The Buddha’s Advice to the Brahmin youth Sigala

In this brief essay, I’m going to discuss some of the ideas emerging from the Sigalovada Sutta, The Buddha’s Advice to Sigala, on the Access To Insight website. The translation to which that link will take you is by John Kelly, Sue Sawyer, and Victoria Yareham; it is a little more contemporary and colloquial than the other good translation on that site by Narada Thera (a German, one of the first Europeans to ordain as a Theravada monk at the beginning of the 20th Century); Narada’s translation is just a little stilted, and his use of explicitly numbered and lettered lists, to my mind, gets in the way of understanding that we are expected to be listening to an actual discourse delivered by one man to another.

Bathing Brahmin

The Sigalovada Sutta is long, but there is nothing difficult or complicated about it. In it, the Buddha comes upon a young Brahmin householder, Sigala, taking his ritual bath and conducting his morning prayers, possibly at one of the warm springs that are still popular tourist destinations in the modern city of Rajgir. After the bath, Sigala saluted the six cardinal points (East, West, North, South, Zenith and Nadir) with his hands joined in the gesture signaling reverent worship. When the Buddha asks him why he is doing that, Sigala tells him it is because his father, before he died, enjoined the ritual performance on his son. The Buddha then takes the opportunity to teach Sigala what it really means to be reverent, and how the cardinal points might be worshipped by one who lives nobly, in accordance with the Dhamma.

The sutta has been called the layperson’s vinaya, a word that refers to the set of rules governing the behavior of Buddhist monks and nuns. But that implies a particularly Buddhist focus that misses the point of the teaching, I think. In fact, the instruction that the Buddha gives to Sigala in this discourse is the most concentrated collection of generally good advice that I know of. Anyone, professing any faith at all or following any ritual tradition, who undertakes to live according to the advice given in the Sigalovada Sutta will certainly, barring accident or just bad luck, live happily, have good friends, and attain a measure of worldly success.

There are a few points in the discourse that I think justify a close look:

  • The structure of the discourse is interesting. While the starting point is the Buddha’s statement that Sigala is doing it wrong, and that there is a way to pay homage to the six directions that is in accord with the Aryan Dhamma (arya is the Pali word translated in the English renditions as “noble”), it’s not until the last part of the long discourse that the Buddha finally gets back around to those directions and the meaning they have according to the Dhamma. The first three-quarters of the discourse focuses on general principles of good behavior. The implication here, I think, is that unless one starts with good behavior—that is, refraining from the four evil actions, resisting the four motivations that lead one to behave badly, and avoiding the six courses of behavior that dissipate health, wealth and happiness—then it really doesn’t matter how one worships the cardinal directions; there’s no ritual magic in worshipping the directions that can save one who’s hell bent on destruction.
  • Although it’s a small point in the context of a long discourse, I think it’s important that the Buddha’s starting point is with four of the five precepts that every Buddhist lay person accepts as guides to a well-lived life—not taking life, not taking what’s not given, not speaking falsely, and not misbehaving sexually. The fifth precept, to avoid intoxicants that make one careless and stupid, is given ample coverage in the rest of the discourse.
  • The discourse is intensely pragmatic. Nothing is to be taken on faith; the Buddha gives perfectly good and believable reasons for the ethical principles and behaviors that he recommends to Sigala. The results of behaving badly do not come as punishments, and the results of behaving well do not come as rewards; it is all a matter of natural consequences.
  • The focus on companionship and the detailed analysis of the difference between good companions and bad ones is moving and convincing; it is also a frequent theme in the teachings. In the Upaddha Sutta, Ananda and the Buddha are sitting together at the end of the day, and Ananda says, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” “Don’t say that, Ananda,” replies the Buddha. “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” In the Sigalovada Sutta, he extends that to lay people as well as monks.
  • When the discourse finally gets back around to the worship of the six cardinal directions, the Buddha presents a symbolic interpretation of those directions, in terms of the relationships that are significant in a householder’s life, that is actually a model for the structure of a civil society. All relationships are reciprocal, purposeful, and humane. The relationships themselves cover the most important aspects of our lives, as those were understood in the Buddha’s Dhamma—one’s relationship with one’s parents and children, with one’s teachers and students, with one’s friends and companions, with one’s colleagues—employees and supervisors, with one’s husband or wife, and with one’s spiritual counselors. Again, nothing important is left out (or couldn’t be fit in with some minimal interpretation), and everything is kept practical: relationships are defined and ways of maintaining those relationships are commended, not based on theory, dogma, or categorical imperatives, but simply on common experience.

