DN 13: Tevijja Sutta (The Sermon on the Threefold-Knowledge)1


This sutta tells of a time when the Buddha was travelling through the kingdom of Kosala, followed with a company of some 500 monks. They stopped on the north side of a Brahmin village named Manasākata, staying in a mango grove along the bank of the Aciravati River.

At the time, many famous Brahmins were also staying in the village, including Cankī, Tārukkha, Pokkharasāti, Jānussoni, and Todeyya. Two lesser-known Brahmins, Vāsettha and Bhāradvāja2, were taking a stroll when they began to argue with one another. "Only the Brahmin Pokkharasāti's teachings show the way to communion with Brahmā!3" said Vāsettha. "No, no," Bhāradvāja protested, "the Brahmin Tārukkha is the only one who teaches the true path to communion with Brahmā!"

Vāsettha said, "You know, I've heard that an ascetic named Gautama is staying in the mango grove to the north. People speak highly of him, saying that he is fully-enlightened, and teaches gods and men alike! Why don't we ask him to settle this? Whatever he says, we'll accept as the right answer." His friend agreed, and they walked to the mango grove.

When they reached the Buddha, they approached him, exchanged polite greetings, conversed for a bit, and then sat to the side. They explained their argument to the Buddha, and he asked Vāsettha to explain what the root of the problem was. "You see," Vāsettha explained, "there are so many different Brahmins who teach so many different things, but they all claim that their teachings lead to communion with Brahmā. For example, there are the Addhariyā Brahmins4, the Tittiriyā Brahmins5, the Chandokā Brahmins6, the Chandāvā Brahmins7, and the Bavharijā Brahmins8. Could all of these different paths lead to communion with Brahmā? Is it like many different roads convering in the center of a village?"

Body of the Sermon

The Folly of the Brahmin Teachers

As he often did, the Buddha started his answer with a question. "Vāsettha, do you think teachings like these can lead to communion with Brahmā?"9 Vāsettha answered, "Yes, Master Gautama." Twice more the Buddha repeated his question, as if to say, "Are you sure?" Both times, Vāsettha answered, "Yes, Master Gautama."

The Brahmins Have Never Seen Brahmā

"Tell me, Vāsettha - of all of the Brahmins who possess the Threefold Knowledge, have any ever seen Brahmā for themselves?" Vāsettha replied, "No, Master Gautama." The Buddha continued, "What about their teachers? Or the teachers of their teachers, for that matter? Has any Brahmin teacher spanning back seven generations ever seen Brahmā with their own eyes?" For each question, Vāsettha answered "No, Master Gautama."

"Well then, what about the ancient sages - the first ones who possessed the Threefold Knowledge, who composed the mantras you still chant to this day?10 Atthaka11, Vāmaka12, Vāmadeva13, Vessāmitta14, Yamataggi15, Angirasa16, Bhāradvāja17, Vasettha18, Kassapa19, and Bhagu20 - did these seers you revere claim to know where Brahmā is?” Once again, Vāsettha replied, "No, Master Gautama."

"So, you tell me that no Brahmins have ever laid eyes on Brahmā, not even the ancient seers, yet these Brahmins you speak of now, who possess the Threefold Knowledge, claim to teach the only path to communion with this god they've never seen? Vāsettha, doesn't this sound ridiculous?" "Yes, Master Gautama," Vāsettha replied, "I suppose it does."

"The lineages of Brahmins are like a line of blind men leading one another: the man in front knows not where they're headed, nor does the man in the middle, nor the hindmost! It's laughable that any one of them should claim to teach the only path which leads to communion with Brahmā."

“Tell me, Vāsettha - can't these Brahmins can see the sun and the moon, just like the rest of us? When either one rises in the sky, don't they pray and sing songs of worship?” "They can," he answered, "and they do." "Well," the Buddha continued, "are they able to teach the path to the sun and the moon?" "No, Master Gautama."

"They can't even lead the way to the sun and the moon, which they can see! Yet they claim to teach the path to communion with Brahmā, whom they have never seen. Isn't this ridiculous?"21 "Yes, Master Gautama, I suppose it is." "

"A Brahmin who makes this claim is like a man professing his undying love for a woman about whom he knows nothing, or a builder constructing a staircase leading up to a palace for which he has no plans."

