Faith: A Meditation and a Homily – 2

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2. A Homily

In the Canki Sutta (M. 95: ii,171-3) we find:

… Here, Bharadvaja, a monk lives dependent upon some village or town. Then a householder or householder’s son, having approached, examines [him] as regards three things: states of greed, states of hatred, states of confusion. [He considers:] “Does this venerable one have those qualities of greed, of hatred, or of confusion, such that with his mind obsessed by greed, by hatred, or by confusion he, not knowing, would say ‘I know’, or not seeing would say ‘I see’? Or would he encourage another [to act] in such a way that would be for the other to his detriment and suffering for a long time?”

While examining him he comes to know: “There are no such states in this venerable one. The bodily and verbal conduct of this venerable one are not those of one who is covetous, who is malign, or who is in error. Indeed, the Teaching that this venerable one teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to awaken to, peaceful, superior, not attainable by thinking and pondering, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. This Teaching cannot be well taught by one who is greedy, hateful, or confused.”

As soon as, in examining him, he comes to see that he is purified from states of greed, of hatred, and of confusion, then he establishes his faith in him. With the birth of faith then, drawing close, he pays respect to him. Paying respect to him, he gives ear. Giving ear, he hears the Teaching. Hearing, he retains the Teaching. He investigates the purpose of Teachings retained. Investigating the purpose, introspective Teachings are acquiesced to. There being acquiescence to introspective Teachings, a wish is born. With a wish born, he ventures. Venturing, he evaluates. Evaluating, he resolves. Resolute, he realizes by body the paramount truth and he sees it by penetration of it with understanding.

This is how there is awakening to truth, Bharadvaja; this is how truth is awakened to … [5]

Greed, hatred, and confusion: here, at least, we meet with things which we know about, and without recourse to faith. For who has not experienced greed directly, and recognized its symptoms, if not its origin? That term, “greed”, covers the gamut of neediness, from the coarse hankering after things of the world (stealing a cutting from our neighbor’s thriving rosebush) through the more subtle desires (plans to enter the flower show competition). We may suspect, without knowing, that there is craving yet more subtle. We may believe the Suttas, without seeing, when they speak of a craving for being, bhavatanha, and for that conceit from which spring notions of selfhood: “I”-making and “my”-making. But quite apart from faith in the Suttas we are able to say with certainty, with knowledge, that we recognize greed in ourselves. And in others we recognize modes of behavior which we associate with greed.

So too with hatred. We experience coarse forms of anger (applying yet another insecticide; for those endless aphids now seem to be resistant to every spray and powder in our arsenal) and we experience subtle forms of anger (gloom at the disdain of the other entrants to the flower show). And beyond this we may create yet more subtle forms of anger, still unrecognized, which are connected with concealment of disparity and with disguising of dissatisfaction. But even when we do not see these more subtle manifestations of hatred, or their condition, we can assert with certainty, with knowledge, that we recognize anger in ourselves. And in others we recognize modes of conduct which we associate with anger.

Confusion is more difficult. And yet there are situations wherein we recognize that we simply don’t understand. And that recognition is non-confusion in the very midst of confusion. We can know, at least on coarser levels, and at least sometimes, that we don’t know. (If even that level of self-examination were impossible then surely there would be no escape from self-deception. We would indeed be condemned to faith.) There are, it seems, more subtle forms of confusion (when, rather than “confusion”, we might better speak of “delusion”[6]), the exposure of which is at the heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. But until these forms are revealed their existence is, inevitably, a matter of faith. And (the Suttas tell us) the faith of the unenlightened is founded upon his failure to see the root delusion, and the dependence of faith upon that delusion. But even without seeing this fundamental self-deception we can say that we have the capacity to know ourselves to be confused. And in others we can recognize modes of behavior which we associate with confusion.

So we discover an individual whose conduct, as we observe it, is free from that which we associate with greed, with hatred, and with confusion. Or perhaps, in today’s wider world, we find not a living person but the heritage of one no longer living. And if it is the heritage of a Buddha then it includes a Teaching which praises generosity, friendliness, and understanding and points out the dangers of greed, of hatred, and of confusion. And if it is the message of a Buddha then it goes beyond this praise of rectitude, to expose to examination the very roots of conduct. And it offers guidance, for those who will pay heed, in examining the roots of their own conduct. If it is such a message then we, who do not know what to do with this precious and painful faith to which we are (it appears) condemned — we may choose to allow that faith to reside therein.

