Saturday, 13 June 2015

He Knew He Was Right - The Meghiya Sutta

This talk was given at Sangha Night in the Cambridge Buddhist Centre June 2015                   

The Meghiya Sutta appears in part of the Pali Canon known as the Udana, which is one of the oldest or earliest parts of the Pali canon. Meghiya was the Buddha’s companion at the time so presumably the story occurs at a time in the Buddha’s life before Ananda became his constant companion. Ananda was the Buddha’s companion for about 30 years until he died. So it could be reckoned that the Buddha was in his 40s when this incident took place. The events of the sutta happened at a place called Chalika, on Chalika Hill. Here is the first part of the Sutta:
 Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying at Calika on Calika Hill. At that time the Venerable Meghiya was the Lord's attendant. Then the Venerable Meghiya approached the Lord, prostrated himself, stood to one side, and said: "I wish to go into Jantu village for almsfood, revered sir."
"Do now, Meghiya, what you think it is time to do."
Then the Venerable Meghiya, having put on his robe in the forenoon and taken his bowl and outer cloak, entered Jantu village for almsfood. Having walked in Jantu village for almsfood, after the meal, on returning from collecting almsfood, he approached the bank of the river Kimikala. As he was walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise, he saw a pleasant and charming mango grove. On seeing it he thought: "This mango grove is very pleasant and charming. It is eminently suitable for the endeavor (in meditation) of a young man of good family who is intent on the endeavor. If the Lord were to give me permission, I would come and endeavor in this mango grove."
Then the Venerable Meghiya approached the Lord, prostrated himself, sat down to one side, and said: "Revered sir, having put on my robe in the forenoon... I approached the bank of the river Kimikala and saw a pleasant and charming mango grove. On seeing it I thought: 'This mango grove is very pleasant and charming. It is eminently suitable for the endeavor (in meditation) of a young man of good family who is intent on the endeavor. If the Lord were to give me permission, I would come and endeavor in this mango grove.' If, revered sir, the Lord gives me permission, I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
When this was said the Lord replied to the Venerable Meghiya: "As we are alone, Meghiya, wait a while until some other bhikkhu comes."
A second time the Venerable Meghiya said to the Lord: "Revered sir, the Lord has nothing further that should be done and nothing to add to what has been done. But for me, revered sir, there is something further that should be done and something to add to what has been done. If, revered sir, the Lord gives me permission, I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
A second time the Lord replied to the Venerable Meghiya: "As we are alone, Meghiya, wait a while until some other bhikkhu comes."
A third time the Venerable Meghiya said to the Lord: "Revered sir, the Lord has nothing further that should be done... I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
"As you are talking of endeavoring, Meghiya, what can I say? Do now, Meghiya, what you think it is time to do."

There are a few things we can say about this. Meghiya is obviously very keen to go to this mango grove. It’s the ideal spot to sit and meditate, cool and shady and quiet. What more do you want? And he feels that if he can only get down to meditation under these ideal conditions he will progress on the path very quickly. But he has responsibilities and he can’t just walk away from them, so he must get the Buddha to agree to release him from his responsibilities and let him go to the beautiful mango grove.

The Buddha is very reluctant and at first sight it is hard to see why. He says ‘wait a little Meghiya. I am alone until some other monk arrives.’ This doesn’t sound like a very good reason for holding Meghiya back from his meditation practice. After all why shouldn’t the Buddha be alone. He should be able to cope, he is not an old man and he is not ill. So why does he want to hold Meghiya back? On the face of it, it seems a bit selfish and Meghiya almost says as much. He says “Sir, the Exalted One has nothing further to be done, has nothing more to add to what he has done. But for me, sir, there is more yet to be done, there is more to be added to what I have done. If the exalted one gives me leave, I would go to that mango grove to strive for concentration.” In other words Meghiya is saying – it’s all right for you, you’ve attained enlightenment, you can afford to sit about, but I’ve got a long way to go, I need to get on with it. And the Buddha says in effect – well when you put it like that Meghiya, what can I say – I can’t say meditation is a bad thing – when you talk of striving for concentration, what can I say? Do what you think it is time for Meghiya.

So Meghiya has won the argument. He has got what he wanted and now he can go off to the mango grove and meditate. So why did the Buddha want him to stay? Why did the Buddha not want to be alone? Was he afraid of the dark or what? I suppose it could be that the Buddha didn’t think it was a good idea for Meghiya to go off on his own to meditate. Perhaps he thought Meghiya was not yet ready for that level of practice. Or it could be that the Buddha needed a sort of secretary, to deal with and welcome all the people who might come to visit him. Or he might have been just reminding Meghiya of his responsibility and the fact that he shouldn’t just drop his commitment without having someone to take over from him. Or it might have been a simple question of safety. After all there are wild animals, tigers and so on, on the prowl in the jungles of northern India, so meditating alone could have been a dangerous business.

