Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, November 15, 2015.
The Faultless Discourse
Majjhima Nikaya 60
The Buddha is staying in the village of Sala, after wandering through Kosala with a large number of monastics. Kosala was a monarchy whose king, Pasenadi, was a follower of the Buddha. Pasenadi was dethroned by his minister who placed Pasenadi’s son on the throne. Pasenadi subsequently died of exposure. Soon after Kosala was annexed by the Magadha kingdom.
The brahman householders of Sala hear of this, and they go to visit him. Sala was located at the entrance to a forest, where many different recluses and brahmans would stay, all disputing with each other as to whose view was best. Thus, the Buddha asks whether the householders recognize any particular teacher based on rational inquiry. The householders reply that they have not found such a teacher. The Buddha offers to teach them a dharma that is without fault and leads to welfare and happiness.
Many Westerners think of ancient India in rather fanciful terms, but the Buddha’s statement shows us that ancient India was not only spiritual. At least some people denied the value of merit, karmic consequences, rebirth, filial duty, spiritual beings, and spiritual realizations. This is the sort of rationalist nihilism that pervades much modern thinking.
The nihilist view is opposed by its opposite, which the Buddha identifies with the dharma. Here the word ‘dharma’ is used in the broad sense to refer to all of those who maintain what we might call a spiritual worldview, including merit, karma, rebirth, filial duty, spiritual beings, and spiritual realizations.
The Buddha objects that nihilists will tend to act in unethical ways because they have no reason not to do so. For this reason, he accuses nihilism of fostering corruption. Thus, nihilism presents a problem that must be resolved.
The Buddha’s ingenious solution is to consider the consequences of accepting one view or the other in terms of whether what each asserts is true or false.
If there is no rebirth, then the nihilist is safe from suffering in terms of a non-existent afterlife but is reviled in this world as a dishonourable person, and if there is rebirth, he goes to hell, whereas if there no rebirth, the dharma practitioner is respected in life as an honourable person and if there is rebirth, then he goes to heaven. Comparing the choice of which to believe in to the arbitrary throws of games of chance, the Buddha says that the nihilist has made two “unlucky throws,” in that he suffers in this life and in the next. One can taste the irony in the Buddha’s application of the phrase “good person” to the nihilist as he explains the moral consequences of this choice of worldview. Similarly, the dharma practitioner has made two good throws, in that he is immune from suffering both in this life and in the next. In this way, the Buddha asserts that dharma is the incontrovertible or “faultless” teaching.
In Digha NIkaya 1, the Buddha refuted the 62 kinds of wrong view. Similarly, in this sutta he summarizes and refutes five wrong views along the same lines as we have just discussed.
These doctrines bear many similarities to the six samana philosophies of the Buddha’s time, including amoralism, fatalism, materialism, eternalism, Jainism, and agnosticism. One realizes reading the doctrines of these schools that they all seem to be varieties of nihilism.
The Buddha summarizes five doctrines of wrong view, to which he applies the same sort of analysis as we have just discussed.
Doctrines of Wrong View
- There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmans in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. (Nihilism)
- When one acts or makes other act, when one mutilates or makes others mutilate, when one tortures or makes others inflict torture, when one inflicts sorrow or makes others inflict sorrow when one oppresses or makes other inflict oppression, when one intimidates or makes other inflict intimidation, when one kills living beings takes what is not given, breaks into houses, plunders wealth, commits burglary, ambushes highways, seduces another’s wife, utters falsehood –no evil is done by the doer. (Non-dong)
- There is no cause or condition for the defilement of beings beings are defiled without cause or condition. There is no cause or condition for the purification of beings; beings are purified without cause or condition. There is no power, no energy, no manly strength, no manly endurance. All beings, all living things, all creatures, all souls are without mastery, power, and energy; moulded by destiny, circumstance, and nature they experience pleasure and pain in the six classes. (Non-causality)
- There are definitely no immaterial realms.
- There is definitely no cessation of being
The doctrine that “if, with a razor-rimmed wheel, one were to make the living beings on this earth into one mass of flesh, into one heap of flesh, because of this there would be no evil and no outcome of evil.” is that of Purana Kassapa who we encountered in our discussion of Digha Nikaya 2. Purana taught a theory of non-action, in which there are no soul, merit, or demerit. The core of Purana’s doctrine is that he denied the law of karma. Purana, who claimed to be omniscient, eventually drowned himself. Presumably, Purana’s actual ethic consisted of doing nothing, hence the name.
The doctrine that suffering is inherent is the philosophy of the ajivikas, founded by Makkhali Gosala. The ajivikas believed in predestination, so that no one can do anything to alleviate suffering.
The reference to “manly strength” is interesting. I have mentioned before that the Buddha’s “energy” (viriya) is related to the etymological root referring to the male gender. This is also the energy by which the Buddha was able to defer his death for three months, and might have done so for 20 or so more years had Ananda asked. In the primordial philosophy, the male or “psychic” polarity is commonly identified with the spiritual principle, and the female with the somatic or material principle. This relates to the spiritual misogyny that one finds for example in the Roman Church and which one also finds in the Pali Canon. Various Indian spiritual theories concerning sexuality also underlie Indian misogyny. However, the Buddha himself doesn’t appear to have been a misogynist, as I have discussed in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.”
The doctrines that there are no immaterial realms and no cessation of being, i.e., nirvana, suggest the philosophy of materialism.
The final section of the sutta on the four kinds of persons has little to do with the incontrovertible teaching and seems to have been spliced in as we have seen in other suttas. This section summarizes part of sutta 51, in which people are classified according to whether they torment and torture themselves and/or others. The person who torments himself is the ascetic. The person who torments others is anyone who follows a bloody occupation, such as butchers, fowlers, trappers, etc. Those who torment themselves and others includes kings and brahmans. Finally, the one who does not torment himself or others is the tathagata. This classification covers all of the classes of person in the Buddha’s world, including ascetics, householders, nobles, brahmans, and arhants.
After hearing this the brahman householders of Sala become lay followers of the Buddha.