If we do so, the Suttas tell us, we shall then be following the path which transcends faith — the faith, that is, that has no basis in knowledge. We follow it not by abandoning faith; for that, as we have seen, is a Sisyphean effort. For all that it may depend upon roses for its sustenance, faith cannot be starved to death. Faith is an omnivore, and will never lack for that on which it can feed. But perhaps it can be put on a suitable diet? What, then, if we place our faith in knowledge?

If faith were to merely imitate knowledge then, of course, we would be no less immersed in faith than we were when faith disguised itself as a rose. But if, in imitating knowledge, faith could be led to not take itself at its own evaluation of itself, could faith then come to truly see itself?

But of course we, in our ignorance, do not know knowledge. We know only the approximation of it: the absence of that bodily and verbal conduct which is based on greed, hatred, and confusion. And even that we know only approximately, according to our ability to judge the matter, each for himself. Here, ultimately, we must each decide for ourselves; and it is not surprising that there will be a difference in individuals. And even when we find a teacher or a teaching which seems to us to be free of defilements doubt may still remain, as it did for the wandering ascetic Subhadda.

“Now there is in me a doubt,” Subhadda thought; “but to this extent have I faith in the ascetic Gotama [= the Buddha], that he could so teach me the Doctrine as to remove that doubt.” And Subhadda went to the Buddha and had his doubt resolved. And, his faith established, he set out to practise the Teaching. “And from the time of his ordination the venerable Subhadda remained alone, secluded, heedful, ardent and resolute. And before long he attained to the goal for which a worthy man goes forth entirely from home to homelessness, the supreme goal of the holy life …”[7]

In Subhadda’s small vignette we see not only the act of establishing faith but of paying respect. Here, respect is not a mere physical displacement: clasped hands, bowing down, the offering of flowers, the lighting of candles and incense, and all the other magical devices that can come into play to posit or augment a sense of relationship. For Subhadda, paying respect meant, clearly, accepting that the Buddha’s point of view (the point of view of knowledge) took precedence over his own (that of doubt). He did not assume that his doubt was so powerful that even a Buddha would be unable to move it. To have done so would have been to place faith in and pay respect to his own doubt. Rather, he diminished the status of that doubt by making it subservient to his faith in the Buddha’s ability.

Certainly Subhadda showed to the Buddha those civilities and courtesies which are part of paying respect; and to do so is not blameworthy. However, we find in the Suttas many who did just so and who were nevertheless not moved, as was Subhadda, to renounce former ways and to take up the practice of Dhamma. Indeed, when we look at the commentary to the Dhammapada we even find the story of a monk who, it appears, deliberately avoided the opportunity to show respect by means of the ordinary civilities.

When the Buddha had announced that his final passing away (parinibbana) would take place after four months (so the Commentary; though in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in which Subhadda’s tale is told, the Buddha announces the event to be three months hence) many monks spent their time constantly attending upon the Teacher. But one monk, the Venerable Attadattha, went nowhere near his fellow monks, and their attendancy. For he thought to himself, “The Teacher says that four months hence he is to pass into Nibbana. Now I have not yet freed myself from the power of the evil passions. Therefore so long as the Teacher yet remains alive, I will strive with all my might for the attainment of Arahatship [= full enlightenment].” Accordingly, the Ven. Attadattha (the name, perhaps invented by the Commentator for the sake of his tale, means “self-welfare”) kept to himself, pondering and meditating on the Teaching.

The monks conducted the Ven. Attadattha to the Buddha and told him of the Ven. one’s conduct. Whereupon the Buddha questioned him before the other monks. “Why do you act thus?” The Ven. Attadattha explained his wish to attain full enlightenment before his Master’s final passing away.

Then the Buddha praised him of his wise decision, and told the monks: “Monks, whosoever sincerely loves me should be like Elder Attadattha. For truly they honor me not who honor me with perfumes and garlands. They only honor me who fulfill the higher and the lower Law; therefore others also should follow the example of Elder Attadattha.”[8]

And so saying the Buddha, we are told, pronounced the verse:

“However great may be another’s need,
for one’s own welfare one should maintain heed.
Fully knowing one’s own task one should
persist in that which leads to one’s own good.” [Dh.166]

Outward manifestations, then, are in themselves inadequate as full payment of respect. Both Subhadda and Attadattha show us what more is needed. And they show us, too, how payment of respect is founded upon faith.

