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[ Dhamma Talk ]

On Eel-Wriggling

H: In the first sutta of the Digna Nikaya, the Brahmajala Sutta, the Buddha describes a type that I think most of us have encountered at one time or another:

Eel-Wrigglers[1]

There are, Beggars, some shaman and Brahmans who are Eel-Wrigglers, who evade answering, wriggling like eels, and this they do in four ways.

What four?

In the case of the first case, Beggars, some shaman or Brahman does not understand what is skillful or what is not skillful as it really is and he thinks: "Since I do not understand either what is skillful or what is not, if I were to state that thus and such is skillful or thus and such is not skillful and I were to be influenced by my wishes or lusts or angers or dislikes I might say something wrong. If I were to say something wrong I would regret it and regret is a hindrance." Thus because he fears blame and has a sense of shame, when he is asked, he neither states that a thing is skillful or unskillful, but equivocates, saying: "I do not say it is thus. I do not say it is so. I do not say it is not so. I do not say it is not. I do not not say it is not."

This is the first case.

In the case of the second case, Beggars, some shaman or Brahman does not understand what is skillful ... "Since I do not understand either what is skillful ... I might say something reflecting attachment. If I were to say something reflecting attachment I would regret it and regret is a hindrance." Thus because he fears attachment, when he is asked, he neither states that a thing is skillful or unskillful, but equivocates ...

This is the second case.

In the case of the third case, Beggars, some shaman or Brahman does not understand what is skillful or what is not skillful as it really is and he thinks: "There are out there wise shaman and Brahman, skillful, trained debaters, able to split hairs, able to tear apart the views of others. Since I do not understand either what is skillful or what is not, if I were to state that thus and such is skillful or thus and such is not skillful and they were to question me on my logic, I might be unable to explain my reasoning. If I were unable to explain my reasoning, I would regret having spoken, and regret is a hindrance." Thus because he fears contention ...

This is the third case.

In the case of the fourth case, Beggars, some shaman or Brahman is simply dull-witted and stupid. Thus because he is dull-witted and stupid when he is asked a question, he evades the issue and equivocates, saying: "If you ask: 'Is there a world hereafter?', if I thought there was, I would say 'There is a world hereafter.' I do not say it is thus. I do not say it is so. I do not say it is not so. I do not say it is not. I do not not say it it is not."

And [all these] respond in the same way to each of the following questions:
Is there no world hereafter?
Is there both a world hereafter and no world hereafter?
Is there neither a world hereafter nor no world hereafter?

Are there beings that are spontaneously reborn without benefit of parents?
Do beings that are spontaneously reborn without benefit of parents not exist?
Do beings that are spontaneously reborn without benefit of parents both exist and not exist?
Do beings that are spontaneously reborn without benefit of parents neither exist nor not exist?

Is there giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad?
Is there no giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad?
Is there both giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad and no giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad?
Is their neither giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad nor no giving, offering, sacrifice, result or consequence from doing good deeds or bad?

Does a Tathagata exist after the death of the body?
Does a Tathagata not exist after the death of the body?
Does a Tathagata both exist and not exist after the death of the body?
Does a Tathagata neither exist nor not exist after the death of the body?

These, Beggars, are the shaman and Brahmans who are are Eel-Wrigglers, who evade answering questions, wriggling like eels in four ways. Whatever shaman or Brahman, Beggars, are Eel-Wrigglers, are such in one of these four ways and no other.

What is the difference between the reasons for this eel wriggling and the so-called 'unanswered questions' of Buddhism? (Namely, does the Tathagata exist after death, not exist after death, neither, or both? Is the universe infinite, finite, neither, or both? Etc...) Despite the statement by the Buddha that he has seen all and known all, why all these unanswerables?

My answer is this: The eel wrigglers are speaking in this manner in order to avoid unpleasurable circumstances. The aversion to pain betrays their continued attachment to the net of views due to ignorance. By creating a duality between sensations that are pleasant for them and those that aren't they create division in a causal based system because they misunderstand the impermanence of all things.

