“Evaŋ me sutaŋ” .. On the ‘Narrator’ in Pāli Literature

One of the most interesting features of the suttas, and which is mostly overlooked, perhaps due to its systematic and unchanging repetition: is the “evaŋ me sutaŋ” which form the very first sentence of the great majority of suttas. Firstly, this systematic “intro” which means “this is what I heard”, establishes the very existence of the “narrator”, and further, emphasizes the fact that the events which he’s for about to narrate are ones which he didn’t witness himself, but only heard about, which in turn immediately evokes questions such as: “Who is this narrator? And who are those to whom he’s listening and from whom he hears these events? And which of them is the true source of the descriptions not only of the teachings of the Buddha, but also the character of persons and nature of events?”

Secondly, this intro further suggests that, by employing it, that narrator is wholly exempting himself of the burden of originality and the possibility of lying, that is, telling a story as if it was factual. It is as if he’s saying: “This is merely what I heard; whether it be authentic or imagined, true or false, accurate or exaggerated – that I do not claim to know!” It is quite amazing, then, to see the host of researchers knocking their conceptualising and speculating heads against the textual wall, making all sorts of claims about the authenticity of a text that itself, openly states, that nearly all of its content is based on nothing but hearsay!

This is quite a unique feature of Pāli literature which distinguishes it from most other religious texts, where the originality and authenticity not only of the text as a whole, but sometimes down to every letter in it, is being presented as something that is coming from no less than god himself, or from the wisdom or gnosis or revelation from the prophet or founder of the religion. The need for such emphasis on authenticity is of course due to the fact that in most cases, writing down such spiritual or transcendental teachings and doctrines happened only centuries, if not even a millennium after the departure of the founder of the religion, and nearly always in times when sectarian sub-doctrines have already developed with their different and often irreconcilable views on fundamental aspects of doctrine and practice.

I am presently studying more such literary aspects of the Pāli text in general, believing such kind of examination to be potentially very useful on various different levels and in ways which go beyond semantic or etymological analysis of individual words, which has been the common form of linguistic analysis of Pāli literature.

On “needing” … needing ‘anything’!

There is not a creature whose life is not afflicted by need. And why does my hands tremble and tremor now, had it been not for my severe malnutrition; the weariness of the muscles of my arms having carried an alms bowl full of rice across the village! The body alone, needs. Death and decay is constantly upon it. It feeds, only to avoid death. The bitter taste of decay and repugnant smell of decomposition, is in the chewed food. Then it trembles. It cannot sustain itself. But it brings the mind down. It is the consciousness that faints. The psyche will not die; it never does – but it is reborn. Alas.

What one needs is what one suffers. Nothing is freer, nothing is purer, than needlessness. Freedom and cleanliness together are in the situation of needlessness, total and complete. Imagine him who is thus free and clean; he is one who has no needs anymore. It is so, because this is how the world gets you; it finds what you need, what you ‘think’ you cannot live without, and then enslave you with it. And what is the “world”? It is “others”, those who have what you need; those who can and do give it to you – whatever it is, whomever they are.  They know that you need, they know that you will suffer without having what you need, they know that they can hurt you by denying you of it, they know that you fear losing it, they know that you fear losing them, they know that you fear them. This whole world and everything in it is governed in this way. This is what needing begets; the opposite of freedom and purity: fear.

And for the people, there is a million need: needing pleasure, excitement, stimulation, and companionship; this is at the core. And so there is a million fear: fearing pain, boredom, restlessness, and loneliness; this too is at the core.

But they say: a “bhikkhu”, that is, a “mendicant”, a “son of Buddha”, one who has “gone forth”; gone forth where?!

The body won’t sustain the mind without nutriments and oxygen circulating continuously in the blood stream. Otherwise the consciousness faints. It really faints; I know that for certain! So the problem is not one of pain; pain is welcome; pain is a servant of the noble heart. But for the consciousness to live one and to be used for the sake of transcending its own conditioned existence, the body needs food and safety. So there is also safety: that it is not bleeding, that it is not seriously ill and exhausted, that it is healthy, at least enough, for the task at hand and which is now, Lo, the only one which gives any meaning and value and purpose of life.  If we add to this that going about naked is likely to expose one to manifold forms of violence, then there is need also for clothes to cover the body.

