Tree identification

What are the leaves of the mango tree like? It’s enough to pick up one leaf and look at it to know. Even if you look at ten thousand leaves, you won’t see much more than you do looking at one. Essentially they are all the same. By looking at one leaf, you can know all mango leaves. If you look at the trunk of the mango tree, you only have to look at the trunk of one tree to know them all. All the other mango tree trunks are the same. Even if there were a hundred thousand of them, I would just have to look at one to really see them all. The Buddha taught to practise Dhamma in this way.

– Ajahn Chah
The Key to Liberation and the Path to Peace
p. 14

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Pascal vs. the Buddha

Pascal’s Wager is sometimes said to be the first formal use of decision theory. Blaise Pascal of the 17th century reasoned thus: if one believes in the Christian God

  • and the belief turns out correct, one is rewarded with an eternity of gain (or, conversely, avoids an eternity in hell);
  • if the belief is wrong, one loses almost nothing.

The thought struck me that the lesser known second part of the Kalama Sutta is also a similar application of decision theory. This is about 2,200 years earlier than Pascal. But it was not as formally laid out, and is also a far more complicated (but therefore more realistic) case.

The Buddha applied it to moral decisions in the context of the extent to which one believes in the cause and effect of one’s actions, or simply put, Kamma/Karma, the full extent of which is necessarily linked to rebirth.

Although how causes, moderated by conditions, lead to their effects is a highly complex matter, they are generally still apparent to us (think physics) and therefore believable… except for the catch that there might not be enough time for all effects to come to fruition within one lifetime. Therefore rebirth completes the idea of Karma by providing opportunity in the future for fruition of effects.

Ordinary people, however, do not have knowledge of their past lives or that of others’, so the idea of rebirth is not as apparent and believable.

According to the Buddha’s reasoning as re-told by the Kalama Sutta, if one acted accordingly to avoid unwholesome deeds and carry out wholesome ones throughout this life:

  • if rebirth were true, one benefits in this life as well as after the end of this life by having a better rebirth;
  • if rebirth were not true, one most probably still benefits by having lived blamelessly and avoided substantial suffering in this life.

I did a quick Google and found out that other people have linked this to Pascal’s Wager before. In fact, some folks online called this the Buddha’s Wager. There is also another scripture that is in the same spirit: the Apannaka Sutta.

The Buddha’s Wager is a far more complex application of decision theory, however, because:

  1. Pay-offs is positive (according to the formulation above; just like Pascal’s Wager, it can be formulated in the negative sense, i.e., living an unwholesome life) in both options, just that one (with afterlife) is on top of the other (this life only). In Pascal’s case, pay-off is usually taken as neutral (=zero) in the worse of the options (but see below).
  2. The degree of uncertainty is different between the two pay-offs. It seems to me that this is a critical part of the Buddha’s version. Cause and effect within this life is more believable (=lower uncertainty) because it is usually observable; rebirth (i.e., continuation of cause and effect after death) on the other hand is usually not observable and therefore highly uncertain. (In Pascal’s case, there is only one non-zero pay-off option so uncertainty is only relevant for that pay-off.)
  3. There is a cost involved, because this case, in contrast to Pascal’s in the context of Christian doctrine, is not just about belief but about taking action. Acting incurs opportunity cost in the process, e.g., effort invested, or “opportunities” missed from not taking advantage of others or not indulging oneself.

The Buddha’s case is therefore pitting a additional pay-out (P1) that has higher uncertainty (U1) together with a basic pay-out (P2) that has lower uncertainty (U2) against the cost of action (C). So one should only take action and incur the cost if one can be sure that the combined expected benefits are high enough:

P1* (1-U1)+ P2* (1-U2) – C > 0

The Buddha’s Wager is not so much of a wager as it is a statement of inequality: that P2* (1-U2) > C so that the value of U1 is irrelevant, i.e., the benefits of a wholesome life are sufficient in itself to justify us taking the trouble, whether or not there is an afterlife. In such a formulation, the Buddha portrays moral behaviour as cost-beneficial regardless of afterlife belief.

If we go strictly by the Kalama Sutta, U2 seems to be taken to be zero, which reduces the inequality condition to an even simpler one: P2 C. Herein lies the link back to the rest of the Kalama Sutta, and the difference between Pascal’s Wager and the Buddha’s version.

