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Morality and Daily Life

Majjhima Nikaya Culasaccaka Sutta: Sutta 35

I have a problem with the following passage from this sutta:

"14. Now on that occasion a thunderbolt-wielding spirit holding an iron-thunderbolt that burned, blazed, and glowed, appeared in the air about Saccaka the Nigantha's son, thinking: "If this Saccaka the Nigantha's son, when asked a reasonable question up to the third time by the Blessed One, still does not answer, I shall split his head into seven pieces here and now." The Blessed One saw the thunderbolt-wielding spirit and so did Saccaka the Nigantha's son. Then Saccaka the Nigantha's son was frightened, alarmed, and terrified. Seeking his shelter, asylum, and refuge in the Blessed One himself, he said: "Ask me, Master Gotama, I will answer."

I realize this is metaphor, but it's a bullshit metaphor. For something as utterly precise and attentive to every word and phrase as the Pali Canon thus far seems to be by the way in which it's written, bullshit metaphors/the smell of dogma is simply unacceptable. The entire undertone of the argument then takes on that of an argument underpinned by threat. Threat and aggression have no place in these suttas. Metaphorical though it may be, the implication is that, though Gotama's argument may be perfectly sound, he must recourse to a threat in order to give his teaching more weight. Metaphor or not, that is what the student reads, and what the student reads influences the student, no matter how subtle it may be. If Gotama truly believes in the power of his argument by its very own strength, no such mention of a thunderbolt-wielding spirit is needed. The argument will placidly prove itself by its own validity, easily proven.

I write this because doubt troubles me when I come across overtones in the Majjhima Nikaya in quotes such as these. Is my point made?

RE: Majjhima Nikaya Culasaccaka Sutta: Sutta 35
4/14/11 10:35 AM as a reply to Mike Kich.
The way I read it, he wasn't using a threat to give his argument more weight. he was using a threat to make Saccaka answer the question he posed to him in order to further the debate.

Saccaka had a wrong view. Gotama saw where the view was wrong and started asking a series of questions. he asked the question that got to the heart of the dispute - is matter yours so that you can do whatever you want to it with as much authority as a king has over his subjects? Saccaka started seeing he was wrong in his view, but didn't want to admit to it (he remained silent). the threat was to push him over the edge and actually get him to answer the question, at which point the wrong view was extinguished.

no comment on whether that was an 'appropriate' technique

RE: Majjhima Nikaya Culasaccaka Sutta: Sutta 35
4/14/11 1:51 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
One way to look at those spirits and devastating in the Pali suttas (introduced to me by Christopher Titmus) is as inner voices. They're like the angel and demon riding on your shoulder.

Additionally, I think the requirement to answer when a question is asked 3 times was a part of the culture in that time. Even the Buddha respected that (there's a sutta with a rather insistent and impatient samana, I forget the exact story).

With those two things in mind, I read this more as Saccaka feeling anxious because he knows he is disrespecting the Buddha by ignoring the question 3 times and because he knows he's about to lose the debate and hence lose face being a great debater himself. Eventually he just breaks down and admits defeat, so to speak.

The Buddha had a talent for finding the rig way to teach whoever came in front of him. In this case, Saccaka came with wrong view and with the idea that he could shame the Buddha to admit that he was wrong. In return he was taught a powerful lesson in what seems to be the only way he would listen.


RE: Majjhima Nikaya Culasaccaka Sutta: Sutta 35
7/18/11 6:00 PM as a reply to Mike Kich.
This passage is a very interesting one. Strictly speaking you can't call it a metaphor, but you might want to describe it as mythology or legend. The Buddha himself doesn't threaten Saccaka at all. In fact he warns him by pointing out what the consequence would be if he carried on as he is. In fact Saccaka sees "his shelter, asylum, and refuge in the Blessed One himself". The threat in this story comes from the "thunderbolt-wielding spirit".

