14 June 2013

Using the Dhamma to Win Arguments

At the risk of gross hypocrisy I'm posting this translation of a text about two wayward bhikkhus who like to win arguments more than anything. I suppose this text makes it clear that this is not new problem (c.f. the text on disputes between meditators and scholars).

One of the reasons I (largely) gave up participating in online forums and contentious Wikipedia pages and the like, is that I felt a profound sense of dissatisfaction with it all. I felt that if I could write in a more considered way, and invite considered comments and discussion then it might be more worthwhile. For the same reason I've gradually stopped reading Buddhist blogs and started reading blogs informed by research: on Indology, language, evolution and neuroscience. If anyone knows any (other) Buddhist blogs informed by research I'd be interested to hear about them.

As time has gone on the rigour of my blog posts has steadily increased, and what I'm writing here is often the result of long periods of research and reflection. So the writing itself is quite satisfying. I've clarified a number of knotty issues for myself, and perhaps more importantly clarified for myself where I continue to be confused or superficial. A few regular readers seem to really appreciate this approach to Dhamma study, and to be on something like the same wavelength, and I get the sense that we are exploring something together. I very much appreciate this kind of interaction.

However, when I've spent several weeks (sometimes months!) researching and writing a long blog post and someone who spends a few minutes skim reading it, not checking any of the references or the previous blogs that have led up to the one they are reading, writes a few lines of ill-considered disagreement, I find this pretty tedious. Just having an opinion is not enough to make the discussion interesting. Just opposing your opinion to mine is unhelpful and experience shows that nobody learns anything. And it seems this same problem was recognised in the bhikkhu saṅhga early enough to be included in the Canon.

For what it is worth, here is my translation of this somewhat obscure text, with some notes on the text, but no further comment. I can't see it translated anywhere else online, so at least it's a contribution to making the Canon available.

Ovāda Sutta S 16.6; PTS S ii.203

In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place (in the Bamboo Grove). The Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As he sat, the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma."

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus are rude and unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions." [1] I saw a bhikkhu named Bhaṇḍa, a student of Ānanda, and a bhikkhu named Abhijika, a student of Anuruddha, arguing with one another about their learning (sutena accāvadante): [in this way] 'come bhikkhu, who will speak more, who will speak better, who will speak longer?'"

The Bhagavan said to a bhikkhu, "go and tell Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika that I wish to speak to them."

The bhikkhu assented and went to find Bhaṇḍa & Abhijika to pass on the message. Summoned, they approached the Bhagavan, greeted him and sat to one side. As they say there the Bhagavan asked: "Is it true that you two have been arguing over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

"It is Bhante."

"Have you ever heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose?"

"Certainly not, Bhante."

"So if you have not heard me teach the dhamma for that purpose then why are you acting like that, you idiots [2] ? By what understanding or knowledge [3] have you gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline in order to argue over who can speak more, or better or longer?"

The two bhikkhus falling with their heads [4] on the Bhagavan's feet, said to him: "we were overcome by a transgression, Bhante, like fools, confused and unskilful, when having gone forth in this well-told doctrine and discipline we argued with each other about our knowledge.

Bhante, may the Bhagavan accept this fault of ours as a fault, for [our]
restraint in the future."



[1]  Slow to take on = appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina literally 'not right handed'  (c.f. padakkhina 'to the right'). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture (the Latin word for left-handed was sinister). In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect (see also Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?)

[2]  Moghapurisā 'stupid or confused men'.

[3]  kim jānantā, kim passantā 'knowing what, seeing what?'

[4]  sirasā is an instrumental form that derives from the Sanskrit śiras.
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