The Dhammapada, verses eleven & twelve: “Right perception leads to the realization of truth”

The Pāḷi word of the day is sammādiṭṭhi, meaning “right view.” It’s the first factor of the Eightfold Path, and refers to understanding things as they really are.

11. Asāre sāramatino — sāre casāradassino

Te sāraṃ nadhigacchanti —

micchāsaṇkappagocarā

“In the unessential they imagine the essential, in the essential they see the unessential, — they who entertain (such) wrong thoughts never realize the essence.”

12. Sārañ ca sārato ñatvā —

asārañ ca asārato

Te sāraṃ adhigacchati —

sammā saṇkappagocarā

“What is essential they regard as essential, what is unessential they regard as unessential,– they who entertain (such) right thoughts realize the essence.”

It actually took reading the  background story for me to really understand these verses. When I first read them, the meaning of the term “essential” was, in this context, unclear to me; apparently, in this case “essential” refers to “what is true,” or maybe “the Truth.” In any case, I guess the verses are essentially correct: if you don’t see things clearly, it’s not possible to arrive at a correct understanding of reality. The commentary uses a story about the Buddha’s two chief disciples to illustrate the point:

Before the Bodhisatta attained enlightenment, two women whose families were fast friends bore sons, and named them after the villages in which they were born. One was called Upatissa, the other Kolita. As they  grew, they became inseparable; when one went to the bank of a river or a delightful garden to amuse himself along with his retinue of servants, the other inevitably came with his. In this way they passed the years in pleasure and at ease, until one day they decided to go to a popular local celebration called the Mountaintop Festival. For several days they watched the performances being put on there, enjoying themselves immensely: when something funny happened, they laughed heartily; when something sad happened, they wept with equal gusto. After a while though, something changed.

Suddenly it occurred to the two young men that all this frivolity was ultimately meaningless. What was the point in shallow amusements while the big questions were left unanswered? It was then that they decided to leave their worldly lives behind and become ascetics under some respected teacher. They chose to follow a guru named Sañjaya, who had recently come to the city with his students. They learned so quickly and so well that their reputations spread, and brought their master great renown as a spiritual leader.

Unfortunately, their talent had a downside: we’re told that, after only a few days, they had mastered everything that Sañjaya had to teach them. When they went to ask him whether or not he had anything else to offer, he said no. Convinced that they wouldn’t reach enlightenment under his guidance, the two friends decided to leave and seek out someone else to show them the way. They wandered all over India, talking to every teacher they could find, but to no avail. Eventually they returned to their homes, and before setting out again they made a pact: whichever one of them found the way to Awakening first would come back to inform the other.

A short time after the friends had separated, the Buddha came to Rājagaha to spend the rainy season at Veḷuvana Monastery. From there, he sent his enlightened disciples to spread the Dhamma throughout India. However, the arahant Assaji decided to stay near the city. One morning, while Assaji was on alms round, Upatissa happened to pass by him. When he saw the elder, Upatissa was captivated by his serene appearance. Convinced that this must be an awakened being, he decided to follow Assaji until his alms round was complete; then, he would take advantage of the opportunity to ask who his teacher was, and what it was that he practiced. Once Assaji was finished collecting alms, he stopped to eat. Upatissa offered him a stool to sit on, as well as water to drink. When the meal was over, he asked his questions. “Calm and serene, brother, are your organs of sense; clean and clear is the hue of your skin. For whose sake, brother, did you retire from the world? And who is your teacher? And whose doctrine do you profess?”

Seeing an opportunity to reveal the depth of the Buddha’s teaching to someone from a rival sect, Assaji decided to answer. He chose to do so, however, in an unusual way. He claimed that he was just a novice, and wouldn’t be able to explain the Lord’s teaching in-depth. When Upatissa insisted that a long lecture was unnecessary, he gave as simple an answer as he could: “Of all things that proceed from a cause, of these the cause the Tathāgata hath told.” This was all that Upatissa needed; with these simple words, he knew that the Buddha was the teacher he and his friend had been looking for. The elder then finished his teaching as simply as it had begun, saying, “And also how these cease to be, this too the mighty monk hath told.” Having heard this powerful utterance, Upatissa asked where the Blessed One resided. He told Assaji to go on ahead; he had a promise to keep. Afterwards, he and his friend would to meet the Teacher.

