04 September 2009

None dearer than myself

Indian King and Queen from
Understanding Patio Umbrellas.
One time the Buddha was staying outside the walled city of Sāvatthī (modern day Śravasti) in the park that the merchant Anāthapiṇḍika had purchased from Prince Jeta at great price. Sāvatthī was the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala [1] and was ruled by King Pasenadi. Pasenadi was a follower of the Buddha, and so was his wife Mallikā. Mallikā was wise and her husband often asked her opinion about things.

The Ūdana relates a time when the King and Queen were discussing spiritual matters and both realised that they held none more dear than themselves - despite being in love with each other. This troubled the King and made him seek out the Buddha. Hearing about the royal discussion he spoke an inspired utterance (ūdana):

Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmoti.
Going around all the directions in imagination
[Something] more dear than one's self, is nowhere found
The self of other individuals is similarly dear
Therefore don't harm another self that is loved.[2]
Hopefully this will already have struck readers as curious. Yes, the word being translated as self is atta, or ātman in Sanskrit. And yes, it is being affirmed as existent and the thing that we all hold most dear. What a surprise this text is! What to make of it? I think we must proceed cautiously and think pragmatically.

Firstly the use of atta here is most likely simply the reflexive pronoun - "me" - but even so it suggests a kind of egotism that we associate with ātman as self in any case. Many scholars have attested to the fact that nowhere does the Buddha explicitly deny the self - he never says outright "there is no self". It would be easy to get bogged down here if we allow ourselves to drift into metaphysics. However the Buddha's point was not about whether the self exists or not, but to encourage people to examine their own experience and the apparatus of experience. He is telling people who believe in an ātman (that links not only successive lives, but moments of consciousness) to look for that persistent factor (if they must) in their experience - in mind and the senses. Although the language, context, metaphors etc all vary the Buddha's advice boils down to the same thing for everyone: examine your experience, pay attention especially to how experience arises and passes away.

The text acknowledges that we all tend to think of ourselves as the most important person. We look after ourselves first, we tend to try to meet our own needs first, and we protect ourselves above others. (I speculated as to why this is in Why do we suffer?) This is not an absolute it is a generalisation and as a contrast we might think of the selflessness of a mother protecting her child as is referred to by the Karaniya Mettā Sutta (some well known characters in the Pāli scriptures, notably Bahiya, are gored to death by cows with calves). One of my preceptors says: "we all go around thinking that other people are thinking about us, but they aren't: they are thinking about themselves".

Surely this is not a positive thing? In fact surely this self-centredness and self-preoccupation is the big problem that we all have. I think this highlights an aspect of the Buddha's teaching. He himself does not seem to have been bound by jargon and formalised ways of talking about the Dharma. The Buddha himself seems to have felt free to present the Dharma in whatever way suits his audience. He is able to talk to Brahmins as a Brahmin, to Kings as Kings, to merchants as a merchant and to a farmer as a farmer. The Buddha so embodied and epitomised the Dharma that he could present his teaching in many different ways, as long as the person ended up paying attention to the conditioned nature of experience.

In a passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha questions Sariputta about his attainments. He does so employing a number of different metaphors and formal ways of talking about liberation. At first Sariputta is confused, but he continues to confidently answer the Buddha's questions.
Friends, the first question that the Blessed One asked me had not been previously considered by me: thus I hesitated over it. But when the Blessed One approved of my answer, it occurred to me: 'if the Blessed One were to question me about this matter with various terms and with various methods for a whole day, for a whole day I would be about to answer him with various terms and various methods.[3]
Maybe we could say that the one who is liberated from suffering is also liberated from jargon - which makes it seem all the more attractive in my view!