In Pascal’s Wager, the pay-off in choosing to believe is positive infinite. In such a system, nothing finite can be greater than positive infinite, so the pay-off for disbelief, even if positive and not zero, will never outweigh the pay-off for belief. This means that Pascal’s Wager, while logical, is still a non-falsifiable statement of theistic belief.

On the other hand, the Buddha’s inequality statement is possible to be false, and therefore can be subjected to testing; one just needs to estimate P2 and C. This is why it fits in with the first half of the Kalama Sutta: the Buddha’s exhortation to the Kalamas not to base their actions on the sole basis of belief, but to test it out for themselves and weigh the benefits and costs of their actions for themselves and others.

The Buddha in the forest

The Buddha was born in the forest. Born in the forest, he studied Dhamma in the forest. He taught Dhamma in the forest, beginning with the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma. He entered Nibbana in the forest.

It’s important for those of us who live in the forest to understand the forest. Living in the forest doesn’t mean that our minds become wild, like those of forest animals. Our minds can become elevated and spiritually noble. This is what the Buddha said. Living in the city we live among distraction and disturbance. In the forest, there is quiet and tranquility. We can contemplate things clearly and develop wisdom. So we take this quiet and tranquility as our friend and helper. Such an environment is conducive to Dhamma practice, so we take it as our dwelling place; we take the mountains and caves for our refuge. Observing natural phenomena, wisdom comes about in such places. We learn from and understand trees and everything else, and it brings about a state of joy. The sounds of nature we hear don’t disturb us. We hear the birds calling, as they will, and it is actually a great enjoyment. We don’t react with any aversion and we aren’t thinking harmful thoughts. We aren’t speaking harshly or acting aggressively towards anyone or anything. Hearing the sounds of the forest gives delight to the mind; even as we are hearing sounds the mind is tranquil.

– Ajahn Chah
Everything Is Teaching Us
p. 69

心里那一亩田

每个人心里一亩田…
用它来种什么?用它来种什么?
种桃?种李?种春风?

In every heart, there is a field…
What should we sow? What should we sow?
Sow peaches? Sow plums? Or sow the spring breeze?

And fake Buddha stories

Fake Buddha quotes are one thing, but what about fake Buddha stories?

A particular link has been floating around my Facebook news feed, titled “The Man Who Spit in Buddha’s Face“. Initially I ignored it; hey, even the tense was wrong. Then I finally decided to just check it out.

The story can be summarised as:

(1) A man came up to the Buddha in front of all his disciples and spat on His face.

(2) The Buddha asked the man, “What next?”

(3) The Buddha’s disciples went into near-hysteria. Ananda, in particular, was spluttering. But the Buddha said to Ananda, “This man does not offend me. But you do.”

(4) The man went back home. The morning after a night’s sleep, he went back to the Buddha, and prostrated at His feet. “Please forgive me,” he begged. The Buddha asked the man, “What next?”

If this summary sounds like a three- or even four-part zen koan, I intended it to. Just as how dubious quotes of the Buddha can be very much in line with Buddhist teachings, stories of the Buddha that are of dubious authenticity can likewise sound like a possible product of the myriad schools of Buddhism.

For comparison, the late Zen Master Seung Sahn had this koan:

Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?

-“Dropping ashes on the Buddha”

But Master Seung Sahn didn’t pass his koan off as having happened in the Buddha’s lifetime.

Also, in the Kwan Um School of Zen that Master Seung Sahn founded, the teachers often teach initiates to slap the floor in response to a Zen riddle. Once the students have become very good at slapping the floor by way of answering, however, the teacher would follow up with a question: “Is that all?”

I digress. Back to the spitting story, where could it have come from?

Those familiar with the Nikayas/Agamas would recall a similar story. In the Discourse on Insult (Akkosa Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya), a man went up to the Buddha and verbally abused him. The Buddha drew an analogy of how gifts that are not accepted are returned, and said to the man:

“In the same way, brahman,
that with which you have insulted me,
who is not insulting;
that with which you have taunted me,
who is not taunting;
that with which you have berated me,
who is not berating:
that I don’t accept from you.

It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.

Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting,
returns taunts to one who is taunting,
returns a berating to one who is berating,
is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person.

But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.”