However it would appear, that apart from straightforward human companionship, what the Buddha needed was someone to communicate his insights and teachings to, so that they could be disseminated for the welfare of the many. The Buddha needed the equivalent of a recording device. This was the function fulfilled by Ananda later. It wasn’t that the Buddha just saw his companions as functional, he was a friend to Meghiya and to Ananda. But part of the reason for having a companion, a large part of the reason it would seem, was so that he could pass on his insights. The Buddha was Enlightened, which means that he was in a state of constant creativity. His mind was constantly creative and also he was supremely compassionate. This means that he had to give expression to his creativity for the benefit of others. Within an oral tradition this meant verbally passing on his teaching and understanding. If the Buddha was without a companion he was in effect denied the means of expressing his creativity and insights and therefore was rendered ineffective to some degree. So that was Meghiya’s responsibility but it would appear that Meghiya didn’t fully appreciate that and was very concerned with his own development, what was best for him and he felt he knew what was best for him, i.e. to go and meditate in that very attractive mango grove.

So off he went to the mango grove, of course, he respectfully saluted the Buddha first. He may not have respected the Buddha’s opinion, but he kept up the formalities of respect anyway. Perhaps he still wanted the Buddha’s approval. It does seem that to some degree Meghiya saw the Buddha as an authority figure whose approval he wanted but who stood between him and what he wanted to do, what he needed to do even. The Buddha stood between Meghiya and his spiritual development as far as Meghiya was concerned. Perhaps there is a lesson for us here. Do we always know what is best for us in spiritual terms? Who do we respect as a spiritual guide? Do we treat them as an authority in the power sense? So perhaps this incident between Meghiya and the Buddha could remind us to reflect on receptivity to spiritual guidance and what it means to us.

Anyway let’s see what happens next. So the text says:
“Then the Venerable Meghiya rose from his seat, prostrated himself before the Lord, and keeping his right side towards him, went to that mango grove. On entering that mango grove he sat down at the foot of a certain tree for the rest period during the middle of the day.
Now while the Venerable Meghiya was staying in that mango grove, there kept occurring to him three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought. The Venerable Meghiya then reflected: "It is indeed strange! It is indeed remarkable! Although I have gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless state, yet I am overwhelmed by these three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought."
Then the Venerable Meghiya, on emerging from seclusion in the late afternoon, approached the Lord, prostrated himself, sat down to one side, and said: "Revered sir, while I was staying in that mango grove there kept occurring to me three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts... and I thought: 'It is indeed strange!... I am overwhelmed by these three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought.'"

Poor Meghiya has had a surprise. The beautiful, cool, shady mango grove which was obviously an ideal place in which to meditate was not enough to purify the mind of Meghiya. And so he has spent his time in states of distraction rather than the positive blissful states he hoped for. It is of course to Meghiya’s credit that he doesn’t blame the mango grove for his mental states. He doesn’t say it was too hot or too cold or too shady are not shady enough. He just seems a bit bemused, that even under such ideal conditions, he still isn’t free from the hindrances. It would appear that Meghiya is a bit naive. Perhaps he has heard about the importance of having conditions which are conducive to practice, and he has misunderstood that and placed all his faith in conditions. Conditions are of course of supreme importance but they are simply the context in which we can make an effort. This shrine room provides good conditions for meditation, but that is just the beginning – when we sit here we have to make an effort to work with the hindrances and develop positive mental states. Also there may be other conditions that we need to put into place in our lives, outside the shrine room, before we can make much progress. We will come onto those later.

It would seem that Meghiya didn’t expect to have to make an effort. It would also seem that Meghiya had a wrong idea about meditation anyway. He seems to have been a bit overly goal orientated in his approach. He wanted to have a big experience but meditation is not about big experiences. Meditation, as Bhante puts it, is a continuous flow of positive mental states and when we sit to meditate what is important is the effort we make not the experience we have. We may have an uncomfortable experience but if we are making an effort to overcome the hindrances and transform unskilful mental states into skilful mental states then we are having a good meditation. We may have a very pleasant experience but if we are not making an effort to take things further then it is not a good meditation. A good meditation is one in which we make an effort to change our habitual negative mental states or make an effort to maintain our positive mantal states and use them as a basis for penetrating deeper into the nature of reality.. Effort has to be appropriate and balanced of course. We need to know and acknowledge where we are starting from and be patient and persistent in our efforts to change. Meghiya has not had a very good meditation by any standards, so he goes back to the Buddha, tells him what happened. Now the Buddha doesn’t give him a hard time as we might be tempted to do. The Buddha sees that the time is ripe to give a teaching and what follows is an important Buddhist teaching which we need to return to again and again and reflect on and practice.