It is illuminating, I think, to compare the advice given in the Sigalovada Sutta to other bodies of advice recorded in other traditional texts—the ritual imperatives in the Analects of Confucius, the tribal prescriptions and prohibitions in the Torah, the revelations of the Old Testament prophets and of Mohammed, the rules governing hierarchies of power in the law books of Manu, Solon, and many others. The Buddha’s advice is different, not only in its pragmatism and freedom from dogma, but also in the kind of results it seeks to achieve—happiness, material success, conviviality, contentment, the attainment of wisdom—and the scope of those results, the fact that they are to be experienced right here and right now.

As you’re reading this, try to imagine the terms that the Buddha might use if he were giving this advice today—to a young man, for example, recently graduated from Ohio State (where, perhaps, he’d had a reputation for heavy partying), with a wife and a couple of young children, a house in the suburbs, and a position in sales with Procter & Gamble.


The Middle Way

The very first statement of the Buddha’s distinctive Dhamma–his first challenge to the established order; the first signal that this teaching was going to be different from everything else that his listeners had ever heard before–came with the very first few sentences of the very first discourse he is said to have delivered, to the five ascetics who had been his companions during the long period when he himself explored extreme asceticism as the path to the deathless.

Bhikkhus,” he told them, "when you’ve left home and embarked on your search for a way through this world, there are two paths to avoid. One is the path of luxury and sensual pleasure, of ambition and material success. That path is crude and common, not beneficial. It’s a dead end.

“The other is the path of self-mortification and rigid asceticism. That path is painful, and it too is not beneficial; another dead end.

Bhikkhus, you can avoid those two dead ends by following the middle way realized by The Wayfarer; this middle way is an eye-opener; following it, you will come to know the world as it really is. It calms you down, lightens your load, reveals the truth with lucid clarity; you will awaken fully, completely released from all pain and distress.

“And what is this middle way realized by The Wayfarer that brings vision and knowledge, calms you, reveals important truths, leads to awakening and complete release? It is a Path with eight factors: clear seeing, well-conceived intention, deliberate speaking, courageous action, honest livelihood, diligent effort, mindful awareness, and focused concentration. That is the middle way realized by The Wayfarer: producing vision and knowledge, it calms you, reveals important truth, and wakes you up so you will attain complete release."

So, this middle way avoids both extreme paths: hedonism and self-mortification. But it isn’t simply the moderation of those extremes. While the Buddha might have been comfortable with the quotation attributed to the Roman playwrite Terence, “Moderation in all things, excess in none”, that is clearly not the totality that his middle way comprises. The Buddha’s way, incorporating elements of wisdom, ethical behavior, and diligent awareness, is, in fact, likely to moderate excessive behavior. But the Buddha promises benefits from his middle way that go well beyond those that derive from moderate living. No one, to my knowledge, has ever promised that a moderate life-style would reveal important truths or deliver Buddha-level Awakening.

The middle way is not a blending of the extremes, or an amelioration of them. Rather, it is a way toward a goal that neither self-mortification or hedonic pursuit of pleasure is even aware of. Self-mortification, in every tradition that has accepted it as a spiritual path for the exceptionally committed–e.g. the Upanishadic reform version of Brahmanism that was popular in the Buddha’s time, extreme Islamic jihad, Christian flagellant movements–saw it as a way of eliminating the gross material Self and freeing a purer and more rarified Self–the Soul–to achieve union with the godhead. Hedonism, on the other hand, either denies or ignores the possible existence of a godhead, whatever that might mean, and seeks nothing but gratification of the only Self it acknowledges: the Self that is the object of selfishness.

For the Buddha, any path that focused on an essential Self, no matter how that Self might be conceived, was delusional. In the second discourse he delivered, on the “not-self” characteristic, he considered, one by one, all of the possible places where a “Self” might be distinguished–in the body, in the emotions, in the mind–and demonstrated that each of those were impermanent, emerging at any given moment from preceding conditions, and imbued with dukkha–pain, frustration, anguish, unsatisfactoriness. Nowhere can one find a viable candidate for the location of a distinctive, essential Self.