So my self is most dear to me, and your self is most dear to you. With a little effort I can imagine that since you experience selfhood in the way that I do, then you experience suffering in the way that I do [4]. You experience pain, and disappointment, and grief, in the way that I do. You also experience happiness and joy, and will ultimately experience liberation in the same way as me. Although we see ourselves, experience ourselves, as separate and unique, we are in fact very much alike. All humans seem to share certain basic emotions, and to have this instinct for self preservation. And it is by seeing that we share this characteristic that the golden rule emerges quite naturally - do unto others and you would be done by. One can nitpick and find exceptions, but lets keep an overview - the golden rule is a generalisation that describes the spirit of morality, not the letter. So despite the fact that we Buddhists are fixated on self and views on self, it's important to see this text as being about empathy, not about self.

In the translation above I have rendered 'cetasā' as 'imagination'. This seemed to fit the context - what is one doing when "goes around all the directions with the mind" except using the imagination? However it also helps to make an important point about Buddhist ethics. The key skill is not self restraint, or strong will power, but the ability to imagine the other. To put oneself in their shoes. As Sangharakshita says: "the Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but the vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings." [5]

This text is a good example of the pragmatism of the Buddha. He's not interested in metaphysical questions such as whether there is a self or not - this is not a question that can be finally decided. One can believe in a self, or not believe, but it's just an opinion, just a view. If you do believe in a self then the Buddha's challenge to you is to find it in experience, and by doing so to draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. If you do not believe in a self, then his starting point will be different, but he will still draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. What this says to me is that there's no point in quoting dogma at people who have different beliefs, because dogma doesn't make any difference.[6] What makes a difference is practice and experience, not doctrine. Too many Buddhists focus on orthodoxy - having the right opinion - and seem to forget that according to orthodoxy Reality is ineffable. They refuse, however to follow Wittgenstein in staying silent about that of which nothing can be said. However it is true that confusion divides the will and can make wholehearted practice difficult if not impossible.

The main point though is the nature of empathy - which is imaginative identification - and it's role in ethics. Morality does not exist in the abstract. Buddhist ethics is about how we relate to other people. This imaginative identification, which underlies ethics, can become the whole path via practices such as mettābhāvanā, which culminate in Brahmavihāra - an earlier (and often forgotten) metaphor for nibbāna.

  1. Śravasti and Kosala were north and west of Magadha - in what is now northern Uttapradesh.
  2. Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1 (PTS: Ud 47); and SN 3.8 (PTS: i.75) - the two texts are identical. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro at Access to Insight; and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p.170-171.
  3. The Kaḷāra Sutta. SN 12.32 (S ii.54). Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p. 570.
  4. cf Dhammapada 129-130 which represents a kind of negatively phrased counterpart of this verse.
  5. Sangharakshita. The Ten Pillars of Buddhism. Windhorse, 1984. p.57 (my italics)
  6. I noticed that two weeks ago when I attempted a novel interpretation of selfhood (Why do we have a sense of self?), and at other times when I have expressed a new idea to Buddhists, the reply is almost always to recite Buddhist dogma at me. Not only is it boring, but it so clearly does not come from personal experience that it almost makes a mockery of the Buddha's teaching methods. We know that some Buddhist metaphysical arguments have raged for more than 1000 years with no conclusion in sight, and this should alert us to the intractability of metaphysics and dogmas.

26.9.15 Compare
tad etat preyaḥ putrāt preyo vittāt preyo 'nyasmāt sarvasmād antarataraṃ yad ayam ātmā | sa yo 'nyam ātmanaḥ priyaṃ bruvāṇaṃ brūyāt priyaṃ rotsyatītīśvaro ha tathaiva syāt | ātmānam eva priyam upāsīta | sa ya ātmānam eva priyam upāste na hāsya priyaṃ pramāyukaṃ bhavati || BU 1.4.8 ||
This innermost thing, this self (ātman)--is dearer (preyo) than a son, it is dearer than wealth, it is dearer than anything else. If a man claims that something other than his self is dear to him, and someone where to tell him that he will lose that he holds dear, that is liable to happen. So a man should only regard only his self as dear to him. When a man regards only his self as dear to him, what he holds dear will never perish. 
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