Where I get a little fuzzy is on the question "Is the self permanent, impermanent, nether, or both? If it is a continuous cyclic cycle of rebirth, how is a "soul" to exist throughout. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the pragmatic solution that ones self is impermanent but an aspect of perception is permanent. Is perception permanent, impermanent, neither, or Both?

 


 

First off the Buddha Does not say that he has seen all and known all, and it isn't true that these questions are not answered or are called 'unansurable' (they are called 'unanswered').

With regard to seeing and knowing, The Buddha states that he has the ability to see whatever he wishes to see, whenever he wishes to see it, which is different both from having seen all and from being able to see all things at all times. What he does state is that he has completely understood the satisfaction of the all, the danger of the all, and the way of escape from the all.

Sometimes there were questions that were not answered, this would happen in the case of an individual who would go mad hearing the answer; or sometimes the question would be asked in a really incorrect way: "Tell me about the origin of the world" (which assumes that the world exists (in some form or another) to begin with, and secondly that this is a topic worth discussing) ... such a question would get no answer, or the person would be told not to ask that question, or that that question would not be answered ... this type of question not being answered has reached the ears of non-Buddhists, and there is a huge myth out there that he did not answer certain questions that he did answer ... and, finally ... he actually does discuss the beginning and ending of world cycles.

For the most part the answer given to a properly asked question would be in the response to the question (one needs to pay attention to the words); for example:
"How is it with you, Gotama, is it your belief that the world (substitute anything else here, self, soul, anything you can conceptualize) exists?
And his answer would be:
"No, this is not what I believe." or another way of translating his response is "It is not in this way that I would state this, no."
Which is not not answering the question.

What has thrown people off is that for the most part people talk to hear themselves talk and do not use words strictly to convey information. This is not the case with a Buddha. A Buddha listens to a question, and gives 100% attention to the answer, which means the exact precise answer.

The exact precise answer in the case of all these questions is that he does not believe in any of these views.

Now and again some clever questioner keeps on asking until he has reached the end of his ability to conceive of ways that the world could be conceived of as existing or not existing, and in frustration asks the question that should have been asked in the first place: "Well then, if you do not believe any of these things, what do you believe?" Then the Buddha answers with some form or another of the paticca samuppada. That is what he believes (knows, sees, understands). No eel-wriggling about it.

As to why the eel-wrigglers eel-wriggle, the Buddha actually explains this in the sutta, you really don't need to make it any more complicated than the way it is presented:
Some do it from fear of being wrong,
some do it from stupidity.

Actually, if you read closely you will see that in the case of those who fear being wrong, it is for pretty good reasons. If you have ever made an ass of yourself in public and felt shame, that is what they are afraid of. Face to face with a sorcerer of such power as a Buddha your head would split open. I had a friend who told me of a temple in India today where only the most expert masters of a musical instrument go to play. Someone who plays there who makes a wrong note, dies on the spot. You have heard the expression "I almost died of shame!" That expression comes from a reality. Something like that. In the Buddha's time we read of numerous cases (see The Fire) where individuals who have gone wrong in one way or another face-to-face with the Buddha vomit hot blood and die.

When you say:

"Where I get a little fuzzy is on the question "Is the self permanent, impermanent, nether, or both? If it is a continuous cyclic cycle of rebirth, how is a "soul" to exist throughout. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the pragmatic solution that ones self is impermanent but an aspect of perception is permanent. Is perception permanent, impermanent, neither, or Both?",

you are holding what in this system would be called the view of a permanent self.

It doesn't matter what aspect of being[2] you think of as permanent, whether it is the body, or sense experience, or perception, or the personal world, or consciousness; holding that any one of them, or any combination of them is permanent is holding the belief in a permanent self.

This is exactly what the Buddha is saying is not what he is saying. And, in addition, he is saying that there is no thing outside of these things that is the permanent self. And also, he is not saying that because there is no thing there that is the self, that there is no self.

What he is saying is that because there is blindness to the consequences, there is action in body, speech and mind in ways that project self into future becomings.

