Monday, 30 June 2014

MN56: To Upali

This sutta details the exchange between Upali, a Niganthan (Jain), and the Buddha.

Upali explained the Jain view that there exist three kinds of "rods": bodily, verbal, and mental, of which bodily actions are the most reprehensible. The translators commentary explains that the three types of activities are considered to be instruments by which an individual torments himself and others. By stating that bodily actions are the most reprehensible, the Jains are implying that mental formations are not the forerunner of the other two actions.

In contrast, the Buddha states there are three kinds of "actions": bodily, verbal and mental, of which mental actions are the most reprehensible. Here, the Buddha is implying that mind is the forerunner of everything.

By the use of similes, Upali was won over by the Buddha, and became a lay follower.

Now, section 18 of the sutta is interesting, and it explains how Upali was able to become a stream-enterer. Firstly, the Buddha gave Upali "progessive instructions", i.e about giving, virtue, the heavens, and the danger of sensual pleasures and the blessing of renunciation. This made Upali receptive to the next crucial step: establishing him in stream-entry. In other suttas, laymen were given food to eat, to satisfy their hunger. So it seems that the Buddha takes pains to ensure that someone is in a receptive state to receive crucial instructions.

Here's how the sutta words it: "When he [the Buddha] knew that the householder Upali's mind was ready, receptive ... he expounded to him the teaching special to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path".

In my previous blogs, I talked about how some people regarded all religions as essentially equal and equivalent; and how that view is unwarranted. MN56.18 gives a specific point of reference to refute the view of equivalency.

Section 18 goes further: "while the householder Upali sat there, the spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in him: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation'". In other words, in that moment, Upali attained the path of stream-entry. I have a few things to say about the distinction between path and fruition stages, but I will leave that for another occasion.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

MN49: The invitation of a Brahma

The Buddha visits Baka, who existed in a Brahma-world, and reports on their meeting.

Baka had an eternalist view; "this is where one is neither born nor ages nor dies". He also said: "beyond this there is no escape". So, just like us humans who cannot perceive the realm of the devas, the devas in the brahma-lokas cannot see the worlds which have more refined jhanas to them. They assume that what they perceive is the highest there is.

The Buddha even says so: "But, Brahma, there are three other boddies, which you neither know nor see, and which I know and see." He enumerates three realms: Streaming Radiance, which is the highest degree of the second jhana, Refulgent Glory, which is the highest degree of the third jhana, and Great Fruit, which is one of the fine-material fourth jhanas.

What is interesting to note is the Buddha does not not mention the Asannasatta Realm, which is a fourth jhana realm of Unconscious beings, nor does he mention the pure abodes or the formless realms. Something new to me is that Wikipedia contains a note that beings who die from the Very Fruitful realm are reborn in hell, as animals, or hungry shades, assuming that they have not attained at least the sotapanna stage. I had always heard that beings in the brahmaloka could only be reborn in another devaloka (whether another brahamloka or a sensual deva realm) in their next life. So that's a new piece of information for me.

Another interesting point is that the Buddha had knowledge of Baka's former life, and said that Baka had been a god of Streaming Radiance in his previous life, but he had forgotten.

Baka was under the delusion that he was omnipotent, so the Buddha proceeded to disabuse him of his thinking. The Buddha exercised supernormal powers and was able to vanish from the Brahma, but was not able to copy him. So Baka and his assembly had to admit that the Buddha was onto something.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

MN48: The Kosambians

This sutta is about how the Buddha talked to a group of monks who were quarrelling with each other. Calling them "misguided men", he stated that there were six principles of cordiality:

  1. he commits bodily acts of loving-kindness
  2. and verbal acts of loving-kindness
  3. and mental acts of loving-kindness
  4. he shares any gain
  5. he dwells in virtue - which presumably means keeping the precept
  6. he dwells in views that are noble and emancipating, and lead to the complete destruction of suffering
The Buddha said that the last principle is the chief one.

The rest of the sutta deals with this "view", which is split into seven factors, or "knowledges", and refers to them as knowledges that are "attained by him that is noble, supramundane, not shared by ordinary people". So you immediately twig that the Buddha is referring to knowledges possessed by a sotapanna. And in fact the Buddha says as much at the end of the sutta: "When a noble disciple is thus possessed of seven factors, he possesses the fruit of stream-entry". 

So, although he doesn't say it as such, you can test whether someone is a sotapanna based on whether or not he or she possesses all of the knowledges. Let's go through them.

First knowledge
"And how does this view that is noble and emancipating lead the one who practises in accordance with it to the complete destruction of suffering? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, considers this: 'Is there any obsession unabandoned in myself that might so obsesses my mind that I cannot know or see things as they actually are?"

The Buddha lists the "obsessions": sensual lust, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, doubt, speculation about this world, speculation about the other world, and arguing. 

"He understand thus: 'There is no obsession unabandoned in myself that might so obsess my mind that I cannot know and see things as they actually are.

