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 [Dhamma Talk]


Careless Reading and Empirical Evidence

An old post on Bhk. Sujato's blog has come to life with a recent comment by a person calling themselves 'Gambhira'.

The original post cites AN.5.229-230: The Black Snake, a sutta which likens women to the disagreeable qualities of the black snake.

Bhk. Sujato asks for 'empirical evidence' that this sutta is true. The discussion following provides such empirical evidence but this is ignored and the dialog is shifted to the discussion as to whether or not Gotama would have uttered this sutta.

There are several issues raised by this discussion which can be put to good use by readers here:

There are certain problems with looking for empirical evidence to support statements made in the suttas.

There is a limit to the usefulness of empirical evidence when it comes to a belief system which is based on the idea that the world is created by the individual for the individual through the imagination; by individuals for individuals through their intentional acts (that is, their imaginations).

In a system where there is no way to 'prove' that there is anything outside of one's personal world that has any existence at all (and that is the system in which we are imprisoned, that is, by the definition of existence as experience through the senses), empirical evidence falls down on it's basis in personal opinion drawn from evidence created by the individual forming the opinion.

There are a few cases where the problem of 'empirical evidence' is clear in the suttas, one of the most 'clearly unacceptable' according to modern science is the statement in AN 4 070: In the Days of Unrighteous Kings that:

In the days of unrighteous kings, beggars,
the ministers of kings also are unrighteous,

the ministers of kings being unrighteous,
spiritual leaders and powerful individuals also are unrighteous,

spiritual leaders and powerful individuals being unrighteous,
the people of the country also are unrighteous,

"the people of the country being unrighteous,
the moon and sun deviate from their courses

the moon and sun deviating from their courses,
the night sky and sparkling stars deviate from their courses,

the night sky and sparkling stars deviating from their courses,
night and day deviate from their courses,

night and day deviating from their courses,
the moon's phases deviate from their courses

the moon's phases deviating from their courses
the seasonal cycles deviate from their courses

the seasonal cycles deviating from their courses,
the winds deviate from their usual order in their weaving to and fro

the winds deviating from their usual order in their weaving to and fro,
the gods become agitated

the gods becoming agitated
the rain-god is insufficiently generous

The rain-god being insufficiently generous
the corn ripens abnormally."

And yet, here we are, in this visible world, corrupt from the king on down, with a world that has tilted off it's normal axis[1], subject to the alteration of the courses of the moon and sun ... with the rain-god insufficiently generous such that the corn ripens abnormally.

The modern scientist will claim that there is no empirical evidence for the relationship between the corruption of individuals and the abnormalities in physical phenomena. But that is not what is being claimed in this sutta. What is being said is that when this is, that is. It is not being said that when this is, this causes that.

If this world, for the individual, is created in the subjective imagination, and there is no way to prove that it is not, there is no reason at all to believe that modern science has any validity whatsoever. The very roundness of the earth is subject to question.

Additionally, the reader of the suttas should remember that the Dhamma is stated in terms that apply to all time and this world is known to have existed already for billions of years and seers tell us that it is a phenomena that evolves and devolves and has done so from time beyond knowing and will continue to do so forever and ever. In other words, it is preposterous for the scientist to be stating that his miniscule body of evidence is any sort of reliable sample.

There is, therefore, a problem with questioning Dhamma based on the available empirical evidence.

Turning this right around, studies cited in this very dia-blog cite empirical evidence that the satements are true: studies cited implicate a large majority of women do engage in these activities.[3] But Bhk. Sujato does not concede the point, but changes the issue to what he hears being said in the sutta, not by what is being said in the sutta.

First he asks for empirical evidence for justification for what appears to be his pre-conceived judgment that this is not a True Sutta, and then he switches to an appeal for an argument that would be considered fair and ballanced with reference to a goal that is not the goal of the Dhamma.

One of his readers points out the proper way of hearing the sutta:


... the sutta could easily apply to men also. Simply because it states women in this particular sutta in no way implies that men are any more virtuous by default.

Here is how Bhk. Sujato responds to that:

"Obviously. The point is, it doesn't. That is what discrimination means. If I say, "Black people mostly lie, steal, and commit adultery", am I correct? Quite likely: most people in their lives probably do these things at least once. But it is in phrasing the statement as if it was specially a quality of black people that is discriminatory."

