Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Simile of the Snake

Majjhima Nikaya 22

Buddha and NagaThe Buddha is living in Jeta’s Grove in Anathapindika’s Park. Savatthi or Shravasti was the capital of Kosala and one of the six largest cities of India at the time of the Buddha. Anathapindika was a wealthy householder who was the chief lay disciple of the Buddha.

The sutta begins by considering the problem of heresy. Presumably, as the sangha expanded in size and extent this must have been a growing problem, especially after the Buddha’s death, but even before the Buddha’s parinibbana there must have been concern about how best to preserve the dharma, and there is evidence of such thinking in the Canon.

In this case, a monastic, Arittha by name, is associated with the wrong or “pernicious” view that the obstructions or hindrances are not actually obstructions or hindrances. Arittha is “formerly of the vulture killers,” which I am guessing is probably a low ranking sub-caste of the shudra or worker caste, i.e., he is what we could call low class. The Five Hindrances are sensory desire, ill will, sloth-torpor, restlessness-worry, and doubt. This view is similar to arguments made today that consumption, competition, and disbelief are actually good things – greed is good, the virtue of selfishness, the end justifies the means, etc. Here again the Law of Karma is central – like creates like. The opposite view, that one can create one state of affairs by appealing to its opposite, is the essence of immoralism.

Note that Arittha is not rejecting the Buddhadharma, he is a monastic after all, but rather he is inferring this conclusion from his (mis)understanding of the dharma. This is of course the very definition of heresy.

Several monastics hear about this and go to Arittha, challenging his doctrine by means of a variety of similes that indicate the negative character of the obstructions. Arittha, however, was not convinced. The monastics go to the Buddha to report Arittha’s heresy to him. The Buddha calls a monastic to summon Arittha. Arittha comes as requested and tells the Buddha that his heresy that the obstructions are not hindrances is his understanding of the Buddha’s dharma. The implication, also identified by Bodhi, is that Arittha is advocating a dharma of sensual pleasure, much along the lines advocating by many New Age gurus today, including such as Aurobindo, Aleister Crowley, and Adi Da amongst others.

Bodhi tells us that the Vinaya says that the sangha suspended Arittha and defined the offence of refusing to give up a wrong view after repeated admonitions by others based on Arittha’s obstinacy.

The Buddha asks the monastics if Arittha has “kindled even a spark of wisdom in this Dhamma and Discipline?” The monastics declare that he has not, and that his view is heretical, whereupon Arittha becomes dejected and sullen. Finally, the Buddha declares the principle, which appears to have been a particular point of dissension in the sangha – “Bhikkus, that one can engage in sensual pleasure without sensual desire, without perception of sensual desire, without thoughts of sensual desire – that is impossible.” Once a man came to me, who identified himself as a Buddhist, and asked me to teach him how to meditate so that he could have sex with women without any attachment or feelings for them that could cause him to suffer. I imagine that this kind of perversion of right view is what Arittha was engaged in. In other words, emancipation and sensuality are mutually incompatible because without craving (the definition of emancipation) there can be no sensual desire and thus no sensual pleasure.

The sutta includes an interesting classification of the dharma into discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions, clearly alluding to a later stage of development of the oral tradition in which the dharma became identified with the various classes of compositions but prior to the organization of the Canon that we have today.

The Buddha implies that Arittha is an intellectual who has been led astray by his own thinking. The Buddha contrasts this sophistical way of thinking, which he associates with criticizing others and winning in debates – a kind of thinking popular in many universities today, especially in North America – with examining the meaning of the teachings with wisdom. Sans wisdom, they fail to gain a “reflective acceptance” of the teachings, In other words, Arittha became seduced by his own cleverness.

The Buddha compares this wrong way of grasping the dharma with grasping a snake by its tail, which turns about and bites one. Similarly, the dharma misapprehended creates much demerit. The simile of the snake is like consciousness itself – subtle, lively, hard to pin down, easy to lead to a bad result. On the other hand, a snake is properly grasped with a cleft stick. This is the right way of grasping the dharma.

The Buddha’s simile suggests the process of meditation: “Suppose a man needing a snake, seeking a snake, wandering in search of a snake, saw a large snake and caught it rightly with a cleft stick and having done so, grasped it rightly by the neck. Then although the snake might wrap its coils round his hand or his arm or his limbs, still he would not come to death or deadly suffering because of that.” The snake is a universal symbol of volatility and psychic energy, including libido or sexual energy and kundalini Shakti that lies coiled and dormant as the ecstatic potential of consciousness, the Buddha nature or Tathagatagarbha. The cleft stick is samadhi. “Grasping” consciousness in this way confers immortality or “deathlessness.”

The purpose of the dharma, the Buddha says, is not to win debates but to cross over the flood of samsara through dispassion. Once samsara is overcome, dharma itself can be discarded, rather than continuing to engage it in vain intellectual inquisition. However, in order to discard the dharma it must first be constructed and used before it can be discarded. The point then is that the construction of dharma, which is a necessary means, is transcended by realization.