So the Buddha’s goal, and the goal to which the middle way leads, is simply the cessation of dukkha. Regarding what is left when dukkha ceases, the Buddha was not ready to make a declaration. It is simply the end of greed, the end of hatred, the end of delusion (including, most importantly, the delusion of Self). What makes that a worthwhile goal, one that meets the tests that self-mortification and hedonism both fail, is that it is achievable. The cessation of dukkha is a credible experience, one that we’ve all had, if only briefly, when we have been able to let go (if only briefly) of obsessive, selfish craving. It’s rare, on the other hand, that one has claimed to have experienced the union of the Self with the godhead; it’s not an experience that most of us have had, even briefly, and it’s an experience that, to the skeptical eye, seems a bit hallucinatory. As far as the goal of hedonism goes, the same is true: all of us have experienced even the most intense sensual pleasure as disappointingly transitory, and those who claim to find a lasting benefit in the pursuit of such pleasure appear, to that same skeptical eye, to be protesting too much.

The Buddha’s approach to a middle way is useful in any number of situations which seem to present a dilemma–a forced choice between two mutually exclusive positions, neither of which feels right. One such dilemma that the Buddha’s culture experienced was the choice between what is known as essentialism, the idea that there is an essential objective reality underlying everything–all events and all experience–and nihilism, the idea that nothing is objectively real, that events are random, and that all experience is entirely subjective.

Such dilemmas are common: the apparent choice between theism and atheism, between determinism and free will, between good and evil, between individual liberty and social stability, between a capitalist free market and socialistic state control. Faced with such dilemmas, it might be well to consider the possibility that there is a middle way, seeking a goal that is more achievable, more humane, and more worthwhile than the goals to which the opposing horns of the dilemma point.

And what I think we will find, if we consider any worthwhile achievable goal, is that the middle way toward that goal comprises clear-eyed recognition of what’s going on; acceptance of the choices we must make in order to achieve the goal, given what’s going on; the clear articulation of what we see and what we intend to do about it; consistent action that will help us realize our intentions; a justifiable way of making a living and establishing useful, respectable lives in all those communities of which we are members; an energetic determination to stay the course and apply our efforts most effectively; a constant awareness of what’s going on and how well we are progressing toward our goal; and a determination to develop whatever skills most need development. In other words, correct understanding, correct intention, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct concentration.

The eightfold path. The middle way.

Note: In this post, I’ve made two uncommon choices. First, I’ve translated the untranslatable Pali term Tathagata, which means, literally, “One who’s gone this way” or “One who’s come this way” as “Wayfarer”. Second, I’ve used different adjectives to identify the eight factors of the path; all of those adjectives, applying to the factors of understanding or vision, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, translate the Pali term samma. I’ve done this because I think that’s what we each have to do in order to fulfill the task that the Buddha set for us, to cultivate the eightfold path in our lives.

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Admirable Friendship

Once, when the Buddha and his attendant Ananda were staying at the retreat center near the Kosalan capital city of Savatthi, Ananda said, “You know, Master, it just occured to me that half the beauty of this Sangha life we’ve chosen is admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable community.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda,” the Buddha replied. “Don’t say ‘half the beauty of this Sangha life is admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable community’. Say, instead, ‘The entire beauty of this Sangha life we’ve chosen is admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable community’.”

This is a very free rendering of a well-known passage from the Upaddha Sutta (“The discourse on ‘half’”–the link is to a full translation at Access to Insight.)

“Admirable friendship” (Pali kalyanamittata) comes up again and again in the texts of the Pali Canon; . We want to be careful to avoid thinking of “friendship” in the Twitter context–“Saw 3 Stooges w/ Amy, my new BFF. OMG! LMAO!” The Pali amittata doesn’t mean a personal, best buddy type of friendship, but rather participation in a community of friends. (There are a lot of commonalities between Buddhist thought and Quaker thought, and Quaker meetings have been influential in developing the concept of the Project.) You can see the relationship between amittata, the Latin amicitia, and our word “amity”–they all mean “friendship”, but they all imply an extension of the idea to define one’s relationship to a community and to the world. One lives in amity with others, not with just a few close pals.

