This is part 1 of the fourth 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 4 (Part 1)
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
There are many, many, sutras in the Pali Canon. They’re all worth reading, but the reason I made this selection is that I figured it’s too much for most people to read, and so if people wanted to read a particular selection, it would be nice to have one. But I chose each sutra for a particular reason. Sometimes the reason was because it gave teachings that were particularly important, but sometimes the reason wasn’t so much in the teaching per se, but in the way that you get a feeling for the Buddha’s personality and his activity: how he acted and how he was as a person.
In this sutra you really get a feeling for how Buddha handled his disciples, and that’s one reason why I chose it. The other reason why I chose it is that in this sutra the Buddha emphasizes something very important in our practice, but not so often mentioned this directly, and that is the importance of our practice relationships and how key they are in our spiritual development.
Thus have I heard. On a certain occasion the Exalted One (meaning the Buddha) was staying at Calika, on Calika Hill. Now on that occasion, the venerable Meghiya was in attendance on the Exalted One.
Meghiya was taking care of the Buddha, and they were in close proximity to each other. It is clear, as we’ll see in a moment, that the Buddha and Meghiya are wandering, just the two of them.
Then the venerable Meghiya came to the Buddha, and coming to him saluted him and stood at one side. As he thus stood, he said to the Buddha, “I desire, sir, to enter Jantu village for alms-quest.”
So this is the formality of how, even though there’s just the two of them, the code of conduct of the order was such that the Buddha was accorded this kind of respect. We think of formality as a distancing function; we think of social formalities as militating against intimacy, but I have the feeling from reading these sutras that the formality in the Buddha’s sangha was the opposite, that it actually provided a way of expressing regard and intimacy. At least, at its best, it would give people a way to express respect, which would then allow them to increase their feeling of intimacy and respect, by virtue of doing ritualized actions.
Even though there’s just the two of them – maybe they’re outside under a tree or by the road – Meghiya bows and stands to one side to ask his question. The Buddha says, “Do whatever you think it is time for, Meghiya.” A beautiful response. So, in effect, Meghiya is saying, “I’m asking permission to go beg for alms”—probably on behalf of both of them—and the Buddha acknowledges his kindly asking for permission and says, “I trust you. Do whatever you think is right.”
So the venerable Meghiya, robing himself in the forenoon and taking bowl and robe entered the Jantu village in quest of alms-food, and after questing for alms-food, there returned after his rounds, and after eating his meal, went toward the bank of the river Kimikala, and on reaching it, while taking exercise by walking up and down and too and fro, he saw a lovely, delightful mango grove.
It seems that wearing the robe was a very important part of the practice. And when you wore the robe, you had to therefore comport yourself in a way that was in accord with the wearing of the robe. So you couldn’t lift weights or go jogging, because it would be unseemly to be wearing Buddha’s robe and be jogging along in sneakers. And you were always supposed to wear the robe. You were not supposed to be dressed in anything else other than the robe.
So to this day, Theravada monks get their exercise by walking up and down. Even though in Zen we don’t wear our robes all the time, I think similarly when we’re wearing the robe, we’re supposed to behave as if we were a person worthy of wearing the robe. And even more so in Zen, the robe is venerated. Even the rakusu is considered to be the Buddha’s own garment, borrowed by us temporarily.
So that’s why he’s walking up and down, to get his exercise. And mango groves are delightful. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen mango groves, but they are quite delightful because mango trees are very beautiful and they seem to encourage a soft open kind of ground underneath them, at least the mango groves that I’ve seen are like that. So it’s easy to see how someone spying a mango grove could think, Oh boy, that is a great-looking mango grove, I feel like hanging out in there for a long time! That’s apparently what Meghiya was feeling. So he thought “How truly lovely and delightful is this mango grove.” And of course, being a well-trained monk, the first thing he would think of when he saw this great mango grove is what a wonderful place this would be to practice meditation. This would be a great place for meditation. If the Buddha lets me do this, I will come here to this mango grove and I will practice meditation right here in this mango grove. This is a great place. I’m going to rush back now to the Buddha and see if he will let me do this.