The Useless Practices of the Brahmins

"Vāsettha, suppose the Aciravati River here had risen so high that a crow could drink from it. Imagine a man approached this side of the riverbank, wishing to cross over to the other. If he were to call out, ‘Oh, other bank! Come here! Come to me so that I can cross this river!’ Would this man ever make it to the other side?” Vāsettha said, "No, Master Gautama."

“Just so, Vāsettha, these brahmins who possess the Threefold Knowledge carry on having abandoned the noble qualities which truly make one a brahmin. Instead, they rely on futile practices not befitting a true brahmin. They call out to their gods, ‘O Indra! Soma! Varuna! Isāna! Pajāpati! Brahmā! Mahiddhi! Yama!’ These Brahmins expect to be delivered to communion with Brahmā, after death, by calling out to gods in this life—it simply isn’t possible.

"Vāsettha, suppose a second man came to the riverbank, and likewise, he wished to cross over. However, if his arms were chained together behind his back, would he make it to the far bank?" Vāsettha answered, "No, Master Gautama."

"Just so, Vāsettha, these Brahmins who possess the Threefold Knowledge are bound by the five strings of sensual stimulation: forms which meet the eye and stir desire; sounds which meet the ear and stir desire; smells which meet the nose and stir desire; flavors which meet the tongue and stir desire; and sensations which meet the body and stir desire. In the truly noble training, we see these five strings as chains - bound as they are, it is impossible for these Brahmins to cross over to communion with Brahmā upon death in this life.

"Suppose a third man wanted to cross over. If he were to lie down by the riverbank, wrapped tightly in a cloth from head to toe, would he ever make it to the far bank?" Vāsettha responded, "No, Master Gautama."

"Just so, Vāsettha, these Brahmins who possess the Threefold Knowledge are shrouded by the Five Hindrances: sense-desire, ill-will, sloth-and-torpor, worry-and-remorse, and doubt. It simply isn't possible for them, shrouded by these hindrances, to reach communion with Brahmā."

The Brahmins Are Utterly Unlike Brahmā

“Tell me, Vāsettha. Do the brahmin elders teach that Brahmā is burdened with wives and wealth? Or do they teach that he is unburdened by these things?”22 "They teach that he is unburdened by these things, Master Gautama."

"Do they teach that he is full of hatred, or that he is free from hatred?" "They teach that he is free from hatred, Master Gautama."

"Do they teach that he is filled with ill-will, or that he is free from ill-will?" "They teach that he is free from ill-will, Master Gautama."

"Do they teach that he is impure, or that he is pure?" "They teach that he is pure, Master Gautama."

"Do they teach that he has power over himself, or that he is undisciplined?" "They teach that he has power over himself, Master Gautama."

"Now, Vāsettha, tell me - do the Brahmins who possess the Threefold Knowledge share these positive qualities?" Vāsettha answered, "No, Master Gautama."

"In that case, Vāsettha, do you really believe they could be in Brahmā's company after death, despite being so far from him in ethical conduct?" Vāsettha replied, "No, Master Gautama, I suppose I don't."

“Good, Vāsettha. Such a thing is impossible. These brahmins sit down on this side of the riverbank, sinking down in despair, being torn apart, all the while thinking they will emerge on the other side. The so-called Threefold Knowledge of the Brahmins is merely a Threefold Desert, a Threefold Jungle, and a Threefold Desolation.”

The Way to Brahmā

Vāsettha seemed convinced that none of the Brahmins truly knew how to reach the heavenly realm of Brahmā, so he stated, "Lord, I have heard that you know the way to this communion with Brahmā." The Buddha once again responded with a question. “Vāsettha, consider a man who was born and raised in the village of Manasākata. If someone asked him for directions to the village, would he be confused?” Vāsettha replied, "No, Lord, because this man would surely be familiar with all of the roads."

