06 April 2012

Ātman, Ego, and Rebirth

sheaf and flail

medieval peasants thresh
a sheaf of barley with flails

WHAT FOLLOWS IS my translation of the Sheaf of Barley Simile (Yavakalāpi Sutta S 34.248), along with some threads which I draw from it. The simile relates to my research into papañca: the past participle papañcita is used in a context that helps us to understand that word. Here I will be focussing on some other implications.

I have restructured the text so that the last part condenses several pages into a couple of paragraphs - without losing anything of importance. The central metaphor of the Yavakalāpi Sutta is that how we think about our existence determines whether we bound or free.

Sheaf of Barley Simile

Suppose that a sheaf of barley were laid at a crossroad. And six men might come bearing flails, and those six men might thresh that sheaf of barley. That sheaf of barley would be well threshed by those six flails threshing. Then a seventh man might come bearing a flail, and he might also thresh the sheaf of barley. So that sheaf of barley would be more well-threshed by that seventh flail threshing.

Just so the uneducated hoi polloi [1] are struck in the eye by pleasant and unpleasant forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects. If an uneducated hoi polus[2] strives after future rebirth, that foolish person is more well-battered, just as the sheaf is more well threshed by the seventh flail.

Once upon a time the devas and asuras were massed for battle. The Asura Lord Vepacitti addressed the asuras: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the asuras are victorious and the devas are defeated, then binding Sakka, Lord of the Devas, with bindings, with his neck as the fifth[3], then lead him to me at Asurapura (the City of the Asuras). Sakka also addressed the devas: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the devas are victorious and the asuras are defeated, then, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, then lead him to me at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. In that battle the devas were victorious and the asuras were defeated. Then the thirty three devas, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, lead him to Sakka, Lord of the Devas, at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. There Asura Lord Vepacitti is bound with bindings, with his neck as the fifth.

When Asura Lord Vepacitti thought "the devas as just (dhammika) and the asuras are unjust (adhammika) now here I am going to the city of the devas”, then he perceived himself released from his binding with the neck as fifth, and possessing and endowed with the five divine cords of pleasure enjoying himself. When, however, Asura Lord Vepacitti, thought "the asuras are just and the devas are unjust, now I will just go to the asura city”, then he perceived himself as bound by bindings with the neck as fifth. And the five divine cords of pleasure faded away. So subtle were the bonds of Vepacitti, but more subtle are the bonds of Māra. Thinking (maññamāno)[4] is the binding of Māra, not thinking is release from the Evil One.
'I am…'
'I am this…'
'I will become…'
'I will not become…'
'I will be beautiful…'
'I will be ugly…'
'I will be aware…'[5]
'I will be unaware…'
'I will be neither aware nor unaware…'
…is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita), [6] a state of conceit (mānagata)…

Opinions, anxieties, writhings, obsessions and states of mind are a disease, a boil, an arrow. 'We will dwell without the conceit of opinions, without the conceit of anxieties, without the conceit of writhing, without the conceit of obsessions, having destroyed conceit' this is how you should train.

The first point to make is that opinions etc, including papañca, are something that we add to the perceptual process, they are the seventh flail. We're already battered by the experience of our six senses, and then we add to the battering. This is consistent with texts such as the Salla Sutta which make a similar distinction between the pain from the senses, and the suffering of our reactions to pain. However the specific thing that we add in this case is striving after future rebirth (āyatiṃ punabhavāya ceteti).

However what got me thinking about this text today was that I was reconsidering my blog post Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman. It is here that I note my discovery, I think for the first time, that no Brahmin ever talks about ātman in the Pāli Canon, and that the Buddha never debates the subject with a Brahmin. This strongly suggests that, at the very least, we have to re-assess the idea that the Buddha was familiar with the Upaniṣads, or the extent to which the Buddha (i.e. early Buddhists) might have been familiar with Upaniṣadic themes.

In Yavakalāpi Sutta the Buddha takes an approach to self that, as far as I know, is not one that is found in the Upaniṣads. The statements above--the 9 statements starting with 'I am' (asmīti)--are not about an essential or eternal self; much less the merging of the self into brahman for the attainment of immortality. Where the Upaniṣadic ātman is trans-personal and identified with creation or creator, these statements are very much concerned with personal identity and personal continuity. So in reading this text we are not talking about the Upaniṣadic ātman, we are talking about the simple sense of being a self and having a first-person perspective.

Coming back to future rebirth, we see that seven of the nine statements use the future form of the verb, i.e. bhavissāmīti--'I will be', or 'I will become'--and therefore concern people's anxieties about a future life. It is entirely natural in a culture with a rebirth eschatology to be anxious about future lives, indeed as a moral technology this belief system actually depends on people having these anxieties to motivate their compliance with moral norms.

But this text is saying, quite distinctly, that opinions or anxieties about a future life are sources of suffering over and above the suffering induced by the senses. The ideal disciple does not indulge in opinions and anxieties about future lives. We might say that this is because they train for release from saṃsāra. However consider the simile involving Vepacitti which seems to be an allegory with the message that how we think about our sense experience, or (perhaps) what we make of our sense experience, is precisely what binds us to saṃsāra.

There's a interesting feature of the text. For humans being bound by the five cords of sensual pleasure (pañca kāmaguṇa) is synonymous with being caught in saṃsāra. The devas and asuras however operate in a different way. When Vepacitti perceives things correctly--perceives the devas as lawful or just (dhammika)--he is endowed with the divine version of the five cords. When his perception is distorted, the cords fade away. And note that the text speaks of seven flails related to the five physical senses, the mental sense, and then striving after rebirth as the seventh; while there are only five cords of sensual pleasure, and thinking. Indeed the problem for humans is precisely thinking (maññamāno), which is the verb usually associated with activity of mind (manas).

In any case the message is quite clear: even if you do believe in rebirth, it only causes unhappiness to think about rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to wish for a better rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to speculate about the nature of rebirth; in short: thinking in terms of being reborn is generally quite unhelpful. The whole point of Buddhism is to be liberated from rebirth, to not be reborn, to escape from the cycle. What the allegory of Vepacitti suggests is that if you even think in terms of rebirth, then you are caught in Māra's bonds. So the disciple should not be thinking in terms of rebirth at all, not having opinions or anxieties or conceits with respect to rebirth.

Therefore, even if you do believe in rebirth, there is no advantage in thinking about it or talking about it, and considerable disadvantage in doing so. It is best not to think about rebirth at all, since thinking in those terms binds you to Māra's realm. Belief in rebirth only leads to speculation, worry, proliferation and conceit which poison our minds.



[1] assutavā puthujjana: suta 'heard' sutavant 'possessing the heard' i.e. educated; puthu (many) jana (people). Greek hoi polloi 'the many'.
[2] pollus is the singular of polloi.
[3] This appears to mean bind his four limbs plus his neck.
[4] The word refers to all kinds of mental activity: thinking, imagining, having opinions; being convinced, being sure. The context suggests that here it refers to having opinions.
[5] saññin – possessing perception or recognition, a perceiver.
[6] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear. The Pali Commentary says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ' etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are obsessed (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness."
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