are the origin and passing away of the four great elements, in this way his vision is well purified.”
This answer implies that this arahant meditated on nothing but the four fundamental elements. He did not observe any other physical phenomena nor did he observe any mental phenomena. Nonetheless, his method was also effective. As he was basically observing the four primary material elements, the purpose of noting and understanding the other mental and physical phenomena occurring simultaneously was also fulfilled at the same time. This does not contradict the detailed explanations given in the Pāḷi texts and commentaries. These texts only give an abridged explanation of how different people observe and understand phenomena. It doesn’t mean that every person has to observe and understand the whole range of phenomena.
The fourth answer
“When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as it really is: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation,’ in this way his vision is well purified.”
This answer is also complete as stated. On this occasion, the monk who asked the question had the idea that all arahants have the same experience and that they know all mental and physical phenomena. He was dissatisfied with the arahants’ answers, not only because none of them mentioned the whole range of experiences by observing mental and physical phenomena, but also because their answers differed.
He then asked the Buddha to explain the reason for this, and the Buddha replied thusly: “... those superior men answered as they were disposed, in just the way their own vision had been well purified.” This means that each of the arahants answered according to how he had noted until becoming an arahant and that all four of these ways are correct ways for attaining arahantship.
 Sāvakā hi catunnaṃ dhātūnaṃ ekadesameva sammasitvā nibbānaṃ pāpunanti. (Sv)
 SN 35.245. See The Connected Discourses, 1251– 53.
The translation here is made according to Mahāsi Sayadaw’s interpretation. For a more literal translation, consider Bodhi (The Connected Discourses, 1251): “In what way, friend, is a bhikkhu’s vision well purified?”
Kittāvata, nukho ,āvuso, bhikkhunodassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃhotī”ti? . . . (SN 35.245)
 The Connected Discourses, 1251.
. . .yato kho, āvuso, [bhikkhuMS] channaṃ phassāyatanānaṃ samudayañca atthangamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Ettāvatā kho āvuso bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī. (SN 35.245)
Yato kho, āvuso, bhikkhu pañcannaṃ upādānakkhandhānaṃ samudayañca atthangamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ettāvatā kho āvuso bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī. (SN 35.245)
Yato kho āvuso catunnaṃ mahābhūtānaṃ samudayañcaṃ atthaṅgamañca yathābhūtaṃ
pajānāti, ettāvatā, kho āvuso, bhikkhuno dassanaṃ suvisuddhaṃ hotī. (SN 35.245)