Continuing the commentary on the Summary of Faith and Practice - we are working backwards toward the beginning at the moment...

TEXT: freeing themselves of sophistication and attachment to all forms of cleverness,



The term sophistication has a number of related meanings, most of them pejorative. The history of the word lies in the classical world of Greece and Rome. Originally a sophist was a person skilled in worldly knowledge, and from this it became a person who sold such knowledge, and such people came to be known as ones who often used false of overly clever arguments to make something seem true when in fact it was not. Thus the term came to mean posing as overly clever. There is also a positive use of the term, as when one might say that Einstein's theory was more sophisticated than that of Newton, where one simply means that it took into account more subtle information. The reference here in the Summary is to becoming caught up in ideas and arguments that sound impressive but are more or less void of meaning. Buddhism has a lot of philosophy and over the course of Buddhist history there have been many different schools of philosophical Buddhism.


Reading Buddhist works it is relatively easy to start to think that what is required is to find and fully understand the right theory about Buddha nature or voidness or causality or something of this kind. For instance, there was at one stage an extended debate over the question of what we might call the atoms of time – what is the smallest conceivable duration? Is life made up of such particles of time? This was related to the idea of a “thought-moment” and related to theories about what happens in meditation and in daily life and how each thought-moment is related to the next. Is enlightenment a matter of one perfect thought-moment? If you are enlightened in one thought-moment, are you then necessarily enlightened in the next? … and so on. This also had relevance to theories of rebirth, either from life to life or from thought-moment to thought-moment, and are those the same thing or different? Then there was a big controversy over whether the past, present and future all exist, or only the present exists, or none of them exist, and so on. This debate goes on to this day. Check out a mindfulness programme and you will probably read somewhere on an early page the assertion that only the present moment exists. However, the All-exist School (Sarvastivada) was for a long time the dominant Buddhist form and although the school itself no longer exists (unless it was right, in which case, having once existed, it does still exist) Sarvastivadan thought still exercises some influence. All the Mahayana schools of Buddhism have Sarvastivada masters from that time in their lineages and the thought of, for instance, Zen Master Dogen shows distinct traces of Sarvastivada thought. Contemporary Buddhism is much pre-occupied with ideas about (a) non-duality and (b) inter-dependence, and to read many contemporary Buddhist writings one would soon get the idea that so long as you hold the right idea on these matters you are a true Buddhist and if not, not. Unfortunately, I myself count as a heretic on this criterion.

Free Oneself

The point here is to “free oneself”. This does not mean reject. The difference between freedom and slavery in respect of matters of this kind lies in the question whether you use them or they use you. If one is a slave to certain ideas then one has given up one's freedom and a test of this is, to some extent, given by the vociferousness with which one will defend one's point of view and one's willingness or otherwise to hear others in an open way. Of course, sometimes, in listening to another, one realises that that person is a “slave” in this sense and one does not want to be dragged into that enslavement, but when we read the sutras we see that Buddha listened carefully to the arguments put forward by proponents of other schools, even though he then either went on to refute them, or offered an alternative perspective, or kept a “noble silence”.

The Hidden Heart

The wisdom of Buddhism is essentially that of penetrating beyond surface appearance, whereas sophistication is mostly about varnishing the appearance to make it more enduring. Such self-varnishing is a survival strategy and very understandable given the winds that blow. However it is also a disguise. We should not hold people's disguises against them - we are all in the same boat - but we try to reach the tender heart that is hidden within.

More than One Road

We can then well ask, what is the function of theory in Buddhism? Is it important to understand “dependent origination”, “the four truths for noble ones”, “the three (or four) signs”, “the skandas” and so on? The answer has to be yes and no. Are they useful, yes. Are they essential, no. The Buddha has said that they are like a finger pointing at the moon or like a raft to get one across a river. They are not the essential matter, though they can be useful. Nor are they the only road.

Once we grasp this last point, we do not feel so desperate to convince others that our way is the right and only way. The tendency to think such a thing has been the bane of religions and the cause of endless intolerance. From the perspective of Pureland, we might say that there are as many ways as Buddhas and there are innumerable Buddhas. Furthermore, as we are not yet Buddhas there is no point in us trying to set up in competition.

We can say all of this the other way around by intuiting that the essential point is very simple, even if mostly beyond our reach. We all have an intuition of unconditional love, for instance, yet when we reflect upon the love that we have given and received in life it mostly falls well short of this. We might develop any number of theories about how to get closer to that holy ideal, but it remains like the pole star, a good guide point that we shall never actually reach. Or we can use the analogy of a mountain. If the goal is the top of the mountain, a person to the east of the mountain will have a quite different idea of the best route compared with another person starting on the western side. If these two were to converse by telephone they could spend forever arguing and mustering evidence, convincing to themselves, about the correctness of their idea, but this would only delay their expeditions.

None of this means that the study of ideas is completely foolish and pointless, just that such activity is secondary. It is interesting, but not vital. It can help. It can support faith and practice, but, as in the mountaineering analogy, it can also get in the way. When it gets in the way it is using us. When it is an aid, we are using it. The latter is freedom, the former slavery.


Sophistication is not wholly and entirely a matter of ideas and intellect. It also refers to putting on airs. There is a huge problem in the world of religions – and Buddhism is no exception – related to pretense. As ideals are set up, so people try to pose as inhabiting them when, in reality, this is only skin deep, if that. There is the Chinese story of the man living south of the great Yangtse River who sent a report on his progress in his practice to a famous Dharma master who taught in a monastery north of the river. This report included the statement that he, the practitioner, had now reached the stage where “he was unmoved by the winds of the four quarters”. This is a fancy (sophisticated) Chinese way of saying that he had become a complete master of equanimity, unmoved by gain and loss, fame or disgrace, etc. A little while later he received a reply from the master. On the parchment was a Chinese character written twice. It said, “fart, fart”. The practitioner was perturbed by this message and made haste to the monastery to ask for an explanation. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked when he finally got an interview with the master. The master replied, “I thought that you said you were unmoved by all the four winds, yet now two little farts have blown you right across the river. I suggest you go and reflect upon this matter carefully.”


It is not an easy matter to judge spiritual progress either of oneself or of others. Is that person truly humble or posing as such? Is this one's brashness an expression of innocent spontaneity or bigoted self-advertisement? Is the one who spends all his time in meditation deeply holy or just work-shy? Is the one who sits steadfastly at the master's feet a true shravaka or just lost in a romantic fantasy? And in one's own case, can one even tell the difference? Not always. The mind is a trickster. This is why here in this text this phrase - freeing themselves of sophistication and attachment to all forms of cleverness – is a prayer not an injunction. We so much hope that we can be so, but we are not in a position to command it. We have to rely upon an other power to wash us clean, otherwise we are merely recycling our own dirt. We wish to be free. We pray for help. To an extent we can recognise our own condition, our own enslavement, and that is a good beginning.

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  • I see so many of my own traits in this. Just when I think I'm getting there.
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