So he goes back to the Buddha, sits down at one side, and he told the Buddha of his find and what he thought.
If the exalted one gives me leave, I would go to that mango grove to strive for concentration.
Now I would say you could read between the lines here. It’s not hard to do, to see that the Buddha is thinking that this is not a great idea for Meghiya to go to this mango grove and strive for concentration. But he doesn’t say that. Instead he says:
Wait a little, Meghiya, I am alone, till some other monk arrives. Don’t go yet, please stay for a while. When someone else comes to relieve you of your duties as my attendant, then you can go.
There are two things about this that I think are important, as the rest of the sutra will show. First of all, I think that maybe the Buddha thinks that Meghiya is not quite ready for meditation practice at that level of intensity yet. The other thing that may be in the Buddha’s mind, and I think the rest of the sutra will make this clear, is that more important than meditation practice and cultivation, is dharma relationship. In other words, if Meghiya had really been thinking about the dharma, he would have seen that this was not the time to meditate, when he was alone attending on the Buddha. He should have waited really until his services were not needed, when many other people were there, and it was just the right time. So the Buddha, I think, was very gently trying to teach him this, and also, perhaps, indicate that he wasn’t quite ready. Anyway, he said, wait a little bit. But Meghiya was a very enthusiastic fellow, and he pressed the point. Now this is interesting that he would do so, because you would think, Whoa, the Buddha! Somebody’s going to contradict the Buddha? Meghiya’s is probably twenty years old, and the Buddha is an older man.
So it’s actually wonderful and gives you an idea about the Buddha’s sangha, and throughout the sutras you see that, that people don’t always pay attention to the Buddha; they don’t always agree with him. They’re always respectful, they’re always polite, but sometimes they don’t go along with the Buddha’s suggestions—because the Buddha is always making suggestions. He’s never laying down laws. He assumes that he and the person in question have the same interests at heart, which is awakening, and that that’s the person’s commitment. The suggestions he’s making are for the purpose of awakening.
So Meghiya says to him, “Well, you see it’s not fair, because you, Buddha, have nothing more to be done in the way of meditation. You have already, through your meditation practice, achieved awakening. But that’s not true for me. I have a lot of work to do in meditation, and I shouldn’t be wasting time. So I can see where you might think that meditation wouldn’t be necessary now, but I have a sense of urgency about that, so I’m asking you again, please, if you would give me permission I will go to the mango grove to strive for concentration.”
So the Buddha says, Well, Meghiya, wait a little bit. I am alone until some other monk arrives. But Meghiya asks a third time, and the third time the Buddha says, Well, Meghiya, what can I say? How am I going to forbid you to meditate? After all, here I am, trying to get everybody to meditate night and day, and you want to meditate, so how can I deny you this? Do what you think it is time for, Meghiya. It’s up to you. In the end, it’s really up to you. Whatever you think. I mean, I tried to tell you what I thought, but OK.
So the venerable Meghiya rose from his seat, saluted the Exalted One with his right side and went away to that mango grove.
And on reaching it he plunged into it, and sat down for the midday rest at the foot of a certain tree. [And he started to meditate. And he was very excited about this meditation.]
Now, as the venerable Meghiya was staying in that mango grove (sitting there meditating) there came habitually upon him three evil, unprofitable forms of thought (in other words, distractions from the meditation that made it impossible for him to sit there meditating).
The word “evil” is unfortunate here. It doesn’t mean he was thinking of murdering somebody! Maybe he had such thoughts, but the point is his mind was distracted with thoughts “lustful, malicious, and harmful,” so that he was unable to meditate. He was really sitting there in a state of shock that such thoughts were running through his mind, and he was unable to pay attention.
Then what a wonderful reaction he has to this! The rest of us would probably be full of self-loathing and full of disappointment, anger, frustration. But Meghiya is so wonderful. He says, Isn’t this strange! This is a wonderful thing! It’s an amazing thing, that here I am, a monk who gave up everything and took these vows, and I’m totally committed to the homeless life, and then finally I get to this beautiful mango grove to meditate, and the only thoughts I have are lustful, malicious, harmful thoughts!
