A Single Excellent Night

There is a lovely sutta (discourse) in the Majjhima Niaya called “A Single Excellent Night”. In it, the Buddha offers these verses:

Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead, with insight, let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come. Who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night —
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.
MN 131

The image of peacefully and mindfully observing each passing moment is so palpable that you can feel it. The simplicity is profound.

Ajahn Punnadhammo says about the jhanas that as you progress from one jhana to the next, it isn’t that you gain something new, but that something that is occurring falls away. Each subsequent jhana gets simpler. That can be said in general of the Buddhist path. There are all the complexities and complications of the unawakened life, and to the extent that we can stop the internal dialog, stop creating melodrama, stop contending with the people and the world around us, we are happier and more useful people. This echoes somewhat the Mahayana notion that we are already whole and complete and perfect. What we need to learn how to do is to shed all the things that get in our way of that perfection.

When I first read this sutta I was, of course, struck by its beauty. I was then very pleased to see that I am not the only one. The next three suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya are also about this verse. In MN 131, “Ananda and A Single Excellent Night”, Ananda recites this verse to a group of practitioners, for which he earns the Buddha’s praise.

In MN 133, “Mahā Kaccāna and A Single Excellent Night” there is one of those wonderful, magical tales. A “deity who illuminated the whole of the Hot Springs” asks the venerable Samiddhi if he knows the “summary and exposition of ‘One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night’”. Samiddhi does not know it, so he asks the Buddha to teach it to him. The Buddha recites the verse, but does not explain it in detail. This happens often in the canonical literature. The Buddha was something of a minimalist.

So Samiddhi and some of his friends go to Mahā Kaccāna, a monk of good reputation and character, and ask him for an exposition. This also happens a lot in these stories. You get the impression that the monks are pretty intimidated by the Buddha, which – I think – is pretty natural. Mahā Kaccāna then gives them a teaching in detail on the meaning of the verse. The Buddha later hears Mahā Kaccāna’s explanation of it, and praises the explanation as being equal to any the Buddha himself would have given.

The final sutta is MN 134, “Lomasakangiya and A Single Excellent Night.” In this story, a young deity named “Candana” asks the monk Lomasakangiya if he knows this teaching. Lomasakangiya  does not, but Candana remembers the stanzas and recites them. According to Candana, the Buddha had given this teaching to “the gods of the heaven of the Thirty-Three”.

After this, Lomasakangiya  “travels by stages” from Sakya to Jetavana Park where the Buddha was staying. This is quite a long way, and would have meant walking for many days. This shows the urgency that Lomasakangiya  felt about learning more about this teaching. When he gets to see the Buddha, the Buddha repeats the whole of MN 131 (more or less), and “The Venerable Lomasakangiya was satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.”

This verse could be said to contain the whole of the Buddhist path. If you only had this verse and nothing else, it would be enough.

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