The Buddha says:
 "When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, five things lead to its maturity. What five?
"Here, Meghiya, a bhikkhu has good friends, good associates, good companions. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the first thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu is virtuous, he lives restrained by the restraint of the Patimokkha, endowed with conduct and resort; seeing danger in the smallest faults, he trains in the training rules he has accepted. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the second thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu obtains at will, with no trouble or difficulty, talk that is effacing, a help in opening up the mind, and which conduces to complete turning away, dispassion, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and Nibbana — that is, talk about fewness of wishes, talk about contentment, talk about seclusion, talk about being non-gregarious, talk about putting forth energy, talk about virtue, talk about concentration, talk about wisdom, talk about deliverance, talk about the knowledge and vision of deliverance. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the third thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu lives with energy instigated for the abandoning of unwholesome states and the acquiring of wholesome states; he is vigorous, energetic, and persevering with regard to wholesome states. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the fourth thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu is wise, endowed with the noble ones' penetrative understanding of rise and disappearance leading to the complete ending of suffering. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the fifth thing that leads to its maturity. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, these five things lead to its maturity.

So here is another Buddhist list and as I said a very important one. Put succinctly the list is:
1.  spiritual friendship
2.  ethics,
3.  study and discussion,
4.  effort and energy,
5.  insight or wisdom.

This is a progressive list, one thing growing out of another – spiritual friendship leading on to ethics, ethics to discussion and study, discussion and study to effort and energy and effort and energy to insight and wisdom. The first three things on this list are especially important. The real significance of spiritual friendship, the precepts and study of the Dharma is that they provide objectivity outside of our own subjective experience and our subjective interpretation of our experience. We can sometimes give too much credence to our individual experience and even more likely is that we may give too much weight, too much credence to our own interpretation of our experience. This is not a new issue. In the Brahmajala sutta at the beginning of the Pali Canon the Buddha outlines a list of 64 wrong views. A large number of these wrong views are based on the wrong interpretation of meditation experiences. If we give too much credence to our own interpretation of our experience then that interpretation is likely to solidify into a view, even a philosophy of life and we may find ourselves contradicting our teachers and the Buddha. So friendship, the ethical precepts and study of the Dharma provide an objective expression of reality which keeps us anchored in the world of self and other, rather than getting submerged in the world of self. Meghiya knew he was right and knew what he needed and he wanted to do what he wanted to do. And it was not conducive to his spiritual welfare. I have seen this with people who are wealthy – they have the freedom to do what they want, go where they like, buy what they fancy – but this freedom, which is much coveted and highly prized in our society, is not necessarily conducive to spiritual growth, it may even be a hindrance. That is why Christian monastics often take vows of obedience.  Sometimes perhaps often, what we need is not what we want and what we want is not what we need. That is why we cannot rely on our own subjective experience and our own interpretation of our experience – we need friends, guides, guidelines and precepts and the challenge of Dharma study. So let’s look at the Buddha’s teaching to Meghiya, bearing in mind that we are probably closer to Meghiya’s level of understanding and practice that we might like to think. So the Buddha says – “a lovely intimacy, a lovely friendship, a lovely comradeship. When the hearts release is immature this is the first thing that conduces to its maturity”. The term translated as lovely friendship is Kalyana Mittata in Pali Kalyana Mitrata in Sanskrit. In his notes to the translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi tells us that that this term used to be translated as ‘friend of righteousness’ or ‘friend of what is lovely’ or ‘ friend of the good’. He goes on to say “ these renderings all rest on a misunderstanding of the grammatical form of the expression. As an independent substantive, Kalyanamittata means a good friend i.e., a spiritual friend who gives advice , guidance, and encouragement.”

It is very clear then that what the Buddha is saying is that the first condition that conduces to the hearts release is spiritual friendship. The heart is released from the prison cage of its own self obsession by spiritual friendship. The heart is released from the delusion of its own separateness into the Freedom of realising interconnectedness, by engaging in spiritual friendship. To engage in spiritual friendship with those who are more experienced means being receptive and at least reflecting on what they say. Which Meghiya didn’t do initially. To engage in spiritual friendship with peers, those at the same level of experience, means to actively befriend others. As Bhante put it – if you want to have a friend, be a friend. Our tendency is to put ourselves first, to be the centre of the universe. Here is how Paul Durcan the Irish poet puts it:
The Centre of the Universe 
by Paul Durcan
Pushing my trolley about in the supermarket;
I am the centre of the universe;
Up and down the aisles of beans and juices,
I am the centre of the universe;
It does not matter that I live alone;
It does not matter that I am a jilted lover;
It does not matter that I am a misfit in my job;
I am the centre of the universe.
But I’m always here, if you want me -
For I am the centre of the universe.
I enjoy being the centre of the universe.
It is not easy being the centre of the universe
But I enjoy it.
I take pleasure in,
I delight in,
Being the centre of the universe.

By engaging in friendship, by giving thought to someone else, taking an interest in them for their own sake, we shift the emphasis slightly and it’s a first step towards loosening our attachment to our self. The first step toward spiritual friendship is adopting an attitude and practice of generosity towards somebody else. Then we need to listen and take an interest. After that we need to move towards greater openness of communication, a willingness to let go of our defences and reveal our fears and inspirations, our cherished hopes and dreams and our weaknesses and foibles. Gradually in friendship we become more transparent to each other and in that experience of our naked humanity, we can respond with kindness and understanding. Spiritual friendship can be of the nature of an intimate personal friendship or it can be more like a teacher/pupil relationship. In both cases there will of course be warmth of feeling if it is a genuine spiritual friendship, but the relationship between teacher and pupil could be somewhat more distant. For example Sangharakshita sees himself as Kalyana Mitra or spiritual friend to all order members. He has a warmth of feeling for order members and is very concerned for our spiritual welfare, but he doesn’t have close personal relationships with all order members. The spiritual friendship is communicated through his talks, tapes, videos and books and our receptivity manifests in our willingness to run Buddhist centres, set up communities and strive to practice what he teaches us. Sangharakshita is not just a spiritual friend to order members but to all who respond to his presentation of the Buddha’s teachings. And those who respond to order members are indirectly responding to Sangharakshita.