The Buddha’s attitude toward admirable friendship is clear from the short excerpt above. Admirable friendship is important; it is, in fact, the first pre-requisite to building a way of life that will lead to awakening.

The majority of the Buddha’s teachings are addressed to the bhikkhus and bhikkunis (from a Sanskrit root meaning “one who lives on alms”–cognate with our word “beggar”) who comprised the Sangha of his renunciant followers. But there are a number of teachings addressed to lay people, and it’s clear that the state of admirable friendship is just as important to them.

In the Dighajanu Sutta (“Discourse to ‘Longshanks’”), the Buddha is visited by a wealthy businessman named Longshanks, of the Tiger Paw clan. “We are ordinary people,” Longshanks tells him, “and we enjoy our pleasures. We’re family people, living with our wives and lots of kids running around. We decorate our homes with fine fabrics and fragrant sandalwood; we wear stylish clothes and expensive scents; we love gold and jewelry. Does the Fortunate One have a Dhamma for people like us?”

Of course the Buddha does, and it’s a Dhamma that’s a little surprising to those who have imagined the Buddha as an other-worldly kind of guy. “There are four things you have to do,” the Buddha tells Longshanks, “to insure your happiness and well-being now and in times to come: first, get to be the best at what you do, because that’s where your wealth comes from; second, protect your wealth from those who would steal it or waste it; third, cultivate admirable friendship; and finally, keep everything in balance.”

He goes on to elaborate on each of these points, and then goes further to give Longshanks some good counsel on how to develop the qualities of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In elaborating the point about admirable friendship, the Buddha tells Longshanks:

“And what does it mean to cultivate admirable friendship? Here, no matter where a family man lives, in city or village, he spends his time with people –parents and children, young or old–whose lives are admirable in every sense. Those are the people he talks with and shares ideas with. He learns to trust by cultivating friendship with those who are admirably trustworthy; he becomes virtuous by cultivating friendship with those who are admirably virtuous; he learns to be generous by cultivating friendship with those who act with admirable generousity; he becomes wise by cultivating friendship with those admirable for their wisdom.”

The Buddha’s point, I think, is that we can’t go it alone, whether we’re making our way toward Awakening or toward a successful career. We need others to provide examples, encouragement, correction, so that the way we’re on takes us toward a worthwhile goal. And it’s important to see that it’s not a formal process; it’s not a matter of finding one’s mentor or taking the right courses at a good university. We learn from the communities we belong to and the companions we cultivate along our way, and if those companions and communities are worthy of our trust and our admiration, then we will become people who are also worthy of trust and admiration.

Let’s talk about it Sunday.


Meditative Practice

The Buddha’s understanding of how things unfold in this world was keen, comprehensive, and most persuasive, and his explication of that understanding throughout the discourses has a coherence and logical consistency that’s unique among the world’s spiritual traditions. But the Buddha was not a philosopher or a psychologist. The term that’s very frequently used in the canonical texts to define his role is “healer” or “physician”. The Buddha’s doctrine is not simply an explanation of how things are but a diagnosis of how events emerge in the world, an analysis of what creates the anxiety, dissatisfaction, suffering that we experience in dealing with those events, and a prescription for a path of practice that will ameliorate or even end that experience of suffering.

Meditating BuddhaTo be a Buddhist is not to “believe in” Buddhist doctrine, but to practice the Buddhadhamma, the Path that the Buddha defined, the end of which is the end of suffering.

Throughout the discourses, the Buddha gave quite detailed instructions regarding that path, and how to follow it. The most comprehensive teaching regarding the meditative practice that he prescribed is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In that discourse, the Buddha covers one type of meditative practice, the practice of “mindfulness”, sati in Pali; he describes a series of steps whereby a bhikkhu (or, presumably, anyone who undertakes the recommended discipline attains to a state of steady mindfulness, so that nothing is done carelessly—no action is performed, no words uttered, no opinion formed, no feeling or perception experienced, no ideas conceived, without paying due regard to what is emerging and the ethical implications of every intentional action. Establishing such steady mindfulness of one’s situation, the diligent meditator can end the attachments that trap him in that situation minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, birth after birth. Even today, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is the foundational text that guides the meditation of practitioners in nearly all Buddhist traditions.

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a long discourse, and I’ve prepared a prècis of that discourse for our discussion on Thursday. That text contains a number of references to alternative translations of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, on the web and in printed books.

