The King of the Devas as Student of the Buddha
Susan Elbaum Jootla, Middle Way (Volume 68:3 p. 129) November 1993

One of the main epithets for the Buddha is "teacher of gods and men . Although there are many more suttas where he taught human beings, devas often came to pay respects to the Buddha and seek his guidance. Perhaps the most notable congregation of higher beings visiting the Buddha and the Ariya Sangha is described in the "Maha Samaya Sutta" (Digha Nikaya 20). Then, devas of the six celestial sensuous (kama) planes just above the human one and brahmas of the fine material sphere (rupavacara, above the deva planes), from numerous world systems in all directions gathered to hear the Buddha's words.
To the modem meditator trying to purify his mind, more relevant perhaps is the very next discourse in the Digha Nikaya, "Sakka's Questions". Here Sakka, king of the devas of the Realm of the Thirty-three (Tavatimsa), has an audience with the Blessed One. He had already been a loyal disciple of the Buddha for a long time, Sakka had attended him at the time of his final birth, at the Great Renunciation, and under the Bodhi tree, and several times proclaimed his confidence in the unique qualities of the Tathagatha. We will study "Sakka's Questions" in which the leader of the devas sought and found solutions to a series of profound Dhamma dilemmas that had been troubling him. The core of this dialogue will be examined to see what human meditators of the present day can learn from it about working towards Nibbana.[1]
From his vantage point in the Tavatimsa celestial plane, Sakka was a keen observer of the behaviour of human, and other classes of, beings. He had perceived that while creatures would like to live with each other peacefully, they are rarely able to do so. (This is certainly true nowadays too.) The first thing he asks the Buddha is why this is so. What is it that forces humans and gods alike to live full of hatred and hostility which brings them so much misery?
The Buddha explains that it is due to two mental factors which exist in the minds of all non-Ariyas: jealousy and avarice (issa-macchariya). Because of these qualities most of the aggression of the world develops, Sakka concurs. As his aim is to do something about this dukkha, he wants to know more. So he next asks about the origin of jealousy and avarice: "Owing to the presence of what do they arise, owing to the absence of what do they not arise?" One can see from this query that Sakka already has a clear concept of cause and effect (paticcasamuppada). When the cause is there the effect will come; remove the cause and the effect cannot arise.
Behind jealousy and avarice, the Buddha tells the king of the gods, lie liking and disliking, and the source of both liking and disliking is desire (chanda). Desire as used here, is a very fundamental mental factor. Such chanda is synonymous with greed (lobha), one of the basic root motivations behind evil actions. It is also the second Noble Truth, craving (tanha), the cause of dukkha.
As this is such a basic problem, Sakka wants to understand the even deeper causes that trigger desire. The Buddha tells him it is thinking (vitakka) that leads to desire. Although he does not specify what sort of thinking, the Buddha here must be referring to unsystematic mental activity, the kind of random thoughts the untrained mind indulges in. This can be seen from the next and final link in the causal sequence. For when Sakka asks about the cause of thinking the reply is "the tendency to proliferation". This is what brings about thinking which leads to desire, and that brings on like and dislike. They in turn condition jealousy and avarice and ultimately the conflicts in the day to day lives of beings.
Sakka has more questions to ask: the next ones are more directly practical. He is now trying to discover how to destroy this sequence that leads to so much dukkha. He requests the Buddha to explain what a monk (or meditator, one might add) should do to eliminate this tendency to endless proliferation of mental activity which creates kamma, rebirth, and misery over and over again.
The Buddha replies that one should not blindly follow after every feeling that arises in the mind. Rather one should only pursue a feeling - be it happy, unhappy or neutral - if doing so contributes to the growth of wholesome (kusala) phenomena.[2] If one sees that pursuing any particular feeling, of any of the three qualities, makes unwholesome (akusala) tendencies stronger, then one should quickly drop that sensation, not get carried away with wanting more of it or trying to get rid of it by any means at hand. This is very important and takes a great deal of sustained effort.