So we have what is known in Triratna as horizontal spiritual friendship between peers and vertical spiritual friendship between those more experienced and those less experienced. When you first come along to the centre there may be particular order members that you admire and respect and as a result you want to emulate them. You’re impressed by their confidence or friendliness their kindness or clarity and feel that you want to develop those qualities or be more like them.

This is how spiritual friendship leads on to ethics, the second thing the Buddha says conduce as to the hearts release. To be in spiritual comradeship, spiritual friendship, necessitates behaving ethically in body, speech and thought or at least trying to or wanting to be ethical. The principles of Metta, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and clarity of mind are the principles that govern the relationships between people for Buddhists. And in spiritual friendship those principles will be even more manifest so that the endeavour to be ethical and the practices of confession, forgiveness and apology will be hallmarks of a true spiritual friendship. So being inspired by spiritual friends we practice ethical behaviour, we follow their example and teaching.

Then later we want to know more. We want to understand what lies behind this ethical behaviour. We want to understand the bigger picture. And that leads us on to the third thing that the Buddha mentions as leading to the hearts release. This is discussion or study or as the text puts it “talk that is serious and suitable for opening up the heart”. For some people it comes as a great relief to be able to engage in discussion around what is meaningful. Your days may be filled with talking but so much of it may be functional or frivolous or cynical, that it comes as a relief and a great satisfaction to be able to engage in talk that is serious, talk that touches on what matters, what is meaningful, talk that brings clarity and inspiration. This is why we have study groups and discussion groups and courses and so on. Just so that people have a chance to talk and go deeper into the question of what life is all about. Of course discussion or study isn’t just about talk. Like spiritual friendship, it is equally, if not more, about listening, about taking in, turning over, reflecting on. It is this that makes discussion or study really meaningful. As we listen and reflect, as we turn things over in our minds, we make them our own, we start to emotionally engage with what was perhaps previously just an idea. And when we engage emotionally we are moved to act, we are moved to make an effort. So this leads us to the fourth thing that the Buddha spoke about as being conducive to the hearts release, namely effort or energy. We need to make an effort all the time if we are to make spiritual progress. The basic effort a Buddhist has to make is the effort to transform negative mental states into positive mental states or in other words to transform unskilful mental states into skilful mental states. The emphasis here should be on transform. It is not a matter of denying the existence of negative mental states. It is not a matter of repressing them. It is not a matter of pretending to be positive. It is a matter of change, of transformation. This means that we have to begin by becoming aware of what mental state we are in. We have to introduce pauses into our lives. Which is where meditation comes in of course. Here is how Bhante puts it in a talk he gave in 1966 on the topic of Nirvana, which is to be found in The Guide to the Buddhist Path:

“We should not try to escape from ourselves. We should begin by accepting ourselves just as we are. We should try to understand, much more deeply than just intellectually, why we are what we are. If we are suffering, accept suffering, and understand why we are suffering. Or, as the case may be, if we are happy, accept the happiness (don’t feel guilty about it), and understand why we are happy. This understanding is not something merely intellectual; it is something which has to go very deep down indeed. For some people this penetration, insight, will come in the course of meditation. Meditation is not just fixing the mind on an object, not just revolving a certain idea in the mind. Meditation involves, among other things, getting down to the bottom of one’s own mind and illuminating one’s mind from the bottom upwards. In other words, it involves exposing one’s motives, the deep-seated causes of one’s mental states, the causes of both one’s joy and one’s sorrow. In this way, in awareness, real growth will take place.”

So we need to become aware of our own mental states and acknowledge them to ourselves, acknowledge rather than justify if it is a negative mental state. Our unskilful mental states will be based in greed or illwill or perhaps more subtly in spiritual ignorance and the natural tendency of all these states and their various variations is to seek to justify themselves. Our anger seems to be justified because of what someone else has said or done. Our greed or craving is justified because it doesn’t do anyone any harm and we’re only enjoying ourselves anyway. And our doubts or indecisiveness seem justified because – well, because they are in our minds. The effort we have to make is to move beyond justifying our unskilful mental states, to just identifying them and acknowledging their existence. But we don’t move into condemning ourselves because that is yet another unskilful mental state. The extremes are self justification at all costs on the one hand and self condemnation on the other. The middle way where we exert our effort is identifying, acknowledging and transforming our mental states. If we are already in a positive mental state then we need to exert our effort to maintain that positivity and prevent negative states arising. In this case it may be that we have to pay careful attention to the input we expose ourselves to. We need to be mindful that what we read, look at, engage in has an effect on us and moderate our input  accordingly. So this effort we need to make is what is traditionally known as the four right efforts – the effort to get rid of and prevent unskilful mental states and to develop and maintain the skilful. The four efforts apply both within meditation practice and outside it. Talking about viriya in terms of effort is perhaps not so attractive, thinking in terms of energy or engagement may be more useful; what we are aiming at is free-flowing energy channelled in a positive direction- engaging with our mental states, being interested in transforming ourselves.

