Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Metaphysical Basis of Santideva's Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Metaphysical Basis of Santideva's Ethics

Article excerpt

Introduction: Buddhist Metaphysics and Buddhist Ethics

Among Western Buddhists, it is commonplace to claim that metaphysical speculation is irrelevant to Buddhism. A key text cited for this claim is the Shorter Malunkya Sutta in the Pali Canon. The monk Malunkyaputta comes to think:

These speculative views (ditthigata) have been undeclared by the Blessed One, set aside and rejected by him, namely: 'the world is eternal' and 'the world is not eternal'; 'the world is finite' and 'the world is infinite'; 'the soul is the same as the body' and 'the soul is one thing and the body another'; and 'after death a Tathagata exists' and 'after death a Tathagata does not exist' and 'after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist' and 'after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. (MN i.426; Nanamoli and Bodhi 533) (3)

Malunkyaputta wants to know the answers so much that he is ready to leave the monkhood and become a layman if the Buddha doesn't answer him. The Buddha responds, not by answering any of the questions, but by chiding Malunkyaputta with his famous parable of the arrow:

Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say, 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a brahmin or a merchant or a worker.' And he would say: 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me ...' (MN i.429; Nanamoli and Bodhi 534)

The Buddha then gives many more examples of similar questions irrelevant to removing the arrow, adding: "All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die" (MN i.430; Nanamoli and Bodhi 535). And so similarly, Malunkyaputta's questions are a distraction from the urgent task at hand: "Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have left it undeclared" (MN i.431; Nanamoli and Bodhi 536).

Now what does this parable imply? Thich Nhat Nanh reads it as follows in Zen Keys:

Buddha always told his disciples not to spend their time and energies in metaphysical speculation. Each time he was asked a question of a metaphysical kind, he remained silent. He directed his disciples toward practical efforts ... Life is short; it must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculations which will not be able to bring the truth. (Nhat Hanh 38-39)

One can find this remark of Nhat Hanh's quoted all over the Internet. And there is a similar interpretation in Taitetsu Unno's River of Fire, River of Water:

   This inability to know extends to metaphysical truths. In
   the famous parable of the poison arrow found in early
   Buddhism, a young monk, Malunkyaputta, is unhappy
   because the Buddha refuses to answer metaphysical
   questions. They include fourteen unanswerable questions,
   such as whether the universe is finite or not, whether the
   world is eternal or not, whether a saint lives after death or
   not, and so forth. The Buddha informs the monk that his
   teaching does not deal with metaphysical questions,
   because his Middle Path is a practical one meant to solve
   the immediate problems of living. (184)

Both these quotes are misleading at the very best. (4) Neither Unno nor Nhat Hanh defines "metaphysics," and by describing the Buddha of the suttas as unconcerned with an undefined "metaphysics," they imply (whether they mean to or not) that he was unconcerned with a number of topics that he in fact identifies as being of the utmost importance. In these descriptions the Buddha of the suttas sounds much like a modern pragmatist, concerned only with immediate results and not with understanding the nature of the world in any respect; such an interpretation would be a gross misunderstanding. …

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