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Sutras from the Old Way – 2nd Sutra – Fingersnap

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/30/2002
In Topics: Early Buddhism, Pali Canon

This is the second talk on the Pali Canon sutras. The text referred to in the talk is the photocopied booklet “Sutras from the Old Way – Selections from the Pali Canon,” which can be downloaded as a PDF.


Sutras from the Old Way – 2nd Sutra – Fingersnap
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 30, 2002
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

“The Fingersnap” is an obscure sutra, which I wouldn’t have found without the help of my friends in the Western Buddhist Order. Sangharakshita, who’s the founder of the order, thinks it’s important, because one of the purposes of the book is to show the continuity between the Mahayana and the “Old Way,” the original way of Buddhism.

The Buddha begins by saying that the nature of mind is luminous, “This mind, oh monks, is luminous,” meaning “bright, shining, full of light.” That’s the nature of mind, but it gets obscured and covered over by defilements, but its nature is brightness. This is a saying in the Pali canon, but it’s very much like the Mahayana Buddhist idea of buddha nature that we’re all so familiar with. There’s not so much difference between saying “this mind is inherently luminous” and saying “all sentient beings have Buddha nature.”

This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by taints that come from without. But this mind the uneducated many-folk understand not as it really is. Therefore for the uneducated many-folk there is no cultivation of the mind, I declare.

So this is archaic language, but it just means ordinary people don’t understand that the nature of the mind is luminous, and that it has been covered over by defilements that are not inherent to it, that are not necessary, and can be removed. They’re not built in to the nature of mind. Quite the opposite, the nature of mind is light and enlightened, but people, not realizing this, take for granted the way that the mind appears to them, and so they don’t make the effort to remove these taints, find out how they got there, and reverse them.

So you may think, “Now wait a minute! Didn’t the Buddha teach that the nature of conditioned existence is suffering? Isn’t that the opposite of this? Doesn’t that sound like the nature of mind is not luminous but messed up?” Well, not really, because what the Buddha said was the nature of conditioned existence is suffering, but then he says that when you discover how this comes about, you can be free of that conditioning by virtue of the path.

Even though the first noble truth is rather shocking and stark in a way—”The very nature of conditioned existence is suffering”—I think it’s a way to get our attention. There are two things we really need to get, I think, in order to practice. We really need to get that, first of all, our nature is luminous, we have the potential and the nature of awakening. But also we have to get how thoroughly it’s going to take some effort to remove the taints and return to the luminous nature of our mind. So, therefore, it’s very skillful for the Buddha to have made this very strong and dismaying statement, “The nature of conditioned existence is suffering, is to be tainted.”

Then the Buddha repeats:

This mind, monks, is luminous, but it can be cleansed of these same taints that come from without. [In other words, that are not inherent to it, that they can be removed.]

This, the educated disciple understands as it really is. Wherefore, for the educated disciple, there is cultivation of the mind, I declare.

Monks , if just for the lasting of a fingersnap…

Believe it or not, “fingersnap” is a scientific term in Buddhism. It’s technically the shortest possible length of time. They were very interested in the nature of mind and time. The idea was that mind would flash into existence with all of its constellated components, would flash out of existence, and then another mind would flash into existence. We think the life we are living has continuity, but actually it doesn’t. It’s like a film. Little, still pictures flash on and off and make our life look like it’s continuous.

…you (the practitioner) would indulge…

The translation is not too good. What it means is that if, just for an instant, you stumbled by accident on the thought of goodness or a positive thought —not intending to do anything about it – you would be a true cultivator. “Monk” here means a worthy cultivator of the Way.

… not empty of result is his musing.

In other words, his or her meditation practice is worthwhile because of that one instant of a wholesome thought.

He abides doing the Master’s bidding.

This means that he’s really following Buddha’s way, just by virtue of the fact that for an instant one thought of goodness crossed his mind.

What, then, should I say of those who make much of such a thought?

So, in other words, if somebody, who just stumbles into an instant a thought of good will is a worthy person, what about somebody who does more than stumble into it, but cultivates such a thought and pursues it and strengthens it? The next paragraphs repeat the same idea with exactly the same words, except that the person is doing a little bit more in that instant. In the first instance he just bumps into the thought. In the second instance he intentionally tries to cultivate that thought of good will. In the third instance he’s cultivating it with even more diligence.

Monks, if just for the lasting of a fingersnap, a monk cultivates a thought of good will, such a one is to be called a monk. Not empty of result is his musing. He abides doing the Master’s bidding. He is one who takes advice and eats the country’s alms-food to some purpose. What then should I say of those who make much of such a thought?

The monk understanding this would cultivate and be active in trying to uncover the luminous nature of the mind.