Usually the difficulties we experience in relation to energy are to do with energy being blocked, dammed up inside us, or energy being wasted, dissipated in all directions by distraction. If our energy is not available to us, if it is dammed up within us, blocked, then our task is to loosen it up, release it, allow it to flow more freely. Blocked energy often takes the form of bodily tension and bad posture, so a good way to begin to get energy moving is through physical exercise. – Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, going to the gym, karate, or dancing. In the past I’ve done both Tai Chi and yoga and both are effective in getting energy flowing. If you are younger it’s worth considering something more strenuous like karate. Physical exercise can help to free up energy. Communication with friends can help too. Honest, open communication; communication which is even a bit fiery at times, can help to get energy aroused and moving. So this is another important aspect of friendship. Energy can be freed up in meditation too. Sometimes people have that experience, it can even be a physical experience that shakes your body. If that is happening a lot, you will need to find ways of working with energy outside the meditation too. So these are some of the ways to unblock energy; physical exercise, communication and meditation. If energy is being wasted which can be the case frequently, especially with anxious, restless types of people, then we need to pay attention to what we are reading, what we are watching on TV and the Internet etc, what we do, what sort of conversations we engage in and even how we spend our money. Because energy is wasted through unmindful distracted activity and speech. And energy is wasted through filling our heads with the avalanche of useless information that is now constantly available to us. To really stop wasting energy – especially for restless types – we need to just slow down – reduce the amount of input, and be more selective about what we are doing and saying – maintaining continuity of purpose. Doing nothing and just sitting with boredom are also practices that may be beneficial to those who are restless. If we are to develop the sort of energy we need to progress on the spiritual path, we need to be able to distinguish between restlessness and anxiety, which looks energetic, but is neurotic and viriya – energy in pursuit of the good which is more mindful and channelled and therefore more effective. If we unblock blocked energies and conserve rather than waste energy, then we will be able to undertake the spiritual life with zest and enthusiasm and engage in the process of refining our energy.

So that was the fourth point the Buddha made to Meghiya – that effort and energy are necessary for the hearts release. The fifth thing which conduces to the hearts release is insight. When we are able to gather our energies together and then focus on the essential, existential questions we can break through into insight. Insight here refers to insight into impermanence. Insight into impermanence is more than just knowing about impermanence. We know that things come to an end, we know that people die and things get broken. That’s not insight. Insight is more than even the experience of impermanence. We can experience people dying. We can experience the ending of relationship. We can experience our computer breaking down. But that is not insight. Insight into impermanence goes beyond knowing that all things are impermanent, it goes beyond our experiences of impermanence. When we experience impermanence at work in our lives and when we acknowledge the impermanent nature of all things to ourselves, there is still a sense in which we don’t fully take it on board. There is still an inability to let this knowledge and experience really permeate our lives fully.

We can carry on thinking that impermanence means that all things come to an end sometime. But it doesn’t mean that. All things are impermanent all the time. It is the nature of things to change and keep on changing all the time, always. There is no non-change. There is no non-impermanence. There is only impermanence always. If we can let this truth really sink into our being, to the very depths, then it transforms our whole view of ourselves and the world. It takes us outside time. It takes away all fear. Fear is fear of change, fear of death. When we know that we are really impermanent, thoroughly impermanent, 100% impermanent and not just in death, but all the time, every moment, every infinititismal fraction of a moment, we are a process physically, emotionally and mentally. Nothing stands still, nothing is fixed. There is nothing to hold onto. There are no moments even. When we know this, when this is constantly before our vision, permeating our vision, then we have a completely different experience of the world; liberated from fear, joyful, completely in unity with the universal flow of energy that is life. This is what is meant in the heart Sutra when it says:

So know that the Bodhisattva
 Holding to nothing whatever,
 But dwelling in Prajna wisdom,
 Is freed of delusive hindrance,
 Rid of the fear bred by it,
And reaches clearest Nirvana.

