These kind of questions are quite common in the Buddhist texts. Once you see the answers you can see that they are cliché questions which elicit stock answers in formulaic terms. This kind of question actually has quite a long history in Indian religion. During the development of the Ṛgveda (which was composed ca 1500-1200 BCE probably on the basis of an existing oral tradition) the visionary poets (ṛṣi) would ask each other enigmatic questions. A good ṛṣi would be able to come back with an clever answer and might be selected to carry out the all important sacrifice.  These kinds of questions were called 'brahman' (grammatically neuter) . The same word came to mean the absolute enigma of existence: the Brahman which manifested as ātman in the microcosm of the human being. The personification of brahman was the creator God Brahmā (masculine). The name of the ritualist inheritors of the Vedic texts came to be 'brāhmaṇa', often Anglicised as Brahmin(s). Brahma also took on the mean of 'sacred' and was used in Buddhist terms like brahmavihāra, brahmacarya, and brahmaloka. The controversial bhikkhu who ordained four women recently is called Brahmavaṃso with no apparent irony - vaṃsa is 'race, clan, family, tradition, lineage' so the name means something like 'the race of the sacred' or having a 'sacred lineage'.
Such questioning became a feature of Indian religious life - holy men would challenge each other to answer enigmatic questions about the mysterious nature of existence, and sometimes wagered that they, and their followers, would all convert to the the religion of the one with the best answer. Obviously in the Mūlaka Sutta the procedure has become completely formulaic, but it echoes the ancient tradition. The questions asked here are quite reminiscent of similar questions in in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, for instance, and it is thought by many scholars that the Buddha knew this strand of Brahminical teaching, if not the actual text that has come down to us.
So, onto the Buddha's answers:
chandamūlakā, āvuso, sabbe dhammā, manasikārasambhavā sabbe dhammā, phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā, vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā, samādhippamukhā sabbe dhammā, satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā, paññuttarā sabbe dhammā, vimuttisārā sabbe dhammā, amatogadhā sabbe dhammā, nibbānapariyosānā sabbe dhammā’tiWe need to pause here to consider what is meant by dhammā - the plural of dhamma. As I recently discussed there are many possible meanings.  However finding the word in the plural and in this context narrows it down considerably. It has to mean 'things' or 'mental objects'. Bhikkhu Bodhi opts for 'things'. This is natural since it follows tradition, but I wonder if it really makes sense? Is every 'thing' rooted in our desire - is a mountain, is that ball point pen? Well, no. So 'things' is more likely to refer to the subjective end of existence - hence I've translated it as 'experiences', though dhammas are the units of experience (I'm still searching for a good term for this - qualia?). Regular readers will be familiar with this quirk of mine, but I think it is worth insisting on because the Buddhadhamma makes more sense generally speaking if we adopt this point of view.
Desire is the root of all experiences, they arise from attention, their origin is contact, they meet in sensation; concentration is the foremost of experiences, all experiences are mastered by being mindful, wisdom is higher than all experiences, their essence is liberation, all experiences merge in the deathless, and conclude with nibbāna.
I want to look at this text in terms of the 'truths of the nobles' (ariyasacca) : dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga.
The Buddha repeatedly stated what his teaching was about: it was not about God, or Heaven, or about any kind of absolute; it was not about how the universe began or will end. In fact he dismissed all of these subjects out of hand. The Buddha said that his teaching was about dukkha, it's cause, it's end, and how to end it. By dukkha the Buddha means all unenlightened experiences - ranging from physical pain, to the various disappointments of life, to existential dissatisfaction with the world of the senses. As I said in my commentary on Dhammapada verses 1 & 2: "Dukkha, then, is the opposite of nibbāna". In today's text the Buddha suggests that desire is at the root of all of this. Desire directs our attention which leads to contact with objects of the senses, which in turn give rise to sensations (vedanā). The text leaves unspoken the fact that it is sensations we crave, that we think of as able to last, able to satisfy desire. This is demonstrably not the case, but the idea is rooted very deeply. (I've speculated that in fact it gave an evolutionary advantage earlier in the history of the species - see Why Do We Suffer?). So these are the first two truths of the nobles: dukkha, samudaya - pain/disappointment/disatisfaction, and it's cause.
The Mūlaka Sutta deals with the third and fourth truths in the opposite order, ie with the way to end dukkha first, and then the cessation of it. Sticking to the usual order, how does this text deal with the cessation of dukkha? Firstly it says that wisdom (paññā) is higher (uttara) than other dhammas; that the essence of dhammas is liberation, they merge in the deathless and conclude with nibbāna. Paññā (Sanskrit prajñā) here is a dhamma - an object of the manas or mind. Contra to more mystical approaches to describing the enlightenment experience this is saying that there is an important cognitive aspect. Paññā is knowledge about the nature of dhammas, it is the meta-knowledge of the nature of all dhammas as anicca, dukkha and anatta - impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial. Indeed the statement that the essence (sāra) of dhammas is liberation may well prefigure the Mahāyāna idea that all dharmas are marked by śūnyatā (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā lakṣanā - The Heart Sūtra). The conclusion of dhammas comes with the extinction (nibbāna) of desire. At first sight this could be considered nihilistic - it seems to be saying that all dhammas, all experiences simply cease - and we need to say something about this. However I think what is meant here is that dhammas all have this characteristic of anicca and that if we noticed this in any dhamma, we can see it in all dhammas and this leads us inexorably towards nibbāna - paraphrasing somewhat I might phrase it that the conclusion we come to is the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion. This extinction is the end-point of suffering and disappointment because we know the true nature of experience and cannot be disappointed by it.
The way to liberation is condensed into two statements in this text: concentration (samādhi) is the foremost of experiences, all experiences are mastered by being mindful (sati). We could go further and sum this up as meditation is the way to liberation. I'm aware that some people dispute this, but as a scholar it seems clear enough to me that the Buddha's completely consistent message is that meditation is indispensable. My experience suggests that concentration is invaluable as a prelude to insight reflections - else the requisite focus, clarity, continuity of purpose and positivity are simply not enough to go deeper. Here, all dhammas are mastered by sati 'recollection'. Sati can be taken as mindfulness (awareness) generally or as one of the ten recollection (sati or anusati) meditations. I think what's intended here is the twofold distinction between samatha and vipassana. Samādhi being synonymous with the former, and sati with the latter - I'm thinking especially of the Satipaṭṭhāna style meditations.
No doubt other ways of interpreting this text are possible. I'm always intrigued, however, by the way that one formulation can be used to understand another. I think the possibility is open because all of the various formulations represent various approaches to Buddhist practice which stem from a common principle. The underlying similarity has been much clearer since taking on board Sue Hamilton's observation that the Buddha was always talking about experience. Scholars call a way of interpreting texts a hermeneutic - from the Greek hermeneuein 'to interpret'. The God Hermes was a messenger and god of speech and writing. Our hermeneutic can condition what we understand a text to be saying. The experiential hermeneutic is a key that unlocks many doors.
- Mūlaka Sutta AN x.58; PTS A v.106. My translations. Also translated by Bikkhu Bodhi Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (anthology) p.250-1. Pāli text from http://www.tipitaka.org/romn/
- uttara is the comparative degree of ud- (English 'up', or 'upwards') i.e. 'higher'; while uttama is the superlative 'highest'. Bodhi translates this as a superlative.
- There are some superficial similarities here with the monastic debates held in Geluk monasteries.
- See my trilogy on the word dharma/dhamma:
- Following K.R. Norman I take ariyasacca to be a tatpuruṣa compound meaning 'truth of the noble(s).'
image: Buddha head in banyan tree roots, Thailand. [original]