The man was then so impressed that he became a disciple and monk, eventually becoming one of the Enlightened Ones.

The two stories therefore share the same overall plot, and teach similar general lessons. I did some Googling with the keywords “spit Buddha”, and while the first (i.e., alternative) version above is reproduced in many blogs/websites, nobody provided a reference that traces back to origination from a scripture or even an established Buddhist teacher. (Update 24/10/2014: I’ve also left a question on a couple of Facebook group pages where this spitting story was shared, but nobody gave an answer.) I can’t say that this was a very thorough detective effort; the alternative version might actually be from a commentary or some other scripture that is more obscure than the rather well-known Akkosa Sutta.

But as shown by my attempt to yet again re-write even the alternative version, embellishment of Buddha stories is too easy. However, the product can differ substantially in substance. Whether this counts as ingenuity or disingenuity, I’ll reserve judgement for now… I just think that even well-intentioned re-writings should at least credit their creative sources. And wouldn’t it have been far less problematic yet equally effective if, in the alternative version, “the Buddha” was replaced by “a wise man”?

How serious a matter are fake Buddha quotes?

I know I’m not the only one unamused at some of the quotes floating around dubiously attributed to “the Buddha”. There’s a whole blog dedicated to the investigation of such quotes: well-researched, enjoyable to read, and I agree with the author’s approach.

But some might ask: why the fuss, as long as the quotes are in line with the spirit of the Teachings, or at worst, just well-meaning?

(The above-mentioned blog author certainly has had his share of “hate” mail: “don’t act like you’ve read all the scriptures“; “Buddhist Canon Nazi!“; “why don’t you spend all that time and energy actually practising instead?“.)

Well, as students of the Teacher, one way to decide how to respond to such quotes is to ask: what would the Teacher Himself have done if someone attributed something to Him when He didn’t say it?

A very short “Discourse on what was not said” (Abhasita Sutta, Book of Twos, Anguttara Nikaya) says it all:

“He who explains
what was not said or spoken by the Thus Come One
as said or spoken by the Thus Come One.

And he who explains
what was said or spoken by the Thus Come One
as not said or spoken by the Thus Come One.

These are two who slander the Thus Come One.”

(Thus Come One = the Buddha)

There are many instances where the Buddha is recounted to have clarified His misreported words. Recently I’ve been reading Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology of discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya. One such scripture is the “Discourse to Vaccha” (Book of Threes, Anguttara Nikaya). The format of the clarification usually starts with:

“Those who have said so
have not reported my words correctly
but misrepresent me.

Their declarations
do not accord with my teachings
and their false assertions
will certainly give cause for reproach.”

A quick Google found a more severe but interesting case study in the “Discourse on the Simile of the Snake” (Alagaddupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya). A monk names Arittha had a twisted interpretation of the Buddha Gotama’s words, likely going around repeating his view even though his fellow monks strenuously tried to dissuade him against it. The Buddha got wind of it and summoned Arittha, probed that this was indeed the case, and then proceeded to rebuke him so thoroughly that Arittha sat with his head and shoulders drooping, at a loss for words.

The Buddha then gave the similes of the snake (which you have to grasp properly, by the head and not by the tail or it would turn around to bite you) and the raft (which you abandon after crossing the shore; who needs to carry a raft all around on his back on dry land?) as the proper way to understand and apply the Dharma.

These examples from the Nikayas of the Theravada tradition might seem too serious to compare against “just some well-meaning lines”, but in Mahayana lore misquoting the Buddha is taken even less lightly.

Certainly one shouldn’t retort using “it’s just words” Zen stories. Or at least, try telling it to a Zen Master, and see if he would beat you with a stick… or give you the fox riddle from the Gateless Gate as homework:

Huangbo asked Baizhang, “A teacher spoke a wrong word and became a fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn’t spoken the wrong word?”

Baizhang said, “Come closer and I will tell you.”

Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang’s face.

Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, “I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!”

Hmmm.

Back to the topic. Even if the quote in question is positive, motivational, inspirational, or even in accordance with the spirit of the Teachings… well, go ahead and use it; just give the right author the credit instead.

While it might be an academic habit of mine to be so uptight with proper citations and referencing, I find it a useful habit for training mental discipline.

So it may be just one of those many day-to-day ways to practise mindfulness and Right Effort.