So that is the culmination of the Buddha’s teaching to Meghiya. It begins with Kalyana Mitrata, lovely intimacy, spiritual friendship and everything else flows from that right down to insight and Nirvana. So this brings us right back to this Centre and this class and it’s purpose. This lovely intimacy or lovely comradeship that the Buddha talks about is the main reason for coming together here on Tuesday evening and the main reason for having a Buddhist centre. If we are developing friendship with others based on our common aspiration, then everything else will follow from that. This is what we have to put our energy into, this is what we have to give attention to, otherwise even our time at the centre could be wasted. So I will leave you with the words of the Buddha as he gives this very important teaching on the stages of the path to Meghiya:


 "It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends, good associates, good companions, that he will be virtuous, that he will live restrained by the restraint of the Patimokkha, endowed with conduct and resort, and that seeing danger in the smallest faults, he will train in the training rules he has accepted. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will obtain at will, with no trouble or difficulty, talk that is effacing, a help in opening up the mind... talk about the knowledge and vision of deliverance. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will live with energy instigated... vigorous, energetic, and persevering with regard to wholesome states. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will be wise, endowed with the noble ones' penetrative understanding of rise and disappearance leading to the complete ending of suffering.”

The Buddha in the Pali Canon

This talk was given at Sangha Night in Cambridge Buddhsit Centre May 2015

Before I talk about the Buddha in the Pali Canon, I will say just a few words about the Pali Canon itself. Buddhism was an oral tradition and nothing was written down for at least 300 years after the Buddha’s death. When the teachings did come to be recorded in this way there was an established monastic Sangha with it’s own take on things and it’s own message to deliver. Sometimes it’s glaringly obvious that the text is from a later period and sometimes the character of Gautama Buddha seems to shine through almost in spite of the words. Because an oral tradition depends on repetitions, stock phrases and images, the Pali Canon is full of these – although most modern translations leave out a lot of the repetitions. Oral traditions also rely on storytelling and the Pali Canon is full of stories – no doubt embellished in the telling over centuries.

There are three sections to the Pali Canon – the Abhidharma, the Vinaya and the Sutta Pitaka. The Abhidharma, which is devoted principally to analysing mental states is unlikely to be part of the oral tradition, but a later attempt to systemise the psychological or mind the teachings of the Buddha. The Vinaya Pitaka is the code of discipline or rules for the monastic Sangha. Most of the rules are accompanied by a story relating how they came about. Some of these rules would have come into being during the life of the Buddha and some much later. The third and most important section of the Pali Canon is the Sutta Pitaka – this section of the Discourses. This section contains the teachings of the Buddha and is subdivided into five sections – the long Discourses, the middle length discourses, the connected discourses, the numerical discourses and the miscellaneous discourses. These were written down in Sri Lanka about 100 years BC. Sanskrit discourses – which are called sutras – have a different history. They are Indian and were almost all destroyed when Buddhism disappeared in the 12th century. There are some excellent books about the life of the Buddha which draw on the stories in the Pali Canon to bring him to life. I can highly recommend Gautama Buddha by Vishavapani, also Warrior of Peace by Jinananda and the Life of the Buddha by Nanamoli. I think all Buddhists should really try to familiarise themselves with who the Buddha was and what he taught. The talks at Sangha night this summer will help with that. As an aside, I think mitras and order members in Triratna should also familiarise themselves with the life and teachings of Sangharakshita – it’s interesting to see the parallels with the Buddha’s life.

Gautama the Buddha was a determined and disciplined practitioner. In a sutta of the middle length sayings (Dvedhavittakka sutta) he talks about his life before he was enlightened and how he maintained constant mindfulness of his mental states – noting the skilful and unskilful. He showed determination in leaving home against the wishes of his parents and in his early practice of austerities. He loved solitude all his life and although he didn’t get much opportunity after his enlightenment because he was so much in demand as a teacher and had so many disciples, nevertheless from time to time throughout his life he would simply head off alone for a period of quiet solitude. He always spoke highly of the life lived in the wilderness – the austere, simple, even rudimentary lifestyle of the wanderer.

But he also valued friendship highly and saw communication of the Dharma as the obvious practice for himself and other experienced practitioners. He encouraged his first disciples to go out and teach the Dharma for the welfare of others and he spent his whole life from enlightenment to death wandering from town to town teaching all who would listen from every walk of life. His most famous teachings on friendship were given to Ananda is companion for the last 25 years of his life and Meghiya an earlier companion. In the connected discourses (Samyutta Nikaya) he is reported as saying to Ananda that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. In the Meghiya sutta he tells Meghiya that friendship is the basis for a whole path.

The Buddha was a many faceted character. He had a huge impact on his contemporaries and has had a big impact on the world. Although it’s worth noting that Buddhism may not have had such an impact on the world were it not for the warrior king Asoka having his own sort of road to Damascus moment after the slaughter of the battle at Kalinga. He adopted Buddhism as the religion of his huge empire and through his efforts it spread far and wide. There is probably a whole thesis to be written about the impact of military men on the religious history of the world. The Buddha himself was destined to be a warrior chieftain but chose to forego that life for one of possibly even greater hardship in order to do battle with life’s existential questions. Because he did so and with such success and because others down the generations have taken up this challenge too he has left us a rich inheritance. Among those others who have taken up this challenge is of course Bhante Sangharakshita and it is up to us whether we use our inheritance wisely or squander it. That is a genuine choice. May we all choose wisely.

