18 November 2011

A lesson from the Tevijjā Sutta

This is an extract from my (unfinished) translation of the Tevijjā Sutta, but I'm presenting it with a little twist. In this extract I have replaced "Brahmins" with "Buddhist Teachers" and "Brahmā" with "Nirvāṇa", and tweaked the text a little to fit around the change - the structure and most of the dialogue is a fairly literal translation of Pāli however. I will admit that in doing this I intend to be provocative. However I think this is an interesting exercise.

Tevijja Sutta
D 13, D i.237-8

"So, Vāseṭṭha, you are saying that you cannot decide between what your two teachers are saying. But what is the nub of the argument? Why is there disagreement?"
"The path and not the path, Gotama. Various Buddhist teachers – Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, Theravada, Triratna – all teach a way out for one seeking Nirvāṇa. Just as if there were a town not far away, and even though there were many roads, they all converged at the town: so these Buddhist teachers teach a variety of ways out of saṃsāra.

"Did you say 'they lead out' Vāseṭṭha?"

"I did say 'they lead out' my dear Gotama."

"But, has any of these Buddhist teachers personally seen (sakkhidiṭṭhi) Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"So, have any of the Buddhist teachers' teachers personally seen Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"Well, have any of these Buddhist teachers, as far as the seven generations back, personally seen Nirvāṇa?"

"They haven't."

"But what about those ancient Buddhist teachers , the sages who made the suttas, and handed them on, the old texts that were chanted, proclaimed, and compiled that the Buddhist teachers today chant, recite and repeat – repeating what was said, speaking what was spoken – what about them? Did they say 'we know this, we see this, we know where Nirvāṇa is, the location of Nirvāṇa, and the way to Nirvāṇa?'"

"No, Sir."

"From what you've said, Vāseṭṭha, there is no single one amongst the Buddhist teachers , who has gone to Nirvāṇa personally; none of the teachers, or their teachers, up to the seventh generation of teachers, and none of the ancient sages can say 'we know Nirvāṇa'. These Buddhist teachers say 'though we do not know or see, we teach: this is the only way, the straight and direct way leading out of saṃsāra for one seeking Nirvāṇa.'"

"What do you think, Vāseṭṭha, this being the case, isn't it true that what these Buddhist teachers say is just religious cant?"

"Yes, Gotama, that is certainly the case."

"It's just as if there were a line of blind men – the first one does not see, the middle one doesn't see and the last one doesn't see. The talk of these Buddhist teachers turns out to just be laughable, empty, worthless, cant."
My point here is not to say that there is no one around who is liberated. I believe in the possibility and I'm aware of people with substantial experiences of insight. No. My point is that we Buddhists are always talking about things we have no experience of. I was in a discussion not so long ago about the dhyānas, and realised that no one in the group had much experience - none of us had mastered them by any means. One of the group expressed the wish to write a book about meditation, but later admitted that he never experienced dhyāna. When we moved on to talking about insight, the problem was even worse. Our discussion become entirely theoretical. And I'm not sure it's a discussion worth having. We weren't simply picking over what the various Buddhist traditions say about insight, but actually expressing our own opinions on it. This is all too common.

Buddhists have this seemingly irresistible urge to speak from the point of view of liberation. But if we have not experienced it for ourselves then our words are "laughable, empty, worthless, cant." (hassaka, nāmaka, rittaka, tucchaka.) I've been aware of the discomfort of being lectured about liberation by someone who isn't liberated for a while. As a result I tend avoid talks by Buddhists. I also try to avoid expressing opinions about things I have no experience of. It's one of the good things about scholarly writing that one has to identify the sources of one's ideas. Further if one has what seems like a new idea, one makes an effort to see if anyone got there first and acknowledge them for it. Very few of our ideas are original. Most of them we picked up along the way, forgetting the source as we go. Our opinions are mostly shaped by our conditioning, and we should be acknowledging this rather than pretending it is not the case.


image: Brahmins. Columbia.edu
Related Posts with Thumbnails