The Buddha contrasts his doctrine of absolute dispassion, including attachment to high and beneficial states, with Arittha’s attempt to admit sensuality in through the back door of dharma disputation. “Bhikkhus, when you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even good states, how much more bad states.” The ultimate position is one of perfect indifference, beyond good and evil.

The Buddha criticizes both the doctrine of self (atman) and the doctrine of non-self (annihilation) as equally false, with regard to matter, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness (the Five aggregates), ranging from possessiveness and territoriality (the subject of another discourse on Dependent Origination), to the soul theory, including the contemplation of non-existence, which creates the agitation of fear and craving. However, he who understands these theories for what they are, i.e., illusions or delusions, is not agitated by them. This is my reading of this difficult section, which Bodhi calls “Standpoint for Views.”

The Buddha explains that there are two kinds of agitation about nothing. Externally, one frets over the loss or non-possession of an illusory object. Internally, he frets over the possibility of personal annihilation. The latter agitation is specifically aroused (says the Buddha) in one who thinks that the dharma means that the self is annihilated in nirvana, implying that this is wrong view.

The solution to both types of agitation is to hear “the Dhamma for the elimination of all standpoints, decisions, obsessions, adherences and underlying tendencies, for the stilling of all formations, for the relinquishing of all attachments, for the destruction of craving for dispassion, for cessation, for Nibbana.” The Buddha specifically says that such a follower of the dharma does not “think” that he will be annihilated. Assuming that Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Pali is accurate, the use of the word “think” rather than “feel” or “fear” is significant. He has realized non-self-identity was a matter of knowledge, not belief.

Next, the Buddha asks the monastics whether they are aware of anything existent that is permanent, everlasting, eternal,, changeless,, and enduring; anything in the world that would not arouse angst in anyone who clings to it as a property of a self or  a support, recapitulating the Three Characteristics of Existence – impermanence, non-self-identity, and angst.

The Buddha goes on to criticize the classic Upanishadic axiom of the unity of Brahman and Atman; this is a core precept of Hinduism. This axiom contradicts two fundamental Buddhist precepts: first, the essential angst of the world (Brahman) and second, non-self-identify (anatta). The Buddha ridicules the notion of an “eternal self” (i.e., soul), yet he posits Deathlessness as the goal of emancipation. Rather, the Buddha instructs his followers to not identify the self with any thing at all, whether physical (material) or psychological (mental). The cultivation of this state progresses from disenchantment through dispassion to liberation and non-rebirth.

The word “arahant” is variously explained as “one who is worthy” or “foe destroyer.” The term is not unique to Buddhism. Generally, it is used to refer to an advanced spiritual aspirant, but not a Buddha. Nonetheless, the evidence of the Pali Canon is that the Buddha taught the path of the arhant to his followers, along with at least two other paths – the path to deva rebirth and the similar but more specialized path to Union with Brahma – as well as the famed “84,000 techniques” of spiritual practice. In other words, the Buddha’s teachings are diverse and adapted to his audience. Buddhism is essentially a meta-theory of religion and as such both includes and transcends religion as such. It is interesting that the Buddha chose to use this familiar pan-Indian term, which also describes the goal of the samana movement in general, including the Jains, rather than some more specialized term. The emphasis throughout the Pali Canon on the path of the arhant is unsurprising considering that it was the monastics who preserved the Canon, i.e., precisely those who were committed to this path. Nonetheless, the evidence of the Pali Canon is that the Buddha taught the path of the arhant to the monastics.

The Hinayana schools differed on their view of the spiritual perfection of the arhants, although all schools agree that an arhant is emancipated as a consequence of perfecting dispassion, thus breaking the chain of Dependent Origination through the ‘cause’ (nidana) of craving. Some Hinayana schools held to the generally held view that an arhant was an advanced spiritual aspirant but not necessarily a Buddha. We might say that an arhant is an adept but not a master. Thus, while the Buddha was an arhant this does not mean that an arhant is necessarily a Buddha, and there is evidence in the Pali Canon to support this view. At least eight Hinayana schools held this view. The alternative view that the arhants are perfected beings in every sense, and in particular in terms of the development of their wisdom, and therefore infallible, is held today by the Theravada, which is the only surviving Hinayana school. Thus, this view has erroneously become identified with the Hinayana itself. If arhants are not perfected beings, then there must be another path, a path that leads to Buddhahood, the path that the Buddha himself trod, and we find this path described in the Pali Canon as the path of the bodhisattva.

The Buddha gives a number of similes to express the things that they have completely abandoned or renounced, specifically, ignorance, rebirth, craving, and the five lower fetters (i.e., self-identity, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, sensual desire or lust, and ill will). Self-identity-view is repeated. Thus, the Buddha says of an arhant that “when the god with Indra, with Brahma, and with Pajapati [lit. ‘lord of creation,’ possibly a reference to Mara] seek a bhikkhu who is thus liberated in mind, they do not find anything of which they could say: ‘The consciousness of one thus gone (tathagata) is supported by this.’ Why is that? One thus gone, I say, is untraceable here and now.”