The Buddha is many faceted and I want to talk about his qualities as they are depicted in the Pali Canon. There is his gentleness, his firmness, his fierceness, his pragmatism, his fearlessness, his physical toughness and his revolutionary nature. So I would like to have a look at each of these qualities in turn.
In his communication he was invariably gentle and courteous but he could also be quite fierce if the occasion demanded it. For example with Meghiya he’s quite gentle. You will hear more about that story in a couple of weeks. With Kisa Gotami, the woman who was so distraught when her baby died, he was extremely kind and gentle while at the same time showing her the reality of the situation. We will hear more about this in Viryajyoti’s talk.
With the monk Bhaddhali, who is being very publicly disobedient, the Buddha is a very firm. Bhaddhali publicly announced that he was not going to keep one of the rules because it caused him discomfort. At the end of the rains retreat, Bhaddhali’s friends urged him to go and get back into communication with the Buddha and apologise. The Buddha doesn’t immediately accept Bhaddhali’s apology – he wants Bhaddhali to understand the effect of his actions on others – on the other monks and nuns and on the lay people and on the reputation of the order. When Bhaddhali understands all this – the Buddha forgives him and they go on to have some very good communication about other things.
The Buddha could also be fierce, almost scorching people with his words, if the occasion demanded. This was the case with Saccaka, the boastful debater, whom we will hear about from Samamati in his talk. Another occasion when his fierceness came out was when the king of Kosala, Prasenajit came to see him for the first time. Prasenajit was the king of all Kosala – that included the Shakyans, the Koliyans and the Vajjians. So although Gotama’s father was a chieftain of the Shakya clan, he was a vassal of Prasenajit. Prasenajit was a young king, not easily impressed. So when he met Gautama his first question was “I have heard that you claim to be fully and perfectly enlightened, Buddha – is this true” and the Buddha replies – “if that can be said of any one, it can be said of me”. Then Prasenajit says “but there are great sages who have been practising for many years who don’t make that claim and you are young still.” Then the Buddha responds “great King, there are four things you should not look down on for their youth: a warrior, a snake, a fire and a perfect monk.

Do not underestimate a young warrior. One day he will gain the throne and punish you with his Royal might. So avoid him if you value your life.

Do not look down on a young snake. It slithers along, shimmering with vibrant colours, and one day it may bite the fool who scorns it.

Do not disparage a fire that is newly lit. Someday it may burn you. If it grows it will become a great mass of flame that feeds on everything and leaves blackened trail behind it.

When a fire burns down the forest the shoots grow up again; but if a perfect monk burns you with his potency, you will not acquire sons or cattle and your heirs will not enjoy wealth. They will be barren and heirless, like the stumps of palm trees.”

This is the Buddha as shaman or magician. He is faced with someone who exercises worldly power and he speaks with words of power. It’s an assertion and a kind of warning. It reminds me of the much later incident when Padmasambhava confronts the king of Tibet. Though the Buddha could be gentle, he could also be firm and he was capable of a fierce flashing forth of shamanic power – depending on what the situation demanded.

His communication is always appropriate and usually practical, just what was needed. In the Brahmajala sutta we find the Buddha being very practical. Two followers of another sect are on the road at the same time as the Buddha and his disciples. These two are a teacher and pupil and the teacher is constantly criticising the Buddha and his followers, while the pupil is defending them. When they all stopped to rest this carries on and eventually the Buddha’s disciples feeling exasperated, go to him and tell him what’s happening. His response is very practical and instructive he says “if anyone should disparage me, the Dharma or the Sangha, you should not feel angry and resentful or upset – that would be a hindrance to you. Just explain what is incorrect. And if others praise me, don’t feel elated. Just acknowledge whatever is true.” And he added “ Listen to the sound of water in the clefts and in the gullies. The tiny streams gurgle loudly; mighty waters flow in silence.” Bhante has written an essay based around this incident to show that Buddhism should never support laws against blasphemy. The essay is called Buddhism and blasphemy.

The Buddha was again very practical when his relatives in the clans of Shakya and Koliya are about to go to war over who should draw water from the dwindling river Rohini. The Buddha is patient with them and persuades them to co-operate rather than to kill each other.

Other qualities that Gautama developed were fearlessness and physical toughness – the ability to endure hardship. When he was practising before gaining enlightenment he deliberately put himself in situations where he would experience fear and then he would just face the fear and let it wash over him in the waves. He talks about this in the fourth sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (Abhayabherava sutta). He says “I dwelt in such awe-inspiring, horrifying abodes as orchard shrines, woodland shrines, and tree shrines. And while I dwelt there, a wild animal would come up to me, or a peacock would knock off a branch, or the wind would rustle the leaves. I thought: what now if this is the fear and dread coming?. I thought: why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread while keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me? While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor laid down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I stood, fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor sat nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I sat, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor sat down until I had subdued that fear and dread.” This is a kind of extreme version of feel the fear and do it anyway. His whole lifestyle demanded a lot of physical endurance and toughness – both he and his followers were very tough. They slept rough in cold and heat, they walked long distances and subsisted on an uncertain diet.
I also get the impression that the Buddha was unpredictable – not in the sense of unreliable – but spontaneous and creative in his responses rather than conventional or calculating.
But perhaps what comes across most in the Pali Canon is that the Buddha was radical in his departure from conventions. His insight into the nature of reality made him a spiritual and social revolutionary. He rejected the division of society according to caste. He tried to subvert the language of caste by talking of a Brahmin as someone possessing certain qualities rather than someone born into a Brahmin family. He spoke in terms of the most important feature of one’s livelihood being its ethical nature, rather than being assigned by caste. Even his spiritual hierarchy of stream entrant, once returner, non-returner and Arhat may be an attempt to undermine the social hierarchy of the four castes of workers, merchants, warriors and priests. In the order of wandering mendicant’s he established, no distinction was made with regard to caste and all were welcome.