Giving ear: a physical act, to be sure — but is it only that? It is if we place the emphasis on “ear”. But if we emphasize “giving” then the phrase follows sensibly upon “paying of respect”, and leads sensibly to “hearing the Teaching”. And here again the emphasis qualifies the act. The Teaching, of course, is not some arbitrary verbiage, infinitely substitutable. We cannot hear what we wish to hear and then meaningfully call it “the Buddha’s Teaching”. But equally so, the Teaching is not merely a collection of certain words, independent of any listener. Rather, it is our relationship to that Teaching which determines it to be something other than mere verbiage for each of us personally. It is, for each of us, a Teaching only if we are in fact taught. This is made clear by the simile of the snake (M. 22: i,133-34), where the snake, like the Teaching, when wrongly grasped, leads to our suffering, not to our benefit. In other words, we must hear the Teaching, and we must hear it as the Teaching.

But if we do not yet understand this Teaching — with direct eidetic knowledge, that is — then how can we hear it as the Teaching? With faith already established we choose to accept the Buddha’s guidance even in preference to our own inclinations. And we hear the Teaching as the Teaching by accepting that it is our polestar, by setting our course directed by it. Then, guided by what we do not yet understand, we can come to understanding. Thus, even in ignorance, we can yet hear the Teaching. And in doing so there will arise, quite naturally, the wish to retain it.

Retaining the Teaching, together with giving ear and hearing the Teaching: these three acts, taken together, comprise the necessary basis for learning. Here, learning means not the mere acquisition of data, the collecting of information, but the capacity for changing oneself. If we could already see the Teaching (or, more precisely, if we could already see the goal of the Teaching: self-understanding) there would then be no need to retain it. In a sense we would be part of that Teaching and we would not need an outside source. But until then we, who are as yet outsiders ourselves, must persist in guarding and retaining what we have heard, or read. The simile of the raft (also in M. 22, referred to above — the Discourse on the Simile of the Snake: i,134-5) tells us that after we have safely crossed from danger to safety we should relinquish the raft with which we crossed. It is no longer necessary or purposeful to carry it about with us. But how foolish to think of doing so before we had crossed! And to keep and guard the Teaching, the Suttas tell us, means to commit it to memory.

We said earlier that times have changed. These days, if no living teacher is available in whom we are willing to place our faith, we can consult books. The Pali Suttas have been published and translated in their entirety. Is it not then sufficient, these days, to simply read the texts? Can we not dispense with the burdensome task of memorizing them? In a sense, yes; and in a deeper sense, no.

Yes, because the texts, as we now have them, comprise twenty or more volumes. Even in the Buddha’s day few monks would have possessed the capacity and fortitude to memorize more than a small fraction of what has been preserved.[9] Lacking books, memorization was necessarily a community effort. Today few of us belong to the sort of community suitable for such an effort. Nor need we, for we could as well memorize texts on our own, relying on books, if we found reason to do so. But to what purpose?

For the benefit of others? Before the era of printed books this made sense. But nowadays, with printed copies of the Suttas and Vinaya readily available, we could hardly be motivated to memorize texts by the thought that, unless we did so, others would not have access to the Dhamma.

For our own benefit, then? But we can dip into the books as we wish, discovering or rediscovering descriptions that ring with insight and instructions profound in their sensibility. Or, if it’s a particular passage we need to recover we can usually do so. Scholars have produced a panoply of reference tools: word dictionaries, name dictionaries, indexes, concordances, check lists, analyses … Armed with these and a set of the texts we need only recall some specific detail — individuals involved, key words, locale, incidents, similes, or the like — to be able, usually, to locate the passage we need. We will sometimes invest hours in the search for a required passage, and we will sometimes fail even then; but it is not on this account that memorization of the texts (or selections from them) is to be recommended.

But no, we cannot totally dispense with the task of retaining the Teaching. Those times when we will most urgently need the texts will be when we are least willing to engage in the “objective” work of hunting up “data”. For the Buddha’s guidance is most crucially required precisely when we are immersed in that subjective examination of our own inner being to which the Teaching has directed us. It is then, when we are in unfamiliar territory, that it is most easy to go astray. It is then that precision is crucial. And to pierce, to see as it really is, “This is suffering”, is more difficult than to split one arrow with another, shot through a keyhole. (S. LVI,45: v,453-54)

It is then that we will find book work the greatest of disturbances: a distancing to our meditation. But it is also then that we will be most in need of the Teaching, to properly direct our attention. And it is precisely those passages which indicate to us our particular self-deceptions that we are most likely to ignore, misremember, or misconceive, unless we have already taken care to learn them with precision. As one meditator put it, “I realize now, when I most urgently need them, that I cannot remember the most essential parts, for the simple reason that those were the most obscure to me.”[10]

To retain the Teaching various strategies are possible, and we will each experiment to discover what works best for us for now. Some may prefer to take a cycle of texts for daily recitation. Others may choose a brief text or extract to bear in mind through a single day, selecting daily texts according to need. Some will choose texts that give them inspiration; others will prefer texts in which they sense a deeper meaning, or which they find puzzling, worth chewing on (rather than the rehearsal of well-learned verities). In any case, retaining the Teaching is no less important to the practice than it was twenty-five centuries ago. We need now, as much as others did then, to associate with what is wholesome.

