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Buddha's Words (Talk 09 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 22, 2005
In topic: Early Buddhism
Ninth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

[recording begins with talk already in progress] 

We were talking about how in Western philosophy, starting with the Greeks, there’s a distinction made between heart and mind. You trust the mind, and you don’t trust the heart. This is a basic point of view in Western thought, that the mind is rational, constant, and comes up with conclusions about the nature of reality. The emotions, on the other hand, are unreliable, inaccurate, and messy. So, therefore, it is advisable to ignore emotion, and to base your living on mind – on solid, rational thought. The root of Western thinking is: “I think, therefore I am,” not “I feel, therefore I am.” Forget about feeling. So whether it’s in Western science or religion, there’s a mistrust of feeling, a kind of repression of feeling or emotion, in favor of reasoning.

Buddhist psychology doesn’t make a fundamental distinction between the mind and the heart.  And as we all know, in Pali, in Sanskrit, in Chinese, in Japanese language, the words that are used in Buddhism to mean mind also mean heart. In other words, “mind-heart” is the actual way to translate those words, because there is no distinction between them. It’s not a hyphenated word; it’s one word.

So the way that it’s understood in Buddhism is that in any moment of consciousness, there are various factors arising in the mind. Every moment there’s some thinking, some feeling, some perceiving, and so on, and these things are all of equal importance and all in the same category. Some of it we might call emotional, some of it we might call intellectual, but they’re always mixed in together, so there’s no such thing as an emotion that would arise without some thinking associated with it. And there’s no such thing as thinking that would arise without some feeling associated with it, without some emotional content. So Western psychology and philosophy, I would say, is more theoretical and more reason-driven and idealistic than Buddhist psychology.

Some of this comes up in the text that I want to talk about tonight, in Chapter Seven, “The Path to Liberation.” The first text in Chapter Seven is “Why Does One Enter the Path: The Arrow of Birth, Aging and Death.” This is a really famous simile about the person who’s shot with an arrow.  

Thus have I heard. On one occasion, the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park. And while he was there, Malunkyaputta was sitting in meditation. [And he asked the Buddha] “These speculative views have been left undeclared, not clarified, by the Blessed One. They have been set aside and rejected by him, namely, ‘The world is eternal,’ or, ‘The world is not eternal,’ ‘The world is finite,’ or ‘The world is infinite,’ ‘The soul is the same as the body,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body is another thing,’ and ‘After death, a tathagata, a Buddha exists,’ or ‘After death the Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘Both does exist and does not exist,’ or ‘Neither exists nor not exists.’” 

Malunkyaputta was thinking, “When I was sitting in meditation these questions really started bothering me, and you haven’t cleared them up. I need you to say which of these possibilities are right. And if you do clear it up for me, then I will continue to be a monk with you, and if you do not, I will give this whole thing up because if you can’t answer these questions, what good is all this?” The Buddha replied:

How then, Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, “Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the spiritual life under me and I will declare to you the world is eternal or . . .” [etc.] 

In other words, “Did I say to you that you’re going to come and practice, and I’m going to answer these questions? Did I ever promise that I would do that?” And then Malunkyaputta said, “No, venerable sir, you did not promise that.” The Buddha says [and this is kind of beautiful, I think], “That being so, misguided man, who are you and what are you abandoning?”[He said he would abandon the path, abandon his practice with Buddha.]

So this sutra relates to what I was saying a moment ago, that in order to really take up spiritual practice you need to put theoretical concerns aside and take a look at what is actually going on in your life, and take a look at who you are and what you think you’re doing. That’s the question, not questions whether the Buddha exists after death or not, or is the world eternal or not, is the soul separate from the body or not. These are speculative, theoretical questions. What you need to ask is who you are and what are you doing.

So then the Buddha, to illustrate what he’s trying to tell Malunkyaputta, gives the simile of the arrow.

Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a person were shot by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, and clansmen and relatives brought a surgeon to treat him. And the person would say, “I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a khattiya, a brahmin, a merchant or a worker (so, first go and determine that and then pull the arrow out).” And then he would further say, “I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me, until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall, short, or of middle height, until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark, brown, or golden skinned, until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such a village, town, or city, until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a longbow or a crossbow, until I know whether the bow-string that wounded me was fiber, reed, sinew, hemp, or bark, until I know whether the shaft that wounded me was wild or cultivated, until I know with what kind of feathers the shaft that wounded me was fitted, whether those of a vulture, a heron, a hawk, a peacock or a stork, until I know with what kind of sinew the shaft that wounded me was bound, whether that of an ox, a buffalo, a deer, or a monkey, until I know what kind of arrow-head it was that wounded me, whether spiked, or razor-tipped, or curved, or barbed, or calf-toothed, or lancet-shaped. Until all these questions are answered, you cannot pull out the arrow. You must leave it in there until all of these questions are determined. 