When he first began teaching his Dharma, he was very successful in gathering followers and in Rajagaha people started to get annoyed and call him a home breaker, a destroyer of families. In the Mahavagga of the Vinaya it says “at that time many distinguished young Magadhan noblemen lead a religious life under the direction of the Blessed one. The people were annoyed, murmured and became angry, saying the Samana Gautama, causes fathers to beget no sons, the Samana Gautama causes wives to become widows, the Samana Gautama causes families to become extinct.” The Buddha’s response when told this was “this noise will not last long, it will last only seven days and then it will be over”.

There was also controversy about allowing women to go forth. This went against all the norms of a traditional society where women were wives and mothers. Women going forth threatened society’s norm in a more direct way than men going forth and the early women wanderers had a hard life – even the monks were opposed to the wandering Sangha including women and after the Buddha’s death Ananda was criticised for having supported the women’s case.

But the Buddha’s radical message went even further. In a meeting with Dhaniya the herdsman the Buddha states very clearly what he thought: here is how Vishvapani describes it – “one day, not long after his awakening, Gautama was walking through the swamp lands near the River Mohi when he fell into conversation with the herdsman called Dhaniya. Dhaniya told Gautama that he had been preparing for the rains. “I’ve cooked my rice and milked my cows. My family live nearby in a well thatched house and the fire’s been lit. So I say let the rain come down!” Looking askance at the Wanderer’s rags, Dhaniya remarked, “I support myself by what I earn through honest labour. My sons are all healthy and I never hear a bad word about them.” “I serve no one” Gautama replied. “Having found liberation I wander through the world with no need to earn anything!”  Gotama’s dialogue with Dhaniya shows one version of his message to mainstream society: a complete rejection of its worldly values and the cramped and dusty householder lifestyle. At the end of the discourse Mara pops up to defend possessions, but Gautama tells him: “one with sons grieves because of his sons and one with cattle grieves because of them. A person’s grief comes from possessions, and someone without possessions does not grieve.” I don’t think he’d be very impressed with our society of consumers.

Of course not everyone could or would renounce a household and family life and the Wanderers depended on householders for their food, so a more down-to-earth but still radical teaching about ethics developed for those who wanted to stay at home. The Sigolavada Sutta has detailed teachings on this and is sometimes known as the layperson’s Vinaya or rules of conduct.  It is a detailed code of conduct covering all the major relationships in a person’s life.

The Buddha’s message is still radical and even revolutionary today: firstly he says your suffering is largely caused by your own mental states. You can do something about that and nobody else can do it for you. You are responsible for your own mental states and for your life. So this is quite radical even today – we live in a culture of blame and complaining.

Secondly he says religion is whatever works to alleviate suffering and transform people completely in the direction of wisdom and compassion. There is no God or Guru to save you, you need to follow the guidance or take the medicine and in that way save yourself. This is a radical redefinition of religion. Then he says spiritual practices are a means to an end not ends in themselves. This is also radical.

And in our materialist, shopping culture his message about where happiness comes from is still radical. He says there is no lasting happiness to be found in worldly things. Therefore accumulating wealth or possessions or even having children doesn’t bring lasting happiness. In the end we have to let go of everything and we will be happier if we train ourselves in letting go.

And in a world where some people are willing to kill or be killed on the basis of some real or imagined insult to their teacher or teachings it is radical for the Buddha to say that he and his Dharma do not need to be defended. Buddhism doesn’t need laws against blasphemy. Anger because the Buddha is denigrated or pride because Buddhism is praised are equally unhelpful on the path.
So Buddhism is a radical teaching . Strong medicine for a sick world. Bhante Sangharakshita has continued this tradition and presented the Dharma in uncompromising terms too and he has of course been criticised for it.
The Buddha expressed his teachings verbally, but his life is also a teaching and the stories which tell us about the impact he had on others are a teaching. His life communicates the message of non-attachment, letting go, not grasping after power or wealth or security. This is an uncompromising and radical message – which is easy to understand but extremely difficult to do. Most Buddhists in the worl live a very diluted version of the Buddha’s message.

But it is far better to live out the Buddha’s teaching in an imperfect way than not trying at all. In this endeavour, this spiritual life, the ability to practise grows as we practise and our understanding develops gradually – all we need to do is put the right conditions in place. The Buddha would have commended us for that.