From this we will see that the importance of retaining the Teaching becomes apparent when we investigate its purpose. And when we retain it we open ourselves to an understanding of that purpose.

The purpose of the Buddha’s Teaching can be described in many ways, some strictly traditional (as in the quotation at the head of this essay), and others garbed in contemporary idiom. But however we express it, it must involve, surely, an investigation which points to the heart of our dissatisfaction. And since we do not see this heart for ourselves, our investigation will be framed primarily in the form of a question. Dependent upon what is there this dissatisfaction I experience? Since this life ends merely in the grave[11], understanding the purpose of the Buddha’s Teaching means asking what, if anything, is the purpose of our life.

Note, however, that to understand such a question — what, if anything, is the purpose of my life? — does not require of us that we answer it. To drive the stake of a positive reply into the heart of the question’s frail being is not to investigate it. It is to kill it off, or to try to do so. But, in our quiet moments, in a darkling world, the question will rise again to haunt us. To exorcise it we must understand, not explain. And when we understand the question we will also understand the need we formerly felt to explain it, or to explain it away.

To face these unanswerable questions about the purpose of our life puts us in a position to understand the root of suffering. To investigate the purpose of the Teaching is not a simple parroting of phrases learned, but a subjective exploration of how those phrases can be put to use. We would not investigate, say, a raft, by merely describing its physical appearance. We would put emphasis upon its function. And though we will be interested in its construction we will not be less interested in how it could be navigated. So too we investigate the purpose of the Teaching with a sense of learning how to navigate. And to navigate requires energy, mindfulness, and concentration. The Buddha confirms that a half-hearted effort, slack in energy, will not succeed. He characterizes the energetic seeker as one who vows, “Let flesh, sinew, and bone atrophy. Let body and blood dry up. Yet energy shall not remain static until that is achieved which can be achieved through manly strength, manly energy, manly striving.” (M. 70: i,481 = S. XII,22: ii,28 = A. II,4: i,50)

But without mindfulness energy can have no function. Mindfulness is paying attention. We wish to pay attention to the dilemma of faith: our inability to found our lives on knowledge, and our inability to abandon the effort to do so. For, of course, only when a problem is attended to is there the possibility of understanding it. Only then can energy be properly utilized. Among the many similes the Buddha has offered to illustrate the purpose of mindfulness is that of the bowl of oil (S. XLVIII,20: v,170).

Suppose, monks, that a great crowd of people should gather, [crying:] “The district beauty! The district beauty!” And that district beauty is the finest performer of dance and song. And, monks, a yet-greater crowd might gather, [crying:] “The district beauty dances and sings!” Then a man might come along who wishes to live, not to die, who wishes pleasure and is averse to pain. They might say to him: “See here, fellow! Here’s a bowl brimful with oil. You must carry it round between the great crowd and the district beauty. Following behind you is a man with raised sword. Spill the merest drop, and your head is off!”

And thus we stand, caught between the allures, the enchantment of the world and the immediate possibility of our own death. If we lose mindfulness, if we spill the merest drop, we die. For in this training, to fall away from awareness of our situation is to die.

And so too, concentration is necessary. One-pointedness of mind, one-pointedness of purpose, is an obvious requisite for piercing the veil of ignorance. But learning about these things — energy, mindfulness, concentration — is not the sort of learning that proceeds merely on an intellectual level, as is, for example, the study of classical Western philosophy. One can emerge from the study of such philosophy unscathed by it. If, on the other hand, we wish to learn to drive a car, we cannot do so by merely memorizing the instructions and then parroting them. We must actually involve ourselves in driving. We learn to drive by doing it. So too with this Teaching. Investigating its purpose is not different than applying it.

So, then, when the Teaching is retained there remains the simple task of applying it. “Oh, but it’s not so simple!” some will say. Ah, but it is. What it is not is easy. But that is quite a different matter. Indeed, it is precisely because of its simplicity that the Teaching is so difficult. Unlike, say, classical Western philosophy, the Teaching is not difficult because of its complexity. A complex idea might indeed require a great intellect to comprehend it. But like any truly great idea the Buddha’s Teaching is simple — profoundly so. But this is not to say that it is either shallow or easy, for it is neither. What is required to comprehend it is not a great intellect but a great abandonment.

