SN 56.31
PTS: S v 437
CDB ii 1857
Simsapa Sutta: The Simsapa Leaves
translated from the Pali by
Maurice O'Connell Walshe
Alternate translation: Thanissaro
The Pali title of this sutta is based on the PTS (Feer) edition.
Alternate format: [ icon]

At one time the Blessed One was staying at Kosambii in Si.msapaa Grove.[1] Then the Blessed One, taking a few Si.msapaa leaves in his hand, said to the monks: "What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?"

"Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous."

"In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you.[2] What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it?

"Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbaana. That is why I have not revealed it. And what, monks, have I revealed?

"What I have revealed is: 'This is Suffering, this is the Arising of Suffering, this is the Cessation of Suffering, and this is the Path that leads to the Cessation of Suffering.' And why, monks, have I revealed it?

"Because this is related to the goal, fundamental to the holy life, conduces to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment and Nibbaana, therefore I have revealed it.

"Therefore, monks, your task is to learn: 'This is Suffering, this is the Arising of Suffering, this is the Cessation of Suffering, this is the Path that leads to the Cessation of Suffering.' That is your task."


The si.msapaa, a tall and beautiful tree, is the Dalbergia sisu, also known as the Asoka tree.
This famous saying has been taken to justify the doctrines of various Mahaayaana schools, Theosophy and so on. While it may do so in many cases, the real meaning is somewhat different. The Buddha was naturally aware of many things, unknown to others, which he did not deem it necessary to teach for the gaining of enlightenment. We can accept, even without interpreting full enlightenment vulgarly as "omniscience," that the Buddha was at least potentially aware of whatever he wished or needed to know. He knew precisely which religious and philosophical doctrines that were or might be propounded were (a) true and (b) conducive to enlightenment. He borrowed nothing, as such, from previous systems because he did not need to, but he gave his approval to whatever conformed to these criteria.

It has occasionally been urged that if the Buddha was really all-enlightened, he must have been able to foresee modern scientific discoveries. In fact, he probably could have done so, but that was not his task, and he will certainly have been more aware than such critics of the dangers inherent in modern discoveries, with their power not only to destroy but also to corrupt. As a matter of fact he did not even utilize a very basic technical device which was known in his time — the art of writing. He clearly preferred that his teachings should be preserved orally by those attempting to practice them and indeed the oral tradition has continued to this day. (Cf. T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, London 1903, pp. 107ff.). There is, however, one "modern science" which the Buddha not only anticipated but far surpassed: psychology. The superiority of Buddhist psychological insights to the findings of the West can be readily verified (some examples can be found in this Anthology). Cf. Nyanaponika Thera Abhidhamma Studies (BPS 1965), and Douglas M. Burns, Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology (WH 88-89).

We may compare the saying quoted here with another, no less famous one occurring at SN 47.9 (not included in this Anthology) as well as in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Dialogues of the Buddha 16, II, 25 (= D ii, 100 [DN 16, Part Two, v. 32]): Desito Aananda mayaa dhammo anantaram abaahiram katvaa. natth'Aananda Tathaagatassa dhammesu aacariyamutthi "I have taught Dhamma, Ananda, making no 'inner' and 'outer': the Tathaagata has no 'teacher's fist' in respect of the doctrines." There is, of course, no contradiction between the two statements, which in fact point once again to the middle way between the extremes. Both equally imply that whatever else the Buddha may have been aware of about the world, he taught just what was needed for the gaining of enlightenment, holding back nothing, but refraining from imparting irrelevant information. As the life of the monks was pared down to essentials, so was the teaching.

It is fair to suggest that here, in the Pali Canon, we have the Buddhist teaching presented in its purest and simplest form, in the words of the Teacher himself. This statement is not meant to be in any way polemical, or to claim that doctrines developed in the later, so-called Mahaayaana schools are necessarily wrong. Recent research, indeed, has conclusively shown that the germ of many such doctrines can be traced back to the Pali Canon. For instance, there is little real conflict between the ideas expressed by Naagaarjuna, founder of the Madhyamika school, and the Theravaada (a school with which he was almost certainly entirely unacquainted). Likewise, while the proposition recently put forward that Zen is the "Theravaada of Japan" can scarcely be literally maintained, the idea nevertheless contains a strong element of truth, since Zen visibly represents and effort to rid later Buddhism of some of the accretions that had tended to obscure the original message. Zen, too, inclines more to something like the Arahant ideal of Theravaada than to that of the Bodhisattva. On the other hand, it should not be overlooked that the Bodhisattva career is one that is open to followers of the Theravaada school (cf. SN 12.10, n. 3 and the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi there mentioned; also the Ven. W. Rahula's Zen and the Taming of the Bull (Bedford 1978). And, as indicated in SN 55.24, n. 7, even the apparently extremist Pure Land schools with their emphasis on faith receive rather more support from the Pali Canon than is sometimes thought. In this context K. Mizuno, Primitive Buddhism, tranl. K. Yamamoto (Oyama 1969) is of interest.

Finally, in connection with the relation of "Buddhism and Science," the wise words of an American astronaut, Ed Mitchell, in a recent TV program may be quoted. He said: "Science is a methodology. As a belief system, it is disastrous." Buddhism, it may be urged, is a spiritual methodology analogous to that of physical science, which makes the acceptance of any pure "belief system" superfluous.