It is been noticed many times that Pali Canon extensively use ideas and conceptions borrowed from Vedas and Upanishads. At that time the ideas and analogies were obvious to any educated student of Buddha’s lectures without any explanations. They were leveraged by Gautama to convey his ideas apprehensively. The analogies was lost with time and the meaning of them is not clear for a reader nowadays. Some of the analogies might even stay completely unnoticed.
Pali canon texts often compare an Arahant with a palm stump (MN 72, overall more than 70 times). Sometimes it is followed by the statement that the stump is not able to give growth anymore. ucchinnamūlaṁ – cut off at the root (some translations incorrectly translate it as “destroyed roots”) Some suttas applies the same idea to a forest (SN 7.17). A modern meticulous reader having a bit of gardening skills might get confused here as a tree stump normally gives new branches very soon if the roots are not removed. The answer here is that palm trees unable to grow new branches being cut off at the root. But it is not the end of the story.
At Buddha’s times the notion of a tree with its roots was a very familiar and recognizable analogy for one more reason. The ninth brahmana of third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (dated around or little earlier than suttas of Pali Canon) compares a person to a tree with the root of a man being his Self. The trunk and branches of the tree are false personal identity, created by the Self, rooted in the true Self and all that we consider as a being (a visible part like we consider visible part of a tree to be the tree). The death of the being is compared to the withering of the trunk and branches, and rebirth is when a tree grows again from a trunk, from roots.
Therefor a tree cut-off at the root meant that any visible false Self should be abandoned, cut off, extinguished and by means of it to end rebirths in any of the samsaric worlds. Removing the root was not an option according to Buddha though…
Sometimes people ask why is it so important to figure out what were true Buddha’s words, what was the Early Dhamma if there have been living so many enlightened Teachers since Buddha’s age? The Teachers explain us the Dhamma and teach us according to their traditions, schools and lineages and thus convey the true meaning of the Buddha words they say. Thus they equal words of teachers and Buddha’s own words. This is how the commentary tradition started. What Buddha himself thought about this?
Staying near Sāvatthī. “Monks, there once was a time when the Dasārahas had a large drum called ‘Summoner.’ Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasārahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner’s original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained. [The Commentary notes that the drum originally could be heard for twelve leagues, but in its final condition couldn’t be heard even from behind a curtain.]
“In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works—the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples—are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.
“In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—will come about.
“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”
So while the commentaries and traditions might help us to understand Buddha’s words better, we should first figure out what were the original Buddha words and compare any teachings we have heard (whatever famous and popular the teacher is) to the most extant layers of early suttas. If they match then the teacher’s doctrines should be accepted if not the Buddha words should be most important to us.
That is why it is extremely important for us to figure out what was the original Buddha’s words, the Early Dhamma.
One of the very known suttas in Pali Canon is SN 35.23. Unfortunately very often the sutta is misunderstood. Too many Buddhists tend to think that the sutta means nothing exists beyond six spheres of perception. This is not so.
An excellent comment of Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
The Commentary’s treatment of this discourse is very peculiar. To begin with, it delineates three other “All’s” in addition to the one defined here, one of them supposedly larger in scope than the one defined here: the Allness of the Buddha’s omniscience (literally, All-knowingness). This, despite the fact that the discourse says that the description of such an all lies beyond the range of explanation.
Secondly, the Commentary includes nibbana (unbinding) within the scope of the All described here — as a dhamma, or object of the intellect — even though there are many other discourses in the Canon specifically stating that nibbana lies beyond the range of the six senses and their objects. Sn 5.6, for instance, indicates that a person who has attained nibbana has gone beyond all phenomena (sabbe dhamma), and therefore cannot be described. MN 49 discusses a “consciousness without feature” (viññanam anidassanam) that does not partake of the “Allness of the All.” Furthermore, the following discourse (SN 35.24) says that the “All” is to be abandoned. At no point does the Canon say that nibbana is to be abandoned. Nibbana follows on cessation (nirodha), which is to be realized. Once nibbana is realized, there are no further tasks to be done.
Thus it seems more this discourse’s discussion of “All” is meant to limit the use of the word “all” throughout the Buddha’s teachings to the six sense spheres and their objects. As the following discourse shows, this would also include the consciousness, contact, and feelings connected with the sense spheres and their objects. Nibbana would lie outside of the word, “all.” This would fit in with another point made several times in the Canon: that dispassion is the highest of all dhammas (Iti 90), while the arahant has gone beyond even dispassion (Sn 4.6; Sn 4.10).
This raises the question, if the word “all” does not include nibbana, does that mean that one may infer from the statement, “all phenomena are not-self” that nibbana is self? The answer is no. As AN 4.174 states, to even ask if there is anything remaining or not remaining (or both, or neither) after the cessation of the six sense spheres is to differentiate what is by nature undifferentiated (or to objectify the unobjectified — see the Introduction to MN 18). The range of differentiation goes only as far as the “All.” Perceptions of self or not-self, which would count as differentiation, would not apply beyond the “All.” When the cessation of the “All” is experienced, all differentiation is allayed
On arrival, they saw the Blessed One sitting in the grove — his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore. On seeing him, they went to the brahman of the Bharadvaja clan and, on arrival, said to him, “Sir, you should know that Gotama the contemplative is in that grove over there, sitting with his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore.”
So the brahman of the Bharadvaja clan, together with the youths, went to the forest grove. On arrival, he saw the Blessed One sitting in the grove — his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore. On seeing him, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, addressed him in verse:
In the deep-looking forest,
teeming with terrors,
having plunged into the wilderness
— desolate, empty —
unflinchingly, steadfastly, compellingly,
you practice jhana, monk:
How very lovely you look!
When we feel the urge to reflect on qualities, motives of the Enlightened Being, when we try to envisage what his thought and emotions look like, we always should keep in mind that such a being is transcendent, indescribable and cannot be grasped by us.
At one time Venerable Sabhiya Kaccāna was staying at Nādika in the brick house. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went up to him, and exchanged greetings with him. When the greetings and polite conversation were over, he sat down to one side, and said to Sabhiya Kaccāna:
“Master Kaccāna, does a Realized One exist after death?”
“Vaccha, this has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“Well then, does a Realized One not exist after death?”
“This too has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“Well then, does a Realized One both exist and not exist after death?”
“This has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“Well then, does a Realized One neither exist nor not exist after death?”
“This too has not been declared by the Buddha.”
“Master Kaccāna, when asked these questions, you say that this has not been declared by the Buddha. What’s the cause, what’s the reason why this has not been declared by the Buddha?”
“In order to describe him as ‘possessing form’ or ‘formless’ or ‘percipient’ or ‘non-percipient’ or ‘neither percipient nor non-percipient’, there must be some cause or reason for doing so. But if that cause and reason were to totally and utterly cease without anything left over, how could you describe him in any such terms?”
“Master Kaccāna, how long has it been since you went forth?”
“Not long, reverend: three years.”
“Well, you’ve learned a lot already, let alone what lies ahead!”