Monday, February 10, 2014

Five of one, half a dozen of the other

Most of today's class was about Schopenhauer, but we started with one last point about Buddhism and Walpola Rahula. The revised edition of What the Buddha Taught (1974) includes many of the suttas from which he quotes in the main text. Included is the "Advice to Sigala" (No. 31 of the Digha-nikaya), the main prooftext for showing "with what great respect the layman's life, his family and social relations are regarded by the Buddha" (78). Here the young son off a householder is told that worshipping the six directions is meaningless, unless he understand the directions as his parents; teachers; wife and children; friends, relatives, neighbors; servants, workers, emplotees; and finally religious men.

The Buddha then explains to Sigala what the right form of each of these relations consists in, always listing five things the junior party should do for the senior, and five things done by the senior for the junior. It's a beautiful image of a society sustained by clearly defined reciprocal relationships of love. Until, that is, we come to the sixth "direction."
Six ways! The steady state get a wobble here - a wobble meant (I think, though it's the opposite of Walpola Rahula's point) to destabilize the whole social world. It's not just that care of religious men turns out to be the best investment of the layperson's time as it pays back more than it costs. The stand-out sixth - given further resonance by the fact that this network of paired fives describes not five but six directions - is "reveal[ing] to them the way to heaven" (124). (As it happens, "friends" - not among the six relationships - can apparently show the way to heaven, too, 122.)

What to make of this? Where our Monday discussion read What the Buddha Taught against the grain at the author's own direction, this time we were reading against his grain. (He really plays down the separation between monastic sangha and society.) It is true that Buddhist societies are more pro-family and pro-civil society than a world-renouncing image of monastics (like the one British administrators brought to the colony of Ceylon) would suggest. And it seems that most people in contemporary Theravada societies, whether lay or "religious," are working toward propitious rebirth rather an end to rebirth in this life. Yet this isn't because of what the Buddha taught, but because it's been such a very long time since he taught it. In this age of the Decline of the Law the Dhamma is all but inaudible even to the most dedicated, so the best thing is to work toward rebirth in human form when Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, comes and teaches it again.

As a Buddhist modern, Walpola Rahula doesn't tell us about the Decline of the Law. What the Buddha taught, being verifiable, scientific truth (not religion, remember!), is accessible to any human being who commits himself to it. Getting out of here isn't really the goal, is it? That's for Pessimists like Schopenhauer, not Buddhists!

Our song of the day (I've been gathering pop-cultural references to things Buddhist - our second class was called "Getting to know you") was George and Ira Gershwin's "Isn't it a Pity," sung by Ella Fitzgerald. I chose it to gesture at the joy with which Europe's "Oriental Renaissance" rediscovered its apparently Indic roots - and because our philosopher is named in it! But it takes you to a this-worldly steady-state Buddhism like the one Walpola Rahula recommends, too.

My nights were sour
Spent with Schopenhauer
Let's forget the past
Let's both agree
That I'm for you
And you're for me
Isn't it a pity
We never never met before...

My journey's ended
Everything is splendid
Meeting you today
Has given me a wonderful idea 
Here I stay!

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