In the original Pali the description of the appearance of the spirit is as follows...
Tena kho pana samayena vajirapāṇi yakkho āyasaṃ vajiraṃ ādāya ādittaṃ sampajjalitaṃ sajotibhūtaṃ saccakassa nigaṇṭhaputtassa uparivehāsaṃ ṭhito hoti – ‘sacāyaṃ saccako nigaṇṭhaputto bhagavatā yāvatatiyaṃ sahadhammikaṃ pañhaṃ puṭṭho na byākarissati etthevassa sattadhā muddhaṃ phālessāmī’ti. Taṃ kho pana vajirapāṇiṃ yakkhaṃ bhagavā ceva passati saccako ca nigaṇṭhaputto. Atha kho saccako nigaṇṭhaputto bhīto saṃviggo lomahaṭṭhajāto bhagavantaṃyeva tāṇaṃ gavesī bhagavantaṃyeva leṇaṃ gavesī bhagavantaṃyeva saraṇaṃ gavesī bhagavantaṃ etadavoca – ‘‘pucchatu maṃ bhavaṃ gotamo, byākarissāmī’’ti.

vajirapāṇi yakkho is translated as "thunderbolt-wielding spirit". In later Buddhism Vajrapani (the sanscrit equivalent to vajirapāṇi "thunderbolt in hand") is the name of one of the "Three Protectors" who represent the three principal aspects of Enlightenment - Wisdom, Compassion & Energy. Vajrapani is the energy of Enlightenment. (In Pali Buddhism these kinds of figures were not known. In that context the vajirapāṇi yakkho would have perhaps been seen more as an agent of Saccaka's karma. Something he brought upon himself).

I've tried to post a picture of Vajrapani here, but if it doesn't pop up google will give you one. Not a pretty sight. A demonic figure.

So what does all this mean? To understand mythological figures we need to look down deeply into our experience. What would it be like to enter into debate with the Buddha as Saccaka did - armed with some half-baked ideas & some youthful arrogance? Probably rather terrifying. An inflated ego meets no-ego. Uncomfortable. You might well feel that you are about to be split into pieces. The Buddha has no violence in him, but he reflects Saccaka so strongly back to himself that the energy feels violent from Saccaka's side.

Whatever Saccaka's faults, he isn't stupid. He can see he has cocked up badly & it is all his own fault. Even though he is in a humiliating situation, he recognises the Buddha's fundamental lack of malice. So much so that he sees the Buddha is the only "shelter, asylum, and refuge".

RE: Majjhima Nikaya Culasaccaka Sutta: Sutta 35
7/19/11 6:44 PM as a reply to v n.
Thank you for all of your explanations; I agree with all of them partly. V_n's especially is well-thought out and phrased. I realize why Gautama does what he does, as in what his intention towards Saccaka is, and I accept that ultimately Gautama's intention is good, of course. I'm not an end-justifies-the-means person though, and that's the part that gets me. It could very well be just a facet of the translation, after all there's only so much you can do on that front, but anyone who resorts to rhetorical techniques like that sounds rather like a crusading christian fire-and-brimstone missionary.

No, the Buddha isn't directly threatening him of course, but he doesn't need to. It's as if someone were to say, "well I'm not smashing your knees with this baseball bat if you don't pay up, but...I can't guarantee what my associate here may or may not do." Instead of resorting to that sort of imagery, the text should instead simply pose the question to Saccaka, "so why's it so important for you to be right here?" That'd do just fine. Saccaka doesn't have to admit anything, and he certainly doesn't have to be verbally bullied into it. If his youthful arrogance does him more harm than good, well whoopdie-doo. He certainly wouldn't be the first or last person to be youthful and arrogant, and absolutely everybody cocks up. Who knows, maybe later Saccaka would think back and go, "know what, I was a real dick to that nice Gautama, and my argument doesn't make too much sense in the final analysis. Why can't I admit I'm wrong? Why can't I be more like he is, and end debates in a pretty low-key manner instead of resorting to imagery of divine wrath and punishment in order to semi-coerce the individual I'm debating into conceding the point?" Then while resting peacefully in his abode the Buddha could suddenly wink to whoever was around him, saying, "see what I did there?"

Do I think the actual Gautama said these things literally? Meh, who knows. Probably not exactly, and I have a feeling he was way too chill to really put things that way. That I don't care about. I don't care about if it's literally what happened or not.

What I'm more argumentative about is the way that the people who've carried on his teachings choose to frame statements/debates of his, because the nuances of how you phrase a statement are very important. I care about the way it's presented.

This has been my rant, and it's been enjoyable. emoticon