The Potthapada Sutta is the ninth sutta in the Digha Nikaya, the collection of long discourses of the Pali Canon. It is contained in the Sila Khandha Vagga, the first 13 suttas, all of which contain reference to the Silas or minor moralities. The venue for the discourse is the Jeta Grove, Anathapindika’s park in Savatthi. Savatthi was the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, which had absorbed Gotama’s Sakyan homeland into its domain. The sutta is named for the main interlocutor, Potthapada, a paribbajako, or wandering mendicant. When Sammana (recluse) Gotama meets him, he is discussing systems of opinion with three hundred other mendicants (not Buddhists) at Queen Mallika’s Park. Gotama gets up too early one morning for his regular alms gathering and decides to stop in to find out what Potthapada and the other mendicants were discussing. Potthapada declines to share the talk that he had been engaged in (tales of kings, of robbers, of ministers of state, etc.) and puts a question to Gotama: “How then, Sirs, is the cessation of consciousness (Abhisanna-nirodho) brought about?” Potthapada explains that he has heard several different theories: that consciousness just comes and goes, that consciousness is a man’s soul (sanna hi bho purisassa atta), that powerful sammanas take it away and bring it back. He asks Gotama again, how is there cessation of consciousness?
Gotama first says that those who say it happens without cause are wrong. He then repeats the self training practices (non –Buddhist) of the Sammanaphala Sutta from renunciation to conquest of the five hindrances. He then explains the (non-Buddhist) four jhanas. Potthapada then asks another question: Is there one summit of consciousness, or several? Gotama says that there are both one and several. Getting somewhat frustrated it appears, Potthapada asks another question: Is consciousness identical to a man’s soul, or is consciousness one thing and the soul another? (sanna nu kho bhante purisassa atta, udahu anna sanna, anno atta ti) Gotama replies with a question: “Potthapada. Do you realy fall back on a soul? (kim pana tvam Potthapada attanam paccesi ti)”
This begins the first of the major sequences discussing the nature of the soul. Potthapada first says that he falls back on a material soul with form (rupi), made up of the four elements and eating solid food. Gotama points out that, if this were true, then consciousness would be one thing, and the soul another. If the soul were material, some ideas would arise and others would pass away. Potthapada then says that consciousness must be made of mind (manomayo). But Gotama maintains that the same argument must apply. Then Potthapada says that consciousness must be formless (arupim). And Gotama replies as before. Potthapada is really frustrated now. He asks, “Is it possible for me to understand?” Gotama says it IS hard for you, trained in another system. Then Potthapada asks the ten famous questions:
1) Is the world (loko) eternal (sassato)?
2) Is the world not eternal (asassato)?
3) Is the world finite (antava)?
4) Is the world not finite (anantava)?
5) Is the soul the same as the body (tam jivam tam sariram)?
6) Is the soul one thing and the body another (annam jivam annam sariran ti)?
7) Does the Tathagata live again after death (hoti Tathagato param marana)?
8) Does he not live again (na hoti . . .)?
9) Does he both live again and not (hoti ca na ca hoti . . .)?
10) Does he neither live again nor not (n’eva hoti na na hoti . . .)?
To the first of these questions (and similarly to the remainder) Gotama says “That, Potthapada is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion (Abyākataṃ (Abyākato – Undefined, unexplained) kho (indeed) etaṃ (this), poṭṭhapāda, mayā (mayo – made of) – ‘sassato loko, idameva (idam – here, now, evan; eva – Just, quit, even, only) saccaṃ (sacco – truth) moghamañña’n (mogho – vain, useless; maññati – To think, to suppose, to imagine, to consider, to esteem, to know, to believe, to understand, ti – question mark)).
Note that in the previous discussions with Potthapada the word “atta” is used to compare to consciousness. In the famous ten questions, in questions 5 and 6, the word used is “jiva”. Potthapada then asks why Gotama expresses no opinion on these questions. Gotama replies that “This question is not calculated to profit, it is not concerned with the Dhamma, it does not redound to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquillisation of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to the insight of the higher stages of the path, nor to nibbana.” This could hardly be a fuller condemnation of the kind of speculation involved in these ten questions from Gotama’s view, which is focused on the path to nibbana, to Arhantship. He is finally asked what he does determine. The answer: the Four Noble Truths. And why: because it leads to nibbana.
There follows one more sequence of discussions on the soul in this sutta. This last sequence includes Kitta, the son of the elephant trainer. The question here is a similar one: The soul is perfectly happy and healthy after death (ekanta-sukhi atta hoti arogo param marana.) Gotama’s replies focus first on the impermanence of perfect happiness. He then asks if anyone had heard the voices of gods who had realized rebirth in a perfectly happy world. He compares this question to the question of the man who wants to marry the most beautiful woman in the land. But do you know whether this person is a noble, of priestly rank, or menial birth? No. Do you know where she dwells? No. This talk is witless, is it not? He then asks his interlocutors to visualize a stairway to a mansion “where the four cross roads meet.” Isn’t it witless to imagine putting up a staircase to “mount up into a mansion you know not of, neither have seen”? “For truth, sir.”
The final moral is that the three grounds of personality (atta-patilabho): material (olakiko), immaterial (manomayo) and formless (arupo) should be put off. Only by putting these speculations aside can a person get onto the path to nibbana; for the mansion is already at the foot of the staircase, in the person of the individual. After some more discussion of the three modes of personality (When you are thinking of one, what happens to the other two? Which is real? What of the nature of these modes of personality in the past, present, and future? Which one is real?) Gotama says, “Just so, Kitta, when any one of the three modes of personality is going on, it is not called by the name of the other. For these, Kitta, are merely names . . . in common use in the world.” These words could have been uttered by the famous Greek sceptic, Sextus Empiricus. We follow the conventions of the world, putting speculation about things not seen (including, specifically, the eternity of the soul) to the side. It is noteworthy that in the last line of the sutta Kitta is said, having had the truth made know to him, to become another among the Arahants.