"Even so, Vāsettha, this person would have more difficulty answering that question than I would have when asked about the Brahmā world and how to reach it. I know Brahmā, and I know the sphere in which he resides, and I know the path of practice which leads to rebirth in that realm." Vāsettha excitedly requested, "Master Gautama, won't you teach this path to us? Please, save this generation of brahmins!"

The Buddha agreed. "Very well, Vāsettha. Listen closely." Here, the sutta presents part of the Sīlakkhandhavagga Pericope, beginning with the appearance of a Tathāgata and leading up to 1st jhāna. After the 1st jhāna, the usual formula stops, and the sutta newly presents four meditations which, in other texts, are called the "Brahmavihāras" (The Abodes of Brahmā, or the Divine Abodes) and the "Appamaññas" (Boundless States).

The Four Brahmavihāras

“With a heart full of loving-kindness (mettā), he dwells, spreading it throughout the four directions, then upwards, downwards, and every which way. He dwells spreading his heart, full of loving-kindness, throughout the entire world—abundant, boundless, free from hatred and ill-will.

“Like a powerful conch-blower can easily make a sound which reverberates in every direction, so too does a heart liberated by this meditation spread outward, and no limited kamma23 can remain or persist there. This, Vāsettha, is one path which leads to communion with Brahmā."

The Buddha repeats these statements with the other three boundless meditations: compassion (karunā), sympathetic-joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā).24

A Monk's Equality to Brahmā

“Tell me, Vāsettha—when a monk practices in the way I have described, is he unburdened with wives and wealth? Is he without hatred and ill-will? Is he pure and disciplined?" Vāsettha replied, "Yes, Master Gautama - a monk who follows the path you described must have all of these qualities."

“So you acknowledge that this monk and Brahmā are both unburdened by wives and wealth, are both without hatred and ill-will, and are both pure and disciplined. Tell me this, then: is this monk like Brahmā?” Vāsettha said, "Yes, Master Gautama, I suppose he is."

“Great! Sharing these qualities with Brahmā, this monk would, after death, enter communion with Brahmā.”25


The sutta ends with Vāsettha and Bhāradvāja praising the Buddha and converting as lay disciples.

Comparison With the Chinese Canon

The corresponding sutra from the Chinese Canon is Dīrghāgama 26. I do not have access to an English translation of this sutra. I will update this section if I ever get the chance to read it.


[1] "Tevijja" means "Three Knowledges" or "The Threefold Knowledge," and in this sutta it refers to the Brahmin belief that priestly members of their caste were morally superior because they had the sole hereditary right to study and memorize the Vedas (which, in the Buddha's time, were three in number). Learned Brahmins, then, were said to possess "The Threefold Knowledge."

The Buddha, of course, refuted the idea that the Brahmins were morally superior in any sense, least of all because they studied three bodies of texts. Richard Gombrich, in his book "How Buddhism Began," raises the possibility that the versions of this sutta which have survived are missing a point which the title suggests may have been present at one time: the Buddha appropriated the idea of "The Threefold Knowledge," which in his own framework refers to three forms of powerful knowledge which one attains in the final stages of his training. These are: 1. knowledge of one's past lives 2. knowledge of the past lives of other people 3. knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and of the destruction of the corruptions. This Threefold Knowledge (as seen in DN 2 and other suttas) is superior to that of the Brahmins.

An in-depth analysis of the Vedas, even restricted to the three which were well-established in the Buddha's time, is beyond the scope of this page. Still, I think a general summary is in order.

The Vedas are a collection of texts spanning a wide span of time and compiled from various traditions and peoples. They include the oldest Indo-European texts, the hymns of the Rg Veda, which date as far back as 1500 BCE. These hymns are addressed to ancient gods, composed by a relatively mysterious group of Indo-Aryans whose exact identity, culture, and history is a matter of debate.

Many later texts are also included, however. The bodies of work collected in the Vedas reflect the diverse religious traditions of the most ancient Indo-Aryans who composed the hymns, as well as the later Brahminical religion of the Buddha's time in addition to some of the rival ascetic traditions which were developing alongside Buddhism. More recently, the Vedas have provided the foundation for the many religious traditions which would come to be called "Hinduism."

