This sutta shows us that the “scope of practice” the Buddha offers has nothing to do with what we normally take to be religion, philosophy, or the nebulous “spirituality” that many “non-religious” today claim to practice. What he shows through this dialogue with Malunkyaputta is how preoccupation with metaphysical speculation is not only a waste of time, but an obstruction to actual liberation!
One day, Malunkyaputta came to the Buddha and said, “There are certain speculative matters that you have left undetermined, set aside and rejected. Is the world eternal or not? Is the world infinite, or is it finite? Is the soul identical to the body or is it different from the body? Is there life after death? It does not please me that you have not determined these matters. If you can explain these things, I will continue the training, otherwise, I shall leave.”
The Buddha replied: “Did I promise all these explanations when you first joined us? Or did you stipulate you must know them?”
“No,” Malunkyaputta admitted.
“Then listen to me. Suppose a person were wounded by an arrow and when the surgeon arrived, he said to them, ‘Don’t pull out this arrow until I know who shot it; whether they were from the upper, middle or lower class; of what caste this person was; whether he was short or tall; black, brown or light-skinned; what tree the arrow was made from; what bird the feathers on the shaft came from; who made the arrow and bow; and what kind of bow was used, longbow or crossbow.’ Certainly, that person would die before they discovered the answers. In the same way, if you say you will not continue training unless I solve all the questions of the world, you are likely to die unsatisfied,” the Buddha explained.
He continued: “To be a follower of the truth does not depend on any such answers. Whether the world is eternal or transient, there is suffering, and I teach the way to understand it. My teaching does not depend on whether I exist after death or not, because I am concerned with suffering here and now. To all of you I have explained what should be explained and not explained that which is not relevant to the end of suffering and the finding of happiness.”
“And why, Malunkyaputta, have I not determined these matters of speculation? Because to do so does not lead to what is beneficial, to peace, to awakening, to freedom. That is the reason I have not determined such matters.
“And what matters, Malunkyaputta, have I determined? I have determined ‘This is unease.’ I have determined ‘The is the cause of unease.’ I have determined ‘This is the cessation of unease.’ I have determined ‘This is the path leading to the cessation of unease.’
“And I have determined these matters because they lead to what is beneficial, to peace, to awakening, to freedom. It is for this reason that you should bear in mind that which I have not determined, because it is indeterminate, and that which I have determined, because it is determinate.”
--- Majjhima Nikaya
This discourse is fundamental for any Naturalistic approach to Buddhist teaching and practice, such as the Zen Naturalism I offer, as it also shows that the Buddha denied that he positioned himself as what we would normally refer to as a “religious authority.” In fact, this sutta shows us in no uncertain terms that the “scope of practice” the Buddha offers has nothing to do with what we normally take to be religion, philosophy or the nebulous “spirituality” that many “non-religious” today claim to practice. What he shows through this dialogue with Malunkyaputta is how preoccupation with metaphysical speculation is not only a waste of time, but an obstruction to actual liberation!
The Buddha is telling us, through Malunkyaputta, that the type of questions Malunkyaputta is demanding the Buddha “determine” are not legitimate questions to begin with. In what way are these kinds of questions not legitimate? Firstly, they are based upon unquestioned assumptions: for instance, someone asking if the “soul is separate from the body” is assuming the existence of a soul. A bigger problem is that they are literally not answerable. Any answer would simply be a matter of faith or ideological commitment and not any kind of real knowledge. But perhaps the point the Buddha is making is that the worse aspect of these kinds of questions is that they distract from what is actually knowable and doable! Preoccupation with the stories about life and death distracts us from the process of life and death. But awakening is awakening to life which includes death! There is no story more important than what is actually happening right now, right here in front of you. All that is necessary is to just look!
Glenn Wallis offers a striking example: “Imagine that you are my music teacher. In the middle of a lesson on scales, I stop to ask you a question concerning German grammar…. Wouldn’t you point out that the question is irrelevant and encourage me to concentrate on learning my scales?” He points out that in this example, the dissonance between subject matters – musical scales/German grammar – is obvious, but that it is not so apparent in the sutta primarily because we have been taught to expect “religious authorities” to have answers to the big questions of life and death such as Malunkyaputta asks in this sutta. This is why this dialogue can help us to break out of the presuppositions we may hold about the Buddha being a “religious authority” as normally understood.
Wallis alters his example to correspond more with the thrust of Malunkyaputta’s questions: “Imagine that I interrupt the lesson on scales to ask you, my music teacher, about the cosmic origins of music, or whether the sound made by my instrument persists in some other dimension after it fades into silence.” As he points out, these questions are absolutely no more relevant to learning scales than German grammar, BUT they are intriguing… they are provocative and thus sound like legitimate questions deserving of answers. They stimulate speculation about what may lie beyond and we all love a good story! And the world’s religions have been happy to accommodate that love with myriad stories called “answers” by those who hold them dear and believe in their stories. It’s understandable; these “answers” are attempts to make sense of what is unknown. Buddhist training, however, is to “see things as they are,” and thus the myriad narratives become obstacles to such clear sight. What Buddhist training is aiming at is learning to cease trying to grasp the ungraspable, and, as Wallis makes clear, “any speculative notion is speculative precisely because of its ungraspable referent.”
What kind of “speculative notions” am I referring to? Notions concerning gods and goddesses, or The One God, creation, heaven(s) and hell(s), angels, saints, demons, but also karma, the three bodies, the magical potency of mantras, cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas, the koshas, the chakras (are there five, seven, nine?), prana (chi), rebirth, etc. etc.
The world’s religions are replete with these kinds of notions and they are generally thought to be legitimate religious, philosophical or spiritual areas of concern and questioning. But here in this discourse, the Buddha is telling us that the determining factor for an irrelevant speculation is that it leaves the human existential situation (dukkha) undiminished. People have been debating these speculative notions, and even killing and dying for them for ages and nothing – nothing! – has been resolved. Worse; even if these questions were answered and we knew without any uncertainty how a supernatural deity created the world, for instance, the human situation would remain the same. Such speculative questions and positions are distractions from the only thing the Buddha says we can know: how suffering arises and how it can be ended! This is something that is knowable, and in knowing it and acting from that knowledge, we find liberation.
Much is made today about “scope of practice.” A physiotherapist is acting out of their scope of practice if they start offering psychotherapy. A yoga teacher is acting out of their scope of practice if they start offering nutritional advice (unless they also hold nutritional degrees). But “religious authorities” like the guru, are often thought of as having a realization that encompasses the whole of life (what foods you should eat, gender and sexual relations, what happens when you die etc.) but the Buddha is clear that his knowledge is about duhkha and how to resolve the existential situation we find ourselves in. This is not a supernatural matter at all, but rather the most natural human matter. This is something knowable. We just have to look. And keep looking.