[ Dhamma Talk ]
The Closed Fist
'I have preached the truth without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine: for in respect of the truths, Ānanda, the Tathāgata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher, who keeps some things back.
— Buddhist Suttas: Book of the Great Decease
This is the sort of thing that the commentaries are good for! That is, description of the meaning of terms and expressions, customs, etc. as generally understood at the time, or as understood to have been understood at the time of the Buddha. In The Buddha's Last Days, we read an explanation of the statement that the Buddha made about his teaching where he says (as is usually translated) that he does not teach distinguishing between the esoteric and exoteric or with the closed fist of the guru. This is commonly interpreted to mean that the Buddha did not teach using hidden meanings. I have always fought this interpretation in that it is clear to me that there are hidden meanings all over in this teaching.
The explanation of the terms translated esoteric and exoteric is as follows: [The idea of Esoteric and Exoteric can be applied to either doctrines or individuals] In terms of doctrines: "If one thinks: 'I will not teach such-and-such a doctrine to others', that is called making a doctrine internal, esoteric. If one thinks: 'I will teach such-and-such a doctrine to others', that is called "making doctrine exoteric'; in terms of individuals: "If one thinks: 'I will teach this individual", that is called making a individual an insider (esoteric). If one thinks, 'I will not teach this individual', that is called making an individual an outsider, (exoteric)."
It seems to me that one of the major arguments of those who justify Abhidhamma study is saying that the Buddha did just this: teaching certain of those of his time according to one method because of their superior "accumulations", making them insiders, and leaving the rest of us to study the Abhidhamma, because of our lesser accumulations.
The explanation of the idea of the closed fist is most revealing: "... in the outside world there is something called the closed fist of a teacher: while they (gurus) are young they do not tell anybody, but when they are on their deathbed, in their last moments, they speak to a favorite disciple." In other words, nothing to do with teachings with hidden meanings, but only of holding back teachings altogether. And, given the circumstances (speaking to Ānanda at the close of his career) we should be reading this as a specific statement to Ānanda (if for all to hear) that there was no untaught body of doctrine that was passed only from teacher to favorite disciple ... something that might have been assumed if this statement had not been made.
This all, in its turn, must be contrasted with the idea that the doctrine is "difficult", "subtle," and "deep," all of which is a true characterization of this teaching. The hearer is, I suggest, first required to understand the statements being made at their face value, usually as straight-up answers to questions. This often requires extensive and deep understanding of the system, but is only the surface meaning. After that, in parallel with, and often illustrating the subject in very exotic (and also often in very humorous, down to earth, eye-to-eye) ways, comes the "hidden" meaning.
There are "insiders" and "outsiders" in relation to this Dhamma, but it has nothing to do with the Dhamma as taught, everything to do with the ability/inability of the listener to "hear" "Sota" ... as I say, the "patter" "Pati" "Patois" "Parla" "Habla" "Spracha" "Talka" "BlaBlaBlaKkha" of "Pat" (Pa, Fa, Da, Patter; that is, for those who would be the Sons of the Sakyan!).
 Elsewhere I suggest the meaning isn't "hidden" but simply too subtle for the observation of most; that is the meaning I intend here by use of the term "hidden." Some of these are highly sexual in nature, bordering on the raunchy, and I suspect that this is one reason that the idea of hidden meaning is denied. I give, for an example, the simile for the rarity of human life, where the two symbols are a blind sea turtle and a yoke with one hole. See: DhammaTalk: Entering the Second Burning.
The whole of the Satipaṭṭhana, I contend, is intended to be an exercise in the experience of penetrating knowledge and release: i.e., the bringing about of satisfaction (mental, of course). Some may object that this is out of sync with this doctrine which makes such a major point of non-desire. This is to miss the distinction between the explicitly sexual and indulgence in sensual thought. Where the explicitly sexual is used in the suttas it is used in an almost mocking manner, clearly from the point of view of one above it all. To one above it all something like the mad-panicky way people indulge in sex and then scramble to hide from it is just more material for illustrating the truth.
PTS: The Buddha's Last Days: Buddhaghosa's Commentary on the Mahā-Pari-Nibbāna Sutta, Translated by Yang-Byu An, pp75