This is the third 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 – 3rd Sutra – Kessaputa
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 30, 2002 (Part 2)
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
I will briefly summarize for those who weren’t here last time. The Buddha comes to a town, and the people in the town have a question for him. They say that many, many sages have been coming through town telling them their doctrines, and, at the same time, denigrating the doctrine of the person who just was through before him or her. They are confused about that and want to know, How do you tell, when people are saying all these different doctrines that contradict each other, how do you know what’s true and what’s not?
So the Buddha says to them,
Do not be misled by report or tradition or hearsay. Don’t be misled by proficiency in the collections (meaning the scriptures) nor by logic or inference nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor out of respect for someone who gives the doctrine.
Reject all those things as criteria for the truth. Instead, know for yourself the following: Those things that are unprofitable (meaning that they would lead to suffering and anguish), those things that are blameworthy that would be understood by anybody to be blameworthy, those things that are censured by the intelligent people, these things, when you do them, will produce loss and sorrow.
So those things you should reject.
Then the Buddha shifts the ground of the conversation from metaphysics and philosophy to conduct. He says that the only thing that’s important is conduct. Conduct that creates suffering and confusion should be set aside. You will know for yourself, by your own experience, what kind of conduct that would be. The Buddha engages in a dialogue with them, in which, by checking with their own experience, they become clearer that when they act out of attachment, aversion, or confusion, and when their minds becomes attached to these states and these attitudes, they start acting in shabby ways.
So it’s clear that the most important thing is not to ascertain which doctrine is true and which doctrine is not true. The most important thing is to understand one’s own behavior and to know what causes suffering and what doesn’t cause suffering. One knows for oneself, not by listening to someone else, not by inference, not by scriptures, not by anything other than one’s own experience.
The next part is the same dialogue, except from the reverse point of view. In other words, in the previous dialogue, the Buddha spoke about attachment, aversion, and confusion as being states of mind that will lead to unprofitable actions and suffering. Now he’s talking about actions that flow from the absence of attachment, the absence of aversion, and the absence of confusion. The Buddha says that a person who is not overcome by attachment, not overcome by greed, having his mind under control, ceases from killing and stealing and breaking all sorts of moral rules. When a person is free from this kind of attachment and greed, doesn’t the person refrain from breaking all kinds of laws and precepts? What about when a person is free from aversion? Does that person break precepts and want to harm others and do all kinds of nefarious things? No, that person doesn’t.
Now Kalamas, the person who is a disciple, freed from grasping and malevolence ,who is not bewildered but is self-controlled (in other words peaceful and not irrationally flailing around in all directions) and mindful, with the heart possessed by good will, by compassion, by sympathy, by equanimity that is widespread, grown great and boundless, free from enmity and oppression, such a person, who has these qualities, abides suffusing one quarter of the world therewith, and likewise the second, third, and fourth quarter of the world.
He’s suggesting that based on the absence of attachment, aversion, and delusion, the Kalamas practice the cultivation of a boundless good will – usually translated as loving-kindness, or as metta, which is Pali for compassion, sympathy, and equanimity.
Compassion means that when I confront someone who is suffering, I feel their suffering. Sympathy, mudita, means that when I encounter a person who is joyful, I feel that person’s joy, and I share that joy as my own, instead of being jealous or trying to take away their happiness away. It is a natural human tendency if we see somebody doing well we want to diminish that somehow. The last practice is equanimity, to have an equally positive feeling, as much as we can, to everyone.
So these are four very particular practices called the four Unlimited Abodes – suffusing in all directions. In your meditation practice and in your conduct, you work on the cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. You are boundlessly cultivating them in your inner life, and then also trying to put them into practice in your human relationships.
I recommend these practices, and there are many techniques for this. On your cushion it’s possible to breathe in with equanimity, and to breathe out a feeling that you’re wishing happiness and goodness to everyone—that each breath out is not just a physical breath, but it also carries with it your heartfelt wish that those you know, those you don’t know, will find happiness and release from suffering, that they will find safety, joy, and ease in living.
If you did that, the next time that you saw somebody that you didn’t like, and you started having nasty feelings about them, you would notice, Whoops, what am I doing! Here I’ve just spent the last month cultivating loving-kindness in my meditation practice. How can I take myself seriously when I’m going around denigrating and feeling so nasty about that person? I should either give up practicing loving-kindness and recognize that I’m really kidding myself, or try to see if I can actually manifest some loving-kindness in my relationships.
Similarly with compassion. This is a hard one, actually, the wish to take in another person’s suffering and wish deeply that it would be healed, even at your own expense. When you see people who are suffering, instead of, as we usually do, ignoring them or rushing by them, saying It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, really feeling their suffering fully, taking it into ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be there with that uncomfortable feeling of their suffering. And then do whatever we can, either with our emotions, or with some actual activity to alleviate their suffering.
I think one finds that if you try to practice this way, you really notice how much of the opposite tendency is present in you. In other words, you see how common it is that instead of loving-kindness toward others, we have fear and loathing. How common it is that instead of compassion toward others, we’re really scared of other people’s suffering and we really want to avoid it. Instead of sympathetic joy for others’ joy, we really and truly feel envious and jealous and want to denigrate and diminish their happiness. And far from having a feeling of equanimity toward all beings, there are some people we really like, and then other people we really don’t like.
