This is the fifth 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 5
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
“The Sutra on the Simile of the Saw.”
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park. Now on that occasion, the venerable Moliya Phagguna was associating overmuch with bhikkhunis.
Moliya Phagguna was a monk and a bhikkhuni was a nun. As you’ll see in a moment, this does not mean that he was flirting with them or doing anything that was not proper. His relationship to them was not quite right, but not in the way that one might think.
He was associating so much with bhikkhunis that if any bhikkhu (which is a male monastic) spoke dispraise of those bhikkhunis in his presence, he would become angry and displeased and would rebuke him, and if any bhikkhu spoke dispraise of the venerable Moliya Phagguna in those bhikkhunis’ presence, they would become angry and displeased and would rebuke him.
So this is the idea, that he had a very special relationship with a particular community of bhikkhunis.
Then a certain bhikkhu went to the Blessed One (meaning the Buddha), and after paying homage to him, he sat down at one side and told the Blessed One what was taking place (how Moliya Phagguna was overmuch associating with the bhikkhunis).
Although there are moments in the Pali sutras in which the Buddha displays various sorts of powers, most of the time the Buddha is viewed as a human being, who finds out what other people are doing because someone comes and tells him. So what does he do about it? This is very instructive about how the Buddha would operate. We’re all in this together, we’re all trying to help each other achieve freedom from our own delusions and confusions, and so I notice that this is a place where Moliya Phagguna needs some work. Maybe the Buddha has a good idea how to help him:
Come, bhikkhu, tell the bhikkhu Moliya Phagguna, in my name, that the Teacher calls him. “Yes, venerable sir,” he replied, and he went to the venerable Moliya Phagguna and he told him, “The teacher calls you, friend Phagguna.”.
“Yes, friend,” he replied. And he went to the Blessed One and after paying homage to him, sat down at one side. And then the Buddha asked him, “Phagguna, is it true that you are associating overmuch with the bhikkhunis?”
When someone tells me something, I often catch myself and have to remind myself, “Oh, they’re telling me what they think, not necessarily facts.” Even though they may believe that it’s a fact, we all are only seeing as far as we can see. So, especially, if somebody tells you what somebody else is doing, you always have to remember, Oh, that’s just what they think. So he asks,
Is it true that you are associating so much with the bhikkhunis that if any bhikkhu speaks dispraise of those bhikkhunis in your presence, you become angry and displeased and rebuke him? And if any bhikkhu speaks dispraise of you in those bhikkhunis’ presence, they become angry and displeased and rebuke him? Are you associating so much with bhikkhunis as it seems?
Phagguna, are you not a clansman who has gone forth out of faith from the home life into homelessness? (In other words, haven’t you made this big commitment?)
Here “the home life” really means not so much the home life per se, but attachment, non-spiritual endeavor. The reverse of the home life, “the homeless life,” means freedom in the path. And of course, Phagguna says, Yes, I have, that’s true, that’s right. And then the Buddha says,
Then, Phagguna, it is not proper for you, who has made this tremendous commitment, to associate overmuch with bhikkhunis. Therefore, if anyone speaks dispraise of those bhikkhunis in your presence, you should abandon any desires and any thoughts based on the household life. (In other words, any thoughts of attachment and non-freedom.)
According to the Buddha, That’s attachment, Moliya Phagguna! You really have to pay attention to that, and instead of that, you should train in the following way:
“My mind will be unaffected, and I shall utter no evil words. I shall abide compassionately for his welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.”
In other words, the Buddha is saying, Do you see what’s happening here, Phagguna? When someone is complaining about those nuns, your attachment to the nuns is so strong that you have, because of that attachment, aversion to the person who’s speaking, and you’re complaining and rebuking that person. You should know that that action comes from your attachment. That’s really not in line with your goal as a home-leaver, so notice that that’s what’s happening and replace that thought, somehow, with a thought of compassion and loving-kindness for the person who’s making that comment, and commit yourself to not speaking rebuke against that person.
You may ask, How would you train your mind in that way? That is one of the most important things, really, about the Buddha’s path – the possibility that thought, attitude, and feeling can be shaped according to cultivation and intention. If that’s not true, then what’s the point? We all think of our thought as automatically arising: This is how I think! I can’t help it! But actually, over time, we can help it. We can think differently as a result of our cultivation and practice.
So he’s asking Phagguna to note that this kind of response, that he has habitually had, is a problem. Now whenever it comes up, note it as attachment, and then mindfully memorize this phrase and repeat it to yourself. When you note that kind of attachment, try to be calm and breathe and notice, and then try to cultivate this affirmative attitude of kindness, compassion, and non-blame.
