2021-05-17 Sutta Stories - The Preservation of Truth
2:56PM May 17, 2021
For this week's dharmettes I would like to continue with the idea of stories. This time to tell the stories of the Buddha from the suttas, the ancient literature that we have in our tradition. They purport to be the direct records of the Buddha. Not some of the common stories that are often told about the Buddha. Rather some of the ones that contain some wonderful teachings. Some of these stories are not great stories. But they are stories that contextualize the teachings and can help them to stand out in highlight.
The first one is a discourse (the ancient word for discourse is "sutta") called the Caṅkī Sutta. It is usually spelled in English "Canki." It is number 95 in the "Middle Length Discourses." I am particularly fond of this sutta. When I teach courses on the suttas themselves, these ancient discourses, especially when I teach courses on the Middle Length Discourses, I like to start with this one. The reason for this is this story pivots on (therefore the most important part of the text) a teaching the Buddha gives on the preservation of truth.
How do we preserve the truth? To offer that at the beginning of study of the ancient teachings addresses: "How do we study these texts and preserve the truth as we do it, stay truthful in a certain way?" Not to accept the teachings naively. Not to accept them as true because that is what is in the text. How do we relate to these teachings, if we do not have our own direct experience of them? How do we talk about it? The preservation of truth.
The story has to do with brahmins visiting the Buddha. Represented in this text is a bit of the tension, in ancient India, between the brahmin caste and the warrior or noble caste, the "kṣatriya" (Skt) or "khattiya" (Pali) caste that the Buddha came from. India was a very hierarchical culture. Everything was stratified according to hierarchies. There was vying for top position among the brahmin class and the warrior/noble class. Some of the brahmin priests, the priests of the Brahmanical religions, were phenomenally wealthy and controlled lots of territory. And the warrior/noble class, who were often the rulers.
In this text the Buddha is camped out near a town where there is a brahmin, Caṅkī, who was phenomenally wealthy. He has been given land – like a medieval lord who was given by the king a whole territory to be his own. The wealth of it was his. The people in it were working for him. He was also very learned in the Brahmanical lore. One day he learns that the other brahmins in his town have heard a good report about the Buddha. He is supposed to be a wonderful teacher. And they all decide to go visit the Buddha and hear his teachings.
However, there is a group of other brahmins, 500 it says, visiting the town from other places. They get upset that Caṅkī, this ruler of the territory, this great brahmin, is going to go visit the Buddha. They say, "It is inappropriate for you to visit the Buddha, because you are so wonderful." And they go through all the ways in which he is wonderful. "The Buddha should come see you, because you are so elevated. You shouldn't go to the Buddha." The brahmin Caṅkī says, "Oh, no, no. The Buddha is actually more wonderful." He lists all the special qualities of the Buddha to argue: "Yes, it is appropriate for me to go see the Buddha, not for the Buddha to come to me." So they all go to see the Buddha.
They are sitting there having a conversation about the Dharma or something. There is a 16-year-old brahmin priest, a student of the Brahmanical teachings, the sacred texts. He is sitting amongst them, and keeps interrupting the Buddha. And at some point, the Buddha speaks to him. The exact tone of voice and how the Buddha said it, we don't know. How to translate the word into English we don't know.
The Buddha "rebuked" (Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation) the boy for interrupting the conversation between the elder brahmins and himself. One meaning for the word is that the Buddha just simply stopped the young brahmin boy, and said: "You know, you shouldn't interrupt when the elders are speaking." Then one of the elder brahmins, maybe Caṅkī, says: "Oh, it's okay, Venerable Buddha. This young man is one of the most learned of the brahmin students we have. He has memorized all the ancient texts, the histories of the past, and the philosophy, and he knows it all. Please, it is okay that he is part of the conversation."
In the very formal, polite culture of the time of the Buddha, probably in order to converse with the 16-year-old, the Buddha needed to have clear permission from the elder brahmins. Otherwise, it would be rude to them, that he directed his focus to this 16-year-old. So the Buddha has that permission and he looks at the 16-year-old. The 16-year-old thinks, "Oh, good, the Buddha is now ready to hear my question." The 16-year-old says: "It has been said among the brahmins that our texts, our sacred texts, are the only ones that are true. Everyone else is wrong." He actually says, "The brahmins say definitively that our texts are the only ones that are true, and everything else is wrong." They are definitive: "This is clear. What does the Buddha think about this?"
The Buddha does what he often does in these kinds of circumstances – he asks counter questions. He asks the 16-year-old student: "Is there any brahmin in the current generation who has directly known and seen the truths of these ancient texts? That they know it for themselves through their direct experience?" The student says, "No." "What about their teachers, the generation before them, and the generation before them? Did any of them say they directly knew and saw the truth of these teachings?" "No, they never said they directly saw it themselves." "If you go back seven generations?" "Nope, no one in seven generations said they directly know and see for themselves." "If you go back to those people who composed the sacred literature, did they ever make a claim, maybe in the literature, that they directly knew and saw the truth for themselves?" The student said, "No, there's no proof that they claim that they saw it directly for themselves."
