The First Sutra
The Majjhima Nikaya is an important collection of |Buddha’s teachings. The very first sutta in that collection is, therefore, of some special importance. However one rarely hears it mentioned. This may be in part because it is highly repetitive and because the point it makes is a very simple one. However, both these facts tell us that this point was fundamental. Buddha wants to push the point home because everything else depends upon it.
The sutra is called Mulapariyaya. Mula refers to something being basic or fundamental and pariyaya means going on and on, repetition. You can almost hear it in the word - ya-ya-ya. This is the sutra that exposes our basic ya-ya-ya, and it is at the beginning because it is the root of all the rest.
I notice that in the Ñanamoli & Bodhi translation, which is the most commonly used one now in English, it says in the introductory summary that this sutra is too difficult for a beginner to understand and, therefore, to not pay too much attention initially but come back to it later. I think this is not correct. You can make it complicated if you want to, but doing so avoids the main argument.
A Cup of Tea
The basic purpose of the sutra is to make clear the difference between an enlightened person and a worldling. This, after all, is what Buddha's teaching was about. The Buddha tells us that the enlightened person and the worldling may both experience the elements, earth, air, fire and water as what they are. This now sounds esoteric, but what he is saying is that both experience life in the material world. A cup is a cup (earth). The tea in it is tea (water). The steam above it is steam (air). The cup is hot (fire) to both of them. The elements are just all in a cup of tea. Enlightenment does not mean that one no longer can enjoy a cup of tea, nor does it mean that one sees the tea in a specially different way. Buddha says that both “see earth as earth as it is.”
Enlightenment does not mean that
one no longer can enjoy a cup of tea
Now, this is a first very simple point. I don’t know how many times I have read in spiritual books or heard in talks by spiritual people, that the enlightened person sees things as they are whereas the worldling does not. Not so, says the Buddha. Both see the same earth and see it as it is.
The Main Point: Self
What then is the difference? The difference is that the worldling then goes on to think, “I like tea, this tea is mine, I am a tea drinker” or he or she goes on to think, “Tea is not to my taste,” or “Where is my tea?” or “I’m not a tea drinker,” or things of this kind and when he thinks these kinds of things they are of importance to him or her. They are important because to the worldling the self is more important than the tea.
Both experience earth as earth, tea as tea and so on, but to the worldling what matters is his own relationship to it and what it says about himself, whereas, for the enlightened person, these thoughts do not occur, or if something like them occurs it is in a purely objective sense. In other words he is able to investigate the taste of tea without becoming self-invested in the matter.
This is the basic teaching of non-self. It is not that non-self is a mental state. Non-self means other. The enlightened person is focussed on the other, whether the other is a person, a cup of tea, the earth element, whatever.
Not a Technique
It is true, of course, that the enlightened person does, therefore, often have a fuller experience of things than the worldling who is so lost in fantasies about him or herself that much of life passes in a blur. By extension, if you get the worldling to do attentional exercises and really focus upon the cup of tea, then he will get a momentary sample of how an enlightened person experiences a cup of tea.
the ability to taste tea in the here
and now is not enlightenment
However, the ability to taste tea in the here and now is not enlightenment - anybody can do it. This will not make him an awakened sage. Why not? Because he will then start to think things like “I’m quite good at this mindfulness business,” or “I’m not the kind of person who can do these exercises,” or “Doing this exercise was my idea in the first place,” or “I’ve now got mindfulness in my repertoire so I’ll now be a happier and more effective person,” or other things like that, which are all self-infested, whereas the enlightened person will not get drawn into such thoughts.
Worldly People talk to God too
In the sutra, the Buddha goes further. Not only does the worlding experience the cup of tea as a cup of tea, she might also experience God as God or all the gods as gods, or see angels as angels or heaven as heaven and so on. So it is not that the enlightened person necessarily sees higher things that the worldling does not see. It is not that the enlightened person has interviews with God whereas the worldling does not.
What is the difference, then? The difference is that the enlightened person does not then go on to think, “I’m the kind of person who talks with gods.” They don’t contrive to drop into the conversation, as if it were nothing, “Well, as God told me,…” He does not think, “I must be a rather special person that God speaks to me.” When the god Brahma Sahampati told Shakyamuni to go forth for the good of the many, for the salvation of gods and humans, he did not think “That must mean I’m a special kind of guy,” he just thought, “Yes, you’re right, OK, Here goes.”
If you are a signed up modern Buddhist you might not appreciate this bit about gods, of course, but in the sutra Buddha then goes on to list all the higher dhyanas in similar fashion. The worldling may experience the fifth dhyana and know it for what it is, may experience the sixth dhyana, even the seventh dhyana. A deluded person may experience the eighth and final dhyana, know it for what it is, and still be completely deluded.
A deluded person may experience the eighth and final dhyana,
know it for what it is, and still be completely deluded
Again, we can ask, how many spiritual books tell us that the difference between the truly sp[iritual person and the non-spiritual one is that the spiritual one experiences these higher states and the worldly one doesn’t? Not so, says the Buddha. All these dhyana states are available to the worldling and, furthermore, the worldling sees them for what they are as they really are. It says so in the sutra in so many words. Ñanamoli & Bodhi translate these higher dhyanas as “infinite space," "infinite consciousness," and "neither perception nor non-perception” - the lot. You can experience all eight dhyanas and still be a complete worldling.
So what is the real difference? The real difference is that the enlightened person does not go on to think “These dhyanas are mine, now,” does not just let it slip out, “Well, when I was in the seventh dhyana, you know,…” He does not become self-invested and the dhyanas do not become self-infested. She may think “So what is this dhyana? Why? How? What now?” but she is not caught in it in terms of sensual gratification, conceit or opinionatedness.
These three are the main dimensions of ego from the Buddhist point of view: 1. sensual indulgence or preciousness in the derogatory sense of the term, 2. conceit, which may be positive or negative, i.e. I am better or I am worse, and includes all the range of exaggerated self-identities, pride and embarrassment that we so easily fall into and 3. opinionatedness which is undue attachment to fixed views. These three are our ya-ya-ya.
So, enlightenment is characterised by non-ego, not by the attainment of higher states, participating in religious or worldly experiences of a particular quality, being able to be in the here and now, knowing the elements each as it is, or anything of the kind. It is to not invest self in everything we touch. Self is the vermin of the mind and our mind vermin get out and infect the world.
We can imagine that Buddha had to deal with a lot of people who came to him telling him about their spiritual attainments, or all the divine visions and firework shows they had witnessed, the practices they had mastered, or rehearsing to him their strongly held beliefs or opinions about this, that or the other. He did not agree. He did not refute. His point was and is: that is not the point.
The point is the personal trip one is on
The point is the personal trip that one is on in telling such things, whether one is telling oneself or telling others. What Buddha is saying in this first sutra is that all kinds of experiences are available to worldly people and spiritual people alike, that being spiritually awakened is not a matter of getting the right experience, talking to God, doing the right meditation, perfecting awareness, or whatever; it is a matter of not tripping out on it, whatever it is. There is life. there is the experience of life. then there is the ya-ya-ya that goes on and on by which we feed the vermin of ego and thus infest the world.