Addicted to Disputation

The Brahmajala Sutta, a part of the traditional Buddhist Pali Canon, is a discourse on the Dharma, its virtues, and culmination.  It is also largely a discourse of negation.  That is, in addition to affirming certain doctrines, the Buddha spends considerable time in laying out views that are incorrect and do not align with a proper understanding of the Dharma. The text itself bears the marks of an oral tradition with verses and phrases repeated, compounded, and then repeated again.  In this form the sutta was passed on by members of the Sangha long-before being written down.

Throughout this lengthy discourse the Buddha explores both metaphysics and the mundane; touching on practices, viewpoints, and behaviors that the Buddha, because of his understanding and wisdom, eschews.  The focus is on negating many of the things we may believe make us holy/wise/worthy/righteous etc…  This is not to say reality, wisdom, and holiness themselves are negated.  Rather, the concept that holding these views in themselves is somehow meritorious.  The Buddha (Tathagata) assures his listeners that while he does indeed hold certain metaphysical and moral views:

These viewpoints thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such distinctions in another world.  This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge.  And being the unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathagata is liberated without remainder.

To the Buddha, any view held in the abstract is of no value and as such, he felt no need to defend his direct experience.  He didn’t believe anything.  He knew it by experience.  His teaching was that all were capable of “knowing for [themselves] perfect peace, [truly understanding] the arising and passing away of feelings” on the path to liberation.

In my view, such spiritual self-confidence comes as a result of faith.  Not faith in abstraction, but in one’s own divine experience.  When we feel confident in our own views, there is little need to “defend” them because ultimately, there is nothing to defend.  If I place my hand over a flame, I understand heat from experience and no argument or quibbling over theory can detract from that direct knowledge of flame/heat.

Yet when it comes to spiritual matters we often find ourselves becoming defensive and protective of our beliefs in the abstract.  As if we are trying to convince others — and perhaps ourselves — that some abstract notion is indeed accurate or “true.”  There is nothing inherently problematic with discussing diverse views.  However, there is always the temptation to engage these discussions as if they were some sort of sport or competition.  Again, believing that if we can establish the rational, theoretical, or philosophical superiority of our particular beliefs, we have accomplished something of value.  The entire notion is absurd.  But we persist in passionately advocating for things which are ultimately of little importance.  Of us, the Buddha said:

Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to disputation such as: ‘You don’t understand this doctrine and discipline — I do!’  ‘How could you understand this doctrine and discipline?’  ‘Your way is all wrong — mine is right’ ‘I am consistent — you aren’t.’  ‘You said last what you should have said first, and you said first what you should have said last!’  ‘What you took so long to think up has been refuted!’  ‘Your argument has been overthrown, you’re defeated!’ ‘Go on, save your doctrine — get out of that if you can!’ the ascetic Gotama refrains from such disputation.

Wisdom, I think, is to be found in refraining from “addictive disputation” as we focus on the underlying, real, and substantive reasons and motivations behind our spiritual or religious practice.  Arguments over and contention caused by disparate views serve only to distract us from exercising real faith and engaging the substance of our spiritual lives.