Second knowledge
A noble disciple realises then when he cultivates this view, it leads to serenity.

Third knowledge
A noble disciple realises that this view is unique to Buddhism. "He understands thus: 'There is no recluse or brahmin outside [the Buddha's Dispensation] possesses of a view such as I possess".

It is common to hear that all religions are equal. But that cannot be. We can, and should, have loving-kindness and tolerance for other religions and their practitioners; but we shouldn't get confused into thinking that they all lead to the same destination. A sotapanna would never have any doubt about this issue. Christians may well go to heaven, in accordance with their wishes and moral practises, but that's not the same thing as Nibbana.

Fourth knowledge
Now this is a real interesting one, and deals with morality. "Do I possess the character of a person who posses right view?" Here, he is referring to moral character.

What's interesting is that the Kosambian Sutta is often bought up in discussion about whether or not a sotapanna can break the five precepts. Some say that a sotapanna can never break one of the five precepts; and some say he can (citing this sutta in support), but he will confess it.

Here's what the Buddha actually says in this sutta: "although he may commit some kind of offence for which a means of rehabilitaion has been laid down, still he at once confesses" it, and tries to exercise restraint in future.

The translators offer clarification notes as to what an offence requiring rehabilitation is: "a breach of the code of monastic discipline from which a bhikkhu can be rehabilitated wither by a formal act of the Sangha or by confession to another bhikkhu"

Notice how the Buddha is not talking about the five precepts per se. In fact, some breaks in the precepts count as a "defeat", entailing expulsion from the Sangha - a much more serious offence. The defeats are: sexual intercourse, theft, killing a human, and making a false claim of supernatural powers.

Note that it is acceptable for a layman to have sexual intercourse. Only "wrong" sexual practises constitute a breach of a lay precept.

So this sutta cannot really be used to resolve what a layman can and cannot do in terms of breaking the five precepts.

Fifth knowledge
This knowledge relates to "right view". "although he may be active in various matters for his companions in the holy life, yet he has keen regard for training in the higher virtue ... mind ... and ... wisdom."

What the Buddha seems to be saying here is that although we may get involved in all the usual daily struggles that most of us find ourselves in, nevertheless, there is an underlying thread to his personality that ultimately he has to undertake the work of liberation. 

Sixth knowledge
This one is about "strength". Whenever Buddhist Dhamma is being taught, he "hears the Dhamma as with eager ears". 

This seems quite a bit like the fifth knowledge, in that it is all about the personal inclinations. My understanding is that whilst someone might slack off to go and watch footie, for example, there is always a "base" in his personality that is connected with Buddhism. My analogy might be that it's a bit like a tattoo. You may not show it off or look at it all the time, but it's still a permanent and integral part of your skin. It's always "there". 

Seventh knowledge
This is a bit vague, this one. When the Dhamma is being taught, "he gains inspiration in the meaning, gains inspiration in the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma". An understanding of the significance of the Dhamma, and the fact that he sees it as significant, also seems to be a factor of this knowledge.

Again, this knowledge seems something of an extension of the sixth knowledge, and all the knowledges generally. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

MN45: The shorter discourse on ways of undertaking things

The Buddha that there is pleasure and pain, both now and in the future. The combination of both possibilities leads to four permutations. What you do can be:

  1. pleasant now, but ripen in the future as pain. You should avoid doing those things. The Buddha mentions indulgence in sensual pleasure in this category, and uses the simile of a vine-creeper. As a seed, or sprout, it seems innocent enough, but it may grow, and eventually cause a lot of damage to the tree. It reminds me of something Warren Buffett once said: "Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken".
  2. painful now, and painful in the future. Ordinarily, it is easy for us to avoid those types of undertakings. We are not rational all the time, though, and we sometimes engage in some very dysfunctional activities. The Buddha did mention the mortifications of naked ascetics as an example in this category. They are painful now, and just lead to a bad destination in any event.
  3. painful now, but ripen in the future as pleasure. It has applications in daily life, where you have to take a long term view for the benefits to pay off. The Buddha mentions that we may be distraught because of the lust, hatred or delusion, but if we keep the precepts, we will appear in a happy destination.
  4. pleasant now, and pleasurable in the future. This ought to be the easiest for us to do. The Buddha refers to the jhanas as an example of something in this category.
Occasionally, some people seem to disparage the pursuit and attainment of jhana, even using derogatory phrases to those who seek them as "bliss bunnies". But we should not take that view. The jhanas are, after all, the means by which the Buddha attained his Enlightenment.

When I read suttas like this, I am often very impressed at the Buddha's intelligence and the way he analyses things.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

MN44: The Shorter Series of Questions and Answers

Notes on Buddhist suttas

Craving is the origin of our "identity". Craving refers to craving for sensual pleasures, for being, and for non-being. Our identity refers to five aggregates: our physical existence, feelings, perception, "formations", and consciousness. We tend to regard the aggregates as ourselves (e.g. "I am my body"), a possession of self (e.g. "My body is part of my self"), or some other idea that mixes the notions of aggregates and "self" together.

