1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
7. Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower the man who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated. 1
8. Just as a storm cannot prevail against a rocky mountain, so Mara can never overpower the man who lives meditating on the impurities, who is controlled in his senses, moderate in eating, and filled with faith and earnest effort. 2
19. Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others â€” he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.
20. Little though he recites the sacred texts, but puts the Teaching into practice, forsaking lust, hatred, and delusion, with true wisdom and emancipated mind, clinging to nothing of this or any other world â€” he indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.
Today I'd like to conclude my exploration of this sutra, and not only because I've gotten behind my aspirational schedule of covering one sutra per week. Having read this sutra about a thousand times as I've been working through this meditation on it, I find I'm interested in the virtues we're urged to cultivate. Some seem unexceptionable -- who is against truthfulness and wisdom, after all? But the relationship between these virtues is of great interest, and among these virtues are some that are problematic, such as faith.
So then, I want to proceed to what I think of as the heart of this sutra, vss. 11-12. As always, the first verse points out a way we can go astray, namely, by mistaking the inessential for the essential and by dwelling in wrong thoughts. This raises the question: what is essential? How is it to be distinguished from the inessential?
Strangely, the answer to that question involves what I think of as faith. Faith is precisely what allows us to distinguish the essential from the inessential.
I know a lot of people will argue that it is not faith but reason that allows us to make that distinction. However, I find that I can't agree. Please let me explain why.
First, let me explain what I mean by faith. I mean the answers we give ourselves to questions such as, "What is good?" "What is evil?" "Are we our brothers' keepers?" "What are our responsibilities?" "Is the competition of self-interests sufficient to create a decent soceity?" In other words, each of us takes the messy, inconsistent and unimaginably complex data of our experience and distills it down to principles. We apply those principles to history, in order to make sense of the past. And we apply those principles to possible actions, in order to determine our best course of action.
What are some possible faiths, in this sense? Well, I happen to be an idealist -- that is, I believe that, despite all the problems we face today, humans have the ability to make things better by our own efforts. I read history and see proofs of this view. And holding this view, I look for ways to make a difference, confident that making a difference is possible.
Another view, expressed by some of my gather friends, is that human nature and, by extension, the state of society is essentially static. Any motion we detect, for better or worse, is simply Brownian motion and doesn't really affect the essential balance.
A third view, discussed (and disapproved) by Umberto Ecco, holds that human nature and human society used to be much better, but has been degraded from this ideal. In some cases, people holding this view believe that a struggle between those who uphold the good and those who oppose it is necessary if the former golden era is ever to be re-established. I think we probably all know people who hold this faith.
How do we distill experience down to this kind of faith? Is it a matter of applying reason to the evidence at hand? Well, everyone is pretty much convinced that his or her distillation is the most reasonable possible, right? So we are forced to conclude that, if other people's distillation differs from our own, either that person is deficient in reason, or his / her experience is so far different from ours that reason leads to a different conclusion. (Of course, if different experience can lead to different conclusions, however, it follows that reason isn't sufficient to determine the truth. Individual experience is also a factor.)
But if we look critically at our own position, or listen carefully to those who disagree with our views, we discover that, in fact, some of the evidence in our own lives contradicts our own conclusions. We assign weight to evidence based, partly on our over-arching view of how things work, so how reasonable is that? And of course, as Hume (David, not Brit, lol) pointed out, we can make no rational predictions of the future at all. When it comes to the future, any view we hold is a matter of faith in a sort of uniformitarianism.
The more I look at it, the less I believe that our faith -- or our weltanschauung, or lifestance, or whatever word you prefer -- is simply a product of reason. Instead, I suspect that reason is simply hitching a ride on unscrutinizable processes inside our brain which are responsible for explaining what has happened and predicting what will happen. Being human, having human brains, we have no choice but to explain and predict based on experience. I mean, you have a mortgage or a rental lease, right? Think of all the assumptions about the past and the future tied up in that document!
This is all part of my thinking as I look at vss. 11-12, where we are advised of the importance of not confusing the unessential with the essential. Because, how are we to distinguish which is which? Settling on the essential (from among the many contradictory possibilities in front of us) is exactly the process that leads to what I've called faith.
One question is, what was the Buddha's faith, in the sense I outlined above? I would say, he was an idealist. After all, what he taught (as he said again and again) was suffering, the nature of suffering, and the cessation of suffering. In other words, he believed that each human being can understand and alleviate suffering. That, in fact, is what distinguishes humans from other creatures. I'm not saying that non-idealists are wrong. I am saying that it's hard for me to imagine that the Buddha's life and message make a great deal of sense to people with other views.
So, as I read verse 12, we are advised to concentrate on the basics (suffering and the cessation of suffering), to "dwell in" this understanding. And (as verse 8 advises) to apply faith as well as earnest effort. If we do so, then verse 12 makes a promise: we can alleviate suffering.
That is all I have to say about this sutra, I think, although there is other interesting stuff in there. Vss. 15-18 suggest that, if we purify our minds, we will find that doing good is more rewarding than doing evil. And vss. 19-20 warn people (like me, probably) that reading and thinking are less important than practice.
In general, to the extent that I have been able to test the advice in this sutra, I've found it to be sound.