To train the mind to eliminate the causes of dukkha, one has to learn to observe where feelings are leading. Normally, o course, we blithely race off after anything agreeable. Any kind of "happiness' is assumed to be worth going-for. On the other hand, we try to shove out of mind anything painful. But the meditator or monk who has Nibbana as his or her goal cannot let this process go unchecked. For such yogis the criteria for action should only, and always, be that is it conducive to that highest aim. Whatever feelings pull in the other direction must be avoided and put aside as unworthy.
This is a job to be tackled systematically. First one has to learn to see feelings as they arise without getting carried away by them. Second, one has to consider where actions taken based on these feelings are leading. Third, it is necessary to put on the brakes so one does not create akusala, be it in pursuit of pleasure, in fleeing pain or in ignoring neutral feelings. Awareness is central to each stage of this. Without clear comprehension of feelings, their repercussions, the distinction between kusala and akusala deeds (mental, verbal and physical) and consciousness of the ultimate goal, the "tendency to proliferation" and all its ramifications in conflict and dukkha cannot be brought to an end.
Sakka once again is very appreciative of the Buddha's words and he goes on to ask more specifically about the practice of bhikkhus. He wants to know how a monk can acquire the restraint required by the monks' disciplinary code, the Patimokkha. The Buddha's reply is similar to the one to the previous question. The good bhikkhu pursues only bodily conduct, talking and goals which are conducive to kusala, to the attainment of Nibbana. He rigorously restrains himself from all other actions, other kinds of talk and other aims.
It is interesting to note that the Buddha in both these sections says "When I observed that" by following such and such an action or feeling "unwholesome factors increased and wholesome factors decreased' he knew that such an activity "was to be avoided". "And when I observed that" by following such a feeling or action the "unwholesome factors decreased and wholesome ones increased, then such bodily action was to be followed". He came to this conclusion, from personal experience. So, he explained: "That is why I make this distinction."[3] The serious student of his teachings has to discover how to do this for himself.
Sakka has one more question in this series about mind training. He wants to know how bhikkhus control their senses. Again the Buddha talks of avoiding those things which are conducive to evil while cultivating those which have positive results. But this time it is various kinds of objects - visible, audible, olfactory, gustatory, tangible and mental - which are to be treated this way. This is what restraint of the senses means: discovering what kinds of objects will help take one towards the goal and which pull one down to more suffering. The sight of a Buddha statue would probably be of the former type for someone striving on the Eight Fold Noble Path. A pornographic novel would be conducive to akusala.
The Buddha does not have to elaborate this to Sakka; by now the deva understands enough to fill in the blanks himself. The Buddha only says:
I declare that things perceived by the eye are of two kinds; the kind to be pursued, and the kind to be avoided. The same applies to things perceived by the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind.
Sakka himself rounds out this section of the discourse.
The practical aspect of this sutta can be summarised for the modem meditator this way: Always keep the goal of the utter purification of mind before one, do not let mind's old tendencies distract one in opposing directions. This is how to train oneself to put an end to the tendency to proliferation, unsystematic thinking, desires, liking and disliking, and jealousy and avarice. And ultimately all dukkha.
Sakka has several more questions he wants clarified by the Buddha, about another matter of concern to him - the huge variety of religious teachers (the "godmen" or "gurus" of those days) he had seen in the world. (This section of the discourse shows the historical precedents and roots of the plethora of sects claiming to offer peace to an unsettled twentieth century). Sakka now genuinely wants to learn (1) if these gurus all teach the same thing and (2) if they are all liberated. The Buddha's reply to both questions is negative. He explains that they do not all teach the same thing because some of them consider one thing the truth and others consider something else to be the truth. None of them will accept any truth other than the concept they cling to as the REAL. It follows from this that they cannot all be fully liberated. The Buddha tells Sakka that only those "who are liberated by the destruction, of craving are fully proficient, freed from the bonds, perfect in the holy life, and have perfectly reached the goal". Liberation, freedom from rebirth and dukkha, can only be attained by eliminating its causes - craving and ignorance. There is no way to reach the goal other than by understanding suffering and its causes and practising to eliminate the causes. This makes up the Four Noble Truths; not an abstract doctrine but something each individual has to discern for him or herself if he/she is to come out of suffering and reach the goal. Sakka agrees with the Buddha's statement. He remarks that passion (probably referring to tanha by another name) pulls beings to rebirth in happy or unhappy circumstances.