Then the Buddha makes a big statement. Before I say this, early in the text, Caṅkī, when he was describing the great qualities of the Buddha, says, "The Buddha never harmed any brahmin." What is about to be said could be seen as a bit offensive. Maybe there is a way of understanding it, that it is not offensive. Maybe an aikido move with the conceit or the arrogance of this student, who believes that his truth is the truth.
The Buddha said, "Well, what you are saying is like a row of blind people, one holding the shoulder of the next. The one in the front can't see, the one in the middle can't see, and the one in the back can't see. The brahmins are like a row of blind people going along."
The student says, "Well, we have it on faith. We don't directly know and see for ourselves. We have it on faith." The Buddha says, "What is known on faith may be true. But also it might not be true. There is no certainty just because it is taken on faith that it is true."
"It is in our oral traditions and our texts." The Buddha says, "Just because it is part of the tradition, it might be true, but it might not be true. There is no way of really knowing just because it is traditional."
Then the Buddha said there are five things that may or may not be true: Things taken on faith. Things taken as being true because we like them, we prefer them. Things taken as true because they are the tradition. Things taken as true because we have reasoned them out for ourselves, they are logical. Lastly, things taken as true because of intuitive understanding – we intuitively feel or sense that these are true. The Buddha said that in each of these circumstances, sometimes it might be that it is true, and sometimes it is not. There is no way of understanding which it is, based on those sources.
The youth says, "Well, how do we preserve the truth then?" This is the pinnacle of the text and why I like it so much. The Buddha says that we preserve the truth by stating the basis upon which we make a claim. If we take something on faith, we say, "It is my faith that this is true." If we take it upon our preferences, "It is my preference that this is true." If it is based on the tradition, the texts or teachers, then we say, "This is what the tradition says is true." Or: "I reasoned it out for myself. That is why I think it's true." Or "I just have an intuitive sense that this is true." We are not making a claim about what is true. We are making a claim about how we have come to understand what we think is the truth. We are not claiming it is true. We are claiming that we have faith or reasons to believe it is so.
Then it is possible to be in dialogue with people. People understand what we are basing our claims upon. We can go back and look at the texts. We can examine their reasoning. We can appreciate the faith that someone has. This idea of being clear about the basis upon which we take something to be true: "It is my interpretation. It is my this or that" – as opposed to claiming it is true. This is the pivot of the text.
Then the student says, "Well, how do we discover the truth for ourselves?" The Buddha says: "If you want to discover it for yourself, go find a monk, a bhikkhu, who has come to your village. Spend a long time checking that teacher out. Make sure that person does not exhibit any traces of having greed, hatred and delusion, that might skew how they talk about the truth. Where they might be motivated to twist or bend the truth for the purposes of their desires, their aversions or their illusions. Really check someone out first. When you are confident that they do not seem to exhibit any kind of greed, hate and delusion that might skew how they give the teachings, then listen to their teachings. Reflect on them. Take them in and think about them for yourself. Once you have reflected on them deeply, then engage in the practice wholeheartedly. Then, in your practice, enter into the world of direct experience, until the direct experience opens up, and you discover the truth for yourself."
Then this brahmin student says, "Is that all there is, just discovery?" The Buddha says, "No, there is one more step and that is the final arrival at truth." Not just discovering what the truth is, but arriving at it. What the Buddha is doing in talking about the discovery of the truth, he is doing another aikido move. This is my interpretation – I say that so I preserve the truth. Rather than talking about abstract truth, he is pointing the student to how you could practice to have the direct experience the Buddha values the most. It is through practice that this is accomplished – mindfulness practice, concentration practice, and all this.
"Once you have the discovery of truth, then to arrive at truth," the Buddha says, "you do the same practice repeatedly, again and again, until you are fully integrated into it. There is no separation between yourself and the truth. In a sense, you become the truth." It does not say that in the text, but we become the truth. Then everyone is happy and that is the end of the story.
It is not a necessarily a great story. It is a fascinating story of setting up the context for the importance of emphasizing the preservation of truth among people who hold on to the truth out of faith, tradition, reason or something.
There is another way of going about it, which is not to take teachings – even Buddhist teachings – on faith, or because theyare in the texts and therefore are true. That is always provisional. What is not provisional, is when we have actualized it for ourselves: "This is what I know. I've experienced it myself." The direct experience of the truth we have ourselves. "Now I know." We can arrive at truth by continuing to practice what we discovered.
That is the story. I hope that you appreciated that. I will tell some other stories for the rest of the week. Thank you.