18 April 2008

Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell

I want to start this post by giving my free rendition of a Pāli Sutta, and then follow with a little commentary.

The Conch Blower
Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.8 (iv.317)

One time when the Blessed One was staying at Nāḷandā in a mango grove he was approached by Asibandhakaputta, the head man of his village and a disciple of the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta. After exchanging greetings, the Blessed One asked, “how does your teacher explain the cosmic order?”

“Well sir”, replied Asibandhakaputta “he teaches that anyone at all who takes life, takes what is not given, indulges in sexual misconduct, or tell lies, is bound for a state of misery, bound for hell. Whatever state one is habitually in will determine one’s rebirth”.

“Well in that case, Asibandhakaputta, no one will ever be born in a state of misery or go to hell. Think about it: which is more frequent, how much of the time is one, for instance, taking life? A much greater time spent not taking life, isn’t it?”

“I see what you mean, sir”.

“In which case because they spend more time not taking life, they will not have a bad rebirth.”

“Imagine Asibandhakaputta that someone who had confidence in his teacher held this view. Haven’t we all at some time acted unskilfully and broken a precept? A person with that belief who breaks a precept will believe that they are bound for misery and hell, and holding to that view will be hellish.”

“Now imagine that a fully Awakened Buddha comes along to teach. He criticises and censures the taking of life and so on. He says: don’t do it! If someone has faith in the Blessed One they reflect on their conduct, and acknowledge that at times they have acted unskilfully. They know that this was not good or proper, and although they regret it, they know that evil deeds in the past cannot be undone. This reflection will help them to restrain themselves in the future and keep the precepts. He will abandon, and abstain from: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, covetousness, illwill, and, wrong views.”

“Then, purified in this manner, the disciple of the Noble One will practice the Brahmavihara meditations. Pervading the entire world in all directions with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, vast, exalted, and measureless, without hostility or illwill. Just as a strong conch blower can make his note heard in the four quarters when the liberation of the heart by the Brahmaviharas is developed and cultivated any action in the sensuous sphere does not remain or persist.”

“Excellent, Sir”, exclaimed Asibandhakaputta. “Please accept me as a lay follower from now on.”

The sutta feels a bit like a Socratic dialogue. The Buddha begins by asking what Asibandhakaputta's teacher says about the dhamma (which I am reading here as 'cosmic order' on the basis of the context, and on historical grounds), then points out the fallacy, and substitutes his own view. I'm pretty sure that what Asibandhakaputta describes is not a fair representation of the Jain Dharma, although it does resemble it.

My two main points are suggested by my title. The Buddhist position, as represented by this text, is that it does matter what we believe in. If we believe like Asibandhakaputta does originally that the slightest unskilfulness means we are going to hell, then most likely we will end up living in hell. I follow Chögyam Trungpa in taking this kind of statement as a psychological metaphor: believing that one is inevitably destined for hell is hellish.

I have already mentioned in a previous post that the literal meaning of Brahmavihara is dwelling with God. The Buddha took the goal of Brahminical religious life at the time and used it as a metaphor. By dwelling with unbounded, vast and measureless loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, one is effectively in heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this. In fact this is also the liberation of the heart (cetto-vimutti), or the goal of the Buddhist religious life as well.

Believe yourself destined for hell, and you will be; believe yourself destined for heaven and you will be.

The Buddha calls for a rational approach to ethical precepts. We cannot be absolutely pure of conduct until Awakening. Reflecting on our conduct can give us the motivation to make ethical progress. It is the remorse born of reflecting that makes us want to do better in the future. Although it is tacit in this particular sutta what we reflect on is: cause in the form of our motivations; and effect in the form of the consequences of our actions. Although the focus here is on unskilfulness there is no reason not to reflect on positive results coming from positive intentions, indeed I would say it is a necessary test of the theory.

The implication in this sutta is that we practice ethics, which I will gloss here as 'acting as though we had no greed, hatred and delusion', in order to more fully express loving kindness and the rest. We practice loving kindness and the rest in order to actually liberate our consciousness from what afflicts it: that is greed, hatred, and delusion.
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