He then relates to the Buddha how he had previously gone to various human ascetics for advice on these questions with totally unsatisfactory results. In fact, none of the yogis who Sakka hoped to learn from told him anything of value. Once they realised that he was the king of the gods, one and all became his disciples, instead of the other way round which had been his intention. He had to tell them what little Dhamma he understood at the time. There is an amusing irony in this episode. A god went to men he thought must be wise for answers. But, awed by his title, they assumed that Sakka must know more than they did and would not give him the help he asked for. They asked his advice instead.
Sakka has been delighted with this whole conversation with the Blessed One and says that because of it he is presently experiencing a unique happiness and satisfaction "which is not due to blows and wounds, does conduce to dispassion, detachment, cessation peace, higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nibbana." This is the direction he has longed to work towards. He has at least, with the guidance of the Blessed One, been able to make substantial progress.
The Buddha then asks what thoughts contribute to this great satisfaction. Sakka's final reply amounts to declaring he is full of joy because he will be able to continue purifying his mind in a human birth next and he is sure he will live a Dhamma life to the full and attain final Awakening before many more existences elapse.
Sakka then speaks a verse in praise of the Buddha and expressing his profoundly respectful attitude to him. Part of it goes:
I've seen the Buddha, and my doubts
Are all dispelled, my fears are allayed,
And now to the Enlightened One 1 pay
Homage due, to him who's drawn the dart
Of craving, to the Buddha, peerless Lord,
Mighty hero, kinsman of the Sun!
Sakka declares the Buddha is the unequalled teacher, unsurpassed in any of the realms of existence. A god from a heavenly plane acclaims the superiority of the Buddha and proclaims his homage to him.
The sutta then spells out something that has already been evident - during this dialogue Sakka has become a Stream Enterer, coming to really know that, "Whatever things have an origin must come to cessation." All his uncertainties about the path to final Awakening have been overcome by the Buddha's masterly replies to his questions and by Sakka's own paramis bearing fruit as he applied his quick deva-mind to what he was taught.
We too can break out of our bondage to samsara and all its misery if we apply ourselves rigorously. Whatever feelings or objects arise in the mind, whatever words we speak or deeds we do, all must be carefully watched so that we only develop those which contribute to the goal of Nibbana. Anything that helps generate detachment based on understanding the inherent impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and conditioned, non-self, nature of all experience, will take us forward. Whatever breeds greed, or ill will or delusion - of any sort or degree - can only pull us back.
Let us too pay due respect to the incomparable Buddha, teacher of gods and men, who has given us the means to conquer ignorance and craving and so eliminate all forms of suffering forever.

" Nanananda Bhikku, Concept and Reality. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971.
" Rhys Davids, T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids, trans. Dialogues of the Buddha. part 2. 1910. 5th edition. Reprint. London: Pali Text Society, 1971.
" Vajira, Sister, trans. "Sakka's Quest, Sakka-panha sutta ". Intro., trans. and comments. Wheel #10. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1964.
" Walshe, Maurice, trans. Thus Have I Heard: Long Discourses of the Buddha. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

1. All direct quotations from the sutta are from the Walshe translation. See bibliography for details of translations consulted.
2. At the end of this section the Buddha adds, "Now, of such happiness as is accompanied by thinking and pondering, and that which is not so accompanied, the latter is the more excellent. The same applies to unhappiness and to equanimity." This is a reference to jhana so we do not discuss it as few modem yogis develop those absorption states.
3. The Walshe translation (which here agrees with the older Rhys Davids one), has the Buddha use the pronoun "I" implying that he says he had discerned all this through his own experiences. Sister Vajira's translation in Wheel 10, says "if one knows" indicating only that the individual has to observe this for himself.