Translating Classical Buddhism to Modern English

The Numerical Discourses

Chapter 50: Venerating the Three Jewels

8. The Snake Parable

1. Thus I have heard:[1] One time, the Buddha was staying at Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park in Jeta’s Grove of Śrāvastī.

Phalguna’s Mistake

2. It was then that the monk Mūlaphalguna was traveling together with the nuns, and the nuns also were enjoying traveling with him. When people criticized the monk Mūlaphalguna, then the nuns felt resentful, saddened, and unhappy, and if someone criticized the nuns, then the monk Mūlaphalguna also felt saddened and unhappy.

3. A group of monks then told the monk Phalguna, “Now, what are you doing associating closely with the nuns? Are the nuns having affairs with you?”

Phalguna replied, “Now, I understand what the Tathāgata has taught and instructed about sexual violations. The transgression is not worth speaking about.”

4. That group of monks again told him, “Stop! Stop, monk! Don’t say those words. Don’t misrepresent the Tathāgata’s teaching. Someone who misrepresents the Tathāgata’s teaching incurs a transgression that’s not trivial. Moreover, the Bhagavān has in countless ways explained the defilement of lust. For someone to engage in lust and hold that it’s no transgression would never make sense. You can abandon this bad view now that will bring you a long time of suffering that’s measureless.” This monk Phalguna still carried on affairs and didn’t correct his behavior.

5. That group of monks then went to the Bhagavān, bowed their heads at his feet, and said to him, “In Śrāvastī, there’s a monk named Phalguna who has been having affairs with the nuns. The nuns and the monk Phalguna are still carrying on their affairs, coming and going. We went to him and encouraged him to correct his behavior. Still, the two have increased this behavior and haven’t abandoned their mistaken views, nor are they following the work of the right teaching.”

The Bhagavān told a monk, “You, go to that monk Phalguna and tell him, ‘The Tathāgata summons you.’”

6. That monk then accepted the Tathāgata’s instruction and went to the monk Phalguna. “You should know that the Tathāgata has summoned you.”

7. The monk Phalguna heard what that monk said and immediately went to the Bhagavān, bowed his head at his feet, and sat down to one side. The Bhagavān then asked that monk, “Have you been associating closely with the nuns?”

That monk replied, “Yes, Bhagavān.”

8. The Buddha told the monk, “You are a monk. How can you be having affairs with nuns? Are you not a clansman who shaved off his hair and beard, put on the three-garment robe, and left home [813a] to train on the path with firm faith?”

The monk Phalguna said to the Buddha, “Indeed, Bhagavān. I am a clansman who left home to train on the path with firm faith.”

9. The Buddha told the monk, “This is not your teaching. How can you be having affairs with the nuns?”

The monk Phalguna said to the Buddha, “I’ve heard what the Buddha has taught about those who practice lust. When their transgression is concealed, it’s not worth speaking about.”

10. The Buddha told the monk, “You fool! How does the Tathāgata teach that practicing lust is no transgression? I’ve explained the defilement of lust in countless ways. How do you claim, ‘The Tathāgata teaches that lust is no transgression’? You’d do well to guard against verbal mistakes, then there’d then be nothing to make you constantly suffer a long time for that transgression.”

11. The Buddha told him, “You will desist now. Do I need to ask the monks as well?”

12. The Bhagavān then addressed the monks, “Have you heard me teach the monks and say that lust is no transgression?”

The monks replied, “Indeed, Bhagavān. We have not heard the Tathāgata teach that lust is no transgression. The reason is that the Tathāgata has explained the defilement of lust in countless ways. If someone says it’s no transgression, that wouldn’t be true.”

13. The Buddha told the monks, “Good! Good, monks! As you say, I’ve explained the defilement of lust in countless ways.”

The Parable of the Snake

14. The Bhagavān then addressed the monks gravely, “All of you should know this: Suppose there’s a foolish person cultivating the practice of this teaching, which means the sūtras that are songs, verses, assurances, circumstances, records, legends, births, extensive discourses, unprecedented things, lectures, and explanations, and they don’t understand their meaning even though they recite these teachings. By not examining their meaning and not following their principles, this person never practices the teachings as they should be followed. They recite these teachings wanting to argue with others, devising ways of victory and defeat, but they haven’t crossed over [to the other shore] themselves. After they recite the teachings, then they violate the rules.

15. “It’s like someone who leaves a village in search of a dangerous snake. If they see an enormous snake, they grab its tail with their left hand, but that snake’s head twists around to bite them. As a result of that, their life may well end. This person is likewise. Suppose a foolish person studies the teachings in the twelvefold sūtras and doesn’t do it adequately for any one of them or examine their meaning. The reason is that they make use what’s not the ultimate meaning of the correct teaching.

16. “Here, suppose a good son preserves and studies those teachings, which are the sūtras, songs, verses, assurances, circumstances, records, legends, births, extensive discourses, unprecedented things, lectures, and explanations. After that man recites these teachings, he deeply understands their meaning. By understanding the deep meaning of the teachings, he follows their instructions without any shortcomings. He doesn’t recite and study the teachings with the idea of victory or defeat or to argue with others. Those who recite and study the teachings want to collect and cultivate their investigations. Those who recite the teachings as a result have the aspiration to bring about the causes and conditions that gradually arrive at Nirvāṇa.

17. “It’s like someone who leaves the village looking for a dangerous snake. After seeing the snake, they use a metal fork to first pin its head. After that, they grasp its neck to prevent it from moving. If that dangerous snake were to twist around wanting to hurt the person, it’ll never reach him. That’s the reason, monks, that they grasp it by its neck. This good son is likewise. Reciting and studying the teachings, there’s none that he doesn’t penetrate. He examines their meaning and follows their principles without any shortcomings. Because of these causes and conditions, he gradually arrives at Nirvāṇa. That’s the reason he grasps the correct teaching.

18. “Therefore, monks, those who understand my meaning should mindfully approve of it. Those who don’t understand it should come repeatedly and question me. Make use of the Tathāgata while he’s present; regret won’t be of help to you later.”

19. The Buddha then told the monks, “Suppose a monk in this great assembly said, ‘I fully understand the precepts taught by the Tathāgata. For those who practice lust, when the transgression is concealed, it’s not worth speaking about.’ The other monks should say to this monk, ‘Stop, stop! Don’t say these words. Don’t misrepresent the Tathāgata’s words and discourses. The Tathāgata would never say that.’

20. “If this monk corrects his violation, that’s good. If he doesn’t correct his behavior, then he should be admonished in this way three times. If then he corrects himself, that’s good. Supposing he doesn’t correct himself, he is fallen. If a monk again conceals his affairs and isn’t open about them, them such a person is fallen. This, monks, is my ruling.”

21. The monks who heard what the Buddha taught then rejoiced and approved.


  1. Parallels include MN 21, MN 22, MĀ 193, and MĀ 200. [back]

Translator: Charles Patton

Last Revised: 7 July 2021