Concerning meditation more generally, there are a number of audio talks by Stephen Batchelor accessible through the Dharma Seed website; in one of those, the first of eight fine lectures on the life and times of the Buddha that he delivered in the course of a 2004 meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, he discusses the many different meanings of the term “meditation”. What the Buddha’s followers practiced, when they practiced one of the several disciplines that we subsume under that one term, was not what we think of when we think of meditation as a complete stilling of the mind, a state of indiscriminate bliss. Batchelor makes the case that the kind of practice recommended by the Buddha was a more energetic process, with a strong intellectual component, resulting in the attainment of a state of unforced, instinctive wisdom. His talk is very much worth listening to.

anyone who undertakes the recommended discipline

Throughout the discourses, the Buddha is quite clear that the full benefits of the practice will only be realized by those who can give the practice their complete energy and concentration. Practically speaking, that means the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the sangha of his renunciant followers. One living as a householder has too many distractions—wives and children to care for, servants and employees to manage, farms to cultivate, accounts to keep, property to protect—to give the practice the time and devotion that it demands if it is to deliver its full benefits. But he’s also clear that even a less than perfect practice brings results in terms of a happier life, more fulfilling experience, levels of equanimity and composure that keep painful experiences from being as devastating as those experiences might be to those who do not understand the Dhamma or practice the Path.


Week Six: This Emerging, That Emerges

Our topic for class on Thursday is the idea of “Dependent Emergence” – it’s often translated as “Dependent Arising” or “Conditioned Arising”. It’s probably the single most distinctive idea in Buddhism; not a particularly easy idea to grasp, partly because it goes so very much against the stream of how we’ve been taught to understand the world, but one that, once grasped, reveals the nature of our daily experience with a persuasive clarity, and hleps us respond to that experience in ways that make things better.

The essay I’ll be basing my presentation on is one I wrote a couple of years ago and have revised only slightly since. I hope you have a chance to read that before the class.


Class 4: Nibbana


the Aggi-Vachagotta Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse to the wanderer Vachagotta on Fire. In addition to reading that, I hope you have time to look at an essay I wrote a couple of years ago on Enlightenment and Nibbana; it’s not quite how I’d express things today, but close enough. Another web page that might be useful (and that I’ll be using some material from in my talk on Thursday) is a page of readings from a class I gave last year on the Buddha’s Path to Awakening; this page deals with Craving, and to the extent that letting go of Craving is the essential first step on the way to experiencing (if that word even has any meaning in the context) Nibbana, the readings should help us come to an understanding of the term. The first reading on the page, a rendering of the very brief Upadana Sutta, is particularly relevant to an understanding of the Aggi-Vachagotta Sutta.

Finally, I’ve posted, as I promised to do at the end of our last class, a short review of the Dhamma Seals that we discussed in that class. The discussion in that post provides a natural bridge between our last class and the forthcoming one.

I thought the discussion this past week was particularly exciting, and I look forward to seeing you all on Thursday.

With regard,



The Three (or Four) Seals of the Dhamma

Most traditions of Buddhism recognize the existence of the “three Seals of the Dhamma“—statements about the nature of things that are true “whether a Buddha (an enlightened being) appears in the world or not”. These are:

Sabbe sankhara anitta
Sabbe sankhara dukkha
Sabbe dharmana anatta

Sabbe means “all” or “every”. Sankhara is that same difficult word we were exploring in our examination of the five khandas—the components of experience that comprise what we are. In the context of the Dhamma Seals, the word refers to phenomena that can be broken down into component parts, i.e. almost everything we experience in our daily lives. The translation I suggested for sankhara as one of the khandas was “distinguishing”. In the context of the Dhamma Seals, I would propose “distinguishable phenomena” as an acceptable translation. (As I suggested in class, a very good one-word translation of sankhara in both contexts might be “stuff”.) Dhammana refers to all things whatsoever—not only phenomena that are distinguishable via the mechanisms with which we shape experience (perception, cognition, consciousness, the sense organs), but also the component elements of those phenomena that are too minute, too momentary, too vague to be distinguishable. Anitta means “without permanence”. We’ve spent a lot of time on dukkha: “stress”, “suffering”, “unsatisfactoriness”. And much of our last class was spent on the notion of anatta: without essential Self-nature, without permanent identity.