This is not a sutta which speaks to the issue of comparing the attributes of women and men. It was addressed to men about the dangers of women to them relative to their goal as seekers of freedom in this Dhamma.

These statements of Bhk. Sujato are examples of the root issue that is careless reading of the suttas and it is an important lesson to examine how this works.

In answer, Bhk. Sujato responds to the idea that the sutta could apply to men as well as to women with the statement that it obviously could but doesn't and is therefore discriminative (meaning prejudicial).

This is imposing a requirement on speach that is not justified: that is that it should go beyond the bounds of the situation in which it occurs.

Throughout the suttas this sort of statement and response — think of the way a good witness on the stand answers when he answers properly: a direct answer to the question asked, without elaboration or answering questions that were not asked — is the norm.[4]

Here one of the clearest examples of this (which is also cited in the blog under discussion) is the opening set of suttas in the Anguttara Nikaya, The Book of the Ones:

Beggars! I see no other single form
by which a man's heart is more overpowered
than it is by that of a woman.

A woman's form, beggars,
overpowers a man's heart.

This is even more emphatically translated by Woodward:

'Monks, I know of no other single form
by which a man's heart is so enslaved
as it is by that of a woman.

But this is immediately followed by another statement:

Beggars! I see no other single sound
by which a man's heart is more overpowered
than it is by that of a woman.

The sound of a woman, beggars,
overpowers a man's heart.

This is then followed by the rounding out of the sequence according to the same pattern in terms of the rest of the senses, and then is followed by:

'Monks, I know of no other single form
by which a woman's heart is so enslaved
as it is by that of a man.

And the rest of the sequence.

Applied here the logic Bhk. Sujato is using would say that each of these 12 statements was not Dhamma because each of them were discriminitive statements. What we can see here is the intent — This is a thing to think about. This is another thing to think about. And so on.

The idea is that a statement is made and must be taken on it's own merits. Is it, in and of itself true or not? The fact that there is no other single thing which more overpowers, or so overpowers does not mean that there is no other thing that overpowers to the same extent.

This 'law-court' sort of speech is in evidence throughout the suttas — the method of speaking at the time was much more careful and precise than is our's today where all sorts of assumptions are made about what a person is saying. For example, the opening statements common to many suttas:

He approached the Buddha.
Having approached, he drew near.
Having drawn near, he saluted and exchanged greetings.
Having saluted and exchanged greetings, he took a seat to one side.
Having taken a seat to one side, he said this to Bhagava.

Today we should appreciate this as it is very similar to the precision needed in writing a script or algorithm.



Then Bhk. Sujato makes the statement that the statement that the statement "women for the most part ..." which he admits could be as easily applied to men as to women, is not made to apply to men in this case and further that this 'omission' constitutes the definition of discrimination, and further that because of that this could not have been said by the Buddha and because of that it is not a real sutta.

Well, first, discrimination is in fact a positive attribute to be cultivated by the individual and so, in a manner of speaking, using Bhk. Sujato's own manner of reading carelessly, we see that intending to refute the statement and prove that the sutta could not have been uttered by the Buddha, he has shown how the sutta was carefully crafted for the discriminating mind and therefore completely acceptable as True Dhamma.

But the fact is that as shown above, making a statement such as the very one given by him about blacks should be taken on it's own merits and it is an error to place on it the burden of counteracting the misunderstandings, assumptions, and impositions of the careless, undiscriminative reader.

Bhk. Sujato states that his statement about blacks is likely true. That is all the burden that this statement should be made to carry, and the same applies to the sutta under discussion. It is an assumption to think that the statement or the sutta will be misunderstood. It is not the burden of a discriminative speaker or witness to the truth to make assumptions about what the blind will think.[5]



The real issue here is what is it that is meant when the Buddha speaks of testing the Dhamma.

In thinking of this it would be well to keep in mind two other statements that bear on deciding if a statement in the suttas is to be relied on:

It was once said (and I apologize for not having a citation at this time) by Sariputta (I believe) that 'Whatever is well-said was said by The Buddha. This should not be heard by us as saying: 'Whatever was/is well said was said by Gotama.' It should be heard by us as: 'Whatever was/will be/is well-said was said by the Awakened Mind.'