Note that Buddha’s use of the word, tathagata, ‘thus gone.’ Usually this word is reserved for the Buddha alone, but occasionally it is used with reference to the arhant, just as the word arhant is used with reference to the Buddha. Both are emancipated beings. However, to infer from this to the view that the Buddha and the arhant are identical, as some so-called modern or progressive Buddhists might have it, is overreaching and untenable, not only canonically, but in terms of fundamental logic as well, for if the Buddha is simply another arhant, then Buddhism itself disappears and becomes a kind of Vedanta. According to this view, we should regard all arhants equally. This view is completely non-canonical.

The consciousness of the arhant in “untraceable.” The commentaries interpret this word to mean that the arhant has no self-identify and that his “insight-path-fruition mind” is not discernible from within samsara, referring of course to the mind stream (santana) that we have discussed before.

One of the big misunderstandings of Buddhism has been the accusation that Buddhism is a sort of nihilism, advocating the extinction (nibbana) of the self (atta) itself. The Theravadin view seems to come very close to this view, to the extent that at least one Theravadin temple has set up the mummified corpse of a mediator at the front of their temple as an object of worship. The samsaric rather than supermundane focus of the Pali Canon reinforces this wrong view. However, here the Buddha declares this view to be a mistake: “So saying, bhikkhus, so proclaiming, I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmins thus: ‘The recluse Gotama is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the extermination of an existing being.’” Rather, the Buddha says, “what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Bodhi comments: “Nibbana is not the annihilation of a being but the termination of that same unsatisfactory process.” In other words, nirvana is the annihilation of illusion. The annihilation of illusion is not an absolute annihilation, but rather the realization of reality. This is the enlightened perspective.

The Buddha says, however, concerning himself, that as Tathagata, he is indifferent as to whether others abuse, revile, scold and harass him or honour, respect revere or venerate him, since there is no ego to experience either annoyance, bitterness, or dejection or delight, joy, or elation, “of the heart.” The reference to the heart may be a double entrendre since, besides being the centre of emotion, it is also the traditional centre of the atta, the self. Therefore, says the Buddha, the monastics should feel neither annoyance nor delight because of others, reiterating a statement made in the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Net of Confusion (Brahmajala Sutta).

Therefore, says the Buddha, since there is no self to possess, and no object to be possessed, abandon this process, which is doubly illusory, because it was never yours in the first place. The construction parallels the second precept – taking what is not given. Thus, one should abandon attachment to material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness – the Five Aggregates of self or psyche.

This dharma that the Buddha proclaims is, he says, clear, open, evident, and “free of patchwork.” The commentary explains this idiom as meaning that the dharma is not fragmentary, outmoded, or deceptive in any way. The Buddha says that arhants who have destroyed the taints (the ambiguity in the English translation may not exist in the Pali) are completely liberated. Note that the Buddha specifically identifies the salvific principle with “final knowledge,” once again confirming my repeated assertion that the Pali Canon clearly teaches that wisdom is the essential salvific principle.

Moreover, those monastics who have abandoned the five lower fetters will be reborn in the Pure Abodes, the highest planes of the Form world of samsara, corresponding to the attainment of the fourth jhana, whence they will attain final nirvana without ever being reborn in a lower world.

Those monastics who have abandoned the three lower fetters (self-view, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals) and attenuated lust, hatred, and delusion will be reborn as a human being once more only, whence they will attain arhantship. Thus, it is possible to attain liberation either from the Pure Abodes or from the human world.

Those monastics who have abandoned the three lower fetters are stream entrants, who are on the path that leads to liberation.

Similarly, the Buddha identifies two subordinate classes of aspirant, dharma followers and faith followers, who are also on the path to enlightenment. Bodhi notes that the liberation of dharma followers is called “attained to view.” The liberation of faith followers is called “liberated by faith.” However, it is important to note that according to the Kitagiri Sutta (MN 70) only those liberated both ways or liberated by wisdom are completely liberated, with nothing left to do. All of the other categories, including one liberated by faith, still have work to do, and thus are not completely liberated. The other categories of those who still have work to do are the body witness, one attained to view, a dharma follower, and a faith follower, still have work to do. The body witness, not discussed in sutta 22, appears to refer to an aspirant who has experienced mindfulness of the body and the immaterial (i.e., fifth through eighth) jhanas.

Finally, those monastics who have a certain degree of faith and love for the Buddha will be reborn in a deva world. This appears to be the lowest level of Buddhist attainment. Rebirth in a deva world may result in a long period of great happiness and other perks, including beauty, power, and wisdom, but eventually it seems that most, if not all devas (excluding those born in the Pure abodes) will be reborn in a lower state. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Buddha included the conventional religious aspiration to “heaven” in his teachings, but as an inferior path not leading to final emancipation (parinibbana). Since the Buddha clearly included inferior paths and secondary techniques in his teachings, presumably as a concession, the question arises concerning the spiritual status of the path of the arhant, which as I mentioned before is not a specifically Buddhist attainment but is mentioned by the Jains, samanas and others as a non-ultimate attainment like the path of heaven but higher.