So, to my understanding, the Dhamma Seals mean:

Everything we experience ends.
Nothing we experience can deliver lasting satisfaction.
Nothing whatsoever can be distinguished—absolutely, finally, unambiguously—from everything else.

The Dhamma Seal statements appear in Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada, a magnificent anthology of verses dealing with the Buddha’s Path. Each of the statements is presented as an aphorism, and each is followed by the same message: “When you can understand this with deep insight, then you will no longer be deluded by the ways of the world, and you will be on the path to independence.”

The final verse of Chapter 20 makes another statement, which has sometimes been asserted as the “fourth Seal” of the Dhamma: “santam nibbanam“—peace is to be found in nibbana. And that, of course, brings in what I have come to believe is the single most difficult and most widely misunderstood technical term in Buddhist doctrine, and the term that will form the theme of our next class.

Stay tuned.

There are a lot of translations of the Dhammapada on the web. Two good ones, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Acharya Buddharakkhita, are on the Access To Insight website. There is an exceptionally graceful new translation by Gil Fronsdal; you can hear him read a couple of chapters at the Sutta Readings website.


Not No-Self: Not-Self

Continuing with our theme of how the Buddha’s Teachings go “Against the Stream”, we’ll look at one of the most famous Discourses in the entire Pali Canon, the Anattalakkhana Sutta. That Discourse is widely used to support the notion that the Buddha denied the existence of a “self”, in the sense that I, myself, am writing this comment. That’s just silly; the kind of time-wasting wordplay that distracts us from the intertwined tasks of embracing dukkha, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation, and bringing the Path to life.

The term “anattalakkhana” is a compound. The first syllable “an” negates the meaning of what follows, as the “a” in our word “atheist”, or the “an” in “anarchy”. In the animistic theories that were held by many brahmins in the Buddha’s time, “atta” means “soul” : the permanent identity that exists separate and distinct from a person’s current worldly form and that continues to exist when that worldly form ends, transmigrating to a new worldly form. The new form, because it is informed by the same eternal soul, is in some significant way identical with the first form: it is the same Self. Finally, “lakkhana” means “sign” or “characteristic”, in the sense of evidence, or an identifying mark. So the name of the sutta can be translated, approximately and long-windedly, as “The evidence for the non-existence of an essential Self”.

In this sutta, and in most of the other teachings of the Canon in which he addresses the ontological question of whether or not a “Self” exists, the term the Buddha uses is that term atta. And to fully understand what he’s about here, I think we have to remember what a central role that term played in the Brahminic tradition which the Buddha confronted in his Teaching. To that Brahminic tradition, and especially to what was, in the Buddha’s time, the very avant-garde gloss on that tradition that was emerging in the Upanishads, the atta (Sanskrit atman) was not only objectively real, but it was central to the notion of salvation that was the goal of the tradition. Brahman, the Godhead of which God Brahma is an avatar, was the central Reality, the source of all being. Each individual person had his or her own Essential Reality (the atta), beside which everything else about the person was illusory. The goal of all spiritual practice was to recognize that one’s atta was, in fact, identical to Brahman, and to experience the merging of atta with Brahman, Self with Godhead.

In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha leaves no doubt about what he thinks of the notion of such an entity—an eternal Self or soul. He examines all of the places where one might locate such an atta—a person’s body, that person’s perceptions, feelings, ideas and conceptual formations, the consciousness itself, and he finds each of those incapable of providing the foundation for an atta, a permanent Self or a soul. No matter where you look, you will see the same thing: “This is not mine; this is not what I am; this is not my Self.”

Yet here I am, writing this post. And I intend to continue the project I’ve begun, to cultivate the Buddha’s Eightfold Path in my life. So how do I reconcile this “I”, seeking reconciliation, with that “Self”, that atta, that is “not mine, not what I am, not my Self”? It’s not just a semantic problem, rejecting “ego” but allowing “I”. Our difficulty with the Buddha’s Dhamma here, I think, has to do with something more basic and more important than mere semantics (although I’m not certain that semantics is ever really “mere”). It has to do with how we understand experience.

