I am delighted to offer this from a dharma talk offered by one of my senior students in training to become a Zen Naturalist Dharma Teacher. Andre is based in Toronto, and runs, along with his wife, Catalina, Spirit Loft.
In A Brief Talk with Malukya, the Culamalukya Sutta, we are introduced to a troubled practitioner named Malukya who is struggling with speculative thoughts. He demands answers from the Buddha about metaphysical questions related to whether or not the universe is finite or infinite, whether the body and soul exist or do not exist after death, and so on. Malukya is looking for resolution to these profound questions, he is looking for the “Truth”.
“When I was in solitary seclusion, it occurred to me that you have left undetermined, set aside, and rejected certain speculative matters. Is the world eternal, or not eternal... infinite or finite? Is the life force identical to the body or different from the body? Does a person who has come to know reality exist after death or not exist after death?
If you do not determine these matters for me then I will abandon the training.”
The Buddha responds by reminding Malukya that these kinds of questions are not what the training is designed to determine.
“Malukya, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malukya, train with me, I will determine for you whether the world is eternal or not eternal, infinite or finite,’ and so on?”
“No, you did not,” responded Malukya.
“In that case, you fool of a man, who do you think you are, and what is it that you are repudiating?”
Glenn Wallis points out in his book, Basic Teachings of the Buddha, that Malukya’s questions are flawed. Inherent in Malukya’s questions were assumptions about the Buddha’s training, and about metaphysical ideas such as the existence of a “life force” (soul), and the duality of being and non-being. It seems that Malukya really wants to feel a sense of knowing, a sense of control.
Instead of answers the Buddha offers Malukya more questions, as well as a parable called the Poisoned Arrow. In the parable we are told of a person who is struck with a poisoned arrow. Friends and family bring a physician to release the arrow and save the person’s life. The person struck by the arrow, however, insists that they must know the answers to a great many questions before the arrow can be pulled out. Through this parable the Buddha is encouraging Malukya to question the process of his thinking.
“It is, Malukya, as if a person would be shot by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends, companions, and relatives would hire a physician to remove the arrow. But that person would say, ‘I will not have this arrow removed until I know who shot it; whether he was from upper, middle or lower class; his family name... whether he lived in such and such a town... and until I know whether the bow that was used was a long bow or a cross bow... whether the bow was made from swallowwort plant, from sanha hemp, sinew, maruva hemp or from the bark of a khari tree...
All of this would remain unknown to that person, Malukya, and in the meantime they would die. So, too, Malukya, someone might say, ‘I will not enter the life of training until you determine for me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, infinite or finite,’ and so on. Still, these matters would remain undetermined, and in the meantime that person would die.”
The Buddha seems to be suggesting that we don’t need to waste time waiting on unanswerable questions to be resolved in order to train our hearts and minds in compassion and wisdom and relieve ourselves from suffering. The questions Malukya offers are not answerable, they are indeterminate. To give an answer founded only in a belief, or in hope, would not be beneficial for starting the training nor would they be within the Buddha’s scope of practice.
“And why, Malukya, have I not determined these matters? To do so does not lead to what is beneficial, to the beginning of the training, to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowing, to awakening, to unbinding. That is the reason that I have not determined these matters.”
Malukya desired a story, a narrative, and definitive answers to resolve his big questions. Stories can be powerful and may help us to find meaning and even cultivate understanding and compassion. However, in this sutta, the Buddha is suggesting that speculation, stories about the afterlife, about being and non-being, would only be pointing us away from what the teachings are designed for, that is, easing the suffering in this world, and increasing our clarity and understanding, in this life.
The Buddha clearly defines his scope of practice and encourages Malukya to find clarity in what he has determined: The Four Ennobling Truths.
“And what, Malukya, have I determined? I have determined, This is unease. I have determined, This is the arising of unease. I have determined, This is the cessation of unease. I have determined, This is the path leading to the cessation of unease.”
The Buddha’s teaching seems to be founded in what is referred to as methodological naturalism. Which is to say that natural effects have natural causes. It’s a letting go of supernatural beliefs when tending to the problems, and potential solutions, for the natural world.
So, what does this sutta demand of us?
The teaching demands that we develop clarity and focus on the scope of the Buddha’s training in wisdom and compassion. Which is also a training in critical thinking, so as not to become the victim of false assumptions or dogmatic views. It asks that we focus on what can be determined, that of, understanding dukkha (stress, unease), letting go of unskillful habitual reactivity (samudaya), realizing and cultivating moments of clarity and understanding (nirodha), walking the path of peace, awakening, and liberation in this life, right here and right now (magga). The Buddha is asking us to reflect deeply on the nature of reality, the nature of human experience.
In the ancient Tibetan practice of Lojong, the first verse/slogan says this: Train in the Preliminaries.
The “preliminaries” are usually defined as our meditation practice, shamatha-vipassana, or calming-insight practice. This training also has to do with how we view and relate to our past and present difficult experiences and with our sense of resolve and personal responsibility. A suggestion that all the messy stuff of our life including divorce, heartache, illness, death, job loss, even traumas that we have not yet transformed, are the field of practice and training. These are the preliminaries that we are training in. So, we don’t need to go anywhere or be in some special state of being or knowing in order to begin the training.
Training the mind to re-cognize the difficulties, the heartaches, the catastrophes of life, as the preliminaries of our spiritual journey. These difficulties can strengthen our resolve to dig deeper into our practice and into our life in the here and now. This is a stark contrast to some of our usual habits like shame, guilt, repression, denial or delusion.
As part of my zen training, I have been listening to a series of talks from Steven Novella called Your Deceptive Mind. Novella is an American clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine. Novella is best known for his involvement in the skeptical movement. He’s interested in human nature, and the role the brain has on the experience of mind, and how we think and behave. He suggests that “We are our brains.” The brain is an organ that can think, the brain is self-aware! It is perhaps the most complicated organism that we know about in the universe. However, the brain is also deceptive. Novella emphasizes that we are not inherently logical creatures. We are highly emotional creatures. Which means that logic and critical thinking are skills that need to be developed and practiced.
As human brain-minds we have an innate desire for control, or perhaps better said as, a desire for a sense of control. This is a common obstacle that we inherit through the function of our brains and can manifest as superstitions, belief systems and dogmatic thinking. Feeling a lack of control can even enhance the brains pattern recognition. Which is to say that when we feel a lack of control the brain can find ways to reinforce our beliefs.
Perhaps we can see that urge for control in Malukya’s assumptions, and, I would like to suggest that we are seeing this kind of desire for control and a fallibility of thinking play out in real-time in our current society and politics. We can see it in things like bigotry, racism, in QAnon, and the alt-right and anti-mask conspiracy groups. This is all very dangerous territory!
In a Brief Talk with Malukya we can see a firm process of critical thinking in the way the Buddha responds and guides Malukya towards clarity. It should be noted that the sutta also says that Malukya was happy with and rejoiced at the Buddha’s response and continued on with the training.
Steven Novella provides us with a clear thought process that we can use to ensure that our thinking and beliefs are rooted in the same kind of critical thought and discernment as the Buddha’s:
Mindscape with Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist. Sean hosts conversations with the world's most interesting thinkers. Science, society, philosophy, culture, arts, and ideas.
Conspirituality with Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, Julian Walker. A weekly study of converging right-wing conspiracy theories and faux-progressive wellness utopianism.
Decoding the Gurus Christopher Kavanagh, an anthropologist, and Mathew Browne, a psychologist, try to make sense of the world's greatest self-declared Gurus.
In times of great misinformation, like the age we are currently living in, it’s important to stay diligent and informed. Keep training!
Deep bows, Andre