Refusing A Surgeon: Abstraction as Impediment to the Spiritual Life

In the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta — a sutta found in the Pali Canon — Malunkyaputta is described as contemplating abstract cosmological ideas and being frustrated that the Buddha (The “Blessed One”) has not addressed/declared some of these very theoretical ideas, notions, and questions. ¬†For example:

  • The cosmos is eternal
  • The cosmos is not eternal
  • After death a Tathagata (Buddha) exists
  • After death a Tathagata does not exist
  • Etc.

After expressing frustration at the lack of clarity provided by the Buddha on these subjects Malukyaputta declares if the Buddha will not address his questions “then [he] will renounce the training and return to the lower life.”

Malukyaputta approaches the Buddha, lays out his concerns and reiterates his intention to renounce. The following exchange ensues:

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?

The Buddha goes on to explain that Malukyaputta’s position is like that of “a man … wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison” whose “friends, companions, kinsmen, and¬†relatives [would like] to provide him with a surgeon.” But before accepting the life-saving services of this surgeon the injured and dying man insists:

I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.

Succinctly the Buddha states: “The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

The Buddha continues:

In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.

The reason such abstract and theoretical concepts are left undeclared by the Buddha is “because they are not connected with the goal, [and] are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are left undeclared by [the Buddha].”

And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.

I think that too often we become fixated on the abstract to the point where we lose sight of the goal or spiritual or moral living. As the Buddha points out, if our interest in, fascination with, or discussion of the abstract prevents us from seeing immediate spiritual and moral needs right in front of our nose, we have fundamentally missed the point.