The intent: "I am going out to get a piza," acted on, and successful (depending on one's "kamma savings account" a desired outcome may or may not be achieved) will result in a being there thinking "I am eating pizza." Had there been no intent, identification, and action, (the components of sankhara-ing, or what I call "personalization", the creating by one's self of a personal world, there would be no person there thinking "I am eating pizza."

H: Okay, granted those views are not ones upheld by the Buddha, nor any views for that matter, and by not proclaiming those views to be his he has escaped the net of views and thusly attained perfect enlightenment. But, my question still stands. If a being in this world (attached to views and bound to be reborn) was in a former existence a being in some world, and after its death in this world will eventually be reborn into another world, where is the impermanence?.

Is it that this being is impermanent in any one particular existence within the loop of Samsara, or is it that this loop is indefinite but this being at one point will escape through enlightenment, no matter how long it takes.

But this leaves open the issue of Samsara. Is Samsara permanent, impermanent, neither, or both?

I've also heard you state that a being can, after a certain degree of training, become aware of all of ones past lives, and even be able to be relatively aware of what is happening at every transition from one life to the next. How does this fit in? What aspect of the body/mind is cognizant enough to be aware of this event?

I suppose I could jump out and try and answer my own question again just to aid my argument. Perhaps, the creation of classifications of experience is the real problem. By dividing it into the duality of Nibbana vs. Samsara one is merely confusing the issues with a point of view. After all it isn't the getting to Nibbana that is the goal it is the letting go of Samsara, or everything that isn't Nibbana. So, the whole mass of a system is constantly changing within an equilibrium but to the eyes of humans holding onto views it appears to be a constant flow.

 


 

When you point to the rebirth of an individuality in sequential existances and suggest that in this apparent continuity there is permanance, you are identifying as "self" or "soul" the outcome of a process. This cannot be called the permanance of the soul because although the process is kept rolling by the actions of the individual, the outcome is out of his hands: it is built into the definition of self that that which is self or belongs to self must be under the control of self.

When you ask is Samsara permanent, etc., you ask the same question as is being asked when the question is: "Is the World permanant?" etc. The answer is the same. When the conditions on which Samsara depend are present, Samsara comes to be; upon the cessation of those conditions, the cessation of samsara.

But after a shaky start with this question, it looks like you ended up almost on the spot. There is no difference in the reality of the situation before and after an individual attains Nibbana. There never was anything there that could be called a self and there never was any permanant aspect of anything. Nothing "transmigrates".

The best way this is illustrated is with the simile of the flames of a series of matches each lighting the next match (or of a row of upright dominos where one domino at the end being tiped over knocks over the next throughout the row). Continuity is an illusion, much like the illusion created by the rapid flashing of individual frames of film in a moving picture creates the appearance of continuity. The individual in Samsara is simply like the viewer in the audience that has lost contact with the reality and has become completely absorbed into the story.

Now I don't think I have ever said that a properly trained individual could see "all" of his former lives. An individual could see a great number; the number depends on the personal power of the individual; but even the Buddha said that he was unable to recall the absolute beginning of the world.[3] One is able to "remember" (put together the member parts) of previous lives, even through the birth process, but again, not of "every" one; and, again, this depends on the personal power of the individual.

 

§

 

A follow up question that is sometimes asked after an explanation suchas this is: "Who is it that is doing the watching?" This is a question that is dismissed as an "Unfit question," in that it has already been answered by the previous and represents a backsliding in thinking. But I have an image that might help in this regard: it's like a child playing a game of pretend with himself. He will take on all the roles and become completely absorbed in the story he his telling such that each character seems to have a real personality, but really, it's just the child playing with himself. In other words it is just one temporary element of consciousness observing another temporary element of consciousness. This, I contend, is why we have the Pali terms "saññā" (once-knowing) and "viññāṇa" re-knowing-knowing. The creators of these terms were able to see the mechanics of the process.

 


[1]DN 1. Eel-Wrigglers

[2] Khandha

[3] "Out of reach of the mind, beggars, is the start of one's run-around, not known is the beginning point of beings reigned in by blindness, bridled by thirst, rolled-up in this our run'n-round."
SN 2 15 11: Duggatam


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