The cessation of identity is brought about by the cessation of craving. The cessation of craving is bought about by following the noble eightfold path.

"Formations" refers to actions committed bodily (in-breathing and out-breathing), verbally (applied and sustained thoughts), or mentally (perception and feeling).

There are three types of feeling: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Lust underlies pleasant feeling. Aversion underlies painful feeling. Ignorance underlies neutral feelings. It isn't all-inclusive, though. For example, the underlying tendency to lust does not underlie all pleasant feeling.

There's an interesting twist, though. Dhammadinna, the bhikkhuni answering the questions said that we should give up the underlying tendency towards lust, aversion, and ignorance. However, we do not have to abandon all of these tendencies in regard to feelings. It is a little unclear as to what this means. Subsequent passages seem to hint at the answer. Sensual pleasures should be abandoned, but the pleasures of jhana do not. "With that he abandons lust, and the underlying tendency to lust does not underlie that".

Likewise, not all unpleasant feeling need to be abandoned. Grief is mentioned specifically. "In one who thus generates a longing for the supreme liberations, grief arises with that long as condition".

Furthermore, when the fourth jhana is attained, there is equanimity, "which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure".

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Buddhist kamma

Kamma (Sanskrit karma) literally means "action". Westerners often use the term to mean the result of the action. It is confusing if they do that. It would be better if they use the word "Vipaka". In Buddhism, kamma specifically means "intentional action", or, synonymously, "volitional action". It carries a moral weight, whether for good or bad result. If you intended to swat a fly, for example, that constitutes bad kamma, which has the propensity to ripen into bad results. If you squashed a fly accidentally, then there is no kamma involved.

Western secularists have a difficult time accepting kamma, but to me it is one of the most obvious things in the world. In fact, to say that kamma doesn't exist is to say that actions don't have consequences. This is, of course, an absurd view. If you didn't believe that your actions had results, then you wouldn't do anything. In order to get a university degree you need to study, for example. Studying is the cause, and the degree is the result.

Kamma has effects which are both immediate, and have a future component. So, if I go to the fridge to eat some ice cream, then that's kamma. The result is that I experience pleasant sensations here and now (because ice cream is delicious), but I can get fat over the longer term if I eat too much.

It is useful that kammic results often do not happen in isolation. What we usually experience at any moment is the result of lots of kammic actions mixed together. This mixing process, together with the fact that kammas can have effects that extend into the unquantifiable future, means that it is often difficult to foresee what their true consequences are. There's a kind of "law of unintended consequences" in our actions. I think it is our belief that we are exempt from, or mindless of, the future ripening of kamma that causes so much trouble for ourselves and the world. If the results were always and only instant, then I am sure we would commit only good actions. Humans do not think about the longer term implications of their actions, and if they do, they tend to think that they can dodge them.

One of my favourite stories about kamma, and the way good and bad kammas can interact, is the death of Steve Banerjee. You are probably unaware of this, but Steve was an entrepreneur who co-founded the Chippendales, a touring male dance troupe featuring erotic dancing. The Chippendales became famous, and was undoubtedly a huge financial success. So, through hard work, he was able to enjoy money, success, and all of its trappings. However, he went on to make some bad choices. He attempted to hire someone to burn down competing nighclubs. He also attempted to have his business partners murdered. Unfortunately for him, the hitman he hired confessed to the American Embassy. This eventually led to Banerjee's arrest for conspiracy to commit murder, murder for hire, racketeering, and arson. Hours before he was sentenced, he hung himself in his detention cell.

Banerjee used his industriousness to create commercial success. Instead of enjoying its fruits, he let ill-will go to his head and committed all manner of nasty deeds which resulted in him taking his own life. Who would have thought that creating something successful could lead to one's own death? The answer is, clearly, that it can, if you start doing bad things.

Although kammas can have complex interactions when they ripen, so that it is difficult to predict the manner of the results, there is a clear path through all of it. It's actually quite simple: good actions tend to ripen in good results, and bad actions tend to ripen in bad results. So, just do good deeds, and you don't have to worry about the results.

AN 8.40, "Vipaka Sutta: Results" details the results of bad actions. It says that stealing, illicit sex, lying, divisive tale-bearing, harsh speech, frivoulous chattering, or taking intoxicants can lead to hell, realm or ghost realm. In their slightest form, they can have an effect in the human realm. The effect in the human realm is dependent on the action, as follows:

  • stealing leads to loss of wealth
  • illicit sex leads to rivalry and revenge
  • lying leads to one being falsely accused
  • divisive tale-bearing leads to the breaking of friendships
  • harsh speech leads to unappealing sounds
  • frivolous chattering leads to words that aren't worth taking to heart
  • intoxicants lead to mental derangement
So, please keep to the five precepts as faithfully as you possibly can.