When Upatissa approached his friend, Kolita could tell right away that he had discovered something wonderful. Upatissa told him that he had found the way to enlightenment, and recited the very stanza that he had heard from the Elder Assaji. Like his friend before him, Kolita was immediately convinced of the efficacy of the Buddha’s teaching, and suggested that they go to meet Him at once. Upatissa, however, had another idea: they would pay a visit to their old teacher Sañjaya first, share their discovery with him, and bring him with them to see the Buddha. Kolita agreed, and they set out.

When he saw them, their old teacher asked, “Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” “Yes, teacher, such a one have we found. The Buddha has appeared in the world, the [Dhamma] has appeared, the [Sangha] has appeared. You, sir, are living in vain unreality.” They then invited him to come with them to see the Blessed One in person. “You may go; I cannot go. ” he replied. “For what reason?” “In the past I have gone about as a teacher of the multitude. For me to become a pupil again would be as absurd as for a chatty to go to the well. I shall not be able to live the life of a pupil.” They did their best to persuade Sañjaya to change his mind, but he was firm in his resolution to stay. “Friends, which are more numerous in this world, the stupid or the wise?” “Teacher, the stupid are many, the wise are few.” “Well then, friends, let the wise men go to the wise monk Gotama, and let the stupid come to stupid me. You may go, but I shall not go.” The commentary goes on to relate two odd, supernatural occurrences, but I don’t think these details are particularly relevant to our discussion; rather, it’s the first half of the commentary that provides the most food for thought.

The narrative of Sāriputta’s and Moggallāna’s spiritual journey and eventual ordination are incidental, really. What interests me most is what the story has to say about Sañjaya. His refusal to become a student again certainly stems from arrogance on his part, but he’s not unique in this respect. Who hasn’t acted like Sañjaya at one point or other? It’s easy to close ourselves off to new information and experiences out of pride, even if they present a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, most of us don’t ever pass up something as huge as a chance to become enlightened, but Sañjaya can still act as a mirror of our own behavior and tendencies. His statement about his own stupidity, on the other hand, can be interpreted in one of two ways: it can be seen as an admission of something he knows that he lacks, namely wisdom; or his questions and answers, beginning with”Friends, did you succeed in finding anyone able to show you the Way to the Deathless?” can be read sarcastically. I think that either interpretation has something to offer. The first reinforces the image of a stubborn and overly-proud person who nonetheless knows he’s making the wrong choice; the second, that of someone who is truly ignorant, deluded, and disrespectful.

Of course, a sarcastic and defensive response on the part of Sañjaya may not be totally unwarranted; after all, even though the Chief Disciples came to him out of compassion and gratitude, their assertion that he is  “…living in vain unreality” comes across as awkward, blunt, and insensitive. For all his stubborness, who would ever respond positively to an accusation like that? Sāriputta and Moggallāna hadn’t attained perfect enlightenment yet, so maybe they simply lacked the wisdom to guide their former teacher in a gentler, more skillful way. I’d prefer to think that their imperfection was the real issue here; their intentions were good, but their way of expressing their concern was not. In fact, most of us can sympathize with that, too. I’d need a whole Hell of a lot of hands to count the number of times that I’ve tried to steer someone away from making a bad decision or placing themselves in a difficult situation, only to put them on the defensive by getting preachy.

So there we have two important things to keep in mind here: the danger of pride, arrogance, and stubborness, and the importance of gentle and skillful speech, for your own sake as well as that of others’. The commentarial narrative isn’t just a practical teaching, though; it includes a miracle story, an unpleasant supernatural death, and something like nine past-life stories. Even as a Buddhist, I can never be sure if these details are true or not; but what a marvelously powerful teacher the core story is.

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