All this would still not be known to the person who was shot, and meanwhile he would die, before all these questions were answered, because he didn’t pull the arrow out. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say thus, “I will not lead the spiritual life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me, the world is eternal or not eternal” that person would still never find out the answer to those questions and meantime would die. [So don’t waste your time. Take up the important questions now.] 

Malunkyaputta, if there is the view, “the world is eternal,” the spiritual life cannot be lived. 

Now he’s saying something a little bit different. “If there is such a view, if you had the view, if you did have the answer—you can’t get the answer, you’ll die first, but let’s say you did have the answer—the spiritual life cannot be lived. If any of these views exist, if you do have the answer, the spiritual life cannot be lived.”

So in this passage the Buddha’s going a little bit further. Earlier he said that it’s mere idleness and a waste of time to speculate on these questions. But now he’s saying it’s not only a waste of time, but if you did successfully speculate your way to an answer to these questions, it would prevent you from living the spiritual life. And this is because all these views contain hidden assumptions: the assumption that there is something that can be defined, something or someone that is separate, that is substantial and capable of understanding an independent substantial truth about the world.

In other words, there’s something dogmatic and binding in these views. And within these very views, there are lurking the assumptions that lead to our suffering. These assumptions are simply incorrect, and so the questions that come from those assumptions are just not the right questions to ask. When we ask them, and when we answer them, we will no longer have the sensitivity and the openness of mind that the spiritual life requires, because the answers will reify our sense of who we are, and that will make spiritual practice impossible. Then we’ll have dogma and we’ll have certainty, but we will not have the possibility of really opening our lives.

In the last part of the sutra, paragraphs seven through ten, the Buddha finally hammers the point home and says what he has declared:

I have declared, this is suffering. And I have declared, this is the origin of suffering. And I have declared, this is the cessation of suffering. And I have declared, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. And why did I declare those things? Because this is beneficial. This belongs to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. This leads to disenchantment (no longer being mesmerized by the world). This leads to dispassion (no longer being a slave of passion), to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvana. And that’s why I have declared those things. And that’s why I have declared what I have declared, and that’s why I’ve left undeclared what I’ve left undeclared, because the undeclared things are not beneficial, and the declared things are. 

Malunkyaputta was satisfied and delighted at the Blessed One’s words. He was convinced. 

So, these, of course, are the Four Truths, the simplest, most basic statement of the Buddha’s teaching. And what he’s saying here is they’re not articles of belief; they’re not theories; they are experiences. And the way it works is, in the very beginning you already understand the first Noble Truth. We all understand that the nature of conditioned existence is unsatisfactoriness or suffering. This is part of our human experience. Every human being knows this. Now, we can deny it, and we can try to get around it, but one doesn’t have to have faith or a smart, speculative mind to understand that there are major problems in human life – things like death and so on. These are insurmountable difficulties. So you know that already. And knowing that, the rest is for you to find out, not matters of speculation, but matters of experiential knowledge. You find out that suffering has a cause and what the cause is, and you find out that suffering can be ended. You test out the practice and the path, and you find out that it actually matters in your life. So these are not theoretical truths, these are experiential facts of life.

So one more piece and then we’re off into something else. What I think is the most lovely passage here, and also a very, very famous saying of the Buddha, is on page 240: “Good Friendship.”

Thus have I heard. On one occasion, the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans where there was a town of the Sakyans named Nagaraka. Then the venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One and paid homage to him, sat down to one side and said, “Venerable Sir, this is half of the spiritual life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship…” 

And then the Buddha famously says,

Not so, Ananda, not so, Ananda. This is the entire spiritual life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a monk has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path.

Good friendship is fundamentally the important point in the spiritual path. This is something that I am always talking about, and I think is so very important.  It is something that I have come to feel we want to stress as part of our practice at Everyday Zen – the crucial importance of dharma relationships. It is impossible to undergo this personal transformation by ourselves. This is not because we need help, not because we’re somehow incapable of doing this, and we need wiser, cooler heads to show us how. It’s because an absolutely crucial part of the process is our meeting one another, our interacting with one another, our experiencing—maybe we can use the word—“inter-subjectivity.” We can’t actually realize the path without a deep experience of inter-subjectivity, which is the only thing that will enable us to see that our inwardness and our painful felt sense of isolation and separation simply isn’t so.

Spiritual friendship with teachers as well as with sangha friends is a requirement, so that we can gradually understand and feel that we are not, and that we’ve never been, and can’t ever be, alone. It’s impossible. And this is the most profound and fundamental basis of the path. That’s why the Buddha says that spiritual friendship is the whole of the path and the foundation of the path.