The Buddha is telling this to the Kalamas. They asked him, How are we supposed to know whether this guy’s telling the truth or that guy’s telling the truth, and we’re confused about doctrine? He’s telling them, Practice loving-kindness. Practice sympathetic joy. Practice compassion. If you want to know the truth, bring these things into your conduct, and then you’ll see in your living what’s true and what’s not true.
And at the end of his teaching ,he says to them, If you do these practices, and you really get good at them, you will attain four comforts. There will be four benefits from doing this.
First of all, if there be a world beyond (meaning life after death), if there be fruit and ripening of deeds done well or ill (in other words, if karma and rebirth is actually true), then when the body breaks up after death, I shall be reborn in the happy lot, in the heaven world.
This is really interesting , because in many sutras the Buddha’s enlightenment is described, as seeing his own past lives. So in other words, here the Buddha is saying if that’s true—he’s not assuming that it’s true; he’s saying, Should that be true. It’s as if he’s saying, Don’t get too literal about past lives, because it’s not something that is necessarily true. It may be true, but maybe it’s not. The point is that if you practice the Four Unlimiteds, there will arise in you a kind of serene confidence, that whether or not there rebirth is true, you’re okay.
So here the Buddha’s willing to entertain the idea that maybe there aren’t any past lives. But still, in this lifetime there’ll be a kind of satisfaction and happiness, regardless of what you think happens afterward. And that’s a comfort, because all of us, to some extent, suffer from the feeling, Well, I’m not so sure what a great person I really am. I’m not so sure what my life really amounts to. So it would be a great feeling that even though we’re all limited in our own ways, the life that I am leading and have led is a beautiful life, used as well as this life could be used.
Third, though as a result of action, ill be done by me, yet do I plan no ill to anyone, and if I do no ill, how shall sorrow touch me?
In other words, even if inadvertently I cause harm, which is very possible to do. Even though you cultivate these good intentions and good wishes, you might cause harm. And when we cause harm, we become guilty and upset, and oftentimes causing harm causes us to cause further harm. You feel bad about it, and you have many ambivalent feelings about it, so then you get mad at somebody else, and you cause more harm. And you go on and on causing harm because of the deep-seated anxiety and self-denigration that comes from causing harm.
So here the Buddha is saying that if you should create harm, you won’t have that problem, because you’ll know that you didn’t intend it. You’ll be aware of having cultivated positive intentions, that if your actions should create harm, you’ll know it was not due to your intentions, and you’ll feel confident that you don’t have to worry or be upset about it.
The fourth comfort to be attained is:
If as a result of action no ill be done by me, then in both ways do I behold myself utterly pure.
The Buddha tells the Kalamas that these are are these four practices. Please do them. If you do them you’ll have this kind of serene confidence about your life, and even perhaps about what happens after your life.
Thus, Kalamas, that disciple whose heart is free from enmity, free from oppression, untainted and made pure in this very life attains these four comfort.
So this is a theme that comes up many times in the Old Way Sutras. It shows that the Buddha was really interested in conduct, how we live. Our conduct, which is an outward thing, can only be dependent on our inward attitudes. The Buddha really saw this, that there is a powerful and obvious connection between how we feel inside and what we do outside. We have to work on both of these things, and that working on those things is the most important human project. Various speculations about what’s true and what’s not true are usually not worth engaging in. He is saying, It’s not important what these people say and what’s right or wrong. Don’t worry about that. Believe only what flows from your conduct. The truth is in the living of the truth, it’s not in an abstraction of the truth. In this case, he’s saying that cultivating kindness, compassion, sympathy for others is what’s most important.
In Soto Zen, our practice is Bodhidharma’s practice: to face the wall and just sit. But I think it would be good if you wanted to take up the practice of metta or some practice like tonglen, which is a compassion practice. If you really read carefully, and think carefully about the dharma talks that you hear in our tradition, you will soon realize that sitting facing the wall, being present, breathing with the faith that you are already Buddha, includes all these practices and is really not different from them.
This is how I look at it: trust this basic sitting practice, and always return to it, and use it as the fundamental basis. I think it would be alright for you to begin your sitting practice with posture and breathing, calming your mind, being present, and then introduce, if you wanted to, some other practice like loving-kindness, or tonglen.
But it’s not sufficient to practice these things only on your meditation cushion. The point of doing it on your meditation cushion is so that you would also do it in the context of your relationships. And it’s a challenge, because often you become quite impressed with the extent to which you are defending yourself, and thinking, Well, loving-kindness is fine, but not now, not here! Not with her, not with him! Not in this situation! This is real life, not loving-kindness now! You see that you think that way. And then it’s a challenge to really let go, so much that you could really be loving and you could be free. This is some kind of a human ideal that I think is attainable. We need to be patient with ourselves along the path of it, but I believe it’s possible, and it’s worth a try. Actually, being stuck in our self-defensiveness and fear and so forth is not that much fun and doesn’t help that much.