01 August 2011

Reflections on foolishness, wisdom and those deserving of honour

I have been reading and reflecting on the Mangala Sutta of late, i.e. the Discourse on Blessings, and found that even the simplest line from the Buddhist scriptures inspires immensely.  My wife, a keener student of the doctrine and who frequently listens to bana on the radio, made an interesting observation:  ‘Yes, and it’s all linked and should be reflected on keeping in mind other pertinent and salient elements of the dhamma (doctrine); the Mangala Sutta should be read in conjunction with the Parabhava Sutta (the Discourse on Downfall)’.

I glanced through the latter, which complements the Mangala Sutta by pointing out the causes of downfall and that those who allow themselves to be tarnished by these, blocks their own road to worldly, moral and spiritual progress while lowering all that is truly noble and humane.  Being mindful of the dangers enumerated in the Parabhava Sutta and avoiding them, therefore keeps open the pathways to receive the thirty eight blessings detailed in the Mangala Sutta.

I read again the particular lines from the Mangala Sutta and as always happens when a mind enriched by further elaboration re-reads, the inspiration was greater and the reading richer or so I like to believe. 

Asevanā ca bālānam
Panditānañca sevanā
Pūjā ca pūjaneyyānam
Etam mangalamuttamam

The above is the first set of blessings that our Budun Wahanse is said to have mentioned when asked to speak on the subject by some deities visiting him at Jetavanarama as recorded in the Sutta Pitakaya and the Kuddakapatha following re-telling by the incomparable Treasurer of the Dhamma, the Ven Ananda Thero.  The stanza advocates association with the wise, disassociation with fools and the honouring of those worthy of honour and observes that those who do this are blessed.

Who are the ‘foolish’ referred to here?  Taking into account other relevant discourses, ‘fool’ refers to those who do not observe basic morality.  The commentaries indicate that even if one is conversant with the dhamma but does not observe moral conduct, one is foolish since the behavior results in suffering, the augmentation of suffering and a lengthening of sansaric sojourn. The commentaries also argue that in the ultimate sense this stanza extols the individual to remain aloof from foolishness. 

It occurred to me that there are no absolute fools and that no one is absolutely wise except those who have walked the path advocated and have reached the destinations of knowing.  In each of us there is a fool and there is a wise person.  To the extent one fortifies oneself with the thrividaratne, or the Noble Triple Gem, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, one is able to better ascertain the dimensions of foolishness and wisdom in a given individual, and able to empower oneself by learning from the wise dimensions and check oneself against being contaminated by the foolish. 

It is not a piece of advice where the individual is required to label someone ‘fool’ or ‘learned’, run from fool and walk with the wise.  If that were the case, we would have collectives made exclusively of fools and exclusively of the wise with no interaction whatsoever between the two, even the fools who wish to be wise being snubbed by the latter. 

Like in all things, the call is for the twin deployment of pragna (wisdom) and maithree (compassion), keeping in mind the virtues of practicing upekkha (equanimity), with full knowledge of the transient nature of things (even fools can become wise and the wise slip to foolishness, for example).

Most importantly, the stanza calls for deep self-reflection, advocating that the individual seek within him/herself the foolish and the wise using one or more of the many tools provided in the vast canon of Buddhism.  An easy pathway would be to reflect on the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (the collective of those who have renounced worldly pleasures, or the bikkhus incorrectly translated as ‘clergy’).  The distance between self in all its facets and the ideal-types (if you will) articulated in these qualities of the Noble Triple Gem, would help, I feel, in discovering within oneself the elements of foolishness and (relative) wisdom and help also to obtain sense of the dimensions of ignorance.  Once these things are ascertained in some approximate manner, it becomes or should become easier to move from avidya (ignorance) to vidya (comprehension), darkness to light, foolishness to wisdom and so on.

The ‘honour’ element is no less fascinating, I found.  Who are those who can be seen to be worthy of honour? The commentaries offer a list:  those who provide material and spiritual benefits such as parents, teachers, employers, monks, public servants, etc. and also those with more refined morality, greater learning, or greater age.

The latter set of characters worthy of honour cuts across all categories for everyone is honourable one way or another, and by the same token everyone has qualities that sit well with the opposite.  The advocacy, perhaps, is to expend wisdom and compassion in order to be able to ascertain in each individual one encounters, that which is praiseworthy and to applaud the same, even as one recognizes flaw and protects oneself and if possible the flawed as well, without being condescending or succumbing to moral posturing. 

Critically important, likewise, is to reflect on the idea of ‘honour’ in the context of self-exploration.  It is inevitably a humbling exercise and an ego-washing that makes for more wholesome engagement with the larger collective even as it makes for keener and more beneficial exploration of self. 

This afternoon, a friend, benefactor, reader and critic, told me that she was disappointed with the tone I had used in a piece I wrote for Sunday (July 31, 2011).  I told her that there are times when foul language has a role.  ‘No Malinda, never; it might seem to be effective but in the long run it is not’. 

We slip and I am sure I will slip again.  My friend was absolutely right.  I was checking out the Mangala Sutta for a different purpose when a particular line popped up before me.  It was about the well-spoken word and how speaking it is a blessing.  I wrote back to her, copy-pasting the stanza, acknowledging that she was right.

There’s a fool in me.  The association of the wise (my friend) helped me recognize myself or at least that particular aspect of who I am.  She is truly worthy of homage. 

I take refuge in the Buddha.  I take refuge in the Dhamma. I take refuge in the Sangha.  May all beings be happy: Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta.



Sujeewa de Silva said...

"It occurred to me that there are no absolute fools and that no one is absolutely wise except those who have walked the path advocated and have reached the destinations of knowing."

Very wise words; I think it takes a lot of wisdom to realise that we humans are all fallible and even our strongly held beliefs can sometimes be off the mark.

theja said...

The wisest of men slip up at times. If we learn a lesson through these, it would seem worth all the trouble. The Dhamma will surely be our guideline for improvement throughout our lives. While the chanting has it's own benefits, the benefits of good action presented in the Suttas should be our primary concern.