A4.191 - Heard with the ear
There are four advantages from frequent verbal practice of teachings heard with the ear, from considering them in mind, from thoroughly penetrating them by view. Then when the body breaks up (dies) with confused mindfulness (not enlightened yet...) reappears in a certain group of devas. [This English translation of the sutta appears to assume the hypothetical case of a human male who has recited and studied the Dhamma to a great extent and yet not realised Nibbaana before dying. Women are similarly capable of progress and attainment (magga and phala)].
Four cases follow :
1. There the devas recite to him Dhamma verses. His memory is slow to arise, but that being very quickly realises excellence (attains Nibbaana).
2. There the devas do not recite the Dhamma verses but a human monastic who has supernormal powers, one who has attained Nibbaana travels to the deva realm (heaven) is teaching Dhamma to a group of devas. Then it occurs to that recently appeared being: "Hey, this is the Dhamma-vinaaya according to which I formally practiced the holy life." His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)...
3. There the devas do not recite Dhamma verses to him, nor does a human monastic with supernormal powers teach devas; but maybe a certain deva (probably a sotapanna or sakadagaami - beings at the first or second levels of enlightenment) is teaching Dhamma to a group of devas. Then it occurs to him: "Hey, this is the Dhamma-vinaaya according to which I formally practiced the holy life." His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)...
4. There the [previous 3 cases don't arise]... but maybe some being appearing there with a mind-made body (a deva probably from a brahma realm) is reviving the memory of another similar being. "Do you remember good sir, how we formerly used to practice the holy life?" Then other says: "I do indeed remember, good sir!..." His memory may be slow to arise, but that being very quickly reaches excellence (realises Nibbaana)...
Then there is a simile of two old friends who meet and recollect times they spent together as youths. "Say old man, do you remember the time when we recited, studied and practiced the Dhamma-vinaaya?"...
Michael's commentsThis sutta gives encouragement and motivation to those Buddhists who frequently listen to, read, study, deeply ponder the Dhamma. It is important to straighten out one's understanding of the Dhamma either by studying books, listening to discourses or conversing with wise people and most importantly through meditation - bhavanaa. This activity in itself is a high form of merit and in Paali is known as ditthijukamavasena.
It seems quite likely that if after death those who do make efforts to straighten out their understanding of the Dhamma and yet have not attained arahat will, after death and the break up of this body, appear in certain heaven realms, we can remember the Dhamma we have learned in this human life and continue our practice as Buddhists and realise Nibbaana.
Some say that heaven realms are very pleasant and distracting, full of sensual pleasures that take one away from Dhamma practice and further progress. This may be true for some beings. However, I would say that those humans who are not so obsessed by sensual pleasures in human life are likely to continue sense restraint in the heaven realms while those humans who are not so well disciplined as humans may be similarly lax in the heaven realms. There may also be many beings in the middle ground between these examples. It is a natural consequence of kamma (law of intentional actions and results).
So it is imperative that we remain diligent and strive ardently as humans so that we accumulate the momentum of kamma that will continue in the next existence, either as some kind of deity or as a human again.
I'm sure that many devas are Buddhists and will teach other devas who are ready to accept the Dhamma or who have been Buddhists in previous lives either as humans or devas. There will be many devas who are sotapanna and sakadagaami in the six sensual heaven realms and even in the brahma realms. Of course the fine material (brahma deity) pure abodes (suddhavasa) are where many anaagaami (third level of enlightenment) and some arahat (forth and final level of enlightenment) reside. Arahats in the pure abodes would have firstly appeared there as anaagaami and then later realised the higher attainment of arahat within the lifespan of their brahma body. I write this from the perspective of someone who has no clear memories of talking with any devas or brahma deities. I write this after reading the suttas and drawing reasonable inferences.
To learn more about how to practice in accord with the Dhamma, please read the Saleyyaka Sutta. It describes ten kinds of conduct: 3 kinds of bodily conduct, 4 kinds of verbal conduct and 3 kinds of mental conduct. Of all these forms of conduct, by far the most important is one kind of mental conduct: Sammaaditthi - Right View. This leads the Eightfold Noble Path and is most beneficial in leading one to develop wholesome mental states and on to Nibbaana.
[I've written this on 27 March 2010 but scheduled it to appear on the blog on 10 April 2010. I'm still on retreat until late June 2010.]