Contemplating the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta

I read this passage a few weeks ago and decided to go back to it as it comes to mind often, in particular when subjects relating to the creation of the world or the matters of a soul come into discussion.

…the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

“The position that ‘the cosmos is not eternal’…

“…’the cosmos is finite’…

“…’the cosmos is infinite’…

“…’the soul & the body are the same’…

“…’the soul is one thing and the body another’…

“…’after death a Tathagata exists’…

“…’after death a Tathagata does not exist’…

“…’after death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist’…

“…’after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’… does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.”

The Buddha goes on to explain his prescription to clear the mind of all the entangling views that make a mess of our minds, and our lives. Buddhism’s goal, at it’s core, is the elimination of all of the practitioner’s attachments and aversions, likes and dislikes, wants and fears, and attain a state of equanimity, and in so doing, eliminate suffering. In declaring belief in something, either unproven or based in wrong view, we are ascribing attachment, aversion, like, dislike, want and fear, causing the creation of suffering for both ourselves and others.

So what about all those things; of gods, a creator, the factors behind the construct of “soul” and of time and space?  The Buddha transcended these matters and realized that they are actually each a hindrance to unbinding.  In transcending these, he states that the answers are not only unimportant, but that any answers we can come up with don’t apply in any case.

“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, ‘This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“…I would reply, ‘This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.'”

“If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’.”

“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form…

“Any feeling… Any perception… Any mental fabrication…

“Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.”

The profound nature of this just reaches out from the void and taps me on the shoulder as if to say, “Hey, Dunce, pay attention.” It seems easy to describe things of a mundane nature to other people so long as you have a common frame of reference, but the transcendent will always fail to be conveyed in words. Only through contemplation, through direct knowledge, might one truly understand.

Then, good luck to you if you think you’re going to really explain it to anyone.

Religion is all of the things that man conceives and purports to know in order to explain those matters of spirituality that are inconceivable and unknowable scientifically. Religion likes to answer the sort of questions that the Buddha declined to answer, and I’ll admit that I’m not entirely above the idea of “religion” yet in my life, but what I think I’m starting to see is that the teachings of the Buddha transcend such conceptions with the realization of truth for yourself.

When we realize our ideas do not apply, we are starting to truly see.

I hope you are well, friends.

Passages Shared from the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta
Majjhima Nikaya – Sutta 72
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html

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