On the other hand, screaming too loud about misquoting might deter the less confident from sharing quotes actually traceable to the Buddha. This would be tragic, but easily solved by a community-wide habit of providing, as far as possible, a reference to, e.g. a scripture, commentary, or book, even if para-canonical.

It not only deepens our own familiarity with the Teachings, but also helps to expose those cursorily interested in Buddhism–and attracted to the quotes–on the rich scriptural basis of the Teachings today. Otherwise Buddha quotes, even when accurate, will appear without context and end up dismissed as conjurable by the likes of any random hippie, instead of the serious business that the Buddhadharma is.

Attention, attention

Greed is less blamable
but hard to remove.

Hatred is more blamable
but easier to remove

Delusion is very blamable
and hard to remove.

What is the cause and reason for
the arising of unarisen greed,
for the increase and strengthening of arisen greed?

An attractive object;
for one who attends improperly to an attractive object,
unarisen greed will arise and
arisen greed will increase and become strong.

What is the cause and reason for
the arising of unarisen hatred,
for the increase and strengthening of arisen hatred?

A repulsive object;
for one who attends improperly to a repulsive object,
unarisen hatred will arise and
arisen hatred will increase and become strong.

What is the cause and reason for
the arising of unarisen delusion,
for the increase and strengthening of arisen delusion?

Improper attention.
For one who attends improperly to things,
unarisen delusion will arise and
arisen delusion will increase and become strong.

What is the cause and reason for
the non-arising of unarisen greed,
the abandoning of arisen greed?

Foulness in the object;
for one who attends properly to foulness in the object,
unarisen greed will not arise and
arisen greed will be abandoned.

What is the cause and reason for
the non-arising of hatred,
the abandoning of arisen hatred?

The liberation of the mind by loving-kindness;
for one who attends properly to the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness,
unarisen hatred will not arise and
arisen hatred will be abandoned.

What is the cause and reason for
the non-arising of unarisen delusion,
the abandoning of arisen delusion?

Proper attention.
For one who applies proper attention,
unarisen delusion will not arise and
arisen delusion will be abandoned.

Titthiya Sutta
Book of Threes, Anguttara Nikaya

Tranquility and Insight; Developing and Freeing

If tranquility is developed, what benefit does it bring?
The mind becomes developed.
And what is the benefit of a developed mind?
All passion is abandoned.

If insight is developed, what benefit does it bring?
Wisdom becomes developed.
And what is the benefit of developed wisdom?
All ignorance is abandoned.

A mind defiled by passion is not freed;
and wisdom defiled by ignorance cannot develop.

Through the fading away of passions
there is liberation of mind;
and through the fading away of ignorance
there is liberation by wisdom.

Vijja-bhagiya Sutta
Book of Twos, Anguttara Nikaya

A prayer with palms together

Let us put our palms together and pray:

As a first step, may we be generous to others.
At the least by making a habit of giving to the needy,
Giving not just goods but also time, energy, and our smiles.
May we win in our struggles to forgive,
And to give the gift of fearlessness,
Over and above to give the gift of Truth.

Next, may we treat others as we would have others treat ourselves:
To treasure their lives and welfare as we treasure our own;
To respect their property and their bodies;
To learn to use our mouths as a source of truth, gentleness, empowerment, and inspiration.

To do so, we must develop a heart of love and kindness,
That has the quality of giving happiness;
Let us develop a heart of compassion,
That has the quality of taking away suffering;
Let us take delight when others are delighted;
Let such a heart stand like a large boulder,
Unmoving in the eight winds
Of pleasure and pain,
Gain and loss,
Praise and blame,
Fame and infamy.

Let us then turn to our minds,
Train it patiently as we would train our children.
Not just to watch it grab, push, and run around,
But also to discover its breathtakingly serene brilliance.

As The Water settles and stills,
May we come to see and reflect things as the way they are,
Contingent upon causes and myriad conditions,
Ever-changing,
And in seeing so become at peace.
May we thus arrive at the other Shore,
The very same Shore as the Teachers past.

May the Teachers guide us,
May our Friends help us,
May all beings and I together,
Achieve the highest and final Awakening.

Self before others

Before anyone else,
Have the most patience for oneself.
For when oneself is enlightened, all sentient beings are enlightened together,
And the road to enlightenment is a loooong one.

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