The other is a statement made several times in various places here: 'In the same way as the sea always and throughout tastes of salt, in the same way the Dhamma always and throughout tastes of freedom.'

Testing the truth in the Dhamma should therefore be approached not through finding external evidence for it's support, but should be first of all taken as hypothetically true and then, acting on it, seeing if the result is freedom. The former is approaching the Dhamma entirely intellectually, the latter is testing the Dhamma experientially. The aspect of the Dhamma which should be understood intellectually is it's precise wording and the relationship of terms to each other. The intellect is inadequate to the task of judging the truth of a thing because it is entirely logically based and will come to the conclusion that a thing is wrong or right according to the premises on which it's logic is based. If the basis for the logic, it's first premise, is wrong — and it will always be wrong with a beginner to this sytem — then the conclusions will be wrong and should not be relied on.

In the case of the case here, for example, any person, male or female, regarding females, taking this sutta as advice, will stear clear of attachment to females. Stearing clear they will be free of the problems resulting from females. This freedom is freedom. In freedom, seeing freedom, one will know of this sutta that it is well-said, the word of The Buddha, tastes of freedom, and has met the test for True Dhamma.



Finally there is one additional issue here that comes up when the discussion comes up as to whether or not a teaching in the suttas is true or not. That is, what is one to do about the situation where one has doubt?

It is the common belief as evidenced by the statements made by critiques of the Suttas such as Bhk. Sujato, that the sutta found to be unacceptable is to be rejected.

This is the action to be taken by one who has mastered the system beyond any question who is dealing with deliberate corruption[6]. For the beginner, this is not the way to handle this.

What should be done is that the doubtful issue should be put to the side.

The issue is not to be decided upon in a final way, but is to be temporarily ignored. Go on to other issues. It is an aspect of learning that one begins in ignorance. This is, these days, not seen to be the case and the beginner in any study today starts out by writing the textbook on the subject.[7]

Put the issue to the side! Later, in this Dhamma, you are more than likely to see the whole world in a completely different way more than one time as you progress. I'm talking about 180ḥ turns! Issues are understood from another perspective and teachings, where previously they were unacceptable, become brilliant instructions. This is called having an open mind. Something we need to have to move from the dark into the light.


Link no longer available, was: [1]

[3] First off, studies indicate that from 70-90% of 'people' lie. See: So there is no reliable way to determine the particulars concerning percentage of women who cheat, backbite, etc. Then, most of the studies done do not concern themselves with the question of 'do women cheat', but 'do women cheat (etc) more than men'. Figuring the statistics for the individuals to be 75% lies on either side of the issue, the empirical evidence indicates that women, for the most part, do...

[4] What is the importance of answering questions in this way? Digression, to even the slightest degree, represents 'wanting' on the part of the speaker. Wanting to add scope, wanting to protect himself and so forth. This is contradictory to the over-all goal of the system. It is not something that would even occur to an Awakened individual to do.

[5] In the occasional instance where there is consideration of what some person may think about a statement or event, that is addressed directly: "It may be that some person here will think ..." This courtroom style of speach leads to clear thinking and stimulates thinking and is consciously being used in that way throughout the suttas. It is for this reason that one should resist the impulse to argue with a statement being made in the suttas. That argument going on in your head in such cases is more times than not the precise place where one's blindness to things as they really are is to be found.

[6] What we can safely say at this point is that you can take the instructions as found in the Suttas (The Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara and Samyutta Nikayas) as being Dhamma without internal conflict. If you come across what you believe is an internal conflict in the Suttas, you should reserve judgement, put the issue to one side, until such time as you can see the basis in yourself for knowing for yourself. Until that time assume the error is in your understanding or possibly in the translation if you are reading a translation.

[7] Attempting to put into writing, especially in the form of an explanation to another, is, in fact, an excellent way to learn Dhamma. Even beginners should not hesitate to practice by way of teaching one another. The problem comes in when these writings or teachings are put in the context of authoritative statements. The writings should be put to the side and reviewed after a period of long pondering. Practice by way of teaching one another should always be put in terms of mutual effort to understand. But today we have volume after volume of work being published by those who make claims to authoritative understanding where what we can see from their actual teachings is that they have not yet begun.

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