Discourse Scholarship Teaching

MN 139, Part 5: Subhūti

Maybe it’s not really about Subhūti?

Greetings, Friendlies!

Part 2 of this series was a personal synopsis of the sutta. I understood the discourse to cover three categories: Cultivating Self, Communicating With Others, and Seeking Good Influences.

I don’t know if it’s obvious why I chose the heading for the third category, “Seeking Good Influences”, but the process of getting there was important for me. Sharing in case it’s useful.

In the sutta translations, the last thing Gotama says is “mendicants, Subhūti … practices the way of non-conflict.”

I asked, Okay, who’s this Subhūti fellow? Off to Wikipedia and a hagiography about some dude… Eh, I thought, dismiss and move on.


Included in the Bodhi College CPP coursework is an essay by Akincano Weber, “On Reading the Suttas”. (Trying to locate a shareable copy; you’ll hear about it if I am successful.)

Among many many other wise things, Akincano recommends a four-level reading of a sutta:

i) Level of understanding – Here the task of reading is my honest attempt to communicate with the literal statements of the text: … What does the text literally state? … Can I paraphrase what I have understood in my own terms?

ii) Level of meaning – Here I adopt for my reading the perspective of the characters in the text: … How do the participants of the situation understand the statements made?

iii) Level of personal perception – What do the statements I have understood in the foregoing steps mean to me and in my time?

iv) Level of interpretation – … What practical effect has this text on my understanding, my actions and behaviour?

When I re-approached MN 139 via this four-level framework, my empathy, and therefore my reading, was quite different. This may be most obvious in my organizing the synopsis, not according to the order presented in the sutta, but into categories that made sense given my present understanding.

In the third category (Seeking Good Influences), I don’t mention Subhūti. Why? Because of Levels ii and iv above.

Level ii: why did Gotama mention Subhūti to these mendicants? He was reminding them that there was one among them who embodied the traits Gotama was speaking of.

Gotama did not refer to some great person of the past for the mendicants to imagine and deify and pedestalize. He referred to one of their own. This is a living person who embodies, in the present, in daily life, traits that Gotama believes worthy of emulation.

From a Level iv perspective then, it is not following Gotama’s instruction if I research Subhūti on Wikipedia and read about him in the Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names.

What I understand is: it’s not about virtuous figures in the past. Go out in the world and find people who embody the characteristics which you think are skillful and wise, and associate with those people. Let your mirror neurons, and the natural tendencies of human beings to become like those around them, let your admiration of skillful beings work on you and help you develop on your path.


With friendliness!

2 replies on “MN 139, Part 5: Subhūti”

Shannon, the final lines of your post remind me of the Dhammapada’s repeated instructions to choose only wise companions, and to not associate with fools. Thank you for sharing a thumbnail of Akincano’s advice for understanding suttas. One reason the suttas have weathered the test of time, I think, is because they are repeatedly meaningful – in different ways – as we continue to evolve. It’s like every reading of a familiar sutta is “new” in some way, because I have changed since the prior reading. So, different ideas resonate anew. Familiar words take on new meanings in light of my impermanence. I love that about the suttas.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s