In the teaching on Ashvaghosa I said that Buddha taught effacement and Ashvaghosa practised it. I have since been asked to say more on the matter of effacement.
The Salekha Sutta
The eighth sutra in the Majjhima Nikaya is called the Salekha Sutta, which means the sutra on Effacement.
The sutra is basically in four parts which seem mildly in contradiction of one another, so it is possible that a degree of irony is intended. I am inclined to think that the Buddha was rather a master of irony, but it was sometimes lost on his more pious followers. However, it is evident that the sutra is about good character.
The scene is a conversation between the Buddha and an enquirer called Cunda. Cunda wants to talk about doctrines about the self and the world and he asks if those who are beginners can possibly understand these teachings. It is a reasonable surmise that by beginners, Cunda means those who have not attained high proficiency in meditation.
A Modern Question
Cunda, therefore, is not unlike many modern people who come to Buddhism. He is primarily interested in meditation and in abstruse doctrines and thinks that the height of attainment is to be proficient in meditation and to understand the nature of the self or the non-self doctrine and the nature of the world or reality. Many contemporary books on Buddhism are preoccupied with these topics. The implication of Cunda’s question is that those who do not do so cannot understand the important matter.
This is Not Me
The Buddha’s reply is to say that in order to have the right view of the world or of the self one needs to see what one is talking about in a certain way. What is that way? It is: This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself. The Buddha says that is a person sees things in this way then they understand all that they need to (whether they are a beginner or not). “This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself” constitutes effacement.
Dhyana is Peace & Pleasure Here and Now
The Buddha then rubs the point in by going through a description of all of the degrees of dhyana (meditation), starting from the first dhyana:
“It is possible that, secluded from sensual distraction and unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters into and abides in the first dhynana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, rapture and pleasure, born of seclusion. He might think ‘I am abiding in effacement’ but this is not what is called effacement in the discipline of noble ones; this is called, rather, a pleasant abiding here and now.”
The Buddha then goes on to the second dhyana in similar fashion. then the third. If this is the first time that you have read the sutra, you probably tend to assume that effacement is going to be the final and highest dhyana. However, when the Buddha gets to the eighth and highest dhyana he says, “but this is not what is called effacement in the discipline of noble ones; this is called, rather, a peaceful abiding.” He calls the first four dhyanas pleasant and the second four peaceful, but neither set, not even the highest, constitutes effacement.
Good Character & Patience
So what is effacement? The Buddha goes on to list 44 items. Now it is quite possible, likely even, that the list has grown with the telling, so as to include as many items of Buddhist teaching as possible, or maybe the Buddha really did repeat 44 items three times as recorded in the sutra, but we can readily grasp the message from a small sample.
“Now, Cunda, here effacement should be practised by you. Though others be cruel, we shall not be cruel. Effacement should be practised like this. Though others kill, we shall not go killing. Effacement should be practised like this. Though other take what is not given, we shall not bejave like that. effacement should be practised like this… though other be envious… avaricious… fraudulent…deceitful… though others adhere tenaciously to their own opinions, we shall not behave like that. Effacement should be practised thus.”
The Buddha says that by practising effacement, one rescues oneself from all unwholesome states and only one who does so can rescue others.
He then concludes by saying that he has thus taught effacement and thereby done his duty as a teacher and ends by telling Cunda that he can now go and meditate.
Actions Reveal Attitude
There appear to be a number of subtleties and ironies in the sutra.
1. Buddha demonstrates his consummate understanding of meditation practise yet says that that is not where it’s at. Yet, nonetheless, at the end, sends Cunda away to meditate.
2. The Buddha does not affirm Cunda’s implication that only those who have reached an advanced state can understand. He reiterates the teaching that he gave in his second sermon to the five ascetics. This implies that Buddhism is simple in concept.
3. Buddha defines effacement in terms of noble behaviour and attitude, thus subtly undermining Cunda’s belief that what matters is a clear understanding of doctrine.
So the Buddha is saying that actions speak louder than words, but also that underlying doctrine there is perspective and perspective is a matter of how we regard things, especially how we regard the things that come and go. How we regard things shows in behaviour. In terms of Buddhist theory this means not identifying with the skandhas. This, therefore, is a teaching on non-self but in an entirely practical, non-doctrinal form. Buddha is interested in people living the holy life. Theory is there to support that, not to substitute for it.
Not Taking Credit Builds Long Term Benefit
So what is effacement? Effacement is a combination of noble action and refusal to take the credit. When Buddha says that meditation is a pleasant abiding here and now he is saying something similar to the words of Jesus when he says, “They have their reward already.” We generally translate dhyana as meditation, but this probably gives a too intellectual turn to what Buddha is saying. What he is talking about might be better rendered by the word rapture. The holy life yields all kinds of immediate benefits as well as longer term ones. Modern taste takes this as suggesting that one should grasp the immediate and ignore the other, but the Buddha’s meaning is almost certainly the converse. Rapture brings an immediate satisfaction that is equally immediately exhausted whereas effacement brings long term benefit to self and other.
Of course, this is an over-statement because meditative disciplines can help in the process of training oneself in effacement, but there is a contrast intended in the sutra.
The Buddha is describing noble behaviour. A noble person is one who does his duty and then retires. It is what is expressed when somebody says, “It was nothing. Don’t think of it.” The true bodhisattva is often not conscious that he or she has done anything good. They just do what needs doing. Afterwards, if somebody comments, they are likely to say something like, What? No, anybody would have done the same.” This might not be literally true, but the noble person has a good opinion of everybody, so it is sincere and genuine for them.
Clashing with Contemporary Values
In the contemporary world, values of this kind have been in retreat. We are nowadays expected to advertise ourselves to a much greater degree than used to be considered proper. A value system of helping oneself and speaking for oneself has grown up. I remember that when I was younger gestalt psychology was much in vogue and it preached an extreme form of self-responsibility. The slogan was that nobody could make one feel anything - one was to be completely responsible for one’s own feelings. However, Buddha says to regard one’s feelings with the attitude, “This is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself.” The gestalt idea was intended to counter-act the tendency to blame others. So far so good. Buddha is not advocating blaming others, nor denying the facticity of feelings, but he is advising us to acknowledge that many of these things are out of our control, but though they are that does not mean that one cannot still act in a noble way. A popular speaker, Susan Jeffers, used to be known for the saying, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This is closer to the Buddha’s prescription. Effacement means to do what is good, generous and noble no matter what feelings one might have.
Effacement is also a matter of equanimity. It is about the patience to not be swept away by short term considerations, nor by concern for one's own fame and gain. This is the real meaning of non-self in practice.
I think we see clearly in this sutra what the Buddha is aiming for, and, while not easy, it is not something that is out of the reach of ordinary people.