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visible here and now

Post #286 • May 27, 2004, 6:45 AM • 1 Comment

I'm reading Visible Here and Now, Ayya Khema's commentary on the Samannaphala Sutta. (Forgive me for not including the diacriticals; I'm not sure the HTML entities exist for them.) The scenario is that King Ajatasattu goes forth from his kingdom to ask the Buddha what tangible results, visible here and now, are attainable by someone seeking the spiritual life. When I say go forth, I mean go forth:

[The king's servant] had five hundred female elephants prepared, as well as the king's personal bull-elephant, and announced to the king, "Your majesty, your elephant vehicles are ready. Do as you think fit."

King Ajatasattu then had five hundred of his women mounted on the female elephants, one on each, while he himself mounted his personal bull-elephant. With his attendants carrying torches, he went forth from Rajagaha in full royal splendor, setting out in the direction of Jivaka's Mango Grove [where the Buddha was residing].

All this just to ask the Buddha a question. When he comes before the Buddha, the Enlightened One asks the king if he had posed this question to other teachers. He has, it turns out, and he relays what they said to the Buddha.

"When I had finished speaking, Purana Kassapa said to me: 'Great king, if one acts or induces others to act, mutilates or induces others to mutilate, tortures or induces others to troture, inflicts sorrow or induces others to inflict sorrow, oppresses or induces others to oppress, intimidates or induces others to intimidate; if he destroys life, takes what is not given, breaks into houses, plunders wealth, commits burglary, ambushes highways, commits adultery, speaks falsehood - one does no evil. If with a razor-edged disk one were to reduce all the living beings on this earth to a single heap and pile of flesh, by doing so there would be no evil or outcome of evil. If one were to go along the south bank of the Ganges killing and inducing others to kill, mutilating and inducing others to mutilate, torturing and inducing others to torture, by doing so there would be no evil or outcome of evil. If one were to go along the north bank of the Ganges giving gifts and inducing others to make offerings, by doing so there would be no merit or outcome of merit. By giving, self-control, restraint, and truthful speech there is no merit or outcome of merit.'"

You could kill every person on earth with a sharpened frisbee and there would be no outcome of evil? This isn't just false doctrine - it's obviously ridiculous. I think it's meant to be funny, in a dry way.

What the king does at this point interests me - he has a reaction that is rather like what sensible people do in the presence of unjustifiable, wacko art. Perhaps you've felt something similar at the museum (I know I have):

"Thus venerable sir, when I asked Purana Kassapa about a visible fruit of recluseship, he explained to me [his doctrine of] the inefficacy of action. Venerable sir, just as if one asked about a mango would speak about a breadfruit, or as if one asked about a breadfruit would speak about a mango, in the same way when I asked Purana Kassapa about a visble fruit of recluseship he explained to me [his doctrine of] the inefficacy of action. Then, venerable sir, I thought to myself: 'One like myself should not think of troubling a brahmin living in his realm.' So I neither rejoiced in the statement of Purana Kassapa, nor did I reject it. But though I neither rejoiced in it nor rejected it, I still felt dissatisfied, yet did not utter a word of dissatisfaction. Without accepting his doctrine, without embracing it, I got up from my seat and left."

Here is a man whom even the Buddha addresses as "Great King," someone with servants, and enough women to have a different one each night for a year and a half, and an elephant for each one, on and on. We can imagine what kind of power he wields. And he knows something is wrong. But out of his element, he relinquishes his judgment to the authority. He goes before four other brahmins, each espousing a doctrine more absurd the previous one, and the king's reaction is the same.

In the end, of course, the Buddha appeals to the king's common sense, and the king repents of his misdeeds and honors the Buddha. The lesson here for art aficionados is that information, justifications, and whatever textual support is supplied to bolster art, along with the art itself, all has to pass the individual's sense of rightness. One must listen and try to understand, but in the end one must use one's own mind, and if necessary, feet, until satisfaction is found. And that satisfaction is the main thing. No matter how esoteric the philosophy, its fruit should be visible here and now.

It's also a good reminder that what we call authority is usually not much more than glorified opinion. Most of all my own. Thank you for reading.




May 28, 2004, 3:59 AM

i agree completely. yet there is a 'but' to be pointed out here. . . i think one has to allow a work of art the chance to shift a person's sense of rightness. I find it all to easy to be dismissive of work that seems wrong, yet sometimes (not necessarily often), when I give the work just a little chance, a little effort, sometimes i realize my initial reaction was completely wrong.

i wouldn't argue for a value-neutral approach, but i do think any given work deserves an effort to be judged from its own viewpoint.

In some cases it has taken me years of living with a piece of art, thinking it was crap, before i realized the true beauty of it.

i would hate for the story to become encouragement to morons who dismiss art without giving it a chance.





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