Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pointless Potthila

     "…This is why most people who have studied a lot and become monks never get anywhere. Their knowledge is of a different kind, on a different path….The knowledge of the Buddha is not worldly knowledge, it is supramundane knowledge, a different way altogether."—Venerable Ajahn Chah

     Now for a refreshing (or boring?) change of pace: An article about mainstream, relatively uncontroversial Theravada Buddhist doctrine.
     There is a well-known story in the commentary to the Dhammapada, the legend of Tuccha Poṭṭhila, explaining the origin of verse 282 of that text. It is well-known to Burmese Buddhists anyway; many Western Buddhists may be unfamiliar with it. So I present a translation of it here, based on the Burmese Sixth Council version of the commentary:

     "Indeed, by spiritual practice…" This Dhamma instruction was spoken by the Teacher while residing at Jetavana, with regard to an Elder named Poṭṭhila.
     It is said that he was a master of the Tipiaka in the dispensations of the seven [most recent] Buddhas, and taught Dhamma to five hundred monks. The Teacher considered, "For this monk there is no thought of 'I will make an escape from suffering.' I will stir him up." So from then on whenever the Elder came to attend on him, he would say, "Come, pointless Poṭṭhila. Bow, pointless Poṭṭhila. Sit down, pointless Poṭṭhila. You may leave, pointless Poṭṭhila." And when he had gotten up and left, he would say, "Pointless Poṭṭhila has gone." 
     He considered, "I have memorized the Commentaries and the three Piakas; I teach Dhamma to five hundred monks in eighteen great assemblies; and still the Teacher continually says to me 'Pointless Poṭṭhila.' The teacher must be saying it on account of my non-development in meditation." With a sense of urgency stirred in him he thought, "Now, I'll enter a forest and will carry out the Way of a [true] philosopher." So secretly having gotten his bowl and robes together, in the early morning he set out with the monk who was last of all to learn his Dhamma studies. Those sitting in the monastery enclosure repeating their lessons did not notice that he was their master.
     Having traveled a journey of 120 yojanas [roughly a thousand miles], he arrived at a forest residence where thirty monks were residing; and having approached them, and having bowed to the Elder monk of the Community there, he said, "Venerable Sir, please be my refuge."
     "Friend, you are a teacher of Dhamma. It is we who could learn something by being in dependence on you. Why do you talk like this?"
     "Don't make it out like that, Venerable Sir. Please be my refuge."
     Really, all of them were with encumbering influences exhausted [khīāsavā, i.e., liberated, enlightened]. Then that great Elder considered, "There is pride [māno] in this one on account of his learning," and sent him to a less senior Elder. That one spoke to him in the same way. In this same manner every one of them passed him on, till he was sent at last to the most junior of them all, a seven-year-old novice sitting in a well-lighted workplace doing some sewing.
     With his pride humbled, he respectfully held up his joined hands to the novice and said, "Good man, please be my refuge."
     "Oh Master, why are you saying this? You are a very learned senior monk. It is I who should learn something in your presence."
     "Don't do like this, good man. Please be my refuge!"
     "Venerable Sir, if you will be willing to accept admonishment, then I will be your refuge."
     "I am, good man. If I am told, 'Go into a fire,' then I will even go into a fire."
     Then he pointed out to him a pond not far away: "Venerable Sir, fully dressed as you are, go into that pond." Although knowing that he was dressed up in a very valuable double-thickness robe, he said this checking to see if he was indeed willing to accept admonishment. The Elder, immediately upon the novice saying this, waded into the water. Then when the edges of his robes were wet, immediately upon being told, "Come, Venerable Sir," he came and stood before him.
     "Venerable Sir, say there is a termite mound with six openings. Now, by one of these openings a monitor lizard has gotten inside. Someone wanting to catch it would close off five of the openings and leave the sixth one open, and would catch it right at this opening that it had entered. Even so, you, with regard to the six sense doors, having closed five of the doors, tend to your work at the door of the mind."     
     To the learned monk, just this much was like the blazing up of a lamp. He said, "Let that be enough, good man," and, knowledge having descended into his karma-born body, he undertook the Way of a philosopher.
     The Teacher, even sitting at a distance of 120 yojanas, observed that monk and having considered, "This monk, in order to be of broad understanding, ought to have something by which to apply himself," emitted a beam of light which spoke to him this verse:

     yogā ve jāyati bhūri / ayogā bhūrisakhayo
     eta dvedhpatha ñatvā / bhavāya vibhavāya ca
     tathāttāna niveseyya / yathā bhūri pavaḍḍhati
     Indeed, from spiritual practice broadmindedness arises; 
          From non-practice broadmindedness diminishes.
     Having understood this twofold way
          Of development and non-development
     One should thereby establish oneself
          So that broadmindedness will advance.

…At the conclusion of this teaching Poṭṭhila the Elder became established in the state of an Arahant.
~     ~     ~
A few comments:
     This story is very anachronistic, and is hardly likely to represent actual history. For example, there is mention of seven Buddhas; and, more obviously, mention of a Tipitaka existing even during the lifetime of Gotama Buddha himself, and even commentaries. Also, it seems unlikely that the venerable Elder would walk a thousand miles to meditate in a forest. Forests were pretty easy to find in India in those days. Furthermore, the Dhammapada itself is considered by Western scholars to be a relatively late addition to the Pali Canon. But even so, the subject matter of the tale is of interest; and a story doesn't have to be objective history in order to be potentially useful.
     The word "pointless" is a makeshift translation of the Pali word tuccha, which literally means empty, like an empty pot or an empty hand. But emptiness has rather positive connotations in Buddhist philosophy, and I certainly wouldn't want to denigrate someone for being empty. "Vain" also might be appropriate, but it might sound like ven. Poṭṭhila was stuck on himself or overly concerned with his appearance. "Pointless" seems to come pretty close to the intended meaning of "lacking what is essential." "Futile" might come close to the mark also.
     One may see that the word for "spiritual practice" in the Dhammapada verse is yoga. Here it means mainly meditation, not sun salutations and other physical practices associated with that word in the West.
     The main interest of the story, aside from the messages that scholarship is not the Way, and that humility is a beneficial virtue, is the meditation instruction given by the enlightened little novice. One of the main purposes of sitting in meditation in a quiet place is to reduce stimulation of the five grosser senses so that one may more easily observe the movements of the mind. If practiced skillfully, directing one's attention to the mind may be deeper and more subtle than, say, observing bodily sensations like the touch of air at the nostrils. In Pali this kind of meditation is generally called cittānupassanā, reflecting upon the mind. Sometimes I call it "third gear," with first and second being variations on ānāpāna, or mindfulness of breathing. 
     There is a fourth gear, however, that is deeper and more subtle yet—observing the mind is still a deliberate process of observing; it is volitional, and therefore still karmic. The next step is to relax the mind completely while remaining very alert, without deliberately focusing on anything in particular. By not excluding anything, but keeping everything in the field of consciousness equally in focus, one reaches a profound state that the Catholic Christians have called "high contemplation." Different Buddhists call it different things. If one can practice it well it is an indescribable blessing.
     However, no technique in particular is really necessary. If it works for you, then do it; and if not, then try something else. The important thing is to tend toward clearer consciousness, and the rest tends to take care of itself.

1 comment:

  1. Charming photo of the child.

    You describe the meditation practice I use and it does work well for me. Thanks for the story of the teacher. It does not need to be true to have value as a lesson, only that it finds its target.