Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The poisoned arrow



The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as a ‘wilderness of opinions’. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.

One day Malunkyaputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side of the road and said:

‘Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: There are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely, (1) is the universe enternal or (2) is it not eternal, (3) is the universe finite or (4) it is infinite, (5) is soul the same as body or (6) is soul one thing and body another thing, (7) does the Enlightened One exist after death, or (8) does he not exist after death, or (9) does he both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death, or (10) does he both (at the same time) not exist and not not-exist. These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This (attitude) does not please me, I do not appreciate it. I will go to the Blessed One and ask him about this matter. If the Blessed One explains them to me, then I will continue to follow the holy life under him. If he does not explain them, I will leave the Order and go away. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is eternal, let him explain it to me so. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is not eternal, let him say so. If the Blessed One does not know whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, then for a person who does not know, it is straightforward to say “I do not know, I do not see”.’

The Buddha’s reply to Malunkyaputta should do good to many millions in the world today who are wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind:

‘Did I ever tell you, Malunkyaputta, “Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you?” ’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Then, Malunkyaputta, even you, did you tell me: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and the Blessed One will explain these questions to me”?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Even now, Malunkyaputta, I do not tell you: “Come and lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you”. And you do not tell me either: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and he will explain these questions to me”. Under the circumstances, you foolish one, who refuses whom? (i.e., both are free and neither is under obligation to the other).

“Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,” he may die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One. Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: “I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is a Ksatriya (of the warrior caste) or a Brahmana (of the priestly caste) or a Vaisya (of the trading and agricultural caste) or a Sudra (of the low caste); what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown or golden; from which village, city or town he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot; the kind of bowstring used; the type of arrow; what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.” Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc,” he would die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One.’

Then the Buddha explains to Malunkyaputta that the holy life does not depend on these views. Whatever opinion one may have about these problems, there is birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, “the Cessation of which (i.e. Nirvana) I declare in this very life.”

‘Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained? Whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, (those 10 questions) I have not explained. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.

‘Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha (suffering), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.

It seems that this advice of the Buddha had the desired effect on Malunkyaputta, because he is reported to have approached the Buddha again for instruction, following which he became an Arahant.


From: What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula.

See also: Medicine Buddha, Buddha as Healer.

5 comments:

Yves said...

Malunkyaputta's questions are good ones, though, which I permit myself to speculate on sometimes! Thanks for this, Rama.

Ghetufool said...

hi rama,
thanks for this chapter. and i almost thought reading from a religious magazine. good writing sir.

gaelin said...

This story strikes me as very important for my own piece of mind. I ask so many questions! And the answers inevitably spawn more questions...

My intellect has a deep desire to understand, which affects my ability to 'just let go' into Zen mind.

I think I need to find a middle way. Any suggestions?

B.B.Mandal said...

One of the finest and inspiring stories I ever read. I remain a student of physics throughout my life and have these questions in my mind. So I have to read Hawking and Buddha both. I recommend that everybody should read "Budhha and his Dhamma" by Ambedkar.I have reasons to believe that most religions have turned mysteries more mysterious because there approach was mysterious. Only Buddha had a different way of explaining things.Physics try to answer but where is peace ?
This reminds me of "Amritkatha" published in Saptahik Bartaman. Thanks Rama.

rama said...

Thank you friends.

Gaelin - the force of the intellectual tendency - is also ultimately a form of vanity, attachment and subjection. The intellect needs to be developed and exercised, and then transcended, treated as a useful toll when needed. In good time the sincere and diligent seeker will attain that. Transcendental experiences help to advance that journey.

BB, yes, religions have tended to dis-empower the common man while empowering a priesthood. But there are "mysteries", of the psyche, which can only be sensed and resolved by oneself, they defy verbal description beyond cliched, confusing words. They are mysteries only in that unless one knows for oneself they are incomprehensible. But the seeker is like a scientist: observing, experimenting, inferring, relating, concluding, correcting. "The Path of Purification" by Buddhaghosa (Visuddha Magga) conveys this self-scientific approach. I am also reminded of Sri Aurobindo's record of his "yoga".

Buddha was a social reformer / revolutionary, as well as a mystic. Ambedkar, as Rahul has written in his blog (appearing on my blog roll), interpreted Buddha's message and path in a new fashion in the contemporary Indian context, of social stratification, inequity and injustice.