The 3 Vedas which were well-established in the Buddha's time were the Rg Veda, the Sāma Veda, and the Yājur Veda. After the Buddha's time, a 4th Veda was introduced: the Atharva Veda. Furthermore, these texts had subdivisions: in the Buddha's time, there were the Samhitas, the Brāhmanas, and the Āranyakas. A 4th subdivision was crystallizing in the Buddha's time, known as the Upanishads.

Since the Vedas include such a wide variety of texts compiled from different times and traditions, trying to summarize what each of these parts "is about" is difficult. The subdivisions introduce a lot of overlap between the "subjects," and I am by no means educated enough to distill any part of this massive body of work into a bite-sized summary. Instead, I will list a couple of ideas from these texts which seem to have been most influential on the Brahminical religion which was so often the point of ridicule of the suttas:

First, the hymns of the Vedas present the cosmos as being under the influence of a host of deities, and humanity is understood to be divided into social classes as the result of a great primordial sacrifice conducted by the gods. The Brahmins, born from the mouth of the sacrifical body, were the supreme members of society and they were expected to be responsible for learning the hymns, mantras, and sacrifical rites which were central to their religion. In those parts of society where the Brahmins were influential, everyone else depended on them for their religious needs.

As we see in this sutta, by the Buddha's time, an idea had developed that one could achieve liberation from suffering by being reborn in the company of Brahmā, understood to be the highest god, creator of the universe. However, this belief must not have been standardized or codified yet, because the two Brahmins who serve as "the main characters" of this sutta are confused by the sheer variety of interpretations which they have heard regarding how to achieve this salvation.

[2] These two appear in a few other places in the suttas. The Vāsettha Sutta, found at MN 98 as well as Sn 1.7, is structured very similarly to this one. It even ends the same way, with the two declaring themselves as lay converts, which raises a question - which of these texts came first? Buddhaghosa claimed that the Vāsettha Sutta came first. Piya Tan, in his translation of DN 13, has also pointed out that in this text, Vāsettha does not address his friend Bhāradvāja as "bho," or "sir," despite doing so in the Vāsettha Sutta. He suggests this indicates the beginnings of departure from Brahminism after what must have been an earlier encounter with the Buddha, which would also support DN 13 occuring after the Vāsettha Sutta. They also appear in DN 27, the Aggañña Sutta, at which point they have already joined the order of monks. This allows us to establish a relatively reasonable timeline for these three suttas: MN 98/Sn1.7 came first, then DN 13, and finally DN 27.

[3] This is a curious point which warrants explanation. "Communion with Brahmā" is translated from "brahmasahavyatā." As noted by Piya Tan, in the entirety of the Pali Canon this term exclusively and explicitly refers to rebirth in the heavenly realm of the host of Brahmā. In later Vedic philosophy, specifically that found in the Upanishads (which, as stated earlier, were beginning to form during the Buddha's time), the idea is somewhat different: instead of "Brahmā," a singular masculine noun referring to what Brahmins believed to be the creator god, the Upanishads speak of "Brahman," a neuter noun referring to an ineffable cosmic reality. In the Upanishads, the goal is not rebirth into some heavenly realm, but a gnostic liberation from rebirth by achieving permanent mystical union with this Brahman. Again, Piya Tan points out that this latter interpretation seems to have been completely unknown to Indian Buddhists, as the idea of "Brahman" is never addressed in Indian Buddhist sources.

We are left to assume that, in the Buddha's time, either: A) this idea had not yet developed, or B) it had developed, and Buddhists were not aware of it. Piya Tan speculates that, due to the exclusive nature of the Upanishads and the way they were taught - "Upanishad" meaning something like "close-up sessions" or "sitting near the master" - the Buddha and early Buddhists at large likely didn't encounter this idea in a way which would have been significant in such an early stage of its development. K. N. Jayatilleke, in "The Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge," claims that the idea of Brahmā we see here in DN 13 accurately reflects a stage of the tradition's evolution. John J. Holder, in "Early Buddhist Discourses," however, seems to suggest that the idea of Brahmā found here in DN 13 is actually a later development - a departure from the mystical idea of Brahman to a more easily-approachable theological salvation. I don't know enough to say one way or another.