In our modern materialistic understanding of the world, we make truth claims based on object identification; this is ‘A’; that is ‘Not-A’. Very Aristotelian. And objects are defined by their attributes or properties. So when we speak of a Self, we imply that there is an existent object, with the identifying name “Self”, and with certain properties that determine its location, its dynamic interaction with other objects, its particular capabilities, its distinguishing characteristics, etc. All of those properties together establish an object’s duration, the span of time through which it has existence as a distinct object. And the distinctive nature of the object determines the nature of our experience of it. The object, as a real thing, precedes and conditions our experience of it.

But that, it seems to me, is not how the Buddha understood experience. In the Buddha’s understanding, all that we have to deal with, all that we can know, is this immediate experience, and all experience is conditioned by prior experience and our response to that. Our experience of the world is our only way of knowing it, and our experience of the world is always in process. Experience not only precedes the objects of experience, but our habit of “objectification” is what conditions dukkha.

There is a revealing passage in the Dhammapada, perhaps the best-known and most widely read text from the Pali Canon, in which the Buddha presents a very different take on the notion of “Self” than he does in the Anattalakkhana Sutta.

As the irrigator guides the water to the fields;
As the fletcher sharpens the arrow;
As the carpenter shapes the block of wood;
So the wise person constructs the Self.
Dhammapada, Verse 80, translated by Richard Blumberg

The atta that the Buddha denies existence to in the Anattalakkhana Sutta is the Brahminical atta: the Self/Soul that continues from life to life, conditioning each life by the kamma it’s accumulated in previous lives. That conception of an Essential Self is limiting and constrictive. It is only because such a Self does not exist, in fact, that the wise person is free to construct this Self here and now, this discriminating “I” that can make ethical choices, sign contracts, raise a family, take OLLI courses, write essays, learn new skills, and summon up the effort and intelligence required to bring the Path to life, and so shape what it becomes. This Self is not an object, has no essential existence, but is always becoming, always in process.

I am Richard Blumberg, and I approve this message.

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Class 2 Audio

This is an experiment. I recorded Class 2, on the Dhammacakkappavatthana Sutta. The setup was decidedly non-professional; I used my iPhone and a $20 Olympus lapel microphone. But it doesn’t sound too bad. If you listen, I hope you’ll let me know how this worked for you.

Here’s the link. Just click it to stream the audio; right-click it (control-click on the Mac) to download the Mp4 file.


How Do We Know What’s “Right”?

Toward the end of our last class, an important question arose: how do we know what constitutes “right” view, “right” speech, action, livelihood, etc.? Not an easy question to answer, partly because one very good answer (there is, of course, no one “right” answer) goes very much “against the stream” of how we think about such questions, and about the kind of answers that traditional religions provide.

Because it is a very good question, and because one very good answer fits very well into the theme of the course, and into the point at which we are currently examining that theme, I’ve decided to alter the next class slightly to allow us to study a sutta that has direct bearing on the question and the good answer I’ll propose. The teaching is called “The Gotami Sutta”; it presents the Buddha’s answer to a question asked by his stepmother and aunt, Mahapajagotami, known simply as Gotami. Gotami’s concern, and the Buddha’s response to her concern, are directly relevant to the question of how we evaluate a particular way of understanding or acting to determine whether that way is, in fact, rightly aligned with the Buddha’s Dhamma. In a brief introduction to the Gotami Sutta, I’ve provided some context that might help you understand why Gotami made this particular request, and why the Buddha gave the response he did. And here’s a link to my rendering of the Sutta itself, with a few brief footnotes and a link to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation.

In a lot of ways, the Gotami Sutta provides an excellent lead-in to the Discourse that will be the main focus of our class, the Buddha’s discourse to the monk Malunkya. Both Malunkya and Gotami had entered the homeless life and joined the Buddha’s Sangha when they were already well advanced in years. Gotami caught on a lot more quickly than Malunkya, who remained stuck in his Brahminic habits of understanding until shortly before his death. In the Malunkyaputta Sutta, he comes to the Buddha demanding answers to a list of questions that were of pressing concern to the Brahmin priests and philosophers, and that still preoccupy a lot of religious thinkers and philosophers today. In answering Malunkya, the Buddha delivers one of his most famous similes, demonstrates his exceptional wit and humor, and, incidentally, points us toward a way of understanding experience that shines a whole different light on the question with which we began. In addition to the sutta itself, which is engaging and not long, I’ve written a brief introduction to that sutta which I hope you’ll have a chance to read before our class.


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