The Buddha taught, not a preordained curriculum, but teachings that would always be in response to the condition of a person’s heart and circumstances. So that’s what happens here. The Buddha is about to launch into a teaching that is good for all of us and particularly good for Meghiya. So he begins by saying,
Meghiya, when the heart’s release is immature, five things conduce to its maturity.
Now, “the heart’s release” means nirvana. It’s a wonderful translation for nirvana. I don’t know what words are used in the original text in Pali, whether it just says nibbana or whether it literally says “the heart’s release,” but there’s no doubt that this is a synonym for nirvana. It’s a wonderful thing to contemplate. It’s a good way to think about the goal “the heart’s release” – that the heart would be open and free of all that constricts it and makes our feeling twisted and small. The heart being open, the heart being free. The heart being released of constriction – that is the goal of the path. That’s the point of meditation practice.
So he’s saying to Meghiya that when you have not yet been able to effect the heart’s release, when even the path toward the release of the heart is as yet quite immature, there are five things that will conduce to its maturity.
What are the five things? First, a monk has a lovely intimacy, a lovely friendship, a lovely comradeship.
Isn’t that wonderful? The first thing for the path towards the heart’s release, the first thing, is a lovely friendship, a lovely intimacy, a spiritual companionship.
When the heart’s release is immature, this is the first thing that conduces to its maturity.
That’s why the Buddha said, stay awhile, don’t go yet. Because first thing is our relationship and our friendship and our mutual trust. Based on that relationship, based on that trust, you meditate, but that trust needs to be there.
Then again, Meghiya, a monk is virtuous,a monk abides restrained with the restraint of the obligations (meaning the precepts), a monk is perfect in the practice of right behavior, sees danger in trifling faults, undertakes and trains himself in the ways of training. When the heart’s release is immature, Meghiya, this is the second thing that conduces to its maturity.
That means ethical conduct, following precepts, not causing harm is the second thing for the heart’s release. The third thing:
As regards talk that is serious and suitable for opening up the heart and conduces to downright revulsion, to dispassion, to ending, to calm, to comprehension, to perfect insight, to nibbana, that is to say…
Now this language is a little objectionable and take us off the point. “…to downright revulsion, to dispassion”—I wouldn’t translate it like that. I would say “talk that causes us to let go of our attachment, let go of our aversion, so that our passions don’t get the best of us.” It doesn’t mean that we should be bloodless, boring people! It means that we should just not be so stuck on our needs and desires. The way you talk will condition that, so pay attention to the way you talk:
Talk about wanting little, about contentment, about solitude, about avoiding society, about putting forth energy (for practice), talk about virtue, concentration of mind and wisdom, talk about release, knowledge and insight of release. Such talk as this a monk gets at pleasure, without pain and without stint. When the heart’s release is immature, Meghiya, this is the third thing that conduces to its maturity.
So the third thing is our speech practice, what comes out of our mouth, because how we speak conditions how we think, conditions how we act, conditions how our life goes. So speak with kindness, speak of things that are tending you in the direction of your spiritual cultivation. Don’t speak of things that are tending you in the direction of letting go of that cultivation. That’s very important. That’s the third thing.
Fourth, a monk abides resolute in energy for the abandoning of unprofitable things, for the acquiring of profitable things. He is stout and strong in effort, not laying aside the burden in things profitable. When the heart’s release is immature, Meghiya, this is the fourth thing that conduces to its maturity.
So that’s the fourth thing, is to put forth energy, strong energy for practice, taking up what’s worthwhile, letting go of what’s not.
Finally, the last of the five things, is insight “that goes on to discern the rise and fall.” In other words, a deep appreciation of impermanence.
. . . with the Aryan (that means noble) penetration which goes on to penetrate the perfect ending of ill. When the heart’s release is immature, Meghiya, this is the fifth thing, and these are the five things that conduce to its maturity. So first is a lovely relationship; second is cleaning up your conduct so that it doesn’t create distractions and confusions in the mind; third, your speech is careful and in accord with your commitment to practice; fourth, you make strong effort to practice; and fifth, you have insight into the nature of impermanence. These five things you need to mature your path toward the heart’s release.