Food, physical safety, and clothes; narrowing it all down to three needs, offers a glimpse at freedom and cleanliness, yet involves also a great deal of fear. For food, perhaps comes about more easily, but not so with clothes, and certainly hardly with safety! There are many reasons for this: the “people” are not benevolent or malevolent; they are all conditioned; and nothing stimulates the impulse of cruelty and violence more than the appearance of weakness and helplessness! Men abuse women, women abuse children, children abuse animals, and all abuse the lone, wandering, silent mendicant! [Despite of the tremendous power residing within his heart, invisible, unseen to others]. A bare skeleton walking about is a ghost that scares people to death; but a skeleton covered with but a tiny sheet of flesh and fabric; that is a fragile human, one which provokes either reverence, or cruelty.

Then there is need and needing, and the suffering, enslavement, servitude, fear, and self-contempt, of need and needing. And I long to needlessness; I long to the freedom and cleanliness of needlessness; I long yet to more aloneness, more seclusion, more poverty, more relinquishment, and more renunciation. This is the right way, this is the fateful way. I long to go forth, even after having gone forth! I long to live the going forth, more fully, more earnestly, more deeply; this is the right way, this is the fateful way. For pain is welcome; pain is a servant of the noble heart.

No Faith in “Idea”

“There is global warming or there is not. There is social justice or there is not. There is a mundane form of freedom or there is not. God exists or he does not. Etc.”

Certitude over ideas, any ideas and all ideas, is a sign of the absence of wisdom rather than its abundance! If one was to place one’s faith in that only which is certain, then let one develop certitude over experiences, such which prove a point, whatever it may be, beyond the slightest doubt:

“Water extinguish fire. Summer comes after spring. Trees offer shade”

And so on; from the simplest, and gradually, not toward the more complex, but toward the more subtle:

“Samadhi is thus. Self-awareness is thus. A sense of conscience is thus.  Motivation and effort are thus. Deliverance is thus.”

Here, as experience develops, as certitude develops, as faith grows, and wisdom matures. They all evolve together dependent on each other – all starting from: experience.

The difference is huge and is readily seen: certitude over ideas gives rise to a rigid wisdom; a wisdom that knows ideas and asserts them as either true or false, once and for all, all or nothing. And even as it evolves, it must ditch the ex-truths, and replace them now with new ones.

Certitude over experiences gives rise to a malleable and continually evolving wisdom; a wisdom that observes experiences without having to declare any judgement about them, but only evaluates their origination, conditionality, impact and effect – thereby transcending their functioning through awareness.

The difference is further huge and is readily seen: certitude over ideas retains the psyche in the realm of Death, even as it exercises its ideation and conceptualisation over transcendental matters; it conditions the psyche to remain itself mundane and temporal, because exercising the attention in ideation is nothing but a natural, mundane, non-transcendent exercise.

Certitude over experiences on the other hand requires the psyche to withdraw from its habit of ideation – a malignant, deeply rooted human habit! Without any effort beyond the sustaining of attention over strictly what is experienced without identifying with it, the result is something of a transcendental nature that, precisely, words and ideas can no longer describe.

A very short story!

“I am aware that this is not a criminal court and that my duty is here to arbitrate on minor civic infringements on the law; nevertheless I am a judge, and regarded as a representative of the law in its entirety, and having come to the point where I can no longer accept the death penalty with a sound conscience, I hereby declare that today, I resign my post as judge and representative of a law that upholds the capital punishment!” The judge said solemnly moments after he entered the hall, addressing a small audience of quarreling divorcees and people who came to appeal their traffic speeding tickets. He left the hall swiftly even before anyone sat down having “all risen” following the usher’s call. Dismayed by the delay, the citizens complained and inquired about when their next court-hearing will be scheduled. The judge, for ever departing, could still hear the resonating murmur coming out of his court-hall. [end]