Even if they would hit the bhikkhuni a blow with their hand, if somebody should do that, or with a clod, with a stick, or even with a knife in your presence, you should abandon any thought based on attachment and the household life and train your mind in the same way. If anyone speaks dispraise in your presence, you should abandon any desires or thoughts based on the household life and train the mind in the same way. If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, a clod, a stick, or a knife, you should abandon any desires and any thoughts based on the household life and train your mind in the same way.
And it’s repeated every time, the same formula:
My mind will be unaffected, and I shall utter no evil words. I shall abide compassionate for his welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.
In other words, even if all these things happen – which would give rise to your attachment and complaining – let go and practice kindness.
Then the Blessed One addressed all the assembled bhikkhus: Bhikkhus, there was an occasion when the bhikkhus satisfied my mind (in other words when they really made me happy, when I really felt that they were doing the right thing). When was that? That was when I addressed the bhikkhus in this way. I said to them, “Bhikkhus, I eat at a single session. (I only eat one meal a day.) By doing so, I am free from illness and affliction, and I enjoy health, strength, and a comfortable abiding. Why don’t you do that, too? If you do that, you too will be free from illness, affliction, and you will enjoy health, strength, and a comfortable abiding.”
Suppose there were a chariot on even ground at the crossroads, harnessed to thoroughbred horses, waiting with the goad lying ready, so that a skilled trainer, a charioteer of horses to be tamed might mount it, and taking the reins in his left hand and the goad in his right hand might drive out and back by any road whenever he likes.
So too I had no need to keep on instructing those bhikkhus. I had only to arise mindfulness in them.
Therefore, bhikkhus, abandon what is unwholesome and devote yourself to wholesome states, for that is how you will come to growth, increase, and fulfillment in this dhamma and discipline.
The issue here is abandoning what is unwholesome and increasing what is wholesome. But very specifically, the Buddha is talking about getting angry at people who are giving you a hard time. When you find yourself angry at somebody who’s giving you a hard time, you need to notice that that really is because of attachment, and then you cultivate equanimity and loving-kindness.
It’s no trick to be a nice guy when everybody’s nice to you. It’s easy to be nice when everybody’s nice to you. That’s no big deal. But what about when people are rotten to you? How do you behave then? That’s the question. If you depend on these very nice conditions to be kind and nice, then I’m not so sure how kind and nice you actually are.
I do not call a bhikkhu easy to admonish who is easy to admonish and makes himself easy to admonish only for the sake of getting robes, alms food, a resting place, and medicine. Why is that? Because a bhikkhu is not easy to admonish nor makes himself easy to admonish when he gets no robes, alms food, resting place, and medicine. When a bhikkhu is easy to admonish and makes himself easy to admonish because he honors, respects, and reveres the dharma, him I call really easy to admonish.
Our minds will remain unaffected and we shall utter no evil words. We shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading that person with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, and starting with him we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will. Thus you should train, bhikkhus.
Now you may be wondering at this point: this sutra is called “The Simile of the Saw” Where’s the saw? The saw comes at the very end.
Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate toward them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train your mind thus: (and then he repeats yet again) our minds will remain unaffected, we shall utter no evil words, we shall abide compassionate (and so on and so forth). Bhikkhus, if you keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind, do you see any course of speech, trivial or gross, that you could not endure?
If you’re a schoolteacher, they call it the “teachable moment”—something happens and this is the perfect moment—so in this case the teachable moment is Moliya Phagguna’s relationship with these nuns. It specifically has to do with how you practice when people are speaking to you in ways that you don’t like, and how you should cultivate a mind that is so deep and wide that when you’re spoken to in a harsh way or an untimely way, or a nasty way, or with hatred, you are actually able to come back with kindness.
If you keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind, do you see any course of speech, trivial or gross that you could not endure? “No, venerable sir!” Therefore, bhikkhus you should keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind. That will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time.” That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.
It may strike you that this teaching is very challenging, and you may even doubt whether it’s a good idea to even undertake such a thing. I think the indication is that we should go in that direction. We should, as much as possible, as much as we can, cultivate loving-kindness. I think that having perfect loving-kindness is maybe not possible. That shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not a question of being perfect at this. The bigger problem is whether this is a good idea to do at all.
Some of us might not agree with that. In other words, no matter what anybody says or does, right or wrong starts yelling and screaming at me. Am I right to be angry and defend myself? The Buddha seems to be saying that the practice is to have an attitude in all cases, regardless of what anybody is doing or saying, of acceptance, loving-kindness, non-blaming, non-defensiveness, and so on. You might say, Isn’t this enormously passive? You’d let people walk all over you! My idea would be, not necessarily. This teaching is not talking about the specificity of various kinds of actions. What it’s talking about is attitude. So it is possible, I think, to have an attitude of non-blaming and caring, and yet prevent somebody from doing something that is somehow bad or wrong or unjust. This is really talking about our inner feeling and the attitude and the feeling that we have to cultivate toward anyone who is in this case very specifically speaking to us in any way.