Monks, whatsoever things are evil (better to say “unwholesome” or “leading to suffering”)

Whatever phenomena – inside or outside – are unwholesome and cause suffering. The mind is the ultimate cause of thoughts and feelings.

First arises mind as the forerunner of them, and then all the rest of the unprofitable, unwholesome things will follow.

So this is a curious and important thing here. The nature of the mind is luminous, and the taints – the defilements that mess up this luminous mind – are adventitious, which is to say they’re not inherent. They’re added from outside. And yet, at the same time, the cause of all those things is ultimately the mind itself. So that’s good! Because it means we can change the way we work with, operate with, understand, and function with our mind.

Monks, I know not of any other single thing of such power to cause the arising of all of these unwholesome suffering states when they haven’t arisen, or to cause the waning of the good states, in case they should arise, as negligence.

“Unwholesome” means lack of mindfulness, carelessness, not paying attention, not being aware. So the power of lack of mindfulness is great. And of course, the next thing is the opposite statement, which is that the power of diligent mindfulness.

Monks, I know not of any other single thing of such power to cause the arising of good states that haven’t yet arisen or to cause the waning of negative states that have arisen as earnestness. [Or, I would say, diligence in mindfulness, diligence in awareness.]

In the person who is earnest, good states, if not yet arisen, do arise, and negative states, if arisen, will wane. Monks, I know not of any other single thing of such power to cause the arising of evil states, if not yet arisen, or to cause the waning of good states, if arisen, as indolence, laziness. In the person who is indolent these negative states not yet arisen do arise and the good states if arisen o wane.

So this is a talk to the monks to spur them on to action, and hopefully it does that for us, too. We think to ourselves that it’s really the truth. These things seem true to me. Don’t they seem true to you? It really is true that people are good, that we all have within us, everyone without exception, a beautiful power of goodness. And everyone, probably without exception, has not brought that potential out to the fullest. And some of us haven’t brought it out hardly at all! So the power of a diligent mindfulness, to pay attention, can increase the light. And not paying attention can decrease it. And it’s such a beautiful thing to increase the light. Don’t we all want to do that? And don’t we want to be diligent in our practice, so that we can more and more have that kind of light and lightness in our lives?

The Buddha says that all of the negativity in the world comes from the mind, so that when we take care of our mind and our practice, on some deep and fundamental level, it’s not just our own self that we’re taking care of, but we’re reducing, to whatever extent possible, the sum total of negativity in this world, and we’re increasing, to whatever extent we can, the sum total of the light in the world.

So this is really good news, because it means that we don’t have to look in dismay at this large, out-of-control world and think, “What can we do, a poor small person such as ourselves, with very little resources and capacity to influence policy? My God it’s hopeless!” But this is saying, no, that your capacity to work with your mind and increase the light of the world matters, that it does have an effect. Maybe we don’t know exactly how or how much, but it does have an effect. It’s worth pursuing in some way for one’s own happiness, and,¡¡¡ maybe in some way that we can’t understand, the happiness of others as well.

[Question: I’ve studied Theravadin and Tibetan and Zen traditions, and my understanding is that there are a whole bunch of words for mind in Tibetan, and I have no idea whether that’s true in Pali, but when at the beginning it says “This mind, monks, is luminous,” and then later when it says that mind is what causes evil things to arise, do you think that they’re using the same word for mind there? Because it seems to me that they’re not.]

You’re bringing up a really good point, and when you’re working in translation it’s very hard to get down to that level of detail. Of course, it’s very important, but you really can’t do it because you’re dependent on the translator’s choices. But I think your point is very well taken that there are numerous words in Pali and Tibetan and Sanskrit and Chinese for mind, all of which are really fundamentally untranslatable, because we’re talking about very subtle issues here. But I think what you’re pointing out is probably quite true, that in the first instance what’s being talked about is the fundamental nature of mind, and in the second instance what’s being talked about is the mind’s manifestations as created by karma. So those to things are not exactly different from each other, and in fact there’s confusion, as far as my knowledge goes, and that’s not very far, even in Sanskrit and Pali, as in English, the same word is used to denote different things. In other words, the word citta in Sanskrit means mind and the nature of mind, and it also means a thought. So the ambiguity is, I think, deliberate, because there is no mind, as an entity, apart from the function of mind.

So sometimes you’re referring to mind as its fundamental nature, but there really isn’t such a thing as the fundamental nature of mind without the functioning of mind, because if you drop dead and there’s no functioning body, there’s no functioning mind because there’s no functioning—mind doesn’t exist without functioning. So that’s why the ambiguity is even in the original languages, and it’s on purpose. In a way, we’re looking at one thing which has many aspects that can never be separated, but in language we’re speaking of it in this aspect or that aspect, and so the confusion is kind of built in to the way things are. So thank you for bringing that up.


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