[4] Here, the sutta lists several "śākhās," or schools/branches of Vedic thought. The works of these schools would come to be syncretized into the larger Vedic framework, but as demonstrated in this sutta, they initially represented separate (and often competing) lines of thought.

The Addhariyā Brahmins seem to have been the sacrifical priests, the Adhvaryu Brahmins, who were responsible for the details of rituals such as ensuring the measurements of materials involved in sacrifical rites were in accordance with traditional requirements. Jayatilleke, quoting Weber, notes that this is the "White Yajurveda" school, who produced the Brhadāranyaka Upanishad and the greater Śathapatha Brāhmana which contains it. Sujato, in "History of Mindfulness," points out that this is the earliest Upanishad.

[5] Jayatilleke identifies this group as the "Black Yajurveda" school, who produced the Taittirīya Brāhmana.

[6] Jayatilleke identifies this group as the Chandogas of the Sāma Veda school, who produced the Chāndogya Brāhmana as well as the Chāndogya Upanishad contained therein.

[7] Interestingly, this school is omitted in some translations. Sujato does not include it in his translation, and Jayatilleke acknowledges it in his book, but simply notes that whatever group this term refers to is so obscure as to be unworthy of discussion.

[8] This final term has two possible readings. The one I've chosen in this synopsis is the one favored by Rhys Davids and Sujato. Jayatilleke notes that the Bavharijā Brahmins, also known as the Bahvrcas, were the earliest Brahmins of the Rgvedic school. They were responsible for the Bahvrcas Brāhmana, which has been lost to time, though parts of it were incorporated into the Aitareya and the Kauśītaki Brāhmanas.

Walshe and John J. Holder, however, favors the alternative reading: "Brāhmacariya," translated by the latter as "those Brahmins who live the holy life." This term is applied more generally to individuals who live chaste, holy lives. Rhys Davids, quoted by Walshe in his own translation of DN 13, acknowledges the possibility of this alternative reading, as well as its implication: this term would contrast the other sorts of Brahmins, reliant on liturgy and sacrifice for their salvation, with Brahmins who had gone forth to pursue more discipline-focused paths.

[9] This passage, translated literally, uses the phrase "lead out," as in, the paths taught by these teachers "lead out" of the world of suffering and towards rebirth in the company of the god Brahmā. The literal translation would have the Buddha asking, "You say they lead out, Vāsettha?" when questioning the Brahmin.

[10] Here, the Buddha is making reference to 10 Vedic sages known as "rishis." There are differing lists of rishis which have existed in different Vedic traditions, and the most common one concerns the "Saptarishis," or Seven Sages. In any case, rishis were believed to have composed some of the bodies of work in the Vedas, often with the impetus of divine revelation.

Later Buddhist tradition would incorporate these figures into a more explicitly Buddhist framework. For example, the commentary claims that these rishis had achieved the "divine eye," a meditative attainment whereby one gains supramundane vision, and they had gained insight into the teachings of Kassapa Buddha - the Buddha who came before our own Gautama Buddha - and they used this knowledge to incorporate his teachings into the Vedas, which were later corrupted by unwise Brahmins. In the Vinaya, as well, the Mahavagga portrays the Buddha honoring these sages by saying that this true, uncorrupted form of the Vedas had been revealed to them. These texts are clearly the products of later developments, because as we see in this sutta, the Buddha has no such praise to give to the Vedic sages in the early scriptures.

[11] Piya Tan notes that this name either refers to Ashtavakra, or is a corrupted reading of Atri.

[12] Piya Tan notes that this name is unintelligible, and cannot be easily attributed to any known Sanskrit name for any rishi from traditional lists.

[13] See note 12.

[14] Vishvamitra.

[15] Jamadagni.

[16] Angiras.

[17] Bharadvaja.

[18] Vasishtha.

[19] Kashyapa. This was a common Indian name, and should not be confused with the Buddha who shares the same name, mentioned in one of the above notes.

[20] Bhrigu.

[21] Richard Gombrich, in "How Buddhism Began," claims this is a rib making fun of the ascetic belief (which we find crystallized in the Upanishads) in the "two paths" after death: the sun, referring to union with Brahmān (see note 3), and the moon, leading to further rebirth in the cycle of suffering.

