Kukkuravatika Sutta: The Dog-duty Ascetic MN 57

Again, drawing from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s excellent series on the Majjhima Nikaya, today we take a look at MN 57, Kukkuravatika Sutta: The Dog-duty Ascetic. This is the second sutta covered by Bhikkhu Bodhi under the heading of the Ethical Life (click for the page with audio).

This sutta has drawn some attention by Buddhist ethicists in recent years, starting with Peter Harvey’s An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000), and more recently in a 2005 article in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics by Martin Adam.

The sutta is interesting to those authors (and me) for two reasons. First, because it presents the Buddha giving something appearing to be a character consequentialist reading of kamma. Character consequentialism holds that what is morally important is the result of our actions and that our habits or personality is the place we should focus on in deciding the goodness of actions.  That is, we don’t look so much at the results of our actions, but at the kind of person we will be/become through those actions. And second because the Buddha gives a fourfold breakdown of kamma based on the act and its results.

As a bit of a history lesson, the sutta is interesting as well. It features two ascetics, Punna and Seniya, described as an Ox-duty ascetic and a Dog-duty ascetic respectively. These were ascetics in the Buddha’s time, and Bhikkhu Bodhi verifies that the tradition continues to this day in some places, who emulated the behavior of certain animals with the belief that this would burn off karma – thus leading to a higher rebirth (or liberation?). I don’t know much about the specifics of their reasoning or history, so if anyone can point me to more info, I’d much appreciate it.

From the dictionary of Pali Proper Names, we find:

5. Punna Koliyaputta

A naked ascetic (Acela) who visited the Buddha at Haliddavasana, together with Seniya Kukkuravatika. Punna questioned the Buddha regarding the practices of Seniya, while Seniya did likewise regarding those of Punna. The discussion is recorded in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (q.v.). At the end of the discussion, Punna declared himself a follower of the Buddha. He is called Govatika (one who behaved like a cow) (M.i.387 ff). Buddhaghosa says (MA.ii.624) that, in order to support his bovine character, he wore horns and a tail and browsed on the grass in the company of cattle.

1. Seniya. A naked ascetic who practised the “Canine vow,” behaving like a dog. After his visit to the Buddha, as recorded in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (q.v.), he joined the Order and, in due course, became an arahant. M.i.387ff. 

In the discourse, Punna points out Seniya and asks the Buddha what will become of him (in future births). The Buddha, at first reluctant, finally says that someone acting like a dog in this life will be reborn as a dog. And if that person does the dog-activity for spiritual reasons, thinking it will lead to a higher rebirth, he is wrong (has wrong-view) and thus will wind up either in hell or in an animal rebirth. (*no form of birth is permanent in Buddhism, including hell/heaven.)

Upon hearing this, poor old Seniya burst into tears and points at Punna (the ox-duty ascetic) and asks the Buddha what will become of him. Again hesitant, the Buddha finally states that his fate is the same: act like an ox and you’ll be reborn an ox. The Buddha actually states that if Punna perfects his ox-duty, he’ll be born as an ox and if not, then he’ll be born in hell. At this point Punna burst into tears too. A pretty emotional sutta, one must say. You can imagine these two men, who have literally devoted their entire lives to a practice that the Buddha, in whom they have great confidence, has deemed unprofitable. But, Punna goes on:

Evaṃ pasanno ahaṃ, bhante, bhagavati; pahoti bhagavā tathā dhammaṃ desetuṃ yathā ahaṃ cevimaṃ govataṃ pajaheyyaṃ, ayañceva acelo seniyo kukkuravatiko taṃ kukkuravataṃ pajaheyyā’’ti.

It is clear to me thus, Venerable One, Blessed One, that “the Blessed One may proceed thus in preaching the Dhamma such that I may abandon the activity of an ox, and even this naked Seniya the dog-behavior one (or Dog-duty ascetic) may abandon that dog-behavior.” 

This gives occasion for the Buddha to lay out his four-fold division of kamma:

  1. Dark acts with dark results (kammaṃ kaṇhaṃ kaṇhavipākaṃ)
  2. Bright acts with bright results (kammaṃ sukkaṃ sukkavipākaṃ)
  3. Both dark and bright acts with both dark and bright results (kammaṃ kaṇhasukkaṃ kaṇhasukkavipākaṃ)
  4. Neither dark nor bright acts with neither bright nor dark results; which lead to the cessation of acts/kamma (kammaṃ akaṇhaṃ asukkaṃ akaṇhaasukkavipākaṃ, kammakkhayāya saṃvattati)

Basically, good acts, bad acts, mixed, and a peculiar fourth category: acts that lead to the cessation of acts. Bhikkhu Bodhi draws from Buddhagosa’s commentary and suggests that the last of these refer to either the cultivation of the Seven Factors of Awakening or the Noble Eightfold Path.

On a very (to my mind) non-consequentialist note, bright and dark acts are defined not by the results themselves but by the mindstate that precedes them. The second category is defined specifically as avyāpajjha, originating from a mind, body, or speech of kindness and non-harm. What matters is not that they happen to create good results, but instead they originate from a ‘good will.’ The criterion for goodness is not in the result, but the motivation from which the act originates.

Returning to the sutta, both Punna and Seniya are pleased with the Buddha’s words and become his followers, Punna as a lay follower and Seniya as a novice monk. Bhikkhu Bodhi describes some of the politics or customs around why the Buddha then puts Seniya on probation rather than admitting him right into the Sangha. But Seniya shows great devotion to the Buddha, who then in fact does welcome him into the Sangha and the whole sutta ends saying that not long afterward he gained awakening.


Thus is the Dog-duty Ascetic sutta. It, like countless others, depicts a Buddhist worldview in which kamma (actions) and rebirth are intimately connected. Failing to understand this connection seems to be the major wrong-view of early Buddhism (as couched in the Eightfold Noble Path; whereas asmi-mana ‘conceit-I-Am’ is generally stated as the last bit of ignorance to be overcome on the path to awakening, the most subtle of delusions). While the Buddha often states that we cannot know with certainty the kammic causes that have led to our current circumstances and that only an awakened one can clearly see the future of beings based on their actions -more on that later- it seems clear that kamma is foundational to all that we experience, all that we do, all that we are.

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