What must be abandoned is our own willfulness, our determination to perceive the world as we would have it be. However, experience will demonstrate that we cannot simply abandon all modes of perception. If we succeed in freeing ourselves from one perspective we find that we have already acquired another. Here acquiescence proves its value. To acquiesce to the Buddha’s Teaching means to accept that Teaching’s perspective in preference to our own. At such a time we do not yet see the Teaching directly, for when there is direct perception we are beyond the need to put aside our own view. Our own perspective is then the same as that of the Teaching. However, when we acquiesce, although we do not as yet see for ourselves, also we do not hold to any mode of understanding which is at odds with the Teaching. This is a position which can be precarious and from which we can fall. It is therefore not yet attainment of the direct perception that “Whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.”

At S. LV,24 & 25: v,375-80 the Buddha distinguishes between an individual who has attained to this direct perception and one who has achieved acquiescence to introspective teachings.[12] The former is endowed with a level of total confidence (aveccappasada in 24, abhippasanna in 25) in the Buddha, in his Teaching, and in the Order. The latter does not achieve this level of confidence. And yet, even the latter (let alone the former) has already acquired the five faculties — the faculties, that is, of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding. And, too, he acquiesces to the introspective teachings made known by the Buddha and he has a measure of understanding. Neither are liable to rebirth in a state lower than human. However, one with direct perception is totally free from the possibility of such a rebirth. This freedom is not ascribed to one endowed with acquiescence. We may understand this as meaning that should such an individual fail to go beyond acquiescence to direct perception, and should he fall away from that state of compliance to the Teaching, he could then become liable again to a rebirth lower than the human plane.


Editorial Note:

This essay was left uncompleted and in draft form at the time of the author’s death. The interested reader is invited to try his/her hand at completing the sequence set out in the Canki Sutta for him-/herself.

For the author’s book Beginnings: The Pali Suttas (footnote 9), click here.

For the letter by Sister Vajira (footnote 10), click here.


5. Compare M. 70, in which the same sequence is found (i,480) in a different context. [Back to text]

6. The Pali word moha covers both meanings and must be translated according to context. At A. III,66: i,194, for instance, moha is specifically equated with avijja, ignorance:

“What do you think, Salha, is there delusion?”

“Indeed, lord.”

“Salha, its meaning is ‘ignorance’, I say.”

However, at M. 78: ii,27 we read: “That mind free from desire, free from hatred, free from confusion — sprung from this are skillful virtues. And, carpenter, where do these skillful virtues cease without remainder? …” Here, clearly, absence of moha describes a state prior to the ceasing of action. And, as the Suttas make clear, ceasing of action (including even of virtuous action — “bright action with bright result” (A. IV,231-234: ii,230-234, etc.)) and ceasing of ignorance are but two aspects of the same thing: attainment of extinction, of nibbana. [Back to text]

7. D. 16: ii,149 & 153. The translations are Sister Vajira’s, in her Last Days of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy: Wheel 67/69, pp. 71 & 74). Subhadda was, incidentally, the last convert before the Buddha’s pasing away. [Back to text]

8. See E. W. Burlingame’s Buddhist Legends (a 1921 translation of the commentary to the Dhammapada), part 2, p. 366 (Book 12, Story 10). [Back to text]

9. For an account of the probable way in which these texts came to be collected and preserved, see my Beginnings: The Pali Suttas (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy: Wheel 313/315). [Back to text]

10. Sister Vajira, quoted on page 530 of Clearing the Path: Writings of Nanavira Thera (Path Press, 1987). [Back to text]

11. “Soon, alas!, this body will be felled
and, senseless, will lie sprawled upon the earth,
cast aside, its consciousness dispelled,
like a log that lacks all worth.” [Dh. 41] [Back to text]

12. The phrase in M. 95 is dhamma nijjhanam khamanti. Nijjhana is ni, a prefix indicating ‘downwardness’, + jhana, ‘meditation’. Hence, ‘introspective’. Khamanti means ‘to give in to’. The equivalent noun, khanti, is often translated as ‘patience’. This, however, is but a peripheral meaning. Its central significance is ‘acquiescence’, and such an understanding usually yields a more meaningful translation of khanti than does ‘patience’:

“Compliance, of austerities, is chief.
‘Extinction is supreme,’ the Buddhas say.
No ascetic causes others grief,
no recluse does oppress in any way.” [Dh. 184]

Even a hen, brooding on a nest of eggs, can be patient. Yet such patience leads to nothing higher than itself. But compliance with right view can lead to the abandonment of wrong view. Acquiescence is the chief austerity because by means of compliance one can transcend the level of austerities, the level of action, and enter upon the realm of the deathless. [Back to text]

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