[22] Walshe notes that the term here is “saparigaha,” which can mean both “married” and “encumbered” according to the Pali English Dictionary. Walshe points out that the sutta is using the dual-meaning to imply both senses of the word.

[23] "Limited kamma" (pamāna katam kammam) is interpreted in the commentary as kamma/actions performed in "this sensuous sphere," or the sphere of sense-desire which contains most forms of life with which we are familiar (humans, animals, etc). Piya Tan, quoting Comys, supports this interpretation. This type of kamma should be understood as opposed to "unlimited kamma" (appamāna katam kammam) which refers to kamma/actions performed in the form-sphere by way of dwelling in the jhānas. It is "unlimited" in the sense that it is augmented by the spreading of the "heart" or "mind" outwards in all direction in these meditations.

The idea, here, is that the greater kamma produced by practicing these Boundless States sort of "overpowers" the lesser kamma of acts performed in the sense-sphere, allowing a person to overcome the effects of previous unskillful actions and achieve rebirth in the form-sphere in the Brahmā-realm.

Piya Tan also notes that, on a more mundane level, becoming established in this practice empowers a person to be morally strong enough to avoid committing misdeeds and breaking the Buddhist precepts. Similarly, it allows a person to more easily and skillfully correct their actions should they commit a misdeed after all. He then points to AN 10.28 (the Karajakāya Brahmavihātra Sutta) for further examples of the potential these meditations have to limit the effects of kamma.

[24] As is often the case in the suttas, these terms are presented without elaboration. The commentaries draw the following distinction between "loving-kindness" and "compassion": loving-kindness refers to the desire to ensure the well-being and happiness of others, while compassion is the desire to remove all harm and suffering for all beings. The Pali-English Glossary says that loving-kindness is a deep wish for others to be happy, while Access to Insight says that compassion is an aspiration to be helpful to others (as well as oneself, presumably with the understanding that this will also enable one to help others).

Sympathetic joy refers to feeling joyous at the happiness of others. Equanimity has been discussed in other previous suttas - basically, it is a state of impartial serenity, where one is unmoved by things which could be attractive or repulsive.

[25] Gombrich makes the claim that the Buddha used this idea of being reborn in the company of Brahmā as a metaphor for enlightenment, and that this subtlety was overlooked by later monastic compilers and commentators, who interpreted this literally.

Piya Tan and Bhikku Bodhi both disagree with him, and I find the case against Gombrich far more convincing. They point out that DN 17, MN 83, and MN 97 all state that the Brahmavihāras themselves do not lead to nibbāna. Furthermore, if what Gombrich proposes is true, it would mean that paññā (insight) is unnecessary for enlightenment, since the Brahmavihāras do not produce this attainment. This is completely inconsistent with the suttas.

However, in MN 52 we find a list of 11 ways to achieve nibbāna/the "death-free" state (amata). These are the 4 jhānas, the 4 Brahmavihāras, and the first 3 formless attainments. At first glance, this may suggest that the Brahmavihāras can, in fact, lead to enlightenment, but Piya Tan explains that the way the Brahmavihāras enable enlightenment is indirect. It is not the achievement of the states themselves which leads to enlightenment, but through insight gained from reflection on these states after emerging from them. Specifically, this involves the realization that the Brahmavihāras are "mind-made," impermanent, dukkha, and not-self. This can lead to a habitual reflection and change in perception, which empowers us to not be so easily swayed by experiences which could be desirable or repulsive, or even lulled into ignorant indifference by neutral experiences. A mind empowered this way is mindfully aware of the impermanence of such experiences.

Piya Tan also points out that all 10 suttas of the Okkanta Samyutta declare that these practices - whether done with faith or wisdom - will bring someone to the state of a "stream-winner," wherein one has achieved "Right View" and a powerful confidence in the Buddha's teaching. Such a person is said to have achieved the "Dhamma Eye," direct insight into impermanence, and will never again be reborn into the hellish realms, the realm of hungry ghosts, or the animal realm. They are set irreversibly on the path to enlightenment within, at most, seven lifetimes.